Working Class Independence and the French Presidential Elections: A Statement by Socialist Democracy (Ireland)
25th June 2002
In the last Irish general elections Socialist Democracy argued that the results revealed a crisis of opposition as the ruling coalition was returned to power while their main rivals in Fine Gael and Labour Party were comprehensively humiliated. The main opposition gains were made by the Green Party and Sinn Fein, both of whose ambition stretches no further than as the next junior coalition partners of the main bourgeois party, Fianna Fail. What was therefore revealed was a crisis of perspective for those seeking some sort of radical break from the establishment consensus which to a greater or lesser degree infects all of these parties.
None of them put forward any remotely convincing alternative to the growth of inequality and crisis of public services which combined with disenchantment with corruption induced considerable numbers of workers, albeit still a relatively small minority, to seek some sort of perceived anti-establishment alternative. None warned of the impending attacks on workers' living standards and rights resulting from the world-wide economic slowdown which has led to the state’s inability to fund an already inadequate welfare system. None outlined a strategy that workers might endorse to seek a means of repelling these attacks. Indeed militants in Ireland would immediately realise that these organisations do not even discuss these tasks. The far left organisations that stood for election, the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party likewise failed on almost all these counts.
For socialists the answer to this is the building of an independent political party of the working class. This has remained the key task of socialists for over 150 years, the recent election results in Ireland being only one graphical example. Karl Marx explained this a long time ago during the debates around the creation of the first international working class organisation: ‘..this constitution of the working class into a political party is indispensable in order to insure the triumph of the social Revolution and its ultimate end – the abolition of classes.’
This quote should also be read backwards. If you do not seek social revolution then independent political organisation of the working class is not required, which is why those that seek only the reform of capitalism or believe capitalism can be turned into socialism through piecemeal change inevitably enter into deals and coalitions with capitalist parties. To those that believe revolution is not required or at least not on the historical agenda we will limit ourselves to one remark. Reforms of capitalism, no matter how extensive, (and leaving out how they might be won without actually threatening revolution), leave workers as wage-slaves, as producers of profit for capitalists, inevitably leaving them political slaves as well. Anyone with the remotest interest in socialism will not find it hard to appreciate that a class that leaves itself economically exploited, that has its daily life under the supervision and control of the capitalist class, and of the capitalist state, will never have the power to remove inequality and insecurity or their causes. It is for this reason that Marx also said that ‘The working class is revolutionary or it is nothing.’
What the Irish situation therefore throws up is the impossibility of independent working class action at a truly political level that is not guided by revolutionary politics. Revolutionary politics can in turn only arise from a revolutionary perspective and this, if it is not to be ultraleftism, can only come from a sober and realistic assessment of the real position of the contending classes. In Ireland this means understanding the working class’s very low level of political consciousness, a result of material as well as subjective weakness. Such weakness cannot be overcome through reformism since reformism strengthens the capitalist state: ‘The stronger reformist influence is among the workers the weaker they are, the greater their dependence on the bourgeoisie..’ (Lenin, Marxism and Reformism) Revolutionary politics are required because, again as Marx said, revolution is necessary in order to strengthen the working class, to make the working class fit to rule a new society. At the immediate level the only convincing argument to the weakness of the Irish working class is complete rejection of the power currently held over it.
Let’s give just one example. Creation of a genuine health service that provides decent services to working people was a central issue in the recent election to which all parties of right and left promised action and funding. On the right the debate was very quickly and deliberately confused and confusing to workers over what exactly the state could afford. The left said tax the rich, correct as far as it goes. In reality this means taxes on capital. But since the driving force of capitalism in Ireland is more or less footloose multinationals, Irish workers are instinctively aware that there are very definite limits to taxation of companies who are in Ireland precisely because taxes are extraordinarily low. What is the reformist answer to this? There isn’t one and none was given by those advancing the simple demand tax the rich.
