Constituent Assembly: 1917 – 2017
Platypus Review 101 | November 2017
No act during the Bolshevik Revolution is more controversial than the decision to suppress the Constituent Assembly in January 1918. A century later, no question is politically more relevant.
The reason is that such bodies are making a comeback. In 2007, Jan Norden’s Internationalist Group reported that constituent-assembly “mania” was underway in Oaxaca, Bolivia, Argentina, and elsewhere, while since then they have convened in Nepal, Ecuador, Iceland, and Venezuela. The left social-democrat Jean-Luc Mélenchon made the call for a constituent assembly the centerpiece of his French presidential campaign last spring while Yanis Varoufakis has called for one for the entire European Union.
Why the enthusiasm? The answer, of course, is that bourgeois political institutions are reeling in the wake of the financial crash and subsequent economic slowdown, and that voters are beginning to realize that the problem lies not with this or that candidate but with the politico-economic structure as a whole. As pressure mounts, repression intensifies, and institutions like the EU grow ever more ossified, the sense is spreading that the apparatus must be revamped from top to bottom and that, rather than leaving it to various “experts,” the only ones capable of doing the job are the people themselves.
Hence the growing number of calls for a constituent assembly, a kind of super-legislature whose purpose is not to pass specific laws but, rather, to change how laws are made, how political power is allocated, the purpose of the state, and so forth.
So far the movement has yet to reach the United States, a surprise in itself since nowhere else is the structural crisis more acute. Where European governments in general were revamped after World War II, the U.S. has been laboring under the same plan of government since 1787. Constitution-worship probably reached an all-time high during Watergate when Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Jordan ringingly declared: “My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total, and I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.” But the consequences of such constitutional faith have been calamitous. Congress is paralyzed, political tension is soaring, while two of the last five presidential elections have ended in dispute, i.e. the 2000 election in which a Republican-controlled Supreme Court stepped in to halt the Florida vote count and declare George W. Bush the winner even though he was clearly trailing and the 2016 contest in which a constitutional fluke enabled Donald Trump to enter the White House despite losing by nearly three million popular votes. Since then, U.S. politics have undergone a Weimar-like breakdown characterized by talk of impeachment, Russian hacking, the Deep State, and even a second civil war. Formerly, the question of a military coup was a topic fit only for spy novelists and cranks. Now prominent journals discuss it openly.
Two factors add to the general combustibility. First, U.S. ruling institutions are increasingly minoritarian. The Electoral College triples the weight of the least populous states while the Senate is so malapportioned that, under current rules, 41 members representing as little as 11.5 percent of the population can stop any bill in its tracks. Even in the supposedly more equitable House, the GOP has created roughly a five-percent advantage for itself via relentless gerrymandering at the state level. Second, the majority is powerless to combat a growing minority dictatorship due to a constitutional amending clause that effectively eliminates any possibility of structural reform. Because the Constitution’s Article V requires that any amendment be approved by two-thirds of each house of Congress plus three-fourths of the states, just thirteen states representing as little as 4.4 percent of the population can block any structural change, no matter how minor. By 2025, less than a decade from now, the figure is projected to drop to under 4.1 percent, meaning that one person in 25 will wield absolute veto power over the remainder.
The result is a perfect storm in which the political structure grows more change-averse the more necessary change becomes. For the moment, a constituent assembly is the farthest thing from the American mind. But the more the contradictions intensify, the more they will have to think about such an option for the simple reason that there is no other way around the constitutional logjam. All routes are blocked, not only the ordinary amending process but a constitutional convention as well since Article V says its recommendations must also be approved by three-fourths of the states. The only recourse, therefore, is to go outside the system by convening a special legislative body that is elected by the people as a whole in order to act on the document as a whole—under its own authority, that is, rather than that of Congress or the states.
The fact that such an assembly would be frankly unconstitutional renders the prospect all the more explosive. Historically, the classic analogy is with the Estates-General, the ancient French body called in 1789 to approve new taxes, which then took the unprecedented step of transforming itself into a national constituent assembly when the clergy and nobility agreed to meet jointly under the aegis of the Third Estate. This, too, was unconstitutional since it was at odds with established law according to the best authorities of the day. But rather than doing away with the new national assembly, the effect was to open up a constitutional void that a host of new forces hastened to fill.
