The recent Québec solidaire congress, held on Nov. 15-17, concluded with enthusiastic speeches from Manon Massé and Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, who confidently stated that “our movement is the real force opposing the CAQ”. Indeed, everything seems to point towards Québec solidaire being a strong contender for power in three years’ time. The party has a record 10 MNAs and has never been so high in the polls. This, combined with the fact that both the Liberals and the PQ seem to be existentially struggling to define themselves in opposition to the CAQ government, could mean that QS will be in a favorable position to challenge the CAQ for power in the next election.

However, this congress unfortunately also demonstrated a worrying trend. While party spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois has previously said that he would not be watering down the party program to win votes, you would have to be blind to not see that this is exactly what is taking place. As the party tops prepare to “take power” (referencing their main slogan), they are increasingly moderating the party program to be more “practical” and “credible.” 

Where was the revolutionary left?

Quebec solidaire has always styled itself as a “new” left party, distinguishing itself from the tired old social democratic parties around the world who have governed in many countries. The party was in fact created through various communist, Marxist and socialist groups coming together with feminist, anti-globalization and community organizations.

As Benoit Renaud, a socialist and long standing member of QS’s national leadership, described, “One could qualify QS as a united front party, with reformists and revolutionaries working together to achieve common goals.” But what was remarkable at this congress was the complete dominance of the reformist wing of the party and the near absence of the revolutionary left. This has clearly been aided by a bureaucracy which is more established than ever after the breakthrough in the 2018 fall election.

Unfortunately, the revolutionary left has been on the decline in the party for a long time. In the early days the revolutionary left, represented by Gauche socialiste, Masse Critique, the Communist Party of Quebec and others, took the mistaken approach of sinking all of their forces into the party apparatus, and tried not to rock the boat, accepting reformism in order to maintain unity. The long-term effects of this approach have been the near complete liquidation of the revolutionary left in the party and the triumph of more clearly social-democratic tendencies. Most of these revolutionary elements have now been cleared out of the party’s leading bodies. Benoit Renaud, the last remaining open “Marxist” on the leadership, stepped down at the 2019 congress.

Green capitalism

Leading up to the congress, it became clear that on the question of the environment, what was being proposed was a huge step backwards. The main proposal at the congress was to add to the program a series of measures called “eco-fiscalité” (ecological fiscality), which in essence ended the party’s principled opposition to the carbon tax and carbon market. 

QS as an ecologist and anti-capitalist party had always rejected the carbon tax because it “hits the poorest especially hard,” as well as the carbon market which the party program correctly described as, “tools for the enrichment of multinationals, which risk becoming a new speculative device.” This was a refreshing approach, rejecting the old tired market-based “solutions” attempted by liberals and social democrats alike for over a decade to little effect. 

However, the only alternative proposal was a series of measures focused on taxing the banks, big business and the rich to finance an ecological transition. The delegates ended up voting by a strong majority for the first option, thus ending the party’s opposition to market-based solutions to the climate crisis. Why is this?

The first reason this passed so easily is that the defenders of ecological fiscality repeated over and over that “we need all measures at our disposal to fund the green transition” without any serious opposition. It was therefore argued that we needed to accept the carbon tax and the carbon market to raise the necessary funds to combat climate change. The second reason why this passed so easily was that unfortunately, the radical left in the party was almost completely absent from the debate.

In response to this, the International Marxist Tendency, which is an official collective within QS, put forward an alternative resolution calling for measures which break from the capitalist market such as nationalizations and economic planning. The resolution states,

It is capitalism that is destroying our planet. Its insatiable pursuit of profit is responsible for the downgrading of environmental standards and the living conditions of the majority. To enable us to initiate a real change for the survival of the planet and humanity, a Quebec solidaire government will nationalize the major sectors of the economy in order to implement an economic transition plan under the democratic control of society.

