Leon Trotsky

Centrism “in General” and the Centrism
of the Stalinist Bureaucracy

(January 1932)

Written: 27 January 1932.
Source: The Militant, Vol. V No. 23 (Whole No. 119), 4 June 1932, p. 4.
Extract from What Next – Vital Questions for the German proletariat.
Transcription/HTML Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Trotsky Internet Archive.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2012. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.

(Continued from last issue)

In the meantime this same functionary bears the least resemblance to an incorporeal spirit. He eats and guzzles and procreates and grows himself a respectable pot-belly. He lays down the law with a sonorous voice, handpicks from below people faithful to him, remains himself faithful to his superiors, prohibits others from criticizing himself and sees in all this the gist of the general line. Of such functionaries there are a few million. A few million! Their number is greater than the number of industrial workers in the period of the October revolution. The majority of these functionaries never participated in the class struggle which is bound up with sacrifices, self-denials and dangers. These people in their overwhelming mass were politically born already in the qualification of a ruling caste. They are backed by the state power. It assures them their livelihood and raises them considerably above the surrounding masses. They know nothing of the dangers, of unemployment, if they are gifted with the capacity to stand at attention. The grossest errors are forgiven them as long as they are ready to fulfill the role of the sacrificial scape-goat at the required moment, and thus remove the responsibility from the shoulders of their nearest superiors. Well, then, has this ruling stratum of many millions any social weight and political influence in the life of a country? Yes or no?

Dangers of Workers’ Bureaucracy

We know from older books that workers’ bureaucracy and workers’ aristocracy is the social foundation for opportunism. In Russia this phenomenon has taken on new forms. On the foundation of the dictatorship of the proletariat – in a backward country – surrounded by capitalism – for the first time a powerful bureaucratic apparatus has been created from among the upper layers of the workers, that is raised above the masses, that lays down the law to them, that has at its disposal colossal resources, that is bound together by an inner mutual responsibility and that intrudes into the policies of a workers’ government its own interests, methods and regulations.

We are not anarchists. We understand the necessity of a workers’ government and therefore the historical inevitability of a bureaucracy during a transitional period. But we likewise understand the dangers that are inherent in this fact, particularly for a backward and an isolated country. The idealization of Soviet bureaucracy is the most shameful mistake that can be made by a Marxist. Lenin strived with all his might to raise the party as a self-acting vanguard of the working class above the governmental apparatus in order to control, check, direct, and, purge it, placing the historical interests of the proletariat – international, not only national – above the interests of the ruling bureaucracy. As the first condition of the party control over the government Lenin put the control of the party mass over the party apparatus. Read over attentively his articles, speeches and letters during the Soviet period, particularly for the last two years of his life – and you will remark with what alarm his mind turned time and again to this burning question.

The Functionary Replaces the Bolshevik

But. what has happened in the subsequent period? The entire leading stratum of the party and of the government that was at the helm during the revolution and the civil war has been replaced, removed and crushed. Their place has been taken by an anonymous functionary. At the same time the struggle against bureaucratism which was so acute in character during Lenin’s lifetime, when the bureaucracy was not yet out of its diapers, has ceased entirely now when the apparatus has grown sky high.

And indeed, who is there capable of carrying on this struggle? The party as. a self-controlling vanguard of the proletariat no longer exists now. The party apparatus has been fused with the administrative. The most important instrument of the general line within the party is the G.P.U. The bureaucracy not only prohibits the criticism of the top from below but it prohibits its theoreticians from even talking about it and from noticing it. The mad hatred of the Left Opposition is aroused first of all by the fact that the Opposition talks openly about the bureaucracy, about its particular role, and its interests, thus revealing the secret that the general line is inseparable from the flesh and blood of the new nationalistic ruling stratum, which is not at all identical with the proletariat.

From the proletarian character of the government, the bureaucracy deduces its right of primogeniture to infallibility: how can the bureaucracy of a workers’ state degenerate! The state and the bureaucracy are thereby taken not as historical processes but as eternal categories: how can the holy church and its god-inspired priests sin! Yet, if a workers’ bureaucracy which raised itself over the proletariat, waging battle in a capitalist society, could degenerate into the party of Noske, Scheidemann, Ebert and Wels, why can’t it degenerate after raising itself over the victorious proletariat?