The only convincing answer is expropriation of multinationals seeking to avoid tax or disinvest, but such a strategy can only be successful if pursued on an international basis, through unity of workers around the world simultaneously rejecting the threats of multinational companies. In this the conquering of state power by the working class in any country would be an enormously influential example. Modern globalisation of communications could enhance the message of socialism in ways unimaginable in 1917. Thus the only convincing perspective for anyone seriously trying to address social inequality and injustice in Ireland is a revolutionary socialist one.
If the absence of a revolutionary programme and perspective inevitably leads to endorsement of compromise with capitalism, the most important task for those with a revolutionary perspective is developing and promoting the class consciousness of the working class and the independent political party that alone can express it. Such a task can in no way be reduced to numerical accretion to existing far left organisations but above all else involves advancing revolutionary politics.
It is armed with this understanding that Socialist Democracy addresses the lessons to be learned from the recent French Presidential and legislative elections. Despite their very different history and current economic and political situation the forces acting in France and Ireland are similar. There are obvious parallels in the programmes put forward by Chirac and Ahern of cutting taxes on the rich and services for the poor as a result of international economic difficulties impacting on the fiscal position of the state. In both countries the European Union provides an incentive and political cover for attacks on working class living standards. In this respect the tasks in both countries are the same, to resist such attacks and forge an alternative programme both politically and in practice.
In France the elections showed that the potential to realise these objectives is much closer than it is in Ireland. The Jospin/Communist Party government that had implemented neo-liberal attacks, sometimes in the guise of reforms such as the 35 hour week, was comprehensively rejected. Jospin failed to make it into the second round of the Presidential elections and the CP candidate recorded an historically low vote. The corruption which surrounded Chirac and Ahern, while not appearing to unduly hurt Ahern, contributed to Chirac gaining less than 20% of the popular vote in the first round, less than 14% of the electorate. The parties of the establishment both left and right were rejected by a large section of the population. The right wing camp of Chirac lost around 4 million votes from the first round in 1995 while the ‘plural left’ led by Jospin lost 1.5 million. Jospin, recognising the severity of the rejection, resigned.
Such an enormous rejection of the parties and personalities that had held up the existing political structures could not fail but reveal a fundamental crisis of legitimacy in the system. This was expressed in the fact that while the second round run-off was between Chirac and the fascist Le Pen they had between them recorded less than 37% of the popular vote. One third had seen so little to engage them in the first round that they abstained while 40% voted for those described themselves as of the left, 11% (almost 3 million) for parties claiming to be revolutionary socialist. Yet now the choice was reduced to a ‘crook or a fascist.’
Unlike Ireland the French were, without being fully conscious of it, rejecting the entire existing political structure. The choice presented to them was proof of its rotten character and in this existed an incentive to politicise the rejection by advancing an independent working class alternative. Again, unlike Ireland, the grounds were there for launching such an alternative: Chirac had received 5.7 million votes while the revolutionary left had received almost 3 million. The latter was only one reflection of a wider rejection of the establishment, in a perverse way also expressed in the vote for Le Pen. Clearly such an alternative could not endorse either Chirac or Le Pen. Who then would express this rejection, the revolutionary left or Le Pen? Who would better express widespread disgust and opposition to the policies and practice of the main representatives and defenders of French imperialism?
This brings us to the point. The revolutionary left, at least in the shape of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionaire (LCR), called for a vote against Le Pen, in other words, a vote for Chirac. The main representative of French Imperialism was to receive the political endorsement of an organisation charged with upholding the political independence of the working class. The ‘plural left’ had launched a campaign to support their fellow upholder of French Imperialism under the guise of defending the values of the Republic. How a crook could uphold the value of liberté when he was at liberty only because of presidential immunity from corruption charges, and had ran a reactionary law and order campaign, is a mystery. Égalité and Fraternité sit uneasily on the shoulders of a man who presided over the growth of oppressive social inequality and racism. The task of revolutionaries was surely to ridicule such nonsense while attempting to educate workers that these values are not betrayed solely in the particular personality of Chirac but inevitably and consistently by the institutions of the whole Fifth Republic, by French imperialism as a whole. In such circumstances to endorse a vote for Chirac as a way of stopping Le Pen was to endorse the essential message of the plural left. That a vote for Chirac, and all he represented, was better than the alternative of Le Pen.
