A precious lesson from Trotsky on the Constituent Assembly and other matters

This article should be read in conjunction with Trotsky's Problems of the Italian Revolution. It draws the lessons from Trotsky's work and how they can be applied today.

Two years ago we published an article, On the constituent assembly slogan: Is it applicable to Argentina? By Alan Woods, (London, February 9, 2002). Several left groups in Latin America had been raising the slogan of the Constituent Assembly (and still do so today) as if it were a transitional demand appropriate to the situation. Alan Woods goes in to great detail in that article, explaining why the situation in Russia 1917 cannot be compared to that of Argentina today, or to that of any Latin American country. We will not repeat the points he raises in that article. We suggest our readers re-read it.

In answer to the criticisms we have raised, these groups, in particular the PO, have tried to maintain that what they are calling for is not a classical bourgeois Constituent Assembly. They say such things as; it would be a “Constituent Assembly with power”. In an article under the title “Constituyente con poder” (PO 763 - 18/07/2002) they say that, “This Constituent [Assembly] should be called by a provisional government of representatives of the people in struggle.” [Esta Constituyente deberá convocarla un gobierno provisorio de representantes del pueblo en lucha.]. They say it is a transitional demand that has to be used at this stage because the masses are not ready for the slogan of the “workers’ government”. They say that through the slogan of the Constituent Assembly the masses will reach the conclusion that what they need is a workers’ government.

This way of posing the question is ambiguous to say the least. It seems to imply that the Constituent Assembly can be an instrument of workers’ power. We could however pose the question once more: if the masses are so strong as to be able to form a “provisional government” that can remove the present bourgeois parliament, why do they need to limit their scope to that of electing another bourgeois parliament?

What emerges clearly is that this type of Constituent Assembly would be one resting on the committees of workers, peasants and unemployed. Therefore what we are talking about is an institution of a bourgeois state (Constituent Assembly) resting on organs of a workers’ state (a provisional government of representatives of the people in struggle). This is rather a bizarre situation. We have the workers being so powerful as to form a “provisional government” made up of their own representatives ‑ that can only be interpreted as Soviets, i.e. workers’ councils made up of elected delegates in the factories, in the neighbourhoods, etc. – and this government then proceeds to form an institution of the bourgeois state.

We can imagine how the serious strategists of capital would react to such a development. Faced with the real possibility of losing power they would find it handed back to them in the form of a Constituent Assembly. It is not by pure chance that serious bourgeois strategists have considered using this slogan in more than one Latin American country today. It would not be the first time that such a scenario has been seen in history. It would serve their purposes very well.

Leon Trotsky was fully aware of such a possibility, and that is why we are making available to our readers an article written by him in 1930, Problems of the Italian Revolution. It was a letter written in reply to the initial correspondence from Leonetti, Tresso and Ravazzoli. These were three leading members of the Italian Communist Party, who had moved into opposition to the official line of the party and in the process had gravitated towards the International Left Opposition, led by Trotsky. They were to go on the form the NOI (Nuova Opposizione Italiana), the New Italian Opposition.

In his reply to one of their letters he deals precisely with the mixing of the Constituent Assembly and the Soviets. The “three” as they were known, reminded Trotsky that in the past he had criticised the slogan "Republican Assembly on the Basis of Workers' and Peasants' Committees". This had previously been a slogan of the Italian Communist Party, which by 1930 had been dropped. In spite of this Trotsky considers it to be important enough to explain why he believes it to be wrong. He writes, “I would like to tell you why I consider it to be mistaken or at least ambiguous as a political slogan.” Trotsky paid particular care to what slogans should be raised in any particular situation. Even an “ambiguous” slogan could lead to problems.

Trotsky says: "Republican Assembly" constitutes quite obviously an institution of the bourgeois state. But what are the "Workers and Peasants' Committees"? It is obvious that they are some kind of equivalent of the workers' and peasants' Soviets. Then this is what should be said. For whether you give them the name of Soviets or committees, class organs of the workers and poor peasants, always constitute organisations 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?”

Trotsky does not rule out the use of the slogan of the Constituent Assembly. In fact it clearly applied to the situation in Italy, where there was a fascist dictatorship, but we will go back to this later. What he was opposed to was any mixing of the slogan with that of workers’ power. The two things are separate. He goes on to point out that there were some who tried to mix the two by referring to a “combined state”, i.e. the fusion of the Constituent Assembly with the Soviets. Zinoviev and Kamenev raised this idea before the October revolution. But the interesting thing that Trotsky highlights is that in Germany in 1919 Hilferding raised the same idea, using the very same words “combined state”. He wanted to include the German Soviets into the constitution. This was clearly an attempt to divert the German revolution, to sidetrack and direct it into a harmless cooperation with the bourgeois state.

