We remarked above that centrism is not capable of taking a consistent internationalist position because it reflects in one form or another a petty-bourgeois class viewpoint, in particular the pressure of the labor bureaucracy and the labor aristocracy which again adapts to the capitalist class and its state. We demonstrated in previous chapters how this leads various centrists to open rejection or gross distortions of key aspects of the Marxist theory of imperialism – like on the questions of semi-colonial countries, super-exploitation, “sub-imperialism”, labor aristocracy, etc.
Naturally adaption to the petty-bourgeois reformism expresses itself not only in the theoretical and analytical sphere. It has inevitable important consequences for the practical position of centrism in the international class struggle, for the tactics which these organizations advocate. And indeed, as we will show, this happens to be the case.
What nearly all centrists in the imperialist countries have in common is a platonic “Anti-Imperialism”. This means a social-pacifist or even social-imperialist capitulation to the pressure of their imperialist bourgeoisie transmitted via the labour bureaucracy and the left-liberal intelligentsia – covered by a formal opposition to imperialism and wars in words. They adapt to the imperialist pressure of their own bourgeoisie by failing to call and work for the defeat of their own ruling class, by failing to call and work for the victory of the oppressed people in the semi-colonial world against their own imperialism. We will see this if we look at a number of imperialist wars against oppressed people in the last three decades. 1
i) The Malvinas War in 1982
In the spring of 1982 Argentina – ruled by a reactionary military dictatorship at that time – took back the Malvinas Islands which are in front of its coast but occupied by British imperialism. The right-wing Tory government of Margret Thatcher sent the British Navy and troops and – after a 74-day war with more than 900 dead – they re-occupied the islands. Militant – the mother section of the CWI (which at that time also had the leading cadre of the later split IMT, Ted Grant and Alan Woods, in its ranks) – completely capitulated to the imperialist pressure. The CWI supported and still supports until today Britain’s claims on the Malvinas. It not only failed to support Argentina but even failed to call for an end of the war and a withdrawal of the British troops! It slanders opponents of the imperialist war as “the ultra-left sects who, all forlorn, cry ‘Stop the war!’” 2 Instead the centrist CWI called for new elections to bring the Labour Party into power and ... to continue the war against Argentina “on socialist lines”!
“The labour movement should be mobilised to force a general election to open the way for the return of a Labour government to implement socialist policies at home and abroad. Victory of a socialist government in Britain would immediately transform the situation in relation to the Falklands. The junta would no longer be able to claim to be fighting British imperialism ... A Labour government could not just abandon the Falklanders and let Galtieri get on with it. But it would continue the war on socialist lines.” 3
While formally opposing the right-wing Thatcher government, the CWI called for alternative measures to fight against semi-colonial Argentina and to support British imperialism’s claims on the Malvinas: “As an alternative to Thatcher's war, we called for international class action against the junta such as trade union blacking of trade.” 4 And this at the same time as the British government was waging an imperialist war against Argentina!
As a justification it referred to the right of national self-determination ... of the 1.800 British colonial settlers living on the Malvinas Islands! The CWI leadership defends their capitulation until today. In his book on the history of Militant, CWI leader Peter Taaffe argues: “The democratic rights of the 1,800 Falklanders, including the right to self-determination, if they so desired, was a key question in the consciousness of British workers. (…) Marxists could not be indifferent to the fate of the Falklanders, particularly given the consciousness of the British working class as it developed over this issue.” 5
In other words, since the CWI leadership believes that British imperialism has succeeded in poising the consciousness of the British working class by colonial, aristocratic prejudices, it considers itself impotent to oppose this but rather joins British imperialism’s “care” for the settlers! Naturally such an ill-concealed support for the logic of colonialism is a shame for any group which calls itself “Marxist”. The CWI propaganda is exactly a reflection of the imperialist propaganda to justify its global interventions by referring to the fate of their settlers. We will later see that the CWI repeats this reactionary logic in its support for Zionism and Israel’s right to exist.
