The LCR and the Question of a Workers' Party

Murray Smith is a member of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire. He was till recently editor of Frontline, magazine of the International Socialist Movement platform within the Scottish Socialist Party. This material was originally presented as part of an international debate and we reproduce it here as part of the vital international debate on the regroupment of the left.

A brief update

The first of these two documents was written in the couple of weeks preceding the first round of the French presidential election on April 21. It was written in anticipation of the situation following that election, although it is the result of wider reflections on my part since arriving back in France last October, concerning the LCR and what I see as its chronic inability to pose concretely the question of a new workers' party. The second document is based on notes written over the last few months and deals more broadly with the question of new workers' parties in Europe. There is an element of repetition between the two documents, which I have tried to keep to a minimum.

Of course, since the documents were written the first and second rounds of the presidential elections have taken place, with more dramatic consequences than anyone had anticipated. I have not tried to update the document to take account of these events. There is a short article of mine in the latest issue of Frontline (journal of the ISM), written immediately after the second round on 5 May. It will certainly be necessary to make a more in-depth analysis of the full effects of the presidential election and the acceleration in the political situation it has produced. The time to do that is probably once we see what the political landscape looks like after the June legislative elections. However, a few comments are necessary about what has changed since the documents were written.

First of all, there was of course the result of the first round, with the Front National coming second and Le Pen making it through to the second round. In spite of the shock it provoked, it is important to stress that this result doesn't represent a major breakthrough for the far right. Taking together the results of the FN and the MNR (a split from the FN led by Le Pen's former lieutenant Bruno Megret), the far right won just under 20 percent, 900,000 more votes than in 1995. The far left (LO, LCR and PT) won over 10 percent, 3 million votes, 1.3 million more than in 1995. What enabled Le Pen to take second place was the collapse of the Socialist Party vote. The election was in fact marked by a polarisation towards the far right and the far left and by a collapse in the vote for the parties of the traditional left and right, which have been relaying each other in office for the last twenty years and pursuing essentially the same policies.

Secondly, there was the huge anti-fascist mobilisation between the two rounds of the presidential election. This was in the first place a spontaneous mobilisation of young people, especially students and school students, but also youth from the working class suburbs around the big cities. It was relayed by the parties of the left and the far left, by the unions and by all sorts of movements and associations that make up the workers' movement in the widest sense. This movement reached its apogee with the massive May Day demonstrations. We can say that this marked the entry into political action of a new generation, the same generation that has been seen elsewhere in Europe over the last year, in the mobilisations against capitalist globalisation (Genoa, Barcelona) and in the anti-war movement. Parallel with this movement the entire political establishment conducted a campaign in favour of a vote for Chirac, backed by the media, the churches and all sorts of representatives of civil society. While being extremely ill at ease with the breadth of the movement and its implications for the future, they sought to use it to maximise the vote for Chirac. The fact that the vast majority of those who demonstrated against the FN and who had voted for the candidates of the left or the far left in the first round did in fact vote Chirac on 5 May in order to defeat Le Pen does not, however, mean that they accepted the cross-class "Republican Front" that the leadership of the official left (more so than the right which has to take into account the more than ambiguous attitude of many of its own leaders, activists and voters towards the far right) was energetically advocating as the way to stop Le Pen.

Thirdly, although it is important to understand that we are not in Germany in January 1933, that the victory of fascism is not around the corner, that does not mean that we can be complacent about the strength of the far right. At the moment it is clear that the relationship of forces in French society is not favourable to a victory of the fascists. That and not any inherent reason is why they resort relatively rarely to classical fascist strong-arm methods. Furthermore at present the ruling class and big capital neither need nor want a victory of Le Pen. The opposition of big capital, expressed by the employers' organisation MEDEF, has by the way little to do with Le Pen's racist and repressive policies or with his admiration for the Third Reich and the Vichy collaborationist regime in France (which most of the French ruling class supported at the time) and everything to do with the nationalist and anti-European aspect of his programme. Le Pen also has a more confrontational attitude towards the traditional right than Haider or Fini. However, Le Pen now has a solid base of support, including, on 21 April, more votes than any other party among blue collar workers, workers as a whole, the unemployed, and young people aged between 18 and 24. The most backward layers of workers and youth, the least politically conscious, the most susceptible to the racist and law and order demagogy of Le Pen, the least linked to the workers' movement or who feel they have been abandoned by the parties and unions of the left, are turning towards the far right. There is no reason to think that the reasons that have pushed them in that direction will change, whether it is a government of right or left that comes out of the June elections. And if the fascists gain strength their methods will change, as will the attitude towards them of the traditional right and of big capital. So they do represent a real threat to the workers' movement, which it is necessary to combat.

