A workers' voice in France

Submitted by Anon on 25 November, 2003 - 5:17

Martin Thomas attended the congress of the French Trotskyist group LCR (Revolutionary Communist League) in Paris on 31 October-2 November. This is his report.
A working-class "emergency plan" against unemployment, insecurity and poverty will be at the centre of French revolutionary socialists' campaign for the Euro-elections in June 2004 and France's regional elections in March 2004.

At its congress the LCR voted to approve a draft agreement for joint lists with the other main Marxist grouping in France, Lutte Ouvrière. The lists will declare that "by voting for us, you can elect men and women who will defend the interests of the workers, will be true to their commitments, and will be with you in preparing the collective struggles of tomorrow".

It proposes a ban on mass redundancies; stopping state subsidies to business and, instead, expanding public services; stopping and reversing privatisations; taxing the rich; opening the books of big business and workers' control over the economy.

The LCR congress also approved an appeal for a broad "new anti-capitalist political force". The LCR plans to hold assemblies around this appeal in autumn 2004. Lutte Ouvrière is not interested, reckoning that the LCR is running after a will-of-the-wisp.

The LCR and Lutte Ouvrière had a joint list in the 1999 Euro-election, winning three MEPs for LO and two for the LCR. They are likely to lose those MEPs in 2004 because of a change in the method of voting, but may still get a good vote.

The LCR has had a high profile on the French and international left ever since it was suddenly thrust into prominence by the near-revolutionary general strike and student revolt of May-June 1968. Over the years since it has had ups and downs.

It is now on an up. The LCR has doubled its membership, to 3000, in the last couple of years. A quarter of its members are under 25. On 1 November the congress was the front-page lead news in Le Monde (roughly, the French equivalent of the Guardian).

The LCR is notoriously untidy as an organisation, often more like a loose assemblage of activists than a cohesive political force. There were plenty of ragged edges in the organisation of the congress, which numbered about 400 delegates plus observers.

But it also had vitality. The plenaries ran from 9am to 9pm each day, with caucuses and commissions following them. On its last night, the congress ran on into the early morning of the next day.

It had focus and democracy, too. Every speaker got a fair hearing. There was no heckling and no clapping. There was passion and heat in the debates. LCR leader Cathérine Lebrun took the microphone to announce, in tears, that she was leaving the LCR because of her disagreements with the electoral deal with LO. There were angry words, sharp ripostes. But on the whole the speakers dealt with each others' arguments honestly, straightforwardly, and on the basis of clearly-stated alternative ideas of their own.

Unlike any conference in the British labour movement, the congress was almost all organised round a debate between three different "platforms", with the votes between the rival platforms right at the end. In France this approach is not unique to the LCR, but also used (in their own way) by the Socialist Party and SP-led trade union and student-union organisations.

The LCR guarantees equal rights to all platforms, but delegates prefer to opt in to one of the major groupings rather than be on the margins of the debate.

Platform 1, the majority, backed both the agreement with LO and the appeal for the "new anti-capitalist political force". Its speakers included the LCR's main public figures - its 2002 presidential candidate Olivier Besancenot, the MEPs Roseline Vachetta and Alain Krivine, and its best-known writer, Daniel Bensaid - but they did not pull rank in the debates.

Platform 3, the second biggest group, backed the appeal for a broad new party, but opposed the agreement with LO. France's elections take place in two rounds. Parties which score lower in the first round are eliminated, or may chose to withdraw voluntarily in favour of others, for the second round. Platform 3 wanted the LCR to insist that on the second round the joint list should ask its voters to back the Socialist Party and Communist Party everywhere that Jean-Marie Le Pen's Front National had got through to that second stage of the voting. If LO refused, the LCR should run its own lists.

Platform 2 supported the agreement with LO, but found the appeal for a broad new party too vague. The LCR, it said, should build on the joint LO-LCR election campaigns to proposed a joint "front of revolutionaries" as a lever to build a new class-struggle workers' party.

Sophie Zafari, for platform 1, noted that the huge strike movements in France of November-December 1995 and May-June 2003 had not halted the continuing decline of the "traditional workers' movement", the trade unions, the Socialist Party and the Communist Party. Trade-union membership in France now stands at 10% of the workforce, and only 5% in the private sector. (Despite some youth radicalisation, student union membership has declined even worse).

According to François Sabado, such facts represent a "change of historical epoch - the end of the epoch dominated by social democracy and Stalinism. It is the end of the epoch of slogans like 'Socialist Party and Communist Party, do this or that!' Revolutionaries have to act in the movement no longer as just an opposition, but also as a direct alternative".

The LCR, he said, should no longer think in terms of its traditional formula, "recomposition of the workers' movement", but rather "reconstruction of the workers' movement and of the anti-capitalist political forces".

