Keep the working class out of it

At a conference on June 24-25 in Paris, over 250 representatives of the European left discussed how we should move forward after the French 'non' vote to the European constitution. Anne Mc Shane reports

At the initiative of the Parti Communiste Franà§ais (PCF) a conference took place in Paris on June 24-25 to discuss the way forward after the victory of the 'no' vote in the French and Dutch referenda on the European Union constitution earlier this month. With over 250 representatives from political organisations throughout Europe in attendance, it promised to be an inspiring event. The rejection of the constitution has created the potential for the launch of a bold, European-wide campaign. The French vote was overwhelmingly a left one and it has thrown the project of the EU establishment into crisis. Centrally it has produced the opportunity to qualitatively step up the struggle for a Europe from below. But unfortunately the French left does not appear to have the appetite to lead such a struggle. Its conservatism and concern with unity at the level of the lowest common denominator showed from their beginning. In the words of MEP Franà§ois Wurtz, who spoke on behalf of the PCF, "We want to reach convergence to overcome divergence." In practice this means papering over differences and producing a declaration that the leadership of Attac and other French forces to the right of the PCF could live with - including, it seems, those not present from the unions and Socialist Party. However, the left in the Socialist Party (many of whom are most certainly not to the right of the PCF) was well represented at the conference. It is, of course, greatly strengthened since the referendum, when a large minority rebelled against the leadership and openly campaigned for a 'no' vote. But the PCF leadership still wants to get itself back into government, and diplomacy towards the SP centre and right is essential for this. The event was held in the PCF's swanky headquarters and opened by Elisabeth Gaultier, member of the PCF and one of the leading figures in the Appel des 200, the united leftwing 'no' campaign. She stressed the importance of actions across Europe and unity in the aftermath of the referendum. She then introduced the first session on the situation in Europe, due to be followed by a second session to discuss specific proposals and initiatives. In fact there was little attempt to try and implement this agenda and the conference had to sit through one long (six hours!), directionless session. This is exactly what happens in European Social Forum preparatory assemblies - the self-selected leadership makes the real decisions in whispered conversations while the meeting goes on and on, with speakers being allowed to drone on about anything and everything. The CPGB had produced a motion to be put to the conference and Attac also distributed a paper. However, as the meeting wore on it became clear that these could not be moved. Instead we had speech after speech, as the delegates began to nod off. But behind the scenes written proposals were being discussed by a few chosen delegates. One helpful comrade thought I would be interested in knowing that a small meeting was taking place in another room to talk about a paper that had been distributed to a select few by comrade Gaultier. This meeting was to iron out any potential problems before it was put to conference the following day. This meeting was never announced and the conference was not informed that a text was circulating with a view to adoption. This in fact turned out to be the only written proposal that the conference convenors would allow to go forward. Meanwhile the speakers lined up on the conference floor. All seemed agreed that the French vote was qualitatively different from the Dutch one. However, some speakers from Holland pointed out that it was not just nationalism but also a feeling of powerlessness that had led to the 'no' vote there. People saw Europe as a distant, undemocratic power. Therefore the struggle for an alternative must be bottom-up and democratic. A speaker from Catalonia argued that the Spanish 'yes' was extremely contradictory. The turnout had been very low and there had been a great deal of confusion about the constitution. In the absence of a coherent alternative the vote should not be seen as simply in favour of a neoliberal Europe. Many who voted 'yes' did so because they believed not to do so was anti-European and had been advised as such by the Socialist Party. Now that France had shown that the constitution could be defeated by the left, a militant campaign which presented a vision of another Europe could win mass support in Spain too. A referendum is to be held in Luxembourg in July and there was concern among some delegates that if there was a 'yes' there the ratification process could be revived. However, the majority of delegates reported a sea change, and there was general agreement that the proposed constitution is effectively dead in the water. Miguel Portis of the Left Bloc in Portugal reported that the referendum scheduled for October in that country has now been suspended. Franco Russo of Rifondazione Comunista (PRC) argued that he "could not agree" with those who want EU leaders to redraft a more leftwing constitution - a clear reference to the Attac leaflet, which called for the drawing up of a new treaty for the "refoundation of a democratic Europe". He said there was "a great deal of difference between a treaty drawn up by national governments and a constitution which is fought for from the bottom up". Our argument should be for "a constitution which asserted basic social rights against the market". He invited all delegates to Italy in November to an "assembly of European citizens" to discuss putting together such a charter or constitution. He and other Italian comrades made clear over the two-day conference that they are particularly unhappy with the influence of Attac, whose version of a democratic Europe includes greater emphasis on national sovereignty. It continually attempts to pull ESF debates and decisions to the right and is often successful. It is, of course, only so disproportionately influential because the PCF wants it to be. Attac's leaders are, we are told, representatives of the 'movement' that needs to be listened to. But in reality