Although the kind of mass united front actions that were seen between the two rounds of the presidential elections, including the traditional left parties and unions, are necessary and need to be pursued, they are far from sufficient. Only a strong and credible party with a clearly anti-capitalist programme can win back workers and youth attracted by the far right. Fourthly, the far left vote marked a big breakthrough and was roughly what the polls had predicted. The Communist Party's result was at the lower end of the scale of predictions and its candidate was beaten by both LO and the LCR. What was striking and what no one had predicted was the change in the electoral relationship of forces between LO (5.8 percent) and the LCR (4.3 percent). Only a couple of weeks before the election the polls were giving Arlette Laguiller 10 percent and Olivier Besancenot 1 percent. What made the difference was the access to television in the official campaign during the last two weeks before the first round. This benefited the LCR, not only because Olivier Besancenot performed brilliantly and got his message across but because the message itself was, particularly in the last stages of the campaign, very coherent. The identifying slogans of the two campaigns sum it up in many ways: LO "Still in the workers' camp", the LCR "Our lives are worth more than their profits" (often linked to the anti-globalisation movement slogan "Another world is possible"). LO ran a fairly classical anti-capitalist propagandist campaign, which was quite effective in its way. The LCR ran a campaign that was more keyed in to struggles such as those of young workers fighting to unionise fast food chains, taking up issues of women's oppression, gay rights, calling for the legalisation of cannabis, placing the question of Palestine at the centre of the campaign. And in a more general way succeeding in concretising and making credible the idea that there is an alternative to capitalism and that it begins in the struggles of today. It is clear that the change in the relationship of forces within the far left can only benefit the perspective of a new party. Unfortunately, but fairly predictably, LO has maintained its sectarian line by refusing an alliance with the LCR for the legislative elections.

The outcome of the presidential elections has undeniably placed the question of a new party at the centre of political debate on the left, more sharply and more quickly than I thought it would. The combination of the far left result, the LCR vote within that, and on the other hand the shock provoked by the score of the FN has put the question well and truly on the agenda. This is true within the LCR but also in the broader movement. The situation after the elections has made many people feel that the creation of such a party is not only necessary but more urgent and that the score of the far left and the weakening of the CP makes it more possible. The LCR has made it a main theme of its legislative election campaign, although there has been only limited progress in terms of actually having more unitary candidates. It has been decided not to run a candidate in Marseilles against Charles Hoareau, a leader of the Rouges vifs (Bright Reds) regroupment of CP oppositionists and of the CGT unemployed workers' committees. Unfortunately a similarly sensible attitude was not taken towards Jean-Jacques Karman, leader of the Communist Left, in the Parisian region. The LCR is also organising this autumn, with what broader forces remains to be seen, a series of forums on the theme "The plural Left has shown its bankruptcy – forward to a radical and anti-capitalist Left".

This new more favourable climate for posing the question of a new party doesn't mean that the problems raised in the following documents have been, or will easily be, resolved. It does mean that there is reason to be more (cautiously) optimistic today than six weeks ago. And whatever government comes out of the June elections, it is within the context of big struggles and movements of the working class and youth that the question will be posed in the coming months. 31 May 2002 Introductory remarks In principle, the LCR doesn't see the building of its own organisation as a goal in itself and is in favour of building a new workers' party, a broad anti-capitalist party. That is one of the points, and not the least important, that differentiates us from Lutte Ouvriere. When such a party comes into existence, the League will have to redefine its role as a revolutionary Marxist current within it.

Unfortunately, we are not about to see a new party come into existence. In fact that is one of the most striking aspects of the French political situation. On the level of social resistance to neo-liberalism, France is one of the most advanced countries in the EU. In the anti-globalisation movement, ATTAC has played a pioneering role and has tens of thousands of members, even if in the last few months the movement in Italy and Spain has been bigger than in France. On the electoral level, as we will see confirmed on the evening of 21 April, France is probably the most advanced country in Europe in the expression of a working class and popular vote to the left of the liberal Left. However, to this social resistance, to this massive vote of defiance towards the plural Left, there is no corresponding political force. It has to be stressed, it is in France that the contradiction between the need for a new party and the absence of such a party is the sharpest and the most flagrant. In other countries, there exist parties capable of organising those to the left of the institutional Left who are ready to engage in political action – the PRC in Italy, the SSP in Scotland, the Left Bloc in Portugal, to take only those three examples. In France there is only the choice between three far left organisations.

