The NPA: a space for rebuilding

Issue: 123

Denis Godard

The New Anticapitalist Party (Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, NPA) is an exciting political development because it responds to a need arising from the struggle in France over the past few years. Marxist revolutionaries were at the heart of its creation, and at a time when the crisis of global capitalism is accelerating the NPA opens up for them the prospect of active intervention in an advanced capitalist country on a scale unprecedented outside a revolutionary period. This is what makes the debate between François Sabado and Alex Callinicos so significant.1 At a time when revolutionaries have an increased opportunity to learn from concrete experience and a duty to rid themselves of the burden of sectarianism, the open tone of the debate is not the least of its merits.

The rationale common to both Sabado and Callinicos in their discussion is that the crisis of the traditional leaderships of the workers’ movement has opened up a space “to the left of the reformist left” that needs filling. Their disagreements turn on the question of the programmatic delimitations of the organisation that seeks to fill this space—whether it should be revolutionary and whether there should be restrictions upon Marxists within its ranks.

In his latest intervention Callinicos acknowledges that, for reasons specific to France, Sabado is correct to argue that the NPA can be not only an anti-capitalist organisation but even a revolutionary one in the broad sense. But Callinicos also insists that the approach to other situations requires greater flexibility. To read Callinicos is without doubt to see that grasping the nature of reformism—that is, understanding the contradictions that run through class consciousness and understanding the dynamics of its evolution—is for him the most important factor in arming the political revival and defining appropriate strategies and tactics. I share his preoccupation.

Debate about the NPA should not centre in the first instance on programmatic delimitations, however, but on how well it can organise some kind of formal or informal leadership, emerging from the process of struggle, how well it can influence the movement—and even lead and rebuild it on a class basis. For that to happen, the revolutionary current in the NPA must possess clarity and coherence. The claimed revolutionary delimitations for an organisation of this kind are not only an illusion; they weaken the coherence of the revolutionary current and become an obstacle to building the common anti-capitalist strategy this party needs.

The limits of the debate between Sabado and Callinicos seem to me to stem from the fact that the space they speak of is not just a space “to be filled”. This is no mere “party”2 or narrowly political space. Its nature is ideological, social and political. To a large extent the space must be rebuilt.

The coming together, following their own rhythms, of changes in the capitalist mode of production and therefore structure of the working class, of economic crisis and the return of struggle has created a historically new political situation, one characterised by Stathis Kouvélakis as a prolonged crisis of hegemony: “Precisely because its character is fundamentally destructive of the previous social compromise, neoliberalism has only been able to emerge victorious over it on the basis of defeating the dominated classes and forcing them to retreat. It has won solely by default, in the absence of an alternative perspective. It has not succeeded in creating majority popular support. In Gramscian terms, this is domination without hegemony”.3

One element in this crisis of hegemony is the crisis of the traditional leaderships of the working class. This is not simply because ideologically they have “swung to the right”. Changes in the working class have largely weakened the bastions on which these leaderships rested and in some cases have destroyed them. At the same time new sectors have developed. The entire structuring of the “world of work” is in crisis (every traditional class organisation, together with its reference points and “culture”, has been weakened). Beyond that, so too is the influence the workers’ movement might have over the whole of society. The crisis of the workers’ movement has indeed weakened workers’ ability to resist the neoliberal offensive. Kouvélakis is right to underline that this is as much a condition as an effect. But we must not lose sight of the way the domination of the traditional leaderships in the workers’ movement, the (bureaucratic) structuring of the workers’ movement and its culture, used to be one factor in the dominant hegemony in the previous period. From this point of view, it is correct to speak of a space opening up.

Relevance of a paradox

In a 1970 interview Tony Cliff astonished a journalist from the International Idiot by talking more of the struggle to be carried out within the working class than of the struggle against the ruling class. Domination by a capitalist minority is in reality only possible because generally the vast majority of workers “incorporate” this domination within their ideas and practices. Reformism is no straightforward “manipulation of consciousness”. It is an expression of what Gramsci calls the “contradictory consciousness” of workers—their acceptance of dominant ideas and the way in which the expression of their real interests enters into contradiction with these dominant ideas.

The basis for challenging dominant ideas develops through the experience of even limited resistance to exploitation or more generally of resistance to injustice. But this challenge is always partial and heterogeneous within the class as a whole. Thus, if concrete struggle against the ruling class is necessary for the working class to develop itself as a class (ie self_conscious and organised), a struggle within the class is also needed, if for no other reason than to make struggle itself possible.

In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx gave a broad theoretical answer to this paradox by defining the role of communists. Communists must never separate themselves from the dominated class. They must always defend the general interests of the movement. At the same time, they must be the most resolute section of the “working class parties” and have the “theoretical” advantage over “the great mass of the working class…of clearly understanding the lines of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement”.

