Leon Trotsky

Two Articles On Centrism

(February/March 1934)

Written: February 22 & March 20th, respectively, in 1934.
First Published: 1934.
Source: Class Struggle Official Organ Of The Communist League Of Struggle (Adhering to the International Left Opposition), Volume 4 Number 8, August 1934.
Online Version: Vera Buch & Albert Weisbord Internet Archive.
Transcribed/HTML Markup: Albert Weisbord Internet Archive/David Walters.


(1) The events in Austria, after the events in Germany, place definitely a tombstone over “classic” reformism. Henceforth, only the obtuse leaders of English and American Trade Unionism, their French imitator, Jouhaux, Vandervelde, the president of the Second International, and similar specimens of the political ichthyosauri will venture to speak openly of a perspective of peaceful development and democratic reforms, etc. ... The majority of reformists now deliberately employ new colors. Reformism gives place to the innumerable shades of Centrism, which now, in the majority of countries, dominate the workers’ movement. Thus an absolutely new situation presents itself, in a way unprecedented, for work in the spirit of revolutionary Marxism (Bolshevism). The new International cannot form itself in any other way than that of struggle against centrism. Ideological intransigence and flexible united front policy are, in these conditions, two weapons for attaining one and the same end.

(2) Above all a clear picture must be gained of the features most characteristic of present day countries. It is not easy; firstly because centrism in view of its organic indefiniteness is difficult to define precisely, being characterized much more by what it lacks than by what it holds: Secondly, never has centrism reflected so many of the colors of the rainbow as now, for never before have the ranks of the workers been in such a ferment as now. The political fermentation from the very depth of its origin signifies a re-grouping, a displacement between the poles, reformism and Marxism that is a passage through the many stages of centrism.

(3) Difficult as a general determination of centrism, which has always, necessarily, the character of a combination due to crisis- may be, one can and one must separate, all the same, the principle traits and peculiarities of the centrist groupings which are consequent upon the collapse of the 2nd and 3rd Internationals.

  1. In the sphere of theory centrism is impressive and eclectic. It shelters itself as much as possible from obligations in the matter of theory and is inclined (in words) to give preference to “revolutionary practice” over theory; without understanding that only Marxist theory can give to practice a revolutionary direction.
  2. In the sphere of idealogy, centrism leads a parasitic existence: against revolutionary Marxists it repeats the old Menshevik arguments (those of Martev, Axelrod, and Plekanhov) generally without re-valuing them: On the other hand it borrows its principle arguments against the “rights” from the Marxists, that is, above all, from the Bolshevik-Leninists, suppressing, however, the point of the criticisms, subtracting the practical conclusions and so robbing criticism of all who object.
  3. Centrism voluntarily proclaims its hostility to reformism but it is silent about centrism more than that it thinks the very idea of centrism “obscure”, “arbitrary”, etc.: In other words centrism dislikes being called centrism.
  4. The centrist, never sure of his position and his methods, regards with detestation the revolutionary principle: State that which is; it inclines to substituting, in the place of political principles, personal combinations and petty organizational diplomacy.
  5. The centrist always remains in spiritual dependence upon right groupings, is induced to court the goodwill of the most moderate, to keep silent about their opportunist faults and to regild their actions before the workers.
  6. It is not a rare thing for the centrist to hide his own hybrid nature by calling out about the dangers of “sectarianism”; but by sectarianism he understands not a passivity of abstract propaganda (as is the way with the Bordiguists) but the anxious care for principle, the clarity of position, political consistency, definiteness in organization.
  7. Between the opportunist and the Marxist the contrist occupies a position which is, up to a certain point, analogous to that occupied by the petty bourgeoisie between the capitalist and the proletariat; he courts the approbation of the first and despises the second.
  8. On the international field the centrist distinguishes himself, if not his blindness, at least by his shortsightedness. He does not understand that one cannot build in the present period a national revolutionary party save as part of an international party; in the choice of his international allies the centrist is even less particular then in his own country.
  9. The centrist sees as outstanding in the policy of the CI only the “ultra-left” deviation; the adventurism, the putchism, and is in absolute ignorance of the opportunist right zig-zags. (Kuomintang, Anglo-Russian Committee, pacifist foreign policy, anti fascist bloc, etc.).
  10. The centrist swears by the policy of the united front as he empties it of its revolutionary content and transforms it from a tactical method into a highest principle.
  11. The centrist gladly appeals to pathetic moral lessons to hide his ideological emptiness, but he does not understand that revolutionary crisis can rest only on the ground of revolutionary doctrine and revolutionary policy.
  12. Under the pressure of circumstances the eclectic contrist is capable of accepting even extreme conclusions but only to repudiate them later indeed. Recognizing the dictatorship of the proletariat he leaves plenty of room for opportunist interpreters: Proclaiming the need for a forth international he works for the creation of the two-and-a-half international.

