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International Socialism, Winter 1980


Bernard Navaculles (OCT, France)

Crisis of the revolutionary left: a view from France


From International Socialism 2 : 7, Winter 1980, pp. 110–114.
Transcribed by Marven James Scott.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Chris Harman’s article on the Crisis of the revolutionary left in Europe (International Socialism no. 2 : 4, Spring 1979) sheds light on a discussion which is crucial for militants. It is a fact that since 1976 the organisations which were born around 1968 have been, each in turn, afflicted by the same ailments, with similar symptoms, and without doubt due to similar causes.

Hitherto, faced with internal debates which sometimes become violent, and even with splits etc., each organisation has tried to explain its own difficulties in isolation from the others. But to get a grip on the phenomenon and to understand its deep political causes is something that cannot be achieved in such an ‘internal’ manner. We have had a bitter experience of this in the OCT, which has been in crisis since 1977 and today is considerably weakened. Today this only makes us more convinced of the importance of the international debate which Harman’s article proposes and which is now opened.

The experience of the OCT, and more generally of the whole of the revolutionary left in France (from the ‘hardest’ Maoists of the PCR-ML to the Trotskyists of the LCR), confirms a certain number of factors in Harman’s diagnosis. We can observe the ‘crisis of militancy’ as well as the swings to the right and the sectarian developments (both in the case of the LCR) which he describes. But other factors modify the picture somewhat. A detailed analysis can only result from a deeper consideration, in particular after the debates which have now been initiated on a European Level. So we shall simply pick out here a few of the questions which raise problems.

Difficulties of the political alternative

The basic roots of the crisis are certainly to be found in the world and European political situation, for, even though it is not ‘the situation which produces the crisis’, the great difficulty which revolutionary organisations have found in facing up to the development of this situation explains a lot of things.

In the late sixties, the revolutionary forces in Europe were thrust forward on the crest of the wave. This was the result of various factors – the difficulties experienced by imperialism in the face of the liberation movements in the Third World, the crisis of the system of domination by the USA and the USSR and the ‘destabilising’ role played by both China and Cuba, and the new rise of class struggle in the metropolitan countries. Regardless of the different analyses that each organisation has made of these different factors (there are divergences on these points between the SWP and the OCT), those who were not sectarian and blind, and those who were not starry-eyed admirers of the Third World, were able to understand the phenomenon in its ascending phase, but have not always been able to adapt to its present phase. Being on the crest of the wave is not a bad thing ... provided you aren’t left up in the air when the sea subsides.

In any case we must take further our analyses of the world situation in the face of both the ‘permanent optimism’ of some (e.g. of the Fourth International) and the ‘catastrophic pessimism of others’ (Lutte Ouvrière in France).

But the most important question to examine in greater depth is that of the reformist and bourgeois counter-offensive in the developed countries to fill the ‘vacuum’ very well described by Chris Harman, which existed in face of the movement of 1968–69; especially when we know what happened in the countries where the struggle was sharpest, in Southern Europe. For it seems to us that Chris Harman’s article underestimates the extent of the problem.

An organisation such as the OCT was not unaware of the capacity of the reformist left to reoccupy the ground left ‘vacant’ after 1968 – even if sometimes militants have acted as though such-and-such a movement was incapable of recuperation by the reformists. In particular we understood that the establishment of the ‘Union of the Left’ (CP-SP) around the ‘common programme’ enabled the reformist parties to give a global political response and hence to ‘co-opt’ all the partial struggles. In 1973–74 those who didn’t understand that – for example the Maoist-spontaneists of the ‘Gauche Proletarienne’, the strongest organisation of the early seventies – disappeared as an organised force.

But this also posed a problem which is much more complex than what Chris Harman has described. For indeed the ‘realistic’ workers didn’t believe in a ‘reformist paradise’, but they did believe in the Union of the Left as a means of destroying the regime which has existed in France since 1958. The most politicised elements, even within the reformist parties, were preparing to ‘outflank’ the Union of the Left; the vast majority of workers understood for their part that the solution to their problems would not be found in the struggle against a particular boss, but only through political struggle against the regime.

The support of the masses for the Union of the Left was, therefore, not enthusiastic (as in 1936) but nor was it passive and cynical (less so in any case than the ‘realism’ described by Chris Harman).

Now at this time the revolutionaries were no longer little groups confined to making propaganda, but not yet a real autonomous political force. Yet they had to set up a political alternative in face of the reformists. It was not possible to abandon this ground and simply make phrases about the revolution and socialism; and we think that certain formulations in Chris Harman’s article might seem to justify such a ‘withdrawal’ into propaganda.

The predominant response of the revolutionary movement was that of the LCR (Fourth International) – as Harman’s article shows, a rightist response. For our part, reacting against this, we simply extolled struggles: ‘We won’t wait for ’78!’, ‘Long live the united counter-offensive’. And so we waited for what would follow ’78 ... which left us unarmed even before the elections.