The ruling and uncontrolled position of the Soviet bureaucracy is conducive to a psychology which in many ways is directly contradictory to the pschology of a proletarian revolutionist. Its own aims and combinations in local politics as well as in international politics are placed by the bureaucracy above the tasks of the revolutionary education of the masses and without any connection with the tasks of international revolution. In the course of a number of years the Stalinist faction demonstrated that the interests and the psychology of a “strong peasant”, engineer, administrator, Chinese bourgeois intellectual and British trade union functionary were much closer and more comprehensive to it than the psychology and the needs of the unskilled laborer, the peasant poor, the uprising Chinese national masses, the English strikers, etc.

But why, in that case, didn’t the Stalinist faction lead to the very end its line of national opportunism? Because it is the bureaucracy of a workers’ state. While the international social, democracy defends the foundations of the bourgeois sovereignty, the Soviet bureaucracy, not having achieved a governmental overturn, is compelled to adapt itself to the social foundations laid down by the October revolution. Hence is derived the dual psychology and policies of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Centrism, but centrism on the foundation of a workers’ state, is the sole possible expression for this duality.

Whereas in capitalist countries, the centrist groupings are most often temporary or transitional in character, reflecting the evolution of certain workers’ strata to the right or to the left, under the conditions of the Soviet republic, centrism is equipped with a much more solid and organized base in the shape of a multimillioned bureaucracy. Representing in itself a natural environment for opportunist and nationalist tendencies, it is compelled, however, to maintain the foundations of its hegemony in the struggle with the kulak and at the same time to bother about its “Bolshevik” prestige in the world-wide movement. Following its attempted chase after the Kuo Min Tang and the Amsterdam bureaucracy, which in many ways is close to it spiritually, the Soviet bureaucracy each time entered into sharp conflict with the social democracy which reflects the enmity of the world bourgeoisie to the Soviet state. Such are the sources of the present Left zig-zags.

The eccentricity of the situation arises, not from the supposed and special immunity of the Soviet bureaucracy to opportunism and nationalism but from the fact that, being unable to occupy a thoroughgoing national-reformist position, it is compelled to describe zig-zag between Marxism and national reformism. The oscillations of this bureaucratic centrism, in conformity with its power, its resources and the acute contradictions in its position, have attained an altogether unheard of sweep: from ultra-Left adventurism in Bulgaria and Esthonia to the alliance with Chiang Kai-Shek, Radich and Purcell; and from the shameful fraternization with British strike breakers to a complete renunciation of the policy of the United Front with mass organizations.

These breakneck zig-zags would have been impossible, were it not for the fact that within all Communist sections a self-sufficient bureaucracy – i.e., independent of the party – had been formed. Here is the root of all evil!

Wherein Lies the Strength of the Revolutionary Party

The strength of a revolutionary party consists in the independence of its vanguard which checks and selects its cadres and while educating its leaders, gradually elevates them by its confidence. This creates an unbroken connection between the cadres and the mass, between the leader and the cadres and it induces in the entire leadership an inward confidence in themselves. There is nothing of the kind in the contemporary Communist parties! The leaders are appointed. They handpick their aides. The rank and file of the masses is forced to accept the appointed leaders, around whom there is built up the artificial atmosphere of advertisement. The cadres depend upon the upper crust and not upon the underlying masses. Consequently, to a considerable degree they seek for the source of their influence as well as for the source of their livelihood outside of the masses. They draw their political slogans not from the experience in the struggle, but by telegraph. And in the meantime Stalin’s files secrete incriminating documents against possible emergency. Each leader knows that at any moment he can be blown away like a feather.

Coarseness and Disloyalty Characterize the Bureaucrat

Thus, throughout the entire Comintern a closed bureaucratic stratum is being created which represents in itself a culture broth for the bacilli of centrism. While organizationally it is very stable and solid, for it is backed by the bureaucracy of the Soviet state, the centrism of the Thaelmanns, Remmeles and Co., is distinguished by extreme instability in political relations. Bereft of assurance, which can be derived only from an organic jointure with the masses, the infallible C.E.C. suffices only for monstrous zig-zags. The less it is prepared for a serious ideological battle, the more proficient it is in profanity, insinuations, and calumnies. Stalin’s portrait, “coarse” and “disloyal”, as described by Lenin, is the personification of this layer.

The characterization of bureaucratic centrism given above determines the attitude of the Left Opposition to the Stalinist bureaucracy: a complete and unqualified support in so far as the bureaucracy defends the boundaries of the Soviet republic and the foundations of the October revolution; an outspoken criticism in so far as the bureaucracy hinders by its administrative zig-zags the defense of the revolution and of socialist construction; a merciless resistance in so far as it disorganizes by its bureaucratic overlordship the struggle of the international proletariat.


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Last updated on: 27.6.2013