In Rouge of March 28, in an article entitled "We Need Another Left" Olivier Besancenot writes, anticipating the results of the far left in the presidential election, "It is a political upheaval which confers new responsibilities on the revolutionary organisations and poses directly the question of moving forward towards a new political force". In his speech at the 13 April rally at the Porte de Versailles he dealt with the question of a new workers' party in a clear and eloquent manner with which one can only agree. In Rouge of 4 April, in an article on the campaign of Lutte Ouvriere, Aguirre explains why LO refuses to "pose in a consequent way the question of a new anti-capitalist party". And it's true. Whereas in the course of her campaign Arlette performs remarkably well on certain themes, her declarations on the workers' party are depressingly sectarian. There is of course nothing surprising about that.

The problem is that it is clear that the League doesn't succeed either in "posing in a consequent way the question of a new anti-capitalist party'. That's not new. For years now we have contented ourselves with declarations of principle on the need for new party, without being able to bring forward in practice the perspective of such a party. But it's a serious problem. Habitually, in the League, we explain that this situation is due to objective factors. The conditions aren't right, the situation isn't ripe and so on. The weight of LO represents a blocking factor. Sometimes we hear that only a big social movement could unblock the situation. Whatever the intentions of the comrades who put forward these explanations, they are really just so many justifications for the inertia, for the lack of initiative of our organisation on the question. Of course, nobody imagines that we can launch a new party tomorrow. But between that and being satisfied with declarations of principle there is a space, and even room for manoeuvre.

Inevitably the way I see things is strongly influenced by the two years I have just spent in Scotland. But I think I know sufficiently well the very different political contexts of the two countries not to try and mechanically apply the Scottish experience to French reality. On the other hand, there is no reason not to draw some lessons on the level of method. Today it is clear that we are seeing in Western Europe (for the purposes of this document I will limit myself to Western Europe) a process of decomposition/recomposition of the workers' movement. It is therefore in this overall framework and with the forces that emerge from it that is posed the strictly political crisis of representation of the working class and the need to build new workers' parties. However, the building of such parties has its own autonomy and doesn't flow automatically from the overall situation. The conditions can be ready, the situation ripe, the forces for a new party can exist in a scattered way, without a political initiative there will be no new party. And it's up to us, revolutionary Marxists, to prove ourselves capable of taking initiatives to unblock the situation, not to be satisfied with commentaries on the difficulties.

(1) Do the forces for a new party exist in France today? One is tempted to reply that the question carries its own answer, so evident is it. Tens of thousands of members of ATTAC, the crisis of the PCF which is approaching its paroxysm, the social struggles, the movements of the "sans",1 the rise of SUD,2 the oppositions within the traditional trade union movement, in particular the CGT. And millions (yes, millions) of electors who are about to vote for the far left. Now, I'm not saying that all those people are ready to build a party with us. But among them there are thousands, even tens of thousands, capable of being attracted by a credible perspective of a new party, potential forces that go well beyond the League and its periphery. So when we hear that the conditions aren't ready, that the situation isn't ripe, something else is involved.

What is missing is the confirmation of certain schemas in our own heads. We impose conditions: we have to have interlocutors, partners, not just anybody, organised currents, of a suitable size, with a programme, project, etc. Now, sometimes we have to have a schema to start with. In Scotland four years ago the comrades who were going to launch the SSP had a schema of bringing together two far left organisations, one of the currents that came out of the explosion of the CP, a current from the Labour Party, a current from the SNP, and the SLP. The schema was very pretty, but things turned out differently – all these currents weren't ready. Very fortunately, the comrades weren't satisfied with noting that the situation wasn't ripe. They forged ahead. The party was launched with a single far left organisation and groups of militants and individuals from other backgrounds, numerically weak but sufficient for the party to come across as something more than a rebranded far left organisation. And it was verified in practice that the audience for this party existed. The formation of the party didn't create the forces but it provided a rallying point for them, allowed them to crystallise, to the point where the party rapidly outgrew the founding nucleus. I don't think we can simply repeat the Scottish experience – the situation here is different (in some ways less favourable, in other ways more favourable). I simply want to underline that we shouldn't remain prisoners of our own schemas, that we must always look for ways to unblock the situation.

