1977 : The Revolutionary Press: France
In the mid-1970s the International Socialists/SWP produced an International Discussion Bulletin, edited by Tim Potter, Joanna Rollo and Pete Goodwin. This was later incorporated into the second series of International Socialism. The following piece appeared in an unnumbered and undated issue. I believe the piece dates from Spring 1977; I had just spent five weeks in France and the article was based on attendance at meetings, discussion with comrades etc.
In the last issue of the International Discussion Bulletin we published political perspectives from three French revolutionary organisations, Lutte Ouvrière (LO), Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) and Organisation Communiste des Travailleurs (OCT). Since these were written, the municipal elections have taken place, and the joint lists presented by LO-LCR-OCT obtained results considerably better than had been hoped for, with around 6% of the votes in many areas, and over 10% in some districts. The results show clearly that there is a small but significant layer of French workers who distrust the reformist Union of the Left, and are open to revolutionary ideas. Many of these workers, of course, have not broken completely with reformism, and few are probably immediately ready to join a revolutionary organisation of the sort that exist at present. The problem for the revolutionary groups is to find a way of relating to this layer. One vital question, which needs extensive discussion, is that of some form of rank-and-file movement. Another is the question of the revolutionary press. What follows is an attempt to look briefly at the papers of the three groups who participated in the electoral alliance, and to ask who the papers are addressed to and how they are used as organisers.
LO is the weekly paper of the organisation of the same name, with a sale of around ten thousand. LO has always distinguished itself from other revolutionary organisations by stressing its orientation to the industrial working class and its hostility to the petty-bourgeois left milieu. Nonetheless, LO is clearly a paper aimed at an audience already involved in politics. The paper carries a regular page called ‘The Extreme Left and its Press’, which publishes extracts from other revolutionary papers, with LO’s comments on their line.
The greatest strength of LO as a paper, however, is its industrial coverage. The pages devoted to industrial reporting reflect the fact that LO has a far better industrial implantation than any other revolutionary organisation in France. Every issue carries a number of short reports, dealing with accidents, safety and working conditions, sackings, wage struggles, etc. Often the events covered are trivial, but the reports clearly come from LO members or sympathisers inside the workplace. It is these pages which constitute LO‘s claim to be called a ‘workers’ paper’.
But, unfortunately, LO’s industrial implantation is not linked to a perspective of rank-and-file mobilisation. As a result, when it goes beyond description to calls for action, it often remains on a level of extreme abstraction. Thus recent editorial calls for action against the Barre plan:
‘The working class has the capacity to defeat the employers and their government. It has always had it. But today, things are clearer: the government is applying a class policy, without disguise, without smokescreen. Today dissatisfaction is general and it would be blindness to wait for 1978 to face up to the employers’ offensive.
‘For it’s today that workers are being sacked, today that wages are being frozen, and it’s today that we must react before it’s too late.’(LO 9-4-77)
What is missing is any concrete proposal for how a coordinated response to the Barre plan could be organised.
How can the rank and file organise to push the bureaucrats into battle? What alternative forms of organisation can they develop if the official channels are blocked? To all this there is no answer.
The weaknesses of LO as a paper reflect the political weaknesses of LO’s strategy of party-building. The weekly paper complements the regular bulletins which appear in over two hundred factories and workplaces. The bulletins organise the periphery in the single workplace; the paper generalises on the level of socialist propaganda. What the paper does not offer is a means of developing and linking up struggles beyond the level of the single workplace. Without a rank-and-file perspective it cannot do so.
Rouge, paper of the LCR, has been appearing on a daily basis since March 1976. The paper has survived a number of financial crises, and now has a regular sale of around ten thousand a day, of which well over half is outside Paris.
Technically the paper is well designed and produced, but it does not seem to have clearly resolved the question of what audience it is aiming to reach. Sometimes it produces good popular journalism aimed at exposing the evils of capitalism: thus the front page of the issue of 16-4-77 tells the story of two unemployed workers who attempted to burn themselves to death out of a sense of desperation at their situation. Yet at other times the paper seems to orient much more to a committed left readership, and an intellectual one at that. The cultural pages, notably, relate usually to the films and books that left intellectuals are seeing and reading – and very rarely to what workers are watching on television. The industrial coverage, although quite extensive, tends to be rather flat – reports of industrial struggles appear on pages headed ‘Social’, following those headed ‘International’ and ‘Political’. (Very similar to the lay-out of Le Monde.) In general one gets the impression of a paper written by a competent team of journalists – but one in which workers’ voices are not often heard.
