The foundation of the NPA: A new workers' party in France

Submitted by AWL on 13 February, 2009 - 2:37 Author: Sacha Ismail and Vicki Morris

Over the weekend of 6-8 February, working-class activists in France took a big step towards the creation of a powerful revolutionary party. Their success is cause for rejoicing — and contains lessons for the British left.

The preparations for the launching of a “New Anti-capitalist Party” (NPA, a temporary name which has now been made permanent), initiated by the Fourth International‘s French section, the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, have been under way for more than a year.

On 5 February, a congress of the LCR voted overwhelmingly to dissolve the organisation, and on 6 February close to 700 delegates met in St Denis, north of Paris, for the founding congress of the NPA. They were joined by many international observers, including a handful of British socialists, among them four members and three contacts of the AWL.

This initiative is coming to fruition after several years of stormy struggles by French workers and youth. 29 January saw what has been described as a one-day general strike (though in fact many French comrades were keen to insist that it was “inter-professional”, not actually general) against the bosses' attempts to make the working class pay for the economic crisis. The action brought over two million onto the streets. Lecturers have begun an ongoing strike against neo-liberal education reforms, and both secondary school and university students have been militant and scored some victories over the last few years. LCR and NPA members have been central to a number of these movements, and their organisations have to a certain extent become emblematic of the hopes and aspirations of those in struggle. This is what gives the new project its vitality.

Let us describe what was impressive about the congress. The 700 delegates represented 9,000 members, three times the size of the LCR, of whom 6,700 participated in local congresses in the run up to the national event. A majority of those present had not been members of the LCR; and while there was involvement from several smaller left groups — including Gauche Révolutionnaire, linked to the Socialist Party in Britain, and the expelled minority Faction of France's other main revolutionary group, Lutte Ouvrière — most had not been in any party before.

There was a strong representation of, and participation by, women; and, though the congress was not overwhelmingly young, strong involvement of youth. Particularly for those of us used to fighting the anti-democratic practices of the majority of British “Trotskyists”, the democracy of the congress was strikingly impressive: despite the huge number of amendments to the founding texts, there was very free and wide-ranging discussion with wide participation. Significant minorities, for instance the ex-LCR “Unir” tendency of Christian Picquet were given representation on the new national committee.

But what kind of party were they founding?

Compared to attempts at left regroupment in other European countries — the Scottish Socialist Party, Italy's Communist Refoundation and Germany’s Die Linke, for instance — the NPA is solid politically. Its founding text defines it as revolutionary, and promises a break with the gauche institutionelle of the Socialist and Communist Parties, and with the institutions of the bourgeois state. The claim by some on the far left that, in dissolving into the NPA, the LCR has abandoned the programme of Trotskyism, seems to us to be somewhat misplaced. Undoubtedly there were problems with the politics of the LCR, which may create corresponding problems in the NPA; but what defines a party as revolutionary is not use of Marxist jargon in its founding documents or adherence to a finished and unchanging program, but its attitude to class struggle. Everyone we spoke to in Paris was adamant that the NPA will be a "party of struggle" and was able to explain in detail how that made it different from e.g. Die Linke.

Indeed one crucial area of contention was how to relate in the upcoming European elections to the Communist Party and the Parti de Gauche, a Die Linke-style split from the Socialist Party. The congress voted 467 to 101, with about fifty abstentions, against the “anti-neo-liberal” alliance which is central to the strategy of Unir and in favour of an independent NPA intervention on the basis of anti-capitalism.

Having said that, to judge from the congress proceedings and the discussion we had with people, there seem to us to be a number of problems.

1. United fronts

Everyone in the NPA is keen to insist on the bankruptcy of the governmental left parties, the SP and CP. Clearly that is right, but it does not absolve revolutionaries from relating to the tens of thousands of workers still in these parties and the millions who vote for them. If NPA members can strike and demonstrate in concert with workers who support the reformist parties, while maintaining their independent programme, should they not also seek to give this united front a political expression — at the very least to expose the unwillingness of the SP and CP leaders to break with the bosses?

This is a different question from forming common electoral lists with these parties or elements of them, as Unir proposed and as Lutte Ouvriere, having refused to participate in the NPA, did in the last local elections. If, as seems quite likely, for instance, the NPA wins significant representation in local government, it may find itself in a situation where its votes can give the SP or CP the majority. Surely revolutionaries should pose conditions — along the lines of “If you break with the bosses and their institutions and carry out these demands, we will support you against the right, while maintaining our independence and freedom of criticism” — rather than simply glorying in their minority status.

