On the ‘Revolutionary Constituent Assembly’

Letter to French Leftists

The following is a translation of a letter sent to the Courant Communiste Révolutionnaire (part of the French Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste’s Platform 4 and sympathizers of the Trotskyist Fraction-Fourth International) addressing perspectives for the Spanish 15M Movement (also known as the indignados), which provided something of a model for the subsequent “Occupy Wall Street” movement.

11 August 2011


We read with interest issue No.1 of Révolution Permanente (June 2011), journal of the Courant Communiste Révolutionnaire (CCR) of the NPA, as well as issue No.8 of Stratégie Internationale (June 2011), published by supporters of the Fraction Trotskyste-Quatrième Internationale (FT-QI) inside the CCR. We find ourselves in overall agreement with Juan Chingo’s article, “Leçons politiques et stratégiques de l’‘automne français’” in Stratégie Internationale, which seems to be a serious analysis of the treacherous role of the trade-union bureaucracy in sabotaging working-class resistance to Sarkozy’s attack on pensions last fall.

However, there remain important differences, which we believe it is necessary to clarify. One crucial issue is the perspective for the 15M (15 May) movement in Spain. Revolutionary socialists clearly have a duty to intervene in the 15M movement despite the fact that it is not centered on the proletariat and its demands are not socialist in character. The fact that youth, workers and middle-class elements have embraced the petty-bourgeois utopian call for “real democracy” as the answer to the mass unemployment and other devastating consequences of the global capitalist crisis reflects the bankruptcy of the existing leaderships (trade-union and partisan) of the workers’ movement. Marxists intervene among the masses to convince them of the necessity of orienting toward the socialist revolution.

As defenders of bourgeois-democratic rights, we defend the right of nations to self-determination, demand full citizenship rights for all immigrants, support demands for proportional representation in parliament and call for the abolition of the monarchy. We also support the struggles of the masses to improve their lives, e.g., a fight for higher wages. Yet as Marxists, we do not sow illusions that reforms can solve the fundamental problems created by capitalism. Instead we seek to draw a sharp class line and put forward a program that can help prepare the working class to struggle for power. As Leon Trotsky explained in the Transitional Program:

“The Fourth International does not discard the program of the old ‘minimal’ demands to the degree to which these have preserved at least part of their vital forcefulness. Indefatigably, it defends the democratic rights and social conquests of the workers. But it carries on this day-to-day work within the frame-work of the correct actual, that is, revolutionary perspective. Insofar as the old, partial ‘minimal’ demands of the masses clash with the destructive and degrading tendencies of decadent capitalism—and this occurs at each step—the Fourth International advances a system of transitional demands, the essence of which is contained in the fact that ever more openly and decisively they will be directed against the very bases of the bourgeois regime. The old ‘minimal program’ is superseded by the transitional program, the task of which lies in systematic mobilization of the masses for the proletarian revolution.”

This basic strategic orientation—the transitional program for workers’ power—aims at linking the immediate needs and aspirations of the masses to the necessity of a workers’ state and a socialist planned economy. Unlike a Stalinist or social-democratic “stagist” strategy, the transitional program builds a “bridge between present demands and the socialist program of the revolution” (Ibid.).

In “L’irruption de la jeunesse provoque les premières fissures dans le regime issu du francquisme” (a statement on the 15M movement originally published by the FT-QI’s Spanish comrades in Clase contra Clase No.25 [June 2011]), Santiago Lupe advocates the construction of a revolutionary workers’ party to lead the fight for a workers’ republic. Yet the strategic perspective he outlines is inadequate to those tasks. Lupe writes:

“Through struggle, we must impose a constituent process throughout the Spanish state, a Revolutionary Constituent Assembly, made up of representatives, elected by every so many inhabitants, where we will discuss how we will resolve all the democratic questions and all our economic and social needs. We must win this radical democratic solution, that thousands of us are already demanding in the streets, only with our struggle. The bosses’ parties and the monarchy are going to defend themselves tooth and nail to prevent that, which is why this process can only be begun, by those who fight, on the ruins of the current regime, by a provisional government formed by the workers and groups in struggle that will overthrow the regime inherited from Franco and impose a workers’ republic.”

While posed in a very left-wing fashion, we think that the demand for a “revolutionary constituent assembly” in Spain today represents a political adaptation to the illusions of the 15M movement in the need for bourgeois-democratic reform. If the masses were to take up this demand there is no reason to expect that it would automatically open the door to a struggle for workers’ power—instead it could give Stalinists and other reformists the chance to divert popular anger into haggling over the form and content of such an assembly, which they would doubtless treat as a necessary “stage” prior to the transition to socialist rule. Trotsky observed, in relation to the colonial and semi-colonial countries, that, “It is impossible merely to reject the democratic program: it is imperative that in the struggle the masses outgrow it. The slogan for a National (or Constituent) Assembly preserves its full force for such countries as China or India” (op. cit.). He continued:

“The relative weight of the individual democratic and transitional demands in the proletariat’s struggle, their mutual ties and their order of presentation, is determined by the peculiarities and specific conditions of each backward country and to a considerable extent—by the degree of its backwardness. Nevertheless, the general trend of revolutionary development in all backward countries can be determined by the formula of the permanent revolution in the sense definitely imparted to it by the three revolutions in Russia (1905, February 1917, October 1917).”

In both neocolonial and imperialist countries where the population has no recent experience of bourgeois democracy, the masses often have illusions that more “democracy” will alleviate their hardships. Bourgeois-democratic illusions are widespread in “normal” capitalist societies, but in situations of rising mass anger with the irrationality of the profit system, Marxists have an opportunity to shatter illusions in the possibility of meaningful reform under the continuing rule of the bourgeoisie.

