France: an historic moment for the left

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Jean-Luc Melenchon with tens of thousands of supporters at an alection rally in Paris

Radical left (including far left) – 7.7 million

Social Democracy – 2.3 million

Liberal centre – 8.7 million

Right (including independent right-wing Gaullist) – 9.2 million

Fascist right – 7.7 million

The decline of the principal parties of the left and right (broadly defined) in the first round of the presidential election has revealed a new reality in France. They had 55 percent in the first round in 2012. Now they have 25 percent.

Where does it go from here? There are figures from the social democrats and the traditional right who would like it to go back to a decade ago, when between them they took in the first round 21 million votes.

That is not going to happen. Together this time they won less than 10 million votes. Le Pen’s strategy is spelled out in documents produced by Front National theorists. It goes beyond 7 May and the National Assembly elections four weeks later – though both are critical for the FN.

It is to reconfigure French politics and its system between two poles: the “globalisers” and the “patriots”; the “internationalist neoliberals” and the “economic nationalists”. And it is to make that coterminous with “pro-system” and “anti-system”, conventional and insurgent, “elites” and “the people”.

It is to suppress the social realities of class from expression in politics. Class cannot be erased entirely. It is a fundamental material fact of everyday life. It is more to destroy the old left versus right polarity, based upon the historic class politics of France.

The FN, then, would be at the centre of a massive political and social pole. It would be free to hegemonise it, to organise it and to choose how to radicalise, and when to change tactics. It would have all the power of initiative to execute a bid for control of the state – with the support of enough of the elites, not in revolutionary conflict with them.

All that against the systemic forces, who would undermine themselves through their commitment to the politics, ideology and economic strategies which – as we saw in 2008 and even in the “good years” running up to it – bring great crises, not stability.

To say this is a longer term strategy is not to endorse the meme, which I’m sure is intended to sound alarm, but actually underestimates the coming period: “Macron 2017 = Le Pen 2022”. Ruptures and violent clashes are unlikely to hold off for five years and obediently synchronise with the French election cycle.

The committed Macronites – Manuel Valls, Guy Verhofstadt, Tony Blair, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, Hillary and Bill Clinton, and all the rest – also want to realign politics along this axis. That is what their year of the “liberal fightback” is about.

They share with Marine Le Pen the same medium term political goal – though their longer-term aims are antagonistic.

They believe that an essentially Blair-Clinton-Merkel centre can prevail and that their system will work – economically and politically – once the path is renewed to 1990s “modernisation” and the rejuvenation of the global liberal order.

The element of their own political histories and self-aggrandisement should not be underestimated. Just as Margaret Thatcher thought she had been a prime mover of history in bringing down the Soviet Union, so these Third Way politicians believe that it is they who delivered the neoliberal “golden age”.

They will miss me when I’m gone, Blair told his friends 10 years ago. “When history shows I was right, they will call for Enoch,” said Enoch Powell mouldering away in the 1980s.

Such realignment cannot be brought about if there is a powerful and insurgent force on the left. That is why both Macron and Le Pen want to crush the left.

In the first round of the presidential election there were 7.7 million votes for the radical and the anti-capitalist left. The 2.3 million voters who stuck with the Socialist Party, against right wing leaders telling them to vote for Macron, did so behind a left wing candidate.

Some 750,000 of those social democratic voters are so alienated from what Macron represents, and he was an economics minister in the disastrous outgoing administration of Francois Hollande, that polling suggests they will not vote for him in the second round. They will abstain.

In all, nearly 10 million people voted for the left, and in a ratio of more than three to one for candidates well to the left of someone from the better wing of mainstream social democracy.

In order for Macron and Le Pen to achieve the political realignment they want, these 10 million voters of the left need to be disorganised, demoralised and dispersed across the political field. Reduced to disoriented ions, then to be attracted to either of the two poles: Macon and Le Pen.

For 10 million is a big number. And the campaign which brought the 7 million to vote for Jean-Luc Melenchon was massive, with huge rallies, a dominating presence online, and a reach into layers deeply alienated from the system. It was a campaign that grew as Le Pen’s faltered.

This raises the potential for a very different reorganisation of politics, and therefore of the field of the class and social struggle. Not two poles, but three: a radical and insurgent left; a liberal centre, with satellites from the wreckage of the old party system; and the hard right cum far right.

That is the favourable political outcome for not only the left, but for the working class movement as a whole. Macron and Le Pen both know this. Both are enemies of the working class movement. Both want to stop that happening.

