We republish here an article Alan Woods wrote on 9 February 2002 as a polemic with the Argentinean Partido Obrero (PO - Workers’ Party) on the question of the slogan of a Constituent Assembly. The debate took place in the aftermath of the Argentinazo: the powerful uprising on 19-20 December 2001 against the government of De la Rúa, under the slogan of ¡Que se vayan todos! (Kick them all out). The mass uprising managed to overthrow one president after another and clearly posed the question of who ruled Argentina: the official institutions or the masses on the streets.
In this context, the Partido Obrero (and other left-wing organisations) put forward the slogan of a Constituent Assembly as a way out of the crisis. Alan Woods wrote this lengthy piece arguing that, instead of putting forward a bourgeois-democratic slogan, socialists should raise the question of workers’ power. In his article, Alan explains the character of the slogan of a Constituent Assembly and in which circumstances it is appropriate to use it.
We have decided to republish this polemic in the light of the uprising in Chile, which started in October 2019. There, the slogan of the Constituent Assembly has also been raised as a way out and the ruling class has played with it by calling a plebiscite about a Constituent Convention. Even though the circumstances are not exactly the same, we think that Alan’s article from 2002 can shed some light into the question.
This article should be read in conjunction with Revolution in Latin America: lessons of the Red October, which deals with the question of the Constituent Assembly in the specific context of the current insurrectionary movement in Chile.
We consider it our duty to attempt to understand the revolutionary process in Argentina and to learn from it, in order to apply the lessons to the revolutionary process in other countries. The views and experiences of the Argentine comrades are of great importance to us, and we hope that our views may in some way contribute to the clarification of the problems and challenges facing the Argentine revolution. The role of the Partido Obrero (Argentine Workers' Pary) in the process is obviously a significant element in the equation, and we follow it with great interest. On many points of the programme defended by the PO we find ourselves in agreement. However, we believe that some questions require further clarification - in particular, the slogan of the constituent assembly.
Introduction: On revolutionary tactics in Argentina - The need for a dialogue
In an article in the newspaper of the Argentine Workers' Party, (PO) Prensa Obrera (27/ 12/ 2001), comrade Jorge Altamira, one of the leaders of the Argentine PO, criticised the view that the December uprising was "spontaneous". In the course of his article, he also writes: "In foreign left wing and Trotskyist publications there is a confusion (although understandable) similar to our own "spontaneists", when they complain (this is a ritual among foreign leftists, who put themselves forward in this role) of the absence of the 'subjective factor' in the Argentine revolution."
In my article "The Argentine revolution has begun", written a few days earlier, I pointed out that if the subjective factor - that is the revolutionary party and leadership - were present in Argentina the workers would be on the eve of taking power, but, in the absence of this, the revolution would be prolonged in time. It could last months or even years until a definitive solution could be imposed in one sense or another.
It goes without saying that when I wrote about the lack of the subjective factor in Argentina I was referring to a party with sufficient implantation in the masses, and above all in the proletariat, to be able actually to lead the movement. I believe that this observation was correct at the time and remains correct now. But in the light of comrade Altamira's comments, I should like to qualify my remarks, so as to avoid any misunderstandings.
We are well aware of the role that the Trotskyists have played in the movement in Argentina, and it goes without saying that we celebrate their successes as our own. In the struggle against the forces of reaction and imperialism we are in complete solidarity. Nor has it ever been our intention to impose our views on anybody. However, the Trotskyist movement is international, or it is nothing. The events in Argentina do not have a merely local or even regional significance. They have a fundamental importance for the entire world workers' movement.
Therefore, we consider it our duty to attempt to understand the revolutionary process in Argentina and to learn from it, in order to apply the lessons to the revolutionary process in other countries. The views and experiences of the Argentine comrades are of great importance to us, and we hope that our views may in some way contribute to the clarification of the problems and challenges facing the Argentine revolution.
The role of the PO in the process is obviously a significant element in the equation, and we follow it with great interest. On many points of the programme defended by the PO we find ourselves in agreement. However, we believe that some questions require further clarification - in particular, the slogan of the constituent assembly.
Of course, it is important that we do not exaggerate differences, and that we should eliminate misunderstandings. It may be that what is meant by this phrase is something different to what it has always meant in the past. If that is so, then the real content should be clearly stated, and not left in the air. Above all in a revolution, clarity is absolutely necessary.
London, February 11, 2002
On the constituent assembly slogan: Is it applicable to Argentina?
by Alan Woods,
(London, February 9, 2002)
The popular uprising of last December has opened a new stage in the history of Argentina, a turbulent stage in which the movement of the masses is testing its strength against the bankrupt and reactionary oligarchy, backed by imperialism. On the side of the latter, formidable forces are ranged: all the wealth stolen from the Argentine people for decades, all the accumulated knowledge of the ruling class, which has perfected all the mechanisms for perpetuating its power and privileges, ranging from deception and corruption to brute force; the prostitute press, the hired politicians, the yellow trade union leaders, the army and the police force which showed its "valour" only in the murder and torture of unarmed civilians.
These are formidable forces. But all history shows that even the most powerful state machine can never resist the power of the working class, once that power is organised and mobilised to change society. What power lies in the hands of the working class? A colossal power. For without the kind permission of the working people, not a light bulb shines, not a wheel turns, not a telephone rings. All the necessary functions of society are dependent upon the hands and brains of the toilers. Once the workers say no, there is no force on earth which can resist them.
The revolutionary tradition of the Argentine proletariat is second to none. From the turbulent class struggles of the 1940s, through the "Cordobazo", to the events of last December, they have given ample proof of their willingness to fight, their heroism and élan. They show the same magnificent fighting spirit that was shown by the Spanish workers in 1931-37. This is an inspiration to working people everywhere.
However, the outcome of the class struggle is not determined solely by the courage and determination of the masses. Many times in the history of warfare a large and courageous army has been defeated by a much smaller force that had the advantage of trained and skilful commanders. It is the same in the war between the classes. Mistakes by the leadership - even small mistakes - can seriously damage the prospects for success. It is for this reason, and not out of a pedantic desire to split hairs, that the tactics and slogans advanced must be submitted to a searching criticism so that weaknesses are eliminated and mistakes corrected before they can do lasting damage.
