The struggle against centrism and the founding of the Fourth International

Part two

By Bill Van Auken
16 April 2009

Below is the second part of a lecture delivered at a summer school of the Socialist Equality Party held in Ann Arbor, Michigan in August 2007. The first part was posted April 15. The third and final part was posted April 17. For other lectures from the 2007 school, click here.

The characteristics of centrism

Centrism by its very nature is vague and ill defined, oscillating now to the left, now to the right. It is characterized as much by what it lacks in terms of clear ideological groundings and political principles as by what it espouses.

Nonetheless, in 1934, Trotsky spelled out in his article “Centrism and the Fourth International” [2] some of the fundamental traits of these organizations. Reading it today calls to mind the saying—the more things change, the more they stay the same.

“Theoretically,” Trotsky wrote, “centrism is amorphous and eclectic; so far as possible it evades theoretical obligations and inclines (in words) to give preference to ‘revolutionary practice’ over theory, without understanding that only Marxist theory can impart revolutionary direction to practice....”

He continued, “In the sphere of ideology, centrism leads a parasitic existence. It repeats against revolutionary Marxists the old Menshevik arguments...usually without suspecting this. On the other hand, the main arguments against the right it borrows from the Marxists, that is, first of all from the Bolshevik Leninists, dulling, however, the sharp edge of criticism and avoiding practical conclusions, thereby rendering their criticism meaningless....”

Because of their inability to clearly define their political positions, Trotsky said, the centrist “views with hatred the revolutionary principle: state what is. He is inclined to substitute for a principled policy personal maneuvering and petty organizational diplomacy.”

And, in an observation that anyone with any experience in our movement will find quite familiar and contemporary, he stated, “The centrist frequently covers up his dawdling by referring to the danger of ‘sectarianism’ by which he understands not abstract propagandist passivity, but an active concern for purity of principles, clarity of position, political consistency and organizational completeness.”

Also of immense significance was Trotsky’s assessment of centrism’s role on the international arena. The centrist, he wrote, “does not understand that in the present epoch, a national revolutionary party can be built only as part of an international party. In the choice of his international allies, the centrist is even less discriminating than in his own country.”

Indeed, this aspect, or rather this essential characteristic, of centrism would emerge again and again in the context of the struggle between the nascent Fourth International and the parties orbiting around the London Bureau.

For example, in 1933, just a year after the British Independent Labour Party (ILP) had disaffiliated from the Labour Party and made a sharp shift to the left and towards the Fourth International, the party published an English edition of Trotsky’s powerful speech delivered in Copenhagen, “In Defense of the October Revolution.”

The edition included an introduction by party leader James Maxton, recommending it to socialists, but insisting that the issues in the struggle between the Left Opposition and the Stalinist bureaucracy were ones about which “only Russian socialists are competent to decide.”

While Trotsky saw the ILP as standing on the left wing of the London Bureau and at that point was publicly seeking a discussion of the program and principles of the Fourth International with this group, he responded with characteristic intransigence to this hands-off approach to the struggle against Stalinism.

“By these few words the international character of socialism as a scientific doctrine and as a revolutionary movement is completely refuted,” he wrote. “If socialists (communists) of one country are incapable, incompetent, and consequently have no right to decide the vital questions of the struggle of socialists (communists) in other countries, the proletarian International loses all rights and possibilities of existence.... [Maxton] expressed himself in hidden form on the essence of the dispute and, in effect, in favor of the Stalinist faction, since our struggle with it concerns precisely the question as to whether socialism is a national or international matter.” [3]

Trotsky’s prescience in this matter was soon born out. The ILP ended up opposing the demand for an international commission of inquiry on the Moscow Trials, with its leader Brockway instead proposing a commission of social democratic scoundrels to investigate the political activity of Leon Trotsky. By 1938 the national reformist perspective that Trotsky had detected in Maxton’s introduction 5 years earlier found completed expression in the ILP leader’s delivering a public speech in which he thanked Tory Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain for saving the “peace of Europe” by reaching an accommodation with Hitler at Munich.

