07.02.2017
  • France

After the Elections

The French left’s task is clear: build a coherent majority that can work together to change society.

Peter Curbishley / Flickr

The decisive electoral cycle of 2017 has ended, and no new politics has grown out of it. The Left remains ill, but at least in theory, its radical wing occupies a more favorable position: all the more reason not to squander this opportunity to respond to an urgent need.

The shattering of the political field, exceptionally high abstention, and traditional parties in retreat: all these indicators bring France’s true political — as well as systemic — crisis into sharp relief. Plastering over or trimming around the edges of the Constitution will no longer suffice. Reviving the Left to its former condition no longer makes sense. Our time calls for an unprecedented rupture at all levels. It demands a complete refoundation or metamorphosis, not mere readjustment.

The workers’ movement has slumped — as the crisis of trade unionism clearly demonstrates — and no social movement has emerged to pick up the slack. Radicalism is stuck between its default pragmatism, derived from the idea that utopia is no longer available, and nostalgia for better times. It is not always clear if these happier times refer to the days of revolutionary hope or to yesteryear’s social democracy.

The Socialist Party’s (PS) realism has run aground, but the alternative has not yet fully demonstrated its own strength or credibility.

The French Communist Party (PCF) has collapsed into nostalgia for its glory days, and the PS now loyally manages globalized capitalism. As a result, these two parties cannot promote popular demands — especially urban and working-class ones. They have ceased to be sites of socialization where the subaltern layers of society can win territory from groups endowed with more material and symbolic resources.

The political crisis’s violence, citizens’ ever-growing disengagement, and the National Front’s electoral breakthrough are all manifestations of this regressive process. Politics abhors a vacuum, and when the most critical forces disappear, they leave room for improbable centrism or violent alternatives, alternatives that belong to both small and large communities.

We cannot alter this social disorder without a human foundation that would make change possible, and yet the traditional left is in bad shape. The PCF and PS structured the Left throughout the twentieth century, but they can no longer do so.

Indeed, people have even begun questioning the difference between the Left and the Right, as both ways of managing government have merged into one. Many conclude that we must now base ourselves on some other paradigm: the objective is no longer to unite the Left against the Right, but to assemble the people against the elites of both Left and Right.

This argument contains a lot of truth. In the political arena, the people’s voice is indeed quiet. Its strength comes from its numbers — blue- and white-collar workers make up two-thirds of the active population — but dispersion undermines that strength. We can no longer identify a central, modern, and expanding base.

And even if the reserves for social mobilization remain intact, the movement that led it — the workers — is now less militant. Trade unionism hesitates to take on new forms and to join new projects, labor associations have become fragmented, and what once unified the urban world — the dream of the social — is struggling to find its contemporary form in the face of the elites’ very real projects.

These popular layers need to create a movement, just as the workers of days gone by did. They must struggle and organize so that discontent transforms into collective action rather than resentment. In setting themselves to that task, they will make themselves into a multitude.

Yet that is not enough, for society doesn’t simply consist of a juxtaposition of particular structures and practices: society sets them in order. It has its own dominant logics, and we already know globalized capitalism’s priorities: the accumulation of material goods, commodities, and profit. Any dynamism comes from competition. Governance has become the only mechanism for regulation. Individuals, groups, and territories are distributed along the axes of inequality, polarization, and domination.

In theory, politics acts on these logics — assembling majorities who decide them. If the multitude of popular struggle wants to get to the root of social dynamics in order to transform them, then it must become a political people.

Of course, being conscious of an enemy does not, on its own, turn the popular layers into a movement. Designating who is responsible for the people’s pain may encourage an initial mobilization, but it cannot structure long-term success. More than anything, organizers must shed light on exactly what has caused this crisis.

The political people will fight those who exploit and dominate — which is to say, the elites — but it can only gain power when it produces a coherent and realistic way of abolishing the mechanisms that produce this split between the people and the elites, between exploited and exploiter, between dominated and dominant. The project of political emancipation — and not hatred of elites — welds popular mobilizations into a political body.

The Left By Any Other Name

Given how sick the Left is, we might think that it is finally time to get rid of it. It has served as a mask for all kinds of bad decisions, so maybe we should try something else.

But that position ignores that the foundational divide between Left and Right has two advantages. First, it forces us to consider what majorities we need to build in order to act on society’s logic. Second, it places the question of what values underpin our visions of collective life at the heart of public debate.

Historically, the Right has accepted inequality, reserved power for so-called responsible members of society, and emphasized the value of competition. The Left, meanwhile, based itself on equality, advocated for the extension of citizenship, and emphasized the value of solidarity.

