France: anti-capitalist politics in crisis

Issue: 134

Undeniably the global economic and political crisis has accelerated a broad process of political radicalisation visible, for example, in the impact of the Occupy movement during the winter of 2011-12. But these developments have not stilled the question of how the radical left has, as an organised force, responded to the crisis. Rarely has this famous passage by Marx been more relevant: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living”.1 In other words, the radical and revolutionary left entered the crisis shaped by its past, which has, for the past few decades, been one of defeat and decline, only partially tempered by a limited and incomplete revival since
the late 1990s.

Of course, this past doesn’t predetermine the future. As the preceding interview with Panos Garganas shows, Greece, which has experienced the full severity of the crisis, has seen both a radicalisation of the struggle against austerity and a strengthening of the forces to the left of the social-liberal Pasok, including the far-left coalition Antarsya. In Britain the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) has been able to extricate itself from the Respect debacle and play an important role in building the strike movement against the Conservative-Liberal coalition. The Revolutionary Socialists have had, given their size, a remarkable impact on the Egyptian Revolution.

But we would be kidding ourselves to imagine that the picture is uniformly positive. Most seriously, in France the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA) is experiencing a crisis of exceptional severity. It is no accident that this is happening as France has its presidential elections. The previous contests in 2002 and 2007 were marked by excellent campaigns by Olivier Besancenot standing for the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR). It was on the backwash of the 2007 campaign that the NPA was formed at the beginning of 2009. The LCR, whose historic core played a key role in the events of May-June 1968, dissolved itself into the NPA, which attracted initially around 10,000 members, about three times the size of the Ligue. With the popular and eloquent Besancenot as its spokesperson, the NPA seemed set to become the dominant force to the left of the Socialist and Communist parties (respectively PS and PCF).

The situation could not be more different now. Externally, the NPA has been marginalised by the Front de Gauche, a coalition between the PCF and the Parti de Gauche, a breakaway from the PS led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The NPA’s presidential candidate, Philippe Poutou, has secured enough nominations to get on to the ballot paper, but Mélenchon’s campaign is making the running to the left of the PS. Internally, the NPA is paralysed by factionalism. Though the timing is dependent on just how badly the NPA does in the forthcoming election season (two rounds, first for the presidency and then for parliament), it is likely that a substantial minority will split from the organisation and join the Front de Gauche (a smaller group already took this path after the NPA congress in February 2011). By all accounts, there has already been a haemorrhage of members out of the party.

It is hard to overstate what a setback for the international revolutionary left the crisis of the NPA represents. The LCR took with it into the NPA the proud heritage of 1968, represented by figures such as Alain Krivine and the late Daniel Bensaïd. By virtue of this, and as the key section of the Fourth International (FI), the LCR had a political influence well beyond the borders of France, or even Europe. Moreover, the initial successes of the NPA raised tremendous hopes for a reinvigoration of the revolutionary and radical left. We in the SWP shared in those hopes. At the end of a very friendly debate in these pages with François Sabado, one of the architects of the NPA, I wrote, “Their success will be ours as well”.2 Equally, their failure strikes us too.

But it is always necessary to understand why failures have happened. One of the key problems that revolutionary socialist organisations such as the LCR and the SWP face is how to escape the ghetto of the far left and draw around us a wider audience that, inevitably, is likely to be influenced by some version of reformist politics. We have had our own difficulties with this.3 For a short but heady time it seemed as if the NPA had succeeded in squaring this particular circle, since it was a much broader party than the LCR but one still based on an essentially revolutionary programme.

It’s now clear that the NPA failed to escape the force of political gravity. The more its internal crisis developed, the more the party has shrunk back into, in effect, the LCR, but with ultra-left sectarian factions making the running to an extent that never happened in the past. The roots of this failure have many causes, but it is possible to identify three weaknesses that carried over from the LCR to the NPA. The first is a tendency to dismiss the forces occupying the political space between the LCR/NPA and the PS. This was very evident both before the NPA’s formation during the unsuccessful attempts to agree on an “anti-liberal” unitary candidate in the 2007 presidential election based on the successful 2005 referendum campaign against the European Constitutional Treaty and more recently in the NPA’s reluctance to engage with the Front de Gauche.

This attitude was less because of sectarian triumphalism (though there may have been an element of that thanks to Besancenot’s successes in 2002 and 2007) than a consequence of fear of entanglement with the PS. Key NPA strategists were deeply marked by the experience of centre-left governments in Brazil and Italy in the past decade. In particular, the LCR was forced to break with its Brazilian section, Democracia Socialista, because of its participation in Lula’s social-liberal government. The trauma has, understandably, made these comrades highly suspicious of alignments with political forces that define themselves in opposition to neoliberalism but maintain connections with mainstream social democratic parties. In the case of the Front de Gauche, the PCF has a history of coalitions with the PS at both local and national levels (in the latter case most recently in Lionel Jospin’s disastrous “plural left” government between 1997 and 2002). Coming to an understanding with the Front de Gauche, it was argued, would bind the NPA to the PS.

The fear is a reasonable one: if the PS candidate, François Hollande, wins the presidential elections, the PCF will be seriously tempted to participate in any government he appoints. But the trouble with the caution the NPA has accordingly displayed in its relations with the rest of the radical left is that it fails to confront the reality of how left realignment is likely to take place. The continuing dominance of reformism in the workers’ movement (and indeed in other bases of resistance to neoliberalism) means that the emergence of any real challenge to the social-liberal parties requires a fragmentation of their base and, where possible, of their organisations. But breaking with mainstream social democracy doesn’t mean abandoning reformism ideologically. This means that revolutionaries will have to find ways of working with people who are, in effect, social democrats, and who may still be open to alliances with social-liberals. To take the most important example, Oskar Lafontaine’s project for Die Linke is to rebuild left-wing social democracy in Germany and then use this to form a coalition with the social-liberal SPD on the left’s terms.

Allying with such forces clearly carries with it enormous risks. But so too does ignoring them. Moreover, the revolutionary left can exploit the tensions within the reformist forces to the left of mainstream
social-liberalism. To take the current French case, the PCF may be happy to form a coalition with the PS, but it’s not obvious that Mélenchon, who has his own version of Lafontaine’s project, is. A revolutionary left that saw its project as actively reshaping the left could exploit fractures of this kind. As it is, the NPA’s refusal to engage with the Front de Gauche, beyond a call by Besancenot for a unitary anti-capitalist presidential candidate that was not followed through by the party, has allowed Mélenchon and the PCF to set the agenda and present themselves as the champions of left unity—something that, as we may remember from Respect’s heyday in the mid-2000s, is enormously attractive.

As we also know from British experience (on both sides of the border), the electoral terrain is particularly difficult for revolutionaries—apart from anything else because the system is rigged against small, “extremist” parties. So the NPA’s electoral setbacks might have happened anyway, but they have been exacerbated by a second weakness inherited from the LCR. This is that the party is primarily visible as a collective force only in elections. The LCR was able to survive the general decline of the far left in the 1980s and 1990s in part because of the exceptional quality of its militants, who were deeply rooted in particular unions, workplaces and local movements. The launch of the NPA drew in many more activist networks.

The strength of its activist base could have allowed the NPA to engage in united front initiatives towards the Front de Gauche and the PS around social and anti-racist struggles—a much more favourable terrain on which to deal with reformists than that of elections. It should also have helped the party weather electoral doldrums through its involvement in building real movements. This is essentially how the SWP dug itself out of the hole left by the collapse of Respect in 2007-8. While France has not seen anti-austerity struggles on the scale that has happened elsewhere, there was the huge explosion around pensions in the autumn of 2010, and the electoral revival of the Front National under Marine Le Pen could have provided an important focus for anti-fascist campaigning.

