Friday, September 4, 2020

History revisited: Canada’s feminists respond to Quebec’s national movement

(And a contribution to the debate rejected by Canadian Dimension)

By Richard Fidler

Thirty years ago, in June 1990, the Meech Lake Accord died, its package of constitutional reforms having been rejected by the legislatures in Manitoba and Newfoundland/Labrador. Its demise — and with it, recognition of Quebec as a “distinct society” — gave rise in the following five years to a new surge in the Quebec movement for independence that came very close to winning in the 1995 referendum, accompanied by a series of renewed attempts by the Canadian government to negotiate a constitutional deal that would defuse that movement and maintain the existing Canadian state.

The anniversary was marked this year by a number of articles in the Quebec media but went largely unnoticed in the rest of Canada (ROC). Unremarked as well, in both Quebec and the ROC, was the role the angry public debate in Canada over modest acknowledgement of Quebec as a “distinct society” (never mind, nation) drove a wedge between the feminist movements in both nations and marked a key turning point in the evolution of the Quebec women’s organizations toward increasingly nationalist orientations and, during the 1990s, open support for Quebec independence.

This story is told in a 2009 doctoral dissertation by Flavie Trudel, of the Université du Québec.[1] The rift became public in 1987 when the Meech Lake Accord was widely criticized at a general meeting of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC), on the grounds, among others, that the “distinct society” clause would likely be used by the courts to undermine federal protection of women’s rights. In reaction, the Quebec Federation of Women (FFQ) left the meeting. Francophone women’s organizations had come to see Quebec, with its jurisdiction over language, culture and family law — and the progressive values upheld, for example, by Quebec juries’ multiple acquittals of abortion rights advocate Dr. Henry Morgenthaler — as a more favourable milieu for advancing women’s rights.

In a brief to the House of Commons committee studying the constitutional proposal, the FFQ stated that in its view “the progress achieved [in Quebec] in women’s status is not unrelated to its character as a distinct society.”

About a dozen Quebec women’s organizations, among them the FFQ, the CSN’s women’s committee, and a group led by Françoise David and union militant Madeleine Parent, began meeting in late 1987 to determine whether to remain in the NAC, where Francophones were a small minority.

In 1989, the FFQ decided not to renew its affiliation to the NAC, while continuing to attend its meetings as an observer. “NAC’s failure to understand or accept the position of Québec francophone women,” write NAC historians Jill Vickers et al,[2]

“marks the beginning of the end of NAC’s ability, through the affiliation of the FFQ, to provide a bridge, however fragile, between the French and English movements.… Many NAC activists would again be unable to comprehend or accept the view of the majority of francophone feminists from Québec that their liberation rested with the Québec state and with recognition of Québec as a ‘distinct society’.”

NAC was not the only women’s organization in Canada to be critical of the Meech Lake Accord. Others included the National Association of Women and the Law (NAWL), which argued that the Accord endangered women because it recognized aboriginal rights and Canada’s multiculturalism without mentioning women’s rights to equality. This position was typical of the many social movements in Canada that had become seduced by “Charter politics” in the wake of Parliament’s adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, with its offer of recourse to the courts to override legislated obstacles to their goals — a phenomenon brilliantly analyzed by the late Michael Mandel in The Charter of Rights and the Legalization of Politics in Canada.[3] Mandel also points to the role of the Charter as a key ingredient in Pierre Trudeau’s strategy for enhancing federal institutions and standards in opposition to Quebec’s, itself confirmed by the illusory view that Quebec’s “distinct society” constituted a threat to women’s rights.

