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Vanguard or Avant-Garde? Revisiting questions on leadership: Part 2: Towards a new vanguard theory

Alexander Riccio

Platypus Review 114 | March 2019

This is the second of a two-part article written by Alexander Riccio. The first part, “The vanguard debate in history,” appeared in PR #113 in February, 2019.

Dialectics of oppression and leadership

New insights on oppression, its different forms and logics, cast doubt on the proletariat as revolution’s vanguard. With deeper understandings of domination came new theories for dismantling power and strategies for accomplishing utopia. As well, multiple formulations on the vanguard different than the proletariat have been offered. Common today are calls for taking leadership from oppression’s most impacted communities, expressed in rhetoric to “center the voices” of people directly affected by systemic marginalization. Representing a new ethic of practice, such proposals hold promise in correcting histories which erase and silence contributions from these various groups. But questions remain over what this form of leadership will look like in action.

Far too common today, as well, are positions which essentialize identity and risk ignoring common ground. Framed as singularly unique, forms of oppression are reified to the point where commonalities cannot be drawn between different experiences of domination. The tendency toward such essentialism, in my view, follows a logic which views society as having a dominant center of oppression, where the insistence of those being the “most oppressed” also being in the vanguard of any social movement poses the fallacy that there exists a singularly most oppressed subject.

“There is in reality no one dominant center,” writes John Brown Childs, “The economy is no less and no more important than the construction of ideas in literature; the political realm is no more significant than the philosophical or the artistic.”1 The same holds true for oppression, as no single form of oppression sits at the center of capitalist totality.

Capitalism is a force in movement. It has no permanent center, meaning its power is in multiple focal points. No solitary oppression can be a lynchpin in capitalism, as it is a system of shifting territorial and political paradigms. Instead, capitalism cobbles multiple oppressions together through its constant movement. Engels remarked that the bourgeoisie has no way to solve its problems other than moving them around.2 The euphemism describing this process is “creative destruction.” This entails neighborhood gentrification (another euphemism), enclosures over the commons — such as the privatization of water, knowledge, and telecommunications technologies — and so forth. Therefore, the fight against capitalism is not purely economic but fixates upon “bringing to an end the capitalist cycle of creative destruction — the destruction of destruction.”3

For social theory, the framework must approach analysis from an understanding of every oppression as woven together. As the Combahee River Collective states, they are “interlocking.”4 Today, critical theory strives to be “intersectional,” evoking legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw’s term coined to correct any framework which “frequently conflates or ignores intragroup differences.”5

However, at least in typical academic settings, the concept of intersectionality has been limited by not being intersectional enough. “Too often this particular metaphor,” writes Hilary Lazar, “has been limited by its interpretation of oppression as having an ‘additive’ quality; rather than a more slippery and dynamic relationship.”6 If the boundaries of identity are conceived as permanent borders instead of sliding relational signifiers, connections between identities become lost. In “additive” approaches to oppression, it appears one can check off the number of oppressed identities they carry to demonstrate they are in a more oppressed position than others.

Explains Harsha Walia, “Even an intersectional approach that acknowledges the overlapping and layered nature of power and privilege can lead to a flattening of all oppressions.”7 Walia is worth quoting at length on this point:

Anti-oppression analysis becomes rigid in its categorizations when the question becomes who is more oppressed, rather than engaging in a dialogue of how oppression, which is relational and contextual, is specifically manifesting and impacting the orientations of our movements. . . Working in the poorest postal code in Canada, I know that a straight white cisgendered man who is homeless faces a harsher material reality on a daily basis…than me, someone who might be able to count off more forms of oppression, but who does not have to worry about surviving through a cold night on the streets.8

Within academic settings, due to its structural imposition of forcing students and teachers to compete with one another, the notion of intersectionality mirrors individualizing approaches to learning and engagement. This undermines intersectional frameworks, which Kimberlé Crenshaw makes clear are intended to demonstrate intragroup divisions as well as broader structural power dynamics.

