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Eleven Shades of Skepticism and Electoralism: A Debate On the French Left and the Uprising

Our French comrades and members of our sister site and organization Révolution Permanente respond to a debate published in Contretemps and translated to English and published in Jacobin.

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Photo by CLEMENT MAHOUDEAU / AFP

Translator’s note: This article was originally published through the newspaper published by Left Voice’s French sister organization, Révolution Permanente. It is a response to an article originally published via Contretemps and later translated to English and published via Jacobin. Whereas the Contretemps article was structured around 11 “theses,” the present article is not. The translator has taken the liberty of translating the original quotations into English, but one may certainly consult the Jacobin translation or the original article for context or comparison.

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While reading on the internet, “here and there,” as he writes, Ugo Palheta came across some texts written by those on the Far Left who, according to him, would be inclined to “redden the situation.” Even though the said texts, which prompted the coeditor of Contretemps to react, would only ever reflect the positions of “very weak … currents or organizations,” the author’s long response revolves around the “eleven theses,” as Marx had done before him against Feuerbach (no less!). Because we are convinced, as Daniel Bensaïd points out, that “not only is the party struggle [and the debate between currents] not an obstacle to political democracy, but it is its condition, if not sufficient, then at least necessary”1Daniel Bensaïd, Eloge de la politique profane, Paris, Albin Michel, 2008, p.353., we have tried to sketch out a few lines of thought in reaction to these 11 shades of gray that are supposed to respond to those who, like us and a few strikers in the country, would paint the situation in red.

A Weak Movement, an Intact Regime, but a Victory within Reach?

Palheta’s contribution aims to bring the analysis of the current situation back to what he considers to be a fair assessment. He underlines the importance of the movement in progress while insisting on its absolutely nonrevolutionary character. To do this, the author is keen to add “nuance” to all aspects of the situation by highlighting a whole series of shortcomings that characterize the situation, which we would wish to “undermine” with “rhetorical flourish.”

According to the text, only “a few sectors of the economy [have] experienced genuine strike activity,” indeed “only a small fraction of the working class [have] protested.” To underpin his analysis, the author employs the powerful flagship example of comparatism: May ’68. “It is estimated that there were … up to 7.5 million strikers (and 10 million people mobilized), in a country that counted far fewer salaried workers than today (around 15 million versus more than 26 million today). Comparison is not reason and, of course, the current movement is in no way analogous to the “May Revolution,” nor to the Italian Hot Autumn, respectively the most intense strike movements of the Western labor movement.

But it is enough to look at the national scope, the density, and the composition of the last period’s marches to realize that to speak of a “small fraction of the class” is far from reality, as most analysts agree. Just one example: that of West Armorica. The region has not been at the forefront of conflict in recent years, apart from the Bonnets Rouges movement in the fall of 2013. And yet, in 2023, we saw large processions take to the streets in Brest, of course, but also and especially in Quimper and Morlaix, as well as in Carhaix, Quimperlé, Douarnenez, Châteaulin, and Crozon, in Finistère, in St-Brieuc and Lannion, in Côtes d’Armor, as well as in Dinan, Guingamp, Lamballe, Paimpol, Plaintel, and Bégard. These demonstrations, ranging from a few hundred people to, more often than not, several thousand in medium-sized or small towns, cannot be explained by the mere presence of a few teachers’ union squads or striking public service workers2All the more true given that high school students were, in the first phase of the movement, very much in the background in these localities, most of which do not have a university or college branch. It is therefore processions of adults and not of young people or young adults who made up the bulk of the troops.. Systematically, it was the food industry, the building and construction industry, the fishers, the employees of the tertiary private sector, in addition to the battalions from the public and para-public sector that were mobilized, perhaps even more massively in proportion to the large cities with regard to the different local demographic realities. In the memory of the demonstrators, we haven’t seen this since 1995 … read: 1968. In any case, the density of these demonstrations in western Brittany over the last few weeks is by no means a regional exception, and one could multiply the examples showing that the movement has involved large sectors of the working class.

The author, in evoking the situation “from above,” also errs excessively on the side of nuance to the point of minimizing the regime’s crisis. Thus, if the mobilization “has accentuated the crisis of hegemony,” there is no qualitative change in the absence of “cracks in the state apparatus and, more broadly, in the ruling class.” Certainly, the state apparatus as well as the bourgeoisie have not divided in the last months. If there are no “cracks,” however, we should agree that there are some serious cracks, not only in Macron’s political system, which is undermined by all sides, but also in the more institutional framework of the Fifth Republic regime. The regime’s well-oiled mechanisms, designed to resist, “from the Right” as well as “from the Left,” any political or social eruption, have almost jammed in the last few weeks, as shown by the runaway parliamentary sequence between the 49.3, the vote of no confidence, and a government that risked falling apart3It should be recalled, for the record, that the 49.3 and the vote of no confidence were conceived to amuse the gallery by Michel Debré (the first prime minister of the French 5th Republic): to “pretend” that Parliament, if it wanted to play parliamentarian, could have a say, but condemning it, through these mechanisms of “rationalized parliamentarism,” to be a mere recording chamber. This is the reason why, with the sole exception of 1962, no government has ever been defeated by a vote of no confidence. This time, however, Borne and Macron have seriously felt the pinch. It is as if the spring of the Gaullist mechanism had broken, reflecting a bit further the hegemonic crisis that the French bourgeoisie is undergoing. and that, today, can only hold on “thanks” to the truncheons, failing to regain any kind of legitimacy through the decision of the Constitutional Court.

