THE CREATIVE POTENTIAL OF THE SUBJECTIVE WILL: the revolutionary party as avant-garde [Part B]

J. Moufawad-Paul
Jul 29, 2016 · 16 min read

[This is the second part of a serialized extended essay that is intended, in some ways, to be a promotion for my upcoming book, Continuity & Rupture. A reflection on the concept of the party form, it is a tangental exploration of some of the concerns of this book’s fifth and sixth chapters and a bridge between it and The Communist Necessity. The first part can be found here.]

two: partisan avant garde war machine

The concept of the vanguard party initially emerged as a military metaphor, vanguard being a portmanteau of “advanced guard”, the leading front of a military formation “which opens combat.” (Clausewitz, 12) The French variant of this military concept, avant-garde, meant “the ward in front” — the division that advanced combat, determining lines of engagement and how the army advanced as a whole. This analogy is interesting in the conceptualization of the communist party because, if understood within its metaphorical limits, it immediately breaks with the fossilized theorization of the vanguard party found in authoritative Marxist-Leninist texts: in warfare the advanced guard or avant-garde is not necessarily the “general staff of the proletariat” [translated in other versions as “military staff”] that “concentrates the entire experience accumulated by the working class” but should aim, if it is to become a true vanguard, to lead from the trenches rather than from an officer’s tent.

Of course the main theorists who emerged from the Bolshevik Revolution immediately post-Lenin (both Stalin and Trotsky, the victor and loser, respectively, of that significant line struggle) did not conceptualize the party as completely divorced from the masses, nor was their experience in the revolution one of such a divorce. The conceptualization of the party as a “general staff” with a “concentrated class experience” was intended to explain, since no analogies are perfect, the ways in which the party represents the theoretical advance of the class as a whole so as to determine the revolutionary movement. Even still, something vanishes when the military metaphor begins to lose its integrity: if the advanced guard is something that partially stands outside and above class struggle as a whole, and is described in terms that resemble more the officer corps than the literal advanced guard, the term “vanguard party” is already drifting from its initial military analogy.

Moreover, if we are to take the actual military meaning of vanguard seriously then we can also sidestep (as Jodi Dean also does, it should be noted) the divergence between the Leninist concept of the vanguard party and the Luxemburgist concept of the mass party. According to the old military definition the advanced guard functions below, on the level of the masses, and is only advanced in terms of its military position: it’s the division that leads into battle, determining the way the battle will proceed, and whatever decisions it makes in the fray affect the units and columns as a whole. It is not divorced from the masses of the military engaged in struggle but is in fact a division that distinguishes its quality in its ability to break the lines of the enemy and lead, in the thick of combat, the other divisions to victory or defeat. On the field or in the barracks it is not a dictatorial regime; it is simply a point where the general will of the masses is focused into a singular combative expression.

The military analogy also admits the significance of the “rearguard” which is just as important as the vanguard. Indeed, Clausewitz treats them as strategically identical though split into different divisions. (Clausewitz, 13) Stretch this analogy to the class struggle for socialism and perhaps a thorough understanding of the military analogy will lead us past the Leninist limits and into Maoist territory: the vanguard pushes through the ranks of the bourgeois “army” to establish socialism, the rearguard deals with the fragmentation of this enemy force around the forward movement of the ranks of socialism, threatening to hem it in and strangle its attempt at declaring victory. The rearguard is isometric to the vanguard: similar in composition but another division of the masses — the rebels in the Cultural Revolution that bombarded the headquarters.

And yet the military analogy is not entirely sufficient to explain the concept of the communist party. Although it was useful in establishing the concept to begin with, and though it might remain useful when we think the party beyond its fossilized account, it becomes a barrier to thought because it leads to a conflation of organization and strategy. The theory of the party concerns organization as a whole whereas the military theory of the vanguard concerns warfare strategy; perhaps the main reason that Marxists at the centres of the global capitalism tend to conflate discussions of organization for discussions of strategy is because the military metaphor for organization unintentionally promoted this conflation.

[I examined this conflation in Quartermasters of Stadiums and Cemeteries.]

