Zimmerwald and the centrist currents in the political organisations of the proletariat

Printer-friendly version

The article we publish here is a contribution by comrade MC to the internal debate of the 1980s, with the aim of fighting against centrist positions towards councilism within the ICC. MC was the signature of Marc Chirik (1907-1990), a former militant of the communist left and the main founding member of the ICC (see International Reviews nºs 61 and 62).

It may seem surprising that a text whose title refers to the Zimmerwald Conference held in September 1915 against the imperialist war was written in the context of an internal debate in the ICC around the question of councilism. In fact, as the reader will see, this debate was obliged to widen out to more general questions which had already been posed for a century and which are just as relevant today.

We have given an account of this debate on centrism towards councilism in issues nº40 to 44 of the International Review (1985-6). We refer the reader in particular to the article in issue nº 42 of the Review, “Centrist slidings towards councilism”. This article presents the origins of the debate which we will summarise here in order to make certain aspects of MC’s polemic more understandable.

At the 5th congress of the ICC, and especially afterwards, a series of confusions emerged within the organisation with regard to the analysis of the international situation; in particular, a position on the development of consciousness within the proletariat which was influenced by a councilist vision. This position was mainly put forward by comrades of the section in Spain (referred to as “AP” in MC’s text, the name of the section’s publication, Acción Proletaria).

The comrades who identified with this analysis thought that they were in agreement with the classic theses of marxism (and of the ICC) on the problem of class consciousness. In particular, they never explicitly rejected the necessity for an organisation of revolutionaries in the development of consciousness. But in fact, they had ended up with a councilist vision:

  • by presenting consciousness as a determined and never a determining factor in the class struggle;

  • by considering that the ‘one and only crucible of class consciousness is the massive, open struggle’, which leaves no place for revolutionary organisations;

  • by denying any possibility of the latter carrying out the work of developing and deepening class consciousness in phases of reflux in the struggle.

The only major difference between this vision and councilism is that the latter takes the approach to its logical conclusion by explicitly rejecting the necessity for communist organisation whereas our comrades did not go as far as this.” 1

One of the major themes of this approach was the rejection of the notion of the “subterranean maturation of consciousness”, which actually meant excluding the possibility of revolutionary organisations developing and deepening communist consciousness outside the open struggles of the working class.

As soon as he became aware of the documents that expressed this point of view, our comrade MC wrote a contribution aimed at combating it. In January 1984, the plenary meeting of the central organ of the ICC adopted a resolution that took position on the erroneous analyses which had been expressed, in particular on the councilist conceptions involved:

When this resolution was adopted, the ICC comrades who had previously developed the thesis of ‘no subterranean maturation', with all its councilist implications, acknowledged the error they had made. Thus they pronounced themselves firmly in favour of this resolution and notably of point 7 whose specific function was to reject the analyses which they had previously elaborated. But at the same time, other comrades raised disagreements with point 7 which led them either to reject it en bloc or to vote for it ‘with reservations', rejecting some of its formulations. We thus saw the appearance within the organisation of an approach which, without openly supporting the councilist theses, served as a shield or umbrella for these theses by rejecting the organisation's clear condemnation of them or attenuating their significance. Against this approach, the ICC's central organ was led in March ‘84 to adopt a resolution recalling the characteristics of:

  • ‘opportunism as a manifestation of the penetration of bourgeois ideology into proletarian organizations, and which is mainly expressed by:

  • a rejection or covering up of revolutionary principles and of the general framework of marxist analyses;

  • a lack of firmness in the defence of these principles;

  • centrism as a particular form of opportunism characterised by:

  • a phobia about intransigent, frank and decisive positions, positions that take their implications to their conclusions;

  • the systematic adoption of medium positions between antagonistic ones;

  • a taste for conciliation between these positions;

  • the search for a role of arbiter between these positions;

  • the search for the unity of the organisation at any price, including that of confusion, concession on matters of principle, and a lack of rigour, coherence and cohesion in analyses.’

And the resolution concludes that ‘within the ICC at the moment there is a tendency towards centrism - ie towards conciliation and lack of firmness - with regard to councilism.’”2

In response to this analysis, a certain number of “reservists”, rather than taking the analyses of the organisation into consideration in a serious and rigorous way, adopted a classically centrist approach, evading the real questions and engaging in a whole series of contortions that were as spectacular as they were lamentable. The text by McIntosh3 to which MC was replying was a flagrant illustration of this kind of evasion, defending a thesis that was very simple (and unprecedented): there can’t be any centrism towards councilism in the ICC because centrism cannot exist in the period of capitalist decadence.

Thus, as we saw earlier, although at the beginning the debate of 1985 was around the question of councilism as a political current and outlook, it was led to broaden out onto the more general question of centrism as an expression of the way that the organisations of the working class are subjected to the influence of the dominant ideology of bourgeois society. As MC underlines in the article below, centrism as such cannot disappear as long as class society exists.

The interest in publishing his article externally today consists above all in the fact that it relates to the history of the First World War (a question which we have been looking at from various angles in the International Review since 2014) and in particular on the role of revolutionaries and the development of consciousness about this event in the working class and its vanguard. The Zimmerwald Conference, which was held 100 years ago this September, is part of our history, but it is also a very significant illustration of the difficulties and hesitations of its participants in breaking not only with the traitor parties of the Second International but also with the whole conciliationist and pacifist ideology which hoped to put an end to the war without launching an explicitly revolutionary struggle against the capitalist society which had engendered it. This is how Lenin presented the question in 1917:

"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...

