Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 6, 2009

From the LCR to the NPA

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 1:05 am

Olivier Besancenot

There’s a development taking place in France that has enormous implications for a new left. The Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) has announced that it is dissolving itself into a new formation, the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA). Twelve LCR leaders, including 1960s veterans Daniel Bensaid, Alain Krivine, and Pierre Rousset, have announced the LCR’s intention on International Viewpoint, an official publication of the Fourth International led by Ernest Mandel until his death in 1995:

The NPA will be clearly defined politically. Its preliminary documents set out some unmistakable terms: class struggle and support for all the struggles of the exploited and oppressed; unity in action of workers and their organizations; a break with the capitalist system; an eco-socialist project; opposition to any policy of managing the capitalist economy and the central executive powers of capitalist institutions; the struggle for a workers’ government; the revolutionary transformation of society; socialist democracy; and an internationalist program and practice. To be sure, a number of questions will remain open: the nature of revolutions in the 21st century; problems of the transition to socialism; and a whole range of other questions having to do with the reformulation of the socialist and communist project. But we are not beginning from scratch; and the NPA will collectively determine its own positions on the basis of new common experiences.

In other words, unlike practically every “Leninist” formation, the NPA does not expect its members to defend a particular analysis of “the Russian question”. In this respect, it has something in common with Solidarity, a U.S. group that is made up of people who rejected a mechanical “Bolshevik” approach at the time of their founding and are happy to accept multiple interpretations of what the LCR called “problems of transition to socialism”. Their founding document states:

Theoretically, some of us view these states as post-capitalist societies whose transition toward socialism is blocked by bureaucratic ruling castes and the pressures of imperialism.  Others of us regard the bureaucracies as ruling classes, exploiting the working class in a new way, in a social formation which is a rival to capitalism but is no less reactionary.  Others of us regard them as essentially a new form of capitalism itself, state capitalism; while still others do not have a firmly held theory or regard all existing theoretical explanations as inadequate.

We are determined that these differences will not prevent us from extending active solidarity to workers’ struggles in Eastern Europe, nor from building a common socialist organization here in the U.S.

For an interesting discussion of the LCR/NPA evolution, you can read Jim Jepps’s interview with John Mullen, an activist in a small group in France that agrees with Tony Cliff’s state capitalist analysis but has no formal connection to the world movement he founded. Mullen, who has joined the NPA, describes the kind of political diversity that will be found there:

The only big organization involved is the (soon to be ex-) LCR. And a few thousand individuals, quite a few of them well known local or even national leaders of the non-party radical Left, which has been quite big here for a number of years. Inside the NPA, some activists want to draw the lines of the party fairly narrow, to be absolutely sure not to include people who are too quick to ally in local or regional government with the Socialist Party and their acceptance of neo-liberalism. Others would like to make the party considerably broader, because they are worried that people who put mass movements and strikes at the centre of their politics, and are firmly opposed to the dictatorship of profit, will be kept out of the party if the lines are drawn too narrowly. Discussions continue on this. But the present name of the party “anti-capitalist” represents the compromise position at present. We want people who are opposed to capitalism, who generally believe that capitalism cannot be durably given a human face.

This means that inside the party you have people close to anarchism, close to radical green politics, close to Guevara’s ideas etc etc. The debates are very interesting every time each current avoids simply affirming its identity and makes sure the questions are looked at in depth.

Although Mullen is encouraged by this development, he does not quite get what it is about:

To emphasize that the aim of the LCR is not to control the NPA, the LCR is officially dissolving itself just before the foundation of the NPA, and there is no plan to maintain an LCR current inside the NPA. I think it likely that the different currents there were in the LCR will end up setting up three or four currents in the NPA, which seems fine to me. As Socialisme International, our tiny group of comrades, along with a couple of dozen others will certainly set up openly a current based on IS ideas (close to SWP theories).

Here’s a safe prediction. Mullen’s “tiny group of comrades” will likely remain tiny.

