The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

France:
A New President and a Revamped Political Framework for Waging War against the Working Class

Jul 4, 2017

The following article is taken from Class Struggle, issue 109, the journal of comrades in Great Britain. There are several selections taken from Lutte Ouvrière at the end.

On May 7th, 2017, Emmanuel Macron won the run-off in the French presidential election with 66.10% of the vote, against 33.9% for the candidate of the far-right National Front, Marine Le Pen. This was an unusually large majority by recent European standards, especially for an outsider who did not have the support of the electoral machinery of any of the country’s main parties.

Apart from a short spell at the top of the Rothschild bank, Macron’s main claim to fame dates back to his 2-year stint as Industry minister, under Socialist Party president Hollande, during which he initiated a vicious offensive against workers’ rights, which was to produce the infamous “Loi Travail,” sparking off months of street protests in 2016.

By April that year, accusing Hollande of being “too soft” on the working class, Macron had formed a new movement, called “Forward!” (“En Marche!”). Four months later he resigned from government and proceeded to turn his movement into a springboard for his own rise to power, in preparation for the 2017 presidential election.

Much like the far-right National Front – or like Trump, for that matter – Macron sought to capitalize on the discredit of the traditional parties and on the electorate’s general rejection of the political establishment. To this end, he promised to clean up the political system – i.e., from outside politics – by bringing in a whole new generation of politicians supposedly coming from what he called “civil society.” At the same time, he pledged to return the economy to prosperity – by “modernizing” it and granting the bosses all the leeway they had been demanding in their drive to increase workers’ exploitation. And, for good measure, he managed to present himself as the only possible bulwark against the rise of the far-right.

Macron soon became the darling of the media, thanks to the enthusiastic support of their capitalist owners. This allowed him to come to the fore of the political scene in the run-up to the presidential election, at a time when all the main parties were bogged down in endless factional rivalries or corruption scandals – or both, in the case of the right-wing parties.

This meteoric rise allowed Macron to top the poll on the first round of the presidential election, with 24% of the vote to Le Pen’s 21.3% – and then to win the run-off, with the support of most of the country’s traditional parties.

In the subsequent general election, the coalition formed by Macron’s movement (by then, rebranded as “Republic Forward!”) and the much smaller centrist Modem (or “Democratic Movement”) won 350 seats – with Macron’s movement winning an absolute majority on its own, with 312 seats – a two-third majority in the 557-strong National Assembly. Macron’s bid for power had, therefore, been successful.

The Capitalists’ State and “Democratic” Institutions

Behind Macron’s sweeping victory, what has been taking place in France, however, is a thorough overhaul of the worn-out political system which, for many decades, had been the “democratic” fig leaf concealing the dictatorship of the French capitalist class.

Many features of the French political system are similar to those found in all imperialist countries. Their capitalist classes inherited considerable wealth, which had been accumulated by looting the natural and human resources of whole continents. This allowed them to afford the luxury of what they call “democracy” – i.e., the organized theft, by the tiny minority of capitalists who own the bulk of the productive forces, of the surplus-value produced by the working class. Their “democracy” is a system of political institutions designed to give the exploited classes the illusion that they can influence the operation of the capitalist system without the need to change its very foundation.

The trick is to ensure that the real political decisions are never actually made – and even less implemented – by the elected parliamentary institutions. The day-to-day operation of the state, as well as its continuity in between governments, is entrusted to a layer of unelected senior state functionaries, who remain permanently in place, regardless of the composition of elected bodies. These mostly well-paid functionaries are carefully selected by the educational institutions of the capitalist class. The top layer of the military come out of a handful of prestigious state military academies. As to civilian functionaries, they are trained by a few institutions – such as British universities like Oxbridge and St. Andrews, or American ones like Harvard and Yale or, in the case of France, the ENA (National School of Administration) and the Ecole Polytechnique (Polytechnic School).

