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International Socialism, Autumn 1983


Jacques Fournier

The Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire
and the Mitterrand government


First published in International Socialism Journal 2 : 21, Autumn 1983, pp. 117–134.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


On several occasions the SWP has attempted to come to grips with a retreat on the part of the workers’ movement in Europe since the mid-70s. [1] Although the working class has suffered no defeat sufficient to destroy its organisations, it has been clearly forced to retreat in Britain, Italy, Germany and France, and to accept partial defeats. Almost without exception real wages have declined and hundreds of thousands of workers, in the car industry, in steel and in textiles, have lost their jobs despite weeks and months of struggle. What we wish to try to examine here are the reactions of the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire (LCR – French section of the Fourth International) to this phenomenon in France.

At its last conference, in December 1981, the LCR declared: ‘(...) this interaction of factors today allows us to outline the perspective of a confrontation between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie which will eventually lead to a revolutionary situation in France; however, what is not possible to predict are the rhythms, depth or duration of this situation.’ [2] Today, more than two years after the victory of the left in the presidential and general elections, this forecast, which was based on an analogy with how events unfolded in 1936, has not proved right in any respect. On the contrary, the French working class has put up with two phases of a left-wing austerity plan, a noticeable dip in real wages, and a cumulative erosion of its trade union organisations – all without any major fightback.

In order to reach the conclusion that the working class was experiencing ‘a turn to the left’ the leadership of the LCR looked to the results of the presidential and general elections. Yet, even at that level, one cannot talk of a dramatic change in workers’ consciousness. Mitterrand’s victory was in no way a crushing one, since he received only about 52% of the vote.

On the other hand, the much clearer victory in the general elections can be explained more by the following:

  1. there has been an increase in the electorate prepared to identify with the reformist parties, this being a reflection of the proletarianisation of whole strata of the population since the 50s;
  2. the fact that the constituencies were redrawn in the past in such a way as to disadvantage the opposition now rebounded on the right-wing parties;
  3. broad layers of the New Middle Class, of technical staff and lower and middle management, became disaffected, they wanted to try out the left;
  4. finally, the eve of Mitterrand’s victory saw a section of the don’t knows and abstainers on the first round decide to plump for the left. [3] Equally, the divisions between the right-wing parties cost them votes.

The result of the elections can only be one index of the maturity of working class consciousness – and a secondary one at that. If we examine the real shifts in workers’ struggles, the 1976 to 1981 period shows no radicalisation of the class. Quite the opposite. The number of working days lost through disputes (per thousand employees) fell sharply between 1976 and 1981 from 292 to less than 95; and the drop was still more marked in heavy industry and the service industries (from 477 to less than 171, and from 159 to less than 46, respectively). [4]

The split in the left wing parties and the trade union leaderships certainly played a part in this falling off in struggle, but not the main one. It would seem more accurate to say that the major defeat of the steelworkers after the large-scale struggles of December 1978 to March 1979 weakened whole sections of the working class and reinforced a sense of impotence. [5] The formula used to describe the ebbing of industrial struggle in Britain, ‘industrial downturn, political upturn’ is a better way of looking at the situation in France, at least up until 1981. It indicates that the working class was on the defensive, while some of the more advanced workers were looking for a political solution, although primarily within the existing framework.

From the time the left came to power, up until the end of 1982, there was a slight increase in the number of disputes. The most significant were undoubtedly the wave of struggles to gain the 39 hour week, and the strikes in the car industry. This was due, on the one hand, to workers being less intimidated by the threat of unemployment (not only did the left-wing government throughout its first year of office continually stress that it would reduce unemployment, but in fact unemployment did level off for a short period under the impact of its expansionary economic policies). On the other hand, it was due to the fact that workers hoped the government would be on their side. This phenomenon frequently occurs after the left has had a long spell of being in opposition. It stirs up expectations.

But the weakness of the workers’ movement in this situation must also be grasped. The working class as a whole has accepted the austerity plans. In comparison with previous years [6], the minority participating in disputes has been smaller, even in the car industry. The number of generalised conflicts has grown smaller and given way to sectional and localised battles. Union organisation continues to decline: hundreds of branches meet very irregularly, thousands more have seen a vast drop in the numbers attending meetings.

Then again, the capacity to respond to government attacks has diminished. In the steel industry, for example, the announcement in late 1978 of thousands of redundancies sparked off mass strikes and demonstrations [7]; when, however, the left government announced 12,000 job losses the reaction was very small scale and only from a tiny minority. A similar pattern emerged over social security contributions. In 1977 the government backed away from increasing employees’ contributions by 1% when faced by strike-wave and a demonstration of 150,000 workers; on the other hand, the double increase in contributions since 1981 has passed off without any significant reaction.

