French elections 2017: discussion document 2

Submitted by martin on 24 April, 2017 - 7:22 Author: Ira Berkovic and Michael Johnson

‘To vote the military budget of the Negrin government signifies to vote him political confidence… To do it would be a crime. How we explain our vote to the anarchist workers? Very simply: We have not the slightest confidence in the capacity of the government to conduct the war and assure victory. We accuse this government of protecting the rich and starving the poor. This government must be smashed. So long as we are not strong enough to replace it, we are fighting under its command. But on every occasion we express openly our non-confidence in it: it is the only one possibility to mobilise the masses politically against this government and to prepare its overthrow.’” (Trotsky, Letter to Shachtman, September 20, 1937)

“Not a man, not a penny for this system” (slogan of the Social Democratic Party of Germany)

Ahead of the most recent meeting of the committee that meets roughly every five to seven weeks, MT circulated a discussion document on the second round of the French Presidential election. As one of its conclusions, MT recommends that AWL calls for a vote for liberal centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron in the second round run-off. An indicative vote was taken at the meeting, with a majority voting for the document, 3 votes against and 1 abstention.

Our tradition

Someone who nevertheless supports the document, spoke with reservations that “it is a dangerous position, which could open ourselves up to opportunism.” This is true, and it is to be welcomed that the vote at the meeting was only indicative, and that there is time in the organisation to discuss what, if adopted, would mark a serious departure in the method, politics and tradition of the AWL.

Such departures may sometimes be admissible and necessary. But they must be made “deliberately, openly, and accounted for in Marxist fashion in terms of our previous positions and our tradition”. Otherwise, there will be “only case-by-case decisions on issues as they come up, there can be neither political consistency, nor organic and stable tradition, nor the thoroughgoing education of cadres - which is the practical political purpose for which we build up, and where necessary criticise, revise and rectify our tradition.” (Workers’ Liberty #54 - Class politics and the Agreement, March 1999)

Comrades of the majority insist that this position is a special case, restricted only to the second round of this French election. This is, at the very least, a risk. Even if we fully intend this case to be an exception, the effect of adopting the position of the vote for Macron will be to raise the issue of a vote for the “lesser evil” bourgeois candidate in future elections; with the precedent set, the temptation will be increasingly hard to resist, especially as we face unpropitious times in the context of the global right-wing surge, and a weak Marxist left.

The role of revolutionary socialists

The effect of calling for a Macron vote would be to cede our position as “the party of intransigent and irreconcilable opposition” (Trotsky), and thoroughly miseducate our own cadres, our periphery, and the movement around us.

MT argued in 2002, against those who called for a vote for Jacques Chirac against neo-fascist Jean Marie Le Pen, that:

“The central, all-defining axis of all our activity as Marxists is to help the working class to organise itself independently from, and in opposition to, all factions of the capitalist class, to gain confidence in its own strength, and to look to its own efforts to remake society.”

This basic approach should guide us. MT argues now that the principle is a positive one, that of seeking to assert the political independence of the working -class, rather than a negative one, i.e. hostility to all factions of the capitalist class – often expressed as “no votes for bourgeois candidates.”

Further, MT argues that it is possible to separate the act of voting from the question of expressing a degree of political confidence in Macron:

“At the moment when someone is in the voting booth on 7 May, or deciding whether to go to the voting booth or stay home, the best thing they can do is to vote for Macron. Before you go to the booth, and after you come out of it, you do a whole lot of other things to defeat the right and build the workers' movement. You make this unusual choice in the voting booth because in the run-off there is no possibility of a workers' candidate, but there is (unusually for a run-off between leading bourgeois candidates) a big difference between the candidates, and the outcome is in doubt. You explain your vote with some slogan like the 2002 one, ‘vote for a crook rather than a fascist’”

However, in 2002 we said that: “Not supporting [Chirac]? No - just voting for him to occupy the most powerful position in France! How much more support could Chirac ever have hoped for from the revolutionary left?”

In other words, we denied that it was possible to separate taking political responsibility from voting for the programme of a bourgeois candidate. Now, one could argue that what was true in 2002 but is not true now. But that case has not been made sufficiently.

MT says little about the positive content of Macron’s programme, beyond that his “neoliberal globalism” is preferable to Le Pen’s racist nationalism. We agree that it is. But voting for what is progressive about Macron against Le Pen also means taking at least some degree of responsibility for what is reactionary about him, and his programme, against the working class: a programme based on hard neoliberal economic policies, carried, moreover, not even by a bourgeois-liberal political party, but by an astro-turfed personality cult the very existence of which has a negative impact on democratic and political culture.

It will be close

MT argues the left should not call for blank votes now because the revolutionary left is looking to poll only 1% and is very weak. But at the same time, he argues the vote could be so close that it matters what the revolutionary left does.

