6. The Slogan Calling for a Revolutionary Constituent Assembly

Let us now discuss one of the most important of the democratic slogans – the slogan calling for a Revolutionary Constituent Assembly. Historically this slogan has played a prominent role in Marxist agitation and propaganda. In its program the RCIT has defined its approach to this slogan as follows:

Where there are basic issues of political sovereignty on the agenda and there is still no awareness among the masses about the superiority of proletarian council democracy, in certain phases the slogan of a revolutionary Constituent Assembly can be important. Bolsheviks-Communists advocate that the delegates should be controllable and open to recall by its people. Thus such a Constituent Assembly cannot easily become an instrument of the ruling class, they should not be called by a bourgeois government, but by a revolutionary government of workers and peasants’ councils.[1]

In what follows we will discuss this issue more concretely and review its applicability to imperialist countries. First, what is a Constituent Assembly? Basically it is a body which is elected for the sole purpose of elaborating and deciding on the constitution of a state. It is therefore a place where the representatives of the antagonistic classes can present their different programs on how the society should be run. Marxists don’t have the illusion that socialism can be peacefully introduced via such an assembly since this is a question of power which ultimately will be decided by means of an armed confrontation between the ruling and oppressed classes. However, the Bolshevik-Communists advocate utilizing such an assembly to propagate the full program for a revolutionary transformation of the society and in this way expose the treacherous reformist and openly bourgeoisie leaders.

Historical experience has demonstrated that democratic (including economic) slogans in general and the slogan for a Constituent Assembly in particular can be posed in a revolutionary as well as in a reformist way. As we have noted above, reformists raise democratic demands as an appeal to the bourgeois state and focus on the parliamentary road instead of mobilizing the working class and poplar masses. The demand for a Constituent Assembly is usually posed by the reformists and centrists as a proposal to the ruling class to convoke such an assembly. However under such circumstances a Constituent Assembly can only be an instrument of the ruling class since it will be controlled by them.

In contrast to reformists and centrists, the Bolshevik-Communists call not for a conciliatory Constituent Assembly which can only serve to pacify the masses but rather for a Revolutionary Constituent Assembly. This means a Constituent Assembly which is convened by the fighting masses organized in councils of action and armed militias. In other words, such an assembly will be the result of a revolutionary upsurge in which the working class and the oppressed take power or at least have initiated a period of dual power.

In an article written in the midst of the 1905 Revolution in Russia Lenin explained:

The slogan of a popular Constituent Assembly, taken by itself, separately, is at the present time a slogan of the monarchist bourgeoisie, a slogan calling for a deal between the bourgeoisie and the tsarist government. Only the overthrow of the tsarist government and its replacement by a provisional revolutionary government, whose duty it will be to convene the popular Constituent Assembly, can be the slogan of the revolutionary struggle. Let the proletariat of Russia have no illusions on this score; in the din of the general excitation it is being deceived by the use of its own slogans. If we fail to match the armed force of the government with the force of an armed people, if the tsarist government is not utterly defeated and replaced by a provisional revolutionary government, every representative assembly, whatever title—“popular”, “constituent”, etc.—may be conferred upon it, will in fact be an assembly of representatives of the big bourgeoisie convened for the purpose of bargaining with the tsar for a division of power. [2]

Likewise, Trotsky emphasized this principle after the experience of the Chinese Revolution of 1925–27 and the disaster of Stalinist policy:

The slogan of the Constituent Assembly becomes an empty abstraction, often simple charlatanry, if one does not add who will convoke it and with what program. Chiang Kai-shek can raise the slogan of a Constituent Assembly against us even tomorrow, just as he has now raised his “workers’ and peasants’ program” against us. We want a Constituent Assembly convoked not by Chiang Kai-shek but by the executive committee of the workers’ and peasants’ soviets. That is the only serious and sure road. [3]

The deputies of a Revolutionary Constituent Assembly should be elected on the basis of local popular assemblies; they should be perpetually recallable by their constituents, and they should receive the salary of a skilled worker.

Needless to say socialists must decide by a concrete analysis if they should advocate the boycott of any such Constituent Assembly convened in a reactionary way or rather should take part in it in order to better utilize it to unmask it as a charade. The decisive point will be the state of the working class struggle and the class’ consciousness in the specific prevailing situation. If the working class and the popular masses still have illusions in such a reformist Constituent Assembly, socialists should not boycott it but rather stand for elections to the assembly with a revolutionary program.

