Some notes on the Trotskyist left in France

Submitted by martin on 10 December, 2007 - 3:22 Author: Martin Thomas

It's best, I think, to start not with tactical and immediate questions, but with fundamental world-views. Marxism, is after all, not just a set of tactical prescriptions. Marxism is distinguished from other socialisms in being rooted in a reasoned overview of history.

Both DM and the LO faction are rooted intellectually in the tradition of Lutte Ouvriere (Barta, Barcia). It's quite difficult to "get your head round" that tradition.

Barta and a tiny group separated from the main Trotskyist group in France in 1939, not because of any particular political disagreement, but because they thought the group was chaotic (on all accounts it was) and thought it better to start from scratch with a few serious people, doing serious work.

They burrowed away - mainly trying to find young workers whom they could educate and recruit, and then organise to build around them in the factories - through the 1940s.

After their great triumph in 1947, when their member Pierre Bois played a leading role in the big Renault strike, they found themselves at the head of a small breakaway union at Renault. The weight of "carrying" the union finally brought them down; their own political publications ceased to appear, and around 1950 Barta dropped out of political activity (for good).

Not much activity continued until 1956, when Barcia (who had been recruited as a youngster from the CP during the war) and a few others started again. It was from that time that the production of fortnightly factory bulletins became axial to their activity.

Because of that peculiar history, the Barta-Barcia current was completely outside all the debates in the Trotskyist movement in the 1940s about the survival and expansion of Stalinism.

And they pretty much prided themselves on it. I remember a meeting with them in the 1970s when Francois Duburg (Barcia's "no.2") declared something to the effect that the other Trotskyists had produced heaps of theory since Trotsky's death, but it was all rubbish. LO made no claim to have produced any theory, only to have stuck to Trotsky's ideas and analysed particular situations as they developed.

There was an element in this of "progressive dogmatism" - the progressive role that a "dogmatic" sect can play in a period of general confusion and reaction if it just sticks to the basic pre-existing ideas of Marxism and steadfastly refuses to be fazed or concerned by new developments. LO have been closely chained to a basic compass of independent working-class politics.

LO's leaders are competent people, and they were often much better at analysing concrete situations than the high-faluting theorists of the other groups. One example they particularly pride themselves on, and with some justice, is their much more sober analysis of De Gaulle's coming to power, and his policy, after the military coup of 1958.

Thus LO's virtues, and thus the great deal there is to learn from them, especially in some of the methods of work they have developed - their consistency and seriousness in contact work and in producing factory bulletins.

But thus, also, an oddly warped view of history. I know nowhere where it is spelled out clearly in writing, but in effect LO's view is that history is - has since about the time of Trotsky's death been in a "last lap". This "last lap" is, pretty much, a simple race between the Marxists - striving to build revolutionary parties through contact work, factory bulletins, election campaigns, etc. - and the developing crisis of capitalism, which will eventually pitch us into a catastrophic Third World War. It is a straight dash. Nothing much happens in it, except that conditions can be more or less favourable to the job of revolutionary Marxist recruitment, utilising the basic ideas bequeathed to us by Trotsky.

LO operated until 1991 with the view that the USSR was a "degenerated workers' state" (as Trotsky had said it was) but all the other Stalinist states were "bourgeois states" (because there had been no workers' revolution there). They did not dispute that those other Stalinist states were identical in basic socio-economic structure to the USSR. But, somehow, the USSR retained some ethereal "workers'" character as an inheritance from 1917.

Challenged on this, LO leaders were apt to retort that the issue was fundamentally a "moral choice". Their stance represented a "moral choice" to honour the workers' revolution of 1917 and to refuse to recognise the various Stalinist overturns outside the USSR as having any similar character.

Around 1975, Yves Coleman and the other comrades who went on to form Combat Communiste raised within LO the idea that LO's views were inconsistent, and it would be more consistent to categorise both the USSR and the other Stalinist states as "state capitalist". The LO leaders' reply was not really a theoretical debate.

Well, they said, you can raise this idea if you want. But you have to tell us what the practical conclusions are. After all, we, LO, have an established theory, taken from Trotsky, and it has served us to reach pretty good practical conclusions. We don't discuss just for the sake of discussing, or because someone reckons herself or himself to know better than Trotsky. Tell us what we are doing wrong, practically, because we haven't adopted your fancy theory about the USSR, and then we'll start to listen to you.

Unsurprisingly, the comrades were soon forced out. Although LO has a rather higher level of basic education than other Trotskyist organisations, and it is possible to have quite lively debate within it about day-to-day questions, the moralistic culture weighs crushingly against any effort to understand the world's developments since 1940 as anything other than a "last lap".

