France: From the Revolutionary Communist League to the New Anti-Capitalist Party
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By Daniel Bensaïd, Alain Krivine, Pierre Rousset, François Sabado and others
December 15, 2008 -- For 20, 30 or 40 years now, we have built the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR). Today, we are fully part of the constituent process leading to the launch of the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA). We approach this new enterprise with confidence thanks to – and not in spite of – what the LCR has accomplished over these past few decades. This is a momentous development; the LCR’s decision to dissolve itself in order to take up a broader challenge is a rather exceptional event in the history of the French working-class movement.
We are able to take this gamble because we are not beginning from scratch. It is no accident that — of all the groups within the French and even international revolutionary left – it is the LCR that has taken such an initiative. We are the product of a particular history of the revolutionary movement – the fusion of a current of Trotskyism with the youth radicalisation of the 1960s. We are a non-dogmatic current of revolutionary Marxism that has been able to preserve fundamental elements of continuity in the history of the working-class movement, particularly in relation to Social Democracy and Stalinism. These include the defence of a program of demands that are both immediate and transitional towards socialism; a united-front policy that aims for mass mobilisation of workers and their organisations; a policy of working-class unity and independence against any type of strategic alliance with the national bourgeoisie; opposition to any participation in governments in the advanced-capitalist countries that merely manage the state and the capitalist economy; and unfailing internationalism.
Unlike other currents, we have endeavoured to incorporate a wide range of new factors into our political tradition: the post-war evolution of capitalism; active solidarity with the anti-colonial revolutions and with the anti-bureaucratic movements in the Eastern bloc; an analysis of the new social movements such as the women’s movement and, today, growing eco-socialist awareness in the face of the ecological crisis; and, above all, ongoing examination and enrichment of one of the key points of our program, socialist democracy.
This is a trademark of the LCR. The LCR has been able to ensure the continuity of the Left Opposition’s struggle against Stalinism. What is more, unlike most currents of the revolutionary left in France and in a whole host of countries, it has also upheld the principles and practical application of democratic and pluralistic organisation and functioning. Throughout its history, taken together, our sensitivity to this question and our democratic and pluralistic internal functioning have enabled the LCR to provide a home for a series of currents and organisations with different origins and political cultures. And it has meant that the LCR is now in a position to build something with other forces and to embrace the new challenge of the NPA.
The NPA is the result of the political work of recent years, especially of our contribution to the renewal of the social movements and of the success of the presidential campaigns of 2002 and 2007 around Olivier Besancenot. But the idea goes back much further than that.
Beginning in the early 1990s, the collapse of the USSR and of the Eastern-bloc countries, combined with neoliberal capitalist globalisation, brought one historical cycle to a close and opened another. “New epoch, new program, new party”: this was a three-pronged approach towards thinking about the new historical period. Political action would be framed by a new set of parameters. It would henceforth be possible to overcome the divisions that had separated the many revolutionary and anti-capitalist currents born in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Of course, we were uncertain about the new organisational forms, characteristics, limits and dynamics. But the question was posed, on both the international and national level. Internationally, we took initiatives through international conferences and went through a number of experiences, each with its own specificities: the PSOL in Brazil, after the experience of the Worker's Paerty (PT); Sinistra Critica in Italy, after the experience of Rifondazione Comunista; Respect in Great Britain and the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), before the splits in these two organisations; the Left Bloc in Portugal; and the Red-Green Alliance in Denmark.
In each one of these processes, some questions were settled – especially around the matter of the relationship with political power and participation or not in centre-left and social-liberal governments. These questions led to the split of PSOL from the PT and Sinistra Critica from Rifondazione Comunista. They also underlie our differences with the leadership of Die Linke in Germany, which has declared its support for parliamentary and governmental alliances with Social Democracy.
The NPA will be clearly defined politically. Its preliminary documents set out some unmistakable terms: class struggle and support for all the struggles of the exploited and oppressed; unity in action of workers and their organisations; a break with the capitalist system; an eco-socialist project; opposition to any policy of managing the capitalist economy and the central executive powers of capitalist institutions; the struggle for a workers’ government; the revolutionary transformation of society; socialist democracy; and an internationalist program and practice. To be sure, a number of questions will remain open: the nature of revolutions in the 21st century; problems of the transition to socialism; and a whole range of other questions having to do with the reformulation of the socialist and communist project. But we are not beginning from scratch; and the NPA will collectively determine its own positions on the basis of new common experiences.
