Spartacist English edition No. 63
Marxism and Bourgeois Parliamentarism
Why We Reject the Constituent Assembly Demand
“There is no middle course anywhere in the world, nor can there be. Either the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie (masked by ornate Socialist-Revolutionary and Menshevik phraseology about a people’s government, a constituent assembly, liberties, and the like), or the dictatorship of the proletariat. He who has not learned this from the whole history of the nineteenth century is a hopeless idiot.”
— V.I. Lenin, “Letter to the Workers and Peasants
Apropos of the Victory over Kolchak” (August 1919)
On a number of occasions over the years, the International Communist League (and its predecessor, the international Spartacist tendency) raised the call for a revolutionary constituent assembly in response to social upheavals in countries of belated capitalist development, ranging from Indonesia to Chile. In motivating such calls, we relied on the writings and practice of Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin in the period preceding the October Revolution of 1917 and especially on Leon Trotsky’s writings on China and Spain in the late 1920s and early 1930s (see, for example, “Nicaragua, Peru, Iran, Portugal: Why a Revolutionary Constituent Assembly?” Workers Vanguard No. 221, 15 December 1978).
In recent years, we have had several internal exchanges over when and under what circumstances it was appropriate to call for a constituent assembly. However, after we briefly raised this slogan in our initial articles on the upsurges in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011, a number of leading comrades argued on broader historical grounds that the slogan was wrong under any circumstances. This led to extensive historical research and re-examination, which continues. In late 2011, a plenary meeting of the International Executive Committee (IEC) of the ICL voted unanimously to repudiate this slogan. A resolution adopted at that meeting noted:
“While the Constituent Assembly played a progressive role in the great French bourgeois revolution of 1789, historical experience since has demonstrated that this ceased to be the case thereafter. Beginning with the Revolutions of 1848, in every situation where a constituent assembly or similar bourgeois legislative body was convened in the context of a proletarian insurgency its aim was to rally the forces of counterrevolution against the proletariat and to liquidate proletarian power. This was evident in the Paris Commune of 1871, the October Revolution of 1917 and the German Revolution of 1918-19. Though never subsequently codified by the CI [Communist International] as a general statement of principle, the thrust of the Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky’s leadership following the October Revolution was to treat the constituent assembly as a counterrevolutionary agency. When Trotsky began raising the slogan again in the latter 1920s, it was primarily, though not exclusively, directed (misguidedly) against the ultraleftist idiocies of the Third Period Comintern.”
Our new position opposing on principle the call for a constituent assembly was expressed in the article “Egypt: Military and Islamists Target Women, Copts, Workers” (Workers Vanguard No. 994, 20 January 2012).
Our rejection of the call for a constituent assembly reflects both the historical experience of the proletariat and the extension of the Marxist program over the years. As Lenin makes clear in the passage cited above, the whole history of the 19th century demonstrates that this call is counterposed to the struggle for proletarian rule. When Marx propounded the “revolution in permanence” in 1850, he drew on the experience of the Revolutions of 1848, when the bourgeoisies in several European countries made common cause with the forces of aristocratic reaction against the insurgent proletariat. At the time of the 1905 Revolution, Trotsky built on Marx’s understanding in developing the theory of permanent revolution for tsarist Russia. With the defeat of the Second Chinese Revolution in 1927, Trotsky extended this perspective to countries of belated capitalist development globally.
Central to Trotsky’s theory is the understanding that the aspirations for democratic rights and national and social emancipation among the toilers in such countries cannot be realized under bourgeois rule. They require proletarian revolution to sweep away the capitalist order, and the extension of the revolutionary gains to the heartlands of world imperialism. Unlike such demands as national self-determination, women’s equality, land to the tiller, universal suffrage or opposition to the monarchy—any or all of which can be crucial in rallying the masses behind the struggles of the proletariat—the constituent assembly is not a democratic demand but a call for a new capitalist government. Given the reactionary character of the bourgeoisie, in the semicolonial world as well as the advanced capitalist states, there can be no revolutionary bourgeois parliament. Thus the call for a constituent assembly runs counter to the perspective of permanent revolution.
In re-examining the historical record, it became clear that every authoritative Communist document that touched on the question in the first several years after 1917 flatly rejected the idea that a constituent, or national, assembly could be in the proletariat’s interest. Lenin’s pamphlet The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, written in late 1918, is only the best-known example. The slogan was understood to be part of what Lenin called an accumulation of opportunism in the workers movement under the Second International. In Germany, Rosa Luxemburg vigorously opposed the (ultimately successful) effort of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), joined by the centrist Independent Social Democrats (USPD), to abort the revolution that erupted in November 1918 through the imposition of a National Assembly:
“So what is gained through this cowardly detour called the national assembly? The bourgeoisie’s position is strengthened, the proletariat is weakened and bewildered with empty illusions, time and energy are dissipated and lost in ‘discussions’ between wolf and lamb. In a word, it plays into the hands of all those elements whose good intention is to cheat the proletarian revolution of its socialist aims and to castrate it into a bourgeois-democratic revolution.
“But the question of the national assembly is not a tactical question, nor a question of what is ‘easier.’ It is a question of principle, of the socialist perception of the revolution....
“The national assembly is an outdated legacy of the bourgeois revolutions, an empty shell, a stage prop from the time of petty-bourgeois illusions of a ‘united people,’ of the bourgeois state’s ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’.”
— Luxemburg, “The National Assembly,” Die Rote Fahne, 20 November 1918, translated in John Riddell, ed., The German Revolution and the Debate on Soviet Power (New York: Anchor Foundation, 1986)
In repudiating our own prior use of the constituent assembly slogan, it was necessary in the first instance to address the various, at times contradictory, arguments made by Trotsky to justify its use. The fact that Trotsky revived the slogan around the same time as he generalized the theory of permanent revolution necessarily generated confusion among the ranks of the International Left Opposition and the Fourth Internationalist movement. In China, confusion over the question of a national assembly helped to paralyze aspects of the Trotskyists’ work in the 1930s. In India, where the counterrevolutionary role of the constituent assembly was shown in real life after World War II, the Trotskyist Bolshevik-Leninist Party was racked by a deepgoing factional dispute, with proponents of the slogan promoting a broader liquidationist policy. There were also major differences within the Fourth International (FI) over the applicability of the demand for European countries emerging from fascist rule or German occupation during and after World War II, for which there was no justification in Trotsky’s writings.
In examining the debates over the constituent assembly in the Trotskyist movement from the late 1920s to the 1940s, we faced a significant obstacle. While Trotsky’s own views after he revived the slogan in 1928 are readily accessible, the arguments of many of those who questioned or opposed its use are available, at best, only in various archives and internal bulletins. In some cases, as with the significant layer of Chinese students in Moscow won to the Left Opposition in 1928-29, whatever documents may once have existed appear to have been permanently lost thanks to Stalinist repression. Thus our research to date is necessarily partial, particularly as regards disputes within the Left Opposition around the time Trotsky first revived the slogan.
Marxist Re-examination and Revisionist Abuse
Our re-examination and repudiation of the constituent assembly slogan is part of our effort to uphold the revolutionary core of Bolshevism against accumulated confusion and revisionist betrayal. The ICL IEC resolution noted: “As with the related question of running candidates for, or accepting, executive office in the capitalist state, we are dealing here with a legacy of the Second International that was left unresolved by the first four Congresses of the Communist International.” The Fifth Conference of the ICL in 2007 rejected, as a matter of principle, our earlier position that communists could run for executive offices—e.g., president, mayor, provincial or state governor—provided that we declare in advance that we don’t intend to assume such offices (see “Marxist Principles and Electoral Tactics,” Spartacist [English edition] No. 61, Spring 2009). At the same time, we noted:
“Our earlier practice conformed to that of the Comintern and Fourth International. This does not mean that we acted in an unprincipled way in the past: the principle had never been recognized as such either by our forebears or by ourselves. Programs do evolve, as new issues arise and we critically scrutinize the work of our revolutionary predecessors.”
In adopting the position against running for executive office, we observed that we are recognizing and codifying what should be seen as a corollary to Lenin’s The State and Revolution (1917) and The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, which are really the founding documents of the CI. Thus we are continuing the theoretical and programmatic work of the first four Congresses of the CI.
In our fight to reforge Trotsky’s Fourth International, we stand on those Congresses. But it is necessary to approach the early CI’s deliberations critically in light of subsequent experience. From the early years of our tendency we expressed reservations over the resolutions on the “anti-imperialist united front” and the “workers government” at the Fourth Congress (1922). In fact, our new line on executive office was an extension of our longstanding criticism of the flawed and confusionist Fourth Congress resolution on “workers governments.” That resolution confused the call for a workers government—which for revolutionaries is nothing other than a popular expression for the dictatorship of the proletariat—with all manner of social-democratic governments administering the bourgeois state apparatus.
This left open the possibility of Communist participation in such a government in coalition with the social democrats, as in fact happened when the German Communist Party (KPD) entered the “left” SPD-led regional governments of Saxony and Thuringia in October 1923. While Trotsky fought for a revolutionary perspective in Germany in 1923 and insisted that the KPD make concrete preparations and set a date for an insurrection, he wrongly supported the KPD’s entry into the Saxon and Thuringian governments, arguing that this was a “drillground” for revolution (see “Rearming Bolshevism: A Trotskyist Critique of Germany 1923 and the Comintern,” Spartacist [English edition] No. 56, Spring 2001). In the upshot, the KPD and the CI leadership under Gregory Zinoviev let slip a revolutionary opportunity. The ensuing demoralization of the Soviet proletariat was a critical factor in allowing the nationally narrow, conservative bureaucracy under J.V. Stalin to usurp political power in 1923-24.
A necessary element of maintaining our revolutionary continuity is the critical assimilation of the lessons of past struggles in the international workers movement. In contrast, our political opponents gut or reject the principles of the October Revolution and the programmatic fundamentals of Lenin and Trotsky’s Communist International and cherry-pick those “traditions” that lend an aura of historical authority to their opportunist pursuits. Today, whole swaths of the pseudo-Trotskyist left raise the demand for a constituent assembly under virtually all circumstances. For these reformists, ever more overtly since they supported the imperialist-backed “democratic” counterrevolution that destroyed the Soviet Union in 1991-92, the summit of politics has become (bourgeois) democracy.
In Latin America, calls for constituent assemblies are ubiquitous, notably among the many offshoots of the tendency led by the late Argentine adventurer Nahuel Moreno, who unabashedly pushed a perspective of “democratic revolution.” The French-based tendency associated with the late Pierre Lambert calls for constituent assemblies not only in semicolonial countries but also in France, where it campaigns to replace the semi-bonapartist constitution of the Fifth Republic established by Charles de Gaulle in 1958. The line of another self-styled “Fourth International,” the United Secretariat (USec) of the late Ernest Mandel, is in substance identical. A recent declaration by its Belgian section called for the “democratic construction of a Europe of solidarity and cooperation (through for example a constituent assembly)” (International Viewpoint online, 10 June 2012).
All of these groups and more put the demand for a constituent assembly front and center during the popular upheavals (the “Arab Spring”) beginning in early 2011 in North Africa. According to the USec, it was an essential part of “the programme of a democratic government that would be at the service of the workers and the population” (“In Tunisia and Egypt the Revolutions Are Underway,” International Viewpoint online, January 2011). But the experience of more than a century and a half of class struggles shows that fighting for a bourgeois-parliamentary “democratic government” is a trap for the proletariat. Co-opting the aspirations of the restive masses, the bourgeoisie always and everywhere uses the “democratic stage” of the revolution to consolidate its rule and crush working-class struggles.
From the 1789 French Revolution
to the 1871 Paris Commune
The model for a “revolutionary constituent assembly” came from the French bourgeois revolution. The constituent assembly established in 1789 marked the rise of the ascendant bourgeoisie against the monarchy. Three years later, a National Convention dominated by the moderate Girondins was elected by universal male suffrage. The radical Jacobins took power in 1793 through an insurrection by the plebeian masses of Paris that overthrew the Girondins and purged them from the Convention. From 1789 to the fall of the Jacobin regime in 1794, the revolution was marked by dual power between the various assemblies and the lower classes of Paris, which at every stage pressured the bourgeoisie to undertake more radical measures. The assemblies were able to play a revolutionary role because the bourgeoisie was then a revolutionary class pitted against the feudal order, itself long subordinated to an absolute monarchy.
