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Trotskyists in France Are Reconstituting a Fighting Revolutionary Left. There Are Important Lessons for the United States

The Far Left in France, which has grown complacent at best and has crossed the class line at worst, is being resuscitated with revolutionary politics thanks to the efforts of Révolution Permanente — which include launching a new organization. There are lessons for the United States in what has happened in France and in the opportunities to come.

Scott Cooper

June 23, 2022
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Members of Trotskyist organization Revolution Permanente at a protest.

In the aftermath of Emmanuel Macron’s reelection as France’s president, a process of reestablishing a genuine revolutionary perspective and practice has taken an important turn in the country. It has the potential for tremendous historical significance. And it offers some important lessons for activists about what to do and what not to do — including for activists in the United States.

The lesson of what not to do can be found in an article by Marlon Ettinger in Jacobin, a magazine close to a significant section of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) leadership. It sings the praises of the electoral alliance created for the legislative elections that took place this month in France — an alliance of what the French call la gauche institutionelle, the institutional Left, to build what Ettinger calls a “counterpower to” the “monarchical executive” branch led by Macron. The leader of the coalition, known as the NUPES (Nouvelle Union Populaire Écologique et Sociale), is Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the social-democratic populist party La France Insoumise (LFI, France Unbowed). The fool’s errand of NUPES was to force Macron to name Mélenchon as his government’s prime minister by winning the most seats in France’s National Assembly.

Mélenchon was LFI’s presidential candidate earlier this year, and came in third — thus failing to make it to the second round. The NUPES coalition includes LFI, the Greens, remnants from the Socialist and Communist Parties, and others that have long been committed to the institutions of France’s Fifth Republic — and in some cases have constituted governments that have done the capitalists’ bidding. The NUPES campaign, at one end of the French Left spectrum, has had Mélenchon and his partners engaged in a wholesale capitulation to upholding the institutions of the French bourgeoisie in a quest for some ephemeral “power” — which Mélenchon argues for in exchange for becoming the managers of capitalism on behalf of the ruling class, but ostensibly with more of an eye to representing the interests of workers.

The coalition secured a virtual tie with Macron’s candidates in the first round of the legislative elections on June 12. The following Sunday, in second-round voting, Macron’s party lost its majority in the legislature but still secured the most seats. The NUPES delegates will be the second-largest grouping. 

At the other end of the French Left spectrum lies the revolutionary perspective — the fight not to manage but to destroy the capitalist system of exploitation and oppression along with the bourgeois state organized to serve and preserve that system’s interests. Along that spectrum can also be found the traditional organizations of what the French call l’extrême-gauche, the Far Left, including those who can trace the origins of their organizations back to the very beginnings of the Left Opposition to Stalinism led by Leon Trotsky, a leader of the 1917 Russian Revolution, and to the founding of the Fourth International in 1938.

History shows that to be between these poles is to tend strongly toward — or in many cases to be explicitly supportive of — the capitulation end of the spectrum. In France, we can see this in a brief history of the country’s Trotkyist “Far Left” since the 1960s.

The LCR and NPA

As happened in the United States, organizations identifying as Trotskyist surged in membership beginning in the late 1960s and well into the 1970s. In France, what became the Ligue communiste révolutionnaire (LCR, Revolutionary Communist League) emerged in this period; it was the French section of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USec), one of the main international organizations of the world Trotskyist movement. Officially founded with the LCR name in 1974, it was the product of an upsurge in the class struggle that brought France to the brink of a revolutionary situation in May–June 1968. Many of the LCR’s key leaders were products of that uprising and then became a major component of the country’s Far Left for several decades. In February 2009, however, after a process of the USec moving further and further away from the core principle of building independent, revolutionary Marxist parties rooted in the working class and based on the historical program of Trotskyism, the group voted overwhelmingly to dissolve itself into the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) — a “broad anticapitalist party” that the LCR was a leading force in creating. A major factor in the LCR’s thinking was the vote for Olivier Besancenot, a member of the LCR, in the first round of the French presidential elections of 2002 and 2007: 1.2 million votes (4.25%) and nearly 1.5 million votes (4.08%), respectively.

