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(en) Canada, The Quebec Left today

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Sun, 14 Sep 2003 20:38:22 +0200 (CEST)

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> From: Nicolas Phébus <nicolasphebus-A-yahoo.com>
Will the election of Jean Charest's Parti Liberal du Quebec change anything for
the Quebec Left? Unlikely. The Social Left's conservatism is paralleled by the
Political Left's conservatism. Both are already playing the old broken record
of 'the neo-liberalism onslaught' and 'the downturn in workers' struggles' to
explain their own defeats and limitations.
The Quebec Left is a paradox in itself. From the outset, the future could look
bright. A new party, the Union des forces progressistes (UFP), has been born to
'represent' the old and new social movements. The non-aligned leftist press has
a larger press run now then ever before (1). Huge struggles have been waged in
the last couple of years and new one are highly likely. But while the social
and labour movements are more developed in Quebec than elsewhere on the
continent (2), the Political Left, despite the so-called 'unity' process, is at
an all time low. In fact, no single organised current is in a position to have
a lasting influence outside of the local realm.


The victory of the Quebec Liberals is lived like a major disaster by many
leftists. It's true that in their first months in power, the Liberals have made
major cuts as well as other anti-social moves. But the fight back is already
taking shape. A major demonstration of tens of thousands of day-care workers
and parents was organised within weeks of the change of government, effectively
slowing Liberal plans to change the '$5 a day' day-care program (3). Early
actions by tenant unions also secured new money to help the victims of the
housing crisis and to save existing social housing programs (4). Public sector
unions are also gearing-up for the next round of contract negotiations. In an
unusual move, the membership of the (independent) civil servant union agreed to
raise dues to help build a strike fund. The problem is that, instead of
building on these developments to boost the fighting mood, most of the Left is
whining about the brutality of the Liberals. The question is whether we will
nurture defeat or victory.

Nationalists and Social-democrats

The main current of the Left in Quebec is a politically unorganised nationalist
and social democrat current. Representatives of this group can be found in the
grass roots movements and at the very top of most mass organisations. While
this reformist current has a diverse origin - from covert and open Parti
Quebecois (P.Q.) supporters to former Marxist-Leninist cadres to Leftwing
Catholics - it has blended together to form the leadership of the social
movements. What both have in common is a crass pragmatism that has led most of
them down the path of open class collaboration with the P.Q.. Few are willing
to have an independent political life outside of their jobs as professional
activists, but when they do, they generally support the P.Q. as a 'lesser
evil'. Some of them do it openly, like the leadership of the Fédération des
travailleurs du Québec (FTQ); others do it by default, like the leadership of
the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN) (5), whose call to beat the
right-wing ADQ was a de facto call to vote P.Q..

The newest development is the UFP, which has convinced some of those people,
and even some organisations (6), to openly support them or to be given the
chance to address their mass memberships. However, since the UFP is not
organised to reap the fruits of these developments (more on this latter), I do
not think that it will go anywhere. Part of the collateral damage of the
election is that the worst wing of this current - those heavily compromised
with the P.Q. - will become once again politically noticeable. Already, many
formerly mute bureaucrats and apparatchiks are talking about struggle and
action...The question is: are they willing or even able to lead the kind of
struggles necessary to beat a newly elected government?

The union of the electoral left

Few people within the nationalist and social democrat current have been
faithfull enough to their old ideals to refuse the path of class collaboration
and renewed support for the P.Q.. Among them are the people doing L'Aut'Journal
- a nationalist pro-labour newspaper - who rejected the P.Q.'s latest turn to
the right, and, at the end of the 1990s, launched an organising project that
led to the short-lived Rassemblement pour une alternative politique (R.A.P.).
L'Aut'Journal soon lost its control over this initiative, and this opened the
door for a much more ambitious 'unity of the left' project. Within a few years,
a new party was born, l'UFP, which united the social-democrats of the RAP, the
'socialists' of the Parti de la démocratie socialiste (PDS), and the
'revisionists' of the Parti communiste du Québec (PCQ).

It's hard to gauge the level of support for the new party. If we evaluate it
based on electoral statistics, the level of support is pretty small (40,561
votes or just over 1 per cent). They claim to have more than a thousand
members, but this does not mean much as l'UFP is not organised to have any
impact in the social movements. Despite their claim to be "a party of the
ballot box and of the street", they are mostly organised on an electoral basis
(i.e. their clubs are organised according to provincial ridings boundaries)
(7). Furthermore, while the party may be a 'party of activists' (a significant
number of which are professional activists and elected officials) it is not
(yet?) an 'activist party'. Their actual relationship to social struggles is
similar to a traditional social democrat party : they issue supportive press
releases and sometimes show-up on picket lines or at a demo with a banner.
Otherwise, they do participate in Anti-Glob and Anti-War Trusts (also know as
coalitions), where they play the game of respectable leftists (as opposed to
those irresponsible, ultra-left anarchists), but that's about it. L'UFP may
well be the 'next big thing' in student or Anti-Glob/Anti-War circles, but in
the wider society, it's influence is yet to be felt.

