Are French workers in “profound retreat”?

Submitted by Anon on 9 June, 2007 - 11:14

A delegation from the AWL attended the annual fete of the French Trotskyist organisation Lutte Ouvriere on 26-28 May.

This fete, held near Paris, a tradition for over 30 years now, attracts around 20,000 people each year. Some 200 stalls offer food, drink, games, and information, plus music, dancing, and forums for political debate.

A report by Martin Thomas can be found at www.workersliberty.org/node/8565. The extract below is about a debate between LO and other big Trotskyist group in France, the LCR.

... The LCR is buoyant. Despite a general squeeze on the activist left in this year’s presidential elections, its candidate, Olivier Besancenot, increased his vote. Activists from the left-wing minority of the LCR, Démocratie Révolutionnaire, told me that the LCR was receiving another flood of applications to join, as it did after Besancenot’s campaign in the 2002 presidential elections. Two or three thousand new applications to join in the Nord Pas de Calais region alone!! The immediate question is whether the existing members can summon up the time and energy to respond to all the applications.

Much could be said in criticism of the LCR’s orientation. Activists like those from the Liaisons group pointed out to me that LCR says nothing at all about how to fight for a workers’ government which might implement its central campaigning demands (mostly political demands, demanding government measures); and moreover the LCR’s nearest approach to a central political slogan — “repartition des richesses”, or redistribution of wealth — is flat reformism (we want not a more even sharing-out of wealth, but collective, democratic, social appropriation of the productive wealth).

However, in the set-piece debate between LO and LCR, LO said none of that.

LO is by no means in decline. At the fete, they declared that they now have 8,200 members and sympathisers. LO’s definition of members is very strict, so most of those would be sympathisers, but still, it is a formidable force, and notoriously well-organised.

But in the presidential elections this year LO got a poor score — 1.3%, less than a quarter of what LO got in 2002 and 1995.

LO’s first speaker, Marc, explained that as a result of “a profound retreat in class consciousness” among French workers.

What caused that retreat? The absence of a Marxist party willing and able to argue working-class ideas, he said. “There is nothing spontaneous about it”.

That argument would seem to lock revolutionaries into a Catch-22. Because there is no large Marxist party, the workers lack class consciousness. Because the workers lack class consciousness, the Marxist groups can’t win votes, and a fortiori can’t build a large party.

In fact what Marc seemed to think is that class consciousness among workers (of an unsatisfactory, inadequate form, no doubt, but still, class consciousness of a sort) had been sustained and nourished for decades by the French Communist Party. Now the Communist Party has gone down in flames, and revolutionaries are left with the scorched earth.

Presumably — though Marc did not say so, and the LCR speakers posed no questions about it — this assessment also dictated LO’s shift of attitude on the second round of the presidential elections. This year, for the first time in 26 years, LO returned to its habitual attitude of 1981 and previously, calling for a vote on the second round for the Socialist Party candidate, out of “solidarity” with the workers voting SP against the right.

In the intervening 20-odd years, LO explained its refusal to make any such call on the grounds that workers had now seen what the SP was like in government; but its real calculation, I suspect, was that it wanted to chime in with the attitude of a significant number of CP members and voters who detested the SP and expressed their protest against their party’s alliance with the SP by refusing to vote SP on the second round. That body of CP-oriented “militants” has now collapsed.

There is some truth to Marc’s assessment. The French CP did inculcate an idea of the working class as a distinct group in society, hostile to other classes, to a degree beyond anything the British CP or Labour left did even in their most vigorous days. But that “class consciousness” was tied up with Stalinist rubbish to a degree which poisoned it irrevocably.

The implosion of the CP does leave French workers somewhat bewildered, lacking in confidence, and suddenly shorn of most of the experienced activists who used to sustain their organisations. But it does not do away with class consciousness — about which, yes, there is something spontaneous — and in the long term it is the necessary clearing-away of an obstacle to organisation on the basis of workers’ democracy and liberty.

The immediate question posed to the LO speakers was, how to explain that Olivier Besancenot of the LCR had held and increased his vote. Aha, said Marc disdainfully, that was only because Besancenot had played on alternative-globalisation, ecological, and feminist themes. LO would stick with the basic class issues, come what may.

In practice, this attitude expresses itself in a rather dour and perfunctory tone to LO’s election campaigning. LO’s posters for 10 June legislative assembly elections, for example, are headed starkly “vote LO for a programme of defence of the workers”, and most of the space is taken up with very solid print stating (rather wordily and stodgily) just three demands: open the books, cut government subsidies to business, tax the rich. No graphics.

The LCR’s posters, whatever criticisms you make of them, at least show a desire to catch the imagination. This difference must explain a fair bit of the difference in electoral success.

In any case, Sandra from the LCR had no difficulty in rebuttal. It is the duty of Marxists to take up such themes as ecology in our own way, she said, rather than leaving them to the bourgeois ecologists. All the surveys showed that Besancenot's electorate in 2007 was heavily working-class (more so than in 2002), and was attracted mainly by his agitation on straightforward, direct working-class themes.

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