Saturday, November 16, 2013

Social Chauvinism as a Political Category in the French Metropolis

This is the paper presented at Historical Materialism 2013 by Félix Boggio Éwanjé-Épée and Stella Magliani-Belkacem.  I am grateful to them for allowing me to republish it here.


We would like to thank Lars Lih, Paul Le Blanc and John Riddel for their precious advices and references. Of course, they cannot be blamed for the potential errors that may follow and they cannot be associated with the political views expressed here. 

What did we try, Stella and I? Two years ago, we were in HM London talking about “What the fuck is up with French feminism”. We then tried to answer to a quite understandable amazement over French feminist endorsement of islamophobia and colorblindnes. Now, we would like to tackle another complex phenomenon: the French left attitude towards race and its contemporary implications for political organization. We tried to see the French left attitude towards race and racism as a historical product, as a cumulative process that is not simply “traditional” but contingent on specific historical events and struggles. To do this we proceed as follows: first assessing the relevance of Lenin’s concept of “social-chauvinism” to the French left, and then, proceeding to understand how social-chauvinism can be, in a nutshell, associated with historical materialist theorizing of political categories and with racial formations. Finally, we will delineate the consequences of these concepts in the practice of the Third International in the early twenties-thirties France and in the theoretical failures of the last thirty years’ left to tackle race as a specific phenomenon. 




Social-chauvinism is a term repeatedly used by Lenin in numerous texts and speeches that accompanied his assessment of the collapse of the Second International. Social-chauvinism meant precisely one of the features of the crisis of social democracy. It referred to the alliance between major social democratic forces with their own imperialist State in the advent of the First World War

Social-chauvinism was not a political category clearly defined by Lenin. It is a blurry word, even a slur. However, this slur echoes to our present day. Social chauvinism referred in the past to an analysis of the positioning of social-democracy at a geopolitical level. However, the echo, the “todayness” of social-chauvinism is, from our perspective, a domestic political category. Social chauvinism designates a contemporary disdain of the French left for racial relations and even an endorsement of various strands of racism (islamophobia, law and order issues, warmongering against drugs) and an unclear stance against imperialism. Indeed, Mélenchon – and his “Left Party” [Parti de gauche] (among the most important organizations of the Front de gauche, Left Front) – is famously associated with a very harsh attitude towards minority self-organization, public expressions of religious identities, with women wearing the veil in associative nurseries, and an anti-imperialist impulse biased against mostly US imperialism, NATO (Mélenchon’s stance remains very soft on the French military and its imperial take on Africa, Afghanistan, merely calling for feeble reform. Front de gauche MPs have voted and supported the French war in Mali).

Social-chauvinism is therefore the name of an increasingly hegemonic political articulation of radical reformism in French left organizing. As revolutionary Marxists, this evolution is indeed very worrying to us and needs a careful longer-term analysis. Social-chauvinism is not without contradictions and countervailing tendencies. To introduce social-chauvinism, in our perspective, as a political domestic phenomenon more generally, we should emphasize several points, that we would like to relate in our opinion to the main defects of social-democracy that Lenin outlined in his famous texts about the crisis of the Second International:

First of all, a narrow and very domestically focused conception of the worker’s movement. It is a characteristic that can be termed: “internationalism in form, chauvinism in essence”. Today as yesterday, verbal appeals to “workers of the world” are overlapped with a form of cultural and political indebtedness to the French State and its legacies. It is related to an idea of the State as a somehow neutral apparatus that can be manipulated at will, to the interest of a class or another. The French Nation as an imagined community is associated with an imagined “progressive” popular history of France that can be counterpoised to a reactionary France. This is at the very heart of Mélenchon’s and the Front de gauche’s reappraisal of the national anthem and their very effective marches during the presidential campaign that mimicked the taking of Bastille of 1789. 

Second, we can outline a general hostility to minoritarian expressions of non-whites, often taken as potentially disruptive to French polity (either in the form of what appears to be “petty delinquency” or in the form of ostentatious display of religious belief). This chauvinistic emphasis on French unity and “vivre-ensemble” (“living together”) is covered by a socialistic call for class against identity. By contrast, in our opinion, it crucially relates to an age-long relationship between the French worker’s movement and parties to the workforce based in the colonies and the colonial movements that emerged against white supremacy and colonialism.