The same supposed backward consciousness of the British working class was utilized by the CWI leadership to justify its refusal to mobilize for an end of the war: “To force the withdrawal of the Task Force would have involved the organization of a general strike, which itself would have posed the question of the coming to power of a socialist government. Yet at the outset of the war, such a demand would have received no support from the British workers. (…) Nor would the call to stop the war or to withdraw the fleet have provided a basis even for a mass campaign of demonstrations, meetings and agitation.” 6
Another argument which the CWI leaders invented was the supposed “imperialist” character of Argentina: “The Argentine regime's invasion was not a war of 'national liberation' against imperialism. On the contrary, in seizing the Falklands/Malvinas the Argentine Junta was pursuing the 'imperialist' aims of Argentine capitalism.” 7 We have dealt with this nonsense already in chapter 9 in this book.
The CWI leaders also tried to justify their support for “our boys” – i.e. the soldiers of the imperialist British army – by referring to them as “workers in uniform”. This was used as an argument to oppose calls that Labor Party Members of Parliament should vote against any war credits since they would leave “our boys” defenseless. 8
All this is a graphic example that centrism shares a common ground with left-reformism and social-imperialism.
The Cliffite SWP/IST did also not side with Argentina against its „own“ British imperialism but took a neutral position in the war. As we have quoted above, its leadership justified such a social-pacifist position in a war against an oppressed country by claiming that Argentina was supposedly a “sub-imperialist” country. 9
Hence for these centrists the war between Britain and Argentina over the Malvinas in 1982 was reactionary on both sides. The SWP leadership stated: "It was neither an anti-colonial struggle nor a struggle between oppressed and oppressor nations. The contending parties were an emergent capitalist country with regional and continental imperialist features, and a longstanding imperialist power which, though in marked decline, is still a powerful force. There was not a progressive and a reactionary camp." 10
The SWP leadership managed to deny any anti-colonial aspect in the Malvinas war on the Argentinean side – despite the fact that the Malvinas are obviously only under British control because of its past as having been the biggest colonial empire for a long time and despite the fact that Argentina is obviously a dependent, super-exploited country! By denying the decisive class difference between semi-colonial Argentina and imperialist Britain, the British centrists manage to justify a neutral position. They are opposed to both sides and compare their stand with the position of socialists in World War One, when they also opposed both the Entente and the Central Powers as imperialist camps:
“We are not pacifists, we detest the Galtieri dictatorship, we dismiss the notion that the Argentinian seizure of the Falklands is progressive on anti-colonialist grounds. Nevertheless we believe that, in a war between Britain and Argentina, the defeat of British imperialism is the lesser evil. The main enemy is at home.
We support anti-colonial movements as movements of struggle by oppressed people against their oppressors and we support them because, as Marx said, “no nation can be free if it oppresses other nations.”
None of this has much relevance to the Falklands. (…) We are irreconcilably hostile to both governments and both regimes. But we are in Britain and not Argentina and therefore the British government, the British state, is the main enemy for us. (…)
Lenin and Trotsky and Rosmer and Connolly and MacLean and Debs all said, with appropriate national variations, exactly the same thing. All opposed their “own” government and its war. And they were absolutely right. Support for “one’s own” ruling class in such a war is tantamount to abandoning the struggle for socialism. For their war is a continuation of their politics by other means. And so, exactly, with the War of Thatcher’s Face.” 11
The IST leadership rejected the applicability of Trotsky’s anti-imperialist method by remarking on his statement on a potential war between a semi-fascist Brazil and a democratic imperialist Britain – which we quoted above – that “Leon Trotsky showed some confusion over these matters.” 12 Unfortunately it is rather the IST, not Trotsky, who is confused on anti-imperialism.
