We hereby provide the second and final part of the perspectives document of the French Marxist association La Riposte. It deals with the important question of the trade union movement in France, the Socialist and Communist Parties and the new Left Party. You can read the first part here.
Stages in the class struggle
Of all the organisations of the French working class, the CGT is by far the most important. More than any other trade union, the CGT organises the most committed and combative elements of the working class. The CGT has the potential to organise a massive mobilisations. Many different struggles over the last few decades have shown this, such as the general strike of 1995 and the struggle against the pension reforms of 2010. The Communist Party draws its political strength directly from the CGT. A large number of CGT activists consider the Communist Party to be a sort of continuation, on the political level, of the struggles they are waging in the workplace and in society, despite the policies and behaviour of the party leadership.
Admittedly, the membership of the CGT has been falling more or less regularly in the last few decades. However, when we take account of mass unemployment, the general deterioration of working conditions and the destruction of half of the productive apparatus in France since 2005, the CGT appears to have resisted surprisingly well. The Lepaon (the former CGT leader) affair could well lead to some loss in support in the short term. It certainly contributed to the fall in votes for the CGT in the last employee representative elections. However, this affair is essentially an expression of the crisis of reformism and its inability to defend the working class. The divisions and rivalries within the leadership reflect the impotence of reformism at a time when capitalism is forcing the erosion of the social gains of the past. The departure of Lepaon will not resolve this problem.
The fact that the trade union and political struggles of the workers’ movement have been relatively weak over the last period might appear to justify the limitation of the movement to immediate demands. We often hear the argument that if workers do not even want to mobilise to defend their wages, they are certainly not going to struggle for the revolution. We are told that such a struggle requires a higher level of consciousness. However, such a line of reasoning is flawed. The aim is not to call on the workers to stage a revolution immediately and independently of the circumstances. A revolution cannot be made to order in such a fashion. The main task is, first of all, to convince the most active and politically conscious layer of the working class and of the youth of the necessity of this revolution and then to turn this layer towards the rest of the class. The program of the labour movement needs to be a revolutionary one, and it must base its action on preparing the workers with a view to carrying out this revolution.
The consciousness of the workers is not built up stage by stage in a mechanical fashion. Although it may be true that the workers are not responding to union calls to demonstrate, this is not because they do not have the necessary “level of consciousness” but because experience has taught them that going on demonstrations does not get results. For the same reason, they are reluctant to take part in isolated strike action. Workers make significant sacrifices when they go on strike. They are reluctant to strike when the only objective of these immediate union demands is an improvement in workers’ living conditions, especially when strike action only rarely achieves positive results.
This attitude is also a result of the collective experience of the last few decades. Between 1980 and 2010, the class struggle took on a mass character on several occasions. This was the case during the struggle against the Devaquet law in 1986, and again at the time of the public sector general strike in 1995, of the mobilisation against the National Front during the Presidential election of 2002, and again during the movement against the CPE law in 2006, to mention only the most important of such occasions. This series of major mobilisations – which were all at least partially victorious – had a significant impact on the consciousness of union activists, giving them the impression that as long as a mobilisation was sufficiently large, with the support of public opinion, governments could be forced to make concessions.
However, the defeat of the movement to defend pensions in 2010 changed the outlook of union militants. The movement involved 14 major days of action over 9 months. At the height of the movement in September and October 2010, the days of action mobilised between two and three million demonstrators. Opinion polls showed that the demonstrations were supported by at least 65% of the population. During the first months, the demonstrators were confident and happy. In a carnival-like atmosphere, the movement seemed to grow stronger each day. In the autumn, demonstrations and sporadic strikes took place alongside indefinite strike action in several different sectors, including strikes by railway workers (and their Belgian counterparts) from 12 October, by truck drivers from 17 October, and by then the refuse collectors in Paris, Marseille, Toulouse, Nantes, Saint Nazaire. Workers at twelve different oil refineries also went on strike, triggering the closure of more than 2,500 petrol stations. Many other sectors (school canteens, nurseries, buses, etc.) were hit by strike movements. There were mobilisations by students in some thirty universities and in hundreds of schools.