Argentina, Russia, Spain
Last December, I wrote that the Argentine revolution had begun. Perhaps some thought that this was an exaggeration. But in fact, there is no hint of an exaggeration here. A revolution is not a single event, as many people imagine. In 1917 in Russia, the revolution began in February, with the overthrow of the tsar, and was finished in October with the coming to power of the Bolshevik Party. The Russian revolution of 1917 thus lasted about nine months. The Spanish revolution began with the declaration of the Republic in 1931, and ended with the May Days in Barcelona in 1937.
Moreover, in both cases the process did not move in a straight line. The mass movement experienced a whole series of ebbs and flows, advances and retreats. There were periods of rapid advance, as in February 1917, or in Spain in 1931 when the Republic was declared. The masses feel that they are sweeping all before them. But this state of mind cannot last.
The euphoria that derives from the illusion that the enemy has been defeated soon gives way to a more sober-minded appraisal. Beginning with the most advanced and active layers, the workers begin to understand that the real enemy has not yet been decisively defeated - that the main tasks of the revolution still lie in the future.
This second phase of the revolution gives rise to dangerous moods of impatience among the revolutionary vanguard. They feel cheated and enraged, and are strongly tempted to move far further and more rapidly than the majority of the class, which has not yet assimilated the lessons or drawn the necessary conclusions.
This was the situation in Spain in 1932-3, just before the period of reaction in the two black years ("el bienio negro") of 1934-5, and in Russia in the months of May-June-July. The more advanced layers of the class, the proletarians of Petrograd and the sailors of the Baltic fleet, instinctively supported the Bolsheviks. However, the Bolshevik Party was still a small minority in the soviets. The central task was not to take power, but to win over the majority of the workers and soldiers who still supported the old reformist leaders of the SRs and Mensheviks.
It was for this purpose that Lenin put forward the slogan of "all power to the soviets" - although the soviets at that time were completely dominated by the Mensheviks and SRs who were supporting the bourgeoisie and striving to put an end to the revolution. Lenin resolutely opposed the slogan advanced by ultra-left Bolsheviks of "Down with the Provisional Government", although the Provisional Government was continuing the imperialist war, refusing to carry out a land reform and conciliating the forces of reaction.
The reason is quite clear. Lenin and Trotsky understood that before conquering power, it was first necessary to conquer the masses: the vanguard had to find a road to the masses, to win them away from their leaders who were betraying the revolution. For this purpose, Lenin and Trotsky put forward a series of transitional demands, of which the most important were: peace, bread and land, and linked these demands to the central goal: the transfer of power to the working class through the soviets (workers' councils).
They also raised other demands which reflected the concrete conditions in tsarist Russia, for example, on the national question (the right to self-determination) and the constituent assembly. This was a bourgeois democratic demand, which reflected the concrete conditions of the country at that time: that is, an autocratic government with no genuine elections or parliament. It is self-evident that Marxists must make use of democratic demands, to the degree that they are relevant to the given situation and retain any progressive content, in order to mobilise the broadest layers of the population - not just workers but also peasants and petty bourgeois - in the revolutionary struggle.
Under the concrete conditions of tsarist Russia, the demand for a constituent assembly was quite correct. Alongside other (and, it must be said, more important) demands, it helped to arouse and mobilise the broadest layers of the population in an all-out fight against the tsarist autocracy. It was not even ruled out theoretically that the Russian revolution might go through a more or less lengthy period of revolutionary parliamentarism, as occurred in the English revolution of the 17th century, and in the first years of the French revolution. However, in practice, nothing of the sort happened. The Russian constituent assembly was an abortion; it played a reactionary role and was soon dispersed by the Bolsheviks, who at that time had won a decisive majority in the soviets.
A bourgeois democratic slogan
What is the constituent assembly? A democratic bourgeois parliament. The slogan of the constituent assembly is therefore a bourgeois-democratic - and not a socialist - slogan. However, we understand perfectly well that - under certain circumstances - it is not only correct for the proletariat to fight for bourgeois-democratic slogans, but absolutely necessary to do so.
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. But none of these conditions apply to Argentina. It is certainly not a backward, semi-feudal country. And, as it has been independent for almost two hundred years, and is the second biggest economy in South America, it hardly falls into the category of a semi-colonial nation (the fact that the oligarchy have reduced the former tenth industrial nation on earth to a situation of ruin and penury, so that many of the privatised industries have fallen into foreign hands, is a separate matter).
In the Russian revolution, the slogan of the constituent assembly - a bourgeois-democratic slogan - played a progressive role in mobilising the masses against tsarism. How does this slogan fit in to the present situation in Argentina? It does not fit in at all. For the last two decades, Argentina has had a bourgeois democratic regime, which does not differ in any essentials from the bourgeois democratic regimes in Europe or the USA.
It may be objected that the bourgeois democracy that exists in Argentina is a fraudulent and corrupt regime that merely serves to conceal the dictatorship of the bankers and capitalists. This is perfectly true, but misses the point. The point is that under capitalism, democracy always has an extremely partial, distorted and incomplete character. This is the case, not only in Argentina but in every other country, even the most "democratic" ones.
Yes, the Argentine politicians are corrupt and do not represent the interests of the people who vote for them. But the same is true of the politicians in the United States (as the Enron scandal shows yet again). It was recently proved that Bush was elected to the White House by a fraud. And our British and European politicians are not much better - though maybe a bit more polished, which merely means more skilled at deceiving the people.
It is true that the real rulers of Argentina are not the people, or the politicians they have "elected", but the rotten and corrupt oligarchy which rules from the shadows and keeps politicians as puppets. But the same is true of every other bourgeois democracy in the world. Does the "Labour" prime minister Tony Blair represent the interests of the workers who voted for him? It is enough to pose the question to get the answer.