Class analysis suffers from individualistic interpretations of intersectionality. One possible reason is the invisibility of class, opposed to the “salience” of visible identities. It has been remarked that the poor in the U.S. are among the best dressed poor in the world, highlighting the ability of U.S. residents to “pass” for a different class. Bringing a firm class analysis into social movement frameworks strengthens intersectional understandings of mass movement building. “The popular myth that the United States is a classless society is scorned by most on the left,” writes Betsy Leondar-Wright, “but paradoxically the myth of a classless movement lives on.”9 When removing a framework of class from movement-building, analytical short-sidedness and confusion becomes the norm. Leondar-Wright explains that “in ‘race, class, and gender’ studies, class often plays the role of a conjunction.”10 The negative economic impacts of racism and sexism might be expressed, but a specific account for class oppression is ignored.

Positioning class solely as an additional factor on other forms of oppression fragments understandings of capitalism, along with the projects of colonialism, empire, and white supremacy. “White supremacy expresses itself by obscuring the class antagonism among whites,” explains Yamahtta Taylor. “‘White people are typically regarded as an undifferentiated mass with a common experience of privilege, access, and unfettered social mobility. . .[which] invariably collapses important distinctions among whites into a common experience that simply does not exist.”11

Further, while limited class analyses fold the experiences of whites into a monolithic notion of “whiteness,”12 they also elide intragroup class divisions amongst people of color, women, people with disabilities, and queer people. One finds telling evidence on the magnitude of this after the election of Donald Trump, when practically any mention of the “working class” was implicitly equated with whites — belying the reality that the U.S. has a decidedly multi-racial working class. “In fact,” corrects Yamahtta Taylor, “the American working class is female, immigrant, Black, white, Latino/a, and more.” Therefore, “immigrant issues, gender issues, and antiracism are working-class issues.”13 Writes Leondar-Wright, “Just as a true understanding of class in the United States requires an analysis of institutionalized racism, a true understanding of race requires a class analysis.”14

Offering a conceptual term which may help overcome such limitations, Lazar suggests the metaphor of a tangled knot. Her full explanation is important:

There are countless strands in this knot, each one representing a different expression of domination, and all tightly bound together. Given their entanglement, it is therefore necessary to loosen all the strands if the knot is to be undone. In some moments, however, one strand may need more immediate attention and loosening than others. In other moments, perhaps it may be necessary to pull on multiple strands at once. While the knot of oppression will remain ensnared until all strands are freed, it is vital to understand that interdependent as the thread may be, each must be attended to both as an individual strand and as part of the collective tangle. 15

When we think of oppression as a “tangled knot,” the contact between oppressed groups becomes clear. Experiences are connected. Sometimes we crash into each other, and at other times we reach out to one another. There’s a chance we won’t collide when driving through an intersection, but a tangled knot illustrates our boundedness. How to relate the connections of oppression, beyond analytic frameworks, brings us back to the question of a vanguard.

Open vanguards rupturing space and shattering alienation

The only way to actually conceive of social change is by challenging our own identities, by moving beyond them, by negating them and going beyond. We are verbs.

-John Holloway

Above, I have described two possible inflections of a vanguard. One considers scientific analysis and disciplined leadership essential for developing revolutionary strategy. The other acts as an aesthetic sanctuary for rebellious artists and seeks to awaken mass consciousness to inspire collective action. For ease, this can be labeled as a difference between the vanguard and the avant-garde. Either inflection can be guilty of elitism, and the vanguard tendency slides easily into authoritarian leadership. To overcome this problem, concepts of a vanguard must take from the best of both inflections and generate a whole different vanguard approach. This new vanguard embraces the masses’ spontaneity and creativity and tries to highlight the commonalities between different groups, particularly in everyday life. In order for this vanguard to remain non-elite, notions of possessing the “correct” consciousness need to be dislodged. All of us are a part of the social landscape, we are all vulnerable to the disorientations of capitalist creative destruction. Our connections to one another will be revealed most through engaging in mass action; our consciousness will not be prior to mass knowledge but will flow from it. Thus, the new vanguard will be shaped by the masses as much as it contributes to mass consciousness.

Leadership and oppression are shaped dialectically. Root sources of oppressions provide the basis for developing capable leadership strategies toward liberation. Iris Marion Young, as noted above, proposes five forms of oppression, including exploitation, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, marginalization, and violence. I propose adding a sixth form of oppression for developing leadership praxis which can avoid the pitfalls of elitist vanguardism, that of alienation.

