France: Towards the foundation of a New Anti-Capitalist Party

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December 3, 2008 9:24 | by Pierre Rousset

The political impact of the New Anti-Capitalist Party (Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste or NPA) process is quite important. In a number of places, this new political party in construction is already de facto replacing the French Revolutionary Communist League (Ligue communiste révolutionnaire or LCR)and is very active.

In June 2007, the LCR launched an appeal for the constitution of a New Anti-Capitalist Party. In June 2008, 1000 delegates met in Paris to give a national-scale dimension to a process which started from the bottom. At the beginning of November 2008, delegates from some 400 committees gathered again to discuss three documents: programmatic references, political orientation, statutes and functioning of the NPA. Around 10,000 activists are presently engaged in the founding process of the NPA - three times more than the total membership of the LCR.

On November 6, 2008 it held its first public meeting in Paris with more than 2000 participants. If everything goes as planned, on January 29, 2009, the LCR at its last congress will decide on its own dissolution. The following days, January 30-February 1, 2009, at its first congress, the NPA will be constituted.

So far, so good. What is striking is how fast this overall process proceeds. It obviously answers a political need. This need, this opportunity, has been felt for some time already, but, in the last 10 years, all previous attempts to build a qualitatively broader anti-capitalist party in France failed. To overcome these failures, the LCR decided to try something new - so new it had never even envisaged it before. What then is "new" in the process of constitution of the New Anti-Capitalist Party?

After all other scenarios failed…

Because of the key role played by the LCR in the launching of the NPA, it may be useful to look back on how this organisation in the past saw the building of a socially broadly rooted revolutionary party. I speak here from the experience of my "fading away" generation (the May 1968 one) which is no longer "in command" in the LCR or the NPA, but whose historical legacy has to be taken into account precisely to analyse what is "new". I'll present our past "visions" in a very brief, simplified and schematic way.

My generation created new, dynamic, radical organisations in the 1960s - but, in France, we remained very small. In the late '60s-early '70s, we thought we had no choice because key class confrontations were to come soon: the new revolutionary party had to be built quickly, in the heat of the crisis, through intense activism. In the mid-'70s, we had to admit that the pace of history would be much slower than expected and that the mass-based revolutionary party would have to be built in the long run. The LCR never thought this party would simply be the result of its own quantitative growth. It had to be the outcome of a much broader process of "recomposition", restructuring of the left and labour movement. We envisaged three main scenarios:

1. First schema: the radicalisation of whole sections, of wings, of existing mass working-class parties (the Socialist Party -- PS -- and the Communist Party -- PCF). We can maybe say that this schema was shaped in Italy with the creation of the Party of the Communist Refoundation when the old CP became social-democratic. But it was not the case in France. The main split from the PS (around Jean-Pierre Chevènement) became "left-nationalist" and declined, becoming irrelevant. The long-lasting crisis of the PCF never gave birth to anything looking like what happened in Italy. Our "old left" proved incapable of rejuvenating, even in part.

2. Second schema: the launching of a new radical working-class party by the trade unions with the participation of existing revolutionary groups. That is the "Brazilian schema" - the original foundation of the Workers Party (PT) - or, more recently, the South Korean process: the KCTU trade union centre has backed the creation of the Democratic Labour Party (DLP). In both cases, the trade union movement was still "young", having reorganised itself after a period of military dictatorship. In France, the main trade union centres (CGT, CFDT, FO) show no such dynamism.

3. Third schema: two or three significant political groups join together to build a new party. This happened in Portugal (Left Bloc) or Denmark (Red-Green Alliance). It was the simplest and the most "credible" of all scenarios - but it nevertheless did not work in France. Contrary to the LCR, the two other main far left organisations coming from the 1960s radicalisation have never been interested in rallying various radical forces around a common political project (unlike in Portugal, for example).

An important political opening existed nevertheless after the victory in 2005 of the "no" in the referendum on the draft European (neoliberal and militaristic) constitution. A powerful aspiration for political unity in the "left of the left" was then expressed - but failed after two years of intense negotiations involving a range of currents from the PCF to the LCR.