While not every one of the centrist parties around the London Bureau sunk so deeply into political reaction, all of them ended up opposing the Fourth International on similar nationalist grounds.

Andres NinAndres Nin

The tragic consequences of the attempt to steer a middle course between revolutionary Marxism on the one hand and Stalinism and Social Democracy on the other found full expression in the equivocal policy of Andres Nin and the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification) in Spain, which contributed decisively to strangling the Spanish revolution and led to the POUM’s destruction and Nin’s murder. The POUM’s role, in the final analysis, was to provide a left cover to the popular front, while actively isolating the revolutionary Marxists from the masses. In this sense, it functioned—despite Nin’s intentions—as the principal obstacle to the building of a party capable of leading the Spanish revolution to victory.

The politics of the POUM—its electoral maneuvers with the Spanish People’s Front and the ultimate entry of Nin into a bourgeois government—were supported by the London Bureau, and the illusions that it promoted about the POUM’s revolutionary potential found a certain resonance within the ranks of the Trotskyists as well as sections of revolutionary workers.

Despite his denunciations of the Stalinist repression in Spain and his immense sympathy for the personal fate of Nin, Trotsky insisted on telling the truth about Nin’s policies—that he had carried out the greatest conceivable political crime of joining a bourgeois government under conditions of socialist revolution.

This became the basis for a split with various left centrists both in and around the Fourth International who either openly or shamefacedly defended Nin’s record.

Among the former was to be found Pivert, of the French PSOP. In response to Trotsky’s statement that the POUM’s bowing before the popular front was one of the main causes of the defeat in Spain, Pivert proclaimed that the cause of defeat was not any capitulation by the POUM, but rather “the efforts of British-French imperialism, of Italian German imperialism and also those of the Stalinists.”

In response, Trotsky wrote, “One can neither expect nor ask for a movement of greater scope, greater endurance, greater heroism on the part of the workers than we were able to observe in Spain. The imperialist ‘democrats’ and the mercenary rabble of the Second and the Third Internationals will always behave as they did towards the Spanish revolution. What then can be hoped for? He is criminal who instead of analyzing the policy of bankruptcy of the revolutionary or quasi-revolutionary organizations invokes the ignominy of the bourgeoisie and its lackeys. It is precisely against them that a correct policy is needed!” [4]

This is an exchange that has found persistent echoes to this day. Similar things were said at the recent congress in Madrid on the 70th Anniversary of the Spanish Civil War, with an entire school of bourgeois historians insisting that the cause of fascism in Spain lay not in the absence of revolutionary leadership, but the perfidy of London and Paris. In every defeated revolution since—one could cite the cases of Bolivia in 1971 and Chile in 1973—centrists have always sought to curtail any examination of the role played by quasi-revolutionary organizations—that is, centrist parties—in preparing the defeats, laying the blame instead on imperialism and the CIA.

Pivert also leveled the accusation that the “sectarian methods” of the Trotskyists were responsible for the weakening of the revolutionary vanguard. He accused them of “brutalizing the intelligence of the militants” and “interpreting with no indulgence whatever the inevitable fumblings in the search for revolutionary truth.” The combination of opportunism, wounded subjectivism and slander evinced by Pivert are the hallmark of countless individuals and tendencies that have broken from the Fourth International while trying to disguise their own right-centrist politics. [5]

As Trotsky pointed out, similar charges were leveled against Marx, Engels, Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg: that they were too sharp or lacked sensitivity and diplomacy in dealing with their political opponents. This was to be explained, he said, by the fact that centrists, who had failed to break with bourgeois public opinion and felt the duplicity of their own position, did not like criticism. On the other hand, revolutionaries, acting on the basis of an objectively determined revolutionary perspective, are prone towards confronting centrists who try to evade the implications of the political situation and their own positions.

