Leon Trotsky

A Centrist Attack on Marxism

(March 1934)

Written: 16 March 1934.
Source: The Militant, Vol. VII No. 15, 14 April 1934, p. 2.
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.

Dear Comrade Sneevliet:

I was much interested in the theoretical article of Comrade de Kadt (A Few Remarks on the Program of the New International) as it represents a very important theoretical avowal of one of the leaders of the O.S.P. (Independent Socialist Party of Holland – ed.), I thought at first of waiting for the completion of this article in the De Nieuwe Weg. But as I note this article still remains unfinished. But even what has appeared suffices. We know that centrism always holds back with its strength from entering the field of “gray theory” precisely because it does not want to reveal itself clearly. De Kadt found himself impelled by the whole situation to take a stand on the programmatic problems of the New International, and this step of his can be regarded as nothing short of ominous.

In this letter I wish to touch on only a few points which, though lying in different planes, are equally characteristic of centrist thinking.

A “Non-Orthodox” Point of View

It is not our task,” de Kadt writes, “already to present today the formulations which we consider necessary. The aim of these remarks is to establish in advance our right (!) to defend a non-orthodox point of view in the coming programmatic discussion.” Here it is a question – is it not? – of working out the fundamental principles of the New International. It would be difficult to conceive in this epoch of a more important document. Under the circumstances what should be the most urgent, immediate, deepest need of every Marxian revolutionist? At the least, the formulation of the most important observations, generalizations, statements and slogans which should be incorporated in the program precisely because it concerns the vital matter of giving the uprooted, disoriented, disappointed, groping workers the answer to the burning questions of our period. At least so the question appears to us, “orthodox” Marxists.

Not so, however, to de Kadt. He approaches the problem in a purely individualistic, subjective, dilettante fashion. For him it is not a question of formulating definite ideas, but of reserving the “right” to present a “non-orthodox” point of view in the future. The question of program is however not a question of right. What needs to he presented is the point of view and not the right to the point of view. Nobody in the working class world is particularly concerned about whether anybody has the “right” to bring to light at some later day a non-orthodox point of view. What one wants to know is the point of view itself so as to test its real content. But the secrei lies in the fact that the centrist has in general no definite, clear-cut well-thought-out point of view Therefore, he remains content with the right ... to have no point of view.

The Class Theory of Society

Immediately following the above words of de Kadt, the latter con tinues as follows: “To give an example: must we continue to speak of the ‘Dictatorship of the Prole tariat’ when in reality the dictatorship can be exercized only through the socialist portion of the proletariat and the non-proletarian elements that are devoted to socialism? In reality we have to deal with a “socialist dictatorship,” a dictatorship exercized through socialists for socialism.” Well said indeed: “to give an example”! The critic does not notice at all that by his “example” he attempts to sweep away, in passing as it were, the whole structure of Marxism. For here it is not a question of the name dictatorship of the proletariat but of the essence of the class theory of society. Marx, who at any rate was not satisfied with the mere right to ideas but had many a good one, considered the theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat as precisely his most important contribution to the science of society.

Back in 1852 Marx stated to Wedemeyer that the class theory of society had been discovered and formulated long before him by bourgeois scientists, that he – Marx – applied this theory to the further development of capitalist society carrying it to its final conclusion that is to the dictatorship of the proletariat. Lenin wrote his book (State and Revolution) in which he clarified this fundamental Marxian tenet and freed it from the “non-orthodox” revisionist fog of Kautsky, Otto Bauer, etc.

Now comes de Kadt with his “right to a point of view” and makes plain to us “for instance” on the dictatorship of the proletariat: “Nothing of this sort exists at all,” since in reality “the dictatorship is realized only through the socalistic portion of the proletariat” and what is more, non-proletarians participate in it too. In other words, it is not a matter of the dictatorship of a class, but of a rule of a like-minded group, a gathering of people around the idea of socialism. Thus we see that not classes decide in history but ideas It follows therefore that every self-respecting person must safeguard his right to ideas. De Kadt counterposes to Marxism “for instance” a through and through idealistically metaphysical philosophy of history. A dozen lines suffice for him to break from the fundamentals of Marxism.

