There are alternatives.
The Democratic party has tried hard to be a party of incremental change. But the status quo has been so hostile to so many citizens that so long as elections mean anything (and they do mean something, just not what most people think), incrementalism cannot generate positive mass appeal; the Democrats' support has come only from conservatives who sensibly fear any kind of radical change for any reason.
The Occupy (and related) movements tried hard to be a "party" (in the loosest sense of the word) of purely bottom-up change. While they did important work, it is difficult to see how an Occupy-like movement can itself radically change our actually existing social institutions.
I have no small sympathy for both Democratic incrementalism and Occupy-like bottom-up action. If you believe either of these approaches are the best way to make progressive change, then do them with my blessing. I will merely note that I have not seen any progress — I have seen only a slowing of reaction and regress — from these approaches; any true progress they have made — and they have made some true progress — does not address the fundamental evils of capitalism. It is without question laudable that there is more racial, gender, and sexual orientation equality, but class inequality has increased. I am against oppression itself; it is not enough for me that oppression has become less racialized and sexualized.
I have been patient: I have watched class regression for more than thirty years. But my patience is not limitless. The final straw was the Democratic party's 2007 spineless appeasement of the war in Iraq, and Obama's pro-capitalist anti-worker response to 2008 Global Financial Crisis and his expansion of military imperialism just sealed the deal. If the Democratic party wants to turn itself into a vanguard party for socialism or even actual class progressivism, strengthening the working class against the capitalist and professional-managerial classes, all well and good, but doubt they can. The post-FDR Democratic party has always been the organ of the professional-managerial class (the technocrats), not the working class, and the technocrats will not easily cede the party to the working class.
I reject the incrementalists and the "bottom-up-ists." I do not think they are wrong in what they want; I think they are wrong and how to get there. I do not reject these strategies because they cannot quickly implement the radical changes to our political and economic institutions I see as necessary. I reject these strategies because I have not seen them make any progress at all for the working class; I say again: at best they have slowed reaction and regression. But slow death is still death.
I am in favor of a radical socialist vanguard party simply because radical vanguard parties work. They work on the left: Lenin's Bolsheviks, Mao's communists, and numerous small countries, notably Cuba. They work on the right: The National Socialists were a vanguard party, and the Republicans turned themselves into a vanguard party, and have just now been successful.
Note that I have neither the talent or inclination to actually organize a vanguard party. I am at heart a math teacher; at best I can offer only a bit of theoretical advice.
A radical vanguard party is a self-organized group of people with a clear ideological position that seeks to acquire state power and use that state power to implement its ideology.
In a socialist context, the vanguard party is more problematic than in an authoritarian context. Because all hitherto existing ruling classes have been authoritarian, parties are more easily expressed and organized in an authoritarian form. And the use of state power per se is to some extent inherently authoritarian. Hence, any vanguard party is especially susceptible to authoritarianism. For a vanguard party with an authoritarian ideology, such as the Republican party, there is no danger at all; a vanguard party with an anti-authoritarian ideology faces the serious danger of becoming authoritarian.
I cannot deny these criticisms. The best I can say is that the danger might not be inevitable; careful attention to the organization of a vanguard party might mitigate the danger of becoming authoritarian in its success. And even if authoritarianism is inevitable, there are gradations of authoritarianism: capitalist authoritarianism is better than monarchical, feudal, and fascist authoritarianism, technocratic authoritarianism is better than capitalist authoritarianism, and I would argue that socialist authoritarianism is better than both capitalist and technocratic authoritarianism.
I would also argue that anti-authoritarian absolutist "bottom-up" radicalism has never proven itself effective. I don't believe that bottom-up radicalism can succeed so long as any ruling class institutions still have any legitimacy; bottom-up radicalism cannot, I think, even begin to succeed until almost all of the ruling class institutions have decisively crumbled. However, regardless of their moral evils, our current capitalist institutions are in fact keeping billions of people alive. Were these institutions to simply disappear with no immediate replacement, billions would die. I am unwilling to sacrifice billions of people to any morality, however much I agree with it. The only hope I can see is to try to use presently existing institutions, and their inherent authoritarian context, to at least try to make progress towards true human freedom and liberty rather than wait passively or ineffectually for the absolute collapse of capitalism and the deaths of billions.
The collapse might come regardless of any efforts to the contrary, however great. If so, there it is, and the bottom-up radicals will have their day. If I were to survive (which I probably won't), they would have my unqualified support. Until then, and unless they show me they can be effective, I will endorse a vanguard party.
I will briefly lay out the fundamental principles of a socialist vanguard party, which I hope to later explore in more depth. I claim a radical socialist vanguard party must:
- adopt the ideology of political and economic democracy (not democratic republicanism);
- organize itself as much as possible along the lines of its own ideology;
- strive to seize state power to implement its ideology;
- make careful plans and preparations for its use of state power to prevent itself from becoming authoritarian and anti-democratic