Leon Trotsky


Breaking Up the Constituent Assembly

A FEW days, if not hours, after the October revolution, Lenin raised the question of the Constituent Assembly.

“We must postpone the elections,” he declared.

“We must enlarge the suffrage by giving it to those who are eighteen years old. We must make possible a new arrangement of the electoral lists. Our own lists are worthless, a crowd of intellectuals who have hastened here, while we need the workmen and peasants. The Kornilof men and the Cadets we must declare outside the law.”

The answer was, “Postponement is unfavorable just now. It will be looked upon as a liquidation of the Constituent Assembly the more so because we ourselves reproached the Provisional Government with putting off the Constituent Assembly.”

“Ah, that is folly,” Lenin replied. “Bring up important facts, not words. As far as the Provisional Government is concerned the Constituent Assembly would have meant a step forward, or at least might have meant it; as far as the Soviet power is concerned, and especially with the present electoral lists, it will unquestionably mean a step backwards. Why is postponement unfavorable now? And if the Constituent Assembly is Cadet, Menshevist Social Revolutionary, – is that favorable?”

“But we shall be stronger then,” others demurred. “For the moment we are still too weak. In the country they know almost nothing of the Soviet power. And if the news penetrates there now, that we have postponed the Constituent Assembly it would weaken us still more.” Sverdlof, who had more connection with the country than any of us, was particularly opposed to a postponement of the elections.

Lenin kept to his position without any support. He shook his head in dissatisfaction and repeated, “It is a mistake, an open mistake, that may cost us very dear! If it only does not cost the revolution its head ...”

When, however, the decision – not to postpone! – was made, Lenin gave his whole attention to the organizing measures connected with the meeting of the Constituent Assembly.

It turned out that we would be in the minority, even with the entrance of the Left Social Revolutionaries, who figured on the same lists with the Rights and were quite overcome with illusions.

“Naturally we must break up the Constituent Assembly,” said Lenin, “but then what about the Left Social Revolutionaries?”

Old Natanson comforted us very much. He came to us “to talk it over,” and after the first words said, “Well, as far as I am concerned, if it comes to that point, break up the Constituent Assembly with force.”

“Bravo,” exclaimed Lenin with joy, “what is right, must remain right. But will your party agree?”

“Some of us are wavering, but I believe that in the end they will agree,” Natanson answered.

The Left Social Revolutionaries were at that time in the honeymoon of the most extreme radicalism and actually did agree. “But if we cannot act so,” Natanson suggested, “we will unite your faction and ours of the Constituent Assembly in a Central Executive Committee, and in this way form a convention.”

“Why?” Lenin replied, visibly annoyed. “To imitate the French revolution, is that it? By breaking up the Constituent Assembly we confirm the Soviet system. But your plan would put everything in confusion: neither one thing nor another.”

Natanson attempted to prove that, by his plan, we would concentrate on ourselves a part of the authority of the Constituent Assembly, but he soon yielded.

Lenin occupied himself intensively with the question of the constituents.

“It is an open mistake,” he said. “We have already gained the power and now we have put ourselves in a situation that forces military measures upon us to gain the power anew.”

He carried on the preparatory work with the greatest care, weighed all the details, and subjected Urizky, who to his great sorrow had been appointed commissar of the Constituent Assembly, to a painful examination. Among other things Lenin ordered the transfer to Petrograd of one of the Lettish regiments consisting almost entirely of workingmen.

“The peasant may hesitate in this case,” he said. “Proletarian decision is necessary here.”

The Bolshevist deputies of the Constituent Assembly came from all ends of Russia and, at Lenin’s insistence and Sverdlof’s direction, were assigned to the factories, industrial works, and army corps. They formed an important element in the organizing apparatus of the Supplementary Revolution of January 5th. As for the Social Revolutionaries and deputies, they considered it incompatible with the rank of a people’s elector to take part in the struggle: “The people have chosen us; let them defend us.”