Either the left is not going to be a decisive force in swinging the election between Macron and Le Pen, or it could be. If it is not, surely it should not waste the limited hearing it may have by calling for a Macron vote instead of preaching hostility to both? As we said on the occasion of the Good Friday Agreement referendum, in response to the hypothetical scenario in which the outcome of the election depended on our vote:

“That way of posing it is false and fantastical. Then we would be in a different situation: we would have enough support on the ground to pose our own options and proposals. We would not then accept the gun-to-head posing of the lesser evil any more than we should accept it now.”

Are the evils the same?

Is this concern for programme and tradition not insular and irresponsible, when the stakes are so great? The stakes are indeed great, and a victory for Le Pen would be a massive blow to the interests of the working class, in France but also Europe and world-wide. It would be an acceleration of the right-wing surge, itself a symptom and political outworking of the capitalist crisis which has been ongoing since 2008.

The temptation in this case, to vote for a bourgeois “lesser evil” comes from a healthy place – a desire not to appear aloof and sectarian in the eyes of those who would vote Macron to block Le Pen, a keenness not to draw an equals sign between the “cosmopolitan neoliberalism” represented by Macron and the reactionary, right-wing economic nationalist “identity politics” of Le Pen, Trump and elements of the Brexit vote, which oppose neoliberalism in the name of something worse.

However, the resolution of this crisis requires that clear and sharp socialist ideas become the property of the oppressed and exploited, who are reeling from a decade of capitalist attacks and are desperately looking for answers.

As we wrote in November 2016:

“The choice, not just between progress and stagnation, but between progress and rancid regression, depends on the clumsily-emerging new forces on the left, like the Corbyn movement in Britain. We must stake out political ground, win arguments, rally people to principles, remobilise the labour movement at ground level, pull together into political effectiveness young people who still overwhelmingly reject the new nationalism and racism. (Solidarity 424, 30 November 2016)

MT argues that “globalised neoliberalism is bad [but] a surge of chauvinism, protectionism, and re-raising of borders is worse.” This is correct. But it is a whole other questions whether we actively vote for it. Calling for a vote, and expressing confidence in, Macron, in however limited a way, cuts against the staking out of political ground for socialist ideas. Why is it that our concern about the enormity of the political situation, and the dangers of Le Pen, must be attached to a vote for Macron? If, as MT holds, you can vote for Macron and explain surely you can (and perhaps all the better) argue for abstention and explain too?

Arguing for a vote for Macron suggests a confidence in the ability of the “lesser evil” to adequately defend what is “less evil” about itself (i.e., the limited gains of the neoliberal period: relative erosion of borders, some advances on questions of formal social equality, etc.). We should not have any such confidence.

Regarding the rise of Trump in the US, we wrote:

“Against a determined push by Trump, the liberal bourgeoisie will not safeguard the moderate extensions of women’s and LGBT equality, the modest opening of opportunities to ethnic minorities, the relative freedom of movement for some across some borders, the mild cosmopolitanism, on which it prides itself. Having already let so many civil rights be swallowed by the “war on terror” and the drive for “labour flexibility”, it will be no bulwark for the rest. The liberal bourgeoisie may not even safeguard the achievement of which it boasts most, the reduction of economic barriers between countries…

…The labour movement cannot do that unless it mobilises; unless it cleanses itself of the accommodations to nationalism now so common over Brexit; and unless it spells out socialist answers which can convince and rally the millions of the economically marginalised and disillusioned. It falls to the left to make the labour movement fit for those tasks.” (Solidarity 428, 1 February 2017)

The same argument applies in this case, and a parallel can be drawn between the French Presidential election and the vote in the US. In the primaries, we called for a vote for Bernie Sanders, on the basis that the revolutionary left should seek a hearing in his vibrant campaign which mobilized hundreds of thousands of people in the name of “socialism”, albeit defined as Scandinavian-style welfarism. When Clinton won the Democratic Party nomination, we did not then call for a vote for Clinton to stop Trump.

That is because we understood that it was this very same liberal establishment, represented by Clinton and before by Obama, that created the conditions for the rise of Trump. What makes the case of Macron qualitatively different? It was said at the NC that the context of the Front Nationale coming to power in France would lead to the potential unravelling of the European Union. But would not this necessitate a vote for Clinton by the logic that Trump’s coming to power threatens the unraveling of the whole system of the “imperialism of free trade” superintended for the last four decades by the USA?

Who is Macron?

The nature and programme of Macron is a key consideration in the debate over whether to call for a vote for him in the second round, and little information is given in MT’s discussion document.

Macron is the latest attempt by the neoliberal ruling-class to defend its ramparts against “populism” of either the left or the right (unfortunately, mostly the right).

