The Quebec solidaire congress held on the weekend of May 28-29th marked the 10 year anniversary for the left-wing party in Quebec. After decades of domination by the Liberals and the Parti Quebecois (PQ), the founding of Quebec solidaire (QS) in 2006 generated a lot of enthusiasm as youth and workers were excited to break the hegemony of the two main bourgeois parties. Over the past several years, the province has been shaken by one mass movement after another, presenting QS with an ideal situation to grow as the only anti-austerity party in the province. In spite of this, the gains for the party have been rather small, only managing to pick up three seats and less than 8 per cent of the vote in the last provincial election. How can we explain this situation? What is the future for QS? How can we defeat the bosses' parties?
Quebec solidaire and the struggle for a workers' party in Quebec
To this date, workers in Quebec have not been able to create their own political party to fight for their interests. Following the defeat of the 1972 general strike, the PQ co-opted the workers' movement into a national union with Québécois capitalists to fight for their ‘common interests’. Like all national unions, the class pressures of society exacerbated by the hammer blows of capitalist crisis would inevitably cleave this national union in two.
Over the years, the PQ has moved far to the right, exposing itself to be defending not the interests of the Quebecois, but the interests of the Quebecois capitalists. From the support for the FTA agreement of Parizeau in the 1980s, to the “deficit zero” politics of Bouchard of the 1990s, the process has run its course with arch strike breaker multi-millionaire Pierre Karl Peladeau easily taking the leadership of the party last year.
While the class pressure has been pushing the PQ more and more to the right, the workers and students have been radicalizing. Since the 1995 referendum all of the main mass movements in the province have been focused around class questions. The FTAA demo in 2001, the general strike movement of 2004, the student strike of 2005, the Occupy movement of 2011, the students strike of 2012 and the recent mass public sector strikes all show an immense amount of social turbulence in Quebec society with workers and youth fighting more and more along class lines.
It is not surprising that within this context of increasing class conflict, Quebec solidaire was founded as a split in this “national unity,” with the workers and youth of Quebec moving to break the stranglehold of the bourgeoisie on politics in the province. From its birth, QS has been an embryo, a potential party that could canalize the anger of the people and become a mass force that could challenge the rule of the capitalists. It is with this in mind that the Marxists were excited with the formation of Quebec solidaire - a party that could move towards the establishment of a real mass party of the Quebec working class for the first time in history. We held out the hope that QS could be an impetus to break the powerful Québec unions away from the bourgeois nationalist PQ and Bloc Québecois (BQ). The organizational might of the Québec labour movement, with deep roots in the working class, has the material resources to break the stranglehold of the bourgeois parties. We have fought for QS to adopt clear and bold socialist politics as the only way to enthuse and mobilize workers and youth in the province and make this a reality.
Reformism or Revolution?
In the beginning, Quebec solidaire was more radical than it is today. The party was born as “a party of the streets and the ballot box” and claimed that it was the “social question” (class question) that was the most important for the party. In 2009, the party launched a manifesto on May 1st entitled To emerge from the crisis, should we go beyond capitalism? The question was responded to in this way, “Those who want to 'restructure capitalism' are missing the real issues. We believe that capitalism needs to be overcome, that is to say, we need to move towards radically different political, social and ecological alternatives.” In addition, at the party congress in 2011, party members voted in favour of nationalization of strategic sectors of the economy, including financial institutions.
Unfortunately, over the past number of years, the leadership has continually watered down the program, never raising the capitalist system and nor advocating for any of the more radical measures voted on by the party membership. The more openly reformist wing of the party has slowly won out over the more radical elements and more and more the party seems like any standard social democratic party, fully committed to working within the rotten system to try to make a tiny change here or there.
As workers and youth have been radicalizing and combating the injustices of the system, the general tendency with the leadership of QS has been to water down their platform and to try to convince the other parties that they are “reasonable”. In the fall of 2014, Françoise David stated that QS needed to prove that it was a “credible economic alternative.” Adding to this, she said that “[I]dealism is good, but at some point you have to enter the real world [...] We are practical idealists.” This was most clearly expressed recently by Amir Khadir when he openly spoke of the leadership's perceived hurdle for the party being their “radical” image. “We realize there are important hurdles in front of us, there was the perception (in the beginning) that we were radicals. In fact, we’re reformists. We are at the National Assembly because we accepted the principle of reform.”
