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The French Left’s Defeat

ANDREW COATES’ article on the French elections ("The Broken Reed: The French Left’s Historic Defeat", What Next? No.23) provides some useful information and an interesting analysis. But there are also some rather dubious judgements which I should like to challenge.

1) The comparison of the abstention rate with that in 1969 is disingenuous. In the second round in 1969 there was indeed an abstention of 31.14% (plus 4.41% spoilt papers). But the circumstances were rather particular. The two candidates were the Gaullist Pompidou and Poher, a relatively unknown figure from the political centre. If Poher had won he would have been rather more sympathetic to NATO than Pompidou. More important, he would probably have done a deal with the Socialist Party to construct a centre-left anti-Gaullist alliance, leaving the Communist Party (PCF) out in the cold after a decade of chasing alliance with the Socialists.

Hence the PCF wanted a Pompidou victory at all costs. They could scarcely call for a Pompidou vote, but by asking their members and supporters to abstain they ensured Pompidou’s victory. In their heartland territory they posted pickets on polling stations to deter anyone who might have thought of going to vote. Of the 4.8 million who voted for PCF candidate Duclos in the first round, around 1.5 million seem to have voted Poher; the rest abstained.

Clearly these were very special circumstances. This year no organised force was calling for abstention. But a few weeks before the election, polls were showing that over half the voters could see no difference between Jospin and Chirac. The misleading comparison with 1969 thus distorts the depth of the crisis afflicting the mainstream parties.

2) The comparison of those who advocated abstention on the second round is not only disingenuous but malicious. In 1898 Socialist leaders – not only Guesde but Jaurès, Lafargue and the syndicalist CGT urged workers not to take sides in a "bourgeois civil war" between racists and the army establishment on one side and an innocent middle class Jew on the other. Obviously this gave credibility to the likes of Herzl, who claimed that the Dreyfus case persuaded him that Zionism was the only solution to the oppression of Jews.

A parallel would presumably have been if the French left, en bloc, had announced that Chirac and Le Pen were both right wing politicians and that workers need take no action whatsoever. In that situation immigrant workers would have indeed felt betrayed, and a huge boost would have been given to black nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism.

But no significant section of the left (not even Lutte Ouvrière) took that position. On the contrary, the response was to call for mass demonstrations immediately. By so doing, rather than centring their campaign on an election two weeks away, the left took the initiative. The dynamic of the demonstrations moved support away from Le Pen so that he was on the retreat well before the second round vote.

For revolutionaries the question of voting is always a question of tactics, not principle. Obviously it would be sectarian to make the question of a Chirac vote a barrier to unity. As supporters of the Socialisme par en bas group put it in a letter to the September Socialist Review, "because we didn’t put the issue of the vote as an obstacle to the common fight against Le Pen, we weren’t cut off from the mass of those who wanted to fight". But the demonstrations, not the votes, were primary.

And the Le Pen episode, though vitally important, was just an episode. Over the coming two or three years attacks on workers’ conditions and living standards will come from Chirac, not Le Pen. Socialists would have been very unwise to put themselves in a position where potential supporters could remind them: "But you told us to vote for him."

3) There seems to be a contradiction between the statement in the first paragraph that Jospin’s strategy has ended in "disastrous failure" and the claim in the final paragraph that "the French Socialists are now utterly hegemonic". A strange "hegemony" which leads to catastrophic electoral defeat.

The Gauche Socialiste, we are told, has "every chance of gaining strength in the internal party battle". It’s a bit of a vague formulation to hang a strategy on. Defeated socialist parties often take a few steps leftwards in order to revitalise their rank and file (the British Labour Party has done it often enough). Perhaps the Gauche Socialiste will have some success in inserting radical demands into the party programme. It is much less likely that those demands will ever become policy.