Described by Marx, alienation is a process whereby “man [sic] [the worker] no longer feels himself to be freely active in any but his animal functions — eating, drinking, procreating, or at most in his dwelling and in dressing-up,” so that “what is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal.”16 Capitalism is oppressive beyond the rich getting richer at the majority’s expense. According to Marx (and many social critics), capitalism degrades humans through fixing value to “production” (itself a term related to capital accumulation) and not to their creative capacities or connections to one another. Alienation, then, is the process of turning human subjects into isolated human objects.

Marx believed that one’s individual sense of dignity can only be found in one’s connection and belonging to a broader group. This is not some vague appeal for conformity or a denunciation of the individual, but a philosophy which understands that there is no individual without society, as well as that society is strongest when the individual is allowed to thrive. He frequently voiced outrage over capitalism’s penchant for dehumanization because his philosophy of revolution viewed communism as a potential state of movement wherein one “strives not to remain something [they] have become, but is in the absolute movement of becoming”17 and becoming with one another. As Marx thought of humankind as a universal subject, what he seeks to make clear for us today is that there exists a basic humanity — a humanness — to everyone on the planet.

To shatter alienation, as the sixth form of oppression’s tangled knot, the task for leadership is to map our interconnections in everyday life. Oppression is analytically complex, but on a simple yet deeply important level, oppression stems from the inability to recognize people as human and inherently valuable. By humanizing the so-called “other,” one discovers one’s own humanity. Solidarity, in essence, is a bond drawn by empathy and shared commitment to dignity. Such bonds are made, on many levels, by sharing the stories of where we have come from, what we have experienced, and how we are connected by such stories. A vanguard, in this sense, does the job of articulating a party as “a vehicle for maintaining a specific gap of desire.”18 Collective desire does not erase differences, but turns differences into strengths.

Jodi Dean believes our desire is for collectivity — a connected community which values the contributions of each group. Such a collectivity expresses an antagonism toward the parasitism of the ruling class. Intrinsic to this vanguard project are contestations over constructs of value. “Capitalism not only creates the conditions for precarious labor,” explains Harsha Walia, “it also defines what can even be characterized as labor.”19 Under capitalist regimes, production is exclusively quantifiable. Only what can be measured and held is considered valuable.

Delimiting value to such a restricted sense perpetuates processes of alienation. Every group devolves into an absolute individual, out only for themselves and no others. Writes Harsha Walia, “each of us plays such an atomized role in the global economy — like cogs in a wheel — that our social relations come to mimic that atomization.” A common project for dignity and humanization arises in a vanguard fixed to spreading desire and sharing stories of being alienated. “What will free us is the collective and public recognition,” writes Harsha Walia, “of all bodies, all abilities, all genders, all experiences, and all expressions as inherently valuable, and by virtue of their very existence, as distinctly human.”20

Stories for reshaping value as the things which make us fundamentally human pose the need for a different vanguard. It is one not deliberatively instructive but suggestive of where our common projects align and how we can each contribute. Yet, the question of a “revolutionary agent” still hangs in the air. To push beyond such questions, we must dismiss the notion of oppression as being rooted in society’s center.

No single center of oppression exists. Capitalist totality is composed of multiple nodal centers. As such, there will not be a lone vanguard “frontal assault” but a collection of assaults from multiple angles. Extending this further, there can be no single “revolutionary agent.” Instead, every one of the oppressed can become a revolutionary agent. John Holloway calls this a project of non-identity, which does not imply flattening out differences between groups or imposing conformity for a “greater good.” Non-identity is a change in the grammar of revolution. The question “who is the revolutionary agent?” becomes “how can we imagine everyone, any ordinary person, as a revolutionary agent?” This means “going out to the streets…and trying to see the rebellion inside people.”21 Deepening this grammar requires reformulating a singular vanguard to the plural vanguard(s).

