France’s New Reformist Party

The truth about the NPA

The emergence of France’s Nouveau parti anticapitaliste (NPA) has generated considerable interest within the European left. The NPA’s charismatic leader, Olivier Besancenot, has become a household name in France and the broad outlines of his group’s policies are known to millions.

At the time of the party’s founding in February 2009, a public opinion poll reported that 23 percent of respondents considered Besancenot to be the ‘best opponent’ of President Nicolas Sarkozy, compared to only 13 percent who favoured Martine Aubry, leader of the much larger Parti socialiste (PS), which has long been one of the traditional governing parties of the Fifth Republic.

Many on the British left are impressed with the NPA’s popularity, but few have more than a vague notion of what it actually stands for, or what it does. Sensationalised red-baiting by the bourgeois press and enthusiastic endorsements by much of the ‘far left’ have given the impression that the NPA has succeeded in winning mass support while maintaining a more or less revolutionary profile. But a careful examination of the NPA’s origins, politics and activity reveals it to be a reformist formation whose leadership are chiefly concerned with electoral manoeuvring and acutely aware that to be a major player in French politics they need to appear as militant ‘anti-capitalists’ to left-wing youth and working people.

In the final analysis, to be truly ‘anti-capitalist’ an organisation must be committed to a revolutionary socialist programme. The NPA, which was launched by the Ligue communiste révolutionnaire (LCR), the former leading section of the fake-Trotskyist ‘United Secretariat of the Fourth International’, does not even pretend to stand in the tradition of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky. In the interview in which he first publicly floated the idea of the NPA, Besancenot explicitly spelt out its anti-Leninist character: ‘If it [the NPA] sees the light of day, the LCR will have no reason to exist as such. It’s about forming a militant party which resembles society, a party which will be neither a party of passive adherents nor an elitist revolutionary vanguard’ (Le Parisien, 24 August 2007).

Origins of the NPA

In April 1995, Arlette Laguiller, who repeatedly stood as the candidate of the ostensibly revolutionary Lutte ouvrière (LO), first passed the 5 percent mark in the French presidential election. LO quickly poured cold water on speculation that it might form a ‘new party’ in a bid to displace the moribund Parti communiste français (PCF) as the hegemonic group to the left of the PS. In the 2002 presidential election Laguiller’s vote edged up to 5.7 percent while the LCR’s Besancenot, then an unknown young postal worker, received a surprising 4.25 percent. The growth in support for the ‘far left’ reflected massive working-class disenchantment with five years of capitalist austerity administered by the ‘Plural Left’ government – a popular front composed of the PS, PCF and a few small bourgeois fragments.

The PCF sought to distance itself from the Plural Left’s record of cuts with condemnations of the ‘neo-liberalism’ of the European Union’s ‘constitutional’ treaty, which its erstwhile partners in the PS supported. The PCF was joined by the LCR, an assortment of left-nationalist bourgeois mavericks and a minority current in the PS led by Senator Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who once belonged to Pierre Lambert’s ostensibly Trotskyist Organisation communiste internationaliste.

The PS leadership, along with the rest of the bourgeois political establishment, was stunned when the ‘No’ side won the May 2005 referendum on the EU ‘constitution’. The PCF, Mélenchon and various others, including a right-wing minority in the LCR led by Christian Picquet, proposed to follow up on their referendum victory by fielding a common candidate in the 2007 presidential election. The LCR leadership, however, insisted that it would only participate in such a venture if there was a firm commitment not to join any coalition government that included the PS. When the PCF rejected this condition, the LCR opted to run Besancenot. In the end, there was no ‘unity’ candidate, as Mélenchon decided to back the PS and the rest of the other ‘anti-neoliberal’ groupings balked at the prospect of becoming adjuncts to the PCF.

The result of the first round of voting in April 2007 seemed to vindicate the LCR’s tactic. Besancenot received 4.1 percent of the vote, compared to only 1.9 percent for PCF leader Marie-George Buffet and 1.3 percent for LO’s Laguiller. Eager to obtain the LCR’s endorsement in the second round, Ségolène Royal, the PS candidate who was formally supported by the bourgeois Left Radicals and Jean-Pierre Chevènement’s Mouvement Républicain et Citoyen (MRC), proposed to Besancenot ‘that he participate in public meetings and in a commission to enrich her programme with some of [the LCR’s] propositions’ (Libération, 30 April 2007). The LCR rebuffed this overture, but nonetheless ended up supporting Royal in the second round.

With the balance of forces on the ‘left of the left’ apparently shifting in their favour, the LCR leadership decided to  launch the NPA in a bid to pull in eco-liberals, ‘alter-globalists’ and dissident social democrats. To this end they were prepared to abandon any association with Trotskyism or ‘revolutionary communism’, dissolve the LCR and rebrand themselves as simple ‘anti-capitalists’. Such sentiments are pretty mainstream within the French workers’ movement. Even the PS, at its June 1971 Épinay Congress, advocated a ‘break with capitalism’:

‘The congress mandated its new leadership to prepare a governmental accord with the PCF. The final motion made reference to the union of the left strategy, the break with capitalism and the workers’ class front. Épinay marked the real beginning of the PS and its renewed connection with the traditional synthesis of French socialism: anti-capitalism, confidence in the reforming action of the state, humanism…’
(‘Le Parti socialiste depuis 1971’,

The LCR’s formal renunciation of Trotskyism in favour of a variant of this traditional ‘French socialism’ was a signal to supporters of Buffet, Mélenchon et al that the new party was committed to joining the reformist mainstream. The NPA’s declaration of ‘independence’ from the discredited PS, i.e., its categorical refusal to consider participating in any sort of coalition with it, was only a tactical manoeuvre but posed a direct challenge to the PCF, which can only maintain its apparatus and parliamentary representation through aggregating its vote with that of the PS in return for a proportion of positions won. The LCR leadership calculated that many workers who had historically supported the PCF and PS had been so alienated by the betrayals of the Plural Left that they were indifferent to the fate of their elected representatives in the National Assembly and local councils, and therefore might gravitate to a new ‘anti-capitalist’ party that remained independent of the PS.

