L. Trotsky

Centrism and the 4th International

Realignments in the International Labor Movement

(February 1934)

Written: 23 February 1934.
Source: The Militant, Vol. VII No. 11, 17 March 1934, p. 3.
Alternative Version: Two Articles On Centrism, Class Struggle, Official Organ Of The Communist League Of Struggle (Adhering to the International Left Opposition), Vol. 4 No. 8, August 1934.
Transcription/HTML Markup: Einde O’Callaghan for the Trotsky Internet Archive.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2016. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.

1. The events in Austria, coming after the events in Germany, placed a final cross over “classic” reformism. Henceforth only the dullest leaders of British and American trade-unionism and their French follower, Jouhaux, the president of the Second International, Vandervelde, and similar political ichthyosauri will dare to speak openly of the perspectives of peaceful development, democratic reforms, etc. The overwhelming majority of reformists consciously take on new colors now. Reformism yields to the innumerable shadings of centrism which now dominate the field of the workers’ movement in the majority of countries. This creates an entirely new, and in a sense unprecedented, situation for work in the spirit of revolutionary Marxism (Bolshevism). The New International can develop principally at the expense of the now prevailing tendencies and organizations. At the same time the revolutionary International cannot form itself otherwise than in a consistent struggle against centrism. Under these conditions ideological irreconcilability and the flexible policy of the united front serve as two weapons for the attainment of one and the same end.

Characteristics of Centrism

2. One must understand first of all the most characteristic traits of modern centrism. That is not easy first, because centrism due to its organic amorphousness yields with difficulty to a positive definition: it is characterized to a much greater extent by what it lacks than by what it embraces, secondly, never has centrism yet played to such an extent as now with all the colors of the rainbow, because never yet have the ranks of the working class been in such ferment as at the present time. Political ferment, by the very essence of the term, means a realignment, a shift between two poles, Marxism and reformism; that is, the passing through the various stages of centrism.

3. No matter how difficult a general definition of centrism, which of necessity always has a “conjunctural” character, nevertheless, we can and must bring out the outstanding characteristics and peculiarities of the centrist groupings originating from the break-down of the Second and the Third Internationals.

  1. Theoretically, centrism is amorphous and eclectic; so far as possible it evades theoretical obligations and inclines (in words) to give preference to “revolutionary practice” over theory, without understanding that only Marxian theory can impart revolutionary direction to practice.

Centrist Ideology

  1. In the sphere of ideology centrism leads a parasitic existence: it repeats against revolutionary Marxists the old Menshevik arguments (Martov, Axelrod, Plechanov) usually without suspecting this; on the other hand, its main arguments against the rights it borrows from the Marxists, that is first of all from the Bolshevik-Leninists, dulling however, the sharp edge of criticism avoiding practical conclusions, thereby rendering their criticism meaningless.
  2. A centrist readily proclaims his hostility to reformism; but he does not mention centrism; moreover, he considers the very definition of centrism as “unclear”, “arbitrary”, etc.; in other words centrism does not like to be called by its name.
  3. A centrist, always uncertain of his position and his methods, views with hatred the revolutionary principle: to state what is; he is inclined to substitute for a principled policy personal maneuvering and petty organizational diplomacy.
  4. A centrist always remains in spiritual dependence on rightist groupings, is inclined to cringe before those who are more moderate, to remain silent on their opportunist sins and to color their actions before the workers.
  5. His shilly-shallying the centrist frequently covers up by reference to the danger of “sectarianism”, by which he understands not abstract-propagandist passivity (of the Bordigist type) but an active concern for purity of principles, clarity of position, political consistency, organizational completeness.
  6. A centrist occupies a position between an opportunist and a Marxist somewhat analogous to that which a petty bourgeois occupies between a capitalist and a proletarian: he kowtows before the first and has contempt for the second.