(2) Among the explanations brought forward for the lack of initiative on the political level is the idea that only a big social movement could create the conditions for a new party. The rational kernel of this affirmation is that you can't create a new party against a background of social peace. That's all. To push this argument too far leads to underestimating the autonomy of the political factor and falling into a kind of social determinism. By way of comparison, the experience – successful – of the SSP began in a period (the alliance in 1996, the party in 1998) where there were sharp debates in the workers' movement but few social struggles. It is today that we are seeing an upswing of the social movement – the biggest since the 1970s – and the party is able to provide a political reference for this movement. The creation of the Left Bloc in Portugal was not the result of a big social movement but of a specifically political process, as was the split which created the PRC in Italy. In England, the objective situation was as ripe for the creation of the Socialist Alliance in 1995-96 as in 2000-01. What changed in the meantime was that there was a political turn on the part of the main far left organisation, the SWP, which engaged its forces in the building of the alliance. Furthermore, it is the limits of this turn and not the objective situation that constitutes the main element of the development of the alliance in England towards a party like the SSP.

(3) The forces for a new party will come out of the really existing workers' movement in all its fragmentation, recomposition/decomposition, mixing elements of the old and of the new: militants of the traditional parties, trade unionists, militants of the new social movements, of the anti-globalisation movement, of the far left. We are not writing on a blank page, we are not making a clean sweep of the past. We are building the new on the ruins of the old. But since the workers' movement is going through a crisis which is diffuse, these forces will be equally diffuse. So there's no point in waiting for well organised currents, the outcome of vertical splits. And if it is important and even vital to turn towards the new generations, the idea that the party can be reduced to recruiting youth is false and almost invariably leads to ultra-left and/or sectarian errors. It is no accident that the most sectarian Trotskyist organisations make it their stock in trade.

(4) There are, however, obstacles that we can call objective. Given that an important and indeed decisive part of the militants of a future party will come from the unions and from various associations and movements, there is the specifically French problem of the relationship between parties and unions and by extension parties and associations. That has a long history. There are certainly those on the left in France and perhaps even in the League who think that the Charter of Amiens 3 is a part of the heritage of the international working class rather than a very particular product of the French workers' movement, with its positive and negative sides-positive in its refusal that the unions should be the transmission belt of a political party (which didn't prevent the CGT from being precisely that for decades), negative in its distrust of, and indeed contempt for, political parties. Today this distrust is especially directed at the parties of the plural Left in a context marked by distrust of political parties in general, but it doesn't facilitate the necessary initiatives towards a new workers' party. Now, while it is necessary to consider this very particular relationship between parties, unions and associations as a fundamental feature of the French workers' movement, which we can't just brush aside, nothing forces us to prostrate ourselves in front of anti-party prejudices or to valorise them. On the contrary, we have to combat them, but we can only do so by projecting the image of a party (in the future, but also our own organisation today) which breaks radically from the verticalist, authoritarian and hierarchical traditions which have marked not only the traditional parties (and especially the CP) but also the organisations of the far left. We especially have to wring the neck of what remains with us of vanguardist and elitist conceptions.

(5) There is a temptation for the far left in general which is much stronger in today's relatively favourable situation than it was several years ago. It's the idea that as revolutionary Marxist organisations we have crossed the desert, done the hard bit, etc, and that now we can go to it, recruit, "build the party", this being reduced to building one's own organisation. It is clear today that, whatever our result, the presidential campaign has been a big success for the League. That can be seen by our successful meetings and by the number of people contacting us. Now, there is certainly no question of saying that we shouldn't take advantage of this to build the League. It is essential to do so, including in order to have a better relationship of forces to take initiatives towards a new party. Furthermore, we can only be pleased at the determination, widely shared, to build the League today, after a rather long period when the tasks of building the organisation were neglected. But the danger lies in the fact we can draw the conclusion that it is enough to build the revolutionary organisation, either by theorising that as an objective in itself, which is probably not the danger in our case, or by maintaining a reference to the necessity of a new party which becomes purely formal, put off until the Greek calends because "the conditions aren't ripe" while in practice we don't see any further than the building of the League. That would be a big mistake. While it is true that we can build in the present period, we have to firmly reject the idea, explicit or (more often) implicit that the League on its own can become the party we need. For one person ready to join the League today there would probably be ten who would be ready to join a new party.

