Written: 23 March 1934.
Source: The Militant, Vol. VII No. 16, 21 April 1934, p. 3.
Alternative Version: Two Articles On Centrism, Class Struggle, Official Organ Of The Communist League Of Struggle (Adhering to the International Left Opposition), Vol. 4 No. 8, August 1934.
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.
Editor’s Note – The following article by comrade Trotsky was written in reply to a criticism of his previous article on Centrism and the Fourth International (Militant, March 17) which appeared in De Fakkel, organ of the Independent Socialist Party of Holland (O.S.P.). De Fakkel disputed comrade Trotsky’s contention that Centrism has replaced reformism as the main tendency in the international labor movement. De Fakkel also defended the adhesion of the O.S.P. to the London-Amsterdam Bureau and its relations with the Norwegian Labor Party (N.A.P.).
De Fakkel’s criticism of my article (Centrism and the Fourth International) is highly characteristic of the make up of the leadership of the O.S.P. as well as of left centrism in general. It therefore deserves to be analyzed.
Is it correct that the main tend ency 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 ol 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 I.L.P. 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 S.P. 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 O.S.P. in Holland was the first step in the open decomposition of the old Dutch social democracy. The development will proceed in this direction.
As a matter of practical policy in every country it is naturally very important not only to keep track of the general tendency of development but also of the stages thru 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 Marxian methods.
Viewed historically reformism has lost completely its social basis. Without reforms there is no reformism, without prosperous capitalism, no reforms. 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 O.S.P. are not conscious of this process of which they form a component part. Precisely because they fuel 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 O.S.P. and S.A.P. 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. Those revolutionists will fight reformism best who are absolutely independent of centrism and view it critically and intransigently.
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 O.S.P. could have joined the Second International with the same justification. That we must fight for the Fourth International wherever possible is clear. This task, however, means an irreconcilable struggle against the treacherous policy of Tranmael and certainly not a brotherhood in arms with him. That they “criticize” Tranmael 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 reactionary 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 Tranmaels 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 Tranmael De Fakkel, as well as the Neue 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 De 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 centrism. 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 grovelling before opportunist organizations of the type of the N.A.P., 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 begin with Marxist quality to turn it afterwards into mass quantity. The small but well hardened and sharply ground ax splits, hews and shapes heavy beams. We should begin with an ax of steel. Even here the means of production is decisive.
With regard to the O.S.P., as in all other cases, 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 O.S.P. workers on the road to the Fourth International – of this we are quite certain.
1. Besides its left Finn Moes who face the O.S.P. and the S.A.P. Tranmael has also his right Finn Moes whose face is turned towards the King’s palace.
Last updated on: 13 May 2016