The problem is that the NPA’s political life is centred on elections. This long pre-dates the formation of the NPA. I remember an LCR activist involved in the movement for another globalisation complaining about the leadership’s lack of interest in the movement, despite the fact that France was one of its main centres. “They only care about elections,” he said. The problem here is less a collapse into electoralism than a retreat from the Leninist conception of an interventionist party. The LCR was highly interventionist after its formation (as the Ligue Communiste) in 1968: it was actually banned for its role in leading an attack on a fascist rally in 1973. But in response to the crisis of the revolutionary left in the late 1970s, the LCR moved towards a much more passive stance towards struggles.

This stance—an overreaction to the substitutionist errors into which the Ligue had sometimes fallen in the late 1960s and early 1970s—was justified by the idea that political organisations should respect the “autonomy of the social movements”, as if trade unions and other campaigning bodies are somehow free of the clash of ideologies and political tendencies. Individual activists of the LCR and later the NPA might play an important role in strikes, trade unions and anti-globalisation coalitions such as ATTAC, but the political organisation would only very rarely bring these activists together to hammer out a line on a particular issue, let alone to bring their collective weight behind an intervention. This had two negative consequences: first, it limited the LCR/NPA’s ability to shape different struggles and movements; second, it meant that, in practice, elections (of which there are a plethora in France—municipal, regional, presidential, parliamentary and European) became the focus of the organisation’s existence.

This then helped to create a permanent division between a “majority” that was agreed at least in supporting the stand-off attitude towards the rest of the radical left described above and a minority that has tended to reduce the LCR/NPA’s role to its contribution to a broader realignment of the radical and reformist left (including in some cases the PCF and PS). This led to a split at the time of the NPA’s formation, when Christian Picquet, traditional spokesperson of the LCR right wing, led a breakaway, Gauche Unitaire, into the Front de Gauche. But the latter’s subsequent successes have exerted a constant pull on elements within the NPA, with, as has already been mentioned, one split last year and a bigger one in prospect by a grouping that already operates as a public faction, Gauche Anticapitaliste (GA).

This situation has, then, been exacerbated by a third weakness carried over into the NPA from the LCR, namely an internal regime of institutionalised factionalism. There are, of course, longstanding differences over how best to organise democratic centralism. The SWP has, for more than 40 years, insisted that political disagreements should be allowed to crystallise into formally organised factions only in the period of internal debate before a party conference. The LCR and its sister sections of the FI have, by contrast, long maintained the right to organise permanent tendencies. In the Ligue this meant that internal discussion was for a long period of structured by a permanent debate between a “majority” that was itself a coalition and the grouping around Picquet.

In the period before the NPA launch this relatively simple polarisation began to break up, in part because supporters of the old “majority” became dissatisfied with what they thought was too rigid an attitude to supporters of an “anti-liberal” presidential candidate in 2007. This process of disaggregation continued in the NPA, both because a growing minority oriented towards the Front de Gauche, and because the increasing paralysis encouraged the growth of ultra-left sectarian factions. So at the most recent normal NPA congress, in February 2011, there were four platforms—the ex-majority, what is now GA, and two groups of sectarians.

I attended this congress. Political culture differs on the revolutionary left, but it was still a strange experience. The power of the different factions means that internal debates are essentially seen through their prism. In many ways the most important stage in the process is the local voting for the platforms before the congress. This determines the balance of forces at the congress. Comrades in the FI sometimes criticise the SWP internal regime for being too homogeneous and dominated by the Central Committee, but, particularly in recent years, there has often been great uncertainty about the outcome of important votes at SWP conferences. A powerful speech can sway votes. By contrast, debates at LCR and NPA congresses have a somewhat ritual quality, with the outcome known in advance. At the 2011 congress the Conseil National Politique, the NPA’s leading body, was selected by representatives of the different platforms reading out lists of their supporters to occupy places allocated thanks to their share of the membership votes.

