In the context of revolutionary struggle, vanguardism is a strategy whereby an organization (usually a vanguard party) attempts to place itself at the center of the movement, and steer it in a direction consistent with its ideology.

Foundations of the Vanguard

Lenin popularized political vanguardism as conceptualized by Karl Kautsky, detailing his thoughts in one of his earlier works, What is to be done?. Lenin explained that Marxism's complexity and the hostility of the establishment (the bourgeois state or, in the case of Imperial Russia, the feudal state) required a close-knit group of individuals—the vanguard—to safeguard the revolutionary ideology. While Lenin clearly wished for a revolutionary organization akin to his contemporary Social Democratic Party, which was open to the public and more democratic in organization, the contemporary Russian autocracy prevented this.

Clearly Lenin's ideal vanguard party would be one where membership is completely open hence: "The members of the Party are they who accept the principles of the Party programme and render the Party all possible support." This party could be completely transparent "entire political arena is as open to the public view as is a theatre stage to the audience." A party that implemented democracy to such an extent that "the general control (in the literal sense of the term) exercised over every act of a party man in the political field brings into existence an automatically operating mechanism which produces what in biology is called the “survival of the fittest”." This party would be completely open to the public eye as it conducted its business which would mainly consist of educating the proletariat to remove the false consciousness that had been instilled in them.

In its first phase, the vanguard party would exist for two reasons. Firstly, it would protect Marxism from outside corruption as well as advance its concepts. And secondly, it would educate the proletariat in Marxism in order to cleanse them of their false consciousness and instil the revolutionary class consciousness in them.

Our task is not to champion the degrading of the revolutionary to the level of an amateur, but to raise the amateurs to the level of revolutionaries.

If the vanguard is successful in this lofty goal, on the eve of revolution, the entirety of the working class population would be enlightened, Marxist revolutionaries. (This would mean that they had achieved a sort of "taught"-class consciousness.) Furthermore a great number of them, namely their most intelligent members, would belong to the vanguard's inner circle as full-time revolutionaries. Thus the organization would quickly include the entire working class.

Once the proletariat gained class consciousness and thus was prepared to revolt against the ruling classes, the vanguard party would serve another purpose. The party would coordinate the proletariat through its revolution by acting as a military command hub of sorts. This is a vital function as mass revolutions can sometimes be easily crushed by the disciplined military of the ruling classes. The vanguards would serve as commanders of the revolt, chosen to their positions by "democratic natural selection".

After the revolution the working class would implement the dictatorship of the proletariat to rule the new worker's state through the first phase of communism, socialism. Here it can be said that the vanguard disappears, as all of society now consists of revolutionaries.

Implementation in Imperial Russia

Because of Russia's strong autocratic state, the vanguard party had to be implemented differently. It was, by necessity, a highly secretive organization. Its members would print and distribute illegal pamphlets and newspapers (for the above-mentioned purpose of educating the masses), rarely would they sleep in the same bed twice. Members had to be skilled at evading the Czar's secret police as well as being knowledgable Marxists.

Despite these troubles the Russian communists were eventually successful in overthrowing the imperial government but only after countless cases of them being exiled, imprisoned and executed.

Current Use

Vanguardism continues to be used as a political strategy by Leninist parties of just about all varieties -- Trotskyist, Stalinist and Maoist. In countries like South Africa a number of NGOs have sought to use donor money to set themselves up as vanguard organisations. This has been vigorously rejected by mass based popular movements.

Although most anarchists and radical libertarians reject vanguardism as inherently authoritarian, the practices of some anarchist groups have been criticized by their peers for constituting vanguardism of the intellectual, if not organizational, variety.

Vanguardism may more generally refer to cooperation between avant-garde individuals advancing in any field. Innovative writers and artists are often described as being in the vanguard in development of new forms and styles of art.

Further reading


  • Burger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Theory & History of Literature Series. 135 pages. University of Minnesota Press, February 1, 1984. ISBN 0-8166-1068-1.
  • Forster, Merlin H. and K. David Jackson, compilers. Vanguardism in Latin American Literature : An Annotated Bibliographic Guide. Bibliographies and Indexes in World Literature Series. 232 pages. Greenwood Press, May 23, 1990. ISBN 0-313-24861-3.



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