Revolutionary democracy in Argentina

Christopher Pike's article on Argentina raises some important questions (Weekly Worker April 18). There is after all a furious debate raging on the Argentine left over whether the call for a constituent assembly as an agitational demand is appropriate in the current upheaval. However, I feel the answers he attempts to provide are wrong and self-contradictory. In the circumstances of Argentina today, they pose a political trap for the sections of the Argentine left who, only too spontaneously and characteristically, have come up with this slogan - as well as, of course, for the broader masses. It is worthwhile asking, first of all, the question: what does the constituent assembly demand mean? I would answer in the following way. A constituent assembly is a body, elected on the basis of universal suffrage, whose remit is to draw up a constitution for a bourgeois state, in which all citizens have formally equal political rights. Ideally, by virtue of its own terms of reference, a constituent assembly aims to conclude its deliberations by creating a constitutional system that is considered superior, more democratic, more subject to the political control of the population as a whole, than the regime that preceded it. It is also considered 'normal' for this assembly, once its limited remit of drawing up a constitution has been carried out, to provide the starting point of a parliamentary assembly which, after new elections by whatever system the assembly has drawn up (which may or may not be approved by the population in a referendum), acts as the legislative assembly under the new constitution. A constituent assembly, then, is a provisional, parliamentary-type body, which aims at its own simultaneous transcendence and preservation through elections to a similar, but more permanent parliamentary-type institution. It generally comes into being in the aftermath of some kind of collapse of a previous regime that is generally felt, in the bourgeois society concerned, to have in some way qualitatively lacked in even the formal norms of democracy. Being a parliamentary-type institution, however, it 'represents' the population as atomised individuals or voters, without any formal relationship to the role of the population as productive subjects. Therefore, it is incapable of representing the oppressed and exploited classes in capitalist society - most notably the proletariat - as classes. On the contrary, since it depends for its claimed role of representing all sections on the very existence of those different classes, it must necessarily defend the type of society in which 'economics' and 'politics' are deemed to be fundamentally separate spheres. In other words, it must defend capitalism. Comrade Pike accuses various Trotskyist organisations - the ones he does not agree with - of "economism" for opposing the demand for a constituent assembly. He thereby seems to absolve the Trotskyist organisations whom he does agree with - those who support this particular demand - of this charge. But he lays out no criteria, other than a fairly crude equation of the demand for a constituent assembly with 'politics' (with the implication that anyone who opposes this demand is guilty of ignoring or dismissing the political struggle, and is therefore 'economistic'), as to why this particular political demand is correct in these circumstances. He produces no evidence, either in terms of factual material or reasoning, as to why it allegedly has a revolutionary and therefore democratic content in the context of the revolutionary events in Argentina. Indeed, so vehement is comrade Pike in extolling this demand and dismissing any demands relating to the enormous 'economic' suffering of the population that gave birth to this revolutionary crisis, that it appears that it is comrade Pike, arguably more so than the people who he is polemicising against, who is guilty of imposing a separation between 'economic' and 'political' demands - one of the cardinal mistakes of economism. In capitalist society, economics and politics are not separate spheres. Rather what maintains this particular, widely held illusion is the fact that, under the peculiar political conditions of capitalist rule, politics and political power are themselves subject to a division of labour, between those aspects of political power that concern the immediate, day-to-day extraction of surplus value, and those functions which relate to the maintenance of the conditions for capitalist exploitation as a whole. In pre-capitalist forms of society, the actual process of the extraction of a surplus from the labouring population was a function directly in the hands of the holders of public power - the various patriarchal and feudal lords, kings, etc. As the Canadian Marxist thinker, Ellen Meiksins Wood, explains, "In one sense, the differentiation of the economic sphere means simply that the economy has its own juridical and political forms whose purpose is purely 'economic'. Absolute property, contractual relations and the legal apparatus that sustains them are the juridical conditions of capitalist property relations; and they constitute the basis of a new relation of authority, dominance and subjection between appropriator and producer. "The correlative of these private, economic juridical-political forms is a separate, specialised public political sphere. The 'autonomy' of the capitalist state is inextricably bound up with the juridical freedom and equality of the free, purely economic exchange between