The leadership of the CFDT union supported Sarkozy and the pension reforms. Its leadership openly betrayed the workers in struggle. However, the fundamental reason for the defeat of the struggle was the behaviour of the national leadership of the CGT. From the months of March and April onwards, it was clear that given the importance of this reform, a series of disconnected days of action was not going to be enough to defeat the government. The CGT’s main demand was for the opening of “real negotiations”. This stance gave the government an exit solution just in case the movement began to take on uncontrollable proportions. It also meant an implicit acceptance of cuts in pensions. The broadening of the movement and the spread of strike action required the defence of pension rights to be linked up to a broader platform of demands. The national CGT leadership refused to do this, saying that struggles should be carried out “case by case”. The fact that such a large movement ended in defeat – and that, in the aftermath, there was a wave of reprisals against the participants – had a major impact on the outlook of union activists and on the working class as a whole. There was a loss of confidence in the effectiveness of trade union militancy and action.
However, in 2012, Jean-Luc Mélenchon led a vibrant presidential campaign around radical ideas and demands that was seen, by the most militant active layer of workers, as something approaching a revolutionary program. His manifesto, L’Humain d’abord (People first) coupled with the slogan Take the power!, was sold in hundreds of thousands of copies. His campaign involved public meetings which were the biggest and most militant ever seen in France since 1968 and the mass strikes of the 1970s. The experience of this campaign – despite major weaknesses because, in reality, L’Humain d’abord was not a revolutionary manifesto – was very instructive. It showed that, in contrast to a political program that is limited to immediate and partial demands, to which workers show marked indifference, a more offensive approach indicating the need and the possibility of a fundamental change in society can mobilise and arouse hundreds of thousands of workers. The 2012 campaign is very also instructive concerning the relationship between the traditional organisations of the working class and the class itself. The massive mobilisation around the Left Front alliance (led by Mélenchon) gave us a glimpse, although as yet on a relatively small scale, of what role the Communist Party could play if only it could be rearmed with a revolutionary program to overthrow capitalism.
The national leadership of the CGT has been the target of severe criticism from the regional and local structures of the confederation. Activists are increasingly critical of the divorce between the national leadership and the ranks. The strategy of one-day strikes has been discredited, as was the national leadership of Lepaon. The ranks is becoming radicalised. The social and economic consequences of the crisis are greatly contributing to this. There is so much pressure from capitalists that simply keeping union organisations alive means a constant struggle, particularly in the industrial sector. The need for a break with capitalism is gaining ground in the minds of activists. The molecular process in the development towards a new explosion in the class struggle will take as long as it takes. However, given the economic and social prospects of capitalism, such an explosion is inevitable at some point.
On the trade union level and in the left parties, the crisis of capitalism has reduced reformism to impotence. A trade union movement that limits its field of action to what is possible within the framework of capitalism, to what can be negotiated, at a time when the viability of the system depends precisely on the destruction of past social gains, will never provide any tangible results. There may victories here or there, but in general the capitalist system will continue to undermine the living conditions of the workers. That which is gained one day will be attacked and taken away the next.
The reformist idea according to which economic recovery can be achieved by an increase in wages and increased rights for workers is an absurdity, since such measures have an immediate and direct negative impact on the fundamental interests of the capitalists. An increase in wages leads to a corresponding reduction in profits. The capitalists would see no point in investing in such conditions. Thousands of companies file for bankruptcy every year because they are not profitable enough. Here we are getting to the crux of the limits of trade unionism and of defensive struggles in general. Capitalism has reached a point where struggles around relatively modest demands often implicitly raise the necessity of expropriating the capitalists. The radicalisation of ideas that we are seeing in many union structures is a reflection of this fact. We must try to give this a conscious expression in our union activity and propaganda.
