The structures of government and society by which human civilization has developed have, in all their forms and variants, been organized as hierarchical frameworks of differing levels of economic, cultural, and political power. Within every political and social framework, individuals are invariably vertically stratified through de facto, if not de jure, means. Varying levels of power and influence are afforded to individuals according to where they lay within the social and political hierarchy. We often recognize this stratification through concepts such as “class,” which provide a means to organize individuals in that hierarchy.

As the levels of an individual’s power vary with that individual’s location in the hierarchical framework of society, and as this hierarchy is stratified vertically, it is the individuals at the top, the “elite” class, who are most endowed with power and influence. They are the ones most equipped to determine and alter the character of their society and government, for they largely hold a monopoly on the broad economic, social, and political power required to enact such changes. This class thus constitutes the driving force behind the evolution of social, cultural, and political norms and institutions. In a similar fashion, it is the elite class which may maintain and entrench an established social or political system, if they feel that they are best supported by the status quo.

Lenin, in his theoretical and tangible work on political movements, detailed an active, intellectual class serving as the driving force behind political and cultural revolution. This “vanguard” would serve the working class, socializing them to and educating them about socialist cultural norms while rallying them behind a movement towards the implementation of such a system. The vanguard, then, was the class that dictated the course of cultural and political evolution, developing and putting into practice the norms which would establish and maintain the social framework that they envisioned.

By creating a distinct unit, the vanguard, to carry out this process of social evolution, Lenin was thus institutionalizing the role which elites have played  throughout history.  The role of the vanguard can, and has, been fulfilled without an organizational or institutional framework; elites, by the nature of their economic, political, and social power, are already poised to control the development of civilization. To appropriate Lenin’s term, then, the elite can be seen as the vanguard of civilization, the class which has by-and-large dictated and directed the norms of culture, the practices of politics, and the nature of economics which the masses then follow.

Yet elites are not a monolithic group, and they do not adhere to a singular economic, cultural, or political outlook. History is rife with revolution and dramatic social changes, a reflection of the various ideas people have had about the nature of governance and how these ideas are often in conflict. Still, for such ideas to come into being, to be put into the mainstream social consciousness, to be acted upon in force, and to be implemented in practice, there must be some source to provide the revolutionary impetus. There energy and desire for change must have some point of origin. History has demonstrated that this point of origin begins with the elite classes.

Movements and moments of radical and transformative change do not emerge necessarily spontaneously, or at least not without some sort of organizational and intellectual conduit to provide impetus for the movement. This impetus, for the most part, comes from the elite class, which has the power necessary to mass mobilize and rally people behind a cause. Thus, elites, with their hegemony over power and influence, and with their capacity to shape social and political narratives and understandings, are the ones who develop and guide these movements. These movements invariably become the mechanisms through which the elites may realize their own interests.

Furthermore, a vanguard of the established status quo exists, comprised often of the elite who have, through the nature of the system in place, come into economic, cultural, and/or political power. It is through their efforts that contemporary understandings of politics and society come into formation, that social and cultural norms develop to complient and satisfy the system’s requirements, at that the system is thus further entrenched. For example, contemporary understandings of the socio-political hierarchy are bounded by the established neo-liberal order. Economic control and personal wealth translates into political and cultural power influence; those in the elite classes have, through institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank as well as the growing consumerist culture, been able to entrench the neo-liberal paradigm as the only mainstream system in the international order. States which do not adhere to that paradigm are cast out as pariahs, or at the very least are left with minimal influence and power in the global order.

Yet even in revolutionary movements where egalitarian ideals are espoused, or which seek to do away with the hierarchical framework of society, a natural stratification of power occurs. Take, for example, the Russian Revolution. Lenin’s vanguard was designed to educate, rally, and lead the masses towards their own emancipation and empowerment. The ideological underpinnings of the movement were egalitarian, and inherently opposed to elite control. Yet the individuals in Lenin’s vanguard, upon their success, were the ones tasked with maintaining and entrenching the newly established system. To accomplish this, they accumulated political and economic power, and began dictating the norms that society would follow. Lenin’s vanguard transformed itself into an elite class, which acted in the same manner that the elite have acted throughout all of history in every form of system.

Thus, it seems that the elite form a vanguard, dictating how society and civilization will develop. This class has disproportionate power over determining the fate of society, because they have the resources necessary to bring about political, cultural, economic, and social evolution and revolution. Ultimately, these changes are all done to benefit the position of the elites. Furthermore, even in situations where those dictating these evolutionary or revolutionary changes are not elites, the nature of power means that they soon become them. They then begin to serve the role that the old elites, whom they had replaced, had once served; society again becomes vertically hierarchized, and a stratification of power again occurs.

This raises numerous questions for students and organizers of mass movements and revolutionary moments. Is revolution only abetted when members of an elite class recognize benefits in it and come into the reigns of leadership? Are systems of political and social egalitarianism inherently unstable if the vanguard party which brings about its development itself becomes an elite class? How would new political or cultural norms develop in a non-hierarchical social and political framework?

It also raises a number of questions about the human character and human approaches to politics. Why is it that such a small group of people, those who constitute the elite, are able to have such overwhelming control of social evolution without interference from the masses? Why does leadership in a revolutionary movement transform an individual from a part of the masses into an elite, and why then does that individual begin acting in the manner that elites have with regards to entrenching the status quo of a system? Why have we stratified ourselves in a vertical hierarchy, so that only those at the top of the system are endowed with the power to make transformative changes to society? Is there any way to escape such a system, or is such a system the manifestation of the human character, a product of our natural understandings of the world, and thus inherently incapable of being altered?