free, expropriated producers and the private appropriators who have absolute property in the means of production and therefore a new form of authority over the producers. "This is the significance of the division of labour in which the two moments of capitalist exploitation - appropriation and coercion - are allocated separately to a privately appropriating class and a specialised public coercive institution, the state: on the one hand, the 'relatively autonomous' state has a monopoly of coercive force; on the other hand, that force sustains a private 'economic' power which invests capitalist property with an authority to organise production itself - an authority probably unprecedented in its degree of control over productive activity and the human beings who engage in it "¦. "In a sense, then, the differentiation of the economic and political in capitalism is, more precisely, a differentiation of political functions themselves and their separate allocation to the private economic sphere and the public sphere of the state. This allocation separates political functions immediately concerned with the extraction and appropriation of surplus value from those with a more general, communal purpose. This formulation, suggesting that the differentiation of the economic is in fact a differentiation within the political sphere, is in certain respects better suited to explain the unique process of western development and the special character of capitalism "¦" (E Meiksins Wood Democracy against capitalism Cambridge 1995, pp30-31). Political power It is useful, from the point of view both of this particular discussion and more generally to look at the question of allegedly 'economic' or 'economistic' demands on the one hand, and allegedly 'political' and therefore 'non-economistic' demands on the other, from the standpoint comrade Meiksins Wood elaborates in this study. The fundamental question, from my point of view as a Marxist, in judging whether a demand or a series of demands has any genuinely democratic - ie, revolutionary - content or not, is whether such demands, when implemented, act to break down the division between 'political' power in the conventional, public sphere, and political power as exercised by the bourgeoisie as a class in the process of the extraction of surplus value, as laid out by comrade Meiksins Wood above. My contention is that the fundamental reason why so-called 'bread and butter' demands, aimed purely at securing small incremental gains in the conditions of the working class in the here and now, are qualitatively insufficient is because they do not challenge this division of political power. Likewise, it appears to me that comrade Pike's 'constituent assembly' demand, which pertains purely to a rearrangement of the conditions on the 'political' side of comrade Meiksins Wood's division of political power, does not challenge this division. Indeed, it is motivated in precisely this way (by citing Trotsky in a very different context) - seeking a "more generous democracy" under capitalism is the whole point of making this demand. Thus it seems to me that comrade Pike's reasoning (along with that of the Workers Power and Partido Obrero comrades, whose virtues he appears to be extolling against the 'economistic' International Bolshevik Tendency and Socialist Appeal) has much in common with classical economism, albeit of an inverted kind. It seems to accept the very division between the 'economic' and 'political' aspects of political power that is indeed characteristic of economism. Democratic demands under capitalism are a perfectly legitimate, and indeed obligatory, part of a communist programme. They aim to enhance the ability of the working class and the oppressed to take independent political action, or to provide a democratic solution to some thorny problem(s) that constitute a barrier to the independent political action of the workers; the national question in a variety of different situations constitutes such a barrier. But democratic demands under capitalism are not ends in themselves; if they do not overflow the boundaries of capitalist society as a mode of production; if they do not in particular overflow the division of political power between the public ('political') and privatised ('economic') spheres that the capitalist body politic creates, then they can in some circumstances act as a barrier to the independent political activity of the proletariat. Comrade Pike's use of historical examples to support his case illustrates this, in terms of how Trotsky used democratic demands in different situations. He cites Trotsky's 'Programme of action for France' from June 1934 to buttress his arguments for a constituent assembly in Argentina today, and claims that the highlighting of demands for a "more generous democracy" in this programme shows that "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 "¦" Unfortunately, while it is certainly true that in a revolutionary situation demands for democratic control over capitalist society as a whole (not merely its artificial public 'political' sphere) must be a key locomotive of the revolution, this does not in any way prove that demands directed merely at the refinement and improvement of this political sphere, taken in isolation, have a revolutionary content in a revolutionary situation. Trotsky's 1934 programme for France, aimed at enlarging the sphere of action of the masses within capitalist society, was not written in a revolutionary situation. It was written in June 1934, in the immediate