France - After the presidential election, is there a chance to see the emergence of a genuine workers' party?

Extracts of articles translated from Lutte Ouvrière - May 1995 (published in Class Struggle #6 - Britain)
May 1995

On 23 April, in the first round of the French presidential election, Arlette Laguiller, the candidate of Lutte Ouvrière (the organisation in France representing the ICU), polled 1.6 millions votes (5.35%), two-and-a-half times her score in the previous presidential election in 1988. Her campaign had revolved around an "emergency programme for the unemployed and the workers" aimed at providing a possible focus for a political mobilisation of the working class against unemployment and the profit drive of the capitalists. Her score in the poll was unprecedented for a candidate standing clearly as a Trotskyist on the basis of a radical programme. But this fact is more a reflection of the long-standing weakness of the Trotskyist movement rather than proof of outstanding success. And the significance of Arlette Laguiller's vote should not be overestimated. An election is merely a thermometer which may, within certain limits depending on circumstances, give revolutionaries a means to measure the social temperature - but only provided it is used with all due caution. After all, voters only express an opinion in a poll and the only obvious indication, initially in any case, was the fact that 1.6 million voters had identified in some way with the radical programme developed by Arlette Laguiller. Though this did indicate a change of opinion in the electorate, it may or may not indicate a change in its consciousness. On the other hand, this score is still too small to be in itself a significant political event. On the evening after her result was announced, Arlette Laguiller issued a call on television to those who had identified with her "emergency programme", whether or not they had voted for her, to participate with the activists of Lutte Ouvrière in the building of a "party basing itself clearly and solely on the defence of the political interests of the working class". The following texts are translated from two articles published in the weekly Lutte Ouvrière following this call, in which our French comrades develop their ideas about this workers' party and how it could be built, together with the significance and limits they give to the call issued by Arlette Laguiller. [Class Struggle]

For a party representing the political interests of the working class

The main parties which occupy the political scene - including those which claim to be left-wing - are those which provide most MPs, occasionally ministers and in general most of the elected personel of the state. But all these parties defend the social order of the bourgeoisie. They may disagree among themselves at times and they may even, in certain circumstances, represent policies which are different. Occasionally these differences may have more or less serious consequences for the working class. But when they do offer different options, they are only options for the capitalist class, offered with its interests in mind.

Over the recent past, however, while the right-wing and left-wing coalitions were alternating in government, there has been no actual difference between the political options they offered. The policy of the "Union of the left" has been so openly aimed at serving the interests of the bosses and obliging the rich, while enforcing austerity on the working class, that every time right-wing parties came to government all they had to do was to carry on the same policies without even having to re-orientate the government's emphasis.

Only small organisations like Lutte Ouvrière stand up against the scores of parties which all defend, openly or not so openly, the interests of the capitalists while pretending that these interests coincide with those of society as a whole. Our organisation is strong thanks to the fact that it aims at a radical transformation of society, but it is too weak to exist everywhere where workers work and live. Our supporters and activists are not numerous enough to even allow us to spread our ideas among a significantly large section of society.

In France, one has to go back to the 1920s and to the Communist Party of that time, to find a party which aimed at defending the class interests of the exploited and which had enough activists, supporters and, above all, enough credit in the working class to be able to occupy the centre of the political scene and to take up the defence of the interests of the working class in every sphere of social life. For a long time the French CP retained - and to an extent it still retains them today - these broad roots and acted, in some ways at least, in defence of workers' interests.

But the perspective of the Communist Party changed. Its leadership abandoned its fundamental aim. Originally their aim had been the ending of exploitation and the socialist transformation of society. But with time, the leadership of the CP chose instead to serve obediently first the interests of the soviet bureaucracy and then those of the capitalist social order.

After the CP lost its original orientation, even those of its actions which went some way towards defending workers' day-to-day interests, took on a different meaning. Worse, these actions became alibis, deceptions and a means of maintaining credit among the working class, which the CP then used, when it came to the crunch, to sell out to the capitalists.

This is why the "party basing itself clearly and solely on the defence of the political interests of the working class" which needs to be built, will have to be based on the class struggle, on Marxism, and will have to aim at improving the conditions of the working class in the present society as well as transforming society by revolutionary means and ending exploitation.

This party will not deserve its name if it lacks the capacity and the political will to participate in all the fights of the working class - those carried out in the workplace, as well as those in all other spheres of social life in which the interests of the capitalists are opposed to those of the working class (and usually of society as a whole).

But the reverse is not true. Not all fights, however sympathetic one may feel towards them, can be a step on the way to building such a genuine workers' party - simply because in certain fights those who choose to be involved do not necessarily feel concerned by the need for such a party.

Such a party would have to fight all reactionary ideas - racism, xenophobia, sexism, but also religion - on the basis of the communist programme, because its aim will be to free the working class from the political and moral influence of the bourgeoisie.

Such a party cannot be proclaimed out of nothing. It has to emerge as a result of a section of the working class becoming conscious of the necessity for this party, followed by intellectuals who are lucid enough to understand that society needs to be transformed and generous enough to commit themselves to this task.

We do not know whether the increase in the vote for Arlette Laguiller and the programme which she defended in the election campaign is a sign that such a consciousness is emerging. We only say to those who identified with Arlette's ideas that if they want to have some influence on the political scene in accordance with what was expressed by their votes, they should participate in organising this emerging consciousness, by building a party which represents the political interests of the working class.