As a result the electoral defeat of ’78 was a defeat for everyone, not only for the reformists. But for revolutionaries to cut themselves off from this battle (as, to some extent, Lutte Ouvrière did) did not achieve anything.

Similar situations, where the revolutionary left had to appear as a political force and not simply as a propaganda force, and where it could not control the dynamic of the situation, also occurred in Italy and, in a less catastrophic manner, in Spain.

Internal crisis and Stalinism

A misestimation of the conditions of the political battle with leftist or rightist errors can explain why we should have had some losses in 1977–78, but it does not explain a crisis of such an extent. But aspects of the internal crisis, which were very important in the OCT, played a key role in this period of political difficulty.

But the analysis of internal factors which Chris Harman gives seems to us an over simplification. He is right when he stresses the weight of activism. It is true that in the OCT (and in its constituent organisations before 1977, Revolution and the GOP) we hardly ever ‘stopped running’. We always tended to build a ‘combat organisation’ rather than an ‘organisation for long-term militancy’, and that cost us very dear. It is such activism which produced the phenomena of the leadership cult, passive tagging along by the members, what was in effect contempt for theory (which didn’t prevent militants from having a very sophisticated ‘politicisation’) and the blocking of democracy. The contradictions were not denied but ... put off till later, because there were ‘other things to do’.

With activism was combined a ‘particular form of sectarianism’ linked to the idea that Revolution, later the OCT, was always the ‘furthest left’ and the ‘least dogmatic’, especially in comparison with the LCR. But the problem was not being the ‘furthest left’, but rather being the most effective, and when the militants noticed the difference it posed a lot of problems.

These defects can be explained by the history of our organisation, a small student group which in a few years became a real organisation with roots in the working class but with very little grasp of its situation.

In any case we don’t think that these problems are due to a failure to understand Stalinism. The majority of the OCT (Revolution) was formed on a clear anti-Stalinist basis. But anti-Stalinism is no guarantee against impediments to democracy and the proper functioning of organisations which were born in the heat of the movements of the sixties and are not faced with new tasks. That is also true of the SWP, it seems to us.

The organisation, the working class and its movements

Undoubtedly not Stalinism, but is it perhaps spontaneism and ‘movementism’, which would explain many failures? Chris Harman insists throughout his article on ‘substitutionism’, the attempt to make ‘movements’ other than the working class play the role of the working class. Here we think that the explanation is too simple.

Let us recapitulate the various factors: a poor grasp of the political situation, illusions, an organisation which is still weak – we are said to have followed the social movements in their rise and then in their fall.

Let us look at things more closely. The majority of the internal criticisms during the crisis in the organisation were made of the OCT’s alleged ‘underestimation’ of these movements, due to the fact that each militant considered that the OCT did not attribute enough importance to the movement which interested him or her (women, regionalists, gays, ecologists, etc...). In fact we – more or less – resisted this pressure and defined a line around two axes:

What happened in fact? The ‘class struggle’ line enables us to say that we did not succumb to ‘substitutionism’, either in theory or in practice. However, we were not able to control the process and we oscillated between sectarian practices (we are the only ‘class struggle’ elements – 1976) and catastrophic opportunism (the whole women’s movement is in process of becoming a ‘class struggle’ movement – 1977). Moreover, it seems to us – and further discussion would be needed – that the SWP is not free from such contradictions either.

The political struggle inside the movements, which was easy in 1976–77, became very difficult in 1978–79, which led a number of militants, failing to grasp the new political phase and not being able ‘to carry on as before’ to ask questions about the value of the organisation and to turn towards rank-and-filism and localism.

In fact, our difficulties spring less from a ‘substitutionist’ relation to the movements than from an internal deterioration of the organisation, of its line and its practice, a deterioration which led at the same time to sectarianism and tailism, and which destroyed the dialectic which should exist between the political organisation, the labour movement and the social movements.

The hour of the bunker?

These few remarks do not, of course, exhaust the subject, and the knowledge that the militants in each country have of other countries is still too slight for them to be able to get to the root of things. We shall therefore merely conclude provisionally with a few comments on the final section of Harman’s article.

The article sharply attacks illusions, false hopes and magic solutions, and advocates Leninist rigour. But in so doing he also develops a fatalistic line which seems to us dangerous. Our failure deserves detailed study, but we do not think we were wrong to try to fight in the social movements, or to attempt to respond to the reformists in the political field. We are not back in the wilderness, and the strategy of Leninist and proletarian bunker closed in on itself does not seem to us to fit the period.

In theory that is what Lutte Ouvrière in France has done, which doesn’t prevent this pure and hard ‘bunker’ from being crudely opportunist on the electoral level and from evading struggles of the moment (for example against racism). Of course the SWP is not guilty of these faults, but if it is necessary to fight against false ‘optimistic’ answers, it seems to us that it is also necessary to be careful of false ‘pessimistic’ answers.

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