Spartacist South Africa No. 10
Lessons of the Struggles in Quebec
Students: Ally with the Working Class!
We print below the translation of a French-language Spartacist Canada supplement issued on 20 August 2012, which our comrades distributed at a large student demonstration in Montreal on 22 August 2012.
The student strike and mass defiance of the Liberal government’s repressive law (Law 78) have produced the most sustained social struggle in Quebec since the 1970s. Premier Jean Charest called the September 4 elections in large part to “solve” this crisis. This may very well work, even if the Liberals lose the vote. After months of exhausting struggle, intense police repression, media slanders and no tangible results, many students are now voting to go back to class. The Parti Québécois [PQ] is calling for a “truce” so as to not disturb the elections—actually a cynical excuse to reestablish “social peace”. The pro-PQ leaders of the FEUQ and FECQ student federations are campaigning to “get out the youth vote”. And Françoise David of Québec Solidaire (QS) has now explicitly pledged to support a possible minority PQ government—with PQ leader Pauline Marois already promising to increase tuition “with the cost of living”.
Youth who have mobilized and fought courageously for more than six months must ask themselves: What next? The solution is certainly not to be found in the electoral circus, but nor can militancy alone provide a way forward. As we wrote three months ago, the student strike “has illustrated in a fundamental way the limitations of a struggle that has not been connected to the social power of the working class” (“Student Strike Shakes Quebec”, SC No. 173, Summer 2012). What is needed is a viewpoint broader than the immediate struggle in Quebec: a class-struggle, internationalist perspective that seeks to mobilize that social power.
The attacks on students in Quebec are part of a global capitalist assault on workers and the oppressed. From Greece to Spain, the U.S., Canada and beyond, the onslaught has been especially brutal since the latest capitalist economic crisis erupted in 2008. The fight for free education is an integral part of an international class struggle against the exploiters. And if there is one lesson to be drawn from the struggles to date it is that looking to “progressive” capitalist parties or the bosses’ social-democratic agents is a road to disaster. In the U.S., Obama continued the attacks (and the wars) of his predecessor George W. Bush; in France, the Socialist Party will continue the job-slashing and austerity seen under Sarkozy.
A defeat of the student strike would embolden the Québécois capitalists to push through their assault on social programs, the labour movement, youth and minorities. Both the Liberals and François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) openly call to “re-engineer” Quebec society to make the workers “more productive”. While its rhetoric is more duplicitous, the PQ would do more or less the same thing, as it did with its “deficit zero” attacks in the 1990s. Pushing reactionary “identity” politics, the PQ is also already making clear that it will fan the flames of the “reasonable accommodation” scapegoating of immigrants and ethnic/religious minorities, particularly Muslims. Whether under the Liberals, CAQ or PQ (or the latter’s QS and Option Nationale tails), youth and workers will lose.
Québec Solidaire: A Pro-Capitalist Dead-End
Primary responsibility for the current state of affairs lies with the trade-union bureaucracy and its decades-long alliance with the bourgeois-nationalist PQ. But also guilty is the reformist left—the Parti Communiste du Québec, Gauche Socialiste, Socialisme International, La Riposte, Alternative Socialiste, etc. These groups have all helped to create, build and sow illusions in Québec Solidaire, a petty-bourgeois populist party whose purpose is and has always been to channel the anger of youth and workers back into the safe channels of bourgeois parliamentarism and Québécois nationalism.
The groups who support QS will tell you that having QS deputies in the National Assembly is a way to ensure gains for students and workers. This is an absolute falsehood! First off, as some of these groups themselves admit, QS does not even pretend to be a socialist organization; it has no organic links with labour; its whole political framework accepts the continued existence of capitalist exploitation. The QS election platform includes calls for national protectionism and other measures flatly contrary to the workers’ interests. Pledging to support a PQ government is only icing on the cake.
At the height of the student strike, QS spokesmen joined in the “violence”-baiting furor against militant students. For our part, we have called throughout to defend all protesters against the repression of the Charest government and its police. It is also noteworthy that pretty much all of the reformist “socialist” outfits who back QS in Quebec support the social-democratic NDP [National Democratic Party] federally—the same New Democrats who have shown nothing but contempt for the students’ struggle!
