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In the context of revolutionary struggle, vanguardism is a strategy whereby an organization (usually a vanguard party, though not always) attempts to place itself at the center of the movement, and steer it in a direction consistent with its ideology.
Vanguardism may more generally refer to cooperation between avant-garde individuals advancing in any field. Innovative writers and artists are often described as being in the vanguard of development of new forms and styles of art.
Vladimir Lenin popularized political vanguardism as conceptualized by Karl Kautsky, detailing his thoughts in one of his earlier works, What is to be done?. Lenin argued that Marxism's complexity and the hostility of the establishment (the bourgeois state or, in the case of Imperial Russia, the feudal state) required a close-knit group of individuals—the vanguard—to safeguard the revolutionary ideology. While Lenin allegedly wished for a revolutionary organization akin to his contemporary Social Democratic Party, which was open to the public and more democratic in organization, the Russian autocracy prevented this.
Leninists argue that Lenin's ideal vanguard party would be one where membership is completely open: "The members of the Party are they who accept the principles of the Party programme and render the Party all possible support." This party could, in theory, be completely transparent: the "entire political arena is as open to the public view as is a theater stage to the audience." A party that supposedly implemented democracy to such an extent that "the general control (in the literal sense of the term) exercised over every act of a party man in the political field brings into existence an automatically operating mechanism which produces what in biology is called the “survival of the fittest”." This party would be completely open to the public eye as it conducted its business which would mainly consist of educating the proletariat to remove the false consciousness that had been instilled in them.
In its first phase, the vanguard party would exist for two reasons. Firstly, it would protect Marxism from outside corruption from other ideas as well as advance its concepts. And secondly, it would educate the proletariat class in Marxism in order to cleanse them of their "false individual consciousness" and instill the revolutionary "class consciousness" in them.
Our task is not to champion the degrading of the revolutionary to the level of an amateur, but to raise the amateurs to the level of revolutionaries. 
If the vanguard is successful in this lofty goal, on the eve of revolution the entirety of the working class population would be enlightened, Marxist revolutionaries. Furthermore a great number of them, namely their most intelligent members, would belong to the vanguard's inner circle as professional revolutionaries. Thus the organization would quickly include the entire working class.
Once the proletariat gained class consciousness and thus was prepared to revolt against the ruling classes, the vanguard party would serve another purpose. The party would coordinate the proletariat through its revolution by acting as a military command hub of sorts. This is, according to Leninists, a vital function as mass revolutions can sometimes be easily crushed by the disciplined military of the ruling classes. The vanguards would serve as commanders of the revolt, chosen to their positions by "democratic natural selection".
In Lenin's view, after the revolution the working class would implement the dictatorship of the proletariat to rule the new worker's state through the first phase of communism, socialism. Here it can be said that the vanguard disappears, as all of society now consists of revolutionaries.
Implementation in Imperial Russia 
Because of Russia's strong autocratic state, the vanguard party had to be implemented differently. It was, by necessity, a highly secretive organization. Its members would print and distribute illegal pamphlets and newspapers (for the above-mentioned alleged purpose of educating the masses), rarely would they sleep in the same bed twice. Members had to be skilled at evading the Czar's secret police as well as being knowledgeable Marxists.
Despite these troubles the Russian Bolsheviks were eventually successful in overthrowing the imperial government but only after countless cases of them being exiled, imprisoned and executed.
Current use 
Vanguardism continues to be used as a political strategy by Leninist parties of just about all varieties
Although anarchists and radical libertarians reject party vanguardism in principle as inherently authoritarian, the practices of some anarchist groups have been criticized by their peers for constituting vanguardism of the intellectual, if not organizational, variety. Vanguardism is in fact an intrinsic element of anarcho-syndicalism and revolutionary syndicalism. Theorists such as Georges Sorel and vanguard groups such as the Spanish Federación Anarquista Ibérica viewed the ordinary worker as being too complacent to revolt spontaneously, due to his having been 'brainwashed' by capitalism and reformism, and it was thus seen to be the duty of the 'enlightened' anarchist to prepare a revolutionary situation in which spontaneous mass rebellion could erupt. At times, this even led to an ostensibly elitist anarchism: the French CGT's reformist majority was excluded from input in the pivotal 1906 Amiens Congress, as the Union's anarchosyndicalist leaders considered moderate workers to be unqualified to decide policy for a Union whose direction was to be revolutionary.
Further reading 
- Burger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Theory & History of Literature Series. 135 pages. University of Minnesota Press, February 1, 1984. ISBN 0-8166-1068-1.
- Forster, Merlin H. and K. David Jackson, compilers. Vanguardism in Latin American Literature : An Annotated Bibliographic Guide. Bibliographies and Indexes in World Literature Series. 232 pages. Greenwood Press, May 23, 1990. ISBN 0-313-24861-3.
- Maerhofer, John. 2009. Rethinking the Vanguard: Aesthetic and Political Positions in the Modernist Debate, 1917-1962. New Castle: Cambridge Scholars Press. ISBN 1-4438-1135-1
- Vladimir Lenin What is to be done?
- Bakunin, Mikhail. "Letter to Albert Richard". August 1870. Reprinted in Bakunin on Anarchy, translated and edited by Sam Dolgoff. A. A. Knopf, 1st edition, 1972. ISBN 0-394-41601-5. Retrieved May 17, 2005.
- Mandel, Ernest. "Trotsky’s conception of self-organisation and the vanguard party". Originally published in French in Quatrième Internationale, No.36, pp. 35-49. November 1989. Translated by Mike Murray, marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive. Retrieved May 24, 2005.
- Mitchell, Roxanne and Frank Weiss. Two, Three, Many Parties of a New Type? Against the Ultra-Left Line. Publisher: United Labor Press. 1977. Retrieved May 25, 2005.
- Slaughter, Cliff. "What is Revolutionary Leadership?". Labour Review. Socialist Labor League. 1964?. Retrieved May 17, 2005.
- Mythology of the White-Led "Vanguard": A Critical Look at the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA. Anarchist People of Color website. Retrieved May 17, 2005.
- Cooper, Nick. Critique of Revolutionary Communism . Belgium Indymedia. Sep. 23, 2004. Retrieved June 3, 2005.