Parliamentarism was in no way intrinsic to the classic bourgeois revolutions. During the English Revolution of the 1640s and 1650s, the locus of revolutionary power was not Parliament but Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army. As Trotsky explained:
“The revolutionary realist Cromwell was building a new society. Parliament was not an end in itself; law is not an end in itself; Cromwell himself and his ‘holy’ troops considered the realization of divine commands to be the true end, but in reality the latter were merely the ideological conditions for the construction of bourgeois society. Dispersing Parliament after Parliament, Cromwell thus revealed as little reverence for the fetish of ‘national’ representation as he revealed an insufficient respect for the monarchy by the grace of God in his execution of Charles I.”
— “Where Is Britain Going?” (1925)
The Great French Revolution was a crucial reference point for Marx and his collaborator Friedrich Engels as they made the transition from radical democrats to communist leaders in the 1840s. In the Communist Manifesto, written in late 1847-early 1848, they posited the need for an alliance with the bourgeoisie in Germany “whenever it acts in a revolutionary way, against the absolute monarchy, the feudal squirearchy, and the petty bourgeoisie.” But they revised this understanding in light of the revolutions of 1848-49, which showed that the bourgeoisie would ally with aristocratic reaction when faced with the working class acting as an independent force.
This was demonstrated most clearly in France. Following a popular insurrection in February 1848, the new Provisional Government initially made concessions to the working class, but by April the radical bourgeois democrats had turned against the workers. Elections to a constituent assembly that month saw a sweeping victory for the right-wing Party of Order. In June, the new government moved to crush a semi-spontaneous insurrection by the Parisian proletariat, breaking the back of the French working class for a generation.
This was the first example in modern history of a “democratic counterrevolution.” Faced with deep discontent among the working class, the bourgeoisie utilized an elected constituent assembly, where the votes of the peasants and other petty-bourgeois layers predominated, to suppress the unrest and resolidify its rule. The result was a brutal, one-sided civil war involving massacres and wholesale deportations of workers and socialists.
The suppression of the workers of Paris by the republican bourgeoisie in June 1848 and the support given by the German bourgeoisie to monarchical reaction led to a radicalization in Marx and Engels’ thinking. Pointing to the treachery of the democratic petty bourgeoisie, they affirmed that the task must be to “make the revolution permanent, until all more or less possessing classes have been forced out of their position of dominance, the proletariat has conquered state power” and the revolution has spread internationally (“Address of the Central Authority to the League,” March 1850).
The proletariat was at this stage still very small in comparison to the peasantry and other petty-bourgeois layers—too weak to take power in its own name. However, as Marx wrote two years later, historical development was showing the interests of the peasants to be “no longer, as under Napoleon, in accord with, but in opposition to the interests of the bourgeoisie, to capital. Hence the peasants find their natural ally and leader in the urban proletariat, whose task is the overthrow of the bourgeois order” (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte ). Marx later elaborated: “The whole thing in Germany will depend on whether it is possible to back the Proletarian revolution by some second edition of the [16th century] Peasants’ war. In which case the affair should go swimmingly” (Marx to Engels, 16 April 1856). Lenin later pointed to this statement as a remarkable anticipation of the Bolshevik Revolution.
The Paris Commune of March-May 1871 was the first example in history of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Far from being based on a parliamentary body, it began under the auspices of the National Guard, a military force based on the armed working class and led by an elected Central Committee. This insurrectionary organ stood opposed to the bourgeois National Assembly, which had been elected on the basis of the votes of reactionary layers in the countryside.
Marx stood in full solidarity with the Commune despite his criticisms of its leadership, which was dominated by the followers of the Jacobin insurrectionist Auguste Blanqui and the petty-bourgeois wing of the First International around Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. The Central Committee decided to schedule early municipal elections rather than move decisively to defeat the forces of reaction that had gathered at Versailles. Marx argued that since the bourgeoisie had only recently fled the city, was disorganized and had few troops, the Central Committee “should have marched at once on Versailles,” but “the right moment was missed because of conscientious scruples” (Marx to Kugelman, 12 April 1871). In the end, the forces of bourgeois reaction were able to take advantage of such weaknesses, and brutally crushed the Commune.
This was a clear instance of the counterposition between workers revolution and parliamentary-democratic fetishism. Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law and a founding leader of the French Parti Ouvrier (Workers Party), later wrote of the Commune: “In 1871, power fell into the people’s hands, which were not prepared to receive it. To seize power in a revolutionary period is relatively easy, but to keep it and more importantly to use it is a lot more difficult” (Lafargue, “The Morrow of the Revolution,” Le Socialiste, 31 December 1887 [our translation]). In an implicit polemic against the National Guard’s rush to call elections, Lafargue argued:
“Revolutionary power will be constituted simply by seizing it and it is only when it masters the situation that the socialists will think about having their actions ratified by so-called universal suffrage. The bourgeois have kept the non-possessing classes away from the voting booths for so many years that they should be not too surprised when we disenfranchise all the ex-capitalists, until the revolutionary game has been won.”
The Paris Commune represented the nucleus of a workers state. It suppressed the standing army in favor of the armed workers. It was, as Marx noted, “a working, not a parliamentary, body, executive and legislative at the same time” (The Civil War in France ). Writing half a century later, Trotsky underlined in a polemic against the German Social Democrat Karl Kautsky:
“The Commune was the living negation of formal democracy, for in its development it signified the dictatorship of working-class Paris over the peasant country....
“The problem of the Commune was to dissolve the National Assembly. Unfortunately it did not succeed in doing so.”
— “The Paris Commune and Soviet Russia” (1920),
in Leon Trotsky on the Paris Commune (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970)
The SPD and the Second International
The crushing of the Commune led to a lengthy period of bourgeois reaction. While Marx and Engels drew the lessons of this defeat, they faced significant opposition within the First International, which effectively collapsed by 1873. Engels expressed the hope that “the next International—after Marx’s writings have been at work for some years—will be directly Communist and will openly proclaim our principles” (Engels to Adolph Sorge, 12-17 September 1874). But the Second International, officially founded in 1889 and centered on the German Social Democracy, had a very different character. While playing an important role in building mass workers parties and propagating aspects of Marx and Engels’ views, it increasingly adapted to parliamentary reformism, which became its defining characteristic.
The program of the SPD, like that of other parties that formed the Second International, was divided into “minimum” and “maximum” sections. Over time, it became clear that the maximum program was window-dressing designed to placate the left wing, while the minimum program reflected the reformist practice of most of the party leaders. Marx and Engels accepted the concept of a minimum/maximum program, but for them the purpose of the demands in the minimum program was to help pave the way to socialist revolution. In contrast, as Lenin noted, “The opportunists of present-day Social-Democracy accepted the bourgeois political forms of the parliamentary democratic state as the limit which should not be overstepped” (The State and Revolution).
Marx and Engels lived before the imperialist epoch, and many of these features of Social Democracy were not yet fully evident. But they waged many battles against parliamentary gradualism, and were sharply critical of the SPD leadership from the very origins of the party in an 1875 fusion with the supporters of Ferdinand Lassalle. Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Program” (1875) criticized his German followers for capitulating to the Lassalleans, objecting in particular to the latter’s conception of a “free people’s state.” In 1863-64, Lassalle had secretly tried to make a deal with the Prussian government of Count Otto von Bismarck against the liberal bourgeoisie in an attempt to obtain universal male suffrage. The SPD’s founding program was replete with illusions in the Bismarckian German state.
Engels took issue with Bebel for dismissing the pernicious influence of radical democratic ideology in Germany and stressed the role such bourgeois-democratic forces would play as a rallying center for counterrevolution. Pointing to the lessons of 1848, Engels emphasized that “on the crucial day and the day after that, our only adversary will be collective reaction centred round pure democracy” (Engels to August Bebel, 12 December 1884). In an article marking the first anniversary of Marx’s death, he noted that the German bourgeoisie was still weak in 1848, while the proletariat was “undeveloped to an equal degree” and “possessed only a vague feeling of the profound conflict of interests between it and the bourgeoisie. Hence, although in point of fact the mortal enemy of the latter, it remained, on the other hand, its political appendage” (“Marx and the Neue Rheinische Zeitung,” March 1884). The article explained how Marx and Engels came to review the proletariat’s relationship to bourgeois democracy:
“Finally, we exposed the parliamentary cretinism (as Marx called it) of the various so-called National Assemblies.... In Berlin, as in Frankfurt, alongside newly strengthened, reactionary governments there stood powerless assemblies, which nevertheless imagined that their impotent resolutions would shake the world in its foundations. This cretinous self-deception prevailed right to the extreme Lefts. We told them plainly that their parliamentary victory would coincide with their real defeat.”
Engels’ view of the SPD’s draft Erfurt program of 1891 was more positive, but he remained very critical of the party’s opportunism. In a letter that the party leaders suppressed for more than a decade, he attacked the deadly idea that Germany’s existing legal order was “adequate for putting through all party demands by peaceful means” (“A Critique of the Draft Social-Democratic Programme of 1891,” June 1891). Engels had Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Program” published for the first time that year, over opposition from the SPD leadership. That year he also reissued Marx’s The Civil War in France with an introduction upholding the dictatorship of the proletariat in direct counterposition to the views of what he called “the Social-Democratic philistines.” (The SPD leaders insisted that Engels change this to “German philistines” before publication!)
The frequent attempts to suppress or censor critical writings by Marx and Engels underscored the increasing distance of the SPD from authentic Marxism. Noting in his critique that the draft Erfurt program “lacks precisely what should have been said,” including on the abolition of the monarchy and the creation of a new republican constitution, Engels wrote: “If one thing is certain it is that our party and the working class can only come to power under the form of a democratic republic. This is even the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the Great French Revolution has already shown” (ibid.). He added: “But the fact that in Germany it is not permitted to advance even a republican party programme openly, proves how totally mistaken is the belief that a republic, and not only a republic, but also communist society, can be established in a cosy, peaceful way.” Lenin later sharply attacked the opportunists’ misuse of Engels’ letter:
“Engels repeated here in a particularly striking form the fundamental idea which runs through all of Marx’s works, namely, that the democratic republic is the nearest approach to the dictatorship of the proletariat. For such a republic, without in the least abolishing the rule of capital, and, therefore, the oppression of the masses and the class struggle, inevitably leads to such an extension, development, unfolding and intensification of this struggle that, as soon as it becomes possible to meet the fundamental interests of the oppressed masses, this possibility is realised inevitably and solely through the dictatorship of the proletariat, through the leadership of those masses by the proletariat.”
— The State and Revolution
The Guesdists and Parliamentarism in France
A parallel political degeneration occurred among the French social democrats. The Marxist forces led by Jules Guesde and Paul Lafargue had split with the Proudhonists in 1880; two years later, they formed the Parti Ouvrier after a split with the flagrantly reformist Possibilists. Marx was heavily involved in drafting the Guesdists’ program, and they initially sought to pursue a revolutionary course. But they made a sharp right turn toward parliamentarism in 1890-92. As a historian of French socialism noted, “it had become apparent that the revolutionary situation the Guesdists had for so long anticipated was even more remote than it appeared to be in 1880, when republican institutions were not at all stable and secure” (Aaron Noland, The Founding of the French Socialist Party [1893-1905] [Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1956]). Noland added:
“The Guesdist leadership had come to realize that democratic political institutions such as universal suffrage and elective municipal and national organs must be utilized to a greater extent than heretofore to advance their interests, while awaiting the creation of the anticipated revolutionary situation. The Guesdist party, therefore, decided to emulate the electoral success of the Possibilists, and they, too, adopted attractive, moderate electoral programs designed to win the votes of various sections of the electorate, non-proletarian as well as proletarian.”
The Guesdists moved to make peace with France’s Third Republic, which had been erected over the corpse of the Paris Commune, starting with its municipal institutions. They had no reason to demand a constituent assembly since they increasingly thought they could come to power through the existing parliament. They took control of various municipalities in the 1892 elections and scored so well in the 1893 parliamentary elections that Guesde called it “a veritable revolution” (quoted in ibid.). Engels was appalled, writing that he hoped the party press would not publish Guesde’s statement as this “would sound simply grotesque” (Engels to Laura Lafargue, 31 August 1893).
The Guesdists’ quest for electoral success led to political blocs with various pseudo-socialist bourgeois radicals. They ended up giving the leadership of their parliamentary fraction to the thoroughly reformist Jean Jaurès, who took over the unified Socialist Party at a 1905 congress. At bottom, “socialism” for Jaurès meant the successful achievement of the ideals of the 1789 French Revolution. Thus he (and the Guesdists) supported the first bourgeois Radical government in November 1895, just after Engels’ death. Four years later, Jaurès’ friend Alexandre Millerand joined a similar bourgeois government, provoking a storm of protest from leftist elements in the Second International. While their evolution differed, the French social democrats ended up equaling the SPD in parliamentary reformist prostration.