LO's view of history has become even more off-key since 1991. Maybe a factor here is that the main leaders - Barcia, Duburg - are getting old (Barcia is 79), and too old to make a fundamental shift in their view of the world.

In any case, LO still continues to assert, in effect, that Russia is a "degenerated workers' state". They no longer use that exact phrase, "degenerated workers' state", in any of the recent articles I've read - resorting instead to generalities about Russia's structure being very exceptional, and about the difficulties of getting proper capitalism going there - but they are vehement against the LO minority faction's straightforward argument that Russia is now plain capitalist. In fact, it was that issue - the argument by some leading figures in LO, in the early 1990s, that Russia had become capitalist - that led to the (extremely tense) division between the majority and the minority faction. Other differences have developed since then, but the theoretical argument over Russia was the start.

From the very start, with Barta, LO's orientation was always primarily to the workers in and around the CP. Vehemently anti-Stalinist though LO was, they openly admired the CP's discipline and the "hard" if perverted class-consciousness which many CP workers had (on all accounts) right into the 1970s (much more so than in, for example, the British CP). I don't they ever had the reveries about breaking away "entire layers" of the CP to Trotskyist politics in some single blow which preoccupied the forerunners of the LCR in the 1950s and 1960s, but they certainly thought it possible and important to win over CP workers one by one, and they must have had a thought that after some period of "primitive accumulation" they would become able to win over whole groups.

Anyway, the CP is now pretty much in collapse, as witness its 1.9% in the last presidential election. It still claims about 100,000 members (it once had a million), but not even the most hopeful person can see more than individuals from that 100,000 as likely candidates for conversion to Trotskyism.

LO's response to this has been, in effect, to interpret the decline of the CP as a decline of the French working class. Thus, at the last Lutte Ouvriere fete, the LO speaker in a debate with the LCR about the presidential election results this year explained LO's poor score by "a profound retreat of class consciousness" and reproached the LCR with getting a better score by attracting flibbertigibbets with talk of ecology and feminism and suchlike.

They are right, of course, that class consciousness is in a bad way in the advanced capitalist countries. But the vast exaggeration, and the determination to brand anything that seems to represent better possibilities as only an artefact of opportunism, is special to LO.

So, a muddy patch in that "last lap of history". Difficult going. But still, the last lap.

LO is apt to use "gauchisme" ("leftism") as a label for something self-evidently bad, and strongly eschews revolutionary phrase-mongering. It emphasises the importance of listening to workers and expressing ourselves in terms which relate to workers' concerns. (There is a lot to learn from them on this, too). But their whole "last lap" perspective also makes it imperative for them that they are steadily identified as "revolutionary". In practice there is a tendency to reduce the question of their politics being "revolutionary" to a question of vehemence in denouncing the Socialist Party and parliamentarism.

That gives their politics a certain sectarian, and sometimes almost a syndicalist, edge. The LO group in Britain, Workers' Fight, quite consciously does nothing but do literature sales and so on around colleges, etc. - with a view to recruitment - and produce a number of workplace bulletins in which the "revolutionary" edge is primarily given by vehemence in denouncing the Labour Party and parliamentarism.

Another dimension of LO's "last lap" world-view is that "imperialism", to them, is exactly what it was in, say, 1940. They are saved from the excesses of anti-imperialist "campism" by their insistence on independent working-class politics; but on Iraq, for example, they essentially make no comment except to denounce the various misdeeds of the USA, fitting them into an overall picture of "imperialism" being as it ever was. They simply have no discussion of the significance of political independence for the ex-colonial countries, the rise of new centres of capitalist accumulation, and the rise of new regional imperialisms.

If LO recognises any fundamental shift or break within the "last lap", it is by their constant description of the period since the early 1970s - the entire period - as "the crisis". Well, a "crisis" which goes on for 35 years or so is not a crisis. It may be a "long downturn" or something of the sort - actually it is not - but it is not a crisis. As Marx put it, "permanent crises do not exist".

LO used, very aptly, to criticise the CP for what they called "miserabilism" - agitation based on droning on and on how about how poverty-stricken and miserable the workers were, which actually served only to increase workers' sense of powerlessness and make them open to the idea of bureaucratic saviours from on high. (Remember, up until about the end of the 1950s it was an article of CP faith that workers' living standards in the West were, and could not but be, at the minimum physical-subsistence level, and the CP eased away from that view only slowly). Actually, there is quite a lot of diluted "miserabilism" in LO's agitation now.