Should socialists call for a Constituent Assembly if the masses have already formed soviets? This depends on the circumstances. They should do so as long as the masses have illusions in bourgeoisie democracy and don’t see proletarian democracy – i.e., the dictatorship of the proletariat based on soviets and militias – as a higher form of democracy. As we know from historical experience this can involves a fairly lengthy period of time. Even during revolutionary periods like in that of Spain in 1931–39, Portugal in 1974/75, Iran in 1979, Argentina in 2001/02, etc., the masses can retain illusions in bourgeois democracy for a long time if there is no strong revolutionary party on the scene and in situations in which they have not had the opportunity to gain experience and get rid of their (petty-)bourgeois leaderships.

Note that the formation of soviets is not in itself an indication that the masses have lost illusions in bourgeois democracy. Soviets – as mass democratic organs of struggle – usually emerge as instruments to organize the struggle. Initially the workers and oppressed usually have not reached the stage where they view soviets as organs of power. This perspective goes hand in hand with the fact that it is usually (petty-)bourgeois forces, and not revolutionary-proletarian forces, which constitute the leadership of the masses in such soviets.

In other words, for the RCIT the slogan of a Constituent Assembly is one which should mobilize the masses – still harboring illusions in bourgeois democracy – to fight for the highest possible form of democracy in the framework of bourgeois democracy. In this way, calling for the convening of a Revolutionary Constituent Assembly can serve as a democratic instrument against the ruling class and help the working class and the oppressed gain experience both organizing their own power as well as countering the treacherous policies of their class enemies.

Therefore the denunciation by ultra-left phrasemongers of the call for a Constituent Assembly, asserting as they do that such a slogan holds the masses back from fighting for socialist revolution and a workers’ government, is utter nonsense. This would only be so if socialists raised such a slogan in a situation where the working class and the oppressed have already understood the superiority of soviet democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat. As long as this is this is not the case, the struggle for democratic demands plays an extremely useful role in revolutionary agitation and propaganda. Lenin summarized the experience of the Bolsheviks as follows:

We took part in the elections to the Constituent Assembly, the Russian bourgeois parliament in September-November 1917. Were our tactics correct or not? If not, then this should be clearly stated and proved, for it is necessary in evolving the correct tactics for international communism. If they were correct, then certain conclusions must be drawn. Of course, there can be no question of placing conditions in Russia on a par with conditions in Western Europe. But as regards the particular question of the meaning of the concept that “parliamentarianism has become politically obsolete”, due account should be taken of our experience, for unless concrete experience is taken into account such concepts very easily turn into empty phrases. In September-November 1917, did we, the Russian Bolsheviks, not have more right than any Western Communists to consider that parliamentarianism was politically obsolete in Russia? Of course we did, for the point is not whether bourgeois parliaments have existed for a long time or a short time, but how far the masses of the working people are prepared (ideologically, politically and practically) to accept the Soviet system and to dissolve the bourgeois-democratic parliament (or allow it to be dissolved). It is an absolutely incontestable and fully established historical fact that, in September-November 1917, the urban working-class and the soldiers and peasants of Russia were, because of a number of special conditions, exceptionally well prepared to accept the Soviet system and to disband the most democratic of bourgeois parliaments. Nevertheless, the Bolsheviks did not boycott the Constituent Assembly, but took part in the elections both before and after the proletariat conquered political power. That these elections yielded exceedingly valuable (and to the proletariat, highly useful) political results has, I make bold to hope, been proved by me in the above-mentioned article, which analyses in detail the returns of the elections to the Constituent Assembly in Russia. The conclusion which follows from this is absolutely incontrovertible: it has been proved that, far from causing harm to the revolutionary proletariat, participation in a bourgeois-democratic parliament, even a few weeks before the victory of a Soviet republic and even after such a victory, actually helps that proletariat to prove to the backward masses why such parliaments deserve to be done away with.[4]

The contention that the slogan calling for a Constituent Assembly is only relevant for semi-colonial countries is a widespread misunderstanding on the part of many Marxists. Given the fact that the ruling classes in semi-colonial countries are less wealthy than their more mature class brothers and sisters in the imperialist metropolises, it is certainly true that the political system in these former countries are much less stable than those in the North. As a result, systematic violation of democratic rights and the existence of various forms of Bonapartist regimes or the occurrence of coup d’états are by necessity much more common in semi-colonial countries than in imperialist states. For this reason, the issues of democracy and political sovereignty – and hence the slogan calling for a Constituent Assembly – have been posed much more frequently in the South than in the North.