this 'movement' consists of many members of the Socialist Party, PCF and other political groups. And its leaders - like Christophe Ventura - are practised operators who are well skilled at arm-twisting and political manoeuvres. Alain Krivine of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire was the only speaker, with the exception of the CPGB, to actually mention the role of the working class in the movement for an alternative Europe. He argued that the left need to orientate towards workers' struggles on a Europe level and that the coalition in France had not solved anything in that respect. There had been a victory and a degree of radicalisation, but unity had been difficult, as the traditions and politics were so different. He was alone in pointing out that the broadness of the Appel des 200 was problematic inasmuch as it led to the usual watering down of working class politics in favour of populist platitudes. However, the LCR did not circulate alternative proposals and did not intervene the following day to attempt to amend the document put together by comrade Gaultier and others. Indeed with the exception of comrade Krivine - a former presidential candidate - it did not have any visible presence. There was a national meeting of those from France who had been involved in the Appel des 200 on the Saturday where the LCR did have a presence, but it is clearly remiss of it not to attempt any effective intervention at the Europe conference. Also necessary to mention was the tiny turnout from Britain. The Socialist Workers Party's Chris Harman had been registered to attend but did not show. The only International Socialist Tendency comrade present was Christine Buchhotz from Germany - now also on the leadership of the ASG, which has linked up with the former 'official communist' Party of Democratic Socialism. However, she did not speak at all. It is strange that the SWP did not send a single comrade from Britain when it has been so enthusiastically extolling the importance of the French 'no'. The only other comrades from Britain were Dave Stockton of Workers Power and Pauline Fraser, who told me she was a representative of the Morning Star's Communist Party of Britain. She too did not speak. I managed to gain access to the Gaultier meeting, where I argued for the centrality of the working class in drafting proposals for an alternative Europe. The response was one of horror. Sophie Zafari of the FSU union (also an LCR member) said that there could be no mention of the working class, as there would be no consensus. She said that there had also been debates about this in France - perhaps those problems referred to by comrade Krivine - and those debates could not be repeated. She was joined by comrades Gaultier, Ventura and some others in rejecting any mention of the working class in the document. When the conference reconvened on Saturday morning the paper worked on by this meeting was presented. Delegates were told that they could only speak if they put concrete amendments to the text, which was produced in French only. In fact not all amendments were accepted as valid - including, of course, that of the CPGB. I proposed an amendment which called for the working class of Europe to take the lead in fighting for the demands set out in the text - which called for a "social, democratic, peaceful, feminist, ecological and solidarity-based" Europe. My intervention was met with a stony silence, although a number of comrades, including Gennare Migliore, head of the PRC's international department, later expressed private agreement with me, but believed it was too early to make such a call. But when does the issue of the working class become timely - once Rifondazione, as part of the Olive Tree Coalition, or the PCF, in alliance with the SP, are sat in a bourgeois government? In both cases, it would then surely be even more unlikely that they would welcome a call for the working class to take the lead. After all, that might compromise their ministers, might it not? When it comes to the working class, it seems that, even in terms of rhetoric, for the modern 'official communists' it is a case of not now and not ever. Quite a number of other delegates who had not previously seen the proposals were very critical and said it fell far short of what was needed. Haris Golemis from Greece said it did not "correspond with the hopes of the French 'no' and described it as a "typical ESF text "¦ with all the usual phrases "¦ we need to make proper demands". Indeed the finalised declaration for "another Europe" contains no concrete details of what that means or how to attain it - just a list of what, in general, we are against (war, neoliberalism, racism, "patriarchal domination", etc) and of everything we are supposed to be for ("a better distribution of wealth", "respect for the rights of immigrants"). There is no mention of class or capitalism - simply appeals on the basis of 'citizenship'. It was agreed that a European petition was a good idea and particularly important to begin to organise now against the Bolkestein and working time directives and other measures. As the text of the petition could not be agreed - mostly because of Attac's insistence that no decision on that should be taken - the next stage consists of support for various events. Apart from the next ESF preparatory assembly (Istanbul, September 23-25) and Rifondazione's "assembly of European citizens" (Rome, November 12-13), the declaration called for a day of demonstrations against the Bolkestein directive on October 15 and "a day of local mobilisations for another Europe", consisting of meetings of social forums and larger assemblies, on March 4 2006. This last day of "mobilisations" is linked to the aim - also contained in the statement - of putting together a charter, or manifesto, of "social, democratic and environmental rights" for a different Europe. This has been talked about before and is something that Rifondazione is keen on. It would mark a qualitative step forward if it actually came up with hard demands in the interest of our class. But that, of course, is a big 'if'. The opportunity to launch a militant campaign for a democratic Europe from below may not have disappeared altogether, but - thanks to the conservatism and opportunism of the European left - the momentum has already lessened l Anne Mc Shane