Can the old left become the new left that's needed?
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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.]
The plethora of groups makes for a rather quaint cottage industry on the Australian far left which this year was expanded with the addition of the Revolutionary Socialist Party.
There's an interesting discussion thread appended to this post by Jim Jepps (since republished in LINKS) which seems to be trying to attack the LCR's NPA package in the same terms as the Australian Socialist Alliance is criticised and was related
The same sort of barrage was thrown at the Scottish Socialist Party for a long time.
It doesn't take much to recognise a sort of far left mindset in play.
There's this chronic schematism that simply by repeating often enough that you are revolutionary and by inserting the correct POV into any exchange then you really and truly must be what you say you are.
That's the far left's curse because in one way it's a sort of substitutionism. Sort of "INSERT PROPAGANDA HERE" approach.
There's nothing wrong with propaganda of course but real world politics has to deal with the benchmark that, outside the religions, it's not just what you say but what you do that counts.
While it's true that for a long period the doing if active at all, can seem at least very restrained. That was "the long march" of the Trotskyists that bears down upon the many branches in that current today. It was primarily about what the US SWP called "revolutionary continuity".
The question is, of course, whether that time is over. That's the judgement being asked. This is why a lot of the discussion on the far left stretches across a pessimism to optimism axis. The debate is whether there is political motion you can relate to or not.
I think that's the core debate in the UK SWP dispute at the present time despite the organisational distractions. If there is motion how do you relate to it.
And to some degree that prospect is obscured by the organisational question. There are those that want to push an anti-Leninist wheel barrow as though all there is to Lenin was a formatted party structure passed on by formula -- while ignoring the fact that at Lenin's core advocacy is the methodology of dialectical materialism.
The complication is that if you only see issues of party structure you cease to analyse contemporary politics in the same potential light as Lenin did. Trotsky's handicap -- and the burden of the Trotskyists -- was a certain timelessness that relied on a Felix like "bag of Tricks" toolbox of options: often formulated either "allowed" or "not allowed" . That was this legacy in a way, a DIY package that supposedly fitted all occasions.
I find the SWP discussion about the united front very much contained by this sort of formalistic thinking and I can remember similar exchanges in like manner in the DSP going back to 20 + years ago where the nomenclature of Trotskyism was standard discourse.
So thinking outside the square can be a hard ask for this left. That's certainly my impression after the three years of debate -- 2003-2006 -- in the Socialist Alliance with the small affiliates.
You may be able to lead a horse to water, but....
But to see the same arguments replicated in the exchange around the French NPA suggests a sort of universal political culture,almost a lingua franca that all these groups share. It's almost a moralism when you look long and hard at it, and ironic given that they are still so keen to remain separate from one another.
The problem is letting go. I think that's the correct term as there is a sort of catharsis at stake. There's a knee jerk response that presumes that if you let go an inch you are surely going to go all the way and before you know it, there's your revolutionary perspective flying out the window and everything you spent years preserving in way of political modus operandi is spent in a twice.
I don't make light of such dangers as we all know our history lessons. But it seems to me that a generic wastage of revolutionism is oftentimes buoyed up by major shift rightward in key sectors of the working class or petti bourgeoisie. A move rightward should have a social base to consolidate a broad subjective shift. It happens. That's what history tells us anyhow.
But is it happening now? And is there a danger of the far left trialling along behind whatever currently is moving in that direction?
We know for instance that those Trotskyists who joined the ALP -- and Bob Gould is a good example of the ilk -- preferred to stay there and moderate their politics to fit the milieu. But that tendency -- this pressure to adapt -- is standard for any one revolutionist or any number of revolutionary groups. The problem with the groups is that they adopt a bunker mode to protect themselves from the ideological barrages of the bourgeoisie and tend to so often freeze their all in a programatic timelessness as they try to preserve their Real McCoy politics until their day in the sun comes around.
Of course that's not absolute as I'm being general rather than group specific. However versions of this proclivity are shared by all the Trotskysist groupuscules. So while it is correct to argue that sectarianism is a product of isolation from the working class, you can rationalise that isolation in a way that is sure to chronically deepen it and even make it a badge of honour: your raison d'etre. Soon enough you begin to believe that that isolation is the way the world was meant to be and there is no way around this seeming reality in front of you. So what you do in your cul de sac is work at perfecting your program because sustaining that becomes your major focus.
This is why you can have groups in Australia who number less than 20 members and all of these few think they rather than someone else are the true Marxists. And like Socialist Alternative you chart a propagandist course convinced that from little things big things grow.How they supposedly grow isn't necessarily something that you should be too concerned with. After all with the right program your day will surely come.
I think the right word for this is passivity -- a passivity born upon a certain pessimism that all we lefties can hope for is survival and the now and then primitive accumulation of cadre.
If you have spent years playing around with ideas and perspectives as you try ever so hard to get your viewpoint (and less often your dopoint) just so, it is disconcerting to relate to a prospect where political academe like that may not be so important. I admit that I am torn myself between the thrill of political discovery and inquiry, of debating out conflicting points of view in order to arrive at a 'correct' position -- and the often mundane business of , I guess, networking, rooting for and negotiating alliances with people who in the main don't give a fig for the theory.
The former seems so safe and cosy in comparison to the free form of the latter. Where's the friggin rules!? Where's Marx supposed to sit?
The complication is that it can become so very difficult to notice the difference between the circle spirit milieu of the far left and the everyday reality of the rest of the population. This failure to note the divide has been obscured I think by the buoyancy of movement politics these last 40 years. So there's been an outer defence perimeter that has protected the far left in a the way that a moat protects a castle. But as that wave of movement growth recedes -- as it has done over the last decade -- the difference between the groupuscules and the pressing political reality seems sharper as there's less veneer in place to dampen the contrast.
The irony is that there's this massive deference to the potential role for party, as distinct from movement, politics and this determined disinclination of most the far left groups to seize the day and do anything about it. Surely their day in the sun has arrived, hasn't it?
The complication is that the party that people will relate to is not like the many varieties/one clone on offer from the groupuscules. And therein exists not only a problem of practice but a problem of theory because the historical debate is whether the groups have misread their Bolshevik histories. I think that is indeed the case.
There's a interesting commentary by the late Peter Camejo where he takes up the dedicated inadequacy of the far left mindset:
This is a very serious mistake that only becomes evident in the present context that the far left is trying to deal with. In places where there has been a strong history of woking class fightback against neo-liberalism the what is to be done? question is a little easier for some groups to relate to and begin to answer. But the general trend has been to fight tooth and nail against the tide toward broader, more user friendly party formations for the 21st Century's version of socialism.
The problem may be that if this stand off is persevered with, given time, the far left could be more marginal than it is now.