The decline of the revolutionary vote in the legislative elections can be attributed largely to the failure of the revolutionary organisations to present a united slate (largely LO’s fault, I gather). But Andrew fails to draw the conclusions from the most interesting part of his article, the figures compiled by Steve Jefferys, which show that the vote for the revolutionary candidates in the Presidentials came not from the apathetic or the confused, but from trade union members. And since trade union membership in France is very much lower than in Britain (a negative inheritance from revolutionary syndicalism), that means that union members are the most politically conscious workers – the "active minority" of which the syndicalists used to speak.

If a substantial section of such workers are breaking politically with the Socialist Party, this would scarcely seem to be the time to shore up that organisation. If revolutionaries try to operate within the Socialist Party, they run the risk of being caught up in the logic of entrism – militants who speak in one language to their comrades behind closed doors, and in a different, softer language to the uncomprehending masses and to the bureaucrats who might wish to expel them. But the prospects of building an independent revolutionary left seem better than for a generation.

Ian Birchall

The Fall of Militant

I WOULD just like to quickly pick up on the debate about the history of the Militant tendency as commented on by Harry Ratner, in his review of Ted Grant’s History of British Trotskyism ("Ted Grant and Trotskyism: The Unbroken Thread?", What Next? No.23).

Firstly, I would disagree with Harry’s view that the Militant was "in serious decline" by 1991, and that this provided an impetus to the "open turn" away from the Labour Party and the resulting split in the Tendency. Militant had in fact made substantial organisational gains out of the battle against the Poll Tax, in which it played a prominent role. Within the leadership, the majority around Peter Taaffe had become "dizzy with success", and were susceptible to the argument that Militant could win mass support as an independent organisation. Another factor was that the forces Militant had recruited from the Poll Tax campaign were mainly young and politically raw, with an understandable feeling of alienation from the Labour Party and (north of the border) illusions in Scottish nationalism. The majority of the leadership adapted politically to these new recruits, rather than educating them and orienting them towards the labour movement. This explains why the decisions were taken to launch Scottish Militant Labour and to stand against Labour in the 1991 Walton by-election.

Once the "open turn" was announced, a split was clearly inevitable, as many senior comrades were unwilling to ditch everything they had argued for in the past. It had always been the position of the group that Marxists can only make sustainable progress by working within the labour movement, and specifically within the Labour Party. Short-cutting the struggle, it was argued, may sound appealing but leaves most key questions unanswered, such as the political role of the trade unions.

Only a few years earlier, in Liverpool: A City that Dared to Fight, Peter Taaffe himself explained why it would have been wrong to provoke expulsion from Labour in 1985 by defying the National Executive’s instruction to disband the Liverpool District Labour Party: "An ‘independent’ DLP would undoubtedly meet with initial success ... in the short term, but would have undermined the long-term struggle to transform the Labour Party in a leftward direction. Through the trade unions, the Labour Party possesses a big reservoir of support" (p.353).

This was obviously still true when Scottish Militant Labour was formed. The direct result of the "turn" towards "open" party-building, as the minority around Ted Grant and Socialist Appeal predicted at the time, has been the virtual collapse of Militant over the last decade.

As Harry Ratner hints at, another factor behind the "turn" was the sectarian approach that had characterised Militant throughout its history. Dismissing the rest of the Left, they claimed to be "THE Marxist Tendency". After hearing their leaders claim they had been getting everything right for over thirty years, it is perhaps not surprising that many members stayed loyal to the organisation when the new line was announced. Certainly, similar examples can be found in the past, as when the WRP and SWP were launched as alternatives to Labour.

The same problem could also yet be the ruin of the Socialist Appeal tendency, even if in a formal sense they maintain an orientation to the Labour Party. They have hung on to, and built, their forces more successfully than the Militant majority around Taaffe, now organised in the Socialist Party. However, they maintain the approach of claiming they are "THE Marxists" and continue to pull back from work with others on the Left.

