Spartacist Canada No. 176

Spring 2013


"National Assembly" vs. Working-Class Power

quote of the issue

The German Revolution of 1918-19 showed vividly how calls to convoke a parliamentary national (or constituent) assembly are counterposed to the fight for proletarian power based on workers councils. Writing in November 1918, Rosa Luxemburg denounced the various pseudo-socialists, including leaders of the centrist “Independents,” who joined with the bourgeoisie in calling for a national assembly, whose purpose was to divert and defeat the working-class revolt. Two months later, the ruling social democrats unleashed counterrevolutionary military forces to crush the struggles of militant workers in Berlin, arresting and murdering Luxemburg and her fellow Communist leader Karl Liebknecht.

From the Deutsche Tageszeitung, the Vossische Zeitung, and Vorwärts to the Independents’ Freiheit; from Reventlow, Erzberger, and Scheidemann to Haase and Kautsky resounds a unanimous call for the national assembly and an equally unanimous cry of fear at the idea of working-class power.

To this end the entire “people,” the entire “nation” is to be called upon to decide the subsequent fate of the revolution by majority vote.

It is understandable why the open and disguised agents of the ruling classes use this slogan. But we do not discuss with these watchmen of the capitalist coffers—either in the national assembly, or about it.

The Independent leaders, however, are lining up with capital’s guardians on this decisive question.

As Hilferding explains in Freiheit, they want to spare the revolution from using force and experiencing civil war with all its horrors. Petty-bourgeois illusions! They imagine that the course of the mightiest social revolution in the history of humanity will take the form of the various social classes coming together and cultivating a nice, peaceful, and “dignified” discussion with each other, and then staging a vote—perhaps by filing through the parliamentary doors as of old. When the capitalist class sees that it is in the minority, then as a well-disciplined parliamentary party, it will declare with a sigh: “There is nothing to be done. We see that we have been outvoted. Very well, we bow to the majority and turn over our land, factories, mines, all our fireproof safes, and our lovely profits to the workers.”…

The “civil war” that they are anxiously trying to banish from the revolution cannot be banished. For civil war is just another word for class struggle, and the idea of trying to introduce socialism without class struggle, by parliamentary majority decision, is a ridiculous petty-bourgeois illusion.

So what is gained through this cowardly detour called the national assembly? The bourgeoisie’s position is strengthened, the proletariat is weakened and bewildered with empty illusions, time and energy are dissipated and lost in “discussions” between wolf and lamb. In a word, it plays into the hands of all those elements whose good intention is to cheat the proletarian revolution of its socialist aims and to castrate it into a bourgeois-democratic revolution.

But the question of the national assembly is not a tactical question, nor a question of what is “easier.” It is a question of principle, of the socialist perception of the revolution….

The fight for the national assembly is being conducted under the battle cry: democracy or dictatorship. Obedient Socialist leaders are adopting this slogan of the counterrevolutionary demagogues without noticing that this alternative is a demagogic fraud.

The question today is not democracy or dictatorship. The question that history has put on the agenda reads: bourgeois democracy or socialist democracy. For the dictatorship of the proletariat is democracy in the socialist sense of the word. Dictatorship of the proletariat does not mean bombs, putsches, riots, and anarchy, as the agents of capitalist profits deliberately and falsely claim. Rather it means using all instruments of political power to achieve socialism, to expropriate the capitalist class, through and in accordance with the will of the revolutionary majority of the proletariat, and thus in the spirit of socialist democracy.

—Rosa Luxemburg, “The National Assembly,” Die Rote Fahne, 20 November 1918, translated in John Riddell, ed., The German Revolution and the Debate on Soviet Power (Anchor Foundation, 1986)