Floundering towards Eurocommunism

While Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire theorists flounder towards Eurocommunism, the SWP's Alex Callinicos can only answer them with evasion. In the first of two articles, Mike Macnair discusses revolutionary strategy

A strange thing happened on January 28. Socialist Worker published a report of the 16th Congress of the French Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR, but more commonly abbreviated to 'the Ligue'). The report, by Alex Callinicos, offers an account of the views of the different platforms in the Ligue debating where it should go in the next year, and reports the percentage votes some of them obtained and the fact that Platform 1, the outgoing leadership majority, won just less than 50% of the total votes cast.

It is a strange thing to happen because Socialist Worker has a long history of pretending to be the far left's Daily Mirror, a paper which addresses the broad masses. SWPers would say that these masses are not interested in the internal affairs of far left organisations. In reality, of course, Socialist Worker's paid sales are not much above the SWP's claimed membership: the paper's Mirror style leads it to preach low-grade banalities to the converted. In this context, for Socialist Worker to publish Callinicos's report of the Ligue congress is surprising. It is also - if it proves to be the beginning of a trend - a major step forward.

The account is, quite properly, from a slant given by the Socialist Workers Party leadership's current political views. Perhaps less satisfactorily, it is only partially informative. It offers a substantial critique of Platform 1, and a brief account of the view of Platform 4, which includes the SWP's co-thinkers. The other platforms only get side swipes which do not really tell us much about their views: Platform 3 "see the LCR as a catalyst in a realignment of the left involving elements of both the CP and SP, and some at least don't rule out LCR participation in another 'plural left' government," and Platform 2 brought out the "sectarian logic" of Platform 1's arguments (by being sectarians).

The Ligue's own report in the Fourth International's International Viewpoint webzine (www.interna- tionalviewpoint.org) tells us only that minorities existed, not what they said, and is even more opaque (it should be said that the documents of the several platforms are available in French on the Ligue's website: www.Ligue-rouge.org/rubriquecongres.php- 3?id_rubrique=144).

The SWP has added to our knowledge of debates in the Ligue in another way too. The January 2006 issue of the International Socialist Tendency Discussion Bulletin (IST DB) put out by the SWP's 'international' includes translations of three pieces on the question of revolutionary strategy from the Ligue's theoretical journal Critique Communiste and a comment on them by Callinicos (www.istend- ency.net/pdf/ISTbulletin7.pdf).

The immediate issue

The immediate issue is simple: should the Ligue participate, without preconditions, in discussions whose aim is to try to achieve a unitary candidacy of 'the left' in the presidential elections in 2007?

The context is that in the 2002 elections, there was no unitary 'left' candidate. In the first round the Socialist Party candidate, Lionel Jospin, did badly; and the Communist Party (PCF) candidate, Robert Hue, was out-polled by both the candidates of the far left - Olivier Besancenot of the Ligue and Arlette Laguiller of Lutte Ouvrière. Under the French constitution, the effect of the divided left vote, and, more especially, the poor performance of the SP and PCF, was that Jean-Marie Le Pen of the far right Front National went through to the second round. The bulk of the left wound up voting for the centre-right candidate, Jacques Chirac, in order to 'keep Le Pen out'.

There are three problems with the idea that the Ligue should participate in such a project. Two of these are matters of assessment of the political situation - the character of the 'Plural Left' governments which preceded Chirac, as influencing the 2002 defeat, and the European question. The third is a strategic matter and by no means unique to the Ligue: under what conditions should communists participate in coalition governments formed on the basis of the electoral institutions of the existing capitalist state (in France, the 5th Republic)? Equally, when should they support or participate in electoral coalitions which are aimed to create such governments?

The 'Plural Left' governments were in substance not dissimilar to Blairism with a bit more left rhetoric. They accepted the general framework of 'national competitiveness', and launched a series of attacks on the rights and interests of the French working class. The poor electoral performance of the SP and CP in 2002 reflected the fact that the policy of their government was discredited among a large portion of working class voters. It is unlikely that enough time has passed for this to be forgotten, and if a 'united left' candidacy offers a warmed-over version of the same policy in 2007, it is likely to receive the same negative response as in 2002.

