Discussion: Opportunism and centrism in the working class and its organizations

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In nos. 40, 41 and 42 of the International Review we published articles bearing on a debate which has been carried on in the ICC for more than two years. In the first of these articles, ‘The Danger of Councilism' (IR 40), we explained the whole importance invested in the external publication of political discussions which unfold inside revolutionary organizations, to the extent that these are not polite debates where one ‘discusses for discussion's sake', but the debate of questions which concern the whole of the working class, since their raison d'être is to actively participate in the process of the coming to consciousness of the class regarding its revolutionary tasks. In this article, as well as that published in IR 42, ‘Centrist Slidings Towards Councilism', we gave some inf­ormation on the way in which the debate has unfolded (through citing long extracts from internal discussion texts). We won't repeat this except to recall that the principal questions which separate the minority (constit­uted as a ‘tendency' since January 1985) from the orientations of the ICC are:

- point 7 of the resolution adopted in January 1984 by the central organ of the ICC (reproduced in the article in IR 42) on class consciousness;

- the appreciation of the danger councilism represents for the class and its revolutionary organizations today and in the future;

- the analysis of the phenomena of opportunism and centrism in the working class and its revol­utionary organizations.

The first three articles deal principally with the question of the danger of councilism:

- that in IR 40 presenting the organization's position.

- that in IR 41 (‘The ICC and the Politics of the Lesser Evil'), the position of the minority.

- that in IR 42 responding, in the name of the ICC, to the preceding article.

In the current issue we deal with the question of opportunism and centrism in the form of an article representing the positions of the "tendency" (‘The Concept of "Centrism": the Road to the Abandonment of Class Positions') and an article in response defending the posit­ions of the ICC.


The concept of ‘centrism': The road to the abandonment of class positions

The purpose of this article is to present the positions of the Tendency which was constituted within the ICC in January 1985 on the question of centrism. In the face of the utilization of the term ‘centrism' by the majority of the ICC in order to describe the process by which bourgeois ideology penetrates the revolutionary organizations of the proletariat, we intend:

- to provide a clear Marxist definition of centr­ism as a political current or tendency which historically existed within the workers' movement;­

- to show that centrism cannot exist in the dec­adent phase of capitalism;

- to point to the very grave danger that the utilization of the concept of centrism in this historical epoch represents for a revolutionary organization.        

The ‘definition' of centrism offered by the maj­ority of the ICC is limited to a series of attitudes and patterns of behavior (conciliation, hesitation, vacillation, not going all the way with a correct position) which, if they are in­disputably political in nature and are no less features of the centrist tendencies which historically existed (c.f. Rosa Luxemburg's characterization of the "marshiness" of Kautsky), are nonetheless completely insufficient to adequately define a political current. Centrism always had a precise political program and a specific material base. The revolutionary Marxists (Luxemburg, Pannekoek, Bordiga, Lenin) who fought the centrist danger which brought about the corruption and degeneration of the Second International always sought the real basis for the conciliation and vacillation of centrism in the political positions and material basis which defined this disease which afflicted the workers' movement in the period leading up to 1914.

While there were several varieties of centrism in­ the Second International, e.g. Menshevism in Russia, the Maximalists in Italy, Austro-Marxism in the Habsburg Empire, it is Kautskyism in Ger­many which is the classic example of centrism. A brief survey of the positions of the Kautskyist centre will make clear that the clash between revolutionary Marxists and the centrists was not reducible to a fight between ‘hards' and ‘softs', but rather involved a struggle between two completely different political programs.

The theoretical and methodological basis of Kautskyism was mechanistic materialism, a crude economic determinism which culminated in a fatalism concerning the historical process. Taking his point of departure not in Marx but in what he conceived to be the Darwinian revolution in science, Kautsky homogenized nature and society, and constructed a theory based on a universal set of laws operative in nature and inexorably working themselves out in history.                                                       

For Kautsky, consciousness - downgraded to an epiphenomenon - had to be brought to the workers from ‘outside' by the intellectuals, the proletariat being seen as an army which must be ‘disciplined' by its General Staff, i.e. the party leadership. Kautsky unequivocally rejected any idea that mass actions are the crucible for the development of class consciousness, just as he insisted that the only possible forms of proletarian organization were the mass Social-Democratic party and the trade unions - each of which had to be directed by a professional, bureaucratic apparatus.

The goal of the proletariat's struggle, according to Kautsky, was "... the conquest of state power through the conquest of a majority in parliament and the elevation of parliament to a commanding position within the state. Certainly not the destruction of state power." (‘Die Neue Taktik', 1911-12) To lay hold of the existing state app­aratus, not to destroy it, to accomplish a peace­ful transition to socialism via universal suff­rage, to use parliament as the instrument of social transformation - that was the political program of Kautskyist centrism. In opposition to a strategy of annihilation, which aims at decisive battles with the class enemy, Kautsky, in the course of his polemic with Rosa Luxemburg over the mass strike, put forward his strategy of attrition, based on "... the right to vote, the right of assembly, freedom of the press, freedom of association" (‘Was Nun', 1909-10), which the proletariat possessed in Western Europe. Within the framework of such a strategy of attrition, Kautsky assigned an extremely limited and subord­inate role to mass action: the objective of mass actions "... cannot be to destroy state power, but only to compel the government to yield on a particular position, or to replace a government hostile to the proletariat with a government favorable to the proletariat." (‘Die Neue Taktik') Moreover, according to Kautsky, socialism itself required "expert and trained people" to run the state apparatus: "... government of the people and by the people in the sense that public affairs should be administered not by functionaries but by popular masses working without pay during their spare time (was) a utopia, even a reactionary and anti-democratic utopia ..." (‘Die Agrarfrage', 1899)           

A similar look at Menshevism or Austro-Marxism would also clearly reveal that in all cases centrism - like any tendency in the workers' movement - must be defined primarily by its political positions and program. Here it is important to point to the fundamental Marxist distinction between appearance and essence in objective reality - the former being no less ‘real' than the latter.[1] The appearance of centrism is, indeed, hesitation, vacillation, etc. However, the essence of centrism - politically - is its unswerving and unshakeable commitment to legalism, gradualism,      parliamentarism and ‘democracy', in the struggle for socialism, from which it never for even one moment oscillated.

The material base of centrism in the advanced capitalist societies of Europe was the mass Social‑Democratic electoral machine (and particularly its paid functionaries, professional bureaucrats and parliamentary representatives) and the burgeoning trade union apparatus. It is in these strata, which drained the workers' parties of their revolutionary élan, and not in a supposed ‘labor aristocracy', created out of the broad masses of the proletariat by the crumbs of imperialist super-profits, as Lenin insisted, that we must look for the material base of centrism. Nonetheless, whether pointing to the Social-Democratic electoral machine and trade union apparatus or to a spurious labor aristocracy, it is incontestable that revolutionary Marxists always sought to grasp the reality of centrism in terms of its specific material base. Furthermore, it is crucial to recognize that it was precisely those strata and institutions of the workers' movement which provided centrism with its social base - the electoral machine and union apparatus - which were engaged in the process of becoming directly incorporated into the capitalist state apparatus, though this process would only reach its culmin­ating point with the outbreak of World War I.

Any definition that does not recognize that cent­rism always entails a specific set of political positions and always has a determinate material base, any ‘definition' that limits itself to attitudes and patterns of behavior (as does that of the present majority of the ICC) must totally fail to grasp so complex and historically specific a phenomenon as centrism, and cannot claim to be really guided by the Marxist method.

It is to the historical specificity of centrism that we now want to turn. Before determining whether or not centrism as a tendency within the workers' movement can still exist in the epoch of capitalist, decadence, we must first establish how the political boundaries of the workers' movement have been historically shaped and transformed. What constitutes the political boundaries of the workers' movement in a given epoch is determined by the nature of the period of capitalist development, the objective historical tasks facing the proletariat, and the organization of capital and its state. Since the inception of the proletarian movement there has been a continual process of historical decantation which has progressively narrowed and delimited the parameters of what can be designated as politically constituting the terrain of the working class. In the epoch of the First International, the development of capitalism - even in its European heartland - was still characterized by the introduction of large-scale machine production and the constitution of a real industrial proletariat out of the declining artisanal and dispossessed peasantry. The objective historical tasks facing the young proletarian movement in that epoch included the final triumph of the anti-feudal, bourgeois‑democratic revolution and the completion of the phase of national unification in countries like Italy and Germany. Therefore, the boundaries of the workers' movement were broad enough to include the Bakuninists and Proudhonists characterized by political programs with their roots in a laboring class which had not yet freed itself from its petty-bourgeois artisanal and peasant past, the Blanquists with their base in the Jac­obinical intelligentsia, and even the Mazzinians with their program of nationalism and radical republicanism, as well as the Marxists who were the specific expression of the proletariat as a class with "radical chains".                                            