A constituent assembly in the 21st-century U.S. would do likewise. If so, what should the Left’s attitude be? Should socialists campaign for a constituent assembly the way Lenin did before, during, and even after the Bolshevik seizure of power? Or, like the Spartacist League and its various offshoots, should they oppose it on the grounds that “the constituent assembly is not a democratic demand but a call for a new capitalist government”?
The answer is the former. The idea that a constituent assembly is not a democratic demand is preposterous. Indeed, it is the ultimate democratic demand since it subsumes all others having to do with racial and gender equality, workers’ rights, political representation, etc. No less absurd is the notion that a constituent assembly would somehow serve to reinforce capitalism. Since the only force capable of pushing for such a body in the current context is the working class, the effect would be the opposite: to present American society with the starkest possible choice between political regression under the current sclerotic structure on one hand and progress via workers’ democracy on the other.
Political versus constitutional change
The question of basic structural change versus narrower political reform is as old as Marxism itself. In his defense of the Paris Commune, Marx held that it was axiomatic that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes,” but that it had to create new institutions fitted to its rule. Twenty years later, Engels criticized the German Social Democratic Party’s Erfurt program for assuming that the working class could move forward within existing bourgeois political boundaries: “These are attempts to convince oneself and the party that ‘present-day society is developing towards socialism’ without asking oneself whether it does not thereby just as necessarily outgrow the old social order and whether it will not have to burst this old shell by force, as a crab breaks its shell, and also whether in Germany, in addition, it will not have to smash the fetters of the still semi-absolutist, and moreover indescribably confused political order.” In 1895, Lenin called for a Russian constitution to bring about “the direct participation … of all citizens in the government of the state, the guaranteed right of all citizens freely to assemble, to discuss their affairs, influence affairs of state through the associations and the press.” After the outbreak of war with Japan, Trotsky called in 1904 for “a general political strike all over Russia … to stop the war and to call for a National Constituent Assembly.”
Classical Marxist thinkers, beginning with Marx himself, thus always thought big, arguing that an economic transformation is impossible without an equally sweeping political transformation to go with it. Obvious as this may seem, the rise of workers’ councils, or soviets, during the Russian revolution of 1905 seemed to complicate matters. Soviets were a new type of authority, instruments not of democracy in general but of a specific form of class rule. They made the demand for a constituent assembly seem passé.
Was it therefore a question of either a workers’ dictatorship or democracy in general? Lenin, for one, saw the relationship as complementary rather than competitive. Since it was the job of the working class to usher in democracy, it was the task of the soviets to usher in the constituent assembly, the chief democratizing agent. As he put it in his April Theses:
I attacked the Provisional Government for not having appointed an early date or any date at all, for the convocation of the Constituent Assembly, and for confining itself to promises. I argued that without the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies the convocation of the Constitutional Assembly is not guaranteed and its success is impossible.
Where Kerensky hesitated to disturb the existing state structure, workers’ soviets would usher in a constituent assembly so as to make a clean democratic sweep.
But then, after campaigning for seats in a new constituent assembly even after the seizure of power on November 7, the Bolsheviks dissolved the assembly three months later when revolutionary parties found themselves in a minority. For Mensheviks and other rightists, this was proof of Lenin’s cynicism and his determination to further the Bolshevik dictatorship at all costs. Democratic rhetoric was nothing more than a smokescreen for totalitarianism, as generations of Americans have been taught. But in fact the party found itself in a difficult spot. Events were racing ahead with lightning speed, civil war was erupting, and, rather than reflecting the rising revolutionary temper, Lenin and Trotsky both argued that the make-up of the new assembly reflected conditions of several months earlier.
