to the Yellow Vests
When the Yellow Vests burst upon the scene, it was a godsend for the bulk of the demoralized French “far left.” With the liquidation of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire and creation of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste in 2009, the majority of its founders breathed a sigh of relief at being able to jettison the words “communist” and “revolutionary.”
But it was the first step towards disintegration. Soon whole chunks of the NPA left for the greener pastures of the Parti de Gauche (Left Party), which in turn moved from a form of social democracy to bourgeois national-populism as La France Insoumise (LFI, France Unbowed). The LFI’s electoral fortunes ebb and flow depending on whether or not its líder máximo Jean-Luc Mélenchon is running for president or not.
For some years now, the majority of the NPA was convinced that the relationship of forces had decisively shifted to the detriment of the working class. For these slavish followers of the “dynamic,” this meant that very little can be done today. The NPA played no independent role in the 2016 struggles over the El Khomri labor “reform” law, simply tailing after “Nuit Debout” (Up All Night, the populist movement that occupied city squares to protest the law). Its only real national activity in 2017 was the campaign of the NPA’s presidential candidate, Philippe Poutou.
Thus former LCR presidential candidate Olivier (“I was never a Trotskyist”) Besancenot was absolutely thrilled by the Yellow Vests: “I have never known mobilizations like these, thousands of people who want to go to the center of Paris, the Champs-Élysées, just like I imagine peasants did in their time to rebel against the lord, by going to his castle to demand accountability.” The task before the NPA was thus, according to Besancenot, “to support this movement so that it has the most anti-capitalist expression possible” – a low bar indeed.
The anarchists at least want to do something, even if it’s mainly street theater – skirmishing with the cops, breaking a few windows – and often counterproductive. The various pseudo-Trotskyist currents, in contrast, have schooled themselves in what Lenin’s Bolsheviks called khvostism, or tailism, the art of chasing after whatever “movement” is currently in vogue. Besancenot’s comments are a prime example. He continued:
“Therefore, the only possible, credible political perspective for the social movement and the Left is for this movement to win, to be politicized, and to develop a form of political representation for itself. This movement must create a political foundation for a new social and political constellation of forces.”
So, once again, “the movement,” taken en bloc, will somehow develop so as to save the “left.”
With Besancenot spouting clichés about 1789 and the peasant revolts of the Middle Ages, we recall that the NPA likewise hailed the “Bonnets Rouges” (red caps) truckers revolt in 2013-14. While drawing in some misguided workers and taking the name of Breton peasant rebels of the 17th century, this protest against the eco-tax was manipulated by various local capitalist firms. The NPA thus found itself being the alleged “independent workers pole” at a rally at Quimper in November 2013 together with the bourgeois right wing, some fascists and Catholic bishops. Older cadres no doubt recalled the “good old days” in 1981 when they backed the Polish capitalist-restorationists of Solidarność in collaboration with a similar political spectrum.
Going into 2019, it was already clear that the Yellow Vests had not really succeeded in capitalizing on the widespread sympathy they initially enjoyed to unleash more massive struggles. The NPA didn’t agitate for a real general strike. Instead, it endorsed CGT leader Philippe Martinez’s one-day alibi action, while meekly trying to push it slightly to the left.
So, too, did Lutte Ouvrière, although coming from a different direction. L.O. reacted to the initial protests by criticizing Martinez for his hands-off stance, saying this was ceding leadership to the rightists. It reported cases of fraternization between trade unionists and yellow vests and called for “imposing workers demands.” But L.O. did not mean by this that the working class should be mobilized to fight for power, drawing sections of the petty bourgeoisie behind it.
Rather, as usual, L.O. put forward a series of minimal economic demands: raise wages, make the capitalists pay, etc. In an editorial, Lutte Ouvrière (5 February), offered up a straight reformist program:
“When the state wants to build something, a rail line, for example, it requisitions the land and expropriates individual property owners in the name of the general interest. But requisitioning the factories that corporations want to close and which have been showered with public funds is taboo. It’s a taboo that workers have an interest in doing away with, since demanding an accounting from the capitalist class, checking what it has done with the billions it has raked in from exploitation, is a necessity.”
And so on and so forth. When the editorial goes to say that we must “call the capitalist class into question, contest its decisions and its power,” this might sound very radical to the uninitiated, but it does not mean actually overthrowing this bourgeoisie. On the contrary, L.O. is calling on the capitalist state to requisition the factories. Similarly, behind L.O.’s perennial utopian call on the government to ban layoffs lies a vision of “welfare state” capitalism.