Picquet and his supporters objected to Besancenot’s ‘sectarian’ attitude towards Buffet and Mélenchon, both of whom had been ministers in the Plural Left government. But a large majority of the LCR membership supported the proposed turn, which was overwhelmingly endorsed in January 2008 at the group’s 17th National Congress. That gathering issued ‘a call to everyone’:

‘individuals, activist groups, political currents, wanting to join together in an activist, national and democratic organised political framework, a party building international links with forces defending such a perspective.

‘We speak to women and men of all origins, with or without papers who think their lives are worth more than profits: to youth who answer “resistance!” in the face of attempts to leave them a precarious future: to activists in community groups and trade unionists who take action every day in their neighbourhoods or on the job; to socialist, anti-neoliberal and communist activists, to all national and local political organisations or currents, who think it is time to unite, beyond former divisions, and above all those who have not found a party appealing enough to get involved.…’
(International Viewpoint, February 2008)

To draw as many people as possible into preparing the launch of the new party, local LCR cells set up hundreds of ‘NPA committees’ throughout France.

As the global financial crisis unfolded in the autumn of 2008, the French ruling class was clearly becoming alarmed by the possibility of massive social upheaval. A worried Sarkozy attempted to reassure the population that ‘the crisis is not a crisis of capitalism’ (, 25 September 2008). The LCR floated a few radical-sounding proposals, including one ‘to unify all public and private banks in a single public banking system placed under the control of workers, consumers and users’ (Le Monde, 17 October 2008). Besancenot also suggested that it might be necessary to ‘reveal banking, commercial and industrial secrets’ to permit workers to examine the books of the capitalists (L’Express, 26 November 2008). Henri Weber, a PS leader who had once belonged to the LCR, denounced the ‘ultra-archaic character of the solutions’ proposed by Besancenot (Le Monde, 30 October 2008).

NPA’s Founding Congress

The roughly 600 delegates who met in February 2009 at the NPA’s founding congress claimed to represent some 9,000 people. At its dissolution, the LCR had reported a membership of 3,200. While many who signed NPA membership cards were apparently not interested enough to participate in the election of delegates, there is no question that the NPA is significantly broader than the ex-LCR. A small minority of the new adherents is composed of members of various ostensibly Trotskyist groupings, including Gauche Révolutionnaire (French section of the Committee for a Workers’ International), the Groupe CRI (a small split from the Lambertists), Fraction L’Etincelle (recently expelled from LO) and the Prométhée group. French supporters of the International Socialist Tendency had already liquidated into the LCR years earlier.

The main debate at the NPA congress pitted Besancenot’s majority against ‘Unir’, Picquet’s grouping, which had the support of 16 percent of the delegates. The Unir current argued for aligning — ‘without conditions’ — with the ‘Left Front’, an alliance of the PCF and the Parti de gauche (PG), recently founded by Mélenchon’s ex-PS tendency, in the June 2009 European elections. The NPA majority was only prepared to do so on the basis of a firm public commitment to remain ‘independent’ of the PS. This ‘sectarianism’ was too much for Picquet who, along with a section of his base, subsequently left the NPA and formed Gauche Unitaire, which joined the Left Front.

The ex-LCR leadership has sought to lend legitimacy to the claim that the NPA is an entirely new formation by actively promoting new people to prominent positions. Among the most outstanding is Raoul Marc Jennar, a former Christian Democrat from Belgium, who was a spokesperson for radical farmer José Bové’s presidential campaign. On his website, Jennar brags that, among his other accomplishments, since October 2007 he has been acting as a ‘consultant to the Cambodian government and UN consultant for the tribunal charged with judging the leaders of Khmer Rouge’. In a letter of 7 April 2008 endorsing the NPA project, Jennar asserted that it was time ‘to construct an authentic left force that is democratic, reformist/revolutionary and pro-environment. This means closing the parenthesis opened by Leninism, rejecting the methods (formulated in the 21 conditions) and beginning the construction of a new political subject’. With these impeccable credentials, Jennar was put at the head of one of the NPA’s seven party lists for the European elections.

NPA: Back to the Second International

The programmatic and organisational framework of the NPA is that of the Second International – not of the Leninist Third International or Trotsky’s Fourth International, neither of which admitted parties like the NPA. The ‘Founding Principles of the Nouveau parti anticapitaliste’, adopted at its first conference, do not even mention the October 1917 Russian Revolution – the only successful seizure of power by the proletariat to date. Instead the document refers vaguely to continuing the work ‘of those who tried with or without success to overturn the established order and resist oppression’. In the NPA principles ‘socialism’ is described in Third Campist terms as something ‘radically opposed to the bureaucratic dictatorships which, from the ex-USSR to China, usurped its name while reproducing the mechanisms of exploitation and oppression they claimed to fight’.