The electoral deal with LO could establish the anti-capitalist left as a "fourth political force" in France alongside the "social-liberal" left, the traditional right, and the Front National. To reject it because of differences visible only to "thirty, forty or fifty thousand people" would be foolish.

Daniel Bensaid said he was "100% for the agreement with LO" because it would open up a political space for building a broad new anti-capitalist political force, and 100% for the appeal, so that the LCR could utilise that space even if LO would not.

According to Pierre François, platforms 2 and 3 were "still thinking in terms of recomposition". Platform 3 thought the new anti-capitalist political force could be built "with bits and pieces of the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, etc."; platform 2, that "LO and the LCR hold the keys… That too is a short-cut. We have to walk on two legs - the social movement and electoral politics".

Alain Mathieu, for Platform 3, said that the agreement with LO was unsatisfactory because "the LCR has made all the concession, LO has made none".

Delphine Petit-Lafon argued that "the political expression of the struggles of the spring" (the big strikes) "is not just the far left". Christian Picquet, taking up the same argument, said that the LCR's main priority should be "to rally all the forces available for a break with capitalism… to show ourselves ready to be transcended by a larger regroupment".

To be tied in to an alliance on LO's terms with LO - which one speaker from platform 3 called "the most old-fashioned current of the radical left" - would damage the LCR's relations with the alternative-globalisation movement (which LO tends to dismiss as middle-class froth) and anti-fascist activists. There may not be national political groupings ready to join with the LCR in a "new anti-capitalist political force", but there are local ones.

Galia Trépère, for Platform 2, said that if the LCR were to talk of a "new political force", it had to be a lot more positive about what it wanted and what real political initiatives it could build on. "We say that what is needed is a revolutionary party, a party of class struggle, a workers' party. The job is to organise the forces of labour around a democratic and revolutionary programme".

The text of the "appeal for a new anti-capitalist political force" was too vague. "Marie-George Buffet [the new leader of the French CP] could sign this appeal, or the critical currents of the CP could. It calls for 'a break with capitalism', but that was François Mitterrand's formula in 1971. It talks about a workers' government, but has no mention of workers' mobilisations". The joint election statement with LO was a better political basis to start from, and a joint "front of revolutionaries" could be a real lever to build a real new workers' party.

The simplification of the congress debate into an argument between a small number of rival comprehensive "platforms" has advantages. It avoids bitty debates, which may produce aberrant results through lack of time or lack of correlation with other debates on related subjects. It imposes an intellectual discipline on the participants, compelling them to produce comprehensive alternative perspectives, collectively developed and refined. It gives delegates a clear choice.

It also has problems. In the drive to produce rival political syntheses, each pared-down enough to gather wide support, underlying questions get blurred over.

Five examples

One: among platform 3's objections to the agreement with LO was that it does not call for a "no" vote to the proposed new European Union constitution in the referendum which France may hold on it. LO rejects a "no" vote, arguing instead for abstention on the grounds (correct, I think) that the (very bourgeois and bureaucratic) constitution is no worse than the immediate alternatives (regression to national constitutions, or continued European integration without a formal constitutional framework).

Platform 1 replied that it made no sense to disrupt the electoral deal for a referendum which might not happen anyway, and in which the LCR remained free to make its own policy. Platform 2 hesitantly distanced itself from the "no". But there was no real debate on the substantive issue of a working-class response to European capitalist integration.

Two: the cloudy perspective of the "new anti-capitalist political force" - the idea that there is a vast political "space" which the LCR can organise into some sort of party so long as it can find a political formula all-embracing enough - carries with it a logic of political self-disavowal. To be "opportunist" towards an indefinite future possibility downgrades what our actual forces can actually do now, without even the compensations that come from opportunism towards a movement that really exists.

Delphine Petit-Lafon of platform 3 brought this out most clearly, in responding to a warning by Oliver Besancenot that it was necessary to be "patient" about the development of the famous "new force" rather than clutching at straws. "I've been in the LCR for ten years, and I'm still waiting for the new force. I will wait a bit longer, but not for ever".

Some platform 2 speakers made the point well, too. They, however, tended to focus on saying that in place of the vague term "anti-capitalist" the LCR should say "revolutionary", contrasting it to "reformism". Their argument is by no means as crude and empty as the SWP's "one solution, revolution" (which does not stop the SWP being very un-revolutionary in real-life politics), but it is skewed. The axis around which to work for a broad workers' party should be, for us as it was for Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, working-class independence in the class struggles of today, rather than hypothetical future revolutionism. All the more so when, as platform 2 themselves pointed out, "the disasters of the 20th century saw the Stalinists discredit [the term] revolution".