Aiming at building a class-based workers' party does not mean renouncing the communist programme, it means putting it into practice

Arlette Laguiller's call to participate with Lutte Ouvrière in the building of a large workers' party was interpreted by a number of far-left activists as merely a call for all the existing groups which they call "anti-capitalist" to regroup - including groups which do not even see themselves as "anti-capitalist", for instance green campaigns or catholic committees active in support of the homeless.

Our aim is not to regroup the existing organised forces, but to go beyond them. However, our idea of the party which the working class needs is the very same one which was developed by the revolutionary movement through the struggles of the Second and Third International. We believe that the role of a workers' party cannot be confined to taking part in the struggles of the working class in defence of its material interests in the workplaces where it is exploited by capitalism - although we do consider that participating in this struggle is necessary and vital.

The fundamental aim of such a party would not be to fight only for increasing the share of wages in the national income, but to fight for ending wage labour as a form of exploitation. The programme of such a party can only aim at the socialist transformation of society. Therefore it would have to intervene in every sphere of social life and address itself to every layer in the population.

Such a party would have to take part in every struggle which affects the exploited classes, not only those in the workplace - for instance the struggles over people's day-to-day life (rents, repossession, homelessness, sports and cultural facilities, public transport, etc), those over health, safety and against all forms of reactionary ideas (racism, xenophobia, religion, etc..).

Such a party would have to be capable of defending the socialist programme within every social layer in society so as to to win over as many people as possible to the idea that society as a whole would gain out of a different social organisation.

One of the things which makes Lutte Ouvrière different from other groups belonging to the revolutionary tradition is the idea that a small political group cannot pretend to act as a large party without taking certain undue risks. Those who pretend they can do everything at the same time without having the necessary forces, inevitably end up doing the easiest tasks - and these are never the most important ones. In addition, this leads them in most cases to move away from the communist programme.

In the 1950s, when the revolutionary movement was reduced to tiny groups with a few dozen activists, there were obvious reasons for drifting in that direction. At the time, while Stalinism was the main obstacle between the working class and genuine communist ideas, its power stemmed from its influence in workplaces. Whereas the small forces of the Trotskyist movement (outside our own group at least) only existed among the students and the intellectuals.

The events in May-June 1968 allowed the various Trotskyist groups to grow significantly, at least compared to what they were before. But their fundamental problem remained the same.

Had the leaders of the various organisations which were collectively described as "leftists" in those days displayed more sense of responsibility, there might have been an opportunity at the time to bring together tens of thousands of youth, workers and students within a party based on the ideas of May 68, in which all groups could have taken part while trying to convince others of their ideas. Such a party would have made a definite change on the political scene in France at the time. This was the perspective that we put forward then. But not one of the existing revolutionary groups agreed to this proposal and, whatever the illusions that some of them had as to their ability to become a focus for the youth radicalised by May 68, none of these groups managed to grow out of being a small group.

As the years went by, activists have aged, and the image of a revolutionary movement confined to universities is no longer relevant. But every attempt at finding shortcuts to, or substitutes for the building of the party, like regrouping with forces in the labour movement which are not based on the communist programme, has failed. When groups have chosen to concentrate their activities on committees - against unemployment, racism or inadequate housing, etc.. - which did not see their fight as part of the struggle for the socialist transformation of society, or which were even hostile to this perspective, these groups have ended up adapting to those they were active with in these committees and forgetting about their own programme - when they did not actually abandon it formally.

These groups usually consider Lutte Ouvrière as the most sectarian of all Trotskyist groups, because of our choice to concentrate on addressing ourselves to ordinary workers in the large workplaces. They have therefore found it difficult to understand why we, Lutte Ouvrière, of all groups, were able to find a language with which 1.6 million voters identified on 23 April. And yet, the fact that we found a way to get these workers to listen to us is precisely due to our political choices.

It is therefore out of the question for us to renounce either our militant choices or the fight for revolutionary communist ideas. But among the hundreds of thousands of men and women who voted for our candidate in the presidential election, or who were maybe only tempted to do so, but did not in the end, there may be a significant number who would be prepared to be active in their own milieu, in their workplace or in their suburb maybe, and to intervene in areas like housing, racism, culture, etc.. to defend in this particular area, ideas which express the class interests of the working class. These are the people to whom Arlette Laguiller's call to join in the task of building a workers' party was addressed.

Of course not all those who voted for Arlette Laguiller on 23 April will be prepared to take such a step. But if only a few tens of thousands of Arlette's voters were prepared to devote some of their time, energy and resourcefulness to defend their ideas around them, this could mean a considerable step forward.

Our perspective is not therefore to bury ourselves in a fuzzy regroupment between committees and forget our revolutionary programme in the process. On the contrary our aim is to play a full role, as revolutionary Marxists and Trotskyists, in a party which would bring together - if, once again, they can be found - thousands of workers determined to act in defence of the interests of their class.

This is why, in the coming period, our activists will seek to contact as many as possible of those who identified with Arlette Laguiller's proposals in the presidential election campaign. We will seek to discuss with them the possible ways of building a party aimed at defending the class interests of working people, with the aim of building such a party along with all those who are prepared to do so on this basis.