While their political personnel are not so well selected, the imperialist capitalist classes can afford to provide a large number of professional politicians with a substantial stake in keeping the political system going smoothly, in their own interests. In countries like France and Britain, tens of thousands of politicians make a living – some very comfortably – from positions in national, regional and governmental institutions, in local government and in all kinds of supposedly “independent” bodies, living on the margins of the state machinery. The main political parties themselves have all sorts of means to provide their cadres with hundreds of permanent paid positions.

At the same time, there are various mechanisms which are designed to preserve the homogeneity of the whole system and a sense of common purpose amongst its various components. This, in particular, is the function of the revolving doors which allow a constant flow of individuals to travel back and forth between the boardrooms of big business, the top spheres of the civil service, ministerial cabinets and the ranks of the political personnel itself.

The stability of the “democratic” institutions is further guaranteed by a set of electoral and parliamentary checks and balances, which are designed to ensure that the same political personnel can always be recycled, either in government or in opposition, according to needs.

The American two-party system, with its first-past-the-post electoral system which is designed to sideline all but the main parties, probably provides the most elaborate example of such checks and balances. In any case, this system has ensured that, for more than 150 years, the same two parties have been alternating in power, sometimes ruling together in periods of acute crisis.

Likewise, more or less every imperialist country has got its own form of bipolar political system. When one set of politicians gets discredited after a certain time in office, another set is ready to seamlessly take over. The fact that faces are changing at the top provides the illusion that political change has taken place, whereas, in fact, the new team in office just carries on managing the affairs of the capitalists to the best of their interests.

By and large, within the framework formed by the elected “democratic” institutions, on the one hand, and, on the other, the unelected permanent state institutions, politicians have usually been able to retain enough credibility to perpetuate the exploitation of the working class, even when this required drastically attacking its material conditions.

In this process, reformist parties which came out of the working class movement in many countries a very long time ago, have played a major role – parties such as the Labor party in Britain or the Socialist party in France. These parties have long been totally integrated into the institutions of the capitalist class, to the point that their material existence depends almost entirely on the jobs and perks they enjoy thanks to their participation in these institutions. These parties help to maintain the illusion that social change can somehow be achieved by just changing the composition of Parliament, thereby channeling the frustration of the working class toward the electoral arena.

Meanwhile, the trade union machineries play a role which complements that of the reformist parties. Like these parties, the trade union machineries have long been just as integrated into the institutions of the state at every level, and also into the managerial structures of the big companies. They strive to contain and channel the struggles of the working class within the safe (for the exploiters!) boundaries of the collective bargaining machinery they maintain with the bosses – even when, as is the case today, this machinery is no more than a shadow of what it used to be in the past and, more often than not, is used by the bosses as an auxiliary of their HR departments.

All this has allowed parliamentary democracy to carry on operating smoothly, at least as long as there was no major crisis threatening the profits of the capitalist class.

The Collapse of France’s Old Political Framework

However, the long series of economic crises which has crippled the world capitalist economy for half a century now, has increasingly eroded the ability of the existing institutional framework to fulfill the functions which the capitalist classes expect from it.

To go back to the case of France, the political framework which had been in operation until this year’s elections dates back to the advent of the Fifth Republic, in 1958. Since that time, coalitions formed by left and right wing parties, respectively, have been alternating in office, on the basis of an electoral system which is designed to favor the largest parties, but also to provide them with an incentive to form coalitions in order to increase their parliamentary representation and their chances to form a government.

It is this political framework, now over half a century old, which has collapsed following Macron’s victory. It has finally been replaced by a revamped political framework which, rather than being as new as Macron makes it out, is really an offshoot of the old system and a by-product of its collapse.

In fact, not much remains of the two political pillars on which the old framework was based.

The old right wing is now represented by an alliance between the LR (“The Republicans”) and the much smaller UDI (“Union of Independent Democrats”). Although it came out of the elections in better shape than the Socialist Party, its parliamentary representation has now been reduced to 130 seats, down from 196. Even then, it is divided into many rival factions. The main dividing line within its ranks, however, is between those who would be willing to follow the example of the right-wing politicians who have already joined Macron and those whose ambition is, on the contrary, to form the official opposition to Macron’s regime, on the basis of an extreme conservatism. This split within the parliamentary group of the LR-UDI is likely to result in the implosion of the traditional right.

