Monday, December 22, 2008

France: the New Anti-Capitalist Party

There's been surprisingly little discussion in the UK on the launching of the New Anti-Capitalist Party over the water in France. I thought I'd take a look at this interesting and significant new development and so I spoke to John Mullen, the editor of Socialisme International, to see if I could find out more.

Q1. You recently attended the French launch of the "New Anti-Capitalist Party". How did it go?

The official founding conference will be in January 2009. For the moment there are 400 “committees for a new anti-capitalist party” all over France. The Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire was the force which proposed and coordinated the foundation, and will dissolve itself into it in a couple of months time. I attended the November national delegate meeting as one of the delegates for my town.

The meeting was very encouraging. The new party initiative is obviously attracting a lot of people, many of them young, others experienced union activists, mostly (apart from the LCR members), people who have not been in a party as such before. Obviously for the moment, there is quite a lot of concentration on the preparation of a programme to be voted at the founding conference. Nevertheless many committees have been active in campaigning on the issue of the financial crisis, defending schools and universities against budget cuts, defending illegal immigrants against expulsions and so on.

Q2: 400 committees seems like an impressive number of groups for an organisation that hasn't even launched yet. How do these committees operate? How large are they, for instance would you have more than one in a town? Essentially are they the new party in waiting or are they the *campaign* for the new party?

It is impressive. In Montpellier, a day long regional meeting got two thousand people to it, a similar regional meeting in Marseilles got 1500, other towns had huge meetings. National commission meetings on ecology, on politics in working class neighborhoods and so on have produced wide debates and proposals. Essentially the committees are already the new party in embryo – every week there is a national political leaflet given out in almost all the towns. But the committees also have a lot of autonomy. In one town there will be a public meeting on the financial crisis, in another a symbolic invasion on the local hypermarket to protest against the government’s refusal to raise the minimum wage. The LCR already had very much a federal sort of organization (for better and worse), and this will no doubt continue.

But the party-in-embryo does not yet have a regular publication, an essential element for a campaigning party. Nor does it yet have a proper financial structure, though plans have been made for subs based on income. There is a website, and a weekly paper should be set up two months after the founding conference.

Q3. So what's the thinking behind the new organisation? After all even more than the UK there's no shortage of left-wing groupings.

The massive strike waves and political movements of the last few years have shown that there are many, many people in France who would like to build a political alternative on the radical Left. Olivier Besancenot, the spokesperson of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, has recently had significantly higher popularity ratings than Sarkozy or his Prime Minister Fillon. But this widespread sympathy for radical Left ideas has not led people to join far left parties to anything like the extent one might think. And the Socialist and Communist parties are generally identified as “the parties who don’t change much when they’re in government”, even if the Socialist Party has not yet been fully converted to Blairism.

The New anti-capitalist party was called for by the LCR (and the LCR will be dissolving and merging with it). The idea was a party which is based on struggle, where elections are secondary, but which does not ask members to all identify with a specific revolutionary or Trotskyist position.

Q4. Who's currently involved in this initiative?

The only big organization involved is the (soon to be ex-) LCR. And a few thousand individuals, quite a few of them well known local or even national leaders of the non-party radical Left, which has been quite big here for a number of years. Inside the NPA, some activists want to draw the lines of the party fairly narrow, to be absolutely sure not to include people who are too quick to ally in local or regional government with the Socialist Party and their acceptance of neo-liberalism. Others would like to make the party considerably broader, because they are worried that people who put mass movements and strikes at the centre of their politics, and are firmly opposed to the dictatorship of profit, will be kept out of the party if the lines are drawn too narrowly. Discussions continue on this. But the present name of the party “anti-capitalist” represents the compromise position at present. We want people who are opposed to capitalism, who generally believe that capitalism cannot be durably given a human face.

This means that inside the party you have people close to anarchism, close to radical green politics, close to Guevara’s ideas etc etc. The debates are very interesting every time each current avoids simply affirming its identity and makes sure the questions are looked at in depth.