What a contrast between what has really been happening and the following statement, made at the last LCR conference:

The pressure of events is leading to a confrontation between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, so unwilling is the former, in the context of the crisis, to give up its austerity plans, and so unprepared is the latter, strengthened by its political victory at the polls, to accept a further deterioration in the level of jobs and wages. [8]

This retreat will not last indefinitely, of course. Excessive pressure on workers from the government and the ruling class, a sharp political crisis in the state apparatus or a new expansion in the economy, however limited (as in Russia after 1910, or France after 1933), may lead workers to go onto the offensive once again.

But we have to recognise that that is not the case at the moment, and to speak of ‘the major struggles ahead and not behind us’ only blinds revolutionaries to the long and difficult task of rebuilding grass-roots organisation in the workplace.

Since it reckons on a major rise in struggle any moment now, the LCR places much more importance on the need for a ‘programme’ (which therefore remains an abstract one), and on its slogans, ‘Il faut changer de politique’ and ‘Il faut rompre avec les capitalistes’ (‘A change in politics is needed’ and ‘There must be a break with the capitalists’), which are central to its propaganda campaign in France.

Left-wing government and workers’ government

The lack of realism about the state of struggle led the LCR at its fourth conference in 1980 to put forward the slogan, ‘Prepare for a general strike’, at the point when the working class had suffered a crushing defeat in the steel industry. It called for a workers’ government:

We need a workers’ government ...

We have to tell (the reformist parties), together with those who see in them the foremost means of struggle against the crisis: break with the bourgeoisie, take power! [9]

But as no mass mobilisation existed that could have put the reformists on the spot and forced them to reveal their true colours, this ultra-left tack resulted in practice in reinforcing illusions about the reformists’ capacity to break with the bourgeoisie and to open up the road towards socialism.

The Communist International had, it is true, recommended the slogan of a Workers’ Government as a ‘general propaganda slogan’, but in conditions of working class mobilisation in Germany, Austria, Italy and the Balkans, and after the victory of the Russian Revolution over the white armies. It was a situation which had nothing in common with the situation in France before May 10th 1981. Moreover, the Comintern considered that such a government

is possible only if it is born out of the struggle of the masses and is supported by combative workers’ organisations formed by the most oppressed sections of workers at grass-roots level.

It added:

The most elementary tasks of a workers’ government must be to arm the proletariat, disarm the bourgeois counter-revolutionary organisations, bring in control over production ... [10]

Discussion in the Comintern around this slogan was very confused. [11] The most experienced leaders of the communist movement, such as Lenin and Trotsky, did not participate; and in Germany where the problem was an immediate and practical one, many errors were committed. [12]

It is not possible to develop this subject in the context of this article. However it should be noted that the Comintern insisted that:

the Communists will still openly declare to the masses that the workers’ government can be neither won nor maintained without a revolutionary struggle against the bourgeoisie. [13]

This is something that the LCR, for all its assessment of the situation being an explosive one, is careful not to mention in its propaganda. As for the idea of calling on the reformist leaders to ‘break with the bourgeoisie’, Lenin dismissed it absolutely. In the appendix to his celebrated book, Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder, he discussed the tactic of postponing the insurrection so long as workers followed the German reformist and centrist parties, then in power, and of forming a ‘loyal opposition’ in the meantime. He stressed that such a government could only represent at bottom the dictatorship of capital:

Petty-bourgeois leaders, the German Hendersons (Scheidemanns) and Snowdens (Crispiens), do not and cannot go beyond the bounds of bourgeois democracy, which, in its turn, cannot but be a dictatorship of capital. To achieve the practical results that the Central Committee of the Communist Party had been rightly working for, there was no need to write such things, which are wrong in principle and politically harmful. [14]

And Lenin was referring here to altogether more radical ‘socialists’ than Marchais or Mitterrand – ‘socialists’ who put forward the idea of combining the power of Workers’ Councils with that of Parliament, in a much more explosive situation than the one in France before May 10th 1981!

The LCR’s persistence in its error has made it slide much further towards electoralism.

Without the mass movement the LCR hoped for, its slogan of calling for a general strike became null and void in the run up to the elections. Its intervention was transformed into an unprecedented electoral and electoralist mobilisation. For several months it tried to ‘impose’ an agreement on the reformist parties to stand down in each other’s favour in order to beat Giscard, his defeat being presented as the condition for any offensive on the part of the working class.