As far as the ruling class is concerned, there is no explicit defection for the time being — any more than there was in the months between May and June 1968, by the way. But in recent weeks, the media spokespersons of the bourgeoisie have not failed to call on Macron to stop his stubbornness, which is considered too dangerous, and to find an honorable way out. Whether Macron has another choice is another matter, which we will revisit, but his support is crumbling and his ability to govern for another four years is seriously in question4Macron has revealed himself since the beginning of his first term in office, and even more so with the pension reform, as a procedural democrat, emptying the traditional mechanisms of bourgeois democracy of their substance. He is content to be “within constitutional bounds,” even if illegitimate, and even less convincing. The last phase of the movement has shown this again, with the pension reform project presented as an appendix to the Social Security Financing Bill of 2023, the use of article 47.1 invoked to limit the time of debates, the blocked vote in the Senate, and then article 49.3 in the National Assembly, all completed by blunt force (once again all provided by the good graces of the law in all her glory), as soon as the struggle threatens to boil over. At the legislative level, this tendency could worsen if the current phase were to be “overstepped,” as the executive wishes, which is still complicated to conceive: Macron would be left only with technical governance, in the absence of real governability, which presupposes, at the very least, a consensus and a social bloc that goes beyond a narrow electorate, with no narrative, no breath, and no project other than defending fragmented texts of law that the presidency could pass on an ad hoc basis thanks to ad hoc majorities.. To make the enemy appear more powerful than is the case is not to show nuance; it is to contribute to disarmament.

The paradox is, however, that despite the enormous weaknesses he perceives in the situation, the author thinks it possible that Macron could retreat. He even goes so far as to consider such an outcome as “the bare minimum.” While the Élysée is fixated on its reform, not just out of blindness but because a retreat by the executive would open up a major crisis in a context in which the bourgeoisie’s margins of maneuver are shrinking and in which concessions to even the most reformist union leaderships appear increasingly unacceptable, Palheta offers an enchanted vision of the dynamics, fueled by the hope of an easy victory over Macron. This observation allows him to preserve the keystone of his analysis, namely the idea that there would be no need for a battle plan slightly superior to the erratic strategy of the intersyndicale (the inter-union coalition which formed in response to the pension reform and has largely dominated the contours of the movement) in order to win, implementing the only policy that is possible under current conditions.

On the Side of the Intersyndicale or of Our Class?

The limits of Palheta’s analysis are not reducible to debates on this or that aspect of the current movement. They are the product of an overall logic, marked by an objectivism that exaggerates the limits of the situation without ever trying to think of the conditions of their overcoming. The revolutionary workers’ movement has a tradition of seeking to elaborate one or more strategies that will allow it to conquer the direction of the mass movement when it goes into action and to orient it toward the overthrow of capitalism. In contrast, the author seems to seek to reduce mobilization to the “realism” of narrowly institutional perspectives.

This approach implies describing the limits, sometimes real, of the movement (e.g., the weakness of its self-organization or the absence of certain sectors of the working class), refusing to think of them as anything other than the expression of weaknesses inscribed in the situation, and presenting them as unsurpassable. The central consequence of this approach is that any criticism of the policy of the intersyndicale is evacuated, associated with the ravings of small groups that would aim only at their “self-construction.” For the author, “the suppositions of treacherous leaderships of the workers’ movement preventing the transformation of the movement into a real revolutionary process” no longer have an “objective basis” because the organizations of the workers’ movement have been weakened.

This observation makes it possible to ignore a set of discussions that are nonetheless central, such as the strategy of the isolated days of the intersyndicale. Since January 19, the intersyndicale has embraced a logic aimed less at building a balance of power through the strike than at trying to pressure the institutions: first the National Assembly, even if it means that Laurent Berger has reached out to the Right, then the Senate and, more recently, the Constitutional Council, to obvious success. In this context, the interprofessional days of protest were conceived as symbolic demonstrations and not as a means of blocking the economy, the call to “bring France to a standstill” having been only a very artificial slogan to give the change to a base aspiring to the hardening of the movement after the first days.

While making the absence of a real shutdown of the economy a central aspect of the situation, the article minimizes this issue and takes up the very justification of the trade union leaders, explaining that if a “more combative policy from the intersyndicale coordination — refusal of ‘leapfrogging’ days, a clear call to renew the strike and participate in general assemblies, and so on — would have allowed a more offensive mobilization from the outset in certain sectors where the unions are established,” it would have contradicted the “limits of the framework of the current mobilization which is also one of its strong points: the continuing unity of the trade union front, without which it is doubtful that the movement would have taken this scale and gathered this popular assent.” The author, however, when referring to the November–December 1995 strike, forgets that at the time the leadership of the CFDT (France’s most conservative trade union), in the person of Nicole Notat (former general secretary of the CFDT and current founder and president of the “sustainable development” company Vigeo), was not part of the intersyndicale, which did not prevent the social groundswell that we know and the grassroots rebellion of several CFDT local federations. Above all, he is seeing the united front through the prism of the cartel of bureaucrats and not in the light of the resolute pressure of the base. Berger actually remained in the intersyndicale not only because the movement pressured him to do so, but also because he had already been outvoted by his own troops at the December Congress of the confederation when he discussed the possibility of supporting the Borne-Macron reform. As for the CGT leadership, the last congress in Clermont and the heated debates that took place there speak for themselves: this is the first time in the history of the union that the outgoing leadership has been outvoted and has to deal with its opposition to save face. It was not the intersyndicale that created the widespread mood of anti-Macronism and support for the movement, but the labor movement itself, which pushed the leadership to take the helm and which prevented them from evading responsibility for so long.