Hence we find in the early days of the Maoist movement evidence of this collapse of organization into strategy: the militarized party promoted by the PCP where people’s war within the context of socialism is openly advocated. On the one hand, this collapse demonstrates the first creative attempt at a Maoist break from party orthodoxy because it grasps the meaning of the military metaphor: the advanced guard is in the trenches, the rearguard is theoretically identical to the vanguard, and so the latter should militarily become the former when socialism is established; a new conception of the party and its development is possible, the Maoist party formation becomes a procedure that is a fusion between the concentrated general staff and the masses so that there is no difference between the vanguard and mass party. On the other hand, this collapse signifies the problem of the military metaphor since strategy, though connected with organization, is a different procedure: complete militarization of the party only creates its own general staff, military rankings and all, and not a non-militarized periphery that is capable of initiating its own engagement and critique of whatever socialism the party has established. Mao’s warning that the party should command the gun because of the danger of the gun commanding the party is not escaped when the party becomes the gun; rather the danger becomes immanent.

So when we speak of the party of the advanced guard it might be useful to think according to an analogy that is adjacent to military strategy.


A communist party should indeed be such a leap of all sensibilities, but not solely a militaristic leap that might find itself stranded in the adventurist realm of focoism. Rather, a leap that simultaneously regenerates itself within the masses as the best avant-garde art regenerates the development of artistic praxis by an appeal to those masses who are being conditioned by the reduction of art to a commodity-form. The great avant-garde movements in art generate the history of art itself; similarly the great movements of the communist party of the advanced guard will generate the history of revolution.

The communist party should be to other political parties as avant-garde art is to mainstream art. This does not mean rushing ahead, a vanguard detached from the masses like the focoist spear ahead of the people — the “grin without a cat” — but instead a centre of mass advanced consciousness. Another way to explain what I mean, here, and why the advancement of the party form is grounded in the history of struggle itself, is to use the above art analogy and think through the meaning of its avant-garde. Let’s begin, then, with some precise definitions of the avant-garde in the realm of art and imagine an isometric, political-organizational substitution.

“Avant-garde works of art,” writes Julian Jason Haladyn, “represent a vision of human possibility and potentiality as progressive, but in a manner quite different from the proclamations of ‘progress’ by mainstream culture.” (Haladyn, 87) But this is precisely, in the realm of the political real, what the communist party signifies: it represents a vision of “human possibility and potentiality as progressive” according to class revolution, which is opposed to the ways in which bourgeois culture defines progress.

Going further, Haladyn writes “[a]s an artistic critique of the modern institutionalization of lived existence, the avant-garde signifies an acute attack against the broadening of social and political conformity in everyday life through the expansion of mass culture.” (Ibid.) Let us rewrite this statement in the following manner: as a political critique of the modern institutionalization of lived existence, the party of the avant-garde signifies an acute attack against the broadening of social and political conformity in everyday life through the expression of the mass-line.

Most importantly, Haladyn outlines the ways in which “the avant-garde” relates to “the mainstream”. Whereas the mainstream “aims at a willful conformity with social norms, based within the desire of the subject to be recognized as part of the people and therefore see its experiences reflected back as a shared or common (external) meaning;” the avant-garde “is a recognition of the creative potential of subjective will as the power of the subject to produce its own meaning within an infinite and indefinable world.” (Ibid., 88) Here the point is not that the avant-garde exists in a realm that is alienated from the masses but, in fact, seeks to intervene in the mainstream (or common sense) order that is an order of socialized consent, “an order of judgment based on what is given” where “all individual judgements are necessarily measured in relation to… the ready-made or already stated standards of which become mistakenly treated as objective.” (Ibid., 89)

Hence mainstream collective projects, up to and including official political parties, are part of a hegemonic order that pretend to be reflections of reality as such (what is given as reality according to bourgeois ideology), their commitments ready-made interpretations of existence that masquerade as common sense. There is a state of affairs that claims the grounds of reality, and there are political projects, commitments, and organizations that are permissible options according to this state of affairs: liberal or conservative; dove or hawk; isolationist or imperialist; official party or hippy NGO. To think beyond this state of consensus is to push beyond the normative, to violate a common consensus, and thus according to the mainstream perspective there is a supposed violation of shared/common meaning.

But the avant-garde functions to challenge the assumption that our experiences reflect a shared meaning that is natural. The point of avant-garde is to call into question the status of the mainstream, to harness and unleash “the creative potential of the subjective will” in opposition to the state of affairs. To produce a new subject in the sense indicated by Dean in Crowds and Power: the collective subject enclosed by the party:

More than a body focused on the state, the party is a form for the expression and direction of political will. It concentrates disruption in a process in order to produce political power… It endeavours to arrange the intensity unleashed by the crowd, to keep it present as fervent desire. […] The subject that expresses itself in the Commune event is not the diffusion of creative individuality; dominant power always allows for the carnivalesque. It is rather the people as a political subject manifest in the closure of directed intensity within the revolutionary opening. Because the party looks for them, the people are found. (Dean, 68)