The number and scale of strikes are not necessarily an indicator of the consciousness of the workers. The pressure bearing down on them means that joining a union or the organisation of strikes is very risky. Trade unionists and strikers are open to harassment and threats on a daily basis – and can lose their jobs, with all that this implies for them and their families. Workers can be intimidated and cautious about challenging their employer. However, they cannot be stopped from thinking and from drawing conclusions from their experience. An accumulation of anger and resentment against all the injustices and humiliations that workers are suffering is building up. At a certain stage, all this combustible material will explode.
The Socialist Party
Under the impetus of the revolutionary events of 1968, the SFIO and several smaller parties, clubs and other political formations merged to form the Socialist Party in 1971. The electoral victories of the Socialist-Communist alliance in 1981 and the social reforms promulgated in its first year of government generated enormous enthusiasm. However, behind the socialist rhetoric, the policy implemented by Mitterrand aimed at stimulating the capitalist economy through increased State intervention and an increase in domestic demand. This policy did not and could not succeed. The nationalisations left most of the economy in the hands of the capitalist class. The temporary growth in domestic demand mainly benefited Germany. The trade balance got worse and the currency was weakened. Within a few months, the investment strike and the flight of capital instigated by the capitalists forced the government to abandon its program of social reform. Mitterrand was forced to accept a “pause” in his economic and social strategy as early as the summer of 1982, before completely abandoning it in the spring of 1983.
The political repercussions within the workers’ movement of this U-turn in government policy were very serious, particularly as there was no real opposition to it, neither from the left of the Socialist Party nor from the Communist Party leadership. Right up to the resignation of the four communist ministers in July 1984, all the austerity measures and industrial closures implemented by Mitterrand and his Prime Minister Mauroy were accepted by the leadership of the Communist Party, which, like the Socialist Party, suffered massive loss of membership.
The program of the Socialist Party was emptied of any content that contested capitalism or the interests of the capitalists. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing ideological offensive waged by international capitalism only served to accelerate this right-ward shift. The socialist government (1997-2002) under Lionel Jospin introduced the 35-hour working week (although the reform made major concessions were to the capitalists), but then carried out a program of privatisation on a massive scale with the cooperation and active support of the communist ministers.
From the very outset, the socialist government of 2012 carried out a policy entirely based on defending the interests of capital. As soon it came to power, the popularity ratings of the government began to fall. Prime Minister Manual Valls and the pro-capitalist hawks surrounding him are demanding – once again – that the Socialist Party change its name in order to consummate the break between the Socialist Party and the labour movement and to fix it definitively in the capitalist camp. If they are not successful, it is possible that the most rightward elements will break away to create a new pro-capitalist party. In the long term, a split seems inevitable one way or another.
Socialist activists see the Socialist Party as an instrument of social progress. But even this moderate outlook is completely incompatible with the policy of the government. Thousands of members, disgusted with the betrayal of their hopes, have left the party. Others remain with the intention of fighting the leadership. The socialist leaders that the media has described as “rebels” are not a serious opposition. Their ideas differ from those of Valls only in secondary details, revolving around the degree of severity of cuts to be applied. The Socialist Party “lefts” such as Martine Aubry and Benoit Hamon even deny the existence of an opposition, and say they just want a debate over their own vague proposals. In essence, this is just posturing in order to avoid blame and the electoral consequences of government policy.
In electoral terms, the government’s policy can only favour the right and far-right parties, as well as leading to very high levels of voter abstention. Making electoral forecasts is always a difficult exercise, but Hollande’s policy seem certain to pave the way for a return to power of the right-wing parties and, and the same time, lead to a strengthening of the electoral base of the National Front. Millions of potential voters do not go to the polls because they have no confidence in politicians and State institutions. And they are perfectly right in this. Hostility and indifference to State institutions contain the seeds of a revolutionary consciousness. Neither elections nor the “political class” can offer a solution. Change will come from below, through a movement of the working class. When the revolutionary movement really gets underway, its successive phases will not be determined by the electoral or parliamentary calendar, but by the extra-parliamentary action of the workers. From this point of view, to think that feeble plans for constitutional reform will bring any change whatsoever for the labour movement is entirely illusory. Once the floodgates of the revolution have been opened, it will be impossible to keep the class struggle within an institutional straitjacket, with or without constitutional reform.
