Monday, October 13, 2008

With the Militant(e)s inside the Trojan Horse

8 October

I went to my first NPA (New Anti-Capitalist Party) meeting tonight. I had gone over to La Brêche (the Breach), a bookstore and city-wide party headquarters for the LCR (Revolutionary Communist League, NPA’s parent organization), on Monday. There I had a long talk with the manager of the store, Antoine, a slight, 50ish and extremely articulate fellow in that wonderful tradition of the French left that extends back to Voltaire. For him the great flaw of Capitalism is its unreasonable nature, an opinion that gains ground with each new turn of the present financial screw. At the end of our talk he encouraged me to come to the weekly meeting of the local 12th arrondissement NPA committee, of which he is a fervent partisan, and gave me a leaflet with the address.

So I jumped on the metro at Raspail, and rode around the peripheral neighborhoods of the 14th, 13th and 12th before landing at Ledru-Rollin, not far from Bastille. I had located the address on my plan, but I hadn’t noticed that it had a name: le Cheval de Troie (the Trojan Horse).  Turns out to be a little Turkish resto, and as I walk in (a half-hour late), I walk into the midst of a social gathering of 25-30 people filling all the tables in the front room, eating and drinking. It looks like maybe a boho birthday party in TriBeCa, dark, with loud chatter over a drone of Turkish music.  Except that just as I walk in and feel my way to a chair in back, a fellow stands up and brings the “business part of the meeting” to order. He gives a warm though somewhat lengthy welcoming speech, mostly about how he isn’t going to speak at length. Then a younger man—Patrick, 30ish, intense—stands up and presents a remarkably precise and efficient summary of the crisis, which he describes in quantified financial terms. But then he challenges that description as a media construct, and insists that the crisis is much more than financial, is in fact the inevitable consequence of the entire system, all the while ridiculing Sarkozy’s Toulon declaration to the contrary. The président, whose name I never learned, then calls on the woman to my right, a Lebanese woman of a certain age who speaks French elegantly with thickly rolled rrr’s. She identifies herself as a union activist, a long-time militante, and rather stirringly invites all present to work to build a better world. Marie-France to my left, also a little older and spot-on in her delivery, rises next to pursue Patrick’s analysis, declaring that the group has an obligation to support not just activism but theoretical understanding, and proceeds to offer some.

Let me just say that by this point I was completely enraptured: with the atmosphere of the place, with the level of the discourse, with my Turkish beer. It was a visually remarkable little group crowded into a small place, people evenly distributed in age from roughly 25 to 75, not dressed up but well dressed, attractive, and remarkably—I have to say it—petit bourgeois. At one point a clump of three or four of the younger ones got up and stood in the vestibule, causing the président to interrupt the proceedings to condemn the problem of smoker-factionalism (he was kidding).

The ‘meeting’ basically consisted of the leader inviting the card-carrying members (and no one else) to speak, one after another, and after the first few it became a little random. My pal Antoine was another of the professorially articulate, but others strayed. My Lebanese neighbor seized the floor and began to rant about how the Socialists once in office had turned their backs on the people, starting with Lionel Jospin in the 1990s … she was up to Bertrand Delanoe, 2005, when the président finally managed to head her off. Another militant declared that he had had lots to say, but had been made to wait so long he had "lost his inspiration." He gave a rambling address anyhow, at the end of which he rather politely denounced the authoritarian tendencies of the presider, who insisted in rebuttal that he was only correcting for the meeting’s lack of auto-regulation.

I was not the only one enjoying myself. The whole tone was congenial, not exactly a gathering of old friends, but people who seemed to know and like each other and like spending time together in little restaurants. There was a strong sense of political engagement, but not really much urgency. Beyond trying to assess the crisis itself, people were concerned with the question of how to organize. Many remarked that not just the Socialists but the Communists too had sold out to free market capitalism, and some wanted to reclaim ‘communism’ as a term for a humane alternative to competition, crisis, and war (though most agreed that the term was a hopeless impediment “among the young”). How the new party can negotiate with all its various ideological neighbors on the left is clearly a problem for which no one seems to have much of a solution. Perhaps the greatest consensus was around the double idea, that the crisis presents a whole new opportunity to talk to a larger public about capitalism’s failure, but the crisis is also a disaster in concrete terms for the very people the NPA wants to speak on behalf of.

By 10:30 or so the meeting adjourned with a reminder for people to pay the waitress—and some jokes about socializing the cost of the meal. But really the meeting only adjourned to the sidewalk, where 10 or 12 of the committee were still actively debating, and showed no signs of going anywhere, as I made my way back to Ledru-Rollin.   

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