Social anarchism

The rest of the left is even smaller, consisting of isolated radical militants,
the maoists of the Red Flag (8) and the anarchists. Anarchism, taken as a
whole, is probably as wide as the UFP (9) but it is not nearly as geographicaly
wide-spread and it is neither organised nor united. Despite all of this, a
small number of anarchists have been able to organise a few good things in the
last couple of years, effectively helping struggles to move forward and to
raise the profile of anarchism in the province.

Anarchists have done great work on three fronts. The first one is Anti-Glob.
The fact that anarchists have been able to organise a distinct and lasting
radical tendency within Anti-Glob cannot be underestimated. CLAC work, for
example, not only opened-up space for radicals in the Anti-Glob
mobilisations-such as the Summit of the Americas-but also had a lasting
influence on the whole globalisation debate and on the issue of appropriate
protest tactics.

On the immigration front, activists from No One Is Illegal - which started as a
CLAC Working Group - have been able to plug into several immigration struggles,
to gather support for these struggles from the social movements and to initiate
the biggest demos around these issues in a few decades (if not ever). This is
the first time that anarchists have established themselves on this front
despite several previous attempts.

Finally, there is the housing and anti-poverty front. Anarchists have been
involved in anti-poverty organising for a long time and have championed direct
action for years. But it was only in the wake of the Summit of the Americas
that they have been able to have an influence on the mainstream community-based
movements. Key to that was the successfull establishment of a political squat
by the Comite des sans-emploi in Montreal during the summer of 2001. This
action opened a window of opportunity for radical grass roots activists in the
mainstream tenant movement. Similar actions followed and we can now see
formerly marginalized radical groups working openly in coalitions with
mainstream community groups, something unthinkable only a few years back.

While these are small and fragile successes, they are something that we can
build upon. While there's no easy recipe, we can see a recurring pattern
emerging. First, there is no single strategy that works. What seems to work is
a sometimes conflicting mix of two strategies. On one hand, there is a network
of anarchists who choose to build radical, openly anti-capitalist actions and
support groups to radicalise struggles from without. On the other hand, there
are anarchists who would rather work inside the existing mass organisations in
order to radicalise them from within. Up until now, it has been the joining of
the two tendencies that seems to have strengthened anarchism within the social
movements. But the real key lies elsewhere, namely, in our relation to people
in struggle. We need to ask ourselves : is our participation in struggles
merely a publicity stunt (to be seen) or are we there to help move struggles

Which way forward?

Right now, outside of the formal leadership of the social and labour movements,
no one on the left is in a position to have an influence on the class struggle.
So, which way forward?

First, whether we like it or not, everyone is fully divorced from the organised
working class (10). A small band of anarchists, the NEFAC collectives, and a
few communists in the PCQ are the only ones who seem to be trying to make these
connections. Visiting picket lines seems to be outside of the political culture
of almost everyone on the Left. So, we NEFAC militants, have started doing
strike support. We still lack the members and the support inside the unions,
but at least we are trying to do something about it. If the left is ever to go
somewhere in Quebec, it must undergo a total paradigm shift. It's not the
working class who failed the left but the other way around. The organised
working class outside of our tiny ranks does not need us; we need them. Unless
we understand this, we'll go nowhere.

[Nicolas Phebus is a community organiser and a member of the Northeastern
Federation of Anarcho-Communist in Quebec City. www.nefac.net]

This essay is to appear in "New Socialist", magasine of the Canada Based New
Socialist Group. www.newsocialist.net


(1) While the number of titles is decreasing, the press run is increasing
dramatically. The two flagships of the nationalist and social democrat left,
Recto-Verso (a bimonthly) and L'Aut'Journal (a monthly), have a press run of
80,000 and 35,000, respectively. In comparison, the biggest titles of the
1960's, Quebec Presse (a weekly) and Le Jour (a daily) sold around 30,000
copies each. Today's lefty papers are free, which makes a difference.

(2) The government estimates the number of 'autonomous community groups' at
4,000 while the unionisation rate is currently at 40.7% (27.7% in the private

(3) This is a provincial day-care program where parents pay $5 per day and the
government pays the rest. Under this program, the number of kids in day-care
has increased by 100% in 5 years, reaching180,000 recently.

(4) The liberal government is supposed to build some 13,000 units of social
housing in the next 5 years. However, they also plan to cut back in the
maintenance and repair of the already-existing public housing stock.

(5) The Quebec Federation of Labour has 500,000 members, while the
Confederation of National Trade-Unions has 270,000 members.

(6) An handfull of unions endorsed UFP candidates, the biggest being the
Montreal Area Central Council of the CSN, which has 80,000 members.

(7) The exception being Quebec City where, in addition to riding clubs, there
is a city-wide club and another one at Laval University. Other localities also
have city-wide clubs.

(8) Apparently about 50 people.

(9) Sceptics should remember that anarchism's biggest 'cultural manifestation',
the Montreal Anarchist Bookfair, is still unmatched.

(10) To be fair, L'Aut'Journal is an important exception to this. They seem to
be the voice of the 'fighting wing' of the union bureaucracy.

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