The Communist Party & the Left Party
From the mid-1990s up to around 2008-2009, the Communist Party leadership tried to create the organisational and psychological conditions for a dissolution of the party, particularly through the “anti-liberal collectives” strategy. Following the collapse of the so-called communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and in the context of the ideological offensive proclaiming the definitive triumph of capitalism over communism, the leadership wanted to get rid of any references to communism.
Most of the membership, however, was against dissolution, and the painful experience of the “anti-liberal collectives” strengthened the hand of those who wanted to maintain both the party and its name. The rapid deterioration of the economy and the aggressive policy of the Sarkozy government undermined the shift towards the market economy of the party leadership.
The mass mobilisation against the pension reforms breathed new life into the party sections. Following the defeat of the unions in this movement, hundreds of thousands of activists turned towards the political arena. The enthusiasm generated by Mélenchon’s presidential campaign, convincing many activists that they were at last linking up with large numbers of trade unionists and young people, together with the elements of a revolutionary policy contained in the candidate’s speeches, were undoubtedly the main reasons for the fall in support of the opposition resolutions at the 2012 congress of the party, compared to 2008.
The disagreements between the Communist Party and the Left Party during the municipal elections of 2014 shattered the momentum of the Left Front alliance, and the electoral pacts with the Socialist Party have opened a new phase of questioning and criticism. Despite major disparities in Communist Party support from town to town and region to region, the party retains an important membership base and undoubtedly represents the most organised political force of the working class. The party sections entirely dedicated to electoral campaigns tend to ossify and decline. Whereas those sections that are seriously involved in trade union struggles, etc. are generally able to attract new members and motivate the older ones. The radicalisation of the CGT ranks will have a positive impact on the party. Within the party and its youth section, there is renewed interest in marxism. On the ideological level, serious, patient and constructive work will strengthen the ideas of Marxism within the Communist Party and in its youth section.
The Left Party, which started with only a few hundred members, experienced sharp growth during the 2012 Presidential election campaign. Since then, the membership has declined to around 7,000 in all probability, of which around 3,000 are active. It therefore has fewer members than the New Anti-Capitalist Party (formerly the Revolutionary Communist League) at its height. It is difficult to predict the future of the Left Party. For a certain period, it did not seem entirely ruled out that the it would continue to grow, however this prospect does not seem very probable now.
The Left Party is not a sect, in the sense that it was created by elements drawn from the left of the Socialist Party. However, given the weakness of its membership, it is not really a firmly established party either. Unlike the Communist Party, it does not have a significant trade union base. Its social reserves are therefore far smaller than those of the Communist Party. Without the communists, the mobilisation for Mélenchon’s presidential campaign would not have been the same. Mélenchon’s attempts to distance himself from the Communist party and the launch of his own Movement for the 6th Republic will tend to further undermine the Left Party. It cannot be ruled out that, in the long term, it will experience the same process of decline and disintegration that the New Anti-Capitalist Party has gone through.
Prospects for revolution
The dangers threatening the labour movement come firstly from the capitalist system, but also result from the reformist character of the workers parties and trade union organisations. These two obstacles come from the same source, in that reformism is really nothing other than an expression of the ideological and material pressure exerted by the capitalist class on the labour movement. There’s no more pitiful spectacle than that of the disintegration of reformism amid the ruin and destruction of the gains and hopes of the past. In normal conditions, most workers stay away from the “mass” organisations.
