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France: Centrists march behind events

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Mathieu Roux examines the role of France’s two main “Trotskyist” organisations: Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ Fight) and the LCR (Revolutionary Communist League).

Without doubt, Lutte Ouvrière (LO) is the best known group on the French left. In May 1995 in the first round of the Presidential elections its candidate, Arlette Laguiller, gained 1.5 million votes. It has a long tradition of a resolute orientation to the working class, including regular workplace bulletins.

Its militants played a leading role in the 1986 railway workers’ strike. Many observers outside France would doubtless have expected LO to play an important role in the 1995 strike wave. They would have been mistaken.

Far from having a coherent or active approach to the dynamics of the strike, LO charted a zig-zag course, tailing the CGT bureaucracy and in the process completely under-estimating the possibilities inherent in the movement. Far from playing the role of an active vanguard of the movement, LO confirmed that it is a fundamentally passive propagandistic organisation, with little understanding of the dynamics of the class struggle.

When the Juppé Plan for the Sécu was announced on 14 November, it immediately became apparent that the rivalry and divisions within the trade union bureaucracy were going to play a key role in the coming struggle. In particular the situation inside the CFDT, with its right-wing leadership under Nicole Notat, was going to be of major importance.

This much was obvious even to TV journalists. But not to LO. In its issue of 24 November, published as the first public sector general strike took place, LO managed to completely ignore the unions, mentioning them twice in passing, fewer than two lines in all.

Not one word about the sectarianism of the Force Ouvrière leadership. Even more astonishingly, less than a dozen words on Notat and not one word on what CFDT members should actually be doing about their leadership’s betrayal.

Instead of giving any clear analysis and programme, LO, as usual, contented themselves with mundane objectivist predictions, “Things are going to explode . . . The workers will have to impose their demands”, formulations that they repeat from week to week, month to month, indeed year to year, without making clear what exactly those demands should be or what attitude workers should have to their current leaderships.

However, LO has in the past had one overriding focus to their work which had a progressive content —the need to build rank and file controlled strike committees. In the 1980s, LO spent much of their time calling for them. In several important strikes their members played a key role in realising this demand. In 1995, however, not one word was said about this.

Not once, in all the papers or leaflets given out by LO from the beginning to the end of the movement, was there a call for the creation of strike committees or co-ordinations. The words were, quite simply, absent from their intervention.

Instead, in a major perspectives article written by a leading member, LO credited the whole movement to the union bureaucracy alone:

“This movement is the product of a unique process that has been launched from above. In reality, it is due to the will of the unions, or at least that of FO and the CGT, that this movement has exploded, has lasted and has, up to now, been spread. (...) There is, up until now, the clear desire on the part of the CGT to extend and deepen the movement and to do everything to make it win.”1

LO did not fight for the creation of rank and file organisation for the simple reason that it thought that the unions, and in particular the CGT, were already “doing everything to make it win”!

After the strike, LO presented the following view of what had happened:

“The union leaderships relied upon the rank and file to lead and spread the strike. They sought out democratic forms and organised daily mass meetings, in many cases with workers from different workplaces present. These general meetings decided everything, and not only the continuation of the movement.”2

It is true that the CGT leaders have retreated somewhat from the sectarian triumphalism which used to mark their leadership of industrial struggles, and that, as LO pointed out, many local leaderships were quite prepared to send out delegations to neighbouring enterprises to try and spread the strike.

Furthermore, Bernard Thibault, the CGT railworkers’ leader, is not a time-serving cynical bureaucrat who only wants the quiet life but that does not mean that the union leaders—including the CGT—were simply trying to win the struggle. The role of the union leaders, right from the outset, was to ensure that the movement did not get out of their control. That is why there were no strike committees set up. Effective control remained in the hands of the bureaucrats, be they national, regional or local.

And that is how they were able to end the strike so quickly and with minimal resistance. The only leadership it had was that of the union officials, so once they changed their line, the workers were completely demobilised.

LO underlines this quite clearly when it describes the end of the strike;

“It was of course the change of line of the leaders of the CGT railworkers’ federation that had the greatest consequences and that was most infuriating, in particular to CGT members.”3

But the only time, during the strike, that LO underlined the danger of reliance upon the union leaders was when, on 6 December, they explained that:

“The more the workers are personally involved and take the unions at their word, the more they will be present in the enterprises to go on strike and thus control the strike, the more it will be difficult for the unions to backtrack without having obtained anything, at least if the workers don’t become demoralised.”

