Gilberto López y Rivas wrote a column in the April 27 issue of the Mexican newspaper La Jornada titled “Un poco de autocrítica no haría mal” (A little self-criticism wouldn’t be bad) that brings in Raya Dunayevskaya’s critique of vanguardism. (As an aside, I hope everyone can now see through the false argument heard a few years ago that vanguardism is dead and gone and no longer a problem that needs to be considered.)
I translate some excerpts of the column here:
Edmilson Costa, secretary of international relations of the Brazilian Communist Party, wrote an acerbic article reproduced in Rebelión (April 18, 2012) titled, “A critique of postmodernists: social movements and revolutionary processes in Latin America.” Costa includes among the “postmodernists” those who: 1) consider obsolete the concept of working class, proletariat and the centrality of work, 2) claim the centrality of class struggle is past, 3) think that political vanguards, revolutionary parties, especially the Communists, no longer have any role to play in today’s world.
He argues that much of the social struggles in recent years were defeated “just because there was no vanguard with ability to drive and guide these struggles to the class radicalism and the emancipation of the proletariat.”
…From Marxism and without putting myself in the bag Costa weaves, just as in the past terms have been used to demonize whoever does not hew to the orthodox line, one asks: Where were the political vanguard during these 20 years, and what were the real actions of the communist parties (which are not always revolutionary, anti-imperialist, and real leaders of the people’s struggles) against capitalist neoliberal globalization and its repressive brutality? Is it possible to analyze these two decades from outside, without assuming a minimal self-criticism…?
The critique of vanguardism had been a source of reflections on the twentieth century revolutionary Marxism, starting with Rosa Luxemburg. Also, Raya Dunayevskaya, consistent with the idea that theory can only develop fully if it is based on what the masses themselves do or think, emphasizes that for Marx what is fundamental was that man was not merely object but subject; not only was determined by history, but also created it. From these approaches, Raya makes a radical critique of vanguardism: Are peasant or proletarian masses the shapers of history, or are they just supposed to submit to guidance and receive orders? Should they be passive masses the day after the revolution? In her condemnation of Stalinism she affirms that that regime stifled the spontaneity of the masses: the state took over the unions and all labor organizations so that state ownership, state plan, the party, were the fetishes for which workers had to lay down their lives. Dunayevskaya proposes instead, a perspective that is based on self-developing subject, and aligns with Lenin’s view of the masses, the proletariat, the peasantry, and even oppressed nationalities, as self-developing subjects. [Translator's note: López y Rivas does not fully grasp Dunayevskaya's critique of Lenin's vanguardism, which took into account the contradictions in his thought and practice, in philosophy as well as politics and organization.]… She also disagrees with Trotsky…. Dunayevskaya maintains that the political initiative is not always exclusive to the working class. When the masses are the subject, a revolution should not be viewed from the vantage point of leadership, but of the subject’s self-development….To her repeated question: “What happens after the conquest of power?” Raya replied that the indispensability of spontaneity is not only inherent in the revolution, but must mark its trajectory after the revolution, and the same is true of cultural diversity, self-development and the establishment of a non-state form of collectivity. Were these “postmodernist” ideas? Is one to consider “failures” the anti-systemic and anti-capitalist struggles such as those carried out by indigenous peoples of the continent? What of the role of defeats of parties like the Brazilian PT and the Mexican PRD?
You can see earlier comments in La Jornada here: