Sunday, December 20, 2009

Québec solidaire’s collectives — Help or hindrance?

Several readers of my report on the recent Québec solidaire convention have asked me whether the QS collectives played any role in the proceedings. This is a logical question, particularly since QS is the product of successive fusions of various political groups, both party and non-party, some of which have maintained their own identity while participating in Québec solidaire. The recognition of collectives within QS is a reflection of the party’s diversity of opinion, and its attempt to embrace many different approaches and perspectives within a broad spectrum of critical progressive thinking. It lists party “pluralism” as one of its founding values.

The collectives are groupings of QS members organized on the basis of “particular themes or political affinities”, to quote the provisional party statutes (article 11).[1] They represent “different and complementary currents of thought” within the party that are allowed “to promote specific orientations to the degree that they undertake to comply with the party’s statutes, fundamental values and program”. However, they have no right to representation as such in the party’s leadership bodies. To be recognized by the National Council, a collective must have at least 10 party members in at least three ridings or campus QS organizations. The collectives are entitled to set up information tables at party conventions and to promote their ideas and proposals for action in the party’s internal debates.

From a distance, it is hard for a non-member of the party like myself to see what the collectives do within Québec solidaire on a day-to-day basis. They had little obvious presence as collectives at the recent convention I attended other than the literature tables that several of them maintained in the registration area. Some are organized around particular themes; an example is a “décroissance” ("de-growth" or negative growth) collective focused on ecological issues.

A few collectives, however, represent long-established political currents or tendencies in Quebec and internationally. Examples are the various Marxist-inspired currents identified currently or historically with Trotskyist, Maoist or Stalinist organizations. These include Gauche socialiste, affiliated with the Trotskyist Fourth International; Socialisme international, part of the International Socialist Tendency (the current best known historically for its analysis of the former Soviet Union as “state capitalist” rather than the more orthodox Trotskyist designation of it as a “degenerated workers state”); La Riposte, affiliated with the International Marxist Tendency; and the Parti Communiste du Québec (PCQ), which split with the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) over the PCQ’s support of Quebec independence. A few CPC members are also in Québec solidaire but they are not a recognized collective. Another collective with a more or less Marxist lineage is Masse critique. One of its leading members, Roger Rashi, has recently written his own assessment of Québec solidaire, comparing it with other left regroupments, particularly in Europe. It is available in English on the Socialist Project web site.

Oddly enough, these political collectives have had little to say about the convention, although some of their members were active in the debates, in some cases defending positions that differed from those of other collectives or the majority of the party. I would have thought the convention was an occasion for more reflection by them on the challenges facing QS as it has confronted them so far. Apparently not.

Gauche socialiste: Long live passionate debates!

Gauche socialiste’s web site limits its coverage to a video of the final wind-up rally at the convention. However, GS members are instrumental in the production of Presse-toi à gauche, a web publication that is supportive of Québec solidaire. In a November 24 article Bernard Rioux, a central leader of GS, proclaimed that “Québec solidaire accomplished a lot during this convention” but simply welcomed the existence of “passionate debates” on Quebec independence, secularism, and the relationship of the national question to its social agenda, without providing any details on their content.

A short article by Marie-Ève Duchesne reported favourably on the major resolution in the secularism debate and Québec solidaire’s decision to oppose dress codes for state employees that would ban indications of an individual’s religious beliefs. This and related resolutions demonstrated, she said, QS’s strongly feminist outlook. It is unclear whether Duchesne is a GS member. I noted that some GS members voted in favour of such a ban at the convention.

Still another article, by Serge Charbonneau on December 8, welcomed a “superb text” published on a number of other web sites by one Michèle Sirois, “Why I am quitting Québec solidaire”, who had said her decision was motivated precisely by the QS delegates’ decision to allow civil servants to display evidence of their religious beliefs in the course of their employment. She saw this as an unreasonable concession to “political Islam” and a violation of the principle of separation of church and state and of male-female equality. Charbonneau said he “understood her point of view and her dissidence”, and praised her “very relevant” observation that “The left movements’ lack of understanding of the insecurity of Québécois over their identity represents a real danger, because it leaves the field free for right-wing, even far-right movements to take over the issue of identity....” Unfortunately, there has been no response by GS or PTàG to this article or its endorsement of Islamophobic views.

Gauche socialiste maintained a literature table at the convention and sold copies of a glossy brochure on the ecological crisis featuring, among other things, articles and resolutions of the Fourth International.

International Socialism: Quebec independence “not a priority”

The few Quebec members of the International Socialists group are immersed in Québec solidaire; one of their leading members, Benoit Renaud, is the party’s national secretary. Socialisme International (SI) published a one-page flyer version of its sporadically published print newspaper Résistance, featuring an article on the economic crisis and an article by Benoit Renaud on the Quebec debate on the hijab. An English translation of the latter is available here.