In the epoch of the Second International, the development of capitalism made it imperative for the proletariat to constitute itself into a distinct political party in opposition to all bourgeois and petty-bourgeois political currents. The tasks facing the working class included both the organizational and ideological preparations for socialist revolution, and the struggle for durable reforms within the framework of an ascendant capitalism; this was the epoch in which the proletar­iat had both a maximum and a minimum program. The end of the period of anti-feudal, national revolutions and the end of the period of the infancy of the industrial proletariat as a class had already considerably narrowed the boundaries of the workers' movement. Nonetheless, the constant tension between the maximum and the minimum programs, the struggle for socialism and the struggle for reforms, meant that tendencies as different and opposed as revolutionary Marxism, anarcho-syndicalism, centrism,­ ‘revisionism' could all exist, and confront one another, on the political terrain of the working class.      ­                                    ­                                                                                   

In the epoch of capitalist decadence, of state capitalism, with its incorporation of permanent, mass, political parties and unions into the totalitarian state apparatus of capitalism - inaugurated by World War I - international proletarian revolution had become the sole objective political task of the working class. The complete elimination of any distinction between the maximum and minimum programs, the impossibility of durable reforms in an epoch of permanent crisis, meant that the political terrain of the working class and revolutionary Marxism were now identical. The different centrist tendencies, ­with their program of parliamentarism and legalism, with their strategy of attrition, with their material base in the Social-Democratic parliamentary machines and trade union apparatus, had passed irrevocably into the camp of capitalism. It is necessary to be absolutely clear on the implications of the fundamental changes in the nature of the period, in the tasks facing the proletariat, and in the organization of capital: the political space once filled by centrism has now been definitively occupied by the capitalist state and its left political apparatus.

The comrades of the ICC majority could perhaps say that while the classic political positions of centrism are now those of the capitalist class enemy (a point nobody in the ICC disputes), there are other political positions which define centrism in the epoch of decadent capitalism. Apart from the fact that this would be to fail to grasp the essence and the historical specificity of centrism, the question would still remain: what exactly are these latter-day ‘centrist' positions? Is there a centrist position on the unions or on electoralism for example? Is support for rank and file unionism or ‘revolutionary parl­iamentarism' now to become centrist, and not - as         the ICC has always insisted - counter-revolutionary? In any case, no comrade of the majority has tried to define this spurious contemporary version of centrism in terms of specific positions. Instead, the comrades of the majority have simply repeated that centrism equals "conciliation", "vacillation", etc. Not only is such a ‘definition' politically indeterminate in class terms[2] but, as we shall see below, it was not until Trotsky and the already degenerate Left Opposition of the 1930s that a Marxist ever put forward a definition of centrism based on attitudes and patterns of behavior.

We must now take a look at how the concept of centrism has been used by revolutionaries in the dec­adent phase of capitalism, how it has always obs­cured and blurred the basic class lines, and how it has been a major symptom of ideological and political corruption on the part of those Marxists who have utilized it.

The attempt to carry over the concept of centrism used by Luxemburg, Lenin, etc., before 1914 (that is, to designate corrupt political tendencies on the class terrain of the proletariat) into the epoch of wars and revolutions opened up by World War I can be seen in the cases of the Third International during the formation of national Communist parties in Central and Western Europe (1919‑22), and Trotsky and the Left Opposition before its definitive passage into the enemy camp during World War II.

The path which led to the formation of Communist parties in Central Europe after 1919 was definit­ely not the path of intransigent theoretical and political struggle by a revolutionary Marxist faction to achieve programmatic clarity which had been followed by the Bolsheviks in Russia - a point clearly made by the comrades of the Italian Faction of the Communist Left in the pages of Bilan during the 1930s. Instead, the strategy and tactics of the Communist International were animated by the view that the immediate formation of mass parties was necessary given the imminence of world revolution. This led to a policy of compromise with corrupt and even openly counter-revolutionary tendencies which were included in the CPs of Central and Western Europe, but whose influence would supposedly be negated by the existence of a pre-revolutionary situation driving the mass of the proletariat to the left. Moreover, danger of such compromises in the eyes of the CI, was lessened by the fact that the newly-created CPs would be subject to the direction of the ideologically more advanced and programmatically clear Bolshevik Party in Russia. In fact, though, neither a hoped-for pre-revolutionary situation, nor the leadership of the Bolsheviks, could counteract the disastrous effects of the CI's policy of concessions to, and compromise with, tendencies which had loyally supported the imperialist war. Instead, the unprincipled policy of the CI in the formation of the CPs in Europe itself became a supplementary factor in the defeat of the proletariat. While even the Bolshevik Party did not have and adequate theory of the relationship of party and class, nor of the dev­elopment of class consciousness, this was the price paid for years of ossification of the Marxist method and theory in the Second International, and by the fact that many of the decisive questions concerning those vital issues were only then becoming open to solution in the crucible of the revolutionary practice of the proletariat. The policy of the Third International in Western Europe, however, involved an abandonment of revolutionary principles and clarity already acquired by the Bolsheviks in the course of their long theoretical and political struggle within Russian Social-Democracy, in their battle for proletarian internationalism during the imper­ialist war, and throughout the revolution in Russia.

The most glaring case of such an abandonment of revolutionary principles by the CI was the form­ation of the Czech CP, based on openly counter­-revolutionary elements. The Czech CP was built exclusively around the Smeral tendency of the Social-Democratic Party, which had loyally supp­orted the Habsburg monarchy throughout the four years of imperialist world war!

In the French Socialist Party (SFIO), apart from a small internationalist, left tendency, the ‘Committee for the Third International' which supported unconditional adherence to the CI[3], two political tendencies confronted each other on the eve of the Congress at Tours, in 1920, at which the issue of adherence to the Third International was on the agenda. First, the ‘Committee Socialist Resistance to Adherence to the Third International' or right, around Leon Blum, Renaudel and Albert Thomas. Second, the ‘Committee for the Reconstruction of the International', the ‘Reconstructeurs', or centre, around Longuet, Faure, Cachin and Frossard. This latter, or ‘centrist' tendency, favored adherence to the CI, but with strict conditions so as to preserve the autonomy, program and traditions of French ‘socialism'. The evaluation of these two basic tendencies confronting each other on the eve of the Tours Congress by Amadeo Bordiga in his Storia della Sinistra Comunista is particularly acute: "On basic questions, in any case, the two wings are distinguished from one another by simple nuances. They are, in reality, the two sides of the same coin."           

The Longuetists had participated in the union sacree, until the growing discontent of the mass­es, and the need of capitalism to derail it, led them to call for a peace with "neither victims nor vanquished". To grasp the extent of the Longuetists complicity in the imperialist butchery it is worth quoting Longuet's speech of 2nd August, 1914, which prepared the way for the union sacree: "But if tomorrow France is invaded, how can the socialists not be the first to defend the France of the Revolution and of democracy, the Encyclopaedia, of 1789, of June ‘48..." When, over the objections of Zinoviev, the CI balked at accepting so notorious a chauvinist as Longuet into its ranks, and Cachin and Frossard split from their old leader and constituted the basis for a majority at Tours which would adhere to the CI - albeit with conditions - they still continued to defend and justify their policy of support for imperialist war. Thus, Cachin insisted that: "The responsibility for the war not being only our bourgeoisie's, but that of German imperialism, therefore, our policy of national defense finds - with respect to the past - its full justification." The implications of Cachin's statement for the future could be clearly seen in his insistence that one must always distinguish "honest national defense" from the supposedly counterfeit version of the bourgeoisie.

The split in the SFIO at Tours and the formation of the PCF (French Communist Party) followed the directives of the CI and meant that the PCF in its overwhelming majority, and in its leadership, would consist of the counter-revolutionary Long­uetist faction, and that the twenty-one condi­tions - themselves inadequate - would be stretched to accommodate openly chauvinist elements. How was it possible for the PCF to be constituted by a majority led by Cachin-Frossard, an essentially Longuetist majority?[4] This capitulation by the CI, this dagger-thrust into the heart of the proletariat, this seed from which the popular front and the resistance sprouted, was covered over and made possible by .... the concept of centrism! By baptizing the Longuetists as ‘cen­trists', this tendency was cleansed of its mor­tal sins and transferred from the political terr­ain of capitalism - where its program and prac­tice had squarely placed it - to the political terrain of the working class (albeit with a bit of an ideological taint).

