by Savas Michael-Matsas
A new day of action, on September 15, has been decided by the French workers movement, challenging the imposition by decree of the hated anti-Labor Law of the Vals -Hollande social-liberal regime, and continuing the epic struggle of March-June 2016 that has shaken France and the entire Europe.
Although it is early to make predictions about the immediate future of the social conflict, an all-round historical materialist assessment is necessary and urgent, superseding the impressionist comments that prevailed both right and left. Few, from the entire political spectrum, could deny one undeniable fact: after the “French Spring” of 2016 nothing can be the same in France, a hard core country of the European Union and a partner indispensable for Germany, and consequently in the entire European Union itself, already in a protracted crisis.
As on the eve of May 1968, the bourgeois press was writing that “nothing happens in France, everything is terribly boring”, now, in different conditions, the mass upsurge came unexpected, and took by surprise the ruling class.
The dramatic change becomes clear if it is reminded that quite recently, just until March 2016, France’s political landscape was dominated by the anti-popular, right wing policies of the ruling Hollande’s Socialist Party, the collapse of the left and far left, the apparently “irresistible” rise of the far right Front National of Marine Le Pen, ISIS terrorism, and State terrorism, institutionalized by an always extended, militarized “State of Emergency”, sustained by a systematic campaign of hysterical Islamophobia. It is symptomatic that, in intellectual circles, the question was raised if the conflict between capitalism and anti-capitalism was replaced by the clash between capitalism and jihadism (see Lignes, 2015).
The El Khomri Law by destroying the existing labor relations framework became the catalyst, centralizing all workers and popular grievances, accumulated during a long period of crisis, including from strata that were not directly hit by the new law. The mass mobilization of the workers by the CGT (supported also by Force Ouvrière Confederation and some smaller radical unions against the scabs of the CFDT and other “yellow unions”) as well as of combative school and university youth, with the participation of broader popular strata, in the beginning of Spring, particularly on March 31, marked a radical break of continuity.
Insightfully, those who occupied that day the central square Place de la République in Paris, and then the central squares in other cities of France, initiating the movement “Nuit Débout”, revived the old revolutionary tradition of France by stopping the chronological flow of time, as in the Revolution of 1830: the next day, after March 31, has been called not April 1st but “ March 32nd” ; the counting continues by Nuit Débout in this way until this moment that these lines are written.
The Vals-Hollande government and all bourgeois parties and media, from the ruling and hated Parti Socialiste to the right wing Républicains of Juppé and Sarkozy to the fascists of the Front National, first, predicted wrongly the early demise of the workers-popular movement and, then they demonized it. The quite bureaucratic reformist CGT and its leader Martinez were called “terrorists” and accused as “accomplices of the so-called “black bloc” of “casseurs”. Marine Le Pen has described the strike movement and demonstrations as “an armed insurrection”.
Government and trade union leaderships, for months, made all kind of maneuvers to control a movement that showed the tendency to become uncontrollable and threatening to the ruling class and its State but also to the EU, on the eve of the British referendum.
Amidst the militants themselves there was a lot of confusion. Most of them they do comparisons with the mass mobilizations of 1995 that defeated the anti-pension law promoted by Juppé or of the mass youth mobilization of 2006 that defeated the CPE (Contract of First Employment) that Sarkozy, then a minister, tried to introduce or, finally the defeat of the movement in 2010, when Sarkozy was finally able to impose the anti-pension law- a Pyrrhic victory that led to his electoral defeat by Hollande in 2012. The question posed often by many militants is: the current struggle against the El Kohmri law would be a repetition of the victories of 1995 and 2006 or it will meet with a defeat like in 2010?
But no formal analogies or comparisons are possible: the explosion and development of the world capitalist crisis in 2007-08, and its impact on the EU and France have changed all the social economic and political parameters.
We have to analyze these changes and their implications:
a. what is the real nature of the crisis that drives the social conflict in France?
b. what is the specific character of this movement and conflict, its contradictions, limitations, and potential?
and last but not least, c. what are the prospects; wither France and the post-Brexit Europe after the French Spring?
A. What kind of crisis?
a. Some indicative data.
A deep, protracted, not resolved so far economic crisis, with severe, ever-sharpening social and political effects, is the material subsoil of the social upheaval of March-June 2016. Even official statistics cannot hide the bleak image of a stagnant economy with a growth rate around zero, a trade deficit of 47.1 billion Euros, an advanced deindustrialization ,falling productivity, deflationary tendencies, and an insoluble banking crisis.1
Industrial production, which has contracted again by 0.1 per cent in the 2nd quarter of 2016, as in the entire Euro zone, remains 10 per cent lower than the level it had before 2008.2 French capitalism loses its competitiveness. It is definitely in advanced decline, both in absolute terms as well as relatively with other European countries, particularly, Germany.
The official, strongly embellished, number of unemployed is around 3 million people The last figures, issued by INSEE on August 18, 20163 show unemployment to fall slightly from 10 per cent to 9.9 percent, which made François Holland to repeat, as he does ad nauseam from Spring 2016 onwards, his ridiculous refrain “ça va mieux!” (It goes better), adding insult to injury. The same statistics show that more than a hundred thousand people were added to those who have abandoned any request or hope to find a job. Thousands and thousands of people are pushed to marginalization, trying to survive without a job, a salary or a shelter.
“Austerity” imposed, for years, to the majority of the population by the government and Brussels, continuous cuts in social expenditures, health, education, wages and jobs, make life for the popular classes more and more difficult, spreading and sharpening a generalized discontent.
b. An “organic crisis”?
Empirical data and description of appearances of the crisis do not and could not reveal its depth and dynamics, its essential nature. Neither economic reductionism nor the formal application of an already given abstract formula can explain the irruption of volcanic events such as the mass upsurge against the El Khomri law.
To probe to this question some analyses, such as by the Argentine Partido de los Trabajadores Socialistas(PTS)4, use the concept of “organic crisis” advanced by Antonio Gramsci in the 1930s to describe the current crisis in advanced capitalist countries of Europe (especially the current situation in France) and the US .