Flavie Trudel adds, however, that judging from the exchange of correspondence between the NAC and the FFQ, “it seems clear that the FFQ’s dissatisfaction was not addressed to the feminist action of NAC…. For example, a little later NAC was quick to come out in support of Chantal Daigle in the struggle against her former partner for her right to an abortion, and the NAC reacted with outrage to the massacre at the École Polytechnique on December 6, 1989.”[4]

Moreover, the FFQ withdrawal prompted some rethinking in NAC about its approach to Quebec issues. “Judy Rebick was elected president of NAC in 1990 on a promise to work to lessen the divisions between Québécoises and women in the rest of Canada. And Rebick committed as well to stepping up NAC’s interventions on the constitutional question.”[5] NAC soon evolved toward a “Three Nations constitutional position that recognized the legitimacy of decentralized power for Quebec and the First Nations.”[6]

Meanwhile, the FFQ continued to develop its thinking on the Quebec national question, becoming clearly pro-independence in 1990. This orientation would undergo no fundamental change through the following years. And when the Parti Québécois government turned to harsh fiscal austerity after the defeat of the referendum in 1995, the FFQ, now headed by Françoise David, focused on the fight against poverty, combined with the issue of violence against women. Its discourse was transformed, writes Trudel. “It moved to the left, close to Marxism, at the same time becoming more inclusive.”[7] At the outset of the 21st century it became as well “altermondialiste,” that is, engaged in the global justice movement. Following the success of its “bread and roses” marches in the mid-1990s, the FFQ initiated the World March of Women in 2000.

After the defeat of the Meech Lake Accord

The FFQ was now the umbrella organization for 115 Quebec associations with about 100,000 members in all walks of life. In its brief to the Bélanger-Campeau commission on Quebec’s political and constitutional future, established in 1990 by the Quebec government following the defeat of the Meech Lake Accord, the FFQ stated:

“We believe that the possibility of achieving significant changes in the social and political fabric of Quebec will be proportional to the degree of autonomy Quebec obtains. And we believe that greater manoeuvrability for Quebec will promote the development of a feminist model of society, provided that women are closely associated with all phases in the development of this model. To define and implement a plan for society, we need a framework that we can be part of.

“With this in mind, and although we are fully aware that political autonomy is not the only condition for such changes, we think that women as a social group have an interest in choosing the greatest possible political autonomy for Quebec.[8] […]

“We feminists understand the importance of autonomy and identity, concepts that have always been at the heart of our struggle. We have refused to dissolve our identity as women into that of our fathers and husbands; and today we refuse to dissolve our Quebec identity into the Canadian identity. We know the price of autonomy, but also its value.

“Our feminism is expressed collectively; it is part of a specific cultural reality, that of Quebec, and it is not independent of the social and political context. For example, let us recall that the birth of neo-feminism in Quebec in the early 1970s was closely related to the goal of national liberation. Feminist groups situated the struggle of women within the struggle for national liberation, as was illustrated by the slogan ‘No women’s liberation without the liberation of Quebec. No Quebec liberation without the liberation of women.’ Then, as today, it was not feminism that was exclusive to Quebec women, but the context in which it was developing. […]

“Since it is the overall future of Quebec that interests us, we think that the changes in Quebec should not be limited to a fundamental modification of the relationship between Quebec and Canada, but should be situated within an overall plan for society. What we need to collectively redefine is not only our relationships with Canada but what this new country of Quebec will be. It is social relationships as a whole that must be re-envisaged.”[9]

And the FFQ went on to develop some of the key ideas it thought should be included in the constitution of an independent Quebec. It added:

“The new constitution should be elaborated by a constituent assembly elected by universal suffrage and composed equally of men and women.

“The proposed constitution should be submitted to the entire population for ratification. It will be the property of the citizens of Quebec, and should not be the subject of any negotiations with other countries, including Canada.”[10]

No surprise, then, that the FFQ opposed the Charlottetown Accord, the follow-up to Meech negotiated by the first ministers and put to a cross-Canada referendum for approval in 1992. FFQ leaders participated in a new coalition, the Regroupement des Québécoises pour le NON, and published a “pink pamphlet,” Non à l’entente de Charlottetown: Pour un avenir qui nous ressemble.