In Germany, where the KPD (German Communist Party) had already excluded its left tendencies (in open violation of the spirit and letter of its own of statutes), tendencies which had taken an unequivocal internationalist position in the course of the imperialist war and which had most clearly grasped the nature of the new period, the CI ordered the KPD to merge with the USPD in order to provide it with a mass base. The USPD, in whose leading positions were found Bernstein, Hilfer­ding and Kautsky, whose founding manifesto had been drafted by the renegade Kautsky, was born as a result of the expulsion of the oppositional parliamentary caucus, the Arbeitsgemeinschaft, from the SPD in 1917. The position of the Arbeitsgemeinschaft in the face of the imperialist war[5] (which became the position of the USPD) was to insist on a peace without annexations a position that was virtually identical to that of so ferocious an advocate of German imperialism as Max Weber, and other spokesmen for high fin­ance, when confronted with the dangers - partic­ularly social - of a long drawn-out and unwinn­able war. In the midst of the German revolution of November 1918, the USPD would participate in the coalition government that was set up to stem the revolutionary tide, at the side of the ‘pure' Social-Democrats, the SPD of Noske and Scheidemann. When in the face of the Christmas massacre, the radicalization of the masses threatened to isolate the USPD and leave the representatives of German capital with no influence over the masses, the USPD went into the ‘opposition', from which it worked to integrate the Workers' Councils - where it had majorities - into the Weimar constitution, i.e. the institutional edifice by which German capitalism was reconsolidating its shattered power. At the moment of the Second Congress of the CI, at which the merger of the KPD and the USPD was the object of a bitter dispute, Wijnkoop, on behalf of the Dutch CP, proclaimed: "My party is of the opinion that we should not negotiate at all with the USPD, with a party that is now sitting in the Presidium of the Reichstag, that is to say, with a governing party." (our emphasis)

Indeed, to fully grasp the counter-revolutionary nature of the USPD we must look beyond its public statements - replete with praise for legalism, parliamentarism and ‘democracy' - to the even more forthright private statements of its leaders. In this respect, Kautsky's letter of 7th August, 1916 to the Austro-Marxist Viktor Adler explaining the real reasons for the formation of the Arbeitsgemeinschaft - the embryo of the USPD within the SPD- is a document of the greatest importance: "The danger from the Spartacus' group is great. Its radicalism corresponds to the       immediate needs of the broad, undisciplined masses. Liebknecht is now the most popular man in the trenches .... Had it (the Arbeitsgemeinschaft) not been formed, Berlin would have been conquered            by the Spartacists' and would be outside the party. On the other hand, if the left parliamentary group had been constituted in an independent position a year ago as I desired, the Spartacus' group would have acquired no weight at all." After reading the candid statements of the renegade Kautsky, is it really necessary to add that the objective - and even conscious function - of the Arbeitsgemeinschaft and its successor, the USPD, was to prevent the radicalization of the masses and to preserve capitalist order?

The decision of the CI to merge the KPD with the USPD a blunder of the first magnitude, with devastating consequences for the fate of the revolution in Germany - could only have been carried out by first designating the USPD as a ‘centrist' party (moving to the left under the pressure of events), thereby shifting - though only in words - its class nature from capitalist to proletarian.      

The important point here is not all the reasons which led the CI to turn its back on its revolutionary principles in the process of forming the CPs of Europe, but rather to insist that the concept of centrism provided the necessary ideological wrapping with which to cover over a policy of compromise with counter-revolutionary elements.                               

Concomitant with, and linked to, the disastrous policy of the CI in the formation of the PCF, VKPD, etc., was the beginnings of a return to the method and philosophy of mechanistic materialism of the Second International, which laid the ideological basis for Diamat, the Stalinist (i.e. capitalist) world view which was to become institutionalized in the ‘Comintern' of the 1930s. The abandonment of revolutionary political principles is always linked to methodological and theoretical incoherence. 

In the case of Trotsky and the Left Opposition in the 1930s, the alliance with Social-Democracy (United Front, ‘Workers' Government', anti-fascism) and the defense of Russia as a ‘workers' state', were the positions through which this tendency was led to definitively betray the proletariat and pass into the camp of capitalism during World War II. These very positions were them­selves inextricably linked to Trotsky's utilization of the concept of centrism to grasp the dynamics of Social-Democracy and to analyze the nature of Stalinism. Indeed, the theory of ‘cen­trist groupings that crystallized out of Social-Democracy', the inability to clearly draw the class line, which was for Trotsky hopelessly ob­scured by the concept of centrism provided the ideological basis for the ‘French Turn' of 1934, by which Trotsky ordered sections of the International Left Opposition to enter the counter‑revolutionary Social-Democratic parties.

The definition of centrism in terms of attitudes and patterns of behavior, the profile of the centrist (incoherent, vacillating, conciliatory, etc.) on which the majority of the ICC bases its concept, first made its appearance in the workers' movement in the 1930s, in the ranks of the Trotskyist Left Opposition, then already abandoning class position after class position in the headlong rush towards the camp of the counter- revolution. In ‘Centrism and the Fourth International', which first appeared in The Militant of 17th March 1934, and in which any pretence of defining centrism in terms of its political posi­tions is abandoned, Trotsky paints a verbal pic­ture of the centrist which almost word for word can be found in the texts of the majority of the ICC today.[6]

In the sunset of ascendant capitalism, centrism as a political tendency within the Second Inter­national brought about the corruption and degen­eration which led to the betrayal of August 1914. In decadent capitalism, it is the concept of centrism - still utilized by revolutionaries, in­capable of shaking off the dead weight of the past - which has time and again opened the doors to compromise with, and surrender to, the ideo­logy of capitalism penetrating the workers' move­ment.

The majority of the ICC has frequently said that revolutionaries must not discard a political tool - in this instance the concept of centrism - just because it may have been misused. To this rejoinder, we have to make three basic points. First, the comrades of the majority are today using the concept of centrism so as to repeat the same grave mistakes as those of the CI in the 1920s. Thus, the majority declares that despite the role which the USPD played in the defeat of the revolution in Germany, and despite its impeccable Social-Democratic credentials, it was still a centrist party on the terrain of the working class. In the pages of Revolution Internationale, the chauvinists Cachin and Frossard are dubbed opportunists and centrists in our account of the formation of the PCF. Second, we must insist that there has never been a case when the utilization of the concept of centrism by revolutionaries in decadent capitalism has not itself provided the wedge for compromise and conciliation with the ideology of the capitalist class enemy, a blurring of basic class lines and finally a retreat from class positions. Third, the concept of centrism in the hands of revolutionaries in the present epoch is organically linked to a fundamental misconception as to the very nature of this historic epoch, a failure to grasp the real meaning and profound implications of the universal tendency to state capitalism.

Thus far, we have looked at revolutionaries who utilized the concept of centrism to designate a phenomenon still on the political terrain of the working class - precisely the way that the pre­sent majority of the ICC is using the term. However, other revolutionary elements - with more programmatic clarity than the CI of the early ‘20s or Trotsky - have utilized the concept of centrism to designate political tendencies active within the ranks of the working class which have crossed the class line, which are counter-revol­utionary. For example, a French delegate at the Second Congress of the CI, Goldenberg, speaking for the revolutionary left, said: "The Theses proposed by comrade Zinoviev enumerate a series of conditions the fulfillment of which will en­able the socialist parties, the so-called ‘cen­trists', to enter the CI. I cannot agree with this procedure ... the leaders of the French Socialist Party have adopted a revolutionary phraseology in order to deceive the masses .... The French Socialist Party is a rotten party of petty-bourgeois reformists. Its affiliation to the CI will have the consequence that this rottenness will also be dragged into the CI. I simply want to state that people who have shown themselves, despite their revolutionary talk, to be determined counter-revolutionaries, cannot have       become communists in the course of a few weeks." Goldenberg, Bordiga's Abstentionist Faction of the PSI and the other representatives of the left at the Second Congress, on the one hand recognized the counter-revolutionary nature of Cachin, Frossard, Daumig, Dittmann, etc. who sought integration into the CI for the tendencies they headed- the better to derail the proletariat - and, on the other hand, continued to utilize the trad­itional terminology of ‘reformists', ‘centrists', etc., to designate these elements who had put themselves at the service of capitalism. As clear as the left in the CI was about the counter-revolutionary nature of ‘centrism', its continued use of this term reflected a real confusion and in­coherence in the face of the new phenomenon of state capitalism which the imperialist war and permanent crisis had produced, a confusion as to the fact that these ‘centrist' tendencies had not only definitively betrayed the proletariat and could never be recuperated, but that they had be­come an integral part of the state apparatus of capitalism, no different in class terms from the traditional bourgeois parties, though having a specific - capitalist - function in the class struggle. In this sense, the left was ideologic­ally gravely hampered in its struggle to prevent the corruption and degeneration of the CI.

The coexistence of terms like, ‘centrist', ‘social-patriot' and ‘counter-revolutionary' to designate elements like Frossard and Cachin, the use of the concept of centrism by which it sought to grasp the nature of Stalinism, also ideologic­ally disarmed the Italian Faction of the Commun­ist Left in the 1930s as it analyzed the comprom­ises and degeneration of the CI, and as it faced the triumphant Stalinist counter-revolution. While the Italian Faction was clear on the coun­ter-revolutionary nature of Stalinism and the alignment of Stalinism on the terrain of world capitalism - in glaring contrast to Trotsky - its analysis of Stalinism in terms of ‘centrism'[7] was a constant source of confusion, one effect of which was the incoherent policy of not formally severing its links with the completely Stalinized CP until 1935. The fact that comrades of the Italian and Belgian Factions of the Communist Left could designate Russia as a ‘workers' state' right through World War II, despite their recog­nition that Russia was aligned on the imperialist terrain of world capitalism, is eloquent test­imony to the political incoherence and compromise of revolutionary principles which resulted from the utilization of the concept of centrism in the phase of state capitalism.