So both of them in the next two weeks to the second round on 7 May and then to the National Assembly elections will aim to pillage and plunder from the 10 million voters of the left.

It is not merely about accruing votes. It is a political onslaught aiming to destroy the advance made by the radical left, which now is an obstacle to both the centre and the far right creating the new political reality that they jointly believe serves them way beyond these elections – strategically for the coming few years.

The weapons of Le Pen, of Macron and of the left

The weapon of Le Pen is the considerable base of active support the FN has been allowed to develop over the last 30 years in working class areas. A cadre of activists fighting hard to take her fake anti-establishment message into the very strata where the radical left has just built a huge vote. Jean-Luc Melenchon outpolled Le Pen among the youngest group of voters despite the FN having been placed first for over a year in that demographic. Youth unemployment is at 24 percent.

Just 3 percent of PS voters and 12 percent of France Insoumise voters say they are so blindly enraged at the system that they are prepared to vote Le Pen in the second round. So much for the horseshoe theory: that the far left and far right are essentially one in the same. Some 31 percent of the centre-right’s voters, in contrast, say they will vote Le Pen in the second round. The FN grew out of the French right, with all its barbarities.

Le Pen wants much more than those 850,000 votes from the left. She definitely needs a lot more if she is to have any hope of finishing close or even winning. Some 43 percent of centre-right voters say they will vote for Macron. Denying her votes from the left and working class is crucial, and not only in stopping her advance electorally.

This is the portal through which Le Pen, and behind her fascism in France, hopes strategically to achieve two things. First: to dissolve the radical left. Second: then to advance as the “anti-system” force in a bipolar political system. This battleground is critical for the far right and for fascism in a way it is not for the capitalist forces of the centre.

The reason why there were so many violent clashes between the Nazis – who crucially had a mass street-fighting force marking them out dramatically from today’s FN – and Communist activists in Germany between 1929 and 1933 (as analysed in an very good book by Eve Rosenhaft) was not because the Communists were violent thugs just like the Nazis.

It was because the Nazis knew they had to penetrate into those working class neighbourhoods. That meant breaking by all manner of tactics – from violent intimidation, including murder, to political initiatives – the Communist or social democratic presence there.

When Golden Dawn in Greece launched their September offensive in 2013, they murdered Pavlos Fyssas. He was known throughout his neighbourhood. He was an anti-racist and popular rap artist. He was part of the political and social reality in that poor part of Athens-Piraeus. Someone hanging out in the open-air cafe, greeted by loads of young people. A physical presence of the young-left political culture that Golden Dawn have to destroy.

Similarly with the murderous assault on Sotiris Poulikogiannis and a group of trade unionists putting up Communist posters in Piraeus. He is a very known figure in the docks and in his neighbourhood. “Taking him out” had a political purpose. Cracking the skulls of the radical left in order to crack its base of political support and supplant a neighbourhood “Communist character” with one who is of Golden Dawn. A position in a locality conquered.

The Front National is not using those tactics. But it is capable of them. Jim Wolfreys is the latest acute observer of the FN to remind us that behind the carefully detoxified image that Marine Le Pen has confected it remains at core a fascist formation.

That is attested to by the fact that of 1,500 FN councillors elected three years ago some 400 had left the party by January of this year. Some cited factionalism and administrative chaos. Others, however, said that upon standing as a newcomer to the party and getting elected, they found to their shock that there was a hard core with fascist and violently racist beliefs.

That shows two things. That there is a strong fascist spine, and that the careful strategy of softening the image and building up an electoral coalition of different segments comes with overheads. It means a broad footprint electorally, but also a strategic gap between that and the sharp dagger that committed fascists know they must fashion if they are not merely to win some representative elections but to conquer actual power.

The FN strategy has been labelled, by analogy to the eurocommunist politics of the left developed in the 1970s, eurofascism. A theoretical reference point for eurcommunism was a reading of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. He wrote of a distinction between a “war of position” and a “war of manoeuvre”. In the war of position, a military metaphor, leadership of a bloc of social forces is built up over time, through intervention in the fields of political and social life – elections, for example – in order to gain strategic advantage on an impending field of battle.

Strength is accrued behind this “counter-hegemonic bloc” at the expense of the hegemonic bloc of forces supporting the old order and system. A war of manoeuvre is, by distinction, the open clash of forces – direct, with methods of struggle including violence and the immediate application of force.

