French revolutionary left discusses "new party"

Submitted by martin on 18 January, 2008 - 12:58 Author: Chris Reynolds

The French revolutionary left is discussing the formation of a "new party". An important milestone in that discussion will be the congress on 24-27 January of the LCR (Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire).

[This is a longer version of the article than appears in the printed paper]

The LCR is linked to the "orthodox Trotskyist" current of thought of writers like Ernest Mandel; its best-known figures today are Olivier Besancenot and Alain Krivine.

Three sets of "theses" are to be debated at the congress. Like the AWL, but unlike most other would-be Trotskyist organisations, the LCR is open about its debates, and lets its minorities explain their views to the outside world.

The majority on the outgoing LCR committee - platform A - wants a new party which will be a regroupment of revolutionaries, from below. And there seems to be a real chance that they can pull off something which, though far from a mass party, will have a higher profile than any revolutionary socialist organisation in Europe since the 1970s.

Platform B wants something more like the German Die Linke, a left-reformist party with revolutionaries within it, formed by alliance with groups from the orbits of France's decaying Communist Party and Socialist Party.

Platform C is a small offshoot of platform B, in the same political ballpark but differing on some important points of analysis.

As I understand it from AWL members who have recently visited France, the realistic hopes of Platform A are for the adherence of Alternative Libertaire (a small semi-Marxist anarchist group, in the tradition of Daniel Guérin), of the minority faction of Lutte Ouvrière (Convergences Révolutionnaires/ L'Etincelle), of the Gauche Révolutionnaire (small French sister-group of the Socialist Party here), and of a decent number of currently-unaffiliated individuals. (Lutte Ouvrière itself has made clear that it will not participate).

It should be a serious step forward if the LCR can pull that off. Unfortunately Platform A's theses shroud it in grand talk.

When Platform B complains that in Platform A's perspective, "the new anti-capitalist party would be only an enlarged LCR", Platform A does not reply - as I think they should do - "well, we can hope for more, but suppose that 'enlarged LCR' is all that's possible right now. It'll be still be a good move, won't it?"

No, they protest indignantly: "The new project is not at all reducible to a transformation and an expansion of our organisation". Why shouldn't it be? What would be bad about that? What is the hard evidence that anything more is possible right now?

The LCR has been talking about a broad "new political force" or "new party" since the early 90s. And making attempts to evoke it, too, starting with its involvement in the presidential candidacy of Pierre Juquin, a prominent former CP leader, in 1988.

All of those attempts have been unmitigated failures. The LCR has done much better when it has presented itself as itself, revolutionary communist, than when it has hidden in "broad" alliances of bits and scraps of decomposition-products from the CP and SP.

Platform A draws some conclusions from the long experience, though only mutedly. Platform B writes as if none of it ever happened.

The initiative, says A, is "not to throw ourselves into the n-th operation of recomposition of little circles whose anti-neoliberal commitment only rarely goes beyond the limit of electoral agreements with the Socialist Party, but to propose the building of a new party, a party which is about breaking with the capitalist order, for a revolutionary transformation of society, a really democratic society".

Or: "We have drawn the lessons from the failure of unitary anti-neoliberal and anti-capitalist candidacies for the presidential election... independence vis-à-vis the SP and the institutions and logics of managing the existing system, is an imperative precondition".

It's a curiously backwards way of posing the question, as negation of the SP and so on rather than positive adherence to independent working-class interests and struggle, but it's right.

"This exclude any sort of politicking with tired or discredited leaders or 'personalities' of the left".

"The youth is our main priority", A continues, "and the new party, while respecting the autonomy and the sovereignty of young members in their intervention, should, at first anyway, fuse experiences and energies in a single force". (At present the LCR has a companion youth organisation, the JCR, which does not function well). "The founding conference of this new party should take place before the end of 2008".

The political basis that A proposes for the new party is a bit vague, but no vaguer than the LCR itself, and indeed in some respects more left-wing than the LCR is at present. The new party, says A, should "counterpose, against managing existing institutions, the perspective of a workers' government".