Rosa Luxemburg, for one, found such arguments “very fine and quite convincing.” But she wondered why the new government did not take the logical next step:
Since the Constituent Assembly was elected long before the decisive turning point, the October Revolution, and its composition reflected the picture of the vanished past and not of the new state of affairs, then it follows automatically that the outgrown and therefore still-born Constituent Assembly should have been annulled, and without delay, new elections to a new Constituent Assembly should have been arranged.
Lenin might not have disagreed since he had stressed in his The State and Revolution that “[t]he way out of parliamentarism is not, of course, the abolition of representative institutions and the elective principle[.]” But growing chaos made Luxemburg’s proposal impractical. As Trotsky observed,
The greatest degree of disorganization was taking place at the front[.] Desertions were increasing every day; the masses of soldiers threatened to leave the trenches, whole regiments at a time, and move to the rear, devastating everything on their way. In the villages, a general seizure of lands and landholders’ utensils was going on. Martial law had been declared in several provinces. The Germans continued to advance, captured Riga, and threatened Petrograd. The right wing of the bourgeoisie was openly rejoicing over the danger that threatened the revolutionary capital.
Under such circumstances, a constituent assembly would have become a rallying point for the Right, a force not for change but, ironically, for the restoration of the status quo ante. Indeed, that is just what happened when, abandoned by both the Bolsheviks and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, a remnant of the assembly decamped for Ufa in the extreme south and came under the control of the brutal warlords Alexander Kolchak and Anton Denikin.
This is not the end of the story, however. After the civil war, the question of a constituent assembly seems to have gone into abeyance, not only in Russia but in the Communist movement in general. Instead of criticizing liberal constitutionalism, the emphasis was now on overthrowing it altogether via the slogan “all power to the soviets.” Nonetheless, Trotsky revived the demand with regard to the Chinese and Spanish revolutions and continued to zero in on structural distortions that robbed the working masses of their democratic rights even when he did not mention constitutional assemblies per se. As he observed in his 1925 pamphlet, Whither England?:
The vicious geometry of the election districts gives a Conservative vote twice as much weight as a worker’s vote. Thus, the present English Parliament is a crying distortion of the will of the people, even if we understand the latter in the bourgeois-democratic sense. Has the working class a right, still standing on the principles of democracy, to demand vigorously from the present privileged and at bottom usurping House of Commons the immediate introduction by the latter of a truly democratic suffrage? If Parliament should answer unfavorably, which we consider inevitable … would the proletariat then have the ‘right’ to obtain from the usurping Parliament, by means of a general strike, the introduction of a democratic suffrage system?
After reforming the House of Commons, workers would no doubt turn their attention to the House of Lords, the monarchy, and other features of the Westminster system as the revolutionary confrontation with the state deepened and grew. A few months after an attempted fascist putsch in France, Trotsky called for a workers’ militia among other things, but also urged workers to emulate the Convention of 1793 by attacking both the presidency and the French Senate—“which is elected by limited suffrage and which renders the power of universal suffrage a mere illusion”—and to concentrate all power in a single chamber instead. He wrote,
Workers adhering to democratic socialism must further understand that it is not enough to defend democracy; democracy must be regained. The moving of the political center of gravity from parliament towards the cabinet, from the cabinet towards the oligarchy of finance capital, generals, police, is an accomplished fact. Neither the present parliament nor the new elections can change this. We can defend the sorry remains of democracy, and especially we can enlarge the democratic arena for the activity of the masses, only by annihilating the armed fascist forces that, on February 6, 1934, started moving the axis of the state and are still doing so.
By seeking to “enlarge the democratic arena,” was Trotsky attempting to institute “a new capitalist government”? Obviously not. Rather, he was calling on workers to take the decrepit bourgeois state by the scruff of the neck and give it a good shake so as to slough off all features that did not serve their interests. As he put it in March 1935:
[T]he dictatorship of the proletariat by its very essence can and should be the supreme expression of workers’ democracy. In order to bring about a great social revolution, there must be for the proletariat a supreme manifestation of all its forces and all its capacities: the proletariat is organized democratically, precisely in order to put an end to its enemies. The dictatorship, according to Lenin, should ‘teach every cook to direct the state.’ The heavy hand of dictatorship is directed against the class enemies: the foundation of the dictatorship is workers’ democracy.