Likewise, if the fact that a part of the workers remained “at arm’s length” constitutes for the author “a major strategic problem for the movement” that we would tend to ignore or to consider “resolved,” he is careful not to suggest any kind of solution. On the contrary, since the beginning of the mobilization, we have pointed out how the refusal to expand the demands of the movement weakened its capacity to address the most precarious sectors of the working class. These sectors have shown their capacity to struggle and to lead emblematic strikes, from the cleaning workers of Onet to those of the Ibis hotels, for example. For them, however, the mere withdrawal of the current reform while maintaining the obligation of 43 years of pensionable service solves nothing.

In this sense, the inclusion, for example, of wage demands, which were emerging everywhere in the demonstrations and led to the outbreak of strikes throughout the conflict — from the aeronautical subcontractor Sabena to the Air France subcontractors of Samsic — would probably have made it possible to bring new sectors of the working class into the movement, but also to avoid the strikes against the pension reform in certain branches of industry being resolved locally by agreements on wages … But the intersyndicale and Berger at its head have systematically refused any widening of the platform of demands.

One can thus postulate that an alternative orientation for the movement was possible and would have clearly contributed to bringing the battle to another level. This is no mere figment of the imagination, since several sectors have sought to build an alternative. That is the case, for example, of the petrochemical, rail, and energy federations, which very quickly planned the strike according to a gradual timetable to prepare for a renewable strike starting on March 7. If this had been the policy of the whole intersyndicale, it would have been possible to bring in other sectors on these terms, at least by proposing a call for a 24-hour strike, followed by a call for a 48-hour strike, then a 72-hour strike, and so on, on a tightened calendar, rather than 12 spaced-out days of actions and demonstrations. No doubt the bosses would have been more concerned about the current sequence. Such a calendar, however, being distinct from a “leapfrog” schedule (which nevertheless did not succeed in weakening the determination of the strikers), seems inconceivable for Palheta.

Now, if such an option was not even attempted, it is because the union unity, which the author of the “eleven theses” welcomes, was led by the CFDT and was based on the refusal to politicize the mobilization and to adopt all the rallying points that it carries (wages, inflation, employment, democracy, etc.), even though it was, right from the start, highly political. But if such an option was not even attempted, it is because the union unity, which the author of the “eleven theses” welcomes, was led by the CFDT and was based on the refusal to politicize the mobilization and to take up all of the watchwords that it carried (wages, inflation, work, democracy, etc.), even though it was, from the outset, eminently political. From this point of view, the national union bureaucrats’ management of the strike dates expressed their subsequent integration into the institutional mechanisms of comanaging the system, even though the system treated national union leaders like Kleenex. As Bensaïd reminds us in a text that the author should know, “Unity has no value in itself, independently of its goals and content. Unity is unity for something, for action, for objectives. Thus, when unity is achieved in 1935 in the form of the Popular Front and the pact between the socialist and communist leaderships, or when it is reconstituted in 1981 on the basis of the government agreement, it is a bureaucratic unity against the mobilization and democracy of the mass movement. The key question then becomes ‘to fertilize the united front with a revolutionary content’ (Trotsky) 5Daniel Bensaïd, Stratégie et parti, Montreuil, La Brèche, 1987..” In contrast to this perspective, the text legitimizes what already exists, taking up all the arguments of the bureaucracy, including the criticism of small leftist groups guilty of aspiring to a general strike to make Macron bend.

Regarding the “Prerevolutionary” Moment

All these elements explain why it is difficult for Palheta to grasp the notion of a “prerevolutionary moment,” which we have used to characterize the change in the struggle that took place from March 16 onward. In response, the author invokes, in a surprisingly “orthodox” way, a number of near laws that are meant to define the contours of a “prerevolutionary” situation: “a significant blockage of the economy, an extensive level of self-organization, the beginning of centralization and national coordination of the movements in struggle, as well as cracks in the state apparatus and, more broadly, in the ruling class.”6The author could also have mentioned the question of the role of the revolutionary party, quite distinct from the simple true left of his wishes. An omission that is far from trivial. In the light of this totally maximalist ideal-type, which is similar to the Leninist definition of a “revolutionary situation,”7Let us recall that for Lenin this is characterized by the articulation of three elements: “1. Impossibility of the ruling classes to maintain their domination in unaltered form; crisis of the “summit”, crisis of the politics of the ruling class, which creates a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes makes its way… 2. Aggravation, more than usual, of the misery and distress of the oppressed classes. 3. Marked acceleration, for the reasons indicated above, of the activity of the masses, who allow themselves to be quietly plundered in “peaceful” periods, but who, in stormy periods, are driven, both by the crisis as a whole and by the “summit” itself, towards independent historical action.” the author can disqualify the idea of a “prerevolutionary moment” by evoking, for example, the current, indeed weak, degree of self-organization. Such an approach leads him to a break with the tradition from which he comes, since, for the same reason, he reduces May–June ’68 to a “situation with pre-revolutionary elements.”8A debate about the characterization of May-June ’68 is of course beyond the scope of this article. For us — though the analysis is shared, historically, by a whole fringe of the revolutionary left — in spite of the absence of frameworks of self-organization and of a revolutionary party, May-June ’68 did represent, by the power of the strike, the methods deployed, the mobilization of the entire working class and youth, a revolutionary situation that put the bourgeoisie and its Great Man, “Mon général“, on the ropes. Despite its immediate outcome (which cannot be limited, as Palheta does, to the election a few weeks later of the most right-wing majority in the history of the Fifth Republic), the May-June process coincided with the opening of the last international cycle of contestation of the established order, in the West as well as in the East and in the global South; a cycle of contestation, a working-class and popular push, which would extend over a decade and a half, between 1968 and 1984, and for which we are still paying today the weight of the defeat, embodied by the “neoliberal revolution” and what we call the “bourgeois restoration.” What is true on an international scale is also true on a national scale, since the May push would be expressed throughout the “1968 years” and would only come to an end with the coming-to-power of Mitterrand and its accompanying austerity. In France, it was indeed social democracy, with the support of the French Communist Party (PCF), that played the role of Reagan and Thatcher in the early 1980s.

