The Concept of the Vanguard 1

Recently a reader of Attack the System wrote:

Keith Preston, in his Liberty and Populism: Building an Effective Resistance Movement in North America, writes of “anarchist” “city-states”, “anarcho-papis[m]“, and “anarcho-monarchis[m]“! In the same essay he writes that most anarchists favor the “town meeting” approach of “direct democracy”. To decide what? Whose fate???! It makes me nervous to think it might ever be mine.

Is the system or systems, method or methods, advocated by anarchists truly any better, any more supportive of individual freedom, than libertarian minarchy, or are there patterns of, and tendencies toward, oppression, injustice, AND AGGRESSION, that are camouflaged by abstruse, academic, anarchist theories, and bold and heroic slogans? Is the anarchist “intellectual class” or “vanguard” Keith Preston calls for in the aforementioned work, our wise and learned advisor, or latter-day Napoleans, leading us trusting lumpen-proletariat, anarcho-foot-soldiers to our brave new Animal Farm?

To many anarchists, the word “vanguard” is a cuss word because of its association with the traditional Leninist concept of a “vanguard party” that seizes power for the purpose of setting up a totalitarian state, military dictatorship, command economy and rule by a bureaucratic elite.  I recall when in 1998 I told some anarchist associates the name of my latest project, American Revolutionary Vanguard, one of them replied in horror, “That sounds Communist!!” Today, the memory of an anarchist calling me a “communist” is somewhat amusing, given that the mainstream of the “anarchist” movement persistently labels me a “fascist.”

The title “American Revolutionary Vanguard” was suggested to me by an associate who was an NRA/survivalist/militia type. Having been both a traditional anarcho-syndicalist and a participant in the right-wing patriot movement of the 1990s, I was plotting the formation of a new movement that would synthesize left-wing anarchism and right-wing populism into a new “left-anarcho-libertarian populist nationalism” that would counter both the political correctness of the left and the jingoism of the right. I wanted a name for the project that would identify itself with both the populist tradition of the American Revolution and represent a casting off the conventional left/right labels. I recalled having once heard of a neo-nazi group in the Portland area called “National Socialist Vanguard” and being amused by the name, given the association of the term “vanguard” with Communism, and the bitter rivalry between Communism and Nazism. My associate suggested the title “American Revolutionary Vanguard.” It was perfect.

As for the reader’s questions:

Keith Preston…writes of “anarchist” “city-states”, “anarcho-papis[m]“, and “anarcho-monarchis[m]“

These are tendencies that already exist, not anything that I personally invented. See here, for a piece by anarcho-city-statist Murray Bookchin, here for an anarcho-papist, and here for a discussion of anarcho-monarchism. What I have argued for in the past is a decentralized political system that allows for many different kinds of anarchist tendencies, and as well related ideologies and even non-anarchists, to form their own intentional communities or intentional states organized according to their preferred set of principles or ways of life.

In the same essay he writes that most anarchists favor the “town meeting” approach of “direct democracy”.

Indeed they do.  

To decide what? Whose fate???! It makes me nervous to think it might ever be mine.

Frankly, this is a concern that I share, which is why I’ve long been critical of those who deify democracy as some noble end unto itself.  In fact, most serious anarchist thinkers since Proudhon have been highly critical of the unchallenged acceptance of democracy. The pioneer feminist-anarchist Emma Goldman even expressed skepticism of woman suffrage, believing that middle-class liberal and socialist women would use the vote to expand the state, particularly in the area of “victimless crimes” that libertarians are so opposed to. The role of the newly instituted female vote in bringing about alcohol Prohibition would seem to vindicate her. Speaking only for myself, I place a much higher value on limited government that on popular government, on civil liberty than on voting rights, and on local sovereignty over mass democracy.

Is the system or systems, method or methods, advocated by anarchists truly any better, any more supportive of individual freedom, than libertarian minarchy, or are there patterns of, and tendencies toward, oppression, injustice, AND AGGRESSION, that are camouflaged by abstruse, academic, anarchist theories, and bold and heroic slogans?

I don’t know that the debate between anarchists and minarchists is as important as some make it out to be, given that most proposals for an anarchist system look remarkably like some alternative form of state. As Bob Black says:

The trouble with anarchists is that they think they have agreed on what they all oppose — the state — whereas all they have agreed on is what to call it. You could make a good case that the greatest anarchists were nothing of the sort. Godwin wanted the state to wither away, but gradually, and not before the progress of enlightenment prepared people to do without it. Which seems to legitimate really existing statism and culminate in the banality that if things were different they would not be the same. Proudhon, who served in the French national legislature, in the end arrived at a theory of “federalism” which is nothing but the devolution of most state power on local governments. Kropotkin’s free communes may not be nation-states but they sure sound like city-states. Certainly no historian would regard as anything but ludicrous Kropotkin’s claim that medieval cities were anarchist.

If some of the greatest anarchists, upon inspection, appear to fall somewhat short of consistency on even the defining principle of anarchism itself — the abolition of the state — it is not too surprising if some of the lesser lights are likewise dim bulbs. The One Big Union of the syndicalists, who also uphold the duty to work, is one big state to everybody else, and totalitarian to boot. Some “anarcha”-feminists are book-burners. Dean Murray Bookchin espouses third-party politics and municipal statism, eerily parallel to the borderline fascist militia/Posse Comitatus movement which would abolish all government above the county level. And Bakunin’s “invisible government” of anarchist militants is, at best, a poor choice of words, especially on the lips of a Freemason.

My own concept of a “vanguard” is rooted in Bakunin’s idea of “principled militants”, that is, hard-core revolutionaries who assume the natural leadership roles in larger radical organizations, because of their greater level of experience, knowledge, commitment, talent, etc., and nothing more. This idea has nothing to do with particular ideological objectives as much as it is rooted in a recognition of how human organizations actually work and an application of the principles of social science and social psychology.

Is the anarchist “intellectual class” or “vanguard” Keith Preston calls for in the aforementioned work, our wise and learned advisor, or latter-day Napoleans, leading us trusting lumpen-proletariat, anarcho-foot-soldiers to our brave new Animal Farm?

Well, here’s an example of what such a “vanguard” might actually do. Some might engage in secessionist or decentralist political campaigns of the Norman Mailer variety. Others might work to unite separatist groups, as Kirkpatrick Sale is now doing. Still others might be journalists or writers who serve as the radical movement’s theoretical or propagandistic arm. Some might have leadership positions in large anti-government organizations or coalitions. One of the best descriptions I ever encountered of this concept of a “vanguard” was from an African-American anarchist by the name of Mark Gillespie:

As mediators and vision-holders, we can help each group to see that uniting for the common goal of freedom, trumps their own agendas. After all, once the government is gone, no one will care if you set up an all-black, all-white, all-Jew, all-Muslim, all-socialist, all-capitalist community. We should pick up the torch of unity and educate people into respecting the diverse views of others. I may not like what you’re doing, saying, being, etc, but I will defend to the death, your right to do, say or be it.

Because we anarchists reject statism does not mean that we should reject leadership and organization altogether. In fact, doing so is dangerous because it will lead to power vacuums that can easily be filled by our enemies.

One comment

  1. Pingback: News Briefs June 7-13/2009 | www.new-right.org

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