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France: New Anti-Capitalist Party `a very exciting initiative'

Interview by Jim Jepps

December 22, 2008 -- There's been surprisingly little discussion in the UK on the launching of the New Anti-Capitalist Party (Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste or NPA) 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.

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 (LCR) 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 are 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.

Four-hundred committees seems like an impressive number of groups for an organisation that hasn't even been 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 2000 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 neighbourhoods 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 organisation (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.

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.

Who's currently involved in this initiative?

The only big organisation 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 neoliberalism. 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 Che 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.

Do you think the current crisis in the Socialist Party is something that might bring dividends to the new project? The Left Party (Die Linke) 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, Lutte Ouvrière 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 organisation trying to crystallise the radical left. To go through the parties one by one, but briefly:

The Trotskyist organisation 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 the far-right politician Le Pen etc). LO sticks strictly to “workplace issues” and is in decline because of this. It has just expelled the minority current from its ranks because this current wanted to work with the New Anti-capitalist Party.

The leadership of the Communist Party (PCF) 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 its paper and its good analyses of the economic crisis mean the PCF still has an audience.

The Socialist Party has seen two historic events in the last six months. First, 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), of Germany's 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 organisations – 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 emphasises 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 organisations 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.

In Britain 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 revolutionise 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 emphasise 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 that 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 British Socialist Workers Party's 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 anti-capitalist activist in the south-west of France and editor of the review Socialisme International. This interview first appeared on Jim Jepp's blog, The Daily (Maybe), nad has been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission.]

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