Analysis of contemporary social-chauvinism therefore needs to take into account age-long aspects of social democracy and working class consciousness in a French context. To assess the emergence of a social-chauvinist problematic, we have to focus on the First World War as a shifting point in the French social structure: it is a moment when, instead of mainly Italian and Belgian immigrants, subalterns from the French colonial empires are for the first time introduced in the metropolitan workforce on a large scale: notably workers from North-Africa, what we term “Black Africa”, and workers from Indochina (that is Vietnam). This change amounted to a growing relevance of anticolonial agitation in the metropolitan area for left organizations and a growing strata of intellectuals who were subjects of the colonial Empire. 

According to Lars Lih “Lenin’s political outlook and strategy from 1914 on stemmed from a definition of the situation that he took lock, stock and barrel from the writings of “Kautsky when he was a Marxist.”

What did Kautsky’s scenario entail before what Lenin saw as a betrayal of his very principles? According to Lars Lih, Kautsky’s analysis in the early years of the twentieth century was premised on a thesis of global revolutionary interaction, that is, interaction between a socialist revolutionary agenda in Europe and political and anticolonial revolutions  on the agenda in so-called “backward” or dominated nations. Meanwhile, this global interaction is inscribed within global imperialist rivalries, capital exports in the global South and increasing “world war” tendencies.

Therefore, Lenin’s point, after Kautsky, was to analyze the demise of social-democracy as failures to consider crucial aspects of this global revolutionary scenario, its pitfalls and challenges for the worker’s movement. And Lenin connects that failure to a social analysis of European workers’ movement:


The period of imperialism is the period in which the distribution of the world amongst the ‘great’ and privileged nations, by whom all other nations are oppressed, is completed. Scraps of the booty enjoyed by the privileged as a result of this oppression undoubtedly fall to the lot of certain sections of the petty bourgeoisie and the aristocracy and bureaucracy of the working class.


Well, these quotes are fairly known. There is a great deal of controversy against the labor aristocracy thesis, that is, the idea of a very small portion of the working class being bribed, bought off, with imperialist superprofits. Nonetheless, let me read a comment by a famous opponent of the labour aristocracy thesis, namely, Tony Cliff:


The expansion of capitalism through imperialism made it possible for the trade unions and Labour Parties to wrest concessions for the workers from capitalism without overthrowing it. This gives rise to a large Reformist bureaucracy which in its turn becomes a brake on the revolutionary development of the working class. The major function of this bureaucracy is to serve as a go-between the workers and the bosses, to mediate, negotiate agreements between them, and “keep the peace” between the classes. This bureaucracy aims at prosperous capitalism, not its overthrow. It wants the workers’ organisations to be not a revolutionary force, but Reformist pressure groups. This bureaucracy is a major disciplinary officer of the working class in the interests of capitalism. It is a major conservative force in modern capitalism


Well, there is a great difficulty in Cliff’s thesis that economic roots of reformism lie in “economic prosperity”. There is a mechanistic bias here that can lead to the dangerous idea of reformism being prone to disappear in the advent of crisis. However, what is interesting here is that economic privilege secured by imperialism can entice a section of the working class movement to support the State, even in its imperial aspects. Again, Cliff says, “If Reformism is rooted in Imperialism, it becomes also an important shield for it, supporting its ‘own’ national Imperialism against its Imperialist competitors and against the rising colonial movements.”

There is thus a clear connection between the crisis of social democracy on the one hand, and imperial rivalries notably around colonial possessions on the other. Actually, you can find in social-chauvinistic literature (in Lenin’s sense), socialistic colonial utopias – not only in Bernstein’s and opportunists’ speeches and writings, but also on the left of European social democracy. Paul Lensch, one of the early opponents of revisionism in the SPD, has later on written a book that was an open endorsement of Germany in the World War. In his plea for German imperialism, Lensch wrote: 


After the war, colonial policy will be of the nature of a social policy, for only if the colonial representatives of a government were conscious of their responsibilities as guardians of the interests of the colony, would there be any prospect of making the Colonies what, in the interests of our whole culture and material conduct of life it is essential that they should be: the pillars of that international, or rather intercontinental, division of labour by which the temperate zones are supplied with those indispensable raw materials and fodder stuffs, without which the maintenance of our industrial and agricultural development is impossible. In other words, the revolution which the war has brought about in the capitalistic world means a new epoch also for the colonial world.