It is true that all the so-called "democratic freedoms" which the Argentine people "enjoy" have a merely formal character. The "free" press is owned and controlled by a handful of multi-millionaires. And that everyone can say (more or less) what they want - as long as the oligarchy decides what happens. That a great deal of this "democracy" is just a pious fraud and a fig-leaf to disguise the reality of the Dictatorship of Capital. Yes, all of that is true. But all that it proves is that Argentina is a perfectly normal bourgeois democracy. Neither more nor less.
No solution under capitalism
In politics, if you say "A", you must say "B", "C" and "D". Otherwise you can make the most serious mistakes. The greatest crime of the Stalinists in Asia, Africa and Latin America was to mislead the movement with the false theory of "stages". According to this theory (which was in reality a rehash of the old discredited Menshevik theory that Lenin had always combated), the revolution in underdeveloped and colonial countries was the bourgeois-democratic revolution, and that therefore, the proletariat must not attempt to take power, but must subordinate itself to the leadership of the "national bourgeoisie".
This is not the place to deal with Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution (we have done this elsewhere). Suffice it to say that in modern conditions, the bourgeoisie is not capable of playing a progressive role anywhere. If one examines the situation in all those countries which have achieved formal independence since 1945, it will immediately become evident that not one of the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution has been solved in any of them.
Let us take India as an example. Like Argentina, India is a huge country with a vast economic potential. Yet more than half a century after achieving formal independence, what has the Indian bourgeoisie achieved? The agrarian question has not been solved. The national question has not been solved. They have not even abolished the monstrous caste system. They have not modernised the country. Most important of all, 55 years after the end of direct imperialist rule, India is more dependent on imperialism than at any time in history. The same is true of all the other ex-colonial countries.
The conclusion is clear: the problems of society can only be solved by the working class taking power into its hands and overthrowing the rule of the bourgeoisie and imperialism, nationalising the land, the banks and all large enterprises and instituting a socialist plan of production. Insofar as the bourgeois-democratic tasks have not been carried out, that will be done by the working class "in passing". But the central task - as in 1917 - is the establishment of workers' power.
A good policy...
We understand very well that in order to win the masses to the side of socialist revolution it is insufficient to advance abstract propaganda in favour of socialism. That would be a completely sectarian conception which would cut us off from the masses. Marx already explained in the pages of the Communist Manifesto that the Communists must be the most resolute and determined fighters, and must be at the forefront of every struggle for demands that serve the interests of the working class. The socialist revolution would be unthinkable without the day-to-day struggle for advance under capitalism.
In order to ensure the victory of the working class in Argentina, it is imperative that the slogans advanced by the vanguard are such that they serve to advance the movement, step by step, towards the goal of workers' power. It is necessary to pursue with vigour every partial demand that is aimed at the defence of jobs, wages and conditions. But it is also necessary to explain that the only real guarantee of a genuine and lasting solution to the problems of the people is the transfer of power to the hands of the workers themselves.
The attacks of the Duhalde government will inevitably provoke a response from the workers, and in fact is already doing so. The task of the vanguard is to try to give the movement an organised expression, to generalise it and spread it to every industry, city and town. The only way to do this is by popularising the slogan of action committees (soviets). By agitating around this demand, the vanguard will be able to connect to the general mood of the class, raising a demand which really corresponds to the needs of the moment, while preparing the ground for carrying the struggle onto a higher level.
From articles that have appeared in Prensa Obrera, it is clear that the PO has the same idea, and is fighting for workers' power in Argentina. Thus, in an article signed by Christian Rath, entitled Down with the IMF's Puppet government (PO February 6, 2002) we read the following programme:
- Down with the Peronist allies of the IMF, of the "capitalist fatherland" and the Yankee gold. Down with the High Court.
- Nationalisation of the banks, control of exchange.
- Confiscation of the property of the bankers.
- Repudiation of the foreign debt
- Minimum salary of 600 pesos, unemployment benefit of 500 pesos, adjustable according to inflation.
- Access to all savings less than 100,000 dollars.
- Nationalisation of all firms who sack workers or declare bankruptcy. Share out the working hours.
This is a very good programme, and it is summed up by the central slogan: "Let us multiply the Popular Assemblies to the point where they become a power of the exploited people." That is absolutely correct and completely corresponds to the needs of the moment and the perspective of the conquest of power by the working class in alliance with the poorest sections of society. It is also an objective fact, since the movement has already led to the establishment of local Popular Assemblies. Most important of all, there has been a tendency to link the Popular Assemblies to the workers' committees in the factories. Herein lies the key to success!
The words used to describe this phenomenon have no real importance. In Russia they were called soviets (councils), in Britain in the general strike of 1926 the role of the soviets was played by the local committees of the trade unions - the trade councils. During the Spanish revolution of 1931-37, Trotsky called for revolutionary juntas. Later, in France, he suggested the expression "action committees". The term is really unimportant. What is important is the content. In Argentina, the revolutionary organs of struggle that embrace wide layers of the exploited are called Popular Assemblies. And these are at least the embryo of soviets - that is to say, the embryo of a new power. That idea is correctly stated in the above mentioned article in Prensa Obrera.
However, it is obvious that the immediate task of the committees is to organise and centralise the struggle. The goal of the committees - which should be elected from the workplaces and popular areas to the degree possible - should be to organise actions: strikes, demonstrations, boycotts, the distribution of food etc. And this must be made to culminate in a national all-out general strike. Our aim must be to link up the committees on a local, regional and national basis, preparing the way for a national congress of action committees, both to lead and co-ordinate the struggle and to prepare to take power.
...And a bad slogan
Up to this point, we have no real difference with the comrades of the PO. But a very good article is spoiled by an ending which is not at all rooted in what has gone before. The author ends with the following slogan: "Let a free and sovereign Constituent Assembly, convened by the mobilised people, take charge of the social and political reorganisation of the country."
