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Leon Trotsky 19300528 What Is Centrism?

Leon Trotsky: What Is Centrism?

May 28, 1930

[Writing of Leon Trotsky, Vol. 2, 1930, New York 1975, p. 234-241]

In Le Cri du peuple [The People's Call], the publication of the bloc of Monattists with the "municipal" POP clique, Chambelland publishes an open letter to the "centrist" leaders of the Teachers Federation. I won't bother with the letter itself because it is completely devoid of any revolutionary ideas. Only one point is of interest. Chambelland describes the communists as "centrists." His idea — for I think nevertheless we have a kind of an idea here — is probably this: at one end of the present political front are those who support union autonomy, that is, Monatte's friends together with the POPists; at the other, those who support the subordination of the unions to the party, that is, the official CGTU leadership. And between these two stand the Oppositional communists who fight timidly for "autonomy" but don't risk a break with communism.

These, then, are centrists, because they take their place in the center. Now, since the Left Opposition emerged from a war against centrism, Chambelland is announcing an internal contradiction, which at first sight appears to give him victory without even a fight.

For a naturalist nothing in the world of nature is insignificant. For a Marxist nothing is insignificant that has to do with the world of politics. Chambelland's classification, while superficial, can yet provide an opportunity for making certain revolutionary notions precise.

That is what we shall try to do.

It is a fundamental error to think that "centrism" is a geometrical or topographical description, as in a parliament. For a Marxist, political concepts are defined not by characteristics of form but by their class content considered from an ideological and methodological standpoint. The three tendencies in the present workers' movement — reformism, communism, and centrism — flow inescapably from the objective situation of the proletariat under the imperialist regime of the bourgeoisie.

Reformism is the current that emerged from the upper and privileged layers of the proletariat and reflects their interests. In some countries especially, the workers' aristocracy and bureaucracy form a very important and powerful layer with a mentality, in most cases, that is petty-bourgeois by virtue of the very conditions of their existence and way of thinking; but they have to adapt themselves to the proletariat on whose back they grew up. The highest of these elements attain to supreme power and well-being through the bourgeois parliamentary channel.

In the person of a Thomas, a MacDonald, a Herman Mueller, or a Paul-Boncour we have a conservative big bourgeois who still preserves in part a petty-bourgeois mentality, more often a petty-bourgeois hypocritical outlook toward the proletarian base In other words, we have here, in a single social type, the product of the sediments of three different classes. The relation between them is as follows: the big bourgeois gives orders to the petty bourgeois and the latter abuses the workers. As for knowing whether the big bourgeois allows a Thomas to come to see him — through the service entrance — in his home, or bank, or ministry; or whether, on the other hand, he has introduced this same Thomas to his wealth and ideas — that, though secondary, is not unimportant. The imperialist stage of evolution, which increasingly aggravates contradictions, often forces the bourgeoisie to transform the leading groups of reformists into real activists for its trusts and governmental combinations. This is what characterizes the new — much higher — degree of dependence of reformism on the imperialist bourgeoisie, and sets a much more distinctive stamp on its psychology and politics, making it suitable for directly taking the helm in the affairs of the bourgeois state.

Of this upper layer of "reformists" we can least of all say, "They have nothing to lose but their chains." On the contrary, for all these prime ministers, ministers, mayors, deputies, and union leaders, the socialist revolution would mean the expropriation of their positions of privilege. These watchdogs of capital do not protect merely property in general but mainly their own property. They are the bitter enemies of the proletariat's liberating revolution.

As against reformism, under the name of a revolutionary and proletarian policy (Marxist communist), we conceive of a system of ideological and methodological struggle which aims at the revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeois state by the method first of uniting the proletariat, signalized by the dictatorship, then of reorganizing society in a socialist way.

Only the most advanced minority — the most conscious and daring of the working class — is able to assume the initiative for this task, a minority which, basing itself on a clearly defined and scientifically established program, and with great experience in workers' struggles, concentrates around itself the ever-increasing majority of the proletariat with a view to socialist revolution. So long as capitalism lasts, which reduces the proletariat to wretched ideas, it cannot be expected that the differences will disappear between the party — produced by ideological selection — and the class — constituted automatically by the process of production. It is only after the victory of the proletariat — signalized by a genuine economic and cultural revived of the masses, that is, by the very process of the liquidation of classes — that the party will be seen to dissolve itself little by little in the toiling masses until it, like the state, completely disappears. Only phrase-mongers or mandarins of sterile sects can speak of proletarian revolution while denying the role of the communist vanguard.

