France: The New Anti-capitalist Party, a promising birth

By Guillaume Liegard

[The following is an abridged version of an article that first appeared in the April edition of International Viewpoint, the monthly English-language journal of the Fourth International (FI), the largest international association of Trotskyist parties. The author was a member of the Political Bureau of the (now-dissolved) Revolutionary Communist Party (LCR), the French affiliate of the FI, and was elected to the National Political Council of the NPA at its founding congress. He remains a member of the FI’s International Committee.]

On February 5, the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) politically dissolved itself and the founding congress of the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) took place immediately afterwards, over the next three days. At the moment of its founding, the new party had 9123 members, spread over 467 local branches throughout metropolitan France. Approximately 5900 members took part in the various local congresses which prepared the NPA national congress, a sign of the active character of the new party. To complete the picture, it as should be mentioned that there exist equivalents of the NPA outside metropolitan France, in particular on the island of Reunion and in the French West Indies.

The founding of the new party was an event both in France and for very many anti-capitalists across the world. All those who were afraid that it would just be the LCR under another name were proved wrong by the congress of the NPA. We really are seeing a change of nature and of scale, but the NPA is also the continuation in other forms of the same combat for the emancipation of humanity.

It is not superfluous to re-examine here the reasons which resulted in launching the process of building a new party and doing something that is not so common, by dissolving an organisation, the LCR, with 40 years of existence and which, in terms of its accumulated political capital, its membership, its political, social and electoral audience, had never been in such good shape.

Class struggle in France

Fundamentally, it was the imbalance between, on the one hand, the political situation, the scale of the class struggle in France, including its expression on the electoral terrain, and on the other hand the weakness of the organisational reality of the anti-capitalist and revolutionary left, which led us to take such an initiative. It was a question of starting to readjust this imbalance and at the same time offering a political perspective on a clear orientation that measures up to the upheavals taking place.

Without going too far back, since 2002, practically every year we have had the concrete expression of a deep-seated rejection of capitalist policies, and manifestations, diffuse though they were, of the search for a political alternative:

  • 2002: The presidential election, almost 3 million votes, 10%, for the candidatures of Arlette Laguiller of Lutte Ouvriere and Olivier Besancenot of the LCR.
  • 2003: A long strike (up to three months in certain sectors) by civil servants against the reform of the pension system. In spite of the silence of a Socialist Party (PS) which basically supported the reforms and in spite of the conduct of the majority of the trade-union leaderships, this strike really almost turned into a general strike. In fact, to prevent the convergence between the struggles that were taking place and their generalisation, it was necessary for the principal French trade-union confederation (the CGT) to break the beginnings of a full-scale transport strike.
  • 2005: The rejection by 55% of voters of the European constitutional treaty, in a context where after a unitary, militant campaign, the “no” from the left played a decisive role.
  • 2006: The victorious strike against an attempt to impose a low-wage work contract on young people (the CPE, First Job Contract). The mobilisation was primarily organised by youth, but it was backed up at key moments by the entire workers’ movement through one-day strikes and mobilisations.

To all these elements should be added the evolution taking place in the PS, its increasingly complete conversion to social-liberalism and the extent of its integration into bourgeois institutions, whether national or international (in particular, the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund, presided over respectively by the French Socialists Pascal Lamy and Dominique Strauss-Kahn).

For the LCR, the period from 2002 to 2007 was one of reinforcement, one might say of primitive accumulation. Going from 1500 to 3000 members during this period was a real success, but it appeared quite flimsy in comparison with the political space that we were occupying. This contradiction could only be transitory and without an initiative on our part, it is our audience which would have been brought down to our reality, not the reverse.

The catalyst was the result of the presidential election in 2007. We obtained a relative success with 1.5 million votes (4.1%). The other candidates to the left of the PS took a hammering, with 1.9% for the candidate of the Communist Party (PCF) and 1.4% for Lutte Ouvriere. Under these conditions, taking into account the social and political context and because we had the best result, we, the leadership of the LCR, had a particular responsibility.