(4) The worst model of centrism is the German group “New Beginning”. Reporting superficially the Marxist criticism of referendism, it reaches the conclusion that all the proletarian calamities arise from splits and that salvation lies in the maintenance of the unity of the Social Democratic Party. The organization discipline of Wels and Co. is placed by those gentlemen above the historic interests of the proletariat. And since Wels and Co. submit the party to the discipline of the bourgeoisie, the group “Now Beginning” disguising itself with a left criticism stolen from the Marxists, is in fact, a mischievous agent of the bourgeois order, although an agent of the second degree.

(5) An attempt to create a common testing ground of eclectic centrists is constituted by what is called the London Bureau (now of Amsterdam) under a banner which attempts to unite these contrist groups, both right and left, which have not dared to choose definitely a direction and a banner. In this case as in the others the centrist attempts to lead the movement diagonally. The diverse elements which make up the bloc tend in opposite directions: The Norwegian Labor Party (NAP) goes discreetly towards the Second International, the Independent Labor party of England goes in part towards the Third and in part towards the Fourth International, the Dutch Independent Socialist Party (OSP) and the German Workers Party (SAP) move vacillating towards the Fourth International. Exploiting and conserving the ideological uncertainty of all its participants and seeking to oppose the work for the creation of the new International, the London Bureau plays a reactionary role. The collapse of this grouping is absolutely certain.

(6) The definition of the CI’s policy as bureaucratic centrism even to this day retains all its force. Only bureaucratic centrism is capable of continuous jumps from opportunist treason to ultra-left adventurism; only the powerful soviet bureaucracy could for ten years give an assured place to this melancholy policy of zig-zag Bureaucratic centrism-differing from the centrist grouping which spring from the social-democracy, is a product of the degeneracy of Bolshevism, retaining in the form of caricature, many of its features; still followed by an important number of revolutionary workers; controlling material means and extraordinary technique and in its political influence this variety of centrism is now the most inert, the most disorganizing, and the most pernicious. It is plain to all the world that the political collapse of the CI signifies the extreme decomposition of bureaucratic centrism Our task in this sphere is the spring of the best of its elements, for the cause of the proletarian revolution. Side by side with the untiring principled criticism, the main instruments which will permit use by us the account of workers who still stand under the banner of the CI is the pushing forward of our ideas amongst the large masses, who in their overwhelming majority still hold apart from the influence of the CI.

(7) It is just now – when reformism is constrained to disavow itself, in cleaning itself into centrism or in taking on that appearance – that some groupings of left centrism, on the contrary, halt in their development, and even go back upon it. It seems to them that the reformists have already understood almost everything, that it is only necessary not to frighten them with extraordinary demands, criticism or extreme phraseology, and thus one will be able with a single blow to create a “revolutionary” mass party.

In fact, reformism’s renunciation of itself, made a necessity by the events, with a clean program, without a revolutionary tactic, is only capable of lulling to sleep the advanced workers, by suggesting to them the idea that the revolutionary re-birth of the party is nearly realized.

(8) For the revolutionary Marxist the struggle against refomism now changes itself almost completely into struggle against centrism. The mere empty opposing of legal struggle to illegal struggle, of peaceful means to violent, of democracy to dictatorship in the majority of cases now passes; for the frightened reformists, who must now disavow themselves, are ready to accept the most “revolutionary” of formulas, if only they are not obliged today to break with the hybridity, irresolution, “passivity” which are native to them. That is why the struggle against the hidden or masked opportunists must principally transport itself into the sphere of the practical conclusions from revolutionary promises.

Before taking seriously the fine words of the centrists concerning the “dictatorship of the proletariat” it is necessary to exact from them a serious defense against Fascism, a complete break with the bourgeoisie, the systematic upbuilding of a workers’ militia, its training in a will to fight, the creation of inter- party defense contres, of anti-fascist main contres, the expulsion from their ranks of parliamentarians, trade-unionists, and other traitors, of bourgeois lackeys, careerists, etc. ... It is precisely on this plane that one must now deliver the principle blows at centrism. For carrying out this work with success it is essential to have one’s hands free, that means not only maintaining complete organic independence, but also critical intransigence concerning the most “left” of the ramifications of centrism.

(9) The Bolshevik-Leninists of all countries must render to themselves the clearest accounts of the circumstances of the new stage of the struggle for the 4th International. The events in Austria and France give a powerful impulsion to the re-grouping in the revolutionary direction of the forces of the proletariat; but precisely the general substitution of centrism for reformism offers the development of a strong powerful attraction for the centrist groupings of the left (SAP, OSP) which even yesterday made ready to unite themselves to the Bolshevik-Leninists.