In practice, these vanguards might look similar to a scenario imagined by John Brown Childs. He begins in a dense forest, where multiple groups are navigating the forest from different starting positions. “They have no knowledge of each other,” he writes, “Each group believes itself to be isolated.”22 Cutting through the thickness of the forest, they eventually begin hearing each other’s voices. “Even before they can actually see one another,” imagines Childs, “they call out greetings and stories of their struggle. Directions are exchanged. Progress is reported.”23 Eventually, the groups reach each other. Along the journey, their various pathways have connected and created a mass clearing in the forest, allowing the groups to see each other face-to-face. Explains Childs, “This direction did not lead them to an already established place, a fabled El Dorado. . .rather, as they drew closer they created the place and the moment of clearing.”24

Childs calls this a process of correspondence. Correspondence takes account of distinct social histories and experiences and communicates these differences with the intention of locating how each converges with one another. Once identified, the convergences can point to a future where we understand our connections. Correspondence requires a commitment to believing that “everyone has the capacity for conscious analysis and the envisioning of a better world.”25 Elites, or a small sect of avant-gardes, will not shape such stories of correspondence. They will take shape through the collective movement of the masses. Vanguards will not act as a directorate (or group above the fray). They will be the organic force of movement propelled by stories.

Movement has always been a key feature of vanguardist ideas, as Jodi Dean points out: “Marx and Engels link socialism not simply to the identity of the working class. They link it to working-class movement.”26 She argues we should embrace desires for collectivity, which require the Left to “turn to the process of movement, recognizing the people as the subject of that movement.”27 The people, in turn, emerge as a crowd which gives itself definition through movement. This movement is one which is communicated, where crowds form to signal their desire for collectivity. They signal these desires by raising their voices, chanting, singing, arguing, mic-checking, speechifying and more. Stories become connected in the process of moving together as a crowd with multiple voices and points of reference, allowing for an eventual shared politics to take shape.

Dean claims, “The crowd doesn’t have a politics,” but that rather the “event” of a crowd provides “the opportunity for a politics.”28 She concludes that since the crowd has no politics yet, and therefore no history, reviving the communist party is necessary. “The party does not represent the people as a collective subject,” she writes, “The party responds to this subject. . . It gives the crowd a history.”29 The need for a party, in essence, boils down to the need for a common language. “When local and issue politics are connected via a common name,” writes Dean, “successes in one area advance the struggle as a whole.”30 But I disagree with Dean on these points. The crowd does have a history, always, and its history is important. To imagine otherwise neglects understanding that “the social world is an accumulation of history.”31 Further, this common language need not be under the label of a communist party; we will discover the language through our movement.

Stories, though, can be told from the lens of hate. An obvious conflict arises from stories told by white supremacist groups against those of antiracist movements like Black Lives Matter. Political clarity over the prevailing circumstances is needed. Yamahtta Taylor writes, “We live in a thoroughly racist society, so it should not be surprising that people have racist ideas.” The more important question, she writes, “is under what circumstances those ideas can change.” Identifying the basis for change, Yamahtta Taylor reports, “There is a clash between the prevailing ideology in society and people’s lived experience. . . Whether or not a group of workers has reactionary, mixed, or even revolutionary consciousness does not change its objective status as exploited and oppressed labor.”32

The same holds true for every oppressed group. Consciousness does not alter oppression’s objective conditions, whether it is in the form of marginalization, violence, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, or alienation. The task for vanguards is to locate the spaces where solidarity can be fostered through the sharing of stories. Spaces can be organizational spaces, public spaces, counter-cultural spaces, or anywhere we can communicate desires for collectivity. Highlighting the importance of space, John Holloway writes, “We have to build forms of organization that allow people to articulate their dignities, that encourage people to speak, that encourage people to explain their worries, that encourage people to talk about their concerns, that encourage people to draw out their dignity.”33

Holloway encourages pushing passed the false duality between class and identity, suggesting our human worth is vastly more rich and abundant than these categories. “We don’t fit into any boxes, and we don’t fit into any identities,” writes Holloway, “Our politics…is inevitably an anti-identitarian politics.” This is a politics which threads class and identity together, because “if we don’t recognise how we spill over from our own identities, then…our language becomes too easily integrated, it becomes…reactionary.”34

Someone once remarked that the United States, and the world at large, does not have as much a division between left and right as it does between top and bottom. Highlighting stories which expose shared grievances against the top provide the basis for recognizing our struggles as connected. Vanguards become ones which do not strictly lead but map the locations for groups to enter a shared project of liberation. In order to conduct such a project, we must claim spaces which bring together disparate groups. Occupy Wall Street offered insights for this type of experiment. The occupation of public spaces allowed the public to challenge representative democracy and the ruling class expressed as the “1%.” Occupation also allowed for a broader appellation of people to locate visible entry points for engaging in the exchange of stories. Vanguards, then, capture spaces that create entry points for the masses to share their stories, desires, histories, and visions of a better society.

