Jul 18, 2019
This morning my parents and I had breakfast with John Ambler. John is a member of my congregation and a retired professor of political science. He spent his career at Rice teaching about and researching French politics. He and his wife Joyce spend part of each summer in Paris. Since we were all in town at the same time, we thought it would be nice to meet up, though Joyce ultimately wasn’t able to join us. We ate at a delightful cafe in the Marais—fresh orange juice and a croissant for me and my parents, a coffee for John and my father, and hot chocolate for my Mom. Our conversation touched on a number of personal topics and then turned to French politics and the global political situation.
I shared with John my account of my conversation with the CNT-SO militant FD yesterday. He offered his perspective on the yellow vest movement. He said that it was comprised of people who felt that they had been left behind by French society—primarily rural people and those from small cities. He also said that while it was not allied with the Left it had not been captured by the Right. Instead, it operates outside of the traditional categories of French politics.
We also spoke about the failure of French socialism. In his view, the central problem was that even when they won power the French socialists still had to operate within a global capitalist system. When François Mitterrand came to power in 1981, he set about nationalizing a number of industries. Banks and capital writ large responded by engaging in a capital strike—they began to remove money from France and took business away from the country. The economy took a severe beating and, as a result, Mitterrand was unable to live up to his promises. A similar thing happened, John said, when François Hollande came to power—the external power of capital prevented the socialist government from pursuing any sort of anti-capitalist program.
John’s account reminded me of the old debate between Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky. Stalin argued that socialism is possible in one country. Trotsky countered that the strength of global capital is such that in order for socialism to succeed it must pursue the complete destruction of global capital and a situation of permanent revolution. Otherwise it will succumb to capital.
The history of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries seems to suggest that the actual answer to this question is... it depends. Anti-capitalist communities can survive, it appears, in particular situations on the political, economic, and social margins. The Zapatista movement and the Rojava commune both have managed to create space for mass anti-capitalist communities whose internal economic, political, and social structures are far more radical than anything the French socialists could muster. However, they are so far from the centers of economic and political power that they appear to pose little structural threat to capitalism—which would not be true of France if Mitterrand had succeeded in his socialist project. The mere scale of France would have proved a significant challenge to capitalism if it had successfully created a socialist economy.
From there our conversation wandered to cover two more points. The first was another challenge that the Left faces: How to deal with automation? The second was about weakest point in the global economy, transit. Automation opens up all sorts of questions about what work is, how much work is available, whether working people will be able to have middle income jobs, and economic productivity. It has proven to be a significant challenge to the labor movement and provided capitalists with a crucial tool in undermining unions. Transit—particularly shipping—is central to the current itineration of capitalism. Most of manufacturing is built on just-in-time shipping. This means that transit workers have the power to significantly disrupt factory work by quickie strikes rather than protracted struggles. This is a possibility for working class resistance to capital that has largely been unexplored.
John is in his mid-eighties. We more-or-less ended the conversation with him telling me that it was up to me, my generation, and those younger than me to figure out if it was possible to find answers to the questions of socialism in one country and automation. Those are my words, not his, but I think that they capture the essence of our conversation.
Jul 18, 2019
Today I met up with two anarchists to discuss French and American politics and social movements. I first met MN almost fifteen years ago when we part of the organizing committee for the Industrial Workers of the World Centenary in Chicago. He is currently splitting his time between Paris, where his partner works, and the United States. He is no longer a member of the IWW but he remains active in radical politics. He works as a house painter.
I met FD three years ago when I was in Paris on my way to an academic conference in Toulouse. He is a militant with the French anarcho-syndicalist union CNT-SO. He is a teacher and is currently finishing a PhD in philosophy.
Both MN and FD are about my age and, like me, both men started participating in the anarchist movement when they were in their late teens or early twenties. Much of our conversation focused on the present state of the French anarchist movement and the overall political situation in Europe and the United States. We also spent a little time discussing common acquittances or our previous collaborations.
France has a long anarchist history but in recent decades its anarchist movement has been relatively small. The General Confederation of Labor, or CGT, is effectively France’s largest labor union. It was originally founded by anarchists in the late nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth century it was dominated by the Communist Party. The CNT-SO, or National Confederation of Labor, Workers Solidarity, is one of two anarcho-syndicalist labor unions in France today. Both are small and both exist because of a split in the historic French CNT which was formed in 1940s by anarchists who left the CGT and Spanish exiles.
The split in the French CNT occurred within the last fifteen years. It was over the issue of whether or not the union should have paid staff. This is a controversy that was emerged in almost every single anarcho-syndicalist union with more than a few hundred members over the last twenty years. The people who went onto form CNT-SO believed that paid staff were necessary to do certain kinds of work—legal work, for instance—while those who formed CNT-France rejected paid staff of any kind. I believe that in advanced capitalist economies paid organizers are a necessity for radical organizations to exist and sustain themselves on any kind of scale. That, however, is another blog post for another day.
During our conversation, FD told me he thinks that French society as a whole has moved significantly to the Right in the last twenty years. He also said that the radical Left is largely moribund or bereft of new ideas. The May Day parade in Paris, for instance, might attract tens of thousands of people but they all follow the same parade route that they have followed for the past fifty years. More concerning, he felt that the socialists and the anarchists were mostly without new ideas. The Socialist Party is rapidly losing influence with French politics and, he argued, many contemporary Leftist political leaders were no longer anti-capitalist—they look to American style liberalism as an inspiration rather than social democracy or the broader socialist tradition.
We spent a lot of time discussing our personal histories with the IWW and CNT-SO. I made the point that the IWW has increased in size over the last two decades. It has grown from a few hundred members to perhaps as many as three or four thousand. Despite a troubled history of interpersonal conflict, significant structural and cultural challenges, and its small size it has been an innovative force within the American labor movement. Its campaigns at Starbucks and Jimmy Johns proved that fast food workers could be organized. And its Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee has not only proved that imprisoned workers can be organized, it has helped coordinate some of the largest prison strikes in United States history.
MN shared his reasons for no longer belonging to the IWW—I can’t, as the senior minister of a congregation with twenty employees, I am no longer eligible for membership. He said that his repeated experiences of interpersonal conflict within the union had led him to believe that the IWW would never overcome its structural issues. He also said that he gained invaluable skills from his time with the IWW and that his experiences with the union had helped him to grow into an effective organizer in other contexts.
FD had a different perspective. He said that his experience with the CNT-SO had taught him that anarcho-syndicalism was probably never going to be a mass movement in France. But he had learned that it was the job of the far left to organize the margins. Anarchists are best suited to organize people who other groups—be they labor unions or political groupings—are not willing to organize. They have the most success organizing amongst those who are the farthest margins of society. In France, this has largely meant organizing the migrants who in hotels and in the hospitality industry. He shared with me that at the moment there is a strike organized by migrant hotel workers who are members of CNT-SO in Marseille. It has been getting a significant amount of press and bringing some good energy into the CNT-SO.