By Ben Towse, Haringey Momentum
The effort this year by The World Transformed, the leftwing festival alongside party conference, to build links with the international left, is welcome and important. As organiser Angus Satow writes on LabourList, announcing French politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon as a speaker, a left government in one country cannot hope to succeed in isolation from a global movement. We must learn from one another, and strengthen ourselves with ties of solidarity.
Unfortunately, Satow presents Mélenchon and his movement La France Insoumise (FI) – more realistically an electoral vehicle – through rose-tinted glasses. Of course, we need to connect and discuss with the many people engaged by FI, but it is no positive model. Its politics are deeply limited and soaked in reactionary conservatism, and it is ill-equipped to fulfil even its own promises. Hopefully TWT will be a space to discuss criticism.
Mélenchon’s politics are defined by jingoistic nationalism. On immigration, he alternates careful ambiguities with outright anti-migrant rhetoric and pandering to the xenophobia whipped up by the right – abandoning the fundamental duty of migrant solidarity so thoroughly that even the sell-out Parti Socialiste was to his left in the last election. Like the ultra-conservative Polish government, he rewrites Holocaust history by angrily denying that his country bears any responsibility for the genocide with which Vichy and substantial parts of French society collaborated. It’s not surprising, perhaps, that he is an unreliable anti-racist, given his partnership with the French Communist Party, whose history includes such highlights as driving a bulldozer into a hostel housing Malian migrants (though now FI’s failures on migrant solidarity have prompted criticism even from the PCF).
While Corbyn calls for honesty in school curricula about the British Empire’s history, Mélenchon says “France is neither Western nor European: she is universal because she is present on five continents”, as if that presence weren’t down to blood-soaked imperial conquest. As I write, he has just tweeted his pride in installing the French flag and national anthem in his political meetings and attacked Macron-ists from the right by accusing of seeking to “unmake” the nation. On the international stage, he stands with Putin’s imperialism and Assad’s butchery, not the oppressed and exploited against their rulers.
His approach shies away from genuinely socialist or even class-based politics. Mélenchon shiftily avoids identifying the real division in society – the owning, capitalist class and the politicians that serve them, against the common interests of worker everywhere. Instead his watered-down populism substantially deflects blame from French capitalists and obscures the opposed interests within national society, instead implying that the enemy is some sort of alien encroachment on the “real” French people and their progressive national spirit. See, for instance, his xenophobic demagoguery about the “poisonous” influence of Germany. Meanwhile, his pledges on workers’ wages, jobs and the like are too limited and vague.
This is all symptomatic of a technocratic politics “from above”. Mélenchon declared that voting for FI would “save you kilometres of marching on demonstrations”. The message is: put us in power then rest easy at home; I’ll sort out society’s problems for you. Even internally, La France Insoumise is not a democratic, grassroots movement but an electoral machine built for and around Mélenchon personally, who retains top-down control over all decision-making. Membership means subscribing to an e-list and responding passively to occasional polls (these are called and written at the whim of the leadership). Thus supporters have no real power over the organisation’s direction or policy and are entirely subservient to the leadership. Their role is as little more than doorstep-fodder.
The danger of this approach should be particularly clear in France. Twice in living memory – with Mitterand in 1981 and Hollande in 2012 – the mainstream Parti Socialiste was elected on radically reforming manifestos. Both manifestos were arguably to the left of what Corbyn has officially offered. But under assault from economic pressure, both ended up implementing austerity (Hollande more willingly, but both nonetheless), losing popularity and fuelling the growth of the far right. Aloof and unaccountable to grassroots movements, when they went astray they could not be reined in by those who put them in power.
Mélenchon shot to prominence off disillusionment with Hollande’s sell-out. But instead of exposing and breaking from the social democrats’ shortcomings, he has given them new life: dressed up the old errors with aggressive rhetoric and a heavy dose of nationalism, and sold them back to those who had rightly given up on the PS. FI is no better-equipped than Mitterand’s PS to resist pressure to sell out. Indeed, Mélenchon promises even less than Mitterand did, and as he inches towards power he waters his programme down still further.
What, then, is the alternative? We need to invite the more democratic, radical socialist French left to the conversation. This means chiefly the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA), and also Lutte Ouvrière (LO). They are much further from power than FI, gaining only 1.7% in the last Presidential election, and are held back by disunity. But then, what is now Corbynism was also splintered and consigned to the fringes just 4 years ago. And in fact, it’s not long since they were stronger – in 2002, LO and LCR (the NPA coalition’s main predecessor) won over 10% combined.
Both are clear that the first culprit to take on is not a foreign force but our own bosses and their political parties. So they are clearer about what is necessary. Against the lie that we can’t afford to welcome migrants or fund education, health, job creation, housing and pay rises, they say: there’s plenty to go around. Socialist policies can be funded by raiding their hoarded wealth and corporate subsidies. Unemployment can be beaten by compelling employers to cut working hours without cutting earnings. Unapologetic anti-capitalism lets them make more specific and generous proposals on jobs and wages than Mélenchon.
In the last Presidential election, the NPA ran factory worker and grassroots trade unionist Philippe Poutou, with the slogan “Our lives not their profits”. He stole the spotlight at the televised debate by explaining these policies, embarrassing conservative and far-right candidates over corruption scandals, and snubbing elitist theatrics – he showed up in ordinary clothes and told the moderator “Just because I’m not wearing a tie, doesn’t mean you can interrupt me”, and he refused to pose for photos with the right-wing and centrist candidates, saying “they’re not my colleagues”.
Both parties are honest that it’s not enough to entrust the task to benevolent leaders. We need a movement of millions taking their destiny into their own hands, combining electoral means with strikes and demonstrations. So they are not top-down electoral machines but activist parties, with local branches embedded in the daily work of trade unions, strikes and social movements.
The Corbyn movement is still finding its way and defining itself. It has many contesting elements and unresolved questions to work out. Elements within our movement share Mélenchon’s shortcomings on migration, policing, internal democracy, socialist internationalism and more. But unlike La France Insoumise, the Labour Party has democratic openings – so we can, and must, make sure that those elements don’t win, and that we build an international movement with the best forces abroad. I hope discussion at TWT can be part of that.
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