What Stand Do We Take?
“If you can ignore his Communist allies’ indulgence of some of the worst crimes in history, Mélenchon is an inspiring speaker” writes Nick Cohen in yesterday’s Observer. (Here.)
This raises important moral and political issues which we will try to deal with.
Let’s begin by outlining what Nick Cohen is talking about:
Mélenchon is the French Presidential candidate for the Front de Gauche (FdG).
Who are the Front de Gauche?
It is worth looking at what this is, even if it seems a bit tedious.
This is an alliance of the Parti communiste français (French Communist Party le Parti de gauche (left party) a breakaway from the Socialist Party, the Gauche unitaire, (United Left) from Unir (a minority current from the Trotskyist Ligue communiste révolutionnaire , the forerunner of the Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste, who left when the NPA refused to ally with the FdG in the European elections of 2009) the Fédération pour une alternative sociale et écologique (a Left green party) République et socialisme (Republic and Socialism) a split from the former French Socialist Minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement’s Mouvement républicain et citoyen, (ultra republicans ) Convergences et alternative, a small group from the Trotksyist Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste, le Parti communiste des ouvriers de France (French Communist Workers’ Party) – Marxist-Leninist and former ‘Maoists’.
It is however no secret that the French Communist Party is the major force in the Front de Gauche. They supply the basic organisation and the core of the troops. They have around 138 000 members. They have 13 MPs and 10 000 local councillors (at various levels).
The largest of the other groups, the Parti de Gauche has 6 to 7,000 members (though this figure is growing). It has one Euro Deputy Jean-Luc Mélenchon, 3 MPs, 17 regional councillors, 12 other councillors of importance, and no doubt a few others at a lower level.
None of the other groups has more than a few hundred members.
Mélenchon has great importance, politically and publicly. But when it comes to organisation, and no doubt the future strategy of the Front, the PCF is the dominant partner. Even it does not care to exercise this de facto power – the FdG programme reflects a balanced contribution from all the different component – this remains a central fact.
We therefore have to deal with the issue of the French Communist Party.
The Gauche Unitaire, which comes from a Trotskyist background, has not raised this.
But we are under no such electoral obligation.
The French Communist Party did indeed ‘indulge’ (the word is perhaps too weak) the crimes of Stalinism.
We are anti-Stalinists.
Many of us on the Marxist left, myself included, come from a background where this was, and is, a live issue.
Here is an illustration.
The Communist Margarete Buber-Neumann was imprisoned by both Stalin and by Hitler (she was part of a trade off between the two regimes). In a memorable passage in Between Two Dictators wandering through post-War Germany trying to get home she meets a groups of anti-Stalinist Marxists who had broken with the German Communist Party, the KPD. Some of them were also in the camps. But they kept their faith.: loathing Stalin but remaining socialists.
Neuman became so anti-Communist she moved to the right and supported the German Christian Democrats.
But many anti-Stalinists did not.
But here things become more complicated.
In left political life in Europe the Communists, democratic socialists, and leftists have often worked together, even while arguing against each other.
Many of us have this reflected in our families.
My father was a working class Glaswegian anarchist who became a mainstream Labour Party activist. He was fiercely anti-Stalinist. He gave me critiques of the Soviet Union at an early age. He read the Gulag Archipelago when it was published and recommended I read it.
My mother was a Stalinist, working in Prague during the 1948 Prague Communist take-over. She admired Tito. But politically, even if she was a Labour party member, she worked with the Communist Party of Great Britain on peace and other issues.
The comrades from the Weekly Worker often say that from the outside the difference between different shades of the Marxist left, Communists, Trotksyists, the New Left Marxists, and others, are indistinguishable to outsiders.
This is certainly the case for the broad political current I come from: the British New Left. Attitudes towards Communist-Stalinist regimes were always hostile. Towards Communist parties, while always critical, articles often show convergences. The three political thinkers who influenced me most in my studies were Althusser, Poulantzas and Gramsci – all Communists. That is, even as we (the International Marxist Group and the Socialist Students) were fighting the British CPGB inside the National Union of Students we were drawing on similar ideas. The principal difference with Official Communism was that we gave priority to democracy – something important however to the three theorists just cited.
So relations between the Communists and the rest of the left are complex. This is not just the result of doctrine but the kind of personal links – widespread – I have just indicated.
The French Communist Party.
There is a mountain of books on the Parti Communiste Français.
I have only read a monticule.
One sticks in the mind. Althusser’s Ce que ne plus durer dans le Parti Communiste (1978) reviewed by the Trotskyist philosopher Daniel Bensaïd (here). Daniel says that Althusser considered Stalinism, “une formidable contre-révolution bureaucratique”.
But does this mean that Communists are all bureaucrats?
That the heroic immigrant Communists who launched the first armed resistance against the Germans of the Affiche Rouge, were ‘counter-revolutionaries’.
That the tens of thousands of Communists who have fought for the cause of the peoples in France, and have stood up, consistently, for our lot – workers, unemployed, the poor, for immigrants – are bureaucrats?
That the Communists I have met in France, and had friendly contact with, were counter-revolutionaries?
I am intensely aware that my comrades will come out with examples where the PCF has not always behaved well.
Well: I say, the good comrades in the PCF seem to have the upper-hand now.
The campaign for Mélenchon has not just touched France.
It has deeply affected the European left.
We feel like we can walk upright.
That is no mean feat.