The Bordigist ICP after World War II also utilized the concept of centrism to designate the trait­orous Socialist elements which had radicalized their language so as to better fulfill their function of controlling the working class for capitalism, and to designate the Stalinist par­ties - clearly recognized as counter-revolution­ary.[8] For example, in speaking of the Long­uetist tendency of the SFIO out of which the PCF in its great majority was constituted, not only did the Bordigists assert - correctly - that ".... the counter-revolution had no need to break the party (the PCF), but on the contrary based itself on it", but further that with respect to Cachin-Frossard: "In order to prevent the proletariat from constituting itself into a revolutionary party, as the objective situation irresistibly led it, in order to divert its energy towards elections or towards trade union slogans compatible with capitalism ...", it was necessary for ‘centrism' to adopt "a more radical language."[9] Here the Bordigists grasp the objective role played by these counter-revolutionary tendencies and then fall back into confusion by designating them centrist.

In both the cases of the Italian Faction and much more alarmingly the Bordigists (given the span of time during which they have stuck to the concept of centrism[10] the utilization of the concept of centrism was the ransom paid for their inability to grasp the reality of state capitalism, and thereby one of the fundamental charact­eristics of the present epoch.

Incredibly, the concept of centrism utilized by the majority of the ICC today (a phenomenon on the class terrain of the proletariat) descends below even the confused state of the left of the CI, the Italian Faction and even - with respect to the history of the early CI, in whose battles Bordiga fought - the Bordigists! The ICC's re­course to the concept of centrism is fraught with danger for the organization, inasmuch as it puts in question a number of the basic acquisitions of the Communist Left and turns its back on some of the fundamental lessons of the struggle of the left within the CI. It is not that these acquisi­tions are sufficient to achieve the programmatic clarity that the working class requires today, and which is a pre-requisite for the construction of the world party of tomorrow. It is, rather, that by deserting these lessons and descending below the theoretical clarity of the past, the very possibility of going forward in the develop­ment of the communist program - which the pre­sent situation absolutely requires - is jeopardized. It is for these reasons that the Tendency constituted in the ICC on the basis of a Declar­ation in January 1985 rejects the concept of cen­trism, and warns of the grave dangers the present course opens up for both the theory and practice of the ICC.


for the Tendency

The rejection of the concept of ‘centrism' the open door to the abandonment of class positions

The article by Mac Intosh for the tendency published in this issue of the International Review has a great advantage over the previous article of the minority, ‘The ICC and the Politics of the Lesser Evil' by JA, published in IR 41: it deals with a precise question and sticks to it until the end, whereas the other, alongside the question of the danger of councilism, talks a little about everything else...and notably the question of centrism. However, while eclecticism, which tends to create a fog for the reader, was a fault of JA's article (a fault with regard to the clarity of the debate - but perhaps this is a quality from the confusionist standpoint of the ‘tendency'), one could say that the thematic unity of Mac Intosh's article, although it makes it easier to discover what the positions of the tendency are, is not uniquely a factor of clarity. Mac Intosh's article is well constructed, based on a simple and logical plan and has the appearance of rigor and of an effort to support arguments with precise historical illustrations - all characteristics which make this the most solid document of the tendency so far, and which can be impressive if you read it in a superficial manner. However, Mac Intosh's article doesn't escape the fault we already pointed to in IR 42 with regard to JA's article (and which is one of the major characteristics of the approach of the tendency): the avoidance of the real questions of the debate, the real problems posed to the proletariat. The difference between the two articles lies essent­ially in the degree of mastery of this avoidance technique.

Thus, while JA needs to make a lot of noise, to talk a bit about everything, to produce several smokescreens in order to accomplish her sleights of hand, Mac Intosh does his in a much more sober manner. This sobriety is even part of the effectiveness of his technique. By dealing only with the problem of centrism in general and in the history of the workers' movement without referring in any way to the manner in which the question was posed in the ICC, he avoids informing the reader that this discovery (of which he is the author) of the non-existence of centrism in the period of decadence came just at the right moment for the ‘reservist' comrades (who abstained or expressed ‘reserves' in the vote on the resolution of January ‘84). Mac Intosh's thesis, to which these comrades rallied with the constitution of the tendency, enabled them to recover some strength in their stand against the ICC's analysis of centrist slidings towards councilism of which they had become victims, since prior to that they had exhausted themselves in combating it by trying vainly to show (in turn or simultaneously) that ‘centrism is the bourgeoisie', ‘there is a danger of centrism in revolutionary organizations but not in the ICC', ‘the centrist danger exists in the ICC but not with regard to councilism'. The ‘reservist' comrades thus proved that at least they were acquainted with the adage ‘an empty vessel makes the most noise'. Similarly, in his article Mac Intosh shows that he's familiar with the good old common sense view that ‘you don't talk about rope in the house of a hanged man'.

In resume, if we may be permitted an image, we can illustrate the difference between the tech­niques used by JA and Mac Intosh in their respect­ive articles as follows:

- the maladroit conjuror JA, after many clumsy gesticulations, announces: ‘the "councilist danger" rabbit has vanished!', even though half the audience can still see its ears and tail;

- the skilful conjuror Mac Intosh simply says ‘abracadabra, the "centrism" dove has vanished!', and you need to be a bit more perceptive to see that he's hidden it in the folds of his cloak.

For our part, we will be basing ourselves on marxism and the lessons of historical experience in order to expose the tricks used by Mac Intosh and the tendency to dissimulate their sleight of hand[11]. But in the first place we need to recall how revolutionary marxism has always characterized centrism.

The definition of centrism

Comrade Mac Intosh tells us:

"The definition of centrism offered by the maj­ority of the ICC is limited to a series of att­itudes and patterns of behavior (conciliation, hesitation, vacillation, not going all the way with a correct position) which, if they are in­disputably political in nature and are no less features of the centrist tendencies which histor­ically existed (c. f. Rosa Luxemburg's characterization of the "marshiness" of Kautsky), are nonetheless completely insufficient to adequat­ely define a political current."

In order to get a more precise idea of the validity of Mac Intosh's reproach against the ICC's positions, we will cite a number of extracts from internal discussion texts expressing these positions:                   

"Opportunism is characterized not only by what it says, but also and especially by what it does not say, by what it will say tomorrow, by what it keeps quiet about today in order to say tomorrow, when circumstances will appear more favorable, more propitious. The opportunity of the moment often prompts it to remain silent. And it behaves like this, not so much because of a consciously machiavellian mentality, but because such behavior is part of its nature, better still, because it is the basis of its nature.                                                         

Lenin used to say that opportunism is hard to get a grip on through what it says, but is easily seen in what it does. This is why it dislikes stating its identity. It finds nothing more dis­agreeable than being called by name. It detests appearing bare-faced, in a clear light. A shadowy half-light suits it down to the ground. Clear-cut, intransigent positions that take their reasoning to a conclusion make it giddy. The opportunist is too ‘well brought up' to stand polemics. He is too much a ‘gentleman' to like uncastrated language, and would like, taking his inspiration from the British parliament, the protagonists of radically different positions to begin the confrontation by addressing their adversary as ‘the right honorable gentleman' or ‘my honorable colleague'. With their taste for ‘Helicacy', for tact and moderation, for politeness and ‘fair play', those who tend towards opportunism completely forget that the tragic and vibrant arena of the class struggle and the struggle of revolutionaries have nothing in common with the old, dead and dusty ‘honorable House of Commons'.

Centrism is one of opportunism's facets, one of the many aspects in which it appears. It expresses opportunism's characteristic trait of always placing itself in the centre, ie between radically opposed and confronting forces and positions, between the openly reactionary social forces, and those radical forces that combat the existing order, to change the foundations of the present society.

Because it detests change, all radical upheaval, ‘centrism' is necessarily led to take openly the side of reaction, ie of capital, when the class struggle reaches the point of a decisive confrontation, and no longer leaves any room for vacillation - as in the case of the moment of the proletariat's revolutionary onslaught...

In his own way, the centrist is a sort of ‘pacif­ist'. He cannot bear any kind of extremism. Consistent revolutionaries within the proletariat always seem to him, by definition, too ‘extremist'. He lectures them, warns them against everything he finds excessive; for him, intransigence is just useless aggressiveness... Centrism is not a method, it is an absence of method. It dislikes the idea of a framework... What it prefers, where it really feels at ease, is the circle, where it can go endlessly round and round, state and contradict as it likes, go from left to right and from right to left without ever being bothered by the corners, where it can maneuver all the more easily in that it is not obliged to bear the weight or suffer the restrictions of memory, continuity, acquisitions and coherence, all of which is a hindrance to its ‘liberty'...