On the International Arena

  1. On the international arena the centrist distinguishes himself if not by blindness then by short-sightedness; he does not understand that in the present epoch a national revolutionary party can be built only as part of an international party; in the choice of his international allies the centrist is even less discriminating than in his own country.
  2. A centrist sees in the policy of the Comintern only “ultra-Left” deviations, adventurism, putschism, Ignoring completely the right-opportunist zig-zags (Kuo Min Tang, Anglo-Russian Committee, pacifist foreign policy, anti-Fascist bloc etc.)
  3. A centrist swears readily by the policy of the united front emptying it of its revolutionary content and transforming it from a tactical method into a supreme principle.
  4. A centrist readily resorts to pathetic moralizing to cover up his ideological emptiness; he does not understand that revolutionary morality can be formed only on the basis of revolutionary doctrine and revolutionary policy.

Words and Deeds

  1. Under the pressure of circumstance the eclectic-centrist may accept even the most extreme conclusions only to retreat from them afterwards in practice. Having accepted the dictatorship of the proletariat he will leave a wide margin for opportunist interpretations; having proclaimed the necessity of a Fourth International he will work for the building of a Two-and-a-half International, etc.

4. The most malignant example of centrism is, if you wish, the German group “Begin Anew” (Neu Beginnen). Superficially repeating the Marxian criticism of reformism, it comes to the conclusion that all the misfortunes of the proletariat follow from splits and that salvation lies in the safeguarding of the unity of the social-democratic parties. These gentlemen place the organizational discipline of Wels and Co. higher than the historic interests of the proletariat. And since Wels & Co. subordinate the party to the discipline of the bourgeoisie, the group “Begin Anew” cloaked by left criticism stolen from the Marxists, represents in reality a harmful agency of the bourgeois order, even though an agency of second degree.

The London Bureau

5. The so-called London (now Amsterdam) Bureau represents an attempt at creating an international focal point for centrist eclecticism under the banner of which the right and the left opportunist groupings which dare not choose finally a direction and a banner, try to unite. In this as in other cases the centrists try to direct the movement obliquely along a diagonal course The elements composing the bloc pull in opposite directions; the N.A.P. (Norwegian Workers Party) cautiously moves towards the Second International; the I.L.P. (Independent Labor Party) – partly toward the Third, partly toward the Fourth; the S.A.P. (Socialist Workers Party of Germany) and the O.S.P. (Independent Socialist Party of Holland) – veering and vacillating – toward the Fourth. Exploiting and preserving the ideological amorphousness of all its participants and trying to compete hi the work for the creation of a new International, the bloc of the “London Bureau” plays a reactionary role. The failure of this grouping is absolutely inevitable.

Bureaucratic Centrism

6. The defining of the policy of the Comintern as that of bureaucratic centrism retains its full force now too. As a matter of fact, only centrism is capable of constant leaps from opportunist betrayals to ultra-Left adventurism; only the powerful Soviet bureaucracy could for ten years assure a stable base for the ruinous policy of zig-zags.

Bureaucratic centrism, in distinction from centrist groupings which crystallized out of the social democracy, is the product of the degeneration of Bolshevism; it retains – in caricature form – some of its traits, still leads a considerable number of revolutionary workers, disposes of extraordinary material and technical means, but by its political influence is now the crassest, most disorganizing and harmful variety of centrism. The political break-down of the Comintern, clear to the whole world, signifies of necessity the further decomposition of bureaucratic centrism. In this sphere our task is to save the best elements for the cause of the proletarian revolution. Side by side with tireless principled criticism, our main weapon for influencing the workers still remaining under the banner of the Comintern is the further penetration of our ideas and methods into those wide masses, who stand now in overwhelming majority outside the influence of the Comintern.

Adaption to Reformist Maneuvers

7. Precisely now, when reformism is forced to renounce itself, transforming or dyeing itself into centrism, some groupings of Left centrism, on the contrary, stop short in their development and even move backwards. It seems to them that the reformists have already grasped almost everything, that it is only necessary not to play with exorbitant demands, criticism, extreme phraseology, and that then with one blow one can create a mass “revolutionary” party.

In reality, reformism, forced by events to disavow itself, having no dear program, no revolutionary tactics, is capable only of lulling the advanced workers to sleep by inculcating in them the idea that the revolutionary regeneration of their party is already achieved.