Now that a left-wing government is in power, the LCR explains at great length in its publications that it, the government, has means at its disposal for breaking with capitalism:

The institutions and the constitution of the Fifth Republic gives it scope for action which no workers’ party has hitherto enjoyed within the state apparatus of a developed capitalist country.

Or to take another example:

As early as May 10th 1981 measures could have been taken to protect workers from the bosses’ attacks, and means sought to find a way out of the capitalist crisis. [15]

In other words, the LCR thinks it possible, thanks to the election of a left-wing President of the Republic via the institutions of a bourgeois state, to find a way out of the crisis and to open up the road to socialism (the LCR speaks of a ‘break’ with capitalism)!

In a recent issue of Rouge, this logic of socialism from above is pushed to the point of caricature. Here, faced with the austerity policy which can only benefit the right, the solution talked about is not even ‘expropriation of the bosses’ or ‘break with the bourgeoisie’; the explanation instead is quite simply that ‘a turn to the left is more and more urgently needed.’!! [16]

Of course, the LCR does not actually share the reformist belief that there is a parliamentary road to socialism. But it has to be admitted that such statements crop up again and again. [17] They are not simply blunders. Many members of the LCR no doubt think of this method as a merely educational one. But there is quite a close link between educational method and political ideas. Good communist education should never entail saying to the class the opposite of what one thinks.

The biggest danger in this approach is that by insisting on what a left-wing government ‘can’ do it invests the bourgeois state with the appearance of neutrality. [18] It also concentrates on more and more detailed elaboration of alternative government measures instead of directly devoting its best energies to how actual workers’ struggles can be developed.

Transitional demands, transitional measures, the Transitional Programme

These are what many articles in the LCR press point to when they talk about ‘an alternative, concrete set of politics being possible.’ For example, in the pamphlet published by the LCR’s railway workers in October 1982, Pour changer vraiment, il faut gouverner contre les capitalistes (For real change, government against the capitalists is needed), the ‘alternative’ is set out with the help of hundreds of figures but without a single word on workers’ struggles, even in the rail sector. So, the overthrow of capitalism does not appear as the direct result of workers’ struggle for the control of the means of production and the productive process; it follows rather from the use of the existing state and industrial apparatus (albeit both reformed) and the application of a different logic in aid of a good cause.

The demands put forward by the LCR are almost all proposals to the rulers of the state for alternative solutions. The struggle against redundancies, for instance, often boils down to the question of getting a law passed which will give workers the right of veto over job losses [19]; practical plans for struggle by workers threatened with redundancy (such as occupations, spreading the strike to the rest of the company or industry, using the company capital or stockpiles as a weapon, etc.) are not put forward. Opposition to the reactionary intrigues of the nastiest sections of the police force or management of the nationalised industries becomes a matter of ‘driving’ the agents of the right and of the bosses ‘out of the state apparatus’; backing up struggles that are independent of and opposed to the state apparatus (including ‘left’ state bureaucrats) is not given priority. Banking and commercial secrets are seen, not as something inherent to capitalism, whether private or state-run, but as a matter of top-level state decisions only. [20]

This vision of things extends to an overall strategy of ‘breaking with the world market.’ The measures put forward consist of nationalisation of key sectors of the economy, centralisation of the banks and ending of autonomous management, monopoly of foreign trade, getting out of the Common Market and the European Monetary System, etc. Even though the LCR denies ‘flirting with the logic of a contre-plan’ (an alternative strategy for the government), it is difficult to see what else it is.

As an example, take these three proposals:

  1. Set up new external economic relations, giving priority to direct contracts with Third World and Eastern bloc countries, which would allow both them and us less dependence on the international financial system. [21]
  2. If Renault and Citroen (both nationalised!) were to bring out a popular model that answered basic requirements (sturdiness, mechanical simplicity, fuel economy, running for more than 300,000 kms, no extras) and sold it at a reasonable price, why couldn’t they export it massively, in particular to under-developed countries?
  3. Less obviously, and less rapidly, but no less necessarily, it [the newly formed state import I export agency] would have to pick out those branches of industry where the substitution of national production for imports would be possible and necessary. The state would then decide to develop those areas of production by creating new companies if necessary. Why not produce motorcycles or tractors in sufficient quantity for the home market? Of course, the development of these new products would suppose that a certain amount of time be allowed for them to reach that level of output at which their cost would start to be comparable to that of their foreign competitors: measures to limit imports, and to give subsidies to the new companies starting off, would therefore be necessary. [22]

In respect of this last suggestion, it should be noted that, even with the most intense capitalist exploitation, international motorcycle firms have the utmost difficulty in competing with Japan. Such a choice therefore by a workers’ state (to aim for comparable costs of production) could only reinforce those tendencies which would support the idea of ‘socialism in one country’, and lead in the direction of the development of state capitalism. Indeed, such a choice would be a sign that the workers were losing or had already lost their control of the state.