NAC, too, with the FFQ again a member, opposed the Accord. NAC leaders Judy Rebick and Shelagh Day issued a statement explaining that “The Quebec and aboriginal peoples have the right to decide democratically their own future without being crushed by a massive campaign orchestrated by the majority’s political elites.”[11] But this position was sharply attacked not only by the media but by some NAC affiliates who protested that the position taken by the organization’s leaders was not based on adequate consultation with the members.[12] In the October 1992 referendum, the Charlottetown Accord was defeated in both Quebec and the rest of Canada.

Leading up to the 1995 referendum on Quebec independence, the FFQ voted in a membership assembly to endorse the OUI following a consultation in which three different positions were advanced: for, against, and neither. But the FFQ’s efforts were not enough to tip the balance in the popular vote, in which the OUI was narrowly defeated — 50.55% against, 49.45% in favour.[13]

And where was the left in this history?

The feminists were not alone in their divisions over Meech and the Quebec national question. The Quebec NDP, which was experiencing a brief surge in support following the PQ’s endorsement of Mulroney’s Conservatives in the mid-1980s, opposed the Accord. But the federal NDP supported Meech, as it had the unilateral patriation of the Constitution in 1992 without Quebec consent. Quebec’s tiny Communist party, which had opted for Yes to sovereignty-association in the 1980 referendum, urged a No vote in 1995; the party has never supported Quebec independence, and in the early 21st century most of its Quebec members split, first to adhere to the pro-sovereignty Québec solidaire, later to support the PQ.

Other Marxists? In a recent article on the demise of the Trotskyist tendency to which both he and I had adhered, John Riddell noted that our Quebec forces, which had historically favoured Quebec independence, split in 1980 and formed Gauche socialiste in 1983: “Gauche Socialiste went on to play a significant and constructive role in the creation of a new left party, Québec Solidaire.” During the 1980s and 1990s, John notes, “the broader socialist movement was in decline.” Yet, he says, “these were the very years in which the International Socialists (IS) emerged in Canada as a dynamic and influential far-left organization.” On this, I think he exaggerates. In any case, the IS record on the constitutional debates speaks otherwise.

In 2012, IS leader Abbie Bakan criticized the NAC for opposing the Charlottetown Accord: “The National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) … tragically sided with the ‘no’ side. But this position encountered considerable challenge, most importantly from Quebec feminist allies, including the Fédération des femmes du Québec (FFQ).” Bakan misstates the FFQ position, as we have seen. She goes on: “At the time, the International Socialists, a member organization of NAC, wrote an Open Letter calling for a reversal of the ‘no’ position.”

In a 40-page pamphlet published in 1991-92, which is still the most complete statement of IS thinking on Canada’s national questions,[14] Bakan argues that “genuine self-determination for all the oppressed can only be won by smashing the Canadian state…,”[15] but apparently she and the IS are unable to see how Quebec independence might be strategically related to that goal.

For my part, in 1987 I drafted an article for the widely-read left magazine Canadian Dimension aimed at rebutting the very myths being propagated in Canada by some feminists and leftists concerning the Meech Lake Accord. It was rejected by the CD editorial collective, citing (in a letter by managing editor Jim Silver to Donald Swartz)[16] “our disagreement with the interpretation offered by the article.” CD’s refusal was protested at the time by a number of socialists in Canada and Quebec whose support I had solicited (although they did not necessarily agree with the article’s content) — among them Gil Levine, Lukin Robinson and Swartz.

In Quebec, Roch Denis translated the article and published it in the June-July 1988 issue of Tribune Ouvrière, the newspaper of the Groupe socialiste des travailleurs, with an introduction that stated, in part: “…while the author’s position is widely held within the left and among worker militants in Quebec, it is much more seldom heard in English Canada… where the dominant circles of the ‘left’ yield to no one in their defence of the Canadian state.”