The NPA project involved creating what is essentially a federation of currents from other Left organizations besides the LCR, along with groupings around feminist, alter-globalism, environmentalism, and so on — that is, around movementism, a focus on popular social and economic movements as the main force for societal change rather than on the role of the working class as society’s main revolutionary force. The NPA began with 9,200 members — a significant number. That the LCR should end up helping create the NPA makes perfect sense given its long-term orientation to social movements and its focus on recruiting youth rather than workers — a remnant of its origins in the student component of the May–June 1968 events. It presented its own liquidation into the NPA as a new schema for building a revolutionary party based on movements; in fact, it was a total abandonment of the central task of Trotskyists to build a revolutionary party.

That said, it’s important to note that at the NPA’s inception, its future was not cast in stone: it was certainly possible then that it could evolve into a mechanism for aiding the construction of a revolutionary organization. That would, of course, depend on its program, its activities, its engagement with the class struggle, and the assurance of democratic internal debate.

The two other main Trotskyist currents in France — Lutte Ouvrière and the Lambertists — never embraced the NPA project.

The Lambertists

The Lambertists today are organized in two groups, the result of a 2015 split: the Parti ouvrier indépendant (POI, Independent Workers Party) and the Parti ouvrier indépendant démocratique (POID, Democratic Independent Workers Party). Prior to that, this current of the French Far Left could be found in a series of organizations that went through several names and then, beginning around the commencement of the First Gulf War in 1990, tried on both a national and international scale to do something somewhat like the LCR tried with the NPA: regroupment of Left forces within a “broad front.”

For the Lambertists — so known because of the central role played by Pierre Lambert (1920–2008), a French Trotskyist who led an organization that had refused to join a 1963 reunification of worldwide Trotskyist forces that had split 10 years earlier — this effort revolved around the founding of the Parti des travailleurs (PT, Workers Party) in France and the International Liaison Committee for a Workers’ International (ILC). The PO was a “fusion” of sorts with some members of the trade union bureaucracy organized in Force Ouvrière (FO, Workers’ Force), one of the country’s five major union confederations; this “broad” party had tendencies that included former members of the Communist and Socialist parties as well as anarchists, but was dominated by the “orthodox Trotskyists” of the Lambert current. Among its founding principles was “recognition of the class struggle,” but it focused on secularism and the fight against the institutions of the Fifth Republic, not on putting forth an actual revolutionary struggle. In essence, Trotskyism largely disappeared. Meanwhile, the ILC sought to engage movements and left-leaning union bureaucrats from across the globe, particularly in less-developed countries. Its focus was on “national sovereignty” against imperialism.

Lutte Ouvrière

Then there’s Lutte Ouvrière (LO, Workers’ Struggle), the third leg of the old Trotskyist stool in France’s Far Left. It traces its origins to a small group with a different name founded in 1939. Over the decades, it has grown to play a very key role in Far Left politics, thanks in part to its presidential candidates typically getting a very wide hearing. In 2002, LO candidate Arlette Laguiller eclipsed LCR candidate Besancenot’s good showing, garnering more than 1.6 million votes (5.72%), In 2007, though, Laguiller’s vote total dropped precipitously to only a third of that total: 487,857 votes in the first round, or 1.33 percent.

LO is distinguished by its deep orientation to workplaces, its semi-clandestine functioning, and its nearly complete eschewal of involvement in any struggles of working-class people and oppressed communities that isn’t based on economic struggles in the unions and their bureaucracies — which LO refuses to criticize. LO is held in high regard by many workers in France, and yet the organization has never used this regard to initiate or help lead a struggle against racism, police violence, or anything. Put simply, it has failed to find a way — or, more accurately, refused to find a way — to engage with radicalizing young workers in France who have been waging profoundly important class struggles over the past five years and longer.