The united front revisited

The united front strategy was the practical response to this paradox by the parties of the Third International in the 1920s. The Third International was born out of splits in the parties of the Second International in 1919. But the capacity of the reformist parties in the developed countries to preserve the support of important sections of the working class (if only passively) had led to the failure of the first wave of revolution, notably in Italy and in Germany.

The united front was designed to win over the majority of workers by drawing them into action alongside revolutionaries. Revolutionaries would thereby show in action that they were “the most resolute section of the working class parties” and demonstrate that “theoretically” they had a clear “understanding [of] the lines of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement”.

This strategy was elaborated under particular historical circumstances whose characteristics can be succinctly summarised thus: a workers’ movement existed that was organised and powerful (despite the war), there was a dominant Marxist culture at the heart of the left, and strong reformist and revolutionary parties contended for leadership of the workers’ movement. Under these circumstances unity in action by the class was guaranteed via unity of its organisations (in the first place, of its parties). Detaching workers from reformism was in essence to succeed in detaching them from the reformist party.4

The prolonged crisis of hegemony that we have described means that the strategy of the united front is now posed in radically altered historical conditions: we have a new workers’ movement that has by and large become unstructured and traditional leaderships with only weak links to the working class, and this in a society in which class ideas have only just rediscovered an audience.

The united front broadened

Sabado fails to approach the NPA within the framework of a united front because his conceptual basis is the “classical” model. This leads him to think of the NPA in terms of a political fight, with the NPA playing the role of a revolutionary party engaged in struggle against a reformist party.

The notion of “united front of a special kind”, to which Callinicos refers, is an attempt to supersede the historical model because the situation demands it. This, however, remains an inadequate response for it is conceived as no more than a variation on the model. This leads Callinicos to consider the NPA in the final analysis as failing to correspond to this variation.

While imprisoned by the fascist regime, Gramsci tried to understand the failure of the revolutionary wave of the 1920s. This led him to re-examine the notion of the united front and to extend its scope, based on an analysis of the more complex structure of advanced capitalist countries. From this he drew a broader vision of the united front. As Daniel Bensaïd explains, he attaches to it “as objective the conquest of political and cultural hegemony”. He deduces from this, in a very Leninist manner, that at stake in a revolutionary situation “is the resolution in a generalised crisis of the reciprocal relationships between all components in society”, which cannot be reduced to a “clash between two antagonistic classes”.5

The “classical” model, within this broader notion of the united front, is the form that suited particular historical conditions, those in which the reality of the workers’ movement and its influence made the struggle for leadership the key question for “resolving this generalised crisis”. The fundamental objective of the united front is not, however, unity of action between parties. Its objective is to set the vast mass of society in motion in a multi-levelled confrontation with the ruling class, to organise the working class as the motor force of this movement and to win the movement to revolutionary leadership.6

Strategic conception of the NPA

It is in the light of this that we must clarify our conception of the NPA. The issue now for class struggle in France is to rebuild the workers’ movement and enable it to pull behind it “all the oppressed sectors”—to build what some call a “counter-hegemony”. At a time when the developing process of struggle has already begun to see potential leaderships emerge on many battlefronts against the system, the NPA must aim to regroup, coordinate and provide them with a strategy for confronting the ruling class. If it does so, and relies on the dynamic of the struggle to take things forward, it will not only help these new leaderships to overcome the paralysis due to the current domination by the traditional leaderships and their politics, but will also be key to rebuilding the workers’ movement.

This is the basis for establishing the foundations of the NPA as an anti-capitalist and class party. It is worth saying from the outset that none of this is guaranteed in advance or can be won by the proclamation of founding principles. The stress on the NPA having precise restrictions during its formation benefited the most battle-hardened propagandisers at the expense of the activists. And the most stridently “revolutionary” elements of these propagandisers, inside and outside the former Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, found an echo in “healthy” leftist tendencies from those social sectors recently radicalised by the movement.7

The consequences of having the founding process dominated by propagandising are clear. The NPA may have begun to implant itself in the working class and sectors of society. Nevertheless it remains comparatively weak when it comes to organised sections of the movement, particularly in the unions but also in the neighbourhood associations. And, paradoxically, what makes it easier to convince people, at least superficially, about the need for revolutionary programmatic delimitations, makes it more difficult to build on a class basis.

Clearly, involvement in a party requires greater reflection and is a slower business for militants who work in a milieu, let alone those who have responsibilities. But winning such militants to the NPA should be an objective, which the dominant propagandising profile makes more difficult.

Which strategy?

Focusing the debate solely on programmatic delimitations is insufficient and could merely reinforce the obstacles to working out a strategy for the NPA.

It is the growing capitalist crisis and the questions raised in struggle that create the audience for such a strategy. When alongside struggle there is the growth of distrust towards the institutions and leaderships of the workers’ movement, we must develop a concrete alternative perspective to stop combativity sinking back into passivity. Fetishising the call for a general strike can prove a double-edged weapon. The demand makes sense if pressure forces trade union leaderships to call for a national day of strikes and demonstrations. But it can create profound pessimism when these same leaderships paralyse action and there is no alternative leadership able to take its place on a more militant basis. That can only reinforce electoralist illusions (and therefore reformism), which then appear the only way to raise the question of power.

