First Published: The Forge Vol. 7, No. 17, April 30, 1982
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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HALIFAX (Forge correspondent) – Organizers had been expecting about 80 people to show up for the Atlantic Socialist Conference held in Halifax, April 24-25. Instead almost 120 progressives from all four Atlantic provinces took part in this important gathering, the first of its kind in the recent history of the left east of the Quebec border.
The participants included activists from various anti-imperialist committees, women’s organizations, environmental groups and trade unions such as the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), the Maritime Fishermen’s Union (MFU), the Canadian Seafood and Allied Workers Union (CSFAW) and National Farmers Union (NFU). The Acadian and third world communities were also represented.
Members of the Workers Communist Party, the group In Struggle and the Halifax-based Labour Research and Support Centre were active throughout the conference.
All delegates registered on an individual basis in accordance with a broad platform for participation laid down by the organizing committee: “We are orienting this conference to people who realize the need to go beyond or work outside the parliamentary process in order to transform capitalism by establishing a socialist working-class society.”
The purpose of the organizing committee – made up mainly of independent leftwing militants and academics from the Halifax area – was to respond to what they saw as “an urgent need for socialists in the Atlantic region to establish a network for organizing political education and action.”
In his opening remarks, James Sacouman, a well-known Marxist scholar based at Acadia University in Nova Scotia and one of the initiators of the conference, gave an overview of the present situation in Canada and the world.
“The third road – the road of cooperatism and third parties – has clearly failed here... U.S. imperialism and Soviet statism are threatening the world with nuclear war... the choice is clear: revolution or barbarism.”
The first day of the conference was mainly devoted to discussion around five areas of activity: trade unions, anti-imperialist work, the women’s movement, the national question and environmental action.
In his remarks on the situation in the labour movement, Ted Penny of CUPW spoke of the need to “get away from the policies of consultation and cooperation (with employers and governments – ed.) being promoted by the leadership in the trade union movement... and get back to the tried and tested method of confrontation, the only one that works.”
A presentation by Gilles Theriault, a WCP member and union activist, was well-received when he said: “We must do education in the unions on the need for socialism... We must also work to transform the trade unions into class unions... The vast majority of workers can be convinced that their unions should take a stand in opposition to capitalism and for socialism.”
However, in the workshops that followed the presentations, opposition to this view of the tasks of socialists in the trade unions was expressed by a spokesperson of the Labour Research and Support Centre (LRSC), Herb Gamberg.
According to this group there exists neither a socialist movement nor a real labour movement in the Maritimes. Hence the task of socialists at this time should be almost exclusively to clarify theoretical questions. The LRSC’s point of view remained very much isolated throughout the weekend.
A lot of attention at the conference was focussed on the woman question. In the workshop some delegates criticized what they saw as the inability of Marxism to deal adequately with the “non-economic” forms of women’s oppression. “You can’t explain the sexual harrassment and violence of working men towards working women in Marxist terms,” one participant said.
Others drew the parallel between the fight against women’s oppression and the fight against national oppression, explaining how the struggle against chauvinism within the working class and its organizations is a vital part of the building of a united movement for socialism.
A significant feature of the conference was that for the first time anyone could recall the Acadian national question was put on the agenda for discussion by the left in the Maritimes. The guest speaker on this issue was Euclid Chiasson, a former president of the Parti acadien who now works with forestry workers in northeastern New Brunswick.
Chiasson pointed out that the left has not adequately dealt with the relationship between the minorities and the majority. “There haven’t been satisfactory solutions developed regarding the negative effects the centralizing tendency of socialism has on minorities.”
He went on to say it was important to break with the “traditional” solutions of deportation or assimilation to the Acadian question and “look at the national movement as a positive factor for change.”
The second day of the conference began with a forum on the organizational question based on the theme: “Movement or party.”
A spokesperson for the WCP, Lazar Lederhendler, advanced the point of view that, “It would be wrong to oppose the building of the socialist movement as a whole to the building of a Marxist workers party as a key factor within the movement.” He pointed to the need not only for a clear revolutionary program but also to the need for an “organization whose members are solidly committed to implement this program and to propagating it in the left and in the mass movements.”
Speaking for In Struggle, Martin Langille, explained that his organization was now going through a period of self examination. In Struggle members at the conference made it clear that although their group still existed theoretically, they were in fact no longer active as an organization in the Maritimes.
One of the major points being called into question by IS is the need for the working class to have an organized political leadership. “For myself and many other members of In Struggle,” Langille said, “it has become clear that we have to seriously reconsider the concept of a single vanguard party.”
For his part, Jim Sacouman, speaking as an independent Marxist, said that the answer to the question what is to be done “is to proceed step by step, testing and experimenting as we go.”
The conference closed with the election of a steering committee mandated to publish a bi-monthly newsletter and to organize a second socialist conference in 1983. In addition, the committee –comprised of a good cross-section of those who took part in the conference – will have the responsibility of carrying out the resolutions voted on the weekend. This includes resolutions to organize forums for debate on issues such as “Socialism and feminism,” the Acadian question and others.
Motions were also passed to support the fight of third-world immigrants, environmental struggles, and to better coordinate the work between international solidarity groups.
As a number of delegates pointed out, this first Atlantic socialist conference “raised many questions but answered few.” On the positive side it allowed those involved to better identify the key issues that are to be resolved for the left in the region and open the door to furthering the debate in the months ahead.
In coming weeks The Forge will take a critical look at some of the questions raised at this conference.