By Michael Pröbsting, International Secretary of the Revolutionary Communist International Tendency (RCIT), 24 November 2017, www.thecommunists.net
The present political crisis in Zimbabwe opened up on 13 November with the military coup led by General Chiwenga and resulted in the fall of Mugabe. As our comrades in the RCIT’s Africa Secretariat explained in their statements on the Zimbabwe crisis, this coup represents primarily a power struggle inside the ruling elite and its ZANU-PF party. Under such circumstances, socialists cannot support any of the rivaling camps. (1) Currently it looks like that the faction around former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa will succeed in appropriating power.
Among a number of tactics, the RCIT has also raised the slogan of a Revolutionary Constituent Assembly. In our statement of 15 November, we defined such an assembly as “a democratic body with delegates who are controllable by those who elected them and who are open to recall by their constituents. The assembly’s role will be to debate and decide on a new constitution. It must not be controlled by the ruling class which would only manipulate it in its interests, but it should be convened and protected by workers’ and popular militias against any intimidation of reactionary forces.”
In discussions with socialists in Zimbabwe some comrades have expressed reservations about the slogan of a Revolutionary Constituent Assembly. Hence, we want to elaborate in this article our considerations why we think it is appropriate to raise this slogan in the current situation. We refer those readers, who are interested in a more detailed explanation of the RCIT’s approach to the slogan of a Revolutionary Constituent Assembly, to several essays which we have published in our journals. (2)
Transfer of Power within the Ruling Elite
All reports from the ground indicate that currently the popular masses hope for an end of the authoritarian regime. After 37 years of Mugabe’s regime which led to the killing, imprisonment and torture of tens of thousands of opponents, it is clear that the popular masses hope for “a new era” as many people say. (3) Indeed Mnangagwa tries to channel these hopes into support for his regime.
However, it is clear that Mnangagwa is flesh from Mugabe’s flesh. The “Ngwena” ("the crocodile" in Shona language), as Mnangagwa is often called, had been Mugabe’s chief lieutenant in all those 37 years of dictatorship. His regime represents the continuation of the Mugabeist state apparatus without Mugabe. The differences between the successful Crocodile faction and the loosing “G40” faction led by Mugabe’s wife Grace centered on one hand around the question who should be the successor of the 93-year old President. On the other hand, Mugabe became an increasingly instable ruler which led China as the dominating imperialist power in Zimbabwe to secretly support the coup of Mnangagwa and General Chiwenga. (4)
The Constituent Assembly as a Revolutionary-Democratic Slogan
It is the task of socialists in Zimbabwe to relate to the hopes and illusions of the popular masses. While it is clear that the coup represented a power struggle inside the ruling elite which for now succeeded in transferring power to another figure of the ZANU-PF party, it has also become obvious that this crisis provoked a political awakening of the masses. Naturally, given the lack of independent political experience after decades of dictatorship, the workers and rural poor still have many illusions.
However, the task of socialists is not to arrogantly lecture the masses about their “backward” illusions (that would be serious ultra-left error) but to develop slogans which relate to their current hopes and which could help them to begin independent political activities.
One of such slogans, among others, is the Revolutionary Constituent Assembly. Such an assembly represents the highest form of democracy inside the boundaries of capitalism.
Why the highest form? Because such a body has the power to discuss a new constitution and hence all issues of political, economic and social life. This is why the slogan of a Constituent Assembly played such an important role in numerous revolutions starting from the French Revolution in 1789 to the Russian Revolutions in 1905 and 1917 up to today as we saw in various Latin American countries.
True, the ruling class will always attempt to control and manipulate such an assembly. However, this danger exists with all minimum and democratic slogans which we raise and which we have to raise as long as capitalism exists. For example, higher wages can be countered by the capitalists by rising prices. More formal democratic rights can be made ineffective by the ruling class by increasing subtle repression and manipulation.
The answer to this is not to renounce the use of such minimum and democratic slogans but to raise them in a revolutionary and not in a reformist way. This means that we raise such slogans not as appeals to the ruling class or in a way which would leave the control over the implementation of an assembly (or any other democratic measure) to them. We rather call the masses to fight for more democracy on the streets, workplaces and neighborhoods by the means of mass demonstrations, strikes, etc. We call for a Constituent Assembly which would be under the control of the armed and organized popular masses. Such an assembly would tremendously weaken the ruling class and open the road for a revolutionary transformation.
Under which Conditions Should Socialists Renounce the Call for a Constituent Assembly?
In our opinion, socialists should renounce calling for a Constituent Assembly only under two conditions: 1) If the popular masses have already overcome their illusions in bourgeois democracy and fight for a higher form of democracy, working class democracy expressed in councils (“Soviets” as they were called in Russia); 2) If such councils (“Soviets”) already exist so that replacing bourgeois democracy with socialist democracy is a task of today.
Neither of these conditions exist today in Zimbabwe. In fact, after 37 years of dictatorship, it is only natural that the masses have huge illusions in bourgeois democracy. Likewise, there are no soviets anywhere in Zimbabwe today which again is hardly surprising given the repressive political conditions.
