At its congress on 24-27 January in Paris, the LCR (Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire) decided to set about building "a new anti-capitalist party".
This is a longer version of this article than in the printed paper
It has already started setting up local "collectives" of activists interested in taking part in this "new party", and hopes to pull them together into a new organisation by the end of the year.
The LCR has been talking about a "new party" since the late 1980s, but up to now its perspective has been of some sort of broad merger of left-wing forces including large chunks from the old Socialist Party and Communist Party. This congress marked a turn.
The majority argued that to chase after such a merger is hopeless, and that the LCR should instead build primarily "from below", from among the new activists (or old activists returned to life) which have gathered round the LCR in the election campaigns of its presidential candidate Olivier Besancenot and in struggles like those in 2006 over young workers' rights and late last year over pensions.
The direction proposed for the "new party" is thus more left-wing than in previous projections. The LCR says the new party should aim to "revolutionise society", to replace capitalist ownership of the means of production by social ownership, to win a workers' government. It should reject any perspective of managing the existing system by participation in governments or municipal executives.
The Gauche Revolutionnaire, the small French sister-group of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, will participate. L'Etincelle, the minority faction of Lutte Ouvriere, so far has a wait-and-see line; but it has just been "suspended" (effectively expelled) from Lutte Ouvriere over its dissent from LO's startling decision to seek to join lists led by the Socialist Party for France's municipal elections this March, and it must be possible that it will join with the LCR, and provide a force pushing the "new party" to the left.
Only a small minority at the LCR congress stuck to the old perspective, suggesting that the LCR aim to build something more like the Linkspartei in Germany. (Or Respect in Britain, minus the "party-for-Muslims" quirks? But no-one in the LCR congress debate mentioned Respect, favourably or unfavourably).
The LCR congress, which I attended as an observer from the AWL, was impressive. The LCR has recruited large numbers of able young activists, and conducts its debates with an intensity (not to say volubility) and lack of demagogy which puts the British left to shame.
Whether it is actually possible to pull off an expansion sufficient to warrant the title "new party" remains, of course, to be seen. In discussion, LCR activists readily concede that the general level of class-confidence in the French working class is still at a low ebb.
And there will be many political issues to thrash out. Olivier Besancenot says that the new party will be out to revolutionise society, "but not Trotskyist". For many LCR leaders, this is more than not wanting to deter people with jargonistic labels. They have the slogan "new epoch [since 1989], new programme, new party", indicating that in any case they themselves want to replace Trotskyism by some as yet undefined "new programme". Trotskyism was defined as a "left opposition to Stalinism", so is made into a thing of the past by the collapse of Stalinism.
In a pre-congress contribution, LCR leader Francois Duval writes that "our revolutionary strategy for the conquest of power will long remain in the domain of debate. Our model cannot be summed up as the Russian Revolution with a makeover... The debate remains open as to how far the conditions of that revolution determined the monstrous counter-revolution that followed".
Moreover, the 20th century revolutions "referring to Marxism did not all follow the same strategy... encirclement of the cities by the countryside, dual power in the form of whole liberated territories, institutional dual power, insurrectionary general strike, proletarian hegemony in a democratic revolution, active minority drawing along the masses, the foco theory..."
Add in the LCR's cheering for Che Guevara (one pre-congress contribution sourly noted that the 90th anniversary of the Russian Revolution attracted only one page of coverage in the LCR's paper, while the 40th anniversary of Guevara's death got several pages, a book, and a big rally). And Olivier Besancenot's response when interviewed by Paris-Match and asked what "model" of revolution he favours: the Cuban or the Nicaraguan. And the fact that, though the LCR is clear about generally supporting the Russian Revolution of 1917 and condemning the Stalinist counter-revolution - François Sabado made the point explicitly at the congress - it also maintains that the "historic cycle opened by the Russian Revolution in 1917" closed only in 1991, with the collapse of the USSR (the same Sabado, in pre-congress bulletin 2/1). It makes a curious mix.
