Thursday, October 16, 2008

the comrades roll up their sleeves

16 October

While my first NPA meeting at the Trojan Horse was quite festive, last night’s meeting of the 14th arrondissement committee of the NPA was a no-nonsense affair. Twenty-three of us crowded into a common room at the Chateau Ouvrier, a public housing complex locally famous for having defeated the efforts of urban renewal to tear it down. Dimitri, the presider by consensus, kept the agenda on track, shushed all side conversations—“pas de dialogue, s’il te plaît”—and restricted every speaker to three minutes, carefully measured on his battered travel clock. 

Time is short, he reminded us several times, and we have a lot to do. The party’s next organizational congress is November 8/9, and many of the outstanding points of contention will need to be resolved there, in advance of the founding congress in January. All over France local committees are meeting to hash out disputes and send position papers to the central committee, but I wonder how many are doing so with the focus and determination of NPA 14e?

I will have to sift through my pages of notes to highlight a few of the many issues we covered in three hours of intense debate, but first a word about the participants. Half a dozen, like me, were newcomers, mostly listeners. At the center of things was a core group, mostly men, mostly middle aged, though several younger women are also clearly mainstays. As we introduced ourselves, people stated first names and their engagements : labor organizers, movement activists, former Communists and Socialists, to be sure, and some long-time Communist Leaguers (LCR) who try hard not to come across as insiders. Dimitri is a former CP activist, tough-minded, sometimes abrasive, and very funny at the same time. His counter-weight, Marc, an “early retiree” who arrived on a bicycle with a sack of apples picked from his own tree for the comrades, is patient and avuncular, though no less intent. Several are graduate students, and nearly everyone speaks with intellectual clarity.

Elsa, a doctoral candidate in philosophy, presented the first topic: “programme,” or what the party stands for. Her summary of the subcommittee that is meeting on this question was laced with the terminology of academic Marxism, but her point was just that: the committee felt that all this terminology—“ bourgeois,” “class struggle,”  “socialized means of production,” even “state” and “democracy”—needs to be carefully scrutinized both for actual meaning and for its usefulness in a wider public forum. Our group generated a much longer list of such terms, and pledged to explore what we think they mean in an electronic forum over the next week, with resolution of differences (by vote of enrolled party members) at next week’s meeting.

This question of membership and cards is a serious business. You pay to belong, on a sliding scale by income: temporary memberships (till January) cost between E10 and E100. Cards are being distributed, and after next week no one without a card will be allowed to participate in decisions.

Overarching all questions of program is the big one, as Dimitri framed it: will this party call for the abolition of capitalism, or will it make a place for those who want to reform it? Dimitri supports the former, period; others think more flexibility, at least for a while, will encourage party growth. Next meeting NPA 14e will debate the question, take a vote, and send its resolution to the national committee. The technical term for this is démocratie de base, but what the central committee will do with these communications from the base is anyone’s guess right now. That crucial question loomed large over the second major topic of the evening, the statuts (the party’s charter or operational rules).

Drafts of possible structures are already circulating from the national committee, and our local group’s version, with annotations, comes to seven dense pages. In brief, the drafts envision a party whose semi-annual congresses would be “sovereign”; the congresses would elect a central committee, with some version of ‘term limits.’ That central committee, along with some administration, would effectively run the party between congresses.

 At the same time the party’s primary structure will be the local committees such as NPA 14e; all membership is to a local committee, and these will have some latitude in managing their affairs. How to run an efficient party without endowing the center with too much power is, of course, the big question, especially as many of these folks have bitter experience, direct or indirect, with the Stalinist residues of the PCF. So my colleagues asked a lot of shrewd and specific questions about exactly what mechanisms will ensure that the opinions in the field will matter at the central office. Marianne, one of the younger people most involved in the committee discussions, insisted that the overall design is not a pyramid, but a “système de retour par la base,” a sort of feedback loop whose mechanisms are far from clear. But the prominence of this topic, and the intensity of the questioning, suggest that this new party will feel quite different from the centralized and secretive LCR it springs from.

One interesting point of contention at first seemed small to me: should NPA sponsor, as most other French parties do, a youth organization? Laetitia, one of the younger comrades, sounded like the laissez-faire young people I know when she said in effect, why not? Why not reach people where they are, have a campus-based group (“un NPA de fac”), a way for the young to do their thing. Opposition from the older members was vehement, grounded in the principle of ‘why make distinctions? Everyone should be a member of equal standing.’ Ultimately the whole category of ‘youth’ was rejected as a social construct, an unhealthy one, and that was that.

A second quite fascinating exchange concerned the question of ‘parity,’ the rule that male and female members will be represented equally at every level of party structure. This is old news to most, from whatever left group they work with, and there was no objection—though I believe I detected some ironic looks from several older male comrades.  One of the grad students, Yoann, then proposed that the same principle should apply to guarantee right of access to the economically or socially marginal: immigrants, unemployed persons, he wasn’t sure of the definitions but wanted some principle that would assure some level of participation, even at the central committee level. This was a more challenging idea, though clearly well-received. But then Laetitia, who happened to be the only black person in the room, made a powerful declaration to the effect that she found it unbelievable (“hallucinant”) that this party, so keen on representing the banlieues, the marginal, the sans-papiers, would not design some form of parity based on race. “C’est un parti blanc,” she shouted, and looking around the room this seemed hard to dispute. But dispute it they did, nearly all the others, insisting that there could be no special memberships, that all were equal, and so forth. But what about male/female parity, asked one free-spirit? No, that’s different, that’s grounded in the historical specificity of the blah blah blah …. In short, Laetitia got nowhere, but I think she put her finger on one of the most essential questions for this party, if it wants to be a representative workers’ party, and I am drafting a little memo of my own in support of her position. We’ll see. To my American eyes the majority position looks like a huge blind spot, but given the venerable logic of French republicanism, it may be the only possible conclusion.

There was much more, but this post is already too long, so I’ll stop. The Paris-wide coordinating committee meets on Saturday, and I’ll be interested to see if the other local reps are as keen-witted and dedicated and I want to say professional in their approach to political organizing. NPA 14e is a formidable little group; writ large, they could move mountains.





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