Consequently, at least on a national level, they abstain from efforts to build any movements for change within the Labour Party that are not based on Appeal’s full socialist programme. After years of calling on the Campaign Group of MPs to organise against the right wing, Socialist Appeal only gave a small advert to the major "After New Labour" event earlier this year. They then didn’t bother to send their members along anyway. This is hardly the best way to infuse the Labour Left with Marxist ideas, by denouncing it and then not helping its organisation! As Ratner pointedly notes, this kind of attitude gave the Militant problems in forming tactical alliances when attacked by the Right of the Labour Party in the 1980s. It will pose further problems for Appeal in the future, especially when working in Blair’s Labour Party is that much harder than in the past.

Predictably, the History of British Trotskyism fails to mention that this very question has led to many comrades, including a number of senior members, leaving Appeal since it was established. Amongst these are people rooted in the trade unions and the Labour Party. Their loss will make it harder for Appeal to work out a correct way of relating to (and building) the opposition to Blairism in the labour movement. Whilst comrades may do much good work on a local level, Appeal will not be "THE Marxist Tendency" of the labour movement unless it can re-orient itself tactically, using the method of the united front. Seeing your own organisation as in any way an alternative to those of the working class has always ended in ruin. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

In contrast to Appeal’s approach, a mass socialist movement will be formed in the struggles of the broader labour movement. Socialists must seek to win the right to lead the working class through being the most consistent fighters in all battles, however limited the basis of these may be. Part of that must involve playing an active part in the Labour Left and its campaigns. It is not just enough to be in the Labour Party, but to work there in a correct way, breaking from sectarianism. In this way socialists can avoid repeating the tragic fall of the Militant.

Matthew Willgress

We Are Not Amused

YES, VERY funny. So the Socialist Alliance did badly in a couple of by-elections, and this provides Bob Pitt with the excuse to make some sarcastic cracks at socialists who don’t share his own dogmatic view that the only possible arena for political work is the Labour Party ("The Blackwall and Cubitt Town By-Election: A Comment", What Next? No.23).

As a relatively new political formation, the Socialist Alliance can expect to get the odd duff result. It is important to learn lessons from our mistakes so we can avoid contesting elections in which, due to special circumstances, we cannot maximise the potential support for the Alliance that undoubtedly exists among traditional Labour voters disillusioned with Blair’s New Labour Party. Kambiz Boomla and Paul McGarr’s document, which Pitt affects to find so hilarious, was a serious attempt to do just that.

And what will Bob Pitt have to say on future occasions when the Socialist Alliance does achieve more impressive results? For example, Paul Foot is standing for the Alliance in the mayoral election in Hackney. He may not win, but he will get a decent vote. I look forward to comrade Pitt’s comments on that.

John Brunner

Campaigns for What?

THERE IS much that could be taken issue with in Alan Woodward’s article, "Experiences of a Socialist Alliance Candidate", in What Next? No.23. However, I want to concentrate on one aspect about which little has been said in the tree-loads of writing on the pros and cons of the Alliance. That is the issue of the relationship between single-issue campaigns and the Socialist Alliance (or, for that matter, any other organisation of the left).

Comrade Woodward never gets too explicit, but the gist of how he sees this relationship is shown by several quotes:

"Another gain from participation in election work is that it establishes some community of interest between revolutionaries of different political groups…. The joint action … should comprise a start to broader unity. The importance of using the experience of an election campaign to build a network of socialists who would cooperate in a range of political work in between elections should really outweigh any reluctance comrades feel towards electoral work as such."

"Our emphasis on supporting refugees and opposing racism and privatisation could have won us much support. Our anti-war politics would have emerged from discussions and provided further attraction. This would have strengthened our refugee support work after the election as well."

Talking of activity between elections, he writes: "There is plenty to be going on with. The mini strike wave on low pay, which also extends to anti-privatisation, practically calls out for SA leaflets. Anti-war work and solidarity with the Palestinians, plus refugee support campaigns, are all winning support as even the media admit."

The cumulative effect of these statements can only be that Woodward sees campaigns on the issues mentioned as the property of the Socialist Alliance or, at most, of "revolutionaries of different political groups".