Up to this point, the whole emphasis of the article is on the need to generalise the Popular Assemblies as organs of struggle, on the basis of an anti-capitalist programme, to link them up "to the point where they become a power of the exploited people." That is just what is required! What we are talking about is workers' power in Argentina. But in this context, what role can be played by the slogan of a constituent assembly? As we have pointed out, that is a bourgeois democratic slogan, which would be appropriate for a situation where no democratic institutions - a parliament, elections etc. - existed. But this is not the case in Argentina at the present time.
What does the slogan of a constituent assembly mean exactly? Only this: "We do not want the present bourgeois parliamentary regime. We would like another, nicer, more democratic bourgeois parliamentary regime." But no such regime is possible under the present conditions in Argentina. And the deepening capitalist crisis on a world scale means that things will only get worse, not better, for Argentinean capitalism. The solution is not the introduction of a new form of bourgeois democracy, but the radical abolition of capitalism and the introduction of the rule of the working class. But this is something very different from a constituent assembly
How can this slogan be justified to workers in struggle against the Duhalde regime? You demand elections to a new constituent assembly. But a constituent assembly is not a magical solution - only a democratic parliament. They would say: "But we already have a parliament, and have voted "freely" many times - for the Radicals, for the Peronists, for De la Rua. We will probably vote in the next election also (although maybe not!). But what good is it, when the people we elect are all crooks and scoundrels?"
This is very good common sense. The problem is not that a parliament does not exist. It does exist. It is not that the people are not able to vote. They have voted. The problem is that none of the parties that are present in the parliament are prepared to fight for the interests of the people, and that they all defend the status quo - that is, the rotten capitalist regime that has bankrupted the country and reduced its people to hunger and misery. The slogan of the constituent assemble does not address this central problem. It tries to ignore it by posing a solution which is no solution at all.
Who will convene the assembly?
There are many practical problems with this slogan, which render it quite useless from a revolutionary point of view - and perhaps worse than useless. Let us begin with the most obvious one: Who will convene the constituent assembly?
This question - apparently so simple - goes right to the heart of the matter. For the oligarchy, the military, the Peronists, the Radicals, and their bosses in Washington, see no point (at THIS stage, at least) in doing any such thing. They are quite happy with the present set-up, and, as the Americans say: "If it ain't broke, why fix it?"
At this point, Washington is not in favour of military police dictatorships in Latin America. This is not for any sentimental attachment to the principle of democracy, but is purely practical. They fear that a move to open repression at this stage would provoke the masses and lead to revolution. On the other hand, military dictatorships are unpredictable and cannot always be controlled (e.g. Noriega). They prefer weak "democratic" regimes which can easily be manipulated. However, Washington's commitment to democracy can and will change in the future. They can pass from "democracy" to dictatorship as easily as a man moving from a smoking to a non-smoking compartment on a train.
The slogan of a constituent assembly at the present time does not correspond to the real situation in Argentina, where a bourgeois republic already exists. It does not challenge the rule of Capital, or of imperialism, which is perfectly happy with an elected parliament, which has many advantages for the maintenance of the rule of the banks and monopolies.
In what way would the constituent assembly differ from the present set-up? By being "free and sovereign", according to the already quoted passage. The word "freedom" has a relative, not absolute, significance, as Marx long ago explained. Freedom for whom, to do what? As long as the land, the banks and monopolies remain in the hands of the bourgeoisie, the constituent assembly - or any other form of democratic parliament - would solve precisely nothing.
What is decisive is not the constitutional-legalistic form of rule, but the composition of the parliament, and which classes predominate in it. And it makes little difference whether the parliamentary struggle is conducted in the present parliament (with all its deficiencies and limitations) or in a hypothetical constituent assembly. What is decisive is not the form but the content. Let us remind ourselves that the Constituent Assembly in Russia turned out to have a counter-revolutionary significance because it was dominated by the SRs and Mensheviks.
If by a constituent assembly, we have in mind a revolutionary assembly that can challenge the power and privileges of the oligarchy, then it is clear that the only power that can call it is the working class, organised in such a way that it can impose its will on the ruling class. Let us recall that in Russia, it was the soviets that convened the elections to the constituent assembly AFTER THE SEIZURE OF POWER.
The article in Prensa Obrera is quite specific on this. It says that the constituent assembly will be "convened by the mobilised people". But here we immediately enter into a contradiction. If the Argentine working class is strong enough to impose its will on the ruling class, and strong enough to convene a constituent assembly, then it is also strong enough to take power. The way in which the working class takes power is through its own organisations of struggle - the Popular Assemblies (soviets). That idea was correctly expressed by the article when it says: "Let us multiply the Popular Assemblies to the point where they become a power of the exploited people." But why then introduce the question of the constituent assembly?
In Russia, the Bolsheviks made skilful use of the slogan of the constituent assembly in the period of revolutionary agitation in the months before the October insurrection. The main aim was to mobilise the backward layers of the population - especially the peasantry - to the side of the working classes by the use of revolutionary democratic demands.
However, in practice, for the peasants the slogan of the constituent assembly did not play the key role, since the peasants, even less than the workers, are impressed by abstract constitutional formulae. The mass of the peasants were won over to the side of the Bolsheviks on the slogan of the LAND. Once it became clear to the peasants that the parties that had the majority in the constituent assembly were the same old leaders who opposed the October revolution (and therefore the Bolsheviks' agrarian programme) they immediately and decisively turned their backs on it.
So much for the constituent assembly in Russia. But Argentina in 2002 is clearly not Russia in 1917. At that time, there were at most ten million workers in Russia (including transport, mining etc.) out of a total population of 150 million. The class balance of forces was entirely different, and this explains why Lenin and Trotsky were obliged to stress the democratic slogans in 1917. As for the comparison between present-day Argentina and backward, semi-feudal and semi-colonial China in the 1930s - when Trotsky also (correctly) raised the bourgeois-democratic slogan of the constituent assembly - that is even further off the mark.