Russian Marxism and
the Constituent Assembly
The period of Marx and Engels’ political activity spanned two huge social upheavals: the Revolutions of 1848 and the Paris Commune 23 years later. But Marxist continuity was whittled away in the reactionary trough that followed, as the imperialist world took shape and opportunism increasingly ran rampant in the Second International. Social-democratic parties became parliamentarist, joining bourgeois governments and running municipal councils. By the opening decade of the 20th century, the Second International even debated whether colonialism was progressive, with a significant minority upholding a chauvinist line of “socialist colonialism.” This prefigured the collapse of the International in 1914, when its main constituent parties (though not the Bolsheviks and the Bulgarian “Narrow” Socialists, among others) supported the war aims of their own bourgeois rulers in World War I. Among the left-wing forces in the Second International, it was above all Lenin, whose activity spanned the 1905 and 1917 Russian Revolutions, who reappropriated Marx and Engels’ teachings and applied them to the tasks of the proletariat in the epoch of capitalist decay.
The pedigree of the demands for a democratic constitution and constituent assembly in Russia can clearly be traced back to the Second International. However, from its origins in Georgi Plekhanov’s Emancipation of Labor group in 1883, an important difference separated Russian Marxism from the main West and Central European social-democratic parties. Russia was economically and politically backward, with an absolute monarchy, a huge peasantry and only the beginnings of an industrial working class. As historian G.D.H. Cole noted:
“In the more advanced countries and especially where there was some experience and tradition of bourgeois democracy and constitutional government, ‘the Revolution’ did not necessarily mean blood. It was possible to envisage it as coming in a bloodless or almost bloodless fashion....
“It was hardly possible for any Russian to think like that. For the Russians the Revolution was not the last stage in a process that began with a number of constitutional stages, but the necessary first stage for setting the whole process going. The Russians had to begin, or thought they had, by winning a Constitution which they knew they could not win except by revolutionary means.”
— Cole, The Second International 1889-1914,
Part 2 (London: Macmillan & Co., 1960)
Unlike the SPD leaders, who had come to embrace a parliamentarist path to socialism, the Russian Marxists understood that even a democratic constitution could only be won through a revolutionary insurrection, perhaps resembling the Convention under the Jacobins.
The call for such a constitution appeared in the first draft program of the Emancipation of Labor group, written by Plekhanov in 1884. While this draft (and a second one three years later) did not explicitly demand a constituent assembly, it argued that “free political institutions” must be achieved through “agitation for a democratic constitution” (Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, Vol. 1 [Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974]).
Lenin drew on Plekhanov’s drafts in writing a program for the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party in early 1902. It asserted that the “immediate political task” is “the overthrow of the tsarist autocracy and its replacement by a republic based on a democratic constitution,” and concluded that “the complete, consistent, and lasting implementation of the indicated political and social changes can be achieved only by overthrowing the autocracy and convoking a Constituent Assembly, freely elected by the whole people” (“Draft Programme of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party,” January-February 1902).
For Lenin, the key question in driving forward the revolution was the need to win over the vast peasant masses, who comprised the overwhelming majority of the population. Lenin’s call for a constituent assembly was integrally linked to his conceptual framework at the time: the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry, and the call for a provisional revolutionary government to convoke such an assembly. In many articles written in the first half of 1905, he mainly emphasized the aim of a provisional revolutionary government and constituent assembly. In the latter half of the year, he shifted his emphasis to polemicizing against the liberals and opportunists over the means whereby these would be achieved. He continually stressed the need for the proletariat to act independently of the liberal bourgeoisie including through political strikes, an armed rising, etc.
Thus in early 1905, Lenin lauded Alexander Parvus for breaking with the “new Iskra” Mensheviks, but criticized him for asserting that “the revolutionary provisional government in Russia will be a government of working-class democracy” (“Social-Democracy and the Provisional Revolutionary Government,” March-April 1905). Seven months later, after the emergence of the St. Petersburg Soviet, he wrote:
“The Soviet must proclaim itself the provisional revolutionary government, or form such a government, and must by all means enlist to this end the participation of new deputies not only from the workers, but, first of all, from the sailors and soldiers, who are everywhere seeking freedom; secondly, from the revolutionary peasantry, and thirdly, from the revolutionary bourgeois intelligentsia.”
— “Our Tasks and the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies” (November 1905)
Elaborating a few months later, Lenin noted that the Soviets were “necessary for welding the masses together, for creating unity in the struggle...for awakening the interest of the masses, for rousing and attracting them.” He added that armed workers (and village) militias were needed for “organizing an uprising in the narrowest sense of the term” (“The Dissolution of the Duma and the Tasks of the Proletariat,” July 1906).
Even as Lenin recognized in the Soviets the form or kernel of a new revolutionary government and the need for the proletariat to be armed to carry out an uprising, his capstone remained the constituent assembly. The same July 1906 article stated: “This uprising will overthrow the autocracy and will create a representative assembly of the people with real power, i.e., a constituent assembly.” He remained trapped within the theoretical construct of the minimum program—but unlike the Mensheviks who tailed after the liberal bourgeoisie, Lenin fought to instill distrust for the bourgeoisie among the proletariat and to urge it on to ever bolder independent struggle.
It was in this period that Trotsky first elaborated his theory of permanent revolution, initially in collaboration with Parvus. In an article titled “Up to the Ninth of January,” largely written in late 1904 just before the outbreak of the 1905 Revolution, he devoted several pages to the constituent assembly question, concluding that “honest and consistent democrats” must “appeal tirelessly and relentlessly to the all-powerful will of the people, expressed in a Constituent Assembly through universal, direct and secret voting in which everyone has the same rights” (published in Richard Day and Daniel Gaido, eds., Witnesses to Permanent Revolution [Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011]).
However, by the end of the year, Trotsky had dropped any reference to the constituent assembly. His December 1905 foreword to a Russian edition of Marx’s The Paris Commune—essentially an outline for Trotsky’s Results and Prospects (1906)—denounced illusions in a democratic republic and quoted Engels’ 1891 preface to The Civil War in France: “In reality, however, the state is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another, and indeed in the democratic republic no less than in the monarchy.” Trotsky continued:
“The bourgeoisie is incapable of leading the people to win a parliamentary order through the overthrow of absolutism....
“The proletariat is the sole force leading the revolution and the principal fighter on its behalf. The proletariat seizes the entire field and is never satisfied, nor will it ever be satisfied, by any concession; through every respite or temporary retreat, it will lead the revolution to the victory in which it will take power.”
— “Foreword to Karl Marx, Parizhskaya Kommuna” (December 1905), Witnesses to Permanent Revolution
Here implicitly, and in Results and Prospects explicitly, Trotsky demolished the divide between the minimum and maximum programs. He pointed to the significance of the Soviets, whose activity “clearly demonstrates that the politics of the Russian proletariat in power will be a new and colossal step forward by comparison with the Commune of 1871.”
The original 1906 edition of Results and Prospects made no mention of the constituent assembly, though Trotsky did address the question in an appendix published in October 1915. Denouncing the bourgeois-democratic political framework of the Mensheviks, he wrote: “The slogan of a constituent assembly presupposes a revolutionary situation. Is there one? Yes, there is, but it is not in the least expressed in the supposed birth, at last, of a bourgeois democracy which is alleged to be now ready and able to settle accounts with Tsarism.” While stating that the demand for a constituent assembly would “play a tremendous part in the agitational role of the Social Democrats,” he warned: “The demands for a constituent assembly and the confiscation of land under present conditions lose all direct revolutionary significance without the readiness of the proletariat to fight for the conquest of power.”
At almost the same moment, Lenin wrote: “The slogan of a ‘constituent assembly’ is wrong as an independent slogan, because the question now is: who will convene it? The liberals accepted that slogan in 1905 because it could have been interpreted as meaning that a ‘constituent assembly’ would be convened by the tsar and would be in agreement with him” (“Several Theses,” October 1915). While maintaining his call for a provisional revolutionary government, Lenin argued that the key slogans were the fight for a democratic republic, confiscation of the landed estates and an eight-hour working day, along with “workers’ international solidarity in the struggle for socialism and the revolutionary overthrow of the belligerent governments” (ibid.).
The Constituent Assembly
in the Russian Revolution
The issues of permanent revolution and the constituent assembly are closely linked because the central question is what form of state will be able to accomplish the democratic tasks of the revolution: the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie or that of the proletariat? The debates on these issues played out for over a decade, marked by the rightward evolution of Plekhanov and the Mensheviks, and the decisive break with “two-stage” conceptions by Trotsky and by the majority of Lenin’s Bolsheviks. As history would demonstrate, the “two-stage” conception of revolution consists of a first stage in which the opportunists help bring a wing of the bourgeoisie to power and a second stage in which the bourgeoisie drowns the Communists and workers in blood.
Even after the essential concepts of the perspective of permanent revolution came to be accepted—by Trotsky in 1905, by Lenin in early 1917—the relationship between soviets and constituent assembly remained to be tested in real life. It was the experience of the October Revolution that led Lenin and Trotsky to support the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, despite their previous support for calls to convene it.
In early 1917, as outlined in his famous April Theses, Lenin broke decisively with the doctrine of support to a “democratic dictatorship” and a provisional revolutionary government. Opposing right-Bolsheviks like Lev Kamenev and Stalin, who called for conditional support to the bourgeois Provisional Government created after the overthrow of the tsar, Lenin argued that the Soviets are the “only possible form of revolutionary government” (“The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution,” April 1917).
Unlike in 1905, when Lenin argued that the goal of an uprising should be to create a constituent assembly, he now utilized the constituent assembly demand as an exposure tactic to help rally the masses to oppose the Provisional Government and fight for Soviet power:
“I attacked the Provisional Government for not having appointed an early date or any date at all, for the convocation of the Constituent Assembly, and for confining itself to promises. I argued that without the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies the convocation of the Constituent Assembly is not guaranteed and its success is impossible.”
The Mensheviks and other conciliationist parties continually delayed convening the Constituent Assembly; this delay gave them an excuse for continuing the war and not giving land to the peasants. At the same time, they counterposed the call for the Constituent Assembly to growing demands for a Soviet government. A resolution adopted in July 1917 by the Mensheviks denounced the Bolshevik slogan “All Power to the Soviets!” as “dangerous” because the Soviets were only “supported by a minority of the population.” It concluded: “Only then, in the Constituent Assembly which will decide the fate of Russia for many years to come, will the voice of the working class resound” (cited in Robert H. McNeal, ed., Resolutions and Decisions of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Vol. 1 [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974]).
Lenin also had to fight “constitutional illusions” within his own party. This came to a head in October, when Kamenev and Zinoviev counterposed support to the Constituent Assembly to the call for an insurrection. Pushing for a “combined” type of state, they argued that rather than taking power, “The Soviets must be a revolver pointed at the head of the government with the demand to convene the Constituent Assembly” (quoted in Lenin, “Letter to Comrades,” 17 October 1917). Lenin replied sharply: “A renunciation of the uprising is a renunciation of the transfer of power to the Soviets and implies a ‘transfer’ of all hopes and expectation to the kind bourgeoisie, which has ‘promised’ to convoke the Constituent Assembly” (ibid.).
Following the achievement of Soviet power, the Bolsheviks went ahead with early elections to the Constituent Assembly. The result was a counterrevolutionary body. When it refused to recognize Soviet power, the Constituent Assembly was dispersed (see “Bourgeois Liberalism vs. the October Revolution,” page 4).
Summing up the debates on the Constituent Assembly in The History of the Russian Revolution (1930-32), Trotsky pointed to the “bankruptcy of formal democracy in a deep historic crisis,” and added: “It reveals the strength of tradition, however, that even on the eve of the last battle neither camp had yet renounced the name of the Constituent Assembly.” He elaborated:
“But almost unnoticeably in the course of the events of the revolution, this chief democratic slogan, which had for a decade and a half tinged with its colour the heroic struggle of the masses, had grown pale and faded out, had somehow been ground between millstones, had become an empty shell, a form naked of content, a tradition and not a prospect. There was nothing mysterious in this process. The development of the revolution had reached the point of a direct battle for power between the two basic classes of society, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. A Constituent Assembly could give nothing either to the one or the other.”
