Vanguard of the Revolution: The Global Idea of the Communist Party

Vanguard of the Revolution: The Global Idea of the Communist Party

by A. James McAdams


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The first comprehensive political history of the communist party

Vanguard of the Revolution is a sweeping history of one of the most significant political institutions of the modern world. The communist party was a revolutionary idea long before its supporters came to power. A. James McAdams argues that the rise and fall of communism can be understood only by taking into account the origins and evolution of this compelling idea. He shows how the leaders of parties in countries as diverse as the Soviet Union, China, Germany, Yugoslavia, Cuba, and North Korea adapted the original ideas of revolutionaries like Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin to profoundly different social and cultural settings. Vanguard of the Revolution is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand world communism and the captivating idea that gave it life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691196428
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 11/19/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 600
Sales rank: 1,075,516
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

A. James McAdams is the William M. Scholl Professor of International Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. His books include Judging the Past in Unified Germany and Germany Divided: From the Wall to Reunification (Princeton).

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On March 14, 1990, a majority of the 2,250 members of the Soviet Union's one-year-old parliament, the Congress of People's Deputies, voted to amend Article VI of their country's constitution. The old article had been neat, compact, and to the point. It specified what had long seemed self-evident and nonnegotiable: the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) was "the leading and guiding force of Soviet society and the nucleus of its political system and of all state organizations and social organizations." Furthermore, the CPSU was "armed with Marxist-Leninist doctrine." So equipped, the party's purpose was to impart to the Soviet people a "planned and scientifically-sound character to their struggle for the victory of communism." In contrast, the delegates to the Congress of People's Deputies saw the CPSU quite differently. Their description of the party in the new version of Article VI could not have been more ambiguous. They voted to include the CPSU in the document, but only as one of various unspecified political parties, trade unions, public organizations, and mass movements. Unlike in decades past, its representatives would have to seek office in competition with other parties and, as in all political systems governed by the rule of law, they would be subject to the parliament's decisions. Most revealing, the revised article made no reference to the party's leading role.

We cannot help looking back with astonishment at the decisiveness and finality of this change. Although two of the Soviet Union's allies, Hungary and Poland, had essentially cast aside the principle of single-party rule one year earlier in spring 1989, the significance of these events only became fully apparent when waves of protest and popular disaffection with communist rule resulted in the elimination of similar constitutional clauses in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria. In response, Soviet authorities struggled to prevent the contagion from spilling into their country. At the parliament's preceding session in mid-December 1989, CPSU general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and his coleaders tried to keep Article VI off the agenda. When prominent deputies, like the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko and the physicist-turned-human-rights-activist Andrei Sakharov, demanded that the party be divested of its sacrosanct character and forced to test its reputation at the voting booth, Gorbachev fought back. The Congress had more pressing topics to address, he insisted. "We don't need to act in this matter as if it were an emergency," the general secretary declared. "Why all this drama? We must approach the matter of constitutional changes with great responsibility."

Nonetheless, this was an emergency, and Gorbachev knew it. His party's existence was in jeopardy. For more than a decade, the CPSU leadership had been painfully aware that many of its rank-and-file members no longer believed their organization was worth defending in its current form. Indeed, only a month earlier, when more than 200,000 protestors took their demands for multiparty elections into the streets of Moscow, one could easily find CPSU members among the marchers. Thus, if not by his words then by his actions, Gorbachev showed on the day after the amendment of Article VI that he recognized how much the world had changed. He allowed the People's Congress to elect him as the Soviet Union's first and — it would transpire — last president. When he delivered the CPSU's official report four months later at its Twenty-Eighth Congress in July 1990 in this new capacity, his position as general secretary of the party was no longer the primary source of his authority and his relationship with his longtime comrades was qualitatively different. One year later, following an abortive military coup, Gorbachev resigned from the CPSU leadership and, as president, ordered the abolition of all party posts in the government. For all intents and purposes, both in the Soviet Union and in a majority of countries like it, the party was finished.

A Idea before an Organization

What was the communist party? At first glance, the answer to this question seems straightforward. If we go by the doctrinal definition that the Soviets associated with the leader of the Bolshevik revolution, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, and formulated under Joseph Stalin's rule, a communist party is a revolutionary organization committed to the forcible overthrow of capitalism. Its goal is to replace the rule of the bourgeoisie with a socialist dictatorship of the proletariat, which leads the way toward the attainment of a classless, communist society. Its "Leninist" or "Marxist-Leninist" members must be selfless individuals who care only about the common cause and adhere unquestioningly to the party's command. Equipped with the insights of revolutionary figures like Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Lenin, they will bring truth to the proletariat and educate them about their real interests. With the vanguard's guidance, the working masses will fulfill their historical destiny by rising up and overthrowing their oppressors. Because these workers "have no country," a revolution in one part of the world will inevitably be followed in other countries once they have an advanced proletariat.