This is the main reason why the party has been unable to capitalize on the mood of anger and discontent in society. More and more, workers and youth are realizing, through their own experience, that capitalism is a dead end. This is especially true for young people who are demanding a radical change to this increasingly unbearable situation. Faced with perpetual austerity and a future with few possibilities, the youth are looking for a revolutionary transformation of society.
On top of this, instead of using clear language to speak to the working class and youth of Quebec, the leaders of the party continually deploy vague and cryptic language which makes the party seem out of touch and confusing. For example, the party leaders constantly uses the term “citizens” when referring to who the party is fighting for. This clearly shows the narrow confused petty-bourgeois character of the leadership. Isn't Pierre Karl Peladeau a citizen? Which citizens are we referring to? Why the ambiguity about who the party fights for and who the party represents? In place of vague language like this, QS needs to adopt clear and bold language. We fight for workers, youth and all layers of the oppressed, not 'citizens' in general.
This is in stark contrast to the clear and bold language used across the border in the United States by Bernie Sanders, a self-described “democratic socialist” who has been mobilizing and enthusing millions of Americans with his “revolution against the billionaire class”. Sander's language connects with and speaks to the needs of workers and youth. While the program Sanders puts forward is limited and does not put forward social ownership, his popularity arises from his bold rhetoric, including his language of “revolution”, for which there is mass enthusiasm. Most important is the fact that he is constantly and clearly denouncing the entire rigged system, the economy, the political process, the ruling class and is therefore seen as a radical break from the status quo in the United States.
Contrary to this, the leaders of Quebec solidaire seem to be allergic to the word “socialism,” picking any variety of different leftist labels like “alter-globalization”, “feminist”, “ecologist”, “sovereigntist”, “democratic”, “pluralist” and even “solidarity”! Everything but socialism!
The national question and the PQ
The moderation and watering down of the political program and message of the party has not coincidentally coincided with a much greater focus of the party leadership on nationalism to the detriment of class based politics. While the national question cannot simply be dismissed, it is important to have the correct approach.
The Quebecois are an oppressed nationality within the Canadian state. The so-called Clarity Act is the most clear violation of the democratic rights of the Québec people to determine their own future. Marxists are duty bound to fight against all forms of oppression and therefore we fight for all the democratic rights of the Quebecois, up to and including the right to separate if the population democratically decides to do so on this question. However, genuine liberation cannot be achieved under capitalism. National independence under capitalism would not solve the problems facing the working class and youth of Quebec. In order to fight against the capitalists, whether they are anglophone or francophone, workers need to unite in this common struggle. Unfortunately, the approach of the Quebec solidaire leaders to this question has tended to be a very nationalist one. When the class struggle flares up, the QS leaders have tended to put forward nationalist politics which has contributed to dividing the workers and has distracted from the fight against the capitalists in the province.
In 2011 when the Occupy movement had flared up and there was a mass occupation of the financial sector in Montreal denouncing the '1%', QS leader Françoise David was seen locked arm in arm with Pauline Marois and other bourgeois sovereigntist leaders in a demonstration for independence. Then again during the 2012 provincial election, the only demonstration that the party organized was a gathering in favour of sovereignty. This is especially ridiculous when we consider that the context of this election was immediately following the massive Quebecois Spring student strike movement which shook the province to the core and saw hundreds of thousands of students and workers take to the streets almost daily. When class questions are on the order of the day, the party leadership pushes forward nationalist politics.
This was seen most clearly when the short-lived PQ government of Pauline Marois put forward their “Charter of Quebec Values” (also know as the Charter of Secularism) which controversially recommended the banning of religious head coverings for public employees among other things. This reactionary charter divided and distracted the working class from the fact that the PQ government had gone back on their promises and was actually implementing more austerity than the Charest government before them! QS could have benefited from exposing this cynical manoeuvre of the PQ but instead they ended up playing the PQ's game. They welcomed the charter and simply proposed their own version which made similar recommendations.
Again and again, by adopting nationalist politics, QS is seen by people to be simply the left rump of the Parti Quebecois. As workers and youth mobilize in their hundreds of thousands around class politics, the leadership of QS continually plays into the age old game of the PQ. All the polls show that workers, and especially the youth are sick and tired of this same old back and forth between the nationalists and the federalists, and are looking for class based politics.