To summarize, the Malvinas War with British imperialism at its centre showed the true social-pacifist or even social-imperialist color of centrist tendencies which have – like the CWI, IMT or IST – their biggest section in Britain. Their policy had nothing to do with the necessary proletarian internationalism which supports the struggles of the oppressed people and which Trotsky considered as the duty of all socialists:
„Imperialism can exist only because there are backward nations on our planet, colonial and semi-colonial countries. The struggle of these oppressed peoples for national unity and independence has a twofold progressive character, since, on the one hand, it prepares favorable conditions of development for their own use, and on the other, it strikes blows at imperialism. Hence, in part, the conclusion that in a war between a civilized imperialist democratic republic and the backward barbarian monarchy of a colonial country, the socialists will be entirely on the side of the oppressed country, notwithstanding its monarchy, and against the oppressor country, notwithstanding its “democracy”.” 13
ii) The Gulf War in 1991
When the imperialists under the leadership of the USA attacked Iraq in January 1991, the Stalinists played a pathetic role. Most Stalinists supported the UN embargo against Iraq imposed in autumn 1990 and which prepared the imperialist onslaught. They followed the leadership of the Stalinist states. The Stalinist bureaucracy of the USSR voted for all UN resolutions concerning the Gulf crisis up to the war in January 1991 including the authorisation of the imperialist armies to attack Iraq. The Chinese Stalinist bureaucracy voted for the imperialist sanctions against Iraq and abstained on the question of war authorisation. The Cuban Stalinist bureaucracy abstained on the question of sanctions (so much for Castro’s “anti-imperialism”!) and voted against war authorisation.
However, the main centrist currents in the West also failed again to defend the semi-colonial country. Of course they opposed the war – as nearly all pacifists did too. Of course, they went not so far as the Stalinists did and therefore did not support the imperialist sanctions. But they refused to take a side in the war between the biggest powers on earth and a single classic semi-colonial country.
The CWI leadership justified their abstentionist position by arguing that Saddam Hussein’s foreign policy was “aggressive”, “expansionist” or even “imperialist” too. For some time they even went so far to claim that Iraq was a “regional imperialist powers” as we have shown in the quote above. 14
The SWP/IST mentioned a few times before the war started, that they “would be for an American defeat and therefore an Iraqi victory“. However, when the war actually started, this pledge was forgotten and the SWP failed to publicly stand for the imperialists defeat by the Iraqi forces. 15
This was obviously the result of the pressure from the left-liberal pacifists and the reformists. Hence the SWP in Britain even refused to fight for the slogan “Troops Out of the Gulf” to become part of the official platform of the “Committee to Stop War in the Gulf” – the main anti-war alliance. They opposed this because it would have endangered their alliance with petty-bourgeois pacifists and labor bureaucrats. They also helped to make sure that no one could speak in defense of Iraq from the platform at the demonstrations and rallies – because this would have shocked the petty-bourgeois allies in the anti-war movement. 16
Trotsky once characterised this fear to break with the bureaucracy and to make unprincipled concessions in order to avoid such a rupture as an essential feature of centrism:
“The left centrists, who are in turn distinguished by a great number of shadings (SAP in Germany, OSP in Holland, ILP in England, the Zyromsky and Marceau Pivert groups in France and others) arrive in words at the renunciation of the defence of the fatherland. But from this bare renunciation they do not draw the necessary practical conclusions. The greater half of their internationalism, if not nine-tenths of it, bears a platonic character. They fear to break away from the right centrists; in the name of the struggle with “sectarianism,” they carry on a struggle against Marxism, refuse to fight for a revolutionary International and continue to remain in the Second International, at the head of which stands the king’s footman, Vandervelde. Expressing at certain moments the leftward shift of the masses, in the final analysis the centrists put a brake upon the revolutionary regrouping within the proletariat and consequently also upon the struggle against war.
In its very essence, centrism means half-heartedness and vacillation. But the problem of war is least of all favourable for the policy of vacillation. For the masses, centrism is always only a short transition stage. The growing danger of war will make for ever-sharper differentiation within the centrist groupings that now dominate the workers’ movement. The proletar