Democratic questions for socialists

The popular revolt in Argentina - the toppling of four governments in three days, and the mass mobilisations of tens of thousands of workers, youth, 'middle-class' professionals, small producers and shopkeepers - has certainly made Blair and the heads of the European Union pause for thought. In the context of US imperialism's 'Plan Colombia,' and the recently collapsed CIA coup in Venezuela, there is no question that Washington is also paying closer attention. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank held up Argentina as a model for economic restructuring and anti-labour austerity. US, British and EU imperialism hailed the regime of Fernando de la Ràºa as the kind of government to which all those desiring economic aid should aspire. In the end, the imperialists were not lying: Argentina was a model - just not the one they wanted the world to see. As the linchpin of the Latin American economy, Argentina's stability was key for the implementation of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. But, with Washington's recent moves away from 'free trade' - imposing tariffs on imported steel and timber - and its concentration on the 'war on terror,' the upheaval in Argentina did not figure too highly on the US imperialists' agenda. For Britain and the EU, however, the crisis is more acute. Many of the companies sacking workers and closing plants are European-owned. Aerolà­neas Argentinas, the country's national airline, for example, is part-owned by Spanish banks. Undoubtedly, the longer there is economic and political instability in Argentina, the more nervous European capital becomes and the closer they come to demanding 'order' - at the expense of workers. As much as the events served as a warning to capitalism, they also demand that all revolutionary-minded workers pay attention. It is not overstating things to say that Argentina is the closest the working class of any country has come to taking power into its own hands in over a generation. The uprising in mid-December was not simply a disorganised plebeian revolt. On the contrary, both before and after the three days that shook the Americas there was a conscious effort by militant and revolutionary workers, and their organisations, to develop committees of struggle. The organisation of unemployed workers into committees and councils of action were the first manifestations of this effort. In the intervening months, neighbourhood committees of workers, students and the 'middle class', known as 'popular assemblies', developed in Buenos Aires and other major cities. Since December, these various types of committees have been holding regular congresses. Last February, there was a congress of workers' organisations (both employed and unemployed), followed a month later by a congress of the popular assemblies. At both of these congresses, revolutionary politics took centre stage. The demand "for a workers' government" was adopted at the congress of workers' organisations. The congress of popular assemblies adopted a demand for a "government of the popular assemblies, the workers and the picketers, which must convene a sovereign Constituent Assembly". All of this, of course, raises two questions: what kind of programme is necessary to fulfil these slogans, and is there a revolutionary party that is fighting on this basis? Such are the fulcra of an ongoing debate that is taking place among various strands of the radical and revolutionary left around the world. A prominent part of these discussions has concerned the correctness of the slogan for a constituent assembly. For example, a recent exchange between Ted Grant's British-based Socialist Appeal tendency and the Partido Obrero (Workers' Party) of Argentina revolves precisely around the application of this slogan. Another glimpse of this debate can be seen in the 'open letter' polemic of the International Bolshevik Tendency - a New Zealand-based split from the cultish Spartacist League - against Workers Power for the latter's confused defence of the constituent assembly slogan. Alan Woods, writing for the Socialist Appeal group, declared their rejection of the 'bourgeois-democratic' demand for a constituent assembly by cynically painting it in purely reformist colours: "What does the slogan of a constituent assembly mean exactly? Only this: 'We do not want the present bourgeois parliamentary regime. We would like another, nicer, more democratic bourgeois parliamentary regime'"('On the constituent assembly slogan' In Defence of Marxism website). Comrade Woods has it all figured out: "Under what circumstances should one advance such a slogan? There are two possibilities: (1) in a semi-feudal or semi-colonial country; and (2) in a country where a parliament, elections and other democratic rights did not exist. But," the comrade hastens to add, "none of these conditions apply to Argentina." Interestingly enough, the PO, which is the target of Socialist Appeal's polemic, answered this argument over a year before: "The slogan for the constituent [assembly]," writes the PO's leader, Jorge Altamira, "at the present juncture, does not have the character of a historic demand, but rather attempts to give an overall political perspective to the masses in struggle in a concrete situation, having an exceptional character: a growing impasse of the parliamentary regime and crumbling of its principal parties; a strong disintegration of the social capitalist regime; a perspective of acute sharpening of the popular struggle. This is why we have put forward the substitution of the government of the Alianza for one based on the free and sovereign Constituent Assembly; the same with the [provincial] governors and legislatures, which should pass over to provincial constituent assemblies" (En Defensa del Marxismo January 2001). The recent open letter to the editor of Workers Power by a member of the IBT attempts to parallel this debate. "Revolutionaries," writes the comrade, "raise the slogan of a constituent assembly in situations where the masses of working people have illusions in bourgeois electoralism - typically after a period of rightwing dictatorship. But Argentina has had a functioning bourgeois-democratic regime for almost 20 years, and there is widespread anger at the entire spectrum of the capitalist political establishment. In this case, campaigning for a constituent assembly can only create, rather than undercut, popular illusions" ('Letter to Workers Power' www.bolshevik.org) Both Socialist Appeal and the IBT reject the constituent assembly demand for, generally speaking, the same reasons. 