However, as we note above when quoting from the RCIT’s program, we nonetheless consider it as a potentially relevant slogan in situations where there are “basic issues of political sovereignty on the agenda and there is still no awareness among the masses about the superiority of proletarian council democracy.“ Potentially such conditions can as they have in the past, do in the present, and will in the future also exist in individual imperialist countries.

Leaving aside the fact that Russia itself was an imperialist state before 1917, Trotsky would later also apply the slogan calling for a Constituent Assembly to other imperialist countries like Italy and Spain. As he wrote in the context of the Spanish Revolution in 1931:

But even while boycotting Berenguer’s Cortes, the advanced workers would have to set up against it the slogan of revolutionary constituent Cortes. We must relentlessly disclose the charlatan character of the slogan of the constituent Cortes in the mouth of the “Left”, bourgeoisie, which in reality, wants a conciliationist Cortes by the grace of the king and Berenguer, for a dicker with the old ruling and privileged cliques. A genuine constituent assembly can be convoked only by a revolutionary government, as a result of a victorious insurrection of the workers, soldiers and peasants. We can and must oppose the revolutionary Cortes to the conciliationist Cortes; but to our mind, it would he incorrect at the given stage to reject the slogan of the revolutionary Cortes. To oppose the course directed towards the dictatorship of the proletariat to the problems and slogans of revolutionary democracy (republic, agrarian overturn, the separation of church and state, the confiscation of church properties, national self-determination, revolutionary constituent assembly), would be the most sorry and lifeless doctrinarism. Before the masses can seize power, they must unite around the leading proletarian party. The struggle for democratic representation, as well as for participation in the Cortes, at one or another stage of the revolution, may do an irreparable service towards the solution of this problem.[5]

Similarly, Trotsky considered applicable the slogan calling for a Constituent Assembly in Italy during the years of Mussolini’s fascist regime:

And I do not even exclude the possibility of the Constituent Assembly which in certain circumstances, could be imposed by the course of events or, more precisely, by the process of the revolutionary awakening of the oppressed masses. To be sure, on the broad historical scale that is from the perspective of a whole number of years the fate of Italy is undoubtedly reduced to the following alternative: Fascism or Communism. But to claim that this alternative has already penetrated the consciousness of the oppressed classes of the nation is to engage in wishful thinking and to consider as solved the colossal task that still fully confronts the weak Communist Party. If the revolutionary crisis were to break out, for example, in the course of the next months (under the influence of the economic crisis on the one hand, and under the revolutionary influence coming from Spain, on the other), the masses of toilers, workers as well as peasants, would certainly follow up their economic demands with democratic slogans (such as freedom of assembly, of press, of trade union organisation, democratic representation in parliament and in the municipalities). Does this mean that the Communist Party should reject these demands? On the contrary. It will have to invest them with the most audacious and resolute character possible. For the proletarian dictatorship cannot be imposed upon the popular masses. It can be realised only by carrying on a battle - a battle in full - for all the transitional demands, requirements, and needs of the masses, and at the head of the masses.

It should be recalled here that Bolshevism by no means came to power under the abstract slogan of the dictatorship of the proletariat. We fought for the Constituent Assembly much more boldly than all the other parties. We said to the peasants: "You demand equal distribution of the land? Our agrarian programme goes much further. But no one except us will assist you in achieving equal use of the land. For this you must support the workers". In regard to the war we said to the popular masses: "Our communist task is to war against all oppressors. But you are not ready to go so far. You are striving to escape from the imperialist war. No one but the Bolsheviks will help you achieve this".[6]

Is the slogan calling for a Constituent Assembly applicable today only for semi-colonial countries? We don’t think so. Has the working class in the imperialist countries already overcome its illusions in bourgeois democracy? Only a political lunatic would claims so.

Is the slogan calling for a Constituent Assembly applicable today only for countries ruled by a dictatorship or fascism? We don’t think so. Even in countries with bourgeois democracy, democratic issues can still certainly be – as they have been many times in the past – extremely relevant for the working class in the North. As the increasing attacks on democratic rights in the present period demonstrate, this is definitely the case today. Let us recall that the Bolsheviks continued to raise the slogan for a Constituent Assembly even after February 1917 when Russia had become the most democratic bourgeois democracy the world had ever seen and they even organized the convening of such an assembly after the successful seizure of power. In a similar way Trotsky raised radical demands to democratize the bourgeois parliament in France in 1934 (see below), i.e. in a country which had a long tradition of bourgeois democracy.