  1. The third trend, that of the true internationalists, is best represented by the ‘Zimmerwald Left'."4

It would however be more correct to say, in the context of Zimmerwald, that the right was represented not by the “social chauvinists”, to use Lenin’s term, but by Kautsky and his consorts – all those who later formed the right wing of the USPD5 - whereas the left was made up of the Bolsheviks and the centre by Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg’s Spartacus group. The process which led towards the revolution in Russia and Germany was marked precisely by the fact that a large part of the “centre” was won over to the positions of the Bolsheviks.

Later on, the term centrism was not used in the same way by all political currents. For the Bordigists, for example, Stalin and the Stalinists in the 1930s are still named as the “centre” between the left of the International (those who we now call the communist left around Bordiga and Pannekoek in particular), and the right around Bukharin. Bilan maintained this terminology up until the Second World War. For the ICC, which follows on from Lenin’s approach, the term centrist means the tendency that lies between the revolutionary left and the right (which is opportunist, but still in the proletarian camp). Thus Stalinism with its programme of “socialism in one country” was neither centrist nor opportunist, but part of the enemy camp – of capitalism. As the article below makes clear, ‘centrism’ doesn’t represent a political current with specific positions, but rather a permanent tendency within the political organisations of the working class, looking for a “happy medium” between intransigent revolutionary positions and those which represent a form of conciliation with the ruling class.

ICC, August 2015

Centrism according to Mish-Mash Intosh

In my article Centrism and our informal tendency, which appeared in the previous issue of the IIB (International Internal Bulletin), I have attempted to demonstrate the inconsistency of the affirmations of McIntosh concerning the definition of centrism in the 2nd International. We have seen the confusion established by McIntosh:

  • in identifying centrism with reformism;

  • in reducing centrism to a “social basis”, that of the “functionaries and officials of the social democratic apparatus and the unions” (the bureaucracy);

  • stressing that “its political basis” is furnished by the existence of a fixed “precise programme”;

  • in proclaiming that the existence of centrism is exclusively tied to one determined period of capitalism, the ascendant period;

  • in completely ignoring the persistence within the proletariat of the mentality and ideas of the bourgeoisie and the petit-bourgeoisie (immaturity of consciousness), which it has great difficulty in disengaging itself from;

  • in neglecting the fact of the constant penetration of bourgeois and petit-bourgeois ideology within the working class;

  • in totally eluding the problem of a possible process of degeneration of a proletarian organisation.

We recall these points, not simply to summarise the preceding article, but also because many of these points are necessary in order to demolish the new theory of McIntosh on the existence of centrism in the workers’ movement in the period of the decadence of capitalism…

Centrism in the period of decadence

McIntosh bases his accusation that we cannot have a centrist current in the decadence of capitalism on the fact that with the change of period the room previously occupied (in the ascendant period) by centrism is now occupied by capitalism, and notably by state capitalism. This is only partly true. It is true for certain political positions formerly defended by centrism, but it is wrong with respect to the room, the “space” separating the communist programme of the proletariat from bourgeois ideology. This space (which supplies centrism with a terrain) is determined by the immaturity (or the maturity) of class consciousness and by the force of the penetration of bourgeois and petit-bourgeois ideology within its ranks, which tends to be reduced, but does not disappear except along with the existence of classes, all the more so as long as the bourgeoisie remains the dominant class in society. This remains equally true even after the victory of the revolution, since, when we speak of the proletariat as a class, this implies that also other classes exist in society and thus exercise an influence on the working class and penetrate it with their ideology. The entire marxist theory of the period of transition is based on the fact that, contrary to other revolutions in history, the proletarian revolution does not close the period of transition but only opens it. Only the anarchists (and in part the councilists) think that with the revolution it’s possible to jump straight from capitalism to communism. For marxists, the revolution is but the precondition opening the possibility of the realisation of the communist programme of the social transformation and a society without classes. This communist programme is defended by a revolutionary minority organised as a political party against the positions of the other currents and political organisations acting within the class and on its class terrain, and this both before, during and after the revolution. To put it mildly, to consider that the class already has a communist consciousness or can develop one without further ado is to render any political organisation of the class superfluous if not damaging (unless it be an organisation with a purely pedagogic function as in the councilism of Pannekoek) or else to decree that the class can have just a single party (as the rabid Bordigists see it) whereas we recognise the inevitable existence within the proletariat, alongside the organisation of the communist party, of confused political organisations, more or less coherently carrying the ideas of the petit-bourgeoisie and making political concessions towards ideologies alien to the class.

To say this is to recognise the existence within the class, in all periods, of centrist tendencies, since centrism is none other than the persistence within the class of political currents with confused, inconsequent, incoherent programmes, penetrated by and acting as a vehicle for petit-bourgeois ideology, making concessions to it, vacillating between this ideology and the historical consciousness of the proletariat, and trying unceasingly to conciliate them.

It is precisely because centrism cannot be defined in terms of a “precise programme”, which it hasn’t got, that we can understand its persistance, how it adapts itself to every particular situation, changing the position according to the balance of forces existing between the classes.

It is nonsensical to talk of centrism in general, in the abstract, in terms of a “social base” of its own or a “specific precise programme”. It has to be located in relation to other, more stable political current, as it happens in the present debate in relation to councilism. One can, on the other hand speak of a consistence in its political behaviour: oscillation, avoiding taking a clear and consequent position...