The LCR's politics now are also shaped by "world-view" questions. Their forerunners, of course, decided in 1948-50 that the Stalinist states in Eastern Europe and China were "deformed workers' states". They were reflections of a "process of world revolution" which was irresistible because of the dire "crisis of capitalism" on the one hand and the "profound revolt of the masses" on the other, but which because of the weakness of the Marxists took "deformed" shape.

For the next 30-odd years, the international current of which the LCR and its forerunners were part would issue regular reports on how the ever-ongoing "rise of the world revolution" was pushing back "imperialism", with occasional notes about temporary "retreats" here and there. The reports on the "rise" became more diffident after the LCR was forced to come to terms with the horrors of post-revolutionary Cambodia and Vietnam, and after its sobered admission that it had been wrong in not calling for Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan after the 1979 invasion. But the basic world-view was not abandoned until 1989-91 - when the chief results of that "world revolution", which had been "rising" for so long, collapsed abjectly, and in a fashion such that the LCR willy-nilly found itself supporting the collapse of the "world revolution".

The LCR responded to the collapse of the USSR in 1991 by saying that it needed to look again at its theories of the USSR and Stalinism. Fair enough. But in practice it never did that in any collective way. Its main theorist, Daniel Bensaid, has written a series of books which (in my reading) are hinged around that question, but which pose themselves not as analyses of Stalinism but as discussions of philosophy. (He is, after all, a professor of philosophy!) The important thing, he argues, drawing principally on the writings of Walter Benjamin, is to understand that history is not a linear progression, but a matter of twists and turns and criss-crossings.

From Bensaid's subtleties, what filters down into the LCR's day-to-day thinking is two things:

a) A retention of the "neo-Urquhart-Carey" mental scheme of the world as being made up of "imperialism" (i.e., more or less, the USA and its allies) and the rest (which are more or less "progressive" depending on whether they fight the USA with greater or lesser vigour, or collaborate with it). There are, these days, warnings against "campism", and, for example, the LCR's coverage of Afghanistan in 2002 was not very different from ours, with clear denunciations of the Taliban. (Debat Militant's attitude at that time was in my view worse than the LCR majority's).

But the abstruse "philosophical" character of Bensaid's critique allows the old scheme - which originates, ignominiously, in dictums from Stalin's propaganda chief Andrei Zhdanov in 1947 - to continue fairly undisturbed.

The LCR could denounce the Taliban, but they felt it necessary to establish that it did not really "fight imperialism" (aka the USA) in order to do so. Gilbert Achcar has written a number of good things skewering leftists who acclaim the Iraqi "resistance", and his book The Clash of Barbarisms characterises Islamic clerical-fascism (as you can see from its title) as a "barbarism"; but he still feels compelled to categorise it as a "not-so-bad" barbarism compared to "imperialism" (which is ipso facto the USA) and to hint that he could not really condemn it if he could be convinced that it really fought the USA effectively.

And the LCR, still today, tends to think that "revolutionary" and "anti-capitalist" are adequate "maximum" political self-definitions, without feeling it has to reflect on what the "revolutionary anti-capitalism" of Stalinism amounted to.

b) An adoption of Eric Hobsbawm's idea of "the short twentieth century". The epoch which began in 1917 ended in 1991, so the LCR tells us, again and again.

The practical conclusion is that Bolshevism and Trotsky are... well, not so much wrong (though denouncing the un-democracy of revolutionary Russia in the civil war period is all the rage in the LCR now, along with uncritical celebration of the revolutionary Stalinist Che Guevara!) as just out of date.

The Italian co-thinkers of the LCR, Sinistra Critica, express this turn of mind well in the statements accompanying their recent exit from Rifondazione. They promised to go "beyond the ideological demarcations of the last century - for example such definitions as those of the Trotskyists... all the important points of reference of the 20th century, from Trotsky to Luxemburg, from Gramsci to good old Che Guevara, should be reviewed today with the new internationalism, feminism, and the ecologist critique..." (Inprecor 526/527, April/May 2007). They talk a lot about the search for "a new political subject" and "a process of social recomposition".

In France, Olivier Besancenot describes himself as "not a Trotskyist" and identifies his main revolutionary hero as Guevara. An older LCR leader, Francois Sabado, has commented approvingly that previously the LCR had been "Russian" (i.e. identified with "Russian" ideas from Lenin and Trotsky, just as Lenin and Trotsky in their day were "German"), but now with Besancenot it is "French".