There is also, on a different level, a need for a clear united front policy towards Lutte Ouvriere, which despite its sectarianism towards the NPA project, remains a substantial revolutionary tendency with deep roots in many workplaces.

2. Workers’ government

This relates directly to another question: what sort of government the NPA is fighting for. The founding text uses the formulation of “a government at the service of the workers”, a formulation which contains much ambiguity. Does it mean a revolutionary workers’ state, or a transitional formation, a “workers’ government” elected to office but resting for its power on the massed strength of the working class in struggle?

A revolution is not, in the immediate term, on the agenda, but the driving of Sarkozy from power is. What will the workers replace him with? At the moment, the only alternative is the social-liberal Socialist Party. But this brings us back to the question of united fronts: if the various workers’ organisations — trade unions, CP, NPA, even elements of the SP — can unite for struggle against the bosses’ attacks, should we not also fight for the workers’ movement to create a government which carries out a corresponding programme of reforms, a government of struggle which pushes the class struggle forward?

There are no easy answers to such questions, but at the moment most of the NPA comrades seem content to leave them for another day.

3. The unions

The NPA does not seem to have a clear programme for fighting in and transforming the trade union movement as such, as opposed to building revolutionary caucuses within them.

Again, this is a question that most seem willing to leave for now. A healthy desire to concentrate on activism in the workplace, and avoid fantasies about providing a ready-made alternative leadership, may play a role here; so may over-reaction on the part of some new comrades against the Communist Party’s previous domination of the labour movement. But a revolutionary party needs a programme for the transformation of the whole labour movement, one which militants who are not its members can fight for, and not just a determination to recruit workers by ones or in small groups.

4. Membership

“Anyone can be a member of the party if they agree with the basics of the ‘founding principles’ and join a local committee; that is, if they have a membership card, participate in party activities and meetings to the extent that they are able, and pay their dues.”

These fairly minimal requirements of membership were explained to us by one comrade as simply mandating flexibility, over and above a basic level of activism, in order to more easily integrate an influx of workers, those with childcare responsibilities, and so on. Certainly, everyone was very insistent that the NPA will be a “party of militants” (i.e. activists). Nevertheless, with such fast growth, there must a danger of creating a soft underbelly of relatively inactive members.

5. Youth

The NPA youth were a bit messed around by the congress. An amendment about youth work was sent back for redrafting partly on the grounds that anti-war agitation, one of the three main campaign planks it proposed (alongside the struggle in the universities and “organising the youth”, i.e. young workers, school students) is not specifically a “youth issue”.
The discussion on what to do about this, on the first night of the congress, took place outside in the freezing cold, since a room had not been found to have it in! Meanwhile, the NPA, unlike the LCR, will not have an autonomous youth section, not because the young people do not want it, but because some older members object on grounds of opposing youth separatism. Again, this problem is in part only potential — and for sure the youth were not treated in the shabby way that is customary on the British far left — but it is something to keep an eye on.

With these qualifications, the founding of the NPA is an event that should be celebrated. It has the potential to significantly shift both French and world politics. In addition to regrouping many French socialists, previously affiliated and unaffiliated, into a single party, it looks certain to attract wide support in the labour movement and more generally. We were told, and it seemed plausible, that recruitment is not a problem; to a greater and greater extent, working-class activists are approaching the party and asking to join. Meanwhile, there are opinion polls which put the party's standard bearer and likely presidential candidate, postal worker Olivier Besancenot, who won over four percent last time, on as high as 18 percent.

Lastly, the dissolving of the LCR and the creation of a small but real revolutionary party in France are likely to have big consequences for the socialist left internationally. Apart from anything else, the NPA will not be part of the Fourth International — to which the LCR adhered and which it basically bankrolled — but is hoping to build a broader international anti-capitalist movement.

The lessons for Britain are fairly simple. Even in the period of the Socialist Alliance, the bulk of the British left divided between sterile revolutionary declamation and (the majority) pretending to be reformists; then the opportunistic drive to take a short-cut to mass influence in the anti-war movement through the Respect-Galloway fiasco destroyed whatever beginnings had been made.

In contrast the dominant sections of the French left, whatever criticisms can be made, have focused on a basic class-struggle approach, using elections to agitate and propagandise for the idea of workers’ political independence and the transitional demands-type idea of an “emergency plan” for the working class to defend itself and pass over onto the offensive. The NPA is the fruit of that vitally important orientation and struggle.

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