It is therefore not a matter of building a revamped LCR. We don’t only want to build a broader party; we want to build a party that is a new social and political reality. It will be pluralistic. It will take the best of all the revolutionary traditions of the working-class movement and of other movements such as eco-socialism. Its goal is to bring all anti-capitalists under one roof.
The NPA will be an internationalist organisation, in charge of its own policies on international matters. It will not be a section of the Fourth International (which is a specific international political current). As a pluralistic party, the NPA cannot join the Fourth International (FI) as such. The process of building a new international – which has always been and remains our goal – will be long and complicated. The building of anti-capitalist formations in individual countries will not take place in synch with the building of a new international grouping. As allowed for by its statutes, we remain members of the FI, with ties to the LCR comrades elected to its leadership bodies. Given the role the LCR plays within the FI, we have proposed that the NPA continue to shoulder a number of tasks for which the LCR was responsible within the FI.
We are also proud to have passed on to a new generation not only a part of our political heritage but also the full range of leadership responsibilities – without the turmoil and crises of succession that most parties experience. Credit for this goes equally to the older generation, the youth and those somewhere in between. As the LCR dissolves into the NPA, though, we make a specific appeal to the sense of responsibility of LCR members. Their experience and training are vital to the building of the NPA. They are among the preconditions for the new party’s success, and for the successful synthesis of new and old. Everyone should get fully involved, as we have decided to do ourselves. Without a doubt, this will be a remarkable exercise in learning to speak with broader sectors, in paying special attention to the vocabulary we use, in learning to listen to and respect others, and in learning from them without underestimating what we bring to them ourselves. After the NPA founding conference, every comrade from the LCR should get involved in building this new project, for which we have fought for so many decades.
[Translated by Raghu Krishnan. Daniel Bensaïd is one of France’s most prominent Marxist philosophers and has written extensively. He is a leading member of the LCR (French section of the Fourth International). Alain Krivine is one of the main spokespersons of the French Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire. Pierre Rousset is a member of Europe Solidaire Sans Frontiers (ESSF). He has been involved for many years in Asian solidarity movements. François Sabado is a member of the executive bureau of the Fourth International and of the national leadership of the LCR.]
February 4, 2009
He has the cheerful, inoffensive look of the ageing star of a boy-band. He wants to destroy the institutions of the French state but cultivates, brilliantly, the image of a concerned, plain-talking, working-class boy-next-door. He has become the second most popular political figure in France, after President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The baby-faced postman and Trotskyist idol of the young, Olivier Besancenot, 34, will launch this weekend something which has been, until now, a contradiction in terms: a mass-appeal, far-left party. The Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire (LCR) is dead. Long live the Nouveau Parti Anti-Capitaliste (NPA).
The party, which plans to build a non-capitalist state and is looking, first of all, for a catchier name, will be founded during a three-day conference starting on Friday at Saint Denis, just north of Paris. With the world's financial system in crisis and with bankers universally loathed, with the working class restless and the French parties of the centre-left rudderless and divided, there could hardly be a better time to launch a radical new movement of the left.
M. Besancenot's old party, despite its workerist rhetoric, was mostly middle-aged and middle class. The new party to be born this weekend will be younger and will include some working-class, trade union activists but will be dominated by the "lost" generations of French middle-class youth who reject middle-class ideas – extreme ecologists, feminists and anti-globalists, people who are fiercely in favour of illegal immigrants or fiercely opposed to advertising.
The NPA already claims almost 9,000 members. This is three times as many as the outgoing LCR, the most powerful of the many French Trotskyist groups, which will "dissolve itself" tomorrow to provide the organisational structure and the leader of the new party.
Above all, the leader. The NPA – or whatever it finally calls itself – is unashamedly a vehicle for the personality and communication skills of the LCR's "spokesman" M. Besancenot. Le petit facteur (the little postman) with the clean-cut looks and jargon-free language was the political revelation of the 2002 and 2007 presidential elections.
In 2007, he won, with 4.1 per cent of the vote in the first round, an election-within-the-election on the left-of-the-left, crushing the once powerful Parti Communiste and two Trotskyist rivals. He is now credited by pollsters with up to 18 per cent of voting preferences – something unheard of for the far left, even in France.
M. Besancenot is in effect, engaged in a kind of political ju-jitsu: trying to overturn the modern, Western world by using the personality and media-driven politics that he and his supporters profess to detest. He is accepted by most French people as a sincere, cheerful working-class boy, a postman with a cause – a kind of "feelgood facteur".