The Marxist Classics on the Slogan for a Constituent Assembly
The Bolsheviks under Lenin and later the Fourth International led by Trotsky always emphasized the importance of the slogan of the Constituent Assembly. They made clear that while revolutionaries ultimately fight for a workers and peasant republic, they have to utilize all tactics which will weaken the ruling class and strengthening the combat power of the oppressed masses. In his famous book ‘Left-Wing’ Communism - An Infantile Disorder, Lenin explained:
“We did not proclaim a boycott of the bourgeois parliament, the Constituent Assembly, but said—and following the April (1917) Conference of our Party began to state officially in the name of the Party—that a bourgeois republic with a Constituent Assembly would be better than a bourgeois republic without a Constituent Assembly, but that a “workers’ and peasants’” republic, a Soviet republic, would be better than any bourgeois-democratic, parliamentary republic. Without such thorough, circumspect and long preparations, we could not have achieved victory in October 1917, or have consolidated that victory.” (5)
The masses will be convinced of the necessity of a socialist revolution primarily not by the revolutionaries’ propaganda but rather by their own experience with the limitations of bourgeois democracy. Hence, Trotsky explained to his co-fighters that it is crucial for revolutionaries not to dogmatically counterpose radical socialist slogans to the existing mass consciousness (which usually contains many illusions) but rather to develop democratic slogans which relate to this consciousness:
“The democratic slogans contain for a certain period not only illusions, not only deception, but also an animating historical force. (…) From the political point of view, the question of formal democracy is for us not only that of the attitude to be observed towards the petty-bourgeois masses, but also towards the worker masses, to the extent that the latter have not yet acquired a revolutionary class consciousness. (…) In any case, these results were not attained by simply opposing the soviets to the Constituent Assembly, but by drawing the masses towards the soviets while maintaining the slogans of formal democracy up to the very moment of the conquest of power and even after it.” (6)
Given the fact that the slogan of a Constituent Assembly touches the issue of power, Trotsky spoke in this context explicitly about “transitional revolutionary-democratic slogans“. In the case of China at the end of the 1920s, he considered the slogan of a Constituent Assembly as such a crucial transitional demand:
”The struggle against the military dictatorship must inevitable assume the form of transitional revolutionary-democratic demands, leading to the demand for a Chinese Constituent Assembly on the basis of universal direct, equal, and secret voting, for the solution of the most important problems facing the country: the introduction of the eight-hour day, the confiscation of the land, and the securing of national independence for China“(7)
Based on the experience of the Chinese Revolution of 1925–27 and the disaster of Stalinist policy, Trotsky also emphasized that it is crucial to raise the slogan of the Constituent Assembly not as an appeal to the ruling class but as an organizing slogan for the workers and poor peasants.
”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.“ (8)
In summary, we think that the positive application of the slogan of the Revolutionary Constituent Assembly by our comrades in the RCIT’s Africa Secretariat is an appropriate tactic for Zimbabwe under the present circumstances. We look forward to discuss the thoughts and criticism of socialist comrades in Zimbabwe.
(1) See RCIT and ELA (Zambia): Zimbabwe: The Fall of Mugabe – Victory for the Masses or for the Military-ZANU-PF Alliance? 22.11.2017, https://www.thecommunists.net/worldwide/africa-and-middle-east/zimbabwe-after-the-resignation-of-mugabe/; RCIT: Zimbabwe: Down with the Military Coup! No to the dynastic Mugabe Regime! For Independent Workers’ and Poor Mobilisations! For Action Committees of the Workers, Poor Peasants and Soldiers to Advance the Struggle against All Factions of the Ruling Elite! 15.11.2017, https://www.thecommunists.net/worldwide/africa-and-middle-east/against-mugabe-and-military-coup-in-zimbabwe/
(2) See e.g. Michael Pröbsting: The Struggle for Democracy in the Imperialist Countries Today. The Marxist Theory of Permanent Revolution and its Relevance for the Imperialist Metropolises, in: Revolutionary Communism, No. 39, August 2015, https://www.thecommunists.net/theory/democracy-vs-imperialism/ (see in particular chapter 6 and 8); Michael Pröbsting: The Coup d‘État in Egypt and the Bankruptcy of the Left’s “Army Socialism”, in: Revolutionary Communism, No. 13, September 2013, https://www.thecommunists.net/theory/egypt-and-left-army-socialism/ (see in particular chapter IV)
(3) To give just one example: the notorious Gukurahundi massacre, directed against the rivaling ZAPU movement and their supporters among the Ndebele civilians, resulted in the killing of about 20,000 people in 1983/84.
(4) See e.g. Simon Tisdall: Zimbabwe: was Mugabe's fall a result of China flexing its muscle? The 21st century’s new global superpower is not just Zimbabwe’s ‘all-weather friend’ and top trade partner, close ties go back to the 1970s liberation era, 17 November 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/nov/17/zimbabwe-was-mugabes-fall-a-result-of-china-flexing-its-muscle; Tom Phillips: Zimbabwe army chief's trip to China last week raises questions on coup. General met Chinese military leaders and defence minister in Beijing on eve of move against Robert Mugabe, 16 November 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/nov/16/zimbabwe-army-chief-trip-china-last-week-questions-coup
(5) V.I. Lenin: ‘Left-Wing’ Communism - An Infantile Disorder, in: LCW Vol. 31, p. 31
(6) Leon Trotsky: The Chinese Question After the Sixth Congress (1928), in: Leon Trotsky: Problems of the Chinese Revolution, Pioneer Publisher, New York 1932, pp. 192-193, http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1932/pcr/08.htm
(7) Leon Trotsky: The Political Situation in China and the Tasks of the Bolshevik-Leninist Opposition (1929); Trotsky: Writings 1929, p. 149 (Emphasis in the Original)
(8) Leon Trotsky: The Chinese Revolution and the Theses of Comrade Stalin (1927), in: Leon Trotsky: Problems of the Chinese Revolution, Pioneer Publisher, New York 1932, p. 32, https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1932/pcr/01.htm