According to Gramsci, an organic crisis affects both the structure and the superstructure of a “historical bloc”, of a social formation producing a crisis of hegemony of the ruling class, manifested by the fact that people break massively from the traditional parties. In this “interregnum”, where “the old is dying and the new cannot be born”, “”a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”.5 It is an era of monsters, of bourgeois “Caesarism”, Bonapartism, and fascism.
The use of the Gramscian concept can reveal important aspects and traits of the present crisis, but it does not permit its abuse or misuse.
Some neo-Gramscians want to raise the concept of organic crisis as a polemical argument against what they call “catastrophism”. In other words, against any analysis which stresses the catastrophic dimensions of the current world capitalist crisis and the accuracy of Marx’s emphasis in the Grundrisse and the Capital, on the internal limits (Grenze) and on the immanent barriers(Schranke) of capital in which an “inherent tendency of capital to self-dissolution”6 is manifested by a “Great Devalorization”7, a massive destruction of surplus capital, as after the crash of 1929-or with the world financial meltdown after Lehman Brothers.
Apart from this obvious abuse, there are other uncritical misuses of the Gramscian “organic crisis”, which overlook its conceptual limitations.
The strong aspect in the Gramscian concept of organic crisis is its emphasis on the need to grasp the crisis as a whole, its rejection of mechanical and fatalistic economicism. From this standpoint it is a continuation of Gramsci’s important critique of Bukharin’s mechanical (non dialectical, non historical) materialism, a break with positivism that permitted the elaboration of the central Gramscian category of hegemony.
But the weakest element in Gramsci’s approach is the primacy that he gives to the “nazionale-popolare”, to the national over the global. This privileged focus to national specificity, together with an absolutization of the “war of attrition” against a “war of movements” (obviously connected with the experience of the trenches in the Great War) led the Italian revolutionary communist to reject Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution defending the central dogma of Stalinism of “socialism in a single country”.
From this false vantage point, the organic crisis, in today’s France for example, is limited to the relations between the superstructure and the structure of a national “historic bloc”, a specific society in a specific capitalist country in Europe, without grasping the unequal and combined development of the world capitalist crisis. Trotsky did not dismiss national peculiarities; on the contrary, against Stalin’s abstract and empty generalities, he stressed the specificities as “the original and unique combination of the basic traits of the world process”8 in the imperialist epoch of capitalist decline, when the modern productive forces, the division of labour and the market acquire a global, world character.
Thus, the world contradictions of declining capitalism are not just external factors but internally interrelated and interacting with each specific social formation.
The social economic crisis in France remains a riddle if separated from their inner connections with the EU /Euro zone crisis; the latter is a mystery if it is ignored its insoluble interconnection with the world crisis that erupted in 2007 in the center of global capitalism, the US with the collapse of its sub-prime mortgage market and later, in 2008, with the Lehman Brothers debacle.
c. France, the EU, and the global crisis
Finance capital globalization and neo-liberalism as a strategy for a way out from the world capitalist crisis of over-accumulation that led and followed the collapse of the post-war social international economic order based on the Keynesian Bretton Woods agreement in early 1970s did not resolved the crisis but delayed the denouement. An unprecedented over-accumulation of fictitious capital compounded the structural problems, and sharpened, expanded and globalized all inner contradictions of capital.
After a series of financial shocks (1987, 1989, 1997, 2001), and despite the “final and complete victory of liberal capitalism’s globalization”, prematurely celebrated by the capitalists’ euphoria, following the demise of the Soviet Union, the Hubris was followed by the Nemesis of the 2007/08 world financial catastrophe and the “Great” or “Long Recession” or, more correctly, the “Third Great Depression” that followed- the starting point of the worst crisis in the history of capitalism, still unresolved a decade later.
The advanced and deeper than before interconnection of the world economy was manifested in the rapid international expansion of the crisis from the US, first to the advancing capitalist North, hitting the vulnerable architecture of the EU/Euro zone edifice, which started to crumble. In 2009/10 the EU/Euro zone international chain has been broken in its legendary “weakest link”, Greece.9
Greece’s default under the crashing burden of an unsustainable foreign debt was rapidly, although confusedly, perceived by the “institutions” of global capital in Europe and America, as a “global systemic risk”. On the basis of this assumption, the EU Commission, the ECB and the IMF, the infamous “troika”, starting from 2010, imposed on the Greece people their three disastrous “bail out programs “tied with draconian austerity measures in the so-called “Memoranda of Understanding” (MoU) with the compliant Greek governments, led first by the “socialist” George Papandreou, then by the right winger Samaras, and finally by the “radical left” Tsipras.
As it is officially admitted, more than 90 per cent of the “salvation packages” loaned to Greece returned back to the international lenders, mainly to the French and German banks, to save them and avoid the world capitalist bankruptcy in progress.
Seven years after, Greece’s debt remains more gigantic than ever and unsustainable and Greek society is plunged into a humanitarian crisis and a social catastrophe worst than that the US experienced in the darkest moments of the 1930s Great Depression. Even the IMF official experts and think tanks admit that the program imposed on Greece was a miscalculated failure. They accept, against Germany’s “ordoliberalismus” and the EU Commission that the Greek debt is unsustainable and needing a “relief”, although the IMF itself still advocates more neoliberal measures of draconian austerity misnamed as “structural reforms”.
Greece was destroyed but the international banks on the edge of bankruptcy were not saved. Despite the tragedy impose to the Greek people, not only the “global systemic risk” included in the unresolved Greek crisis and the prospect of Grexit is still on the agenda but gigantic banks such as Deutsche Bank, the No1 of the German banks, are considered by the IMF and others, as “a global systemic risk”. The entire European banking system, already in huge trouble, is crumbling after the Brexit, as the sluggish economy agonizes. It was publicly admitted even by the most recent “stress tests” of the European banks. The dramatic saga of the collapsing Italian banks under the mountain of “non performing loans” illustrates the generalized desperate situation.
The Euro zone crisis brought forward the failures in the architecture of the monetary unification, the unevenness, hierarchical relations of domination, and structural unbalances dividing Northern and Southern Europe, the “core countries” of a European hegemonic “center” from a European “periphery”(or peripheries), divisions between conflicting national capitalist and imperialist interests both in the center and the periphery.