aftermath of the partial overthrow of bourgeois democracy in France by the armed insurrection of fascists and royalists on February 6 1934. This insurrection took place in the aftermath of Hitler's conquest of power in Germany, and concurrently with the beginning of the bloody attacks of the fascist Dolfuss regime in Austria on the proletariat of that country. It caused the partial collapse of the parliamentary regime in France, the fall of the government of the radical bourgeois politician, Daladier, and his replacement by the regimes of Doumergue and Flandin, whose 'authoritative state' regimes Trotsky considered to the analogous to the pre-Hitler governments of Papen, Brueing and Schleicher in Germany - that is, capitalist semi-dictatorships aimed at preventing civil war between the workers' movement and the fascists. It was in the context of the defeat for the proletariat - represented by the coming to power of French Bonapartism - that Trotsky formulated a programme that had a strong element aimed at reconquering democratic rights taken away by the Bonapartists, and utilising demands for a democratisation of the existing society as a means of facilitating the recovery of the working class from this defeat. Trotsky, though no omnipotent or infallible source of wisdom, as many of this followers seem to believe, to his credit did not engage in the propagation of abstractions, but had concrete political aims in mind when elaborating this kind of programme for the circumstances of 1934. Just as he had concrete aims in mind when, at the end of 1935, when it had become clear that France was heading for an enormous revolutionary explosion, he began agitating along rather different lines: for the establishment of 'committees of action', in effect rudimentary soviets, organs of proletarian dual power - a programmatic thrust rather different from his earlier emphasis on the need to oppose the Bonapartist 'authoritative state' with demands for a 'single chamber' and a 'more generous democracy'. By November 1935, Trotsky had rather more ambitious political aims in mind than an improved parliamentary regime. (For a characteristic exposition, see 'For committees of action, not the People's Front', in Leon Trotsky on France New York 1979, p129.) Classless In this regard, I find it a little hard to follow the logic of the passage from the leader of the Argentine Partido Obrero, Jorge Altamira, cited by comrade Pike. Altamira wrote: "The slogan for the constituent [assembly] "¦ 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 political 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 Allianza for one based on the free and sovereign Constituent Assembly; the same with the provincial governors and legislators, which should pass over to provincial constituent assemblies" (quoted from En Defensa del Marxismo January 2001). Comrade Pike enthuses over this piece, claiming it "answered "¦ over a year ago" the arguments of the 'economists' who limit the relevance of the demand for a constituent assembly to circumstances of pre-capitalist or colonial oppression or dictatorship. To me, this passage is vacuous and classless; it does not define any concrete gains that the workers as a class, or their allies in the ruined sections of the middle classes, would make as a result of the convening of such a constituent assembly. It also seems odd to cite this piece, written in January 2001, when the mass upheaval and revolutionary crisis did not erupt until the following autumn, as a illustration of the relevance of the 'constituent assembly' demand to a revolutionary crisis that had at this point not manifested itself as anything other than a future possibility. Another serious weakness is its projection of 'provincial' constituent assemblies, a rather strange demand, since the key task of a constituent assembly is to draw up a constitution. Unless local constitutions are envisaged, which implies a fragmentation of state power, with different constitutions in each province (not the same as devolution of power within a unitary constitution, of course), then the purpose of this seems obscure. In any case, would this constituent assembly attack the 'privatised' political power of the oligarchy over the financial system and the means of production itself, that is driving the workers and the middle classes to ruin? Or would it simply be a new constitutional window-dressing, a new facade and reorganisation of the limited 'public' sphere of political power, which would leave the privatised political sphere of the bourgeoisie untouched? If the former, why pretend that it would be a parliamentary body - why not simply call it a central workers' committee or soviet? If the latter, then why on earth would the workers and ruined petty bourgeoisie have any interest in giving a facelift to the charade of the separate bourgeois 'political sphere', while leaving the core of the bourgeoisie's political power untouched? Thus, it seems to me that the demand for a constituent assembly in the current Argentine situation is a prime example of a circumstance where such a seemingly democratic demand has no real democratic or revolutionary content, and in fact can easily play a reactionary role. Why? To put it bluntly, the masses have already engaged in extensive, independent political activity, on a massive scale, on the streets, and have brought down three presidents by such activity. The mass upsurge has been brought about by a major crisis of neoliberal economics, and of the capitalist economy itself. This