Thus, the two fundamental currents in the world working class are social imperialism on the one hand and revolutionary communism on the other. Between these two poles come a number of transitional currents and groupings that are constantly changing their appearance and are always in a state of transformation and displacement: going sometimes from reformism to communism, sometimes from communism to reformism. These centrist currents do not have, and by their very nature cannot have, a well-defined social base. While reformism represents the interests of the privileged tops of the working class, and communism is the standard-bearer of the proletariat itself, centrism expresses the transitional process inside the proletariat, different waves inside its different layers, and the difficulties in the progress toward final revolutionary positions.

That is precisely why centrist mass organisms are never stable or viable.

True, there always will be inside the working class a layer of constant centrists, who do not want to go all the way with the reformists but who, organically, cannot become revolutionaries either. One of these types of honest centrist workers, in France, was old Bourderon. A more brilliant and striking example — in Germany this time — was old Ledebour. As for the masses, they don't ever stay for very long in this transitional stage: temporarily they rally to the centrists, then they go on and join the communists or go back to the reformists — unless they lapse, temporarily, into indifference.

That is how the left wing of the French Socialist Party changed into a communist party, abandoning its centrist leaders on the road. That is how the Independent Social Democratic Party in Germany disappeared, sharing its adherents between communism and social democracy.

That is how, similarly, the "Two-and-a-Half" International disappeared from the world.

The same phenomenon can be observed in the realm of trade unionism: the centrist "independence" of the British trade unions that adhered to Amsterdam changed into the most "yellow" Amsterdamite policy of betrayal at the time of the general strike.

But the disappearance of these organizations cited above as examples does not at all mean that centrism has spoken its last word, as is claimed by the Communist bureaucracy, whose own ideology is very close to centrism. Well-defined mass organizations or currents were reduced to nothing in the period immediately after the war when the European workers' movement had subsided. The present worsening of the world crisis and the incontestable new radicalization of the masses have inevitably led to the emergence of new centrist tendencies inside the social democracy, the unions, and the unorganized masses.

It is not excluded that these new centrist currents will once more bring to the surface some former centrist leaders. But once again, that won't be for long. Centrist politicians in the workers’ movement are very much like a hen who hatches duck eggs and then laments bitterly at the water's edge: How unashamed are these children to leave their "autonomous" hen and go swimming in the waters of reformism or communism. If Chambelland wishes to take the trouble, he will easily find around him a number of respectable hens right now busy hatching reformist eggs.

In the past, the workers' bureaucracy always and everywhere covered itself with the principle of "autonomy," "independence," etc., in this way insuring its own independence from the workers; for how could the worker control the bureaucracy if it proclaimed some principle or other as its slogan? As we know, the German and British trade unions long proclaimed their independence of any parties; the American trade unions pride themselves on it to this day. But the evolution of reformism shown before, which has definitively bound it to imperialism, from now on prevents the reformists from using the label of "autonomy" as easily as they did in the past. The centrists, who cling to it more than ever, probably take advantage of this. For is it not their nature precisely to guard jealously the "autonomy" of their hesitations and duplicity vis-a-vis reformism and communism?*

That is how the idea of autonomy, which in the history of the world's labor movements has been primarily an attribute of reformism, today is a sign of centrism.

But what kind of centrism?

We have already shown that centrism always changes its position: going either to the left, toward communism, or to the right, toward reformism.

If Chambelland would cast an eye on the past history of his group — if only since the beginning of the imperialist war — he would easily find confirmation of what I am putting forward. At the present moment, the "autonomous" unions are clearly moving from left to right, from communism to reformism. They have even rejected the label of communism. That is what makes them kin to the POPists, who are following the same evolution but in a more disorganized manner.

Centrism, by moving to the left and detaching the masses from reformism, is performing a progressive function; it goes without saying that this does not in any way prevent us from denouncing in this case also the duplicity of centrism, for the progressive hen will be abandoned sooner or later at water's edge. When, on the other hand, centrism tries to detach the workers from communist objectives to facilitate — under the mask of autonomy — their evolution toward reformism, then centrism performs a task that is no longer progressive but reactionary. That, at the present moment, is the role played by the Committee for Trade-Union Independence.

"But these are almost the exact words of the Stalinists," Chambelland will repeat; he has already written it. It would be useless to ask oneself who — the Chambelland group or the International Communist Left Opposition — is conducting the more serious and bitter struggle against the lying policy of the Stalinists. But one fact is certain: the direction of our struggle is diametrically opposed to that of the "struggle" of the "autonomists," because we are keeping on the Marxist road while Chambelland and his friends pursue the reformist one. True, they never do it consciously, never! But, in general, centrism never has a conscious policy. Would a conscious hen sit down to hatch duck eggs'? Certainly not.

How, in that case, someone might ask, can you accuse polar opposites like Chambelland and Monmousseau of centrism? That can appear paradoxical, however, only to those who do not understand the paradoxical nature of centrism itself: it is never the same, and never recognizes itself in the mirror even when it pushes its nose right to it.

