The Meaning of the French Presidential Election
When Lionel Jospin, the Socialist Partys incumbent prime minister, decided to accept his partys nomination for president of France, he never dreamed that he would come in third, with 16 percent of the vote. Neither could he have anticipated that the racist, Jean-Marie Le Pen, would have inched him out of the runoff with 17 percent of the vote cast. No less surprising was the 19 percent plurality received by the incumbent president of France, Jacques Chirac.
But what really shocked him and the capitalist world was the nearly three million votes (more than 10 percent of the total cast) received by two presidential candidates widely known in France as Trotskyists. Moreover their vote was three times greater than the 3.5 percent received by the Stalinist French Communist Party and more than one-half the vote received by the Socialist Partys Jospin.
To add further to what pundits correctly characterize as a political earthquake, the combined votes of the incumbent president and his leading challenger, the incumbent prime minister, added up to just 35.6 percent of the total.
Thus both Chirac, the preferred candidate of the ruling capitalist class, and Jospin, whodespite his Socialist label, was nonetheless capitalisms second choice for presidentwere repudiated by almost two thirds of those who voted. And when account is taken of the 28 percent of the eligible voters who abstained, a large majority of the working and middle classes of France overwhelmingly rejected the preferred candidates of French capitalism.
This election, however, only made visible what has been building up over the last few years. And the 10 percent vote received by the candidates who are on record in favor of socialist revolution made absolutely clear that the sharp decline in the vote for the Socialist and Communist Parties was not in any sense a rejection of socialism! Rather, it serves to prove the exact opposite; it proves that their supporters punished the two reformist partiesSocialists and Communists alike because they betrayed the historic interests of the class they falsely claim to represent.
But France is hardly unique. The Socialist and Communist Parties of Europe follow exactly the same policies of putting the interests of their capitalists first, and that of the working masses second. Thus, their repudiation in France is at the same time a warning to their reformist counterparts in Europe who follow an identical policy of defending the capitalist status quo at the expense of the class interests of those who must work for a living.
Meanwhile, Le Pen, whose denunciations of the status quo from the right have always been given far greater coverage in the mass media than capitalisms sharpest critics on the left, has also benefited from this latest expression of a deepening radicalization of mass consciousness in France, Europe and America.
The role assigned by capitalism to immigrant labor
In periods of relative economic equilibrium, such as has been the case in the worlds advanced industrial countries for an unusually prolonged period; working class leadership tends to reflect the thinking of its most privileged and backward sectors. And since all ruling classeswho are by nature a small minoritycan only maintain control over the exploited and oppressed majority, primarily by the strategy of divide and conquer, racism, sexism, xenophobia and other forms of bigotry are built into capitalist society.
Moreover, because of the sharpening competition among the worlds richest countries for a larger share of the globalized marketplace, and because the average rate of profit has tended to fall, capitalists, especially in the worlds richest industrial nations have been intensifying their natural tendency to push down average wages as competition intensifiesespecially in their own countries, where wages are the highest. One of the most important ways by which capitalism has historically undercut the average wage level is by importing workers from countries whose average wage level is among the worlds lowest.
That explains the steadily increasing rate of recruitment by all the imperialist countries of immigrants who, as impoverished strangers in a strange land, have no choice but to get work as best they can. And because of their extremely poor bargaining position they are compelled to accept wages, more often than not, far below the average. Thus, the lowest paid layers of the existing workforce are the first to be affected by the increased competition for jobs caused by the inflow of immigrants from the worlds poorest countries. That explains, in part, why the rate of unemployment in France stands at 9 percent and is increasing.
In addition to the economic slowdown that has affected the entire capitalist world, the increased supply of workers for fewer jobscompounded by the frenetic pace of capitalisms recruitment of immigrant laborersalso explains why capitalism and its racist agents have succeeded in deluding some indigenous workers into thinking that it is the immigrants that are the cause of their miseries, not the capitalists who profit from the influx of cheap labor.
Moreover, to make bad matters worse, imperialist capital had long ago destroyed the outmoded manufacturing and agricultural economies in their neo-colonies. And besides blocking new industrial development there, they have also destroyed the subsistence economies in their captive nations. Thus, the small subsistence farmers have been evicted from the landand the land transformed from food production for local consumption to the large-scale production of agricultural raw materials and single-crop food products for export.
That, obviously, has produced an enormous surplus population in imperialisms neo-colonies who have no way to eke out a living. Thus, its not only the hope for a better life in Europe or America that drives them there, its the desperate struggle for survival that causes virtually the entire plebian populations of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East to resort to the most desperate measures to escape death by starvation, malnutrition and the diseases that accompany hunger.
Then to help make the new generation of immigrants permanently second class citizens in their adopted countries, the waves of immigrants are stereotyped and demonized so that their children and grandchildren are also permanently stigmatized and condemned to jobs on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder.