This approach is not entirely popular with some diehard Trots in the old LCR, who accuse M. Besancenot of abandoning serious political "struggle" for a dangerous, careerist escapade. M. Besancenot's rise also terrifies the traditional left-wing "parties of government", the Parti Socialiste and Parti Communiste.
He intrigues and amuses – or once amused – President Sarkozy, who sees him as a kind of Jean-Marie Le Pen of the far left. In other words, M. Besancenot could split, rather than crystallise, the opposition to Sarkozyism and make moderate centre-left politics unworkable for years to come.
As the swell of recessionary anger grows, the President, and the French right, are beginning to regard M. Besancenot with less affection. Right-wing internet sites have been full in recent weeks of allegations that M. Besancenot is a fake-proletarian, who has a wealthy wife and secretly lives a luxurious lifestyle.
Most of these allegations are distorted or untrue. M. Besancenot does not have a wealthy wife and does not live in a posh apartment. In a broader sense, the claims do have some truth.
Olivier Besancenot is a self-made proletarian. He was born into a middle class family in the Hauts-de-Seine, just west of Paris, which was also the childhood home of Nicolas Sarkozy. His father is a physics teacher and his mother is a school psychologist. He has a degree in history from the University of Nanterre.
He became a postman in 1997 (a clever choice for a proletarian career; everyone loves a postman). He still works part-time for La Poste, delivering mail by bicycle three days a week in Neuilly-sur-Seine, just west of Paris. Neuilly, ironically, is the wealthiest and most right-wing town in France. Its former mayor is President Sarkozy.
M. Besancenot is married to a successful, but not especially wealthy, publishing executive. They have one small child. He plays football in his spare time and loves rap music (which has replaced the L'Internationale and other traditional songs of "struggle" at his public meetings).
He is never seen in the old far-left uniform of leather jacket or shapeless jumper and beard. He defies the Trotskyist stereotype epitomised by Arlette Laguiller, the perpetual presidential candidate of the other principal far-left movement, the sect-like Lutte Ouvrière. M. Besancenot wears well-fitting jeans and a black or white T-shirt. His hair is always short.
Before the 2002 presidential election, M. Besancenot was almost unknown, an assistant to the co-founder of the LCR, Alain Krivine. Since M. Krivine has been part of the French political landscape since the May 1968 student revolt, it was long assumed that M. Besancenot was just a pretty face and front man.
Careful watchers of the far left in France now believe that M. Besancenot has become not only the figure-head of the new movement but its principal driving force and strategist.
What does the new party stand for? The choice of a bland "provisional" name is significant. The words "communist" or "revolution" were excluded as "old-fashioned" and off-putting to the one-cause radicals that the new party wants to attract.
The NPA website also tells a tale. There is nothing to explain in Trotskyist detail what the ideology of the party is. Instead, the site lists dozens of approved causes, from anti-nuclear to pro-Palestine.
M. Besancenot says that the party is democratic but wants to overturn "pseudo-democratic" institutions and give people control of their own lives. This means getting rid of the market economy, starting with the nationalisation of the banks into a single "state banking service".
Asked this week if he is still a "revolutionary", M. Besancenot said: "More than ever. We want our ideas to govern, but not through the present institutions."
Asked if he is a "Trotskyist" (an allegiance which he has not claimed publicly for several years), he said: "Our political logic is to take the best of the different traditions of the working-class movement, whether it be Trotskyism, Socialism, Communism, libertarianism, Guevarism, or radical environmentalism."
This scattergun approach has been contested by a minority within the LCR, distressed at seeing their political movement dissolved overnight. Christian Picquet, the leader of the rebels, argues that M. Besancenot should try instead to create a coalition of all the disparate parties of the far left.
By merging the LCR in a new movement open to all "anonymous" members of freelance radical causes, he argues, M. Besancenot is helping to "de-politicise" public life and blurring the pure lines of ideological allegiance: something that Nicolas Sarkozy has also been accused of.
In the best traditions of Trotskyist life, the rebellious M. Picquet has been dismissed from the leadership role that he had held in the LCR for two decades.
But what if he is wrong? What if M. Besancenot has merely invented a new form of Trotskyist "entryism"? Trotskyist "entryists", or moles, disguised themselves as moderate members of mainstream parties. M. Besancenot is, arguably, trying to create a kind of "political entryism by an entire party". He has cleverly re-packaged radical politics for a disaffected, but non-ideological, age.