Centrism's congenital disease is its taste, sincere or otherwise, for reconciliation. Nothing bothers it more than a frank struggle of ideas. The confrontation of positions always seems to it to be too exaggerated. It sees all discussions as useless polemics, in discussions its attention is concentrated on words and syntax, rather than on the content they express... (The centrist) understands and respects the concerns of each side, so as not to upset anyone, for the first and foremost priority is to maintain unity and keep the peace. To do so he is always ready to sell his birthright for a mess of pottage.

Revolutionaries, like the class, also aspire to the greatest unity, and the most coordinated action, but never at the price of confusion, concessions on principles, the obscuring of program and positions, any loosening in their defense. For them, the proletariat's revolutionary program is not negotiable. This is why the centrist always sees them as wet blankets, extremists, impossible to get on with, eternal and incorrigible troublemakers...

Is there a centrist tendency in the organization? A formally organized tendency - no. But it cannot be denied that there is a tendency within our ranks to slide towards centrism which manifests itself each time a crisis situation or divergences on fundamental questions appear. It's not worth being put out or feeling offended since we don't aim at this or that comrade personally. In a general manner we have to understand well that it is not centrists who cause "centrism" but on the contrary the mentality, the centrist approach (lack of rigor and of method) which draw the individuals into its clutches. Centrism, basically, is a chronic weakness, always present, in an open or latent manner, in the workers' movement, manifesting itself differently accord­ing to circumstances. What characterizes it most is not only that it situates itself in the middle, between the extremes, but the wish to conciliate  in a single unity, of which it becomes the concil­iatory centre, in taking a little of one and a little of the other...

Today, this centrism is located among us between the councilist approach and that of the ICC...

What interests us as a political group is to study the political phenomena of the existence and the appearance of tendencies towards cent­rism, the reasons and the fundamentals of this phenomenon." (Extracts from a text of 17 February 1984)           

"Centrism is an erroneous approach but it is not situated outside the proletariat, but within the workers' movement, and for the most part expresses the influence of a political approach coming from the petty bourgeoisie. Otherwise it's impossible to understand how revolutionaries were able throughout history to cohabit with centrist tendencies in the same parties and Internationals of the proletariat... Centrism does not present itself with a clearly defined program: what characterizes it is precisely its vagueness, its indistinctness, and that's why its all the more dangerous, like a pernicious illness, continually threatening, from within, the revolutionary being of the proletariat." (Extracts from a text of May 1984)      

"But what are the sources of opportunism and centrism in the workers' movement? For revol­utionary marxists, they can essentially be red­uced to two:

1) The penetration into the proletariat of the bourgeois and petty bourgeois ideology which dom­inates in society and which surrounds the prol­etariat (also taking into account the process of proletarianization in society, which continuously pushes into the proletariat strata coming from the petty bourgeoisie, the peasantry and even the bourgeoisie, who bring petty bourgeois ideas with them);

2) The immaturity of the proletariat, or if you prefer, the enormous difficulty the class has in coming to consciousness..." (Extracts from a text of 24 November 1984)

We could have given many more extracts illust­rating the ICC's efforts and reflections on the question of centrism, but we don't have space for it here. However, even these incomplete quotations make it possible to do justice to the accusation that "The ‘definition' of centrism offered by the majority is a series of attitudes and patterns of behavior".

These quotations also have the merit of exposing one of Mac Intosh's major tricks: the identific­ation between ‘centrism' and ‘opportunism'. In fact his text achieves the rare exploit of not saying anything at all about the phenomenon of opportunism, even though the definition of cent­rism is necessarily based on the definition of opportunism of which it is one variety, one manifestation, one which tends to situate itself and oscillate between frank and open opportunism and revolutionary positions.

Mac Intosh's strings are at once very obvious and very subtle. He knows perfectly well that we have on many occasions used in our press (inc­luding in Congress resolutions, as was pointed out in the article in IR 42) the term opportunism in the context of the decadent period of capital­ism. Because of this, to affirm today in black and white that the notion of opportunism is no longer valid in this period would raise the ques­tion why it is precisely now that Mac Intosh dis­covers that what he voted for (with all the mem­bers of the ‘tendency') in 1977 (at the 2nd Con­gress of the ICC) was wrong. To the extent that the notion of centrism - which, however, is inseparable from that of opportunism - has up to now been used much less by the ICC (and wasn't voted for at a Congress), saying now that it can't exist in the period of decadence gives much less impression of a change of tack.

By avoiding the notion of opportunism and talking only of centrism, the comrades of the ‘tendency' avoid the fact that it's they who have made a volte face on this question and not the ICC, despite what they like to claim.

Is the ICC ‘centrist' towards Trotskyism?

This is obviously not the way the ‘tendency' poses the problem because it considers that centrism can't exist in the period of decadence. Nevertheless, via Mac Intosh's pen it does accuse the ICC of compromises with Trotskyism, of ‘falling into Trotskyist positions', which it supports with the following argument:

"The definition of centrism in terms of attitudes and patterns of behavior, the profile of the centrist (incoherent, vacillating, conciliatory, etc.) on which the majority of the ICC bases its concept, first made its appearance in the wor­kers' movement in the 1930s, in the ranks of the Trotskyist Left Opposition, then already abandon­ing class position after class position in the headlong rush towards the camp of the counter­revolution. In ‘Centrism and the Fourth International', which first appeared in The Militant  of 17th March 1934, and in which any pretence of defining centrism in terms of political positions is abandoned, Trotsky paints a verbal picture of the centrist which almost word for word can be found in the texts of the majority of the ICC today."

Here, Mac Intosh performs one of his adroit volte faces. After having admitted at the beginning of the text the "political nature" of questions of behavior, their validity (although he consid­ers them "insufficient") as part of the characterization of a political current, now he charges this kind of characterization with all the evils in creation.

But this isn't the most serious fault of this passage. What's most serious is that it complete­ly falsifies reality. The formulations in Trot­sky's article[12] are indeed striking in their resemblance to those of the text of 17 February ‘84 cited above (although the comrade who wrote this text had never read this particular article of Trotsky's). But it is a lie (deliberate, or based on ignorance?) to affirm that this kind of characterization of centrism was invented by Trotsky in 1934.

Let's see what the same Trotsky wrote as early as 1905 on the subject of opportunism (at a time when the term centrism was not yet being used in the workers' movement):

"It may seem a paradox to say that what characterizes opportunism is that it doesn't know how to wait. But this is undoubtedly true. In per­iods (of social calm) opportunism, devoured by impatience, looks around for ‘new' roads, ‘new' means of action. It exhausts itself complaining about the insufficiency and uncertainty of its own forces and so looks for ‘allies'... It runs to the right and to the left and tries to get everyone to meet at the crossroads. It addresses itself to the ‘faithful' and exhorts them to be as considerate as possible to all potential allies. Tact, more tact, and still more tact! It suffers from a special illness, a mania for prudence towards liberalism, the sickness of tact; and, driven berserk by its sickness, it attacks and wounds its own party." (‘Our Differences', in 1905)

"Impatience", "consideration", "sickness of tact", "mania for prudence": why the devil did Trotsky break his neck writing this article when he did, why didn't he have the good sense to wait 30 years before publishing it? This would have much better suited the arguments of the ‘tendency'.

As for Lenin, who, in his writings, probably used the term centrism more than any other great revolutionary of his day, why didn't he ask for Mac Intosh's advice before writing: "Have the people of the new Iskra (the Men­sheviks) betrayed the cause of the proletariat? No, but they are its inconsistent, irresolute, opportunist defenders (both at the level of the principles of organization and of the tactics which illuminate this cause)." (Collected Works, vol. 8)

"During the two odd years of the war the internationalist and working class movement in every country has evolved three trends...

The three trends are:  

1) The social-chauvinists, ie, socialists in word and chauvinists in deed... These people are our class enemies. They have gone over to the bourgeoisie...

2) The second trend, known as the "Centre", consists of people who vacillate between the social-chauvinists and the true internationalists...            

The "Centre" is the realm of honeyed petty bourgeois phrases, of internationalism in word and cowardly opportunism and fawning on the social-chauvinists in deed.

The crux of the matter is that the "Centre" is not convinced of the necessity for a revolution against one's own government; it does not preach revolution; it does not carry on a wholehearted revolutionary struggle; and in order to evade such a struggle it resorts to the tritest ultra­ "Marxist"-sounding excuses...                                                                            

The chief leader and spokesman of the "Centre" is Karl Kautsky, the most outstanding authority in the Second International (1889-1914), since August 1914 a model of utter bankruptcy as a marxist, the embodiment of unheard-of spineless­ness and the most wretched vacillations and betrayals...                            

3) The third trend, that of the true internat­ionalists, is best represented by the ‘Zimmer­wald Left'." (‘The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution', 1917)                                   

We could cite many more extracts from texts by Lenin on centrism which use terms like "incon­sistent", "irresolute", "camouflaged, hesitant, hypocritical, mealy-mouthed opportunism", "floating", "indecision", and which show just how wrong Mac Intosh's affirmations are.