The establishment of a daily paper is a significant achievement for any revolutionary organisation, and the LCR are to be congratulated on their success. However, we have to ask what has been the effect of the paper on the building of the organisation. In Britain, the experience of the WRP’s daily papers has been one of a debilitating burden on the membership, and a reinforcement of the organisation’s sectarianism as everything else is subordinated to paper sales. The experience of Rouge is very different. The paper is sold, essentially, through commercial distributors and newsstands. This, of course, poses financial problems: only about twenty per cent of the papers printed are actually paid for. But more important is the political question. Selling the paper is not a major part of the activity of the average LCR member. The paper, even though successful as a newspaper, exists in parallel to the organisation rather than being a tool for its construction.
There are signs, however, that this may change. The front page of the issue of 27-4-77 of Rouge appeals for mass sales on May Day. It says: ‘Rouge is not yet well enough known where it should be, among workers, and May 1st can enable us to enlarge our audience.’ It concludes: ‘Organise militant sales everywhere.’ If this is an indication that Rouge will put more emphasis on membership sales, an important development may be made; in turn this will raise again the question of worker correspondents and concrete agitational demands with a new force.
The fusion conference between Révolution! and the GOP in December 1976 which established a new organisation, the OCT, also launched a new paper, L’Étincelle (The Spark). For some months before the fusion the two groups were producing a joint weekly L’Outil-Révolution. This was, perhaps necessarily, a rather inward-looking paper, with a good deal of space devoted to documents of the pre-fusion discussion.
Now that the fusion is securely established, there is the possibility for L’Étincelle to become a more outward-looking paper. However, the paper still tends to be dominated by long and rather abstract political statements. For example, the issue of 6-1-77 contains a double page spread called ‘What is the workers’ left up to?’ The OCT’s concept of the workers’ left (gauche ouvrière) – a radicalised minority within the working class open to revolutionary ideas – is an important concept. The disappointing thing is that L’Étincelle is still talking about the workers’ left when it should be talking to it.
The problem of the paper’s content is of course directly related to the way the paper is used by the organisation. L’Étincelle (9-2-77) carries figures on the paper’s financial difficulties, which indicate that the sale of the paper (sales by members plus subscriptions, but excluding sales through newsstands) are somewhere around 3300. This would suggest a sale of around two copies per member.
Obviously a more effective sale of the paper is linked to a concept of its use as an organiser. (When I attended a large public meeting called by OCT in Paris in early February those present were not urged to read or sell L’Étincelle – indeed the paper was never mentioned during the evening). Before the fusion, Révolution! carried a number of articles from members showing that there was an awareness of the problems.
In the 24-9-76 issue of Révolution! a comrade stresses that the weaknesses of the paper are no excuse for not selling it. He argues that it is a Stalinist attitude to believe that pride in selling the paper and criticism of its weaknesses cannot go together. If such arguments prevail within the OCT, then L’Étincelle will be able to develop into a more effective and outward-looking paper.
In its issue of 26-3-77, following the municipal elections, LO published a number of proposals for further united action by revolutionaries. As well as proposals for electoral agreements and a common contingent on the May Day demo, they propose, firstly to the LCR, but also to the OCT, the idea of a common newspaper.
‘All the revolutionary organisations devote a large part of their time, activity and resources and attention to publishing a political press. It is a vital task. It is also an indispensable link between an organisation and its public of sympathisers.
‘But if we combine our material, financial and human resources to produce a common weekly, then it’s quite possible to imagine that this weekly would contain space for divergent and separate points of view.
‘And the politicised audience which the extreme left has is quite up to grasping these differences and taking an interest in them. A common press, besides the common face and democratic example it would offer, would moreover have the essential advantage of multiplying the human resources for sales and distribution.’
LO’s desire for unity is laudable, but the proposal is scarcely realistic. The revolutionary newspaper, in the Leninist tradition, is an organiser; it is a tool for building the party. If a jointly-produced paper wins new readers, how will they be integrated into the organisations – will, for example, readers from the left-hand side of the street go to LO and those from the right to LCR? Even more striking is the conservatism of the LO proposal, with its reference to the ‘politicised audience’ of the revolutionary press. The task today is not a new paper for those who already read the left press. It is to reach out to those thousands who voted for the revolutionary lists in March, to expose them regularly to revolutionary ideas, and to mobilise them for action against the Barre plan, unemployment , and the trade union bureaucracy. If LO, Rouge, or L’Étincelle can achieve some success in that task, they will have made a breakthrough for the French left, and thereby accomplished a real step towards eventual regroupment.