The European aspect consists in the victory of the 'no' camp in the May 2005 referendum in France on the EU constitutional treaty. Though a substantial part of the 'no' vote came from the nationalist right, the result was widely and rightly perceived as a rejection of the neoliberal character of the treaty.

The SP was split down the middle on the referendum, and many leftists held out the hope that the split would become permanent and the 'left no' camp as a whole could be regrouped as a left force rejecting neoliberalism. In the event the SP leaders decided at their November 2005 conference to hang together rather than separately. Even the SP faction led by former LCR oppositionist Gérard Filoche clings to the unity of the SP, as can be seen in his comments on the Ligue congress (in the International Viewpoint report).

The opaque discussion in the Ligue takes the form of disagreement on the interpretation of these two issues. Does the threat of the far right override the political bankruptcy of the past 'social-liberal' governments? How much political space, if any, is opened up by the 'no' victory in May 2005?

However, judgments on these two questions are ultimately secondary. Such judgments are inevitably formulated within strategic frameworks, even if these are unspoken. The significance of the Critique Communiste materials translated by the IST DB is that, if also in an opaque way, they open up the question of strategic frameworks.

'Reformists' and 'revolutionaries'

The core strategic question is the meaning of the division between 'reformists' and 'revolutionaries'. It is posed to the LCR because the Ligue has been invited to participate in what is in substance a proposal for a coalition to fight for a government which would pursue what have traditionally been seen as 'reformist' objectives. It is posed to the Fourth International more generally because for some time it has supported and participated in the creation of parties and coalitions which, in Callinicos's phrase, "leave open the question of reform and revolution", such as the Brazilian Workers Party and, in Europe, Rifondazione Comunista, the Scottish Socialist Party, etc.

However, the experience of Brazil showed, and so in different ways do the debates in Rifondazione and in the German proto-Linkspartei, there are present-day choices facing the left about policy, government and coalitions. And these choices still leave sharp differences.

On the one side are those who are willing, for the sake of lesser-evilism or marginal advantages to the oppressed, to administer the existing capitalist nation-state as part of the existing international state system without fundamental changes. They are therefore prepared to form coalitions with supporters of these systems, in which these supporters can veto policies which are 'too leftwing'.

On the other side are those who insist that this policy is an illusion which merely prepares the ground for disillusionment among the masses, the advance of the far right, and new further-right centre-right governments. From this perspective, making fundamental changes is the priority of any socialist government, and perhaps such a government could only come to power through a 'revolutionary rupture'. Only small and dispersed minorities refuse any coalitions at all, but a significant minority would hold the view that a coalition in which Blair, Schröder, Prodi or Fabius calls the shots is not worth having and a stance of militant opposition - even if it means militant opposition to a government of the right - is preferable.

This is the context in which the Critique Communiste documents and Callinicos's response address the 'strategic questions'.

Artous

The first two documents translated are by Antoine Artous, the editor of Critique Communiste. The first, titled 'The LCR and the left: some strategic questions', is an 'I want to open the discussion' sort of document. Artous tells us that the Ligue through the 1970s operated on a dual axis of 'the united front' (seeking united action of the broad movement, including unification of the French party-led trade union confederations) and 'revolutionary unity'. The united front policy "ran into ... problems, such as the issue of a 'workers' government'" and "developing a policy on the governments formed by the communist parties and the social democrats".

The 'revolutionary unity' side is discreetly left undeveloped: the truth is that the Ligue's efforts in this direction were pretty minimal.

Artous takes the opportunity to insist that the Ligue did not merely take the Russian Revolution as a model, but "intended to revive the work of elaboration carried out by the non-Stalinist Comintern [ie, the first four congresses of the Comintern, 1919-22] and then by Trotsky and others ... by relating it to current experience (Chile, Portugal, etc)." But "the Ligue still saw the most significant split in the workers' movement ... as being the split between 'reformists' and 'revolutionaries'".

This approach is obsolete, Artous argues, because "the current period is characterised by the end of the historical cycle which began with October 1917". Hence, recycling Lenin's State and revolution (etc) is not enough: "completely rethinking a strategy of social emancipation" is what is called for.