By claiming that "it was not until Trotsky and the already degenerate Left Opposition of the 1930s that a marxist ever put forward a definit­ion of centrism based on attitudes and patterns of behavior", Mac Intosh in no way proves that the ICC's analyses aren't valid. He only proves one thing: that he doesn't know the history of the workers' movement. The assurance with which he refers to it, the precise facts he evokes, the quotes he gives, have no other function but to cover up the liberties he takes with real history when he replaces it with the one that exists in his own imagination.

The ‘real' definitions of centrism according to Mac Intosh

Comrade Mac Intosh proposes, in the name of the ‘tendency', to "provide a clear marxist definit­ion of centrism as a political current or tend­ency which historically existed in the workers' movement". In order to do this he appeals to the marxist method and correctly writes that "it is important to point to the fundamental marxist distinction between appearance and essence in objective reality... The task of the marxist method is to penetrate beyond the appearance of a phenomenon to its essence".

The problem with Mac Intosh is that his adherence to the marxist method is only a formal one and he is incapable of applying it (at least to the question of centrism). One might say that Mac Intosh sees only the "appearance" of the marxist method and is unable to grasp its "essence". It's thus that he claims that "revolutionary marxists...always sought the real basis for the conciliation and vacillation of centrism in (its) political positions..."

The problem is that one of the essential charac­teristics of centrism is exactly (as we saw above) that it doesn't have a precise, well-defined political position, one that really belongs to it. Let's see then what is this "precise political program" which according to Mac Intosh "centrism has always had". In order to define it, the illusionist Mac Intosh resorts to some of the tricks he has up his sleeve:

- he identifies centrism with Kautskyism: the latter was undeniably one of its most typical representatives, but was very far from being its only form (this identification is done in a rather clever way: after ‘examining' Kautskyism as a "classic example of centrism", he affirms without proof that an examination of other currents ‘would reveal the same thing');

- he identified Kautskyism as a current with what Kautsky wrote, even when it was not in the name of this current;

- he presents Kautsky as a centrist from birth who never shifted an inch from his position within the spectrum of social democracy, whereas, though he finished his political career in the ‘old home' of a social democracy that had gone over to the class enemy, he began it as a representative of its radical left wing, and for many years he was the closest fellow fighter (and personal friend) of Rosa Luxemburg in her struggle against opportunism.

After having immediately falsified things in this way, Mac Intosh is ready to lead us on the quest for the Holy Grail of the ‘specific position of centrism':

"The theoretical and methodological basis of Kautskyism was mechanistic materialism, a crude economic determinism which culminated in a fatal­ism concerning the historical process."

It should be clear that the least of our concerns is to go to the defense of Kautsky, either as a current or a person. What interests us is to see the way Mac Intosh and the ‘tendency' present their arguments. First of all, what he gives us here is not an argument but a simple affirmation. It's a curious thing - how is it that no-one in the IInd International noticed what Mac Intosh is asserting? There were however a few marxists in this International, and even some renowned left-wing theoreticians such as Labriola, Plekh­anov, Parvus, Lenin, Luxemburg, Pannekoek (to cite but a few). Were they all so blinded by Kautsky's personality that they forgot the diff­erence between marxism and "mechanistic mater­ialism...", "vulgar economic determinism", "fatalism", etc.? Let's recall that this same criticism, of a slide towards mechanistic mater­ialism, was raised, correctly, by Pannekoek against Lenin in Lenin as Philosopher[13]. At what point did mechanistic materialism, etc, become the program of centrism in general and of Kautsky in particular? When Kautsky was fighting Bernstein's revisionism or when he was defending the mass strike alongside Rosa in 1905-1907, or in 1914, or 1919...?

When, in 1910, Rosa launched her famous and violent polemic against Kautsky on the mass strike, she wasn't denouncing a "precise prog­ram" based on "mechanistic materialism", but the fact that through all his comings and goings couched in ‘radical' marxism, Kautsky was merely providing a cover for the opportunist and cent­rist policies of the leadership of social democracy (it should be said in passing that apart from Parvus and Pannekoek, all the great names of the radical left disapproved of Rosa's criticisms at that time).

Continuing his search for the "precise program" of centrism, Mac Intosh discovers that:

"For Kautsky, consciousness - downgraded to an epiphenomenon - had to be brought to the workers from ‘outside' by the intellectuals."

Here's another banality ‘rediscovered' by Mac Intosh in the guise of a demonstration of the existence of a "precise program" for centrism. The falsity of this position, developed by Kautsky at the time when he was combating revis­ionism, doesn't mean that it had anything to do with a "precise program" and in fact was never inscribed in any socialist program. And though this idea was taken up by Lenin in What Is To Be  Done?, it never figured in the Bolsheviks' prog­ram, and was publically repudiated by Lenin himself in 1907. If such an idea could be put forward in the literature of the marxist move­ment this doesn't prove the existence of a "precise program" of centrism but just shows how much the revolutionary movement is not water­tight against all sorts of aberrations deriving from bourgeois ideology.

It's the same when Mac Intosh, in his obstinate quest for this "precise centrist program", writes: "he (Kautsky) insisted that the only possible forms of proletarian organization were the mass social democratic party and the trade unions". This was in no way unique to Kautsky but was the opinion of the whole of social demo­cracy before the First World War, including Pannekoek and Rosa. It's easy to verify the fact that, apart from Lenin and Trotsky, hardly any of the marxist left were able to understand the significance of the appearance of soviets in the 1905 revolution in Russia. Thus Rosa Luxem­burg totally ignored the soviets in her book on this revolution, whose title (and this in itself was significant) was precisely The Mass Strike, the Party and the Trade Unions.

Finally, when Mac Intosh discovers Kautsky's passage "the conquest of state power through the conquest of a majority in parliament" he writes triumphantly: "that was the political program of Kautskyite centrism". Eureka! But why forget to say that this was a ‘borrowing' (partly via Engels) that Kautsky had made from the program of Bernstein's revisionism?

Mac Intosh has thus discovered, "beyond appear­ances", the "political essence of centrism": "its unswerving and unshakeable commitment to legalism, gradualism, parliamentarism and ‘democ­racy' in the struggle for socialism, from which it never for even one moment oscillated". Unfor­tunately, Mac Intosh doesn't recognize that what he's just defined in its "essence" is not cent­rism but reformism. We can't avoid asking why revolutionaries felt the need to use distinct terms if, in the final analysis, reformism, centrism and opportunism are one and the same thing. In fact, our expert in the ‘marxist method' has suddenly become the victim of a hole in the memory. He has forgotten the distinction made by Marx and marxism between ‘unity' and ‘identity'. In the history of the workers' move­ment before the first world war, opportunism (much more than centrism) frequently took the form of reformism (this was particularly the case with Bernstein). There was then a unity between the two. But this in no way means that reformism covered opportunism (or centrism) as a whole, that there was an identity between the two. Otherwise it is impossible to understand why after 1903 Lenin fought so hard against the opportunism of the Mensheviks even though both the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks (against the reformist elements of Russian social democracy) had just adopted the same program at the 2nd Congress of the RSDLP[14], and consequently had the same positions on ‘legalism', ‘gradualism', ‘parliamentarism' and democracy. Do we need to remind Mac Intosh that the separation between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks took place around point 1 of the party statutes and that the opportunism of the Mensheviks (like Martov and Trotsky), against which Lenin was fighting, concerned questions of organization (it wasn't until 1905, a propos the place the proletariat had to occupy in the revolution, that the cleav­age between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks widened to other questions).

We could equally ask Mac Intosh and the ‘tendency' whether they seriously think that it was because Trotsky was a ‘legalist', a ‘gradualist', a ‘parliamentary cretin', a ‘democrat', that Lenin ranked him among the ‘centrists' during the first years of the world war.

In reality, what Mac Intosh proves to us once again is that behind the "appearance" he gives of rigor and knowledge of history, lies the "essence" of the tendency's approach: the absence of rigor, a distressing ignorance of the history of the workers' movement. This is also illustrated by Mac Intosh's search for the "material and social bases" of centrism.

The material and social bases of centrism

After searching for the impossible-to-find Holy Grail of the "precise political positions" of centrism, the brave knight Mac Intosh leads us in the quest for its "social and material bases". Here we can assure him straight away: they do exist. They reside (both for centrism and opportunism of which it is one expression) in the particular place that the proletariat occup­ies in history as an exploited and revolutionary class (and this is the first - and last- time in history that this is the case). As an exploited class, deprived of any grasp of the means of production (which constitutes the material basis of society), the proletariat is permanently sub­jected to the pressure of the ideology of the class which does possess and control them, the bourgeoisie, as well as the appendages of this ideology which come from the petty bourgeois social strata. This pressure is manifested through the constant infiltration of these ideol­ogies - with the different forms and ways of thinking that they involve - into the class and its organizations. This penetration is facilit­ated by the constant proletarianization of elements from the petty bourgeoisie who bring into the class the ideas and prejudices of the strata in which they originated.