(6) Undeniably, we have a major problem with LO. It is highly regrettable that a large part of the left opposition to the plural Left has been captured on the electoral level by LO and that thousands of sincere and dedicated revolutionary militants are shut up in this organisation. But it's a fact. It is therefore correct to seek agreements, electoral or other, with LO on every occasion when that is possible, and to challenge its leadership and its members. But any perspective of a new party that rested on an alliance with LO would be sheer madness. LO is no doubt capable of taking certain initiatives after 21 April, in particular towards the forces in and around the CP, and of creating structures to receive a wave of recruits. It is not capable of undertaking a serious approach towards a new workers' party. We are therefore confronted with the need to take initiatives that will enable us to go round this organisation while at the same time seeking to maintain the dialogue with it. Furthermore, we would be well advised not to let ourselves be over-impressed with its likely result on 21 April, bearing in mind that its electoral influence is completely out of proportion to its influence in the social movement and even to its militant forces. Furthermore, this will be a potential factor of crisis for LO, though it would be unwise to count on a crisis in the short term.

(7) In a general sense, the unity of revolutionaries or of Trotskyists won't make the new party. There is no need to labour the point: the simple fact of being a revolutionary or a Trotskyist guarantees neither a common understanding of events and tasks, nor agreement on what kind of party we have to build. Nevertheless, if it can be brought about, such unity can be a very useful lever to move towards a new party. But we would be right to be sceptical about the probability of an a priori agreement between revolutionary organisations. Today in Scotland the ISM (ex-Militant) and SW platforms coexist, not without some difficulties. This coexistence is possible because it takes place in a broad party. If we had subordinated the launching of the SSP to a previous agreement between the two currents we would never have done it. Besides, in France, the situation has the merit of simplicity. Neither LO nor the PT can reasonably be considered as partners in the foreseeable future for launching a new party. Furthermore, as far as unity of revolutionaries is concerned, in the last couple of years the League has succeeded in integrating just about everything that existed in terms of small far left currents outside of these two organisations, and in the future it is probable that we will again bring in militants and currents coming from them.

(8) We are a few days away from a presidential election where LO can take 10 percent, where we have every reason to hope that we ourselves will obtain an honourable result, where the three far left candidates and probably LO on its own will beat the CP, which is not even sure of reaching 5 percent. It will be a political earthquake. It's an understatement to say that it will pose the problem of a new party. Now, we can explain from every possible angle that LO will be completely incapable of reacting as it should to its victory. But what gives us the right to think that we will be capable of reacting in a concrete fashion that can take things forward?

(9) To pose the question of a new party in a consequent way and especially concretely, we have to demonstrate initiative. But the League shows a lack of initiative on two levels, one general, one conjunctural, which are likely to converge in the coming weeks and months.

(10) On the general level, there is the crisis of the CP. The question of a new party doesn't just come down to a convergence between the League and forces coming out of the CP – far from it. A new party should draw its forces from many currents and traditions, old and new, of the French workers' movement, not only the CP and the far left. However, first of all it should be obvious that in a country where there was (where there still is) a mass CP, this component will be important. Next, today it is the CP which is in a deep crisis, which is in the process of falling apart before our eyes, and we should be trying to exert an influence on this crisis. It is unlikely, indeed impossible, that we will see the appearance of a new party without there being a component from the CP capable of attracting all those who come from this tradition, members and ex-members. It is not serious to imagine, in spite of some success that we have had, that we will attract all these forces to the League. And the CP won't disappear beneath the waves without leaving a trace. There will no doubt not be a nice orderly split as in Italy. But forces will regroup on a left orientation, within and (increasingly) outside the party. Already at the coming legislative elections there will be at least a dozen candidates, most of them not supported by the official party and opposed to an official candidate, supported by a bloc comprising the Communist Coordination, the Rouges vifs, the people around Hage and Auchede, the Communist Left. 4

Faced with the crisis of the CP, the absence of policy and initiatives on our part is very striking. A part of the organisation wants to continue the long history of orienting exclusively to the "re" (-novators, -constructors, -founders) who have never constituted the left wing of the party, by subordinating the LCR to the political limits of Braouzec and company. And the majority of the CC gives the impression of not orienting to anyone. It appears, however, that there are places, such as Marseilles, where things are going better than elsewhere, where discussions are taking place. Similarly, it is the Communist Left who are contacting us for an agreement in the Gard department and in Seine-Saint-Denis. In spite of that, we can find no public approach in Rouge towards the militants on the left of the CP. What are we proposing to them, other than voting for us or joining the League? Now, with a line of orienting towards those, organised or not, who are against participation in the government and proposing to them to act together around a programme of demands and to discuss, we could act on the crisis of the CP instead of contemplating it. It should furthermore be possible to establish particularly good links with the "Communists-Perlican" who supported us in the municipal elections in the Val d'Oise and with whom we work in the CGT, with the Communist Left and the Rouges vifs and to isolate the neo-Stalinists who exist in all these networks of militants and in particular in the Communist Coordination. Instead of which we are likely to see the appearance of a bloc of all these forces which will be able to serve as a rallying point for the militants on the left of the CP and ex-members, where the weight of the archeo-Stalinists will act as a brake on possible convergences with the mass of these militants.