Certainly, a workers’ state, i.e., one based on workers’ councils, would have to tackle the problems of foreign trade, of industrial production and its allocation, etc. But the concrete conditions, and the actual measures it will have to adopt, do not depend on our present day ideas, however marvellous they are; they will depend on the precise conditions under which workers’ power is established. We cannot say if the Common Market or the EMS will exist at that point. Nor is it any easier to predict if there will be simultaneous revolutions in several areas of the planet, or if a successful revolution in France would undergo ‘a prolonged period of isolated instability’, a hypothesis entertained by the LCR.

What we can say is that the main task of a power based on Soviets in one country is to maintain and help the revolution develop throughout the rest of the world, and not to search for some ‘break’ with world capitalism at any price.

The very notion of breaking with the world market is a nonsense. Of course, a soviet state will try all it can to mitigate the laws that dominate capitalism on a world scale. But on its own it can never destroy them. Even the Russian workers’ state in 1917 was economically subordinate to international capitalism (through military pressure, because of the need for goods and because of the superiority of the western economies vis-à-vis the Soviet economy). No such state can survive for long without the revolution being spread. That was the meaning of Lenin’s declaration, ‘the truth is that without a revolution in Germany, we are doomed.’

The LCR argues its case as if the revolution were going to take place in France, and in a few months’ time. However, in the absence of a mass movement, the whole thing becomes a not very radical Utopian plan for a ‘break’ with capitalism. Having the correct demands becomes the touchstone for revolutionary effectiveness. What revolutionaries should therefore be doing is to present a ‘good programme’ to the masses, one that takes account of their needs and is more convincing than that of the reformists.

But why should such a programme convince, say, a Socialist Party member of the need to build an independent revolutionary party to lead the struggle, if the main demands revolve around what the rulers of the state should be doing? Better, one might think, to remain in the party and fight to improve its politics.

The traditions of the early years of the Third International are quite alien to this concept:

Communist parties can only develop in struggle. Even the smallest communist parties should not restrict themselves to mere propaganda and agitation. They must form the spearhead of all proletarian mass organisations, showing the backward and vacillating masses, by putting forward practical proposals for struggle, by urging on the struggle for all the daily needs of the proletariat, how the struggle should be waged, and thus exposing to the masses the treacherous character of all non-communist parties.

Only by leading the concrete struggles of the proletariat and by taking them forward will the communists really be able to win the broad proletarian masses to the struggle for the dictatorship. [23]

In other words, the mass of workers only change their ideas in the course of struggle; consequently revolutionary parties will only win over a majority of the working class for the conquest of power by giving priority to systematic participation in their struggles. It is this idea that must guide revolutionaries in their decisions about what demands to put forward – not some abstract determination of what these should be or a mechanical application of the Transitional Programme.

As Trotsky said:

The participation of the communists in these fights, and above all their participation in the leadership of these struggles, requires of them not only a clear understanding of the development of the revolution as a whole, but also the capacity to put forward at the right moment sharp, specific fighting slogans that by themselves don’t derive from the ‘programme’ but are dictated by the circumstances of the day and lead the masses forward. [24]

To set out a whole programme of transitional demands today, while revolutionaries have only a marginal influence in the working class, simply distances us from the real needs of workers’ struggles. Of course, some transitional slogans of a general nature, such as elected strike committees subject to recall at any time, strike pickets, workers’ self-defence, and the formation of workers’ militia, can be revived, especially in a period of rapidly mounting struggle.

On the other hand, others are to be rejected because they obscure what is at stake in the struggle rather than help it on. That is the case with such slogans as, ‘nationalisation of key sections of the economy, nationalisation of the banks and the creation of a single national bank, and monopoly of foreign trade.’ In a country like Algeria, characterised by the local section of the Fourth International as state capitalist, these three ‘transitional demands’ have been carried out. This is equally the case with the so-called socialist or ‘degenerated workers’ states’ of the east, which we characterise as bureaucratic state capitalisms. [25]

Trotsky believed that statification of the core of the economy was incompatible with capitalism. The experience of the last four decades has proved him wrong.