This sums up LO’s profound pessimism. Faced with the biggest explosion of class struggle in over a quarter of a century, LO’s major concern was with the potential “demoralisation” of the strikers, and rather than putting forward one single concrete political or organisational demand for preventing this, they merely hung their heads in despair.

It was this same pessimism that led Laguiller to state in her 15 December Paris meeting that:

“The social climate remains marked by demoralisation and apoliticism, the consequence of the revulsion with politics provoked by the unity between the PS and PCF and their period in power.”4

Whilst every commentator was remarking on the increasing politicisation of the workers on strike, on the fact that the questions of socialism, of revolution even, were openly discussed by rank and file workers, LO, looking at the world through dark glasses, could see nothing but gloom.

But 1995 has been a year of radically contrasting halves for LO.

In the first six months, everything was on the up: they scored a record 1.5 million votes in the Presidential election, they called for the creation of a new workers’ party. Clearly they saw themselves as a factor in events—a factor in the class struggle. They even broke the habit of a lifetime and issued a short action programme.

But in the month or two after their record vote everything went wrong. Their leaders realised that they couldn’t go out and recruit the tens of thousands of rank and file workers and youth who, by their vote, expressed an aspiration for a militant, indeed an ostensibly revolutionary party, and at the same time, maintain their ludicrous semi-clandestinity, to which the leadership is obsessively attached. Thus they dropped their new party proposal like a hot potato; the results of LO’s record election campaign turned to dust.

The leadership had decided that it would be many years before anything decisive changed in France. But the cunning logic of history has a rough way with the schematism of sectarians and centrists. The working class engaged in the largest mass struggles for twenty five years. LO’s response, until well into the dispute, was to minimise it and then, when it could no longer be ignored, claim that the union leaderships had done it all and that the workers were still apolitical and that it was their demoralisation which would bring it to an end.

Here we can see that scholastic sectarianism and opportunism are two sides of the same coin. LO’s position has always been one of sectarian abstentionism vis-à-vis the mass reformist parties of the working class. According to LO these are not workers’ parties, not even “bourgeois workers parties” to use Lenin’s phrase.

Likewise with the trade unions. LO has never put forward a programme for their democratisation and unification. Its members and supporters do not organise to stand for leadership positions under their own banner.

Still less do they try to organise a mass united front of all union militants for these basic goals. Rather, up to the 1990s at least, LO one-sidedly stressed the need for strike committees as against a fight in the unions.

The opportunist side of all this is that it leaves the CGT, CFDT and FO bureaucracies unchallenged in their hold over the union structures and thus able to continue selling out strikes.

Since LO virtually dismisses the reformist labour movement as embodying any sort of class consciousness on the part of union members or PS and PCF voters, no wonder they think that things look grim!

Now their pessimism leads them to even greater opportunism—crediting the reformist union leaders with the responsibility for the struggle.

They demonstrate no belief whatsoever in the will to fight or in the creative capacities of workers themselves once a struggle develops. As such they also have no confidence in a revolutionary organisation armed with an action programme to intersect with these struggles and thus take them farther than they would be able to go spontaneously—to victory even.

It is hard to imagine a more damning condemnation of a political tendency. Once again, for all the seriousness of its young membership, for all the militant trade unionism of many of its cadres, as a political organisation LO has proved that it is not the revolutionary alternative needed by the French working class.

What use is a revolutionary organisation if it cannot show the ways and the means to prevent the bureaucratic apparatuses from selling out mass struggles? Those on the international left who imagine that LO is qualitatively different from or superior to the other two large centrist groups in France would do well to ponder the lessons of the 1995 strike wave. So too should the members of LO.•

The French Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR—section of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International) has been teetering on the brink of self-dissolution for nearly a decade. The leadership have been searching in vain for a suitable “left” break from reformism—preferably from Stalinism—at whose altar they can commit political suicide. None of the partners they have cast longing looks at have obliged them to date. So the Ligue still exists, but with no faith in itself or its own future.