Ironically, in a book published to mark the 50th year of publication of Canadian Dimension,[17] a chapter by Peter Graefe on its coverage of Quebec states:

“In retrospect, the lack of Quebec voices on Meech Lake was unfortunate. A key claim of CD’s rejection of Meech Lake involved the spending power provisions, which were seen as preventing future universal social programs. Ultimately, the Quebec left rejected these same provisions on the opposite grounds: namely that they recognized and legitimized the use of the spending power and thus made it easier to use. In some ways, this debate was never joined in the pages of the journal….”

Here, then, for the first time in English, is my article as it was submitted to Canadian Dimension, with a few outdated references removed. My approach to the “distinct society” issue is somewhat different from the FFQ’s, although not inconsistent with it.

Meech Lake: Myth and Reality

By Richard Fidler

Almost no one on the left likes the Meech Lake accord. But the critics differ on what is wrong with it, and what it means for the political future of this country. There is parti­cular confusion over Quebec’s status, federal-provincial rela­tions, and the role of judicial review. Clarity on these matters will strengthen the opposition and reinforce the unity of the left in Quebec and English Canada.

Myth No. 1. Quebec has gained new powers.

The accord inserts a clause in the Constitution recognizing that Quebec is “a distinct society” within Canada. This was instrumental in getting [Quebec Premier] Bourassa’s signature on the accord, which is said to “bring Quebec into the Constitution.” And this in turn has helped many who are critical of other provisions in the accord, such as Ed Broadbent and the NDP federal caucus, to swallow their misgivings and endorse the accord.

But recognition of Quebec’s uniqueness is largely symbolic, as critics in Quebec have pointed out. The meaning of “distinct society” is unclear: its content will be defined by the unelected judiciary — ultimately the Supreme Court of Canada, in which Quebec judges are a minority. The judges will interpret it in light of the accord and the Constitution as a whole. What do these indicate?

The accord does not give Quebec protection in the crucial area of language rights, so essential to the definition of its distinct character. Provisions in the Constitution Act, 1867 and the Charter of Rights that were used to invalidate large parts of Law 101 remain in place. One might think that “distinct society” refers at minimum to Quebec’s French language and culture. But the clause is subject to a “duality principle” which, among other things, requires the Quebec legislature to “preserve” the English-speaking population in Quebec, whose presence is stated to be a “fundamental characteristic of Canada.” This is a clear invitation to the courts to cut down Quebec language laws that are deemed to interfere with Anglophone “rights.”

In addition, the accord for the first time gives constitutional authorization to the federal government to initiate spending programs in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction — a power Quebec long resisted.

Quebec still lacks a comprehensive veto on constitu­tional change. In 1981 the Supreme Court said Quebec’s veto was only a “convention,” not law, and that the Constitution could be patriated without Quebec consent. Under Meech Lake, the require­ment of provincial unanimity in amendments concerning federal institutions is extended, but the general amending formula (seven provinces with 50% of the population) remains.

Most important, the “principle of equality of all the provinces,” specifically mentioned in the resolution for adop­tion by the legislatures, decisively undermines any real recog­nition of Quebec as a “distinct society.” This is why Quebec has no unique veto power; as Senator Lowell Murray, Minister of State for Federal-Provincial Relations, explains, “Once the principle of provincial equality was enshrined in the Constitu­tion on Nov. 5, 1981, the only way to give Quebec a veto was to also give a veto to all the provinces.” Thus, from now on, all provinces must consent to any constitutional amendment affecting the powers, number and method of appointment of Senators. (This effectively precludes any possibility of abolishing the Senate.) Quebec gets a voice in appointments to the Supreme Court and the Senate — but so do all the other provinces.

In addition, all provinces are allowed to “opt out” of federal shared cost programs and constitutional amendments that transfer provincial powers to the federal government. A province opting out will qualify for federal compensation if it “carries on a program or initiative that is compatible with the national objectives” established by the federal government (not Parlia­ment).