Teaching every cook to direct the state means mobilizing the working masses to collectively redesign the state to advance their rule. This is not to say that the masses should not also collectively redesign the economy, social mores, and the like. Clearly they should. But revamping the political structure is a no less important part of the process.
The American crisis
The inequities of the British Parliament or the French Senate pale next to those of the United States today. The U.S. Senate is an eighteenth-century monstrosity that, by granting each state equal representation regardless of population, accords the same weight to the three percent of the country that lives in the ten smallest states as the 55 percent that lives in the ten largest. The Electoral College is heavily slanted in favor of underpopulated rural states like Wyoming, Alaska, and the Dakotas while the constitutional provision in Article I that gives the states near-total leeway in apportioning congressional districts has led to the skewing of the House of Representatives as well.
Democracy is shrinking as a consequence. Yet such inequities go unnoticed in the liberal-left press. While defending affirmative action at every turn, The Nation magazine has never said one word, as far as this writer is aware, about a racist Senate that favors rural whites over urban giants like California and New York. This may not be surprising since The Nation is a fossilized relic of the 1930s Popular Front for which the Constitution serves as the highest pinnacle of human attainment. But the silence of the Marxist press is harder to explain. Workers Vanguard has never mentioned the problem of a fantastically unrepresentative Senate either, and neither, for that matter, have the ex-Healyites over at David North’s World Socialist Web Site. The Electoral College gets little attention even though it is also weighted in favor of rural white interests while the even more egregious Article V gets even less. Leftists view racism as a miasma that spreads across the U.S. like a low-lying fog. But they are remarkably incurious with regard to the specific structural features that not only perpetuate it but also render it more extreme with each passing decade.
Other aspects of the breakdown also go unnoticed or are at least misunderstood. Gridlock is blamed on Republican recalcitrance or an excess of partisanship, but never on a pre-modern concept of checks and balances that fairly guarantees that the different branches of government will pull in different directions. The two-party system is widely despised, with some sixty percent of Americans longing for an alternative according to Gallup. But leftists rarely criticize a “first-past-the-post” system that strongly discourages “wasting” one’s vote on a minor-party candidate in presidential elections as well as in countless congressional and state contests. In order to achieve any degree of viability, a third party would have to break through in scores, if not hundreds, of elections simultaneously, a supremely difficult task in the best of circumstances but one that is now all but unachievable thanks to impediments and restrictions that politicians imposed during the so-called Progressive Era to fend off challenges to the “Repocratic” duopoly. Leninists have been calling for a labor party since the days of bathtub gin. But they will continue doing so as long as the constitutional superstructure upholding the two-party system remains undisturbed.
Politically blocked, labor finds itself reduced to an appendage of an ailing Democratic Party. Despairing of any socialist alternative, workers are easy prey for rightwing demagogues like ex-Trump adviser Steve Bannon who promises a “day of reckoning” for the Washington establishment.
The struggle for democracy
“Marx and I, for forty years, repeated ad nauseam that for us the democratic republic is the only political form in which the struggle between the working class and the capitalist class can first be universalized and then culminate in the decisive victory of the proletariat.” So wrote Engels in 1892. Since the October Revolution occurred in a country that had barely crossed the bourgeois-democratic threshold, we might wish to modify Engels by saying that it is not a democratic republic that is an essential prerequisite but, rather, the struggle for one. But this means doing what leftists have so far showed little taste for, i.e. politically confronting a hopelessly antique constitutional framework that is dragging U.S. society down into the lower depths of authoritarianism.
Lenin was never more dictatorial than in insisting that he was as capable of error as any other Marxist. With this in mind, we might take issue with his characterization of the American Revolution as “one of those great, really liberating, really revolutionary wars of which there have been so few.” In reality, the American Revolution was a much more ambiguous affair than he perhaps realized. Samuel Johnson’s famous quip—“How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”—still resonates. In the South, the British offer of freedom to any slave who joined their forces spread panic among “Patriot” planters. In 1780, the Virginia legislature offered 300 acres and a slave to any military recruit who signed up for the duration. Even in the North, the revolution was less a matter of moving forward to a new kind of society than of protecting a land that was already considered to be free and pristine.