The experience of Lutte Ouvriere is also eloquent. Twice, in 1995 and 2002, its candidate crossed the threshold of 5% of the vote ... and then nothing. After a certain point, the expectations that have been aroused must find the beginnings of an answer, failing which you will pay a heavy price. However to stay the course, you need an alternative project, a collective force to lead it, in short, a party. And this party could not be the LCR. Because of its historical identity, Trotskyism, because it was the product of a certain conception dating from the 1970s of what a far-left organisation should be, the LCR, even though it had changed a lot, was not the answer that measured up to the scale of the challenge. In June 2007, during the meeting of our national leadership, we took our responsibilities by launching an appeal for the constitution of a new anti-capitalist party.

An anti-capitalist orientation

From then on our project was really to create the conditions to bring together within the same party those who had not lost the will to overthrow the system. To put an end to this system of exploitation, domination and destruction of the resources of the planet — that was the delimitation that we laid down. Other projects certainly exist to the left of the PS, but over and above the programmatic aspects, it is really the question of alliances and of taking part or not in running bourgeois institutions along with the social-liberals which is the core of the problem. Indeed, the corollary, the practical translation one might say, of this anti-capitalism is strict independence with respect to the PS. That implies in particular the refusal of any agreement to govern within the framework of bourgeois institutions with the PS, at the national governmental level obviously, but also at the intermediate levels like the departments or the regions.

This position is, as we know, a casus belli [cause for war] for many organisations which affirm their anti-liberal positions. This is the case in particular with the PCF. A year ago, in order to preserve its municipal positions it sought a systematic agreement with the PS even if that meant accepting in many cities an agreement with the social-liberal Democratic Movement (Modem), which consists of that part of the liberal right which refused to join [right-wing President Nicholas] Sarkozy’s party, the UMP. And the PCF is already announcing that it is seeking an agreement with this same PS for the regional elections in 2010. It should be mentioned that it participates in the regional executives, in a subordinate position, in 17 regions out of 22.

In the political field to the left of the PS there did not exist in France organised national partners to carry out this project along with the LCR. This was either because of dependence on the PS, as in the case of the PCF, or from sectarianism in the case of Lutte Ouvriere. But the mobilisations of the last several years showed that there were forces that were ready to commit themselves, that there was a radical new layer of activists and new layers of the working class. With our appeal, we made it possible to advance concretely towards the construction of a first political alternative.

The period which opened in June 2007 and which went on until the 17th Congress of the LCR in January 2008 was marked by the emergence of a broad consensus within the LCR and by the first experiences of the committees for a new party. Although it was not always easy, and it took time to debate and to convince, in January 2008 nearly 83% of the members of the LCR supported this orientation. Parallel with this, the development and the success of the first experiences on the ground showed us that we were not taking a wrong turn. The support for the idea of building a new party that we had felt was there was confirmed, sometimes beyond our hopes.

2008 was the year that the process really developed, but also when there was a gradual shift away from the LCR and towards the NPA. Once the municipal elections, which were a real success for the LCR, were over, dozens of new pro-NPA committees sprang up all over France. But it happened so quickly that when there were between 300 and 350 local committees, the only national structure that existed to direct the process remained the leadership of the LCR. That is why we proposed a first national meeting of the committees at the end of June 2008.

The aim was to make possible the first contact between the different committees, with a double objective: on the one hand, to have an appeal which was no longer just the appeal of the LCR but of an assembly of committees for the NPA, of a party that was in the process of being established; on the other hand, to set up a national structure whose role would be to lead all the committees until the founding congress. The gamble largely paid off: 800 delegates from between 330 and 350 committees adopted a new appeal and set up the National Organising Collective (CAN) which would organise and coordinate the national activity of the committees, until the founding congress. Let us note in passing that the LCR made the choice of being a minority within the CAN. As an activist party, the NPA progressively, as it developed, built up its different interventions. Gradually the militant activity of the LCR was replaced by the activity of the various committees for a new party.

A revolutionary socialist party

It is not possible to recall here all the decisions that were taken by the founding congress of the NPA. All the documents that were adopted, as well as a number of videos that were made in the course of the three days of the congress, can be found on the site of the NPA (http://www.npa2009.org). But let us remain traditional, since a party is first of all a program, and deal briefly with some of the elements which figure in what we called the “founding principles”. The NPA does not define itself as a revolutionary party, but as a party wanting “to revolutionise society”. Some people wanted to see there just a semantic trick, but the reality is very different. In fact behind the term “revolutionary party” are concealed several ways of understanding it. For some, and this is probably on a large scale, the meaning most commonly shared, behind the word revolution, there are the experiences of the French Revolution, the Paris Commune, even the experiences of June 1936 and May 1968.