The concept of a “prerevolutionary” situation, as developed by Trotsky, cannot be understood in this way. In “Once Again, Whither France?” (March 1935), he explains that “the situation is revolutionary insofar as it can be revolutionary with the non-revolutionary policy of the workers’ parties. The most accurate way of putting it is to say that the situation is pre-revolutionary. For this situation to mature, it is necessary to mobilize the masses immediately, boldly and tirelessly under the slogans of conquest of power in the name of socialism. It is only on this condition that the pre-revolutionary situation will change into a revolutionary situation.” The notion is thus inseparable from the idea that revolution is possible, from the examination of its conditions, especially subjective ones, and from a concrete work to think and implement policies able to allow revolutionary potentialities to develop. As Juan Dal Maso notes in a commentary on this quote, “The pre-revolutionary situation does not necessarily precede a revolutionary situation, but constitutes the expression of the difficulties of the latter to develop fully because of the role of the trade union and political workers’ leadership integrated into the state.”

From this point of view, there is indeed reason to consider that the use of Article 49.3 (an antidemocratic mechanism baked into the French constitution to bypass the National Assembly in pushing through legislation) opened a “moment” or a “conjuncture” with prerevolutionary characteristics, which could pave the way for the consolidation of a situation of this type. In summary, this moment was marked by the following:

1. The combination of the mass nature of the movement with a radicalization of large sectors of the class. This was expressed in the spontaneous demonstrations that allowed the youth to enter the scene but also mobilized many workers, by the leaps in certain strikes like the refiners of Normandy who decided to stop production at the largest refinery in France, or by the overflow of the union processions by the workers in the marches throughout many French cities on March 23.

2. The onset of a powerful crisis from above, expressed by the vote of no confidence, which was avoided by just nine votes, as well as the executive’s terror at the prospect of a return of the specter of the Yellow Vests, which was echoed regularly in the press, or the enormous intensification of police repression unleashed in response to the spontaneous demonstrations, with hundreds of preventive arrests and brutal police violence, as well as the requisition of striking garbage collectors and oil refiners.

3. A policy of systematic appeasement of the intersyndicale, which sought to contain these tendencies, refusing to call for a mobilization against the 49.3, postponing, according to union leaders, the next mobilization date until after the passage of the vote of no confidence, to avoid (this time) the appearance of pressure being put on the National Assembly in favor of the overthrow of the government, all without saying a word about the violent repression.

Against this scandalous policy of the union leaderships and the weakness of the elements of self-organization, a characteristic that we have largely insisted on since the beginning of the movement, did not allow an alternative policy to emerge on a scale that would have allowed to really enter into a prerevolutionary situation, for example, by taking advantage of the conditions created by the 49.3 to launch initiatives in the aim of strengthening the strike. And yet this possibility was raised more than ever from March 16 to 23, the real peak of the movement.

Rather than questioning how the potentialities could have been realized and discussing what has and what could have been done to go further, in order to resolve these contradictions, the author’s objectivist analysis invisibilizes this sequence in the struggle and concludes, in general, that the limits that prevented the movement from tipping over testify to the unripeness of the situation. He thus conceives the moments of a cycle in a linear and mechanical way, without possible jumps or breaks. In the “eleven theses,” a text claiming to have a certain Bensaïdian lineage, time is flat and the bureaucrats unroll it from beginning to end without any question of turning points and opportunities or pitfalls and dangers. In this framework, the “concrete analysis of concrete situations,” itself the outcome of contradictions in the balance of power resulting from the class struggle, turns into a description of a static cliché of the balance of power, which can never be more than an accessory to parliamentary mechanics.

