Socialist Equality Party (Germany)
The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (Germany)

The Centrism of the SAP

85. The five years that lay between Trotsky’s call for a new International and its founding in September 1938 were devoted to a process of intensive clarification. At its centre was a struggle against centrism, which sought to find a kind of middle road between Stalinism and Trotskyism, between reformist and revolutionary politics. The events in Germany had discredited the perspective of peaceful development and democratic reforms and unleashed a process of fermentation in the ranks of the reformist and Stalinist parties, a process that Trotsky sought to influence. “Reformism gives place to the innumerable shades of Centrism, which now, in the majority of countries, dominate the workers’ movement,” he wrote. “The new International cannot form itself in any other way than that of struggle against centrism. Ideological intransigence and flexible united front policy are, in these conditions, two weapons for attaining one and the same end.”[1]

86. In the article “Centrism and the Fourth International”, Trotsky elaborated the most important characteristics of centrism: in the sphere of theory it is impressive and eclectic, avoids theoretical obligations as much as possible and inclines “(in words) to give preference to ‘revolutionary practice’ over theory; without understanding that only Marxist theory can give to practice a revolutionary direction.” In the sphere of ideology, centrism leads a parasitic existence. It utilises the arguments of the reformists against the Marxists and the arguments of the Marxists against the right, whereby it avoids the practical conclusions and dulls the tip of Marxist criticism. It detests “the revolutionary principle: State that which is”, and inclines “to substituting, in the place of political principles, personal combinations and petty organizational diplomacy.” It remains spiritually dependent on the right and hides its hybrid nature “by calling out about the dangers of ‘sectarianism’; but by sectarianism it understands not a passivity of abstract propaganda but the anxious care for principle, the clarity of position, political consistency, definiteness in organization”. It does not understand “that one cannot build in the present period a national revolutionary party save as part of an international party”; and in the choice of his international allies the centrist is “even less particular than in his own country”. The centrist “swears by the policy of the united front as he empties it of its revolutionary content and transforms it from a tactical method into a highest principle.” The centrist “gladly appeals to pathetic moral lessons to hide his ideological emptiness” without understanding “that revolutionary morals can rest only on the ground of revolutionary doctrine and revolutionary policy”.[2]

87. All these characteristics were present in the Socialist Workers Party of Germany (SAP). In autumn 1931, the SAP was formed as a left split from the SPD and developed as a home for various currents that had found neither a place in the SPD nor in the KPD―left Social Democrats, former leaders of the USPD (among them Georg Ledebour), residues of the KAPD, defectors from the Leninbund and the KPD opposition (Brandlerites), and radical pacifists. For the masses “centrism is only a transition from one stage to the next”, wrote Trotsky, however for individual politicians it became second nature. He characterized the leadership of the SAP as “a group of desperate Social Democratic functionaries, lawyers, and journalists.” However, “a desperate Social Democrat still does not mean a revolutionist.”[3]

88. The SAP did not have its own political programme. It did not rest on a common understanding of great historical events, whose lessons were inculcated in the flesh and blood of its cadre. The place of the programme was taken by the united front policy, which it transformed from a tactic into a strategy. Instead of fighting for a thought out revolutionary perspective, it advocated unity at any price, which led inevitably to adaptation to social democracy. Characteristic was its reproach that the KPD was splitting the trade unions by building the revolutionary trade union opposition (RGO). Trotsky, who also rejected the RGO policy, answered: “The fault of the Communist Party does not lie in that it ‘splits’ the ranks of the proletariat, and ‘weakens’ the Social Democratic unions. That is not a revolutionary criterion because, under the present leadership, the unions serve not the workers, but the capitalists. The Communist Party is guilty of a crime not because it ‘weakens’ Leipart’s organization but because it weakens itself. The participation of the Communists in reactionary unions is dictated not by the abstract principle of unity but by the concrete necessity to wage battle in order to purge the organizations of the agents of capital. With the SAP this active, revolutionary, attacking element in the policy is made subservient to the bald principle of the unity of unions that are led by agents of capital.”[4]

89. Under the blows of the Nazis, the SAP moved temporarily to the left. Max Seydewitz and Kurt Rosenfeld, two left Social Democrats, were replaced as party leaders by Jacob Walcher and Paul Frölich, two founding members of the KPD, who came from the KPD opposition led by Brandler. In August 1933, the SAP, together with the International Left Opposition and two Dutch parties, called for the formation of the Fourth International. The signatories of the “Declaration of Four” declared categorically, “that the new International cannot tolerate any conciliation towards reformism or centrism. The necessary unity of the working-class movement can be attained neither by the blurring of reformist and revolutionary conceptions nor by adaptation to the Stalinist policy but only by combating the policies of both bankrupt Internationals. To remain equal to its task, the new International must not permit any deviation from revolutionary principles in the questions of insurrection, proletarian dictatorship, soviet form of the state, etc.”[5]