Lensch, in his social chauvinistic approval of colonialism, envisions a future development of State Socialism where the colonies would be integrated in a global division of labor. Therefore, social-chauvinism can be told to arise precisely in an endorsement of the very position that imperialist countries and States do have in the international division of labor, that is, social-chauvinism means one form or another of integration into social democratic demands, strategy, analysis of the central tenets of a global division of labor (and, domestically, of metropolitan consequences of it, e.g. in the racialization of the workforce). 

What these developments show is that Lenin’s term, his slur, about social chauvinism, cannot be separated from a specific relationship that working class formations develop towards colonies. This relationship lies in the apparent link between capital expansion and accumulation on the one hand, and on employment and better-wage opportunities on the other. That association between accumulation and job creation is an illusory and fetishistic one, obviously. We know from Marx onwards that capital actually produces unemployment and surplus populations, industrial reserve armies, and drives wages down. However, the real appearance of capital, brought about by the separation between the workers and means of productions, produces the illusion that capital is the origin of wealth and jobs. Therefore the specific features of imperialistic accumulation – and one might add, the racial advantage of white workers in the labor market – can lead to a form of attachment of the worker’s movement to a national imaginary community. That form of attachment, linked to the global division of labour, carries with it a whole social and cultural racial formation. 




We would argue then that the Komintern’s policies addressing the question of the colonial question offer a crucial counterpoint to a longstanding political current in the worker’s movement that can be termed “social-chauvinistic”. Addressing France, it is interesting to see how the implementation of these policies has taken place. In the very early twenties, the French Communist Party established an “Intercolonial Union” that gathered several activists from the colonies. I cannot provide a comprehensive history of the colonial policy of the CP in France. However, one can pinpoint several aspects:

First, colonial policy of the CP was fuzzy and quite unfocused. There were very heroic campaigns for the independence of a region of Morocco that had made session in 1921 and with which France was at war. But that work was being done erratically.

This erratic developments led to autonomist tendencies in the Black communist movement that broke into a separate “negro” organization, the Committee of Defense of the Negro Race

That organization, CDRN has had a very complicated history, the CP gaining hegemony in it at once in the early thirties. What is remarkable is the way in which the CP was involved, often against its own will, in a very tortuous politics of collaborating with nationalistic Black tendencies, with building all-Black unions among Black toilers in Marseille, with tendencies more involved in cultural self-consciousness, with various strand of garveyism.

This is just to take as an example revolutionary Black organizing in France. It is a very complicated example. In this whole story, the CP scrapped many Black activists for being “too autonomist”, and it often sacrificed potential political advances to political lines decided in Moscow. For instance, more sectarian policies towards moderate or nationalistic “negro” organizations or figures were implied by policies of Class against Class in the International Communist Movement. What it amounts to, from our perspective, is that the way in which the Komintern outlined a global “negro question”, an early idea of the Black Atlantic, really contributed to a very rich culture of racial pride alongside with working class identity and solidarity, leading to a more complex tactics of class building. That kind of politics provide a compelling resistance to social-chauvinism in the way in which it ties working class politics with specific issues and oppressions. If the Komintern and the French CP gave credit to Black (or other non-white) autonomism out of pragmatism, that pragmatism teaches an important lesson for practice and theory. In practice, it meant that the racialization of the working class brought about during the First World War and after, meant for communist organizing that an important contradiction was at work in Black autonomist impulses. Indeed, as long as social-chauvinism is a bulwark to revolutionary consciousness, breaking the “white blindspot” (a term taken from Noel Ignatiev and Theodore Allen), breaking the white blindspot, integrating various strands of non-white organizing at the center of the predominantly white working class, can challenge working class focus on the stability and reformability of imperialism.

To elaborate on the disruptive aspects of autonomous organizing and its integration to a left strategy, we can focus on the politics of the revolutionary left during the French Popular Front of 1936. Daniel Guérin and his comrades of the left tendencies of the Socialist Party did uphold during this period the legacy of anti-imperialism and antiracism that the CP was embodying several years ago. Now, from 1937 onwards, the CP abandoned its stance for colonial independence, in order to secure the coalition of the left with the centrists in parliament and government, and also to avoid any interference with democratic France. In other words, the CP had become clearly social-chauvinistic, leading to their approval of the dissolution of the “North-African Star”, a revolutionary nationalist group strong both in Algeria and in the French metropolis among Algerian immigrants. 

