Max Shachtman


The Constituent Assembly

(January 1949)

Extract from Max Shachtman, Under the Banner of Marxism, Bulletin of the Workers Party, Vol. IV No. 1 (Part II), 14 January 1949, pp. 78–83.
An abridged version is included in the Workers’ Liberty book The Fate of the Russian Revolution: Lost Texts of Critical Marxism, Vol. 1.
Additional transcription by Einde O’Callaghan (indicated by square brackets).
The complete 120-page document is Shachtman’s response to a document written by his long-time collaborator, Ernest Erber, to explain his decision to resign from the Workers Party.
Marked up by A. Forse & Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

But what about the Constituent Assembly – didn’t the Bolsheviks demand that it be convened and then, after tricking the workers into giving them power on the basis of this democratic slogan, didn’t these same Bolsheviks disperse the Assembly when it did convene? This brings us to Erber’s second pontifical bull against the Bolsheviks, the second error which brought about the subsequent 30 years’ horror. And for a second time, Erber is counting on the possibility that his reader’s ignorance is greater than his own.

The Bolsheviks, along with the Left Social Revolutionists, did indeed disperse the Constituent Assembly. But this means that they refused to disperse or dissolve the revolutionary workers’ and peasants’ Soviet government in favor of a counter-revolutionary and unrepresentative parliament. That’s the first point and the main point!

What was the revolutionary Soviet power? It was “far from ... a coup d’etat,” it was the triumphant revolution of the “teeming, creative, democratic Soviets” which “broke through the impasse and opened a road toward a solution of the land and peace questions.” This impasse was broken through against the opposition and resistance not only of Kornilov and Kerensky, but above all of the Mensheviks and SRs. The workers and the peasants, in their democratic Soviets, repudiated the two old parties and their leadership. They turned to the leadership of the left wing of the SRs and above all the leadership of Lenin’s party, because – we are still quoting from the Wise One – “only the Bolshevik Party was able to show the way.” That way was lined with the slogan, was it not, of “All Power to the Soviets!”

What was the Constituent Assembly that finally convened in 1918, after the Soviet revolution? It was a faint and belated echo of an outlived and irrevocable political situation. It was less representative and less democratic than the Kerensky regime had been during most of its short life. During most of its existence, the Kerensky regime was supported by the bulk of the workers, soldiers, and peasants who were democratically organized in their Soviets. It was supported by the Menshevik and SR parties and party leaderships which, at that time, dominated the soviets, had their confidence and support, and represented (more or less) the actual stage of political development and thinking of the masses at the time. Given the change in the political development and thinking of the masses, this regime had to go, says the Wise and Stern One.

But what did the Constituent Assembly represent when it finally came together, despite the months of Kerenskyite, Menshevik and SR sabotage? It was elected on the basis of outlived party lists. It was elected by a working class and peasantry that – politically speaking – no longer existed. The SR party, which held about half the seats, had already split in two. But while the official party, controlled by the right wing, held most of these seats, the new left-wing SR party which was collaborating with the Bolsheviks in the Soviet power and which already had or was rapidly gaining the support of the great majority of the peasants, held very few of the SR seats. The official SR list had been voted by the peasants before the tremendous revolutionary shift had taken place in their ranks. The official SR peasant supporters no longer existed in anything like the same number that had, earlier, cast their vote for the party list. Substantially the same thing held true for the Menshevik group in the Assembly, which represented the votes of workers who had since turned completely against the Mensheviks and given their allegiance to the parties of the Soviet Power, the Bolsheviks or the Left SRs. The composition of the Assembly, on the day it met, no longer corresponded even approximately to the political division in the country. The sentiments and aspirations of the masses had changed radically since the party lists for the Assembly were first drawn up and after the voting had taken place. By its composition, we repeat, the Assembly was less representative than the Kerensky government in its heyday.

It is not surprising, then, that the Constituent Assembly turned out to be a counterrevolutionary parliament. The Bolsheviks and the Left SRs called upon the parties of the Assembly to recognize the Soviet Power. The Mensheviks and right-wing SRs, to say nothing of the bourgeois Kadets, refused. Understandably! They had opposed the democratic slogans which brought about the revolution. They had brought the revolution against the monarchy to an impasse. They resisted tooth and nail the attempts to “open a road toward a solution of the land and peace questions.” They had opposed the slogan of “All Power to the Soviets!” Their leadership had been repudiated and overturned by the “teeming, creative, democratic Soviets” which turned to the Bolsheviks as the “only” ones able to show the way. They had “subordinated the aims of the Revolution to the imperialist program of the bourgeoisie.” They capped this not very glorious, not very socialist, not very democratic record by presenting a little amendment to the Soviet Power, namely, that it give up power and all claim to power, and take its orders henceforward from them! They asked the revolution to renounce itself, dig its own grave, jump into it and cover itself with earth hallowed by bourgeois democracy. From its very beginning, the Constituent Assembly declared war upon the Soviet Power.