90. But in practice, the SAP sabotaged the construction of the Fourth International from the outset, openly moving away from it when the Stalinist parties turned towards the popular front. Under the title “Trotskyism or revolutionary Realpolitik” the SAP now stated that the establishment of the International did not yet lie in the realm of the possible. The vanguard could not jump over the stages of development of proletarian consciousness. “It would be senseless to believe that the masses would spontaneously one day―if not today then tomorrow―recognise the correctness of these principles and gather around them.” The homogeneity necessary for the International could result only from common experiences. “Abstract swearing by superficially acquired principles or by the figure of a leader” would only result in “a ridiculous caricature of real unanimity”. The theoretical basis of the new International consisted not of some pre-existing formulae, but could only be formed in the process of its emergence. In countries with a developed proletariat “the vanguard is formed not by the proclamation of some ‘correct’ but abstract principles, but through the permanent participation in the concrete daily struggles of the proletariat.”[6]

91. “Trotskyism or revolutionary Realpolitik” was the SAP’s answer to an open letter that Trotsky had addressed to all revolutionary groups and organizations in the summer of 1935. In it, Trotsky stressed that the construction of new parties and of the new International were the key to the solution of all other tasks. The speed and the timing of a new revolutionary development depended on the general process of the class struggle. “Marxists, however, are not fatalists. They do not unload upon the historical process those very tasks which the historical process has posed before them. The initiative of a conscious minority, a scientific program, bold and ceaseless agitation in the name of clearly formulated aims, merciless criticism of all ambiguity―those are some of the most important factors for the victory of the proletariat. Without a fused and steeled revolutionary party a socialist revolution is inconceivable.”[7]

92. Among the SAP members who attacked Trotsky most aggressively was Willy Brandt, who later became German Chancellor and SPD chairman. At the time, the 22-year old was in charge of the headquarters of the SAP youth federation in Oslo, which he represented at the International Bureau of Revolutionary Youth Organizations. Brandt oversaw the expulsion of the Trotskyists from the International Youth Bureau and wrote articles accusing Trotskyism of the “worst sectarianism”. “In our opinion, the main distinction―a distinction of a principle nature―between us and the Trotskyists regards the development of the proletarian party and the relationship between party and class”, wrote Brandt. “For the Trotskyists, the task is to create an ideologically aligned ‘vanguard’ over the working class. For us, we face the duty of participating in the creation of a truly communist proletarian mass organisation, on the foundations of the European workers’ movement, out of the practical lives and traditions of the working class in our country.”[8]

93. Brandt’s “foundations of the workers’ movement” were highly contaminated by Stalinism and social democracy. He defended the popular front politics of the Stalinists and endorsed collaboration with social democratic parties. In Spain, where he travelled in 1937 as a war correspondent, he criticized the centrist POUM from the right. Its errors were “mainly of an ultra-left, sectarian nature”, he claimed. It had not gone far enough in supporting the popular front. “The slogan should not be ‘against the popular front’, but ‘beyond the popular front’.”[9] The school of the SAP―and its furious attacks on Trotskyism―prepared Brandt for his later role. In 1969, as the first social democratic chancellor of the Federal Republic, Brandt succeeded in integrating a majority of rebellious students into bourgeois society, while he marginalised leftwing elements with the Radikalenerlass (decree against radicals).

94. The fateful consequences of centrism finally became clear in the actions of the POUM in the Spanish civil war. The party of Andres Nin, which, like the SAP, belonged to the centrist London Bureau, subordinated itself to the Stalinists on all important questions, and joined the popular front government in Barcelona at the high point of the revolution. It served as a left fig leaf for the coalition of republicans, socialists, Stalinists and anarchists that was destroying the Spanish revolution, and thus blocked the way to a revolutionary perspective for the workers, who were continually rebelling against their old leaders. The defenders of the POUM, who ascribed the Spanish defeat to the supposed “immaturity” of the masses, were answered by Trotsky as follows: “The historical falsification consists in this, that the responsibility for the defeat of the Spanish masses is unloaded on the working masses and not those parties which paralyzed or simply crushed the revolutionary movement of the masses. The attorneys of the POUM simply deny the responsibility of the leaders, in order thus to escape shouldering their own responsibility. This impotent philosophy, which seeks to reconcile defeats as a necessary link in the chain of cosmic developments, is completely incapable of posing and refuses to pose the question of such concrete factors as programs, parties, personalities that were the organizers of defeat. This philosophy of fatalism and prostration is diametrically opposed to Marxism as the theory of revolutionary action.”[10]






Trotzkismus oder revolutionäre Realpolitik: eine notwendige Auseinandersetzung, published by the foreign centre of the Socialist Workers Party of Germany. - Paris, approx. 1935


In Marxistische Tribüne, Diskussionsblätter für Arbeiterpolitik, published by the SAP, Paris 1935-37.


Willy Brandt, Ein Jahr Krieg und Revolution in Spanien, Referat auf der Sitzung der erweiterten Parteileitung der SAP (1937), in Neue Gesellschaft, Frankfurter Hefte 1/1987, pp. 47-48.