We managed to pass this resolution in two riding associations (Viau and Hochelaga-maisonneuve), but the synthesis committee ruled this resolution “out of order” on the pretext that it was supposedly “not one of the subjects of this congress”. This was a scandalous breach of the democratic traditions of the party, restricting the debate at the congress, reflecting the complete dominance of the reformist wing of the party. Apparently, market-based measures and policies like taxing the rich are “in order”, but not socialist policies!

Of course, ecological fiscality is put forward as a “new” idea. But in reality, this just makes QS’s proposals not all that different from the status quo policies peddled by the Trudeau Liberals, or even the provincial Liberals for that matter, who were the first to implement a carbon tax in the country in 2007 under Jean Charest. In addition, the Quebec government already has a carbon market, again making this rather run-of-the-mill. Such proposals have already proved to be ineffective, and are in no way “tools to finance the green transition”. When faced with such a serious climate crisis, we need bold socialist measures which get to the root of the problem, taking control of the economy out of the hands of a tiny clique of billionaires who make a fortune from destroying the planet.

Ecological fiscality is based on the “polluter-pays” principle, regardless of class. But there are problems with this. Carbon taxes are regressive taxes, hitting the poorest the hardest, as they have less financial means to shoulder this burden. We only have to remember the mass movement of the gilets jaunes in France early this year which was sparked off against Macron’s carbon tax to see how this proposal is fundamentally reactionary. While the carbon tax proposal contained in ecological fiscality claims to be “progressive and redistributive” to “compensate the less fortunate,” poor people rarely have the luxury to wait until the end of the year for their solidarity cheque while a tax increases the cost of living in the immediate term. Punishing the poor will still be felt as punishment even if you develop some redistribution scheme. 

Unfortunately, the alternative proposal of taxing the rich and powerful also came short of addressing the main issue. What happens when the companies and the rich are heavily taxed? They simply pull their capital out of the economy. This has happened time and time again when left wing governments try to impose new taxes and regulations on capitalists. The only option in our opinion is nationalizations to break from the capitalist market and place these companies under democratic workers’ control. Only in this way will we be able to fight against both inequality and the destruction of our environment.

IMT activist, Julien Arseneau spoke at the congress explaining this point:

The most glaring absence was the eco-socialist network, which united most revolutionary currents in the party in 2013-2014 to much enthusiasm. But for eco-socialists, surely this was the moment to rush to the barricades! Now it seems as though the creation of the eco-socialist network was only a continuation of the liquidation of the revolutionary left. This significant group of activists has gone dormant with no activity on their website or Facebook page for over a year. 

While Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois opened up the congress with a speech in which he said “We must change the economic system, not the climate,” the acceptance of the carbon tax and the carbon market does nothing to change the economic system of capitalism which is responsible for destroying the planet. 

An army?

The congress also debated many proposals coming from Option Nationale’s program on the question of Quebec independence. The biggest proposal on the table was that of “national defence.” Option A was that of a “non-violent civil defence”, Option B was a “defence with a military component” (i.e. an army), whereas Option C talked about the “gradual implementation of a defence without an army”. Just a few days before the congress, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois came out in favour of Option B. 

Left-wing circles are filled with “anti-imperialist” and “anti-war” activists who normally would have been horrified at the idea of voting for a standing army. But the debate was unfortunately presented as a choice between “defending yourself” and “not defending yourself”. Thus, option B was able to present itself as the only realistic option.

QS voted in favour of a Quebec army. Credit: Charlotte Lemieux

However, this debate has missed the point. Of course, if we are discussing an independent Quebec, it is obvious that defence is a very important question, but the question remains to be answered: defend what exactly? And against whom? The truth is that an army is not a neutral entity, disconnected from society. The same economic links that unite the military machine, whatever the country, with industries, and in particular with the armaments industry, would exist under an independent Quebec. The same social ties that unite the senior officers with the capitalist ruling class would exist under an independent Quebec. The character of the army is ultimately determined by the economic organization of the society in which it finds itself. In the final analysis, the state is composed of armed men and women whose function is to defend dominant property relationships. If the party refuses to expropriate the big capitalists, any future state will be a capitalist state and the future army will ultimately be an army used to protect the interests of the Quebec capitalists. It is simply wishful thinking to believe that we could somehow force the military to be neutral faced with the huge class battles on the horizon in Quebec. We only need to take a look at events in Bolivia to see where the military has stepped in to overthrow the left-wing government of Evo Morales.

