Jean van Heijenoort writing as Marc Loris

Centrism and Its Future

“Centrism and it Future” Fourth International, November 1941, pp.273-275, under the name“Marc Loris”. (1,923 words)

For Marceau Pivert the anniversary of the assassination of Leon Trotsky provided the occasion for an attack on Trotskyism. In an article called“Has Trotskyism a Future?” he gives a negative answer to the question he asks. It is not without interest to observe that Pivert published his article in“The Socialist Call,” the organ of Norman Thomas, that provincial conservative who through some misunderstanding considers himself a socialist. When it is a question of attacking the“sectarian fanaticism” of the Trotskyists it is obvious that anything goes, and Pivert’s generous views easily allow him to use the organ of the American section of the Second International. Down with partisan narrow-mindedness!

We shall not examine all the reproaches Pivert throws up to Trotskyism and to Bolshevism. Many of them are as old as Bolshevism itself and are taken straight from the reformist and bourgeois arsenal. As we scarcely have any intention of convincing Pivert himself we shall not repeat things already said a thousand times and shall pause only at points whose discussion may contribute to a revolutionary education.

Pivert’s“Internationalism” Pivert begins by making a distinction between the U.S.S.R. and the capitalist countries. In the Soviet Union“Trotsky’s concepts may revive,—to the extent that they correspond to certain historical necessities.” What are these“certain historical necessities"? Pivert takes great care not to tell us. But let us go on, we shall come to them later. Outside the U.S.S.R., on the other hand,“Trotskyism was already dying a natural death” long before Trotsky was assassinated and at present is doomed to disappear.

This division of the world indicates how little Pivert has assimilated proletarian internationalism. The struggle of the Left Opposition against the bureaucratization of the Soviet state was by no means a national struggle. The rise of the bureaucracy had a profound international source: the revolutionary wave brought about by the war of 1914-1918 was broken. This defeat was provoked by the treachery of the social-democracy, the bankruptcy of the centrist parties, and the absence of a revolutionary leadership. The first workers’ state found itself isolated and this led to degeneration. The international character of the roots of the bureaucratic system also determines the international character of the struggle against this system. The accession of the proletariat to power in any advanced country of the world whatever— we have often repeated— would immediately change the relationship of forces within the U.S.S.R. The Soviet workers would cease passively tolerating the parasitic bureaucrats on their backs. Stalin has understood all this much better than Pivert, and that is why he has done everything to crush the proletarian revolution in Spain and in so many other countries ! In aiding the workers in capitalist countries to liberate themselves from reformist and Stalinist leaderships which impede their march forward, we are by this very token working for a revolutionary regeneration of the U.S.S.R. The struggle against Stalinism has a profound international character. Who can fail to see this in 1941? From its very beginning the Left Opposition in the U.S.S.R. conducted its struggle against the Stalinist leadership just as much on the problems of the world revolution as on the“Russian” question: the policy of the Communist International in Germany in 1923, the Chinese revolution, the Anglo-Russian Committee, the program of the Communist International, etc., etc. Was the Left Opposition right or wrong on these questions? Pivert would feel quite embarrassed at formulating an answer with his notion of a Trotskyism which is good within the U.S.S.R. and bad outside.

Pivert says that Trotskyism“may revive in the U.S.S.R. to the extent that it corresponds to certain historical necessities.” These“historical necessities” can be nothing but the interests of the Soviet proletariat which are opposed to the conservative tendencies of the parasitic oligarchy. But there is an indissoluble relation between the interests of the Soviet proletariat and those of the world proletariat. If the Soviet workers throw off their bureaucrats it will be not only the immediate ruin of Stalinism, but also an evidence of the strength of the proletarian revolution, and so will give a powerful thrust forward to the revolutionary proletarian movement in all the capitalist countries. If, on the other hand, the workers of a capitalist country seize the power it will mean the rebirth of all the hopes of the Soviet workers and the foundering of the Kremlin oligarchy within a short time. Therefore, if Trotskyism represents the interests of the Soviet proletariat, as Pivert admits, it thereby represents the interests of the world proletariat, which Pivert does not wish to admit. Inversely, if Trotskyism is playing a reactionary role in the international field, it is also harmful to the Soviet workers. Pivert has no desire to admit this either, for it would mean risking a descent into the Stalinist abyss. Consequently, he is compelled, in order to mask the unavoidable contradictions of his thought, to halt in mid-passage, to satisfy himself with half-ideas and quarter-ideas, to use expressions as vague as“certain historical necessities.” All this is in the very nature of centrism.