While the Stalinist regimes in the Soviet Union, China and other deformed workers’ states could certainly be described as ‘oppressive’, they were also based on the expropriation of capitalist property and the suppression of the chief ‘mechanism of exploitation’ under capitalism, the buying and selling of labour power. This ‘mechanism’ only reappeared in the USSR after the 1991 triumph of capitalist counter-revolution spearheaded by Boris Yeltsin with the support not only of world imperialism but of every reformist agency in the workers’ movement, including the LCR. The reintroduction of capitalist ‘freedom’ under Yeltsin enriched a handful of parasites, while pushing tens of millions into desperate poverty. Life expectancy plummeted, while every sort of social pathology – from domestic violence to murder – surged. Between 1991 and 1998 GDP fell by an estimated 40 percent.

The LCR’s ‘democratic socialist’ indifference to the defence of the deformed and degenerated workers’ states is of a piece with the NPA’s electoralist strategy. The parliamentary cretinism that underpins virtually all the new party’s practical activity is complemented by the Second International-style ‘maximum’ programme outlined in its ‘Founding Principles’:

‘To put an end to crises implies putting an end to exploitation, thus to the private property in the means of production, exchange and communication at its base. The financial system, services essential for life and large enterprises must come under the control of workers and the population, who will appropriate and run them within the framework of democratic planning. Freed from capitalist property and appropriation, production and the distribution of wealth will benefit all of society.’

The NPA’s principles note that ‘a social revolution will be necessary to bring down capitalism’, and even mention ‘overturning’ the bourgeoisie’s repressive apparatus:

‘It is not possible to place the state and the current institutions at the service of political and social transformation. Accustomed to the defence of the interests of the bourgeoisie, these bodies must be overturned to create new institutions at the service and under the control of workers and the population.’

The document also contains a rough outline of an ‘emergency programme’ to ‘prepare the socialism that we want’:

‘We defend an emergency programme which, responding to immediate needs, calls into question capitalist property in the means of production, attacks capital and its profits to raise wages, pensions and social-welfare minimums and satisfy the needs of the population.
‘This programme insists upon the social appropriation of the product of labour by the expropriation without compensation of the large capitalist groups starting with those of the CAC 40 [the top corporations listed on the Paris stock exchange] and the essential services and branches under the control of workers and the population.’

The ‘Founding Principles’ propose that ‘redundancies must be banned on pain of requisition without indemnity of companies that lay off workers’, and call for the ‘reduction and sharing of work time until unemployment is abolished’. In its practical activity, the NPA tends to pose its call for ‘banning’ redundancies as a policy option that should be adopted by the existing bourgeois state.

In a nod to internationalism, the principles also proclaim: ‘Any anti-capitalist victory in France or in a neighbouring country would have to immediately extend itself in Europe and more broadly in the world.’ To that end, the creation of ‘a new international’ of ‘anti-capitalist and revolutionary forces’ is advocated:

‘…the anti-capitalists of an imperialist country must above all struggle against their national capitalists, their own imperialist state and its army. It is to this end that we support the expropriation, by the workers and the people of the given country, of French companies that exploit the workers and resources of the oppressed countries. And wherever the French army (or those of other imperialist countries) is present, we support popular resistance and the military defeat of the imperialist armies.’

In its most leftist formulations the NPA hints at going beyond the framework of militant reformism:

‘It is by developing and generalising struggles, generalised and prolonged strikes that we can block attacks and impose demands. It is the relationship of forces issuing from mobilisation that will allow a government to be put in place to impose radical measures that break with the system and begin a revolutionary transformation of society.’

Yet the strategy remains essentially social-democratic, with a combination of electoral successes and ‘popular mobilisations’ enabling an ‘anti-capitalist’ government to wield the existing state apparatus as an instrument of social transformation:

‘From the municipality to parliament, we will support all measures that would improve the situation of workers, democratic rights and respect for the environment. We will contribute to putting them in place if the electors give us the responsibility. But we will remain true to what we fight for and will not participate in any coalition that contradicts that struggle.
‘Our elected officials refuse to co-manage the system. They tenaciously oppose anti-social measures and defend tooth and nail, in complete independence from right-wing and social-liberal majorities, the interests of the workers and the population.
‘At the national level, the application of such a programme would involve confronting the dominant classes and would demand a formidable popular mobilisation likely to generate new forms of power that would give an anti-capitalist government the tools for its policies.’

In its ‘General Resolution on the Political and Social Situation’, the NPA projected ‘effective means to control the police by the population’ as a step in the process of putting ‘an end to the Fifth Republic by a constituent process for a social and anti-capitalist republic’. This gradualist, incremental approach, so characteristic of social democracy, is the real content of the radical-sounding phrases about ‘overturning’ the organs of capitalist rule.

French Workers Fight Back: NPA as Pressure Valve for Capital

The founding of the NPA took place in the context of a massive mobilisation of French workers against Sarkozy’s plans to respond to the global financial crisis of 2008 with further austerity and job cuts. In the first few months of 2009, workers in the healthcare, energy, rail, postal and car parts sectors joined students and teachers in lycées (secondary schools) and universities in a wave of strikes and demonstrations that in some cases included factory occupations. As conflicts hardened, in some places the control of the official union leadership was challenged by elected strike committees and daily general assemblies. Jean-François Copé, a leading figure in Sarkozy’s Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), did a little free publicity for the NPA when he accused Besancenot of encouraging ‘illegal’ and ‘violent’ behaviour (Libération, 21 January 2009). There were a few places where the justified anger of the victims of capitalist attacks went beyond the bounds of bourgeois legality, but the NPA did not play a leading role in them. Workers at the Continental tyre factory in Clairoix ransacked a government building at Compiègne, while those at 3M, Caterpillar, Sony and other companies made headlines by briefly detaining their managers – a tactic the bourgeois media denounced as ‘bossnapping’.