The parties that described themselves in these formal terms left an indelible mark in the twentieth century. When Gorbachev came to power in 1985, their members could legitimately count themselves as participants in a global institution. For more than a century, and long before the advent of the phenomena that we associate with globalization today — international currency flows, supranational corporations, the Internet, and social media — the communist party could be found everywhere. It reached across continents and into disparate countries, sprawling urban centers and tiny peasant villages, crowded factories and university discussion circles. Out of the 162 countries in the world in 1985, twenty-four were ruled by communist parties. This number compares favorably with the thirty-five countries that were governed by communism's primary global competitor, liberal democracy. At the same time, approximately 38 percent of the world's population lived under communist regimes (1.67 billion out of 4.4 billion). The CPSU's International Department officially recognized 95 ruling and nonruling communist parties. Overall, if one includes the 107 parties with significant memberships, there were approximately 82 million communist party members worldwide. Nevertheless, even someone with a casual acquaintance with the history of world communism will immediately recognize the challenge of sorting out the relationship between these figures and the revolutionary organs that people like Marx, Lenin, Mao Zedong, and Fidel Castro envisioned. Unless they were imposed by an external force, few communist parties found their way to power as a result of the popular upheavals that the founders of the movement anticipated. In those cases when indigenous parties came to power, such as in China, Yugoslavia, and Vietnam, even fewer were based on the actions of the proletariat. A majority rose in developing countries and their success was heavily dependent on the engagement of nonworking-class strata, especially the peasantry. Furthermore, in both imposed and indigenous revolutions, the result was not a dictatorship by the formerly oppressed majority. It was a dictatorship of the party over the whole society.

This circumstance presents a puzzle to students of politics and history. How could an institution that made such a huge mark on the world have been significantly different from what its progenitors imagined — and still flourish? In this book, I shall argue that we can only resolve this question if we wean ourselves off the notion that the party should only — or, in many cases, even primarily — be understood as a formal organization. When we look back on the history of world communism, what stands out in many of the most prominent cases, including the Soviet Union and China, is that there were communists or leftwing radicals who would become affiliated with these movements long before the party acquired standardized rules and regulations. A majority had little or no experience with politics. They were not bound to the doctrinal conception of the communist party that I have sketched above. Instead, they were motivated by an evolving body of beliefs about what needed to be done to stage a successful revolution and what should come afterward. In fact, many of the communist parties that I shall consider in this book — in Russia, China, Italy, Germany, and others — were initially distinguished by their leaders' engagement in open deliberation and debate over their missions and tactics.

It is no accident that this fluid understanding of revolutionary leadership had enormous staying power. The idea of the communist party's leading role was born, nurtured, tested, and transformed in turbulent times. Between the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, one could find reasons for the wholesale rejection of the status quo everywhere. Establishment institutions failed to prevent human catastrophes that were occurring on a scale the world had never seen — world wars, civil wars, mass demonstrations, peasant uprisings, foreign invasions, and full-scale economic collapse. The youthful idealists, intellectuals, artisans, religious and ethnic minorities, and women's activists who threw themselves into revolutionary activity over these decades had many suitors — anarchists, syndicalists, populists, utopian socialists, terrorists, and fascists. But none could compete with the global appeal of the communist party. The idea of the vanguard simultaneously provided its adherents with three powerful reasons to follow its command: the confidence that they were part of a progressive movement that was destined to succeed, the satisfaction of serving a cause that was superior to themselves, and the pride of being associated with a drama of grand historical proportions.

Almost uniquely among modern political parties, the early conception of the communist party was based on the conviction of many revolutionaries that their victory was inevitable. In the party's embryonic period, the movement's foremost thinkers, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, outlined a theory of human relations that was tantalizingly simple. In their depiction, the coming revolution was preordained by an unresolvable contradiction between the interests of a minority class that controlled the means of production and a majority of workers whose labor was exploited in the never-ending pursuit of profit. Initially, the proletariat had no choice but to accept this condition. But eventually, the contradictions between these classes would become so unbearable that the working class would be propelled into overthrowing the existing system of production.

In fact, Marx and Engels's specific predictions were only realized, if at all, in a few isolated circumstances. Yet, this circumstance did not present communist leaders with an insurmountable dilemma. To the contrary, as I shall show throughout this book, the message they bequeathed about the ineluctable victory of an oppressed majority over an oppressive minority provided future generations of revolutionaries with a lasting resource. The "family resemblance" of this dichotomy to other, equally profound conflicts between majorities and minorities in their own countries, such as those between peasants and landowners, nationalist liberators and colonial administrations, and patriots and invaders, enabled those who called themselves "Marxists" to characterize their causes as worthy of support in the fight. Their leaders did not always act on the possibilities afforded by these dichotomies. Still, they were available as lifeboats to carry their movements forward.