In the nature of the thing these little citizens from the province did not know at all what they should do; the greater part was simply afraid. But they carefully prepared the ritual for the first meeting. They brought candles with them in case the Bolsheviki cut off the electric light, anil a vast number of sandwiches in case their food be taken from them. Thus democracy entered upon the struggle with dictatorship heavily armed with sandwiches and candles. The people did not give a thought to supporting those who considered themselves their elect, and who in reality were only shadows of a period of the revolution that was Already past.

During the liquidation of the Constituent Assembly, I was in Brest-Litovsk. But when I came back to Petrograd the next time for a conference Lenin said to me about the breaking up of the Constituent Assembly, “Naturally it was a great risk on our part that we did not postpone the convention – very, very unwise. But in the end it is best that it happened so. The breaking up of the Constituent Assembly by the Soviet power is the complete and public liquidation of formal democracy in the name of the revolutionary dictatorship. It will be a good lesson.”

Thus theoretical generalization went hand in hand with the transfer of the Lettish guard regiment. It was then undoubtedly that those ideas took shape in Lenin’s consciousness which he formulated later at the first congress of the Communist Internationals in his remarkable theses about democracy.

The critique of formal democracy has a long history. The character of mediocrity of the 1848 revolution is explained by us and our predecessors by the breakdown of political democracy. It was succeeded by “social” democracy. But bourgeois society understood how to force it to take the place that pure democracy could no longer maintain. Political history went through a tiresome period in which social democracy lived on the critique of pure democracy, while it actually fulfilled the obligations of the latter and was carried through with its deficiencies. That happened which history has so often shown: the opposition was called to a conservative solution of the tasks which the compromised powers of the day before could not manage. From the circumstance of the transient preparation of the proletarian dictatorship democracy became the highest criterion, the last resort, the inviolable sanctuary, that is the last hypocrisy of bourgeois society. This is what happened to us. After the fatal material blow in October the bourgeoisie attempted a resurrection in January in the shadowy consecrated Constituent Assembly. The further victorious development of the proletarian revolution after the simple, open, brutal breaking-up of the Constituent Assembly dealt formal democracy a finishing stroke from which it has never recovered. For that reason Lenin was right when he said: “In the end, it was best that it happened so.”

In the form of the Social Revolutionary constituency the February Republic had a chance to die a second time.

On the background of my general impression of official Russia of February, of the Menshevist Social Revolutionary Petrograd Soviet of that time, there stands out as clearly as though it were yesterday the face of a certain Social Revolutionary delegate. I did not know and do not know yet to-day who he was nor where he came from. He must have come from the country. Outwardly he resembled a young teacher, a former worthy seminarist. A flat-nosed, spectacled face, almost beardless, with prominent cheek-bones. It was at the same meeting at which the socialist ministers presented themselves to the Soviet. Tchernof, verbose, emotional, feeble, coquettish, and above all sickening, explained why he and the others had entered the government and what beneficial results that entailed. I remember a stupid phrase the speaker repeated a dozen times: “You have brought us into the government, you can also get us out.” The seminarist looked at the speaker with eyes of intense adoration. So must a faithful pilgrim feel and look when in a renowned cloister he has the good fortune to hear the exhortation of a pious priest. The speech flowed on endlessly, the room showed signs of weariness, slight noises were heard. But for the seminarist the sources of reverent delight did not seem to be exhausted.

“Yes, this is the way it looks, our revolution, or rather theirs,” I said to myself, when I saw and heard for the first time this Soviet of 1917.

When Tchernof finished his speech there was stormy applause. In one corner the few Bolsheviki talked discontentedly. This group suddenly arose from the collective background when they gave friendly support to my criticism of the defensive war ministerialism of the Mensheviki and Social Revolutionaries.

The devout seminarist was frightened and disturbed to the highest degree. Not indignant: in those days he did not yet dare to feel indignation at an exile who had come back to his home. But he could not understand how any one could be opposed to a fact so gratifying and admirable in every way as Tchernof’s entry in the provisional government. He sat a few steps from me and on his countenance, which served me as a barometer of the assembly, surprise and terror struggled with the reverence that had not yet entirely disappeared. This face has always clung to my memory as an image of the February revolution – its best image, coming from the ranks, little citizen seminarist, for it had another worse one, that of Dan and Tchernof.