Where have these currents ended up today? The NPA (that is, the ex-LCR) has endorsed Mélenchon’s ridiculous scheme to become prime minister while refusing to sign an agreement to join the NUPES (which didn’t want the NPA to join, anyway). As the comrades of Left Voice’s sister organization in France put it, the NPA has shown it is willing to “sacrifice political and programmatic independence for an electoral union and a few possible deputy positions.” The POI has openly endorsed the NUPES. The POID mounted no presidential campaign, but ran some candidates in the first round of the legislative elections while at the same time claiming it is preparing “the conditions for the class struggle that will arise” and calling on French workers not to “divide” the vote and to hold their noses while they vote for the “parties that have historically come out of the workers’ movement.”

LO claims to have as many as 8,000 “adherents,” a combination of perhaps 1,500 to 2,000 formal members and a loyal periphery. They are mostly implanted in the trade unions. At times, the organization does play a leading role in workers’ struggles in workplaces, and demonstrates principle, militancy, and class independence when it does so. The group abstains, though, from political and social struggles, and in that respect largely watches the French class struggle pass it by.

The NPA’s membership today is an estimated 2,000 — a massive decrease from its size when it was founded, and a reflection of its failure to become the force it claimed it set out to create. The two Lambertist groups each have 1,000 or so members, with many in the unions. But such numbers — and in a country of 68 million people, the numbers are not insignificant — are meaningless if those militants are not playing a revolutionary role in moving the class struggle forward. The crisis of the French Far Left — Trotskyism being the continuity of revolutionary Marxism from the Bolshevik revolution — is a crisis of absenteeism and abstention in a context of centrism run amok.

French Centrism

Centrism is a wide-scale phenomenon among nominally revolutionary organizations in which they vacillate between revolutionary and reformist politics. It has long been a feature of the world Trotskyist movement, and none of its main currents — whether known as Mandelism (the USec variant), Lambertism, or Morenoism (another important current from which Left Voice traces its origins) — have been immune. The “broad front” approach, which waters down revolutionary politics and practice to focus on slogans rather than action, is part and parcel of this phenomenon. Today, it has become one of the key features.

In his 1932 work What’s Next?: Vital Questions for the German Proletariat, Trotsky offered a detailed characterization of centrism’s content and purpose. “In general,” he wrote, centrism “fulfills ordinarily the function of serving as a left cover for reformism” and “to smear over the contradictions between the various tendencies” on the Left. In short, whereas “centrism is content with trifles … the revolution demands a great deal. The revolution demands absolutely everything.” And it allows for no shortcuts like those that have been sought in France.

In France today, this centrism has led to a point where the “old” Trotskyist organizations of the Far Left just discussed — even with their (relative) strength in numbers — have largely defanged themselves. They are divorced from the real battles of the French class struggle that have taken place over the last five years in particular. The NPA has crossed the class line; the Lambertists are two organizations of declarations and conferences, but little else; LO continues with its clandestine approach as it fails to engage with the growing number of French workers and youth who are seeking a revolutionary path forward to confront the misery of capitalism and the increasing attacks against them by the French state.

An Alternative Rooted in Genuine Struggle

Some years back, members of the sister organization of Left Voice in France (which publishes Révolution Permanente) joined the NPA precisely because of the potential mentioned earlier. As a public current within the NPA, those comrades waged a fight to keep the party independent and advance it along a path toward steadfast revolutionary politics. Over time, though, the NPA shrank rather than grew, and the NPA leadership — the old LCR leaders — moved further and further away from such a perspective. It became a terminal crisis. Eventually, our comrades were undemocratically excluded from the NPA — a de facto expulsion. 

That moment in June 2021 was a realization that created an opportunity to reconstitute a genuine, fighting, revolutionary Far Left in France. The “terminal crisis” of the NPA and the ongoing crisis of French centrism would need to be confronted head on, both programmatically and organizationally.