Gramsci, unlike some of his interpreters, knew that a war of position gives way in moments of manifold crisis to a war of manoeuvre. You build up resources of strength to use them – not to admire them. Committed fascists in Europe know that too, whatever combination of tactics they choose at a particular moment.

The battle to secure the 10 million voters of the left from incursion by the siren and fake anti-establishment voice of Le Pen is therefore strategic. It is not only about the numbers of potential voters denied to the fascist project. It is about solidifying the radical left pole of politics in France. Upon that basis it is possible to push back hard to regain from the FN those working class votes that it has been allowed to build up, election after election, over the last 30 years.

It has done so not because people have gone over directly from far left to far right. But because it has been afforded the room to manoeuvre, within this war of position, to win one concentric circle after another, centred upon the support that forms immediately around its core – those who were previously of the traditional right, with all its reactionary ideas and prejudices.

The weapon to secure the anti-system left vote against the far right, and to aspire to unify the working class against this deadly hostile force, is a militant and mass front of working class and left organisations, with social movements and groups of oppressed minorities, against the FN.

That cannot be done under the banner of Emmanuel Macron. For his front – the one signed up to by the social democrats and Gaullist right – is aimed squarely against a militant and left-led anti-fascist insurgency. It is crafted to crush the radical left, without which there can be no effective anti-FN campaign. His programme is for an assault on working class life, from pensions to disapplication of the mandatory 35-hour week and strengthening the police and security state. He needs a pliant working class.

The Macron message and strategy cannot undermine the FN. They are a mirror of the FN’s. With paeans to the EU and to the wonders of global capitalism, he is prepared to see the former industrial towns of the north and the eviscerated areas of the south of France go to Le Pen – provided he can lift a vote from elsewhere using Le Pen as a scarecrow.

The weapon of Macron in the working class movement is the old parliamentarist and trade union bureaucracy of the Socialist Party, which has stood as political master over the Communist Party for 40 years. They are calling not for militant action against Le Pen, to unify the working class movement and to prepare for the neoliberal offensive of a Macron government.

They are giving political support to Macron. For those of the right of social democracy, it is because they believe in what Macron offers. They saw him more as their candidate than their party’s own over the last four months. For those on the left of the Socialist Party, such as Benoit Hamon, it is something else: a strategic impasse leading to tactics dictated by someone else.

Despite the treachery of the right, the left social democrats still cohabit with them in the same party. Moreover, they share some essential political parameters. They say an insurgent politics of rupture will benefit only the far right. The prime, public political argument that Hamon put against Melenchon – against whom he was not antagonistic in the campaign – was that he would lead to a chaotic break with the euro and EU. The only beneficiaries of that would be the Front National., said Hamon

He claimed, somewhat unconvincingly, that he had a plan to get some agreed change in the EU and modify the deadly ordoliberal- austerity orthodoxy. The German social democrat Martin Schulz was apparently in favour of it. Though deeply critical of Macron, Hamon’s political line was little different from his: we need to get this EU system working again, and I have the ear of someone in Berlin.

The left of the Socialist Party is tied not only to the right in their joint electoral endeavour for the National Assembly elections. It is tied politically also. And by endorsing Macron, it has subordinated itself further. The only people strengthened by that are Macron and his allies such as Manuel Valls, and Le Pen herself. That is because she wishes to portray herself as the candidate “of the people”, now temporarily having relinquished the leadership of her party to present herself as everywoman: the embodiment of France against the old political machines.

Macron is relying on the bankrupted old forces of working class politics in France to break the insurgent left and deliver it back to the centre, possibly with some offer of seats for the social democrats – with their 6 percent on Sunday – in the National Assembly. Le Pen is also relying on that. For if the leaders of the left insurgency embrace the old political game, she will be free to appeal to the millions who reject it and who voted left in numbers which the FN cannot have expected six weeks ago.

Two paths – servitude or a new resistance

There are two paths in the next 12 days. One is for Macron and his vacuous rallies to dominate. That is what Le Pen wants. Her surrogates have said for months that Macron is the figure she would prefer to fight in a second round.

The other path is for the third pole of 7.7 to 10 million voters of the left to continue to assert itself in France. A ruthlessly independent pole, adopting a two-fold policy. That is a direct fight, with methods that the FN has rarely faced in its history, against Le Pen and aiming to deny her working class votes. A cordon sanitaire around the fascists – for that is what they are. A militant and mass movement which confronts her.