New Forms of Struggle

8. For a revolutionary Marxist the struggle against reformism is now almost fully replaced by the struggle against centrism. The mere bare counter-posing of legal struggle to illegal, of peaceful means to violence, of democracy to dictatorship now goes beside the mark in the majority of cases because the frightened reformist, disavowing himself, is ready to accept the most “revolutionary” formulas if only they do not obligate him today to a decisive break with his own irresoluteness, indecision and expectant waiting. The struggle with hidden or masked opportunists must therefore be transferred chiefly to the sphere of practical conclusions from revolutionary requisites.

Before seriously accepting centrist talk of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” we must demand a serious defense against Fascism, a complete break with the bourgeoisie, a systematic building of a workers’ militia, its training in militant spirit, the creation of inter-party defense centres, anti-Fascist staffs, the banishment from their ranks of parliamentary, trade-unionist and other traitors, bourgeois lackeys, careerists, too. Precisely on this plane the main fights against centrism must now be fought. To carry on this struggle with success it is necessary to have free hands, that is, not only to retain full organizational independence, but also critical intransigence with regard to the most “left” offshoots of centrism.

Events Force Realignments

9. Bolshevik-Leninists in all countries must realize clearly the peculiarities of the new stage in the struggle for the Fourth International. The events in Austria and France give a powerful impetus to the realignment of the forces of the proletariat in the revolutionary direction. But precisely this universal supplanting of open reformism by centrism develops a powerful attractive force with regard to left centrist groupings (S.A.P., O.S.P.) which only yesterday were about to unite with the Bolshevik-Leninists. This dialectic process may produce the impress1on on the surface that the Marxian wing is again “isolated” from the masses. A flagrant delusion! The veerings of centrism to the right and to the Left follow from its very nature. There will yet be tens and hundreds of such episodes on our road. It would be the most wretched faint-heartedness to fear to go forward just because the road is strewn with obstacles or because not all the fellow travellers will arrive at the very end.

The Fourth International Whether the new opportunist vacillations of our centrist allies will prove conjuuctural or final (in reality they will be of both kinds), the general conditions for the formation of the Fourth International on the basis of genuine Bolshevism because more and more favorable. The chase of the “extreme left” centrists after the simply lefts, of the lefts – after the moderates, of the moderates – after the rights, like the chase of a man after his own shadow, can not create any stable mass organization: the miserable experience of the German Independent Party (U.S.P.) retains now also its full force. Under the pressure of events, with the aid of our criticism; and our slogans, the advanced workers will step over the vacillations of the most left centrist leaders, and, if it should become necessary, also over these very leaders. On the road to a new International the proletarian vanguard will find no other answers than those which have been elaborated and are being elaborated by the Bolshevik-Leninists on the basis of international experience during ten years of uninterrupted theoretical and practical struggle.

Conditions for Success

10. During the past year our political influence has greatly grown in a number of countries. We will be able to develop and broaden these successes in a comparatively short time under the following conditions:

  1. Not to outsmart the historic process, not to play hide and seek but to state what is;
  2. to give ourselves a theoretic accounting of the changes in the general situation which in the present epoch frequently take on the nature of sharp turns;
  3. to heed carefully the mood of the masses, without prejudices, without illusions, without self-deception in order on the basis of a correct estimate of the relationship of forces within the proletariat, to avoid opportunism as well as adventurism and to lead the masses forward, not to throw them back;
  4. every day, every hour to answer clearly to ourselves what our next practical step must be, tirelessly to prepare this step and on the basis of living experience explain to the workers the principled difference of Bolshevism from all other parties and currents;

The Basic Historic Task

  1. not to confuse tactical tasks of a united front with the basic historic task; the creation of new parties and a new International;
  2. not to neglect even the weakest ally, for the sake of practical action.
  3. to watch critically the most “left” ally as a possible adversary.
  4. to treat with the greatest attention those groupings which actually gravitate to us; patiently and carefully to listen to their criticism, doubts and vacillations; to help them develop toward Marxism; not be frightened by their caprices, threats, ultimatums (centrists are always capricious and touchy); not to make any concessions to them in principle;
  5. and once more: not to fear to state what is.

February 23, 1934

L. Trotsky

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Last updated on: 8 February 2016