The trade-union bureaucracy scrambled to isolate and contain the more militant outbursts, while also calling a series of national ‘days of action’ to let off steam. On the first day of action, 29 January, some 2.5 million people took to the streets to protest the plans of the government and patronat (employers). A few days earlier, the leaders of the nascent NPA signed a joint statement with the PCF, PG and various other organisations, declaring:

‘We demand increases to wages, the minimum wage, the minimum old-age income and social welfare benefits. We propose the repeal of the fiscal package of  summer 2007; a redistribution of the state budget to respond to social needs and to develop public services at all levels; a tax reform to prevent companies from, as they do today, privileging speculation to the detriment of employment and working conditions.’
(‘Déclaration unitaire pour le 29 janvier: “Ce n’est pas à la population de payer la crise!”’, 26 January 2009)

Less than two weeks later these same groups, joined by the PS, LO and the bourgeois MRC, appealed to Sarkozy to make a ‘course correction’:

‘The message of the day [of action] of 29 January is clear. Those who work … must not pay for the crisis. Contrary to what the prime minister has claimed, the day of 29 January clearly carried the demand for a course correction [“changement de cap”], notably on the question of wages, employment and public services. Nicolas Sarkozy and the government cannot run away from these demands and ignore the main points put forward in the united trade-union platform.
‘More broadly, a large public debate is necessary in the country on the alternative measures to the current political choices that really and effectively go after the roots of this crisis and impose a different distribution of wealth and another type of development.’
(‘Communiqué commun des organisations de gauche réunies le 4 février’, 5 February 2009)

As working-class sentiment shifted leftward, former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin warned of a ‘risk of revolution’: ‘[People have the] feeling that we’re doing a lot for the banks, we’re doing a lot to help businesses but that the workers themselves are paying the costs of the crisis, that it’s always the same ones who suffer’ (, 19 April 2009).

While signing joint statements with reformist and bourgeois parties, the NPA distinguished itself with repeated calls for a ‘general strike’ – sometimes even a ‘prolonged general strike’ – and suggestions that French workers should follow the example of their counterparts in the colonies of Guadeloupe and Martinique who waged general strikes lasting 44 and 38 days respectively, wresting major concessions from the bosses. In a statement released a few days prior to the second national day of action on 19 March, the NPA noted:

‘A single “all together” day [of action] will not suffice.
‘In Guadeloupe and Martinique, it was after several weeks of general strike that the government and the bosses folded.
‘To ban redundancies, [to win] 300 euros net for everyone, a minimum wage of 1,500 net [per month], to achieve the withdrawal of the neoliberal reforms, it is necessary to prepare a general strike movement to make MEDEF [the employers’ association] and the government back down.’
(‘Communiqué du NPA. Faire céder le gouvernement et le patronat’, 16 March 2009)

The inaugural issue of Tout est à nous!, the NPA’s weekly newspaper, called for a ‘general strike’ on its front page, and reported that the 3 million people who demonstrated on 19 March demanded ‘that the government change course [“change de cap”] and stop ruling for a minority’. Echoing this sentiment, the NPA wrote that:

‘…between the extension of quality public services financed by taxes and the multiplication of tax cuts to its friends the rich, this government long ago made up its mind. Exactly the opposite of this policy, a tax revolution, is necessary, with a return to progressive taxation and real taxation of profits and wealth and, above all, capital.’

The NPA’s signature on joint declarations with the PS, the PCF and bourgeois parties to demand that Sarkozy implement various Keynesian measures and establish a more progressive tax system was a signal to the ruling class (and its labour lieutenants) that, despite its sometimes leftist rhetoric, the NPA could be counted on to contain its activities within the bounds of the capitalist political and social order.

Besancenot’s repeated calls for a ‘general strike’ were nevertheless seen by the trade-union leaders as meddling in their affairs. In October 2008, Bernard Thibault, leader of the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), the union traditionally aligned with the PCF, complained: ‘I see that Olivier Besancenot is attempting to be a politician while at the same time a leader of social struggles’ (Le Monde, 7 October 2008). François Chérèque, leader of the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT), issued a similar denunciation of ‘rapacious’ NPA militants who were ‘touring enterprises in difficulty’ (AFP, 16 March 2009).

The artificial distinction between the ‘social’ and ‘political’ spheres dates from the CGT’s 1906 Charter of Amiens, which stipulated that unions should remain ‘independent’ of all political parties. Since the end of WWI, this convention has routinely been invoked by trade-union and party leaders seeking to justify the reformist activities of their parallel (and often interconnected) bureaucracies. In a letter of July 1921, Leon Trotsky explained to revolutionary syndicalist Pierre Monatte that the Charter of Amiens no longer had any progressive content:

‘To every thinking Communist it is perfectly clear that pre-war French syndicalism represented a profoundly significant and important revolutionary tendency. The Charter of Amiens was an extremely precious document of the proletarian movement. But this document is historically restricted. Since its adoption a World War has taken place, Soviet Russia has been founded, a mighty revolutionary wave has passed over all of Europe, the Third International has grown and developed.’
(The First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol.1)

Within the unions the NPA’s strongest support comes from teachers and other white-collar workers, but as the protests became more militant its influence rose in other sectors as well:

‘Recruitment is visible notably in the car manufacturing sector with new recruits at Renault, Citroën, Peugeot and Ford as much as in the most proletarian of public services, such as the post office and the SNCF [railroads]. But this is not yet sufficient to constitute bastions. “We have reinforced ourselves but we don’t yet have big company sections”, noted Basile Pot, one of its [the NPA’s] leaders. But the influence of Besancenot’s slogans is itself real. It is perhaps this radicalisation that frightens the CFDT.’
(Le Monde, 21 March 2009)

The trade-union bureaucrats were not the only ones alarmed by the NPA’s growing influence. Xavier Bertrand, secretary general of Sarkozy’s UMP, denounced ‘certain far-left manipulators’ who ‘have but one desire: to stir up violence’ (AFP, 25 April 2009). France’s leading right-wing newspaper, Le Figaro (23 April 2009), reported that anonymous CGT and CFDT hacks were accusing members of the NPA and LO of initiating most of the ‘bossnappings’ and other radical actions.