Artous claims that the Ligue in the 1970s had, and has now lost, a "strategic hypothesis": that of the "insurrectionary general strike". It is necessary to reaffirm that there must be a "revolutionary rupture", but to admit that this does not amount to a strategy. In place of this strategy, which it shared, the SWP has put an ultra-minimum programme (Callinicos's An anti-capitalist manifesto) coupled with abstract references to "the revolution". This is an attempt to con the masses into making the revolution (Artous' formulation is a little politer).

What is called for is a reforged transitional programme. Artous insists that a full programme will require experiences of struggle, but suggests two axes: (1) "the radicalisation of democracy, on the theme of democracy in its purest form"; and (2) "the struggle against the commodification of the world" - ie, to put it in less elevating terms, against privatisation and cuts in welfare provisions.

He concludes that "it is not simply a case of rebuilding a workers' movement ... based on 'class foundations': this approach must dovetail with an 'alliance' policy which involves forming a social and political bloc with the ... 'social movements'". The kind of new political force required will have to (1) be anti-capitalist and socialist, and (2) "clearly differentiate itself from social-liberalism". This latter point means that there can be no practical unity between those who support and those who oppose creating a government which includes the right wing of the SP.

There are three striking features of Artous' argument. The first is that, although it purports to take into account the history of the Trotskyist movement and of the Ligue in particular, it in fact merely recounts it in order to set it on one side as not relevant to current conditions. It is also not completely accurate. The Ligue's policy in the 1970s was informed by the European perspectives of the 10th World Congress of the Mandelite Fourth International. The characterisation of this policy as expressing a strategy of "insurrectionary general strike" is a half-truth. Its core was, in fact, the struggle to develop proto-soviet forms, both in the course of the day to day class struggle and under revolutionary conditions. It was argued that through the experience of proto-soviet and soviet forms the proletarian masses could go beyond the SPs and CPs. In the 1974-75 Portuguese revolution this policy failed disastrously to provide any guide to action on the question of government. The Ligue has thus been deprived of its strategy not because conditions have changed, but because this strategy was proved by experiment to be wrong in the conditions for which it was designed.

Rather similarly, Artous insists that the Ligue grounded itself on the early Comintern: but he shows no sign of having actually read critically the documents of the early Comintern or being willing to pass judgement on what was right and what was wrong in these documents.

The second striking feature is that Artous is stuck with the Trotskyist idea of a 'transitional programme'. He has a better idea of what such a programme might be than some other users of it: ie, that it is to grow out of existing objective conditions (not out of what is currently popular, like the 35-hour week) and to point towards, in Artous' phrase, "radical transformation of the system" (Trotsky, more bluntly and slightly less economistically, said that it must point towards the conquest of political power by the proletariat).

But here too Artous is unwilling actually to engage with the history. The 1938 Transitional programme postulated that capitalism was in its death agony and the immediate needs of the masses could only be met by radical socialisation. It was this that made a 'transitional' programme, as opposed to minimum and maximum programmes, appropriate. The 'transitional' core in fact derived from the trade union programme of the Fourth Congress of the Comintern, which was in turn based on German militant trade unionists' responses to the conditions of acute economic disruption towards the end of the 1914-18 war. In fact, the 'death agony' was that of the British world hegemony, not of capitalism; and in 1939-45 the belligerents rapidly introduced systems of planning and rationing which prevented the economic chaos of 1914-18. The Transitional programme had no purchase on events.

False in its own time, the Transitional programme has provided no guide to action for the Trotskyists ever since. Instead, they have quite properly created minimum programmes - but usually called them 'transitional'. Because the core of the 1938 programme was a trade union programme, these minimum programmes have characteristically had a strongly economistic cast. Artous has made an important step forward in understanding that the struggle for "democracy in its purest form" is critical to the proletariat as a class taking power. But he then fails to develop this insight, focussing instead on the "struggle against commodification": ie, (potentially) more economism.

Thirdly, when Artous discusses 'alliance policy', he misunderstands radically what the proletariat is as a class in Marxist theory. That is, in Marxist theory the proletariat is the whole class which is dependent on the wage fund, not merely the employed workers. It is the proletariat's separation from (ie, non-ownership of) the means of production which makes it potentially the bearer of socialism/communism, not the employed workers' connection to the means of production in the form of the workplaces.

