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The Vanguard for Social Change

George Clark, 01 November 2007

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Ping! an email inviting me to attend a 'Global Economic Justice Collective Campaigning Forum' in London in December. It bills itself as an "essential event for professionals involved in and influencing the global justice agenda". It notes that "This event is free and lunch will be provided. The Campaigning Forum will be followed by festive drinks celebrating a year of campaigning for global justice". A networking event for civil society's shakers and movers. This made me wonder about the nature of the vanguard for a bright new tomorrow.

When I think of people being in the vanguard of a new development, I assume they are involved in its most advanced part. They are trail-blazers and trend-setters; the advance guard at the forefront and on the front line. They are the abnormal few with uncommon sense and counterintuitive understandings. They act as a countervailing force to the status quo.

These heroes and heroines think, feel and act for social change. They have vision. They analyse the BEFORE in terms of its inequities and injustices and they vision an AFTER of equity and justice. They offer reasoned and passionate resistance to the unacceptable face of the status quo and 'business as usual'. Being in the vanguard they have already had a personal change of heart, feelings and values. Their task is to change the values and thus actions of that 'good and great' minority that guides the established status quo.

This can be a dangerous game. Opposition has both acceptable and unacceptable faces. The polite and reasonable face of dissent is a welcome part of the hegemonic system. It helps to give the impression of robust debate and analysis of evidence while keeping it within 'acceptable' parameters. The loyal opposition has its perks and its place at table so long as it does not seriously rock the boat.

The unacceptable face of opposition is pernicious. It includes people whose modes of thinking, being and acting crack the established norms and shift the prevailing paradigms. Such people think too much and thus are dangerous. For the greater good of society and the safety of the nation state they have to be silenced - by some means or other!

But social change is a complex business. It can be reduced to sound bites; but informed discussion and debate requires more than that. There is a role for expertise in gathering and analysing evidence if we are to speak truth to power. But who gets to define 'truth' and in what terms? If the voices of the poor are to be influential is it best that they speak for themselves or that 'experts' speak on their behalf? There is no simple answer - context is everything. But there has been much progress in organising Multi Stakeholder Processes (MSP).

It seems to me that vanguard groups can function in a series of ways that range between two extremes. One extreme involves a top-down approach where an expert elite does all the real thinking in the best interests of the masses who are fed ideological sound bites and action instructions through advertising (see box). The other extreme involves a bottom-up approach where trained facilitators assist with local level discussion and debate and act as scribe for such outcomes as may usefully be fed upwards through the authority hierarchy.

And then there is passion - fire in the belly. 'Business as usual' gives the impression of being based on reason and evidence. But there is still more inequity and injustice in the world than there need be. Being reasonable is not enough to make changes. Those who would be in the vanguard need to burn and the authorities will not like them for it.

How many of the activists in London in December will be choking on their free lunch and festive drinks!

The term vanguard was appropriated by Lenin to denote the role of the Communist Party in the Russian Revolution and subsequently. Since the proletariat is disorganised, easily subverted, and without an understanding of its revolutionary mission, it stands in need of a disciplined organisation that will organise and lead it and which will articulate its needs and ideals: this is the vanguard. (Roger Scruton, 1982)


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