(11) Olivier Besancenot is the candidate of the LCR. He is not the candidate of the social movement, nor of the future party, nor of an alliance or front which doesn't exist. It would be fraudulent to pretend otherwise. We have conducted an excellent campaign with an excellent candidate. Of course on the question of the party we don't manage to go beyond declarations of principle, but that's not a failing of the campaign, it's a failing of the League. Now we are preparing for the legislative elections, which could, I underline could, be a different story. But while explaining that the result of LO would put the question of a new party on the agenda, we are preparing the legislative elections as if we were alone. And that's the conjunctural problem. We are counting the constituencies, drawing up lists of candidates and campaign treasurers. We obviously have to do that in case we stand on our own. But we are acting as if it was already decided, consciously or by default, that we will stand on our own. Whereas for the presidential elections the decision, which I think was correct and necessary, to present a candidate, was taken after a wide-ranging discussion in the organisation, for the legislative elections, if there was a debate, it wasn't very wide-ranging.

(12) It's in this way that we are preparing elections which will take place just after a presidential election with the far left at 10 percent and the CP left reeling. Is it really the summit of our ambition to make our contribution to a situation where in hundreds of constituencies the electors will have the choice between candidates of LO, the LCR and the PT? Publicly we are taking no initiative towards unitary candidatures, and on the internal level that's not what we're preparing the membership for. I'm not talking about totally improbable unitary candidatures with LO, although we should make the proposition to them for the record, but of possible agreements with dissident CP candidatures and/or local regroupments. On the national level we should establish criteria (attitude towards the government, support for social struggles, agreement on a series of demands) for joint candidatures and/or reciprocal calls to vote for each other's candidates, whether it's with forces coming from the CP or local regroupments. Otherwise, on a local level either we will have candidatures of the League on its own or else we are in danger of unitary candidatures â la carte in the purest style of the Alternative. Next, this approach will enable us to have a coherence which seems to be lacking in our relations with the forces in and around the CP. Why and on what criteria is it apparently impossible to reach an electoral agreement with the Communist Left? We're talking about a current which called for a vote for the LO-LCR list in the European elections and whose principal leader signed for Olivier Besancenot. Furthermore, it would be useful to know, in Rouge or by internal channels, what is the state of our relations with the various currents coming out of the CP, including the differences between different towns and cities.

(13) It's late, but not too late to prepare the legislative elections by adopting an approach which gives a coherence to our position in favour of a new workers' party, whatever the concrete results of such an approach might be. It's one thing to stand on our own because no unitary candidature or agreement is possible. It's quite another to make a conscious choice to do so. After 21 April, the League should address to all the national and local forces of the left opposition to the government a proposal for unitary candidatures on well defined political criteria.

Notes on the workers' party

(1) There is no model of a party independent of time and space. The type of party we have to build today flows from the overall situation and the relationship of forces between the classes, from the crisis and the evolutions of the workers' movement and from the evolution of class consciousness. For twenty years the working class has suffered, not without resisting, a sustained offensive aiming to destroy the social conquests of the post-war period and the end of the 1960s. This offensive has been and is conducted by the parties of the Left as well as the Right. Following on the collapse of the USSR we were faced with an ideological offensive on the theme of the end of the class struggle, of the end of history, of capitalism as the horizon beyond which we could not go.

Parallel to this, the participation in practice of the social democracy in the neo-liberal offensive was completed by the explicit abandonment of any perspective of socialist transformation. There was and still is a crisis of credibility of socialism, of the socialist project, of any socialist project, not just the Stalinist or social democratic ones which have shown their bankruptcy. We are therefore no longer in the situation of the 1970s where socialism was a common reference in the workers' movement and where what differentiated us from reformists and Stalinists was the model we defended and the means of achieving it.

We are in a situation where the traditional parties are abandoning the terrain of the working class. Where they have become the instruments of counter-reform, to the point where the terms reformist or even social democrat, not to mention socialist, are a misuse of language. In this situation it's a question of bringing together the forces to resist the bourgeois offensive and refuse the perspective of capitalism as the horizon beyond which we cannot go, by defending a socialist alternative. That's what defines the kind of party we have to build today. And even if it's difficult to raise the question of socialism, certainly in France, we can't simply go forward and even less build a party in limiting ourselves to demands and to anti-capitalism. We are obliged to be for something, which forces us to define at least in its broad outlines the socialism that we want.

