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New anticapitalist party founded in France: one step forward but others are needed to meet the demands of the struggles ahead

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The French Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA, New Anticapitalist Party) had its founding congress February 6-8 in St. Denis (Paris), the day after the Ligue communiste révolutionnaire (LCR) held its dissolution congress. The LCR, for forty years the French section of the Fourth International (USFI), will clearly retain some sort of existence in this role at least.

Held in the midst of a first wave of resistance against the effects of the capitalist crisis and the attacks of Nicolas Sarkozy, which had culminated in the general strike of January 29, this congress marks an important step for the radical left and could open up new perspectives for the class struggle in France.

An appeal to form a new anticapitalist party was launched by LCR leader Olivier Besancenot right after the 2007 elections, in which Sarkozy was elected, promising to be the French Margaret Thatcher, but also where the LCR got an historically high score of 1.5 million votes (4.1 %). Over the following year, more than 400 local committees were formed across the country, around an LCR core substantial numbers of trade unionists, youth, members of ATTAC, supporters of José Bové but with a majority for whom this is their first experience of political organisation. The numbers clearly show this. While the number of LCR members was under 3000 the newly formed NPA has more than 9000 active members.

Certainly Olivier Besancenot himself is a major factor since he arouses tremendous support among the youth and the working class. But this is far from being the sole or even the primary reason for the NPA’s success. Indeed, as Besancenot has put it in his opening address to the congress, we live in a new historical period, marked by mass resistance against capitalist attacks. The wave of struggles and strike of November 1995 was just a first episode in a long list. Everybody still remembers the banlieues uprising in 2005 and in 2006 the mighty struggles against the CPE (a cheap expendable work contract for youth).

The recent general strike of January 29 shows that the combativity of the French workers is intact, despite the first partial successes of the Sarkozy presidency. Indeed, the very fact that Sarkozy, a hard line neoliberal was elected despite heightened class struggle, shows one of the main contradictions of the period. While the rank and file are ready to fight, their leadership - be it in the historic parties of the French left the Socialist Party (PS) or the Communist Party (PCF) or in the trade unions - repeatedly tried to avoid the fight. Of course, this is because in the final analysis they have accepted capitalism and are therefore willing to sacrifice even the most immediate interests of the workers in order to maintain its stability.

“New period, new program, new party.” This, in short, is the analysis made by the LCR leadership. And it contains important an important element of truth, one that applies in many countries in Europe and beyond. The various waves of struggles – not just the workers and youth movements but the anticapitalist mobilisations of the first half of the decade - have created a new layer of activists that have identified capitalism as such as their enemy. The present deep crisis has confirmed their recognition of this fact. Be it in the struggles of the workers, the youth, the sans-papiers, or the international anticapitalist movement, they have learned their first lessons on the nature of the system and the state. However no party has so far been able to relate to them and to draw them into its ranks. On the other side, an increasing number of these activists have experienced the limits of spontaneity and amorphous libertarian movements and are now convinced that they cannot go further without an organized party. To organize and unite these fighters coming from widely different backgrounds is the first task of NPA.

Preceded by a whole series of local conferences of the committees, the founding congress, attended by 600 delegates, had the important political task to define the organisational framework of the new party, its name, its statutes and its programme. While several hundred names had been proposed, many of them totally off the wall like the Parti Humaniste Français, it is telling of the debate that the final choice was between NPA and Parti Anticapitaliste Révolutionnaire. As for the goal of the party, the vote was closely tied: “socialism“, “écosocialism” or “socialism of the 21st century”. The last, a conscious echo of Hugo Chávez, was finally adopted.

This in itself indicates that the NPA is a not yet a revolutionary force with a clear consciousness of the task of the new period. While indeed many of the new members lack a revolutionary perspective, are not to put too fine a point on it still reformists, the weaknesses of NPA are due in the first place to the political weaknesses of LCR. During its almost 40 years of existence, the LCR’s politics has been marked by the hesitations, vacillations and sometimes betrayals, typical of centrism. We can see this clearly in the way they proposed the NPA project. According to opinions expressed by LCR leaders during the launching of the NPA, the new party should be “Guevarist”, “ecologist” and “feminist”, but certainly not Trotskyist or Leninist. Or according to the document proposed to the Congress: “We want that the NPA carries forward the best of the heritage of those that struggled against the system since two centuries, of the class struggle, of the socialist, communist, libertarian, revolutionary traditions.”

We do not believe that the petty bourgeois ideologies the LCR welcomes are “the best traditions”. Rather they have led to major errors and defeats. Indeed we believe the best traditions are precisely the ones the LRC has excluded - Leninism and Trotskyism. However in the end the decisive question is not what names you stick on the party but what programme it adopts and what sort of fighting organisation it seeks to build in the working class. The programme of the NPA, reflecting the LCR’s ideological confusion, is a minimum/maximum programme. An anticapitalist goal is openly stated: “the democracy of the associated producers freely and sovereignly deciding what to produce, how and to what end”. But when it comes to the means there is a mish-mash of revolutionary, syndicalist and reformist ideas:

“It is by the development and generalisation of the struggles, generalised and prolonged strikes that we can stop the attacks and realise our demands. It is the balance of forces due to the mobilisations that can allow us to set in power a government that will impose radical measures breaking with the system and that will start a revolutionary transformation of society.”