Ideas and Classes

We poor “orthodox” ones believe even today that not ideas determine the fate of society but classes; that social ideas – as the old, wise Italian Antonio Labriola said – do not fall from heaven, but give expression to immediate or historic interests of classes. The “idea” of socialism is the theoretical expression of the historic trend of the proletariat coordinated with the logical development of capitalist society. The relation between class and “idea” is not mechanical but dialectic. The class attains self-consciousness not through revelation but through difficult struggle which takes also the form of an internal struggle within the proletariat itself. So – by your leave – our struggle against centrism is an important component part of the struggle of the working class for self-knowledge. It is inevitable therefore that in the process of development of the proletariat a crystallization of the most advanced far-sighted, courageous, of the elite of the real vanguard, should take place. And only through the aid of this, its most important organ, can the proletariat fulfill its historic mission, that is to conquer power and maintain it in the form of a dictatorship until the complete liquidation of all antagonisms. That it is a question of a dictatorship of a class is proved by the relation between the class and its vanguard: without the support of the vast majority of the class the establishing of a workers’ state would be impossible. That the proletarian revolution is however accomplished through the intermediation of the vanguard is explainable by the heterogeneity of the proletariat as it is given us by history. Marx operated not with bare abstractions (“Class,” “Socialism”) but with historic realities, their actual interrelations and their effects on each others.

Historic Role of Classes

That deserters from other classes participate in the dictatorship is explained by the fact that we deal with living social matter, in which classes merge into one another, affect one another, and not with the druggist’s compartments in which each preparation has its special packing and label. It is precisely the decisive historic role of classes that imparts to the progressive class the ability to carry along with it the best elements of other classes. To declare the class theory null and void on this account, as de Kadt does, is the same as denying the law of gravity because a balloon travels up and not down.

De Kadt takes next another “example,” this time not against Marx, but against Lenin: “Why must we,” he asks, “accept in our program the ‘Soviet principle,’ since not even a trace of proof exists that the ‘Soviets’ were anything (!) else than temporary (!), improvised (!!) forms of organization in which the masses unite immediately prior to and immediately after the struggle for power.” The idealist and metaphysician is not inclined to attribute to the “Soviet principle” any great importance, for Soviets are nothing more than “temporary” forms of organization; they serve the proletariat only “immediately prior to and immediately after the struggle for power.” We Marxists are not at all set upon including in our program “eternal,” “everlasting” values; we are satisfied just with “temporary” things like Soviets, which – and de Kadt admits this too – are instruments of the seizure and maintenance of power by the proletariat. So far that is completely sufficient for us. We are willing to grant the “right” to de Kadt and his co-thinkers in future to invent far more “eternal” form of organization; first however let them try at least to create “temporary” Soviets and to conquer power.

Echoes of Bernstein

In this fashion I could take up the whole article sentence by sentence to prove that – excepting for meaningless platitudes – de Kadt’s article consists only of horrible mistakes against the fundamentals of Marxism. De Kadt never mentions the lights that have given him inspiration. Certainly they are not Marx, Engels and Lenin. But in his latest, revisionist revelations we find only echos of Bernstein, of the German Neo-Kantians and also of the Austro-Marxists. And all that should serve for the setting up of the program of the New International? Oh no! De Kadt will have to look for some different application for this.

Our critic is very harsh with regard to Bolshevism, even the genuine – Lenin. He does not want to “idealize” it. That is not at all necessary. But what de Kadt says on Leninism is truly lamentable. We are faced here not with principled criticism but with distorted facts, anachronisms, misunderstood relations, false, personal estimations etc. Refuting all this would, without being of any great value, take up too much time. It is sufficient to establish here, that de Kadt criticizes most severely the “system of Lenin-Trotsky,” in order to attach himself to the system of ... Tranmael. Hand in hand with the Norwegian social-democracy which is only the diluted edition of Austro-Marxism de Kadt wants in a “revolutionary” manner to reconstitute the international working-class movement ... on the basis of principles which will be revealed to us only later.

We do not want to dispute anyone’s “right” to a distorted point of view. But to the Dutch workers we want to say with full conviction: To build a party on the philosophy of de Kadt is to build on sand. Beware of doing so; build on Marxian granite!

      March 16, 1934

L. Trotsky

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