The experience of 1917 and the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in January 1918 had a decisive impact. When a revolution began to unfold in Germany later that year, no one in the revolutionary wing of Social Democracy supported the call for such an assembly. The demand for a national assembly was raised only by the reformist SPD, for blatantly counterrevolutionary purposes, and by the leadership of the centrist USPD, a heterogeneous grouping expelled from the SPD in 1917 which included such longstanding opportunists as Kautsky, Rudolf Hilferding and Eduard Bernstein. Like Zinoviev and Kamenev in October 1917, the central leaders of the USPD pushed for a “combined” state that united workers councils and a national assembly, with the latter unambiguously dominant.
The revolutionary situation erupted in early November 1918 following a sailors’ mutiny in Kiel, which sparked mass strikes and the formation of workers and soldiers councils in many German cities. The Spartakusbund of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, which was then the left wing of the USPD, raised the call: “Eliminate the Reichstag and all parliaments as well as the existing imperial government. The Berlin workers’ and soldiers’ council must assume governmental power and establish a national workers’ and soldiers’ council” (Die Rote Fahne, 10 November 1918, translated in Riddell, op. cit.). The next day, a message to the German proletariat by the Bolshevik government proclaimed: “It is essential that you genuinely take power everywhere, arms in hand, and build a workers’, soldiers’, and sailors’ government headed by Liebknecht. Do not allow them to foist a national assembly upon you” (ibid.).
The SPD, having seen what transpired in Russia, put the call for a national assembly at the heart of its moves to restabilize bourgeois rule. When mass proletarian demonstrations took over the streets of Berlin, Chancellor Prince Max von Baden became convinced that only the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the creation of an SPD-led government could salvage the situation for German capital. He asked SPD leader Friedrich Ebert: “If I manage to convince the Kaiser, do I have you on my side in the fight against the social revolution?” (quoted in ibid.). Ebert replied: “If the Kaiser does not abdicate, then social revolution is unavoidable. But I do not want it; no, I hate it like sin.”
The prince and his SPD ally found a way to impede the revolutionary tide: when the Kaiser objected to stepping down, von Baden gave up the attempt to make him see reality and simply announced his abdication. SPD co-chairman Philipp Scheidemann did his part by proclaiming a republic—to the distress of Ebert, who would have preferred to preserve the monarchy as a linchpin of law and order, akin to the Emperor system in Japan.
The notion of rapidly convening the National Assembly also originated with von Baden. He concluded his statement on the Kaiser’s abdication by proposing that Ebert be named chancellor and that a bill be presented “to hold elections immediately to a German national assembly” (quoted in ibid.). In his authoritative book on the 1918-19 German workers councils, Eberhard Kolb commented:
“Of great importance to the subsequent course of events was the fact that on November 8 Prince Max von Baden put forward the notion of a National Assembly, which he had been mulling over for days, so as to displace the revolutionary movement via a democratic counter-action. In a telephone call with the Kaiser he recommended that he not institute a regency for his grandson but rather...summon a national assembly: thereby the mood of the masses, who were pressing for struggle, would be diverted from an illegal to a legal course, from the streets to the polling places.”
— Kolb, Die Arbeiterräte in der deutschen Innenpolitik: 1918-1919 (Workers Councils
in German Domestic Politics: 1918-1919)
(Frankfurt: Ullstein, 1978) (our translation)
In order to deceive the working class, the SPD had to present an appearance of “socialist unity,” so Ebert invited the USPD to join his government, dubbed the Council of People’s Deputies in a deliberately misleading allusion to the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary Council of People’s Commissars. Despite opposition from Luxemburg, Liebknecht and their followers, the USPD duly obliged, entering the new government on November 10. The SPD linked appeals for democracy to claims that the National Assembly would embody the sovereignty of the entire people. In the same announcement that proclaimed elections to the assembly, the government instituted universal suffrage for all citizens aged 20 and older, putting an end to the hated Prussian three-class electoral system. It also announced other reforms, including the eight-hour workday, aiming to co-opt the restive workers into accepting a restabilized capitalist order. This was, in effect, the “minimum program.”
A bitter debate over the National Assembly took place at a special conference of the Greater Berlin USPD on December 15. Luxemburg submitted a resolution on behalf of the Spartakusbund whose key sections stipulated that the conference:
“1. Demands that the USPD representatives immediately withdraw from the Ebert-Scheidemann government;
“2. Rejects convening a national assembly, which can only strengthen the counterrevolution and cheat the revolution of its socialist goals;
“3. Demands that the workers’ and soldiers’ councils immediately assume all political power.”
— Die Freiheit, 16 December 1918,
translated in Riddell, op. cit.
This was counterposed to a motion by Hilferding, which asserted, “The most important political task of the USPD at this moment is organizing for the national assembly elections. It is a matter of mobilizing all the forces of the proletariat to ensure the victory of socialism over the bourgeoisie” (ibid.). In the end, Hilferding’s resolution passed by a substantial majority, reflecting the relative weakness of the Spartakists’ forces.
The workers and soldiers councils, overwhelmingly controlled by the SPD or USPD, ended up abdicating in favor of the National Assembly. If the councils generally saw themselves as ephemeral “support organizations” to the Council of People’s Deputies, this false consciousness was reinforced by the notion of rapid elections to a parliamentary body that would purportedly settle contentious issues in the workers’ favor. The call for a National Assembly was crucial to the regime’s stalling tactics, serving to alibi the postponement of crucial decisions until after the bourgeoisie had recovered its nerve and mass demobilization had critically weakened the soldiers councils. The demobilization of the shattered army proceeded as fast as the exhausted soldiers could make it home, and soldiers were legally guaranteed their old jobs back. The first national congress of workers and soldiers councils, held December 16-21, voted to support the National Assembly, and elections were held a month later, barely ten weeks after the outbreak of revolution.
The vast majority of German workers desired socialism as they understood it, and an authoritative party of the Bolshevik type with politically steeled cadres rooted in the factories could have set a course toward workers revolution. But Luxemburg and Liebknecht’s failure to break with the Social Democracy, even after its historic betrayal of supporting war credits in 1914, meant that the Spartakusbund was a tiny group of isolated individuals immersed in a social-democratic sea. The failure of Germany’s most authoritative revolutionary Marxists to organize a split from the SPD—and their later decision to remain in the ever-waffling, bourgeois-pacifist USPD—allowed the SPD and USPD leaders to conceal the critical political issues and made the SPD’s cynical unity-mongering that much more effective.
The Spartakusbund, and the KPD which it finally helped to found in the last days of 1918, was able to bring hundreds of thousands of workers into the streets of Berlin to protest outrages of the Ebert government. But with only a few hundred members in the city, the new party was in no position to lead an immediate struggle for workers power. When militant workers seized the plant that printed the SPD’s newspaper in early January 1919, Liebknecht got swept away by revolutionary impatience and followed the workers in a premature fight for power, against Luxemburg’s opposition. Then, rather than go underground as the regime moved to crush the revolt, Luxemburg and Liebknecht remained in Berlin, where they were hunted down by the SPD bloodhounds and killed by the right-wing Freikorps.
The counterrevolutionary role of the National Assembly was even clearer in Germany 1918-19 than in Russia a year earlier. Appeals for such an assembly were at the center of the moves by the bourgeoisie and its SPD agents to drastically shorten the time-frame within which the Spartakusbund/KPD might have been able to organize the working class around a revolutionary program. Indeed, the reality of what the SPD and its stooges in the USPD right wing were doing on behalf of German capital only began to sink in following the bloody suppression of the revolt in mid January. With bourgeois rule temporarily solidified, Ebert & Co. were able to mobilize the Freikorps to put down other islands of working-class resistance throughout Germany.
The Communist International
Draws the Lessons
At the First Congress of the Communist International, Lenin stated: “In our revolution we advanced along the path of practice, and not of theory. For example, formerly we did not raise the question of the Constituent Assembly from the theoretical side, and we did not say we did not recognise the Constituent Assembly. It was only later, when the Soviet organisations had spread throughout the country and had captured political power, that we decided to dissolve the Constituent Assembly” (“Theses and Report on Bourgeois Democracy and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat,” March 1919).
This shift from the practical to the theoretical in dealing with the constituent assembly can be traced in Lenin’s own writings and statements. The State and Revolution, written only months before the October Revolution, was a sustained polemic against parliamentarist illusions. While not addressing the constituent assembly demand as such, it emphasized again and again that the road to socialism lies through the proletarian dictatorship, not bourgeois democracy. After Soviet power was achieved, Lenin argued to postpone elections to the Constituent Assembly. Trotsky recounted in 1924 that “Lenin stood alone” on this question in the party leadership, quoting the Bolshevik leader: “In relation to the Provisional Government the Constituent Assembly represented, or might have represented, progress; in relation to the regime of the Soviets, and with the existing electoral lists, it will inevitably mean retrogression” (Trotsky, Lenin: Notes for a Biographer [New York: Capricorn Books, 1971], first published in English as Lenin [New York: Blue Ribbon Books, 1925]). Lenin argued that the decision to proceed with these elections was “clearly a mistake which can prove very costly. Let us hope that the revolution will not have to pay for it with its life” (quoted in ibid.).
After the election of a counterrevolutionary majority in the Assembly, Lenin drafted “Theses on the Constituent Assembly” (December 1917) as part of his fight against the Bureau of Bolshevik delegates to the Constituent Assembly (including Kamenev and Stalin), who were capitulating to bourgeois democracy. The Theses affirmed:
“Every direct or indirect attempt to consider the question of the Constituent Assembly from a formal, legal point of view, within the framework of ordinary bourgeois democracy and disregarding the class struggle and civil war, would be a betrayal of the proletariat’s cause, and the adoption of the bourgeois standpoint....
“Any attempt to tie the hands of Soviet power in this struggle would be tantamount to aiding counterrevolution.”
Lenin took up the question at a broader historical level in The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, which he completed just before the eruption of the German Revolution in late 1918. In his report at the First Congress of the CI, which convened less than two months after the murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, he stated: “Once again it is here revealed that the general course of the proletarian revolution is the same throughout the world. First the spontaneous formation of soviets, then their spread and development, and then the appearance of the practical problem: Soviets or National Assembly, or Constituent Assembly, or the bourgeois parliamentary system; utter confusion among the leaders, and finally—the proletarian revolution” (“Theses and Report on Bourgeois Democracy and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat”).
In May 1920, Lenin wrote “Left-Wing” Communism—An Infantile Disorder for distribution to delegates at the CI’s Second Congress. His aim was to combat ultraleft tendencies among the young and inexperienced Communist parties. Urging them to assimilate the lessons of Bolshevik history, Lenin explained that participation in bourgeois elections and use of the parliamentary rostrum to rally the workers could be valuable Communist tactics. He noted that “the Bolsheviks did not boycott the Constituent Assembly, but took part in the elections both before and after the proletariat conquered political power.” But nowhere in this manual of Communist tactics—or anywhere else at the Second Congress, including in its “Theses on the Communist Parties and Parliamentarism”—was there any attempt to revive the slogan for a constituent assembly, which had been central to “old Bolshevik” agitation for 15 years.
By the time of the Third Congress in 1921, which was again devoted in significant part to imparting the lessons of Bolshevism, Lenin’s only reference to the constituent assembly was to note that it was now “a term of abuse not only among the educated Communists, but also among the peasants” (“Report on the Tactics of the R.C.P. [Russian Communist Party],” 5 July 1921). He added, “They know from practical experience that the Constituent Assembly and the white-guards stand for the same thing, that the former is inevitably followed by the latter.”
Before 1917, a big part of the Bolsheviks’ motivation for the constituent assembly demand had been the need to win over the peasant masses. But the experience of the October Revolution showed that it was not agitation for a democratic parliament but the achievement of proletarian state power that laid the basis for the peasants (especially the poor peasants) to come over to the side of the workers. As Lenin noted retrospectively, “a few hours after the victory over the bourgeoisie in Petrograd, the victorious proletariat issued a ‘decree on land,’ and in that decree it entirely, at once, with revolutionary swiftness, energy and devotion, satisfied all the most urgent economic needs of the majority of the peasants, it expropriated the landowners, entirely and without compensation” (“The Constituent Assembly Elections and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat,” December 1919). He continued:
“The traitors, blockheads and pedants of the Second International could never understand such dialectics; the proletariat cannot achieve victory if it does not win the majority of the population to its side. But to limit that winning to polling a majority of votes in an election under the rule of the bourgeoisie, or to make it the condition for it, is crass stupidity, or else sheer deception of the workers.”