Here the influence of the LCR's left wing, Démocratie Révolutionnaire, which has joined Platform A, is visible. But the theses don't expand on the idea.

A major gap in the theses (to my mind) is the lack of anything about united-front policy in France, i.e. what the "new party" - obviously still a minority force, even if the LCR does win AL, GR, and CR/l'E and a lot of new young activists - will do in relation to the existing labour movement.

You'd think that platform A would at the very least write something perfunctory about that, if only to fend off the polemics of platform B. But no. "Building the new party" is proposed as if it is in itself the answer to the political problems.

And there are bits in Platform A which point to political dithering. For example: "The choice of [the French Communist Party's] leadership, both in the social mobilisations and in the coming municipal elections, to give priority to an alliance with the Socialist Party, means that it is not a partner for the construction of an anti-capitalist alternative". So if only the CP were to fall out with the SP, then it would be a "partner"?

As is common in the LCR, Platform A uses the term "anti-capitalist" as if it were a synonym of "working-class socialist", and as if reactionary anti-capitalism simply did not exist. One passing comment gives heartening indication of more awareness. "In Lebanon, in Palestine, and in Iraq, there are big resistance struggles, but in a framework which remains marked by the defeats of the workers' movement and where only the Islamist currents, hostile to socialism, currently come out of it well".

Both A and B suggest - it's hard to pin it down, but the suggestion is clear - that the main thought behind the grand talk of a new party is a desire to do better electorally, in particular in the municipal elections of March 2008. Neither says anything much beyond the vaguest generalities about what this "new party" will do in the workplaces, the neighbourhoods, and social struggles.

Also, neither A nor B does more in their theses than vague hand-waving - "all those people, over there, involved in the struggles" - to indicate who might join with the LCR in the "new party".

Platform B is a minority on the LCR committee (19 supporters, as against 56 for A), but includes some prominent people in the LCR (Christian Picquet, editor of the LCR's paper; Francis Sitel, editor of its magazine; Michelle Ernis; Céline Malaisé; etc.)

It stresses the united front idea. "In fact we have to criticise the idea that the new anti-capitalist party would be the sum total of the political response necessary in the present situation. That response should articulate, in the first place, the broadest unity, the quest for a united front to mobilise against the attacks of the government and the bosses; then, the rallying of the anti-neoliberal forces in an alternative to the social-liberalism of the SP; and, finally, the perspective of a new political force".

But what Platform B talks about under the rubric united front is not so much an active, constantly-readjusted policy by the revolutionaries as the creation of some sort of consensus consortium or cartel of everyone to the left of French Blairism.

"The LCR should launch an appeal to the whole left [in France, 'the left' means the SP and CP and similar, not the revolutionary left, for whom the term 'far left' is used], to the trade union movement and community campaigns, to the youth organisations, to ecologist, feminist, and democratic forces, proposing the creation without delay of a national committee of vigilance and response..."

This should create "a front, independent from social-liberalism" [i.e. from the SP leadership] "of resistance to the right and of political elaboration, at all levels, in the towns, the neighbourhoods, and the workplaces".

In fact, Christian Picquet is already involved in moves for such a front, under the title Maintenant, à gauche.

Platform B is also keen on the LCR sinking itself electorally in such a bloc.

"Despite the score won by Olivier Besancenot [in the 2007 presidential election], the overall result of the candidacies coming from the anti-neoliberal left, in the first round, represented a serious political setback.. This setback is mainly due to the fact that the forces of the 'no' vote on the European Constitutional Treaty let the logics of competition between them prevail".

All currents in the LCR believe that the "no" vote in France's European Constitution referendum was a great victory for the left, though I would have thought that the plain facts - that referendum being followed by the rise to ascendancy in both the traditional right and the SP of the hardest-line right-wing leaders, Sarkozy and Royal - have proved them wrong.

But even if you think it was right to vote "no" - I don't - the idea that revolutionaries should therefore suspend, or go slow on, "logics of competition" between themselves and the CP, or the SP leaders who voted no (like Laurent Fabius), or indeed the many outright right-wing forces who voted no, is a political abdication.