The Constitution of 1787 was thus a conservative-democratic document whose goal was not to create freedom but to preserve liberties that already existed. It did so not by installing popular sovereignty but by negating it via innumerable checks and balances and separations of power. The goal, as Madison admitted with admirable frankness in the tenth Federalist Paper, was to prevent the coming together of a democratic majority that would be seized all too easily by “a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project”—improper, that is, to the degree they threatened private wealth. As he put it in a letter to Jefferson a few weeks after the Philadelphia Convention: “Divide et impera, the reprobated axiom of tyranny, is under certain qualifications, the only policy, by which a republic can be administered on just principles.” Americans had to divide and conquer themselves so as to safeguard property against the dangers of runaway democracy.
Where Lenin thought of the U.S. as the ultimate expression of modern capitalism, consequently, it is actually something more complex, an ungainly mix of the pre- and ultra-modern, radical in certain respects but ultra-conservative at its core. Rather than ushering in a new age of popular democracy, the U.S. Constitution was in many ways the last blast of the ancien régime. As the historian R. R. Palmer pointed out in his magisterial study, The Age of the Democratic Revolution, Jefferson was ideologically closer to the Aristocratic Revolt, with its emphasis on decentralization and checks and balances, that preceded the revolution than he was to the revolution itself, while Hamilton, the great loser in the 1790s struggle for power, was much more of an unconscious Jacobin than he or his compatriots realized. One of the National Assembly’s first acts was thus to reject a Jefferson-style plan of government based on separation of powers while the Jacobins then pushed through centralist, pro-industrialist policies that Americans would have recognized as Hamiltonian had they not been so ideologically blinkered.
U.S. political structure is thus trickier, more paradoxical, more cut-off from the classic European model, than Marxists have realized, which may explain why they have made so little progress in cracking it open. It may also explain why U.S. society now finds itself in such a dead end. The Constitution served capitalism well by placing popular democracy within firm legal limits. Instead of giving the bourgeoisie a free hand in organizing society, it did them one better by mobilizing the people to organize it on their behalf. Capitalism acquired a depth of popular support that radicals on the other side of the Atlantic found all but incomprehensible. But now U.S. capitalism faces a sea of troubles: declining profitability, imperial overstretch from the Middle East to the Sea of Japan, an enviro-industrial crisis stemming from over-dependence on fossil fuels, and a growing structural crisis back home. It needs calm and steady leadership. But thanks to a broken-down constitutional mechanism that should have been fixed years ago, it has wound up with a real-estate con artist with little idea how the world works. The ruling class has thrown everything it has at Trump in an effort to bludgeon him into submission. It has hit him with accusations of collusion with Russia based on little more than the say-so of the intelligence agencies. It has mobilized the CIA and corporate press to cook up an endless stream of pseudo-scandals involving “fake news” and supposedly improper communications with Moscow diplomats. It has surrounded him with military men to keep him in line. Yet nothing seems to work. Undaunted, Trump staggers on, bombing Syria, threatening to “totally destroy” a nuclear-armed North Korea, stepping up military aid to a Ukraine under the growing influence of Nazi-led militias, and alienating crucial partners like Germany’s Angela Merkel.
The result is unprecedented: a ruling class that is unable to rule. A political void has opened up that the Far Right is hastening to fill. Liberals, characteristically, have responded by focusing their ire on Trump and hence ignoring the role of Democrats in pushing him to the right on such key issues as hostility to the Assad regime, support for Saudi Arabia, and military backing for Kiev’s efforts to recover its lost provinces in the east. While leaping to the defense of workers, women, and minorities, elements farther to the left have ignored the structural elements that are contributing to the crisis. The Spartacists, for instance, seem no more concerned now than they were nearly two decades ago when they dismissed the 2000 electoral crisis as “a tempest in a teapot,” declaring that “stealing an election is as American as apple pie [and] hardly a sign that this imperialist ruling class is about to dispense with the stability of bourgeois-democratic rule”—this just six months before the destruction of the World Trade Center caused a precipitous slide into authoritarianism and emergency rule. But now that the instability is reaching a tipping point, it is the task of the working class to confront the emergency head on by taking charge of the state and restructuring it from top to bottom.
