New party to unite the French left

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The birth of the New Anti-capitalist Party in France is a welcome development for those opposed to neoliberalism. Over 9,000 people from different political backgrounds have already joined up. Jim Wolfreys reports from its founding congress and looks at its prospects and challenges.

The founding of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA or New Anti-capitalist Party) in France last month marks a new stage in the search for a means of translating revolt against neoliberalism into a durable and effective political form. It comes at a time of renewed combativity against President Nicolas Sarkozy's attacks on public services and working conditions with 2.5 million people joining the strikes and demonstrations on 29 January that opposed the government's handling of the recession. One recent opinion poll has indicated that over half the population was ready to take such action again in future.

A historic shift has taken place on the left over the past two decades - the traditional political home of the labour movement, social democracy, is no longer the focal point for those who want to fight the inequalities produced by capitalism. Attempts to develop an alternative have generally grouped together elements of the radical left under a banner taking up core elements of the social democratic tradition. Some - the Left Bloc in Portugal, Die Linke in Germany - have so far achieved some success. In Italy Rifondazione Comunista, the spearhead of the anti-capitalist movement in the early part of the decade, underlined the continuing influence of reformism by drifting into the orbit of Italian social democracy, becoming discredited in the eyes of many activists. The subsequent left turn taken at the party's last conference underlines the fluid dynamic characteristic of the current state of the European left.

In Britain, meanwhile, both the Scottish Socialist Party and Respect have disintegrated. The NPA is different to these experiences because it unites a broad spectrum of the French radical left around a resolutely anti-capitalist platform that affirms that no meaningful change is possible without a revolutionary break with capitalist institutions.

Since the late 1990s several formations have emerged in France to fill the void left by the accommodations made by the Socialist Party (PS) with the market. The organisation, Attac, grouped together tens of thousands of activists, only to be superseded in 2005 by the collectives formed to wage a successful campaign against the neoliberal EU constitution. Many hoped that the elements that made up the committees would unite behind a radical left candidate in the 2007 presidential election. In the event there were several left candidates but it was the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire's (LCR) Olivier Besancenot who proved the most successful, winning over 4 percent of the vote. The Ligue's response was to call for the formation of a new party. NPA committees were launched, 9,000 people joined them, and on the eve of the party's founding conference the LCR dissolved itself into this new organisation.

Alain Krivine, a founder member of the LCR, explained the thinking behind the formation of the NPA:

"There's an exceptional political opportunity at present. The reasons for this are threefold. Firstly, to put it bluntly, there's the crisis of capitalism, with its terrible consequences; secondly, the emergence of a new generation that wants to resist. We've seen it in all the struggles of the past five years in France and we saw it again on 29 January this year. Thirdly, there's the growing discrediting of the reformist left in the eyes of those who want to resist - to sum it up briefly, the social-liberalisation of social-democracy and a Communist Party that's crumbling and following the Socialists' lead.

"So the conditions were favourable, plus we had a popular spokesperson. Besancenot's success in the presidential election - 1.5 million votes - showed this. Based on all this, the method we've used is to no longer negotiate from above with anyone; it serves no purpose. For the last presidential election we couldn't reach an agreement. There was an illusion among the little fragmented currents to the left of the Socialist Party that the unity we'd achieved in the campaign against the EU referendum could be repeated in the presidential election or even today. From the start we explained that it wasn't the same thing to say No to a neoliberal constitution in a referendum and to say Yes to an anti-capitalist programme.

"The proof is that most of the allies we had in that campaign are today in the same camp as those who campaigned for a Yes vote. The best known is Jose Bové, who in France embodied a left wing radicalism and who now, for the European elections, is part of the Green list with Dany Cohn-Bendit, who's a total neoliberal. So we launched an appeal from below asking people to join us and the result is what we have today."

