Trotskyist Fraction’s demand for a Constituent Assembly

Cats do not lay eggs

By Icaro Kaleb, originally published in Portuguese in May 2016

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The Trotskyist Fraction (TF) is the group responsible for the online newspaper Left Voice and its international network (Red Izquierda Diario). Its main section is the Argentinian PTS. Amid the current political crisis in Brazil, its section – the MRT (Workers’ Revolutionary Movement) – has raised the slogan for an “immediate in-depth democratic response capable of really addressing the needs and wishes of the ‘low classes’, a sovereign and free Constituent Assembly”. The demand for a Constituent Assembly is often raised by the TF in various different scenarios. It was raised during Argentina’s mass uprisings in 2001; following the Honduras coup d’etat in 2009; during the Spanish indignados movement in 2011 and many other occasions.

In Brazil it has not been different: the call for a Constituent Assembly appeared in the TF’s agitation during the 2013 massive street protests and now again, when the Brazilian working class is facing the upswing of authoritarianism and the growth of bourgeois reaction. In this very different context, this call once again becames central to the TF’s politics. It is undeniable that this demand is not an accessory, but central to the TF’s perspective of how to defeat the bourgeois state. We agree neither with the way such demand is raised by the TF nor with its supposedly usefulness in Brazil at the moment.

How we see the demand for a Constituent Assembly

As Marxists, we are for expanding and defending workers’ democratic rights under capitalism, while at the same time recognizing their limits and fragility. We thus include in our program demands against the removal of such rights and seek to enlarge the possibilities of political intervention for the working class. It is better for workers (including the workers’ parties) to be able to broadcast their ideas, openly demonstrate and debate politics with as much freedom as possible. Even the bourgeois elections, which cannot change the proletariat’s position as an oppressed class, offer the possibility of spreading the revolutionary program and denouncing capitalism in an open way.

We believe that no TF comrade disagrees with us on this. We also think that the demand for a Constituent Assembly is functional for this purpose of expanding the democratic rights within capitalist society, especially when democratic and constitutional rights do not exist. For instance, we defended the call for a Constitutional Assembly (as well as other democratic demands) in Libya and Syria when civil wars between different factions of the bourgeoisie erupted. Our intention was to denounce both the decade-long dictatorships of these countries and their pseudo-democratic opposition, which never defended even the most elementary democratic rights.

But our focus was to agitate the need for a working class political movement, independent from the bourgeois factions. Only a workers and peasants’ government could really guarantee the defense of their class interests. If a Constituent Assembly were imposed to the bourgeoisie during the struggle, it could represent important democratic gains, but it could not become a direct “pathway” to or an organ of workers’ rule itself. That is the reason why we also centrally raised transitional demands to denounce the limits of capitalism and to raise the prospect of overcoming it. As it was discussed in the Transitional Program:

Classical Social Democracy, functioning in an epoch of progressive capitalism, divided its program into two parts independent of each other: the minimum program which limited itself to reforms within the framework of bourgeois society, and the maximum program which promised substitution of socialism for capitalism in the indefinite future. Between the minimum and the maximum program no bridge existed. And indeed Social Democracy has no need of such a bridge, since the word socialism is used only for holiday speechifying….

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 framework 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.”

For us, the call for a Constituent Assembly is part of the democratic “minimum” program, which historical purpose is to broaden the space for proletarian action and political discussion. But for regimes in which constitutional and democratic rights already exist (despite their limitations and more than occasional disrespect by the capitalist state) this demand is like drying ice, while other democratic demands may still maintain their relevance.

It is a well-known fact that the Bolsheviks raised the demand for a Constituent Assembly during the struggle of the Russian working class against Tsarism. Lenin’s party continued to demand a Constituent Assembly while the capitalist Provisional Government continuously postponed its realization. The Fourth International proposed this demand for the colonies in the 1930s: “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.”

These are all cases of countries in which basic democratic liberties and a parliamentary system had never existed; capitalism had been gradually introduced without a profound bourgeois democratic revolution. The theory of Permanent Revolution describes how the capitalist class in backward countries is extremely weak and incapable of conducting a revolutionary transformation. It is up to the working class to lead the national revolution against imperialist oppression and the remnants of previous non-capitalist social systems.