(2) Will the party that we have to build be revolutionary? Not in the sense that we have traditionally understood it. That is, not a party defined programmatically, neither by a series of historical references (1917, the first four congresses of the Comintern, the transitional programme of 1938, etc.) nor by the line of demarcation between reform and revolution. The programmatical references, which furthermore have to be approached today in a critical fashion, are difficult to understand for new generations. And for those who are engaged in the struggles of today, the line of demarcation between reform and revolution remains abstract. There is, however, a link between day to day practice and revolutionary theory. Ten years ago I would have thought it essential to define the party by the reference to the revolution, which implied a certain attitude towards the bourgeois state, in order to guarantee a practice based on class independence. Today I think that it can also work the other way round. By building a party with a class struggle practice (and an intervention by revolutionary Marxists) we create a framework that is unfavourable for the development of reformist currents. Besides, it is difficult to see how we can build a party on any other basis. Even to defend existing reforms and win new ones we have to employ the methods of class and mass struggle, in relation to which action within parliamentary institutions would only play a supporting role. To fight for reforms has never meant that you were a reformist, even less so today when the so-called reformists don't introduce reforms any more. A party built on these bases, especially with a conscious intervention by revolutionary Marxists, doesn't constitute a favourable terrain for the development of reformist currents.

(3) We have to begin by defining a party not ideologically but in relation to its tasks, to the challenges of the moment, to what it does. The SSP doesn't define itself as a revolutionary party. The LCR and the SWP, among others, are on the other hand what I would call "traditional revolutionary organisations", clearly defined ideologically. However, faced with the challenges of the class struggle on a national and international level the positions of the SSP are every bit as revolutionary as those of the League or the SWP. The party is thus in an abstract programmatic sense "strategically non-delimited". In concrete practice, it is clearly defined in relation to the issues of the class struggle. In this sense to make a distinction between the revolutionary left and the radical left would be rather artificial. As would be the characterisation of the SSP that is sometimes made by the SWP and by the ISG (British section of the FI) as a "centrist party", a definition that relates to a period when the workers' movement was characterised by a sharp polarisation between revolutionary and reformist currents. I think that these points need to be underlined because it seems that there is a fairly widespread idea that a new party = political dilution, otherwise it wouldn't really be a broad party. A new party must be different from the traditional organisations of the far left by its functioning and its relationship with the masses, not by its practical programme. Besides, a party which wasn't capable of taking a correct position in relation to the issues of the class struggle in opposition to the post-reformist left wouldn't succeed in building itself. It would therefore be counter-productive.

(4) The role of revolutionary Marxists in a new party is crucial, but not to represent one of the poles of a false opposition between revolution and reform-centrism. What is involved is to transmit in a critical fashion the conquests of Marxism, to analyse new realities, to become a centre of reflection and a force of proposition and in this way to irrigate the party. That implies a leap on the part of revolutionary Marxists, a courageous leap, a mutation whose extent and difficulty we shouldn't underestimate. What is involved is to no longer see ourselves as the present or future revolutionary party, and therefore to bury the myth of being the nucleus of the revolutionary party in which we all believed at one time or another. What is involved is being ready to abandon the building of our current as an independent organisation and to conceive of ourselves as a constituent current, whose place and role depends largely on ourselves, of a broad anti-capitalist party, of being the, or a, revolutionary Marxist current within this party. A current, and not a faction governed by an iron discipline, because that would kill the party. That is a very clear lesson from the experience of the SSP. You can start out with a conception of the organisation of a revolutionary Marxist current flowing from a certain understanding (false, but that's another story) of democratic centralism. Once you are confronted with the reality it doesn't stand up. The experience of the SSP settled the question in practice. The intervention as a faction of a Marxist current would have the inevitable consequence of deforming the democratic life of the party, part of whose members would be intervening en bloc on the basis of decisions taken elsewhere. The stronger the current in question, the more serious the problem. If it holds a majority, the life of the structures of the party is quickly emptied of all content.

(5) We have to conceive of the party not ideologically but politically, comprising all those who are ready to commit themselves on certain bases, people coming from different horizons. Concretely, in France, a new party must seek to include forces coming from the CP tradition, from the Socialist left, from the unions, from the new social movements, from the "second Left' with its traditions of anti-centralism and self-management, from libertarian currents. It would therefore be neither a new revolutionary communist party nor a bigger version of a far left organisation. To contribute to the building of such a party it is necessary, while maintaining one's political identity, to jettison every trace of sectarianism and ultra-leftism, of defence of particularities, of shibboleths.

