Leon Trotsky

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

(January 1932)

Written: 27 January 1932.
Source: The Militant, Vol. V No. 22 (Whole No. 118), 28 May 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.

The errors of the leadership of the Comintern and consequently, the errors of the German Communist Party pertain, in the familiar terminology of Lenin, to the category of “ultra-Left stupidities.” Even wise men are capable of stupidities, especially when young. But, as Heine counselled, this privilege should not be abused. When, however, political stupidities of a given type are repeated systematically in the course of a lengthy period, and moreover in the sphere of the most important questions, then they cease being simply stupidities and become tendencies. What sort of a tendency is this? What historical necessities does it meet? What are its social roots?

Ultra-Leftism has a different social foundation in different countries and at different periods. The most thoroughgoing expressions of ultra-Leftism were to be found in anarchism and Blanquism, and in their different combinations, among them the latest one: anarcho-syndicalism.

The social soil for these trends which have spread primarily through Latin countries was to be found in the old and classic small industries of Paris. Their stability added an indubitable significance to the French varieties of ultra-radicalism and allowed them to a certain degree to influence ideologically the workers’ movements in other countries. The development of large scale industries in France, the war and the Russian revolution broke the spine of anarcho-syndicalism. Having been thrown back, it has become transformed into a debased opportunism. On both of its stages French syndicalism is headed by one and the same Jouhaux: the times change and we change with them.

Spanish anarcho-syndicalism preserved its seeming revolutionary character only in the environment of political stagnation. By posing all the questions point-blank the revolution has compelled the anarcho-syndicalist leaders to cast off their ultra-radicalism and to reveal their opportunist nature. We can rest definitely assured that the Spanish revolution will drive out the prejudice of syndicalism from its last Latin hide-out.

The anarchist and Blanquist elements join all kinds of other types of ultra-Left trends and groups. On the periphery of a great revolutionary movement there are always to be observed the manifestations of putschism and adventurism, the standard bearers of which are recruited either from backward and quite often semi-artisan strata of the workers, or from the intellectual fellow wayfarers. But such a type of ultra-Leftism does not ordinarily attain to independent historical significance, retaining, in most instances, its episodic character;

In historically backward countries, which are compelled to go through their bourgeois revolutions, within the environment of a full-fledged and world-wide workers’ movement, the left intelligentzia often introduces the most extreme slogans and methods into the semi-elementary movements of the predominantly petty-bourgeois masses. Such is the nature of petty-bourgeois parties of the type of the Russian “Social-Revolutionaries”, with their tendencies toward putschism, individual terrorism, etc. Thanks to the effectiveness of the Communist parties in the West, the independent adventuristic groups will hardly attain there to the importance of the Russian Social-Revolutionaries. But on this account the young Communist parties of the West may include within themselves the elements of adventurism. As regards the Russian S.R.’s, under the influence of the evolution of bourgeois society, they have become transformed into the party of the imperialist petty bourgeoisie and have taken a counter-revolutionary position in relation to the October revolution.

It is entirely self-evident that the ultra-Leftism of the present Comintern does not fall under any one of the above specified historic types. The chief party of the Comintern, the C.P.S.U., wittingly leans upon the industrial proletariat, and operates for better or for worse from the revolutionary traditions of Bolshevism. The majority of other sections of the Comintern are proletarian organizations. Are not the very differences of conditions in various countries, in which the ultra-Left policies of official Communism are raging simultaneously and in the same degree, tokens of the fact that there are no common social roots underlying this trend? Indeed, the ultra-Left course, which is also one and the same “in principle”, is being put through in China and in Great Britain. But if so, where are we then to seek for the key to the new ultra-Leftism?

The question is complicated, but at the same time is also clarified by one other, extremely important circumstance: Ultra-Leftism is not at all an unvarying or fundamental trait of the present leadership of the Comintern. The same apparatus, in its basic composition, held to an openly opportunistic policy until 1928, and in many of the most important questions switched over completely onto the tracks of menshevism. During 1924–1927 agreements with reformists were not only considered obligatory but were permitted if thereby the party renounced its independence, its freedom of criticism, and even its proletarian foundation. [1] Therefore the discussion concerns not al all a particular ultra-Left trend, but a prolonged ultra-Left zig-zag of such a trend that has demonstrated in the past its capacity for launching into profound ultra-Right zig-zags. Even these outward symptoms suggest that what we are dealing with is centrism.