At the best of times this kind of setup inhibits real debate, where minds can be changed thanks to the play of argument. But this has not been the best of times for the NPA. With no faction having a majority, the field is open for manoeuvres and bargains. There has not been a coherent political majority on the all-important question of the 2011-12 elections, so deals have been made between elements of the old “majority” and the sectarian factions to allow Poutou to become the NPA’s candidate (Besancenot refused to stand for a third time). Adding to the paralysis are the endemic arguments over what stance to take towards France’s substantial Muslim minority. The simple truth is that a substantial section of NPA activists take up a reactionary Islamophobic position towards questions such as the veil. These activists are to be found in both the main groupings, the ex-majority and the GA, which makes the differences even harder to resolve. The 2011 congress was paralysed by its inability to come to a decision about the conditions under which the NPA would support as candidates women wearing the veil.

This drift has produced a process of disintegration. The old “majority”, which held the loyalty of the best of the LCR activists, has in effect collapsed. Some of its leading members have joined the GA, with their eyes fixed on the exit. The vacuum at the centre of the NPA has given the ultra-lefts increasing power, which in turn makes joining the Front de Gauche an attractive option. But abandoning the NPA is no panacea. The Front de Gauche is dominated by the PCF, a decrepit, thoroughly opportunist organisation, and Mélenchon, who is a social democrat of a traditional French republican kind, strongly nationalist, taking an Islamophobic position on the veil, and supporting the Nato intervention in Libya. It is unlikely to be a very comfortable terrain for revolutionaries.

This melancholy tale should give no pleasure to currents on the far left other than the NPA and the FI. We in the SWP have had our own internal crisis in the past five years, one that forced us critically to re-examine and partially to reconstruct our own democratic procedures. So we are in no position to sit in retrospective judgement of others. The critical points made here are ones that we have made a number of times in our very friendly dialogues with comrades in the LCR and now the NPA. They are stated here in a constructive spirit, to facilitate the kind of debate that can prevent future setbacks of the kind the NPA has suffered.

It is, moreover, important to understand that the crisis of the NPA is merely a specific version of a more general pattern. Spurred on by the rise of the anti-capitalist movement after Seattle and Genoa, the European radical left enjoyed a general advance in the early 2000s. Today, though there are exceptions (notably Denmark and Greece), the picture is broadly one of stasis or retreat. Sometimes this is because of local factors—for example, the Greens have been able to seize the advantage over Die Linke electorally thanks to the huge crisis that developed in Germany over nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster began in February 2011. But a recurrent problem is how the revolutionary currents that are usually at the core of the radical left parties can break from their oppositional, small-group past without capitulating to opportunism. The NPA has, like the rest of us, been struggling with this problem.4

As already noted, the collapse of the NPA will be a disaster for the entire revolutionary left internationally. We must hope that it can still be avoided. The NPA still has considerable resources at its command—in the fine activists on both sides of the main internal divide, in the great traditions of the LCR at its best, and in Besancenot’s unique position as a champion of anti-capitalist politics in France. To this we must add the enormous strengths of the French workers’ movement, one of the most combative in Europe. It is in the interest of everyone fighting capitalism around the world that these resources help the NPA to avoid the worst.


1: Marx, 1979.

2: Callinicos, 2009, p184. For other contributions to this debate, see Callinicos, 2008, Garganas, 2009, Godard, 2009, and Sabado, 2009.

3: Harman, 2008.

4: For a more extensive analysis of the evolution of the radical left, see Callinicos, 2008.


Callinicos, Alex, 2008, “Where is the Radical Left Going?”, International Socialism 120 (autumn),

Callinicos, Alex, 2009, “Revolutionary Paths: A Reply to Panos Garganas and François Sabado”, International Socialism 122 (spring),

Garganas, Panos, 2009, “The Radical Left: A Richer Mix”, International Socialism 121 (winter),

Godard, Denis, 2009, “The NPA: A Space for Rebuilding”, International Socialism 123 (summer),

Harman, Chris, 2008, “The Crisis in Respect”, International Socialism 117 (winter),

Marx, Karl, 1979 [1852], The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,

Sabado, François, 2009, “Building the New Anti-capitalist Party”, International Socialism 121 (winter),