A common critique of avant garde art is that most people find it unpalatable. A crude Marxist analysis claims that, since it cannot be comfortably consumed by the broad masses of workers, avant garde art is “petty-bourgeois”. These masses, we are told, would much rather listen to Top 40 radio, purchase Monet prints online, and spend their money watching the latest Transformers movie. Similar charges, it needs to be noted, are levelled at the vanguard party: it comes from outside of the masses’ struggles and imposes its political will, it is comprised of “petty-bourgeois” intellectuals, and workers would much rather be left to their own devices to choose economistic struggle rather than an avant garde political line — unions instead of “elitist” vanguard parties. In Continuity and Rupture [forthcoming from Zero Books] I argue that the vanguard party should not be understood according to this cliche of elitism; the analogical significance of avant garde art is that the above charges, when investigated, lose their strength.

First of all, there is the assumption that the global working masses are thoroughly invested in the worst excesses of mainstream art and mass culture although much of this investment is simply a description of availability and socialization: people consume what is marketed to them; they are not able to consume what has been excluded from their everyday experience. Even with these enforced consumption patterns one only needs to empirically investigate the way in which art is consumed globally to realize that this supposedly anti-elitist assumption of what the masses desire is not entirely correct. At the 2015 Venice Biennale, one of the largest international exhibitions of art that indeed embraces avant garde over mainstream tendencies, one of the installations by Hans Haacke was an interactive survey program that asked attendees to locate themselves within various relations of social class. The results of the survey near the end of the Biennale indicated that the majority of people attending this event possessed an annual income that was under the EU poverty line and identified as either poor students or working class.

Secondly, there are those questions of production that should outweigh certain questions of consumption because it is the social relations of what is produced that define what is consumed in the first place. To think of art at the level of production, as I have argued elsewhere (and in reference to Raymond Williams and Walter Benjamin), is much more materialist than debating about consumption patterns which, as aforementioned, are often the product of socialization. A big studio producing a blockbuster movie is a situation where the bourgeoisie is enforcing an art expression upon the population, using millions of dollars to consolidate the pattern of consumption. Compare this to rebel avant garde filmmakers, some of whom might be dirt poor, producing outside of this privileged circuit.

Thirdly, there is the fact of economic access: while it is free for people to go to artist run galleries (where contemporary avant garde works and performances are often based), it costs to go to those museums where the art licensed by history is stored; it costs less to see an avant garde music performance than it does to attend a concert of a popular artist; a movie in a mainstream theatre costs more than attending a showing at an experimental film festival. We find the same thing with professional sports, supposedly a “working class” interest, where tickets can only be afforded by the upper classes.

If we look at the party vanguard according to these above three qualifications a very different picture of its engagement with the masses should become clear. For one thing, the ideology it promotes might in fact not be divorced from the experiences of the masses and if it possessed the means to promote this ideology with the spaces it builds (which are different from the arts since it often lacks the industry that accrues around even the avant garde arts) it could discover a certain level of popularization. In the peripheries, where revolutionary parties have indeed been successful, it is quite clear that there are party projects that are compelling to the masses. Furthermore, the production of ideas in the midst of struggle, because of struggle, is much more interesting than what is (re)produced as the normative left ideology: a party vanguard should test its ideas amongst the masses, producing and reproducing them with these masses. And finally, an organization that seeks to make links with the masses should attempt to make its ideas accessible, its mass structures known, so that the political life of the party is in fact more accessible to workers than the political life of the union, the latter of which is in fact inaccessible to most workers who have no hope of unionization.

We are of course stretching the analogy between avant garde art and the vanguard party, but the military analogy was also stretched. Perhaps it is best to think of the revolutionary communist party as an avant garde that is defined by both the artistic and militaristic meanings of the term. The subject it produces will be the subject of an avant garde partisan war machine (a term I’ve taken from Tiqqun’s Introduction to Civil War despite taking issue with Tiqqun’s politics) that, like any party project of whatever class, will be partisan to a particular content while also being a war machine, because it aims to take power, levelled at the current state of affairs… But an avant garde variant of this war machine because it must also promote a new mode of being.


Thinking the revolutionary party as avant garde in this larger sense of the term necessarily oversteps the problem inherent in Dean’s approach. While Dean’s defense of the communist party is significant in that it cracks the edifice of anti-party dogma, providing an opening through which the necessity of the party shines through, her refusal to place importance on the party’s political line undermines the possibility of a partisan war machine. A party formation’s political line needs to be understood as significant; the differences between the theoretical/ideological approaches of various parties are not always deplorable sectarian distinctions.