Q5: Do you think the current crisis in the Socialist Party is something that might bring dividends to the new project? The Left Party in Germany certainly benefited from having a leading SPD member behind the project from the start. What are the prospects for attracting the best parts of the Communists, Socialists, LO and, I guess, the Greens?

Recent economic and political events certainly will boost the new party. It is not hard to get people to listen to anti-capitalism these days – waves of sackings are making sure of that. And the relative paralysis of the Socialist Party, and the Communist party will certainly make it easier for the NPA to build support.

The situation is however complex, and the NPA is not the only organization trying to crystallize the radical Left. To go through the parties one by one, but briefly:

The trotskyist organization of a few thousand activists, Lutte Ouvrière is opposed to the new anti-capitalist party to such an extent that it broke with a very long tradition by allying itself with the Socialist Party in the municipal elections last April, rather than risking an alliance with the LCR and the non-party radical Left.

For Lutte Ouvrière, all these people in the NPA are not revolutionaries and therefore not interesting. Over the last few years, Lutte Ouvrière has been completely cut off from any of the big unity political campaigns (Against the European Constitution, against Le Pen etc). They stick strictly to “workplace issues” and are in decline because of this. They have just expelled the minority current from their ranks because this current wanted to work with the New Anti-Capitalist Party.

The leadership of the Communist Party won a good majority at its conference for a “business as usual” motion putting alliances with the Socialist Party at the centre of its strategy. All minority motions did very well though. Whole sections of communists are leaving the party (many favourable to a federation of the radical Left). But their paper and their good analyses of the economic crisis mean they still have an audience.

The Socialist Party has seen two historic events in the last six months. Firstly a significant split to the Left by Mr Mélenchon, who has now established a new party “Le parti de gauche” on the model, he says (but much smaller) than the German Die Linke. It will be founded very soon, and will attempt to fill the gap between the Socialist Party “let’s manage capitalism more humanly” line and the “almost revolutionary” line of the New Anti-Capitalist Party. It could become an important force, it’s hard to say.

The second key event is that Ségolène Royal, the Tony Blair of the Socialist Party, was defeated by an alliance much to the Left of her (though not that Left), on a very close poll. This is excellent news, and means that left arguments will be more audible. The radical left should be able to point up the difference between the left speeches of Martine Aubry, the new leader, and the lack of support for key struggles from this absolutely electoralist party.

Finally, some of these fragments, as well as teams from the non-party Left have just set up a “Federation” of Left forces and activists, to try to overcome the bittiness of the radical Left. The idea is that different forces and individuals can join it to run joint campaigns, but don’t need to leave their own organizations – dual membership is encouraged. This Federation is backed by a number of important figures.

The upshot of all this is that the New Anti-Capitalist Party has a lot of decisions to make about who to work with on what. For example, for the European elections in 2009 – is it better to have united slates of candidates across the radical Left (I think so) or to have an independent “New Anti-Capitalist Party” slate so as to be able to put forward a clearer platform.

The tendency within the New Anti-Capitalist Party is to rock forwards and backwards between sectarianism and unity politics. I am not talking about mad small-group sectarianism (because the new party will start with many thousands of people). But that sectarianism which always emphasizes first of all our differences with other groups, and finds a host of reasons why we cannot work with them even for limited aims. There is a real tendency inside the NPA to think “we are the only real Left” or “of course we want unity: people from other organizations should leave them and join us instead, then we’ll be united.” The tendency towards sectarianism is the biggest danger for the NPA. The numbers, relative youth, enthusiasm, energy and real pedagogy for explaining key issues are the most important positive points.

Q6: In this country there has been an ongoing difficulty with left unity projects where revolutionaries have been determined to hang onto their autonomy within the broader alliance to the extent that it can create, to my mind, unnecessary conflicts and distrust of separate agendas. What's the position of the LCR, as the most significant organised current in the NPA, on this tricky balancing act between retaining distinct organisation within the NPA and submerging their efforts into it?

An old and tricky problem, and you and me won’t necessarily see it in the same way. In my opinion the problem comes when differences are not discussed but separate agendas are pushed forward in rather hidden ways.

