Workers Vanguard No. 1091
3 June 2016
As Strikes Continue Against Anti-Labor Law
France: Nuit Debout Populist Protests
MAY 30—As we go to press, the French working class is continuing to show its anger against the government, which is determined to implement vicious new anti-worker, anti-union measures (the El Khomri law). The labor “reforms” seek to make French capitalism more profitable by making it easier for employers to fire workers and by undercutting the unions. Over a half dozen “days of action” and demonstrations have taken place since March 9, with more than a million people demonstrating across the country on March 31, in opposition to the government led by the Socialist Party’s François Hollande.
The special supplement distributed by our comrades of the Ligue Trotskyste de France at those demonstrations was published in WV in April (see “Protests Against Anti-Union Law—Down With the ‘War on Terror’ and Racist Police-State Measures!” WV No. 1087, 8 April). The union leaderships supported the election of the Hollande government and, as we noted, “For four years, they hardly uttered a word against the attacks carried out by this capitalist government—because it was their government.” The bureaucratic union misleaders are responsible for the fact that the working class is imbued with bourgeois consciousness, in particular the belief that capitalism is the only possible social system and that there is a common national interest shared by bosses and workers.
In recent weeks, the unions have launched strikes in different sectors of the economy aiming to pressure the government to drop the bill. Last week, one-third of all the gas stations in France were shut or running short of fuel after militant unionists blockaded refineries and depots. Strikes at ports have also been effective. Strikes have been announced in rail, transit and airports over the next couple of weeks leading up to the Euro 2016 soccer tournament.
The government used a special measure to push the El Khomri bill through the lower house of parliament without a vote. It will be debated in the upper house on June 14, when the unions have called another national day of action.
Large numbers of high school and university students joined in the protests on March 31 and were particularly targeted by the riot cops for tear-gassing and other attacks. Immediately afterwards, numbers of young people began occupying public squares, notably the Place de la République in Paris. Calling themselves “Nuit Debout” (“Up all night”), these activists have been compared to the Occupy protesters in the U.S. and seem similar in their generally populist outlook and their expressed suspicion of political organizations. Also like their forebears here, these youth have been regularly attacked by the cops. Hands off Nuit Debout and all the student protesters and union activists!
The article translated below is from the most recent issue of the LTF’s newspaper, Le Bolchévik (No. 216, June 2016).
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In the wake of the massive trade-union mobilization of March 31, a movement of nighttime occupation of public squares has begun. Centered on the Place de la République in Paris, it is called Nuit Debout. This movement attracts mainly a variety of petty-bourgeois leftists who voted for François Hollande and after four years, are deeply disappointed by the deeds of their president. The government propaganda machine (state TV, Le Monde, etc.) initially seized the opportunity to replace images of union demonstrations with those of Nuit Debout, being unusually kind to this supposedly subversive movement. (It did not last, however.)
This is actually not surprising. Under the guise of “convergence of struggles,” the movement is in effect dissolving the mobilization of the working class against the El Khomri law into a jumble that combines just causes, such as the fight to defend undocumented workers against the cops, with various petty-bourgeois fads. For the initiators of Nuit Debout, the labor movement is at best just another element of social protest. Of course, this does not prevent the government of Hollande and [Prime Minister Manuel] Valls from sending its cops to shut down soup kitchens offered by volunteers and to sow terror. Cops now cordon off the Place de la République to search everyone coming in and savagely beat up everyone still there at the end of the night. Down with police repression!
The Centrality of
the Working Class
That the NPA [New Anti-Capitalist Party] is enthusiastic about Nuit Debout is to be expected: “convergence of struggles” behind the petty bourgeoisie as called for by Nuit Debout corresponds exactly to the maximum perspective of this organization.
A bit more surprising is the enthusiasm of the PCF [French Communist Party], which has even tried to extend the movement to the suburban working-class neighborhoods (a complete flop). The national secretary of the PCF, Pierre Laurent, even published a book titled 99 Percent. This book, which is only recommended for severe cases of insomnia, rehashes the myth that society is divided between the rich 1 percent and the remaining 99 percent of the population. It blurs the class line by dissolving the working class in “the people” and the bourgeoisie into the upper layer of the petty bourgeoisie.
Who constitutes the bourgeoisie is not simply a question of higher or lower income. It is the class that owns the factories and other means of production. It constitutes a tiny minority of the population, more like 1 percent of 1 percent. In the 1930s they were called the “200 families,” and they are still largely the same families.
On the other hand, the actual working class is far from being 99 percent of the population and constitutes perhaps a fifth to a third. The rest is a mixed bag, the petty bourgeoisie, which includes all kinds of underprivileged sectors and various layers of engineers, teachers or farmers. This mixed bag also includes landlords, human resources directors, cops, priests or bourgeois politicians, whose interests are fundamentally opposed to those of the working class.