crisis, somewhat unusually in recent Latin American history, has not been brought about by some Bonapartist or fascist regime engaging in massive violations of the formal rights of the masses under bourgeois democracy. Rather the crisis is a prime example of the unity and interplay of the two spheres of political power under capitalism: the public and private spheres. Given that the atrophy, not merely of the public ('political') sphere, but also massively of the privatised ('economic') sphere, is what is confronting the masses with the potent threat of starvation and social collapse, a demand that confines itself to a reform of the public political sphere is qualitatively insufficient. Yet the constituent assembly demand, aimed, in the words of comrade Pike, at a "more generous democracy" under capitalism in order to "facilitate" the struggle for workers' power, does not touch the privatised political sphere. Indeed, as a body whose whole purpose is to create an improved form of democracy under capitalism, it cannot do that. Only organs of workers' control, of proletarian dual power challenging the domination of the primary production of the means of life itself by the bourgeoisie, are able to carry out such a revolutionary attack on property rights. This is where the merely formal democracy of the bourgeoisie, restricted entirely to the artificial public ('political') sphere, needs to be challenged concretely by a programme of political demands aimed at extending 'extreme democracy' from this artificial 'public' sphere to the entire body politic. Worse Whatever the undoubted faults of the 'economists' comrade Pike denounces in his article, the particular thrust he (along with Workers Power and the followers of Jorge Altamira) is advocating is worse. He is counterposing political demands appropriate to a period of reaction, of massive formal violations of democracy, of a reversion of class consciousness to mere illusions in a more democratic capitalism, to those appropriate to a period of revolutionary mass upsurge and the beginnings of dual power. For that is what the popular assemblies in Argentina today are. Comrade Pike characterises them as "cross-class" institutions, in order to provide some kind of justification for raising a programme of democracy whose fundamental thrust is limited to the artificial public sphere. But this is not really true - in general, when Marxists refer to "cross-class" bodies, we refer to bodies that include a wing of the bourgeoisie itself. The popular assemblies in Argentina do not, in my understanding, include a wing of the bourgeoisie. They are rather a conglomerate of large elements of the ruined middle classes ('petty bourgeoisie'), the workers and the organisations of the unemployed ('piqueteros'). Because of the conservative role of the trade union leaderships in Argentina, they have tended to flow outside the traditional workers' movement. They include in their political make-up a considerable element of middle class political ideology; they tend to see themselves as a movement of 'citizens' as opposed to a movement of workers. But they are not organisations that include any significant ruling class component. They are amorphous, independent organs of the struggling and impoverished workers (employed and unemployed) and ruined petty bourgeoisie. I would certainly completely concur with comrade Pike when he writes: "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, both 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 superseded)." The problem is that making a constituent assembly the crowning demand of one's programme would tend to precisely strengthen the petty bourgeois elements within the assemblies. This is the case because this form of 'democracy', which confines itself to the artificial public sphere, is the conception that corresponds exactly to the spontaneous political conceptions of petty bourgeois democracy. It does not challenge the deeply held prejudice that the proper place for 'politics' is parliament; on the contrary it pretty straightforwardly confirms that prejudice, with the rider that if the old-style parliamentary system has failed then what we need is merely to create a better one. The reorientation of the popular assemblies that is needed for them to become organs of proletarian power, on the contrary, consists of the realisation that the kind of political demands that are needed must not confine themselves to this restricted sphere, but must extend to the privatised 'economic' sphere as well. In other words, democracy must become a weapon to challenge the bourgeoisie's right to own and control the means of production, distribution and exchange, the entire capitalist organism. A potted, necessarily sketchy initial attempt at a programme appropriate for this situation must include the following: * Transform the popular assemblies into workers' assemblies, incorporating the middle classes as part of a broader struggle for revolutionary democracy and socialism! * For the arming of the workers and their allies - for a people's militia! * Disperse the officer corps, democratise and subordinate the armed forces to the workers' militia! * For workers' control of industry, transport and the financial system - expropriate the robber oligarchy, reimburse the expropriated middle class, whose savings have been seized by the robbers! * For a government of workers and popular assemblies. For workers' power in Argentina, as the beginning of a new international wave of revolutionary struggle! Ian Donovan