The Vanguard Knows Best

The tricky thing about communism is that social hierarchies are not going to abolish themselves. In order to have a social revolution, some force must destroy the existing order. Raising such a force has been a major preoccupation of the left since at least the Conspiracy of Equals in 1796.

But revolutionaries must legitimize the power that they seek to wield. They need a way to set themselves apart. For the Bolsheviks, it was an esoteric way of knowing. Lenin and his comrades claimed to have a “revolutionary consciousness.” The practical meaning of this conceit was ably explained by Leszek Kolakowski:

Marx alleges that the working class carries, simply because it is the working class, a kind of privileged knowledge, “revolutionary consciousness,” of the course of history […] But this cognitive privilege, while it may have existed as something much to be desired in the minds of Marx and Engels, has to this day failed to materialize in the minds of the workers. Lenin (and before him Kautsky) thought that this little practical difficulty could be overcome by adding a supplement to Marx’s theory: since the proletariat was incapable of spontaneously generating “revolutionary consciousness,” it had to be instilled from without. This was to be done by the “vanguard” of the proletariat, the Communist party; and the Party–now sole repository of the true purpose of history–is vested with the right, indeed the duty, to discard the immature, empirical consciousness of the masses and lead them, through revolution, to the classless society. And Lenin added–which is an important point–that what the workers could produce of themselves was a bourgeois consciousness, since in a capitalist society only two basic forms of consciousness could exist.

The implication of this theory is that the Party knows better what lies in the genuine interests of society, and what constitutes the will of society, than society itself, and once the spirit of the Party is incarnated in the will of one man, Marxism-Leninism comes to mean the dictatorship of one man over the proletariat. Thus Marx’s hypothesis that the working class has a privileged knowledge of the final purpose of history culminates in the assertion that Comrade Stalin is always right.

The real interests of society, the true course of history, and the inner workings of oppression—these were only known in full to the enlightened vanguard. Only members of this egalitarian elite could truly say what must be done to liberate humanity. They were, as Kolakowski said, “vested with the right, indeed the duty” to do whatever they deemed necessary to achieve this end. No one else was in a position to challenge their judgments, because everyone else lacked their epistemic authority. The objections of their critics merely revealed an ignorance of oppression, or a complicity in it.

An elite to end all elites is a self-defeating absurdity. It is also what we should expect from utopian projects of the left. Because as Kolakowski warned elsewhere, there is no honest way to resolve the contradictions of communism.