And note that Daniel Bensaid's interesting comment on the LCR's 40 years since 1968 - his remark that the LCR was at one time in danger of becoming just a "network of trade-union and campaign activists rather than a political organisation" has much to teach the British left - notably fails to mention Stalinism and populism.
Our view, in crude outline, is this. The Russian Revolution of 1917 is the only one so far where the working class, through its own democratic organisations, took power and sustained a workers' government for more than a few weeks. (There have been quite a few shorter-lived workers' revolutions). By the 1930s the workers' state had been overthrown and replaced by a new exploiting class: some of us call it "bureaucratic-collectivist" and some "state capitalist", but in any case its historic trajectory was as a detour, in less economically developed countries, within the epoch of capitalism.
The Stalinist or populist revolutions of the later 20th century - Yugoslavia, China, and so on - were revolutions made by militarised forces not based on the working class. They created governments which did not even claim to be workers' governments, and in fact were dictatorships of the military elite, whether relatively popular and flexible as in Cuba or downright terroristic as in Cambodia and China.
Venezuela is not even a revolution - Hugo Chavez is, after all, a senior officer in the established army, owing his position in large part to support from the majority of the officer corps - but the (small) "socialistic" element in Chavez's policy is based on the Stalinist model. The Sandinistas, in Nicaragua after 1979, consciously sought to distance themselves from the Stalinist model, but could do so only by restricting themselves to more moderate populist measures.
All these experiences are important, but it is as senseless to discuss the "strategies" involved in terms of compare-and-contrast with Bolshevism as it is to compare-and-contrast horses' techniques for jumping fences with people's techniques for diving. They were "strategies" for quite different forces to do quite different things.
Anarchists, "left communists", and social democrats contend that features of Bolshevism - fierce political demarcation, "tightness", discipline, high combativity - are (to some degree or another) "to blame" for killing workers' democracy in the USSR. Their arguments should be discussed objectively: if we have the privilege of hindsight, we should use it to identify errors that were made.
But it's incongruous for the LCR leaders to tip their hat to the "not-democratic-enough" criticisms of Bolshevism, and at the same time to see positive elements of "workers'" or "Marxist" revolution in Cuba, China... and even some residues in the USSR in its last years before 1991.
The conclusion of such an attitude is simple enough: "Gee! What a lot of varied revolutions in the 20th century! But it looks like they all made big mistakes! Better be looser, more easy-going, and more democratic for the socialism of the 21st century. But, come on, we don't want to be boring and sectarian. No use discussing Stalinism. It's a question of days gone by".
That just begs the question. If the Bolsheviks had been more "easy-going", they would never have led the October 1917 revolution; if they had somehow led it, they would have lost the ensuing civil war; if they had somehow survived the civil war, they would have suffered the fatal absorption of a chunk of their party "machine" into the layers of government officialdom surviving from Tsarism all the faster.
Clarity for the future depends on not begging the questions.
Daniel Bensaid, the main theoretician of the LCR, spoke of the LCR's 40 years since it was founded in the wake of the great general strike of May-June 1968
In 1968 I think the scene was one which people today find hard to imagine. The Communist Party had 26% of the vote, and the CGT [trade-union confederation then tightly dominated by the CP] had dominant influence. The Socialist Party was very much weakened, particularly because of its complicity in France's colonial wars.
1968 served to confirm what many doubted at the time, the relevance of communism and the idea of changing the world. Remember, at the time many believed that the thirty years of prosperity had abolished the class struggle.
So we set off with the LCR, without imagining that it would be such a long journey. If someone had told me then that we would still be at it 40 years later, I would have been a bit worried.
And then, I think, we had ups and downs more or less in line with what happened in society. In the 1970s there was a rise of struggles, carrying on from the shock of 1968, not only in France but across Europe, and that was reflected in the Ligue by the fact that the peak of its activist forces coincided more or less with the revolution in Portugal [1974-5].
We launched a revolutionary daily which lasted for three years, from 1976 to 79. Both in terms of activity and of membership numbers, it was a period which corresponded with the radicalisation in Italy, the collapse of the dictatorship in Spain, etc.