Polarized by the institutional outcomes for the movement, the author’s indifference to all initiatives in favor of self-organization is in fact inversely proportional to his interest in “the rise in power and increased combativeness of the parliamentary Left, in particular the 74 La France Insoumise (LFI) deputies, who strongly contributed to the politicization and radicalization of [the] mobilization.”9In his role as intermediary between the more or less far left and the more or less radical reformist left, in this case between the LFI-NUPES and the Besancenot-Poutou NPA, the author puts forward the idea that there were, just as much as in the far left, militants who fought within the PCF for “the necessity of a revolutionary rupture.” Whatever the critical assessment one can draw from the French far left from the 60s to the 80s, in particular the Trotskyist groups (Internationalist Communist Party (PCI)-Internationalist Communist Organization (OCI), Worker’s Voice (VO)-Worker’s Struggle (LO), and Independent Communist Party (PCI)-Revolutionary Communist Youth (JCR)-Communist League (LC)-Revolutionary Communist League (LCR)), it is highly unwise to put it on the same level as the so-called sectors that would have existed within the PCF and that would have fought for such a perspective. Through its leadership and its cadres, during and after 1968, like other Western European communist parties of the time, in Italy, in the Spanish state or in Portugal, the French CP is a party of order. Opting for another narrative is to distort history in order to better disguise the present: to paint in red the currents (and no doubt their deputies and cadres) that within LFI would defend the necessity of a revolutionary break, which the tendency of the NPA supported by the author has not yet completely decided to join. The debate on the role of LFI, which we consider to have expressed its strategic limits, is beyond the scope of this article. But it should be noted that this is probably the only element of the situation over which the author permits himself to blush … While claiming to be anti-capitalist, he ultimately proposes the cohabitation of a NUPES government (a coalition of the major center-left parties, with the LFI at its head) with Macron as the only perspective to the enormous anger expressed in recent months, accompanied by a call for trade union militancy and for “political-cultural work that allows us to move from hatred of Macron to criticism of the system as a whole,” the implementation of which is postponed sine die. The whole eleventh thesis is thus devoted to the elaboration of hypothetical scenarios presenting a parliamentary victory as the only political outcome of the enormous mobilization of the last months.

Constructing an Alternative Direction or Electing a Left Government?

We can only lament that no alternative leadership or oppositional currents, in connection with the striking rank and file, in the sectors where renewable strikes has been put in place, or even in connection with the intermediary leaderships at the local and departmental level, which accompanied the walkouts beyond the national days, have been able to see the light of day and to build up a real legitimacy and national audience. But this is not the fault of the insufficient “anti-capitalist consciousness” of the masses or of the real but relative retreat of the workers’ subjectivity after decades of neoliberal steamrollering, despite struggles of resistance and some victories (1995 and 2006). It is, rather, the expression of the incapacity, or of the opposition, of the organizations and currents claiming to be in favor of the revolutionary transformation of society to work for the establishment of instances allowing such an alternative to emerge, either by a wait-and-see attitude and stagnation, or by a conscious political choice. This is what has allowed the intersyndicale and the reformists in Parliament to play their poor role without ever being hindered in any way, neither by the POI and POID (two Troskyist groups of the Pierre Lambert tradition, the latter an offshoot of the former), integrated into or satellites of LFI, nor by the section of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA, a far-left broad party of Trotskyist origins, which recently split in two, the one referred to here lead by figures Olivier Besancenot and Philippe Poutou), to which the author is attached, nor by Lutte Ouvrière (LO, the other major French Trotskyist party besides the now-two NPA groups).

Those who have tried to bring about such an alternative — and we are part of them, through the setting up of the Réseau pour la grève générale (Network for the General Strike) and the Action Committees — have not sinned by first-degree anti-unionism. It is, in fact, in connection with the most combative sectors of the trade union movement that these initiatives have been taken. Wherever possible, we chose to deploy our militant forces on the nerve centers of the conflict, where the stakes were the most visible and concentrated, with truncheons and the requisition orders rolled out. To take just one example out of many: during the solidarity deployment alongside the strikers of the largest French refinery, on March 24, the Network for the General Strike was merely reviving the best of the workers’ movement tradition: the “flying picket” dear to the American IWW at the beginning of the last century; the activist groupings of the Minneapolis teamsters in 1934; or the activists surrounding the great 1980 occupation strike of Fiat Turin in solidarity from their positions and factories of intervention, where at stake was the fate of a “month of May that had lasted 12 years.” This time, in Gonfreville-l’Orcher, with a few hundred, it was only a question of demonstrating that another type of politics was possible. With a few thousand people, it could have made a greater impression on the national level and changed the situation at the time of the 49.3, at a time when the intersyndicale was saying nothing about the torrent of requisition measures, itself a violent attack on the right to strike, which was falling on sectors such as the refineries and oil depots, but also on waste treatment incinerators and garbage collectors’ yards.

For us, the role of a revolutionary organization is precisely to work tirelessly to create, as soon as possible, organisms of self-organization among the masses in struggle, whatever the circumstantial name they receive (interprofessional coordinations, action committees, councils, etc.). This is to allow the class to deploy all its combativity, its capacity for confrontation, and to posit itself as an alternative leadership, both in relation to the bureaucratic leaderships such as they exist, but also in relation to the political power of the bourgeoisie. In Trotsky’s words, we consider it the task of the revolutionaries in the class struggle to “should critically orient themselves at each new stage and advance such slogans as will aid the striving of the workers for independent politics, deepen the class struggle of these politics, destroy reformist and pacifist illusions, strengthen the connection of the vanguard with the masses, and prepare the revolutionary conquest of power.”