The NPA denounced the cowardly union leaders’ role in stifling rank-and-file initiatives, but by the last major day of action on May Day, when participation dropped to 1.2 million, Besancenot et al were toning down their agitation for a general strike. When the tide was high the NPA leaders made no serious attempt to mobilise the more advanced layers of workers for concrete actions that could have broadened the struggle. Eventually the union leadership regained sufficient confidence to shift from national protests to ‘decentralised mobilisations’, which were obviously intended to demobilise their ranks. While complaining about this sabotage, the NPA leadership has also formally renounced any ambition to fight for the leadership of the labour movement: ‘The NPA told the CGT that its fear of the construction of an NPA current inside the CGT was without foundation. The autonomy of the unions goes without saying for the NPA’ (‘Communiqué du NPA. Rencontre NPA-CGT’, 2 October 2009).

NPA’s Reformist Electoralism

In contrast to their essentially passive role in the labour upsurge, Besancenot et al actively prepared for the European elections, challenging the PCF and Mélenchon on the issue of ‘independence’ from the PS. Mélenchon signalled that while he had no affinity for the PS, he was not prepared to break with the PCF, which remained dependent on its electoral bloc with the Socialists:

‘Jean-Luc Mélenchon has nevertheless tried to reassure his young “comrade” [Besancenot] by evoking a durable alliance and total independence vis-à-vis the PS. But resistance is likely to come from the PCF. Weakened for several years, the Communists only survive electorally thanks to agreements made with the party from rue de Solferino [PS], in particular for regional elections. It is thus risky to distance itself from the PS….’
(Journal du Dimanche, 8 February 2009)

Besancenot hoped that a strong showing in the European elections would establish the NPA as the dominant player to the left of the PS. The NPA strategy was to attract support from traditional PCF/PS voters who were looking for a more dynamic organisation but were not ready to break with reformism. A 2008 opinion poll indicated that 90 percent of those considering voting for Besancenot in the 2012 presidential election would want him to participate in a popular-frontist ‘government of the left’ (L’Express, 26 November 2008). As leading NPA member Pierre-François Grond put it, most of those who vote for Besancenot in the first round ‘are going to vote left in the second round’ of elections ‘whatever the NPA advises’ (Libération, 4 May 2009).

The NPA’s campaign for the European elections made it clear that rather than challenging the existing consciousness of its electoral base the NPA adapts to it. In its first official meeting, the NPA’s National Political Committee summed up their electoral message as advancing ‘a social, democratic and eco-friendly Europe’ and ‘an anti-militarist and anti-imperialist Europe of women’s rights’ (Tout est à nous!, 26 March 2009). A key element in the NPA campaign was a promise to give everyone a wage increase of 300 euros per month ‘by taking the 10 GDP points that have passed from the pockets of workers to those of the capitalists these past 25 years: in France, this represents more than 170 billion euros per year’ (Tout est à nous!, 30 April 2009). The NPA proposed that ‘a veritable energy revolution’ could be paid for by ‘a tax on the profits of the energy sector. This would permit the creation of more than 800,000 jobs.’ According to the NPA, through the creation of a public banking service, ‘a single European currency like the euro and a European central bank could serve democratic planning indispensable for placing the economy at the service of the well being of the peoples’ (Tout est à nous!, 4 June 2009).

Despite its attempts to appear as a practical, responsible reformist party, the NPA only won 4.9 percent when the votes were tallied – far short of the 9 percent that opinion polls had predicted at its founding (Le Monde, 14 May 2009). Moreover, it failed to elect a single Member of the European Parliament (MEP).The PCF-dominated Left Front did better, winning more than 6 percent of the vote and ending up with four MEPs. The NPA’s disappointing showing strengthened the hand of Picquet’s supporters who remained in the NPA. Their ‘Convergences et alternative’ grouping, which claims to have the support of 1,000 NPA members, is represented on the NPA’s executive committee and has a column in Tout est à nous! Convergences et alternative has continued to argue that the Left Front and the NPA should form joint lists to contest the regional elections in March 2010.

On 30 June, Besancenot and Mélenchon (now one of the Left Front’s MEPs) agreed in principle to the idea of ‘autonomous and independent lists’ excluding the PS in the first round with ‘technical’ or ‘democratic’ fusions with the PS in the second round (‘Déclaration commune du NPA et du PG après leur rencontre 30/06’, 2 July 2009). The NPA failed to reach a similar agreement with the PCF, which refused to break with the PS in the hope of retaining its 185 regional councillors. The NPA has sought to broaden its coalition by drawing in various petty-bourgeois anti-neoliberal, ecological, ‘alterglobalist’ and feminist movements. To this end, it organised a series of meetings of the ‘radical left’ this autumn. The PCF, with the support of Picquet’s Gauche Unitaire, has the PG wavering, as Mélenchon does not want to stand independently of the PCF, which is proposing to take a ‘flexible’ approach to the elections, i.e., to run jointly with the PS where doing so is necessary to win.