Completely different situation
In Argentina the situation has absolutely nothing in common with either Russia in 1917 or China in the 1930s. The working class is a decisive majority of the population, and the peasantry hardly exists. The bulk of the population lives in towns and cities and the predominance of capitalist large-scale agriculture means that the peasantry has long ago been largely replaced by a rural proletariat. With a few exceptions which do not alter the general picture, the agrarian revolution in Argentina will not be a question of "land to the tiller" but the replacement of big capitalist farms by state-owned collective farms, utilising the most modern technology and science to boost the production of beef and wheat, while encouraging the small and medium farmers to form co-operatives, which can receive cheap credits from the nationalised banking system, cheap fertilisers from the nationalised chemical companies and a guaranteed market and a fair price for their products.
In such a context, it is hard to see how the democratic demands which played such a vital role in Russia could play anything but a marginal role. Yet many - if not all - of the Left Parties in Argentina have not only adopted the slogan of the constituent assembly, but have given it a central position in their programme and propaganda. The slogan of the constituent assembly - whatever the subjective intentions of its defenders - implies that there is some kind of solution for the crisis in Argentina on the basis of capitalism. This slogan does not pose the revolutionary abolition of capitalism, although it seems to have been confused with the idea of soviet power.
Terminological differences do not usually have much importance, as long as we are clear on the essence of the matter. Nevertheless, Marxism is a science, and all sciences must have a rigorous attitude to all things, including terminology. The words we use should correspond as closely as possible to the phenomena we are describing. Ambiguous or careless use of language can give rise to ambiguities and even harmful mistakes. If the idea of a constituent assembly merely means a national congress of Popular Assemblies, we would be in full agreement. But if that is the case, would it not be better to make this clear?
In the interest of clarity, it is also necessary to raise an objection to the formulation "a free and sovereign" constituent assembly. In what sense could a constituent assembly in Argentina aspire to "sovereignty"? The idea of "sovereignty" may appeal to the patriotic instincts of the Argentine people, but the fact is that Argentina is not "sovereign" and never will be sovereign, to the degree that it is part of the capitalist world economy. In fact, no government in the world is "sovereign", as Russia and China have discovered recently. The origins of the present crisis in Argentina do not lie in Argentina but in the world market. And the solution to the crisis also cannot be found in Argentina, either.
Even if - as we fervently hope - the Argentine working class succeeds in taking power into its hands and beginning the socialist transformation of society, it would still not be able to solve its problems without the aid of at least the workers of Brazil, Chile and the other countries of Latin America. What is posed practically is therefore not "sovereignty" but the spread of the revolution throughout all Latin America and the establishment of the Socialist United States of Latin America.
200 years ago, Simon Bolivar posed the question of the unity of Latin America. But the bourgeoisie of Latin America has shown itself completely impotent, rotten and reactionary. Instead of genuine sovereignty, they are reduced to the role of the local office-boys of imperialism. Despite all their "patriotic" rhetoric and delusions of grandeur, the Argentine bourgeois are no exception. They go cap in hand to beg money from Washington, and are shown the door. Imperialism is interested in keeping the countries of Latin America weak and divided, and the national bourgeois obliges them in this. Only the proletariat can succeed where the bourgeoisie has failed. But in order to do this, the old "patriotic" flag-waving that has so long confused and disoriented the workers must give way to a class understanding and a revolutionary internationalist perspective.
What does this mean? The Argentine worker is proud of his country, and ashamed that it should be reduced to the present state of humiliating poverty. He instinctively feels that the colossal productive potential of Argentina could be restored, if only the country was not led by a gang of parasites and exploiters. This "patriotism" of the Argentine working people has a progressive, revolutionary class content, upon which we can build. But it is necessary to tell the working people the truth. The only way to solve their problems is by expropriating the property of the Argentine bankers and capitalists and then linking up with the workers and peasants of Latin America in a socialist federation.
By combining the colossal resources of the continent, it would be possible not only to eliminate the scourge of unemployment and poverty, but to move very quickly in the direction of socialism and a vast social and cultural revolution. Under these circumstances, US imperialism would be paralysed and unable to intervene. On the contrary, the US imperialists would be facing revolution in the United States.
Dictatorship of the proletariat
If what is meant is that the constituent assembly must have no power above it, in other words, must concentrate all power in its hands in order to crush the resistance of the bankers and capitalists, then what we are talking about is no longer a bourgeois democratic parliament, but a revolutionary dictatorship of the working class which puts itself at the head of the Nation in order to carry through the expropriation of landlordism and capitalism. This is most probably what the comrades of the PO mean. But then it should be made absolutely clear.
If this interpretation is correct, then we are not talking about a constituent assembly, but the dictatorship of the proletariat. Given the fact that the word "dictatorship", after Hitler, Stalin and the Argentine Junta, has certain connotations which have nothing to do with the original conception of Marx and Lenin - for whom the "dictatorship of the proletariat" meant nothing more than a regime of workers' democracy - we do not expect the Argentine comrades to utilise this expression in their propaganda. That would merely provide an excuse to the counter-revolutionaries to distort and discredit our arguments.
However, the term constituent assembly is not an acceptable substitute for the slogan of workers' power. The two ideas are not at all the same. And while we can fully accept that the comrades want the same thing as ourselves, we believe that this is a mistaken formula which can cause serious disorientation, divert the attention of the masses from the central task and could even shipwreck the revolution in the future.
A mistake in relation to the slogan of the constituent assembly will not necessarily prove fatal, and at this stage may be insignificant, particularly when the general content of the programme being advanced is correct - as is the case here. But as Lenin used to say, a spoonful of tar spoils a barrel full of honey. A hairline crack on the wing of a supersonic aircraft seems insignificant at first sight, and as long as the aeroplane remains on the ground, it can do no damage. But once the plane is in flight, subject to enormous external pressures, such a small fault can threaten the very existence of the aircraft and the lives of all on board.
Let us consider the question more concretely. The events of last December have opened a new and stormy period which, owing to the weakness of the subjective factor, can be prolonged for a period of months and even years, with ebbs and flows, before a decisive conclusion is reached - one way or another. The first assault in December has left the bourgeoisie shaken and confused, but with all the levers of power still in its hands. On the other hand, the masses, encouraged by their early success, are pressing forward. Despite all the efforts of Duhalde and the Peronists to stabilise the situation, no stabilisation has emerged. The government is bankrupt, not only financially but politically.