Of course, the Socialist Alliance is entitled to campaign on whatever issues it wishes, but what is implied here is the use of campaigns, presumably the Stop the War Coalition and the Committee to Defend Asylum Seekers (they are not mentioned by name, but Defend Council Housing is), to build up support for the Socialist Alliance.

Yet none of these campaigns is a "Socialist Alliance campaign", all having support going well beyond groups of revolutionaries to national unions (including ones affiliated to the Labour Party) and parts of the Labour Party.

This all begs the questions which much of the Left, and especially the Socialist Alliance, refuses to ask, let alone answer: What is the purpose of such campaigns? How are they to be built? And how should revolutionaries function within them?

If the primary purpose of such campaigns is to build support and win recruits for one particular party (or grouping of parties), then the pretence should be dropped of them being wider campaigns, since the support of others is only cynical window dressing to attract punters to the periphery of their real component.

If however, as I believe, the purpose of these campaigns is actually to try and win on these issues (stopping the "war against terrorism", defending the rights of asylum seekers etc), then they have to be seen differently. In this case, every effort has to be made to build up broad support across the labour movement, and any presentation of them as the property of one organisation (such as their use in its election campaigns) can only be damaging and counterproductive. How, for instance, would Woodward expect to attract Labour Party members opposed to Blunkett’s treatment of asylum seekers to CDAS if it were merely seen as a Socialist Alliance campaign?

Woodward and others may protest that, in their area, they are no Labour Party members (or, indeed, non-supporters of the Socialist Alliance) involved in these campaigns. In response to which I would make several points. Firstly, this is not the case elsewhere; in my experience in Brent it has been possible to win many others to participation in both Brent CDAS and Brent Stop the War. It further begs the question of whether Socialist Alliance supporters in these areas have tried to win such support, or whether it even enters their minds to attempt it. It would be a strange argument indeed from "revolutionaries" to say "these people aren’t involved, so we don’t have to worry about this question". Surely if the real purpose of the campaign is to win the issue, rather than simply "build the party", then campaigners should be going out of their way to win such people to the campaign. Again, if the campaign is merely seen as an appendage of a particular organisation, this will not happen. In addition, in some areas such campaigns are "wheeled out" when it suits those who see them as "theirs". This is no way to build a systematic campaign, and certainly no way to secure the democratic involvement of broader forces.

In part, Woodward’s approach goes back to a false understanding by many on the left of the united front. Leaving aside his silly description of the Socialist Alliance itself as a united front, much of the left sees such campaigns as the chance to pose themselves as the only "opponents of the war" or the only "defenders of asylum seekers", even though this is patently not true. Others view the united front primarily as an opportunity to "expose the reformists", without recognising that in order to expose the reformists to anyone who is not already aware of their shortcomings it is necessary to actually involve those who have illusions in the reformists in the first place. This element of "exposure" really only comes to the fore when a broad campaign is up and fighting. It is then that any backsliding becomes obvious and revolutionaries can put forward their criticism and a perspective for taking the campaign forward.

Many "revolutionaries" much prefer to build their "own" campaign, around an issue that can bring them a few recruits, to the more onerous task of building the sort of campaign I have attempted to outline. However, not only is the latter more rewarding in terms of putting together something which can actually be part of a real fight, but if our "revolutionaries" thought about it for more than a few seconds they might realise that, in the long run, it is also a much better prospect for building an organisation of the left which can really challenge the hold of reformism. Which is more likely to win respect among broader layers, building your own front or building a campaign which draws in broad forces, and which gives you a bigger audience for your political ideas? And, most fundamentally of all, which type of campaign has the greater chance of success, and therefore of providing the working class with much-needed victories?

None of this is to deny the right of Socialist Alliance supporters to put forward their politics in campaigns, nor to denigrate the effort many of them put into campaigning, but is an attempt to get them to look at how they see campaigns being built and developing beyond the fringes that the left currently occupies.

Pete Firmin