At no point is there any mention of what should crown any set of transitional demands, the slogan of workers’ councils taking power and replacing the bourgeois state with a workers’ state. Ditto for workers militias which alone would enable the revolutionary forces to break up the armed forces, winning over rank and file soldiers, thus depriving the capitalist of the use of their state machine. What are the “radical measures” of the government born out of the struggles? What is the difference between this and a left wing reformist government? This ambiguity reflects the basic ambiguity of the LCR project as a whole. To assemble and permanently keep both revolutionaries and reformism in the same party, to unite a core of cadres committed, at least subjectively, to a revolutionary objective, with broader layers much closer to reformist ideas - i.e. winning ‘power’ through elections - is a project doomed to breakdown at the critical moment, if not before.

The high point of the congress was the debate on the electoral strategy for the coming European parliamentary elections. Should the LCR participate in a left front with PCF and Parti de Gauche (Left Party- a recent split from PS), which consciously sees itself as copying the tactic of Die Linke in Germany- i.e. creating a new reformist party. The problem is of course that these parties are completely reformist parties and that their anti-neoliberalism would not last longer than the electoral campaign if they had the opportunity to join a block with their right wing reformist elder brothers . The LCR and now NPA majority (76 % of the votes) was correct to reject this perspective but they remained deeply ambiguous as to their ultimate intentions: they refused to simply make an electoral “coup” (according to polls a left front coalition could attain a score of 14%) and instead gave priority to a longer term front in “total independence” from the PS.

This is a far cry from a rejection of any form of electoral bloc with reformism or renunciation of joining a government with such forces. Of course the PS is not the only reformist force on the French left. The PCF, were it to come to power alone, or with the Parti de Gauche or with NPA, would do nothing other than manage the system in the interest of the bourgeoisie. Consistent revolutionaries reject totally (and on principle) any entry into bourgeois governments – including governments of reformist workers parties, Stalinist or social democratic. Such governments are bourgeois because, whatever reforms they may or may not enact, they run the capitalists’ state for them rather than breaking it up and helping the workers to seize power.

This debate shows the possible line of future divisions and maybe of a future split for NPA. The European Union elections, which do not have the prospect of forming a government, are relatively easy to maintain this ambiguous unity: they are largely a platform for propaganda. But what tactic will be adopted for the presidential elections of 2012 when maybe a left candidate could gain a majority if NPA supported it? Should NPA then support such a left government? Revolutionaries would answer unequivocally no. What will the NPA leaders - what will Olivier Besancenot – do then?

There can be little doubt that unless this whole centrist method – vacillating between reform and revolution - is defeated then a major crisis in the party is inevitable. The ex-LCR comrades are not a reliable leadership in a period pregnant with revolutionary possibilities. It is of course true than many of the forces attracted to the NPA are left reformist in their present outlook. Even more will this be the case for workers drawn to vote for the NPA in the coming years. Is the answer then simply to deliver a revolutionary ultimatum to them? No. The only progressive solution to this dilemma is to put forward a programme capable of mobilising the workers and the youth around immediate and transitional demands against the capitalist crisis and its dire effects. Such a programme should show how the mobilised working class can block and sabotage every capitalist solution aimed at making the workers pay for the crisis.

• Occupations to stop the closure of factories and other workplaces.
• Organising the unemployed in a powerful and militant movement to force the state to provide the funds for a massive programme of public works, run under workers control.
• Taking up the defence of the public services and raising the wages in the private sector.
• Defending the rights and securing a decent livelihood for women, migrants and sans papiers, the banlieues youth, the students in schools and universities
• Bringing all these struggles together in coordinations of recallable delegates, so that the union bureaucrats will be unable to sell out these struggles as they have s done so many times in the past.

Fighting for such a programme, creating such organisations of struggle, revealing the nature of the bourgeois state, exposing the cowardice of the reformist and bureaucratic leaders will create a bridge over which millions of workers, at present trapped within a reformist worldview, will become conscious of the need for revolution. But an indispensable factor in this is that the revolutionaries of today do not hide their programme or its revolutionary goal.

The members of the League for the Fifth International have supported the creation of the NPA as a step forward in the French class struggle. Today, they struggle to rearm the NPA with such a transitional action programme, so that it can become a new revolutionary leadership for the next round of struggle and not a weak electoral coalition of centrists and reformists, which will fragment at the first serious test. One step forward? Yes, certainly, and a very big one at that. But other and more decisive steps are needed in the coming months and years of intensifying class struggle.

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