Although I have not paid much attention to the LCR in recent years, there was a time when my main political assignment was to expose them as enemies of “Leninism” and “Trotskyism”. The Socialist Workers Party nationalist office had transferred me to the Houston branch in 1973 to “smash” a group that was allied with the European Trotskyists over a number of issues, including the use of guerrilla warfare in Latin America. We had convinced ourselves that the LCR was a kind of virus carrier bringing in all sorts of foreign ideologies into the Fourth International, from Guevarism to Maoism.

Fourth Internationalist “orthodoxy” has a troubled history, to say the least. If the LCR had followed Cannon’s example, they might have ended up like the followers of Pierre Lambert who along with Cannon and the lunatic Gerry Healy constituted the International Committee for the Fourth International. These three leaders split with the International Secretariat in the 1950s because it was supposedly adapting to Stalinism. They were determined to remain free from the taint of Stalinism just as General Jack D. Ripper was determined at all costs to avoid fluoride.

In 1968, the members of Pierre Lambert’s sect were distinguished by their hostility to the student revolt. An article in Worker’s Liberty, a newspaper that I generally don’t have much use for, does manage to get the Lambertist’s role right:

Twenty thousand people stood their ground against police aggression, piling up branches, petrol-soaked pieces of wood and even cars to fend off a police attack. The JCR [precursor to the LCR] occupied a flat as a command base and communicated to activists over the radio. But where were the Lambertists?

Having refused to cancel a planned “vanguard” meeting at the Mutualité to organise the demonstration for 13 May, the Lambertists’ five hundred-strong contingent did not reach the Latin Quarter until one in the morning, marching up to the barricades in close formation and holding red banners aloft. Upon their arrival on the front line the group’s leaders grandly announced to the protestors that they refused to “risk the necks of the revolutionary vanguard” in a supposedly pointless fight, and – calling upon the students to “disperse and organise strike committees” – promptly marched away again. Révoltes explained that “without the revolutionary party, there can be no victorious struggle. We know that we represent the only force able to organise the workers’ and students’ fight.”

This kind of insanity is obviously contagious. In 1999 when young workers and students fought the police in the streets of Seattle, the Militant newspaper published by the U.S. Socialist Workers Party took a stance similar to the Lambertists, as this editorial would indicate:

The events in Seattle organized to protest the ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) present socialist workers and youth with an opportunity to campaign for communism and recruit to the Young Socialists, the Socialist Workers Party in the United States, and sister organizations in Canada and elsewhere.

A swirl of political protests and forums whose program and character smacks of economic nationalism and America Firstism surround the WTO conference, which Washington is using to campaign for rationalizing aggressive postures and missile buildups – aimed primarily against China and other workers states.

Fortunately, the workers and students of Paris and Seattle found it easy to ignore the purist advice of these two sects.

Although I have plenty of criticisms of the Mandelistas in this period, they were correct to reject this kind of boneheaded “we are the vanguard” arrogance. Instinctively, they understood that posturing as the “true Marxists” had to be avoided like the plague. In the eyes of the SWP, the LCR was like a disease that had to be isolated. Over and over again, Trotskyist groups split once the debate has reached such a stage. Of course, the classic instance of thinking in terms of disease was Trotsky’s debate with Max Shachtman that he saw in terms of preventing a scratch from turning into gangrene. Trotsky was fond of these medical analogies. The Communist Parties were the “syphilis” of the workers movement. I suppose this makes some sense to some degree. My last 5 years in the SWP were experienced as a kind of irritable bowel syndrome, all in all.

The most egregious offender against orthodox Bolshevist-Leninism in our eyes was Livio Maitan, an Italian Trotskyist who wrote a document calling for a “new mass vanguard”. What he had in mind was a loose alliance of far-left groups, including the Maoists. Unfortunately, the far-left of those times was far too sectarian to even consider such an alliance. Maitan was trying the best he could to think outside the box, but his thinking was marred by impressionism and a kind of old-fashioned spontaneism.

The SWP split from the Fourth International in the mid-1970s and would soon set upon a course of trying to set up a highly centralized international led out of New York. This international consisted mainly of tiny English-speaking groupuscles in places like New Zealand that sold the SWP’s newspaper and organized a “turn toward industry” slavishly imitating the mother ship’s example.