In countries like China and Russia where bourgeois democracy does not exist at all or does so only to a limited degree, the slogan for a Revolutionary Constituent Assembly is today absolutely relevant. In the old imperialist countries too this slogan could also become relevant in particular situations. No, there is absolutely no reason from a Marxist point to exclude, as a matter of principle, the slogan calling for a Revolutionary Constituent Assembly from the democratic program for permanent revolution in the imperialist countries.


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Furthermore it is important to recognize that even after having integrated the slogan calling for a Constituent Assembly into the democratic program, this does not necessarily mean that this slogan always stands at the center of the party’s agitation. This can only be decided by a concrete analysis of a given political situation. In countries characterized by Bonapartist or dictatorial regimes or in which political instability and dependency of foreign powers pose by its very nature the issue of the political constitution, it is clear that the slogan for a Revolutionary Constituent Assembly has a permanent relevance. In countries with more stable, bourgeois democratic conditions, this slogan can gain agitational significance only in situations of acute political crisis, when the masses still retain illusions in bourgeois democracy.

Similarly, to decide on the tactical applicability of such a slogan it is crucial to determine what the focal points of the class struggle are and how far class consciousness of the proletariat has advanced. For example in Spain, after the monarchy was overthrown in January 1930, Trotsky emphasized the importance of the slogan for a Revolutionary Constituent Assembly. In this period, the political life was focused on the question of the political constitution of the country. By 1936 this had changed insofar as the working class had moved massively to the left and put all its hopes on the Popular Front government. In such a situation, the Constituent Assembly slogan would have rather deflected from the crucial issue of the break-up of the popular front, and the establishment of Soviets and a workers and peasant government. France experienced a similar development between 1934 and 1936/37.


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Finally, we want to discuss an interesting application by Trotsky of the revolutionary-democratic program to a bourgeois-democratic imperialist country. In 1934 Trotsky collaborated closely with his French comrades on the elaboration of an Action Program for France which was subsequently published in June 1934. At that time France was an imperialist state with a parliamentary system. The crisis of the political system discredited by scandals around corrupt politicians in addition to the deep social and economic crisis, and the increasing political polarization of the country (fascist provocation on 6 February 1934, anti-fascist general strike of the working class on 12 February, etc.) – all this opened a pre-revolutionary situation. [7]

In such a situation, Trotsky elaborated a Transitional Program applied to France’s national conditions. One of the chapters of this program (titled “For a Single Assembly”) is dedicated to the issue of the bourgeois parliamentary system. While Trotsky does not raise the demand for a Constituent Assembly, he does raise the demand for a more democratic bourgeois parliament. Starting from the premises that the majority of the working class still retains illusions in bourgeois democracy and that the issue of political sovereignty was a crucial question in this period, Trotsky called revolutionaries to offer these workers a united front in the defense of bourgeois democracy against any reactionary attacks. At the same time, he proposed to these workers to fight for democratic reforms of the parliamentary system. [8]

Meanwhile, as long as the majority of the working class continues on the basis of bourgeois democracy, we are ready to defend it with all our forces against violent attacks from the Bonapartist and fascist bourgeoisie.

However, we demand from our class brothers who adhere to ‘democratic’ socialism that they be faithful to their ideas, that they draw inspiration from the ideas and methods not of the Third Republic but of the Convention of 1793.

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!

A single assembly must combine the legislative and executive powers. Members would be elected for two years, by universal suffrage at eighteen years of age, with no discrimination of sex or nationality. Deputies would be elected on the basis of local assemblies, constantly revocable by their constituents, and would receive the salary of a skilled worker. (Emphasis in the Original)

Trotsky combined this with an application of the united front tactic vis-à-vis the social democratic party SFIO in order to win them over to authentic Marxism. This included the defence of a social democratic government against any attack by the bourgeoisie.

If, during the course of the implacable struggle against the enemy, the party of “democratic” socialism (SFIO), from which we are separated by irreconcilable differences in doctrine and method, were to gain the confidence of the majority, we are and always will be ready to defend an SFIO government against the bourgeoisie. We want to attain our objective not by armed conflicts between the various groups of toilers but by real workers’ democracy, by propaganda and loyal criticism, by the voluntary regrouping of the great majority of the proletariat under the flag of true communism.