The Euro, a single currency, but without a common fiscal policy, and the Schengen zone, a single border for the free movement of capital, commodities and persons between the member –states but without a shared asylum and border policy, were established as two pillars and indispensable means of construction of the EU. Both failed. The Euro zone crisis revealed the unbridgeable gap between North and South, as well as the refugees crisis gave the kiss of death to the Schengen treaty showing the equally unbridgeable gap between Western and Central-Eastern Europe, despite the domination of the first over the second, after the collapse of ‘actually (non) existing Socialism” in 1989.
The Euro zone crisis started with the bankruptcy of Greece- the break up of the “weakest link”. But, as in Lenin’s metaphor, the most important is the fact that it is not a “link” but the international “chain” itself that has been broken. The Euro and Schengen zone crises, the divides that revealed in the EU’s architecture, and now the Brexit are moments of the disintegration of the EU “chain”. It brings under a merciless light the impossibility of unification of the resources and productive potential of European Continent by Europe’s capitalist classes on a capitalist basis.
Ferdinand Mount (the head of Margaret Thatcher’s policy unit in 1982-83), in a sharp-sighted article on Brexit, recently published in London Review of Books, has reminded the subtle thesis advanced by Alan Milward in The European Rescue of the Nation-State( 1992): “ the underlying purpose of the drive for European union was to retrieve the nation-state from its ignominy and demoralization after two catastrophic world wars, and to anchor it in network of institutions that would secure peace and prevent beggar-my neighbour policies of protection and blockade”.10(Emphasis added).
The world crisis demonstrated the fragility and vulnerability of the European network of EU institutions, and in this way sharpened to its extreme limits the contradiction between the social productive forces, superseding the national barriers, and the capitalist Nation State itself, whose salvation this internationalization/Europeanization had as a primary goal.
At the center of the EU integration project, from the start up to now, from the Accord of Steal and Carbon to the Maastricht Treaty and the introduction of the Euro currency, was and still is the French-German axis. The ‘axis’ was severed damaged by the crisis with a weakened French capitalism with growing deficits plunging in recession and a German export economy accumulating surpluses and remaining the sole “industrial engine” of the EU.
It does not mean that Germany became automatically and peacefully the undisputed hegemonic power of a “German Europe” that two world wars were unable to create. To be hegemonic, Germany needs France (particularly after the departure of Britain) and the EU. So far, Germany not only was unable to impose the discipline of its ordoliberalismus and of its Stabilitätskultur ( culture of stability) to France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, to not mention Greece, but Wolfgang Schäuble’s brutal efforts became a source of constant social and political instability. As Jan Werner Müller weites, Germany acts as a “half-hegemon”, quite powerful to make the other weaker states resentful against it and still, without “the means to make a system of states work as a whole”11 . This fact makes problematic to implement alternative projects to replace the current EU of the 28 member-states either with the old German plan for a EU “of different speeds” with a French-German core distancing itself but still dominating the European periphery countries or the new Belgian proposal for a smaller “Northern Union” of Germany, France, Belgium, Netherlands, and Denmark. Jan Werner Müller is right stressing that even a smaller version of a European Union of the richer countries would be ungovernable and stillborn.
Particularly after the turning point marked by the Brexit, the EU has entered at “the age of disintegration” to use the sharp definition by Wolfgang Münchau. This dissolution could take different forms and tempos. It could even leave going the EU as an empty shell as one hypothesis by Münchau suggested. It depends from the internal conflicts between different social forces and nation state interests on a world and European scales as the structural historic crisis of global capitalism is rapidly worsening in all fronts. The so-called “migrant crisis” and the recent failed coup in Erdogan’s Turkey unify the Middle East worsening chaos (to which the EU imperialism is one of the main culprits) with the destabilization of a dissolving EU.
A new stage opens in class struggles of unprecedented dimensions in the Continent, in which capitalism is born, Europe.
From this vantage point, the mass upsurge in France in the Spring of 2016 is not just an extension of the previous mass struggles of 2010-2012 in the periphery( Spain, Greece) to the European center this time but a quite new Event, a break in historical continuity.
B. What kind of mass movement?
a. Class character
The recent mobilizations in France against the Labor Law introduced by the Vals government and its Minister El Khomri, and finally imposed, against the overwhelming popular anger, by President’s Hollande extra-parliamentary decree, took various forms: mass workers and popular demonstrations; direct action and clashes of student youth but also by industrial workers with the State repression forces; strikes on local and national level; occupations of workplaces and public spaces, such as squares, starting from the Place de la République and the initiation of the movement of “Nuit Debout”, etc.
Nobody can dispute the mass character of the movement despite the State and mass media wild propaganda. Even more important is its class character: although broader strata of popular classes, particularly of the younger generation, did participate, the hegemonic force of the movement was the working class of the SNCF (railways), RATP (metro), dockers in harbors such as Havres, workers in distilleries, and energy industry etc. most of them organized in the strongest workers trade union Confederation, the CGT under Philip Martinez, demonized by the government and all bourgeois parties and media as “terrorists” .
Against the well established bourgeois myth that classes, class struggle and above all the working class are antiquities belonging to a distant past, in 2016, the proletariat of a major European metropolitan-imperialist country erupted en masse at the forefront of a great social struggle of broader popular strata in an uncompromising confrontation with the capitalist class, its government, its State repressive apparatus, all its parliamentary parties, and media empires.
The active role of the unemployed and/or student youth, of the general assemblies, demonstrations, direct action and confrontations with the riot police of the students of schools and universities do not and could not cancel the proletarian character given by the working class to the mass movement in general.
On the contrary, the youth confrontational stand supported by the broader population in a common hatred of the police, as well as the new, imaginative movement of Nuits Debout strongly sustained the workers movement. Their contribution was vital to fight back and secure the continuity of struggle during the intervals of discontinuity imposed by the trade union bureaucracy’s tactical maneuvers.