Trotsky clearly states that: “…(with Zinoviev, Kamenev, Hilferding), it was a question of a constitutional combination of two states of enemy classes with a view to preventing a proletarian insurrection that would have taken power.”

No doubt, those comrades in Latin America who are raising the slogan of the Constituent Assembly are not raising the slogan in order to prevent a proletarian insurrection. They see it as part of the road towards the workers taking power. Unfortunately this slogan is open to misunderstandings and can sow confusion. As we said above, it is not by chance that some of the more serious bourgeois are considering the idea of a Constituent assembly. The call for such an Assembly on the parts of leaders of the labour movement would play into their hands. In Bolivia, a leading figure of the labour and peasant movement like Evo Morales has in fact called for a Constituent Assembly. For the bourgeois it would be a way of derailing the revolution by getting the labour movement tangled up in long drawn out debates about a new constitution and parliament. In fact, in referring to the “Republican Assembly” based on "Workers and Peasants' Committees" Trotsky points out that it “has the undoubted defect of lending itself to dangerous misunderstandings”. The same could be said of today’s defenders of the idea of a Constituent Assembly in Latin America.

The fact that we believe the call for a Constituent Assembly is the wrong slogan to raise in the conditions of Latin America today does not mean that in all circumstances we exclude this demand. As Alan Woods points out, “Under what circumstances should one advance such slogans? There are two possibilities: 1) in a semi-feudal or semi-colonial country and 2) in a country where a parliament, elections and other democratic rights did not exist.”

Thus in Italy in 1930 it was correct to raise the slogan of the Constituent Assembly. There was no bourgeois democratic parliament, but a Fascist dictatorship. However, in spite of this, Trotsky pointed out meticulously the reasons why the call for a Constituent Assembly should be kept separate from the organs of workers’ power, i.e. the Soviets. But we leave you to read Trotsky himself to see how he develops the point.

In his article Trotsky also answers the Stalinists who saw the forthcoming revolution in Italy as a bourgeois democratic revolution. Italy in 1930 was a capitalist country. Its ruling class was the bourgeoisie. Of course there were still many unresolved tasks of the bourgeois revolution, but this was due to the late arrival on the scene of history of the Italian bourgeoisie. By 1930 there was already a powerful working class. The workers of Italy could have taken power in 1920. They did not do so, not because the next “stage” was to be bourgeois, but because the leadership of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) was not up to the task. They were trapped in the Menshevik outlook that first Italy needed a prolonged period of capitalist development, and only after that had been accomplished could the socialist tasks be posed. That major theoretical blunder led to the defeat of the Italian workers and to the rise of Fascism.

The Italian Communist Party (PCI) was born out of the left wing of the PSI that had drawn revolutionary conclusions. Both Bordiga (general secretary 1921-24) and Gramsci (general secretary from 1924) saw the period 1918-20 as a lost opportunity, a period in which the workers could have taken power.

In spite of this bitter experience, the leaders of the PCI were to go on to accept fully the two-stages theory of the Stalinists, reneging on their won experience. However, on their road to reformism and opportunism, the Stalinists zigzagged to the left and the right, before anchoring themselves firmly to the same ideas as the Mensheviks. Thus in 1930 the leadership of the PCI had adopted the ultra-left theory of the “Third Period”, i.e. the last and final period of capitalism. On the basis of this theory they had developed the perspective of the imminent collapse of Fascism. It was in reaction to this crazy idea that the “three” moved into opposition, and turned to Trotsky for help. But that is another story and material for another article.

The leaders of the PCI – having been involved in revolutionary politics only a few years earlier ‑ had tried to avoid the question of deciding on the social nature of the forthcoming Italian revolution. There was still the recent memory of Lenin and the Russian Revolution. So they could not come out openly and say the next stage of the Italian revolution would be bourgeois. They solved this dilemma by stating that it would be neither “bourgeois” nor “proletarian”, but “popular”.

Trotsky explained that, “This theory is as pernicious for the proletariat as for the revolution. In China [1926] it transformed the proletariat into cannon fodder of the bourgeois counter-revolution.

“Every great revolution proves to be popular in the sense that it draws into its wake the entire people. Both the Great French Revolution and the October Revolution were wholly popular. Nevertheless, the first was bourgeois because it instituted individual property, whereas the second was proletarian because it abolished individual property. Only a few hopelessly backward petty-bourgeois revolutionists can still dream of a revolution that would be neither bourgeois nor proletarian, but "popular" (that is, petty-bourgeois).”