At the same time, Trotsky made clear that even such a “democratized” parliament could not alter the rule of the capitalist class. However, a more democratic capitalist system would help the working class to gain experience with the rottenness of capitalist democracy and also provide conditions to advance its combative and organizational capacities. Trotsky wrote:

Workers adhering to democratic socialism must further understand that it is not enough to defend democracy; democracy must be regained. The moving of the political center of gravity from parliament towards the cabinet, from the cabinet towards the oligarchy of finance capital, generals, police, is an accomplished fact. Neither the present parliament nor the new elections can change this. We can defend the sorry remains of democracy, and especially we can enlarge the democratic arena for the activity of the masses only by annihilating the armed fascist forces that, on February 6, 1934, started moving the axis of the state and are still doing so.[9]

This example shows that Bolsheviks do not disregard the struggle for democratic rights in the imperialist countries but that they are rather the most consistent, most dedicated fighters for democratic rights. It is not coincidental that the Bolsheviks often called themselves “consistent democrats”.

Trotsky elaboration on the democratization of parliamentarism in an imperialist country is an instructive example of how to apply the democratic program of permanent revolution. Again, it would be completely wrong to imagine that such demands would distract the consciousness of the working class from their socialist goals. As long as the workers do not already possess a socialist consciousness and still retain illusions in bourgeois democracy, revolutionary-democratic demands – combined with slogans for the creation of soviet-like organizations and propaganda for a workers government – can only advance their class consciousness. At the same time Bolshevik-Communists must educate the vanguard about the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Hence we think that the democratic program of the permanent revolution in the imperialist countries must also integrate demands which aim towards the democratization of the existing bourgeois-democratic institution. Among these are the abolition of all Bonapartist elements (like abolition of the presidency, of the secret service, etc.), the eligibility of all to fill positions of state functionaries, shortening of parliamentary terms, etc. We do not raise such demands because we believe that bourgeois democracy can gradually be transformed into socialism. Rather we do so because we consider this as a necessary tactic to destroy illusions about bourgeois democracy among the working class and because we support each step which improves the conditions for the working class to organize and fight.

[1] RCIT: The Revolutionary Communist Manifesto (2012), p. 46, http://www.thecommunists.net/rcit-manifesto/revolutionary-struggle-for-democracy/

[2] V. I. Lenin: The Democratic Tasks of the Revolutionary Proletariat (1905); in: LCW Vol. 8, p. 517

[3] Leon Trotsky: The Chinese Revolution and the Theses of Comrade Stalin, in: Leon Trotsky: Problems of the Chinese Revolution, Pioneer Publisher, New York 1932, p. 32

[4] V.I. Lenin: ‘Left-Wing’ Communism— An Infantile Disorder, in: LCW Vol. 31, pp. 59-60. Similarly, Trotsky wrote: „Proclaiming the slogan of the democratic dictatorship the Sixth Congress at the same time condemned democratic slogans as impermissible (constituent assembly, universal suffrage, freedom of speech and of the press, etc.) and thereby completely disarmed the Chinese Communist Party in the face of the dictatorship of the military oligarchy. For a long number of years, the Russian Bolsheviks had mobilized the workers and peasants around democratic slogans. Democratic slogans played a big role in 1917. Only after the Soviet power had actually come into existence and clashed politically with the Constituent Assembly, irreconcilably and in full view of the entire people, did our party liquidate the institutions and slogans of formal democracy, that is, bourgeois democracy, in favour of real soviet democracy, that is, proletarian democracy.“ (Leon Trotsky: The Permanent Revolution (1929), Pathfinder Press, New York 1969, p. 140)

[5] Leon Trotsky: The Revolution in Spain (1931); in: Leon Trotsky: The Spanish revolution (1931-39), Pathfinder Press, New York 1973, p. 79 (Emphasis in the Original)

[6] Leon Trotsky: Problems of the Italian Revolution (1930); in Trotsky Writings 1930, pp. 224-225

[7] See e.g. Leon Trotsky: On France, Pathfinder Press, New York 1979; Roger Magraw: France, in: Stephen Salter and John Stevenson (Editor): The Working Class and Politics in Europe and America 1929-1945, Longman House, New York 1990, pp. 62-98; Michael Seidman: Workers Resistance to Work in Paris and Barcelona during the Popular Fronts; Irwin M. Wall: The French Popular Front: A Reconsideration, both in: Wolfgang Maderthaner, Helmut Gruber (Editor): Chance und Illussion. Labor in Retreat, Europa Verlag, Wien 1988, pp. 305-342; Jaques Danos, Marcel Gibelin: Die Volksfront in Frankreich. Generalstreik und Linksregierung im Juni 1936, Junius Verlag, Hamburg 1982.

[8] Leon Trotsky: A Program of Action for France (1934); in: Trotsky Writings 1934-35, Pathfinder Press, New York 1974, pp. 31-32 (our emphasis).

[9] Ibid