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Henry Judd

Centrism and the War

(June 1941)

From The New International, Vol. VII No. 5 (Whole No. 54), June 1941, pp. 114–6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE PUBLIC COMMISSION of hari-kari by the Independent Labor League of America (Lovestone group) furnished the revolutionary movement with an unpleasant glimpse of the inner organs of a typical centrist and sectarian organization. At the same time it has made it necessary and worthwhile to summarize the shameful fate of those parties and groups that, for the most part, were attached to the London Bureau, or “International Workers Front Against War.”

Many years prior to September 1939, Trotsky and the Fourth International had predicted what lay in store for centrism when struck by the thundering blows of world war. Just as the civil war in Spain was an advance school of rehearsal for the Second World War, so was it an advance warning – in the tragic downfall of the Spanish P.O.U.M. – of what would happen to those organizations whose anti-war policy rested upon clay feet.

What Was the “London Bureau”?

It is not our objective here to give a detailed account of the Bureau’s origin or history. In brief, it was a loosely organized, heterogeneous collection of small left-wing parties and isolated groupings bound together primarily by mutual confusion and opposition to Trotskyist “extremism.” Its leading sections were represented by the British Independent Labor Party, the French P.S.O.P. (Workers’ and Peasants Socialist Party) and, before its death, the Spanish P.O.U.M.

Hardly at any period in its brief career did it pass beyond the boundaries of Europe. On the continents of Africa, Australia and South America it never had any adherents. In Asia only the Congress Socialist Party of India could, although unofficially, be associated with the Bureau because of its political program. In North America the above-mentioned Lovestone group and the Norman Thomas Socialist Party (the first officially, the latter unofficially) were categorized under the general heading of the London Bureau. Thus we see that insofar as it represented anything serious, the Bureau was almost completely in Europe.

Needless to say, the center of the Bureau issued lengthy and eloquent denunciations of the war as its bloody hand approached closer. But September 1, 1939, marked the demise of its literary career. It was “transferred” to Mexico and has since been maintaining silence.

What of the various sections and groups that made up the Bureau? One can say without the slightest exaggeration that only the British Independent Labor Party remains! To the others one of two things has occurred: either complete dissolution and abandonment of the anti-war struggle under war conditions; or open social-patriotic treachery and acceptance of the war as a struggle between “democracy and fascism.”

Among those groups liquidating their anti-war protestations and openly supporting their own bourgeoisie were the India League of Radical Congressmen (the M.N. Roy group) and the Independent Labor League (Lovestone’s group, which also won the unique distinction of voluntarily disbanding itself). The German S.A.P., an émigré group, is also supporting His Majesty’s government. In addition, the Norman Thomas Socialist Party, or what remains of it after innumerable desertions, treads the path of near-appeasement in the absence of a fundamental anti-war program. Its “moral” support to England, its sterile pacifism, the open association of its leaders with bourgeois “appeasers” – all these actions warrant our predicting an early transfer in toto to the group we have listed above.

Under the second heading – those that have voluntarily dissolved, or been organizationally destroyed by the war – must be listed the following: the French P.S.O.P. (voluntarily disbanded), the Congress Socialist Party of India, the R.S.A.P. of Holland and the Spanish P.O.U.M. In addition, a number of small and unimportant groups (Switzerland, Italy, Norway, etc.) have been unheard of since the war and have probably ceased functioning.

A sad record indeed for the “non-sectarian, anti-war” adherents of the London Bureau. Only the British I.L.P. remains to be considered as a serious political force. This does not mean that centrism as a political force has disappeared. The existence of the I.L.P. disproves this. In the inevitable revolutionary resurgence that will come in a later stage of the war centrism, and centrist leaders of the type of Brockway, Gorkin, Pivert, etc., will unquestionably tend to have a brief revival. But the rôle of the centrist sections in the war’s earliest stages foredooms this to be a shadowy, short-lived revival.

The Independent Labor Party in England

In no sense is it permissible for one to describe the I.L.P. as a consistent, homogeneous organization. It consists roughly of no less than four distinct tendencies: (i) A small group of outright social patriots who wish the party to support the war; (2) the three-member Parliamentary clique, who, with their followers, are nothing but bourgeois pacifists and followers of the deceased Neville Chamberlain; (3) the bulk of the party, headed by Fenner Brockway and John McNear, who represent classic centrism and are deliberately responsible for the vague formulations and nebulous actions of the party as a whole; and (4) scattered groups of genuine revolutionary militants. It is clear that such a party must have a difficult time in balancing off its conflicting tendencies which tend to tear it to shreds. When one speaks of the British I.L.P. it is necessary to clarify which I.L.P. is meant: the appeasement program of James Maxton, M.P., the pro-war counsels of National Secretary C.A. Smith, the radical pacifism of Brockway. Before the British proletariat, the self-negating actions of this party in Parliament, in its press and in the unions must appear as utterly confusing.