The historical record is unambiguous. Those who cite the stance of Lenin’s Bolsheviks before October 1917 to justify their demands for constituent assemblies must ignore everything Lenin wrote and said from 1918 on, when he consistently denounced such calls. The CI in its revolutionary period treated the constituent assembly as at best an outdated slogan, a relic of the 19th century and the social-democratic minimum/maximum program. Particularly in light of the experiences in Russia and Germany, the Communist movement under Lenin and Trotsky recognized that, at least in the imperialist countries, the slogan could only be used to anti-revolutionary ends in the epoch of capitalist decline.
China and Permanent Revolution
Trotsky’s revival of the constituent assembly slogan came a decade later, following the defeat of the Second Chinese Revolution of 1925-27. Indeed, the vast majority of his arguments in favor of the demand were made in articles and letters written between late 1928 and early 1932, many of which are compiled in the collection Leon Trotsky on China (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1976). But these were at times confused and contradictory; rather than bringing clarity to the Chinese Trotskyists, they generated ongoing debates, differences and even political paralysis.
The early CI did not address the appropriateness of the slogan for the colonies and semicolonies, where the proletariat was far weaker than in Europe and the imperialists generally ruled through brutal repression with no semblance of bourgeois democracy. The “Theses on the National and Colonial Questions,” drafted by Lenin and adopted at the CI’s Second Congress, emphasized the need for Communists in imperialist countries to actively support the fight for colonial freedom. At that stage, proletarian political movements barely existed in the colonies and semicolonies, though economic dislocations produced by the war had created important new working-class concentrations in countries such as China and India. While advocating a “temporary alliance” with bourgeois-democratic forces, Lenin’s Theses affirmed that even embryonic communist nuclei must maintain class independence from the national bourgeoisie.
This understanding began to be reversed by 1922, when the Fourth CI Congress called for an “anti-imperialist united front,” tacitly posing an ongoing political bloc with bourgeois nationalism. But while the Fourth Congress decisions had weaknesses, the CI’s approach became qualitatively worse after its Stalinist degeneration. By late 1924, Stalin was pushing the anti-revolutionary dogma of “socialism in one country.” With Lenin dead and Trotsky sidelined, the CI leadership—first under the mercurial Zinoviev and then under Nikolai Bukharin—zigged and zagged toward an increasingly overt perspective of class collaboration, including outright liquidation into bourgeois-nationalist parties.
The young Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had been pushed by CI envoys to join the bourgeois-nationalist Guomindang (GMD, earlier transliterated as Kuomintang) as early as August 1922 (see “The Origins of Chinese Trotskyism,” Spartacist [English edition] No. 53, Summer 1997). This was initially opposed by the entire CCP leadership, and by Trotsky when the question was raised in the Soviet Politburo in early 1923. Stalin and Bukharin argued that the GMD represented a “bloc of four classes” and merited the Communists’ full support. Under CI instructions, the CCP loyally remained within the Guomindang even as GMD leader Chiang Kai-shek staged a coup in April 1927, disarming and massacring tens of thousands of Communist-led workers in Shanghai.
Trotsky fought tenaciously against these disastrous policies throughout 1927. He and his followers were then part of the Joint Opposition, a common faction formed with Zinoviev and Kamenev after their break with Stalin in late 1925. The Joint Opposition opposed any political support to the bourgeois nationalists and affirmed, in the words of a resolution presented to a May 1927 CI Executive Committee plenum, that “the general course must be toward the establishment of a revolutionary dictatorship through the soviets of workers’ and peasants’ deputies” (“It Is Time to Understand, Time to Reconsider, and Time to Make a Change,” May 1927). But important differences separated Trotsky from others in the Joint Opposition; notably, he was in a minority on the question of demanding the immediate withdrawal of the CCP from the Guomindang. The Joint Opposition collapsed when Zinoviev, Kamenev and their followers recanted their views and begged for reinstatement as the Stalinists moved to expel the Opposition en masse at the end of 1927.
The Chinese debacle confirmed that there would be no interim “democratic” stage in the colonial world. By late 1927, Trotsky concluded that the perspective of permanent revolution was the only road to national and social liberation in China and other countries of belated capitalist development. He laid this out in his critique of the draft program of the CI, completed in June 1928 and later published as The Third International After Lenin. Trotsky’s generalization of permanent revolution to the colonial and semicolonial world was key in winning new adherents to the Left Opposition, notably in China itself.
The critique of the CI draft program was written in the wake of the catastrophic Canton (Guangzhou) uprising ordered by Stalin in December 1927, the final demoralizing chapter in the defeat of the Chinese workers. This also signaled Stalin’s move toward the “Third Period,” in which adherence to “socialism in one country” was combined with left-talking bombast, idiot adventurism and sectarian abstentionism. Even though all working-class organizations in China had been decapitated, the CI leadership cynically denied that there had been a defeat and began to raise the call for soviets.
While condemning the Canton uprising as an adventurist putsch, Trotsky observed that in its forms and actions—e.g., the outlawing of all wings of the bourgeois Guomindang—the uprising demonstrated that Stalin/Bukharin’s formula of a bourgeois-democratic revolution was a hollow fiction (“Three Letters to Preobrazhensky,” March-April 1928). At the same time, Trotsky was looking for a way for the CCP to re-emerge and reawaken the masses. He had endorsed the CCP’s call for a constituent assembly in a document written shortly after the GMD’s bloody coup, stressing that the slogan “becomes an empty abstraction, often simple charlatanry, if one does not add who will convoke it and with what program” (“The Chinese Revolution and the Theses of Comrade Stalin,” May 1927). It should be noted that at the moment he wrote this Trotsky also accepted the Joint Opposition’s call for the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.
Trotsky revived the constituent assembly slogan in September 1928 in a series of letters to Left Oppositionists written after the Stalinists declared that any call for such an assembly would be opportunistic. A September 24 letter to Ivar Smilga stated:
“Transitional demands are needed. In the first place—the constituent assembly. This slogan can introduce a split between the bourgeois tops and even the urban petty-bourgeois masses. It may—not immediately, of course—allow the Communist Party to venture out from the underground and begin a new campaign of mobilizing the working masses.”
— Yuri Felshtinsky, ed., Trotsky L.D. Pis’ma iz ccylki, 1928 (L.D. Trotsky, Letters from Exile, 1928) (Moscow: Gumanitarnaya Literatura, 1995) (our translation)
Trotsky elaborated on this theme in a more extensive article:
“The idea of the representation of the entire people, as has been shown by the experience of all the bourgeois revolutions and especially those which liberated nationalities, is the most elementary, the most simple, and the one most apt to embrace really vast popular strata. The more the ruling bourgeoisie resists this demand of the ‘entire people,’ and the more the proletarian vanguard rallies around our banner, the riper the political conditions will become to win the real victory against the bourgeois state, whether it be the military state of the Kuomintang or the parliamentary.”
— “The Chinese Question After the Sixth Congress” (October 1928)
This statement ignored the distilled experience of the Bolshevik Revolution, as Lenin made clear in the 1919 letter we quoted above, that the peasant masses were won over not primarily on the basis of agitation for democracy but through the victorious proletariat satisfying the peasantry’s thirst for land. Furthermore, Trotsky buttressed his argument by confusing participation in a bourgeois parliament with the call for one, citing Lenin’s opposition to a boycott of the 1907 tsarist Duma:
“But the fact that the opportunists put forward the slogan of the struggle for the national assembly in no way constitutes an argument in favor of a formal, negative attitude on our part toward parliamentarism. After the coup d’état of June 3, 1907, in Russia, the majority of the leading elements of the Bolshevik party were favorable to the boycott of the mutilated and tricked Duma. This did not prevent Lenin from coming forward resolutely in favor of the utilization of even the ‘parliamentarism’ of June 3 at the party conference which at that time still united the two factions.”
Trotsky was correct to oppose the ultraleft and adventurist idiocies of the Third Period, and to argue that the call for soviets was no longer on the immediate agenda. But there is a big difference between raising transitional and democratic demands that are genuinely in the toilers’ interests and calling to create a new bourgeois governing institution. In the period of reaction after 1927, the tasks facing Chinese Marxists were necessarily largely propagandistic: motivating the independent struggle of the working class, at the head of the poor peasants, as the only road to liberation from imperialism and the local oppressors. How can we win national emancipation, agrarian revolution, women’s rights? Only when the working people run society. To motivate instead (or as well) the fight to create a bourgeois parliament implicitly poses a two-stage perspective: fight for bourgeois democracy today, and this will somehow grow into a fight for socialism in the future.
Disputes in the Soviet Left Opposition
Trotsky’s own writings indicate that the revival of the constituent assembly slogan was opposed or seriously questioned both within the Soviet Opposition and among the newly won Chinese Trotskyists. A circular letter by Trotsky to other Left Opposition leaders noted that he had “already received several telegrams raising objections to this demand” (“Democratic Slogans in China,” October 1928). He commented that some “did seem quite incredible to me. For example, two comrades say that the call for a constituent assembly is ‘not a class demand,’ and that, therefore, they reject it.... Several telegrams advance the call for soviets instead of the call for a constituent assembly.”
While further research is called for, it is clear that opposition to Trotsky’s use of the slogan came from two distinct wings of the Soviet Left Opposition. One centered on a layer of senior Oppositionists, including Smilga, Karl Radek and Evgeny Preobrazhensky. The year before, they had blocked with Zinoviev and other conciliationist elements in the Joint Opposition regarding perspectives for China. They now opposed not only Trotsky’s revival of the constituent assembly demand but also, crucially, his generalization of the theory of permanent revolution to China. Taken in by the rhetoric of the Third Period, they embraced Stalin’s apparent left turn as a move toward authentic Marxism.
Thus this aspect of the early debates over the constituent assembly slogan in the Soviet Left Opposition thoroughly intertwined with broader fights over permanent revolution vs. “two-stagism” and “socialism in one country.” Trotsky took apart Radek’s arguments on these questions in his book The Permanent Revolution, most of which was written in the same month, October 1928. Radek, Preobrazhensky & Co. were already far along a road that would lead to their capitulation to the Stalinist bureaucracy in the summer of 1929.
Serious arguments against Trotsky’s revival of the slogan were also raised by at least one prominent opponent of the capitulators, Fyodor Dingelstedt. A Bolshevik since 1910, an organizer in Petrograd and the Baltic Fleet during 1917, Dingelstedt had been a Left Oppositionist since 1923. Trotsky’s archives at Harvard University’s Houghton Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts, include two handwritten letters by Dingelstedt that criticized the constituent assembly demand. Dingelstedt was arrested by the bureaucracy and sent to Siberia; he remained an active Left Oppositionist until his execution at the Vorkuta prison camp in the late 1930s.
The first letter, dated 25 September 1928, endorsed the strategy and tactics toward China in Trotsky’s Critique of the CI draft program. Dingelstedt cited Trotsky’s argument that the attempt “to bridle the Chinese bourgeoisie by means of organizational and personal maneuvers...is not a maneuver but contemptible self-deception,” arguing against Trotsky that this understanding served to “undermine the tactical significance of the slogan of a constituent assembly in China” (Houghton Library, MS Russ 13 [T2659], our translation). In a second letter, dated 11 October 1928, Dingelstedt argued that the constituent assembly slogan in China “comes down to nil and must even have a negative value” (see “Letter by Fyodor Dingelstedt,” page 32).
Trotsky alluded to Dingelstedt’s first letter in a December 1928 circular letter. This was largely a correct defense of the need to raise democratic slogans. But in opening his letter, Trotsky stated: “To my great surprise, one comrade, in criticizing the slogan for a constituent assembly, seriously claimed to see in this a maneuver that I was supposedly carrying out with the aim of ‘deceiving’ the Chinese bourgeoisie” (“China and the Constituent Assembly,” December 1928). Trotsky calls this a “misunderstanding” and refers to the arguments in his “The Chinese Question After the Sixth Congress,” but he does not deal with the substance of Dingelstedt’s criticisms. Trotsky does not appear to have replied to Dingelstedt’s second letter.
Differences Within the Chinese Opposition
The constituent assembly slogan also provoked controversy among the hundreds of Chinese students who were won to the Left Opposition while studying in Moscow. In his Chinese Revolutionary: Memoirs 1919-1949 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), Wang Fanxi recounts how successive waves of Chinese students looking to draw the lessons of the defeated revolution came to embrace the program of permanent revolution. By the winter of 1928-29, nearly 150 of the 400 Chinese students at Sun Yat-sen University in Moscow were members or sympathizers of the Opposition.
