Issue 193 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1996 Copyright © Socialist Review
The French Communist Party (PCF) is still a mass working class party. Its daily newspaper, L'Humanité, prints 120,000 copies and during the recent revolt was the main source of information for many strikers and sympathisers.
It is hard to know how many members the PCF has today. It has clearly lost an enormous amount of influence with the break up of the Eastern bloc but at elections it still manages around 7 percent of the vote. More importantly, hundreds of thousands of workers who are not PCF members are led in their workplaces and in their unions by party members. The worker who says, 'I don't like the Communist Party much, but in my workplace it's the Communists who organise resistance to the boss,' is someone you can meet any day of the week in France.
In 1968, it concentrated its fire on the revolutionary left, who it called 'pseudo-revolutionaries, generally the children of big bourgeois, contemptuous of students from working class families'. The PCF tried hard to limit workers' demands to economic ones, saying elections were the time for political issues.
The Communist Party in the last 25 years has always defended a mixture of change from above and pressure from below, encouraging mass mobilisation against certain ruling class attacks to force through reforms. The importance of elections is always primary, however. In 1972 the Communist Party signed a Joint Programme with the Socialist Party. Throughout the 1970s the party became more open. The Stalinist traditions of physical attacks on revolutionaries and the refusal of all internal debate melted and in 1977 a new 'openness' policy was taken up. The alliance with the Socialists did not last long. The Socialist Party dominated the alliance, and a left turn by the CP led to a break up of the Union of the Left in 1978.
When the Socialist Party was elected with massive working class support in 1981, the Communist Party had four ministers in the cabinet. When the Socialist Party turned to attacking workers, the Communist ministers resigned. The electoral strategy was really in ruins.
The party has been a nationalist party since the Second World War. Its famous posters include such slogans as, 'I love my country. I'm voting Communist' In 1980, using the excuse that poor immigrant workers should be spread out in different towns and not concentrated in towns with Communist Party mayors, the Communist mayor of Vitry near Paris personally led bulldozers to demolish an immigrant workers' hostel. More recently, the CP leaders have dropped their slogan for immigrants' right to vote. Faced with their declining share in the vote, and in particular the declining number of towns controlled by Communist mayors and town councils, the Communist Party is now fully converted to left social democracy. It is endlessly in search of alliances with 'democratic forces of progress'.
There are two main far left organisations. The Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire (LCR), a section of the Fourth International led by Alain Krivine, has become more and more divided into different permanent factions. For many years it had illusions in the socialist nature of the latest revolution (Cuba, then Nicaragua), losing members and confidence each time the leadership of these Third World revolutions showed that they couldn't build socialism. Since the fall of the Eastern bloc represented for the LCR a massive defeat, it has come to believe in recent years that revolution will be impossible for a generation or more. Concluding that 'the epoch of wars and revolutions' which opened in 1914 is now over, the majority of the organisation voted for a resolution declaring that what was needed was a wider party 'without a fixed strategy', in which revolutionaries should work away as a minority for a generation or two.
In 1980 the LCR's slogan was. 'The Socialist Party and the Communist Party must break with capitalism', though impossible, this position gave people illusions and lost some of the LCR's membership to each of these two parties.
More recently it has continued to have electoral alliances with non-revolutionary forces, including the Green Party and the Communist Party. Today it has perhaps 800 to 1,000 members but most of them are invisible and work simply as trade unionists or in various movements. Its paper, Rouge, once a daily in the 1970s, is weekly and in the recent revolt has served as a strike news bulletin, but with no political lead being offered. Many serious revolutionaries have become tired. cynical and have dropped out.
Much more serious and with a dedicated revolutionary outlook is Lutte Ouvrière, a specifically French form of Trotskyism and the other major force on the far left in France. Because of a 'secrecy' which surrounds their operations, it is difficult to tell its true size. Membership is probably around 1,000 to 2,000, but extremely active. Its members' main strength is that when there are strikes in their own workplaces, they push very hard and successfully for extending the strike, flying pickets and so on. They have played a leading role in the 'coordinatione'--rank and file strikers' committees.
LO's main weakness is its insistence that revolutionary party can only be built round members in workplaces: it does not intervene publicly at all in anti-racist movements (because they're not revolutionary or working class enough) or in other movements against oppression. Its position on gay oppression is one of total silence. Because its ideas are pushed abstractly LO can really come unstuck: when young Muslim female school students came under attack from the state which insisted on the removal of headscarves. LO, against religion in schools and the oppression of women, claimed that the authorities were right to exclude these students from school. Even now Le Pen is characterised as a right wing demagogue and not a Nazi.
LO has proposed joint election platforms with the Communist Party of late. This year its leaders have been talking in vague terms about forming a wider workers' party, without really saying whether this is to be reformist or revolutionary.
The way is clearly open for an organisation that is openly revolutionary and has a clear idea of how to take the movement forward, that won't separate political and economic struggle. The 200 or so members of Socialisme International, the SWP's sister organisation in France, are trying to build such an organisation.