Let us take another concrete example, equally edifying, of centrist behaviour: in his text McIntosh refers several times to the Kautsky-Rosa polemic of 1910. How did this polemic begin? It was begun by an article which Rosa wrote against the opportunist politics and practice of the leadership of the social democracy, opposing it to the revolutionary politics of the mass strike. Kautsky in his position as editor of Neue Zeit (the theoretical organ of social democracy) refused to publish this article under the pretext that, while being perfectly in agreement with the general idea of the mass strike, he considered this policy to be inadequate at the given moment, so that he would be compelled to reply, implying a discussion between two members of the radical marxist tendency in face of the right wing of the party, something he considered would be most regrettable. In face of this refusal, Rosa published her article in the Dortmunder Arbeiter Zeitung, thereby forcing Kautsky to reply and to engage in the polemic known to us.

When I announced in September in the IS6 my intention of writing an article throwing light on the councilist approach of the texts of AP, comrade JA7 began by demanding an explanation of the content and argumentation of this article. This explanation having been given, comrade JA considered this article to be inopportune and suggested waiting until the IS gave its preliminary agreement, that is to say to “correct” it in advance in such a way that the IS as a whole could sign it. In face of this kind of correction consisting of rounding off the angles and obscuring the real issues, I preferred to go ahead with publication under my own name. Once it had been published JA considered this article to be absolutely deplorable since it could only stir up trouble in the organisation. Fortunately, JA was not the editor (of the IIB) as Kautsky had been and didn’t have his power, since otherwise the article would never have seen the light of day. In the 75 intervening years with the change of period (ascendance and decadence) centrism has certainly changed its face and its positions but has retained the same spirit and the same approach: avoiding raising debates in order not to “trouble” the organisation.

In one of my first polemical articles against the reservists I said that the period of decadence is the period par excellence of manifestations of centrism. A simple glance over the history of these last 70 years will immediately allow us to establish the fact that in no other period of the history of the workers’ movement has centrism manifested itself with such force, in such a variety and has caused so many ravages as in this period of the decadence of capitalism. One cannot but agree with the very correct definition given by Bilan: that an International never betrays as such but dies, disappears, ceases to exist so that its different “national” parties one by one go over to their national bourgeoisie. Thus, in the aftermath of 4th August 1914 when the socialist parties of the belligerent countries sealed their treason in voting for the war credits, there began to develop, in each country, alongside the small minorities remaining loyal to internationalism, a more and more numerous opposition, within the socialist parties and the unions, against the war and the politics of national defence. This was the case in Russia with the Menshevik Internationalists of Martov, with the intermediary group of Trotsky. This was the case in Germany with the development of the opposition to the war which was to be excluded from the SPD in order to give birth to the USPD. This was the case in France with the revolutionary syndicalist group of Vie Ouvrière of Monatte and Rosmer, with the majority of the socialist party of Italy, that of Switzerland etc etc. All of this constituted a varied, inconsistent, pacifist-centrist current opposed to war in the name of peace and not in the name of revolutionary defeatism and of the transformation of the imperialist war into a civil war. It was this centrist current which organised the socialist conferences against the war, at Zimmerwald in 1915 (where the consistent and intransigent revolutionary left represented a small minority, restricted to the Russian Bolsheviks, the Dutch Tribunists and the Bremen Radicals in Germany) and at Kienthal in 1916, which was still largely dominated by the centrist current (when the Spartakists of Rosa and Liebknecht finally joined the revolutionary left). This centrist current posed in no manner or means the question of the immediate rupture with the socialist parties which had become social-chauvinists and “bitter-enders”. Instead they raised the question of their regeneration in an organisational unity.8 The revolution in February 1917 in Russia found almost the whole of the Bolshevik party and many workers’ and soldiers’ councils adhering to the position of conditional support for the bourgeois government of Kerensky.

The general enthusiasm sparked off in the working class of the whole world following the victory of the October revolution could not go much further than develop an immense fundamentally centrist current. The parties and groups which were to constitute and adhere to the Communist International were for the most part profoundly marked by centrism. With 1920 one saw the first signs of the revolutionary wave running out of steam, and it was to shrivel up rapidly. This was expressed at the political level by a centrist sliding already visible at the Second Congress of the CI (Communist International), through the taking up of ambiguous and erroneous positions on questions as important as the trade unions, parliamentarism, the independence and self-determination of nations. From one year to the next, the CI and the Communist Parties which constituted it followed an accelerating rhythm of retreat towards centrist positions and degeneration. The revolutionary intransigent tendencies rapidly became a minority in the Communist Parties, and were one by one excluded from these parties and themselves suffered the impact of the centrist gangrene as was to be the case for the different oppositions coming out of the CI and in particular for the left opposition of Trotsky which finally crossed the class line with the war in Spain and the Second World War in the name of anti-fascism and of the defence of the degenerated workers’ state in Russia. The tiny minority which remained firmly on the terrain of the class and communism, such as the International Communist Left and the Dutch Left, suffered the blows of the black period which followed the aftermath of the war with, on the one hand, the Bordigists becoming sclerotic and seriously regressing politically, and on the other hand the Dutch Left decomposing in a completely degenerated councilism. One had to wait until the end of the sixties with the announcing of the open crisis and the revival of the class struggle before it was possible to renew, at considerable effort, the historic line of revolutionary marxism…

You really have to be struck by a kind of academic blindness not to see this reality. You have to completely ignore the last 70 years of the history of the workers' movement since 1914 in order to peremptorily affirm, as McIntosh does, that centrism doesn’t and cannot exist in the period of decadence. Grandiloquent radical phraseology, fake indignation, don’t make up for a lack of serious argumentation.