(6) To build a party it is also necessary to rid ourselves of a certain number of defects of the far left. First of all of a vanguardist and elitist conception of the organisation which demands, to have one's place in it, a certain "political level" and a certain level of activity. Political education takes place within the party, it is not a precondition for joining. And we have to get rid of a certain normative vision of political activity which doesn't take into account the social and family situation of comrades, their involvement in their union or elsewhere. Next we have to break with a hierarchical and verticalist way of functioning. We recognise that the concept of a party is discredited, in particular among young people, but perhaps just as much among a layer of militants who have had negative experiences in left or far left organisations. We can only counter these attitudes by building a party that is democratic and transparent, where the political line doesn't come down from on high without discussion at rank and ile level, where there is a permanent dialogue between the leadership and the basic units of the party.

(7) How will we bring together the forces of a new party? At one time we had the perspective that a mass revolutionary party would emerge from a fusion between the revolutionary Marxists and the famous "whole layers" of the traditional parties. This perspective has been invalidated by experience. The only party of the radical Left in Europe that came out of a vertical split in a traditional party is the Italian PRC. And even there the contribution of the far left and of left trade union militants is far from negligible. The forces for a new party will come from the really existing workers' movement in all its fragmentation, recomposition/decomposition, mixing elements of the old and the new.

(8) What makes the building of new parties in Europe absolutely necessary and at the same time possible is the transformation of social democracy (and in Italy of the PCI) into parties that openly defend capitalism in theory and practice, by turning against their own social base, with the resulting disaffection of activists and of their electoral base. The surviving CPs are caught up in a spiral of decline, torn between tail-ending social democracy and falling back on a sterile sectarianism. That is new and that's what allows us to speak of a crisis of the political representation of the working class. It is a question on which there is great clarity in the SSP, but on which there is unfortunately not unanimity in the League. There is a fairly broad agreement on the trajectory of the PS, but not on the theoretical conclusions that we should draw from it. Now in spite of the left turn in relation to the government and the dropping of the call to vote PS in the second round, this political weakness means that we might again in the future be led astray in relation to the plural Left, all the more so if it is in opposition after the elections. That's why we have to continue the debate on this question, taking into account as they evolve the policy of the PS, its relations with the working class, with the bourgeoisie and with the institutions of the state, its electorate, its active base, etc.

(9) If the old schema of the whole layers, of vertical splits in the traditional parties has been invalidated, we shouldn't replace it by another miracle schema, neither the party which will emerge from the social movement nor the unity of revolutionaries. In fact, in the present situation, there will be elements of all that. Unity of revolutionaries is desirable but neither certain nor indispensable. Furthermore, if it is presented as an alternative to a broader anti-capitalist recomposition rather than a component and a lever of this recomposition, it can even become a negative factor. The forces coming from the social movement will be absolutely decisive for a new party but the specifically French problematic of the relationship between the social and the political makes it particularly difficult to find the necessary mediations. As for the traditional parties, and specifically the CP which is in open crisis, while there will not be a convergence between the revolutionaries and whole layers of this party, we will on the other hand have to succeed in linking up with currents, even small, with groups of activists and personalities capable of acting as a rallying point for the forces in and around the CP. The fact that what is involved are currents which are not well structured, which don't have a well worked-out programme or project is of no importance. We need forces capable of attracting militants who are breaking from the class collaborationist politics of the CP. To advance towards a new party, the only ones who need a clear programme and project are ourselves.

20 April 2002

Murray Smith


  1. The movements of the "sans" ("without") involve illegal immigrants (without residence permits), the homeless (without a roof over their head), the unemployed(without a job), etc.
  2. SUD is the name of a series of radical independent unions (now federated). Starting off in the Post Office and in telecommunications in 1989, they have spread widely. The far left, and in particular the LCR, is very much present in SUD.
  3. Adopted by the CGT in 1906, the Charter of Amiens stressed the total independence of the unions from all political parties, in fact seeing the unions themselves as the means of the working class taking power, via a general strike.
  4. The Communist Coordination is dominated by neo-Stalinists nostalgic for the CP in its heyday, when it was led by Maurice Thorez, had a mass membership and nearly 30 percent of the vote in elections. The Rouges vifs are less ideologically motivated and include many very good militants. Hage and Auchede are two of a number of Communist MPs or ex-MPs who oppose the leadership from an "orthodox" standpoint, but without breaking from either Stalinism or reformism. The Communist Left takes as its references Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Gramsci and Guevara – but explicitly not Stalin or Mao.