What the International Marxist Tendency argues for is a socialist Quebec, where we put an end to the domination of big capitalists over the economy and our lives. It is true that under these conditions, imperialism would take action to kill the baby in the cradle. The question of defense is therefore a very serious one. In a socialist Quebec, workers will need to defend against the Quebec capitalists as well as against the foreign imperialists. This defence should be democratically controlled by the working class itself through the trade unions. Such an armed workers’ defence would be very different from the standing army of capitalist states. 

The effects of the merger with Option Nationale

When 2012 student strike leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois joined Quebec solidaire in 2017, one of his stated top priorities was to merge QS with the small nationalist party, Option nationale (ON). The IMT opposed this at the time, explaining that as ON was to the right of QS and as a much more nationalist formation, this would inevitably mean that QS would have to make serious political concessions which were not in any way worth it for uniting with a party that had less than one percent of the vote. We explained that this merger would inevitably lead to the watering down of QS’s program and would drag the party in a much more nationalist direction. The only member of the national coordinating committee at the time who opposed the merger, Jean-Claude Balu, explained that “My fear is that we are in a constant process of trying to revise our program to moderate it, to make it more acceptable to independentists in general.” This is in fact exactly what has been taking place, even before the merger.

One of the results of the merger with ON was that QS would take steps to integrate certain propositions from the ON program, most notably on the steps towards an independent Quebec. In fact, the main policy proposals accepted at the latest Congress, the standing army and écofiscalité, came directly from Option nationale’s program. We have seen that these proposals moved the party further to the right, confirming the warnings that we issued two years ago.

Once again: The lessons of Syriza

As mentioned above, QS has always styled itself as a party of the new left, similar to Podemos, France Insoumise or Syriza. While Podemos and France Insoumise have thus yet been unable to win power, Syriza did win government in 2015 in Greece, providing us with a useful example of the challenges facing the left once in power. 

Syriza (the coalition of the radical left) which began as a very tiny anti-capitalist party similar to QS, saw its support rise to 27 percent in 2012 and then 36 percent in January 2015, forming government that year. Syriza came to power on the promise of reversing the austerity of the previous government and implementing a series of measures to raise workers’ living standards. However, once Syriza took power the brutal reality of the capitalist system became clear. Unfortunately, the leaders of Syriza had no plan for breaking from the capitalist system (much like the leaders of QS) and they were therefore forced to play by the capitalists’ rules and capitulate. The Syriza government implemented a worse austerity program than the previous conservative government and even sent in the police to quell protests. Syriza thus completely discredited herself, and paved the way for the return of the right to power.

This example is important to analyze to see the pitfalls of attempting to reform the system without touching the economic pillars of the economy. In the context of QS striving to defeat the CAQ and take power in three years, it is imperative that we study the example of Syriza to avoid such a brutal betrayal. A similar fate awaits a future QS government if we do not develop a concrete plan of how we will break from capitalism.

When we attempted to get our resolution on nationalization of the main levers of the economy on the congress agenda, an opposing delegate said that this was beyond the scope of the congress, since it would be a debate “on socialism”. But this is precisely the point. Sooner or later, Québec solidaire will have to discuss the need for socialist measures.

The Greek experience is not an isolated case. Since the economic crisis of 2008, capitalists have forced governments to implement austerity measures to make workers pay for the crisis. A new crisis is on the horizon and no government, even a well-meaning left-wing government, will be able to resist unless we chose to break from capitalism. QS must learn from the Greek experience and it is the goal of the International Marxist Tendency to fight for a clear socialist policy to avoid a similar experience here in Quebec. Capitalism cannot be reformed. Left-wing governments that wish to do so inevitably end up hitting a brick wall.