One cannot “reform” away capitalist oppression or render the farce of the bourgeoisie’s parliament (or the “constituent assembly” that QS calls for) anything other than an instrument of class domination by the exploiters. As Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin explained: “The working people are barred from participation in bourgeois parliaments (they never decide important questions under bourgeois democracy, which are decided by the stock exchange and the banks) by thousands of obstacles” (The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, 1918). The economic domination of capital can only be ended by a workers revolution and the subsequent reorganization of society in the interests of the vast majority.
Unlike the FEUQ and FECQ, the CLASSE student union does not directly promote the idea that the elections will “settle” the student struggle. But CLASSE too is incapable of stepping outside the framework set by the capitalist class. Its worldview is limited to a fight against so-called “neoliberalism”, which can only mean that in its eyes a “better” version of capitalism is possible. CLASSE focuses all of its attacks on Charest and the Liberals, leaving open the option of voting for the PQ, QS or Option Nationale as a “lesser evil”.
The recent CLASSE Manifesto revolves entirely around the need for more democracy, “a direct democracy”, “a democracy for everyone”, “new democratic spaces”, etc., etc. “We are the people”, it affirms. But speaking of democracy without asking for what class—the capitalists or the workers—inevitably reinforces illusions in the present system, which is a democracy for the rich, a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.
The same illusions are sowed by groups who falsely claim to be Marxist. Alternative Socialiste, an ardent partisan of QS, salutes the student movement for “putting on the agenda the contestation of the neoliberal order” (alternativesocialiste.org, 8 August). For its part, the Maoist Parti Communiste Révolutionnaire (PCR), which claims to oppose both the PQ and QS, thunders on the front page of its Drapeau Rouge [Red Flag] (August-September 2012): “If We Want Democracy, We Must Change the System!” Calling for “people’s power”, the PCR also dissolves the unique social power of the proletariat into a class-collaborationist concept of “the people”.
The Power of the Working Class
Many students have understood that they cannot win the battle for free tuition or even a freeze without the active support of broader forces, including the labour movement. This understanding lay behind CLASSE’s proposal for a 24-hour “social strike”, which the union bureaucracy predictably rejected. For CLASSE, the social strike was seen as a way to broaden popular support and put more pressure on Charest. But the working class isn’t just another “sector” of society—it is the only class with the power to bring the capitalist system to its knees.
A mobilization of the working class in defense of the student struggle remains essential to beat back this (or any) capitalist government. In 2003, union mobilizations and a few strikes managed to stop many of Charest’s attacks on the labour movement. At a much higher level, the May 1968 uprising in France, sparked by a student struggle, saw a general strike of the working class that could have overthrown French capitalism. Only the treachery of the workers’ leaders, centrally the reformist Communist Party of France, enabled the government to re-establish bourgeois order. May ’68 showed the enormous social power of the proletariat. Four years later, the Québécois workers demonstrated their own power in the May 1972 general strike against the jailing of union leaders.
The capitalist class—a tiny minority that owns all the means of production—derives its astronomical profits from the exploitation of labour. Workers have to sell their labour power to survive. When they are “lucky” enough to have a job, they toil away in the mines, factories, etc., adding the value of their work to what they produce, but only get paid what they are deemed to be worth on the labour market. This difference—between the value added by the workers and what they actually get paid—ends up in the capitalists’ pockets in the form of what Karl Marx termed surplus value. In other words, the workers produce the material wealth of capitalist society, but this is expropriated by a handful of ruling parasites.
When workers go on strike, this immediately hits the bottom line of the capitalist corporations. Thus the working class has the social power to attack the profit system at its very core. This is something that students, a petty-bourgeois layer with no direct relation to the means of production, lack entirely. An exploited class that makes just enough to live on and to produce the next generation of wage-slaves, the working class has no interest in the preservation of the capitalist system, but has a direct objective interest in its overthrow.