I personally would like to see the NPA declare “The NPA is a party which has some people who are revolutionaries and others are not. Debate will continue within the party on these issues, while together we build all the struggles which are needed to oppose the dictatorship of profit.” This is not really happening. There is a tendency to hide differences. So for example, on the question of whether the NPA is a revolutionary party or not the posters will say “A party to revolutionize society” and a whole number of other formulations which avoid the question.

This “formulation politics” was already one of the banes of the LCR. On a difficult question, find a formulation which upsets no-one, instead of deciding the question. Some of the formulations had no meaning…

So, it is an ongoing question. To emphasize that the aim of the LCR is not to control the NPA, the LCR is officially dissolving itself just before the foundation of the NPA, and there is no plan to maintain an LCR current inside the NPA. I think it likely that the different currents there were in the LCR will end up setting up three or four currents in the NPA, which seems fine to me. As Socialisme International, our tiny group of comrades, along with a couple of dozen others will certainly set up openly a current based on IS ideas (close to SWP theories).

To sum up, the New Anti-Capitalist Party is a very exciting initiative and everyone should build it. The new economic crisis means workers have even more of a need for a party based on class struggle, and there is a new generation of young activists being built very quickly. I hope the NPA will quickly work with wider federations, and in this way help to win partial victories on important points, while continuing the debate on how to definitively eliminate capitalism.

John Mullen is an anticapitalist activist in the South West of France and editor of the review Socialisme International.


ModernityBlog said...

anything connected with French politics and the Left, your first stop should be Andrew Coates, he's very good.

John Mullen said...

I wouldn't want to get into defendingor attacking anyone in particular, but the Andrew Coates blog mentioned above does not, in my view, provide a serious political analysis which is worth reading.

Jim Jepps said...

I wont comment on Andrew as I know him personally, but I would advocate people who are actively involved in initiatives as the first stop every time.

John, something I wanted to explore in more detail was Mélenchon's initiative “Le parti de gauche” which looks from the outside to be something very similar to the NPA but with a very different point of origin.

Whilst the success of the Left Party in Germany often seems to obscure their politics do you think Mélenchon is someone that more radical leftists can "do business with"?

Politically it looks possible - but maybe there will be organisational problems?

Dave Riley said...

Good one Jim. Your interview is a very useful summary of the project and where it's at.

John Mullen said...

The parti de gauche is interesting and common work is possible. The problem will be getting some sort of clear campaign together which both the NPA and the PDG are willing to work on. The NPa will tend to say "the campaign is not radical enough, we want to work in a united alliance provided that the alliance includes some of our key demands" (key demands : banning redundancies in companies which make a profit, sharp rise in minimum wage, papers for all illegal immigrants...). There is a real danger that the NPa will use radical demands in order to avoid working with the PDG.

BUT if the PDG pulls in a lot of people, then locally in the more unitary minded sections of the NPA, common work will be done with the PDG and the pressure will filter upwards. Let's be optimistic. What will not happen is a loud public demand for common work with the PDG expressed by the leadership of the NPA. This is a terrible shame and a serious mistake.

Anonymous said...

A valuable report on the NPA. The Web can't substitute for first-hand accounts(though possibly distance has its own uses). This is a very important political development, all the more so. I have read other, more reserved analyses on the Forum Marxiste Revolutionnaire. As someone close to what the Weekly Workers calls 'liquidationists', and to an extent to the Parti de Gauche, I would still welcome seeing in Europe a succesful left alternatives emergence.

John Mullen naturally follows the debate in Mouvements, which includes many critics of the NPA. I am writing a more in-depth piece using these varied assesments with naturally the intention to casser les couilles of a few people.

Unknown said...

Yet another left wing party in franch, really how many do they need? I am no expert on French politics but how ever good this movement becomes, is it not going the split the left vote even more?

Jim Jepps said...

In fairness Kieran the worst that could possibly happen would be that the NCP replaces the LCR on the electoral field so it wont really mean more parties but, in that worst case, would siply be a name change for one of the groups... and the best that can happen is that it draws the left together so they can present a more unified electoral front.

