from the collection, What do we mean by ...?, Education for Socialists No.6, March 1987.
Published by the Socialist Workers Party (Britain).
Amended from an article first published in Socialist Worker Review, December 1985
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for REDS – Die Roten.
Centrism is not something we’re terribly familiar with in British politics. We’re accustomed to dealing with two currents in the labour movement – the majority one of reformism and the tiny minority one of revolutionary socialism. Each is relatively easy to define. A reformist believes that change comes through parliament; a revolutionary that change can only come through mass activity from below. The two ideas are not compatible.
But what of a socialist who talks revolutionary politics but whose deeds are reformist? Such individuals are not uncommon and in certain periods whole working class organisations have been based on this kind of confusion. These we can label as centrist. The question then is what attitude should revolutionaries take towards them? The answer is not straightforward.
For one thing such organisations are inherently unstable and subject to contradictory pressures. Many rank and file members take the revolutionary talk for real. The leaders use the revolutionary talk as a smokescreen for reformist practice. Depending on whether the class struggle is rising or declining, such organisations are pulled to the left or to the right. Workers in these organisations may be groping towards revolutionary socialism; conversely, they may be falling back into the orbit of reformist politics in a period of defeat.
In short, centrism contains all the colours of the rainbow (in Trotsky’s vivid phrase). That alone makes it notoriously tricky to define and to deal with.
Historically, centrist organisations have emerged in periods of very sharp ideological crisis, when all the ideas in the working class movement are put to severe test. One such period was the First World War and its aftermath. The pre-war tradition of the Second International (with its faith in socialist advance via parliament) was discredited; the new ideas of the Third International (with its faith in soviet power) very much fitted the revolutionary mood sweeping across Europe.
But between discredited reformism and victorious Bolshevism a third camp came into being. Some of the pre-war socialist leaders had broken with out-and-out reformism as the mood of the masses had begun to swing against the war. These leaders were not internationalists; they did not believe (as Lenin did) in turning the imperialist war into a civil war. Their opposition was pacifist, a desire to turn the clock back to the era of “peace” (i.e. normal capitalist exploitation) that had existed before the war. These leaders were forced sharply leftwards in order not to lose supporters further to the left than themselves. But for all their revolutionary phraseology their instincts were thoroughly reformist.
The Third International had, as Lenin put it, become fashionable. The problem now was how to get revolutionary workers in centrist parties into the Third International while excluding their treacherous leaders.
It was in Germany that centrism achieved its most complete expression. The Independent Social Democrats (the USPD), led by such notorious centrists as Karl Kautsky. dwarfed the infant Communist Party. The USPD talked left but acted right, simultaneously participating in semi-insurrectionary activity and the setting-up of the bourgeois Weimar republic. This reflected the fact that in its ranks were many thousands of workers who had broken with reformism but still trusted their old leaders rather than the unknown quantity of the untried Communist Party.
The USPD were compelled to call a special conference in 1920 to discuss affiliation to the Third International. The “21 Conditions” (which the USPD leadership rejected) demanded that organisations wishing to join had to expel not only the right wing but also centrist leaders. After a brilliant speech by Zinoviev, the president of the Third International, a majority opted for affiliation and the USPD immediately split. Its left wing formed a joint organisation with the existing Communist Party of some 350.000 members, making it the biggest and best communist organisation in Western Europe.
One point has to be underlined. Contrary to the belief of many on the left (Militant supporters notably), this evolution of the best elements of the German working class towards revolutionary politics was not dependent on the internal development of the mass parties. It depended on a pole of attraction external to reformist politics and organisations, that being the immense prestige of the Bolshevik revolution and the existence of an independent communist organisation (the Third International and its German section).
Without that pole of attraction and without the conscious intervention of the Third International, it is unlikely that leftward moving workers would have completed the break with reformism. In the absence of an alternative, the power of the right wing to demobilise and confuse would have tied the left’s hands and pulled workers away from revolutionary politics.
The second case of centrism we have to deal with concerns a very different historical period. In this instance centrist groupings arose under the impact not only of working class victory, but of its opposite – the major setback the international labour movement suffered in the early thirties (principally, the catastrophic defeat fascism inflicted on the German working class).
The forces involved were much weaker. Two factors prompted the emergence of centrist groupings. First, there was the failure of reformism to deliver the goods. In Britain, MacDonald’s 1929-31 Labour government turned on its supporters to make workers pay for the crisis in capitalism. In Germany the Social Democrats not only played a similar role in the Weimar republic, they also failed to mount any fighting campaign against the rapid rise of the Nazis.
Secondly, there was the lunatic policy of the by now thoroughly Stalinised Third International. The communist parties, in their “ultra-left” phase, maintained that the social democratic parties were no different from fascist parties (on the grounds that both were a block on the road to revolution). That meant that social democratic workers in Germany, who might have been won to a joint successful struggle against Nazism, were written off as “social-fascists”. It also meant, as Trotsky pointed out, that if there was no difference between these twins, fascism must have already conquered. So for all its apparent leftism, the German Communist Party was in practice passive and abstentionist.
The terrible consequence was that Hitler destroyed the working class movement in Germany without a shot being fired in its defence.