Today, in many countries, and even in France, the banks are nationalised. Often – and as far as Europe is concerned Italy is the prime example – the most important economic sectors are directly or indirectly in the hands of the state, that ‘collective capitalist’ as Engels called it.

The Third International itself firmly rejected the call for nationalisation:

The demand advanced by the centrist parties for the socialisation or nationalisation of the most important branches of industry is equally a deception because it is not linked to a demand for a victory over the bourgeoisie. [26]

In other theses, it specified:

If a capitalist state seize even all ‘nationalised’ means of production, this will only mean that the management of the public economy will be transferred from separate capitalists to the entire bourgeoisie as a class. [27]

Finally, on the question of workers’ control, we totally reject the demand made by ‘orthodox’ Trotskyists today that the state institutionalise ‘a right of veto over investment’ [28], over redundancies, or the right to open the books in order to disclose banking and commercial secrets.

Workers’ control was conceived of during the Russian Revolution as the first step the working class would take once it had gained political power. Of course, in times of intense class struggle, workers already begin to control stockpiles, accounts, etc; but unless the movement advances towards the destruction of the state, then ‘workers’ control’ can be turned into a weapon in the hands of the state and used to sidetrack workers from the goal of conquering power. Instead, they are pushed in the direction of joint management. Generally speaking, a clear distinction must be drawn between the following: On the one hand, there are, as Trotsky put it in The Transitional Programme, those transitional slogans and demands which revolutionaries put forward:

to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between the present demands and the socialist programme of the revolution.

These flow essentially from the concrete conditions in which struggles develop. On the other hand, there are transitional measures, which have to do with the initial actions taken by the executive power of workers’ councils in the transition to socialism. Crucially, such measures can only be taken after the workers have already broken the power of the capitalist state, not before this has happened.

In the place of the traditional ‘minimum programme’ put forward by social democrats, the starting point has to be actual struggle and the concrete demands it throws up. The task of revolutionaries is ‘to extend, deepen and unify the struggle around these concrete demands.’ [29]

What that means in general terms is to link up with those minorities in the working class which, even though they have not systematically broken with reformism, nevertheless wish to go further than their reformist leaders in fighting round specific demands.

In particular, that raises the question of what revolutionaries should do in the trade unions, a question we shall examine next.

Activity in the unions

The trade union is the elementary form of a permanent workers’ united front. Outside of periods of revolutionary crisis, as Marx emphasised, ‘the ruling ideas are those of the ruling class’, with workers affected as much as anyone else. Ideas about the national interest, the unavoidability of always having bosses, are readily accepted by workers. The great majority of the working class is reformist and revolutionaries represent only a tiny minority.

That in no way prevents workers from going on strike, even for long periods, when their immediate experience leads them to revolt against their own conditions of work or levels of pay.

But what inevitably follows from all this, especially in bourgeois- democratic countries, where the unions are mass legal institutions, with official standing, is the following. The trade unions themselves are reformist, despite acting as workers’ one means of collective defence and improvement in conditions. They are dominated by a layer of full-time trade-union officials, who, whatever views they may hold to the contrary, have an objective interest in maintaining the capitalist system. They are not capitalists; but they are not workers either. They keep their positions whatever sackings take place in the factories. They depend less on the ups and downs of production than on their ability to manage conflict. Hence their dream of a prosperous capitalism and their tendency to collaborate with management, particularly in the state sector.

From these two points, several conclusions follow for revolutionaries.

  1. The link with those minorities of the working class prepared to go further than their leaders must be on a basis of concrete activity around concrete and precise demands which are capable of directly mobilising workers in pursuit of their immediate interests. Like any united front, the more precise and limited it is, the more effective it is. The more it depends on general commitments, the less effective it is and the less it puts reformist leaders on the spot. [30]
  2. The link must above all be based on workplace organisation (delegues du personnel [31] and the trade union branch in the French case) and revolutionaries must work for the creation of a rank and file movement that is, from a political and organisational point of view, completely independent of the trade-union bureaucracy (but not of the union), in order: ‘(1) To conduct the struggle independently should the bureaucrats refuse to take it up or attempt to put a brake on it; and (2) To fight within the unions for their rank-and-file control and direction.’ [32]
  3. Given the defensive phase the working-class is currently going through, the need to remain with the grass-roots is even greater, since leadership positions depend less on the real activity of rank and file militants than on the bureaucratic trade-union apparatus.

