[Classics] What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat

10. Centrism “in General” and Centrism of the Stalinist Bureaucracy

The errors of the leadership of the Comintern and consequently the errors of the German Communist Party pertain, in the familiar terminology of Lenin, to the category of “ultra-left stupidities.” Even wise men are capable of stupidities, especially when young. But, as Heine counselled, this privilege should not be abused. When, however, political stupidities of a given type are repeated systematically in the course of a lengthy period, and moreover in the sphere of the most important questions, then they cease being simply stupidities and become tendencies. What sort of a tendency is this? What historical necessities does it meet? What are its social roots? Ultra-leftism has a different social foundation in different countries and at different periods. The most thoroughgoing expressions of ultra-leftism were to be found in anarchism and Blanquism, and in their different combinations, among them the latest one, anarcho-syndicalism.

The social soil for these trends which have spread primarily through Latin countries was to be found in the old and classic small industries of Paris. Their stability added an indubitable significance to the French varieties of ultra-radicalism and allowed them to a certain degree to influence ideologically the workers’ movements in other countries. The development of large-scale industries in France, the war, and the Russian Revolution broke the spine of anarcho-syndicalism. Having been thrown back, it has become transformed into a debased opportunism. At both of its stages French syndicalism is headed by one and the same Jouhaux; the times change and we change with them.

Spanish anarcho-syndicalism preserved its seeming revolutionary character only in the environment of political stagnation. By posing all the questions point-blank, the revolution has compelled the anarcho-syndicalist leaders to cast off their ultra-radicalism and to reveal their opportunist nature. We can rest definitely assured that the Spanish revolution will drive out the prejudice of syndicalism from its last Latin hideout.

The anarchist and Blanquist elements join all kinds of other ultra-left trends and groups. On the periphery of a great revolutionary movement there are always to be observed the manifestations of putschism and adventurism, the standard-bearers of which are recruited either from backward and quite often semi-artisan strata of the workers, or from the intellectual fellow travellers. But such a type of ultra-leftism does not attain ordinarily to independent historical significance, retaining, in most instances, its episodic character.

In historically backward countries, which are compelled to go through their bourgeois revolutions within the environment of a full-fledged and worldwide workers’ movement, the left intelligentsia often introduces the most extreme slogans and methods into the semi-elementary movements of the predominantly petty-bourgeois masses. Such is the nature of petty-bourgeois parties of the type of the Russian Social Revolutionaries, with their tendencies toward putschism, individual terrorism, etc. Thanks to the effectiveness of the Communist parties in the West, the independent adventurist groups will hardly attain there to the importance of the Russian Social Revolutionaries. But on this account the young Communist parties of the West may include within themselves the elements of adventurism. As regards the Russian SRs, under the influence of the evolution of bourgeois society they have become transformed into the party of the imperialist petty bourgeoisie and have taken a counter-revolutionary position in relation to the October Revolution.

It is entirely self-evident that the ultra-leftism of the present Comintern does not fall under any one of the above specified historic types. The chief party of the Comintern, the CPSU, as is well known, leans upon the industrial proletariat, and operates for better or for worse from the revolutionary traditions of Bolshevism. The majority of other sections of the Comintern are proletarian organisations. Are not the very differences in conditions in the various countries in which the ultra-left policies of official Communism are raging simultaneously and to the same degree, tokens of the fact that there are no common social roots underlying this trend? Indeed, an ultra-left course is being taken in China and in Great Britain, moreover one having the same “principled” character. But if so, where are we then to seek for the key to the new ultra-leftism?

The question is complicated, but at the same time is also clarified by one other extremely important circumstance: ultra-leftism is not at all an unvarying or a fundamental trait of the present leadership of the Comintern. The same apparatus, in its basic composition, held to an openly opportunistic policy until 1928, and in many of the most important questions switched over completely onto the tracks of Menshevism. During 1924-1927, agreements with reformists were not only considered obligatory but were permitted even if thereby the party renounced its independence, its freedom of criticism, and even its proletarian foundation. [5] Therefore the discussion concerns not at all a particular ultra-left trend, but a prolonged ultra-left zigzag of such a trend as has demonstrated in the past its capacity for launching into profound ultra-right zigzags. Even these outward symptoms suggest that what we are dealing with is centrism.