This is the essential justification of the endorsement of Chirac. That a vote for Chirac was an effective defence against a greater threat to the French working class, one that this class on its own, through its own political activity, could not provide. The working class had therefore to rely on the main representative of French imperialism to defend itself against the privations of fascism. If this were indeed the case then our argument for the over-riding primacy of working class independence is quite simply wrong. It is because we are convinced that it is not that we take up the debate.
Let us reflect on the idea that the main representative of French imperialism is less of a threat to French workers than the leader of an extreme right wing, mainly petty bourgeois movement, which gained only 17% of the popular vote. No one on the revolutionary left, to the best of our knowledge, has yet to argue that a fascist take-over was on the cards in France. Nor could it be argued. There was no mass fascist movement menacing the worker’s organisations very existence and no section of capital willing to hand state power over to such a movement.
The main danger did, and now will, come from the French capitalist class and its main political representatives through its main political projects. Through Chirac imposing neo-liberal policies in pursuit of increased profitability of French capital as part of wider European capital in the world-wide competition for imperialist power and advantage. No one credibly advanced parallels with thirties Germany; where fascism came to power when the top representatives of German capitalism decided to hand it to Hitler. Again no one could suggest Chirac or any other figure of the political establishment was going to give presidential office to Le Pen. If they were the argument for voting for Chirac would be even weaker. So the only possible argument for voting for Chirac, that there was a real danger from fascism, becomes less defensible the greater the danger becomes. Chirac was and is the greater danger because the French political establishment united around him and around his programme. This much was obvious.
To take the discussion further we will reply to some arguments put by our sister organisation in Britain through the pages of its paper ‘Socialist Outlook’ (Number 55 ‘Double Shock from French Elections’ available at www.labournet.org.uk/so) In it comrade Alan Thornett makes a number of points. He correctly notes that ‘France, of course, was not about to go fascist, as the second round results show.’ Unfortunately he does not directly inform readers what the main issue was except that ‘Once Le Pen went through to the second round, the key issue was mass mobilisation on the streets.’ Mass mobilisation for what political demand? What were the political issues at stake and what were the revolutionary policies to be advanced in response? If stopping fascism wasn’t the issue then what was?
We are not told but left to assume it was the threat from Le Pen, a threat that was not going to succeed. We must assume that this over-rode the issues raised before the campaign by the revolutionary left around the neo-liberal assault of French capitalism under Chirac/Jospin. But if this original campaign was correct then the main issue facing workers was not fascism. Alan correctly defends the right of the revolutionary left to stand in the first round of the elections in response to the reformist left in Britain (and France) which criticised their doing so on the grounds of letting in Le Pen. Unfortunately his argument does not stand up once he accepts the need to vote for Chirac in the second round. Abandonment of the policy of working class independence has its own logic. If the over-riding priority was to defeat Le Pen then standing might, and in this case did, open the possibility (however small) of Le Pen winning office. If the main priority is to defeat the fascist then what are the grounds for standing? Surely on the grounds that only the working class can defeat fascism. But why then vote for Chirac? What all this boils down to is that standing in the first round against Chirac meant calling for a vote for him in the second undermining the credibility of the organisations that stood and the arguments they put.
