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Thursday May 15 2008

Good culture, bad politics

This year for the first time the CPGB attended the annual fete of the French Trotskyist group, Lutte Ouvri�re. Peter Manson reports

It was comrades from the French communist group, Prométhée, who encouraged us to come to the May 10-12 Lutte Ouvrière fete, suggesting we run a stall and publish a Weekly Worker supplement in French. They gave us tremendous help with translation and proofing, ensuring that the result was of high quality (view the supplement here). They also helped out on the stall itself.

Our intervention was most definitely worthwhile on a number of levels. Firstly, we were able to distribute hundreds of copies of the supplement, despite the ban by the LO comrades on the handing out of political material anywhere except at an official stall. The supplement provoked a number of discussions on the articles we had chosen for the occasion - on the question of Europe, the new “anti-capitalist” party proposed by the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, and the story of Respect in Britain. I personally spoke to comrades from the LO (both majority and minority), the LCR, oppositionists from the Parti Communiste Français, members of Gauche Révolutionnaire (French section of Peter Taaffe’s Committee for a Workers’ International), as well as from several international groups.

Secondly, it enabled us to learn a great deal about the depth of penetration of working class culture in France. Lutte Ouvrière has at the very most 2,000 members, yet it is able to stand hundreds of candidates in elections, sometimes winning 5% or more of the national vote, and can run an ambitious undertaking like its annual three-day fete that regularly attracts around 25,000 people. Unlike most far-left groupings in Britain, both LO and the LCR are well known organisations that are relatively deeply embedded in the class. This is reflected in the coverage given to them by the bourgeois press. Arlette Laguiller, LO’s main spokesperson, could even be considered to be a celebrity. She is certainly promoted that way by LO. At the fete, everything had to close for her speech.

The fete is held on a sprawling country estate near the village of Presles, to the north of Paris. I was astonished to learn that this estate, complete with 19th century mansion and extensive wooded area, is actually owned by LO - it was donated by an eccentric aristocrat some three decades ago.

The whole site is bedecked with huge red banners displaying communist slogans in a number of languages and, as well as three podiums for political debates, features three cinemas, a large stage for musical performances plus several smaller ones, lots of areas for games and children’s entertainment, innumerable restaurants and cafés, and many stalls run by LO and its international comrades. The organisers provide free transport from Paris in the form of a bus every 20 minutes during the day and every hour throughout the night - there were dances and discos lasting into the early hours. There are also camping sites for hundreds of people.

Our stall was situated in the area dubbed Cité Politique, which includes the two smaller podiums. But this area is hidden away at the far end of the site and there were only around 20 political organisations altogether. I am told that the Cité Politique was once a big attraction, pulling in dozens of international groups, and was much more prominently situated.

Nevertheless, there is a tremendous political feel to the fete, which provides a taste of what a genuine working class culture could be like - a culture whereby a communist party facilitates and helps to organise every aspect of workers’ lives. No doubt the Socialist Workers Party could organise something along the lines of the fete, if much smaller, but I somehow doubt it would have quite the same atmosphere.

Of course, it has to be said that the LO fete is dwarfed by the annual event hosted by the PCF’s daily newspaper L’Humanité and there is no doubt whatsoever that LO has imitated many of its aspects. However, the PCF, although its electoral support has plummeted over recent years, remains deeply ingrained in working class life. It still claims 135,000 members and hundreds of thousands attend its own three-day fete, held in September.

New party

The third reason why our intervention was so worthwhile is the fact that we were able to learn first-hand about the current debates raging within the French far left. Inevitably, this year they were dominated by the LCR’s call for a new party. Every year, one of the main debates is that between the two principal Trotskyist organisations, and this year was no exception.

This showpiece event was entitled ‘What sort of party?’ and featured two leading comrades from each organisation. The LCR comrades (who gave only their first names) put forward once again the Ligue’s call for a new “anti-capitalist” formation that would be for a “break with capitalism” and a “revolutionary transformation of society”. Such a party, stated the comrades, ought to mobilise for an end to the Fifth Republic and the winning of a constituent assembly. The comrades of Lutte Ouvrière would be welcome to join with the LCR in building this party, they concluded.