Nuits Debout was viciously misrepresented both by the Right and the Left (including by some sectors of the extra-parliamentary left) as a petty bourgeois, “neo-reformist”, movement of Parisian bo-bos (initial syllable of bohemian-bourgeois). A field research gives another, very different picture: among the participants of Nuits Debout, in its high moments in April and May 2016: “40 per cent belong to sectors in crisis during the last 20 years (artists, journalists, students), 20 per cent are unemployed (the double of the official national rate), and 24 per cent are workers and employees”.12 Only classical petty bourgeois “workerism” could call “bo-bo” such a movement, even taking as only criterion its social composition…
Early in its short but dense history, Nuits Debout called for a unity with the workers trade unions, and received in the assemblies workers leaders to speak, including Philippe Martinez, the General Secretary of the CGT (a first, in comparison with the hostile strike-breaking, anti- student attitude of the Stalinist leadership of the CGT in May-June 1968!). The break from liberals who wanted to manipulate the movement, it was characteristic the hostile reaction to and rejection from the speakers’ panel of the well known, media star, reactionary liberal intellectual Alain Finkelkraut… Nuits Debout, despite confusions, raised again the specter of the revolutionary May 68 spreading horror to the bourgeois and petty bourgeois reaction.
The mobilizations of spring 2016 took place in open political defiance of an ever extended “State of emergency” declared, under the pretext of jihadist terrorism, and forbidding any mass rally! What could be more clear evidence that objectively, independently from any subjective intentions, the struggle against the Labor Law was NOT just an economic, combative trade union struggle but a POLITICAL confrontation of labor with capital’s political State power, with a bourgeois regime in crisis, in an EU in the process of disintegration, a turning point in the class struggle and the political situation in Europe and internationally?
b. A “workers’ reformism”?
Contrary to this assessment, others, such as the previously mentioned Emilio Albamonte of the Argentine PTS13, define the French workers movement under the bureaucratic CGT leadership as “workers reformism”, of the kind of the old German Social Democracy or of the now defunct Italian (Stalinist) Communist Party. This “workers reformism” is counter posed by Albamonte to the “petty bourgeois neo-reformism” of Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece. The confusion about what really happens in Europe could not be worst.
First, leaving aside for the time being Podemos, a short comment on Syriza in Greece, an experience in which the EEK and the author of these lines are directly involved. There is not such a thing as a “neo-reformism” of Syriza, of a “petty bourgeois” or other character. The demoralized international Left found Syriza as something “new”, different from the “old” reformism, a radicalized neo-reformism or, more often as the new, “anti-capitalist” (but not revolutionary) “radical Left”, which supersedes the “old” division between reform and revolution, leading, through an anti-austerity struggle, to a social change through the parliamentary road and the election of a “government of the Left” assisted by extra-parliamentary mass social movements.
There is nothing “new” to legitimate the prefix “neo-” to this charade that anyway, in Greece, has collapsed miserably in July 2015 with the expected capitulation of Tsipras and Syriza to the orders of the troika. Syriza, quite early, from the first moment that the prospect to take the governmental power became actual in the elections of 2012 tried to dissipate the fears of the ruling class in Greece, in the EU and in the US by all kinds of proposals and acts of class collaboration, in the oldest way that reformists and Stalinists used in the past.
It is not even “new” because it is based on the petty bourgeoisie. Syriza has its origins to a fusion of the “Euro-Communist” wing coming from an older split in the Stalinist KKE (CP of Greece) with a new split in the KKE in the 1990s, with the addition later of some smaller groups of the far left. In other words, although the leadership comes mainly from the petty bourgeois intelligentsia, Syriza historically originates from the Greek workers movement, dominated by Stalinism, especially in the anti-fascist people’s Resistance and civil war of the 1940s. Not by accident, for obvious symbolic although demagogic reasons, Tsipras, when he was elected as a prime minister in January 2015, went in the proletarian neighborhood of Kaisariani to posit flowers in the cemetery, at the monument of the communist partisans executed by the Nazis. Even in electoral terms, in the parliamentary elections of May and June 2012 and in the elections of January 2015, the majority working class vote, which in the past went mainly to PASOK and in a smaller proportion to the KKE, turned decisively to Syriza giving to it the victory, at the expectation of a “government of the Left”- a first after the betrayal by Stalinism and defeat of the socialist revolution in the civil war.
The role of the working class in the left wing turn of the popular masses in Greece in the years of struggle against the three Memoranda of austerity imposed by the troika, with the active complicity of the Greek bourgeois governments, including the last one of Tsipras, in this sense, cannot be dismissed as dominated by “petty bourgeois neo-reformism” or counter-posed to the French Spring events.
A syndicalist–economicist interpretation of the later as a combative trade union struggle, involving a “new workers vanguard” but led by a supposed “workers reformism” of a weakened CGT bureaucracy distorts the reality of the event with all its revolutionary and reactionary potentialities. When any objective observer or participant sees hundreds of thousands of workers marching in the streets of the main cities of France with red flags, singing the “International”, clashing with the militarized police brutality, calling, in not a few cases, for the overthrow of the Vals SP government, he or she can understand that what happens is not a routine trade union struggle, even in mass scale, but a political earthquake.
The CGT bureaucracy’s control over the rank and file members is indeed weakened or even temporarily lost (for example in the workers rebellion in Havre and elsewhere). The collapse of Stalinism and the loss of the PCF control on the CGT played important role to this effect. Martinez himself had broken from the left from the PCF quite early in a conflict with the right wing Stalinist leader Robert Hue, then its General Secretary. Despite the bureaucratic maneuvers, the attempts for a rotten compromise with the government, the delays and discontinuity in time and scale imposed to the action undermining its efficiency, the Philippe Martinez leadership of the CGT and role are not the same as that of the late Georges Séguy’s during the May-June 1968 revolutionary days.
Nevertheless, what they share in common as bureaucrats formed in the Stalinist school is opposition to the General Strike. Although many trade unions and federations raised the demand of an indefinite General Strike to defeat the El Khomri law, not only during demonstrations but as well in the CGT Conference in April 2016 in Marseille, Martinez rejected it, with the ludicrous excuse that “Montreuil [the CGT’s Central headquarters in Paris] cannot impose from above such an action”, sending back the proposal to be re-discussed in general assemblies in workplaces, and actually sabotaging it.