Throughout the 1980s, I paid little attention either to the American SWP or to the French Trotskyists. Most of my time and energy were devoted to Central American solidarity activity and working with Peter Camejo and others to foster non-sectarian politics in the U.S.

In 1992, shortly after coming to work at Columbia University, I began to write about the problem of sectarianism, taking advantage of the scholarly material available in the university library-including the collected Lenin that I went through fairly systematically. I was inspired to do this by Peter Camejo, who took a leave of absence from the SWP in the early 1980s to read Lenin at his father’s ranch in Venezuela-an episode in his extraordinary life that hopefully will be covered in his soon to be published memoir.

If you can reduce my thinking on the problem of sectarianism to a sentence or two, it goes something like this. I believe that revolutionary parties can only arise out of a mass movement, such as was the case with the Bolsheviks. In the 1930s and 1960s, there were opportunities to create such a party but were squandered on Stalinist opportunism and ultraleft sectarianism respectively. When such opportunities present themselves, they must be responded to intelligently or else they are lost. Revolutionary politics is very unforgiving in that way.

I only became aware of the LCR through the election campaigns of Olivier Besancenot, who received 1.2 million votes (4.25%) as a revolutionary socialist candidate in the 2002 presidential elections. Unlike the rest of the Marxist left, the LCR has not worried that much about its “revolutionary program” being watered down. Last September 13th the N.Y. Times profiled Besancenot:

The Saturday Profile
Light on the Left Guides His Comrades Toward France’s Mainstream

HE looks like a sprite: boyish, handsome in his black Hugo Boss T-shirt and blue jeans. He reminds some of Tintin, the eternally young comic-book hero of so many childhood adventures.

But Olivier Besancenot, 34, is the extremely adept leader of the hard French left, a beacon for disaffected young members of the Socialist Party and the remnants of the once-powerful Communists. Having already run twice for the French presidency, and as an articulate presence on news and talk shows, Mr. Besancenot has higher favorability ratings in some polls than established politicians like Ségolène Royal, the Socialist Party presidential candidate who lost last year to the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy.

In the 2007 presidential election, Mr. Besancenot won 4.1 percent of the vote with the slogan, “Our lives are worth more than their profits.” But in the year since, as the Socialist Party has squabbled over its leadership and Mr. Sarkozy has picked off a few Socialist figures for his own cabinet, the young radical has become almost mainstream – serious surveys show that more than 60 percent of the French regard him favorably.

In a poll last month by the firm CSA, 49 percent of respondents said Mr. Besancenot was currently Mr. Sarkozy’s leading opponent, behind the Socialist mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë (54 percent), but ahead of other Socialists like Martine Aubry (36 percent) and Ms. Royal (32 percent).

Mr. Besancenot is a postman, a member of the working class, who delivers the mail part time in the wealthy Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine.

But he is also the leader of the Communist Revolutionary League, and in a long interview here, in party offices above a printing factory in this racially mixed city just east of Paris – where cheap clothing stores abut shops selling North African and Middle Eastern spices and take-out food – he describes himself without blushing as a revolutionary.

But given the travesties of the past, from the bureaucratic savagery of Soviet Communism to the chaos of Mao, he said, “revolution needs to be reinvented, for no revolutionary experiment has ever succeeded.” They have only been betrayed, either crushed by an armed elite or destroyed by “bureaucratic counter-revolution,” he said, adding, “We are trying to strike that balance of taking power without being taken by power.”

CAPITALISM is in a deep crisis, he said, “losing the leeway to buy social peace” in the massive credit crunch that began with subprime mortgages and has not finished. “This time it’s not on the periphery,” he said, but it “touches the heart of the system” and so has a domino effect, he believes. “This is a major turn in the evolution of the world economy.”

The credit crisis is pointing up further contradictions, Mr. Besancenot said. “We are heading straight for catastrophe from a social standpoint, the human standpoint, from war and the environment. For us, today, to be environmentalists means to understand that this model of socio-economic development is out of breath, and if we don’t change we will destroy our own planet.”