That has been the experience of the SWP over the last four years in Britain. The Rank and File organisations set up with local and national coordination were initially highly successful; but they have had to be abandoned for the time being because of the retreat in the workers’ movement. These organisations had become empty shells which distanced revolutionaries from real activity at the grass-roots in the workplace. Today it is at this level that the SWP tries to rebuild the weakened strength of shop-floor organisation and draw towards it those militants prepared to fight, whatever the vacillations of the trade union bureaucracy. [33]

In the light of the three conclusions mentioned above, the trade union tactics of the Fourth International, and of the LCR in particular, often appear disturbing.

Firstly, the LCR’s mistaken analysis pushes it into devoting all its energies to tasks which in practice cannot be fulfilled, or even initiated by the LCR. Because of this, it is reduced to putting pressure on what the trade union leaderships ought to be doing, instead of concentrating every effort on developing action around what revolutionaries and militants can and must do in the here and now to help their fellow workers in struggle and to get organised.

That applies to the call in 1979–80 for a general strike, which was never achieved and has been since forgotten. It equally applies to the new slogan put forward after the summer holidays in 1982, and which is revived from time to time, which asks for a ‘24 hour strike called by the unions and supported by the workers’ parties’ – as well as all the demands for a break with the bourgeoisie, etc.

Moreover, in this period of retreat, the LCR imagines that there is ‘an historic opportunity for building a class-struggle trade-union tendency.’ [34] It may be true, as the LCR says, that the politics of the left in government creates upheaval in the trade unions and will continue to do so; but the idea of aspiring to ‘lead’ a ‘mass’ opposition in the present period is a Utopian dream and a dangerous one.

Secondly, despite their statements on the need to ‘break with the logic of capitalism’, it would appear that the leaders of this opposition (which is now becoming formalised) are more dissident at conferences and national committees than during actual workers’ struggles. The opposition inside the CFDT (and for the time being that is essentially where a national opposition of some size exists) has not been seen to campaign for, or openly support, workers in the car industry against the bosses or the government. Nor was such solidarity in evidence when the army intervened at the Toulouse postal sorting centre; it failed to give systematic support to all the strikes – over ten of them – which were later triggered off in the sorting offices, or to help coordinate them centrally. (This was particularly noticeable in respect of the regional trade union organisation of Post Office Giro workers in Paris, which is opposed to the austerity plan.)

The LCR, it seems, tends to judge the leaders of this opposition more by way of their stated intentions, their conference resolutions, etc., than by their attitude towards actual, everyday struggles, however small-scale.

But before we conclude, one other aspect must be mentioned which the LCR scarcely ever draws attention to, and yet which is vital for developing proper trade union tactics: the change in negotiating structures and in the bureaucracy since the end of the 1960s. All we can do here is rapidly go over the main features. In our view, the trade union bureaucracy has been strengthened and has grown, even within the workplace itself (which is a new development). The impulse for this has come from the following: (a) The move towards mensualisation (monthly wage payments not based on piece-work), which covered about 35% of the workforce in 1965 and 80% in 1977. This has contributed to negotiations becoming centralised, with the centre of gravity rising from the factory to the whole industry, and then to the national level, and so from the local trade union branch to the regional and then the national organisations. Consequently the trade union rank and file is more dependent than before on the apparatus for wage negotiations, (b) The considerable growth inside firms and companies of comités d’entreprise (joint consultative bodies), which has sharply pushed up the number of trade unionists on full or partial facility time through the accumulation by one person of several posts of responsibility, each worth 15 or 20 hours a month. The number of companies that have set up such bodies rose from 6,154 in 1968 to 11,608 in 1974 (84% of all possible workplaces), and the number of union positions, what with the new commissions created since the early 70s – Health and Safety, Training, etc. – reached the impressive figure of 53,406 in 1979.

This development has been encouraged by both the employers and the state so as to prevent the excessive growth in autonomy of the workplace trade union branches created after 1968. The effect has been to give birth to a new, powerful bureaucratic layer. This in turn has added to union bureaucratisation, the unions having a monopoly on the choice of lists of candidates (more than 60% of those elected to the joint consultative bodies belong to the unions, compared with the figure of about 20% membership of trade unions in France).

These comités are class-collaborationist organisations. They remove the representatives from their base and from activity over demands. The representatives are turned into administrators of a very small part (about 1%) of the capital of the firm (canteens, holiday centres, etc.), and, as managers themselves, hire and fire workers (the joint committee covering the National Electricity Industry employs 2000 people!) They are in frequent routine contact with management, are consulted about administration and are treated to confidential secrets denied the workforce. So in the long term they tend to be more concerned with the production plans of the company, and its prosperity, than with rank and file struggle.