For the revolutionary Marxist current to which the LCR belonged, the definition was narrower: a revolutionary party is a party which has a program and a strategy to make the revolution. Under these conditions, and taking into account our project, to revolutionise society makes it possible to define a camp, consisting of those who have not abandoned the idea of bringing this system down, without advancing any further concerning the strategic hypotheses for achieving this end. On the other hand, the founding principles are clearly of Marxist inspiration, including in their relationship to such a crucial question as the nature of the state. Our program indicates that the state and its institutions are instruments of the bourgeoisie, that they cannot be put at the service of a political and social transformation, and that consequently they must be overthrown.

The NPA is also a party which fights for socialism: our founding principles indicate that “the only answer to the globalised crisis of capitalism, the battle on which the future of humanity depends, is the battle for a socialism of the 21st century, democratic, ecological and feminist”. After some hesitations between “socialism”, “ecosocialism” and “socialism of the 21st century”, it is the latter which was retained, after a vote. But the ecological dimension is strongly present, with the fundamentally correct approach that there can only be a battle for socialism if the planet continues to exist…

The NPA, faithful to its founding principles, will have its own policies and its own international relations. But because it is a party that is really internationalist, because it knows that there cannot be the development of the anti-capitalist forces in France without equivalent developments in Europe and in the world, the NPA has a project of regrouping anti-capitalist forces. Moreover, the conclusion of our founding principles is explicit on the subject: “Our party seeks to link itself to all the forces in the world which fight against capitalism. That is why the NPA will engage in dialogue and political collaboration with other anti-capitalist and revolutionary forces in the world with a view to the constitution of a new International”.

Obviously, it has to be understood that in its practical concretisation, in its choices, in its method of construction, there are elements which are very deeply related to French social and political reality, to the way that the political landscape in France is made up. So the NPA is not and cannot be any kind of model.

United-front policy

What are the prospects from now on? The founding congress was a big success. With more than 9000 members, the NPA is already a force to be reckoned with on the French political scene. But although the congress was an important stage in the process, it was really only one stage in the construction and the development of our project. The dynamic continues, and in the three weeks which followed the creation of the NPA, we received more than 3000 contacts and applications to join. The reality of this new party, its dynamic and the developments of the crisis of capitalism must lead to new processes of crystallisation and differentiation within certain sectors of the French workers’ movement.

Above all, in the face of the gravity of the international financial, economic, food and ecological crisis, in the face of the extent of the disastrous social effects that the world recession is generating, the level of social exasperation can only increase. Already important mobilisations are developing: 2.5 million people in the streets on January 29, the ongoing strike of the personnel of higher education and of course the general strikes in Guadeloupe and Martinique.

At this moment, at the beginning of 2009, the newly-born NPA is developing an extremely active united-front policy. It was on its initiative that a common statement of 11 left organisations was published, calling for the continuation of the mobilisation after the success of the demonstrations of January 29 and in support of the struggle in Guadeloupe. One of the most urgent tasks of the hour for the NPA is to be an effective instrument supporting the broadest unity. But in parallel, the NPA defends its own positions, and in particular the demand for an across-the-board wage increase of 300 euros, which is having an increasing echo.

Anti-capitalist sentiment and the search for a political alternative to this absurd system are developing in France. However, we are approaching this period full of uncertainties with a new instrument which by its program and its positioning can bring together part of the aspirations for a radical break with the system. So are we able, with the NPA, to answer all the political questions of the day? The answer is obviously no. The perspective remains that of a mass anti-capitalist party capable of building a different relationship of social and political forces. That will undoubtedly take time, even though elements of acceleration are far from being excluded given the situation.

But let us pose the question differently: have we, with the constitution of the NPA, crossed an important threshold, and even entered a new stage in the realisation of this objective? Unquestionably, this is the case. To amplify the dynamic around the NPA, to be able to incorporate new traditions coming from the French workers’ movement, above all to encourage, by our practical activity and our demands, the coming mobilisations; that is the challenge. The task will undoubtedly not be easy but it fills us with enthusiasm and we are ready for it.