Students in Montreal don’t have to look far to find this social power. The area employs more than 200,000 people in the manufacturing sector alone, including workers in factories from Longueuil to St.-Jérôme. Montreal has one of the largest concentrations of aerospace workers in the world. Tens of thousands more toil in transport—longshoremen, airport crews, transit workers—another key part of the capitalist economy. Beyond Montreal, there are huge proletarian concentrations in and around Trois-Rivierès, Saguenay, the Abitibi and elsewhere. Cascades, Bombardier, SNC-Lavalin, Quebecor—these are the backbone of Quebec Inc., and all are powered by the sweat and blood of the proletariat.
The Role of the Union Bureaucracy
The working class, in Quebec as elsewhere, has a direct interest in the elimination of tuition fees: it is the workers and their children who are overwhelmingly denied the fruits of higher education, fundamentally because the capitalists only want them to know what is necessary to do their work. The student strike has been widely popular among the workers, as shown by the labour contingents at various demos, the cheers and honks that have greeted protesters everywhere, even the money donated by various unions.
Yet in the six months of student protests and strikes, not a single strike in support of the students has been undertaken by the unionized working class anywhere in Quebec. Why? Because the union leaders uphold the capitalist system, backing the PQ in particular; they seek to contain whatever social struggles erupt, diverting them onto the shoals of nationalism and parliamentary reformism.
The unions are the basic organizations for defense of the workers against the bosses’ constant attacks. They enable workers to have relatively better wages and benefits, and protect them somewhat against arbitrary firing and general abuse. They must be built and defended. But the present union leadership is an obstacle to mobilizing labour’s power.
Most North American unions were built in the last century through hard class battles including strikes and plant occupations, facing massive repression from the police, army and company thugs. Countless workers were murdered fighting to forge unions, from West Virginia to British Columbia, Detroit to Murdochville. The key activists who led this fight were leftists, mostly self-described communists. Many of these militants were purged from the unions in the anti-Communist witchhunts of the 1940s and ’50s. In their stead rose an openly pro-capitalist layer of bureaucrats who still run the unions today, including in Quebec.
Under imperialism, the system of modern capitalism where the world is divided among a few big powers and the dominance of finance capital ensures the flow of profits into the coffers of U.S., German, Japanese (and Canadian) banks, the capitalist class throws a few crumbs off its table to corrupt a layer of labour misleaders and turn them into willing “partners”. Seeing the world through the same lens as the capitalists, the heads of the AFL-CIO, Canadian Labour Congress [CLC], [Quebec trade-union federations] FTQ, CSN, etc. are willing to sacrifice the interests of their members in pursuit of partnership with their own national bosses. In the U.S., they largely support the capitalist Democratic Party. In English Canada, the CLC tops wave the Maple Leaf, tying workers to their exploiters, centrally through the NDP. In Quebec, the heads of the FTQ, CSN, etc. utilize Québécois nationalism and support to the PQ to undermine the workers’ consciousness and sabotage struggle in the name of “national solidarity”. They are all, truly, in the words of American socialist Daniel De Leon, the labour lieutenants of capital.
For a Revolutionary Internationalist Workers Party!
To resolve the intractable contradiction between the true, material interests of the working class and the deadly grip of the conservative union misleaders, a revolutionary agency must be forged: a vanguard workers party built around a program that is revolutionary and internationalist. As Lenin argued in his book What Is To Be Done?, such a party would fuse the most conscious elements of the proletariat with declassed intellectuals, including students, who dedicate themselves to the fight for workers revolution.
To transform the unions from narrow craft and industry-limited bargaining agents into organs of revolutionary struggle, the vanguard elements must fight to preserve the integrity and unity of the working class. They must combat all the forms of special oppression that divide workers along national, ethnic, language and gender lines.
Most Québécois workers continue to support the PQ, despite its many attacks on the working class over the years, while the bulk of student activists also back one or another nationalist party, whether the PQ, QS or Option Nationale. The hold of nationalism flows from and is constantly reinforced by the Anglo chauvinism that dominates the Canadian state. With workers in English Canada supporting the NDP or even the Liberals—parties with a long record of hostility to Quebec’s national rights—the working class of Canada is deeply divided, undermining its ability to fight the ruling exploiters. For this reason, we Marxists advocate Quebec independence. We do so as proletarian internationalists: getting the national question off the agenda would create better conditions for the workers to understand that their “own” national capitalists are not allies but class enemies.