Under military dictatorships, fascist regimes, absolute monarchies, etc., the workers often think that life under liberal democracy would be qualitatively better. In economically backward countries where the land question and other tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution have not been resolved, the desire for “democracy” often dominates the aspirations of the masses. In such situations it is the duty of Marxists to explain that only the working class, the natural leader of all oppressed social layers, has both the material interest and social power to successfully address these issues. During the anti-Mubarak uprising in Egypt earlier this year, the issue of the constituent assembly was clearly posed, as we noted:

“Many who have suffered under Mubarak imagine that free elections will solve their problems. Some have called for a constituent assembly to draw up a new democratic constitution. Marxists support the masses’ yearning for democracy while insisting that a constituent assembly capable of sweeping away autocratic rule requires the revolutionary overthrow of the present regime. The fundamental issue posed in Egypt today is which class shall rule. In order to move forward, the anti-Mubarak revolt must begin to create institutions which will allow workers and the poor to exercise their will. An essential step is to establish new unions which are independent of the bosses and their state. It is also necessary to set up councils of delegates from different workplaces and working-class neighborhoods throughout the country, just like Russian workers did in the revolutions of 1905 and 1917.”
—“Mass Revolt in Egypt,” 1917 No.33

In our view the call for a constituent assembly is inapplicable in Spain today, because the population has experienced bourgeois democracy for a generation. As you note, the present regime “issued from Francoism,” but despite that it is qualitatively similar to other bourgeois-democratic societies. The job of Spanish revolutionaries in the present context is to explain that the “real democracy” that can end unemployment and satisfy the needs of the masses can be nothing other than a workers’ republic. Your suggestion that a revolutionary constituent assembly might itself produce a workers’ republic—a suggestion doubtless aimed at more easily getting a hearing from those in the grip of the petty-bourgeois prejudices currently prevalent in the 15M movement—tends to confuse things by conflating the class character of the two institutions. A constituent assembly is not a proletarian body, but rather an expression of the bourgeois-democratic struggle which the proletariat might have to take up and seek to lead on the road to establishing the rule of workers’ councils, i.e., soviets. In the best case a constituent assembly, dominated by the revolutionary socialist party, can endorse a soviet government, thereby helping to neutralize the resistance of the petty bourgeoisie.

We know of several cases where comrades of the FT-QI have proposed revolutionary constituent assemblies when there is already a functioning bourgeois democracy. For example, in 2001, your Bolivian comrades wrote:

“The revolutionary Marxists of the LOR-CI support the democratic aspirations of the mass movement, but unlike all these sectors, we argue that there cannot be any Constituent Assembly able to fulfill the needs of workers and the oppressed people of Bolivia—if it is convened by the present government and political regime.…[W]e fight for a Constituent Assembly called by a provisional government of labor organizations, built on the ruins of the revolutionary fall of the current régime….”
Estrategia Internacional No.17, April 2001

You noted that the peasant masses had entered the political scene frustrated at the inadequacies of the bourgeois democracy that had existed for a decade-and-a-half in Bolivia. It was the desire of these masses for a constituent assembly that led you to adopt the slogan as your own, and to attempt to justify your position with reference to the Bolshevik-Leninist tradition:

“It was Lenin and Trotsky’s understanding of this situation that led them to struggle for formal democratic demands, not only in semi-colonial countries lacking a parliamentary tradition such as Russia in 1917 or China from 1927 to 1929, but also in countries with a long tradition like France in 1934 (see Leon Trotsky ‘A Program of Action for France,’ 1934).”

In reading over “A Program of Action for France” (and other works by Trotsky from the period), we can find no example of him advocating a revolutionary constituent assembly in France, where bourgeois democracy was then under attack by rightist forces. Trotsky did advance several democratic demands, including the abolition of the senate and presidency in favor of a single legislative assembly elected on a democratic basis. These are supportable demands that, like proportional representation, Marxists advocate. However, Trotsky’s proposals did not center on making bourgeois-democratic demands—the perspective he outlined was one of creating organs of proletarian rule:

“Constituted as organs of popular defense against fascism, these workers’ alliance committees and these peasant committees must become, during the course of the struggle, organisms directly elected by the masses, organs of power of the workers and peasants. On this basis the proletarian power will be erected in opposition to the capitalist power, and the Workers’ and Peasants’ Commune will triumph.”

In 2002 in Argentina (a country with a bourgeois-democratic system), you again demanded a revolutionary constituent assembly: “as Marxist revolutionaries, we raised the demand for a Revolutionary Constituent Assembly after the December days to differentiate it from the ‘democratic’ versions, even the most ‘radical’ that the bourgeois regime could adopt to survive” (Estrategia Internacional No.18, February 2002). We think that in this situation Marxists should have opposed all attempts by the reformists to divert a potentially revolutionary crisis into a discussion of how best to refurbish the mechanisms of the bourgeois republic. Raising the call for a constituent assembly in a country where bourgeois democracy had existed for almost two decades could only confuse matters, as we noted at the time:

“The key task of Trotskyists in Argentina today is to struggle to forge a revolutionary leadership based on a programme of proletarian political independence from all wings of the bourgeoisie. The influence of Peronism (bourgeois nationalist populism) within the Argentine workers’ movement cannot be combated by attempts to project demands for a constituent assembly as the road to a workers’ government. This can only create confusion and help set the stage for defeat.”
—“‘Blunting the Edge of Revolutionary Criticism’,” reprinted in 1917 No.25, 2003

In our view, the job of revolutionaries in Spain today is not to present the socialist program as some sort of radical democratic alternative but to advance a proletarian perspective aimed at mobilizing for workers’ power.

Trotskyist Greetings,

Josh Decker, for the International Bolshevik Tendency