This dialectical process, viewed superficially, may give birth to the impression that the Marxist wing would from its beginning isolate itself from the masses. Profound error! The oscillations of centrism to right and left proceed from its very nature. We shall yet meet on our way some dozens or some hundreds of such episodes. To fear to go forward merely because the route is strewn with obstacles or because all our fellow marchers will not go the whole way with us would be most miserable cowardice.

When the new opportunist oscillations of our centrist allies find themselves to be conjunctural or defective (in fact they will have to be one or the other) the general conditions for the formation of the Fourth International upon the basis of true Bolshevism will have grown most favorable. The chase by the centrists of the “extreme right” of those who are plainly left, by those of the left, after those of the middle, those of the middle after those of the right,—a pursuit which resembled the efforts of a man to catch his own shadow—cannot create a permanent mass organization: The sad experience of the Independent Party of Germany (USP) even yet retains all its force. Under the pressure of events, with the help of our criticism and our slogans, the advanced workers will pass over the hesitations of the most left of the centrist leaders and, if it must be, ever the leaders themselves.

On the road towards the new International the proletarian advance-guard will find no replies other than those already elaborated by the Bolshevik-Leninists on the basis of the international experience of ten years of uninterrupted theoretical and practical struggle.

(10) Our politics influence in the last year is considerably strengthened. We can, with relatively little delay, extend and develop our success by observing the following conditions:

  1. Do not try to deceive the process of history; do not play seek, but state what is.
  2. Render yourself a theoretical balance sheet of all changes in the general situation, which in the present period often take the character of sharp turns.
  3. Lend an attentive ear to what the masses are saying, without prejudice without illusions, without deceiving oneself; for upon the basis of a correct appreciation of the relation of forces within the proletariat avoiding as much for opportunism as for adventurism, leading the masses forward but not holding them back.
  4. Each day and each hour say clearly to yourself what must be the next practical step; untiringly prepare this step, and upon the basis of living experience explain to the workers the principle difference from Bolshevism of all the other parties and tendencies.
  5. Do not confuse the actual tasks of the united front with the fundamental historic task: The creation of new parties and of the new International.
  6. For a practical demand do not disdain even the weakest of allies.
  7. Follow with a critical eye the most “left” ally as if a possible adversary.
  8. Conduct yourself with the greatest attentiveness towards these groupings which actually tend towards us; lend a patient and attentive ear to their criticisms, to their doubts, to their hesitations; help their evolution towards Marxism; do not fear their caprices, their threats, their ultimatums (the centrists are always capricious and susceptible); do not make any concession of principle to them.
  9. Yet once again: Do not fear to state that which is.

February 22, 1934


De Fakkel’s criticism of my article (Centrism and the Fourth International) is highly characteristic of the make-up of the leadership of the OSP as well as of left centrism in general. It therefore deserves to be analyzed.

Is it correct that the main tendency of the working class movement of the world consists in the transformation of reformism into centrism? De Fakkel disputes it. It believes that everywhere is to be observed simultaneously; the striving to orient the movement towards the right. It points thereby to the French Neo-Socialists, the Belgian Workers’ Party, the English Labor Party and the Dutch Social Democracy.The facts indicated by De Fakkel only confirm, when one knows how to interpret them in Marxian fashion—my assertion.

Why were the Neo-Socialists ejected from the old party? Because it was clothing itself with centrism. The right wing changes into a conservative, nationalistic clique that has nothing more to do with the working class movement. The Belgian example is also a case in point. De Fakkel reminds us of Vandervelde’s recent avowal of allegiance to the King. But there is nothing new in this. The plan of de Man is new. In substance as well as by its author’s admission the plan is but an attempt to obliterate the line of demarcation between reform and revolution. In this precisely consists the essence of centrism.

Monarchistic servility indicates only that we must distinguish between centrism and centrism. There are honest centrist moods of the masses and there are consciously lying centrist designs of old parliamentary cheats of the masses. But such designs have become necessary precisely because of the shift of the party base to the left. In essence the matter stands no differently also with the English Labor Party although in tempo and in phenomenal form it is quite different. The going over of the MacDonald clique to the reaction, on the one hand, the expulsion of the ILP from the Labor Party on the other, are two very significant symptoms of the above mentioned processes.

In the coming period we will inevitably observe a new development of centrist currents in the Labor Party. That the German SP leadership with Wels, as well as the leaders of Austro-Marxism, now clothe their philistine prejudices in the language of “revolution”, is widely known. In countries with a backward political development the social-democratic apparatus can afford, in the face of threatening dangers – the growth of Fascism and simultaneously of internal centrist opposition – the attempt to hold its positions by clinging to the right, to the state, and by repressions against the left, against its own opposition. The formation of the OSP in Holland was the first step in the open [de]composition of the old Dutch social-democracy. The development will proceed in this direction.