The December issue of Socialist Worker, the paper of the International Socialists, SI’s counterpart in the Rest of Canada, published a report on the QS convention by Michelle Robidoux. She interviewed Matt Jones, a member of QS in the Mercier riding. He thought the position QS adopted on “laïcité” or secularism was “mostly really good” although he was critical of its support for banning “proselytizing” religious views by state employees, which he regarded as a concession to “the more ‘secularist’ currents of the party. But Jones seemed more ambivalent about the decision to support Quebec independence: “Without a position like this, it can’t move the left project forward. But within that, we would argue that it isn’t the priority. How we organize is key.” A positive feature of the adopted support for both sovereignty (as the PQ proposes) and independence, Jones said, was that it could satisfy everyone in the party: “... it links in the radical ‘indépendantistes’, a large part of whom are the far left, with something that is just more broad.”

La Riposte: Unions should affiliate to QS

Another collective from the Trotskyist tradition is La Riposte, which translates as Fightback, the name of their cothinkers in the ROC. Affiliated to the International Marxist Tendency headed by Alan Woods, La Riposte was recognized as a collective at QS’s fourth convention, in June of this year. It members staffed a literature table at the convention but did not participate in the debates. Their paper, with the same name, calls on QS to be “a party of the workers with an organic connection to the main trade unions” as well as fight for socialism. United with the Canadian workers, their natural allies, it says, the Quebec working class can “tear down the bourgeois federalist state and, in its place, set up a voluntary socialist union under equal terms, where the main levers of the economy are nationalized and placed under workers’ control”. However, La Riposte has not yet reported on the QS convention or indicated what they thought of the resolutions debated and adopted there.

Parti Communiste du Québec: For independence, and renegotiate NAFTA

PCQ members were less evident at this convention than they had been in previous ones I have attended. Possibly they were preoccupied with preparations for their own convention, held on December 12. That convention adopted a resolution on Québec’s accession to independence that differs somewhat from the position adopted by the Québec solidaire convention three weeks earlier. Once a government including the PCQ has been “elected in coalition or otherwise”, it states, the National Assembly should adopt a provisional constitution and unilaterally declare Quebec independence from Canada and the British Crown, then hold a popular consultation on the constitution followed by election of a Constituent Assembly that would draft a complete constitution for an independent Quebec, to be approved in a referendum. The PCQ would fight to include progressive social rights written into the constitution.

An independent Quebec, says the resolution, would strive for economic as well as political independence, and “renegotiate Quebec’s place within the NAFTA as well as all the other treaties that Canada has signed in our name....” Does this include continued membership not only in NAFTA but in the military alliances NATO and NORAD? The resolution does not say. Although the resolution calls for closer relations with the member countries of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, it also says an independent Quebec would exert “pressure on the governments of the emerging countries to improve the working conditions of their peoples.”

Communist Party of Canada: Is QS preparing to compromise with the PQ?

Although the CPC is not a collective in Québec solidaire, some of its members are in QS and were delegates to the convention. They spoke against Quebec independence. An article in the December issue of People’s Voice by its “Québec Bureau” explained why. It quoted Pierre Fontaine, the party’s Quebec leader: “From a means, sovereignty has become a goal in itself.... The door is now open for compromises with nationalist bourgeois forces — like the Parti Québécois”, Fontaine said.

The CPC thinks that the Canadian capitalist class may be overthrown before Quebec can become independent, and that Québécois should not forestall this possibility by fighting for independence through a united front with Quebec nationalists. Instead, they should fight for “a new, democratic and equal constitution for all nations in Canada”. The article did not express a position on the other issues debated at the convention.

* * *

The preceding summary of positions held by the left or Marxist collectives in Québec solidaire — a comprehensive understanding of their positions can only be gained from observing their conduct in the party and reading the documentation on the web sites I have referenced — should indicate that none, as a collective, is in a position to exert much influence, positive or otherwise, on the present course of the party. To my knowledge, Québec solidaire’s unanimous decision to endorse the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel in support of the Palestinian people — a highlight of the convention — was not an initiative of any collective in the party.

This weakness is not the result of any particular limitation on the thinking or action of the collectives imposed by the Québec solidaire structures or top leadership. Rather, it reflects the general organizational and political decline of the far left in Quebec over the last 25 to 30 years and its inability to overcome these deficiencies even in the favourable environment provided by its participation in the new broad left party. Conversely, the ability of Québec solidaire to maintain itself and move ahead in the development of its program and activities on a series of important questions of Quebec politics — as registered by the November convention — is an encouraging sign that the new progressive forces from the feminist, students, grassroots coalitions and the labour movement that have so far coalesced in Québec solidaire can make further progress in the period ahead, even without (and in some cases despite) the contribution of the old left.

That said, in my opinion the development of a Marxist left with a solid strategy for building Québec solidaire as the leading force in the fight for an independent and socialist Quebec could advance the party enormously, and with it the cause of all working people in Quebec and elsewhere. Québec solidaire is very much a “work in progress”, and socialists elsewhere have every interest in following its development closely. I hope this blog will contribute to that process in the coming months and years.

Richard Fidler

[1] The statutes are due to be overhauled at a forthcoming convention.

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