The ruling-class feared that Le Pen would make it through to the second round, and viewed the left-wing Benoit Hamon as an unreliable radical and right-wing Francois Fillon as hopelessly compromised by scandal . Typical is house journal of the liberal bourgeoisie, The Economist, which dubbed a run-off between Jean-Luc Melenchon and Marine Le Pen “the nightmare option”, and wrote worriedly:

“The script for France’s presidential election was supposed to be clear. Investors accepted that Marine Le Pen, the anti-European Union, pro-Russia, far-right candidate, would make it through to the second round. But markets presumed that, just as when her father made the second round in 2002, voters would flock to the alternative candidate, either François Fillon, a Catholic conservative or Emmanuel Macron of the centre-left. “ (The Economist, Apr 11th 2017)

With Fillon compromised, the bourgeoisie, therefore, helped to create what has been called “the Macron phenomenon.” As Christakis Georgiou wrote recently for Jacobin:

“New to politics (he became a public figure less than three years ago, when he became minister for the economy) and with a brand new political movement, Macron draws bigger crowds than any other candidate, saturates the media, and wins political support from across the political spectrum.

His successes do not solely come from his charm. Rather, sections of the French ruling class have responded favorably to his political project and generated serious momentum for his candidacy. Indeed, the mainstream press and media outlets have given him overwhelmingly positive coverage, showing the extent to which he enjoys the support of key figures within the French power structure.

The ruling class supports Macron because he can help transform the Fifth Republic’s political-institutional system and preserve its capacity to dictate government policy in the years ahead. Macron’s election would radically realign French politics, clearing the way for a reform agenda that has faced numerous obstacles over the past twenty years.” (Jacobin, 6 April 2017)

In this sense, the “Macron phenomenon” is comparable to the media-boosted astro-turf “movement” To Potami in Greece, which was intended to safeguard neoliberalism against Syriza in 2015 when the traditional parties of Greek capitalism had compromised themselves by implementing the diktats of the Troika.

Like To Potami, but so far more successful, the “Macron phenomenon” is a balloon; inflated hugely by excess media hype but lacking in any real social weight. It will not provide for a stabilisation of French politics but, rather, will store up problems for set of elections, which could see a frustrated electorate continue to flock to the Front Nationale.

This is because a vote for Macron is not just, or even mostly, a vote more open borders, a defense of Muslims and immigrants, and an expression of opposition towards protectionism and racism.

Macron is a former banker who wants to cut corporation tax to 25%, wants more flexible labour laws in the mold of the El Khomri Law, allowing companies to negotiate individual agreements with staff. His programme is to reduce public spending by €60bn, cut 120,000 public sector jobs, and introduce greater “flexibility” in retirement age and the working week. It is a continuation of the “liberalization” demanded by the French ruling-class which Francois Hollande’s Parti Socialiste was unable to deliver. Hence, the flocking of Hollande-Valls wing of the PS behind Macron, together with centrist François Bayrou and sections of the French centre-right.

Macron’s candidacy, in other words, is a united front of the French establishment. Its neoliberal “reform” programme will hit lots of Front National voters, such as those workers who previously voted for the PCF or the PS. A “critical” vote for this neoliberal programme will be indistinguishable from those who genuinely endorse Macron’s policy; both will be taken as legitimation for further attacks on our class, and will serve to undermine the credibility of the revolutionary left as it rallies a fightback.

The left and working-class independence

A vote for Macron creates two problems for the left. One, it could drive workers further in to the arms of the “anti-establishment” Front Nationale, who will continue to prey on the fears and insecurities of those suffering under capitalism.

But also, two, it risks sowing illusions in the neoliberal center and its capacity to rescue us from a resurgent populist right. It was plausibly argued at the meeting that the LCR did not compromise its ability to work within the movement of 2006 even though that it had called for a vote for Chirac – “vote for a crook, not a fascist.” The problem is, lots of people who will vote Macron, people the revolutionary left needs to reach, will vote Macron not on the basis that he is a crook, but with enthusiasm and illusions. Already in Britain, we are seeing a “Lib Dem surge” among those who, forgetting or not wishing to remember the Lib Dems’ role in the 2010-2015 coalition, are looking to the party to provide opposition to the Tories’ hard Brexit.

It is only the labour movement which can combine a defense of the gains of the neoliberal period – cultural cosmopolitanism, freer movement, economic integration – with a fight against the poverty, alienation and social distress it inevitably creates.

As against Le Pen, Macron is a “lesser evil” but it is incumbent Marxists to resolutely assert working-class independence and hostility to both. Even on the points on which we agree with Macron, our “Yes” is not his “Yes”. We say “Yes” to open borders, anti-racism and greater European integration but a resounding “No” to the capitalist nature of his programme, and even his capacity to defend those points on which we overlap.