'Bourgeois democracy' has been in place in Argentina for some time, argue these comrades. Thus, no need for a democratic - ie, political - struggle. All that is needed is achieving a few, relatively paltry, economic demands, topped off with the 'All power to the popular assemblies' war cry. Why such a narrow, doctrinaire approach? The answer s clear: economism. The diet these 'Trotskyist' comrades offer the Argentine workers consists almost exclusively of 'bread and butter' economic demands poorly plagiarised from the Transitional programme, and presented as the 'bridge' to socialism. At the same time, these unfortunate comrades offer no political solutions to the very political situation facing Argentina's working class. They shamelessly misuse Leon Trotsky's writings on permanent revolution, bending them in an economistic direction. Again, Socialist Appeal provides the best example of this. Its definition of a 'good programme,' gleaned from the statements of the PO, does not go far beyond immediate economic considerations. Demands for nationalisation, a minimum wage, and access to bank accounts and 'repudiation' of the foreign debt, topped by the slogan of "Multiply the popular assemblies to the point where they become a power of the exploited people", make up the concrete programme that these perennial Labourites offer to the Argentine working class. The IBT, on the other hand, offers no alternative programme to the one proposed by WP's League for a Revolutionary Communist International, or its fraternal comrades in Argentina, the Partido de los Trabajadores por el Socialismo (PTS). Instead, the IBT declares: "The key task of Trotskyists in Argentina today is to struggle to forge a revolutionary leadership based on a programme of proletarian political independence from all wings of the bourgeoisie." This analysis, which can only be called 'permanent economism,' stands in stark contrast to what Trotsky actually believed and fought for. Unlike the various sects that masquerade as latter-day Fourth Internationals (or Fourth Internationals-to-be), Trotsky himself clearly recognised the importance of the political struggle for extreme democracy and did not limit himself, or his comrades in the League of Communist-Internationalists (predecessor of the Fourth International), to economistic declarations. In every major event of the class struggle in the 1920s and 1930s, Trotsky urged his comrades and followers to be the best fighters in the battle for democracy. Throughout the writings of Trotsky on China, Germany, France and Spain, a common thread of fighting for the greatest, farthest extension of democracy is advocated. No better example of this can be found than Trotsky's 'Programme of action for France' - which is regarded by the 'Trotskyists' as an early version of the Transitional programme: "We are thus firm partisans of a workers' and peasants' state, which will take the power from the exploiters. To win the majority of our working class allies to this programme is our primary aim. 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 ."¦ "A single assembly must combine the legislative and executive powers. Members would be elected for two years, by universal suffrage and 18 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. "This is the only measure that would lead the masses forward instead of pushing them backward. A more generous democracy would facilitate the struggle for workers' power" (emphasis added, L Trotsky, Writings 1934-35, pp30-31). Comrades of Socialist Appeal and the IBT, take note. Here Trotsky not only raises a programme of extreme democracy and political struggle, but for democratic and imperialist France no less! In addition, he raises these demands for democracy in the context of a broader struggle for socialism - not counterposed to it. Is it any wonder that time and again the old man rejected the characterisation of his views as 'Trotskyism'? Perhaps he knew where his epigones were going. The communist programme of extreme democracy is not forgotten or superseded in the midst of a revolutionary situation. On the contrary, the democratic programme is enriched and its meaning is deepened. A "more generous [ie, extreme] democracy" opens up new and wider avenues of struggle for the working class. The divisions within the capitalist class, and between the capitalists and their 'middle class' dependents, brought about by constitutional crisis and revolutionary upheaval, create the conditions that allow for greater political independence of the working class. The 'more generous' the democracy - the more democracy extends into all facets of economic and social life - the more the working class learns how to function as a ruling class. It is in this ability, this fundamental transformation of workers from a class in itself (battling defensively for survival) to a class for itself (conscious of its tasks and organised to carry them out) that extreme democracy "facilitates the struggle for workers' power". In Argentina today, the programme of "more generous", extreme democracy is centred on the demand for a constituent assembly, convened by the popular assemblies and workers' organisations. However, it is wrong to regard the popular assemblies, at their current stage of development, as the basis for workers' power and a workers' government. The popular assemblies represent a concrete expression of the