By Joan Trevor
The two main far-left groups in France, the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) and Lutte Ouvrière (LO), are debating whether to run a joint election campaign for the European elections in 2004. In the Euro elections of 1999 their joint slate won 5.2% of the vote, and LCR got two and LO three candidates elected to the European parliament.
Can they repeat this performance? What would they gain from it? What would they risk? Is unity this time around even likely? I cannot predict-the question is the main topic at the meeting of the LCR Central Committee next weekend-but the possibility is interesting.
Both groups have stood in many elections. LO have stood their spokesperson Arlette Laguiller in every presidential election since 1974. She won 5.7% of the vote in April 2002. The LCR have been less consistent, and perhaps this explains their poorer results. But recently they have competed, where they have stood separate from them, quite well against LO. Their presidential candidate Olivier Besancenot won 4.3% of the vote in 2002.
There is no reason to believe that an LCR-LO campaign for the Euro elections would not do well, returning at least the number of MEPs it achieved last time. This is particularly true given the huge strike wave this spring and summer against government attacks on pensions, and the education and benefits systems, to which LCR and LO members were integral.
Ten per cent for the far-left in the presidential election! An astonishing achievement, with big implications for how the two groups conduct themselves.
In this situation, the LCR often talks about the left-the far-left-meeting its 'responsibility'. It more eagerly pursues electoral unity. Regularly it talks about the need to build a broader political force to fill the vacuum created by the political collapse of the 'plural left', the Socialist Party, the Communist Party and the Greens.
What does the Ligue mean by responsibility? They mean that the 10% who voted far-left in the presidential elections demand a more permanent political force, someone there in all elections, and the far-left has a duty to provide it.
They mean that a more permanent political force must be built to more permanently counter the propaganda of the fascists-who won 20% in the presidential elections!
They mean that the old plural left is decomposing, and disillusioned militants of the SP, the CP, the Greens are looking for a new political home, people who would not automatically join a Trotskyist revolutionary group such as the LCR and LO are.
They mean that a more permanent political force must be built to counter the neoliberal attacks of the right-wing government (and of every governmental alternative that is likely in the near future).
They mean that the left must build a force that defends and fights for an alternative vision of society, without limiting itself to reformism (which, arguably, is dead).
They are right. The left has a big responsibility. In the past they would have oriented to the bigger working-class parties, now they must look for ways to build one. But I wonder if they haven't always had that 'responsibility'. There is also, perhaps, just the tiniest danger of fostering a "bourgeois political" attitude: think that you must give "people" something to vote for (promise much and deliver less), which is bad enough, and at the same time discourage people from acting for themselves, which is the polar opposite of what socialists must do. It's just a danger.
LO doesn't agree about the need for a broader force. They think that since a more permanent broader party would only attract a very small number of working-class people prepared to do some work for it-as opposed to just voting for it: the bourgeois not the communist model of 'politics'-to try to build such a party is premature. (For me it's hard to imagine when this would not be the case: you always have to start somewhere!)
And perhaps they are just plain sectarian, with an ingrained contempt for other groups and, certainly, for broader forces, and habits of working that they could not break out of, even if they wanted to. Perhaps the only reason they contemplate an electoral alliance now is to recoup the money they will put into the campaign (any candidate getting 5% of the vote recoups the money they spend).
Whatever, the preliminaries of the courtship are fraught, to say the least!
On 28 June and again on 25 July-not having received satisfaction-LO wrote to the LCR about the joint election campaign. They wanted certain preliminary guarantees and to address certain worries: they accuse the LCR of having wasted their time in negotiations about a joint campaign for the municipal elections of March 2001.
- LO refused to vote for Jacques Chirac against Jean-Marie Le Pen in the second round of the presidential elections; LCR called for a campaign against Le Pen, in the streets and at the ballot-in effect, a call for a Chirac vote. There had been some discussion of a joint presidential campaign between LCR and LO, but LO refused it, hence the two candidacies of Laguiller and Besancenot. In the event, LO say in their letter, "we were almost unanimous in our happiness at not having presented a joint candidacy in the first round since, 48 hours later, our two organisations divided on a crucial political point " They accuse LCR of selling out their working-class independence for reasons of stupidity or opportunism, trying to appeal to the anti-fascist youth, of having played a part in the 'plebiscite' of Chirac.
- LO accuse LCR of sowing illusions in 'petits-bourgeois' currents, such as the 'altermondialiste' [Another World is Possible] movement; they refuse, as they accuse LCR of doing, to put "feminism, the fight against homophobia, ecology or 'altermondialisation' as struggles on the same level and in particular on the same level as the anticapitalist struggle [the socialist fight against capitalism], for this tends to belittle the latter".
- They will not call for support (this is not the same as opposing) in the second round of the regional elections for plural left candidates "even if the left is threatened by the right or [sic] the right is menaced by the National Front". "If the left is threatened by the National Front, the attitude of our list will be the object of a formal agreement between our two organisations."
- Bizarrely, LO suggest that it will not be a tragedy if an agreement can't be reached: neither side loses much by standing separately, and the bourgeois press counts the two votes together as the score for "the far-left". The LCR gets to identify who are its supporters, who LO suggests are a different constituency from LO supporters-feminists, gay rights activists et al?
What is the response of the LCR?
- They tell LO to be more comradely: stop accusing the LCR of treachery, of being "Chiraquien".
- They in their turn accuse LO of downplaying the danger posed by the fascists, and, during the presidential election, of having failed to respond to the anti-facist sentiment of many workers and young people. "You are free to estimate that the National Front does not constitute a danger. But much more serious is the fact that you opposed this mass movement, denigrating it and comparing it to a political operation in support of Chirac." I don't think LO were actually saying this. They were for a realistic assessment of the threat posed by Le Pen-he was never, ever going to win the presidential election, and unlikely even to increase his vote-and against an anti-fascist bandwagon that distracted people's attention from the failings of the plural left-which let Le Pen into the second round-and the trick being pulled by the right-Jacques Chirac as the saviour of the Republic against the fascist threat.
- They question the tactics of LO during the recent strikes, when, for example, LO preferred assemblies of anyone who wanted to get involved to strictly representative structures for the teachers' strikes.
- LCR appear-at least to LO-to propose as the outlines of a joint platform:
"the battles against the bosses and the government, the fight for our freedoms, against the politics of the ruling class, for the banning of redundancies, the defence of public services, pensions, social security, to which we [LO] would add control of the finances of the big companies".
There is the basis of a joint campaign that hundreds of thousands of workers could support, and would act as a rallying point for the huge social battles that are yet to come. Let's hope the LCR and LO can get their act together to organise such a campaign. If they don't organise it together, they will be organising it apart, which would, frankly, be absurd!