The most difficult years were the Mitterrand years [Francois Mitterrand of the Socialist Party was president of France from 1981 to 1995]. Not only because of Mitterrand, though he contributed to the difficulties, and so did the united left government [SP-CP] of the 80s, but because that period corresponded to a shift in the international balance of forces, with the neo-liberal offensive of Reagan and Thatcher from 1979.
For me, the 80s stand as the dismal years. We suffered a lot. Sometimes we were close, if not to disappearing, at least to being reduced to a network of trade-union and campaign activists rather than a political organisation with the ambition to make an impact as such.
Then came the beginnings of a remobilisation, of which the symbolic dates are: the Zapatista insurrection of 1994 in Mexico; the 1995 strikes in France; and the alternative-globalisation movement starting with Seattle in 1999.
From 1995, the Ligue, which had been very much weakened, began to regain strength and reconstruct itself. That accelerated after the presidential election in 2002 and the good result for Olivier Besancenot's candidacy. It opened up a new space, and above all allowed us to do what a lot of those around us have not been able to do, to move on to a new generation so that we can respond properly to the situation. We face a brutal capitalist offensive and a traditional, governmental, left which not only does not respond adequately, but even, in its majority, agrees with the neo-liberal counter-reforms, disagreeing only on how to carry them through.
We do not want to tend an electoral capital of four per cent like little rentiers. We are here, and we are resisting. So we have responsibilities which are out of proportion to our real forces.
You can see what we manage to do with 4000 activists, so imagine what we could do with 10,000 or 12,000. That is not yet a mass party, but it is in the realm of the possible. If it's possible, let's do it. Let us take our responsibilities. Of course, it is possible that we won't achieve it; that only in a longer term will we manage to reduce the huge gap which exists between our real forces and the popularity, confirmed in the polls, of Olivier Besancenot.
We are not fixated by opinion-poll mirages. Popularity is a useful asset, but there is a big gap between that and the real balance of activist forces.
We are not strong enough by ourselves to get into a dynamic and sweep aside the resistance of organisations who do not want to commit themselves to something new, or do not want to detach themselves from their alliances with the Socialist Party. And, at the same time, we are strong enough that some people are worried about us being hegemonic.
Since we do not want to reduce our numbers voluntarily in order to dispel the fear of us being hegemonic, the only solution is is to grow more and gain strength so that we can pull along those who are hesitant and build something together with them.
Olivier Besancenot, the LCR's presidential candidate, explained the congress decision to the press
This 17th congress of the LCR has launched a process for a constituent general assembly for a new party which should mark a first step in June, with a meeting of the collectives which we want to see emerge everywhere. An appeal has been made to all those interested; all those who want to be in on it can decide democratically, from A to Z, everything in the process, the programme of the new party, its functioning, and its name.
It's a matter of bringing together all those who want to act and think about what the socialism of the 21st century can be. It will be a party which wants to revolutionise society, but not a Trotskyist party. We want to bring people together from below rather than from above. We do not want to construct a cartel of existing organisations.
Yvan Lemaitre, a leader of the left-wing Democratie Revolutionnaire current in the LCR, welcomed the congress decision
We have decided to rise to the challenge, to put our organisation at the service of the building of a new party of the workers and the oppressed... We are putting our forces into a big effort of organisation with the aim of regrouping as broadly as possible, in one party, all those who want to acquire the means of collectively contesting the power of the financiers and their servant Sarkozy and who have drawn the lessons from the impotence of the institutional left..
The political current represented by Democratie Revolutionnaire and Debat militant has argued for this perspective since the first elements on which it is based began to form and express themselves in 1995, after Arlette Laguiller got more than 5% of the votes in the presidential election and after the strike movement of November-December. Those elements have been strengthened and deepened; the need for a new workers' party has become an emergency with the collapse of the Communist Party...
Debat militant will participate, in a new form, in the necessary debates and discussions around the many problems which the anti-capitalist and revolutionary movement will have to confront, resolve, and surmount...