On the left, the Socialist Party (SP) has completely collapsed. It got 29 seats and just 5.7% of the vote.

Back in 2012, after Hollande’s election, the SP had managed to win an absolute majority not only in the National Assembly, but also in the Senate (an upper house which represents the members of all municipal, departmental, regional and national elected bodies, rather than being elected by universal suffrage) – something which was unprecedented. Subsequently the SP had taken over control of all the country’s regional assemblies, except for one.

Today however, the SP is on its way out. Many of its MPs have already changed allegiance. Some had chosen to join Macron’s “Forward!” movement even before the presidential election. Others were more hypocritical: they showed just enough support for Macron to ensure that “Forward!” would not stand a candidate against them in the general election, so that they could retain their seats.

From the point of view of the capitalist class, the balance-sheet of this long electoral period (nearly 12 months!) is two-fold.

The series of political scandals which marred the presidential election campaign, only managed to discredit the very same candidates who had been previously selected in the primaries held by the main contending blocks. This exposed the incapacity of the main traditional parties to rebuild any real political credibility – thereby highlighting the wear and tear of the political framework they had been operating for so long.

At the same time, Macron’s bid for power has provided the capitalist class with a possible alternative to the old framework. Macron managed to produce a new political movement which seems capable of replacing the now discredited traditional left and right-wing parties. He managed to put together a rejuvenated political personnel, rather than a new one – in the sense that most of its members have been involved, at least at some point, in state institutions of one sort or another and/or in the traditional political parties themselves. Not only has this revamped political personnel already been tested, to some extent, by the capitalist class, but it also displays all the kind of arrogance required to represent big business interests and to facilitate its offensive against the working class.

So, for the time being, the capitalists have every reason to be pleased with Macron. But for how long?

Macron Patches up a Very Sick “Democracy”

The capitalist media cannot stop hailing Macron’s “success story” – to which they have greatly contributed. Hasn’t this 39-year-old, who was almost unknown three or four years ago, managed to force his way into the presidential palace after a campaign which lasted only a few months? And hasn’t he managed to re-decorate the façade of a rather worn-out political establishment? What’s more, he has cobbled up a parliamentary majority which should allow him to rule without any problem – at least, in terms of parliamentary arithmetic. Likewise, the same media commentators cannot stop congratulating Macron for having reduced MPs’ average age, increased women’s representation and “modernized the political system”!

The reality is somewhat different, however. While Macron was largely unknown up until quite recently, he was well known among the top spheres of the capitalist class. Before Macron stood in any political election, his abilities had been tested and gauged, first as a top official of the Rothschild bank, then as Hollande’s deputy general secretary and finally as his Industry minister. Voters did not know Macron, but those who have the power to make and break careers, knew all about him. It was no coincidence that the capitalist media proved so willing to promote Macron’s profile.

Behind the media’s enthusiasm for Macron’s meteoric career, there is, however, a hint of uncertainty. It is expressed, in particular, in the form of comments about seemingly secondary issues, such as the way the National Assembly is run by Macron or the fact that his majority lacks both experience and homogeneity. Besides, it is probably true to say, as some commentators do, that Macron’s personality, his dull political style and his claim to be “neither on the left, nor on the right,” are not necessarily the best tools for him to exercise political power in the longer term, even though they played a significant role in his rise to power.

More importantly, beyond the narrow sphere of the political institutions, there is the real world, which is in the grip of an on-going economic crisis. This means that the capitalists are bound to make the same demands on Macron as they did on every previous regime. They will expect him to take every possible step to help them to boost their profits by increasing their parasitism on public funds and on the working class, thereby pushing an even larger section of the population into poverty. They will expect Macron to deliver the goods for them without causing too much instability. And they will expect this without bothering in the least about the political cost that this will entail for his regime – just as they did with his predecessors.

