"Undermining my electoral viability since 2001."

The Progressive Intellectual Vanguard

The political season has begun heating up, and I do a lot of back-and forth at Future Majority these days. However, it's a pretty nuts and bolts kind of website. As Mike says it's not as sexy as Revolution!, but not insignificant either. I tend to agree, but I still miss the sexy part.

One of the things I've been considering for a while is the notion of Vanguardism, especially in relation to how I and others foresee potential social change as a result of the increasingly globalized and decentralized flow of information (to wit: the internet). There's a sense of Revolutionary spirit in this, if not always Revolutionary action, and this R-word gets kicked around by all sorts, some in a sort of square business context, but by many others in a more heartfelt and (quasi)radical way.

It's not just me either; check Markos:

On our own, bloggers can do little. But by educating and motivating grassroots activists, we can truly help effect change. The real change is on the ground -- the heroes of this battle were those Democrats busting their ass for their party -- the precinct captains and party volunteers.

Sounds a lot like the task of a Vanguard to me, complete with rhetoric saying that the "real heroes" are the proletariat, or street-level grassroots activists. I don't mean this in any way as a dis. In fact, I agree wholeheartedly.

Still, Vanguard organizations generally have huge problems. The whole concept of trying to lead any kind of mass movement from within a smaller clique is prone to failure, to being authoritarian and patronizing, exclusive and elitist. It can go wrong in many ways, and yet it is where we seem to find ourselves, for better or for worse.

My thinking got kicked up a notch last night watching Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, which fairly clearly shows how a few individuals were able to ride a wave of elite sentiment -- loosely, the belief in "the magic of the market" -- and defraud a whole lot of people including their employees and most of the State of California, out of billions of dollars. Skilling, Lay, Fastow and their gang used a lot of the same techniques as the Bolsheviks, whether they were conscious of that or not.

Given where we're at, how can we try and avoid the pitfalls that plague most Vanguard movements? Here's a short list of ideas:

  • Make our actions, decision-making, organization and motivations radically transparent. One of the biggest problems is when there are covert leadership structures or "noble lie"-type deception as to intent.
  • Keep moving it around and avoid ossification. A Vanguard which becomes a collection of the same old faces trends inevitably towards elitism.
  • Stay humble. Hubris is consistently a downfall of movements which seek change, let alone revolutionary change.

Practically I think we can duck the usual problems. Our vanguard is fluid. Many of its members engage in direct local activism. We also embrace an anti-bureaucratic set of organizing principles. We're also talking about a much more high-capacity environment -- in real terms, almost any American can grok our shit if they give it a few hours -- and a much more decentralized group of thought-leaders. We're closer in many ways to a cultural avant-guard than a political "Vanguard party."

Our goals are still too hazy to run many risks. As things get sharper and more focused over the coming years we'll see what happens. Lenin went more than 15 years from writing What Is To Be Done to leading the October Revolution. A lot can change.


What a great documentary. I watched it the other night (on HDNet Movies, owned by Mark Cuban, who also produced the movie - synergy, my friend) and thought it showed really well what a little greed could do to people. While the executives look horrible, what really got me was the cavalier attitude of the energy traders and how easily folks at California power plants went along with what they were told. I mean, you'd shut down your plant because some guy at Enron told you to? Really? It's that easy? Truly unbelievable.

It's pretty crazy how people can rationalize all sorts of things. They reference the Milgram experiment in the documentary, which is a real thing, but given the culture they created I would not be surprised if there were some kickbacks involved also.

Another though in terms of how this relates to what I'm talking about: for better or for worse it seems that a lot of the people like to be told what to do a lot of the time. Recognizing this often leads people to take the follow-on step of starting to tell other people what to do, which is where the problems start.

I was also impressed by how powerful TSGITR was. We went the opening weekend to support Bethany (did you get to meet her at the wedding?) and pump the opening numbers in hopes of getting more screens, and by the time we walked out B said "they should show that to every student in every business school." That was long before he started up here; I should ask him if it ever WAS shown.

Hope all is well!