The left is not in the final round. It can be in the streets, workplaces and neighbourhoods, and with an equally important second message: an iron hard line of political division against Macron, preparing working people, young people and the social movements to fight the incoming Macron presidency. Challenging the forces of the centre to join the effective anti-fascist fight, welcoming any that do, but refusing political concession to their brand of dissolving left and working class power.

Macron will not fight Le Pen effectively. He will joust with Le Pen aiming for the playing field they both want. In a militant confrontation with Le Pen, the left can strengthen itself and also undermine Macron. To lead to a second round where the votes are counted in the shadow of a political reality defined by the left leading its 10 million voters in the extra-electoral field.

On that basis also to deliver a radical left vote in the National Assembly elections, which will be contested against the liberal centre, the right and the far right – equally. It means fighting to break the FN, but refusing to give political support to Macron. The centre-right has called for a vote for Macron. It is their business to win their 7 million voters to do that. But they will have to clash with their base on issues from Islamophobia and racism to gay marriage to do so.

The left can force them to – by not joining them behind Macron. The gain is two-fold. The suppression of Le Pen in other areas so that she is less able to penetrate the working class, and the disorganisation of the systemic right, who are at the centre of the French state. The police thugs who terrorise Black youngsters in the banlieue will be with either Le Pen or Fillon/Sarkozy.

Our side, meanwhile, will unite and rally against Le Pen with the effective methods. That will force their side to scrap with their own base, which they have helped lead towards Le Pen in the first place – because they collaborate with the FN all the time.

That all requires a political and organisational rupture with French social democracy and with its marionette of 40 years, the Communist Party of France. Whatever the motivations, and with them his political-personal weaknesses, Jean-Luc Melenchon throughout the election campaign was for refusing an old style pact with those decrepit old forces. He was right. In the same way that the Labour reformist Keir Hardie was right to break completely from electoral pacts with the Liberal Party in Britain over a century ago, and Andreas Papandreou was right to destroy the old Centre in order to found Pasok in Greece in the 1970s.

That’s seen now more clearly than in the near miss of Melenchon being in the runoff. The Socialist Party and the Communist Party, in the false name of anti-fascist unity, are aiming to restore their own fortunes at the National Assembly elections, over the corpse of this radical breakthrough by the insurgent left last Sunday.

In endorsing Macron, they do three things. They give political support to someone who will launch an offensive against working people. They help Le Pen – for she wants this political constellation of her against all the old party machines. And they do Macron’s bidding in trying to rip away a part of the “insubordinate left” back to the centre, in return – if they are lucky – for some local pacts to deliver some parliamentary seats.

Marine Le Pen gained 1.3 million votes on Sunday compared with 2012. But it was lower than what she ought to have got if her share of the vote in the regional elections, on a lower turnout, in December 2015 had been maintained. On that equation she should have gained 3.5 million – nearly 10 million votes over all on Sunday.

Melenchon, on the other hand, did gain over 3 million votes compared with 2012. Out of the ashes of the catastrophic presidency of Francois Hollande, it is the radical left and not the fascistic right who have gained the most.

The cheerleaders of the international capitalist class are in danger of making themselves look even more ridiculous by claiming that this is their moment. Marine Le Pen is not behaving as if it is her moment – but rather, with some cunning, that is only a moment on a slightly longer journey.

This is actually the moment of the fighting left. The agency for rupturing into a half century political settlement has been someone whose politics are actually closer to the patriotic social democratic left than they are to anti-capitalist revolutionaries.

But the rupture is made, in any case – égal. And that poses a challenge for those of us who are of the anti-capitalist left. Our politics – in a practical, and therefore real sense – were formed out of 1968. In the intervening years it has been easy for them to become buried under sedimentations of formulae and reflexes built up in decades of relative social peace, punctuated by minor eruptions. And with each subsiding of an eruption, so the sediment thickened.

Now there is a great rupture. Our biggest enemy is old formulae and habits of thinking. The recently old – that is. The older theorisations from times of great upheaval can be very useful.

The anti-capitalist left has a huge amount to offer in assisting this process of forcing the reconfiguration of politics in France to the advantage of the working class and of the oppressed. To bring that to bear, however, does mean being as radical as the young French people who voted en masse for Melenchon, and providing them with the tools to maintain this insurgency.

It does mean breaking once and for all with a satellite status orbiting the Socialist Party and the Communist Party. They are dying stars. Out of their orbit is the only way to avoid going down with them.

Above all it means believing the evidence of one’s own eyes, not being consumed with the pain of one’s old wounds.

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