Over the past year, our comrades began to create the conditions for taking on this challenge. They used their strong links with, and in some cases leadership positions in some of the most important struggles in France over the past five years — the Yellow Vests movement, the strikes against pension reform, the rail strike and the Grandpuits refinery strike, anti-racist mobilizations, demonstrations protesting violence against women and rights for LGBTQ+ people, the environmental movement, and so on — to encourage the activists they’d been working with to join in a process of creating a new revolutionary organization. Such an invitation made perfect sense; after all, what these comrades brought to every one of these struggles, beyond their involvement in the day-to-day activities, was the class-independent, revolutionary perspective that they shared with those they met and worked with. They explained, for instance, that the only way to end racism is to end capitalism. The only way to win the comfortable retirement pensions are supposed to provide is to destroy the system of exploitation that puts profits before human needs.

One of the most important elements of this yearlong process was the presidential campaign of Anasse Kazib, a 34-year-old railway worker from a family of Moroccan immigrants who had become politicized in 2016 as part of the movement to resist changes to the French labor law, and who joined Révolution Permanente as well as the NPA the next year. He became a well-known symbol in France of a new generation of revolution-minded activists who rejected the complacency of the centrist Trotskyists. As Révolution Permanente explains in a balance sheet:

The idea of running Anasse Kazib as a candidate for the French presidency began as a proposal during the debates within the NPA … He had close links with the anti-racist movement, the struggle against police violence, and so on. He had also made his presence known on television, as a commentator on Les Grandes Gueules podcast for two years, and through his many confrontations with bourgeois politicians around Macron’s various counterreforms. …

The NPA leaders, unfortunately, had the opposite view. In a party in which all debates are public, they treated the proposal for Kazib’s candidacy as an “attack on the party.” It served as a pretext for pushing the 300 militants and sympathizers of Révolution Permanente out the door two months later. …

Once we were kicked out of the NPA, we decided to formalize the candidacy of Kazib, convinced that it would be a profound step to take that would carry the seed of a necessary revitalization of the Far Left in France, which had almost universally missed the boat with the wave of struggles that began in 2016.

The campaign was an uphill battle, given the requirement in France of obtaining 500 “sponsorships” from mayors and other elected officials just to get on the ballot — a burden the Kazib campaign could not overcome. But the campaign — essentially blacked-out from the French media — persisted as long as possible, galvanizing activists and directly confronting the Far Right, which launched racist, violent threats against the candidate at every turn. Those attacks ended up winning part of the French anti-fascist movement to the campaign’s side.

The balance sheet continues:

Interest in the campaign was striking among workers, youth, and residents of working-class neighborhoods throughout the six months of campaigning. Attendance at rallies and meetings — even though they took place several months before the elections themselves — testify to this: 500 people in Paris, 350 in Toulouse, 400 at the Institute of Political Studies in Bordeaux, 400 at the University of Paris 8, and 250 in Marseille, to name only the largest turnouts. Driven by the candidate’s charisma and fiery speech, these figures speak to a very militant campaign that involved more than 500 people, across the country, who helped organize rallies and public meetings, distributed leaflets, put up posters, and went on the road to meet public officials to encourage them to become sponsors.

Through this process, we want to begin — with many of those who worked with us in the presidential campaign — to build an instrument that can be used by workers, youth, and working-class neighborhoods to wage a social revolution, one that will put an end to capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and the destruction of the planet. We envision an organization that can intervene in the next explosions of the class struggle …

As we have reported in the pages of Left Voice, the process of creating that organization has shifted into high gear. At a conference held earlier this month, 100 delegates gathered to discuss the next steps. They issued a call for “the construction of a new revolutionary organization, one that is equal to the urgent task of ending the capitalist system and laying the foundations of a communist society.” And they addressed the call both to those searching for a revolutionary home who have found the “old” Far Left unwelcoming, as well as to the militants of those Far Left organizations that have turned away from the revolutionary struggle:

We address this call to all those who share our perspective and who do not see themselves in today’s Far Left, particularly the workers who have taken part in the working-class struggles of the last few years, the anti-racist, anti-fascist, LGBTQ+, feminist, and environmental activists who are convinced of the need for revolution, and the youth who know that this society has nothing to offer them. It is also addressed to those revolutionaries who seek to learn from the failure of the Far Left, even including militants still in the NPA, and who reject the turn taken by the leadership of that party, or that of Lutte Ouvrière.