Alan says that ‘ultimately the issue here was whether you were prepared to see Le Pen elected, since if you call for abstention and enough people heed your call, this would be the result.’ Let us for the moment ignore the fact that ultimately the issue is strengthening the independence of the working class. Let us assume that the revolutionary left was able to persuade millions to abstain or boycott the election. On what basis could such an event have happened? Only that the majority of French workers had consciously decided that they would not be threatened or blackmailed into voting for the chief representative of capitalism and wished to record their opposition not only to both candidates but to the very legitimacy of the whole contest and by extension the system that had delivered them this non-choice. It would have been a massive rejection of the politics of lesser evilism that has so plagued the working class not only in France but in the United States through the Democratic Party and in Britain through the Labour Party. Why would this not be seen as an enormous step forward by the French working class? We can see immediately that it is not possible to ignore the ultimate objective of strengthening the independent role of the working class, even for a moment.
But let us assume, as Alan does, that an abstention or boycott led to a Le Pen Presidency. In such circumstances why would socialists lack confidence in being able to lead French workers in defeating his Presidency? Certainly he would have launched attacks on the working class but so now is Chirac, and from a position of authority that a successful abstention or boycott would certainly have robbed him of. A successful revolutionary left campaign that deprived Chirac of votes would have been capable of maintaining its momentum in a way that the anti-Le Pen movement failed to do because it would have been based on a much higher level of political consciousness. What is clear from Alan’s article and must be assumed from the approach of the LCR was subservience to the excited and fearful mood of the youth mobilisation that burst on the scene after the first round. Hence criticisms of critics like ourselves who are held not to understand the dynamic of the movement. But what is clear is that this dynamic was not dictated by a clear independent working class perspective but fear of Le Pen. This is confirmed by appeals to the deleterious effects on the consciousness of the movement of a high percentage vote for Le Pen irrespective of how many votes he got, more importantly, irrespective of the power and organisation of working class and youth mobilisations. This betrays a lack of confidence upon which the plural left preyed.
The remark by Alan that ‘only anoraks will look at the abstentions and blank votes, but they will have no political impact’ is untrue. Millions of (additional) abstentions ignored? And these the result of an active campaign by revolutionaries and that could only arise as part of a huge popular struggle? How could all this be ignored? Comrades in France have said that such a campaign could not have succeeded to such a degree but this alters only Alan’s argument and does not negate the benefits to be gained from the political strengthening of at least a section of the French working class.
For Alan the percentage gained by Le Pen was the sole barometer of success: ‘If big abstentions had reduced this (percentage vote) to 30-70 Le Pen would have claimed a huge victory.’ We cannot base our line of march on such partial and misleading statistics or any of Le Pen’s false claims, including that he stands against the whole establishment of left and right. The revolutionary left is not part of an anti-Le Pen establishment – unless it votes for Chirac.
Alan tries to minimise the significance of voting for Chirac, hence the deceptive formulation ‘vote against Le Pen.’ (We will not dwell on any nonsense claiming that a vote against Le Pen was not a vote for Chirac.) He argues that it does no sow illusions in Le Pen and gives the slogan voiced by many ‘better a crook than a fascist’ as evidence. Such a slogan only exposes the low political consciousness of the ‘mass movement’ more than anything else. Of course illusions are sown in Chirac, how could it be otherwise? Why else vote for him unless he is less of a threat than Le Pen? The formulation of the LCR ‘fight Le Pen on the streets and at the polls’ only makes sense if voting Chirac is (at least part of) an effective defence. It matters not a jot that at the same time just such an unavoidable conclusion is denied or that there were illusions that it was the youth using Chirac and not the other way round. Alan claims that a big vote for Chirac actually weakens him but the results of the legislative elections, where Chirac called for his power to be unrestricted by cohabitation with a plural left led legislature, destroys such an argument. The right, led by Chirac, won 399 of the 577 seats in the National Assembly and his own party 65 percent of the seats, a record since the Fifth Republic was established in 1958. He recognises himself that in these elections the pressure on people would be to vote what they were against and not what they were for. In the event nearly 40% didn’t bother to vote at all. Far from using Chirac, he and the plural left used Le Pen to defend the Fifth Republic.