He is media savvy and understands that the name of his party, affiliated with the Trotskyist Fourth International, is wrong for the modern world, having a stink of dead ideology and the last bloody century. “We asked ourselves about finding a name based on what unifies everyone,” he said.

Read full article

I don’t know if Steven Erlanger was putting words in Besancenot’s mouth, but I particularly liked the idea of rejecting the name Revolutionary Communist League as “having a stink of dead ideology”. When Peter Camejo and I used to discuss party politics in the early 1980s, he told me how happy he was to be launching something called the North Star Network, named in honor of Frederick Douglass’s newspaper. When groups feel compelled to include the words revolutionary, workers, communist, socialist, etc. in their title, they are demonstrating a complete lack of imagination. In some ways, politics is like art. You have to be creative. For the past 25 years or so, it has been difficult to approach the task of movement-building creatively since the objective conditions have been so poor. Now with the potential of a growing tide of anger against corporate greed and imperialist war-making turning into a new radicalization, let’s think creatively about avoiding the mistakes of the 1930s and 1960s. Keep your eyes on the prize and on particularly on what’s happening in France, the country with the world’s greatest revolutionary traditions.


  1. Correction: The SWP-US did not formally split from the FI until 1990, but the point is well-taken.

    Your amalgamation of “Cannon” with the likes of Healy & Lambert is also off-base. It’s true that these three did split with the main body of world Trotskyism in 1953 to form something called the “International Committee of the Fourth International.” But by 1963, and to its credit, the SWP-US had broken with Healy & Lambert to reunite with the Europeans. The main reason was their common positive assessment of the Cuban Revolution & its leadership. Of course, by this time James P. Cannon was not an active leader of the SWP, but he certainly didn’t oppose its rapprochement with the rest of world Trotskyism.

    In a few years, as you recount, the old differences surfaced in new forms. In retrospect, the amount of energy expended on these heated factional battles seems idiotic. We might as well have been debating how many workers could dance on the head of a pin.

    Comment by David Altman — January 6, 2009 @ 3:16 am

  2. Full support for this enormous step for a new left. One reservation: while agreeing completely with the need to get over sectism and sectarianism, would it not be wiser, and truer to historical experience, for marxists to keep an organised if open current or tendency going in the new broad parties, while being fully comitted to building the new formation?

    Comment by D_D — January 6, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

  3. Aw, poor John Mullen and his incorrect views. Ahbutseriouslyfolks, the NPA seems like a good move. If the reports are correct, people beyond the ranks of the LCR are joining, which means revolutionaries are substituting for the lack of a social democratic party. I don’t see how an IS current within the NPA is so bad, unless of course it’s the whole IS tradition and theory that’s the problem.

    Comment by Roobin — January 6, 2009 @ 1:39 pm

  4. that should read “revolutionaries aren’t substituting…” A slightly important correction!

    Comment by Roobin — January 6, 2009 @ 1:41 pm

  5. #3: “If the reports are correct, people beyond the ranks of the LCR are joining, which means revolutionaries are substituting for the lack of a social democratic party.”

    I really don’t know how to interpret this brief comment, except perhaps as symptomatic of Roobin not having thought through party-building questions in any kind of depth.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 6, 2009 @ 1:50 pm

  6. Probably not, due to my inferior human brain. Louis: is what John Mullen said really so bad? As far as I can read it it says: the NPA is a positive development – we intend to form a current within the NPA. Hardly exciting, as far as I can see, let alone controversial.

    Comment by Roobin — January 6, 2009 @ 2:43 pm

  7. I wouldn’t describe what Mullen said as “bad”, only clueless.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 6, 2009 @ 2:51 pm

  8. Maybe, but I reckon you need to elaborate. The habits of the American SWP were bad, they are bad habits that have been reproduced in other left-groups in other countries in other times. Now, how’s this connected to the poor, defenceless little wabbit, John Mullen?