It is certainly more comfortable to pursue the politics of the ostrich, closing one’s eyes in order not to see reality and its dangers, all the better to deny them. This is a cheap way of reassuring oneself and of sparing oneself from the headaches of thinking. This is not the method of Marx who wrote: “The communists are not there to console the class, they are there to make it even more miserable and to make it conscious of its misery”. McIntosh follows the first path in denying the existence of centrism in the period of decadence, purely and simply for his own tranquillity and against all the evidence. For the marxists which we have to be it is necessary to follow another path: to open our eyes wide to reality, to recognise reality and to understand it in its movement and is complexity. It is therefore up to us to set about explaining the why and wherefore of the undeniable fact that the period of decadence is also a period of the gestating of centrist tendencies

The proletariat and the period of capitalist decadence

…The period of decadence means entering a permanent, objective historic crisis of the capitalist system, thus posing the historical dilemma: its self destruction, bringing with it the destruction of the whole of society, or the destruction of this system in order to make way for a new society without classes – communist society. The only class capable of realising this grandiose project of saving humanity is the proletariat, since its interest in liberating itself from exploitation pushes it into a life and death struggle against the system of capitalist wage slavery, and since the proletariat cannot emancipate itself without emancipating the whole of humanity.

Against the theory according to which the workers' struggles determine the crisis of the capitalist economic system (GLAT – Groupe de Liaison et d’Action des Travailleurs); against the theory which ignores the permanent historic crisis, recognising only conjunctural and cyclical crises offering the possibility of revolution and, in the absence of its victory, permitting a new cycle of accumulation going on until infinity (A. Bordiga); against the pedagogic theory for which the revolution is not linked to a question of the crisis of capitalism but depends on the intelligence of the workers acquired in the course of their struggle (A. Pannekoek); we affirm with Marx that a society does not disappear until it has exhausted all the possibilities for development which it contains within itself. We affirm with Rosa that it is the maturation of the internal contradictions of capital which determines its historic crisis, the objective condition of the necessity of revolution. We affirm with Lenin that it is not enough that the proletariat no longer tolerates being exploited, but that it is necessary that capitalism cannot continue to live as before.

Decadence is the break-down of the capitalist system under the weight of its own internal contradictions. The comprehension of this theory is indispensable in order to understand the conditions in which the proletarian revolution unfolds and will unfold.

With this entrance into the decadence of its economic system, which bourgeois academic science could neither foresee nor understand, capitalism – without being able to master this objective situation – replies with the extreme concentration of all its political, economic and military forces which is state capitalism, both in order to face up to the extreme exacerbation of inter-imperialist tensions and above all in the face of the menace of the explosion of the proletarian revolution which it became aware of with the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917.

If the entry into decadence signifies the objective historical necessity for the disappearance of capitalism, the same is not true for the maturation of the subjective conditions – the coming to consciousness of the proletariat – in order to be able to accomplish this. This condition is indispensable since, as Marx and Engels said, history does nothing by itself; men (classes) make history.

We know that as opposed to all the past revolutions in history, in which the coming to consciousness on the part of the classes which carried them out played a secondary role, since they involved replacing one system of exploitation by another system of exploitation, the socialist revolution signals the end of every exploitation of man by man and of the entire history of class societies, necessitating and posing as its fundamental condition the conscious action of the revolutionary class. The proletariat is not only the class upon which history imposes the greatest task which it has ever thrust upon any class in humanity, a task which goes beyond all the tasks which humanity has ever faced up to, the leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom; but also the proletariat is confronted with the greatest difficulties. The last exploited class, it represents all the exploited classes of history against all the exploiting classes represented by capitalism.

It is the first time in history that an exploited class is led to assume the social transformation, and what’s more, a transformation which carries with it the destiny and future of the whole of humanity. In this titanic struggle the proletariat presents itself at the beginning in a state of weakness, a state inherent to every exploited class, aggravated by the weight of the weaknesses of all the dead generations of exploited classes which weigh on it: lack of consciousness, lack of conviction, lack of confidence, afraid of what it is led to think and to undertake, habituated to thousands of years of submission to the force and ideology of dominant classes. This is why, contrary to the line of march of other classes from victory to victory, the struggle of the proletariat proceeds through advances and retreats and cannot achieve its final goal except in the wake of a long series of defeats…

This movement of advances and retreats of the struggle of the proletariat which Marx already spoke of in the aftermath of the revolutionary events of 1848 cannot but accelerate and does accelerate in the period of decadence since it is the very barbarism of this period which poses to the proletariat the question of the revolution in more concrete, more practical, more dramatic terms. This in turn is translated, at the level of the coming to consciousness, by an accelerated and turbulent movement like the sweep of waves on an agitated ocean.

These conditions – a reality which consists of the maturity of the objective conditions and the immaturity of the subjective conditions – determine the tortuous process within the class which gives rise to a multitude of diverse and contradictory, convergent and divergent political currents, evolving and regressing, and notably the different varieties of centrism.

The struggle against capitalism is at the same time a struggle and a political decantation within the proletariat in its striving towards coming to consciousness, and this process is all the more violent and tortuous in that it takes place under the fire of the class enemy.