However, the sudden entrance of the mass of the workers onto the stage of history will not only have an impact on the social composition of these organisations but also, inevitably, on the political tendencies within them. The workers will try to shape these organisations according to the demands of struggle, and will have to overcome the resistance of all those elements still clinging to bureaucratic and parliamentary routine – and to the privileges that go with it. The conflict between the various political tendencies, latent and kept within certain limits in normal times, will be enormously exacerbated. The struggle between reformism and revolutionary marxism within the workers’ organisations will decide the destiny of the revolution, both in France and throughout the world. The fate of the working class, and, in the final analysis, of the whole of humanity depends on the outcome of this struggle.
The class struggle will be fought outside of the parliamentary institutions. A gradual and peaceful overthrow of capitalism is not possible. Capitalism can only be overthrown by a series of struggles during which the workers will create the opportunity to inflict a decisive defeat on the capitalist class, and to destroy the foundations of its state and economic power. The expropriation of capitalist property, the banks, industry and distribution will break the exploiters’ ability to resist. By taking over the commanding heights of the economy, by replacing the capitalist state with a state created by the revolutionary mobilisation of the working class, it will be at last possible to free society from capitalist tyranny and to open a new era in human history.
The period between 1789 and 1871 was marked by a series of revolutions – 1789-94, 1830, 1848 – which resulted each time in a consolidation of capitalist power. Certain episodes of this revolutionary history had a social character, in that they liquidated aristocratic property relations replacing them with bourgeois ones, others were merely political, changing only the system of government, but maintaining bourgeois forms of property. The revolution that the current economic situation is preparing will have both a social and political character. It will turn the economic foundations of society upside down through the expropriation – and therefore abolition – of the capitalist class, and will give rise to a new State, organised by the workers to defend their own class interests.
The situation which is developing will sooner or later bring workers to the idea that a fundamental change in society is necessary in order to change the conditions of their existence. However, precisely because this will be a decisive struggle that must arouse massive social forces, the initiative must be taken by the workers, through the trade union and political organisations of their class. This means, essentially, the CGT and SUD unions, and also the Communist Party. A program of clear demands must emerge from these organisations. They must prepare themselves for the mobilisation and the struggle that awaits them. In order to arouse the workers and move them into action, the party must take the initiative through a bold campaign of revolutionary agitation and propaganda. Those leaders who have no faith in the working class, who lack courage or who simply do not have the necessary strength in ideas, will be forced to stand aside and make way for those who do have the necessary qualities. We cannot expect millions of men and women to throw themselves into a struggle to change society, only to dissipate their energy in sporadic struggles for isolated and partial demands, for lack of a party, of leaders and of a serious revolutionary program.
Our analysis of the situation in France is not based on dogmatic assumptions, nor on the “level of consciousness” – whatever that might mean – of the various social classes, but rather on the objective social and economic conditions. The economic crisis will cause a permanent deterioration of the living conditions of the majority of the population. At a certain point, this objective reality will lead to an upsurge in the class struggle. In the longer term, it will lead to a revolutionary situation. A successful revolution would break the economic and institutional power of the capitalist class and would place the working people at the head of society. However, the success of the revolution is by no means a foregone conclusion. In the context of the perspectives that are taking shape for the next few years, the policy of the labour movement will be the decisive factor, more than any other consideration.
The private ownership of the means of production has entered into contradiction the productive potential of modern technology. Because of the interests of the capitalist class, the existing means of production cannot be used to satisfy the needs of society. These capitalist interests are the source of all crises and wars. There is absolutely no possibility of positive change on the basis of the existing system. The market, the banks, and the Stock Exchange are in command. Governments – whether of the “right” or “left” varieties – can only impose superficial remedies of no consequence. For the working class movement, the liquidation of the private ownership of the means of production is the supreme task of our epoch. To achieve this, firstly we need to have a clear understand of the realities of capitalism, and then a perspective, a strategy, and leaders who are determined to carry the struggle through to a victorious conclusion. Only through a revolutionary transformation will it be possible reorganise society on the basis of more harmonious social relations, a society in which the many facets of human creativity will at last be liberated and allowed to flourish as never before.
21 January 2015