In order to defeat the enemy, the working people of Argentina need a clear and decisive leadership. The slogans advanced must correspond to the needs of the situation. Ambiguities can cost the movement very dear.
In his article which I mentioned at the beginning, Jorge Atamira implies that the subjective factor (the party and the leadership) exists in Argentina. Clearly, by this he means the PO, which is undoubtedly playing a most active role in the movement, for which it deserves full credit. However, when we speak of the subjective factor, we have in mind a party that has a weight and presence in the movement that enables it to play the leading role. The comrades of the PO are fighting to establish such a leading position. But they would surely agree that they have not yet achieved what they are aiming for.
Much remains to be done. The tide of revolution is flowing strongly, but there are many cross currents that can still blow it off course. In such a situation, the conduct of the PO, its tactics, policies and slogans can assume an enormous, and possibly decisive, importance. As I hope I have made clear, the general programme of the PO is one with which we can enthusiastically agree. But in a revolution, events can change very quickly and subject the programme, policies and slogans to a cruel test. It is therefore necessary to submit these to a searching criticism and, if necessary, modify or even abandon those slogans that have outlived their usefulness before they cause serious damage.
The Argentine bourgeoisie has received a black eye, but is still on its feet and can make a comeback. It still has a number of sly punches it can deliver, while dodging and ducking to protect itself. At the moment it is supporting itself on the right foot of Peronism. But the measures being carried out by Duhalde - at the dictates of Washington - can only make things worse.
The masses see no improvement, and are discontented. There are new outbreaks of protest. The movement will inevitably grow, creating a new and even more dangerous situation of instability. How will the bourgeoisie react? They cannot immediately use the army to install a new military dictatorship. The generals are too discredited by the horrors of the past which are too recent in people's minds. Any attempt to go down this road at the present time would end in civil war, which the ruling class is not sure it could win.
We are therefore faced with the following situation: on the one hand, the bourgeoisie is in crisis, disoriented and unable to continue to rule in the old way; on the other hand, the working class is not yet ready to take power into its own hands. In such circumstances, it is inevitable that the ruling class will resort to all kinds of manoeuvres and combinations in order to hang onto power. It is not even theoretically excluded that, when they feel themselves seriously threatened, they might even agree to convene a "constituent assembly", as a diversion.
Already Duhalde is talking demagogically about a "new Republic". This is only a cosmetic exercise, of course, but it shows how the bourgeoisie is far from averse to PLAYING WITH CONSTITUTIONS in order to throw dust in the eyes of the masses (as Marx explained as early as 1848). Likewise, the so-called Argentineans for a Republic of Equals (ARI), has also toyed with the slogan of the constituent assembly. Tomorrow other bourgeois and petty bourgeois formations will take up this slogan also.
What would this constitutional tinkering change from the standpoint of the bourgeoisie? Nothing substantial, to be sure. Because a constituent assembly is only a constitutional form. And, as we have pointed out, what is decisive is not the form but the content. Once again, the question is a concrete one. Which parties would be present in the constituent assembly? Basically, the same ones that already existed before. They might have different names, and might appear in different coalitions, but they would be essentially the same thing: Radicals, Peronists, and the left groups would be fighting to gain a majority in the constituent assembly - just as they fight now to win seats in the present parliament.
It is not very wise to attach too much importance to organisational forms in politics. Even the most democratic and advanced forms can be filled with a counter-revolutionary content under certain conditions. This general observation does not exclude even the soviets! The latter are undoubtedly the most advanced and flexible form of democracy which has ever been devised. Yet in July and August 1917, we had counter-revolutionary soviets in Russia.
Under the leadership of the SRs and Mensheviks, the soviet form had been filled with a reactionary content. The reformist leaders of the soviets made use of their prestige and support among the masses to conduct a witch hunt against the revolutionary wing (the Bolsheviks) and attempt to hand back the power to the bourgeoisie. For a time, Lenin even considered abandoning the slogan "All power to the soviets", and advanced as an alternative "All power to the factory committees." From this example, we see how flexible was Lenin's attitude towards slogans. He was very far from making a fetish out of organisational forms - which unfortunately the comrades have done in the case of the slogan of the constituent assembly.
The advocates of this slogan have not considered all the consequences of what they say. If in 1917 even the soviets - the most advanced, the most flexible, the most representative form of revolutionary democracy, could turn (for a while, at least) into organs of the counter-revolution, how much more would this be true of the constituent assembly - as the example of Russia shows even more clearly. Thus, to make this demand the central question is a mistake.
In the best of cases, the slogan of the constituent assembly in Argentina is a diversion, in the worst case, it can lead to the defeat of the revolution - as would have happened in Russia in 1918 if the Bolsheviks had not taken energetic action to disperse the constituent assembly which they had set up themselves.
The above scenario is quite possible in Argentina in a situation where the ruling class see the power slipping from their hands. They could easily make the "concession" of convening a constituent assembly for a "new Argentine republic" or some such thing, in order to divert the revolution into safer channels of constitutional debate, while encouraging and financing the bourgeois parties to take over the constituent assembly from within and destroy the revolution. This variant is known as counter-revolution in a democratic form, and has happened many times in the history of the revolutionary movement.
Yes, such manoeuvres and tricks are inevitable on the part of the bourgeoisie, during the course of the revolution. We cannot prevent this. But why do we have to provide them with the excuse for such manoeuvres ourselves? This is making a whip for our own back. And it is completely unnecessary.
The vanguard and the class
Even in the best case - that the slogan of the constituent assembly would be merely an irrelevance - it is still harmful because it is an unnecessary diversion from the most pressing tasks of the revolution.
