Melenchon, Left Populism and the Leadership Crisis – V. U. Arslan
The election marathon in France was completed last month. First, Macron won the presidential election in April. When it appeared that Macron’s opponent in the second round was the far-right Le Pen, the result was actually clear from the beginning. But the far-right has proven to remain strong. The parliamentary elections in June in particular were a great success for Le Pen.
On the other hand, the partial success achieved by Melanchon in both elections provides some insight into the tendencies of the left on a global scale. In this article, we will mainly try to discuss this issue. First of all, it would be useful to talk a little about what Melanchon represents.
Melanchon and the French Left
This 71-year-old politician has been carrying out top executive duties for many years in the Socialist Party, one of the two main parties in France. Ministry, senator, deputy… Then he created the Left Party, creating a left split from the Socialist Party, which had shifted to the right, including a kind of French nationalism. He led the left wing of the Party of the European Left, of which HDP and Left Party from Turkey are also members (the right wing is led by Syriza in Greece and the Left Party in Germany). Melanchon, whose existence was uncertain when he left the Socialist Party, formed alliances with the now weakened French Communist Party (PCF) and managed to hold on in high politics. Later, in 2016, he started the La France Insoumise (LFI), (“France Unbowed”) movement. In the first round of the 2017 French presidential elections, he became a candidate with the support of many leftist groups and took the 4th place with 19.58% of the votes. This percentage of votes and the complete dissolution of the Socialist Party would make Melanchon the main figure of the left.
In the first round of this year’s presidential election, he achieved 22% of the votes and narrowly missed his chance to qualify for the second round; but he managed to gather other left parties around him in the parliamentary elections. Socialist Party, French Communist Party, Greens etc. It came together under the leadership of Melanchon under the name of the New Ecologic and Social People’s Union (NUPES) for the parliamentary elections. The motivation of these different groups to unite was to avoid being wiped out in the elections. Even though they disliked Melanchon, they came together under his leadership. Being aware of this situation, the youth and workers were not excited about the establishment of NUPES, but the gathering of left votes in one address led Melanchon and his partners to partial success. As a matter of fact, NUPES, which obtained head-to-head votes with Macron in the first round of the election, managed to become the main opposition party by obtaining 131 seats in the second round. Thus, Macron lost his parliamentary majority. However, these results may not be as bright as described. The fact that far-right Le Pen’s party, the National Front, obtained 89 seats, actually tells a lot. This result shows that Melanchon could not detach large sections of the working class from Le Pen’s demagogy. Moreover, the fact that voter turnout is as low as 46% shows that Melanchon has not been able to create excitement/difference among the youth.
But in the end, Melanchon, who was excluded from the Socialist Party in the past, has now achieved his goal by becoming the main leader of the French left. Of course, for this he had to soften his already not too rigid Keynesian program. He softened criticism of NATO, the United States, and the French “elite”. He built his election rhetoric on three promises: lowering the retirement age, raising the minimum wage, and lowering fuel prices. It should be noted that the self-interested reconciliation with other moderate forces on the left is also well managed by Melanchon. The Socialist Party, the French Communist Party, and the Greens merged with Melanchon, gaining parliamentary seats and financial resource, or else they would have been wiped out; but in return they had to recognize Melanchon’s leadership.
The Failure of the French “Far Left” and the Depression of Our Time
For a complete and accurate understanding of all these processes, we need to mention another parameter. It is the failure of the NPA (New Anticapitalist Party) and LO (Workers’ Struggle) in their claim to represent the “far left” in France. NPA and LO are the stagers of elections in France, and they were able to achieve high vote rates, mainly in the presidential elections (for example, in the 2002 presidential elections, they had a total of around 10%). Melanchon’s rise to prominence is mainly a result of the failure of these forces. As a matter of fact, the reason the NPA didn’t sit on Melanchon’s tail was because the negotiations were futile. Unable to develop a solid stance in the class struggle, the NPA gradually degenerates and loses meaning as a result of bargaining with alternatives rising from its right. Ultimately, these internal tensions may even threaten the future of the NPA. The LO, which has a certain power in the class movement, cannot take advantage of great opportunities because it does not participate in political struggles and turns into a conservative power as a syndicalist and sectarian tendency.