For vanguards, “holding a space for an indeterminate amount of time allow[s] for a more durable politics to emerge.”35 Such a politics will do best when it goes beyond holding a space and sharing stories of grievances. This politics will grow with attempts at sketching a world without alienation (a vision of open utopia), which unleashes the power of our deepest desires for a better future. The Zapatistas carry with them two expressions in line with this view: “walking we ask questions” — to make a “world where many worlds fit.” These vanguards must insist on the dismantling of capitalism, uprooting of white supremacy, smashing of patriarchy, and quashing of all efforts which dehumanize on the basis of abilities and sexuality. Those that propose centering the voices of the most impacted by oppression are correct — these voices need to be centered, as they will harbor the most intimate understanding of their group desire and approach to an expansive community void of alienation. This does not mean being at the center, but bringing multiple centers together.

As a way of beginning, we would do well to begin seeing the rebellion, as Holloway says, in each and every one of us perfectly ordinary people. | P


  1. John Brown Childs, Leadership, Conflict, and Cooperation in Afro-American Social Thought (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), 7.
  2. Quoted in David Harvey, “The Right to the City,” New Left Review 53 (September-October 2008), available at <https://newleftreview.org/II/53/david-harvey-the-right-to-the-city>.
  3. Jodi Dean, Crowds and Party (London: Verso, 2016), 252.
  4. The Combahee River Collective Statement can be found on multiple online sites and is an essential read for any who wish to understand the current discussion surrounding “identity politics” and “intersectional” oppression frameworks.
  5. Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43 (1991): 1242.
  6. Hilary Lazar, “Until All Are Free: Black Feminism, Anarchism and Interlocking Oppression,” Perspectives on Anarchist Theory: Anarcha-feminisms 29 (2016): 37.
  7. Harsha Walia, Undoing Border Imperialism (Oakland: AK Press/Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2013), 188.
  8. Ibid., 189.
  9. Betsy Leondar-Wright, Missing Class: Strengthening Social Movement Groups by Seeing Class Cultures (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014), 29.
  10. Ibid., 34.
  11. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), 210-211.
  12. The articulation of “whiteness” as a shared monolithic experience of power among whites effectively essentializes identity and reproduces what Asad Haider describes as the “ideology of race.” Such guarantees fixed hierarchical conceptions of race will continue to influence our future visions of a better world because so long as “race” exists as a social political reality, racism will continue to exist along with it — one begets the other. For further reflection, see: Asad Haider, Mistaken Identity: Race and Class In the Age of Trump (London: Verso, 2018).
  13. Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter, 216.
  14. Leondar-Wright, Missing Class, 33.
  15. Lazar, “Until All Are Free,” 48.
  16. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert Tucker (New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1978), 74. Some might protest Marx’s apparent anthropocentrism. I would agree, but we can remove the anthropocentric viewpoint and still find Marx’s treatment of alienation valuable.
  17. John Holloway, In, Against, and Beyond Capitalism: The San Francisco Lectures (Oakland: PM Press, 2016), 7.
  18. Jodi Dean, The Communist Horizon (London: Verso, 2012), 207.
  19. Walia, Undoing Border Imperialism, 262.
  20. Ibid., 265.
  21. Holloway, In, Against, and Beyond Capitalism, 9.
  22. Childs, Leadership, Conflict, and Cooperation, 6.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid., 7.
  26. Dean, Crowds and Party, 257.
  27. Ibid., 258.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Ibid., 259.
  30. Ibid., 263.
  31. Pierre Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital,” in Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, ed. J. Richardson (New York: Greenwood, 1986), 241.
  32. Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter, 213.
  33. Holloway, In, Against, and Beyond Capitalism, 10.
  34. Ibid., 33.
  35. Dean, The Communist Horizon, 221.

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