For Palheta, the very idea of a “substitution by a truly revolutionary leadership to the (reformist) union leadership,” a “classic” task of the revolutionary workers’ movement, is, on the contrary, no longer relevant. Since a retreat by Macron on “his counter-reform project” would in no way imply “opening a revolutionary situation,”10Even if this were the case, the author’s bet, which calls for a left-wing government, would not change a thing one iota anyway. Indirectly invoking French-Greek Marxist Nicos Poulantzas and taking from Bensaïd only his analysis of bourgeois democratism as a quasi-independent horizon, there would be, in the event of a revolutionary process, according to the author, a duality “between the bourgeois state and forms of popular power outside the state, but also within the state itself” [emphasis added]. Moreover, “in countries with a parliamentary tradition of more than a hundred years, where the principle of universal suffrage is solidly established, a revolutionary process cannot be imagined as anything other than a transfer of legitimacy that would give precedence to ‘socialism from below’, but in interference with representative forms”, in this case parliamentary, if one reads between the lines. Without a NUPES parliamentary majority, with or without a revolutionary process, there is no salvation, according to Ugo Palheta. the only possible and desirable horizon would be a victory of Mélenchon as a by-product of the movement. As balanced and nuanced as he is, the author contrasts the “verbal maximalism and the fetishism of past formulas” with a proposal “articulating the immediate withdrawal of the counter-reform, the dissolution of the National Assembly and the holding of new elections,” which seems to be the only one “equal to the present stakes,”11It is surprising that the author should adopt what was Jacques Chirac’s political line after the “winter of our discontent”, the great movement of November-December 1995: the President suspended the Juppé Plan concerning the pensions and social security, dissolved the National Assembly on April 21, 1997, and the Left came to power. It was a question of serving on a silver platter to a “left-wing government” (in this case “plural,” integrating the Socialist Party (PS), the Chevénementistes, the ecologists, the PCF and… Mélenchon) the mission that the right had not been able to carry out, in this case the most privatizing and “reforming” done up to that point in the Vth. We know how it ended, in April 2002: with the elimination of this same left from the second round and the Chirac-Le Pen match, the first expression of the crisis of hegemony which, since then, has continued to worsen for the bourgeoisie and its representatives. reinforced by the danger of the extreme Right. Giving more credence to recent polls than to a serious study of the real dynamics of our class in the current movement, Palheta in fact links his perspective to the risk of Marine Le Pen’s coming to power, a politician whose party “could be the political force that would benefit most from the rejection of the pension counter-reform.”

In this context, the author defends two options. In the short term, we can only hope to “succeed in drawing the workers to a first day of strikes and demonstrations [?], to get them to participate in a general assembly to decide collectively on the modalities of action, etc.” Given that there has already been a “first” day, followed by a second, a third, that we were at the 10th on the day of publication of the “eleven theses” and that we are at the 12th since April 13, we can understand this “political line” only as an invitation to follow the calendar and the methods of the intersyndicale. This is what the rest of the statement makes clear: “In this perspective, the mechanical and abstract slogan of denouncing ‘traitorous directions’ [which, we are assured, are not so], is not only a false lead but more often an obstacle.”

The rest of the author’s reasoning is a more or less happy and well-arranged collage of the more or less recent positions of the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) and then of the NPA leadership on the subject of “left” governments: “Any left government with a breakaway program would find itself under enormous pressure from the ruling class,” Palheta warns us, lucidly. “Only a vast popular mobilization would give the necessary counterweight, to avoid outright capitulation. The social confrontation set in motion would carry in it a fundamentally anti-capitalist dynamic, insofar as it would inevitably lead, in a more or less short period, to raising the question of the power of capital.” In this multilevel rocket logic, the first, necessary stage would be a Mélenchon government based on “a dialectic of collaboration and confrontation between the social movement and the Left.” The problem is that what is presented as the most relevant, lucid, and nuanced of the “hypotheses of power” is never more than a rehash of what was served to us when Alexis Tsipras and Syriza came to power in Greece in 2015, or Podemos in Spain, or Boric, the first left-wing president since Allende, in Chile, with the success that we now know all too well. This is also what the LCR had already defended in relation to the incoming Jospin government, little more than 25 years ago, at the end of the second round of elections following the dissolution at the National Assembly. If we change the terms “November–December 1995” to “January–April 2023,” “the Right” to “Macron,” and “the Left” to “the NUPES,” one could almost believe that the “eleventh thesis” is a copy-paste of the declaration of the Political Bureau of the League of June 5, 1997.12Here is a long but enlightening excerpt: “We came together to defeat the right. This victory, our victory, is first of all the revenge of the great mobilization of November and December 1995! The left, which has just obtained a large majority, must respond to popular aspirations and break with the policies of the right. The disasters of the past cannot be repeated. Let us not forget that the National Front (FM) has confirmed that it is lying in ambush, seeking to recuperate the despair into which liberalism and Maastricht are plunging millions of men and women. New disappointments on the left would open a boulevard for the FN. To wait, to postpone the emergency measures needed to loosen the stranglehold of Maastricht liberalism, would give the employers and finance the time to recover, to speculate to put pressure on the new government. We would be taking the risk of destroying the hope that has just been born. No one imagines that everything can be done immediately. But a change of course must be manifested in the next few weeks and clearly reflect the will to implement another policy, responding to the expectations of the popular electorate… Only the mobilization of all will overcome the resistance to change tomorrow. A left-wing government without social mobilization is doomed to failure. In 1981, it is the inexistence of a great popular movement that allowed the hopes of the working world to be sold off. Today, as in the past, genuine measures to fight unemployment, privileges and inequalities will be confronted by powerful interests. Our only guarantee therefore lies in a movement even more powerful than that of November-December 1995, associating wage earners with the unemployed, public and private sectors.” This is, in broad terms, what the Besancenot-Poutou tendency NPA is defending today and what Palheta declines, in a different tone, on Contretemps: a call for a LFI-NUPES government possibly enlarged “on its left”.