Under the impact of major ideological crisis, some minor working class parties began to move Ieftwards towards the kind of revolutionary internationalism that Trotsky and his small band of supporters represented. Centrist groupings flourished – for example, the Independent Labour Party in Britain, which disaffiliated from the Labour Party in 1932. Disgusted by reformism, repelled by Stalinism, they flirted with Marxist ideas. There were also similar German, Dutch and Norwegian groups, to name the most important, though in truth all were small. They were linked in a loose federation, a kind of centrist International, and later joined by the POUM in Spain, a centrist party that played a crucial role in the Spanish revolution – a role Trotsky submitted to searching criticism.
They were also confused. Some of their leaders were pacifist-inclined, or couldn’t bring themselves to break with Stalinism, or were reluctant to abandon their cherished parliamentary methods. Conditions were unfavourable at the rank and file level as well. In a period of defeat, the way forward for workers breaking with reformism and Stalinism was by no means clear (in the way it had been after the First World War). Nor was the pole of attraction (Trotsky’s isolated grouplets) very powerful.
Some of these groups were right-centrist, others left-centrist. Trotsky urged his supporters to take the latter seriously. If he couldn’t offer size, he could offer a revolutionary tradition and clarity of ideas. He considered that, unlike reformist organisations, the weight of revolutionary politics inside these organisations might push them to revolutionary politics and the perspective of founding a new International. He therefore set out either to win existing leaderships (as was the case in Holland) or to have his supporters enter openly and by dint of their theoretical and practical superiority take over from the existing leadership.
This kind of entry, it should be noted, was quite different from the entrism into reformist organisations he urged on his supporters a short while afterwards. Left centrist organisations might be secured for revolutionary politics almost in their entirety. They were too ramshackle for the old apparatus to maintain the centrist leaders’ grip on workers whose ideas were rapidly developing under the influence of revolutionaries within their ranks.
No such possibilities existed with mass reformist organisations. There the old apparatus had a firm hold over a majority of the membership. The purpose of entrism would not be to pretend that such organisations as a whole could be won to revolutionary politics but to detach a minority while it was moving leftwards under the impact of social crisis. Given that perspective, entrism was necessarily a short term tactic, to be completed before the gravitational pull of reformism reasserted itself and sucked revolutionaries behind it.
Needless to say, in both cases Trotsky insisted on the need for absolute political independence for his supporters. At the same time he had to overcome a sectarian inertia among those of his followers who failed to see that the radicalised workers of these centrist groups had to be won to revolutionary politics before reformism and Stalinism recovered credibility.
Trotsky had some success with left centrist groups. though less than he expected, which was not surprising in view of the increasingly unfavourable climate for revolutionary politics in the 1930s. Still the experiment was worth trying. It yielded a very modest crop of new recruits and a rather richer crop of polemics.
Is it possible to generalise the characteristics of centrism? “Centrism”, wrote Trotsky. “is a general name for the most varied tendencies and groupings spread out between reformism and Marxism.” Consequently, its ideas are a mish-mash, an amorphous amalgam of different political traditions reflecting the different pressures put upon it.
Thus a centrist shies away from the uncompromisingly sharp formulations of Marxism. Conversely, a centrist borrows Marxist arguments in order to criticise reformism (for example, that reformists fail to appreciate the power of the state in preventing change via parliament), but fails to draw the obvious conclusion – that the state has to be smashed. Thus a centrist’s opposition to right-wing ideas and leaders tends to be more platonic than real.
A centrist can be hostile to reformism but because of the unwillingness to break decisively with reformism “is inclined to cringe before those who are more moderate, to remain silent on their opportunist sins and to cover their actions before the workers.” A centrist prizes “unity” with reformist leaders above anything else. Above all, in Trotsky’s characteristically cutting phrase, a centrist “views with hatred the revolutionary principle: state what is.”
Does any of this apply today? Since we are in a period neither of revolutionary upsurge nor of catastrophic working class defeat, centrism in its classic form does not at present exist. Yet elements of centrism certainly exist. The defeat of the miners in 1985 produced a general shift to the right, with an accompanying boost for reformist politics of the Kinnockite variety. But it has also resulted in a move to the left by a much smaller layer of people disgusted at the antics of the trade union and Labour Party leaders.
However, although this layer has moved to the left, it has not moved outside the orbit of the Labour Party. It rejects Kinnock but not the Labour Party itself. It wishes to fight the system but thinks the Labour Party can be made to do that. Undoubtedly it is people in this contradiction who find themselves attracted to Militant. Militant is the only group inside the Labour Party which offers any resistance to Kinnockism. And the arguments employed by Militant to justify this contradictory mood are undoubtedly centrist.
Militant fudge the nature of the Labour Party and of parliament. They obscure the revolutionary tradition which states quite baldly that neither can bring about socialism. They duck the Leninist notion that a revolutionary party must be built outside and independent of reformist politics.
Militant are also reluctant to state what is. Any realistic assessment of the balance of class forces is jeered at as pessimism, lack of faith in the working class or the product of sectarian isolation. Hence Militant’s tendency to take the view that things are forever on the up, appearances notwithstanding. The implications for practice are a drift into fatalism and a failure to prepare for confrontation (as in the example of Liverpool). Their evolution since the defeat in Liverpool has shown that, lacking an independent perspective, they have been subject to the general drift to the right inside the Labour Party. The witch-hunt against Militant members has both weakened their influence and led them to making accommodations to Kinnock. They are a reminder to us that centrists can evolve to the right as well as to the left.
Last updated on 31.3.2002