The first lesson to be drawn is that revolutionaries must put the accent on building a movement based on shopfloor organisation, on workplace and shop representatives, and the like (of whom there are 300,000 in France).

We also have to recognise that many of the 1968 generation of trade union and political militants have been integrated into this new bureaucratic layer and into the middle ranks of the bureaucracy; this includes former militants from maoist groups, from the OCT, and from the PSU, alongside militants from the Socialist Party. They are radicals, but also reformists; they see struggle as having some importance, but they also put it in second place to their ‘alternative measures’. This development is common to many western countries. [35]

All the indications are that these layers form the social base of much of the trade union opposition, especially in the CFDT. That is why it is disturbing to hear the LCR claim that:

The minority at this congress (of the CFDT) has mapped out the beginnings of the answers needed by the working class to be able to forge ahead, to create real change, to mobilise in a united fashion for the achievement of its demands and to overthrow capitalist power. [36]

There should be no question of underplaying the importance for revolutionaries of the appearance of such a tendency. In Britain the SWP considered it vital to develop unity in action with the trade union left, while maintaining complete organisational independence and open criticism which makes no concessions.

In the document the SWP submitted to the last world congress of the Fourth International (to which it was invited), the dangers of the trade union approach then being proposed were underlined. The criticisms have a contemporary relevance to the LCR in France, now that a left wing has appeared in the trade union movement. Let us quote them:

The Draft Resolution says ‘there is no class struggle left wing now, not even an incipient one, in any European union ... Such a group would have to be the result of internal differentiation including in the union leaderships themselves ...’ And this point is re-emphasised later on in the resolution: ‘The class struggle left wing that we are fighting for will include people who are union leaders now and will be won to this perspective.’ Now if this is meant seriously it shows an alarming blindness to the existence within the unions of a bureaucratic layer with its own interests. And if it is acted upon seriously it can only lead to a sterile propagandism which neglects the central contradiction within the unions or, more likely, to a progressive adaption to the left of the trade union bureaucracy. [37]

In conclusion

For a professed revolutionary organisation, these tendencies are extremely dangerous. Mistakes in the tempo of class struggle can be made by anyone, but to persist in them in the face of the evidence leads to grave political deviations. The LCR shows how this is possible. Having miscalculated the level of class struggle, it has desperately sought for evidence of upswing-and found it in electoral results. An ultra-left perspective (with calls for general strikes, and the like) has collapsed into its opportunistic opposite: calls on the government to live up to its ‘socialist’ mandate. This in turn has led the LCR to interpret any manifestation of opposition in the trade-unions as evidence of a major revival of working-class combativity.

There is, of course, a link between the LCR’s politics vis-à-vis the Mitterrand government and the general theoretical tradition it belongs to, which views the ‘communist’ world as consisting of ‘workers’ states’ of some stripe or another. And that link is substitutionism. The willingness to pick on some other force than the working-class as the agent of socialist transformation (the Red Army, peasants, the petit-bourgeois intelligentsia, and students have all in their time taken on that role for the Fourth International) allows them to fudge the issue of what force revolutionaries should look to at home. Not surprisingly, therefore, we can detect a tendency on the part of the LCR to take anything rather than the actual struggles of actual workers as the basis for building a movement capable of destroying capitalist relations – especially in hard times like these, when pressure on left-wing governments, or left-wing sections of the trade-union bureaucracy seems to promise more exciting and rapid results.

That is to put the case against the LCR at its most extreme. Much of what we have dealt with here represents tendencies, not always fully developed or conscious ones, and resisted in some measure, though often confusedly. But the net effect is to convert the LCR more and more into the tail of the left-wing government or of the left-wing of the trade-union bureaucracy, and to accelerate the drift to the right. Confusion and paralysis will demoralise the best and most active elements in the LCR.

What would be valuable is further debate. Today the LCR is experiencing for the first time in a long time what the left in power is like. In Britain, that is an experience lived through on several occasions since the end of the Second World War (approximately half the governments have been ‘socialist’). A reply from the LCR to the criticisms in this article would be welcome as a step towards the clarification of the issues revolutionaries have to confront when reformists are in power.


1. See in particular T. Cliff, The balance of class forces in Britain today, IS 2 : 6, 1979; D. Beecham, The ruling class offensive, IS 2 : 7, 1980; D. Beecham, Updating the Downturn, IS 2 : 14, 1981, etc. For the impact of this retreat on the European revolutionary left, see C. Harman, Crisis of the European Revolutionary Left, IS 2 : 4, 1979.