This last attempt ended in bitterness and harsh polemics between components of this two-year process on who was responsible for its ultimate failure. But rather than looking for culprits, it is better to reflect on why the three above-mentioned scenarios failed in France in spite of decades of successive attempts. In, again, a very schematic way, I would like to underline the following factors:

The "old" political and labour movement does not any longer have the potential to rejuvenate a radical left. The social roots of the PS have changed and its "social-liberal" orientation expresses the depth of its integration into the bourgeois society. The PCF has never truly addressed the issue of its Stalinist past and now finds itself electorally and institutionally hostage of the PS: for years now it has been in crisis - and it is unfortunately a "crisis without dynamism''. The three main trade union confederations (CGT, CFDT, FO) are too bureaucratised. This does not mean that individuals (even many) or local activist teams from the "old" labour movement are not and will not join the NPA or another radical left party - indeed, quite a number are! But it means that, unlike what we hoped in the 1970s-1980s, it will not be enough to "recompose" ("restructure") the traditional labour movement. It has to be remoulded in a broader way -- which is something much more complex!

The "new" trade unions (Solidaires…) and social movements have a much greater radical potential. Many of their activists are reacting positively to the call for the NPA. Some members of their leaderships did engage in the attempts to build, in 2005-2007, political unity in the "left of the left". But the relationship between social movements and political parties remains in France very uneasy. The independence of trade unions and mass organisations is today a very sensitive issue - and mostly for good reasons given past experiences! Radical parties such as the NPA have to show in a consistent way their usefulness and their readiness to keep respectful relationships with "mass organisations", for a new mutual dynamics to better shape in the future.

`Left of the left'

It is difficult to describe what the French "left of the left" is made of, because few of its components are politically well delineated. The PCF is by far its biggest component but is in deep crisis. The LCR is by far the biggest component of the "far left" involved in unity processes. Then there are smaller political organisations, informal networks, local teams, individual activists or "personalities"… the whole constituting a "milieu", broader than a coalition of parties. There are many reasons explaining why the 2005-2006 attempts to build unity around common electoral candidates ended in fragmentation. But there is one major political issue which has to be kept in mind here: the relationships with the Socialist Party, electoral alliances and governmental participation.

This is a key issue in a number of countries where electoral blocs and governmental participation has been or will be a concrete choice for the radical left: Brazil, West Bengal, Italy, Germany, Portugal, the Netherlands. In France, the electoral system is very undemocratic: to have any chance of being elected to parliament, one needs the backing of the PS (on the left) - which is not given for free. Weakened, the PCF needs all the more to negotiate an agreement with the PS to save its electoral positions. Those who want to ally with the PCF have to accept it. But for the LCR (and others), the task of the day is to strengthen a radical left pole able to incarnate an alternative in the left to social-liberalism - which implies a total independence from the PS. That has been and remains a major political line of demarcation.

Late 2006, the LCR seemed very isolated within the "left of the left". Early 2007, for the presidential election, Marie-George Buffet ran for the PCF, Olivier Besancenot for the LCR and José Bové for some other components of the "left of the left". Besancenot's campaign was politically very dynamic and he got more than 4% of the votes. There was no such dynamics in Buffet's campaign and she got less than 2% (a historically low figure for the PCF!). Bové's campaign was politically confused and had little impact. In spite of his own personal notoriety, he hardly got more than 1%.

After two years of intense debates on orientation, the presidential election was a real political test for the "left of the left". It gave new responsibilities to the LCR.

The new responsibilities of the LCR

With the success of its political initiative and electoral campaign, the LCR found itself at the centre stage of the "left of the left". The question was thus: what to do with this success? The LCR had the responsibility to take an initiative quickly, for the existing momentum not to be lost (as happened in the past).

In mid-2007, even after the political test of the elections, there was no possibility to reach an agreement with other significant organisations for launching a new anti-capitalist party. With no "top-bottom" unity call possible, the LCR decided to initiate a "bottom-top" process - something which it had never envisaged before. Everyone ready to participate in the creation of a new anti-capitalist party clearly independent from the PS was invited to join local committees for the NPA. The network of committees would constitute the foundation of the new party.