America, with its long history of recruiting one new wave of immigrants after another, has apparently served Europe as a model for their own racist and xenophobic policies and practices. After Americas indigenous inhabitants were steadily driven westward or exterminated, the ruling capitalist class instituted a long-term policy of recruiting waves of immigrants to make sure that there would always be more workers than jobs, and thereby let the economic law of supply and demand keep average wages as low as possible.
Once, however, the new immigrants to the United States learned their way around, learned the language and adopted the manner of dress and other superficial cultural attributes of native Americans, it was no longer easy to identify the demonized foreigner. And workers having learned from very bad experience that accepting the stigmatization of a sector of their class, helping to exclude them from their places of work, served to increase and maintain the conditions forcing immigrants to serve as a permanent supply of cheap labor. They learned that the best way to defend their class interests was to embrace the cause of those so victimized by capitalism. Indeed, it became necessary to champion the principle of equal rights for all workers regardless of their place of birth.
But American history also provided an exception to the rule in the unique resurrection of chattel slavery in Europes American colonies. Even Europeans were sent as indentured servants, a somewhat milder form of chattel slavery in that they were in bondage to their masters for a limited time.
Eventually, however, American capitalism discovered a means by which it would be possible to permanently stigmatize a sector of its wage slaves as possessing labor power that was not worth as much as that of most other workers. Unlike European immigrants, the skin color of African Americans made it possible to single them outno matter where they were born or what their abilities might beto serve as a hereditary caste of the working class, excluded from higher-paid jobs. And even when exceptions were made, their skin color condemned them to work for less than the average wage.
And nothing would have changed for African Americans were it not for their own irrepressible struggle against racial, social and economic injustice. Even now, however, African Americans having fought and won some improvement in their condition are still far from achieving equal rights, equal wages, equal justice in the eyes of the courts, and equal opportunity.
What we see in France and Europe today shows that Europes capitalists have learned the lessons of American history and have been busily putting what theyve learned into effect. But so did the vanguard of the working class also learn these lessons with the help of Karl Marx who issued this warning: Labor with a white skin cannot emancipate itself while labor with a black skin is branded.
The phenomenon of stigmatizing workers by the color of their skin has today become a key problem for the working class in Europe as it has been in the United States for hundreds of years. Almost everywhere, it has become the most dangerous weapon in the hands of the worlds ruling classes. And it is a deadly threat that can only be combated by the working class making the defense of the interests of non-white and other branded segments of the working class and its natural allies, its first responsibility.
However, the world capitalist economy has certainly seen the end of an exceptionally prolonged period of expansion in the production of goods, and the vast expansion of trade into every nook and cranny of the globe.
History shows that when capitalism enters a period of economic stagnation, the economy slows, unemployment grows, and capitalists desperately seek to save themselves by cutting wages, public and private social benefits and intensifying the pace of work. But lowering wages can only be done to a point beyond which capitalism is sure to meet with determined and increasingly militant resistance.
History also shows that in those cases where the trade unions had been ineffective, workers in such trying conditions are compelled to fight back by ousting and replacing ineffective leaders. And when the workers movement is on the ascendancy, it is able to wrest modest improvements in wages, hours and working conditions. And in those cases where the crisis runs long and deep, the struggle between capital and labor can assume explosive and even revolutionary proportions. Thus at different times and places the class struggle rises in intensity to the point where the conquest of state power is within reach and is attainable.
Karl Marx, in an address he made in June 1865 to the General Council of the International Workingmens Association (the First International) ended his talk with this profound observation:
The point Marx makes lies at the heart of the mistakes made by the workers parties of Italy and Germany in the period after the end of the First World War. A period of rising class struggle engulfed Europe, which had been economically weakened by the costs of those four years in which a major portion of Europes productive forces had been engaged in the production of weapons of mass destruction. And once war production came to an abrupt end and millions of workers suddenly found themselves without jobs, capitalist Europe faced intermittent pre-revolutionary and revolutionary struggles until military production on a massive scale was resumed with the beginning of World War II.
Italy and Germany in Western Europe, and Russia in Eastern Europe, were the first to enter a period of deep social, economic and political crisis as the war came to a close. The class struggle sharpened in all three countries. The Russian workers succeeded in the construction of a mass revolutionary workers party. One that understood Marxs warning that a guerrilla war against the effects of the existing system must be combined with a struggle to abolish the system itself. The Russian workers proceeded to carry through two revolutions, democratic and socialist, with one blow, and laid the foundations for the transition from semi-feudalism toward a world socialist order.
In Italy and Germany, however, the workers seemed to be engaged in an endless series of strikes in which power lay in the streets, but leaders of the workers parties failed to follow Marxs advice and use their organized forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class.