With this being said, it is obvious that the struggle for a Constituent Assembly should not constitute a separate stage in the fight for workers’ rule. But at the same time, it should not be considered an equivalent or the main objective of class struggle. Unlike the Morenoites and other defenders of “two-stage” strategies, we do not believe it is necessary to have a separate period of democratic capitalist regime prior to the fight for socialism, even in capitalist dictatorships. Rather, we warn workers about the risks of allowing the bourgeoisie to maintain its class power under a “democratic” basis, as happened with the end of several South American dictatorial regimes in the 1980s.

As revolutionaries, we would in no circumstance support a bourgeois government, including one established by a Constituent Assembly. The democratic demand for such an assembly has the aim of advancing certain democratic rights against a far more authoritarian regime; it does not mean extending political support to the capitalist state. That is the reason why we would also never assign a Constitutional Assembly the duty of defending workers’ interests. Only a proletarian government based on workers’ power can do so. There is no reason to believe in the “democratic” credentials of a bourgeois parliamentary regime.

The Trotskyist Fraction’s version of the Constituent Assembly

Let’s take a look at how the TF / MRT in Brazil has raised the demand for the Constituent Assembly:

For us, this plan of struggle against the austerity measures and the institutional coups has to be strong enough to impose a sovereign and free Constituent Assembly to fight corruption to its root, to make the capitalists pay for the crisis and face the structural problems of the country”

Since the beginning of the political crisis, the MRT has proposed that… it is necessary for workers to politically confront all the ‘rules of the game’ in this bourgeois democracy of ‘bribery and bullets’. This would be accomplished through a sovereign and free Constituent Assembly imposed by workers’ mobilizations.”

A sovereign and free Constituent Assembly would have other issues to deal with, such as canceling the public debt, making a radical land reform and breaking the deals of subordination to imperialism, besides guaranteeing massive investments in education, healthcare, transportation and housing…”

The substance assigned to this Constitutional Assembly by the TF is the one of a body capable of fulfilling tasks far beyond democratic and constitutional rights. For them, it would also be able to “make the capitalists pay for the crisis”, “face the structural problems of the country”, “make a radical land reform”, “break the deals of subordination to imperialism”. In one line, the TF’s Constituent Assembly would be able to change “the rules of the game”.

Implicit in this program and orientation seems to be the idea that a democratic “minimum” demand such as the establishment of a Constituent Assembly could actually achieve a revolutionary transformation. The TF has assigned the Constituent Assembly the ability to do something that only a revolutionary workers’ government could. This is the opposite of what Marxists should say. They should make clear that no capitalist regime, no matter how democratic, can ever assure the interests of the workers and the oppressed (especially those interests listed by the TF / MRT). Even if we considered that the demand for a Constituent Assembly were appropriate for the 2016 situation in Brazil (which we don’t), the way the TF has been agitating it would amount to confusion and, therefore, be counter-productive.

To make it clear: no Constituent Assembly, especially when there is already a democratic regime installed, can change the “rules of the game”. To do so, we need a socialist revolution to place political power in the hands of the organized working class. No Constituent Assembly can make what the TF is demanding from it. Probably even certain basic democratic demands will only be accomplished by a workers’ government. If the TF agrees with this, how can they explain their delusional expectations from a bourgeois institution?

A Constituent Assembly in Brazil now?

There is also the fact that the call for a Constitutional Assembly is made when Brazil is a democratic regime and is witnessing the growth of right-wing conservatism. The current Congress, elected in 2014, has been the most right-wing in decades. Very probably, a new Constitution would reflect this mood and would end being less democratic than the current Brazilian Constitution (which dates from 1988). This is such a real possibility that the TF / MRT has been criticizing the Morenoites’ (and others’) slogan for new “general elections” on the same basis:

The elections they [the Morenoites] are proposing, besides projecting no in-depth solution for the political crisis, since it does not propose a break with the current regime, would have an immediate right-wing effect, because it would certainly bring in the representatives of the bourgeois political parties, just as corrupt and pro-austerity as those currently in government, if not worse.”

