A recurrent criticism levelled at leftist politicians and parties is that their philosophies - or what pass for them - are rooted in a conviction that they know better what is good for the workers that the workers do themselves; indeed, the electoral success of the Conservatives since 1979 is said to be the fruit of a populist appeal to "set the people free", to let the punters sink or swim in a juice of their own making. Whether or not we accept the good intentions of the left, it is undeniable that the carefully constructed, major projects of modern reformists have everywhere been crushed by the sobering realities of capitalism, to a point where cynicism and caution are as widespread as seaside sewage.
The damage done by piecemeal improvers to the movement for a truly free society has been more than matched by the programmes of self-styled vanguards, who share with them a belief in strong leadership and its unstated corollary, a contempt for the passive and malleable prole. Utterly discredited as their doctrines are, they still draw support from those impatient with argument and democracy and attracted by theories that purport to offer a short cut to the new society by placing organisation above the battle of ideas. For what, after all, could be more thoroughly twentieth-century than revolution to order, eruption by instalment and instruction, and the transfer of the power of decision to a brain outside the body to be moved? As somebody famous should once have said, the worst torture is to have your head filled with ideas that may never be applied in your lifetime.
The idea that an intellectual elite could lead a politically ignorant majority into a new society was inimical to the founders of the socialist movement, who always advocated an extreme form of democracy. They wanted the revolution made in the fullness of time by an immense and politically organised class, and their programme would have made violence unnecessary in the capture of political power. When Marx called the communists "the advanced section of the proletariat", he had nothing in mind like the bolshevik doctrine about the proper relation between "the party of the proletariat" and the class. He was wanting, rather, to emphasise the importance of theory, to show that the workers could not, until they understood the society they lived in, create any real alternative. The victory of the idea is the effect of its persuasive power and its relevance to workers' experience; it is won in open competition with other theories; it can never be imposed from above.
The intellectual vanguard is modelled on the structure of the army, and borrows some of its characteristic and typical features: strict discipline, subordination, hierarchy, unity of command. The most active elements, the special instruments of historic change, are militarised and in command of an obedient majority. The working class is replaced by the party; the party is replaced by party organisation; the party organisation is replaced by the general staff. Ostensibly a triumph of the working class, in reality it confirms their impotence.
Bolshevism is the doctrine, not of a working class party in highly industrialised society, but of a specifically Russian group of intellectuals, professionally trained and working in perfect harmony; an exclusive and irresponsible elite. Most of the workers who gave them support did so because their promises were attractive, and not out of shared ambition. Having taken power in the name of the proletariat, they quickly discovered that the class whose vanguard they claimed to be would not always follow them; and seeing the class were ignorant of the obvious, did not hesitate to drive where they could not lead.
Professional revolutionaries of our time have not, then been the midwives of a new world but incompetent and bloody surgeons who have not been able to foretell the results of their operations. Their apologists - including those who ended up with scalpels in their heads - place after the revolution what should come before it. This simple inversion, which makes nonsense of historical materialism, is the essence of an ideology as relevant to the socialist task as ballroom dancing.
All the enemies of freedom are repulsive, but few more so than those who destroy it for the sake of an objective they have themselves distorted and debased. As the big dipper of capitalism hurtles on in the dark, there is still no shortage of self-appointed champions of the people offering to lead us all to securer ground, but with no guarantee that it won't be below the surface. Political education, on a wide scale and of sufficient depth and continuity, may be utopian to the left; it is the only course for socialists.