Let us now deal with some criticism that has been raised by various centrist currents against the Leninist Theory of Imperialism. What these centrist criticisms have in common is that they deny implicitly or explicitly the fundamental contradictions of the imperialist epoch of which the super-exploitation of the semi-colonial world by monopoly capital is one of the prime features. Related to this is their open or hidden ignorance of the existence of the labor aristocracy as a top layer of the proletariat which is bribed by the monopolies. Centrism denies or ignores these essential features of imperialism because clear recognition of these would oblige them to openly struggle against all political, ideological and organizational currents related to the labor aristocracy. It would also oblige them to openly struggle against their own imperialist powers with all the consequences including defending all semi-colonies attacked by their imperialist power and calling for the defeat of the latter.
Centrism is not capable of such a consistent internationalist position. The reason for this is that it reflects in one or another form a petty-bourgeois class viewpoint. To be more precise, it reflects the pressure of the labor bureaucracy and the labor aristocracy as well as of the progressive intelligentsia which again adapts to the capitalist class and its state. Therefore they usually ignore the lower and oppressed strata of the proletariat. For the same reason they usually negate openly or implied the need to smash the capitalist state and the necessary violent character of the armed uprising and the socialist revolution in general. This is why the Bolshevik Party wrote in its Programme of 1919 that “the ‘centrist’ movement is also a bourgeois distortion of socialism.” 1
The Essence of Centrism
In an Open Letter in 1920 Lenin explained the class difference between Marxism, that is Bolshevism, on one hand and Centrism, that is Menshevism, on the other hand and hence the duty of communists to decisively break with the latter:
„In fact, a struggle is going on between the revolutionary proletarian elements and the opportunist petty-bourgeois elements. Today as in the past, the latter include the Hilferdings, the Dittmauns, the Crispiens, numerous members of the parliamentary groups in Germany and France, etc. A struggle between these two political trends is in progress in every country without exception. This struggle has a long history. It grew extremely acute everywhere during the imperialist war, and has become aggravated since then. Opportunism is represented by elements of the “labour aristocracy”, the old bureaucracy in the trade unions, co-operative societies, etc., by the intellectualist petty-bourgeois strata, etc. Without the elimination of this trend—which, by its vacillation and its “Menshevism” (the Dittmanns and Crispiens fully resemble our Mensheviks) in fact exerts the bourgeoisie’s influence on the proletariat from within the working-class movement, from within the socialist parties—without the elimination of this trend, a break with it, and the expulsion of all its prominent representatives, it will be impossible to rally the revolutionary proletariat.
By their constant veering towards reformism and Menshevism, and their inability to think and act in terms of revolution, the Dittmanns, the Crispiens, etc., without realising the fact, are actually carrying bourgeois influence into the proletariat from within the proletarian party—they subordinate the proletariat to bourgeois reformism. Only a break with such and similar people can lead to international unity of the revolutionary proletariat, against the bourgeoisie, and for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie.“ 2
Trotsky, who experienced the various forms of centrism for much longer, gave in 1929 a comprehensive definition of centrism. He described it as a political expression of the interests and moods of the petty bourgeois labor bureaucracy:
“The main reservoir of international opportunism, that is, of class collaborationism, is the petty bourgeoisie, as a broad, amorphous class, or more correctly, a stratified accumulation of numerous subclasses left over from precapitalist production or newly created by capitalism, and forming a series of social rungs between the proletariat and the capitalist bourgeoisie. (…) The complete decline of the petty bourgeoisie, its loss of economic importance, deprived it forever of the possibility of working out an independent political representation that could lead the revolutionary movement of the working masses. In our epoch the petty bourgeoisie oscillates between the extreme poles of contemporary ideology: fascism and communism. Precisely these oscillations give the politics in the imperialist epoch the character of a malarial curve.
Class collaborationism in the workers movement has a more persistent quality precisely because its direct proponents are not the ‘independent’ parties of the petty bourgeoisie but rather the labor bureaucracy, which sinks its roots deep into the working class by way of the labor aristocracy.
The labor bureaucracy, by its conditions of existence, stands closer to the petty bourgeoisie (officialdom, liberal professions, and so forth) than to the proletariat. Nevertheless it constitutes a specific product of the working class movement; it is recruited from its ranks. In the primitive aspect, collaborationist tendencies and moods are elaborated by the whole petty bourgeoisie; but their transformation, their adaption to the peculiarities, to the needs, and above all to the weaknesses of the working class – that is the specific mission of the labor bureaucracy. Opportunism is its ideology, and it inculcates and imposes this ideology upon the proletariat by utilizing the powerful pressure of the ideas and institutions of the bourgeoisie, by exploiting the weakness and immaturity of the working masses. The forms of opportunism to which the labor bureaucracy resorts – open collaborationism, centrism, or a combination of both – depends upon the political tradition of a country, on the class relations of a given moment, on the offensive power of communism, and so forth and so on.
Just as under certain circumstances the struggle between bourgeois parties can assume a most violent and even sanguinary character, while remaining a struggle for the interests of the property of both sides, so the struggle between open collaborationism and centrism can assume an extremely violent and even desperate character at certain times, remaining within the limits of petty-bourgeois tendencies adapted by the labor bureaucracy in different ways for the maintenance of their positions of leadership in the working class.“ 3
Centrism’s basically opportunist essence does not hinder it from vacillating sometimes to radical, even revolutionary positions. In fact this combination of fundamental adaption to reformism with inconsistent zigzags to the left is characteristic of centrism. This is why Trotsky arrived to the following – as he called it – “scientific definition” of centrism:
“Centrism is the name applied to that policy which is opportunist in substance and which seeks to appear as revolutionary in form. Opportunism consists in a passive adaptation to the ruling class and its regime, to that which already exists, including, of course, the state boundaries. Centrism shares completely this fundamental trait of opportunism, but in adapting itself to the dissatisfied workers, centrism veils it by means of radical commentaries. If we proceed from this scientific definition, it will appear that the position, of our hapless critic is in part and in whole centrist.” 4
Prior to continuing past this general characterization of centrism, including concrete criticism, we need to undertake a further differentiation. We said that centrism is an expression of petty-bourgeoisie. Given the context of this book it is important to point out the difference between the class position of the petty-bourgeoisie in the imperialist and the semi-colonial countries. In the imperialist countries the modern petty-bourgeoisie often exists in the form of the middle class (salaried or self-employed). Political trends related to these layers are often marked by adaption to the prejudices of the dominant class in these countries – imperialist monopoly capital. Therefore centrism in the imperialist world is often colored with spotting of pacifism, liberal secularism, ignorance towards the lower strata of the working class including migrants, softness towards their own imperialism and labor aristocracy, etc. Centrism in the semi-colonial world adapts too to non-proletarian layers. But given the nature of the semi-colonial countries as nationally oppressed and super-exploited by imperialism their opportunism can adapt towards imperialism (which is often channeled via interwovenness with NGO’s or the sections of the labor bureaucracy which again is connected with social-imperialists like the leaders of the US trade union federation AFL-CIO) on one hand. But it can also often adapt towards bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalism as well as religious fundamentalism which is directed against imperialism on the other hand.
Coming from such a class analysis of centrism it was obvious for the Marxist classics to define it as a