First Published: The Forge, Vol. 6, No. 5, February 6, 1981
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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“The Left after the referendum” was the theme of a symposium held it the University of Quebec in Montreal, January 29.
The symposium, organized to examine the situation in the Quebec Left and to look at perspectives for the future, included the authors of a collection of writings entitled L’impasse, enjeux et perspectives de l’apres-referendum (Deadlocked, the stakes and perspectives in the post-referendum period).
The panel included people such as Louis Favreau, of the Centre de Formation Populaire, Gerard Larose of the Montreal Central Council of the Confederation of National Trade Unions, Andre Leclerc of the Quebec Federation of Labour, Claire Brassard of Remue-Ménage, and Pierre Vallieres (ex-member of the FLQ).
The presence of over 700 at the meeting is a reflection of growing disillusionment with the PQ and the search for an anti-capitalist alternative by activists in the unions, the women’s movement and progressive organizations.
All the panelists had to offer, however, was a discouraging and pessimistic view of the labour and progressive movements, and a return to the nationalist reformism of the ’60s.
The panelists’ option is independence and “democratic” socialism. This “New Left” is characterized by a vague vision of socialism “with a human face,” and even fuzzier strategy for getting there, total rejection of the dictatorship of the proletariat and anti-Leninist conceptions of the party and democratic centralism.
This current, which had a tendency to rally behind the PQ, is taking on new life these days with the publication of the Impasse collection and the new newspaper Presse Libre “devoted to information, reporting and investigation rather than a newspaper of ideas and long analyses” and the emergence of the “groupe des cents” (the group of one hundred) whose goal is to set up a “workers’ Party.”
The participants at the conference expressed their determination to build a mass revolutionary movement, a goal with which we totally agree. But how do you build such a movement? The panelists view of this question was a depressing one.
Most of the speakers expressed only bitterness and disillusionment in describing the present situation of the left and the workers’ and progressive movement. To Favreau’s way of thinking, “The ’70s have ended badly for the left.” (Impasse p. 131) Leclerc thinks that in the last few years the labour movement “has moved from one mobilization to another, getting increasingly tired and short of breath.” (p. 28) Vallieres says, “Our silent majority has adapted itself very well to the status quo.” (p. 140) The situation is bleak and discouraging, marked by setbacks, defeats and demobilization... in short, deadlock.
To escape the depressing image of the labour and progressive movement they themselves have concocted, they take refuge in nostalgia for the spontaneous struggles of the good old days: the Quebec Francais movement, the struggles at La Presse and United Aircraft, and non-dogmatic newspapers that is, without a clear orientation like Quebec Presse and the Bulletin Populaire.
These are the “good old days” they would like to revive, this is the lesson of recent years and their perspective for the future.
Fortunately, the situation of the workers’ and people’s movement is very different from the picture they paint. The panelists’ vision of society simply does not include the working class’s mass struggles, political mobilizations and growing class consciousness. Have they forgotten about the 1976 General Strike against wage controls, Quebec public sector workers’ Common Fronts, the struggles for indexation, the many occupations of MNA’s offices and of companies like Marine Industries by angry workers, the fight for a universal daycare network, the large number and the intensity of strikes?
Not to mention developments in the rest of Canada: the occupations at Tung Sol and Houdaille, the October 18 demonstrations for employment in front of Queen’s Park in Ontario, the illegal strike by hospital workers. And the list goes on.
What’s more, the fact that Quebecers did not respond to the PQ’s appeals, petitions and referendum does not mean the workers’ movement is tired out, depoliticized and demobilized.
The “New Left” image of the present situation is as black as its understanding of the past is idealistic.
The ’60s were indeed marked by powerful mass movements. Yet these battles were characterized by their spontaneity and their lack of direction, clear orientation and revolutionary political organization. It was precisely this spontaneous character that enabled to capitalists to smash this movement so easily in October 1970.
The lack of political leadership and organization also enabled the PQ to fill in this political gap with a pro-worker image and to channel resistance to national oppression into reformist, bourgeois electoral politics. This failure of the spontaneous movement is what the “New Left” wants to turn into a model and a theory.
The “New Left” will define its goal and strategy in spontaneous struggles on various fronts (ecology, women, the national question, the workers’ movement).
Rejecting all “finished theoretical bodies of thought,” rejecting Marxist-Leninist theory as a guide to action, the “New Left” has announced that socialism and the Party, the political instrument leading this struggle for socialism, must be rethought and redefined.
There’s no need to determine a clear goal and a scientific strategy for achieving it. All we have to do is return to our various work places and continue fighting for our demands. Solutions will show up eventually, bit by bit. “The movement is everything, the final goal nothing,” as that famous reformist Bernstein put it almost a hundred years ago.
One might ask what’s “new” about this “New Left”: a return to Bulletin populaire, to the Quebec francais movement, to spontaneous and isolated struggles for reforms. And to top it all off a long wait for some brilliant theory that will one day appear spontaneously.
As Favreau says, talking about the Quebec national question and poilitics in general, “(we are) forced in the short term into defensive positions: avoid the worst, i.e. the Liberal Party’s return to power.” (p. 136)
This “new” orientation is strangely siiniliar to the critical support for the PQ these people have been pushing for 15 years and that has got them into their current impasse.
In these circumstances it’s not surprising that many of the 700 people who attended the conference left it frustrated and pessimistic. As one person said, “By constantly voting for the least rotten alternative, we are the ones causing the impasse.” Another added, “What kind of left is this? More time was spent attacking Lenin than Trudeau and there wasn’t a word against Levesque.”
There are lessons to be learned from the sixties, but the working class and people’s movement certainly won’t make any progress by idealizing this period.
The period was marked by the existence of small, isolated groups with little or no links with the masses, groups that were marked by an amateurish style of work and without clear revolutionary perspectives, groups that were very vulnerable to any increase of repression such as occurred during the October Crisis in 1970.
Many activists within the ranks of the Marxist-Leninist movement today know this period well, since they were active in it. It is because they summed up this period and its failures that they began to search for solutions outside of reformism and the Parti Quebecois.
They wanted to implant revolutionary ideas among the masses, in the working class. So they looked for a clear revolutionary orientation and a scientific method that would allow them to break the Left’s isolation.
They found this method and this theory in the synthesis of the history of the workers’ movement that is Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought.
This theory provided not a dogma but a scientific foundation built on the reality of the class struggle. It enabled the formulation of a clear objective and a systematic strategy for achieving it. It was a break with the vague utopian visions of the past.
The Workers Communist Party was born through this process. Over the last five years, while others have waited, following and supporting the PQ, consistent and patient communist work has allowed us to root the WCP in the working class, not just in Quebec, but across Canada.
From a small group we have created a party, a young and embryonic party certainly, but one that is expanding and whose members are among the best fighters of the working class.
It is a good thing that there are discussions among the Left over future perspectives, over what kind of movement should be built. This will allow numerous activists to take up the struggle for socialism as well as clarifying the questions at issue.
Our Party has a role in these debates, since we are working to build an organized revolutionary working-class alternative that can confront and eliminate capitalist exploitation and oppression in all its forms.