The NPA is not the only product of the fallout from the 2005 EU referendum. The leading Socialist participant in the campaign, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has broken with the party to form the Parti de Gauche, or Left Party, modelled on Die Linke. One of the key questions debated at the NPA conference was whether to present a united list with Mélenchon and the Communist Party in this summer's European elections. The conference resolved to keep the door open to unity with other currents but refused to countenance participation in government with social-liberalism. Two fundamental questions underpin the debates around the new party: firstly how to offer a political home to those breaking with reformism while avoiding the kind of compromises with it that undermined Rifondazione; and secondly how to open up revolutionary currents to new forces without losing the ability to assert an independent Marxist perspective. For Krivine the decision to dissolve the LCR has created new possibilities:

"Half the delegates at the conference are not in the LCR. Lots of trade unionists have joined, in particular from areas where we had very little implantation like the private sector. There are small but significant indications of an influence among the youth of the impoverished suburbs (banlieues or quartiers populaires), young people of North African origin who've got an echo in their banlieue who would never have joined the Ligue or any other party, for whom this is their first experience of a political party. This is a real success that's come from broadening out."

Historically the revolutionary left in France has had limited influence in the banlieues. The political isolation of these areas was exacerbated by confusion on the left over questions of race and class, affiliation to abstract notions of secularism, for example, sometimes took precedence over the anti-racist reflex to defend Muslim women stigmatised for wearing the hijab. That even small numbers of Muslims should feel able to join the NPA offers hope that such attitudes will carry less weight in a party with a degree of influence, however limited, in the impoverished suburbs.

There is a complex dynamic at work here, then, that cannot be reduced simply to a question of reform versus revolution. For Krivine the founding principles of the party, adopted almost unanimously, are of great importance:

"Anti-reformism - we can't reform capitalism. We want to revolutionise society, internationalism, immigration, women, ecology. As for the Trotskysist tradition, most people don't really know what it is - they're neither for nor against. That's not a problem. We Trotskyists are staying in the Fourth International, about 3,000 of us. The party itself is not a section of the Fourth International. That's been ruled out."

Exciting development

One of the key questions for the conference to decide upon was the new party's name. Delegates voted by a relatively small margin not to include the word "revolutionary" in the title on the grounds that this would limit the party's appeal. The NPA's founding principles are clearly revolutionary, however, although the organisation is an anti-capitalist one rather than a revolutionary party in a Leninist sense. This echoes a tendency to downgrade the classical Marxist tradition already signalled by Besancenot's identification with Che Guevara as an inspiration. With people coming to the organisation from various trajectories and traditions, how then will the question of political education be addressed?

According to Krivine there is a widespread desire within the new party for educational schools. "In my view - but there will be a discussion about this - the problem is what kind of education? It's not necessarily going to be the same as it was 20 or 30 years ago. I don't think we can do educational schools on the Russian Revolution, the German Revolution and so on - that's going to bore the pants off everyone. I think our starting point has to be the preoccupations of the young and not so young people who are coming to politics.

"So we shouldn't spurn education - that would be absurd. We need to offer a real political education adapted to the needs of the new generation coming to politics. It's indispensable, otherwise we're going to have an organisation that could explode at the first political difficulty. But even in terms of internal democracy it's important. In the Ligue we used to say that people had to have a minimum level of political education in order to have the elements necessary to be able to challenge the leadership."

The formation of the NPA is an exciting development for the left internationally. What was clear from its conference is that the party's orientation is not simply going to be focused on the electoral terrain. Nor is this another attempt to reconstitute a reformist current in the space vacated by the major social democratic parties. The project has grown out of the struggles of the past few years, struggles that have thrown up new forms within which activists have attempted to fight the neoliberal offensive.

The significant audience that the NPA has attracted to a radical political outlook gives it the potential to have an impact on these struggles. There are still many issues that will need to be debated in the new organisation. The LCR has seized the opportunity to translate bold declarations of intent into political reality and has a chance to make Marxism relevant and effective as a tool for a new generation. This will demand resourcefulness and creativity if the distinctiveness of Marxism and its heritage is to be asserted within the broader revolutionary culture.