In insisting that the 'social movements' are separate allies of the class movement, Artous on the one hand ignores the roots of these movements in processes of proletarianisation. On the other, he distorts the idea of the workers' class movement into a misshapen, syndicalist-economist form. The sort of workers' class political movement which the Second International built was one which organised, through diverse and differentiated organisational forms, on every issue and in every area of social life, including socialist education, socialist credit unions, choirs, cycle clubs, and so on. Today we need to fight to rebuild a class political movement in that sense, not impoverished 'pure trade unionism'.

This error on the nature of class underlay the syndicalist character of the Ligue's and Mandelites' (and the British SWP's) strategic perspectives in the 1970s. It now has effects which threaten to amount to a repeat of the 'alliance' ideas of the British Eurocommunists, who ended up destroying their party. Those who will not learn from history - and Artous on the evidence of this article will not - are condemned to repeat it.

Artous on Coutrot

The second piece by Artous is a critique of Thomas Coutrot's Democracy against capitalism (Paris 2005), and Coutrot's intervention in Critique Communiste in the debate on the Ligue's 2005 draft manifesto. Without having read Coutrot's book, we have to read Artous' critique for what it adds to our understanding of Artous' strategic conception.

Artous indicates at the outset his agreement with two of Coutrot's fundamental views: (1) that after Stalinism and neoliberalism "only a project aimed at the radicalisation of democracy could refound an alternative global perspective"; and (2) "the task is to construct 'a historic social bloc' (in the sense used by Gramsci) through the struggle against capitalist globalisation".

Artous' disagreements with Coutrot are less clearly presented. It seems that Artous thinks Coutrot believes that the struggle for democracy need not confront the question of ownership of the means of production. In Artous' view, on the contrary, the introduction of (eg) democratic workers' control would in itself entrench upon, or at least radically change, the right of ownership. This claim recurs throughout the piece and returns in its conclusion.

Coutrot is also a fan of cooperatives and similar measures from below of self-organisation of those excluded from the charmed circle of the full-time permanent employees. It should be remembered that activities of this sort were common to the pre-1914 socialist movement, including the Bolsheviks. But both Coutrot (as reported by Artous), tentatively, and Artous, more sharply, claim that there is no space for such initiatives in the 'advanced capitalist' countries. No reason is given. In fact, the abstention of the left from such initiatives has left the field to the clergy and the charitable poverty lobby NGOs. It is hardly surprising in this context that there is a significant revival of religion across the 'advanced countries', if not yet as strong as in the US and the 'third world'.

Coutrot is presented by Artous as hostile, in the name of democracy and worker or worker-citizen control, to statisation of economic activities. Artous insists, on the contrary, that in several areas statisation is or may be necessary. What is truly extraordinary about this exchange is a silence. Neither Coutrot (as reported by Artous) nor Artous has things to say about democratising the state: freedom of information and speech and an end to state and commercial secrets, workers' militia, trial by jury and flattening of judicial hierarchies, abolition of hereditary (monarchies) and elective (presidencies) systems of one-person rule, compulsory rotation of officials, and so on.

The unavoidable conclusion: both Coutrot and Artous are beginning to think about democracy; but neither has actually broken from the deep-going economism of the organised left.

Durand

The third piece, by Cédric Durand, is adorned with flow diagrams (presumably derived from a Powerpoint presentation ...) which add nothing. Durand's argument is a more systematic and more extreme version of conclusions which might be drawn from some of the points made by Artous.

Durand starts with a quite correct point. Since the beginning of the 'anti-globalisation movement' the current world order, together with the states and elites which make it up, has suffered a considerable loss of legitimacy. But this loss of legitimacy has not issued in a revival of the organisations of the workers' movement and the left.

He notes that "the mistakes about governmental participation made by members of the Fourth International in Brazil show how hard it is to take a position when the question of governmental participation becomes explicit". It is unclear whether this is intended as a criticism of the Democracia Socialista majority who have remained in the Workers Party and the government (the view after long hesitation taken by the Fourth International), or of their opponents (which would imply that Durand accepts the idea of participating in a 'social-liberal' government).