cross-class character of the upheaval. Within the assemblies both the working class and the 'middle classes' - professionals, small shopkeepers and producers, etc - are represented and compose the leadership. All the various strata of the working class, from the vanguard to more backward elements, participate. The National Workers' Assembly, on the other hand, represents the organisation of the broader vanguard of the working class, organised in the left wing of the trade unions, and revolutionary groups and parties. The Workers' Assembly is obviously more revolutionary and militant, but it only encompasses a minority of the class as a whole. As a result, they represent too narrow a basis for a workers' government. The tasks of communists in Argentina revolve around the need to transform these two parallel assemblies into a united system of bodies that can serve as a basis of state power and the embryo of a new, workers' republic by winning a majority in them. This is the only way that the popular assemblies can, in the words of the PO, "take charge of the social and political reorganisation of the country" (Prensa Obrera February 6). The confused programmatic and class character of the popular assemblies must be resolved in favour of the socialist working class. The middle class strata in the assemblies, operating independently of the working class, must give way to a united workers' leadership. The popular assemblies need to become workers' councils, in composition and consciousness. (This is not to say that the middle class elements must be purged, but rather that these elements in the leadership must be superceded). The programme by which this transformation can take place should be the central axis of discussion for communists and revolutionary-minded workers. The economists' sneering at the political struggle should be seen, in the final analysis, as a diversion from the necessary tasks. Nevertheless, it is necessary to raise the discussion above their confusion in order to aid in advancing the struggle for socialist revolution. In exploring the question of programme, it is also necessary to answer the question of organisation - ie, is there a communist workers' party that can hammer out that programme and lead the working class to power? Argentina has a tradition of mass revolutionary organisations with solid ties to the most politically advanced strata of the working class. For the most part, these organisations emerged from the Trotskyist and Maoist movements. And these organisations, their descendants and splinters, are the most active in the struggle. The two most promising organisations involved in the struggles today are the previously mentioned Partido Obrero and Partido de los Trabajadores por el Socialismo. The PO and PTS have put forward programmes that, in principle, differ very little. Most of the issues that divide these two organisations are of an ideological or doctrinaire character. Under the weight of the revolutionary events, however, the divisions have taken on a more urgent character. For example, the PO has not consistently raised the demand for workers' self-defence against counterrevolutionary and fascist terror. However, the central weakness of both the PO and PTS programmes is their general lack of political demands (abolishing the presidency, concentrating legislative power in a single parliamentray chamber, annual elections, holding the judiciary to account, democratising the army, etc). For the most part, the substance of what these comrades call for is limited to improving the economic situation of the working class, with democratic and other political issues raised, at best, in an inconsistent manner (eg, racial and national oppression, women's oppression, etc). The economism of the modern 'Trotskyist' movement is hindering the development of the Argentine revolution. And it survives due to the ongoing doctrinaire, ideological sectarianism of the PO, PTS and other organisations. In the context of economic crisis and bankruptcy, economic demands of course play a central role, but only as a part of the overall communist programme. And no partial programme can guide the working class to victory. A unified, revolutionary and democratic Communist Party in Argentina is the only organisation that can, through its work, develop a consistently communist programme that addresses the economic, social and political needs of the working class. A fusion of the PO and PTS, freed from doctrinaire sectarianism and economism, and seeking to merge further with the masses of advanced workers in Argentina, could become the core of a new communist workers' party. Such a party would act as a clear pole of attraction for revolutionary-minded workers in other left organisations - especially the Maoist Partido Comunista Revolucionario, whose leadership seeks to transform the struggle of Argentine workers into a new popular front. All workers, whether they are in Berlin, Birmingham or Beijing, have a stake in the success of the Argentine revolution. The victory of the working class in Argentina, and the establishment of a workers' republic, would shake the world to its very foundations, just as the Russian workers and peasants did 85 years ago. Christopher Pike Resolution of the National Workers' Assembly This National Workers' Assembly considers that: 1. The Duhalde government is an enemy of the working class and the people, responsible for the devaluation that destroyed our wages, for the confiscation of small savings, for the 'pesification' that reduced at our expense the debts of the native exploiters, and for the commitment to pay the foreign debt. It is a government that conceals with lies about 'national sovereignty' its policy of plunder at the service of the great monopolies, while simultaneously carrying out the dictates of the IMF. We put forward for the consideration of all workers our plan of struggle, whose ultimate aim is to provide a way out of the crisis for the people. That means the expulsion of Duhalde and the class of plunderers that put him in government. 