In 2009, the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) dissolved itself into a ‘broad’ organisation, the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA).

Where does the new party stand today ? Bigger and younger than the LCR, its members are active in unions, support strikers, migrants, squatters and Roma, and play a leading role in united front campaigns to defend public services and women’s rights, oppose racism and the National Front (FN) and support international struggles. And, though the issue has not been fully resolved within its ranks, it has begun to play a (somewhat timid) part in the developing opposition to Islamophobia.

However, against a backdrop of recession and cuts, an unpopular right-wing president and rising support for the FN, numbers are down from 9,000 to less than 4,000. Last year’s conference was unanimously judged a “catastrophe”. The NPA’s ‘star’ speaker, Olivier Besancenot, later announced he would not stand in the 2012 presidential election, leading to furious arguments between factions. An organised minority (the Anticapitalist Left) openly opposes the party’s independent electoral strategy and sponsors unity with former NPA members and others outside the party. A further split is likely.

A new coalition, the Left Front, grouping the Communist Party as well as ex-Communists, the Left Party (a split from the Socialist Party) and former members of the NPA, has grown in influence and in late March was able to mobilise 100 000 supporters in an impressive show of strength in the streets of Paris. Its champion, the ex-Socialist minister Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has revamped himself as a ‘tribune of the people’ and a fierce opponent of the far-right National Front. The NPA’s candidate, carworker Philippe Poutou, is currently credited with 0.5% of the vote.

So what happened ? I can only suggest some possible explanations.

After Besancenot’s creditable score of 4% in 2007 many in the LCR believed they had an open road before them because, they claimed, there were no longer any serious forces between it and the Socialist Party (PS). The theory of the ‘two lefts’ (social-liberal and anticapitalist) was combined with the idea that illusions in the PS were rapidly disappearing and that left-reformist attempts to fill the vacuum were doomed to failure. This led to errors such as underestimating Mélenchon’s split from the PS.

The LCR leadership was aware of the gap between Besancenot’s popularity and their real influence, which is one reason why they decided to launch the NPA. But the distorted mind-set – and the divisions over strategy which it engendered – carried over into the new party. Inevitably, new problems emerged, compounded by the difficulty of integrating recruits coming from different traditions alongside the former LCR ‘cadres’.

For some, the party is too ‘workerist’. For others it is too ‘soft’ and not clear on the question of class. Some hold semi-anarchist or ‘eco-socialist’ ideas, while others are closer to the Leninist tradition. Members may hold opposing views on, say, the right of Muslim women to wear the veil in public or critical support for Hamas.

The NPA has a democratic culture which allows members to express widely diverging views and branches to decide their own priorities and alliances. This has positive and negative sides. With a divided leadership and no clear method for setting priorities or resolving conflicts, groups of members often just ‘get on with it’ without referring to the party as a whole – a practice which can lead to tensions.

The byzantine system of permanent factions inherited from the LCR leads to endless discussion and manoeuvring (usually resulting in obscure compromises and tactical alliances) and consumes inordinate amounts of energy and resources. The new ‘open’ party has proved hardly more welcoming than the ‘sternly Trotskyist’ LCR.

In 2010, millions mobilised against Sarkozy’s pension ‘reforms’. In terms of militancy, the NPA responded well, but was too small to decisively influence events. Unfortunately, in the heat of the action, the NPA failed to emphasise political recruitment. A series of open debates – organised only when the movement was in terminal decline – was presented more as a ‘forum’ than as a means of proposing a revolutionary alternative.

A wider question must be asked here: why did the strikes and demonstrations not lead to a shift to the left politically ? Nor have ‘autonomist’ movements inspired by the Arab revolutions and the Spanish Indignados taken off significantly.

Few of us realised the consequences of the pensions setback for militancy and political consciousness. What no longer seemed possible through striking began to seem feasible through the ballot box. The PS revived and the Left Front began to occupy the ‘boulevard’ to its left. For the NPA, this unexpected scenario led to further demoralisation and division, from which the majority hopes to escape via an active election campaign.

While much of the impetus has been lost, the NPA is still a vital part of the radical left, with its insistence on mass struggle and independence from the trade union bureaucracy – rather than parliamentary combinations – to challenge pro-capitalist policies, whether they come from Sarkozy or (in a diluted form) his main challenger, the Socialist Party’s François Hollande. Lessons must be learnt, but the NPA – with others – can still play an important role in building a genuinely socialist alternative.

Colin Falconer (NPA, Saint-Denis – in a personal capacity). Thanks to John Mullen (NPA, Montreuil) for his critical comments. The article was written for the Irish Socialist Nerwork.

20 March 2012

Postcript (6 April 2012)

Since this article was written the internal crisis within the NPA has intensified. While the major part of the organisation is campaigning – more or less actively – for the party’s presidential candidate, a minority is either sitting on its hands or calling for a vote for the candidate of the Front de Gauche (currently on 14% in the opinion polls). A special conference of the NPA is likely to take place in June 2012 to hammer out the issues, but the Anticapitalist Left, as the pro-unity faction is called, is almost certain to quit the party within the next few months, while many members have already done so.