The point is nonetheless sound. Any political party which wins significant voting support (and in political crises, even those which do not) is forced to confront the question of governmental coalitions. This problem has shipwrecked all the Trotskyist organisations which have approached having a mass base (eg, the Sri Lankan Lanka Sama Samaja Party, Bolivian Partido Obrero Revolucionario) and several other smaller ones.

It is now clear, Durand argues, that the failure of hostility to capitalism to translate into support for the organised left (and the ascendancy of anarchist ideas in the anti-globalisation movement itself) "are not merely conjunctural developments, but are the product of profound scepticism about the ability of political organisations to carry through the process of social transformation". Put more simply, lots of people are fed up with capitalism, but they do not trust the far left (or moderate left) groups.

Durand restates the Ligue's old strategy of the "insurrectionary general strike" or "strategy of dual power" slightly more accurately than Artous, without commenting on it. He goes on to give an explanation of the failure of this policy which, even more clearly than Artous' comments on alliances, is grounded on Eurocommunist arguments initially developed by academics around the 'official' CPGB.

In the first place, the communist and third-worldist strategies were founded on an idea of the "homogeneity of the oppressed" which was "reductionist". This in turn led to "substitutionism" in which spaces for self-organisation were displaced by party hierarchy. The result is the seizure of power, followed by "pragmatic" adaptation to the needs of state management: ie, Stalinism. Secondly, there is "growing socio-economic complexity and fragmentation". This has had the effect of undermining self-identification in terms of class, as well as weakening the trade union movement. The "traditional labour movement" thus tends to decline. Both arguments are stale Eurocommunist crap familiar in this country from the 1980s writings of Eric Hobsbawm, Stuart Hall, and so on.

Durand's strategic hypotheses to respond to this situation follow. He argues that, instead of a strategy of 'preparing for' the insurrectionary general strike, the process of social transformation should be extended over a prolonged period of struggles. There should be "an immediate policy consistent with its purposes", which implies the construction in present struggles of forms of self-management, etc; but also that simple demands for increased purchasing power are not enough. Struggle should be seen as a form of emancipation in itself. There should be a "strategic commitment free of any ambiguity to non-violence".

Secondly, strategy should move "from the decisive battle to the multiplicity of strategic spaces". Following management theorist Alfred Hirschman's 1970 models of responses to the decline of firms, Durand proposes three sorts of "strategic spaces": "exit", which means cooperatives, etc, in "zones abandoned by capitalism" (?); "voice", which means strikes, protests and NGO lobbying; and "loyalty", which is expressed in a commitment to play by the rules of the political game. "The electoral field," says Durand, "is indeed the legitimate arena to define the orientation of the political leadership."

Eurocommunist reasonings thus lead to Eurocommunist conclusions. French comrades should be willing to look across the Channel for once (I know it is never something that comes easy to them) and see what has become of the ex-CP 'Democratic Left' built on this strategic orientation.

Callinicos

Callinicos's commentary on the French documents offers us three elements. The first is an assessment of the international political situation. Here Callinicos claims that there is a process of radicalisation, and the far left are significant players in it, but that for it to develop into more the masses have to move. This assessment allows him to evade the fundamental point made by all the LCR authors: namely that the evolution of the political situation since the later 1990s has shown that the radicalisation against global neoliberalism has not reflected itself positively in growth of the workers' movement and the organised ('reformist' and 'revolutionary') left. On the contrary, Callinicos points to instances of relative growth of far left votes which he himself explains in terms of the crisis of the social democracy. The organised left has continued to decline, but trade unions and the traditional mass workers' parties have declined faster than the far left, leaving the far left relatively stronger. The 2002 votes in the French presidential elections are a clear example.

The second element is a critique, primarily of Durand, on the basis that the policy proposed is warmed over Eurocommunism - as I have indicated in my own comments on Durand (though Callinicos is a little more diplomatic). In this context, Callinicos insists that at the end of the day the capitalist state will resist socialist transformation using force, and that socialists have to be prepared for - at some point - a forcible confrontation with this state with a view to breaking it up and creating a new political order.

It is certainly true that there can be no socialism unless the capitalist state's monopoly of organised armed force is destroyed. It is likely that this would at some stage involve a forcible confrontation. However, if the political crisis is deep enough, it is by no means impossible that the ranks of the military would dissolve or go over in their majority to the revolution. This certainly happened in 1917 and more recently in Cuba and Nicaragua, and came close to happening in the French événements of 1968 and in Portugal. In this case the capitalist class and the state core would have grave difficulties in reconstructing an internal military force to coerce the working class back into obedience.