Platform B insists that: "The balance-sheet is extremely positive of the experiences [of broad-left coalitions] in which sections of the Fourth International have got involved".

Discreetly, they omit mention of the "experience" of the LCR's small British sister-group, the ISG, in the Respect debacle. But they specifically praise the experience in Rifondazione in Italy "before its 'governmental' turn", as if the "governmental" turn did not arise from previous problems. (Rifondazione originated in 1991 as a left faction dissenting from the old Italian CP's move to the right and self-renaming as Sinistra Democratica, and then took in large numbers of non-CP left activists. It is now in the Prodi government and negotiating to merge with the Greens and those from Sinistra Democratica who opposed the merger with the ex-Christian-Democrats into a new formation, La Sinistra/ L'Arcobaleno [The Left/ The Rainbow].)

They assert that "the latest experiment, that of Die Linke in Germany... embodies, with an indisputable political and electoral credibility, an alternative road to that of neo-liberal renunciation".

No mention of the fact that the bulk of Die Linke is a recycled version of the old ruling party in East Germany, and owes much of its electoral base to former state officials and to the elderly. No mention of the fact that where Die Linke is in provincial and city administrations, it is as "neo-liberal" as the rest.

Platform B's theses say that "of course" the LCR should maintain its own revolutionary ideas within the coalition that should be built.

But Platform B complains, against Platform A, that the project of a new party cannot be credible unless it is clear that it is not revolutionary. That is a bit different from saying that revolutionaries should be willing to join a lively new working-class regroupment even if, unfortunately, it is not yet revolutionary.

And how could the LCR make sure that the new party is not revolutionary? Only by arguing for reformist policies. The LCR would "keep" its own revolutionary ideas, but as private things which it does not deny but doesn't want to talk about too much, like a penchant for eating too much ice-cream or spending spare time watching The Simpsons.

Even more alarmingly, platform B says that the LCR should support a government that "breaks with neo-liberalism". Generally, their theses scarcely mention capitalism or workers, but only "neo-liberalism". Does that mean that the LCR should support governments like those of Chavez in Venezuela or Morales in Bolivia - or for that matter, Castro in Cuba, or Gaddafi in Libya - which are bourgeois but not neo-liberal?

There is in platform B quite a lot of the "main enemy"/ "principal contradiction" type of thinking once associated with Maoism and today most used by the SWP. SWP: "Since US imperialism is the main enemy, we should not sharply criticise the Iranian government, though of course we agree that some things Ahmedinejad does are not the behaviour we would like to see in our own front rooms", etc.) Platform B: "Since Sarkozy is the main enemy, we should focus on creating a common front of everyone to the left of those SP leaders who openly share ground with Sarkozy".

Platform C is, as I've noted, in the same political ballpark as Platform B. But they say: "We were not in agreement with Platform B's analysis of the "double lurch" - in the right, with the election of Sarkozy, and in the left, with Royal's candidacy".

Platform B does in fact put great emphasis on how radically right-wing Sarkozy is - somewhat exaggerating his political potency, I'd say - and how far Royal is shifting the SP. As Platform C says, to analyse what Royal is doing in the SP as a "break" "can serve to justify appeals to 'save the values of the left',", i.e. to sink the LCR in a broad soft-left coalition.

And Platform C also comments: "The hope that the Linkspartei will cross the Rhine is not reasonable".

It should be explained that LCR congresses run rather differently from the AWL's conferences. At an AWL conference there may be half a dozen different debates on half a dozen different subjects, each debate considering a variety of documents, motions, and amendments. The chief disputants in one debate may be allies in the next discussion, or vice versa.

LCR congresses are almost all taken up with debating rival sets of theses from different groups within the LCR ("platforms"), each set of theses covering only what is considered to be the big issue for that congress. If LCR members differ among themselves on Iraq, or Venezuela, or trade-union tactics, or the hijab - as they are likely to do - the subject does not get debated at the congress unless mentioned in the theses (which it isn't).