It was clear that there was an open political space for a radical party qualitatively broader than the LCR to emerge. This was in part shown by the extraordinary popularity of Olivier Besancenot. Olivier is a very good candidate and spokesperson. This is not mainly a "media" phenomenon. Being a postie, he is not seen as a professional politician but as a "co-worker" ("one of us"). He is young, and the youth can also identify with him. Last but not the least, he is politically very consistent: when at 27 years old he first ran in a presidential campaign (in 2002), he was totally unknown but already a member of the political bureau of the LCR. In TV forums, he usually smashes politically professional politicians and members of the government. People love it!

One reason why the LCR has been able to take the initiative of launching the NPA is often overlooked. Its leadership has been renewed. Today, all the historical "figures" of the LCR have stepped out of the politbureau (but remain active!), and the national leadership is now mostly composed of cadres in their 30s and 40s. This seems not to be the case for most other organisations. It is a very important issue because of the radical change of political generation which has occurred since the 1990s.

On the one hand, the LCR renewed its membership and cadre network. On the other, the LCR remains an organisation framed by its origins - the 1960s-1970s' experience. So it both can and must initiate the creation of a new party, rooted in the present generation's outlook.

The NPA as a NEW party

For the LCR, the aim is not only to build a bigger, stronger party. It is to help the creation of a truly new one. There has been a radical change of period, with the disintegration of USSR and with capitalist globalisation. And there has been a radical shift in generation: present activists do not have the same references and the same background of historical experiences as the "1968" ones. The combination of the two radical changes (period and generation) has deep consequences in the way politics is lived.

For sure, it is important to keep alive the political experience of the past decades, the many lessons of the past century (imperialism, Stalinism …). How then to build anew without losing our past? By passing the legacy of the LCR on to a new party. By bringing also into this new party the best of other revolutionary traditions of the past century - from various Marxist or libertarian traditions, from feminist and eco-socialist movements, etc. By giving to the new party the social roots of trained mass cadres, while broadening its social implantation with the recent experience of the Global Justice Movement and the wave of resistance in populous suburbs, among migrants, etc. By allowing also the new party to speak the political language of the present generation.

The will to build with others a broader anti-capitalist party is not new for the LCR, it aimed at it for several decades! What is new is the decision to initiate a "bottom-top" process and, most importantly, to fully integrate the change of period and generation into the vision of the new party.

Unfortunately, the LCR is presently the only "big" (everything is relative) component of the "left of the left" engaged in the NPA process. The other concerned political groups are much smaller. The danger then was that the LCR would remain "the party within the party" after the foundation of the NPA. To avoid that, drastic decisions were taken. LCR members are usually in minority in steering bodies of the de facto existing NPA. And the LCR should dissolve itself in the days before the founding congress of the NPA. The NPA has to become a political and social melting pot, to shape its own identity. It is presently easy to reach political agreements within the NPA process and there is nothing divisive today as the "nature of USSR" (to take an example) was for the "left of the left" in the 1970s. But there are strategic issues with few concrete answers (how to disarm the bourgeoisie?). The NPA will have to consolidate its programmatic foundations through its own experience. It will take time. The road ahead is unknown.

The decision to dissolve the LCR is of course a risky one. But it would be even more risky not to take this risk. We have to seize the present opportunity: to miss it would probably be very costly for the whole "left of the left". The NPA must not be seen as - and must not be - an "enlarged LCR", but a qualitatively newer party.

The process is well engaged. Thousands of people who were never member of a party before are involving themselves. Many coming from the PCF or other organisations are joining too, as well as grassroots activists. If the launching of the NPA at the end of January 2009 is a success, some political components which are presently not ready to unite with the LCR may change their mind.

But it may be better to wait for the end of January 2009 and the founding congress of the NPA to evaluate the long way we'll have come - and the long way still ahead.

This article first appeared on the website of International Viewpoint. Pierre Rousset is a member of Europe Solidaire Sans Frontiers (ESSF). He has been involved for many years in Asian solidarity movements.