Dave Riley said...

Mullen says,"The tendency within the New Anti-Capitalist Party is to rock forwards and backwards between sectarianism and unity politics."

And complains that that is a danger.

No it's not.

That's what politics is all about so you have to navigate between the two poles of sectarianism and , to name it correctly, opportunism.

There's no one answer and in a very pluralist party like the upcoming NPA that's not going to be an easy navigation. That's why a Marxist left is so important to the project otherwise the tendency will be to gravitate towards a comfortable electoralism (as the Green Parties tend to do.)

If you check you'll find that this debate was carried on inside the LCR over the past year or two and the inner party tendencies located themselves along a board spectrum of positions including a sort of Le Linke one.

I also disagree with Mullen's argument in regard to clarifying the party's perspectives as to being anti-capitalist or socialist. That clarification can only be engineered through the business of working together. And in that sense the supposed line in the sand is a red herring.

This is the view of the Socialist Alliance here in Australia. We are indeed an anti-capitalist party and we call ourselves socialist but the meaning of that is worked out collectively rather than relying on competing patents.

In fact the formulation he cites --" The NPA is a party which has some people who are revolutionaries and others are not. Debate will continue within the party on these issues, while together we build all the struggles which are needed to oppose the dictatorship of profit.” is excellent description of political facts and a example of the sort of ongoing perspective that can involve, welcome and integrate diverse forces.

He then goes on to point out, "This is not really happening. There is a tendency to hide differences. So for example, on the question of whether the NPA is a revolutionary party or not the posters will say “A party to revolutionize society” and a whole number of other formulations which avoid the question."

So where is the problem? We had the same programatic fetishness in the SA among the groupuscule affiliates as though the project could not proceed until it had worked out in chapter and verse which socialism it wanted to aspire to.

So differences aren't hidden, they are put aside for the sake of everyday struggles.

As for the question of more parties on the left -- there's the complication of the PCF's preference to go into coalition with the SP regardless of the politics.I think the LCR was correct to keep the PCF at arms length while that remains their perspective. That is not being sectarian in my books one iota but I've heard it described as such.

I fear there's a very loosey goosey template being bandied about there as to what sort of party you want. In contrast I think the LCR have got it very right.

Jim Jepps said...

Interesting points Dave - and quite a lot in there so I'll just pick up on one thing for the moment.

I agree that the PCF's history does not lend itself well to attracting good leftists. Any electoral coalition with them in would repel as many good people as it attracted and would, probably, not be particularly stable as the tactical differences would simply be too great.

But having said that I think it's important to distinguish between the party as an organisation and its supporters and members - some of whom would be that proverbial gold dust.

You need to keep the organisations at arms length whilst holding out open arms to the best elements in the PCF, LO, et al. I think the most attractive feature would be one that keeps the focus on a unified movement against the real opposition - getting dragged down into why such and such a lefty is different from another wont help that.

If we can discuss the *politics* on a point by point basis without getting drawn into the comfort zones of organisational and theoretical differences I think those discussions will be much ore productive.

Which is probably where I disagree with you about using terms like Marxist - because you can meet six different Marxists and get half a dozen completely different positions - it's become a meaningless term - and that's why I liked John's emphasis on the kinds of campaigns they're already involved in as it gives a much clearer idea of what the party's for.

Anonymous said...

The LCR is right to want to build an anticapitalist party which extends beyond the traditional revolutionary left. Its success is turning this perspective into practice should be applauded.

Having said this, let's look at some of the problems. First, it is fair to say that the LCR's attitude to the rest of the radical left has been sectarian.

There are a number of groupings to the left of the Socialist party, from the Parti de Gauche (a left split from the SP) and small groups of left-wing Greens to the Collectifs unitaires antilibéraux (which came out of the successful united campaign against the European Constitution in 2005) and the Communistes Unitaires (a diverse and non-sectarian group of CP and ex-CP members). Some of these groups have now come together in the form of a Federation.