Not in vain and not by chance was Tchernof president of the Constituent Assembly. February Russia, dully revolutionary, still half illusionistic, republican-daring as it was, and oh, at one time how simple! and ah, at another, how crafty! had raised him up ... At the election the peasant had snatched up the Tchernofs by means of the devout seminarists and put them in a high position. And Tchernof had accepted this mandate not without race grace and race cunning.

For Tchernof (for I am going to speak of that too) was in his way also national. I say “also” because four years ago I had to write about nationalism in Lenin. The comparison or even the indirect approach of these two figures may seem unsuitable. And it would indeed be wrong and unseemly if it were a question of the men themselves. But here it is a question of the national “elements,” of their embodiment and reflection. Tchernof embodies the epigone of the old intellectual revolutionary tradition, Lenin, on the other hand, its consummation and complete victory.

Among the old intelligentsia the noble had his seat and prated contritely and fluently of duty to the people; and so also the pious seminarist, who from his father’s little room, lighted by the sacred lamps, had opened a little window, a mere chink, into the world of critical thinking, and the enlightened peasant who wavered between socialization and separate ownership, and the simple working-man who had strayed among the students, was separated from his own kind, and was not in touch with the strangers. This is all contained in the Tchernoviad, and its fulsome eloquence, formlessness, and restless mediocrity. Of the old intellectual idealism of the time of Sophie Perovskaja there is nothing left in the Tchernoviad. In place of that is something of the new Russia of the industrialists and merchants, especially of the kind, “if you do not cheat, you do not sell.”

In the development of the Russian social thought of his time Herzen was an important and forceful figure. But put him back even a half century, strip away the rainbow feathers of his talent, transform him into his own epigone, and put him before the background of the years 1905-1917, and you have the element of the Tchernoviad. With Tchernichevsky an operation of this kind is harder to carry out, but the Tchernoviad contains for him too, elements for caricature. The connection with Michailovsky is very direct, for in Michailovsky himself the epigone character already predominated. The peasant element was the foundation of the Tchernoviad as of our whole development, but reflected in the small bourgeoisie, immature, half intellectual, from the town and country, or in the over-ripe and bitter intelligentsia. The culmination of the Tchernoviad was necessarily a fleeting moment. While the impulse which the soldier, workman and peasant had given at the February uprising, spread through the one year-volunteers, the seminarists, students, and advocates, through the liaison-commissions and all other possible subtleties, and raised the Tchernofs to democratic heights, in the depths the decisive breach had already been made and the democratic heights hung in the air. For this reason the whole Tchernoviad between February and October, concentrated on the adjuration: “Delay, oh moment, thou art so beautiful.” But the moment did not delay. The soldier became “Satan,” the peasant succeeded beyond all bounds, and even the seminarist made amends for his February devotion, and the end was that the Tchernoviad dropped the folds of its toga and fell awkwardly from the heights of fancy into the actual mire.

The peasant element is the basis of Leninism so far as it is the basis of the Russian proletariat and our whole history. Happily, there is in our history not only passivity and enthusiasm, but also movement. The peasant has not only prejudices, but also discernment. All the traits of activity, courage, hatred of force and power, scorn of weakness, in a word, all those elements of movement that are manifest in the course of social transitions and the dynamics of class struggle, have found their expression in Bolshevism. The peasant element is reflected here by the proletariat, by the strongest dynamic force in our history, and not alone in ours, and Lenin gave legitimate expression to this refraction. And so in this sense Lenin is the leader of the national element. The Tchernoviad reflects the same national peasant element, but not from the head – particularly not from the head.

The tragicomic episode of January 5th, 1918 (breaking up the Constituent Assembly) was the last conflict of principles of Leninism with the Tchernoviad. But only of principles, for practically there was no conflict, but only a small and miserable demonstration of the rear-guard of “democracy,” departing from the scene armed with candles and sandwiches. The heralded stories burst to pieces, the cheap decorations were pulled down, the bombastic moral strength proved itself foolish weakness. Finis!

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Last updated on: 20.1.2007