Within the Trotskyist movement itself, the leader of the Belgian section, George Vereeken, took the position that the Fourth International was as much to blame as POUM because its sharp criticism of the Spanish party’s entry into the government had pushed Nin away. Here was a classic hallmark of centrism: attributing political differences to issues of personal friction or problems of regime, rather than questions of fundamental principle.

Henk SneevlietHenk Sneevliet

Ultimately, the dispute over Spain led to a break with Vereeken as well as with Henk Sneevliet, whose RSAP (Revolutionair Socialistische Arbeiderspartij [Dutch], Revolutionary Socialist Workers’ Party) was among the largest parties signing the 1935 call for the Fourth International. While taking the form of a split and an apparent organizational crisis, this battle against centrism constituted the essential political preparation for the founding of the new world party.

The founding of the FI

The Fourth International was founded in September 1938 under conditions in which Trotsky and his followers were subjected to the most intense persecution, assassinations and even mass murder on the part of both the Soviet Stalinist bureaucracy and fascism.

It came just six months after the third of the Moscow Trials, whose defendants included Nikolai Bukharin, former editor of Pravda and head of the Communist International; Alexei Rykov, official head of the Soviet government for five years after the death of Lenin; Christian Rakovsky, former head of the Ukrainian government; and N.N. Krestinsky, former secretary of the Central Committee and Politburo member.

The trial was accompanied by what can only be described as an exercise in political genocide, in which all those Communists who continued to defend the principles and program of the October 1917 revolution, that is the Trotskyists, were systematically exterminated. After a decade of repression, Stalin feared Trotsky and his followers more than ever, recognizing that the threat of war carried with it the threat of renewed revolution.

The killings were not restricted to the Soviet Union. The months leading up to the founding conference of the Fourth International were marked by the assassinations of Trotsky’s son Leon Sedov, murdered in a medical clinic in Paris, the brutal slaying and dismemberment of Trotsky’s German secretary Rudolph Klement, who was to chair the conference, and the abduction and murder in Spain of Trotsky’s other international secretary Erwin Wolff.

This repression and the defeats suffered by the working class led some in the Trotskyist movement to oppose the founding of the Fourth International up to and including at the founding conference itself. One of those was Trotsky’s biographer Isaac Deutscher, who subsequently was to provide a revisionist theory of Stalin’s role as a kind of Soviet Napoleon, a theory that provided a key ideological inspiration for the Pabloite liquidationism that attacked the Fourth International in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Deutscher in the third part of his trilogy on Trotsky, The Prophet Outcast, cites the objections to the founding of the Fourth International made by the delegates of the Polish Trotskyist group, whose arguments he had helped formulate.

“They pointed out that it was hopeless to try to create a new International while the workers’ movement as a whole was on the ebb, during ‘a period of immense reaction and political depression,’ and that all previous internationals had to some extent owed their success to the fact that they had been formed in times of revolutionary upsurge.”

He goes on to quote the Polish delegates as saying, “No significant section of the working class will respond to our manifesto, it is necessary to wait.” While proclaiming that they agreed with Trotsky that the Second and Third Internationals were “morally dead,” they “warned the conference that it was frivolous to understate the hold these Internationals had on the allegiance of the working class in many countries....” [6]

These arguments were typical of those centrists who had drawn closest to the Trotskyist movement. They insisted that they agreed with Trotsky on many questions, but not the practical conclusion that a new international party had to be built to assemble the Marxist cadres that were indispensable for a successful socialist revolution. Their objections that the time was not ripe only served as a cover for their own orientation towards and awe before the existing social democratic and Stalinist bureaucracies.

Trotsky’s starting point in the struggle to found the Fourth International and in the method that permeates its founding document, the Transitional Program, is that of a principled and scientific estimation of the objective crisis, class relations and political forces on an international scale. He grasped the founding of the Fourth International as an objective historical necessity based on the crisis of capitalism and the betrayals of the existing bureaucratic leaderships in the workers movement.