The only weapons the class possesses in its death struggle against capitalism and which can assure its victory are: consciousness and organisation. It is in this sense and in this sense only that one can understand the phrase used by Marx:  “It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will historically be compelled to do” (The Holy Family)

The councilists interpret this phrase of Marx in the sense that each workers’ struggle automatically produces the coming to consciousness of the class, denying the necessity of conducting a theoretical-political struggle within the class (the necessary existence of the political-revolutionary organisation). Our reservists have slid in the same direction with the debates of the IB Plenum of January ’84 and the voting of point 7 of the resolution. Today (in order to cover up the first sliding), in latching on to the aberrant theory of McIntosh of the impossibility of the existence of centrist currents in the class in the period of decadence, they really pursue the same sliding, contenting themselves simply with placing the same coin on its other side.

To say that in this period (of the decadence of capitalism) there cannot be any kind of centrism within the class, neither before, during or after the revolution, amounts to idealistically considering the class to have a uniform consciousness, absolutely homogenous and totally communist (eliminating the need for the very existence of a communist party, as council communists do), or else deducing that just a single party can exist in the class, beyond which every other current is by definition counter-revolutionary and bourgeois, falling by a curious detour into the worst manifestations of Bordigist megalomania.

The two principal tendencies of the centrist current

As we have already seen, the centrist current does not present itself as a homogenous current with a “specific, precise, programme”. It is the least stable, least coherent political current, torn within itself by the attraction exercised on it on the one hand, by the influence of the communist programme and on the other by petit-bourgeois ideology. This comes from two sources (existing and growing at the same time) which give rise to and nourishes this:

  1. The immaturity of the class in the process of coming to consciousness.

  2. The constant penetration of petit-bourgeois ideology within the class.

These sources push the centrist current in two diametrically opposed directions.

As a general rule, it is the balance of forces between the classes in precise periods of upsurge and reflux of the class struggle which decide the direction of the evolution or the regression of centrist organisations… McIntosh sees in his congenital myopia only the second source and imperiously ignores the first, just as he ignores the contradictory pressures which are exerted on centrism. He only knows centrism as an “abstraction” and not in the reality of its movement. McIntosh recognises centrism when it is definitively integrated into the bourgeoisie, that is when centrism ceases to be centrism and our comrade is all the more furious and lets his indignation fly against what he hadn’t known and recognised previously.

It corresponds perfectly to the nature of our minority to fiercely attack the corpse of a wild animal which it didn’t combat when it was alive and which it takes care not to recognise and combat today.

Let us then examine the centrism nourished by the first source, in others words coming from the immaturity in understanding class positions. Let us take the example of the USPD, the bogeyman discovered today by our minority and made into the main bone of contention by them.

Persian mythology relates that the devil, fed up with his defeats in combating God through the use of evil decided, one fine day, on a change of tactics and proceeded by another means, pitting good against good. Thus when God gave man the blessing of love and the desires of the flesh, the devil, by increasing and exacerbating the desire, caused man to sink into luxury and rape. The same thing when God bestowed the blessing of wine, the devil increased the pleasure of wine in order to create alcoholism. We know the slogan “one glass is good, three glasses makes for a hangover.”

Our minority do exactly the same thing today. In their incapacity to defend their centrist sliding towards councilism they change their tactics. “You talk of centrism, but centrism is the bourgeoisie! In pretending to combat centrism you only succeed in rehabilitating it, in placing it and giving it a class label. Thus in situating it in the class, you make yourselves its defenders and its apologists.”

The old trick of the reversal of roles. Perfectly successful in the hands of the devil. Unfortunately for them, our minoritarians are not devils, so that in their hands this astute tactic doesn’t get them very far. Who, which comrade, could seriously believe this absurdity that the majority of the IB Plenum of January ’84, which pointed out the existence of a centrist sliding towards councilism and for a year now has done nothing but combat it, would become in reality the defender and apologist for the Kautsky of 70 years ago? Our minoritarians themselves don’t believe this. They are trying rather to blur the debate on the present by raving on about the past.

To return to the history of the USPD we will begin by recalling the development of the opposition to the war in the social democracy

In Germany, the Union Sacrée was sealed by the unanimous vote – minus the vote of Rühle – of the parliamentary fraction in favour of war credits, stupefying many members of this party to the point of paralysis. The left which was to give birth to Spartacus is at this moment so reduced that the small apartment of Rosa was big enough to allow it to meet in the aftermath of 4th August 1914.

The left was not only reduced but was divided into several groups:

  • the “Radical Left” of Bremen which, influenced by the Bolsheviks, called for an immediate break with social democracy;

  • groups around small bulletins and reviews, such as that of Borchardt (close to the “Radical Left”);

  • the Revolutionary Shop Stewards (the most important of the groups) regrouping the union representatives of the metal factories of Berlin and which were situated politically between the centre and Spartakus;

  • the Spartakus group;

  • and finally the centre which would give birth to the USPD.

Moreover, none of the groups represented a homogenous entity but were subdivided into multiple tendencies, expanding and contracting, approaching each other and distancing themselves again incessantly. In any case, the principle axis of their divisions always remained the regression towards the right and the evolution towards the left.

