First Published: In Struggle! No. 253,June 2, 1981
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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The recent publication of the book La conjoncture au Quebec an debut des monies 80 (The situation in Quebec at the beginning of the Eighties) has raised many questions on the role of Marxist-Leninists in the cultural field and, more particularly, their responsibility in the liquidation of or the slowing down of the activities of a certain number of cultural groups in 1975-76 and the following years. We met with Clement Cazelais, founding member of the group Theatre Euh! which rallied to IN STRUGGLE! in 1976.
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IS!: According to this document, the cultural front was the victim in 1975 of the rise of communist groups. They are accused of having contributed to the liquidation of theatre groups, bookstores, community TV groups, magazines, progressive film groups who followed the Marxist-Leninists into a dead-end at the cultural level. What do you think?
CL: We must recognize that we had many problems in this area. However, their analysis seems quite one-sided and narrow when compared to the complexity of the situation at that time. It is useful to recall the facts. In explaining the drop in activities of the popular and cultural movements between 1975 and 1980, the actions of Marxist-Leninists are used as an easy way out. In my opinion, we should turn their analysis around and examine things in the contest of the situation prevailing in the cultural groups and their own practice in order to understand what happened in 74-75.
IS!: Could you describe what was the situation within these groups?
CL: At that time, progressive cultural activities were lively and diversified and closely linked to the struggles and demands of the workers and popular strata. Theatre and film groups were increasingly getting involved in strikes and developing plays or films with the workers. This happened, for example, with the miners’ struggle in Thetford Mines. This represented an important development when compared to the first political parades organized by Theatre Euh! in some of Quebec City’s working class neighbourhoods in 1970.
Amateur theatre groups were being solicited by trade-unions and community organizations. More and more, the theatre groups received “requests” for plays. For their part, cultural workers would borrow their themes from the people and their struggles. They also had to reflect on their practice, to analyse their work. The theoretical journals, such as “Strategie” and “Champ d’application” played an active role at this level. It is also in this contest that we must situate the “Manifeste pour un Theatre an service, du peuple” (Manifesto for a theatre serving the people)written collectively by 7 groups which resigned from the “Association Quebecoise du Jeune Theatre” and signed by 4 of them. This manifesto served as a basis to regroup progressives in the fall of 1975.
IS!: But didn’t this manifesto come as quite a shock to the members of the AQJT?
CL: There’s no doubt about that. The manifesto’s leftism and radicalism must be recognized as such and criticized. Its erroneous analysis of the AQJT also left many scars in the different theatre groups. But we must recognize the political willingness expressed in the manifesto to develop art and culture which would serve the people and its struggles. It was a sincere, correct and militant movement which is still at the basis of militant theatrical practice in Quebec. But the progressive cultural movement did not have coherent and clear political perspectives at that time. It was faced with important problems of training and orientation and lacked political and ideological leadership. And it could resolve these difficulties by itself. We were paralyzed, not by the communists, but by our own questions based on our practice. We could see that economic struggles led to dead-ends. And we saw the PQ putting a lid on the will to struggle... We didn’t have any solutions to put forward. But we weren’t the only ones. The activists of different trade-unions and community organizations were going through the same problems and were looking for answers. The Marxist-Leninist groups filled a real political vaccum.
IS!: How did you come to rally to the communist movement?
CL: It came after a long process of reflection. It represented a move that was consistent with our practice. And I am sure that this was the case for the majority of cultural workers who rallied to IN STRUGGLE! To accuse IN STRUGGLE! of siphoning off the cultural movement is to distort the facts because in actual fact, we had to run after IN STRUGGLE! for about a year before they would take us in. The cultural groups responded to IN STRUGGLE!’s call to build a unified communist organization. As early as 1975, we considered ourselves communists.
IS!: But how is it that some speak of the liquidation of past cultural activities? What was the situation for IN STRUGGLE! and the groups which rallied to it?
CL: That’s a tough question. We’re starting to better understand and judge the situation. I think that IN STRUGGLE! as well as the cultural workers made very important mistakes. First, arts and culture were considered of secondary importance, or of no importance at all. They were considered as auxiliary agitation/propaganda tools in relation to the paper or as support activities to the political needs of the organization. As cultural workers, we adopted this point of view, because I think we were dogmatic and voluntarist. We felt our questions and doubts on the porch, as if were joining a religious group. Those who continued to work in the cultural field developed this point of view for many years. Second, if we wanted to wage the political struggle, there weren’t thousands of solutions: we had to build an organization able to play as vital role. And this required that some of us take on more urgent tasks. It must be recognized that cultural workers played a role in building IN STRUGGLE! For example, I had to reduce my workload as a professional actor as many others had to do.
IS!: Do you consider that this was on error?
CL: At this time, I cannot evaluate it as an error, because it was my own decision to undertake other tasks that I considered more important. Third, there were important errors made in dissolving the cultural groups, liquidations that were not all necessary. But the responsibility for these errors does not belong solely with the organization. The cultural groups themselves were tailist and shared a narrow point of view on these questions. In some instances we can talk of self-liquidation. The effect was to push aside many lessons gathered from past cultural activities linked to the living and working conditions of the workers and people. This also contributed to our isolation from the progressive cultural milieu. On the other hand, very useful evaluations of what had happened were made but were never published. This did not help us in learning from the past. It shows us very dearly that it is never in our interest to hide our thoughts and conclusions.