Speaking formally and descriptively, centrism is composed of all those trends within the proletariat and on its periphery which are distributed between reformism and Marxism, and which most often represent various stages of evolution from reformism to Marxism – and vice versa. Both Marxism and reformism have a solid social support underlying them. Marxism expresses the historical interests of the proletariat. Reformism speaks for the privileged position of proletarian bureaucracy and aristocracy within the capitalist state. Centrism, as we have known it in the past, did not have and could not have an independent social foundation. Different layers of the proletariat develop in the revolutionary direction in different ways and at different times. In periods of prolonged industrial uplift or in the periods of political ebb tide, after defeats, different layers of the proletariat shift politically from left to right, clashing with other layers who are just beginning to evolve to the left. Different groups are delayed on separate stages of their evolution, they find their temporary leaders and they create their programs and organisations. Small wonder then that such a diversity of trends is embraced in the concept of “centrism”! Depending upon their origin, their social composition, and the direction of their evolution, different groupings may be engaged in the most savage warfare with one another, without losing thereby their character of being a variety of centrism.

While centrism in general fulfills ordinarily the function of serving as a left cover for reformism, the question as to which of the basic camps, reformist or Marxist a given centrism may belong, cannot be solved once for all with a ready-made formula. Here, more than anywhere else, it is necessary to analyse each time the concrete composition of the process and the inner tendencies of its development. Thus, some of Rosa Luxemburg’s political mistakes may be with sufficient theoretical justification characterised as left centrist. One could go still further and say that the majority of divergences between Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin represented a stronger or weaker leaning toward centrism. But only the idiots and ignoramuses and charlatans of the Comintern bureaucracy are capable of placing Luxemburgism, as an historical tendency, in the category of centrism. It goes without saying that the present “leaders” of the Comintern, from Stalin down, politically, theoretically, and morally do not come up to the knees of the great woman and revolutionist.

Critics who have not pondered the gist of the matter have recently accused me more than once of abusing the word “centrism” by including under this name too great a variety of tendencies and groups within the workers’ movement. In reality, the diversity of the types of centrism originates, as has been said already, in the essence of the phenomenon itself and not at all in an abuse of terminology. We need only recall how often the Marxists have been accused of assigning to the petty bourgeoisie the most diverse and contradictory phenomena. And actually, under the category “petty bourgeois,” one is obliged to include facts, ideas, and tendencies that at first glance appear entirely incompatible. The petty-bourgeois character pertains to the peasant movement and to the radical tendencies of urban reformism; both French Jacobins and Russian Narodniks are petty bourgeois; Proudhonists are petty bourgeois, but so are Blanquists; contemporary Social Democracy is petty bourgeois, but so is fascism; also petty bourgeois are: the French anarcho-syndicalists, the “Salvation Army,” Gandhi’s movement in India, etc., etc. If we turn to the sphere of philosophy and art a still more polychromatic picture obtains. Does this mean that Marxism indulges in playing with terminology? Not at all; this only means that the petty bourgeoisie is characterised by the extreme heterogeneity of its social nature. At the bottom it fuses with the proletariat and extends into the lumpenproletariat; on top it passes over into the capitalist bourgeoisie. It may lean upon old forms of production but it may rapidly develop on the basis of most modern industry (the new “middle class”). No wonder that ideologically it scintillates with all the colors of the rainbow.

Centrism within the workers’ movement plays in a certain sense the same role as does petty-bourgeois ideology of all types in relation to bourgeois society as a whole. Centrism reflects the processes of the evolution of the proletariat its political growth as well as its revolutionary setbacks conjoint with the pressure of all other classes of society upon the proletariat. No wonder that the palette of centrism is distinguished by such iridescence! From this it follows, however, not that one must give up trying to comprehend centrism but simply that one must discover the true nature of a given variety of centrism by means of a concrete and historical analysis in every individual instance.

The ruling faction of the Comintern does not represent centrism “in general” but a quite definite historical form, which has its social roots, rather recent but powerful. First of all, the matter concerns the Soviet bureaucracy. In the writings of the Stalinist theoreticians this social stratum does not exist at all. We are only told of “Leninism,” of disembodied leadership, of the ideological tradition, of the spirit of Bolshevism, of the imponderable “general line”; but we never hear a word about the functionary, breathing and living, in flesh and bone, who manipulates the general line like a fireman his hose.

In the meantime this same functionary bears the least resemblance to an incorporeal spirit He eats and guzzles and procreates and grows himself a respectable potbelly. He lays down the law with a sonorous voice, handpicks from below people faithful to him, remains faithful to his superiors, prohibits others from criticising himself, and sees in all this the gist of the general line. Of such functionaries there are a few million. A few million! Their number is greater than the number of industrial workers in the period of the October Revolution. The majority of these functionaries never participated in the class struggle, which is bound up with sacrifices, self-denials, and dangers. These people in their overwhelming mass began their political lives already in the category of a ruling layer. They are backed by the state power. It assures them their livelihood and raises them considerably above the surrounding masses. They know nothing of the dangers of unemployment, if they are gifted with the capacity to stand at attention. The grossest errors are forgiven them so long as they are ready to fulfill the role of the sacrificial scapegoat at the required moment, and thus remove the responsibility from the shoulders of their nearest superiors. Well, then, has this ruling stratum of many millions any social weight and political influence in the life of a country? Yes or no?