As Séguy and the Stalinists in 1968, Martinez too understands very well that a combative, proletarian indefinite General Strike, supported by the broadest popular strata and with the youth at the forefront, not only it is a political challenge to the government but it poses the central political question of state power itself. Both leaders of the CGT, perhaps with different rationale, rejected precisely a political perspective beyond any trade unionism or parliamentarianism, the prospect of a struggle for workers power.
The battle on the El Khomri law, and the hegemonic role of the CGT appeared in a limited trade union form hiding the most explosive political content: it is well known, after the 1871 Commune, the October Revolution and Lenin that the question of the State power is the central political issue of revolutionary not of economic trade union politics.
c. The vacuum on the Left
In France, the trade union form provided to the political struggle by the CGT and other combative unions came to occupy the political vacuum left by the bankruptcy of the Left. The movement clashed not with a right wing government but with a so-called “left” government and President elected as an alternative to the Right of Sarkozy and Company- to see it to implement even most right wing anti-working class and anti-popular measures. From 2012, the French Socialist Party lost 50 per cent of its membership, the people that voted Socialist was alienated by a government acting as the enemy of the people.
The rise of the far right Front National or the real possibility that the Right will win the second round of the Presidential elections of 2017 comes from this bankruptcy of social democracy- but not only from it: no left alternative to Hollande was or still is visible or credible.
The left wing of the SP, the “frondeurs” (“rebels”, dissenters) limited their “fronde” (rebellion) to an unsuccessful, not so enthusiastic or convincing attempt for a vote of non confidence to the government. Now they are active only on a competition to promote themselves as a new Socialist party Presidential candidates in the “primaries” in …January 2017.
The PCF is tail-ending the “frondeurs” in the futile and reactionary perspective to “change the SP policies”.
The “Front de Gauche” of the PCF with Mélanchon is in ruins after the unilateral, ultimatistic presentation by Mélanchon of his own Presidential candidacy in 2017 as the best representative of his movement with the pompous, a bit ridiculous, left-populist and nationalist nom de guerre “ La France rebelle, la France est belle” ( France is rebel, France is beautiful”).
Last but not least, unfortunately, the French far left of Trotskyist origins, all the factions of the NAP, from the more moderate to the most used to radical rhetoric, as well as the Lutte Ouvrière are politically paralyzed. Undoubtedly, their militants during the anti-Labor Law struggle, fought and fight courageously at the first ranks of their respective combative trade unions, as they did in the past; but skepticism and demoralization prevail and no independent political alternative, particularly on the central question of political power, linked to a transitional program was boldly advanced by them in the most important class confrontation in France after decades.
As in other countries like Brazil, adaptation to a practice of continuous electoralism and the narrow limits of combative syndicalism produce conditions of paralysis, disorientation and sectarian factionalism, when the moment of truth of a political regime crisis arrives. This is the case, for example, of the “Morenoite” PSTU in Brazil, which, after intervening in the 2013 upheaval in the most narrow syndicalist manner with politically disastrous results, it has been split in the middle during the recent parliamentary-judicial coup against Vilma Roussef.
As the zigzags of a deepening world capitalist crisis become more abrupt and unexpected, most of the revolutionary left enters to the struggles of the new stages, still non emancipated from the burden of the past decades of reflux of the movement in the “years of the winter” that followed May 68, the decades of recuperation of the far left by Mitterrand and the PS in the 1980s and 1990s, of a generalized demoralization reaching its climax with the collapse of the Soviet Union and of the “actually (non) existing Socialism” in Europe and Asia.
Although History was not ended in 1991, as the capitalists celebrated, definitely a certain sense of historical perspective and orientation was lost together with the Soviet Union as a point of reference, positive or negative, by all currents of the workers movement and the Left. The necessary theoretical and political “revolution within the revolution” in terms of theory, strategy and organization – like the radical turn that Lenin did in 1914 after the collapse of the Second International-did not take place after the collapse of Stalinism. Despite some significant efforts and contributions by revolutionary minorities, nihilism prevailed.
As the eruption of the capitalist crisis in 2007 accelerated all the rhythms of history, revolutionary forces enter the new historical tempests, with recurrent gigantic, waves of struggles- from the Argentinazo in Plaza del Mayo, to Puerta Del Sol in Madrid, Tahrir in Egypt, Kasbah in Tunis, Syntagma in Greece, Gezi Park in Turkey, “Occupy Wall Street” to the Nuit Debout in Place de la République- with fighting dedication but without a necessary compass of historical perspective for revolutionary orientation, strategy, tactics, and organization.
In France, the land of the 1789 Revolution, of the highest moment of bourgeois modernity, this (transitional) impasse takes its purest form: the most political nation of Europe is engulfed by a dramatic crisis of a delegitimized political State power without a visible political State power alternative… istory,HistryHiHistory Histoyr
C. Political limits and prospects
Spring 2016 in France was not May 68. The entire historical framework was very different. In 1968 was only the starting point of the break up of the post-World War II Bretton Woods Keynesian settlement bringing to an end the so-called “Trente Glorieuses” (the ‘thirty glorious years’ of capitalist expansion). Now, we are already in the 10th year of a global crisis incorporating the historical failure both of Keynesianism and neo-liberalism as strategies of survival of declining capitalism.
The sharpest contrasts between May 68 and the recent spring of discontent in France are manifested in the political sphere, both in the prevailing political discourse and praxis of the actors.
Looking to the materials, the debates and statements by the commissions of the Nuit Debout, despite some important insights, you cannot find the boldness of the revolutionary visions and the wide open horizons of May 68, anticipating, in a concrete Utopia (Ernst Bloch), the future goals of the social revolution in advanced capitalism.
Nevertheless, behind the contrast with today, the tensest areas of debates in the last period, particularly in assemblies in Nuit Debout and other combat sectors of the movement cover some of the most crucial strategic questions of the coming European socialist revolution.
We will focus briefly on two of the most important, passionately debated and internally related: a. the question of national-popular sovereignty versus EU, and b. the question of the Republic.
a. National Sovereignty versus EU- or a combative internationalism?