Enter the Trotskyist Fraction
The Trotskyist Fraction (FT) as an international current – represented in France by a faction inside the NPA, the Revolutionary Communist Current (CCR) – seeks to strike a golden mean between the passivity of L.O. and the rank opportunism of the NPA leadership. Even now, in a major declaration (May 13), “Class Struggles and New Political Phenomena Around the World,” the right-centrist FT proclaims the Yellow Vests to be no less than “the world’s most important process of class struggle today.” It even declared France to be in a “pre-revolutionary” situation:
“This absolutely subversive attitude [of the Yellow Vests], in contrast to the tame demonstrations characteristic of the routine actions of the labor federations or the left, was reflected in the decision to launch the November 24 demonstration on the Champs-Elysées, even though the government had banned it. A new milestone was reached with the ‘revolutionary day’ on December 1, which shook Paris and many cities in the region, while the executive was completely overwhelmed by the effort to maintain order.”
–“The Yellow Vests and the Pre-Revolutionary Elements of the Situation,” Révolution permanente, 2 December 2018
Served up with some Gramsci sauce and a pinch of “crisis of hegemony,” the idea that these protests involving some tens of thousands of mainly petty-bourgeois protesters somehow equals or portends a revolutionary situation is ludicrous. The FT cannot point to anything resembling the merest seed of dual power. In reality, these pseudo-Trotskyists have the same outlook as the bourgeois press, who see in street-fighting between demonstrators and the cops and Le Fouquet’s (an elite restaurant) going up in flames the beginning of end times. The FT lacks a class criteria.
When a few days later Macron retreated, postponing the fuel tax hike, the FT called to “Intensify the Mobilization to Win Even More!” (Révolution Permanente, 14 December). In a genuinely pre-revolutionary situation, to simply demand “more” concessions would be a sellout, when the task is to form workers councils to fight for power. The actual activity of the CCR, meanwhile, has been rather mundane: campaigning to get unions to support the Yellow Vests, promoting fraternization on the ground in various cities, trying to get anti-racist groups to unite with yellow vests in protesting police repression. Not exactly Ten Days that Shook the World.
Even as the FT discovered allegedly “pre-revolutionary elements” of the Yellow Vests revolt, it had to admit the “inconsistent character of the social and economic demands raised by the movement. Some are clearly progressive, like increasing the minimum wage or canceling some indirect taxes, while others are much more ambiguous, like calls for a reduction in ‘employer contributions’.” And in the midst of all of this “revolutionary” turmoil, the CCR, copying L.O., only urged the bourgeois state to ban layoffs rather than calling on workers to occupy the plants.
Instead, in a December 20 article on the “Citizen’s Initiative Referendum” popular with the yellow vests, the FT calls for “a radical democratic transformation” inspired by the French Revolution. This is openly presented in Menshevik fashion as a first step towards a (later) socialist revolution. In this they are continuing the tradition of their progenitor, Nahuel Moreno, who rejected (“updated”) Trotsky’s revolutionary Transitional Program in favor of “radical democratic” demands.
The “Trotskyist” Fraction may balk at Moreno's call for a "democratic revolution" and “February revolutions everywhere,” but they share the “democratist” methodology. And this in a situation where the overriding need is to split the populist “movement” along class lines. Moreover, a fight for genuine democratic rights – like full citizenship rights for all immigrants, and for the sons and daughters of immigrants1 – would split the Yellow Vests, with their substantial component of racist/nationalist and fascist RN voters and activists.
The FT has tried to cover its tailism of radicalized petty bourgeois with an appeal to Trotsky, citing his 1934 call for a “single assembly.” This is the French version of their hobby horse, calling for constituent assemblies everywhere, while conflating this with the Paris Commune’s institution of legislators who are paid a worker’s wage and can be recalled at any time. This is all hopelessly (and deliberately) mixed up together in the service of an opportunist program of tailing after the democratic illusions of the masses.
Thus unlike the Bolsheviks, who called for a constituent assembly to demonstrate that only workers power could resolve the democratic tasks, the FT believes that such a body in a semi-colonial country like Brazil can actually implement not only anti-imperialist measures, but also agrarian revolution and even a pro-working-class program. And in France such a “radical democratic slogan” can be used to “fight together” with the masses who want to “change the political system but don’t agree with revolution” (“A Assembleia Constituinte dentro do programa transicional dos revolucionários,” Esquerda Diário, 16 March 2016).