NPA & the British Left

The Socialist Party of England and Wales (SP), the leading section of the CWI, has endorsed the decision of its French affiliate, Gauche Révolutionnaire (GR), to join the NPA:

‘Gauche Revolutionnaire fights for the NPA to put forward a socialist programme, based on the power of the working class to organise and change society. Such a party could make the case for an end to the crisis-ridden capitalist system and its attacks on living standards, through the socialist transformation of society.’
(The Socialist, 25 March 2009)

GR’s ‘fight’ does not seem to have gone much beyond suggesting that the NPA’s declaration of principles be amended to call for ‘a government of workers at the head of a new state formed by the working class organised in committees … having overturned the bourgeois state’ (‘Amendement pour le congrès de fondation du NPA’, 5 February 2009). Had the ex-LCR leadership wanted to disguise the overt reformism of their project, they could undoubtedly have come up with some equivalent formulation. But the NPA is explicitly committed to the reform of the capitalist state, not its overturn. The CWI itself has a long history of advocating a parliamentary road to socialism via reforming the bourgeoisie’s repressive apparatus (see Marxism vs. ‘Militant’ Reformism).

If Gauche Révolutionnaire were capable of fighting for a Marxist attitude towards the capitalist state, it would have attacked the NPA leadership’s support of the ‘justified’ struggle of French prison wardens for ‘better working conditions and the creation of jobs’ (Tout est à nous!, 14 May 2009). According to the NPA, ‘[t]he prison is unliveable for the wardens, too’ (ibid.). Once again, however, it would be rank hypocrisy for GR to challenge Besancenot on this issue without simultaneously attacking the SP, who recently sunk to a new low when they recruited one Brian Caton, general secretary of the ‘union’ of British prison officers.

The SP’s concern for the well being of screws, cops and the other hirelings who enforce capitalist rule is paralleled by the overt nationalism it pushed during its campaign for the European elections as part of the ‘No2EU – Yes to Democracy’ bloc. Joining the SP in this rotten cross-class venture were a few ‘left’ union bureaucrats, the Stalinist Communist Party of Britain and the tiny bourgeois Liberal party. The NPA’s social-democratic reformism was actually somewhat to the left of the nationalist tilt of the No2EU programme:

‘Nation states with the right to self-determination and their governments are the only institutions that can control the movement of big capital and clip the wings of the trans-national corporations and banks. This means democratic control of the major banks, including the Bank of England, and full public ownership and democratic accountability of railways, postal services, NHS, and the energy industry.’

Alex Callinicos, a leading figure in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), who considers the NPA to be an ‘exciting’ venture, described the ex-LCR leadership’s decision ‘not to make explicit commitment to the revolutionary Marxist tradition the basis of the new party’ as necessary ‘for long-term strategic reasons’. Callinicos’ ‘long-term strategy’ turns out to be remarkably similar to the traditional Menshevik/Stalinist theory of ‘stages’:

‘The political experience of the 20th century shows very clearly that in the advanced capitalist countries it is impossible to build a mass revolutionary party without breaking the hold of social democracy over the organised working class. In the era of the Russian Revolution it was possible for many European communist parties to begin to do this by splitting social democratic parties and winning substantial numbers of previously reformist workers directly to the revolutionary programme of the Communist International. October 1917 exercised an enormous attractive power on everyone around the world who wanted to fight the bosses and imperialism.
‘Alas, thanks to the experience of Stalinism, the opposite is true today. Social liberalism is repelling many working class people today, but, in the first instance, what they seek is a more genuine version of the reformism that their traditional parties once promised them. Therefore, if the formations of the radical left are to be habitable to these refugees from social democracy, their programmes must not foreclose the debate between reform and revolution by simply incorporating the distinctive strategic conceptions developed by revolutionary Marxists.’
(International Socialism, Autumn 2008)

Callinicos thus essentially proclaims the project of building the type of revolutionary vanguard party advocated by Lenin and Trotsky to be obsolete. In its place, Callinicos proposes to return to the model of the Second International, where reformists and revolutionaries can peacefully co-exist in what Karl Kautsky called a ‘party of the whole class’.

Callinicos is critical of the NPA leadership’s aversion to the idea of joining the PS in a coalition government:

‘while the LCR are entirely right to oppose as a matter of principle participation in a centre-left government, they can’t assume that everyone attracted to the NPA will share this attitude….
‘It is important that revolutionaries warn against the dangers posed by the radical left participating in centre-left governments. But they should not make the fact that these formations, if they are successful, will confront the problem of participation a reason for not building them now.’

Callinicos suspects that the ex-LCR may not be sufficiently deferential to those to its right, and warns that it would:

‘be a disastrous mistake for revolutionary socialists to seek to dominate the NPA and its counterparts elsewhere thanks to their organisational weight. Any such attempt would severely hold back the development of the radical left. But this does not solve the problem of the struggle between left and right that is unavoidable in any dynamically developing political formation.’