And therein lies the possible source of problems for the capitalist class. When an economic crisis strikes, the normal methods it uses to conceal its dictatorship may not work any longer, or, at least not as smoothly: the blows resulting from a crisis reveal in the crudest possible way the brutal antagonism between the interests of the exploiters and those of the exploited. And no amount of “democratic” paraphernalia can conceal the violence of this antagonism from the working class.

It is precisely the impact of the crisis which caused the demise of the old left-right political framework and broke the back of the Socialist Party during Hollande’s term in office. And the odds are, that Macron’s revamped political framework will wear out too, in the same way and for the very same reasons, only probably even faster. Indeed, the coming period will inevitably involve political instability – not due to the fact that Macron’s majority lacks political experience or homogeneity, as political commentators keep worrying, but because of the crisis itself.

Spearheading the Capitalists’ Class War

Macron’s presidency has already been marred by two pieces of legislation, which had been announced before his election, and were meant to show the general direction of his policies.

However, the first bill, which was supposed to restore some sort of “morality” within the political establishment, has already turned into farce.

Initially, this bill was supposed to address the concerns of the public over the long series of political scandals involving mainly politicians from the traditional right and far-right. However, even before the general election had taken place, another batch of political scandals had broken out involving, this time, a member of Macron’s first government, Francis Bayrou, and his Modem Party, which was allied with Macron.

In fact, Bayrou had been appointed Justice minister, by Macron. But he was forced to resign just before he was meant to introduce the new bill in front of the National Assembly. As leader of Modem, Bayrou could not possibly remain in his post, when his own party was being investigated by the police on suspicion of having misused MEPs’ expenses!

In other words, Macron’s team is already tarnished by the same kind of corruption as the old political establishment it claims to replace. This isn’t much of a start!

Macron’s second piece of legislation is far more indicative of his future policies, in that it openly aims at giving him a free hand to launch a wholesale attack against workers’ rights. For the time being, little is known about the exact content of this bill except what was intentionally leaked by Macron and his team. In substance, its purpose is to allow Macron to rule by decree, outside any parliamentary scrutiny, in order to make the drastic changes in employment legislation which the bosses’ organizations have been demanding for a long time. In particular, these changes will reduce the limited protection French workers have against unfair dismissal and so-called “economic” redundancies, while legalizing new forms of casualization.

This bill is primarily a gesture addressed by Macron to the capitalists, regardless of the eventual content – which, of course, also depends on the response of the working class. Its purpose is not only to show that he is determined, just like his predecessors, to meet the wishes of big business, but also that, unlike them, he is open and even boastful about his intentions.

In 2012, Hollande had got himself elected by pretending that he would fight big finance – only to cuddle up to the banks after his election. By contrast, Macron’s social appeal always targeted the petty-bourgeoisie and small capitalists, but also big business, whose support he won in his bid for power. And, quite logically, Macron’s parliamentary majority reflects the nature of this social base.

In any case, this bill is certainly a warning to the working class that a confrontation is on the agenda. And only the working class has the means to stop the impending Macron-led offensive of the bosses – against this offensive, the ballot box will be totally useless!

4 July 2017

* * * * *

The Point of View of Lutte Ouvrière

This is a translation of excerpts from an article published in Lutte Ouvrière’s weekly paper, on April 28, 2017, issue 2543.

After the First Round of the Presidential Election, A Political System Is Shaken.

(...)

Too Many Parties of the Bourgeoisie to Represent Its Own Interests ...

The day after these two elections, presidential and legislative, the bourgeoisie will continue its offensive against the working class. The electoral period never really put a stop to this.

It would be vain to speculate about what measure or what provocation on the part of the bosses would be beyond the limit, setting off a social explosion, and even more vain to speculate on what role the level of political instability could play in this.

What is certain is that, even if he is elected thanks to the “republican front” of a sacred union extending from Fillon to Hamon, Macron, by serving the interests of the big bosses, cannot do away with the rising anger of the population. He will probably become discredited even more quickly than Hollande. It is utterly foolish to see Macron as a barricade against the rise of the FN [the National Front]. On the contrary: he will be a catalyst for it.

