How should revolutionaries relate to the new Left rising up across Europe? Chris Bambery argues lessons can be learned from the approach Leon Trotsky took to this question in the mid-1930s.
None of us have lived through such days. Greece is clearly in a crisis that can only be described as pre-revolutionary. Spain, Portugal and even Italy may follow if the much heralded Greek exit from the Euro occurs.
The success of Syriza in Greece and to a lesser extent the Fronte Gauche in France suddenly offers a mass left alternative to austerity, whereas before anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim parties seemed to be benefiting from the crisis.
There is much to be said about both groups but while there are real criticisms as with any party the starting point must be to welcome their successes and to stand beside their supporters. We have after all been in similar situations before, and can draw lessons and warnings from our past.
The ‘French Turn’
In the mid 1930s the pre-revolutionary situation in France and the revolutionary period in Spain created a mass radicalisation which was concentrated in the youth wings of the Social-Democratic parties in both countries.
The thoroughly Stalinised Communist parties (CP’s) were desperate to recruit the radicalised youth of the Social-Democrats who rejected the role of their leaderships in propping up capitalism whilst mass hunger and unemployment ripped through France and Spain. However, many of them were moving well to the left of the CP’s. They rejected the Communists Popular Front strategy of building alliances with liberal parties as well as social democracy to defend the status quo against fascism, thus ruling out going beyond the capitalist system.
In 1936 socialist revolution was on the agenda in both France, where mass strikes and workplace occupations (Occupation at Renault car factory pictured above) swept the country, and Spain, where working class uprisings defeated the fascist insurgency in Barcelona, Madrid and other towns and cities creating workers control in Catalonia. The more radical young Socialists looked to the small groups of Trotskyists and other revolutionaries to the consternation of the Communists.
It was against this background that Trotsky urged what was known as the ‘French Turn’ on his followers – entry into social democracy to help speed this process and to link up with radical young Socialists.
A pattern emerged of initial sectarian rejection of Trotsky’s proposal, belated acceptance and then a refusal to recognise when the insurgent wave ebbed and the social democratic leaders and the Communists blunted and contained the process of radicalisation.
This is not the place to go through the ins and outs of this episode. Suffice to say the failure of the revolutionaries to win the young socialists through their refusal to make such a turn in Spain allowed the tiny Communist Party to become a mass party with devastating effect on the Spanish revolution.
The point is that amidst the greatest capitalist crisis yet and with the working class on the streets of France and Spain, Trotsky understood the need to link with the process of radicalisation underway rather than simply repeat truths about the need to build a revolutionary party.
Of course he was not saying simply join the young Socialists and follow their line of argument. In all sorts of practical ways he suggested how revolutionaries could build up influence, developing strategies that could push them in a revolutionary direction.
From Mid-1930s to today
Today there are immense differences between the situation the left finds itself in and that which Trotsky addressed in the mid 1930s. Revolution was an immediate reality in a way it is not today, fascism held power in Italy and Germany where the most powerful working class in the world had failed to act to stop Hitler. The scale of the economic, political and social crisis was far greater than today, with the exception of Greece.
But most importantly mass membership social democratic parties rooted in working class communities and workplaces with serious youth organisations no longer exist. In the 1930s, mass social-democratic parties would inevitably divide under any upsurge in struggle as radicalisation would impact its membership base, particularly the youth.
In the last upsurge of the late 1960s and early 1970s something similar did happen but on a weaker scale, reflecting the process of decay already underway in the social democratic and Communist Parties. In Britain the rise of the Labour left under Tony Benn was part of that process, although, interestingly, this took hold after working class insurgency had peaked.
Today it’s hard to see the social-democratic parties being the birthplace of a new radicalisation, hollowed out as they are by years of conformity to neoliberalism. Significant left-wing sections have broken with Social-Democracy already over the past decade, led by Oskar Lafontaine who helped form Die Linke in Germany, Jean-Luc Melenchon with Front de Gauche in France and to a lesser extent George Galloway with Respect in Britain. In most cases the social-democratic left have either remained isolated or have given up the fight and succumbed to the ranks of ‘social-liberalism’, the term commonly used to describe the neoliberalisation of social-democracy.
The New Left: Breaking with the past
For social-democrats that have taken the leap into the dark by exiting their traditional home, success has been premised on the ability to get other sections of the left to be as brave. Like in Germany when the ex-Communists (Party of Democratic Socialism) joined ranks with Lafontaine, and in France when the Communist Party and sections of the Trotskyist left united with Melenchon.
The Greek situation in Syriza is more complicated, but it is again premised on breaking down unnecessary divides bring together small far-leftist formations with the main grouping, Synapsimos, who are ex-Eurocommunists.
Again and again revolutionaries have had to relate to new groupings thrown up by a sudden radicalisation. Those who reacted in a sectarian way would wither on the vine, those who threw themselves into the new formations that stood at the vanguard would prosper.
In the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s, with resistance to austerity mounting, radicalisation is inevitable and it will find a home. In France that home is for now the Fronte Gauche, in Greece Syriza. The attempt to create alternative, more left wing alliances in both countries has failed and its best to stop digging and recognise that. There is no virtue in isolation when the masses are on the move.
Sure, the radicalisation will take other forms such as the Indegnados in Spain but for the left in France and Greece it must be time to join the Front de Gauche and Syriza. Trotsky was clear timing was of the essence. In six months or a year the opportunity may have passed, the masses may have shifted away from the radical left or their leaderships may have succumbed to the pressure of their national and European ruling class. Trotsky’s answer was to intervene and shape the forces at the vanguard of the struggle and that should be our answer too.