We know from older books that the labour bureaucracy and the labour aristocracy are the social foundation for opportunism. In Russia this phenomenon has taken on new forms. On the foundation of the dictatorship of the proletariat – in a backward country, surrounded by capitalism – for the first time a powerful bureaucratic apparatus has been created from among the upper layers of the workers, that is raised above the masses, that lays down the law to them, that has at its disposal colossal resources, that is bound together by an inner mutual responsibility, and that intrudes into the policies of a workers’ government its own interests, methods, and regulations.

We are not anarchists. We understand that the necessity of a workers’ government and therefore the historical inevitability of a bureaucracy during a transitional period. But we likewise understand the dangers that are inherent in this fact, particularly for a backward and an isolated country. The idealisation of Soviet bureaucracy is the most shameful mistake than can be made by a Marxist. Lenin strove with all his might to raise the party as a self-acting vanguard of the working class above the governmental apparatus in order to control, cheek, direct, and purge it, placing the historical interests of the proletariat – international, not only national – above the interests of the ruling bureaucracy. As the first condition of the party control over the government Lenin prescribed control by the party masses over the party apparatus. Read over attentively his articles, speeches, and letters during the Soviet period, particularly for the last two years of his life – and you will remark with what alarm his mind turned time and again to this burning question.

But what has happened in the subsequent period? The entire leading stratum of the party and of the government that was at the helm during the revolution and the civil war has been replaced, removed, and crushed. Their place has been taken by the anonymous functionary. At the same time the struggle against bureaucratism which was so acute in character during Lenin’s lifetime, when the bureaucracy was not yet out of its diapers, has ceased entirely now when the apparatus has grown sky-high.

And indeed, who is there capable of carrying on this struggle? The party as a self-controlling vanguard of the proletariat no longer exists now. The party apparatus has been fused with the administrative. The most important instrument of the general line within the party is the GPU. The bureaucracy not only prohibits the criticism of the top from below, but it also prohibits its theoreticians from even talking about it and noticing it. The mad hatred for the Left Opposition is aroused, first of all, by the fact that the Opposition talks openly about the bureaucracy, about its particular role and its interests, thus revealing the secret that the general line is inseparable from the flesh and blood of the new national ruling stratum, which is not at all identical with the proletariat

From the proletarian character of the government, the bureaucracy deduces its birthright to infallibility: how can the bureaucracy of a workers’ state degenerate? The state and the bureaucracy are thereby taken not as historical processes but as eternal categories: how can the holy church and its God-inspired priests sin? Yet, if a workers’ bureaucracy which has raised itself over the proletariat, waging battle in a capitalist society, could degenerate into the party of Noske, Scheidemann, Ebert, and Wels, why can’t it degenerate after raising itself over the victorious proletariat?

The ruling and uncontrolled position of the Soviet bureaucracy is conducive to a psychology which in many ways is directly contradictory to the psychology of a proletarian revolutionist. Its own aims and combinations in domestic as well as international politics are placed by the bureaucracy above the tasks of the revolutionary education of the masses and have no connection with the tasks of international revolution. in the course of a number of years the Stalinist faction demonstrated that the interests and the psychology of the prosperous peasant, engineer, administrator, Chinese bourgeois intellectual, and British trade-union functionary were much closer and more comprehensible to it than the psychology and the needs of the unskilled labourer, the peasant poor, the Chinese national masses in revolt, the British strikers, etc.

But why, in that case, didn’t the Stalinist faction carry to the very end its line of national opportunism? Because it is the bureaucracy of a workers’ state. While the international Social Democracy defends the foundations of the bourgeois sovereignty, the Soviet bureaucracy, not having achieved a governmental overturn, is compelled to adapt itself to the social foundations laid down by the October Revolution. From this is derived the dual psychology and policies of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Centrism, but centrism on the foundation of a workers’ state, is the sole possible expression for this duality.