As a matter of practical policy in every country is naturally very important not only to keep track of the general tendency of development but also of the stages through which it passes. For Holland as well as for every other country it is of importance, however, to recognize in time the centrist disguise of former reformism so that reformism itself be combatted not by centrist but by Marxism methods.

Viewed historically reformism has lost completely its social hosts. Without reforms there is no reformism, without prosperous capitalism, no reform. The right reformist wing becomes anti-reformist in the sense that it helps the bourgeoisie directly or indirectly to smash the old conquests of the working class. It is false to consider the Neo-Socialists as a working class party. The split did not weaken the old French Socialist party. It strengthened it. Since, after the cleansing, the party enjoys greater confidence on the part of the workers. But it must adapt itself to this confidence, and the form of this adaptation is called centrism.

Left centrist groupings such as The OSP are not conscious of this process of which they form a component part. Precisely because they feel their principled weakness and their inability to give the working class a clear answer they must divert the attention of workers from centrist sickness to reformist danger. In this they resemble old liberalism which always scared the workers with reaction in order to hold them back from the fight against liberalism itself. Therefore, for instance the declarations of the OSP and SAP to the Youth conference contain nothing or almost nothing on centrism. However, it is well known that precisely those parties that did not permit themselves in the past to be held back from a merciless fight against liberal vacillations, always proved to be the bravest fighters against reaction. The same holds true now. These revolutionists will fight reformism best who are absolutely independent of centrism and view it critically and intransigent.

The London Amsterdam Bureau is unable to fight against reformism since it is a mutual aid society for the vacillating and hesitant. De Fakkel says, “The aim of the Bureau is to win for the Fourth International as many adherents as possible.” The OSP could have joined the Second International with the same justification. That we muss fight for the Fourth International wherever possible is clear. The task, however, means an irreconcilable struggle against the treacherous policy of Tranmæl and certainly not a brotherhood in arms with him. That they “criticize” Tranmæl meanwhile makes matters worse, since he is criticized only to the extent that the working agreement with him remains unbroken, that is, apparent criticism is made which only serves as a cover for the out and out revolutionary bloc. The gallant Shakespearian actor who was supposed to play the lion at the court feared to frighten the beautiful ladies and therefore roared as softly, as tenderly as a dove. Our highly respectable left centrists become very gruff to Bolshevik “sectarians”; to the Tranmæls they coo like doves.

De Fakkel acknowledges our characterization of the Comintern as that of bureaucratic centrism. This, however, is only lip service, since the whole working alliance with the Amsterdam bureau is nothing else but a wilted, sickly edition of the infamous Anglo-Russian Committee. There also were found British “lefts” of the type of Finn Moe, who were used as bait by the real leaders. In defending their brotherhood with Tranmæl De Fakkel as well as the New Front repeats all the old arguments of Stalin and Bucharin (“Masses”, “Masses”, and again “masses”!) but in a worse form if anything.

Thus, I cannot recognize the validity of a single argument which Da Fakkel brings against my article, by which, however, I do not want to say that there are no flaws in the article. Thus, for instance, one could point out correctly that the article does not reveal sufficiently the practical and organizational inadequacy of centrisim. The centrists like to speak of illegality, of conspirative, underground methods. As a rule, however, they do not take their own words seriously. They like to poke fun at bourgeois democracy; in practice however, they always show naive trust in it. For instance, when they call together an international conference, it is handled as though it were a matter of a picnic; and the result is a catastrophe with a toll of heavy human sacrifices. If the matter should be looked into a little closer it will invariably be found that such organizational slovenliness is connected with the ideological looseness of centrism. Woe to those who cannot learn from experience!

It is true that the organizational base for the Fourth International is as yet very narrow. In 1914, however, the basis for the Third International was even narrower. The work of building up did not consist, however, of growth before opportunist organizations of the type of the NAP, but on the contrary, of struggling for the liberation of the workers from the influence of such organizations. The real initiators of the Fourth International began with Marxist quality to turn out afterwards into mass quantity. The small but well hardened and sharply ground for splits, hewn and shapes heavy beams. We should begin with an ax of steel. Even here the means of production is decisive.

With regard to the OSP, as in all other causes, we draw a distinction between the centrism of the workers, which is only a transition stage for them, and the professional centrism of many leaders among whom there are also incurables. That we will meet with the majority of the OSP and the OSP workers on the road to the Fourth International—of this we are quite certain.

March 20, 1934

Besides its left Finn Moes who face the OSP and the SAP Tranmæl has also his right Finn Moes, whose face is turned towards the King’s palace.

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