What are these tasks? Above all, the main task is to win over the majority of the working class, beginning with the most active layer. The decisive question here is the trade unions. No socialist revolution is possible in Argentina unless we win over at least a decisive section of the unions. Since the main CGT is still controlled by the Peronists, the attitude of the vanguard to this layer assumes a decisive importance. In an attempt to control the mass movement, the bourgeoisie has pushed the Peronists into the government. There they are placed to do the dirty work of Capital, and in so doing are providing the Peronist workers with an excellent object lesson in the reality of Peronism today.
This is not the period of the 1940s and 1950s, when Juan Peron was able to raise the wages of industrial workers by 47 per cent, pensions for all, health care and other sweeping reforms. At that time, Argentine capitalism benefited from the huge demand for beef and wheat in post-War Europe. Now, Argentina is a bankrupt country with a ruined economy.
The world economic recession does not hold out any prospect of an early recovery. The hopes of assistance from the United States have not materialised. Faced with an economic crisis at home and abroad, they are in no mood to be charitable to their friends in Buenos Aires. The latter will get lots of sympathy but not much hard cash. The Duhalde government will therefore be a government of crisis, and probably will not last long. If the protest movement achieves a sufficient momentum, the bourgeoisie will be compelled to ditch him and probably call elections.
What will we say then? Should we refuse to participate in the elections on the ground that the present system is unsatisfactory? That would clearly be wrong. As a general rule, you do not boycott a bourgeois parliament until you are strong enough to overthrow it and replace it with something better. In recent elections, the left parties have increased their share of the vote. Hopefully, the left parties will receive an even bigger vote in the next elections, and get their candidates elected to parliament. If they do, how will they use their position? As a platform for revolutionary ideas, this is very useful (which is another reason why it should not be boycotted). However, the question arises of what kind of propaganda one should advance from the parliamentary tribune. Should the slogan of the constituent assembly occupy the central place?
The answer to this should be self-evident to any thinking person. By giving such prominence to this slogan, the Left would run the risk of preparing a noose for its own neck. As we have stated, it is not at all ruled out that the Argentine bourgeoisie - an old, experienced, cunning and also ruthless bourgeoisie - could at a critical point, accept the demand for a constituent assembly as a means of derailing the revolution and leading it into safe "constitutional" channels. After all, such a move would not represent any threat to its class rule.
Let us remind ourselves that the Argentine constitution has been changed many times - from 1853 to 1857 it was changed four times. One more change would make little difference to the bourgeoisie, which knows all about legal and constitutional trickery, but could make a very big difference to the revolution. Marx and Lenin pointed out many times how frequently revolutions have been shipwrecked by constitutional cretinism and legalistic fetishism, by talk and speeches which remove the centre of gravity from the factory and the street to the rarefied atmosphere of the parliamentary debating chamber. The masses will be asked to set aside their most pressing demands and concentrate on getting a constitution. Thus the Russian peasant who wanted the land was asked to "wait for the constituent assembly".
Once we get into this position, the cart of the revolution will soon find itself stuck in the mud. And here we see the real harmfulness of an erroneous slogan. Stripped of all niceties, the essence of the slogan of the constituent assembly is that it is a bourgeois democratic slogan - that is to say, a slogan which UNDER CERTAIN CONDITIONS can have a revolutionary content, but which - where those conditions do not apply - can be quickly filled with a counter-revolutionary content.
In the early stage of the revolution (and we are still in such a stage in Argentina) there will be a tendency for the most militant sections to go a bit "too far" ahead of the rest of the class. This was the case in Russia in the July days. The advanced workers and sailors of Petrograd, feeling the power slipping out of their hands, attempted to go onto an untimely offensive, and were only restrained by the energetic action of the Bolshevik Party, which prevented a bloody defeat.
Actually, the workers of Petrograd could have taken power in July, but the Bolshevik leadership knew that they would have been crushed by the more backward provinces which had not yet given up their illusions in the SRs and Mensheviks. In that case, the Russian revolution would have suffered the same fate as the Paris Commune and entered the annals of history as just another glorious defeat, and not the first successful socialist revolution in the world.
Before taking power, it was necessary to win over the more backward layers. That required time and patient work in the factories, army barracks, trade unions and soviets. But without this, victory would have been impossible. In Argentina also it is necessary to explain to the most advanced workers the need to win over the more backward and politically untutored layers of the class. Without this, the success of the revolution is ruled out. That is what Lenin meant when he advanced his slogan: "Patiently explain!" This is very good advice for the vanguard of the Argentine workers' movement.
There is in the vanguard a strong sense of hostility towards Peronism. That is understandable. But in order to break the influence of Peronism over the working class it is not enough to denounce it and complain about it. It is necessary to see the inner contradictions within Peronism which sooner or later must result in splits along class lines. We must distinguish very carefully between the bourgeois gangsters in the leadership and the honest workers who vote Peronist and participate in the CGT.
That there are many honest militants who are fighting energetically for the revolution is not in doubt. A key role is played by the Trotskyists, among whom the PO has a special weight. But as yet, they are a small minority. An increasing number of workers and youth will listen to them, sympathise with them, and in some cases, join them. That is very positive, but not yet enough to provide a definitive solution.
The first necessity is to organise and build the vanguard, and ensure that it has the correct methods and ideas. But this is not enough. It is necessary to find a road to the masses. This is not a simple matter. The biggest mistake is to imagine that the masses see things as we do. This is very far from the truth. If that were not the case, we would already be living under socialism long ago and the task of building the party would be completely redundant.
It is easy for us to understand the reactionary role of Peronism. But matters are different when we come to the mass of organised (not to speak of the unorganised) workers. For decades, the Argentine working class has been paralysed by the grip of Peronism, which still has a stranglehold on the unions. It is true that the stranglehold has been somewhat weakened by the splitting off of the more radical elements, and also that, after the bitter experience of Menem, many former Peronist voters are disillusioned. However, to conclude that Peronism is finished would be entirely false.