In late 1929, Stalin’s GPU raided university dormitories and arrested more than 200 Chinese Trotskyists. Wang reports that while a few recanted their views and two eventually escaped from Siberian exile back to China, “There is no record of what happened to the rest, but many undoubtedly died in Stalin’s prisons or in front of a GPU firing squad” (ibid.).
Wang, who later came to agree with the constituent assembly demand, describes the impact of Trotsky’s “The Chinese Question After the Sixth Congress”: “Up to then we had considered Trotsky’s positions consistently ‘Left,’ but on reading his article, and in particular the section on the constituent assembly slogan, it seemed to us young fanatics as if he had suddenly leapt to the right of Stalin.” Liu Renjing (Niel Sih), another Chinese Oppositionist in Moscow who was an early supporter of the constituent assembly slogan, gives a similar account. In a lengthy 1934 document titled “Five Years of the Left Opposition in China—An Attempt to Explain Its Failure to Make Progress,” Liu states:
“Comrade Trotsky’s article, ‘The Chinese Question After the Sixth Congress,’ was circulated among comrades, but before the present writer’s return to China the slogan of the National Assembly was not propagated in the Opposition organ.
“There were two reasons for this passivity in regard to the slogan of the National Assembly. First, since the bourgeoisie had solved not a single one of the tasks which gave rise to the second Chinese revolution, it was the common belief that a fresh wave of the revolution would rise very soon. Secondly, there were strong prejudices against the slogan itself, which still exist to this very day.”
We know of no surviving documentation from the 1928-29 debates among these Chinese Oppositionists, who had to operate clandestinely. But differences over the slogan continued to simmer within the Opposition in China, which was divided into four organizations before unifying at a May 1931 conference. Documentation on these later debates is partial and fragmented, but it is clear that there was enormous confusion. Even the phrase “constituent assembly” (lixian huiyi) was strongly disputed: the Chinese word lixian was widely viewed as reactionary, thanks to repeated attempts by the dying Qing dynasty and then the warlords to draft a constitution and convene a constituent assembly. Trotsky eventually compromised on the terminology, and after 1930 generally used the term “national assembly” (guomin huiyi) in relation to China, though this did not change the substance of his arguments.
Trotsky argued “For a Strategy of Action, Not Speculation” (3 October 1932): don’t worry about when and how a constituent assembly might be convened, but use the demand to mobilize the workers. Yet in several of his writings Trotsky himself engaged in a great deal of speculation. For example, in an April 1930 reply to a Chinese Opposition group, he sought to justify the slogan by speculating about alternate scenarios for the Russian Revolution:
“If the Constituent Assembly had been convened let us say in April 1917, then all the social questions would have confronted it. The propertied classes would have been compelled to show their cards; the treacherous role of the conciliators would have become apparent. The Bolshevik faction in the Constituent Assembly would have won the greatest popularity and this would have helped to elect a Bolshevik majority in the soviets. Under these circumstances the Constituent Assembly would have lasted not one day but possibly several months. This would have enriched the political experience of the working masses and, rather than retard the proletarian revolution, would have accelerated it.”
— “The Slogan of a National Assembly in China” (April 1930)
Trotsky’s scenario ignores the many historical instances where the bourgeoisie and its reformist agents wielded an elected assembly as a tool against an insurgent proletariat. He says nothing of the experience in Germany in 1918-19, when the National Assembly was convened very rapidly, precisely in order to prevent a workers revolution. The idea that the early convening of a constituent assembly in Russia would have had no negative impact on the fight for Soviet power flies in the face of historical experience, as well as numerous analyses written by Lenin, the early CI and indeed Trotsky himself.
In a letter written in early 1931, Trotsky quoted the following argument by a group of Chinese Oppositionists: “We believe that the national assembly will most likely not be realized. Even if it should be realized, it could not be transformed into a ‘provisional government,’ since all the material forces are in the hands of the Kuomintang militarists. Regarding the government that will be organized after the insurrection, that will undoubtedly be the government of the proletarian dictatorship, and in that case it will not convoke a national assembly” (quoted in “To the Chinese Left Opposition,” January 1931).
Calling this argument “incomplete and one-sided,” Trotsky replied: “If the proletariat has assembled the poor peasantry under the slogans of democracy (land, national assembly, etc.) and in a united onslaught overthrows the military dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, then, when it comes into power, the proletariat will have to convoke a national assembly in order not to arouse the mistrust of the peasantry and in order not to provide an opening for bourgeois demagogy” (ibid.).
The idea that the proletariat in power “will have to convoke a national assembly” to consolidate support among the peasants is also foreign to the conclusions drawn by Lenin and the early CI. Strikingly missing from Trotsky’s writings on the constituent assembly in this period is any reference to Lenin’s The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky or other major works from 1918-21 that drew the definitive lessons of Soviet power vs. bourgeois parliamentarism.
Confusion Among the Chinese Trotskyists
Trotsky correctly saw the adherence to the Opposition of Chen Duxiu, the founder of Chinese Marxism and central leader of the CCP up to mid 1927, as very important. He urged the younger Trotskyists who excoriated Chen as an opportunist—because he had carried out Stalin’s policies while head of the CCP—to recognize the value of his experience and unify their forces. Chen’s adherence to Trotskyism, together with that of other CCP veterans, gave the Left Opposition huge authority among the left and workers movement in China.
The Chinese Trotskyists fought heroically for a proletarian perspective, against great odds. Their immediate prospects were sharply constrained by the 1927 defeat, all-sided repression and the further decimation of the proletariat following the 1929 economic crisis. Most Opposition leaders were jailed by the Guomindang soon after the 1931 conference, and the section was driven even further underground. It nonetheless achieved considerable growth after the Japanese incursion into Shanghai in early 1932; by the fall of that year, many of the CCP’s remaining industrial cells in the city had gone over to the Opposition. However, Chen and other central leaders were arrested soon after, and were not released until 1937.
The memoirs of Zheng Chaolin—a Chinese Trotskyist who spent nearly 30 years in Mao’s prisons until his release in 1979—report that Chen initially hesitated to support the call for the dictatorship of the proletariat when he began to move toward the Opposition in 1929; he was the last among the CCP cadres won to Trotskyism to be convinced of the applicability of the permanent revolution (see An Oppositionist for Life: Memoirs of the Chinese Revolutionary Zheng Chaolin [Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1997]). Chen supported the national assembly slogan throughout the short period when he actively led the Chinese Opposition. In this he was far from unique.
Reporting on the 1931 unification conference, an editorial introduction in the Left Opposition International Bulletin (No. 8, May-June 1931) stated, “Some of the comrades hesitated before adopting the democratic slogans, and particularly, the slogan of the Constituent Assembly in the present period, afraid of being charged with opportunism by the C.I. Others considered the slogan of the Constituent Assembly as a ‘popular formula for the dictatorship of the proletariat’.” The latter position was associated with Liu Renjing, whose 1934 document purported to summarize the years-long discussion. While Liu’s rightist views and factional animus against all and sundry make his document unreliable, it has the value of including long quotations from the Trotskyists’ press and internal bulletins. Liu states that the national assembly was “the most debated question in the ranks of the Chinese Left Opposition,” and adds:
“Everyone has his own view or his own interpretation of the slogan, but they all clash with and paralyze each other. The confusion is so great that the organization will not be able to advance one step further if the International Secretariat does not help us elucidate the question.”
— “Five Years of the Left Opposition in China”
It appears that some Oppositionists, notably Zheng Chaolin and Wang Fanxi, stuck to arguing on the lines urged by Trotsky. Others argued over who should convene the assembly. Should we pressure Chiang Kai-shek to do it? Or another wing of the Guomindang? Should it be convened by the insurgent workers? Should they do this before or after taking power?
A January 1932 letter written (but apparently unsent) by Chen to the Opposition’s International Secretariat (I.S.) captures the confusion. Writing after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, he stated:
“Our most difficult task in the field of propaganda is bound up with the slogan of the National Assembly. Many party members, dissatisfied with the regime of the Stalinist bureaucracy, claim to agree with the Left Opposition, but owing to the fact that they do not understand the slogan of the National Assembly they refuse to join our organization....
“There are not a few comrades in the Left Opposition who do not agree with the revolutionary interpretation of the slogan of the National Assembly. They consider the National Assembly exclusively as a form of bourgeois rule, whereas the aim of the Left Opposition is the dictatorship of the proletariat in the form of soviets. This aim, however, belongs to the future high tide of the revolution, and if meanwhile we interpret the slogan of the National Assembly in a revolutionary way, linking it up with the slogan ‘Down with the Kuomintang!’ and also with the question of power, we are accused of adventurism! Thus we do not agree among ourselves. Here lies our difficulty. We urgently need your directives on this question.”
— quoted in ibid.
Zheng Chaolin’s memoirs also capture the negative impact of the demand on the work of the Chinese Trotskyists. He reports that around 1931, a former leader of the Guomindang left challenged a Left Oppositionist: “You Trotskyists claim that the revolution in China is proletarian, but you call for a national assembly; the Stalinists say that it is bourgeois but call for soviets. Aren’t the positions of both sides self-contradictory?” (Zheng Chaolin, op. cit.). A good question. The Trotskyists continued to raise the national assembly demand: a Central Executive Committee resolution in 1937 concluded with the slogans, “Down with the Kuomintang! Long live the All-Powerful National Assembly elected by democratic suffrage!” (“The Present Situation and Our Tasks,” February 1937). Far from acting as a bridge to proletarian power, the Trotskyists’ agitation for a national assembly in China served to hinder political clarity, both publicly and internally.
The Constituent Assembly Demand in Spain
While Trotsky raised the constituent assembly slogan in China in a period of proletarian defeat and retreat, in Spain he raised it, albeit briefly, at the onset of a period of social upheaval. The downfall of the Primo de Rivera dictatorship in early 1930 ushered in a rising tide of revolutionary turmoil, which culminated in the Spanish Civil War that began in July 1936. (For more on this, see “Trotskyism vs. Popular Frontism in the Spanish Civil War,” Spartacist [English edition] No. 61, Spring 2009.) Primo de Rivera’s successor, Dámaso Berenguer Fusté, proposed a new Cortes (parliament) aimed at legitimizing the monarchy, which was met with widespread calls for a boycott. In the upshot, Berenguer resigned and King Alfonso XIII opted for municipal elections, which were held on 12 April 1931 and resulted in a sweeping victory for the Socialist and bourgeois Republican parties in the urban centers. Alfonso fled, a republic was proclaimed and elections for a new constituent Cortes were announced.
Both before and after this period, Trotsky correctly stressed the importance of democratic demands in the Spanish Revolution (see Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution [1931-39] [New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973]). But he raised the call for a constituent assembly, or constituent Cortes, only in a handful of letters and articles in January-February 1931. By the time the Socialists and Republicans announced their constituent Cortes, Trotsky argued instead: “The central slogan of the proletariat is that of the workers’ soviet” (“Ten Commandments of the Spanish Communist,” 15 April 1931).
Trotsky’s writings on Spain, which overwhelmingly centered on opposition to any form of class-collaborationist coalition (dubbed the “popular front” by the Stalinists in the mid 1930s) and on the need to cohere an authentically Leninist vanguard party, are among his most powerful in opposing all forms of class collaboration. But as with China, his arguments for the constituent assembly were confusing and contradictory. Trotsky first raised the slogan in a 12 January 1931 letter in which he endorsed the boycott of the Berenguer Cortes, arguing:
“But if the Cortes is to be boycotted, then in the name of what? In the name of the soviets? In my opinion, it would be wrong to pose the question that way. The masses of the city and countryside can be united at the present time only under democratic slogans. These include the election of a constituent Cortes on the basis of universal, equal, direct, and secret suffrage. I do not think that in the present situation you can avoid the slogan. Soviets are as yet nonexistent. The Spanish workers—not to speak of the peasants—do not know what soviets are; at any rate, not from their own experiences. Nevertheless, the struggle around the Cortes in the coming period will constitute the whole political life of the country. To counterpose the slogan of soviets, under these circumstances, to the slogan of the Cortes, would be incorrect.”
— “Soviets and the Constituent Cortes”
(12 January 1931)
Two weeks later, in an otherwise powerful exposition of the perspective of permanent revolution, Trotsky wrote:
“Even while boycotting Berenguer’s Cortes, the advanced workers would have to counterpose to it the slogan of a revolutionary constituent Cortes. We must relentlessly disclose the fraudulence of the slogan of the constituent Cortes in the mouth of the ‘left’ bourgeoisie, which, in reality, wants a conciliationist Cortes by the good graces of the king and Berenguer, for the purpose of haggling with the old ruling and privileged cliques. A genuine constituent assembly can be convoked only by a revolutionary government, as a result of a victorious insurrection of the workers, soldiers, and peasants.”