Guevara, French? But of course Besancenot does not mean that he studies Guevara's writings for strategic advice. Actually the LCR in the early 1970s - when Bensaid (Jebracq) notoriously and daftly toyed with the idea of a Guevarist guerrilla warfare strategy for France - was much more likely to do that. At the same time (as is confirmed by Jean-Paul Salles's new book La Ligue communiste revolutionnaire 1968-1981), the LCR of that time was far, far more likely to study and refer to Trotsky than it is now. (LCR cells took the names of past revolutionaries as their self-description, rather than just geographical titles; according to Salles, they would take names such as "Ignace Reiss", "Chen Duxiu", or "Ta Thu Thau", from the Vietnamese Trotskyist leader killed on the orders of Ho Chi Minh). The LCR then took both Guevara and Trotsky more seriously than the LCR does now.

Now, all the revolutionaries of the past are just vague figures of inspiration, rather than theorists with ideas to be studied, learned from, and if necessary criticised. There is not much more theoretical weight to name-checking them than there is to my younger daughter's answer (at age 11) when asked her heroes: "Jane Austen and my mum". And of course Guevara is a funkier name-check than Trotsky, who had a distressing tendency to write intricate works of Marxist theory rather than just uplifting romantic proclamations.

In short, there is in the LCR a strong tendency to intellectual self-dissolution in whatever seems broadly "left" and "happening" in the society around them.

So, where do the LO minority faction and Debat Militant - a current which essentially originates from a group expelled from LO in 1997 - stand in all this?

Both are Trotskyist - that is, opposed to the vague "everything before 1991 is out of date" eclecticism of the LCR majority. Both have the basic LO commitment to independent working class action as central. And both have opposed the ultra-dour, ultra-depressive, "nothing to be done but get our heads down and plod on" tack of LO in recent years.

But neither has done a thorough critical review of the LO world-view. The LO minority faction started questioning LO theory earlier and more systematically. In one conversation with me, Jacques Morand, the chief writer of the faction, said to me that he could accept a definition of the USSR as "state capitalist" back to the 1930s or late 1920s. The minority's latest comprehensive statement on this defines the USSR as a degenerated workers' state right up until 1991, though it also (puzzlingly) argues that its collapse in 1991 was not "the end of an epoch" since "the contest had been played out and lost by the proletariat long before that".

When in 1994 the LO leadership produced an extraordinary document which came as near as anything ever has to spelling out its world view in stark outline, the LO minority faction disagreed with it, but chose to write no rejoinder or alternative.

The group that would become Debat Militant was still with the LO majority in 1994. After being ejected from LO in 1997, they quickly adopted the LO minority faction's view that Russia had become capitalist. But they were resistant to rethinking the past: in a polemic with AWL, they continued to defend the view that the USSR had been a "workers' state" of sorts until 1991.

As far as I can see, DM have avoided the inference (taken by both LO and LCR) that 1991, as the end of the "workers' state", represented an epoch-making step backwards for history, only by a rather arbitrary enthusiasm for what they see as the revolutionising effects in the working class of what they (following LO) call "the crisis".

They came into opposition to the LO leadership originally because they took seriously what the LO leadership obviously saw just as a matter of going through the motions to show that they had tried (but could not possibly succeed), LO's campaign to explore the possibilities for building a new broad workers' party from the large electoral support (5.3%) which Arlette Laguiller received in the 1995 presidential election. Since then DM tend to argue somewhat along the following lines: "the crisis" is constantly getting worse, imposing worse sufferings and calamities. The old reformist workers' parties, SP, CP, and so on, have collapsed or become openly pro-capitalist.

Thus: "The Trotskyist movement has long been compelled to limit itself to the role of opposition to Stalinism and social democracy. The collapse of the USSR and the Eastern bloc changes the deal. The new period brings unprecedented responsibilities to the revolutionaries. A political space has been freed up for the emergence of a workers' party. The evolution of the Socialist Party and of the Communist Party puts in a position where we can exist fully as ourselves by bringing answers to the questions of the workers and the youth, giving them ideas and a policy, meeting their needs, becoming their party".

On one level, this is a correct recognition that in many ways we must rebuild from the base. Our task is not "turning the switches for the locomotive" of the workers' movement, as Trotsky saw in Germany in the early 1930s, but direct revitalisation and rebuilding of the movement. On another level, the idea of "space freed up" allows for a gross underestimation of the tasks. It is not necessarily easier to build revolutionary organisations from among workers comprehensively disillusioned with all politics than from among workers with illusions in the CP or the SP bringing progress!