The revolutionary interests of the proletariat are indivisible. In criticizing Stalinism we have often repeated this principle. The theory of“socialism in one country” pretended that the workers’ state could develop independently of the successes or failures of the international revolution. What has happened? A series of proletarian revolutions was crushed, not without the assistance of Stalinists acting in the name of the so-called defense of the U.S.S.R.; the black stain of fascism spread itself throughout Europe; the Soviet Union became more isolated than ever and was ultimately hurled into the catastrophe itself. The Stalinist theory which separated the interests of the U.S.S.R. from those of the international proletariat meant the direct abandonment of proletarian internationalism. Pivert is going in the same direction. He is now constructing the theory of“Trotskyism in one country": Trotskyism is good for the U.S.S.R., but bad for other countries. By this alone he shows that in spite of his pompous declarations and bellowing phrases his thought has remained completely alien to Marxist internationalism. Neither opportunism, nor centrism, nor Trotskyism are good in certain countries and bad in others. In the last analysis their international character flows from the nature of capitalist production. All this is as old as the Communist Manifesto. And when Pivert acknowledges that Trotskyism has a national value while denying it any possibility of existence in examination of the real problems but is merely expressing the subjective discomfort of the petty bourgeois faced by the fundamental problems of the revolution, that is, the most burning question of our age.

Pivert gives us his solution. Reformism and Bolshevism“have now been passed by.”“They must now step aside and yield to something more revolutionary than reformism and more democratic than Trotskyism.” What a prodigious synthesis, and how simple! Make reformism more revolutionary and Trotskyism more democratic! But first of all, how is reformism to be made more revolutionary? Here is a very important question which anyone reflecting on the problems of the revolution will ask himself and concerning which Pivert doesn’t breathe a word. For years Pivert considered Blum not a class enemy on the other side of the barricades who should have been denounced as such, but an ideological adversary who should be persuaded. For years he attempted to instruct Blum how to make the proletarian revolution. This is Pivert’s way to make reformism more revolutionary! The result is known. Let us go on to the second part of the“synthesis.” What is this“democracy” Pivert wants to inoculate the Trotskyists with in order to rescue them from the“germs of monopolism” handed down by Bolshevism? Marxists distinguish between bourgeois democracy and proletarian democracy. Is it a question of persuading us that bourgeois democracy has not exhausted its possibilities? This would be a bad moment to choose, just when democracy is yielding to dictatorship everywhere in the world. As for proletarian democracy, it can exist in the party, or in the state. According to the Bolshevik conception, the party regime is based on democratic centralism. It is the regime we are attempting to set up and maintain in the Trotskyist parties. Does Pivert wish to say that we are doing it badly or that it is the system itself which is defective? Essentially democratic centralism means freedom of discussion for all the party members, then unity of action after a decision is taken. Does Pivert think that a revolutionary party can operate without any centralism whatever, in our age of extreme political and economic centralization? What other system is he proposing? If he has some precious recipe in his pocket why doesn’t he pull it out? As for proletarian democracy in the state, Lenin has written a little book about that, which is quite well known. It is still with us today at the base of our program. At bottom the whole struggle of the Left Opposition against bureaucratic reaction was nothing but a development of Lenin’s ideas. To convince oneself it is enough to compare“State and Revolution” with the“Revolution Betrayed,” which takes up Trotsky’s struggle against the Stalinist Thermidor. Once again, what is the democracy Pivert wants to inject into us, and just what illness is it he wants to cure us of?

Pivert hardly bothers himself with all these complications. We need democracy! Bolshevism is against democracy! Down with Bolshevism! Down with Trotskyism! In reality, what Pivert is defending is freedom to shun the demands of the revolution. Freedom for Pivert to enter Leon Blum’s secretariat in 1936! Freedom for Pivert to flirt with General de Gaulle in 1940! Freedom for Nin to enter a bourgeois cabinet during a revolution! Freedom to veil over the fundamental conflict of society! Freedom to learn nothing from history! Freedom to sneer at Marxism! Freedom not to think things through! Freedom to live in the midst of confusion and spread it all around yourself!

Bolshevism’s outstanding merit is its profound analysis of all the problems of the revolution. This labor was imposed on it by the difficult conditions in which it developed. If it was possible in Western Europe to rock oneself to sleep with democratic illusions, Czarist oppression compelled the best of the revolutionaries to ponder every revolutionary question through to its core and find a solution for it. Pivert attempts to present Bolshevism as a product of barbaric Russia, unworthy of Western Europe. What a threadbare banality! He simply reveals by that his vanity, the vanity of a French petty bourgeois,“enlightened,” democratic and Freemason. The second imperialist war has plunged Europe into such a state that Czarist reaction appears to us only a timid prelude. An entire continent has sunk to the level of Czarist Russia, and even far below. All the lessons of Bolshevism have been placed on the order of the day with tenfold force. Pivert does not wish to see this. He persists in repeating against Bolshevism and Trotskyism complaints which are nothing but an echo of the cries of horror with which reformists greeted the October Revolution. He is not preparing to solve the tasks of our age, but is shutting himself up in the shell of his petty prejudices. If he keeps his back turned to history, the latter will get along extremely well without him. The epoch of grandiose overturns which is approaching will be the epoch of Bolshevism. It will be the epoch of Trotskyism. September 24, 1941.