    Comment by Roobin — January 6, 2009 @ 3:00 pm

  9. The issue is not bad habits but the party-building methodology incorporated in the British SWP, the American SWP, and all other “democratic centralist” formations. I really can’t elaborate in the comments section here but would direct you and anybody else unfamiliar with my views to here:


    Comment by louisproyect — January 6, 2009 @ 3:03 pm

  10. “I really can’t elaborate in the comments section here…”

    Well, you could, and probably in words of less than three syllables. I’m probably more familiar with your views than you think. What I’m not sure about is what this has to do with John Mullen, who you’ve posted about twice in quick succession, or his views on the NPA. You mention him then dart off into the American SWP, then some chappie called Pierr Lambert for several paragraphs.

    Comment by Roobin — January 6, 2009 @ 3:18 pm

  11. I don’t know how much clearer I can make this, but when Mullen says “As Socialisme International, our tiny group of comrades, along with a couple of dozen others will certainly set up openly a current based on IS ideas (close to SWP theories)”, he clearly has the typically small proprietor mentality of self-described Leninist sects. Instead of peddling soap, they peddle “ideas”. In any case, I don’t think that Mullen will do any harm because the forces at his disposal are–as he put it–tiny. Much more damage can obviously be done when you are the size of the British SWP and take the same lead-footed “interventionist” mode of operation into something like RESPECT.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 6, 2009 @ 3:28 pm

  12. “… he clearly has the typically small proprietor mentality.”

    If I were a psychoanalyst I’d ask that question again. I don’t think that statement revealed too much about his mentality.

    “Instead of peddling soap, they peddle “ideas”.”

    He better not go to the Vogsphere then (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W6DtyhzABF0).

    Comment by Roobin — January 6, 2009 @ 4:01 pm

  13. I think John Mullen (who is a good, serious, committed, informative kind of guy)and his group are not the oficially recognised French section of the IST – there was some disagreement about tactics, the importance of which is lost in history. There is another IS group, which has also been in the LCR and I guess will be in the NPA – both taking full advantage of the LCR’s more open line about factions and internal discussion than you generally get in an organisation such as our esteemed friends in the SWP.

    Comment by Graculus — January 7, 2009 @ 8:46 am

  14. […] it would be better if I just passed you on to an article by the group themselves and an in depth analysis by Louis […]

    Pingback by New anti-capitalist party formed in France « Broad Left Blog — January 7, 2009 @ 5:00 pm

  15. Don’t all of the petty-fogging comments in the discussion here simply prove how necessary it is to just move on from this sort of state sectarian nonsense. Come on!

    Comment by pierre thomas — January 29, 2009 @ 10:06 am

  16. stale, not state!

    Comment by pierre thomas — January 29, 2009 @ 10:06 am

  17. It is rather bizarre to personally attract so much attention. Maybe I’m more important than I think.

    Comment by John Mullen — January 30, 2009 @ 3:29 pm

  18. “Maybe I’m more important than I think.” No, you are not.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 30, 2009 @ 3:30 pm

  19. What is happening in France happened in 10 years ago in Portugal.

    February 28th is the 10th anniversary of “Bloco de Esquerda”(BE), “Left Block”, an anti-capitalist party that joined forces to fight capitalism.

    The foundation parties were PSR from IV International, like LCR, UDP ( Marxist-Leninist) and Politica XXI ( ex-Communist Party) and left-independents.

    Nowadays we have 8 comrades on Portuguese Parliament fighting the neo-liberal Government and the polls are saying that we may get 10 to 13% of votes, that means our deputies can increase to 14/8 and became the third Portuguese party.

    Capitalism maybe ill nowadays but if recovers, it will be stronger like a virus that resist and on the process becomes immunized against new medicines.

    The only way to fight Capitalism is joining forces TODAY.

    Comment by Nuno Serrano — February 24, 2009 @ 5:04 pm

  20. And, Mr Proyect,neither are you, which no doubt comes as more of a surprise.

    Comment by John Mullen — November 8, 2010 @ 1:05 pm

  21. […] example of the case from the other side would be this piece from Louis […]

    Pingback by Irish Left Review · ULA! “No one would have believed….” — December 13, 2010 @ 12:45 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: