‘The NPA’s Summer University marked the huge step forward taken by the revolutionary left in France over the last year.
At the start of 2009, the Marxist Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR), the biggest revolutionary socialist organisation in France, dissolved itself. Its members joined with others to form the New Anticapitalist Party.
The LCR reflected the past make-up of the French working class. It was mainly white and European, and its core membership went back about 30 years.
The Summer University was much younger and there were lots of new people. As a consequence there was a lot more energy.
Crucially, there were many more people from the banlieues – “suburbs” similar to some British inner cities – where large numbers of people from migrant backgrounds live in high rise flats. There were many more black and Arab faces.
The new atmosphere allowed issues to be raised that were never properly discussed inside the LCR – like how you relate to Muslims.
And this year’s event was twice as big as the summer LCR event which I went to in 2006.
It would have been bigger still if it wasn’t for the limited capacity of the venue – they had to stop taking bookings in July because it was full.
The LCR had between 2,000 and 3,000 active members. The NPA already has more than triple that.
It doesn’t claim to be a Marxist party, even though there are many Marxists in it.
The influx of new people has started a process where people are attempting to clarify their ideas.
When the new party was formed the Marxists could have formed a tight-knit group and manoeuvred to impose their politics on everyone else. But then lots of people who’d come wanting something new would have just walked away.
The Marxists in the organisation don’t meet separately before NPA meetings, then turn up and tell everyone what to do – on the other hand their experience as activists means they know how to get things done.
Occasionally this can lead to tensions. The question is how to deal with them.
The Marxists are learning how to patiently discuss ideas and tactics with new people, but it’s not a process that can be completed overnight.
The Summer University marked a starting point. The atmosphere was relaxed, with people staying together in a holiday camp by the Mediterranean, discussing politics.
There were important sessions run by industrial militants on revolutionaries and the trade unions, and one on how to respond to police violence in the banlieues.
The future trajectory of the NPA depends on the outcome of these discussions, but also very much on the struggles that take place in France.
The situation in France is very different to Britain. Over the last 15 years here battles have developed but been held back by the trade union bureaucracy.
In France they’ve seen wave after wave of struggle since 1995. You get the feeling that activists from each wave have come together in the new party. But it’s not all victories. The forces of the left did not do as well as expected at the European elections in June.
The battle with the rightwing government of Nicholas Sarkozy saw a series of one-day strikes but no breakthrough – the trade union leaders told people to go back to work while they held talks.
So the election illustrated a contradiction – Sarkozy didn’t do well but neither did the forces opposed to him.
But the feeling at the Summer University was not one of demoralisation. In a keynote speech, Olivier Besancenot, the best-known figure inside the NPA, argued that building the party is not something that takes place overnight – it’s a process.
He said they had to learn to relate to upturns of struggle, but also learn to embed themselves inside the working class and provide people with a political focus.
In France there are elections even more often than in Britain. And there are more possibilities of the far left winning positions because the electoral system is slightly more favourable than in Britain.
I’m sure arguments over elections will occur in the future. And I’m sure there will be debates about how to respond to sackings, and how to respond to attacks by the fascists. But that’s healthy, that’s how a party develops.
The French experience is an example, for me, of how once you have a wave of radicalisation the possibilities for revolutionary socialists become much greater.
I don’t think we can translate it directly to Britain today.
For the moment, we’re still putting forward arguments in an atmosphere where people don’t always have the confidence to fight. But we hope that is starting to change.’
Chris Harman is editor of the International Socialism journal. Go to » www.isj.org.uk