The last year has seen change, colour and ferment on the French revolutionary left on a scale uncommon in the cold political climate of today’s Europe. A “workers’ assembly” on 10-11 January brought together 500 members and sympathisers from three groups which plan to continue debate and collaboration.
Three years ago, in 1995, Arlette Laguiller of Lutte Ouvrière got 1.6 million votes in France’s presidential election, the biggest vote anywhere for a Trotskyist candidate in a very long time. One of the groups at the January meeting, Voix des Travailleurs (VdT), defines its aim as to “contribute as much as our forces permit to giving a concrete, living, dynamic content to the appeal launched by Arlette Laguiller after the 1995 presidential elections for the building of a workers’ party”. Together with VdT at the January meeting were a minority faction from Lutte Ouvrière (“L’Etincelle”) and a minority faction (R!) from France’s other main revolutionary group, the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR).
Behind these events is the impulse from the mass strikes of November-December 1995. It has not revived the French labour movement wholesale, but it has given the revolutionaries more confidence. The broader background is the victory-in-defeat, or defeat-in-victory, of French Trotskyism over the last thirty years in its struggle with the French Communist Party.
Before 1968 CP activists would routinely beat up Trotskyists who leafletted outside factories, disrupt Trotskyist meetings, and expel workers suspected of Trotskyism from the big trade-union federation they controlled, the CGT. Over the years they have loosened up. Now the CP invites Trotskyist speakers to its public forums, and CP union activists seek the help of Trotskyist workmates to fill trade-union posts for which they lack volunteers.
The CP used to argue that realistic, level-headed working-class politics meant aiming for a “popular government”, i.e., one with CP ministers. Now it scarcely dares dispute that the “popular” government of 1981-3, with CP ministers, was an embarrassing failure. Sending ministers into a Socialist-led government again — since June 1997 — the CP leaders have done it almost apologetically, explaining to their disgruntled members that they will “pluralistically” combine cooperation with Socialists in government and cooperation with Trotskyists in challenges to the government like the recent unemployed protests.
Beyond the “popular government”, the CP claimed a functioning model of socialism in the USSR. Now the USSR is even more of an embarrassment than the 1981-3 government in France.
It has been a great series of moral victories for the Trotskyists. Yet the champagne of victory tastes more like the vinegar of defeat. Having finally breached the wall of Stalinist obstruction, the French Trotskyists find themselves not speeding along a highway to socialist revolution but stumbling along a muddy and potholed track of working-class political disillusion and scepticism.
As one of the leaders of Lutte Ouvrière put it: “We got beaten up by the Stalinists, but the more they suppressed us the more we thought we were right. But we were wrong to a large extent in thinking that if we could put our ideas freely to the workers, they would not fail to come along with us... We said to ourselves, if they beat us up and stop us putting out our leaflets, it is because we are well received and we are going to convince people on a broad scale”. And another: “We are in a situation where after having disputed with all sorts of left factions, the Socialists, the CP lads, now our line and arguments fall flat. People don’t take them up, even people who are a bit destitute and of whom you might expect that attacking capital would mean something to them just because they are hard up...”
The problems are analogous to those posed to us in Britain by the decline of the traditional Labour and trade-union left, but sharper. Our traditional working-class left always looked less like the crucial force for revolution, already assembled, and also less like the crucial barrier between us and the majority of workers. However, the French Trotskyist groups, though a bit smaller in membership than the SWP here (even if we reckon the SWP at really about 1500, not the official 13,000), have far more industrial base than the British. So, while the SWP and the Socialist Party (Militant) have largely abandoned systematic activity in the working class in favour of catchpenny agitational campaigns (or pseudo-campaigns) on whatever, as the SWP puts it, “fits the mood” this month, the French Trotskyists have not.
The LCR orients itself to bringing about a “recomposition” of the working-class left, via work in trade unions and in various social movements (unemployed, anti-racist, etc.), and united-front approaches to splinters around and inside the Communist Party and Socialist Party. LO aims to hold the fort and keep the communist flag flying for better days. VdT argues that the disarray of capitalism and the discrediting of the old parties open the way for a rapid regroupment of the revolutionary left and for a new class-struggle workers’ party.
First, the LCR. After the collapse of the USSR in summer 1991, they declared officially that they would rethink their longstanding theory that the Stalinist regimes had been “degenerated and deformed workers’ states”. On that theory they had built a view of a process of World Revolution advancing steadily ever since 1943 through the creation of new workers’ states, albeit deformed. Yet in 1989-91 almost all the “conquests” of the World Revolution had been swept away in a few years — with the support of the workers! The LCR had to choose: rethink Stalinism, or face perplexity and disorientation.
In fact, the LCR has reoriented around the idea that the collapse of Stalinism signalled the close of “the epoch opened by the 1917 revolution”, and that therefore all the ideas of Bolshevism and communism must be rethought. A revolutionary organisation, however, cannot live on promises to rethink — still less on promises to rethink everything, coupled with a failure to rethink specifically the question they have begged, of whether or in what way the expansion of Stalinism was a continuation of 1917.
At the LCR congress in February 1998 its leaders proposed (and just failed to get the necessary two-thirds majority) to change its name from Revolutionary Communist League to Revolutionary Democratic Left. The Communist Parties of Italy and Britain have signalled their loss of confidence in what they thought of as “communism” by renaming themselves Democratic Left; the LCR leaders proposed to follow them, while keeping the same indication of greater militancy (“revolutionary”) in relation to the new “democratic-left” goals as they had to the old “communist” ones.
As well as the name-change, the LCR leaders proposed:
- to shift from workplace or industrial cells, meeting weekly, as the basic unit of the LCR, to electoral-district branches meeting monthly;
- to abolish candidate membership and reduce their dues rates;
- to agitate to push the Socialist-led government into implementing left policies “dossier by dossier”, and to rally “a radical wing within the broad left”.
The abolition of cells failed for lack of a two-thirds majority, but the other two proposals were passed. The majority spoke of “opening up the LCR” and “bridging the gap between the influence of the LCR’s activists in the social movement” and its poor “existence on the political terrain”, or “inserting the LCR into political life”. Just what they mean is not clear to me — nor, I suspect, to them.