There is a deep resentment and distrust of the “establishment” in Quebec, which is similar to anti-establishment sentiment that has given rise to mass left-wing movements in countries such as Spain, Greece, the USA, Britain and France. The PQ is very much viewed as part of the establishment in Quebec. Unfortunately, the leadership of the QS continually entertains the idea of a “sovereigntist alliance” or a coalition with the bourgeois Parti Quebecois with the goal of bringing down the federalist Liberals.
This is in spite of the fact that members of the QS have voted against any alliance with the PQ during many congresses. Disregarding this, the leadership of the party has been constantly saying that they are “open” to this possibility. This only contributes to the perception of the QS as desiring to be a part of the rotten and hated political establishment and therefore to be not much different than the PQ.
The Lessons of Syriza – Fight for Socialist Revolution!
The leadership of Quebec solidaire considers the party to be in the same mould as the various “New Left” formations in Europe like the Parti de Gauche in France, Die Linke in Germany, Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece.
QS especially drew inspiration from the election of Syriza last year in Greece. At the time of the election, the party released a statement, celebrating the election of Syriza which publicly stated, “Congratulations to the Syriza and the Greek people. A link in the chain of austerity was broken today, with the background of hope and celebration all over Europe. Yes, it is possible to change politics. Yes, it is possible to get out of the infernal cycle of austerity. Yes, it is possible for a young popular party to take power.” They organized a joint event with representatives from Syriza, Die Linke and Podemos and party spokesperson Andres Fontecilla claimed that “Quebec solidaire has forged links with its cousin, Syriza.”
These new left parties have gained a certain amount of popularity due to the discrediting of the old parties who have been in government, implementing cuts to social spending and attacking workers and youth who have been fighting back. This was especially the case in Greece where anger against the brutal austerity measures saw Syriza catapulted into government. People all over the world were enthusiastic to see this so-called anti-capitalist party form government. But what are the lessons of this experience? What can we learn in Quebec and Canada?
Once Syriza took power they were faced with the brutal reality of the capitalist system. It did not matter what program they were elected on if the capitalists would not allow them to implement this program. Unfortunately the Syriza leaders, with no perspective of breaking from the straight-jacket of the capitalists’ system, were forced by the European bourgeois to capitulate. The program of austerity being implemented right now by the 'left-wing' Syriza in Greece would make Jean Charest look like some sort of progressive! This is a grave warning to Quebec solidaire and the anti-austerity movement in Quebec.
Since the beginning of the 'Great Recession' in 2008-2009, there has been no significant recovery. Capitalism is in its deepest crisis at least since the 1930s. Capitalism not only cannot afford to provide new reforms to better our lives but it cannot even afford the gains of the past. This is why we have seen the phenomenon of austerity spread across the entire globe, being pushed by all parties, regardless of whether or not that party is 'conservative,' 'liberal' or even 'socialist'. When capitalism cannot afford to provide any reforms, “reformists” suddenly turn into “neo-liberals” and implement counter-reforms.
What the Marxists of the International Marxist Tendency have been warning Quebec solidaire about is the same thing that we said regarding Syriza. Unless the party clearly commits itself to break with the capitalist system, all of the reforms that the party fights for will not be “realistic” or “pragmatic” at all and the capitalists will force a capitulation one way or another. Quebec solidaire must fight for a revolutionary socialist program to nationalize the commanding heights of the economy under democratic workers’ control. This would allow us to use the immense wealth and productive capacity that exists for the needs of the population instead of the private profit of a few.
Is Quebec solidaire here to stay?
Quebec solidaire has reached its 10 year anniversary and Françoise David has said that the party is “here to stay.” She also said that the goal for the party is to take power in the next ten years. But there are real dangers facing QS if the party continues to moderate.
In these conditions of the masses moving in a radical direction and the QS leadership moderating the party’s political message, the masses will not see a significant difference between QS and the PQ. It is possible that the PQ will pull a “Trudeau” and make a fake step to the left to try to capture the anti- austerity mood, as they did in 2012. In this context, the masses would see no reason for a “reformist” rightward moving QS to exist and the party could very-well be destroyed. QS does not have deep roots in the working class. In order for QS to thrive over the next period, it needs to adopt a revolutionary socialist program to connect with the radical mood and it needs to take action to sink roots among working class Quebecers.
A revolutionary socialist program is not only the only realistic program, but it is the only real way to enthuse and mobilize the workers and youth who are desperately looking for a bold, revolutionary alternative to the bleak dark future of capitalist crisis and austerity, and an end to the domination of the bourgeois parties in the province.