The first element already explains the difficulty the class faces in becoming conscious of its own interests, both immediate and historical, the obstacles it constantly encounters in its effort to become conscious. But it's not the only one. We also have to take into consideration the fact that its struggle as an exploited class, the defense of its daily material interests, is not identical to its struggle as a revolutionary class. The two are connected, just as, if the proletariat is the revolutionary class, it's precisely because it is the specific exploited class of the capitalist system. It's to a large extent through its struggles as an exploited class that the proletariat becomes conscious of the need to wage a revolutionary struggle, just as its immediate struggles can't take on their full breadth, can't express all their potential, if they aren't fertilized by the perspective of the revolutionary struggle. But, once again, this unity (something which couldn't be seen by Proudhon, who rejected the weapon of the strike, and today isn't understood by the ‘modernists') is not identity. The revolutionary struggle does not derive automatically from the proletar­iat's struggles for the preservation of its living conditions; communist consciousness does not emerge mechanically from each of the combats the proletariat wages against the attacks of capital. Similarly, an understanding of the communist goal does not immediately and necess­arily guarantee an understanding of the road that leads to it, of the means to attain it.

It's in this difficulty for an exploited class to develop a consciousness of the means and ends of a historic task which is by far the greatest that a social class has ever had to accomplish; in the "skepticism", the "hesitations", the "fears" which the proletariat encounters "in the face of the indeterminate immensity of its own goals" which Marx pointed to so clearly in The 18th Brumaire; in the problem posed to the class - and to revolutionaries - in taking up the dialectical unity between its immediate struggles and its ultimate struggles - it's in all these difficulties, expressing the immaturity of the proletariat, that opportunism and centrism make their permanent nest.

This is where the "material", "social" - and, one could add, historic - bases of opportunism and centrism reside. Rosa Luxemburg didn't say otherwise in her most important text against opportunism:

"Marxist doctrine can not only refute opportun­ism theoretically. It alone can explain opportunism as an historic phenomenon in the develop­ment of the party. The forward march of the proletariat, on a world historic scale, to its final victory is not, indeed, "so simple a thing." The peculiar character of this movement resides precisely in the fact that here, for the first time in history, the popular masses themselves, in opposition to the ruling classes, are to impose their will, but they must effect this outside of the present society, beyond the exist­ing society. This will the masses can only form in a constant struggle against the existing order. The union of the broad popular masses with an aim reaching beyond the existing social order, the union of the daily struggle with the great world transformation, this is the task of the social democratic movement." (Social Reform or Revolution)

All this Mac Intosh knows because he learned it in the ICC and by reading the classics of marxism. But, apparently, he's become amnesiac: all of a sudden, for him, bourgeois society and its ideo­logy, the conditions historically given to the proletariat for the accomplishment of its revol­ution, all that is no longer "material" and becomes the "spirit" hovering above the primal chaos, as it says in the Bible.

Just as Karl Grun was a ‘true socialist' (ridic­uled in the Communist Manifesto), so Mac Intosh is a ‘true materialist'. Against the supposed ‘idealism' and ‘subjectivism' into which the ICC has fallen (to use the terms often employed by the ‘tendency' in the internal debate), he puts forward the ‘true' material basis of cent­rism: "in the advanced capitalist societies of Europe (it was) the mass Social Democratic elect­oral machine (and particularly its paid functionaries, professional bureaucrats and parlia­mentary representatives) and the burgeoning trade union apparatus."

Mac Intosh does well to make the precision that this refers to the "advanced capitalist countries of Europe", because you'd have a hard time find­ing "electoral machines" and a "trade union apparatus" in a country like Tsarist Russia, where opportunism nevertheless flourished as much as anywhere else. What then was the "mat­erial base of centrism" in this country: the permanent officials? Is it necessary to remind Mac Intosh that there were at least as many permanent officials and ‘professional revolutionaries' in the Bolshevik Party as among the Mensheviks or the Social Revolutionaries? By what miracle did opportunism, which seeped into these last two organizations, spare the Bolsheviks? This is something Mac Intosh's thesis doesn't explain to us.

But this isn't its greatest weakness. In reality, this thesis is only an avatar of an approach which, while new to the ICC, was already well known before. The approach which explains the degeneration of proletarian organizations by the existence of an ‘apparatus' of ‘chiefs' and ‘leaders' is the common coin of the anarchists in the past, the libertarians and degenerated councilists of today. It tends to join up with the vision of Socialisme ou Barbarie in the 1950s, which ‘theorized' the division of society into ‘order-givers and order-takers' instead of classes.                                  

It's true that the bureaucracy of the apparatuses, just like the parliamentary fractions, often provided the support for opportunist and centrist leaderships; parliamentary deputies and the permanent officials of proletarian organizations often constituted a choice soil for the growth of the opportunist virus. But to explain opportunism and centrism by starting from this bureaucracy is a simplistic stupidity deriving from the most vulgar sort of determinism. Mac Intosh rightly rejects Lenin's conception of opportunism being based on a 'labour aristocracy'. But instead of seeing that the error in this conception was that it explained political differences within the working class on the basis of economic differences (in the image of the bourgeoisie where political divisions are based on differences between economic interest groups), whereas the whole working class has fundamentally the same  economic interests, Mac Intosh regresses even further than Lenin. For him, a problem which affects the whole working class derives from ‘apparatuses' and ‘permanent officials'. This is of the same stripe as the Trotskyist thesis which holds that if the unions don't defend the workers' interests, it's because they've got bad leaders, and which never asks why they've always had such leaders for over 70 years.

In reality, if Lenin went looking for his thesis of the labor aristocracy as the basis for opportunism in an erroneous, non-marxist and reductionist analysis put forward by Engels, Mac Intosh doesn't even look for his in the "mechanistic materialism" and "vulgar economic determinism" of which he accuses Kautsky - it's in university sociology, which doesn't recognize social classes but only a multitude of ‘social-professional' categories.

This, then, is what is meant by "penetrating beyond the appearance of a phenomenon to its essence"!

And when Mac Intosh wishes to prove his credent­ials by referring to the authority of previous revolutionary marxists, writing "...whether pointing to the Social Democratic electoral machine and trade union apparatus or to a spurious labor aristocracy, it is incontestable that revolutionary marxists always sought to grasp the reality of centrism in terms of its specific material base", he demonstrates either his bad faith or his ignorance. For example, at no point in her basic study of opportunism (Reform or Revolution) did Luxemburg attribute to it such a "specific material base". But perhaps Mac Intosh wants to talk only about centrism (and not opportunism, which he never evokes). Well here, he's got even less luck:

"The social-chauvinists are our class enemies; they are bourgeois within the working class movement. They represent a stratum, or groups, or sections of the working class which objectively have been bribed by the bourgeoisie (by better wages, positions of honor, etc)... Historically and economically speaking, (the men of the ‘Centre') are not a separate stratum but represent, only a transition from a past phase of the working class movement - the phase between 1871 and 1914, which gave much that is valuable to the proletariat, particularly in the indispensable art of slow, sustained and systematic organizational work on a large and very large scale - to a new phase that became objectively essential with the outbreak of the first imperialist world war, which inaugurated the era of social revolution." (‘The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution')

Just as with the thesis of the labor aristocracy, one can contest the attempt to limit the transition between the two phases of the workers' movement and the life of capitalism, which is how it appears in this quote. But this quote does have the merit of plainly contradicting Mac Intosh's peremptory affirmation that "revolutionary marxists have always...", etc.

Mac Intosh wanted to juggle with bits of history, with opportunism and centrism, but the whole lot has fallen on his head and he's ended up with a black eye.

No centrism in the period of decadence?

Decidedly, Mac Intosh and the ‘tendency' don't have much luck with history. They propose to demonstrate that centrism can't exist in the period of the decadence of capitalism and they don't recognize that the term ‘centrism' wasn't employed as such and in a systematic manner until after the beginning of the first world war, ie, after capitalism entered into its decadent phase.

Certainly, the phenomenon of centrism had already appeared on a number of occasions in the workers' movement, where, for example, it had been termed the ‘swamp'. But it wasn't until the beginning of decadence that this phenomenon not only didn't disappear but took on its full breadth, and this is why it was at this moment that revolutionaries could identify it in a clear way, that they could analyze all its characteristics and draw out its specificities. It was for this reason, as well, that they gave it a spec­ific name.

It's true that revolutionaries can be behind reality that consciousness can lag behind existence. But from there to believing; that Lenin, who only began using the term centrism in 1914, was backward on this point, that he wrote dozens and dozens of pages on a phenomenon which had ceased to exist, is not only to insult a great revolutionary, but to mock the whole world. In particular, it is to make nothing of the fact that, throughout the whole period of the world war, Lenin and the Bolsheviks, as could be seen for example at Zimmerwald, were in the extreme vanguard of the workers' movement. What then would you say about the backwardness of Luxemburg and Trotsky (both of whom Lenin saw as centrists at this time) and other great names of marxism? What would you say about the left communist currents who came out of the IIIrd International and continued for decades using the terms opportunism and centrism? What sort of blindness afflicted them? What a frightening gap between consciousness and existence! Luckily Mac Intosh and the tendency have come along to close the gap, to discover, 70 years later, that all the revolutionary marxists were mistaken all along the line! And this precisely at the moment when the ICC was identifying within its own ranks centrist slidings towards councilism, of which the comrades of the tendency, though not the only ones, were most particularly the victims.