This parallels the criticisms of Picquet and others that Besancenot is being ‘sectarian’ towards the PCF and Mélenchon’s PG:

‘The balance of forces in France allows the anti-capitalist left to relate to Mélenchon from a position of relative strength. But nevertheless his break with the PS is a significant one….
‘The development of the NPA may generate more breaks, not just in the PS but in the Communist Party as well. The NPA will have to know how to relate to such openings in a way that involves more than just offering the choice of joining the party or engaging in “classic” united fronts on specific issues. For all the excitement it has generated, the NPA will be quite a small force (albeit significantly larger than the LCR) on the French political scene and in the workers’ movement. This will limit its capacity to lead in any real upsurge of social struggles. Realising the NPA’s very great potential will require a willingness to intervene in the broader political field and sometimes to make alliances with other political forces, some of which, in the nature of things, will be reformist.’
(International Socialism, Spring 2009)

French supporters of the League for the Fifth International (L5I), the international tendency headed by Workers Power, joined the NPA hoping to see it somehow morph into ‘a new revolutionary leadership for the next round of struggle and not a weak electoral coalition of centrists and reformists’ (Workers Power, March 2009). Correctly identifying the NPA’s founding principles as a classic ‘minimum/maximum programme’, the L5I nevertheless insists that the new party is a ‘centrist’ formation that may yet avoid ‘the trap of accommodating to reformism’ (‘Days of action in France: we need an indefinite general strike to win’, 25 March 2009).

In Workers Power’s major statement on the NPA, Dave Stockton, one of the group’s senior figures, makes the bizarre claim that launching the NPA and repudiating any pretence of ‘revolutionary communism’ signalled a ‘sharp turn to the left’ by the LCR:

‘The LCR’s left turn began over two years ago, in the six months before the 2007 presidential elections. For most of the early years of this century, the LCR had identified neoliberalism, not capitalism, as the enemy and sought to create an anti-neoliberal party with intransigently reformist forces like Attac and the French Communist Party (PCF).
‘The lowest point of this rightward-moving policy was the panic which led them to call for a vote for incumbent right-wing president Jacques Chirac in [2002], “holding one’s nose”, to keep out the fascist Jean Marie Le Pen.’
(Fifth International, Vol.3, No.2, Spring 2009)

No sooner had Stockton’s article appeared than the NPA re-enacted this ‘low point’ in Hénin-Beaumont (Pas-de-Calais department), where the candidate of the fascist Front National (FN) won enough votes in the first round to qualify for a runoff with Daniel Duquenne of the Alliance Républicaine. In response, the NPA joined the PS, PCF and the UMP in calling to ‘block the FN in the second round’ (Tout est à nous!, 2 July 2009) – i.e., to vote for the Alliance Républicaine. When Duquenne beat the fascist candidate and became mayor, the NPA declared that voters ‘have avoided the worst’ (Tout est à nous!, 9 July 2009).

The L5I’s claim that in launching the NPA the LCR had ‘swung to the left’, like Stockton’s assertion that the NPA has adopted ‘positions that are really very close to the revolutionary Trotskyist tradition’, only illustrates the gulf that separates Workers Power from that tradition.

Workers Power also maintains that the NPA ‘has adopted a programme that is far better, far more revolutionary than anything developed by the European left since the collapse of the Soviet Union’ (Fifth International, Vol.3, No.2, Spring 2009). Yet elsewhere they acknowledge that the NPA’s programme is essentially reformist, while pretending to think that Besancenot et al can be nudged into promoting something approximating a revolutionary policy:

‘This revolutionary policy will mean a struggle within the NPA against its rightwing minority around Christian Piquet [sic]. A decisive test in the class struggle, when the question of reform or revolution is sharply posed, will mean a break with his minority. The left majority of the NPA, meanwhile, must find clarity on the revolutionary programme and strategy through the course of the struggles ahead and beware of an attempt by the ex-LCR leaders to vacillate back towards the politics of reformist concession and compromise.’

The LCR majority quarrelled with Picquet over whether it was smarter to disguise ‘the politics of reformist concession’ with leftist rhetoric or serve it straight up. The attempt to paint Besancenot’s ‘left majority’ as a group of naïfs being pushed towards acting as a revolutionary instrument recalls similarly optimistic projections by Ernest Mandel, Michel Pablo and others in the LCR’s political tradition regarding an endless succession of Stalinists, petty-bourgeois guerrillas, Third World bonapartists and assorted non-proletarian ‘blunt instruments’.

One way to make the NPA seem more ‘revolutionary’ is to contrast it to Germany’s Die Linke, which was once greeted with enthusiasm by many on the ‘far left’:

‘Luke Cooper from Workers Power argued that in the European left over recent years there were two divergent experiences on building a new left formation; one in Germany had led to the consolidation of a new reformist party [Die Linke], while in France the NPA was a fighting party, which was illustrated by its campaign for an indefinite strike in the spring movement. He did note problems too, however. The NPA were right not to concede to the Left Front, but they stood on a reformist platform in the elections. The programme was indistinguishable from the Left Front’s and so the NPA had left themselves open to the charge of sectarianism.’
(‘Marxism conference debates future of the left’, 10 July 2009)

The reason the NPA occasionally finds it useful to posture as a ‘fighting party’ while Die Linke wallows in passive electoralism is that French workers have recently been considerably more combative than their German counterparts. The NPA’s sometimes militant rhetoric is designed to appeal to PS and PCF voters disenchanted with the discredited Plural Left.

Admitting that the NPA ‘stood in the Euro elections on a left-reformist platform’ and is ‘unclear on the road to power for the working class and on its attitude to the capitalist state’, the L5I also asserts that the NPA ‘was founded as a fighting party with a political programme for the overthrow of capitalism, not its piecemeal reform’ (Workers Power, August 2009). In his article, Stockton attempts to disappear this glaring contradiction with an acknowledgement that ‘there are still areas for improvement and development’ in the NPA, while praising the ‘transitional’ character of elements of its ‘emergency programme’ as displaying a willingness to ‘challenge the laws of profit and private ownership and open the road to socialist measures’. The idea that the experienced reformists running the NPA may, in the heat of the class struggle, somehow spontaneously transcend the programme that they elaborated so carefully is nothing but a rationalisation for offloading the necessity for conscious Marxist intervention onto an imaginary ‘objective dynamic’ in history.