The obvious failures of the EU in an insoluble crisis, a deepening recession leading to a growing unemployment, the enormous social sufferings caused by the harsh neo-liberal measures of austerity imposed by the EU directives without any of the promised results, the economic rule of non elected technocrats of Brussels over elected national parliaments- Greece under troika’s iron heel being the extreme but not unique example – have provoked a violent backlash, misnamed as “Euro-skepticism”, and reclaiming national sovereignty.
There is throughout Europe, a threatening rise of nationalism, economic and political, right and “left”. Parties, groups, movements, tendencies, either openly Nazi or fascist or far right thinly disguised as “patriotic beyond the right/left divide”, or even self-situated on the left demanding a return to “popular-national sovereignty”, destroyed by “Europeanism”, “anti-national cosmopolitanism” and a “transnational” EU ruling dictatorially from Brussels. All these political formations, mixed together and covered under the confused and confusing term of “populism”, acquire a growing influential role in European political life.
It looks like an apparent return to the 1930s: a global financial crash followed by depression, rise of nationalism, fascism, imperialist antagonisms, and last but not least – a war drive. But a fatalistic Eternal Return of the same is only “the myth of all myths” (Walter Benjamin) in a historical, ever-changing world in an epoch of transition, and particularly now.
The huge differences between the present and the 1930s, need re-examination. Initially, four basic remarks have to be made (needing a further detailed analysis each of them):
1. The 2007 world economic volcanic eruption has its own unique historical specificities and dynamics. It is not a mechanical repetition of the 1929 Crash and the 1930s Great Depression. It is recognized as the worst crisis in the history of capitalism, as many bourgeois “mainstream” economists, “think tanks” and global financial institutions have admitted.
2. Economic and political nationalism re-appears but in a globalized economy of a far deeper international interconnectedness than that before World War II making any nationalist economic agenda even more short lived and hopeless than in the 1930s.
3. There is a totally different strategic field of power relations between social, political and geopolitical forces than in the past.
4. Above all, there is no crashing defeat of the fighting capacity of the working class in the metropolitan centers of global capitalism as in Germany in 1933. Social and political polarization produces the Trump monstrosity but also the much stronger Bernie Sanders phenomenon in the US; an unexpected massive left wing turn in Britain propelling the “marginal” Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party and the hysteria of the right wing Labourites, the Tories and the bourgeois mass media seeing the specter of Trotsky (!) hovering over the United Kingdom; and last but not at all least, the recent mass upsurge in France against the Labor Law, when, during the months of struggle, the fascists, the far right Front National and Marine Le Pen viciously attacking the workers were, temporarily, eclipsed from the political scene.
The explosive contradiction between, from the one side, the world character of modern productive forces, of economy, politics, and culture, and from the other the persistence of a historically exhausted Nation State polarize, in the conditions of the current crisis, defenders and opponents of globalization in general and the EU in particular.
The “defenders” consider “regulation” of “globalization and financialization” as well as to advance to “more integrated Europe”, to promote “reforms” and/or “democratization” of the EU as being indispensable to confront in common and effectively the globalized crisis.
Most of the “opponents”, as the ravages of the implosion of finance capital globalization keep accumulating and Brussels (and Berlin) stubbornly continue the imposition of disastrous austerity policies, they preach as the only road of salvation the retreat back to a strengthened, protectionist Nation State, to a national currency, and “national-popular sovereignty”.
This divide was made very clear in the recent social conflicts and political debates in France.
The savage “deregulation” of the labor market is following the bankrupt and inefficient neoliberal strategy both of the Hollande-Vals government as well as of the EU.
The neoliberal strategy in the name of globalization to which is identified today the EU, particularly in its dominant German “ordoliberal” variety, demands draconian austerity and massive destruction of jobs, living standards and social rights. In other words, it drives to make the workers and lower middle classes to pay for the capitalist system’s crisis and bankruptcy. But, at the last instance, it represents a futile attempt to reverse what Karl Polanyi had called the “Great Transformation”: the historical destruction of economic liberalism, established in the 19th century, during the crisis years of 1930-1945. It tries its regressive “anti-Great Transformation” .Neo-liberalism is a neo-archaism, the reactionary Utopia for a return to the laissez-faire liberal capitalism of the 19th century.
Against such a barbaric strategy, whose failure was irrevocably proved in the 2007/08 debacle but which continues exacerbating the crisis, the return to a sovereign Nation State is considered for sectors both in the far right and far left as the only counter-strategy. In France, in the far right, Marine Le Pen preaches the exit from the EU and the euro, an “independent, sovereign” (and always imperialist-capitalist) France within “a Europe of Nations”. But also on the left of the pseudo-left ruling Socialist Party, the “souverainisme de gauche” is quite strong ,with the most popular and demagogic representative the anti-immigrant Jean Luc Mélanchon of the Parti de Gauche and now self-appointed candidate to the Presidential elections of 2017 under the flag of “France Rebelle France la Belle”. More on the left of the “left of the left” we find another influential representative of left “souverainisme” in the person of a serious radical intellectual like Fréderic Lordon.
The defenders of the primacy of the national sovereignty in the imperialist epoch promote their own reactionary Utopia: a return to the century of the triumph of bourgeois nationalisms and of national States- the same idealized 19th century so cherished by the neoliberal “globalists”.
The abstract concept of “Europe” (or of the “West”) – and consequently of “European (or Western) universal values”- hiding imperial, colonial exploitative ambitions of domination, was from the beginning, as Michel Foucault rightly has pointed out a particularism in break from universalism.14 The illusions for a “European constitutionalism” (Jürgen Habermas) and/or a “European citizenship” (Etienne Balibar) are collapsing under the combined offensive of the social cannibalism measures by the EU and the sinister rise of reactionary nationalisms and conflicting national imperialist interests.
As it was mentioned previously, Ferdinand Mount, the chief of the political staff of Margaret Thatcher in 1982-83, reminds us, quoting Alan Milward in The European Rescue of the Nation-State that the entire EU project, from its foundation up to its present, probably terminal crisis, has as a goal the rescue of the Nation State in Europe from a repetition of the previous disasters of the 20th century, by embedding it in an international network of interdependent European institutions.
