In 1916 in Everett, Washington state, USA, a passenger ferry loaded with Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) free speech activists attempted to dock. On the dock, the local sheriff, along with armed deputies and armed guards hired by local businesses, attempted to block the ship from docking. According to lore, when the sheriff asked, “Who are your leaders?” the response from the ferry was a shout from everyone aboard, declaring, “We are all leaders here.”
The relation of "the party," to the masses plays a large part in contemporary Left discussion. The importance and indispensability of the vanguard party is taken as said. The militants who call themselves the vanguard believe that one or the myriad parties must direct the class struggle (or in the case of some syndicalists, the unions)
The Trotskyist/Leninist Left may remix the song over and over again all they want but the tune remains the same: leaders and the cadres of the vanguard can find the answer; the mass movements of the people cannot liberate themselves. The case for leadership is simple. Most working-class people are too busy to have opinions or engage in political action. There’s a need for someone to dedicate their time and energies to adequately represent working class people. Instead, we what really need is professional, full-time advocates for our interests. It’s only logical that the Trotskyist vanguard, understanding better the decision making processes of power, represent organised resistance on our behalf. Ensuring we have a united position is more important at this stage and what does solidarity mean if not getting in line behind strong leadership - even if that leadership isn’t always sure what it’s principles are? Too many people don't have the right political consciousness, and if we let them use too much democracy they will make counter-revolutionary decisions that sabotage the revolution. The "masses" just can't be trusted is the clear conclusion. If the masses don’t have an evolved enough political consciousness to be pro-revolution, then would elect people as their representatives who reflect their backwards political views. If the masses don’t have advanced enough political consciousness, this is going to sabotage the revolution one whether through counter-revolutionary decisions being made via direct democracy via electing counter-revolutionary leaders via representative democracy. This would be the point where the vanguard party strategy would suspend even representative democracy. They attempt to solve the problem of widespread backwards consciousness by implementing a one-party dictatorship with the “representatives” chosen from within the party rather than freely elected by the masses. If most people don’t have a sufficiently advanced political consciousness, the revolution will fail whether a vanguard party is used or not. And if a totalitarian vanguard party succeeds in stealing power from the not-revolutionary-enough masses, the revolution will still fail – because tyranny in itself is counter-revolutionary.
The idea that someone with a job and kids can really understand the complex needs of the working class is farcical. Workers have nothing to gain and everything to lose by relying on leaders. Socialism means that people have taken their destiny into their own hands. Socialism can't be created by decree or by force by a minority. It can only be implemented by the majority of the people taking over the economy (taking over their workplaces, streets and estates) and reorganising them as they see fit. But being against vanguards is not the same as being against organisation. A vanguard is a particular type of organisation, with specific aims and to reject vanguardism is not to reject organisation.
The Socialist Party of Great Britain do not see ourselves as yet another leadership, but merely as an instrument of the working class. We function to help generalise their experience of the class struggle, to make a total critique of their condition and of its causes, and to develop the mass revolutionary consciousness necessary if society is to be totally transformed. We reject an organisational role. What we want people to come to is the realisation that they should take over their workplaces, communities, and put themselves in a position to control all of the decisions that effect them directly, and to run things themselves. If we were to be a vanguard, in the sense of an enlightened minority seeking to gain power over others, we could never achieve this aim, because WE would have the power, rather than people having power over their own lives, collectively and individually. We would also be assuming the arrogance to think we have a monopoly of truth, rather than certain views which we debate with others including amongst ourselves, coming to a better viewpoint at the end of it. There is a big difference between an organisation that produces propaganda and so on, and helps promote the popular will where people accept decisions because they have been convinced by the case and have freely chosen to do so.and a vanguard in the common sense of the word, meaning a party seeking to gain power over the masses. Revolution will be a process of self-education. Without the active participation of the mass of the working class in the fight for a communist/stateless society cannot even be contemplated.
We favour majority decision making in face-to-face assemblies and where and when necessary by fully accountable re-callable delegates. A representative is someone who makes decisions for the other people. A delegate, in contrast, carries out a mandate they have been given by the people who delegated them. In other words, they don't act as they think best, they act as they are told. How could it not? The whole premise of democratic centralism is that a central authority dictates policy to everyone else, so no matter how democratically chosen it is it has to enforce its line and stifle dissent that makes this too difficult, which, in a revolutionary situation, there is bound to be a lot of. Democratic centralism would exclude you from participation. So whilst it pays lip service to the idea of the vanguard as the most conscious sector of the proletariat in practical terms, the real vanguard is the central committee.