Here again we see how Trotsky pays special attention to the terminology used. Marxism is a science and we have to learn to use terms that have a precise meaning. In particular the word “popular” is one that can lead to the blurring of class differences.

Trotsky points out that the next revolution in Italy would be proletarian in character. But would that exclude the possibility of some form of bourgeois parliamentary regime being installed? Trotsky explains that this could come about. But it would not be the product of a successful bourgeois revolution. It would come about as a result of the defeat of the proletarian revolution. He says,

“Does this mean that Italy cannot, for a certain time, again become a parliamentary state or become a "democratic republic"? I consider—in perfect agreement with you, I think—that such a possibility is not excluded. But then it will not be the fruit of a bourgeois revolution, but the abortion of an insufficiently matured and premature proletarian revolution. In the event of a profound revolutionary crisis and mass battles in the course of which the proletarian vanguard will not have been in a position to take power, it may be that the bourgeoisie will restore its rule on a "democratic" basis.”

That is precisely what happened in Italy in the period 1943-48! The Stalinists held back the workers from taking power. They explained that first it was necessary to consolidate the “democratic” revolution, i.e. the bourgeois revolution. On this basis the massive wave of strikes, the 300,000 armed partisans, the explosion of trade union membership (5 million in the CGIL), the two million workers who joined the Communist Party and the 800,000 who joined the Socialist Party, were all to no avail. The workers could have taken power, but they were held back.

There was a Constituent Assembly, a new constitution, various democratic concessions, but no revolution. What we had was “the abortion of an insufficiently matured and premature proletarian revolution”. The bourgeoisie had come very close to losing power. Its state had collapsed, as the Fascist regime fell to pieces. For a period there was dual power. The Committees of National Liberation were formed. These were dominated by the Socialists and Communists. They could have been used to take power. Instead a new Parliament was formed, and the PCI and PSI entered a coalition with the Christian Democrats, a classical Popular Front. This prepared the ground for the defeat of the working class and the consolidation of the new bourgeois regime, with all the trappings of bourgeois democracy. It was the “counter-revolution with a democratic face”.

This ability of Trotsky as far back as 1930 to see how events would unfold was not due to any magic formula, to any kind of crystal ball. It was based on years of experience in the movement combined with a thorough Marxist understanding of the processes that had unfolded in many revolutions around the world. Today we must learn the same method so as to use it as a guide in our actions, in our task of building a revolutionary alternative.

In his 1930 article Trotsky foresaw something else: the re-emergence of the Socialist Party. The leaders of the PCI in their Third Period ultra-leftism had declared the PSI to be dead politically. As far as they were concerned the experience of the rise of Fascism had made it impossible for them to revive themselves. He pointed out that, on the contrary,

“The assertion made by the official leadership (of the Communist Party) that the social democracy allegedly no longer exists politically in Italy is nothing but a consoling theory of bureaucratic optimists who wish to see ready-made solutions where there are still great tasks ahead. Fascism has not liquidated the social democracy but has, on the contrary, preserved it…”

This reminds us of today’s ultra-lefts who consider the mass parties of the working class to be finished. Trotsky sees this attitude as one of looking for short-cuts, “ready-made solutions”. He understood that there were still big reserves of support for the social democracy. Therefore the task of winning the masses to the revolutionary party was still something to be accomplished.

As he says, “If large numbers of the masses are immediately drawn into the movement and if the Communist Party conducts a correct policy, it may well be that in a short period of time the social democracy will be reduced to zero. But that would be a task to accomplish, not yet an accomplishment. It is impossible to leap over this problem; it must be solved.”

Again, today, we would add that we cannot pretend the reformist mass organisations do not exist, that we can simply ignore them or circumnavigate them. Again, Trotsky was proved correct by the events that unfolded after the Second World War. The PSI re-emerged and at the 1946 elections received more votes than the PCI. Admittedly the PCI was much stronger. In terms of membership it was over twice the size of the PSI. That means that the most advanced layers had already moved over to the PCI, but among the wider masses the influence of the old PSI was still strong. Unfortunately, by then the PCI was no longer a revolutionary party. It had the aura of the October revolution, but in essence it had adopted a reformist outlook. Both PCI and PSI joined the coalition government. In actual fact the PSI on several questions stood to the left of the PCI, but that is material for another article.

The important thing we would like to stress is how far-sighted Trotsky proved to be in his short 1930 article. And it is not merely a question of historical interest. What emerges from Trotsky’s articles is a method. The new generation of class fighters that is now emerging must read the works of the great Marxists (Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky) in order to absorb the lessons of the past. There is a treasure trove of ideas that were developed in decades of class struggle and experience. We need to make all that available to today’s workers and youth. The republication of this short article is part of that task.

London, May, 2004