Then we can ask the TF: would a Constituent Assembly be any different? The Constituent Assembly is also established though bourgeois elections; it also does not mean a break with the “democracy of the rich”; wouldn’t it likely produce a more undemocratic Constitution than the one that now exists in Brazil? The TF has responded to these concerns in a very shallow manner:

We do not want to keep this rotten political regime, but change all the rules of the game. The motivation behind the arguments of those who say that in this conjuncture ‘a new Constituent would be more reactionary than the 88 one’ is the complete subservience to this Constitution engineered by the military, besides their skepticism towards the development of workers’ power in class struggle to impose these demands and defy the 88 regime.”

To say that any risk of a Constituent Assembly generating a regime even less democratic than the one that exists now is “skepticism” is sheer willful blindness and contradicts the TF’s own argument about the probable result of “general elections”. Skepticism is in general a good thing, but one does not have to be pessimistic to realize the mood in the country and the fact that the right-wing bourgeois parties would be capable of doing so. Since the Constituent Assembly is a bourgeois regime, it could produce a more reactionary result when there is already a democracy in Brazil.

The TF says that the Constituent Assembly they defend is “totally different” from the perspective some bourgeois politicians may have. It would be “imposed by the power of workers’ mobilizations”. But if the working class had enough power to impose solutions against the capitalists’ interests, why should Marxists propose an “in-depth solution” limited to bourgeois democracy? Even in the best case scenario of a progressive result, the Constituent Assembly should never be labeled an “in-depth solution” to any of the problems of capitalism.

There is a deep, deep confusion underlying the TF’s position. While it is never clearly stated, their idea of a Constituent Assembly is contradictorily proletarian and bourgeois at the same time. It is bourgeois because it is clear that a Constitutional Assembly can never overcome the capitalist regime. But by saying that it is capable of advancing a workers’ program (which is not really plausible) and that it would “change the rules of the game”, the TF is trying to make it resemble a proletarian organ. One thing has nothing to do with the other.

The Trotskyist Fraction reminds us of an anecdote about a farmer who strives all year long to buy a hen, expecting it to lay healthy eggs. The farmer is fooled, though, and the purchase ends up being a cat disguised in a bag of feathers. Cats do not lay eggs. No Constituent Assembly can accomplish the demands that are proletarian to the bone. In fact, we should not even necessarily trust that it would guarantee some of the more advanced democratic rights. But this is what the TF is expecting it to do.

The TF and the 1934 “Program of Action for France”

One of the arguments we heard when we discussed those issues with TF / MRT members in Brazil was that Trotsky had raised the Constituent Assembly demand in France in the 1930s, as a perspective against growing authoritarianism. We don’t think so. Therefore, it is important to rebut this historical claim. The TF / MRT militants usually point out to Trotsky’s 1934 “Program of Action for France”. This is also the article quoted in a TF article in which they debate Trotsky and Gramsci to justify their demand for a Constituent Assembly:

Slogans such as for all public officials to get the same pay as a worker; that all judges and state representatives be elected and have revocable positions; for the fusion of the executive and the legislative into one single house that put an end to the presidency and the senate, which we defend as the content of a sovereign and free Constituent Assembly, were not invented by us. These are all demands of the first workers’ government experience in history, the 1871 Paris Commune.”

The TF is saying that all these democratic demands were not their invention, but were developed by the Paris Commune and since integrated into the Marxist program. That is absolutely correct. But then, they write that it is they who defend these demands as “the content of a sovereign and free Constituent Assembly”. But is it necessary, in order to defend this program of radical democratic demands, to also spread the illusion that it can be fulfilled by a bourgeois parliament? The Paris Commune, which not only raised, but also executed these demands, was par excellence an organ of workers’ power. It took the power from the hands of the exploiters and this was the precondition of its deeds. But to demand their fulfillment by a Constituent Assembly – a body which assumes the continuation of bourgeois rule – is to flirt with the “two-stage” idea of building a “radically different” bourgeois regime as a step forward to socialism. There is absolutely no identity between the Paris Commune and a Constitutional Assembly.