In fact, the class struggle in France has not been weak at all in the last 20 years. When we look only at the last years, we see huge strikes and street movements. The Yellow Vests movement that started at the end of 2018 and shook France for months, or the anti-pension reform strike movements that broke out in December 2019 were tremendous movements. But the NPA and LO were not effective in these struggles, so they could not pull the leading forces in the movement to the far left and could not canalize the energy of the social opposition to themselves. Naturally, when the movement was withdrawn at some point, the fuel price hikes and pension reform went to waste; but it was not possible for the movement to deepen and the masses to be politicized towards the radical left. This is again the failure of NPA and LO. As a result, these two political currents fall behind and fall into pessimism. After the strike and street movements stop at some point; the working masses and the leading forces of the youth vote for the reformist left candidates closest to being elected at the time of the election. It is therefore necessary to see Melanchon as a product of the failure of the LO and the NPA. On the other hand, broad segments who find reformist leaders such as Melanchon inadequate or fake make up the largest group. When this group does not go to the polls, we encounter historically low voter turnout rates.
The Failure of the Revolutionary Left and Intellectual Turns
In fact, what is happening in France reflects the basic trend in the world. When we look at recent history, we have seen that the reactions against the consequences of capitalism, which became extreme in many countries of the world and sometimes turned into rebellions, benefited the left reformist/populist forces. Because they are unorganized and do not have a revolutionary Marxist program; the masses, whose struggles in the street are blocked and withdrawn at one point, vote for left reformists and populist politicians in the elections. Melanchon, Tsipras, Iglesias, Corbyn, Sanders… Gustavo Petro, the candidate of the reformist left, who won the elections this year, is reaping the fruits of last year’s rebellion in Colombia. The great uprising in Chile benefited the reformist politician Gabriel Boric. It is possible to count many similar names in different countries recently.
Intellectuals, who try to produce strategies on behalf of the left in the absence/weakness of revolutionary forces, are also affected by these general tendencies of the class struggle. Already throughout history, middle-class academics and other intellectuals have oscillated according to the course of the class struggle. While the Great October Revolution made Marxism the center of attraction, 1968 opened a page where the star of guerrillaism shined. In the years of defeat, middle-class intellectuals were quickly swept away from Marxism and the working class into identity politics, civil society, and individualism. Radical democracy, post-modernism, post-Marxism, social movements, leftist identities etc. are the products of this period.
Today, as history tightens, imperialist wars expand, and the far right rises, there is an obvious panic among disorganized middle-class intellectuals. This segment, accustomed to the mild climate of bourgeois democracy, is terrified by far-right parties and dictatorship-seeking right-wing populist leaders rising in developed Western metropolises. Their disorganized, individualistic and middle-class existence only increases their pessimism. Naturally, the rise of left populist/reformist leaders like Melanchon can become a door of hope for these intellectuals. They also undertake the task of shining and theorizing this source of hope.
Not just Melanchon, of course. These intellectuals think, “Bernie Sanders might not promise a revolution, but think about the realization of free education (or its promise), would it not be considered as a revolution in the USA?” Mouffe, the theorist of radical democracy, is one of the most remarkable of these names with his suggestions to the left movement. Mouffe and others insisted that the classical Marxist class perspective was left behind in the 1980s, when the worldwide class movement suffered decisive defeats, they were highly influential with their ideas, which were coherent with the spirit of the time. Identity politics was the central line of struggle for radical democracy, which was in fact nothing more than liberal democracy. Today, these ideas are widely followed on the left, especially in Turkey.
However, Mouffe’s final orientation is quite different. He advises that today it is necessary to appeal not to identities but to the working classes, and that left populism is the best strategy:
“When Ernesto Laclau and I wrote Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, the challenge for left-wing politics was to recognize the demands of the ‘new movements’ and the need to articulate them alongside more traditional workers’ demands. Nowadays the recognition and legitimacy of these demands have significantly progressed and many of them have been integrated into the left agenda. In fact it could be argued that the situation today is the opposite of the one we criticized thirty years ago, and that it is ‘working-class’ demands that are now neglected.” (Mouffe, 2019: 69).