Whereas in capitalist countries, the centrist groupings are most often temporary or transitional in character, reflecting the evolution of certain workers’ strata to the right or to the left, under the conditions of the Soviet republic centrism is equipped with a much more solid and organised base in the shape of a multimillioned bureaucracy. Representing in itself a natural environment for opportunist and nationalist tendencies, it is compelled, however, to maintain the foundations of its hegemony in the struggle with the kulak [rich peasant] and also to bother about its “Bolshevik” prestige in the worldwide movement. Following its attempted chase after the Kuomintang and the Amsterdam bureaucracy, which in many ways is close to it spiritually, the Soviet bureaucracy each time entered into sharp conflict with the Social Democracy, which reflects the enmity of the world bourgeoisie to the Soviet state. Such are the sources of the present left zigzags.

The peculiarity of the situation arises not from the supposed special immunity of the Soviet bureaucracy to opportunism and nationalism but from the fact that, being unable to occupy a thorough-going national-reformist position, it is compelled to describe zigzags between Marxism and national reformism. The oscillations of this bureaucratic centrism, in conformity with its power, its resources, and the acute contradictions in its position, have attained an altogether unheard-of sweep: from ultra-left adventurism in Bulgaria and Estonia to the alliance with Chiang Kai-shek, Radich, and Purcell; and from the shameful fraternisation with British strikebreakers to a complete renunciation of the policy of the united front with mass organisations.

The Stalinist bureaucracy carries over its methods and zigzags to other countries, insofar as it not only leads the Com. intern through the party apparatus but also lays down the law to it. Thälmann was for the Kuomintang when Stalin was for the Kuomintang. At the seventh plenum of the ECCI in the fall of 1926, the delegate of the Kuomintang, ambassador of Chiang Kai-shek, Shao Li-tsi by name, fraternally came forward together with Thälmann, Semard, and all the Remmeles against “Trotskyism.” “Comrade” Shao Li-tsi said, “We are all convinced that under the leadership of the Comintern, the Kuomintang will fulfill its historic task.” (Minutes of the Seventh Plenum) This is a historical fact!

If you take up Die Rote Fahne for 1926, you will find in it multitudinous articles all harping on one note, to wit, that by demanding a break with the British General Council of strikebreakers, Trotsky demonstrates his ... Menshevism! And today “Menshevism” consists already in defending the united front with mass organisations, that is, in applying that policy which was formulated by the Third and Fourth Congresses under the leadership of Lenin (against all the Thälmanns, Thalheimers, Bela Kuns, Frossards, etc.).

These breakneck zigzags would have been impossible were it not for the fact that within all Communist sections a self-sufficient bureaucracy – i.e., independent of the party – had been formed. Here is the root of all evil!

The strength of a revolutionary party consists in the independence of its vanguard, which checks and selects its cadres and, while educating its leaders, gradually elevates them by its confidence. This creates an unbroken connection between the cadres and the mass, between the leaders and the cadres, and it induces in the entire leadership an inward confidence in themselves. There is nothing of the kind in the contemporary Communist parties! The leaders are appointed. They handpick their aides. The rank and file of the masses is forced to accept the appointed leaders, around whom there is built up the artificial atmosphere of publicity. The cadres depend upon the upper crust and not upon the underlying masses. Consequently, to a considerable degree they seek for the source of their influence as well as for the source of their livelihood outside of the masses. They draw their political slogans not from the experience in the struggle, but from the telegraph. And in the meantime Stalin’s files secrete incriminating documents against possible emergency. Each leader knows that at any moment he can be blown away like a feather.

Thus, throughout the entire Comintern a closed bureaucratic stratum is being created which constitutes a culture broth for the bacilli of centrism. While organisationally it is very stable and solid, for it is backed by the bureaucracy of the Soviet state, the centrism of the Thälmanns, Remmeles & Co., is distinguished by extreme instability in political relations. Bereft of assurance, which can be derived only from an organic liaison with the masses, the infallible CEC suffices only for monstrous zigzags. The less it is prepared for a serious ideological battle, the more proficient it is in profanity, insinuations, and calumnies. Stalin’s lineage, “coarse” and “disloyal,” as described by Lenin, is the personification of this layer.

The characterisation of bureaucratic centrism given above determines the attitude of the Left Opposition to the Stalinist bureaucracy: a complete and unqualified support insofar as the bureaucracy defends the boundaries of the Soviet republic and the foundations of the October Revolution; an outspoken criticism insofar as the bureaucracy hinders by its administrative zigzags the defence of the revolution and of socialist construction; a merciless resistance insofar as it disorganises by its bureaucratic overlordship the struggle of the international proletariat.


[5] Unfortunately, an article was printed in Die Pemanente Revolution, not an editorial one, true enough, but in defence of a single workers’ candidate. There cannot be any doubt that the German Bolshevik-Leninists will condemn such a position.