As we have noted:
“The situation in France in the mid-1930s was very different, and Trotsky did not call for a constituent assembly there, contrary to Morenoite mythology. So what did his June 1934 ‘Program for Action in France’ advocate? At the time, right-wing reactionaries and fascists were pushing the country toward an authoritarian ‘strong state’ regime, reflecting a general trend throughout Europe symbolized by Hitler’s seizure of power the year before and the February 1934 defeat of an uprising of the Vienna workers by the clerical-fascist Dolfuss regime in Austria. Trotsky’s central slogan in the face of this bonapartist threat was not for a bourgeois-democratic constituent assembly, as the Morenoites suggest, but rather ‘Down with the Bourgeois “Authoritarian State”! For Workers and Peasants Power!’ As part of the fight for a ‘workers and peasants commune,’ Trotsky vowed to defend bourgeois democracy against fascist and royalist attacks. In that context, he called for abolition of various anti-democratic aspects of the French Third Republic, including the Senate, elected by limited suffrage, and the presidency, a focal point for militaristic and reactionary forces, and proposed a ‘single assembly’ that would ‘combine legislative and executive powers’.”
– “Trotskyism vs. ‘Constituent Assembly’ Mania, The Internationalist No. 27, May-June 2008
International Marxist Tendency
While the Menshevik strategy of the FT has a Morenoite genealogy, the convergence with the deep-entrists of Alan Woods’ social-democratic International Marxist Tendency (IMT)2 is remarkable. The IMT (formerly La Riposte in France, when it was part of the PCF and then Mélechon’s Parti de Gauche) likewise spent much of November-December breathlessly following an imaginary “revolution” in France. This is in keeping with Woods’ proclivity to discovering revolutionary situations somewhere on the planet at least once and often twice a year.
Of the Yellow Vests, the IMT wrote: “a movement of this sort is characteristic of the beginning of a revolution” (Révolution, 20 November 2018). A couple of weeks later we read that France is “On the Eve of a Revolutionary Situation” (Révolution, 7 December 2018). But in this imaginary revolutionary situation, what are their demands? The IMT calls on “Yellow Vests and unions” to demand “Tax the rich, not the poor!” and “Raise wages and pensions! For early legislative elections!” (Révolution, 23 November 2018). Not exactly a call for revolutionary action, is it?
As is almost invariably the case when Trotskyoid opportunists are tailing one or another non-proletarian force, Lenin’s 1916 remarks on the Easter Uprising in Dublin (“Whoever expects a ‘pure’ social revolution will never live to see it”) are pressed into service. They were cited by both the Trotskyist Faction and by the IMT with reference to the Yellow Vests, and almost simultaneously. But let’s check out what Lenin actually wrote:
“The socialist revolution in Europe cannot be anything other than an outburst of mass struggle on the part of all and sundry oppressed and discontented elements. Inevitably, sections of the petty bourgeoisie and of the backward workers will participate in it – without such participation, mass struggle is impossible, without it no revolution is possible – and just as inevitably will they bring into the movement their prejudices, their reactionary fantasies, their weaknesses and errors. But objectively they will attack capital, and the class-conscious vanguard of the revolution, the advanced proletariat, expressing this objective truth of a variegated and discordant, motley and outwardly fragmented, mass struggle, will be able to unite and direct it, capture power, seize the banks, expropriate the trusts which all hate (though for different reasons!), and introduce other dictatorial measures which in their totality will amount to the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the victory of socialism, which, however, will by no means immediately ‘purge’ itself of petty-bourgeois slag.”
– The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up”
Lenin’s Bolshevik clarion call for proletarian leadership directed towards the overthrow and expropriation of the bourgeoisie is a sharp rebuke to the latter-day Menshevik electoralists of the so-called “Trotskyist Fraction” and “International Marxist Tendency.” While the opportunists seek to hitch their trailer to the Yellow Vests, Leninists seek to split this amorphous movement along class lines and line up the toiling masses among them with a workers movement fighting to take power, and to win the best elements to Trotskyism, the revolutionary Marxism of our day. ■
- 1. In France, as in other European countries, unlike in many Western Hemisphere countries (including the U.S.), the children of immigrants are not automatically citizens of the country where they were born.
- 2. The IMT is one of two wings of the former Militant tendency led by Ted Grant, which entered the British Labour Party in the 1940s and, in the case of the IMT, never left. The Grantites turned Trotsky’s tactic of episodic and limited “entrism” into leftward-moving centrist currents into a long-term strategy of burying themselves in Labourite reformism, thus liquidating the Trotskyist fight for an independent Bolshevik vanguard.