2. La France a un tournant, Theses of the 5th congress of the LCR, p. 13 (emphasis mine).

3. The French electoral system has two rounds of voting, the second a week after the first. In the second round, minor parties drop out and the major parties of the right and the left normally stand down in favour of one another in order to avoid splitting the vote. That means that the French system gives greater leeway to the protest vote and the tactical vote than the English system.

4. LCR Theses, op. cit., pp. 6 and 7; Rouge, special summer edition, 1982.

5. Eurostat: Jobs and unemployment 1974–1980; Le Monde, 28 September, 1982; and the article by J. Kergoat in Critique Communiste 13, November 1982.

6. Cf. Vivre et latter a Longwy, Maspero

7. Critique Communiste 13, November 1982.

8. 5th Congress of the LCR, p. 11.

9. Theses of the 4th Congress of the LCR, pp. 37, 38.

10. Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, Ink Links, 1980, pp. 398, 397.

11. This is reflected in a series of ambiguities in the Theses on Comintern Tactics, which appear to suggest that under certain circumstances a sort of transitional phase between the bourgeois state and the dictatorship of the proletariat might arise, during which communists would participate in a ‘workers’ government’.

12. It is not possible to elaborate on this topic, which was the object of an obscure discussion at the time, and still more so today. C. Harman, in his recent book on the German Revolution, The Lost Revolution (Bookmarks), takes up certain aspects.

13. Theses ... of the Third International, op. cit., p. 399.

14. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 31, Moscow 1966, p. 110 (emphasis mine).

15. 5th Congress of the LCR, p. 10; Rouge, 10 June 1983, p. 4 (emphasis mine).

16. Rouge, 1 July 1983 (emphasis mine).

17. See for example Critique Communiste 6, March 1982, p. 4; Rouge, 15 April 1983, p. 7.

18. See for example Rouge, 10 June 1983, which in an article entitled Sept Ruptures Urgentes considered that one such ‘break’ to do with the state apparatus was to: ‘Drive the agents of the right and of the employers out of the state apparatus and the managements of the nationalised sector.’

19. Rouge, 10 June and 1 July 1983.

20. See Rouge, 1 July, which lyrically declared; ‘since the banks are nationalised, let them be used as means of investment ... let them turn the spotlight on the really big fortunes.’

21. Critique Communiste 10, July 1982, p. 18.

22. Critique Communiste 18, April 1983, p. 24 (emphasis mine).

23. The Communist International 1919–43 Documents, ed. J. Degras, vol. I, London 1956, p. 248; Theses ... of the Third International, op. cit., p. 284 (emphasis mine).

24. L. Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution, New York 1983, p. 143.

25. T. Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia, London 1974; C. Harman, Bureaucracy and Revolution in Eastern Europe, London 1974; N. Harris, The Mandate of Heaven, London 1978.

26. Theses ... of the Third International, op. cit., p. 285.

27. Extracts from Tax Questions in the Periods of the Development and Decline of Capitalism, Bulletin of the Executive of the Comintern, late 1921, republished in IS 2 : 2, 1978.

28. E. Mandel, Controle ouvrier, autogestion, conseils ouvriers, Maspero.

29. Theses ... of the Third International, op. cit., p. 286.

30. This approach is not at all that of ‘apolitical’ syndicalism. It is merely the translation of the general tactic of the united front into trade union organisation. But these groupings or fronts are not in themselves revolutionary. Their demands and practice tend towards unity in working class struggle, and generally speaking only revolutionaries can give them consistent leadership.

31. Delegues du personnel (employees’ representatives) are elected on a union-proposed slate, not by workshop or office, but on the basis of one slate per ‘category’ (manual worker, office worker, management). They are not exactly shop stewards, but they are the closest to the rank and file because they remain on the ‘shop floor’ and only have approximately 15 hours off work per month.

32. A. Callinicos and P. Goodwin, On the perspectives of the Fourth International, IS 2 : 6, 1979, p. 104.

33. See the detailed theoretical and practical balance-sheet drawn up by A. Callinicos in The Rank and File Movement Today, IS 2 : 17, 1982.

34. 5th congress of the LCR, p. 26.

35. See in particular the discussion with Forbundet Kommunist (Sweden) in IS 2 : 5, 1979.

36. Critique Communiste 10, July 1982, p. 29.

37. Callinicos and Goodwin, op. cit., p. 105.

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