In addition, the idea of the communist party was attractive because it offered a sense of community and belonging in times when human relationships were fractured by social unrest and war. In return for the privilege of being a part of this community, party members were willing to sacrifice their individuality to the collective enterprise of discerning the path to a just society. The annals of communism are replete with evidence of the seriousness with which this holy "first communion" was taken. Consider the words of Milovan Djilas, one of the preeminent figures in post–World War II Yugoslav politics and an equally influential dissident in later years, when he described the intoxicating impact of this shared agenda. "My own fate was of no account compared to the struggle being waged," he related, "and our disagreements were of no importance beside the obvious inevitability of the realization of our idea."

The corollary to this moral obligation was the undeniable and often horrifying extent to which party members could consciously justify sacrificing their fellow believers in the name of the common cause. Two decades after Djilas's confession, Julia Minc, the former head of the Polish Press Agency and vice president of the State Employment Commission, defended this principle when asked about the execution of innocent party members: "If you have to choose between the party and an individual, you choose the party, because the party has a general aim, the good of many people, but one person is just one person."

Finally, the party members' belief in the inevitability of the revolution and willingness to subordinate their private interests to the good of the whole were based upon the assumption that they would not abuse their positions. They had the privilege of leading this movement simply because they, more than others, were equipped to discern the interests of the people. "We communists," Joseph Stalin declared in 1926, "are people of a special mold. We are made of a special stuff. ... There is nothing higher than being a member of the party whose founder and leader was comrade Lenin." At the same time, he admonished, each member was obliged to uphold Lenin's bequest "with honor." To be sure, Stalin would vigorously violate this principle in later years. But the idea of the virtuous party would live on.

The Idea and the Organization

The conception of the communist party as a revolutionary idea can account for the loyalties of its early members. But it cannot account for how these loyalties were sustained. In the face of this challenge, the greatest weakness of Marx's prophecies and those of other early communists is their foundation on a conception of time that placed the attainment of their dream at an unspecified future date. We can hardly fault nineteenth-century thinkers for this lack of specificity. Marx and his contemporaries' greatest contribution is the assertion that history marches according to a progressive logic. The fact, however, that the promised land lies in the distant future means that the leaders of parties that come later are particularly dependent on having the right conditions to convince their members that they should press ahead.

In times of turmoil, these parties' calls for sacrifice make sense. Their members have "nothing to lose but their chains" and "a world to gain." The difficulties arise when adverse conditions abate. They not only test their leaders' skills in convincing their members that their ideals are worth the price of loyalty, they also force them to make a difficult choice. They can identify new reasons to demand ideological vigilance and a reinvigoration of the class struggle by invoking specters like the class enemy, hidden saboteurs, and imperialist aggressors. Or they can adjust the terms according to which the transition to a new society takes place.

These changing circumstances set up an unavoidable conflict between two conceptions of the party, one as an idea and the other as an organization. Those communists who emphasize the first conception maintain that the process of building socialism and making the eventual transition to communism will remain long and arduous. In their view, even parties that have successfully attained power will need to maintain revolutionary vigilance in the face of continuing threats from domestic and imperialist aggression. During this "state of simmering war, a state of military measures of struggle against the enemies of proletarian power," as Lenin observed in one of his last essays, the party is justified in doing whatever is necessary to defend its achievements.

Conversely, those communists who emphasize the organizational features of the party contend that one cannot allow the focus on revolution to preclude the formation of established routines to hold their movement together, including meaningful membership requirements, regular meetings, and consistent standards of decision making. Moreover, they maintain that if the party is weak and threatened with obsolescence, its leaders may have to accommodate themselves to working with established institutions. Once these parties assume political responsibility, these tasks become even more important. After the devastating consequences of military conflict and social upheaval, leaders who suddenly find themselves in power must provide their followers with tangible signs that the self-imposed hardships of a revolutionary movement have been worth bearing. In these cases, they require the means to bring their broken economies back to good health and to restore an atmosphere of calm and stability.


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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Note xiii

Abbreviations xv

1 Introduction 1

2 A Revolutionary Idea 18

3 A Revolutionary Party Emerges 59

4 Internationalizing the Party Idea 102

5 Creating the Leninist Party 141

6 A Different Type of Party 183

7 Monolithic Socialism 222

8 Rediscovering the Leninist Idea 268

9 The Charismatic Leader and the Party 310

10 The Revolution Returns 337

11 The Party Comes Back 380

12 The Party in Peril 428

13 The Party Vanishes 475

Photo Credits 501

Notes 503

Suggested Readings (Books in English)


Index 543

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Vanguard of the Revolution provides intellectual provocation, historical breadth and an inspiration to take better care of our fragile democracies."—Yvonne Howell, Times Higher Education

"Vanguard of the Revolution is a very readable synthesis of the history of the communist party, from Marx and Engels's manifesto to the collapse of the USSR. McAdams handles both the global sweep and the local details of each case he covers with an impressive assurance and levelheadedness."—Tony Wood, The Nation

"McAdams delivers a lucid and beautifully written volume that defies the norm, providing a highly readable study of the party."Publishers Weekly

"Impressive."—Joshua Muravchik, Commentary

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