In other words, the issue of labor is once again brought to the fore. But we must not be mistaken. The left populism strategy is again against the Marxist program. What they are trying to do, in their own words, is to “build the people” with the emphasis on social justice and to strengthen democracy by creating a struggle against the “oligarchy”. In other words, these new left parties, which broke away from the traditional social democratic parties and have the potential to vote, should present themselves as the critic of the order/system and emphasize the political participation of the excluded people against the political-social elites. If we pay attention, the discourses that will bring votes and sound good, rather than the perspective of the Marxist class struggle, constitute the political strategy. Melanchon, to whom Mouffe is closest, combined French nationalism and social justice policy, which consisted of Keynesian economic policies, and set out to build a left populism against right populism. On the other hand, there is no need to explain at length that this line, which is loyal to the bourgeois state, is within the system.
The traditional social democratic parties in the center have collapsed so much that space has been opened up for new reformists who can establish themselves as an alternative on the high politics level through alliances etc. The rise of new reformists, such as Melanchon, Sanders, Tsipras, who tried to fill this space, excited and inspired those like Mouffe. But the consequences are evident. That’s why even when we say “left social democrat” we should be careful. How is Tsipras and his Syriza different from traditional PASOK? Examples of left-wing populism, such as Podemos in Spain, Die Linke in Germany, Bloco de Esquerda in Portugal and Syriza in Greece, could not go beyond being subject to the program of “anti-oligarchy”. In short, the advices that Mouffe gives to the left is a dead end. So much so that if the reformist left’s experience of government is disappointment and defeat, it is the much feared far-right who profits most from it.
In central countries such as the USA and England, the establishment did not allow the left populism of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn to govern. They obviously thought it was not needed yet, perhaps because the class struggle was not sharp enough to call for their help. But the performance of the new reformist parties, not only in Europe but also in Latin America, is far from frightening capitalists. The fledgling president of Chile, Boric, must have quickly forgotten his own recent history of being involved in the student movement, as he can easily allow harsh police intervention on students. We can add to the list the “leftists” who manage giant economies such as Obrador in Mexico and Lula in Brazil. Chavez’s Venezuela can be cited as the obvious exception to parliamentary socialism. But Venezuela’s “great bankruptcy”, which coincided with the Maduro era, is a frightening example that will prompt other reformist leaders in Latin America to be more moderate.
When the system is clogged, the help of reformist leaders can become critical to the system while it is necessary to calm the strikes and the street. Examples from Mexico, Greece, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and many more always show this. The masses tend to be more tolerant in the face of these governments, which they see as close to themselves, who have the title of left-wing and who put forward a few token reforms and actions. The capitalists know this, too. Therefore, the coming of a left-wing president in Colombia or Chile after so many years is not a worrying situation for the sovereigns, and it is not much of a something for us. The capitalists have already received the necessary guarantees. These reformist leaders are necessary to appease the working classes.
See, even for his Keynesian moderate program, Melanchon made a series of concessions to his partners, the Greens and the Socialist Party. These concessions were actually guarantees given to the system. Such as softening the attitude towards NATO, the EU and the French elites; leaving the “socialism” demagogy aside and relying on limited reform promises. If the class struggle in France becomes radicalized in the future, the system will always need people like Melanchon.
We are entering a period in which class struggles around the world will intensify. Billions of people hit by high inflation are rapidly getting poorer. Rising food prices, escalating hunger and malnutrition, affect especially poor countries deeply. Countries like Sri Lanka and Lebanon went bankrupt. The situation is not only relevant in less developed countries. For example, Italy, one of the largest economies in Europe, is struggling in a huge debt swamp. Apart from the impoverishment of the people, there is a big problem of how to turn this debt swamp. But the Italian left, which has a great tradition of struggle, is completely disintegrated.
Under these conditions, everything looks at the revolutionary left’s liberation from marginality, its massification, and its ability to establish concrete ties with the workers and the masses. Otherwise, the class movement will struggle in the vicious circle we are talking about. Social outbursts will not be canalized into revolutionary channels because of a lack of leadership, with the result that reformist left leaders, and in many cases far right, will take advantage of the opportunity. On the other hand, the assertiveness of the revolutionary left will resonate all over the world and will create inspiration and cause rapid changes in the balance of power.
Mouffe (2019) Sol Popülizm, İstanbul: İletişim