This already gives us an idea of the ferment in the working class in Germany from the beginning of the war (the critical point of the period of decadence) and which accelerated as the war went on. It is impossible within the limits of this article to give details concerning the numerous strikes and demonstrations against the war in Germany. No other belligerent country witnessed such a development, not even Russia. We will content ourselves here with giving some points of reference: amongst others, the political repercussions of these shudderings in the most right-wing fraction of the SPD, the parliamentary fraction:

  • On August 4th 1914, 94 out of 95 deputies voted the war credits. Only one vote was cast against, that of Rühle. Karl Liebnecht, submitting to discipline, also voted in favour.

  • In December 1914, on the occasion of a new vote on credits, Liebnecht broke discipline and voted against.

  • In March 1915, a new budgetary vote including new war credits. “Only Liebnecht and Rühle voted against, after which thirty deputies, with Haase and Ledebour (two future USPD leaders) at their head, left the hall.” (Fleichmann, Le Parti communiste allemand dans la république de Weimar, Ed Maspéro, p.38).

  • 21 December 1915, a new vote of credits in the Reichstag. F. Geyer declared in the name of 20 deputies of the SPD “We refuse the credits”. “With this vote twenty deputies refused the war credits and twenty more left the room” (ibid).

  • January 6 1916, the social-chauvinist majority of the parliamentary group excluded Liebknecht from its ranks. Rühle solidarised with him and was also excluded. Haase rejected, in the name of the minority of the SPD group in the Reichstag, the emergency budget of the state. After the meeting, the minority published the following statement: “The social-democratic parliamentary group has with 58 votes against 33 and 4 abstentions taken away our rights pertaining to the group… We see ourselves compelled to group ourselves in a social democratic working collective.” Among the signatories of this declaration we find the names of the most of the future leaders of the USPD, and notably Bernstein.

The split and from then on the existence of two SD groups in the Reichstag, one social-chauvinist and the other against the war, corresponded, to some extent to what happened in the SD as a whole, with its divisions and fierce struggles of tendencies, as within the working class as a whole.

In June 1915 a common action of the entire opposition was organised against the central committee of the party. A text in the form of a leaflet was distributed, carrying the signatures of hundreds of full-timers. It ended as follows: “we demand that the parliamentary group and the leadership of the party finally denounce the Union Sacrée and engage in the class struggle on the basis of the programme and decisions of the party, the socialist struggle for peace” (op.cit). Soon afterwards a manifesto appeared, signed by Bernstein, Haase and Kautsky entitled “The needs of the hour” “in which they called for an end of the politics of voting for the credits” (ibid).

At the level of the class struggle we can recall:

  • 1915 several demonstrations against the war in Berlin involving at the most one thousand people.

  • On the occasion of May Day 1916 the Spartakus group held a demonstration of 10,000 workers from the factories.

  • August 1916, following the arrest and condemnation of Liebknecht for his action against the war, 55,000 metal workers went on strike in Berlin.

There were also strikes in several provincial cities.

This movement against the war and against the social chauvinist positions grew continuously throughout the war, winning over more and more workers, within them a small revolutionary minority (itself groping in the dark) and a strong majority made up of a centrist current becoming more radical. Thus at the national conference of the SPD in September 1916, in which the centrist minority and the Spartakus group participated, 4 speakers declared “What is important is not the unity of the party but the unity of principles. We must call on the masses to engage in struggle against imperialism and the war and impose peace by employing every means at the disposal of the proletariat” (ibid).

On January 7th 1917 a national conference grouping all the currents opposed to the war was held. Of 187 delegates, 35 represented the Spartakus group. A conference which unanimously adopted a manifesto…written by Kautsky, and a resolution by Kurt Eisner. The two texts said: “What the opposition demands is a peace without victors or vanquished, a peace of reconciliation without violence.

How is it to be explained that Spartakus voted for such a perfectly opportunist, pacifist resolution, which according to its representative Ernst Meyer “poses the question of stopping the payment of dues to the instances of the party”?

For McIntosh, in his simplism, such a question has no sense; the majority of social democracy had become bourgeois, centrism is thus also bourgeois and the same goes for Spartakus…

But in that case it must be explained what this makes the Bolsheviks and the Dutch Tribunists at the conferences of Zimmerwald and Kienthal, where, while proposing their own resolution for the transformation of the imperialist war into a civil war, they finally voted for the manifesto and resolution in favour of peace without annexations and retributions. In the logic of McIntosh everything is black and white for all eternity. He doesn’t see the movement, any more than he sees the direction of the movement. Luckily, McIntosh is not a doctor since he would be a bad doctor, who in the face of an advanced disease would already see the patient as a corpse.

We have to insist that what is not true for the life of men is a total absurdity at the level of an historic movement such as that of the proletariat. Here the passage from life to death is not measured in seconds or even minutes but in years. The moment when a workers’ party signs its own death certificate and its actual, definitive death, are not the same thing. This is perhaps difficult to understand for a radical phraseologist, but it is quite understandable for a marxist who doesn’t have the habit of deserting a ship like a rat when it begins to take in water. Revolutionaries know the historical meaning of an organisation which the class has given birth to, and as long as it still contains a breath of life they fight in order to save it, to hold onto it for the class. Such a position didn’t exist a few years ago for the CWO, it doesn’t exist for Guy Sabatier and other phraseologists for whom the Communist International and the Bolshevik party were bourgeois the whole time. Nor does it exist for McIntosh. Revolutionaries can be mistaken at a given moment, but for them this question is of the greatest importance. And why? Because revolutionaries do not constitute a sect of researchers but are a living part of the living body which is the workers’ movement, with its moments of ups and downs.