The power of the working class and its historic role as the gravedigger of capitalism does not come from any particular moral quality we attribute to it, but rather from its objective role in production. The workers sell their labor power to the bosses for a wage (immediate and delayed), which allows them to (barely) reproduce this labor power. But during their working day they produce more than their wage: they produce surplus value. This allows the capitalist class to accumulate additional capital, to pay for overhead (notably to the petty bourgeoisie) and to pay their share to landowners; also to consume luxury goods.
The capitalist economy is governed by the law of profit, not the needs of the workers and oppressed. It is an irrational and uncontrollable anarchic system that inevitably creates deep economic crises leading to the destruction of large parts of the economy and, ultimately, to wars.
Only the working class has a fundamental interest in overthrowing this decaying system. Unlike the farmers or small businessmen, workers in general work as a collective with a well-defined division of labor, and it makes no sense for individual workers to personally own the production tools they use. As Trotsky explained in Whither France? (1934):
“Contemporary society is composed of three classes: the big bourgeoisie, the proletariat and the ‘middle classes,’ or the petty bourgeoisie. The relations among these three classes determine in the final analysis the political situation in the country. The fundamental classes of society are the big bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Only these two classes can have a clear, consistent, independent policy of their own. The petty bourgeoisie is distinguished by its economic dependence and its social heterogeneity. Its upper stratum is linked directly to the big bourgeoisie. Its lower stratum merges with the proletariat and even falls to the status of lumpen proletariat. In accordance with its economic situation, the petty bourgeoisie can have no policy of its own. It always oscillates between the capitalists and the workers. Its own upper stratum pushes it to the right; its lower strata, oppressed and exploited, are capable in certain conditions of turning sharply to the left.”
Trotsky added that for the petty bourgeoisie to turn to the working class, the proletariat itself must have confidence in its own power, and “it must have a clear program of action and must be ready to struggle for power by all possible means.”
By striking, and thereby stopping production in some sectors during the mobilizations against the El Khomri law, including paralyzing the ports several times, the working class has shown in recent weeks a hint of its social power. In Rouen, dock workers protected the young demonstrators on March 31 from a violent charge by the cops. But the working class is currently politically paralyzed by its reformist leadership. It is because of the latter’s political bankruptcy that instead of the mobilization of the oppressed and the discontented petty bourgeoisie behind the working class, we have the emergence of a movement like Nuit Debout.
The PCF and
The Nuit Debout movement is actually part of the wheeling and dealing taking place in anticipation of elections for commander-in-chief of French imperialism in less than a year. This is a fact regardless of whether the initiators of Nuit Debout recognize it or not, and of whether those taking part in the movement are aware of it or not. If the PCF is infatuated by Nuit Debout, it is probably because it is losing sleep over the possibility that [Jean-Luc] Mélenchon could emerge as the candidate of the “left of the left” for the 2017 presidential elections. The PCF is worried that Mélenchon could greatly benefit from a populist “left” initiative like Nuit Debout.
In November 2008, Mélenchon, who had been a senator and a Socialist Party honcho for over twenty years, announced that he would create his own organization, the Left Party, with a few trade-union bureaucrats and some left bourgeois politicians around [former Socialist Party leader Jean-Pierre] Chevènement. Mélenchon’s stated goal was to emulate the German Left Party, a social-democratic party that split from the SPD [the main party of German Social Democracy] and absorbed the PDS, the former East German Stalinist party. But in France the PCF resisted absorption into Mélenchon’s organization. At the same time, the transformation of the Socialist Party into an openly bourgeois party (its “blairization”) was hampered by Martine Aubry taking control of the party at its November 2008 congress. This undercut the Mélenchonists’ hopes of a deep split in the Socialist Party.
This is why Mélenchon’s Left Party has been stagnating. After demanding in vain to be appointed as a “left wing” prime minister by Hollande, Mélenchon renounced his initial plans to emulate the German Left Party and definitively opted for outright bourgeois populism. He claimed Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez as a model, as well as the Spanish Indignados and Occupy in the U.S. His shameless anti-German chauvinism has upset many of his fans.
Capitalist Crisis and
The Indignados and Occupy show where the movement of Nuit Debout inevitably leads, whatever the intentions of its participants or the denials and illusions of its founders. The Spanish occupation movement has led to the formation of the bourgeois Podemos party, which has spent months trying to establish a capitalist government with the [social-democratic] PSOE in monarchical Spain. In Greece, such movements contributed to the rise of Syriza, which today ruthlessly manages capitalist austerity on behalf of Berlin and Paris. In the United States, the youth mobilized in the former Occupy movement have been channeled into support for Bernie Sanders of the Democratic Party.
In capitalist society, a movement that is not based on the working class can only exist in the framework defined by the capitalist ruling class. At best, it leads to a form of left bourgeois populism à la Mélenchon.