After the fall of De la Rua in December, "left" Peronism briefly raised its head in the person of Rodriguez Saa. Of course, the programme of Saa could not solve the crisis, and was only a desperate attempt to defuse the mass movement by demagogic promises. Saa was quickly removed from office, having satisfied neither the masses nor the bourgeoisie. Nevertheless, in the future it is quite possible that Saa - or some other figure - will be pushed forward to derail the movement, once Duhalde is discredited. Not to see this possibility would be short-sighted in the extreme.
For Marxists, it is self-evident that none of these bourgeois politicians can offer any solution to the profound crisis of Argentine capitalism. In the end, Saa, De la Rua, Menem and Duhalde all stand for the same thing. The differences between them are entirely secondary, tactical or even personal. Yes, there is no difference between them, as far as we are concerned. BUT THE MASSES WILL NOT NECESSARILY SEE THINGS IN THE SAME WAY.
If - as is entirely possible - the ruling class in Argentina feels the power slipping out of its hands and decides to beat a tactical retreat by conceding the constituent assembly, it is almost certain - at least highly probable - that the assembly would be dominated by parties of the Right - or at least, by parties that would be opposed to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. But if necessary, the bourgeoisie can even make use of "left" parties to carry out its will, putting forward very radical-sounding policies in order to confuse the masses and divert them from the struggle for power.
This is the most likely outcome for several reasons. In the first place, the bourgeoisie would spare no effort and money to ensure that its parties and candidates would be elected. Secondly, the old state machine, judges, electoral officials etc., would still be in place, leading to the possibility of fraud, vote-rigging and corruption. Thirdly, the revolutionary movement is not at its strongest in the electoral and parliamentary arena and will inevitably be at a disadvantage when faced with the experienced and well-oiled electoral machines of the bourgeois. Last, but not least, elections to bourgeois parliaments give more weight to the more backward and inert masses, rather than the active and more politically aware elements who play a leading role in the struggle.
It is entirely possible to envisage a situation where the constituent assembly is convened at a moment when the masses are beginning to tire after a period of revolutionary exertions. The bourgeoisie and its political representatives would not put forward an openly counter-revolutionary programme. On the contrary, they would try to deceive the masses with the promise of reforms and better living standards. Under these conditions, a man like Saa - or someone more radical-sounding - would be pushed to the fore. The masses will be lulled by the promise of a better life, as the bourgeoisie will promise the sun, the moon and the stars in order to put an end to the movement. After all, words are cheap.
Of course, such a regime would not last long. Behind the scenes the reaction would be sharpening its sabres. Conspiracies would be hatched in the upper echelons of the general staff. The right wing of the constituent assembly would begin to organise and become more vocal. The press would begin a ferocious campaign of denunciations against the "anti-patriotic" government. The masses, who had deposited their confidence in the constituent assembly and the promises of the reformist wing, would fall into disillusionment and apathy. At this point the reaction would strike.
Once the tide of the revolution has ebbed, the ruling class will take its revenge . The terrible prospect of a return to the nightmare of the junta would once more emerge. Only this time it would be an even more ferocious regime. The bourgeois will want to make the masses pay for the fright they had suffered.
Is this outcome inevitable? By no means. The revolutionary potential of the mass movement is still intact. The masses have not yet been defeated. But a firm orientation is required. Before the vanguard can teach the masses it must first remove all elements of vacillation and ambiguity from its programme. The programme and slogans of the party must be based clearly and unambiguously on the perspective of socialist revolution. The constituent assembly slogan has no place in it.
The potential for workers' power exists in Argentina. It is present in the National Assembly of Piqueteros. Above all, it is present in the Popular Assemblies. At the fourth meeting of all the Popular Assemblies in Buenos Aires recently they approved the slogan of "Let the Assemblies rule." That is the correct slogan, the slogan of workers' power. But then, probably under the influence of those left organisations who have adopted the slogan, they added "For a Popular Constituent Assembly". This is a tragic case of "One step forward, two steps back". Instead of confusing matters in this way, the Argentinean Marxists should have put forward the slogan "Convene a national congress of delegates from Popular Assemblies and work places". This would be a concrete way of preparing the class for the conquest of power.
Ironically, a meeting of a similar kind has already been convened under the name of the National Assembly of Employed and Unemployed Workers, to which the Popular Assemblies are also sending delegates. The comrades of the PO have played an active role in this - for which they deserve full credit. But would it not be more correct to work for the generalisation of this movement as the central question, so as to involve an ever wider section of workers in it, rather than continually raising the question of the constituent assembly?
It is necessary to say what is. Beginning with the most active layers of the movement, we must patiently explain the need to overthrow and expropriate the capitalists as the only way out of the crisis. The victory of the Argentine working class would cause an earthquake throughout Latin America - and also in North America. Even then, the problems could not be solved within the confines of Argentina. The slogan of the Socialist United States of Latin America should be inscribed on our banner as the only worthy perspective for the workers of Argentina.
In the long term, it will be a question of either a bourgeois dictatorship or the conquest of power by the working class: no other possibility exists.
In December I wrote : There are only two possibilities for the Argentine revolution: either the greatest of victories or the most terrible of defeats. I see no reason to change a single word of this now.
NOTE: we would invite our readers to send us any comments they wish to make on the position taken in this article. We intend to publish any debate that this article may stimulate. Write to us at: email@example.com
Argentina - The Revolution has Begun (December 23, 2001
Duhalde's government of 'National unity' is a manoeuvre against the Argentine revolution (January 3, 2002) )
Argentina at the Crossroads: Capitalism has Failed - For the Socialist Revolution! (January 9, 2002)
Argentina Elections: Government Defeat as Recession turns to Slump (October 19, 2001)
Argentina: La Revolución Ha Comenzado(23/12/2001)
GOBIERNO DUHALDE: Unidad nacional contra la revolución (3.1.2002)
Argentina en la encrucijada. El capitalismo no sirve, por la revolucion socialista! (9.1.2002)
Crisis total del capitalismo en Argentina: La única salida: Luchar por la democracia obrer (7/2/2002)
La revuelta y represión en Argentina (22/12/ 2001)
Elecciones legislativas argentinas - El malestar social busca una expresión política( 19 de octubre de 2001)