The problem does not lie in the possibility of a social explosion: there will be one sooner or later. The problem is for the working class to be armed for a period of social upheavals that would be difficult to imagine other than, at least in their beginning, as the multifaceted eruption of different social groups hit by the crisis of the capitalist economy, all fighting for a wide range of demands.

The working class is for the moment ill-prepared for such a period. The big parties that used to claim to be its leaders, particularly the French Communist Party, have gradually demolished its consciousness of itself as a class in order to replace this with perspectives of electioneering within the framework of the capitalist system, using nationalist and protectionist slogans.

... And Up to Workers to Bring Their Own Interests into Existence

The question of a party representing not only the material interests of the working class but also its political interests is the fundamental question of our time.

This is why we orient all our activities, including our electoral activity, toward this perspective. And this is the reason why, although we might adopt a range of tactics in the local, regional, European, or presidential elections in which we participated, with the successive candidacies of Arlette Laguiller and Nathalie Arthaud, we have always done this in the name of the camp of the working class: in the name of its short-term and long-term interests, including and especially in the name of the role that only the conscious working class is capable of playing in the revolutionary transformation of society.

We have always refused to submerge the class character of our candidacy in a stream of different demands and goals coming from different categories of the oppressed, even when these goals and demands were completely legitimate.

We have also always refused to remain at the level of simple denunciation. Election campaigns in any bourgeois democracy serve as a way to let off steam. The denunciation of the policies carried out by those who are in office, coming from those who are hoping to take their places, forms a part of this.

At the level of denunciation, we might find ourselves more or less in agreement with Melenchon or even with Hamon. At the level of denunciation, we could find ourselves side by side even with reformists or social organizations who are more or less sincere, and even with environmentalists on certain questions. This is far from the case when it becomes a question of advancing a fighting program for the workers and using electoral campaigns in order to reinforce the class consciousness of the workers.

The revolutionary communist party the working class lacks can emerge only if a significant group of workers sets itself in motion, rediscovering its class consciousness and bringing forth militants who embody this consciousness in their workplaces and in their neighborhoods. This party can be built only around clear ideas and perspectives, which is to say around the ideas of Marxism, Leninism and Trotskyism.

The Bolshevik Party could become a party in which the Russian proletariat recognized itself, and on this basis attempt to take power, only through the course of struggles and political hardships, notably during the six months that separated the revolution of February 1917 and that of October 1917. However, during the long years that passed between the emergence of the Bolshevik tendency and the revolution that brought it to power, Lenin and his comrades struggled at the level of ideas, in battles that might appear obscure and totally incomprehensible even to the revolutionaries of the time.

The women and men who share these ideas today are in a tiny minority and stand against the current. However, to use the expression of Nathalie Arthaud in her declaration on the evening of April 23rd, just after the first round of the election:

“These 232,000 women and men who voted for us form a minority of the voting population. But they have contributed to help the communist current to express itself through this presidential election. This is the current of the working-class movement which stands in continuity with the best of what the experience of the struggles of the past have produced: communist ideas, and the determination to defend not only the daily interests of the laboring population within the framework of the capitalist organization of society, but, beyond this, to work toward its overthrow through the conscious collective action of the working class.”

We will continue to act to strengthen this current, to supply it with political weapons won from the experiences of the proletarian struggles of the past. It is with this in mind that we will face the upcoming legislative elections, presenting candidates in every district. This will be a way of continuing to “make the camp of the working class heard.” But this will also be a way to show that, even if this current is in a minority, it is present throughout the country, and the women and men who wish to join its fight can do their part in the construction of the revolutionary communist party.

* * * * *

Given this situation, what are the perspectives for the working class and what are the tasks of revolutionaries in the coming period? The text below is the answer to these questions formulated by Lutte Ouvrière in its monthly journal “Lutte de Classe” (#185, June 2017).