In the terrain of art history and practice, the mainstream desire to conform to a normative art ethos — to reduce everything to a particular gallery experience, to have all art rendered under the judgment of a sameness that is misconceived as equitable — has always been that which the significant and history-making art movements have revolted against. Every avant garde movement, regardless of what the supposedly “average” spectator might think about this movement’s art practices, has functioned according to a unity of meaning directed at pushing art and the subjects involved in art in new and fruitful directions. So too have those parties that have been successful in making revolution coalesced around a clear political line.

Every avant garde movement has possessed a partisan devotion to its vision. Particular partisan visions, due to the specificities of their conjuncture, have succeeded in inscribing their meaning upon mass history: the fact that Dada and Surrealism, for example, are now part of the mainstream art experience is because they succeeded in making themselves the vanguard of the unfolding history of art. Other attempted avant garde movements have failed: not because they were not militant partisans but only because they were unsuccessful, and because they made the wrong calls at the moment of conjuncture, in establishing their truth procedures. So too must multiple vanguard party projects vie for the consummation of their partisanship — some will vanish, some will persist as anachronisms, some will collapse into those singular partisan projects that become part of the historical conjuncture. In this becoming they will establish themselves as component parts of theoretical terrains, evaporating into the normativity of the mainstream and transforming into the grounds upon which revolutionary continuity, as long as it is also a rupture from this normativity, can be developed.

The concept of the revolutionary communist party, then, should be understood according to these three qualifiers: i) partisan; ii) avant garde; iii) war machine. These three qualifiers are united by the first because it implies the other two. The party is partisan insofar as, like those political parties devoted to other class parties, it declares fidelity to communism; if its members are not communist partisans then it is not, by definition, a communist party. The necessity of a communist party is such that it can only function if it generates partisan subjects, and partisan subjects are only generated within a party project. As Dean has demonstrated, without a party formation built to struggle against capitalism there will only be disunity. Capitalism is best served “[t]o the extent that pluralization — and the moves to fragment and individuate that accompany it — is a left political priority, [and when] politics becomes passionately attached to the small and weak.” (Dean, 25) Rather than pretending that this fragmentation is a strength we should instead recognize that a partisan project with a program of communist solidarity is required.

This partisanship, however, is further qualified as avant garde because the name communism is not an empty signifier and requires political content so as to demarcate itself from non-communist politics. Although such a demarcation runs the danger of degenerating into sectarianism, to refuse to think the possible politics of the most conscious and revolutionary elements of the proletariat will result in liquidationism: in the interests of mainstream revolutionary unity one cannot endorse an unprincipled unity; this will be a false unity that will generate no solidarity, akin to trying to unite the bourgeoisie and proletariat into a party for all of humanity. Thus, if we are to be communist partisans then we must be clear about what this partisanship demands: there can be no solidarity between feminists and anti-feminists who both happen to agree with a vague idea of communism; there can be no solidarity between colonized peoples and national chauvinists; there can be no solidarity between trans people and transphobes… We cannot develop dedicated partisans in a party project that obliterates differences that possess material significance. Rather, we will develop an ill-conceived united front that imagines itself to be a party. A space where, in the interests of unity, the differentials of oppression are internally reproduced and partisan dedication is undermined. Revolutionary demarcation that comes from an avant garde sensibility is thus necessary to produce the germ of militant solidarity.

Finally, the avant garde partisan project must also be a war machine. Here is where the analogy of avant garde art must return to the analogy of the military avant garde: the communist party should not only be a group of critics — a talk shop, an avant garde propaganda machine — but is instead a project aimed at the overthrow of capitalism. This qualification is the anti-revisionist qualification that stretches back to the line struggles of the Second International; it also revalorizes the previous qualifications of partisan and avant garde. The fact that the SPD had no problem handing Luxemburg and Liebknecht over to the fascists for execution demonstrates that the SPD’s leadership had ceased being communist partisans; the fact that they tailed the masses and offered no real alternative to National Socialism means that they were not a party of the avant garde. Which is to say, we should know now that a communist party, because it speaks in the name of the exploited and oppressed and thus seeks to overthrow the dominance of the ruling class, is not an electoral machine staffed by people who are a fragment of the club of the bourgeoisie. Reforming capitalism out of existence is not an option, and those so-called “communist parties” that function according to this electoral ethos tend to fail at being partisans to their ideology beyond a bland clique endorsement just as they fail to produce new ideas and practices.

[To be continued…]

    J. Moufawad-Paul

    Written by

    Unreconstructed commie. Author of *The Communist Necessity* and *Continuity & Rupture*.

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