For two years now, the centrists of official communism have been zigzagging violently from right to left while Monatte and his friends go from left to right. The leaders of the Communist International and of the Red International of Labor Unions have had to act blindly to hold back the wave they let loose. Terrified by their adventurist leaps, the centrists of the Chambelland type hurriedly bend their backs against the new wave now forming on the horizon. In such a transitional period, between two tides, what is washed ashore first of all is a centrist camp, inside which are born movements that are most disparate and are heading in different directions. It is no less true that Chambelland — or to press reality closer — Monatte and Monmousseau are nothing but two sides of the same coin.

Here I think it is necessary to recall how the present leaders of the CGTU and of the Communist Party envisaged the problem of the unions barely six years ago, when they were in fact already at the head of the official party and when they had already begun — be it said in passing — their struggle against "Trotskyism." In the month of January 1924, after the unhappy, bloody meeting in the Maison des Syndicate [Trade-Union House], the CGTU leaders, pressed to disassociate themselves not only from all responsibility for the action of the party but also from the party itself, wrote in the solemn "Declaration of the CGTU":

"As concerned with the organic and administrative autonomy of parties and sects as they are with the autonomy of the Confederation [CGTU], the responsible bodies of the CGTU did not have to discuss the meeting which the Seine Confederation and Communist Party Youth had organized on their own responsibility. Whatever the character of meetings organized or activities undertaken by outside parties, sects, and groupings, the Executive Committee and the Bureau of the Confederation have no intention of abdicating their power any more today than yesterday to anyone, whoever he may be. They will know how to preserve control and mastery over the activity of the Confederation against all attacks from outside… .

"The CGTU has neither the right nor the power to apply censure to any outside groups, to their programs and their objectives; it cannot interdict any of them without violating its indispensable neutrality in order to show favoritism between contending parties.

"Monmousseau, Semard, Racamond, Dudilieux, Berrar."

This is the document — truly incomparable — which will forever remain a monument of communist clarity and revolutionary courage! And under this document we read the signatures of Monmousseau, Semard, Racamond, Dudilieux, Berrar.

I think the French Left Oppositionists should not only publish this "declaration" in full but should also give it the publicity it deserves. For no one knows what surprises the future holds in store for us!

During the years that separate us from the signing of the "declaration" in which Monmousseau, Semard, and Company announced their most absolute neutrality toward the Communist Party and all other sects, these Communist leaders performed not a few acts of opportunist heroism. In particular, they very sensibly carried out the policy of the Anglo-Russian Committee, which was based completely on the fiction of autonomy: the party of MacDonald and Thomas is one thing — taught Stalin — but the trade unions of Thomas and Purcell quite another. After Thomas, with Purcell's help, had turned the Communist centrists into donkeys, the latter grew afraid of their own selves.

Only yesterday Monmousseau was demanding that the unions be equally independent of all sects and parties. Today he wants the unions to be no more than a shadow of the party, thus turning the unions into sects! Who is the Monmousseau of today, or Monmousseau number two? He is Monmousseau number one who from fear of himself has turned himself inside out like a glove. Who is Chambelland? He is a communist of yesterday who, terrified by Monmousseau number two, has thrown himself into the arms of Monmousseau number one.

Does it not leap to the eye that we have here two varieties of the same species, or two stages of the same confusion? Monmousseau is trying to frighten the workers with the phantom of Chambelland; Chambelland is trying to frighten the workers with the phantom of Monmousseau. In reality, however, each is doing no more than looking at himself in a mirror, with fist extended.

That is what it is really all about, if we look at the question more closely than does Le Cri du peuple — where there is more clamor than people.

Communism is the vanguard of the working class united by the program of socialist revolution. An organization like this still does not exist in France. Only elements of one, and in part some debris, are to be found. Whoever dares to assert to the workers that such an organization is not necessary for them, that the working class is self-sufficient, that it is mature enough to be able to dispense with the leadership of its own vanguard — such a person is a base flatterer, a courtesan of the proletariat, a demagogue, but not a revolutionary. It is criminal to embellish reality. The workers must be told the truth and they must get accustomed to loving the truth.

Chambelland is deceiving himself seriously if he thinks the communists are in the "center," between Monmousseau and himself — Chambelland. No, the communists are above them both. The position of Marxism is high above all varieties of centrism and above the level of all its mistakes. The unions can be-transformed into organs of the masses and provided with genuine revolutionary leadership only by the one current in the working class that examines each question thoroughly, whose blood and marrow are permeated with the Marxist understanding of the relation between the class and its revolutionary vanguard. In this fundamental question there is no room for the slightest concession or for anything to be left unsaid.

Here more than anywhere else, clarity is needed.

*In the French syndicalist movement of 1906-14, "independence" meant breaking with parliamentary opportunism. For this reason — by its nature — French revolutionary syndicalism established a party, but this did not develop to the full and therefore, even before the war, it had gone into decline.