Thus, the failure to combine the day-to-day workers struggle against the encroachment by capitalism on the living standards gave capitalism and its fascist hirelings the opportunity to mount a mortal attack on the defensive organizations of the Italian workers in 1922 and the German workers in 1933.
Fascism, racism and Le Pen
Jean-Marie Le Pen has justly earned his rabidly nationalist and racist reputation. It is based on his notoriously bigoted declarations blaming immigrant workers for the unusually high rate of unemployment in France and in all other of the worlds capitalist countries. But while one of the characteristic features of fascism is its rabid nationalism as it was expressed in Mussolinis Italy or its racist targeting of the Jews as it was expressed in Hitlers Germany, all nationalists and racists are not necessarily fascists.
Another feature of a fascist movement is its middle class social composition. Le Pens appeal is directed toward the petty bourgeoisiethat social class encompassing petty proprietors, farmers and salaried employees. But middle class movements have many manifestations. The Greens, for instance, are also a movement based on an appeal to the highly contradictory political instincts of the middle class.
Thus, it can also be said that all nationalist and racist middle class movements are not necessarily fascist.
However, what really sets fascism apart from other middle class political phenomena is its orientation toward extralegal physical assaults on the mass organizations of the working class and upon scapegoated sectors of the population. But that is not a feature of Le Pens movementat least not today, while the French economy is still relatively stable and the great majority of the working and middle classes are still enjoying relative prosperity.
But a mass movement based on a ruined and desperate middle classthe natural constituency of fascist gangsoriented to the destruction of the defensive economic and political organizations of the working class cannot be sucked out of anyones thumb.
One of the many paradoxes of life is that the objective preconditions for the rise of a mass revolutionary working class movement are also the preconditions for the rise of a mass counter-revolutionary fascist movement. But history proves that the petty capitalists and farmers see the big corporations and banks that encroach on their small businesses and small family farms as their enemynot the working class. Consequently when the middle classes feel that their economic interests are seriously threatened they tend to first turn to the workers and their fighting organizations to help defend them against their oppressors.
Thus, they tend to first welcome and support the rising working class struggles against the class enemy of both workers and middle classes. But if such struggles go on for years with no end in sight, middle class thinking begins to change. Fascism feeds on the growing disappointment by the middle class with the failure of the endless strikes and the street battles between workers and the legal and extralegal repressive instruments of big capital to make a decisive change in their condition.
Leon Trotsky summed it up well in his pamphlet, Fascism, What it is and How to Fight it::
The right and wrong way to fight capitalism
While we celebrate the electoral gains made by the two French Trotskyist parties, Workers Struggle (LO) and the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR), we received the following report issued by the LCR:
This has been interpreted, correctly, we believe, by observers to mean that the LCR calls for a vote for Chirac, still the incumbent capitalist president at the time of the Leagues announcement, as necessary to stop the fascist Le Pen from being elected president of France. Even if fascism were indeed the nature of this movementand a case has not been produced to that effect beyond that Le Pen loudly advocates his abhorrent racist and rabid nationalist viewsthe way to stop fascism is not by voting for the main political representative of French capitalism.
A fascist threat can only be combated by counter-mobilizations in the streets.
On the other hand, Arlette Laguiller, the presidential candidate of the other, larger, French Trotskyist party, had announced her refusal to give an iota of political support to Chirac or any other capitalist candidate, in line with the revolutionary working class principle of class independence,.
The LCRs decision to give support to the main capitalist party today, however, is only the latest in a long series of tactical and principled political errors. But this latest violation of principle by the LCR, if not corrected in time, leads to an unambiguous crossing of the Rubicon, from a centrist partyvacillating between revolutionary socialist politics and the politics of class collaborationto a party limited only to capitalist reform, such as what the Socialist and Communist Parties of France had long ago become.
The LCRs support to one capitalist party in order to stop another worse representative of the capitalist class is a tragic, and for the LCR, a foolish mistake. The LCRs claim to Trotskyism, that is, revolutionary Marxist politics, means that they should know full well what it means. It is an act that indicates their loss of confidence in the working class and their adaptation to so-called public opinion, which is nothing other than the ideas disseminated in the media monopoly owned and controlled by the capitalist class. One of the main themes of this bourgeois public opinion is to insist that Chirac and other candidates of capitalist parties seek to represent all the people. And that the choice voters have in elections is between good and bad politicians.
Or as the reformists and labor bureaucrates say in every election here in the United States: we must vote for the lesser evil, that is, the better of the two capitalist parties. (By the way, Jacques Chirac was reelected in the May 6 runoff election by an 82 percent majority.)
We stand proudly in solidarity with the Workers Struggle party in France and their presidential candidate, Arlette Laguiller. Standing firmly on the revolutionary Marxist principle of class independence is crucial to the defeat of both greater and lesser capitalist evils at every stage in the historic struggle to liberate humanity from capitalist barbarism.