Some Lessons to Draw 

To be sure, resuscitating the French Far Left is a much larger task than simply launching a new organization. It will require a relentless effort to establish a revolutionary pole of attraction within every struggle the French working class will be mounting as it confronts the new attacks sure to come in a second Macron presidential term. It will require an uncompromising program built on revolutionary practice and the approach of the Transitional Program that has guided revolutionaries in the Trotskyist movement since it was accepted as the founding document of the Fourth International in 1938. It will mean never forgetting why that program exists, as expressed in its subtitle: “Prepare the Conquest of Power.”

In taking this step, Révolution Permanente is accepting the responsibility implied in the Transitional Program’s very first line: “The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.” Resolving that crisis has always posed the need for building an organization of the working class that refuses to cross the class line, that is resolutely anti-capitalist, that is committed to the self-organization of the working class and the most marginalized in society, and that has as its ultimate objective to help lead the great majority of people to wrest genuine power from their oppressors and transform society from one based on exploitation to one based on meeting human needs and freeing people from wage slavery — a communist society.

The forces of Révolution Permanente today are small, but the ideas are big. This step our French comrades are taking matters because others calling themselves Trotskyists have essentially neutered, if not completely liquidated, a revolutionary pole. Opening a path to its reconstitution is what our comrades are all about. At the very moment that the centrists have abstained from the movements, the comrades of RP are presenting a perspective for the movements to come together as component parts not of some amorphous “broad front” but of a revolutionary organization with a broadened focus — one that recognizes that the only real solutions will come in overthrowing capitalism.

Why does this matter here, and what lessons might we draw in this country? Of course, France and the United States have many differences. But revolutionaries here face many of the same challenges. Notably, in the aftermath of the French legislative elections, the Macron government is confronting what Révolution Permanente is calling a crisis of “ungovernability” that will create openings for the mass movements. In this country, we have some of those same features, especially with an ineffective Congress and a president sinking in his favorability ratings at a moment when the Supreme Court is attacking long-held rights.

We also have an organization with significant impact on the Left that serves the explicit function of derailing the independence of working-class struggles and channeling them into one of the two parties of our class enemy, the Democratic Party. That organization is the DSA, and just like the NUPES in France, it is wedded to the institutions of the bourgeois state. Our French comrades, with the Anasse Kazib campaign, demonstrated that there is an alternative — as long as becoming the managers of capitalism isn’t your objective.

We saw an increase in strikes late last year, and today there are major union organizing drives across the United States. These struggles come up against the limitations of relying on bureaucrats tied to the Democratic Party. Our French comrades have demonstrated how the self-organization of rank-and-file union members can keep strikes going and force the retreat of the class enemy. This will be at the center of their new revolutionary organization.

As in France, we have anti-racist, feminist, environmental, LGBTQ+, and other movements that wax and wane, sometimes growing to historical levels (as the Black Lives Matter demonstrations did in the aftermath of the cop murder of George Floyd). What has been missing in these movements is a revolutionary pole aimed at transforming them from their “narrow” focus to a perspective aimed at uniting all the struggles against oppression into one aimed at taking power away from the oppressors and exploiters. Our French comrades are beginning the process of making that revolutionary pole a permanent feature of class struggle in their country.

None of this is hyperbole. No one is claiming that the process beginning in France — or a similar process in the United States — puts revolution on the agenda. No, what is posed right now is the question of surpassing the absenteeism, abstentionism, and liquidationism that are features of centrism — features of the absence of a genuine revolutionary pole committed to action — and taking whatever steps we can to offer an alternative.

A central task today for revolutionaries — whether there are 10 of us, 100 of us, or thousands — is to find a way to intervene with the perspective of building an independent working-class part with a revolutionary perspective. That also means recognizing the importance to building that party of struggles based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and other elements — because resolving the issues that confront people and force them into the streets to fight for their rights is impossible without revolution.

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Scott Cooper

Scott is a writer, editor, and longtime socialist activist who lives in the Boston area.

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