— “The Revolution in Spain” (24 January 1931)
In a developing prerevolutionary situation, where the bourgeoisie is desperate to maintain its rule in the face of popular unrest, the demand for a “revolutionary” form of bourgeois rule, far from exposing the bourgeois rulers’ democratic pretensions, only strengthens illusions in them. What happened in Spain provides a classic example—Berenguer was not the only alternative available to the Spanish rulers. The new Republican government, which included the Socialist leader Francisco Largo Caballero, immediately moved to stem the rising revolutionary tide by calling the elections for a constituent Cortes. This became the basis for a coalition government that sought to head off the social revolution.
Trotsky again motivated the slogan by the need to win over the peasantry in a short subsequent piece titled “Workers’ Republic and Constituent Cortes” (13 February 1931). While noting that “we make no fetish of this slogan,” Trotsky argued: “It is true that in Spain all the possibilities have already been tried. But there nevertheless still remains the chance for ‘complete,’ ‘consistent’ democracy achieved by revolutionary means. That is what the Constituent Cortes is.” Yet history—masterfully analyzed in Trotsky’s writings on permanent revolution—had already proven that no such chance existed! Posing the possibility of some idealized version of bourgeois democracy could only be misleading. The logic was to revert to some variant of Lenin’s pre-April 1917 program of the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.
Trotsky stopped using the constituent assembly slogan when it became clear that it was, in fact, counterposed to the struggle for proletarian power. However, he did not draw any theoretical conclusions about the demand from the Spanish experience.
Trotsky on Italy
In arguing in January 1931 that only a revolutionary government could convoke a “genuine constituent assembly,” Trotsky seems to imply some sort of combined revolutionary regime with soviets alongside a parliamentary-type body. He himself polemicized against similar conceptions more than once. For example, in a 1930 letter to the New Italian Opposition (NOI), he explained why he had strongly criticized a proposal raised in the 1920s by the Communist Party of Italy for a “Republican Assembly on the Basis of Workers’ and Peasants’ Committees”:
“‘Republican Assembly’ constitutes quite obviously an institution of the bourgeois state. What, however, are the ‘Workers’ and Peasants’ Committees’? It is obvious that they are some sort of equivalent of the workers’ and peasants’ soviets. Then that’s what should be said. For, class organs of the workers and poor peasants, whether you give them the name of soviets or committees, always constitute organizations of struggle against the bourgeois state, then become organs of insurrection, to be transformed finally, after the victory, into organs of the proletarian dictatorship. How, under these conditions, can a Republican Assembly—supreme organ of the bourgeois state—have as its ‘basis’ organs of the proletarian state?”
— “Problems of the Italian Revolution” (May 1930)
As examples, Trotsky cited the errors of Zinoviev and Kamenev in 1917 and the centrist USPD leaders’ call for a “combined state,” which helped to derail the 1918-19 German Revolution.
In various polemics against the Italian Prometeo group, which upheld the ultraleftist views of Amadeo Bordiga and was then still part of the Left Opposition, Trotsky correctly insisted on the need for democratic demands. However, his May 1930 letter to the NOI included an ambiguous passage that was subsequently used to justify raising the constituent assembly slogan in the transition period between the fascist regime and the proletarian dictatorship: “I do not even exclude the possibility of a constituent assembly which, in certain circumstances, could be imposed by the course of events or, more precisely, by the process of the revolutionary awakening of the oppressed masses” (ibid.).
In a 1932 resolution, the NOI did in fact call for a constituent assembly. The demand was opposed by other Italian Trotskyists, notably Pietro Tresso, who was a member of the International Secretariat in early 1933 and was a leader of the Opposition and later the Fourth International; he was murdered by the Stalinists in 1943 or 1944. Another leader of the left wing of the NOI, Mario Bavassano (who quit in 1933 in opposition to the call for a new International), made the crucial distinction between democratic demands and the constituent assembly slogan during the discussion on the 1932 resolution:
“All the limited democratic demands included in the document are suited at the present time to mobilizing the masses. However, there is disagreement amongst us on the point that limited democratic tasks should not lead to general demands such as those for local elections and for the Constituent, but should rather culminate in the formation of organs such as workers’ and peasants’ committees, which give the struggle a class character and point the masses toward a revolutionary goal, that is, that they have to overthrow the bourgeois regime and establish proletarian power.”
— Silverio Corvisieri, Trotskij e il Comunismo Italiano (Trotsky and Italian Communism) (Rome: Samonà e Savelli, 1969) (our translation)
Goldman-Morrow and the Constituent
Assembly Question in Europe
Trotsky made it clear that he was not able to follow political developments in Italy and he never actually raised the constituent assembly slogan there. Nor did he ever consider it as a demand for Germany after Hitler’s rise to power. In the 1938 Transitional Program, the slogan was raised only in regard to colonial and semicolonial countries; the section that deals with advanced capitalist countries under fascist rule warns instead that the “formulas of democracy (freedom of press, the right to unionize, etc.) mean for us only incidental or episodic slogans in the independent movement of the proletariat and not a democratic noose.”
Contrary to this unambiguous statement, in 1941 the exile German Trotskyist group issued the “Three Theses,” which argued that “the transition from fascism to socialism remains a utopia without an intermediate stage, which is basically equivalent to a democratic revolution” (Fourth International [FI], December 1942). While this flagrant revisionism was generally rejected at the time, elements in the FI leadership in both Europe and the U.S. began arguing for raising the constituent assembly slogan in various European imperialist countries. When Italy entered into prerevolutionary turmoil in mid 1943 with the fall of Mussolini and the eruption of a strike wave that threw up factory committees, the recently formed clandestine European Provisional Secretariat, based in Paris, issued a “Manifesto” to the Italian workers, peasants and soldiers written by Marcel Hic. It included the demand for a constituent assembly (“Convention Nationale”). But the Secretariat withdrew the manifesto a few days later, declaring the slogan to be “inappropriate.” A substitute text without the demand was published in the first issue of Quatrième Internationale (August 1943).
While we have examined only some of the documentation, it is clear that the question was debated on and off for three years, encompassing other countries as they emerged from Nazi occupation and evidencing serious disorientation as well as significant differences. In late 1944, the Parti Communiste Internationaliste adopted the slogan for France, over considerable opposition, and raised it in a widely distributed December 1944 pamphlet. In a 1945 resolution, the Belgian section likewise called for a constituent assembly, explicitly rejecting the argument that the slogan was not applicable to advanced capitalist countries (“The Importance and Scope of Democratic Slogans,” New International, May 1946).
The sharpest expression of a democratic perspective for Europe was raised in the U.S. by several senior cadres in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the I.S.—which had been relocated to New York at the start of the war—notably Felix Morrow and I.S. secretary Jean van Heijenoort. In late 1943, Morrow argued for “immediate convocation of the Constituent Assembly” in Italy, saying this would play an “important role in one or more of the European revolutions” (“The First Phase of the Coming European Revolution,” FI, December 1944). While saying nothing about the constituent assembly slogan itself, an SWP Central Committee resolution opposed Morrow’s overall perspective, warning: “When all other defenses crumble, the forces of capitalism will strive to preserve their dictatorship behind the facade of democratic forms, even to the extent of a democratic republic” (“Perspectives and Tasks of the Coming European Revolution,” FI, December 1943). The resolution affirmed that “democratic demands (freedom of press, the right to unionize, etc.) will be intertwined with the transitional ones and all of them connected with our fundamental slogans of the Socialist United States of Europe and All Power to Workers Councils.”
By 1945, Morrow was entirely focused on the fight for “democracy.” His “Letter to the European Secretariat of the Fourth International,” written in July 1945, argued for liquidation into the social democracy and urged the French Trotskyists: “During the fight for legality, do not be afraid of making Verite appear entirely as an organ fighting for nothing more than real democracy. That is fighting for a great deal today!” (FI, March 1946).
Among the most cogent replies by the SWP majority was one by William Simmons (Arne Swabeck). Attacking Morrow’s obsession with democracy, Swabeck argued that this could not possibly distinguish the Trotskyists from the Stalinists and social democrats:
“In France and elsewhere demands have been made by these parties for a constituent assembly, always taking care, of course, that actual measures are delayed as much as possible....
“The mere advancing of democratic demands will not serve in itself to distinguish the Fourth Internationalists from the position of these parties. It is important therefore to recognize the fact that democratic demands are for us only incidental and episodic in the independent movement of the proletariat; and they are now especially so in view of the utter capitalist collapse.”
— “Trotskyist Tasks in Europe,” FI, July 1945
Joined by the increasingly Stalinophobic Albert Goldman, another senior SWP cadre, Morrow was also pushing for reunification with Max Shachtman’s Workers Party (WP)—which had split from the SWP in 1940 repudiating the Trotskyist position of unconditional military defense of the Soviet Union. The struggle against the Goldman-Morrow minority led to a full-blown faction fight in the SWP in 1945-46.
The SWP emerged from World War II with an overly optimistic view of the immediate prospects of proletarian revolution, especially in the U.S., exemplified by the October 1946 document, “Theses on the American Revolution” (James P. Cannon, The Struggle for Socialism in the “American Century” [New York: Pathfinder Press, 1977]). This view, widespread within the Trotskyist movement in Europe as well, failed to take into account a number of factors that distinguished the postwar period from that at the end of World War I. Among these was the fact that the U.S., with the aid of Britain, had militarily occupied much of West Europe in 1944-45, profoundly altering the possibilities for proletarian revolution (for more on this, see “Trotskyist Policies on the Second Imperialist War—Then and in Hindsight,” the introduction to “Documents on the ‘Proletarian Military Policy’” [Prometheus Research Series No. 2, February 1989]). Thus, in the case of Italy, the Allied armies provided the indispensable military might under cover of which the Italian bourgeoisie, with the aid of the Communist Party, was able to disarm the insurrectionary proletariat. Relatedly, where the social-chauvinists had been largely discredited by the end of World War I, after World War II the reformists, chiefly the Stalinists, emerged with their authority greatly enhanced by their leading role in the popular-frontist “anti-fascist resistance.”
While Goldman-Morrow recognized that the capitalist order in Europe was being restabilized on a bourgeois-democratic basis, they did so only in order to accommodate to it. Goldman-Morrow’s liquidationist course signaled that they were on the way out of Marxist politics. Goldman quit the SWP in May 1946 and took a small number of followers into Shachtman’s WP, only to join the overtly reformist Socialist Party two years later. Morrow was expelled from the SWP that November and soon ceased leftist activity. By late 1945, van Heijenoort was calling the Soviet Union “bureaucratic imperialist,” and within two years he announced his abandonment of Marxism.
A weakness of the SWP’s line was its insistence that bourgeois-democratic regimes in postwar Europe “must by their very nature prove unstable and short-lived,” giving way to either workers revolution or a repressive dictatorship (“Perspectives and Tasks of the Coming European Revolution”). But the SWP majority, joined by the emergent European leadership under Michel Pablo and E. Germain (Ernest Mandel), upheld a revolutionary perspective against Morrow’s “democratic” revisionism.
However, the defeat of the Goldman-Morrow faction did not clarify the question of the constituent assembly, which was not rejected on principle. Indeed, Mandel, a leader of the Belgian section, was an early proponent of the slogan. In March 1946, the first postwar gathering of the FI, with the support of the SWP, approved a resolution that included the demand for a constituent assembly in several European countries (“The New Imperialist Peace and the Building of the Parties of the Fourth International,” FI, June 1946). In France, a constituent assembly had already been elected in October 1945; Italy elected an assembly the following June. Far from acting to spur the masses into struggle, the constituent assembly was utilized by the bourgeoisie, ably assisted by the Stalinists and social democrats, to help stabilize the postwar imperialist order.
India: Factional Struggle
Over the Constituent Assembly
The one section of the FI in which we know of a clear-cut factional struggle involving the constituent assembly slogan was the Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India (BLPI). While the BLPI did not rule out the demand on principle, a significant layer of the organization consistently opposed its use amid the struggles that engulfed the subcontinent during and at the end of World War II.
The BLPI’s 1942 Draft Programme correctly characterized the slogan as “illusive and deceptive” and “destined in the later phases of the revolution to be utilized by the bourgeoisie and its agents as a slogan in opposition to and for the sabotaging of the establishment of the proletarian dictatorship in the soviet form.” In the next paragraph, however, it allowed for “critical support” to the same slogan “in the early stages of the revolutionary struggle” (reprinted in Charles Wesley Ervin, Tomorrow Is Ours: The Trotskyist Movement in India and Ceylon 1935-48 [Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association, 2006]).