“Europeanists” and national- “sovereignists” are the negative image of each other with opposite strategies for the same goal: to save to modern bourgeois national state and capitalism.
Both strategies have failed miserably. The deepest demands of historical development- the unification of the modern productive forces clashing with national barriers in Europe- could be fulfilled only on new international socialist bases, and that necessitates a decisive break with all strategies to save imperialist EU, nationalism, and capitalism.
The only alternative for the exploited and oppressed of France, Germany, Greece, or of any other European country, North and South, East and West, to stop the catastrophe is an internationalist one: the international, beyond borders, coordinated revolutionary upsurge of the working class leading all subaltern classes and oppressed, including all national, ethnic and other minorities, immigrants and refugees, for the overthrow of capitalism and the EU, to establish a new emancipated community of peoples and minorities free from all forms of oppression, exploitation and humiliation: a United Socialist States of Europe, as it was formulated by the old and always actual call of the Communist International in its first revolutionary period.
b. The Republic- or the Commune?
As the social political crisis in France escalates, it is noteworthy that reaches its climax as well an obsessive rhetoric about the “Republic” and the so called “republican values”, such as “la citoyenneté” (citizenship) or, especially, “la laïcité” (secularism).
Inherited from the French Revolution, “Republicanism” became the battle cry of nearly all conflicting forces encompassing the entire political spectrum, from the far left and the left to the right and far right, including the Front National, the traditional home of the enemies of the French Revolution, of the monarchists and other belated followers of Maurras and the “Action Française”.
Marine Le Pen makes fiery speeches in defense of the Republic and republican values, a French monopoly of the “French nation” terribly threatened now by the EU “cosmopolitans”, the “communists”, and other “leftists”, the marginalized citizens in the “banlieu” with origins from Arab and African ex-colonies of France, especially the millions of the Muslim population in France, all foreigners in general, the immigrants and refugees from the Middle East, Asia and Africa, now sequestrated in camps like the “jungle” of Calais.
Secularism, “la laïcité”, becomes the cover for Islamophobia, racism, in some cases disguised anti-Semitism, and generally the instrument of a politics of fear, the cultivation of an “anti-terrorist security” hysteria against Muslims (and migrants) seen everywhere as probable accomplices of Daesh(the “Islamic State|” assassins). The summer police harassment campaign against the …burkini, the bath dress of some Muslim women, considered as a “provocation” and even as an “act of war by Islamists”, although ridiculous, nevertheless it is a dangerous symptom of a generalized, witch hunt atmosphere organized from above, by the State power in crisis and the “State within the State”.
This reactionary stand of a French identity politics, in the name of the Republic and of “secular republican values”, falsely targeting a “fundamentalist Muslim communitarian politics”, is not at all an exclusivity of the Front National supporters. It is shared and put in practice by the Socialist Party government itself, by its official opposition, the parliamentary Right of Juppé and Sarkozy renamed “Les Républicains”, even by some sectarian “ultra-secularists” in the extra-parliamentary left.
This generalized cult of a Republic, emptied from its historical-class content and reduced into a fetish, is a caricature and negation of the revolutionary Republic of the Jacobins, its reversion covering the existing senile Bonapartism of the exhausted Fifth Republic.
Marx had already, in the middle of the 19th century, showed that the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte was the repetition as a farce of the tragedy of Napoleon Bonaparte in post-revolutionary France. Trotsky in the 1930s compared and showed the essential difference between Bonapartism in the epoch of bourgeois ascent and Bonapartism in the epoch of capitalist decline.
In today’s France and more and more all over Europe, the acuteness of class antagonisms and the death agony of bourgeois parliamentary democracy, it has been risen a late Bonapartism of bourgeois senility. Hollande is a caricature of the caricature of Napoleon III Le Petit while Sarkozy embodies a farcical ambition to become a Petain bis, as Alain Badiou had timely showed.15
It is not an accident that all mainstream Presidential candidates for the 2017 elections compete who will be the best Bonaparte, the most efficient arbiter/guarantor of civil peace, of security, law and order in the Republic.
Even in the workers-popular camp of opponents of the ruling senile Bonapartism prevail a left Republicanism as it was clear in debates and assemblies during the months of struggle against the Labor Law.
The demand of a “Sixth Republic” established by the election of a Constituent Assembly, raised by Mélanchon, finds a relative echo to some sectors of the popular opposition.
A more radical version of the demand for a Constituent Assembly expressing the “Constituent Power” of the mobilized citizens was elaborated by Fréderic Lordon16 and it was presented and found a positive response in an assembly of Nuit Debout in Place de la République in April 2016.
The concept of “constituent power of the multitude”, first advanced by Toni Negri, or its reversion, the “destituent power” proposed by Giorgio Agamben as an alternative politics of emancipation were discussed again, during the French Spring, amidst and by militant autonomists.
But none of these alternatives goes beyond the horizon of radical democracy or of a radicalized anti-authoritarian version of res publica.
The solutions proposed are part of the problem- the crisis of bourgeois Republic in our epoch. A renewed, non schematic, non dogmatic theoretical study of the State and of all power relations today is urgently needed to develop a revolutionary politics of “universal human emancipation” as Marx had defined communism in his critique, precisely, of the republican “Declaration of the Rights of the Citizen and the Man” of 179317.
Michel Foucault was right that we have to go beyond the primacy given to the political-juridical order in the Republic by Rousseau, and that we need “de-Rousseauiser Marx”18. Foucault had in mind, principally but not exclusively, the fatal distortion of the Marxian State of theory introduced by Stalinism and the PCF, in the 1930s, and especially after the turn to the policies of “an antifascist Popular Front” of class collaboration with the democratic-republican wing of bourgeoisie”.