Conversely, the question as to whether the workers' movement could win a forcible confrontation is quite plainly to be answered, not by militarisation of the organisational structure of the proletarian movement in advance, but by the ability to improvise armed forces on the basis of broad mass support once it became obvious that a forcible confrontation was inevitable. This is one of the real lessons of 1917, and it is, in fact, inconsistent with the conclusions the Comintern drew in 1921 about the 'epoch of wars and revolutions' requiring the Communist Party to have a military character.

Callinicos simply fails to address these questions, just as he evades the problem of broad mistrust of the far left.

Callinicos insists that the problem of the 'revolutionary subject' is not new and consists, in substance, of members of the working class not identifying themselves as workers. A correct and very helpful point follows: "It has always required a complex process of struggle, organisation and political intervention for a particular working class to start to imagine itself as more than an aggregation of wage labourers, as a political subject with a common identity and interests."

But then, of course, the question is: what sort of organisation and political intervention could begin to re-establish class political consciousness?

Callinicos defends his 10-point programme from An anti-capitalist manifesto, and argues that Artous' criticisms of it as minimalist are either a discourse of Ligue members distancing themselves from the SWP, or reflect the Trotskyist view that "the programme has a kind of magical quality inherent in its demands connecting present struggles with the overthrow of capitalism". This is a legitimate critique of Artous. It is no answer to the objection - not made by Artous - that Callinicos's 10-point programme is wholly economistic, containing nothing other than 'defence of civil liberties' on the struggle for democracy.

Finally, he returns to his starting point: in various European left electoral formations 'revolutionary Marxists' can play a pivotal role. The Ligue's approach to the question of regroupment in the wake of the 'no' campaign is a "passive, almost quietistic attitude that treats the outcome of struggles as settled before they have begun".

Strategic questions

Artous, Coutrot (as reported by Artous) and Durand are asking genuine strategic questions, even if their answers are in several ways misconceived. Callinicos evades these questions. He does so first by a combination of arguments about the political situation. These amount to the idea that the traditional far-left strategy (to which the SWP still formally adheres) is not disproved, but 'our time may yet come'. The second element of evasion is his reassertion of the point that it is likely at the end of the day that there will have to be a forcible confrontation with the capitalist state ('reform or revolution').

Callinicos presents the choice between 'reform' and 'revolution' as a choice about forcible confrontation with the capitalist state. But if this issue was really the core of his strategic argument, a key policy conclusion would follow: revolutionaries must fight for arming the working class and disarming the capitalist class. In the concrete, this means fighting (a) for the universal right to keep and bear arms and against 'gun control'; (b) for universal military service and a popular militia to replace the standing armed forces; and (c) for full democratic, political and trade union rights in the existing armed forces. No such policy makes its appearance even in the SWP's more 'revolutionary' output, let alone in its electoral policy, either through the Socialist Alliance or more recently through Respect.

What is left of policy conclusions resulting from 'revolution' is just one - that identified by Durand as "substitutionism". It is the degutted remnant in the SWP's ideas of the Comintern's 1921 'Resolution on the organisation of the communist parties'. In this view, since a revolution entails forcible confrontation, it requires a party "of the Bolshevik type", defined as one which (a) has a top-down, militaristic structure and (b) remains 'pure' by organisational separation from the pro-capitalist right wing of the workers' movement, as opposed to political confrontation with their ideas. This idea was already false in 1921 and has had disastrous consequences ever since. This is the underlying ideology which sanctifies the character of the SWP, as a bureaucratic dictatorship over its own ranks, and as a sect which poisons everything it touches with control-freakery.

Callinicos's evasions thus indicate in themselves that the French authors are tackling real and profoundly important questions. To understand in a more fundamental way what is wrong with both the strategic ideas of the French authors and with Callinicos's, it will be necessary to look back in a bit more depth at how the 'strategic question' has evolved. This will enable us to return, with more solid backing for concrete political judgments, to the question of coalition governments and coalitions which seek to create governments.