These seemingly contradictory positions may have reflected the deep divisions within the BLPI. The left wing around Doric de Souza was then dominant over Philip Gunawardena’s rightist minority, while the party’s general secretary, Leslie Goonewardene, played a mediating role. The Draft Programme was written by de Souza and Leslie Goonewardene while Philip Gunawardena was imprisoned by the British in Ceylon. (For more on the history of the BLPI, see “The Fight for Trotskyism in South Asia,” Spartacist [English edition] No. 62, Spring 2011.)
The BLPI Draft Programme was far superior to a 26 September 1942 manifesto issued in the name of the FI’s International Executive Committee. Titled “To the Workers and Peasants of India” and largely written by Felix Morrow, the manifesto raised the constituent assembly as a central demand. Claiming that the British and native capitalists “will move heaven and earth to prevent its creation,” it continued: “Only the successful revolution of the workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ committees against the British Raj and its native allies can guarantee the establishment of a Constituent Assembly” (FI, October 1942).
These issues became acute following the war. Mass protests in defense of political prisoners erupted in Calcutta in the winter of 1945-46. Then Indian naval ratings (enlisted men) in Bombay mutinied in February 1946, sparking a citywide general strike and revolts elsewhere that united Hindu and Muslim workers before being crushed by the British. The day after the mutiny began, the Labour Party government in London announced that a cabinet delegation would be sent to India. Part of its remit was to establish a constituent assembly that could pave the way for eventual independence under the umbrella of the British Commonwealth.
The BLPI raised the slogans, “Down with the Cabinet Mission! Down with the collaborationist parties! Down with imperialism’s fake Constituent Assembly! On with the struggle for India’s independence!” (Ervin, Tomorrow Is Ours). But after the bourgeois Indian National Congress decided to enter the new constituent assembly in late 1946, the BLPI split three ways over what stance to take.
The right wing argued for an elected “revolutionary constituent assembly,” counterposing this to the British-engineered assembly based on delegates from provincial parliaments and insisting that it be a central slogan of the BLPI. The leadership around Leslie Goonewardene did not rule out raising the slogan, but opposed making it central to the BLPI’s agitation. A left opposition, centered in Calcutta and supported by de Souza, denounced both positions, arguing that the constituent assembly “has been absolutely unreal to the Indian people” and that the BLPI should “expose it in the way we had been doing in the past” (“A Criticism of the Draft Resolution as Submitted by the CC,” BLPI Internal Bulletin [IB], 1 April 1947).
In an extremely close vote (7 for, 6 against), the delegates to the May 1947 BLPI conference decided to make the constituent assembly the “central slogan of the Transitional programme i.e. the slogan around which all other transitional slogans hinge” (“Report of First Party Convention Held May 21-24, 1947,” BLPI IB Vol. 2, No. 1 [undated]). Hector Abhayavardhana (Vardhan), who had been a prominent supporter of Philip Gunawardena’s rightist faction starting in 1942, took over as party secretary, and the BLPI duly put the constituent assembly at the center of its work. But the debate continued.
Four months later, the Calcutta district committee adopted a resolution asserting that “the position taken up by the majority in the last Convention of the Party was revisionist and an attempt to revert back to the Menshevik position with the complete abandonment of Trotskyism and the Theory of Permanent Revolution” (“Resolution of the Calcutta District Committee Unanimously Adopted on 29-9-47,” BLPI IB Vol. 3, No. 1, 1 March 1948). It stated that the constituent assembly slogan “can under no circumstance become even a demand in our Transitional Program, far less a central one.” While conceding that the demand might at some stage become “an agitational or a rallying slogan” capable of leading the masses “one step forward towards the seizure of power,” the Calcutta resolution immediately added that the “lack of traditions” of constituent assemblies in Asia makes “this possibility rather remote.” While not ruling out the slogan in principle, the entire thrust of the resolution was to oppose its use as a Menshevik trap.
As one of the Calcutta comrades, Arun Bose, put it in an earlier document, “Programme and Reality”: “The slogan of the CA [constituent assembly] remains as a block in the path of the uninterruptedness of the revolution; an attempt to halt the revolution midway on the basis of ‘completion’ of the democratic revolution. As such the slogan of the CA is calculated to mislead the masses; engender in them democratic illusions, and pave the way for counter-revolution” (BLPI IB Vol. 2, No. 3, 25 September 1947). Another Calcutta member, P.K. Roy, added in a document printed in the same bulletin:
“In other words, the slogan of a Constituent Assembly, which is the highest representative body in a bourgeois republic, can crown our transitional demands only when a democratic republic, not a soviet republic, crowns the programme of the BLPI....
“Stated in simple words, the success of the Indian revolution is conceivable only in the form of a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat in alliance with the poor peasantry.”
— “Opportunism on the Question
of the Constituent Assembly”
To defeat the left-wing opposition, the BLPI’s new leaders were able to make use of Trotsky’s authority. Marshaling quotes from his writings on China, they mocked the arguments of the Calcutta comrades: “We behold the spectacle here of Trotsky not being a Trotskyist” (Raj Narain, “The Slogan of R.C.A. Why Should We Retain It?” BLPI IB Vol. 3, No. 1). They were also likely encouraged by support for the constituent assembly slogan in Europe. Notably, the Indian proponents of the slogan had the explicit backing of the British Trotskyists of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). An article by Tony Cliff in the RCP’s press affirmed: “The struggle against British imperialism and its agents (the Princes, feudalists and capitalists) must be concentrated around the slogan of a real Constituent Assembly elected by the whole people directly.” Blurring the distinction between such a bourgeois institution and organs of workers power, Cliff added that a “real” constituent assembly must be “based on the masses organised in Soviets and armed in their militia” (Workers’ International News, January-February 1947). In the upshot, a further BLPI conference in 1948 reaffirmed a conciliationist line on the constituent assembly with a much stronger majority.
The lines of division on this question were almost identical to those over the proposed liquidationist entry of the BLPI into the Socialist Party, which was debated at the same time. Thus, when the left-right division within the Indian section that began in 1940-42 came to a head after the Second World War, the result was entirely negative: the party came to embrace the constituent assembly slogan, which it had formerly rejected, and then collapsed into the social democracy. It appears that the Calcutta-based left wing was worn down until it finally offered little resistance to these disastrous moves, which led to the disappearance of the BLPI.
The Indian constituent assembly ended up giving “democratic” legitimacy to the bloody partition of the subcontinent. It then produced the first parliaments of independent capitalist India and Pakistan. The use of the constituent assembly by the British in India became a paradigm for subsequent developments in other colonial countries. In much of the period since World War II, the imperialist powers have typically relied not on direct colonial rule but on neocolonial domination under formal independence. Far from “moving heaven and earth” to prevent the creation of democratic parliaments, they often prefer such bodies to naked dictatorship, the better to hoodwink the masses. Such developments serve to underline the bankruptcy of the constituent assembly slogan in the countries whose economic and social development has been stunted by the global reach of imperialism. The arguments made forcefully by the Calcutta Trotskyist P.K. Roy have stood the test of time:
“True to the teachings of Marxism, basing themselves upon the rich lessons of the revolutionary movements of the past, the Bolshevik Leninists pointed to the illusory and deceptive character of the slogan of a Constituent Assembly, which crowns a bourgeois republic and, as such, conceives of a definite time-lag between the democratic and the socialist revolutions, in which period power will be vested in a democratically-elected parliament, i.e., in a bourgeois representative body. The proletarian movements in various countries have indubitably proved that in the later phases of the revolution, i.e., when the power of the toiling millions has found a more or less crystallised expression in the soviets formed during the course of the revolution, the slogan of the Constituent Assembly is destined to be utilised by the bourgeoisie and its petty-bourgeois agencies as a slogan of the counter-revolution, i.e., as a slogan in direct opposition to and for the sabotaging of the establishment of the proletarian dictatorship in the soviet form. And after the establishment of the proletarian dictatorship the slogan of the Constituent Assembly can only serve as the preparatory basis for the overthrow of the young power.”
— “Opportunism on the Question
of the Constituent Assembly”
Retrospect and Prospect
In the intervening decades, constituent assemblies have been convoked in numerous countries, ranging from Iceland to Nepal. Perhaps the clearest example of the counterrevolutionary role of the constituent assembly in the latter half of the 20th century came in the Portuguese Revolution of 1974-75, the last and most prolonged of a series of potentially revolutionary upheavals in Europe in that period. The Portuguese upsurge began with the collapse of the Caetano dictatorship in April 1974 and the creation of a regime headed by “progressive” military officers. The constituent assembly elected one year later became a rallying point for reactionary forces that sought to put an end to the turmoil, which had thrown up nascent organs of dual power. The CIA bankrolled the Socialist Party of Mário Soares, which dominated the assembly and covered for rightist mob attacks on Communist Party offices, with millions of dollars a month funneled through the SPD and other European social-democratic parties.
Our articles at the time warned against illusions in the “progressive” officers and fought for a perspective of building and centralizing soviet-type bodies, while affirming that the key to victory was the forging of an authentic Leninist-Trotskyist party. During the first year of the upheaval we also raised the call for a “revolutionary constituent assembly.” With the election of an assembly whose counterrevolutionary role was evident, we ceased to raise the slogan. In contrast, the American SWP, which had degenerated into reformism by the mid 1960s, shamelessly called for “defense of the Constituent Assembly,” cheering on the CIA-funded Socialists as they spearheaded the rightist mobilizations (Militant, 8 August 1975). For their part, the Lambertistes agitated for a “Soares government” (Informations Ouvrières, 23 July-6 August 1975).
Denouncing the anti-revolutionary line of the Lambertistes and SWP, we called to defend the Portuguese left and workers organizations against the rightist mobs. In the end, the bourgeoisie and its social-democratic agents were able to utilize the constituent assembly to put an end to the revolutionary turmoil and restabilize capitalist rule.
We dropped the call for a constituent assembly as soon as its counterrevolutionary content became apparent, but we did not at the time draw broader conclusions about its historical validity. On the contrary, we went on to raise the slogan in a number of other contexts, from Spain following the fall of the Franco dictatorship to Pinochet’s Chile, Indonesia and elsewhere. In defending the demand in certain situations, we wrote:
“Our call for a constituent assembly is one of a series of revolutionary democratic demands, raised in the context of a program for proletarian revolution, which can only be realized through the simultaneous or prior overthrow of bonapartist dictatorships. A ‘constituent assembly’ under the aegis of a military junta or autocratic caudillo is a contradiction in terms. Where such schemes are put forward, Leninists must make explicit that their call is for a revolutionary constituent assembly, to be convoked by a revolutionary provisional government arising from victorious popular insurrection.”
— “Why a Revolutionary Constituent Assembly?” Workers Vanguard No. 221, 15 December 1978
While acknowledging the numerous historical examples of a constituent assembly being used for counterrevolutionary purposes beginning in 1848, we nonetheless insisted, “From the time of the classic bourgeois revolutions onward, the demand for a constituent assembly has always had a popular revolutionary-democratic content, directly counterposed to all attempts to temporize with or reform the old regime.”
From the 19th century to today, all attempts to channel the struggles of the discontented masses into constituent assemblies or other new bourgeois parliamentary bodies have proven to be deadly traps. History has shown conclusively that the constituent assembly can achieve neither democracy nor national and social liberation, but only continued subordination to the bourgeoisie. It cannot be a bridge to proletarian state power, but only to disaster and defeat.
The constituent assembly mania that characterizes today’s reformist left accords with the program of Kautsky and the Second International, not that of the Fourth. Notwithstanding our criticisms of Trotsky’s revival of the slogan in China and more episodically elsewhere starting in the late 1920s, he vehemently opposed the kind of blatantly pro-capitalist positions that these groups uphold today. To the end of his life he fought against the illusions in bourgeois democracy fostered by the Stalinists and other fake leftists in both the imperialist world and the underdeveloped countries.
Our re-examination of the constituent assembly question in the Marxist movement is part of our work toward the reforging of an authentically Trotskyist Fourth International. Like the Bolsheviks, and unlike our reformist opponents, our aim is not the prettification and promotion of capitalist democracy—a system necessarily rooted in brutal oppression and exploitation—but the achievement of socialist revolution, the only road to a classless society where oppression in all its forms will be a thing of the past.