Now of course all of these tendencies have their weaknesses and contradictions - but so does the LCR's New Anticapitalist Party. And in each case, they are relatively new and capable of changing.

In my opinion, the LCR should have responded to each of these developments first by welcoming them, then by making concrete proposals for united campaigns - political as well as social/economic. Such an approach would have benefited the anticapitalist left as whole, and hugely enhanced the prestige of the LCR/NPA.

Unfortunately, the LCR's attitude has consistently been to minimise their importance and accuse them (despite repeated asurances to the contrary) of preparing an electoral alliance with the Socialists. So the LCR's spokesperson Besancenot reacted to the left split in the SP by accusing its leader, Mélenchon, of wanting to negotiate a coalition with the party he had just left.

Typically, such reactions are then partially corrected in response to internal and external critics.

The overall pattern is clear, however. To paraphrase : "We, the NPA, are he only way forward for the anticapitalist left, the rest of the field are losers who if they are really anticapitalist should join us. In the meantime, we are in favour of unity in economic and social struggles, but not in the political sphere - unless the other groupings clarify their position on the question of alliances with the SP. And just in case the group in question repeats its opposition to the social-liberal line of the SP, it should re-clarify its position because we don't really believe them."

I am only slightly exaggerating here.

My second point is that the lack of clarity of the LCR/NPA on the question of a socialist revolution is not a question of taking a flexible tactical line (we could say a Leninist line) in order to build a mass party on anticapitalist lines.

Rather it reflects an endemic tendency of the LCR to fudge issues because of its own internal contradictions and confusion.

The slogan "revolutionise the society" (which seems meaningless to me) is a typical example. The attitude of the LCR to the question of the Muslim headscarf is another ("against the law banning the hidjab in schools and against the hidjab as a symbol of female oppression") - an attitude which led them in practice to saying and doing nothing on the issue in a critical few months which saw France engulfed by a wave of Islamophobia - is another, and in my opinion particularly disastrous one.

Typically, the LCR's idea of resolving such differences, which are legitimate, of course, is not to have a debate, make a decision, and apply it, nor is it to decide not to take a majority decision in the interests of party unity. It is usually to have a prolonged and very wordy discussion, set up a commission etc., in which each tendency produces ever more weighty and usually unreadable documents which the majority of members do not read. The result in practice is often an ambiguous formula or no position at all.

The situation here in France on the radical left is a complex but in my opinion quite encouraging one. The emergence of the NPA is a particularly hopeful sign. But it is not the only one.

Raphael said...

Daniel Cohn Bendit was interviewed a couple of days ago (France-Inter). He was asked about Melenchon. He replied something like "If it helps Melenchon sleeping to know (and proclaim) that he is on the left, then, that's really great. I wish him a good sleep"

That was not exactly his words, but it was both accurate, and funny.

What about an interview of Daniel on this blog? or a member of the impressive list, he is assembling for the MEP elections?

John Mullen said...

The problem with Cohen Bendit is that depsite his talents, on one of the key issues in Europe recently - support or oppose the proposed neoliberal "constitution", he was on the wrong side, and Mélenchon was right. He also supports the war in Afghanistan. Now the problem is not really to argue about who is on the Left and who is on the Right, but I prefer a politician to be less witty but opposethe war in Afghanistan!

Jim Jepps said...

LPR: If the French left are even remotely like the UK left then there can be problems with demanding unity in, well, unhelpful ways. But it seems to me that the LCR are making a conscious effort to disgard some of the ossified ways of working of the past - and I think they should be applauded for trying. My only worry is that, very unlike here, there are a number of projects which all might have legs and all look interesting - how they relate to each is a big part of what will determine their future. imo

R: whilst I'd love to interview DCB on the blog I'm not sure how I'd go about getting that... I'll have a think... but I am concerned about his rather idiosyncratic behaviour and find him a little bit problematic.

JM: I think these lines in the sand are going to be crucial - where you draw them will determine success or failure - I don't envy that task but I hope the new movement looks outwards and allows for enough deviation to make a real hit in French politics, without smudging the lines so much it wasn't worth starting the project in the first place.