Let’s go back to Trotsky’s 1934 “Program of Action”. It was written when the authoritarian government of Doumergue was harshly attacking workers’ rights, while the French Fascists were gaining momentum. It is a program of transitional demands to guide the workers and was defended by the French section of the movement for the Fourth International, the Ligue Communiste. After re-reading this document we found no demand for a Constituent Assembly of any sort in it. This demand is also remarkably absent from all other Trotsky’s writings on France from that period, including all articles reprinted in “Whither France?”. What Trotsky did was to emphasize the need for workers’ and peasants’ power:

Only the laboring masses, taking their future into their own hands, in one powerful revolutionary thrust, can energetically and with iron create the necessary great power to save society from the capitalist oligarchy that corrupts it and leads it to ruin.

The task is to replace the capitalist state, which functions for the profit of the big exploiters, by the workers’ and peasants’ proletarian state. The task is to establish in this country the rule of the working people.”

The TF tries to justify their assertion on the basis of Trotsky’s demand for a “Single Assembly” in one of the points of this program. But as the TF itself recognizes, this meant the abolition of the Senate and the presidency, which at the time were ahead of the authoritarian attacks, besides the fact that the French Senate was not elected by universal suffrage then. These are the demands raised in this item of the program:

Down with the Senate, which is elected by limited suffrage and which renders the power of universal suffrage a mere illusion! Down with the presidency of the republic, which serves as a hidden point of concentration for the forces of militarism and reaction!”

Trotsky raises several democratic demands that question the limits of bourgeois democracy. Those radical democratic demands point to the corporatism and elitist character of the capitalist regime. The workers’ movement must fight for a program of this nature, even if it isn’t exactly a socialist program. The TF cannot accuse us of not raising this kind of democratic demand or of ignoring the need to defend bourgeois democracy. We also raised demands which resemble the spirit of the ones written on the “Program of Action” in our agitation in face of the recent impeachment processes against Dilma Rousseff:

Down with the ‘Anti-terror’ Law, which is meant to be used against social movements! For the dissolution of the Military Police and other repressive forces! For the right to demonstrate, a democratic right increasingly curbed by capitalist governments! Drop all charges against those who fight the injustices of capitalism!

Down with the super authority of Judge Sergio Moro and the Judiciary! For the right to elect judges and other positions of responsibility! No more privileges for the corrupt political caste: that all elected members of parliament receive only the average wage of a worker!”

We agree with Trotsky that “A more generous democracy would facilitate the struggle for workers’ power” and this is why we defend basic democratic rights. Some democratic demands can certainly be imposed during the struggle and facilitate workers’ tasks. But only the establishment of a proletarian government could seriously execute a program of radical democratic and socialist demands.

The “Program of Action” is composed of anti-capitalist demands from top to bottom. There is also a strong emphasis on the slogan for workers’ power, as in “Down with the Bourgeois ‘Authoritative State’! For Workers’ and Peasants’ Power” and “The Struggle for the Workers’ and Peasants’ Commune”. These are the organs capable of executing Trotsky’s program. The Russian revolutionary did not think that talking openly about it, even when the situation was not revolutionary, amounted to “sectarianism” or defense of a “maximum program”, as some TF comrades insinuated to us regarding our program.

Our difference with the TF lies in the fact that we do not believe that an “immediate in-depth democratic response capable of really addressing the needs and wishes of the ‘low classes’” could be “a sovereign and free Constituent Assembly”. We combine demands to defend and expand democratic rights with a transitional program adapted to the 2016 Brazilian reality. We defend the immediate unity of the working class – united front – to defeat the bosses and the government’s authoritarian laws and austerity measures. Differently from the TF, though, our “in-depth solution” to the crisis is the same as Trotsky’s: a workers’ and peasants’ government. It is an objective that the TF has in practice subordinated to the one of a bourgeois Constituent Assembly, as if it could supposedly fulfill workers’ program and interests.