Erber, the democrat, is merciless in his criticism of the Bolsheviks for dispersing the counterrevolutionary Assembly. But nowhere does he even indicate that what was involved was the demand by the Assembly to disperse and dissolve the revolutionary Soviet Government installed by the “teeming, creative, democratic Soviets of 1917”! Erber is for the Soviets so long as they confine themselves to teeming, but not if they exercize their democratic rights and mission to create a proletarian, socialist power. What is the difference between the Russian Assembly, which he accepts, and the German Scheidemann whom, he says, he rejects? Only this: Scheidemann succeeded in crushing the German Soviets and the Assembly failed to crush the Russian Soviets – that’s all.

It may be asked: “Even if it is granted that this Assembly was unrepresentative, why didn’t the Bolsheviks call for new elections which would have made possible the convocation of a parliament corresponding democratically to the political division in the country?”

The Bolsheviks preferred the Soviet (Commune-type) form of government to the parliamentary form from the standpoint of the working class and democracy and as the only state form under which the transition to socialism could be achieved. The Bolsheviks did not invent the Soviets, they did not create them. The Soviets developed spontaneously among the masses and, without asking anybody’s approval, became organs for the defence of the demands of the masses and organs of power. The wisdom and superiority of the Bolsheviks consisted in understanding the full meaning and social potentiality of these democratic organs which they themselves did not fabricate artificially but which they found at hand as a natural product of the revolution. Among the Bolsheviks, it was Lenin who understood them best. His views were not concealed, hidden in his pocket to be brought out only after the masses had been tricked into giving the Bolsheviks state power. Immediately upon his return to Russia, Lenin saw that the Soviets were already a state power, a unique power, dual to the official state power and in immanent conflict with it. Almost the first words he wrote on the subject (Pravda, April 22, 1917) were these:

“It is a power entirely different from that generally to be found in the parliamentary bourgeois-democratic republics of the usual type still prevailing in the advanced countries of Europe and America. This circumstance is often forgotten, often not reflected on, yet it is the crux of the matter. This power is of exactly the same type as the Paris Commune of 1871. The fundamental characteristics of this type are: (1) the source of power is not a law previously discussed and enacted by parliament, but the direct initiative of the masses from below, in their localities – outright ‘usurpation’, to use a current expression; (2) the direct arming of the whole people in place of the police and the army, which are institutions separated from the people and opposed to the people; order in the state under such a power is maintained by the armed workers and peasants themselves, by the armed people itself; (3) officials and bureaucrats are either replaced by the direct rule of the people itself or at least placed under special control; they not only become elected officials, but are also subject to recall at the first demand of the people; they are reduced to the position of simple agents; from a privileged stratum occupying “posts” remunerated on a high-bourgeois scale, they become workers of a special ‘branch’, remunerated at a salary not exceeding the ordinary pay of a competent worker.

This, and this alone, constitutes the essence of the Paris Commune as a specific type of state”.

Lenin prized the Soviet type of state, from the very beginning of the revolution, for its superiority from the standpoint of the workers and of genuine democracy. His view on the Constituent Assembly, furthermore, is most concisely and clearly set forth in the first two of his theses on the subject:

“1. The demand for the convocation of a Constituent Assembly was a perfectly legitimate part of the program of revolutionary Social Democracy, because in a bourgeois republic a Constituent Assembly represents the highest form of democracy and because, in setting up a parliament, the imperialist republic which was headed by Kerensky was preparing to fake the elections and violate democracy in a number of ways.

“2. While demanding the convocation of a Constituent Assembly, revolutionary Social Democracy has ever since the beginning of the revolution of 1917 repeatedly emphasized that a republic of Soviets is a higher form of democracy than the usual bourgeois republic with a Constituent Assembly”.