Speaking formally and descriptively, centrism is composed of all those trends within the proletariat and on its periphery which are distributed between reformism and Marxism, and which most often represent various stages of evolution from reformism to Marxism – and vice-versa. Both Marxism and reformism have a solid social support underlying them. Marxism expresses the historical interests of the proletariat. Reformism speaks for the priviliged position of proletarian bureaucracy and aristocracy within the capitalist state. Centrism, as we have known it in the past, did not have and could not have an independent social foundation. Different layers of the proletariat develop in the revolutionary direction in different ways and at different times. In periods of prolonged industrial uplift or in the periods of political ebb-tide, after defeats, different layers of the proletariat shift politically from left to right, clashing with other layers who are just beginning to evolve to the Left. Different groups are delayed on separate stages of their evolution, they find their temporary leaders and create their programs and organizations. Small wonder then that such a diversity of trends is embraced in the comprehension of “centrism”! Depending upon their origin, their social composition and the direction of their evolution, different groupings may be engaged in the most savage warfare with one another, without losing thereby their character of being a variety of centrism.

While centrism in general fulfills ordinarily the function of serving as a left cover for reformism, the question as to which of the basic camps, reformist or Marxist, a given centrism may belong, cannot be solved once for all with a ready made formula. Here, more than anywhere else, it is necessary to analyze each time the concrete composition of the process and the inner tendencies of its development. Thus, some of Rosa Luxemburg’s political mistakes may be with sufficient theoretical justification characterized as left-centrist. One could go still further and say that the majority of divergences between Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin represented a stronger or weaker leaning toward centrism. But only the bullies and ignoramuses and charlatans of the Comintern bureaucracy are capable of assigning Luxemburgism as an historical tendency toward centrism. It goes without saying that the present “leaders” of the Comintern, from Stalin down, politically, theoretically and morally do not come up to the knees of the great woman and revolutionist.

Critics, who have not pondered the gist of the matter, have recently accused me more than once of abusing the word “centrism”, by including under this name too great a variety of tendencies and groups within the workers’ movement. In reality, the diversity of the types of centrism originates, as has been already said, in the essence of the phenomenon itself and not at all in an abuse of terminology. We need only recall how often the Marxists have been accused of assigning to the petty bourgeoisie the most diverse and contradictory phenomena. And actually, under the category “petty bourgeois”, one is obliged to include fact, ideas and tendencies which at first glance appear entirely incompatible. The petty bourgeois character pertains to the peasant movement and to the radical tendencies of urban reformism; both French Jacobins and Russian Narodniki are petty bourgeois; Prudhonists are petty-bourgeois but so are Blanquists; petty-bourgeois are: the French anarcho-syndicalists, the “Salvation Army”, Gandhi’s movement in India, etc., etc. If we turn to the sphere of philosophy and art, even a much more polychromatic picture obtains. Does this mean that Marxism indulges in playing with terminology? Not at all, this only means that the petty-bourgeoisie is characterized by the extreme heterogeneity of its social nature. At bottom it fuses with the proletariat and extends into the lumpen-proletariat, on top it passes over into the capitalist bourgeoisie. It may lean upon old forms of production but it may rapidly develop on the bases of most modern industry (the new “middle estate”). No wonder that ideologically it scintillates with all the colors of the rainbow.

Centrism within the workers’ movement plays in a certain sense the same role as does the petty-bourgeois ideology of all types in relation to the bourgeois society as a whole. Centrism reflects the processes of the evolution of the proletariat; its political growth as well as its revolutionary setback conjointly with the pressure of all other classes of society upon the proletariat. No wonder that the pallette of centrism is distinguished by such irridescence! From this it follows, however, not that one must give up trying to comprehend centrism but simply that one must needs discover the true nature of a given variety of centrism by means of a concrete and an historical analysis in every individual instance.

The ruling faction of the Comintern does not represent in itself centrism “in general” but quite a definite historical form, which has social roots, rather recent but powerful. First of all, the matter concerns the Soviet bureaucracy. In the writings of the Stalinist theoreticians this social stratum does not exist at all. We are only told of “Leninism”, of incorporeal leadership, of the ideological tradition, of the spirit of Bolshevism, of the imponderable “general line”; hut you will not hear a word about a functionary, breathing and living, in flesh and bone, who manipulates this general line like a fireman his hose.


(To Be Continued)


1. A detailed analysis of this opportunistic chapter of the Comintern that lasted a few years is given in our books, The Draft Program of the Comintern – A Criticism of Fundamentals!, The Permanent Revolution, Who Is Leading the Comintern Today, etc.

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Last updated on: 25.6.2013