But LO is having none of it. According to Jean-Pierre Mercier, “We are not going in the same direction - you have a completely different conception of the party.” Because the LCR is aiming to attract not only revolutionaries, workers, trade unionists and people breaking form the traditional left, but also sections of the environmentalist and often anarchistic youth, LO declares that the new formation cannot be the type of party that is necessary. The working class does not need just any old party, stated comrade Mercier, and certainly not a collection of “ecologists, feminists and ‘altermondialists’” coming together with a section of the far left.

It is insufficient to be for a “revolutionary transformation of society”. Any new party must proudly proclaim itself to be revolutionary, communist and Trotskyist, he said, mocking the LCR’s stated aim: “What does that mean - a ‘break [rupture] with capitalism’? We are not married to it. We want to destroy capitalism!”

All good knockabout stuff that drew rapturous applause, but in my view this criticism is misplaced. It seems to me that the LCR majority is calling on those environmentalists and feminists to break with the ideology of capitalism, whereas perhaps LO thinks it best to leave them as they are and not engage with them at all. Of course, life itself will tell us whether the LCR will end up watering down its programme in order to accommodate those to its right (assuming, of course, such forces will be attracted in any great numbers), but one thing is certain - if the rest of the far left keeps its distance, that possibility will hardly be reduced.

For comrade Mercier the fact that LCR leader Olivier Besancenot has rejected the label ‘Trotskyist’ as a defining description of the new party is a clincher. Earlier, in a brief exchange with CPGB comrades at our stall, comrade Mercier wanted to know why we too do not call ourselves Trotskyist, as we reject Stalinism. He obviously has a bee in his bonnet.

The LCR comrades countered LO’s arguments by reminding it of its own past calls for a single party uniting all revolutionaries. LO had issued such a call following the events of May 1968 and again in 1995, after Laguiller had won 5.3% in the presidential election of that year (similarly the impetus for the LCR’s call follows its good showing in the 2007 presidentials).

LO’s 1995 appeal was made in general terms (there were no direct talks with the LCR) and was dropped after just a few weeks. But at that time LO did not lay down conditions regarding the proposed new party’s exact self-description and in fact had even suggested that any such differences, including over membership criteria, could be discussed by comrades within a new organisation.

LO minority

The Etincelle (Spark) minority of LO comrades, known as la Fraction, takes a different approach. In its view, the Trotskyist left is “of the same future revolutionary party”. The comrades state: “The two main organisations of the far left, as well as most of the smaller groups, advance, separately, the same programme and propose the same objectives to the workers’ movement, and have done for years …” They all call for a “general strike and another May 68”, for example (LO fete leaflet, May 10-12).

Leaving aside this whole question of ‘Trotskyist party’, with its sect-like connotations (as opposed to a broadly defined Marxist party, based on the unity of communists around the three principles of working class independence, internationalism and democracy), and also ignoring the deficiencies of an entire strategy based on a “general strike and another May 68”, there is nevertheless something very healthy in the Fraction’s vision of a common organisation for all revolutionaries.

However, Etincelle, whose existence within LO has always been precarious, to say the least, is currently suspended, following its criticisms of the majority for entering into an electoral agreement with the mainstream left for last March’s municipal elections (see below). The Fraction looks certain to be excluded from the organisation when the matter is finally resolved by the LO congress at the end of the year.

Etincelle claims around 100 members, plus the same number of “active sympathisers”. This, it estimates, is the equivalent of around 10% of the LO membership. But the leadership refuses to recognise as LO members three-quarters of Fraction supporters - all those recruited by Etincelle since it was formed in 1996 have been refused membership.

One of the reasons why the LO minority demanded faction rights was over its disagreement with the ludicrous leadership line that post-USSR Russia remained a “degenerated workers’ state” (Unlike Workers Power, which publicly dropped this absurdity in 1998, LO just keeps quiet on the subject nowadays). The leadership permitted the Fraction a weekly column in Lutte Ouvrière and representation on various committees, but the fact that it would not allow into LO any new Etincelle supporters speaks volumes about its sectarian desire to preserve itself, as opposed to any willingness to work for a genuinely democratic Marxist party of the class.