Judging from their first reactions, the union leaders have no plans to take the necessary initiative to respond to the coming attack against workers’ rights.... But then, of course, their future attitude will also depend on the reaction that these attacks may trigger in the ranks of the working class.

These reactions and the anger they reflect will also determine the degree of difficulty Macron will or will not have with his parliamentary opposition.

Three parties are competing to play the role of opposition: the far-right “National Front,” what remains of the right-wing “The Republicans” and, on the left, Mélenchon’s “Rebellious France” or “France Insoumise.” In parliamentary terms, these three parties have little weight. And if today’s widespread opinion that “Macron should be given some time” prevails (and even a section of the working class says so), Macron will have no real difficulty in dealing with these rival oppositions....

But significant reactions to his policies could present Macron with a very different problem. All three oppositions, in particular the “National Front” and “Rebellious France,” will try to capitalize on these reactions, by giving them a political expression.

Ultimately, therefore, it is the class struggle which will determine Macron’s fate. It is impossible to know at this point, however, which form this struggle will take. The only certainty we have is that the capitalist class will definitely wage its own class struggle against the working class.

Indeed, no one can predict which social layer will be first to turn passive discontent into active mobilization. The attitude of Macron’s various oppositions will obviously depend on the nature of the social layer which is mobilized. This attitude – will be dependent on where the mobilization takes place: among the police, farmers, truck drivers, small businessmen, or, more importantly, if it is workers threatened by unemployment who are mobilized, even on a purely defensive basis.

It is quite possible that “France Insoumise” or the “National Front” could try to take advantage of a working class mobilization in order to widen their own audience, by resorting to some form of demagogic posturing in support of these workers. But both, each in their own way, feel responsible enough toward the capitalist system to avoid the risk of a mobilization spreading, to the point of becoming a real threat to the interests of the capitalist class. So their demagogy and support will remain within very narrow limits.

It is precisely in such a situation that it will be especially vital for workers to be aware of their class interests. First, it will be vital to ensure that workers are not dragged into fighting for social interests which have nothing to do with their own class interests, dragged along by the mobilization of some other social layer. And second, should a section of the working class itself be mobilized, it will be vital that this mobilization not allow itself to be diverted into a dead end.

The odds are that, despite his parliamentary majority, Macron will face a reaction from the working class. This reaction may be more or less confused and more or less limited. But whatever the case, what will be decisive is workers’ consciousness of their class interests and their capacity to assert these interests.

In 1899, in an article entitled “Our Immediate Task,” which remains as relevant today as it was at the time, Lenin wrote: “We are all agreed that our task is that of the organization of the proletarian class struggle. But what is this class struggle? When the workers of a single factory or of a single branch of industry engage in struggle against their employer or employers, is this class struggle? No, this is only a weak embryo of it. The struggle of the workers becomes a class struggle only when all the foremost representatives of the entire working class of the whole country are conscious of themselves as a single working class and launch a struggle that is directed, not against individual employers, but against the entire class of capitalists and against the government that supports that class. Only when the individual worker realizes that he is a member of the entire working class, only when he recognizes the fact that his petty day-to-day struggle against individual employers and individual government officials is a struggle against the entire bourgeoisie and the entire government, does his struggle become a class struggle.”

This class consciousness referred to by Lenin is not suspended in mid-air. It must be encapsulated in a party which represents the political interests of the working class. This is why even the day-to-day defense of workers’ interests immediately raises the need for such a party and the question of its construction.

Only a party which is not tied in any way to the interests of the capitalist class, nor to its institutions, can make the best of the potential in all workers’ struggles. Indeed, such a party has nothing to fear from the fact that the dynamics of the struggle might take the mobilized masses much further than their starting point. Such a party would be all the more determined to make the best of the potential of workers’ struggles – whether small or large. Because its primary objective would have to be to overthrow the dictatorship of capital over society, to expropriate the capitalists, to end this profit-driven, exploitative system and to replace it with an economic system based on collective property in the means of production, organized in order to cater to the needs of all.