So, unfortunately, many of the issues of detail in the theses, or unstated assumptions common to them all, will not get debated.

All three platforms take it as read that the need for the LCR to "transcend itself" by creating a "new party" is not new, but dates from a precise time, 1989-91.

No-one explains exactly why. There is, I think, a sliver of truth in the idea. 1989-91 marks the collapse of European Stalinism, and, in fact, the end of full-blown Stalinist economics everywhere except North Korea.

That collapse led to the collapse of Communist Parties all around the world. The British Communist Party had 30,000 members as late as the 1960s, but has now vanished, leaving only tiny and elderly fragments. The bulk of what was once the huge Italian Communist Party merged in October 2007 with a splinter from Italy's old Christian Democratic Party to form a Democratic Party, deliberately so named as to evoke the model of the party in the USA of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

The French Communist Party still exists, but is very frail. It won only 1.9% in the 2007 presidential election, less than the LCR's 4.1%.

The collapse of the prestige of the Stalinist "planned economy" model, and the victories of the bourgeoisie worldwide in the 1980s in overcoming the crises of the 1970s and restructuring economies (and working classes) into a new world-market orientation ("globalisation"), have led in many countries to versions of what we see in Britain as Blairism.

The structural transformations which Blair imposed on Britain's Labour Party, and which were topped off by Gordon Brown's achievement at the Bournemouth Labour Party conference last year in banning trade unions and local Labour Party from putting any political motions to Labour Party conference, have not happened everywhere.

But a shift of social-democratic party leaderships away from even nominal "socialism"; a positive enthusiasm for free-marketism; and a conversion of the party apparatus into being more and more a bureaucratic machine of "professional politicians", relating to the electorate primarily through the bourgeois media - those have been pretty much universal.

Visiting Germany recently, I noticed that a TV comedian could assume a laugh from saying: "The SPD used to have workers in it. Or, at least, it used to have someone in it who has once met someone who had met a worker".

In France, Ségolène Royal is explicit about wanting to "Blair-ise" the Socialist Party more fully.

This disarray of the old political machines of the labour movement - and, indeed, of much of the old revolutionary left, which tended to accept one or other of the Stalinist states as some sort of imperfect model of "post-capitalist society" - means that working-class politics, and political culture, has rebuild from the ground up.

It is likely that this rebuilding will include the formation of broad new workers' parties, with many things at first politically undefined, rather than just the gradual accumulation of new members around one or other of the revolutionary-left factions, or the splitting-away of coherent left factions from the old social-democratic or ex-Stalinist parties.

All that tells us that the emergence of broad new workers' parties is desirable and possible, and that we shouldn't be sniffy about them. But it doesn't tell us when and where they will emerge. And it doesn't tell us which attempts may turn out to be episodes in the decay of the old, and which are the emergence of the new. Even if it has been right for revolutionaries to intervene in Rifondazione in Italy, the SSP in Scotland, and Die Linke in Germany, on a sober assessment they have been more about the decay of the old than the emergence of the new.

The thought in the LCR, however, seems to be not merely that the struggles and movements of the future will teach us things we don't now know - which they will - but that 1989-91 has made all the old Trotskyist programmes obsolete, and so we have to find a "new party" which will somehow spontaneously tell us what to do.

Arguing against Stalinist caricatures of Rosa Luxemburg as "spontaneist", Trotsky wrote: "Rosa Luxemburg exerted herself to educate the revolutionary wing of the proletariat in advance and to bring it together organizationally as far as possible. In Poland, she built up a very rigid independent organization.

"The most that can be said is that in her historical-philosophical evaluation of the labor movement, the preparatory selection of the vanguard, in comparison with the mass actions that were to be expected, fell too short with Rosa; whereas Lenin – without consoling himself with the miracles of future actions – took the advanced workers and constantly and tirelessly welded them together into firm nuclei, illegally or legally, in the mass organizations or underground, by means of a sharply defined program".

Without consoling himself with the miracles of future actions! That's a thought that all currents of the LCR would do well to remember.

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