Clearly the NPA should articulate a politics that can be defended on every front it is involved in, with the aim of building and developing the movement on a broader and more militant basis. But this should be combined with the equivalent of what the Trotskyist tradition has termed a transitional strategy8 by putting forward anti-capitalist structuralist reforms. The NPA should be known as the organisation that proposes, argues for, sometimes initiates (in concrete circumstances) forms of what classically used to be called workers’ control. It should be arguing for forms of workers’ organisation in workplaces that aim to develop greater or lesser forms of control, ones that unite workers and users of public services in the locality, etc.

As Donny Gluckstein’s study of workers’ councils shows, experiences like these demand and allow for cooperation between two groups. One consists of a layer of “local rank and file militants” in the workplaces who have gained legitimacy among workers. They are often well known for their opposition to trade union leaderships but often limited by constantly having to deal with immediate demands. The other consists of political activists who possess a more global vision but who frequently lack legitimacy and roots in the working class.9

The role of revolutionaries

Not only is there no contradiction between an anti-capitalist strategy and a revolutionary strategy but the first must be grasped as an element of the second. Disagreements over the perspective of revolution, above all over the need to overthrow the state or over the role of violence, are not hindrances to sharing an anti-capitalist strategy (this was, after all, the basis for working out transitional demands).

But revolutionaries must demonstrate that clarity about the perspective of revolution helps develop a consistent anti-capitalist strategy.

Moreover, the development, however short lived, of alternative forms of power will raise, this time concretely, the question of how broad the confrontation with the existing institutions of power must be, and of what methods are needed.

Here we return, as far as revolutionaries in the NPA are concerned, to the role Marx attributed to communists: they are the most resolute when it comes to elaborating and developing an anti-capitalist strategy for the NPA and the most class conscious when it comes to understanding the lines of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of this strategy.

That then excludes creating a revolutionary faction within the NPA, the basis of which would be autonomy of action, since the possibility and development of an anti-capitalist strategy are currently conditional upon the development of the NPA. That also excludes its opposite—making do with argument at the purely theoretical level.

The aim of Marxists revolutionaries must be to work out a strategy among themselves and debate and try to get their strategy accepted within the NPA. They must test it not only against other positions but also in relation to the experience accumulated within the framework of the NPA.


1: Callinicos, 2008; Sabado, 2009; Garganas, 2009; Callinicos, 2009.

2: In this respect at least, this shares Olivier Nachtwey’s criticism of the concept of social liberalism as “concentrating too much on the ideological orientation of the new social democracy and leaving class representation in the shade”-Nachtwey, 2009.

3: Kouvélakis, 2009.

4: Consideration should be given to the change Stalinism was already making to the application of this united front strategy once neither of the two parties fighting for leadership of the workers’ movement was revolutionary. We can say, however, that unity of action among workers was still being formulated in the context of a largely organised workers’ movement. See Godard, 2008.

5: Bensaïd, 2007.

6: Chris Harman, 2007, sums this up as an attempt to find what gives “an economic force” the potential “to translate itself into a political force with the mass capacity to draw all sections of the oppressed in a bid to overthrow an old political system”.

7: No matter how spontaneous this leftism may appear, it is nonetheless influenced by autonomist theories. Panos Garganos, 2009, is quite right to stress the need to wage a political and theoretical struggle against these currents. Moreover, the influence of these currents will be all the stronger on significant, if minority, sections of the movement the longer we fail to work out a coherent strategy for the NPA.

8: The tradition to which I, like Callinicos, belong has long criticised the so-called orthodox Trotskyist tradition for its formal and ahistorical conception of the transitional programme elaborated by Trotsky. A sign of what is new about the period is that this approach must be taken up again and made concrete. The arguments of the International Socialist Tendency, which I believe were valid in the past, should not become an obstacle in the period that is opening up. Conversely, the current that came out of the Fourth International should not go on to consign the transitional approach to the status of an “outdated strategic lesson” or abandon Trotskyism as a tradition of the past.

9: Gluckstein, 1985.


Bensaïd, Daniel, 2007, “Front Unique et Hégémonie”,

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

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

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

Gluckstein, Donny, 1985, The Western Soviets (Bookmarks).

Godard, Denis, 2008, “Redéfinir le Front Unique pour en Faire une Boussole”, Que Faire?, number 9,

Harman, Chris, 2007, “Gramsci, the Prison Notebooks and Philosophy”, International Socialism 114 (spring 2007),

Kouvélakis, Stathis, 2009, “France, une Crise d’Hégémonie Prolongée”, ContreTemps, new series, number 1.

Nachtwey, Olivier, 2009, “La Crise de la Représentation de Classe en Allemagne et Die Linke”, ContreTemps, new series, number 2.

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