The I.L.P. is now organizing its annual convention. If, as seems likely, this event concurs with the launching of a blitzkrieg offense against England, an internal crisis will grip the I.L.P., with a split-off of its pro-war section.

For the convention, the National Council of the party has published a discussion resolution on the war. It is not stated whether this unanimously represents the opinon of the N.C., but we doubt it. In addition, Brockway has published several articles in The New Leader – organ of his section of the party.

The resolution speaks the truth in many respects: “The government is a coalition between the most reactionary Tory imperialist elements and the Labour Party. The control of foreign policy, of India and the colonies, and of finance and industry remains in Tory hands, whilst the chief function of the Labour ministers is to discipline the working class.” “The supreme purpose for which the British government declared war on Germany was not the defense of democracy, as it alleged, but the maintenance of the Empire and of British capitalist interests.”

It states the war aims of British imperialism clearly: “... the establishment of a British hegemony over Europe, subordinate financially to the U.S.A. and masked by insincere professions of loyalty to some form of League of Nations, or European Federal Union ...”

The aims of the I.L.P. are stated as follows: “The I.L.P. stands on a third front, the front of the international working class, the victims alike of fascism in Europe, imperialism in the colonies and capitalism at home.” We “demand a peace representing neither capitulation to Nazism nor the domination of capitalist-imperialism, but the victory of the common peoples over both.”

All the above is good and commendable, particularly in view of the almost universal patriotic treachery that has submerged the labor movement. We heartily endorse it. But we cannot blind our eyes to three decisive factors: (1) Not one word is said about the Parliamentary clique whose every action flies in the face of these anti-war, revolutionary sentiments; (2) the only specific, practical proposal made in the resolution urges the calling of “an international conference to end the war ...” By whom, under what circumstances? This is, in effect, the same proposal made by the I.L.P. Parliamentary group of urging the warring imperialisms to end the war; and (3) most important of all, there are no practical proposals for revolutionary action, no program for activity in the armed forces, no objectives proposed. The resolution hangs in air and expresses throughout abstract socialist aims, without methods of realizing them. In this respect it fits into the classic forms of centrist politics and policies – to each members of the I.L.P. it can mean at least a little of that which he wants it to mean.

The Brockway Program

The same spirit, or rather lack of spirit, is found in the writings of the confirmed, hoary centrist, Brockway. “In the long run,” says he, “agreement about the need for a socialist change in Britain and the Empire and for the offer of a socialist peace to the peoples of Europe will over-ride in importance present disagreements about the prosecution of the war.” That is, our “disagreements” with the Labour Party will fade away because, after all, we’re all for socialism!

“But how can power be won” for our program, asks Brockway? The Parliamentary by-elections, he answers, will reveal the strength of this new movement. “A series of by-election victories would compel Parliament either to reconsider its view that the people are to have no opportunity of changing the government before the end of the war, or to reveal that Britain had indeed become a dictatorship in the process of fighting dictatorship.” “If Parliament really desired to take the opinion of the people it could do so effectively despite war circumstances.” If this makes any sense, Brockway is proposing the familiar social-democratic way of “overthrowing” the imperialist regime of Winston Churchill by electing a Parliamentary majority. Hidebound reformism is the closest Brockway comes to a concrete proposal. But the British workers, who today are reviving their long-sleeping class spirit by building works committees and reconstructing the shop steward system, cannot be attracted by such a social-democratic panacea. If these proletarians do not find the revolutionary path it will not be because of lack of desire, but lack of leadership.

Brockway goes still further. Seeking to discredit revolutionary policy he is guilty of a monstrous distortion of the meaning of revolutionary defeatism. “Revolutionary defeatism or a policy of sabotage aiming at miliary defeat.” “Revolutionary defeatism is the theory that in a capitalist war socialists should work for the defeat of their government, not only internally by the working class, but externally by the enemy government ...” (our emphasis) Brockway might be surprised to learn that he approximates the position of James P. Cannon in this utterly false and distorted definition of revolutionary defeatism. Without elaborating the matter, we can only reply that the historic Marxist meaning attached to revolutionary defeatism means neither “acts of sabotage aiming at military defeat,” nor working for defeat “by the enemy government.” Revolutionary socialists are neither common spies, nor terrorists. The genuine meaning of revolutionary defeatism, which implies precisely the sort of program the I.L.P. is incapable of organizing, is given in the program of the Fourth International: Continuation of the class struggle at home, regardless of its consequences on the military front.

The one remaining organization of centrism, and the London Bureau is equipped neither politically, morally nor organizationally to provide revolutionary leadership to the working class. We will not predict its soon-to-be collapse or disintegration as others have done prematurely. The absence of powerful revolutionary forces in England may “guarantee” a long existence for the bloc of the I.L.P. But it would be an illusion to expect anti-war leadership from this organization. Badly battered by the war, but firm in its principles, the Fourth International is still the only serious revolutionary gathering center and bright spot amid the chaos of world imperialism.

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