France: the yellow vests, Lenin and the leadership of the CGT

20 November 2018

The mobilisation of the gilets jaunes (“yellow vests”) protest movement marks an important step in the development of the class struggle in France. With no party, no union, and no pre-existing organisation, hundreds of thousands of people have participated in this movement against a tax increase on diesel and petrol, sweeping aside the pseudo-concessions and threats of the government. They are supported by a large majority of the population.

Their determination is a reflection of their anger and suffering. They are burning with indignation at a government that is constantly increasing the tax burden on workers, retirees and the middle classes, while the richest benefit from all sorts of “tax relief”, subsidies and other rebates. The yellow vests have fully understood that the argument of the “ecological transition” is just another pretext to loot the mass of the population for the benefit of a handful of wealthy parasites.

This movement is politically and socially heterogeneous, naturally! The reactionary government policy on fuel hikes has hit not only workers, but also artisans, small traders, small farmers, white-collar professions, pensioners and other intermediate social layers. The social and political heterogeneity of the yellow vests movement indicates its deep roots in society. It is not just a mobilisation of a vanguard of the most conscious and organised workers. It is a mass movement that has raised usually inert social strata. Of course, no one can say how far it will go. But what is clear is that a movement of this nature is characteristic of the precursors to a revolutionary situation. On the island of La Réunion, the movement has already taken on an insurrectional character.

Lenin on mass movements

Left-wing activists who are critical about the “confusion” of the movement must think about what Lenin wrote in 1916:

“Whoever expects a ‘pure’ social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is […] The socialist revolution in Europe cannot be anything other than an outburst of mass struggle on the part of all and sundry oppressed and discontented elements. Inevitably, sections of the petty bourgeoisie and of the backward workers will participate in it—without such participation, mass struggle is impossible, without it no revolution is possible—and just as inevitably will they bring into the movement their prejudices, their reactionary fantasies, their weaknesses slid errors. But objectively they will attack capital, and the class-conscious vanguard of the revolution, the advanced proletariat, expressing this objective truth of a variegated and discordant, motley and outwardly fragmented, mass struggle, will be able to unite and direct it, capture power, seize the banks, expropriate the trusts which all hate (though for difficult reasons!), and introduce other dictatorial measures [1] which in their totality will amount to the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the victory of socialism, which, however, will by no means immediately ‘purge’ itself of petty-bourgeois slag.”

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These few lines from Lenin characterise the movement of yellow vests. At the same time, they indicate the role that trade unions and political organisations of the workers’ movement should play in such circumstances: they should “unite and direct” the struggle of the masses towards the conquest of power and the overthrow of capitalism. In this respect, there is a huge discrepancy between what Lenin wrote a century ago and what most of the ‘leaders’ of the labour movement do today. In fact, they do not ‘lead’ anything. They have turned their backs on the movement of the yellow vests, when they are not attacking it.

For example, the leader of the CFDT, Laurent Berger, described this movement as “totalitarian”. As an agent of the bourgeoisie within the labour movement, Laurent Berger never misses a good opportunity to defend the established order, that is, the domination (“totalitarian”, in a sense) of the banks and multinationals.

Errors by union leaders

What about Philippe Martinez, who heads the most powerful and militant trade union confederation, the CGT? The “overthrow of the bourgeoisie” and the “victory of socialism” are light years away from his intentions, which is very regrettable, because the problems of the masses cannot be solved on the basis of capitalism. This being said, what position does Philippe Martinez defend? He says he understands the “legitimate” anger of the yellow vests, but refuses to involve his organisation in this movement, because he does not want to see the CGT “march beside the National Front”. At the same time, however, he recognises that the extreme right is a “minority” in the movement (in fact, it is marginal as an organised force in general). The initial and central demand of the yellow vests is the cancellation of the increase in fuel taxes, but Philippe Martinez does not support this demand. On the contrary, he has asked the government to revalue the minimum wage, so that workers can – among other things – buy “clean vehicles”!

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This position is completely wrong, and totally disconnected from the real situation. Of course, we must fight for an increase in the minimum wage and wages in general. But this demand does not contradict or exclude the demand that is at the heart of the movement of yellow vests, which has animated broad layers of society: the cancellation of the increase in taxes on fuel. Instead of opposing this with the demand for a salary increase, the management of the CGT should take up the central (and fair) demand by the yellow vests, while defending its general programme for increasing purchasing power – including, of course, an increase in wages.

The CGT should explain that the rise in fuel taxes has nothing to do with the environment. This is looting for the benefit of multinationals, because the money from tax increases will end up in the coffers of the bosses, in the form of subsidies and tax giveaways. If the government needs a few billion euros to brace its budget, let it take from the coffers of multinationals – not the pockets of the people! Instead of making this simple and clear point, Philippe Martinez has implied that the hands of the bosses lie behind the yellow vests, thus spreading mistrust.

By refusing to engage in the fight for lowering fuel taxes, the leadership of the CGT has abandoned this ground to the right and far-right wing, whose professional demagogues have discovered, in recent days, that they are against these taxes, and are making it known loudly. Fortunately, the grassroots of the CGT ignored their marching orders from Philippe Martinez. They mobilised with the yellow vests. Links have been created; joint actions have even been carried out. This is the way to go forward!

Support the yellow vests – expose the demagogues!

Moreover, how does the CGT’s leadership plan to wrest from the government – and therefore the employers – the 300 Euro minimum wage increase it is demanding? Presumably, by organising a new “day of action” without any future plans, despite the obvious failure of the strategy of action days over the last 10 years? We can only assume. For the moment, with a mass movement in which he refuses to participate, Martinez simply demands salary increases.

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We have often stressed that the strategy of “days of action” is hopeless. It led to the defeat of the great social movements of 2010, 2016 and 2017 (among others). The crisis of French capitalism is so deep that in its race to carry out cuts and roll back reforms, the Macron government will not shrink from action days, no matter how massive they are. In the present circumstances, for our class to win a serious victory, it will require the development of a movement of renewable strikes in a growing number of economic sectors.

This is precisely what the bourgeoisie and its government fear: that the movement of yellow vests will play trigger a movement of renewable strikes. This is the moment Philippe Martinez has chosen to declare: “you can do it without me! I will not mobilise alongside the FN. ” This position is absurd. What the movement of yellow vests demonstrates very clearly is the growing exasperation and combativeness of large layers of workers. Therefore, instead of deserting the field, the CGT leadership should do everything it can to support this movement, and build on its momentum to put on the agenda a general offensive of the working class against all the reactionary policies of the government. For starters, the leadership of the CGT should make a call to its members to participate massively in the demonstration of yellow vests in Paris, scheduled for 24 November. Then, Wauquiez, Le Pen and the other bourgeois demagogues would hesitate and try to hold back the movement. Which is to say, their masks would slip.


[1] In Lenin’s day (that is, before the horrors of Nazism and Stalinism), the term “dictatorial” had no negative connotations at all. By “dictatorial measures”, Lenin simply refers to measures (economic and political) by which workers impose their will on the bourgeoisie – just as the bourgeoisie, under capitalism, imposes its will on the workers. In this sense, the “dictatorship of the proletariat” is nothing but workers’ democracy: the power of the workers once they have overthrown the “dictatorship of capital”.

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