Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Vanguard party and democratic centralism

Yesterday I got a question from a colleague about some details that are relevant to at least three of the countries included in the AP comparative course.
Why, I thought, should I not share this with lots of people? Some of you might have similar or identical questions. I've tried to anonymize things to encourage more questions.

Here's the original question:
As always thanks for all that you do for us and the Comparative Government course.  I'm having difficulty clearly explaining the difference between democratic centralism and the idea of the vanguard party.  Any help would be greatly appreciated.
I just realized the question was only implied. But I answered as if the question had been direct:
Oh, you guys who still teach. You ask the most obscure questions.
Okay, here's my free response.
A vanguard party is an organization devoted to achieving a revolution. Democratic centralism is a method it uses.
Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx presented the concept of the vanguard party as solely qualified to politically lead the proletariat in revolution; in Chapter II: "Proletarians and Communists" of The Communist Manifesto (1848), they said:
"The Communists, therefore, are, on the one hand, practically the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the lines of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement. The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: Formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat."
From the Wikipedia entry for "Vanguard Party" accessed at 1:00pm, CST, 23 Jan 2013
Democratic Centralism is one of the methods used by a vanguard party to organize and foment revolution and later to rule.  The basic idea is that there is supposed to be open discussion within the party after which the truest of the true believers organize the disparate and disorganized ideas of the masses into a party line which is harmonious with the official ideology. Then they go back and teach that party line to the masses.
In a large bureaucratic party, that means that the topmost leaders (standing committee of the politburo central committee?) eventually tell those below them in the hierarchy what the policy is and they tell those below them, etc., etc. Somewhere along the way down are those who are to implement the policy and they are to do that as the "truth" goes out.
As Lenin described it, democratic centralism consisted of "freedom of discussion, unity of action."[1]
1. Lenin, V. (1906). "Report on the Unity Congress of the R.S.D.L.P." Retrieved 2008-08-09.
Based, in part, on the Wikipedia article on "Democratic Centralism," accessed at 1:10pm CST, 23 Jan 2013
I have confidence in those Wikipedia articles because they match what I know and those Marxists are great ones for ensuring that good information is posted on those relevant Wikipedia pages. They tend to quickly jump on people's mistakes.
It's good to note that other revolutionaries use these Marxist ideas.
I think the Iranian revolutionaries are the best example, even if the vanguard party is hard to identify. The rather informal hierarchy of ayatollahs who have political ambitions (not most of the ayatollahs) and the true believers among the officer corps of the Revolutionary Guard are probably the best group to call the vanguard party. But the system is set up to facilitate democratic centralism. That's why there's conflict between the supreme leader and the president when there is disagreement about the party line. 
 Hope that helps.

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