Nationalism necessarily promotes racism. A particular flash point in Quebec has been the Liberals’ Bill 94, which foments anti-Muslim bigotry by calling to bar women who wear the niqab or burqa from getting government services or being employed in the public sector. Amir Khadir, the QS deputy in the National Assembly, supported this reactionary bill, while the PQ goes even further, demanding a complete ban on Muslim headscarfs and Sikh turbans in the public sector.
A revolutionary workers party would oppose all forms of discrimination against such minorities, in particular the racist state sanctions against Muslim women. At the same time, it would combat the religious backwardness that consigns so many women to the hideous oppression symbolized by the veil. Such a party would champion women’s right to abortion, equal pay for equal work and free 24-hour daycare. It would also fight to mobilize the working class in defense of the black and Latino youth who are in the gunsights of the police in places like Montréal-Nord.
It is vital to oppose the divisions along linguistic lines promoted both by Anglo-chauvinist bigots and by Quebec nationalists who call to toughen the French-language Charter (Law 101). For example, the PQ seeks to compel everyone but anglophones to attend French Cégeps [junior colleges]. Marxists oppose all “official language” laws and any school system based on language or religion. We are for a single public, integrated and secular school system with bilingual or multilingual education wherever necessary. The working class can only be united by opposing all privileges for any nation or language.
For a Marxist Perspective
Through their struggles, layers of student youth have learned first-hand some basic truths about capitalism. They have witnessed the repressive role of the bourgeois state, centrally including the cops who have arrested over 2,500 students and their supporters. It is crucial that these and other lessons be assimilated and generalized by studying the historical experiences of the international workers movement and the program of revolutionary Marxism.
The best model for successful social struggle is the October 1917 workers revolution in Russia which overthrew capitalism in the tsarist “prison house of peoples”. A myriad of national and ethnic minorities were denied their rights under the tsar’s brutal autocracy. Lenin’s Bolshevik Party fought for the right to self-determination—i.e., to secession for such nations, combating Great Russian chauvinism and winning support from the non-Russian minorities. The Bolsheviks denounced national exclusiveness and privileges for any nation or language, which serve only to divide the working class.
By abolishing capitalist private property, the Revolution gave the Soviet masses access to jobs, housing and free education. Despite its degeneration under the nationalist bureaucracy of Joseph Stalin starting in 1924, the Soviet Union was able to maintain a centralized planned economy and develop into a modern industrial power. Illiteracy was practically eliminated. Students from around the neocolonial world flocked to Moscow for the quality of its free education system. The Soviets were able to compete with the much more powerful U.S. imperialists in a decades-long arms race (provoked by the U.S.), and achieved such huge technological advances as the first artificial satellite and the first man into space.
All this and more showed the huge advantages of economic planning no longer directed by the drive for private profit. But these achievements were undermined by the parasitic Stalinist bureaucracy, and the Soviet Union was eventually destroyed by capitalist counterrevolution in 1991-92. We Trotskyists fought for its unconditional defense against imperialism and counterrevolution, while seeking a proletarian political revolution to oust the bureaucracy and establish workers democracy. This remains our stance toward the bureaucratically deformed workers states of China, Vietnam, Laos, North Korea and Cuba. This stands in sharp contrast to the reformist left groups, including those who back Québec Solidaire as well as the Maoists and anarchists; indeed, most of them openly took the side of their own imperialists against the Soviet Union.
Only the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of workers rule can put an end to poverty and all-sided oppression and open up new vistas for humanity. This is not just a task for Quebec, but for all of Canada, the U.S. and the entire world. The way forward for Quebec student radicals is to commit their energy to forging a binational, multiethnic Marxist vanguard party, part of a reforged Fourth International, world party of socialist revolution. We urge you to examine the principles, program and analyses of the Trotskyist League/Ligue trotskyste—section of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist)—and join us in this fight, which is essential to the future of mankind.