And that’s at best—because of the backward, even sinister, forces also crawling around Nuit Debout. These fans of “democracy” do not hesitate to give voice to “voters” of the [fascist-infested] National Front [FN]. Others apologize for having called the provocative anti-Muslim ideologue Alain Finkielkraut a reactionary and for having driven him out of the Place de la République. Meanwhile, amid the mobilizations against the El Khomri law, some openly express hostility to unions!
One of the specials on the menu of Nuit Debout in Paris is “rewriting the constitution.” That may seem laughable; but behind this idea lurk very questionable forces. The ideologue behind this movement, a certain Etienne Chouard, advocates choosing representatives to a constituent assembly by drawing lots. His supporters took part in the ultra-reactionary “Days of Wrath” mobilization in early 2014, swarming with fascist and Nazi splinter groups, and he sympathizes with the anti-Jewish fascistic ideologue Alain Soral. For our part, we reject on principle the call for a constituent assembly (see Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 63, Winter 2012-13). We therefore also reject the call for a Sixth (capitalist) Republic by Mélenchon and the PCF. Channeling the massive and deep anger among workers and the oppressed against the Hollande government into this would be a sad end for the protests.
The Initiators of Nuit Debout and Their Perspectives
All this does not prevent the reactionary press—as well as [right-wing politician François] Fillon, [National Front leader Marine] Le Pen and others—from demanding that Nuit Debout be banned, denouncing it as some sort of Bolshevik conspiracy. This is grotesque. But equally ridiculous is the idea that this is a genuine democratic movement that arose spontaneously and that makes up for the limitations of bourgeois parliamentarism by expressing the real will of the people.
The Nuit Debout movement was actually initiated by a milieu around Mélenchon, notably prominent journalists of Le Monde Diplomatique, a left-liberal newspaper that initially enthusiastically supported the anti-Qaddafi rebels in Libya even as they acted as the ground troops for NATO and [then-French president Nicolas] Sarkozy’s military intervention.
The main instigator for the movement, François Ruffin, skillfully combined the launch of Nuit Debout with the commercial promotion of his film Merci Patron! [Thanks Boss!]. This self-promotional film features Ruffin as a modern Robin Hood who makes Bernard Arnault, owner of Louis Vuitton, cough up some money. Bernard Arnault became one of the leading capitalists in the country when he took over the bankrupt textile empire Boussac for a pittance in the late 1980s. Actually he received a lot of money from the state under the government of [Socialist Party president François] Mitterrand for that operation, carried out in the name of “saving jobs.” He bought Christian Dior and closed textile mills in France to build his Louis Vuitton empire.
In the film, Ruffin devises a scheme to save a family of former Boussac employees from being evicted from their own home. He threatens Bernard Arnault with the prospect of a big scandal in the media at the time of the Louis Vuitton annual general meeting. The lesson is clear: clever use of the media (and especially Ruffin’s own rag, Fakir) is more effective than the unions in defending the oppressed. This is an anti-union message, even if Ruffin insists that the movement must not be hostile to the trade unions, which were finally, after a month, officially invited to Nuit Debout. In fact, Ruffin proudly asserts in his book Class War that he does not call for a “break with capitalism” and that he defines himself as an “old-fashioned social democrat.”
Another prominent initiator of Nuit Debout is Frédéric Lordon. He became known in Le Monde Diplomatique for his sometimes witty articles on the economic crisis (and the inanity of his solutions to “reform” the European Union). As a matter of fact, he advocates protectionism and wrote a whole book about it. (Ruffin, for his part, calls taxes on imports a “bold proposal.”) Protectionism is a class-collaborationist ideology that claims that workers share common interests with their French exploiters in the name of “Made in France.” It creates barriers to international working-class unity against the bosses, and it demands that workers tighten their belts in the name of national unity against foreign competition.
Socialist revolution will not happen spontaneously. The working class is deeply divided by the racist campaigns waged by the capitalists, their government and the FN to pit non-Muslims against Muslims. It is also divided more generally through many objective and subjective mechanisms (outsourcing and temporary agencies, homophobia, anti-woman backwardness, etc.). And, more fundamentally, even the most advanced leftists have largely lost sight of the possibility of replacing the capitalist system with an international socialist, egalitarian society where there is plenty for all. This perspective was set forth nearly a century ago by the Russian Revolution of October 1917, which remains the beacon that guides us.
What the working class needs is a genuine communist vanguard to intervene in the struggles of the working class and to win significant layers of workers and the oppressed to revolutionary Marxism. Such a party must be built in opposition to the reformist misleaders of the trade unions and organizations such as the PCF, NPA and Lutte Ouvrière. These organizations seek to confine struggle to defense of some of the gains of the past—that is, when they do not directly play into the hands of the divisive maneuvers of the bourgeoisie.
The objective basis for building such a party will take battles of greater magnitude than those currently under way. But these struggles will take place because they are the inevitable product of the contradictions of capitalism. We seek to win workers and youth, even if today there are only a few, to this perspective, thus laying the foundations to reforge the Fourth International and lead the workers to victory. For new October Revolutions!