In fact the currents which they have chosen were all far from “left moving”. The LCR’s “Trotskyist” baggage has come to seem to its leaders more and more the reason for these rejections. The growing programmatic adaptations made by the LCR to left reformist currents—especially on the key question of the state—have led some to wonder about the class nature of the LCR.

Has passed it over into reformism? The November/December 1985 strike wave has showed very clearly that the LCR remains a centrist organisation, one in which grossly opportunist positions sit alongside occasionally correct interventions.

The LCR’s basic method was to tail the advanced sections of the movement, but carefully avoiding getting even one step ahead of it. At the end of November they raised the call “towards a general strike” but deliberately refused to give a clear call for an all-out general strike. Further, they assiduously tailed the union leaderships’ strategy by calling for “massive national demonstrations” marked by . . . 24-hour general strikes.

Yet in a series of analytical articles the LCR quite correctly outlined the necessity of trade union unity, of extending the movement to the private sector and of the importance of setting up national and local coordinations as an alternative leadership of the strike. In this respect there were a series of similarities between our positions. Indeed, if LO executed a zig-zag to the right then to a limited degree the LCR carried out one to the left. But closer examination reveals that the LCR did not break from its basic centrist method.

Although the LCR drew attention to the role of the union leaderships in refusing to spread the strikes, they did not put forward any slogans that would enable workers to deal with this problem.

Instead of clearly calling for a national strike committee or co-ordination, the LCR put forward a series of hybrid demands such as for a “joint union committee of the strike movement” (led by Blondel of FO and Viannet of CGT?) or, at best, “a coordination of union leaders from the sectors on strike”, linked with the opening of such inter-union committees to “representatives of the general meetings”.

This was not a challenge to the union leaderships, it was an attempt to accommodate to them and, at the same time, find a way out of the situation in which forms of self-organisation had not arisen spontaneously. This fudge ended up leaving the LCR passive in the face of the union leaders, both national and local.

The reason for this confusion lies in the LCR’s strategic concerns.

For them, union re-organisation does not mean the creation of a rank and file movement leading to a fighting unity. It means the creation of a new alternative union federation around what is now a leading postal workers union, SUD, which was launched by a handful of left activists—including LCR members—following their expulsion from the CFDT in 1988.

Instead of fighting for a policy that could mobilise the rank and file, the LCR ended up tailing the left wing of the union leadership.

This false method is even clearer in the LCR’s political response to the crisis, “Seven points to get out of the crisis”, given out in tens of thousands of copies during the strike.

Again the LCR was quite right to put forward “a plan of urgent political and social measures”.

However, its programme, which sought to “impose another democratic logic”, systematically avoided the key question of reform or revolution. Throughout the strike, the LCR called for “democracy” without ever specifying what its class character would be—and this in imperialist France whose workers created the Commune!

In this mini-programme, the LCR criticised the role of the President and of “technocrats” but refused to go any further.

Instead of explaining how the creation of strike committees and action councils, of a general strike, would open the perspective of an alternative society, of workers’ power, the LCR preferred to dish up a reformist and democratic soup.

Thus the word “revolution” is replaced by “break with the law of the market”, the need for a revolutionary party by the call for “a real left”, the working class by “people”, workers’ power by “citizen’s control”.

The LCR chooses to present its politics in this class neutral light because it believes that the best way to build is by adapting itself to forces that are fighting, whether they be union leaders or the wreckage of the PCF.

But by not warning beforehand of the danger of the left reformists, and in fact adapting to them, the LCR utterly spoilt those parts of its analysis and demands that were correct. A few spoonfuls of Trotskyist honey were spoilt in the centrist barrel of tar.

We are aware that simply stating a revolutionary policy won’t change things. That policy has to be taken up and applied by real living political forces, and to do this, you need to mobilise the workers around clear demands.

But the starting point, as always, has to be as Trotsky stated: “Say what is”. This is what the LCR refused to do, for fear of frightening off its potential reformist allies.

By its surprisingly vigorous intervention into the strike the LCR showed that “reports of its death are somewhat exaggerated”.

However, its agitational slogans showed that it has not fundamentally changed course.

LCR militants will perhaps have recharged their batteries at the dynamo of the class struggle, but unless they fight to change the organisation’s chronic adaptationist practice to one of revolutionary leadership in that struggle the Ligue’s suicidal tendencies will recur and eventually gain the upper hand.