What a constituent assembly would mean
A call for a constituent assembly on the part of the working class would amount to a declaration of independence from the two-party system and the corrupt and arthritic Washington apparatus in general. Obviously, it would not emerge out of the blue but, rather, as a consequence of a growing class war. Almost certainly, it would be accompanied by a movement for a general strike, which would itself lead to the growth of workers’ councils—otherwise known as soviets—as workers moved to take control of strike-bound communities and industrial installations. A constituent assembly would be a means of bringing all democratic elements—middle-class liberals, besieged minorities, the women’s movement, etc.—together under a working-class umbrella. The message to such groups would be crystal clear: bourgeois democracy is turning into a hideous caricature whereas proletarian democracy offers the only path forward. A constituent assembly, universally elected and organized on the basis of strict proportional representation, would mark the beginning of a vast democratic restructuring of American society led by the working class.
One reason the constituent assembly and the soviets parted ways in 1918 is that the Russian workers comprised only a small portion of the population, probably less than ten percent in all, in a society that was otherwise peasant-dominated. But in today’s U.S., agriculture accounts for less than two percent of the labor force, while workers, which is to say all those who are compelled to sell their labor power as opposed to living off profits, have hovered at anywhere from 81 to 93 percent of the workforce since the 1920s.
As one would expect in an advanced capitalist society, the working class and demos are essentially the same. As the Communist Manifesto puts it, “[t]he proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority”—words that have never been truer than they are today. Where the Bolsheviks forced to choose between a constitutional assembly and soviet power, it is unlikely that their successors will be faced with any such reckoning. Instead of socialism or democracy, the working class is now in a position to strive for both. |P
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 “A Manifesto for Democratising Europe,” DiEM25, https://diem25.org/manifesto-short-version/.
 Robin Wright, “Is America Headed for a New Kind of Civil War?,” The New Yorker, August 14, 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/is-america-headed-for-a-new-kind-of-civil-war.
 Rosa Brooks, “3 Ways to Get Rid of President Trump before 2020,” Foreign Policy, January 30, 2017, http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/01/30/3-ways-to-get-rid-of-president-trump-before-2020-impeach-25th-amendment-coup/. See also Masha Gessen, “John Kelly and the Language of the Military Coup,” The New Yorker, October 20, 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/john-kelly-and-the-language-of-the-military-coup.
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 For a detailed discussion, see August H. Nimtz, Lenin’s Electoral Strategy: From 1907 to the October Revolution of 1917 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
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 Leon Trotsky, Our Revolution: Essays on Working-Class and International Revolution, 1904-1917 (New York: Henry Holt, 1918), 43.
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 Leon Trotsky, Whither England? (New York: International Publishers, 1925), 105.
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 Seth Ackerman, “A Blueprint for a New Party,” Jacobin, November 8, 2016, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/11/bernie-sanders-democratic-labor-party-ackerman/.
 Chris Cillizza, “Steve Bannon warns GOP establishment: ‘Your reckoning is coming’,” CNN, September 27, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/09/26/politics/steve-bannon-mcconnell-alabama/index.html.
 Quoted in August H. Nimtz, Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough (Albany: SUNY Press, 2000), 268.
 V. I. Lenin, “Letter to American Workers” (1918), https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/aug/20.htm.
 Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961), 108.
 Quoted in Samuel Kernell, ed., James Madison: The Theory and Practice of Republican Government (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 349.
 R. R. Palmer, The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760–1800, Vol. 1 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959), 469.
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 Simon Mohun, “Class Structure and the US Personal Income Distribution, 1918–2012,” Metroeconomica 67, no. 2 (May 2016).