In the same spirit of defense of the Republic, so recently as in 2002,in the second round of the Presidential elections in France the Left( including the LCR) supported the right wing republican Chirac against the fascist Jean Marie Le Pen. The same is under way again for next year, if in the second round of the Presidential Elections of 2017, as it looks now very likely, Marine Le Pen could confront the right wing candidate of “Les Républicains”, Juppé or Sarkozy…
In his courses in the Collège de France, in the latest creative years of his life, Foucault developed some insights on the Republic, the modern State and their crisis, very topical and thought provoking to understand the crisis in France and in Europe today.
The Republic is not the embodiment of “national or popular sovereignty” or of “people’s will” expressed every few years by elections. It constitutes not the rule based on citizenship, a civil society of citizens with equal rights in relation to the laws of the State, but primarily it is rule over a heterogeneous population. The Republic cannot maintain itself without going beyond sovereignty into what Foucault calls gouvenementalité, “governmentality”. The modern State in its limits cannot survive without it.
It is a broader “strategic field of power relations”19, much broader than the famous Gramscian “hegemony” as “coercion + consensus”. Governmentality was described, first, by Foucault in 197820, as being constituted a) by all the means, institutions, procedures etc by which power is exercised on a population b) by raising political economy to the highest form of knowledge of society, and c) by the development of security apparatuses (where we could include, all power technologies of surveillance and punishment, the penal system, prisons, the police, and all the “armed bodies” of the bourgeois State).
The French critical thinker posed also the crucial question of the crisis of governmentality – which today, not only in the periphery but in all advanced capitalist countries(particularly in France) takes the most acute form, involving all three, interrelated and interacting, components mentioned above:
a) Not only there is a generalized crisis of all governing institutions, procedures etc, but overall control over vast, impoverished, marginalized populations becomes problematic and very often lost (for ex. in Greece in the December 2008 youth revolt, in the rebellions in the suburbs in Paris and all over France in 2005, and now during the 2016 French Spring, the riots of summer 2013 in London, the ongoing rebellion today of the Afro-American population and of the movement Black Lives Matter against a brutal militarized police in the US etc.)
b) Mainstream economics, into which political economy has been degenerated, proved irrevocably its bankruptcy in the 2007 world crisis that it was totally unable to foresee or to find a way out. Both strategies developed by capitalism in the 20th century to confront its decline avoiding a repetition of the 1929 world Crash and the Great Depression, namely Keynesianism and neo-liberalism, finished into a debacle. There is a strategic impasse of the ruling class, of its political economy, and in deeper level, the exhaustion of the value form as a regulative principle of the economy.
c) There is a monstrous growth, internationalization, modernization, and technological sophistication of security apparatuses, especially after 9/11 in New York, the terrorist imperialist “war on terror” and the imposition in all capitalist countries of a repressive “State of exception”, which has become a rule, re-confirming the famous thesis of Walter Benjamin.21
No revolutionary politics of emancipation can ignore these three crucial components of the present regime crisis of political power as a “crisis of governmentality” in France or in most other countries in Europe and internationally.
a. The vast, rapidly impoverished population should not be seen as an “ imaginary concrete” 22, an abstraction as bourgeois political economy sees it, but as a concrete universality, a unity of the diverse internally divided on class, “race” ethnic or religious or communitarian, and gender lines.
As in the recent French upheaval, the attempt by the government of capital to de-regulate all labor relations polarized society and centralized all grievances of the population hit by the crisis around the battle of the working class, mainly organized in the CGT, the working class itself should act as a “universal class”: superseding the syndicalist limits of a trade union struggle, to unite all oppressed and exploited, all “humiliated and offended” to use Dostoyevsky’s words, on the basis of a program of transitional demands in the class war for class political power, against the government, its laws, the Fifth Republic and the EU.
b. This class war needs to by guided by a revolutionary strategy based on a development of the Marxian critique of political economy, grasping the current crisis of governmentality as a crisis of the historical domination of the value form, and thus as a transition beyond capitalism towards world communism.
c. Direct mass action, the clash with the security repressive State , non State, and supra-State apparatuses( including the fascist gangs), the organization of an indefinite, political, proletarian General Strike with all its confrontational implications, necessitate both the self-organization of the masses in their own organs of struggle for power, beyond the separation of political and “economic”- trade union struggle, as well as, in connection with the mass movement, an organization of the most combative, uncompromising, vanguard fighters in a new revolutionary, anti-bureaucratic, internationalist, combat Party – and in a new International. As there is no “socialism in a single country”, there cannot be a revolutionary communist politics of universal human emancipation in a single country.
We have called the mobilizations in France in March-June 2016 a “French Spring” not just as an echo of the revolutionary process in the Middle East named “Arab Spring” that many opponents and supporters of it, prematurely, consider as ended in a crashing defeat. The Arab Spring and Tahrir as its emblematic battlefield were a high point of the first wave of major confrontations produced by the post 2007 world capitalist crisis. Now the recent French events mark the beginning of a second wave of battles, a “spring of the peoples” in Europe and the entire capitalist world.
The fighters that participated in the French Spring have an insight that what follows goes beyond France itself, beyond capitalist domination and beyond the fetishized “citizens Republic”. Not by accident, those who occupied Place de la République and initiated Nuit Debout have, following the revolutionary traditions of France, changed both the calendar counting the course of time as well as the name of the space, of this central Parisian square: it is called no more “Place de la République” but Place de la Commune!
The 1871 Paris Commune. despite all errors and its tragic defeat, was, as Marx pointed out, an offensive against the State in all its forms, and the discovery of the form of worker power, the dictatorship of the proletariat, as a semi-state in a process of withering away and in a transition into the Stateless, classless society of a social humanity emancipated from all chains.
Despite errors and the crushing defeat, the year 1871 of the Paris Commune became, as Andre Breton rightly wrote, the Arcane 17: the reversal of the defeat of ’71 was the victory of ’17- the October 1917 Revolution, considered by the Bolsheviks and all revolutionaries as the first act of the world socialist revolution.
Although an overwhelming, bourgeois “public opinion” considers the world revolution and any reference to it as an antiquated misconception dead and buried long ago, its specter-their nightmare- comes back.
Approaching the centenary of the 1917 October Revolution, the legendary “song of the Gaulish cockerel”, as Marx predicted, “announces the world revolution”.
Paris, September 3, 2016
or, 187 March, 2016