The social chauvinist majority of the SPD understood better than McIntosh the danger posed by this current of opposition to the Union Sacrée and the war, and urgently went over to the policy of massive expulsions. It was in the wake of these expulsions that the USPD was founded on 8 April 1917. It was only with the greatest reservations and many hesitations that Spartakus agreed to join this new party, posing as a precondition “complete freedom of critique and independent action”. Later Liebknecht was to characterise the relationship between the Spartakus group and the USPD as follows: “We joined the USPD in order to drive it forward, to have a platform for our position, to be able to reach thousands of elements.” It is more than doubtful if this strategy was valid at this moment, but one thing is clear: if such a question was posed for Luxemburg and Liebknecht, then it was because they rightly considered the USPD to be a centrist movement and not a party of the bourgeoisie.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that of the 38 delegates who participated at Zimmerwald, the German delegation with ten members under the leadership of Ledebour comprised seven members of the centrist opposition, 2 of Spartakus and one from the Bremen Left. And at Kienthal, of the 43 participants, 7 delegates came from Germany of whom four were centrists, 2 from Spartakus and one from the Bremen Left. Spartakus, though inside the USPD, preserved its independence and conduced itself in a similar manner to the Bolsheviks at the conferences of Zimmerwald and Kienthal.

One cannot understand what was the centrist USPD without situating it in the context of a formidable movement of mass struggles. In April 1917 a mass strike broke out involving no less than 300,000 workers. Elsewhere, the first mutinies in the navy took place. In January 1918 on the occasion of the peace negotiations of Brest-Litovsk a strike wave involved an estimated one million workers. The organisation of the strike lay in the hands of the revolutionary shop stewards who were very close to the USPD (something no less astonishing is to see Ebert and Scheidemann becoming part of the strike committee). According to some estimates, at the moment of the split 248,000 adhered to the SPD and 100,000 to the USPD. In 1919 the USPD had almost one million members, and these in the main industrial cities.

It is impossible here to go over all the twists and turns of the revolutionary events in Germany in 1918. We will recall simply that on October 7 the fusion between Spartakus and the Bremen Left was decided on. On being freed, Liebknecht joined the organisation of the revolutionary shop stewards involved in preparing an armed insurrection for November 9.. But in the meantime the rising of the sailors at Kiel broke out in October 1919. In many respects the beginning of the revolution in Germany resembled that of February 1917. Particularly concerning the immaturity of the subjective factor, the immaturity of the consciousness in the class. Just like in Russia, the congress of the councils placed themselves in the hands of the worst hard-liners throughout the war; Ebert, Scheidemann, Lansburg, to which were added three members of the USPD: Haase, Ditmann and Barthe. These latter were part of the centrist right, with all this implies by way of spinelessness, cowardice, hesitation, and they served as a “revolutionary” cover for Ebert-Scheidemann, for a very short time (from 20/12 to 29/12 1919), but long enough to allow the latter to organise the counter revolutionary massacre, with the aid of the Prussian junkers and the Freikorps.

The policy of semi-confidence, semi-trust in this government, which was the policy of the direction of the USPD leadership, strangely resembled that of conditional support for the provisional government of Kerensky adopted by the leadership of the Bolshevik party up until May 1917 with the triumph of the April Theses of Lenin. The great difference, however, did not reside so much in the firmness of the Bolshevik party under the direction of Lenin and Trotsky as in the strength, the intelligence of an experienced class, able to bring together all its forces against the proletariat as did the German bourgeoisie. As for the USPD, it was torn, like every centrist current, between a right wing tendency seeking to reintegrate itself into the old party that had gone over to the bourgeoisie, and a stronger and stronger tendency seeking the camp of the revolution. Thus one finds the USPD by the side of Spartakus during the bloody days of the counter revolution in Berlin in January 1919, just as we find them in the different confrontations in the other cities, as was the case in Bavaria, in Munich. The USPD, like every centrist current, cannot maintain itself in the face of decisive revolutionary tests. It is condemned to blow apart; it was blown apart.

At its second congress (March 6 1919) the two tendencies confronted each other on several questions (unionism, parliamentarism) but above all on the question of joining the Communist International. The majority rejected joining. The minority however was growing stronger but at the national conference which was held in September it still did not succeed in gaining a majority. At the Leipzig Conference of November 3 of the same year, the minority won on the question of a programme of action, adopted unanimously, on the principle of the dictatorship of the soviets, and it was decided to engage in negotiations with the CI. In June 1920, a delegation was sent to Moscow to broach the question of negotiations and in order to participate at the second congress of the CI.

The EC of the CI had prepared on this subject a text containing, originally, 18 conditions which were to be reinforced with the addition of 3 more conditions. These were the 21 points of adhesion to the Communist International. After violent internal discussions, by a majority of 237 votes against 156, the extraordinary conference of October 1920 finally spoke out in favour of accepting the 21 conditions and of joining the CI.

McIntosh, and behind him JA, discovered in August 1984 the critique always made by the left of the CI that too many loopholes were left open regarding adhesion to the International. But as always, the extremely late discovery of our minority is but a caricature verging on absurdity. There is no doubt but that the 21 conditions contained positions which were erroneous in themselves, not only from the point of view of 1984, but already for the time, and were criticised by the left. What does this prove? That the CI was bourgeois? Or doesn’t it mean that the CI was penetrated by centrist positions on a deal of questions, and that from the onset?