We won't examine, in the context of this article which is already very long, the way in which centrism has manifested itself in the working class in the period of decadence. We will return to this in another article. We will simply point to the fact that Mac Intosh's article is constructed like a syllogism:

- first premise: centrism is characterized by precise political positions, which are those of reformism;

- second premise: now, reformism can no longer exist in the working class in the period of deca­dence, as the ICC has always said;

- conclusion: thus, centrism no longer exists; "the political space once filled by centrism has now been definitively occupied by the capitalist state and its left political apparatus."

This seems impeccable. One might even add that Mac Intosh didn't even need to introduce his idiotic thesis about the "material basis" of centrism[15]. The tedious thing about it is that with Aristotelian logic, when one premise is false, in this case the first, as we've shown, the conclusion no longer has any value. All that's left to comrade Mac Intosh and the ‘tendency' is to start their demonstration again (and inform themselves a bit more about the real history of the workers' movement). As to their challenge, "what exactly are these latter-day ‘centrist' positions?", our answer is that there is indeed a ‘centrist' position on the unions (and indeed several), like the one for example which identifies them as organs of the capitalist state and still advocates working within them, just as there exists a centrist pos­ition on electoralism - the one enounced by Battaglia Comunista in its platform: "In conformity with its class tradition, the party will decide each time about its participation according to the political interest of the revolutionary struggle" (cf IR 41).                              

Mac Intosh and the ‘tendency', they who are so ‘logical' - should they not go the whole hog and assert that Battaglia Comunista is a bourgeois group, that, outside the ICC, there is no other revolutionary organization in the world, no other current on a class terrain? When will they aff­irm, like the Bordigists, that in the revolution there can only be one, monolithic party? Without realizing it, the comrades of the ‘tendency' are on the verge of completely overturning the resol­ution adopted (by them as well) at the 2nd Congress of the ICC on proletarian political groups (IR 11), which clearly shows the absurdity of such theses.

The open door to the abandonment of class positions

It was by showing all the dangers that centrism represented for the working class that Lenin waged a fight for consistent internationalism during World War I, that, with the Bolsheviks, he was able to prepare the victory of October 1917. It was by pointing to the danger of opport­unism that the communist left was able to conduct a struggle against the centrist orientation of the Communist International, which refused to see or minimized this danger:

"It is absurd, sterile and extremely dangerous to claim that the party and the International are mysteriously immune against any slide into opportunism or any tendency to return to it." (Bordiga, ‘Draft Theses of the Left at the Lyons Congress', 1926)

"Comrade, opportunism has not been killed off just because the IIIrd International has been created; even amongst us. This is what we're now seeing already in all the communist parties in all countries. In fact, it would be a miracle; it would be in contradiction with all the laws of evolution if what the IInd Inter­national died from did not survive into the IIIrd." (Gorter, Reply to Lenin)

For the ‘tendency' (which has accomplished the remarkable exploit of succeeding where the left communists all failed - in eliminating centrism and opportunism from the CI), it's the very use of the term centrism which has "always obscured and blurred the basic class lines", and "has been a major symptom of ideological and political corruption on the part of those marxists who have used it".

It's quite useless to do what Mac Intosh has done - describe at great length the fatal errors of the CI in the constitution of the communist parties. The ICC has always defended, and continues to defend, the position of the Italian communist left, which held that the protective netting (the ‘21 Conditions') with which the CI surrounded itself against the opportunist and centrist currents was too wide. On the other hand, it is a pure and simple falsification of history to say that the CI baptized the Longuet­ists and the USPD as ‘centrist' in order to be able to integrate them, because this is how Lenin had characterized these currents since the beginning of the war. What's more, in this part of the article Mac Intosh gives further proof of his ignorance when he claims that Longuet and Frossard had, just like Cachin, been ‘social-chauvinists' during the war; we advise him to read what Lenin said about this (notably in his ‘Open Letter to Boris Souvarine', Collected Works, vol . 23)[16].

In fact the ‘tendency' has adopted an approach based on pure superstition: just as certain backward peasants dare not utter the name of the calamities that threaten them for fear of provok­ing them, it sees the danger for revolutionary organizations not where it really is - in cent­rism - but in the use of the term, which is pre­cisely what makes it possible to identify the phenomenon and combat it.

Need we remark to these comrades that it was to a large extent because they hadn't sufficiently understood the danger of opportunism (so rightly pointed out by the lefts) that the leadership of the CI (both Lenin and Trotsky at its head) opened the door to the opportunism that was to seep into the International. In order to cover up their own centrist slidings towards councilism, these comrades in turn adopt the stance of the ostrich: ‘there is no centrist danger', ‘the danger lies in the utilization of this term which leads to complacency about reneging on class positions'. It's quite the opposite that's true. If we point out the permanent danger of centrism in the class and its organizations it's not in order to rest on our laurels; on the contrary, it's to be able to combat cent­rism with all our energy every time it appears, and the whole abandonment of class positions that it represents. It's denying this danger which disarms the organization and opens the door to reneging on class positions.

Do we also have to say to these comrades that centrism didn't spare the greatest revolutionaries, like Marx (when in 1872, after the Commune, he talked about the conquest of power through parliament in certain countries), Engels (when in 1894 he fell into ‘parliamentary cretinism' which he'd fought against so vigorously before), Lenin (when, at the head of the CI he fought more energetically against the intransigent left than the opportunist right), Trotsky (when he acted as the mouthpiece for the ‘centre' at Zimmerwald). But the strength of the great revolutionaries was precisely their capacity to address their errors, including the centrist ones. And it could only do this by being able to recognize the dangers that threatened them. This is what we hope the comrades of the ‘tendency' will understand before they are crushed under the wheels of the centrist approach they have adopted, and which is illust­rated so clearly by Mac Intosh's text, with the liberties it takes with history and rigorous thought, with all its decoys and conjuring tricks.


[1] The task of the Marxist method is to penetrate beyond the appearance of a phenomenon to its essence.

[2] Such a definition is indeterminate in class terms because it is not specific to the proletariat, in the ranks of which alone - according to the majority of the ICC - centrism can exist. Conciliation, vacillation, etc, have characterized the bourgeoisie too in certain periods where the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution had not been accomplished: Marx pointed this out with respect to the German bourgeoisie in 1848, and Lenin made the same point about the Russian bourgeoisie in 1905.

[3] A tendency itself divided between Marxists, anarcho-syndicalists and libertarians.

[4] At Tours, Cachin and Fossard both even appealed to their old chief, Longuet, to remain with them in the new party.

[5] The war credits for which its subsequent members had voted for more than two years, on the grounds that German Kultur was endangered by the Slav manace.

[6] It is in this sense that the Tendency in the ICC today speaks of the taking-up of a Trotsky-like position on the part of the majority, and not because we think that the majority has suddenly adopted all the positions of Trotsky on the defense of USSR, the national and trade union questions, electoralism, etc.

[7] Often the term ‘centrist' and ‘counter-revolutionary' were used in the same sentence in the pages of Bilan to describe Stalinism.

[8] For the ICP this grotesque terminology continues to be utilized with respect to Stalinism today!

[9] Programme Communiste, 55, p82 and 91.

[10] Concomitant with their complete political ossification and sterility.

[11] We don't say that the comrades of the ‘tend­ency' are deliberately and consciously performing these tricks and hiding from the real questions. But whether they are sincere or in bad faith, whether or not they are themselves taken in by their own intellectual contortions, matters little. What does matter is that they could deceive and mystify their readers, and by extens­ion the working class. This is why we can only denounce their contortions.

[12] Which we can't reproduce here due to lack of space, but which we encourage readers to consult.

[13] It's interesting to note that in this book -and has been shown in this Review in the response that Internationalisme wrote to this book (see IRs 25-30) - Pannekoek himself took curious lib­erties with marxism, by making Lenin's philosoph­ical conceptions a major pointer to the bourgeois, state capitalist nature of the Bolshevik Party and the October 1917 revolution. Is it so sur­prising that comrades who are today sliding towards councilism are taking up the same type of argument as the main theoretician of this current?

[14] A program that was common to both fractions until the 1917 revolution.

[15] This thesis is all the more stupid in that it goes against what the ‘tendency' wants to demonstrate: the non-existence of centrism in the period of decadence and thus in the CI, which nevertheless had no lack of permanent officials or electoral machinery. The real bases of centrism, however, continue to exist in the period of decadence and will do so until the disappearance of classes.

[16] In another article we'll also come back to the problem of the class nature of the USPD and of the formation of the communist parties.

See also :