Marx Is Dead, Long Live Marx

Communists always make the French elections interesting. The upcoming presidential election, for which the first round of voting will commence on April 22, promises more of the same.

Most of the press attention thus far has focused on the top three candidates. These include frontrunner Nicolas Sarkozy, the tough-talking former prime minister; Segolene Royal, the Socialist candidate running on the party’s traditional anti-capitalist platform; and dark horse Francois Bayrou, about whom no one seems to know anything other than that he’s a “centrist.”

Of course, centrist is a relative word — whether or not one is a centrist depends on the positions of the other candidates. And what are these? According to the Associated Press,
the field of 12 presidential hopefuls contains six candidates to the left of the Socialist Royal, including “three Trotskyists [and] a Communist.” You know a country is serious about Marxism when there are so many Marxist candidates that the Trotskyists are listed separately from the garden-variety Communists.

But these fine distinctions are apparently still taken seriously on the far left. The World Socialist Web Site, for example, published a broadside against Olivier Besancenot, the presidential candidate of the Revolutionary Communist League. Accusing him of denying Marxism by publicly disassociating himself from Trotsky, the website quoted Besancenot as voicing tolerance for different strands of communism “such as libertarianism and syndicalism.”

It’s certainly touching to see that French presidential candidates are so inclusive, embracing everything from communist libertarianism to communist syndicalism. Amazingly, that’s not even the full extent of the anti-capitalist choices on the French ballot. Voters can also choose Jose Bove, a sheep farmer and anti-globalization crusader. Candidate Bove preaches ”an electoral insurrection against economic liberalism” and ”a social, feminist, democratic, anti-racist and ecological revolution” — a program rarely advocated outside American university classrooms.

A die-hard opponent of genetically modified crops, Bove became a folk hero in France after leading an attack on a McDonald’s restaurant in 1999, an act for which Bove received one of his several jail sentences. Apparently, French prison food is purely organic.

And France’s red-tinged slate of candidates this year is no anomaly — French Communists still carry real electoral clout. The Communists were members of the governing coalition led by former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, a former Communist himself. The far left received an incredible 19% of the vote in the last election.

The only thing preventing a red from becoming a legitimate presidential contender is the perpetual tendency of Communist leaders toward vicious infighting — a grand tradition dating back to Marx himself. A Communist candidate that could unite the fifth of the electorate that votes the far-left ticket would currently poll third, and could probably pick off many additional votes from most other candidates except for Sarkozy.

In fact, it was the diffusion of the far-left vote among the various Communist candidates that famously allowed far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen into the second round of voting in 2002. News of Le Pen’s first-round victory provoked hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen to take to the streets in protests that often degenerated into rioting and clashes with the police.

Think about that for a second. The French were engaging in mass demonstrations and riots to protest their own vote. There were no allegations of electoral fraud or disenfranchisement — just disgust at how they, themselves, had voted. News reports related that protestors held signs reading, “I’m ashamed to be French.” While one can only sympathize with that particular sentiment, it’s hard to understand all the hubbub against Le Pen — this being France, even a right-wing extremist like Le Pen makes opposition to capitalism a primary plank of his program.

Unfortunately for the neo-communists, Marx didn’t leave much in the way of instructions for dealing with France’s current spate of existential problems. During Karl’s days, France’s cities were not ringed with teeming slums of Islamic immigrants in which car burnings by rioting “youths” was the most popular sport.

So why the abiding fascination with Communism — a governing philosophy that has brought nothing but economic ruin and secret police goon squads everywhere it has been tried? Has socialism really been that good to France, where chronic unemployment is increasingly leaving the youth with little to do except to riot, as they did last spring in response to a modest government attempt to loosen up the labor markets?

Perhaps the allure of Communism stems from the glorified memory of the French Revolution. But recalling how that episode ended at Robespierre’s guillotines, one would think France, of all nations, would recognize the historical tendency of militant egalitarianism to degenerate into mass murder.

George Schultz once described the plan for the Iran-Contra deal as the snake that wouldn’t die. That is an apt description of French Communism. No matter how many mass graves are uncovered in Cambodia, the former Soviet Union, and elsewhere; no matter how many citizens of Communist countries risk death to escape from their workers’ paradise; and no matter how many times the newly freed victims of Communism across the world emerge into the free world blinking, hungry, and with a terrible sense of fashion, the ideology somehow cannot be discredited.

Royal recently received some criticism for allegedly trying to expropriate the symbols of the far right. Her transgression? Suggesting that the French put national flags in their windows and sing the national anthem at her rallies. In a country whose sense of national identity is so shallow that these acts are considered to be the exclusive domain of the far right, perhaps it’s not all that mysterious why the Communist snake never quite slithers away.