Lenin wrote his views about the Soviets, and repeatedly stated that “Humanity has not yet evolved and we do not as yet know of a type of government superior to and better than the Soviets of Workers’, Agricultural Laborers’, Peasants’ and Soldiers’ Deputies,” not after the Soviets had rallied to the support of his party, but from the very start, in April, when the Soviets were overwhelmingly under the leadership and control of the Mensheviks and SRs, with the Bolsheviks as a small minority among them. Lenin wrote his views on the Soviets and the Constituent Assembly, on the Commune type of state and the parliamentary type of state, for the entire political public to see and read. Anyone able to understand anything in politics was able to understand Lenin.

Once the Soviet power had been established with the decisive support of the masses of workers and peasants, the Constituent Assembly could not represent anything more than a throwback to bourgeois democracy, a throwback in the course of which the new Soviet power would have to be crushed, as it was crushed later on in Germany, Bavaria, Austria and Hungary. To have tried to bring into life a “good” bourgeois parliament when life had already made a reality of a far more democratic form of government established by the masses themselves and enjoying their support and confidence, would have meant a victory for reaction. That in the first place.

In the second place, we do not hesitate to say that, abstractly, a second and a third or fourth attempt to establish a more democratic parliament, could not be ruled out as impossible, or unnecessary, or contrary to the interests of the working class – abstractly. Similarly, you cannot rule out a decision by the revolutionists themselves, under certain circumstances, to dissolve Soviets that came into existence under different circumstances. The Soviets may be too weak to take supreme power in a country but strong enough to prevent the bourgeoisie and the petty-bourgeois parties from consolidating their power on a reactionary basis; the bourgeoisie may be too weak to crush the Soviets but strong enough to hold on to its rule. The revolutionists or the Soviets may not enjoy sufficient popular support; the bourgeoisie may hesitate before a civil war in which everything is at stake. Decisive sections of the people may believe insistently in the possibility of finding a solution in a more democratic parliamentary system and at the same time refuse to allow the new proletarian democracy to be destroyed. History knows all sort of combinations of circumstances and is very fertile in creating new combinations. How long it would be possible for revolutionary Soviets (a semi-state) to exist side by side with an uncertain bourgeois parliament (another semi-state) under any and all conceivable circumstances, cannot be answered categorically or in advance. All we need to say is this: there are historical laws of revolution, we know these laws, and we also know that there have been and will probably continue to be exceptions to these laws.

However, it is not this abstract question that is being discussed, important though it is in its own right. We are not saying that in every socialist revolution, regardless of the country, the period, the economic and political conditions in which it develops, Soviets will arise; or if they do that they will develop just the way they did in Russia, that the workers’ organs will come into existence in head-on conflict with the bourgeois parliamentary system, that these workers’ organs will have to disperse or dissolve the parliament in the same way that we saw in Russia, that the bourgeoisie will have to be overturned by violence, that the ousted bourgeoisie is absolutely certain to resist with armed force, that a civil war is absolutely inevitable. It is conceivable that the rise of the socialist proletariat is so swift, mighty and irresistible; that the economy is in such a state of disorder and the bourgeoisie in such a demoralized, depressed and hopeless state, that it decides to throw in its hand without a real fight. It is conceivable that under such or similar circumstances the classical bourgeois parliament can be so drastically revised from within its own organs that it becomes transformed into something radically different. All laws, including historical laws, have their exceptions. But again, that is not what we are discussing here. We are discussing what actually happened in the Russian Revolution.

And what actually happened, that is, the way the social and political forces actually meshed and drew apart and clashed in Russia during the revolution, shows that the Bolsheviks acted as revolutionary socialists in the struggle around the Constituent Assembly and not like political science professors drawing diagrams on a high school blackboard.

Which brings us to the third place – the political reality. Once the Soviets took power, the counter-revolution instantly adopted the slogan of the Constituent Assembly even before the Constituent actually convened. The true representatives of the classes regarded neither the Soviets nor the Constituent Assembly as abstractions. For the reaction as well as for the petty-bourgeois democracy (each from its own standpoint), the Constituent Assembly became the rallying cry, the banner, the instrument for the struggle to overthrow the Soviet Power of the workers and peasants, which also meant to overthrow all the achievements obtained by this power and expected from it. The conflict between “Soviet” and “Assembly” on the blackboard is one thing. In the Russia of 1917–1918, it was a violent and irreconcilable conflict between the classes. In Erber’s document, it need hardly be added, the class struggle does not exist. Or if it does, why, it can easily be straightened out by men of good will. The Assembly demanded the capitulation of the Soviets; it could not exist without such a capitulation. Men of good will were of little use in this conflict. A civil war broke out and, as the German phrase has it, the weapon of criticism gave way to the criticism of weapons.

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