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International Socialism, Summer 2000


Nick Barrett

Complement to Reformism and class polarisation in Europe


From International Socialism 2:87, Summer 2000.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Alex Callinicos’s analysis of the crisis of social democracy and the emergence of left reformist currents (International Socialism 85) is vital for revolutionaries in the coming period. He traces accurately the fault lines opening up inside the reformist camp which offer new challenges to revolutionaries. In particular, there is the necessity for revolutionaries to intervene in the concrete debates of the day. When Lafontaine published his book attacking Schröder’s policies, the German socialist organisation Linksruck responded correctly with a petition headlined Oskar Is Right. However, I think we need to underline another aspect of the challenge faced by revolutionaries. In one sense this is more of a question which needs to be debated and, as will be clear, is most clearly posed in France. The very modest strength of the revolutionary current we are trying to build needs a qualified answer, but in terms of the developing crisis of reformism there are also some general points to be made.

In France the debate on the left around the 60,000 strong demonstration called by the Communist Party (CP) for 16 October 1999 starkly reveals the contradictions. The pressure following the Michelin announcement (17.5 percent rise in profits and 7,500 layoffs) was such that Robert Hue (CP national secretary) had to call for action. Rapidly the CGT leadership announced that it would not take part in the organisation of the demonstration, explaining that it was not the role of the trade unions to support a political action. At the same time Bernard Thibault, the CGT national secretary, said that he would be at the demonstration and that CGT members could decide individually whether or not to participate. In the event thousands did turn up with CGT badges, stickers and even some banners. In fact the leadership did not want to put too much pressure on the government.

Others took an ultra-left position. Leading militants from the autonomous unions, the CNT, the unemployed workers’ associations, and certain intellectuals (amongst them Pierre Bourdieu), nebulously defining themselves as the radical left, issued a statement calling on the autonomy of the ‘social movement’. In this statement they said that social democratic governments were mainly running capitalism (which we would agree with), so therefore a genuine political alternative could only emerge from the social movement (which is spontaneous ultra-leftism). The effect of this position was not to build the demonstration because it could have been interpreted as support for the government! Therefore both one section of the mainstream reformist leadership and one part of the most radical section of the left took abstentionist positions. Lutte Ouvrière and the LCR took a better position by calling for the demonstration but on the day itself had very little to say that was different from the CP.

Our position in the Socialisme par en Bas network was to build for the demonstration at grassroots level, inviting all of our contacts to give out leaflets or to do flyposting. The arguments we used were not just the need to participate actively in building a massive demonstration, but also to intervene politically inside the demonstration. We planned this using placards (‘We want: layoffs outlawed; a 35 hour week with no flexibility and no loss of pay; Jospin to stop giving presents to the bosses; the unions to organise a national strike’) in order to build a contingent with our contacts inside the demonstration. One of our slogans was particularly well received in the demonstration: ‘Free Mumia – lock up Seillière [the head of industry]’, which made a link between the political and the economic struggle. The result was of course modest on the scale of the demonstration, but excellent for us – 250 papers sold, 40 contacts, two new members on the day.

Today in France the crisis of reformism can be at its sharpest when it comes to action. Jospin, Hue, the union leaders and the left reformists can indeed polarise and dominate the ideological debates, but for the moment they hesitate before initiating action and when they do so they will try to channel it so as not to be outflanked to their left.

However, the situation is such that more and more young people and workers will consider taking action. This is most notable with the high school students, but also qualified white collar workers with little or no trade union tradition who are increasingly prepared to consider strike action over the 35 hour week, often on a very offensive basis demanding wage rises and new jobs. This atmosphere cuts across all the political and ideological struggles, for example around the Mumia Abu-Jamal campaign or against the World Trade Organisation.

In these conditions we must underline the necessity for revolutionaries to take broad, united front inspired initiatives. These may be within the framework of action proposed by reformist leaders, though they will not necessarily be followed up by them. Sometimes, however, the reformist leaders do not propose to do anything, as was the case in France during the Balkan War.

This situation will not necessarily last indefinitely. If the process of crisis and class polarisation deepens, we may well be confronted with mass action initiated by sections of the reformist leaderships. However, such developments depend ultimately on a rise in the class struggle. We can see the beginnings of such a process in France, where on some single issues, sometimes around rather unexpected questions, the reformist leadership do take initiatives.

The anti-Haider demonstrations were dominated by organisations around the left wing of the Socialist Party (SOS Racisme, Young Socialists and the student trade union UNEF-ID). This raised a challenge for revolutionaries to work with reformist organisations and in reformist-dominated milieux on a new scale, arguing both for developing the movement and at the same time building inside the movement. Some groups, like Lutte Ouvrière, opened with a sectarian criticism of the movement for its links with the government parties. The reformist leadership at the head of the movement abstained from a criticism of the left’s responsibility in the rise of fascist organisations, but for revolutionaries to take such a position as a condition for building the movement was to cut themselves off from thousands of young people moving sharply leftwards.

This can pose new problems for revolutionaries who may have become used to being the most active militants on their campuses, schools or workplaces. If we do not have a real, albeit modest, presence in the unions our militants can rapidly find themselves marginalised by the mass reformist organisations.

The recent massive teachers’ strike illustrated the problem perfectly. Revolutionaries did play a role in the development of the movement, but the lack of a sufficiently influential revolutionary organisation meant that the government, with the help of the main trade union leadership, could buy off the strike with the sacking of the education minister, Claude Allègre. Such a revolutionary organisation, open to and linked to reformist milieux moving left, could have won hundreds of radicalised young teachers.

This is not in contradiction with building out of the developing anti-capitalist mood. In France the anti-capitalist mood has deepened sharply over the last few months. Suddenly the prospect of winning groups rather than individuals, of influencing hundreds rather than tens of people has become very real. The trial of José Bové and other militants of the radical Confédération Paysanne (peasant workers’ union) in Millau at the end of June for the dismantling of a McDonald’s restaurant raises the possibility of a Seattle in France. We can attract hundreds or thousands of young people to revolutionary ideas and organisation through these struggles.

However, if we do build this base then the possibility of influencing much wider milieux will become very real. It is in this process that the ideological and concrete political interventions described by Alex in his conclusions will give us the best chance of building revolutionary organisations. It is also in this context that different forms of an ‘action programme’ become vital, precisely because they emphasise the importance of action to win reforms and create openings to generalise politically.

It is clear that France is the Western European country where revolutionaries are most starkly confronted with these challenges, and, as we know, it is also a country with a very small revolutionary current. The question of cadre formation through growth is of course central. The need to grow through concrete political intervention and through building struggles and movements exerts considerable pressure. This means continual corrections of emphasis in order to meet the challenges and to come through them stronger, both politically and numerically.

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