Guérin and the left revolutionary current of the Socialist Party opposed on many occasions the colonial policies of the Popular Front as part of a general strategy of undermining the counter-revolutionary impulses of that government. Through this, they established an anti-imperialist center, creating links with British panafricans, George Padmore and Jomo Kenyatta. These currents were numerically weak, but no doubt that today’s trotskyst would better reread that story and how the idea of working along with non-white autonomous groupings can be part of a general struggle against social chauvinism, that is, a struggle against reformism.




Now, theoretically, we will try to show that the consequences of the struggle against social-chauvinism are very relevant to our current situation. Through this, we will assess contemporary problems of the left and how its theoretical biases prevent it from tackling these problems. The following questions must be asked:

- how does the social chauvinist current has taken roots in the French situation and become hegemonic electorally and on the ground, even as far as silencing or even erasing a whole far left anti-imperialist commitment? We can clearly connect that hegemonic take of social chauvinists over the whole left as a consequence of an inability of the anti-imperialist far left to have a principled stance on race, theoretically, and we can further relate it to the far-left’s compromises with more mainstream theories of racism and antidiscrimination policies. It therefore lies in the radical left’s inability to grapple theoretically with its own legacy. 

- How did social-chauvinism evolve through the years and survive to the ’68 social unrest? The answer must lie in the way in which the left and the unions reacted to capitalist restructuring in the 1970’s onwards. For instance, the main lay offs that occurred in the deskilled sector of the working class during the 1970’s were politically organized to favour French workers in taking the workers from the colonies back to “their countries”. How did the left and unions react to these? They often accompanied the process, while the sections opposing it were not theoretically armed to tackle white privilege as a political construction here, and how autonomous immigrants, or immigrants’ sons and daughters struggles were connected to the racialization of the economic crisis.

- how can we conceptualize here and now race in France and fight social-chauvinism? There has been a unique contribution to a French theoretical approach to race in the practical work of Indigènes de la république and the theoretical work of their founding member Sadri Khiari. Really a historical analysis must begin there. Then, we can learn from their work a very important distinction to do between racial strands of the working class, that is, the idea of separate (while intermingled) Time-Spaces. This notion is connected to the idea of global worker historians of integrating geography, demographics and mobility studies into a framework of class, assessing the different temporalities of class formations. This would permit us to understand how different working class constituencies constitute different identities, different movements and different parties (including racially defined parties) and how to work out a real internationalist articulation of social demands. 




It means for us to be creative. To imagine the revolutionary subject as a process of self-reformation, of tensions and conflicts between parties, unions, movements, between white and non-whites (and at another level, between different non-white ethnicities). To imagine the “Modern Prince” as a broad subject that would coordinate out of a process of mutual correcting impulses. The revolutionary party of tomorrow may not be one unitary working class party, but several social movements, parties and associations, organic intellectuals, hegemonic apparatuses, that would collectively, and through fierce internal controversy and conflict, challenge reformism and social chauvinism (I do not mention “sexism” because it is not at the center of our focus here, but it is clearly to be integrated to our perspective). 

As a matter of conclusion, and to defend this perspective from an orthodox tradition, I would like to mention Trotsky’s late rejection of the One-party system in the Soviet Union, in The Revolution Betrayed:


Every word is a mistake and some of them two! It appears from this that classes are homogeneous; that the boundaries of classes are outlined sharply and once for all; that the consciousness of a class strictly corresponds to its place in society. The Marxist teaching of the class nature of the party is thus turned into a caricature. The dynamic of political consciousness is excluded from the historical process in the interests of administrative order. In reality classes are heterogeneous; they are torn by inner antagonisms, and arrive at the solution of common problems no otherwise than through an inner struggle of tendencies, groups and parties. It is possible, with certain qualifications, to concede that “a party is part of a class.” But since a class has many “parts” – some look forward and some back – one and the same class may create several parties. For the same reason one party may rest upon parts of different classes. An example of only one party corresponding to one class is not to be found in the whole course of political history – provided, of course, you do not take the police appearance for the reality.