Strategy and Party

In a beautiful article paying tribute to Bensaïd’s career published in 2010, Stathis Kouvélakis emphasized how the “time of politics” — the time of organization to make revolutionary politics, we might add — “is a complex time: it is a short time, the time of the decision, of the instant when everything changes. … But it is also a lengthy time, of daily action, often thankless, of slow construction, where it is necessary to resist and fight against the current.”13Stathis Kouvélakis, ‘La dialectique du temps et de la lutte,’ Ligne n°32, 2010, p.66. There are three issues that are paradoxically absent from these “eleven theses”: (1) the really disruptive character of the class struggle (which would not be a simple auxiliary force for the parliamentary or hypothetically governmental politics of the reformists), (2) the centrality of temporality in revolutionary politics (not everything is worthwhile, neither in calendrical terms, nor during a strike, nor in terms of moments and watchwords), and (3) revolutionary politics as a capacity to transform the coordinates of what is already given. More than a reflection on the strategic scenario such as it should be implemented today, Palheta presents a hypothetical act of allegiance to Melenchonism  — hypothetical, that is, because it is not completely assumed in its organizational contours.

These “eleven theses” pose between the lines the question of organization: Is it an appendage of the reformism of the possible, which in turn uses the movement of our class as an additional appendage of its political combinations? Or, on the contrary, is it a force at the service of our class, whose importance is measured, as Gramsci would say, by its contribution to the class in terms of its capacity to self-organize, self-represent, and fight for its interests in complete autonomy and in view of a radically distinct project, the only one possible and necessary in these times of capitalist and ecological catastrophe: socialism? After having defended these positions, in the direction of the whole of the extreme Left, within the NPA, we continue this struggle today as an independent organization, one that is insufficient in itself, in view of our “self-construction,” by modestly contributing to our class and its struggles, with the perspective of laying the foundations of a revolutionary Left that is equal to the task of meeting the situation in which we live.

More than being the blue-white-red flag bearers of Mélenchon or echoing the Marseillaise sung loudly and proudly by the deputies of the NUPES, we prefer to say, like the thousands upon thousands of demonstrators who flocked to Berlin from all over Europe against the Vietnam War in February 1968, accused of being only a small portion of marginal agitators, “wir sind eine kleine, radikale Minderheit,” that is to say, a handful of “small groups” to put it in Palheta’s words. “Back in Paris,” notes Bensaïd in “Une lente impatience,” “this ‘small radical minority’ redoubled its energies.”14Daniel Bensaïd, Une lente impatience, Paris, Stock, 2004, p.79. In the months and years that followed, history proved him right. This spring of 2023, the current generation of workers and activists are carrying out one of their most highly developed experiences confirming throughout the country that we have indeed entered a new international cycle of confrontation with capital. It is up to them to carry this struggle for revolution with just as much radicality, and to carry it through to the end. This is what, modestly but with militant determination, we wish to contribute to, along with those who want to join the struggle.