Three: several platform 3 speakers drew a mandate for their position of backing the SP and CP in the second round from the precedent of the LCR's vote for Jacques Chirac, the mainstream right-wing candidate, against Jean-Marie Le Pen of the Front National in the run-off round of the April-May 2002 presidential election.

Presented thus, their case was popular-frontist, an argument for sacrificing independent working-class politics to the cause of voting for someone, anyone, who might beat the Front National. Speakers from platform 2 (and a minority of platform 1, too) argued that the Chirac vote had been wrong, but there was no distinct debate focused on the Chirac vote precedent as such.

All the more pity, because hidden underneath it was a very different and more rational thought: that the "traditional workers' movement" cannot be so quickly written off, and that some united-front policy towards its segments, some policy for the self-transformation of the actually-existing workers' movement rather than building a new one alongside it, is necessary.

Four: what did François Sabado's claim that the LCR must now think in terms of "reconstruction" rather than "recomposition" of the workers' movement mean? There is surely a rational core to it. With the trade-union movements in France (or Britain, or many other countries) as they are, revolutionaries have to develop policies and activities for rebuilding them from the ground up, rather than just battles to redirect the existing movement towards different policies.

The old scenario was that pressure on the SP and CP leaders could "expose" them as compromisers, and thus eventually lever off whole chunks of their party memberships to unite with the revolutionaries. The SP and CP leaders have been pretty thoroughly "exposed"; but workers have mostly reacted either by scaling down their vision of what is politically possible to what the SP or CP might deliver, or by disgust with politics in general. When Trotskyist candidates get more manual workers' votes than the supposed "mass workers' parties" do (as Olivier Besancenot and Lutte Ouvrière's Arlette Laguiller did in 2002), tactics must change.

But does that mean that the SP and the CP are now just straightforward bourgeois parties, and there is a political empty space beside the existing labour movement which can, by suitably deft LCR tactics, be organised into a mass "new anti-capitalist force"?

A minority within platform 1, led by Jean-Philippe Divès, put the case bluntly and clearly. "The epoch of mass reformist parties… is definitively over… The old tactic of the united front… has become obsolete… Having definitively ceased to recognise the CP and the SP as their parties, the workers no longer have any mass political representation. This political void has opened the space for a new workers' party".

The main spokespeople of platform 1 were more prudent. "The recent evolution of the social-democratic parties and the French SP is not yet a finished process, in the sense of breaking all links between the social democracy and the history of the workers' movement". But the fundamental issue was not clearly debated.

Five: the general explanation given by all the platforms for the fact that the traditional labour movement has dwindled so badly, without, so far, a strong organised "new anti-capitalist force" growing up inside it or beside it, was twofold: the economic crisis of capitalism which precludes reforms, and (as platform 1 put it) "the defeats and tragedies of the past century, which represent major obstacles to the progress of anti-capitalist consciousness among workers and youth".

But capitalist rates of profit are somewhat higher today than they were in previous periods when reforms were won. Capitalism remains elastic. Only, its elasticity snaps harder against the working class, fundamentally because global capitalist competition, and the pressure it puts on each individual capitalist concern to cut costs, has sharpened so much in recent decades.

The tragedies of the 20th century, of Stalinism in particular, do weigh heavily. A big part of the story with the French trade-union movement must be that the moral and political collapse of the Communist Party - which provided the activist backbone for that movement for many decades - has moved much faster than any impetus towards revival from the new struggles.

Working-class political revival depends on the development and promotion of a renewed socialist world-view which gives a convincing account of capitalism, Stalinism, and history. But there is a problem here. Right up to 1989, the LCR was saying that the great expansion of Stalinism which started in 1943 was no tragedy but instead a (deformed) "rise of the world revolution". Then in 1989-91 most of the conquests of that "world revolution" were swept away - by popular movements which the LCR felt it had to support! If we are to develop a renewed mass socialist world-view, it would help the LCR first to sort out its own thinking about Stalinism.

The LCR's writers discuss Stalinism. In his books Marx l'intempestif and Les Trotskysmes Daniel Bensaid has argued that the old formula they used for the USSR, "degenerated workers' state", was wrong. But the LCR's working assumption is that this is now a historical debate, unimportant for current politics.

Once again it was Jean-Philippe Divès (though he himself has quite definite views on Stalinism, similar to Solidarity's) who brought it out most clearly. "The divisions within the anti-capitalist left mostly correspond to a bygone epoch". There is no dispute serious enough to preclude "rallying all the anti-capitalists in one political party or movement, pluralist and democratic".

But what if the successful creation of a new mass working-class socialist political culture, and the building of a new mass workers' party, actually require us to sort out a lot more of the unfinished theoretical business of the 20th century? The activists in the LCR will surely have a lot to contribute to that sorting-out.

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