The L5I was very upbeat about the NPA’s role in the strikes earlier this year:

‘The NPA can play a critical role in all this and needs now to take concrete actions along these lines. If it does so – and if it avoids the trap of accommodating to reformism – it can begin to wrest leadership of the French working class movement from the hands of the reformists and open a struggle for working class power.’
(‘Days of action in France: we need an indefinite general strike to win’, 25 March 2009)

A statement released a week later reiterated the same idea:

‘The NPA can and must play a crucial role in the current movement. It is the only force organised at the national level that can provide a clear perspective to the movement and in particular become the organiser and builder of the general strike. It is absolutely necessary for the NPA to define an action programme based on the immediate needs of workers, the unemployed and workers with precarious jobs.’
(‘Faisons payer la crise aux capitalistes! Stop aux “réformes” et aux attaques de Sarkozy!’, 2 April 2009)

This portrayal of the NPA as uniquely capable of providing ‘a clear perspective’, even though it is ‘unclear’ on the issues of state and revolution, was accompanied by bogus descriptions of its attitude towards class collaboration:

‘The NPA is in a very good position to take the leadership of the resistance in France. Unlike the traditional parties of the working class, the NPA has no stake in the capitalist system, which has caused the crisis, and have [sic] vowed not to enter into coalitions and alliances with capitalist parties.’
(Workers Power, April 2009)

A similar claim appeared in a statement of 10 July in which Workers Power asserted that ‘the NPA was built from below through opposition to the union bureaucracy and the politics of class collaboration’. It would be highly significant if that was indeed the NPA’s policy, but it is not. The NPA leadership has made it abundantly clear that it is prepared to enter coalitions with components of the Plural Left – including bourgeois ones – if the price is right. Workers Power distorts the reality of the NPA to convince the British left to use it as a model, ‘to form a new workers’ party without waiting for the approval of the trade union leaders’ (‘It’s time to create a new working class party’, 10 June).

The NPA is not the first manifestly reformist formation that the L5I has sought to paint in ‘revolutionary’ colours. A few years ago Workers Power was hailing the Second International and ascribing a revolutionary potential to the World Social Forum (WSF), which we characterised at the time as ‘a popular-frontist lash-up of Third Worldists, trade-union bureaucrats and NGO hustlers’:

‘Revolutionary Marxists say openly that we want to help it [the WSF] develop into an international movement, able to direct the struggle against capitalism and imperialism – a new world party of socialist revolution.
‘Over a century ago the forces of Marxism faced similar challenges within a period of rising struggles when the movement, which came to be known as the Second International, was born. There are many lessons to be learned in the way that this movement was founded in 1889....’
(Workers Power, January 2003)

The lesson that Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks drew from the experience of ‘a party of the whole class’ was that revolutionaries need to organise themselves separately from reformists. Workers Power appears to have arrived at the opposite conclusion – which explains their consistently ‘optimistic’ distortions regarding the NPA and the suggestion that it provides a model for the left in this country. The ‘strategy’ is clear enough – to help build a British NPA within which to take up residence as the ‘Marxist’ left wing. This sort of stagist approach to building a revolutionary organisation will, in practice, inevitably reduce itself to Kautskyism. Revolutionaries may indeed make a tactical decision to pursue the struggle against reformism through short-term entries into bourgeois workers’ parties, but we neither advocate the creation of a reformist organisation nor project such a development as a necessary ‘step forward’.

Marxists have a responsibility to struggle to raise the existing level of consciousness of the ‘class in itself’ to that of the ‘class for itself’: to help working people see the necessity of revolutionary solutions to the problems they confront. A genuinely revolutionary group does not act in accordance with short-term calculations of narrow organisational advantage, but rather seeks to advance the historic interests of the working class. Any expansion of membership or electoral support is not a gain, but a loss, if it results from programmatic compromise that undercuts revolutionary class consciousness. The problem with the entire NPA project is that it is premised on exactly the opposite conception.

For a Revolutionary Workers’ Party!

The attempt to create mass revolutionary workers’ parties has always presented Marxists with difficult problems. Over a hundred years ago the great Polish revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg, observed:

‘The forward march of the proletariat, on a world historic scale, to its final victory is not, indeed, “so simple a thing.” The peculiar character of this movement resides precisely in the fact that here, for the first time in history, the popular masses themselves, in opposition to the ruling classes, are to impose their will but they must effect this outside of the present society, beyond the existing society. This will the masses can only form in a constant struggle against the existing order. The union of the broad popular masses with an aim reaching beyond the existing social order, the union of the daily struggle with the great world transformation, that is the task of the [revolutionary] Social-Democratic movement, which must logically grope on its road of development between the following two rocks: abandoning the mass character of the party or abandoning its final aim, falling into bourgeois reformism or into sectarianism, anarchism or opportunism.’
(Reform or Revolution?)

The duty of Marxists is always to ‘say what is’ rather than adapt to what is currently popular. The only path to a socialist future lies through the creation of a Leninist-Trotskyist party capable of mobilising the working class for the revolutionary reconstruction of society in the interests of all those oppressed and exploited under capitalism. Creating such a party requires both energy and tactical flexibility, and above all a willingness to call things by their right names. Those who push illusions that the recycled reformism of the NPA will provide a short cut to the growth of mass revolutionary consciousness do not help, but rather hinder, the struggle to build the instrument with which ‘the popular masses themselves, in opposition to the ruling classes, are to impose their will.’

Posted: 11 November 2009