2. The 'agreement' sponsored by the catholic church and the United Nations is a political manoeuvre directed at coopting, manipulating and dividing the workers' organisations in order to preserve the regime. Consequently we repudiate the 'agreement' and denounce the support for this policy by the unions and political forces (PJ, UCR, Frepaso, ARI, Polo Social, Frenapo). 3. The 'crisis councils' or 'consultative councils', through which the government tries to channel its social plans, are organisations aimed at turning social aid into a source of capitalist business and manipulating or debilitating the genuine organisations of unemployed people. We denounce the use of employment plans in order put cheap manual labour at the service of the bankrupt companies for 50 dollars. We call for a boycott of these 'committees' of 'emergency' or 'crisis' and for mobilisation for the totality of our demands and their control by the unemployed organisations. 4. The popular assemblies (including the Inter-Neighbourhood Assembly of Parque Centenario in Buenos Aires) and the picketers and workers' assemblies are organising a huge number of struggles. They must take into their hands the solution of the most urgent problems of the masses: work, health, education, housing. We must build and strengthen the popular assemblies all over the country in order to provide a workers' alternative to the current situation. The strategy of the picketers and the combative unions grouped in this National Assembly is to incorporate into the present picketers' struggle the industrial labour movement and the great privatised public services. It is impossible to defeat the present government and the prevailing regime without the support of the workers at the main centres of production and the essential services like electricity, gas, telecommunications and transport. 5. The CCC and FTV-CTA must break off all negotiations with the government behind the back of the picketers' movement and join the struggle to guarantee its triumph. The policy of harbouring illusions in governments at the service of native and foreign exploiters has failed. In opposition to that policy we put forward the picketers' programme, which not only demands work schemes under the control of the unemployed organisations, but also the rejection of devaluation, the non-payment of the foreign debt, the nationalisation of the banking system, and that the minimum wage and unemployment benefit should cover the minimal expenses of an average family. We call for a discussion over such a programme to begin right now with these organisations, in the framework of the struggle and the plan of struggle. 6. In the light of the situation we raise the following programme: * Freedom for Raul Castells, Emilio Alà­, Peralta and the rest of the imprisoned comrades. * The dropping of all charges against militants. * The trial and punishment of those who directed and carried out the murders committed on December 19 and 20. * The trial and punishment of the murderers of the comrades in the provinces of Salta (Justiniano, Gà³mez, Verà³n, Barrios and Santillán) and Corrientes. * Non-payment of the external debt. * Nationalisation of the banking system and of the main enterprises. * Statisation of pension funds. * The prohibition of dismissals and suspensions. * Statisation and operation under workers' control of all companies that close down or fire employees, and, under the same conditions, the reopening of all those that have closed. * Immediate devolution of small savings. * For genuine and permanent work, through the distribution of available working hours, without affecting the minimum wage. * Wages and unemployment benefits must cover the minimal expenses of an average family and be adjusted in line with inflation. * Out with Duhalde and the IMF. For a workers' government. 7. This assembly represents a continuation of all the movements of struggle and organisation that turned the picketers' movement into a decisive factor in the national political situation. A continuation of the Santiaguenazo and the Cutralcazo, of the uprisings of Mosconi and Tartagal and of the massive road blocks in La Matanza. These struggles open up the possibility of resolving in favour of the workers the crisis of power affecting the system of exploitation in our country. 8. We must act, because the tenacious action of the people has still not culminated in a victory, but in the usurpation of an illegitimate government, which is a puppet of the plunderers. For that reason we propose the following plan of struggle: * From February 18: rebuilding of road blocks, to be kept in place indefinitely. * February 20: road blocks, national mobilisation and cacerolazo [demonstration with pots and pans], together with the popular assemblies and the Inter-Neighbourhood Assembly, in Plaza de Mayo and all the seats of government in the provinces, two months after the popular rebellion and the murder of the comrades. * February 25: the blocking of access to the oil companies and the privatised enterprises. * March 2: national mobilisation for the freedom of Alà­, Castells, Peralta and all the incarcerated workers, for the freedom of Bértola and Quinteros and other political prisoners, and for the removal of all charges against the comrades. Trial and punishment of those responsible for December 19 and 20. * Monday March 4 to Friday March 8: national demonstration of workers, coordinated with the popular assemblies, assembling in Plaza de Mayo from the interior of the country. Coordination with the boycott of the launching of the new educational year. * Active support for the occupations of Zanà³n, Bruckman, for the blocking of roads, for the mobilisation of the unemployed in the city of Buenos Aires, for the struggle of the railway workers of the Sarmiento line, for the workers of Quebecor and similar struggles. A new Assembly of Employed and Unemployed Workers is called for April 2. February 17 2002