Notes

Notes
1 Daniel Bensaïd, Eloge de la politique profane, Paris, Albin Michel, 2008, p.353.
2 All the more true given that high school students were, in the first phase of the movement, very much in the background in these localities, most of which do not have a university or college branch. It is therefore processions of adults and not of young people or young adults who made up the bulk of the troops.
3 It should be recalled, for the record, that the 49.3 and the vote of no confidence were conceived to amuse the gallery by Michel Debré (the first prime minister of the French 5th Republic): to “pretend” that Parliament, if it wanted to play parliamentarian, could have a say, but condemning it, through these mechanisms of “rationalized parliamentarism,” to be a mere recording chamber. This is the reason why, with the sole exception of 1962, no government has ever been defeated by a vote of no confidence. This time, however, Borne and Macron have seriously felt the pinch. It is as if the spring of the Gaullist mechanism had broken, reflecting a bit further the hegemonic crisis that the French bourgeoisie is undergoing.
4 Macron has revealed himself since the beginning of his first term in office, and even more so with the pension reform, as a procedural democrat, emptying the traditional mechanisms of bourgeois democracy of their substance. He is content to be “within constitutional bounds,” even if illegitimate, and even less convincing. The last phase of the movement has shown this again, with the pension reform project presented as an appendix to the Social Security Financing Bill of 2023, the use of article 47.1 invoked to limit the time of debates, the blocked vote in the Senate, and then article 49.3 in the National Assembly, all completed by blunt force (once again all provided by the good graces of the law in all her glory), as soon as the struggle threatens to boil over. At the legislative level, this tendency could worsen if the current phase were to be “overstepped,” as the executive wishes, which is still complicated to conceive: Macron would be left only with technical governance, in the absence of real governability, which presupposes, at the very least, a consensus and a social bloc that goes beyond a narrow electorate, with no narrative, no breath, and no project other than defending fragmented texts of law that the presidency could pass on an ad hoc basis thanks to ad hoc majorities.
5 Daniel Bensaïd, Stratégie et parti, Montreuil, La Brèche, 1987.
6 The author could also have mentioned the question of the role of the revolutionary party, quite distinct from the simple true left of his wishes. An omission that is far from trivial.
7 Let us recall that for Lenin this is characterized by the articulation of three elements: “1. Impossibility of the ruling classes to maintain their domination in unaltered form; crisis of the “summit”, crisis of the politics of the ruling class, which creates a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes makes its way… 2. Aggravation, more than usual, of the misery and distress of the oppressed classes. 3. Marked acceleration, for the reasons indicated above, of the activity of the masses, who allow themselves to be quietly plundered in “peaceful” periods, but who, in stormy periods, are driven, both by the crisis as a whole and by the “summit” itself, towards independent historical action.”
8 A debate about the characterization of May-June ’68 is of course beyond the scope of this article. For us — though the analysis is shared, historically, by a whole fringe of the revolutionary left — in spite of the absence of frameworks of self-organization and of a revolutionary party, May-June ’68 did represent, by the power of the strike, the methods deployed, the mobilization of the entire working class and youth, a revolutionary situation that put the bourgeoisie and its Great Man, “Mon général“, on the ropes. Despite its immediate outcome (which cannot be limited, as Palheta does, to the election a few weeks later of the most right-wing majority in the history of the Fifth Republic), the May-June process coincided with the opening of the last international cycle of contestation of the established order, in the West as well as in the East and in the global South; a cycle of contestation, a working-class and popular push, which would extend over a decade and a half, between 1968 and 1984, and for which we are still paying today the weight of the defeat, embodied by the “neoliberal revolution” and what we call the “bourgeois restoration.” What is true on an international scale is also true on a national scale, since the May push would be expressed throughout the “1968 years” and would only come to an end with the coming-to-power of Mitterrand and its accompanying austerity. In France, it was indeed social democracy, with the support of the French Communist Party (PCF), that played the role of Reagan and Thatcher in the early 1980s.
9 In his role as intermediary between the more or less far left and the more or less radical reformist left, in this case between the LFI-NUPES and the Besancenot-Poutou NPA, the author puts forward the idea that there were, just as much as in the far left, militants who fought within the PCF for “the necessity of a revolutionary rupture.” Whatever the critical assessment one can draw from the French far left from the 60s to the 80s, in particular the Trotskyist groups (Internationalist Communist Party (PCI)-Internationalist Communist Organization (OCI), Worker’s Voice (VO)-Worker’s Struggle (LO), and Independent Communist Party (PCI)-Revolutionary Communist Youth (JCR)-Communist League (LC)-Revolutionary Communist League (LCR)), it is highly unwise to put it on the same level as the so-called sectors that would have existed within the PCF and that would have fought for such a perspective. Through its leadership and its cadres, during and after 1968, like other Western European communist parties of the time, in Italy, in the Spanish state or in Portugal, the French CP is a party of order. Opting for another narrative is to distort history in order to better disguise the present: to paint in red the currents (and no doubt their deputies and cadres) that within LFI would defend the necessity of a revolutionary break, which the tendency of the NPA supported by the author has not yet completely decided to join.
10 Even if this were the case, the author’s bet, which calls for a left-wing government, would not change a thing one iota anyway. Indirectly invoking French-Greek Marxist Nicos Poulantzas and taking from Bensaïd only his analysis of bourgeois democratism as a quasi-independent horizon, there would be, in the event of a revolutionary process, according to the author, a duality “between the bourgeois state and forms of popular power outside the state, but also within the state itself” [emphasis added]. Moreover, “in countries with a parliamentary tradition of more than a hundred years, where the principle of universal suffrage is solidly established, a revolutionary process cannot be imagined as anything other than a transfer of legitimacy that would give precedence to ‘socialism from below’, but in interference with representative forms”, in this case parliamentary, if one reads between the lines. Without a NUPES parliamentary majority, with or without a revolutionary process, there is no salvation, according to Ugo Palheta.
11 It is surprising that the author should adopt what was Jacques Chirac’s political line after the “winter of our discontent”, the great movement of November-December 1995: the President suspended the Juppé Plan concerning the pensions and social security, dissolved the National Assembly on April 21, 1997, and the Left came to power. It was a question of serving on a silver platter to a “left-wing government” (in this case “plural,” integrating the Socialist Party (PS), the Chevénementistes, the ecologists, the PCF and… Mélenchon) the mission that the right had not been able to carry out, in this case the most privatizing and “reforming” done up to that point in the Vth. We know how it ended, in April 2002: with the elimination of this same left from the second round and the Chirac-Le Pen match, the first expression of the crisis of hegemony which, since then, has continued to worsen for the bourgeoisie and its representatives.
12 Here is a long but enlightening excerpt: “We came together to defeat the right. This victory, our victory, is first of all the revenge of the great mobilization of November and December 1995! The left, which has just obtained a large majority, must respond to popular aspirations and break with the policies of the right. The disasters of the past cannot be repeated. Let us not forget that the National Front (FM) has confirmed that it is lying in ambush, seeking to recuperate the despair into which liberalism and Maastricht are plunging millions of men and women. New disappointments on the left would open a boulevard for the FN. To wait, to postpone the emergency measures needed to loosen the stranglehold of Maastricht liberalism, would give the employers and finance the time to recover, to speculate to put pressure on the new government. We would be taking the risk of destroying the hope that has just been born. No one imagines that everything can be done immediately. But a change of course must be manifested in the next few weeks and clearly reflect the will to implement another policy, responding to the expectations of the popular electorate… Only the mobilization of all will overcome the resistance to change tomorrow. A left-wing government without social mobilization is doomed to failure. In 1981, it is the inexistence of a great popular movement that allowed the hopes of the working world to be sold off. Today, as in the past, genuine measures to fight unemployment, privileges and inequalities will be confronted by powerful interests. Our only guarantee therefore lies in a movement even more powerful than that of November-December 1995, associating wage earners with the unemployed, public and private sectors.” This is, in broad terms, what the Besancenot-Poutou tendency NPA is defending today and what Palheta declines, in a different tone, on Contretemps: a call for a LFI-NUPES government possibly enlarged “on its left”.
13 Stathis Kouvélakis, ‘La dialectique du temps et de la lutte,’ Ligne n°32, 2010, p.66.
14 Daniel Bensaïd, Une lente impatience, Paris, Stock, 2004, p.79.
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Juan Chingo

Juan is an editor of our French sister site Révolution Permanente.

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