The centrist critics who opposed the founding of the Fourth International, however, based their own arguments on wholly subjective considerations. While they insisted on their agreement with Trotsky over the nature of Stalinism and Social Democracy, they nonetheless began from their own assessment of the grip of these bureaucracies over the masses—abstracted entirely from the struggle of the revolutionary party to break that grip—and concluded that the launching of the Fourth International was merely a futile gesture.

The parties adhering to Trotskyism were too small and isolated, they insisted, to “proclaim” a new international. Only a new “great event” like the October Revolution could create the conditions for launching a new world party.

Against centrists like Deutscher, Trotsky insisted that the new international was founded on great events—the greatest defeats in the history of the international workers movement—in Spain, Austria, Germany, China, Italy and elsewhere—together with the extermination of socialists in the Soviet Union—events that had established the bankruptcy and counterrevolutionary character of the old bureaucracies dominating the workers movement. If humanity was not to suffer a worldwide catastrophe, the working class had to build a new revolutionary international party.

The centrists who opposed the founding of the Fourth International on the grounds that the Stalinists were still too strong or that the masses would not understand were in fact only contributing to the stranglehold exercised by the old bureaucracies, condemning the working class to a political blind alley. Trotsky dismissed with scorn this fixation with the supposed “subjective causes” for not building a new international.

He wrote: “And what else is the task of Marxists if not to raise the subjective factor to the level of the objective and to bring the consciousness of the masses closer to the understanding of the historical necessity—in simpler terms, to explain to the masses their own interests, which they do not yet understand? The ‘profound problem’ of the centrists is profound cowardice in the face of an undeferrable task. The not understand the importance of class conscious revolutionary activity in history.” [7]

The centrists also conveniently ignored the fact that Lenin issued his call for the Third International in the wake of the great betrayal carried out by the Second, in which the social democratic parties of Europe all went over to the support of their own bourgeoisies in the First World War. At the time, Lenin had admitted that those socialists adhering to the perspective of revolutionary defeatism that he championed constituted a minority within a minority that could have fit into a single railway car. And they remained a small minority of the socialist movement up until the victory of the October Revolution.

Writing half a year before that revolution, in his “April Thesis,” Lenin insisted on the immediate founding of a new International. This was not only because of the betrayal carried out by the social chauvinist leadership of the Second International, which, as he said, constituted the class enemy, but also to draw a sharp dividing line between revolutionary Marxists and what he termed the “centrists” of the Zimmerwald International, those who vacillated between social chauvinism and genuine socialist internationalism, who supported internationalism in words, but not in deeds.

“It is we who must found, and right now, without delay, a new, revolutionary, proletarian International, or rather, we must not fear to acknowledge publicly that this new International is already established and operating. 

“This is the International of those ‘internationalists in deed’.... They and they alone are representatives of the revolutionary, internationalist mass, and not their corrupters. 

“And if socialists of that type are few, let every Russian worker ask himself whether there were many really class-conscious revolutionaries in Russia on the eve of the February-March revolution of 1917. 

“It is not a question of numbers, but of giving correct expression to the ideas and policies of the truly revolutionary proletariat. The thing is not to ‘proclaim’ internationalism, but to be able to be an internationalist in deed, even when times are most trying.”

Concluding his thesis with a withering critique of those who resisted a definitive break with social democracy, summed up in the proposal that the Russian party rename itself as the Communist Party, Lenin concluded, “It is time to cast off the soiled shirt and to put on clean linen.” [8]

To be continued


2. Writings of Leon Trotsky [1933-44] (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972), pp. 232-37.

3. Trotsky’s Writings on Britain, vol. 3 (London: New Park Publications, 1974), “The ILP after Disaffiliation,” p. 67.

4. “Centrism and the 4th International,” Letter to Daniel Guerin, March 10, 1939,

5. Ibid, Letter from Marceau Pivert to Leon Trotsky, Jan. 26, 1939.

6. Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast (London: verso, 2003), p. 341.

7. Writings of Leon Trotsky [1934-35] (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1971), “Centrist Alchemy or Marxism,” pp. 262-63.

8. V.I. Lenin, The April Thesis (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1970), pp. 48-54.