Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Left of the Left

In a conversation the other day, I casually dropped the phrase "Trotskyite students" in speaking of the anti-Pécresse Law agitation, and a colleague who studies Europe in general but not France in particular expressed astonishment that anything as archaic as Trotskyism could survive as a coherent political identity in 2007. This led to a more general discussion of the "left of the left" in France and whether France is exceptional in the tenacity of its extreme left and, if so, what might account for it. Then, while cleaning up my office, I came upon an old issue of Le Débat (no.l41, Nov.-Dec. 2006) that had somehow wound up at the bottom of a pile and gone unread. The issue contains several articles examining Philippe Raynaud's book Autour de l'extrême gauche plurielle. Marc Lazar explicitly takes up the questions I raise above and notes (p. 88) that despite the importance of the subject for the continued political debility of the broader left, the current sociology of the extreme left in France is "still not very well known." He cites some recent work suggesting that the cadres of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire and ATTAC are generally young and well-educated and that many work in the public service sector. Those who vote for the extreme left comprise a shifting array of groups, but among Olivier Besancenot's 4.3 percent of the vote many were young and fairly well-educated, including many students, mid-level professionals, and primary- and secondary-school teachers (but which ones? what is their background? what differentiates them from others in the same occupational groups?). There is also some discussion, rather unsatisfactory, of the historical basis for Trotskyism's influence in France (including a reference to Pierre Grémion's interesting ideas about the unique French construction of the term "progressivism" and the various mutations it has undergone in the eras of anti-colonialism, tiers-mondisme, Maoism, anti-globalizationism, anti-American/imperial/ism, etc). But Lazar's article and the others on related themes raise more questions than they answer. The subject deserves further study. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.


Anonymous said...

"Liberté, égalité, fraternité" is the key I think.
By 'liberté' what is meant is positive and not negative freedom. Whereas the English will regard liberté as freedom from state oppression, the French see it as a freedom to fully decide on the course of one's life. In this coneption of 'liberté' it is essential for people to have a certain financial 'aisance' to do this. Leftist ideas take ground easily in such a context.
'Egalité' does not mean 'égalité' before the law but rather 'égalité' in the 'search for happiness' to quote the American constitution. It is socially and economically egalitarian.
Finally, 'fraternité' is the distinctively Trotskyist part. There is an element of duty, duty to fight for the welfare of other citizens (possibly other human beings). It provides the revolutionary impetus to struggle for a certain coneption of the common good.
Finally, the very mythical French notion of revolution can only remind one of Trotsky's writings.
Thus, Trotskyism is an ideology that has a very easy time growing in France.
In an age in which the French perceive the country is in decline and the modèle social is under threat they cling, particularly in the civil service, to these ideas.

Anonymous said...

Onto raising more questions: why would a dear friend of mine, retired high-school language teacher in a small town of the East of France, vote Besancenot during the last presidential elections?
He would probably frown at many of Besancenot's opinions, and had the greatest difficulties explaining to me why he voted for a "Trotskyste". The main reason he gave me was his gut feeling, the feeling that something he had held dear all his life was threatened, and that Besancenot appeared to be the only one talking about that. Free school, the public service, the value of education, the role of the teachers: he sees all that seems as being under threat. And since he would not vote on the extreme right, Besancenot becomes through a bizarre paradox the best candidate. There is a mix of "corporatisme" (teachers defending teachers) and a genuine sense of fear in front of social, intellectual and economic changes people like my friend do not understand and do not take part in. Gut feeling more than a structured, ideological decision.

Strange to read that this is very seldom researched. I would have imagined there would be more on that. Maybe I need to clean up my office as well ;)