At no moment when this central divide was fading did the popular dynamic strengthen — quite the contrary. Fundamentally, the Fourth Republic ran out of breath because it left this cleavage aside in favor of others, particularly the East-West divide.

The singular nouns that we often use — speaking of the Left and the Right — cannot hide the fact that there are many different ways of being left or right wing.

The most important difference on the Left has been between those who think we can achieve equality by tinkering with the system and those convinced that we have to get rid of the system entirely in order to push equality as far as possible: the pole of reform versus the pole of revolution. The question of which side could best set the tone has always been primary.

The problem of the last few decades was not that our mouths were full of left-wing jargon. Rather, it was that the dominant left-wing force had adapted to financial globalization and then demanded that the whole Left unite around this position.

This cost the Left its soul, but we should not announce its funeral. Rather, we must relaunch it and thus refound it.

When the workers’ movement had the most dynamism, it engaged with the political left. At the turn of the twentieth century, Jean Jaurès rightly explained that the Socialist Party could only develop in complete independence from the bourgeois parties and that it could not change society without connecting to the Left’s historical experience. On the one hand, he saw the threat of being swallowed up by the capitalist order, and on the other hand, he recognized the problems of isolation.

To forget that the Left always has a potential internal split risks drowning in paralyzing consensus, but to ignore the Left’s implicit ability to assemble a majority when it can make itself heard will only produce isolation and failure.

The social front is necessary but insufficient. The “popular front” no longer signifies (as it once might have) a new social project or systemic logic — in short, a social republic in which we would finally stop relegating individuals to unequal classes and hermetically sealed communities. The people must engage in a revival of democratic vitality. Its absence from the political arena is obvious; its incapacity to act has catalyzed democracy’s disintegration.

Assembling this political people is the Left’s strategic horizon, but it cannot simply be decreed. It comes from patient movements from below, in which partial struggles, great unifying battles, and powerful moments of convergence all combine.

It requires forms adapted to waging the class struggle of our time: old structures must transform, new ones may appear, and all of them must come together. Their combination will found a political reconstruction, but the movement will not produce a political force by itself.

Reclaiming the Left

For a long time, the popular layers in France relied on two great parties — the PS and the PCF. One embodied reform, the other revolution. Together they made up the skeleton structure of the twentieth-century left.

Few other European countries shared these characteristics, but French revolutionary history willed it so. The great, propulsive moments in popular and working-class history emerged from these two parties’ convergence, but only when the spirit of revolution dominated the spirit of reform.

Such events, apparently, are no longer in season. The PS that was born at the 1971 Épinay Congress is exhausted. The PCF lacks its former energy, which gave it its dynamism and its capacity to lead the world of labor.

The break initiated by François Hollande and completed by Emmanuel Macron should lead to the establishment of an American- or Italian-style Democratic Party in France. Should we deduce, then, that there is no space for a plural left? That all that remains will be the confrontation between this Democratic Party and a popular force — namely the one that crystallized around Jean-Luc Mélenchon? Will the battle between Right and Left give way to a struggle between system and antisystem?

At the margins, some may believe that the old tension between reform and revolution no longer helps systemic critique. This is a seductive and simple hypothesis, but for that it is no less dubious. No one knows yet what will become of the French socialist tradition.

Will it dissolve into Macronism? Will it split between the radicals and the centrists? Will it revive itself, following Jeremy Corbyn and the UK Labour Party’s lead? Has the idea of socialism constituted as a party become obsolete? For now, we cannot say.

Nor should we forget other examples in Europe, where the conflict between reform and revolution did not appear as a divide between parties but as an internal split. In Italy, the tragic history of the early twentieth century meant that the postwar Italian Communist Party (PCI) recovered the dual tradition of both communism and social democracy.

It represented almost the entire left, which it placed under communist domination from 1943 onward. Yet, at the beginning of the 1990s, the PCI disappeared before becoming a pivot point of European social-liberalism. The logic of reform seemed very much in the minority in Italy, but the concealment of its power made its triumph possible. The results were painful: the Italian radical left was wiped out, and the entire left lost its fight.

We cannot predict that the political crisis will dissolve the managerial left that has chosen reform. Believing that the Left could have just one formation — the expression of the assembled people — could well turn out to be an illusion.

So, we might formulate another hypothesis. Our systemic crisis does not preclude the existence of a political current more invested in tinkering with the system than transcending it. But we don’t know what form this current might take in today’s unstable political terrain.

Rather than focus on this possibility, we would do better to consider if, after such a paradigm-shifting electoral cycle, the critical current should aim to recover the entire terrain of the old French left.

The social rupture cannot take place until a large enough majority comes together to decide it, but we cannot lead people to such a break with the status quo unless a political force appears that expresses this need, shows that it is possible, and suggests how to get there.

We must now establish this force, a force sufficiently coherent to be recognizable and credible, but flexible enough to assemble all the people, currents, and practices that reject the norms of financial globalization and aspire to a global and long-term alternative to today’s disorder.

Will this new formation establish relations of alliance or competition with other less radical elements? Only the future will tell. Right now, we can hold firm to two convictions: first, this new popular force must prove itself independent of any other structure; second, in each specific instance, it must aspire to help the forces that act in favor of equality and freedom — each in their own way.

The Left Caught in the Middle

After what the historian François Cusset aptly called the “great nightmare of the 1980s” — when the PCF declined before any alternative could establish itself — the last decade has seen the radical left regain its strength.

At the beginning of the millennium, anti-neoliberal dynamics revived this process, and the Front de gauche experience brought it into institutional order. But the Front de gauche could never meet its goals because it was always a compromise between the PCF and the Left Party, the political formation Jean-Luc Mélenchon created in 2008.

The Front de gauche was neither a coherent force that could welcome individual members, nor a real cartel of parties. After the 2012 presidential race, it stumbled in the next elections, and the disagreements between the main constituents intensified thanks to these losses. The Front de gauche thus crumbled, and nothing could stall its decline.

Without doubt, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s presidential run opened up a new situation. His campaign’s dynamic gradually gained power, and the structure he created to support it — France Insoumise — established itself on the political landscape, especially in the most urbanized localities.

Oscillating between 19.6 percent for the presidential election and 13.7 percent in the parliamentary contest, the forces the Mélenchon campaign brought together have returned the radical left to the PCF’s electoral high watermarks.

There is no going back. The Left must consider the realities created by the 2016–17 electoral cycle in all their dimensions. France Insoumise is a militant mobilization that combines individual engagement and modern social networks for short-term action.

Like Podemos, it tries to reconcile a militant collective’s political consistency with a break from the old centralized and hierarchical party form. But we don’t yet know if it has found an answer to the most delicate question: in a horizontal structure, in which individual engagement is no longer permanent, where does the real power to direct things lie?

The 11 percent that France Insoumise scored in the parliamentary elections and its seventeen hard-won seats make it the French left’s leading formation. But this result does not make it potentially hegemonic in a territory or at the national scale.

This wholly new formation may believe that it will end up reaching this level, even by itself. But isn’t it more likely that this majority will come not only from France Insoumise’s strength, but also from its ability to build a common force with other groups that occupy the same political space?

When others want a common, effective force, it is tempting to tell them to join. France Insoumise could very well convince other left-wing parties — just like the PCF did in its own golden age — that there is no space outside it for any realistic revolutionary practice.

At a moment of crisis and recomposition, however, when we are called on to regroup and invent something together, we should avoid appeals to join another movement. The task before us is immense: it will not be enough to add up the numbers of our respective forces. We have to link them together.

There is no need to create another political party. We need to create the political form that will take on functions previously reserved for parties while transcending their limitations.

We already have examples of these kinds of initiatives, such as Podemos in Spain, but nothing stable has yet emerged in France. To bind oneself to an already existing form and to call for discipline when no coherence has been established puts the cart before the horse. We must pool our forces — and nothing should stop this pool from reaching as widely as possible.

We should imagine a force that is more than an assemblage of established structures that prioritize their own existence. At the same time, we need to avoid confusing coherence with discipline. We cannot put organizational rigor ahead of diversity of opinion, or else we’ll end up with a single, pre-formatted script whereby we hunt down anything that departs from the agreed-upon doctrine.

We have to invent what does not yet exist: a way of being together that combines coherence, individual membership, and organizational diversity. (While the Front de gauche came out of multiple groups, it failed to find a coherent position, and rejected the notion of membership.) Nothing would be worse than having to choose between an all-consuming organization that works as a quasi-party and a cartel of groups doomed to tearing back and forth between infighting and stalemate.

These debates are complex — as are all debates around the Left, left populism, and the relationship of both to globalization. We must conduct these discussions rigorously, without giving into bland consensus or swerving to avoid bumps along the way.

But it is not 1920. At that time, the nascent Communist International thought that the most important thing was breaking with elements it considered weak or suspect, so it listed all the conditions that would allow it to separate the wheat from the chaff. From this, twentieth-century communism gained coherence and combativeness. But it introduced a spirit of exclusivity that it could never overcome and which eventually killed it.

Almost a hundred years later, the Left once again finds itself in a moment when refoundation is necessary for survival. This reformation demands the greatest clarity, but it forbids any exclusivity. Whoever wants to give this popular movement the political strength it needs must respect these two facts. No one can think themselves exempt from this obligation.

Translated by David Broder, originally published in Regards.