The suspension has meant not only the disappearance of the Fraction column in Lutte Ouvrière and the removal of its supporters from all committees, but a ban on Etincelle supporters even selling the LO paper (at least the Socialist Workers Party waits until it has expelled its dissidents before implementing a similar prohibition).

Contradictorily, however, the Fraction was permitted to play a full part in the fete. It was allowed to host two debates in the Cité Politique and, ironically, was granted a stall for the first time (it was prominently located too - a goodbye present?).

Like the majority, the Fraction criticises the LCR for being sparing in its use of the word ‘revolutionary’ to describe the new formation it intends to create (and for its insufficient quoting of Lenin). At one of the Fraction’s two meetings an LCR comrade responded to that point by asserting that we are not, after all, in a revolutionary period and in any case it is the content that is important. But the LO minority insists that the refusal to consistently use the term ‘revolutionary’ openly and publicly is actually a reflection of the type of programme the LCR wishes to give the new party. However, the latter points out that it has already spelled out the type of programme it wants the new party to uphold.

Irrespective of the controversy over the use of this particular word, the point, surely, is that it is incumbent on those who call themselves Marxists to strive for a single party. It was a point made by Emile Fabrol of the Prométhée group: “If you’re a revolutionary, then it’s your duty to engage with the process.” It does, however, look as though the Fraction comrades, together with Prométhée and the CWI’s Gauche Révolutionnaire, will end up in the LCR party.

Gauche Révolutionnaire sidesteps the whole ‘revolutionary party’ issue by calling instead for a “new party of struggle against Sarkozy and capitalism” (L’Egalité March-April). For GR the LCR call is a “step in the right direction”. As with the Socialist Party in the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party, GR states that the new formation’s programme must not be predetermined: “It is for the youth and workers who will build this new party to elaborate it through their experience of struggle …”

Having followed the SP line up to this point, GR then goes on to lay down programmatic proposals in any case. The new party should fight for national socialism, CWI style - “taking control of the main means of production through nationalisation under the democratic control of their workers”. Since, unlike the SP in the CNWP, GR will be a tiny minority in the LCR anti-capitalist party, it can afford to talk left.

LO and elections

In the municipal elections held in March LO more than doubled its representation on local communes from 33 to 79 councillors and it now has comrades elected to 60 different councils across the country. However, 65 of those 79 were elected via a common list alongside the Parti Socialiste, PCF or both.

The leadership decided it would strike a deal for a common list with any left-of-centre party it could in order to increase LO representation. While it ended up presenting its own exclusive lists for 117 councils, in 69 towns LO participated in listes unitaires with the PS and PCF. In other areas it contested alongside the LCR (despite at first refusing to do so on the grounds that the new LCR party would not be Trotskyist!) and/or candidates from the Lambertist Parti des Travailleurs. In a small number of others, it stood alongside Greens and even two minor bourgeois parties - the PRG left radicals and MRC left republicans.

It was the adoption of this tactic that provoked such fierce criticism from the Fraction and the bureaucratic response of the leadership. According to the LO minority, the arrangement involved “unconditional support for the electoral programme of these parties”. Etincelle, along with the LCR, rules out any tactical alliance even with the PS. The majority, by contrast, took a simplistic view: ‘If we doubled our representation the tactic couldn’t have been that bad.’

If indeed LO gave “unconditional support” to the electoral programme of reformist or even bourgeois parties, that would indeed have been highly unprincipled. Upholding working class independence means advancing at all times the working class programme and refusing to water it down, irrespective of any temporary alliance we enter into as communists. That, in turn, means no let-up in our criticism of our allies, including electoral allies.

I am unable to say what precise deals were struck in all these cases. Suffice it to say that if they required only a recommendation to vote for a common list and no endorsement of any other party’s non-working class platform, then such a tactic - resulting in the election of greater number of communists, plus additional reformists or bourgeois radicals instead of candidates of the right - is not at all unprincipled.

What is unprincipled about LO is its sectarian refusal to fight for the central strategic necessity of the working class - a single party of Marxism uniting all revolutionaries and working class militants.

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