And it writes out the tasks of revitalising revolutionary theory so that we can actually "bring answers to the questions of the workers and the youth". For a start, to the question that any thinking revolutionary-minded worker or young person will ask: what happened in the 20th century, and why? To repeat: one of the distinctive characteristics of Marxism as distinct from other socialism is that it is rooted in a reasoned overview of history. To say: well, now we no longer need to argue about the issues of the 20th century, we can build a workers' party just by offering ideas on the struggles of 2007, is to regress to pre-Marxist socialism. That may not be so obvious given the relatively buoyant growth of the LCR since 2002 - and, after all, pre-Marxist socialism is not incapable of winning working-class support - but it is true.

Another way of looking at it might be this. The united front tactic, argued Gramsci, was the core question for all revolutionary strategy in advanced capitalist countries. Maybe he exaggerated, but it is certainly important. We can categorise the currents of the French Trotskyist or Trotskisant left according to their attitudes to that questionn.

The Lambertists used to fetishise what they called "le Front Unique Ouvrier" (the Workers' United Front, with reverent capital letters), which meant in practice campaigning politically, day in and day out, around the proposition that the CP and the SP should unite to form a government. Their line had the "merit" of monotonous consistency, and eventually had influence within the LCR, traces of which still subsist.

The LCR in its triumphalist "glory days" of the 1970s used to see the "united front" only in terms of united fronts of what they hopefully dubbed the "broad workers' vanguard" (they talked about it so much that they had an acronym for it, AGOL) of activists supposedly "in the process of breaking with reformism".

After the LCR's chastening experiences in the 1980s, the "united front" has reappeared since about 1995 in the form of incessant "triumph-of-hope-over-experience" appeals to unite the numerous dissident splinters from the SP and the CP, and various leftish Green and regionalist formations, into an "anti-capitalist" (or sometimes just "anti-neo-liberal") "front".

LO's response was, typically, not to proclaim but to do. They had quite a lot of united activity with the PSU for some time. And their whole orientation for a long period was effectively of proposing a united front to CP activists. They never called it that, and when they came close to being explicit about it, in their pamphlet Le programme de gouvernement du PCF of 1973, it earned a lot of scandalised reproaches of being "soft" on the CP. But now? If you challenged the LO leaders, I think they would simply say that there are no united fronts to be had.

For some years now, the LO minority has argued for a consistent united-front approach towards the rest of the revolutionary left (principally the LCR) and towards the class-conscious activists in the CP.

Debat Militant has talked a bit about the united front in general terms, but seems - I think it is fair, confesses itself - unsure about how to use it. It has raised the question of what it calls a "democratic workers' government"; but, despite appearing as the keystone of one of the big political documents of their tendency, that idea has never been used by them day-to-day. Their dominant idea is still that of the revolutionaries now being able to address an (empty) "space opened up" and to scoop recruits out of it by energy in promoting basic socialist ideas.

Debat Militant says noticeably little about trade-union strategy. LO has a strategy: work in the CGT, but focus on burrowing away at workplace level, and do not get drawn into union life at levels higher than the workplace section. The LCR has had lots of strategies, including one of a focus on building new "|eft" unions (SUD, FSU). We had a discussion with Debat Militant a couple of years back where they said more or less flatly that they could not see any strategy at all to pursue in the unions.

It is quite difficult to pin down what real differences of approach there are on the trade-union question, because the structure and forms of trade-union activity in France are very different from in Britain. What may seem "sectarian" from a viewpoint habituated to British trade unionism may be plain good sense in France.

In one way, of course, DM have broken radically with the LO tradition simply by joining the LCR, and striving sensibly to integrate themselves into it rather than behaving as visitors from another planet. But it concerns me that they have neither critically renounced the LO tradition, nor gone for systematic criticism of the LCR majority at the level of world-view.

For example, the recent article on Che Guevara by Yvan Lemaitre and Sophie Candela can be read as a critical response to the glorification of Guevara by the LCR on the 40th anniversary of his death. But it is hard to "pick up" the critical nuances unless you know in advance what the authors are getting at. The average reader, I guess, would take it as yet another eulogy of Guevara, only with a tad more reserve. Yet a sober analysis of, and comprehension of, "revolutionary Stalinism" is necessary for any socialist today who wants to be a Marxist, i.e. a socialist whose doctrine is rooted in an analytical overview of history.

Critical discussion of Lutte Ouvriere
LO and LCR on the collapse of the USSR in 1991
Review of Bensaid's books discussing the question of Stalinism in hindsight
Discussion of LO's 1994 document outlining its view of the 20th century.
Debat Militant on their own development over the ten years 1997-2007
Another discussion of Bensaid on the USSR.

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