So what was the alternative? We have argued that any alternative should have been informed by the task of advancing the independent organisation of the working class with the understanding that ‘the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves’ (Marx Provisional rules of the First International). This meant setting out an independent road for French workers urging them to reject acceptance of the chief representative of French imperialism under threat of a fascist as the only alternative. It meant refusing to peddle illusions that any part of the capitalist class was a bulwark against fascism and calling on workers and youth to register this understanding in the election. It meant trying to use the non-choice offered by the Fifth Republic to inflict as much damage as possible on the regime and to popularise the need for a democratic alternative based on a constituent assembly dedicated to resisting the neo-liberal offensive.
It was argued by some that abstention would have achieved such a task while others argued that only a boycott could reflect rejection not only of the two candidates but also of the system that delivered the choice. It has been said that abstention is an individual protest while boycott is a collective political statement. This is certainly true of Ireland where revolutionaries have called for boycotts when the British have attempted to introduce partitionist assemblies in the North of Ireland that are designed to stabilise their rule. Where these have yet to establish any legitimacy among wide layers of the population this tactic has been appropriate. On the other hand in Westminster elections, where the status of the legislature is not going to be undermined by boycott and because these same layers recognise the electoral contest as legitimate, we have sometimes called for a spoilt ballot, for example vote ‘H’ not ‘X’ to highlight the plight of republican prisoners and their denial of political status. In this case the vote itself was not the centrepiece of the struggle but a means to advance an already existing campaign. Whatever the precise tactic, voting for the leader of the enemy camp is a betrayal of working class politics.
It is not hard to see the pressures pushing for such a course: the outrage of the plural left (Socialist Party and Communist Party) which in itself deserves nothing but contempt since it was they who were responsible for the disaffection of many with what is viewed as the left, and the young people who oppose the racist and chauvinist policies of Le Pen and who could see no further than defeat for the fascist. As we have said their slogan ‘vote for the crook not the fascist’ really gives the game away. It expressed complete inability to see a working class alternative. No matter how ‘militant’ or large and enthusiastic it is the politics of movements that matter and this movement had a political demand that subordinated itself to the French bourgeoisie. This is why it was able to unite those genuinely opposed to racism and fascism – the youth, and those who have helped to stoke its boilers – social democracy and Stalinism. The policy of the leadership of the LCR is therefore indefensible. Whether it recruits out of such a policy or not is really irrelevant as opportunism often justifies itself by making short term gains at the expense of principle and always with disastrous results.
We adopt this position, as we have explained, because of our belief in the independence of the working class and its commitment to a revolutionary programme and perspective. It is therefore no surprise that the LCR leadership adopt an opposite position because of their opposition to such a strategy. Instead of constructing a revolutionary party they seek, if we are to follow Alan’s article, the construction of a party on the lines of Rifondazioni Communista in Italy. This is a party which according to a report in the previous issue of Socialist Outlook supported the same sort of reformist government in Italy that attacked the working class and carried out neo-liberal policies that had just been rejected in France. Why revolutionaries who now out-poll the rotting corpse of French Stalinism should seek to ally with this corpse is beyond comprehension unless the goal of a revolutionary party is still beyond the horizon despite the 11% vote for candidates claiming to be revolutionary. As Lenin pointed out ‘when the ‘ultimate goal’ ..is pushed further and further away from our agitation, that is reformism’ (Marxism and Reformism) The sometime necessity for revolutionaries to fight within non-revolutionary formations for their cause has been turned by some into revolutionaries fighting to create such organisations in the first place, and since they are responsible for their creation on a non-revolutionary basis the fight for them to adopt a revolutionary programme is postponed to an inevitably indeterminate and indeterminable future date.
We urge all our comrades in the Fourth International, including the membership of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionaire and leadership of the International Socialist Group in Britain to reject this opportunist policy.