The sudden indignation of our minority doesn’t hide very well either their ignorance of the history which they seem to have discovered today or the absurdity of their conclusion that centrism cannot exist in the present period of the decadence of capitalism.

So we have the spectacle of our minoritarians, who make concessions to councilism, posing as purists. Decidedly, they are not afraid of making themselves ridiculous in demanding a pure and virgin communist party, a party falling from the sky or emerging fully armed as God’s gift to mankind. Still, myopic as they are, incapable of going back very far in time, they should at least be able to see and understand the short history of the ICC. Where did the groups come from which finished up regrouping in the ICC? Our minoritarians only have to begin by looking at themselves and their political trajectory. From where did RI come, or WR, or the section in Belgium, the USA, Spain, Italy and Sweden? Didn’t they come out of the confusionist, anarchist and contestationist swamp?

We can never have stitches tight enough to give us an absolute guarantee against the penetration of centrist elements or their arising from within. The history of the ICC – without even speaking of the history of the workers’ movement – is there to show that the revolutionary movement is a process of incessant decantation. It suffices to look at our minoritarians to get an idea of the amount of confusions which they are capable of giving rise to in one year.

And so we have McIntosh discovering that the flood of the first revolutionary wave also threw up a Smeral, a Cachin, a Frossard and a Serrati. Has McIntosh ever seen, from the window of his university, what a revolutionary flood looks like?

As far as the PCF is concerned, McIntosh writes history in his own manner in saying for example that the party joined the CI grouped around Cachin-Frossard. Does he know nothing of the existence of the Committee for the Third International grouped around Longuet? Frossard and Cachin zig-zagged between these two committees, before finally rallying to the resolution of the Committee for the Third International in favour of joining the CI.

At the Strasbourg Conference of February 1920, the majority was still opposed to joining. At the congress of Tours in December 1920, the motion for joining the CI obtained 3,208 mandates, the motion of Longuet for joining with reserves got 1,022 and the group in favour of abstention (the Blum-Renaudel group) got 397 mandates.

The stitches were not yet sufficiently tight? Certainly. But this does not prevent us from understanding what it means to be in the rising flood of a revolution.

We are discussing whether the Bolsheviks, the Spartakists, the socialist parties which constituted or joined the CI were workers’ parties or parties of the bourgeoisie. We are not discussing their errors but their class nature, and Mish-Mash Intosh does not help us along in the slightest in this matter.

Just as McIntosh does not see what is a current of maturation, moving from bourgeois ideology towards class consciousness, he is no more able to distinguish this from a current which degenerates, that is to say goes from class positions towards bourgeois ideology.

In his fixed, frozen vision of the world, the direction of the movement has no sense or meaning. That’s why he cannot understand what it means to help the tendency which is approaching us by criticising it, and to pitilessly combat the other tendency which is distancing itself from us. But above all, he cannot recognise when the process of decantation of a proletarian party has been definitively completed. Without going over the entire history of the workers’ movement, we can give him one point of reference: a party is definitively lost for the working class when no tendency, no living (proletarian) body can emerge from it any more. This was the case from 1921 on for the Socialist Parties; this was the case at the beginning of the 30s for the Communist Parties. It is correct to talk of these organisations in terms of centrism until those dates.

And to finish off, it should be recalled that the new theory of McIntosh, which ignores the existence of centrism in the period of decadence, strongly resembles those people who instead of treating a “shameful disease” prefer to ignore it. One cannot combat centrism in the void, in ignorance. Centrism like every other plague which affects the workers’ movement cannot be dealt with by being hidden, but by being exposed, by being brought into the open as Rosa Luxemburg said.

The new theory of McIntosh rests on the superstitious belief in the evil power of words: the less one speaks of centrism the better. For us, on the contrary it is necessary to be able to recognise centrism, to know in which period of upsurge or reflux it situates itself, and to understand in what direction it is evolving. Understanding and combating centrism is in the final analysis the problem of the maturation of the subjective factor, of the coming to consciousness of the class.

MC (December 1984)

2. Ibid.

3. This text was published as a contribution to debate in the ICC’s internal bulletin but it was afterwards published, with a few minor differences, in International Review nº43 under the title “The concept of ‘centrism’, the road to the abandoning of class positions” as a position of the “Tendency” which was constituted in January 1985. In the same number of the International Review there was also a response to this text under the title “The rejection of the notion of ‘centrism’: an open door to the abandonment of class positions”.

4. “The tasks of the proletariat in our revolution”, quoted in the article “The rejection of the notion of ‘centrism’: an open door to the abandonment of class positions”.

5. ‘Unabhängige Sozialdemokratishe Partei Deutschlands’, the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany, which was founded in 1917 by the minority of those excluded from the Social Democratic Party, the SPD, for their opposition to the war.

6. The International Secretariat, the permanent commission of the International Bureau, the central organ of the ICC.

7. JA (Judith Allen) was part of those comrades who expressed “reserves” with regard to the resolution adopted in January 1984 by the central organ of the ICC and who, later on, rejected the notion of centrism towards councilism. In fact, they themselves fell into councilist conceptions and the majority of them left the ICC before the debate was finished, forming the “External fraction of the ICC” (EFICC) which published Internationalist Perspective. At the beginning this group presented itself as the real defender of the ICC’s platform, but it has little by little abandoned all reference to our platform.

8. Note in MC’s original text: “We will return later to the analysis of the nature of this centrism which spanned the period from the war to the constitution of the Communist International.


Heritage of the Communist Left: 

Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: 



Zimmerwald 1915