Opting out with financial compensation was originally devised in the 1960s to enable Quebec to establish its own social programs — medicare, university funding, pensions, etc. — without conceding any special constitutional status to the province. In theory the procedure was available to any province, but only Quebec used it. Now it will be entrenched in the constitution for all provinces.

Under Meech Lake, “special status” is given to all provinces, and therefore to none. The rationale: to avoid at all costs conceding any meaningful national character to Quebec. In legal and constitutional terms, Quebec remains very much a “province like the others” — but subject to continuing constitu­tional restrictions on its power to legislate to protect its distinctive language and culture. This is the primary injustice in the accord.

Myth No. 2. Meech Lake weakens the central state.

Many English-Canadian critics of the accord complain that it weakens the federal jurisdiction, which they see as the primary source of progressive legislation. They worry that the first ministers, in signing the accord, have surrendered some portion of Canadian sovereignty.

Thus, Larry Brown of the National Union of Provincial Government Employees says (in a brief presented to the parliamentary committee studying the accord) that it “means a substan­tial transfer of power from the federal to the provincial governments.” The United Electrical Workers (UEW) speaks of the “balkanization” of Canada and warns about “a continuous dynamic of decentralization” under the accord. The Canadian Labor Congress echoes these views while conceding it does not speak for its Quebec affiliate, the Quebec Federation of Labor (QFL).

The unions worry about the enhanced provincial role under the accord. And they argue that the vague spending powers formula opens the way to gutting existing federal-provincial shared-cost social programs, and may foreclose meaningful stan­dards in future ones such as the proposed childcare program.

Conversely, however, the requirement that provincial programs be compatible with “the national objectives” could pressure provinces to participate in programs determined by Ottawa. This may be objectionable to Québécois who wish to establish their own priorities in terms of national (Quebec) needs. As the QFL put it, in a brief to the National Assembly, Quebec has established some relatively advanced social programs in recent years: “Why should we recognize the federal govern­ment’s power to dictate our next public spending priorities?” An opting out formula that recognized Quebec’s unique needs would obviate this problem.

Making compatibility with national objectives a condition for federal funding of social programs does not necessarily bar pioneering reforms by some provinces; in fact, many social reforms in Canada have been initiated by provinces, such as medicare in Saskatchewan under the CCF-NDP. Much will depend on how restrictively those “national objectives” are defined.

Other arguments marshalled in support of the “balkani­zation” thesis are similarly unconvincing. The provinces may submit lists of nominees for the Senate and Supreme Court, but the federal government makes the ultimate determination. A province may negotiate an immigration agreement with the federal government that is “appropriate to the needs and circumstances of that province,” but any such agreement must conform to national standards and objectives set by the federal Parliament.

Nor should the ideological consequences of the accord be ignored. The Globe and Mail editors argue that Quebec’s formal acceptance of patriation and the Charter of Rights, and the enhanced provincial role in determining the composition of federal institutions, will tend to “increase the legitimacy” of those institutions “in Quebec and in the regions.”

Ed Broadbent was probably right when he told Parlia­ment: “The powers of the national Government of Canada have not been reduced one iota by this accord.” That is why the Quebec NDP opposes the accord — and why Broadbent supports it.

Myth No. 3. Increased judicial review will promote democracy and equality.

The underlying problem with Meech Lake is not the increased provincial input in federal institutions and policies, but the enhanced role of the executive, bureaucratic and judi­cial powers under the accord.

The role of the elected House of Commons and provin­cial legislatures is diminished through such means as annual First Ministers’ conferences on the economy and the constitu­tion. Mulroney and other first ministers are even claiming that none of the 11 legislatures “debating” the accord may amend it in any way. Intergovernmental agreements contemplated in the accord can bind successor legislatures, and leave no role for native people, Northerners or Francophone minorities outside Quebec who do not have governmental status. The Senate is here to stay. The amending formula becomes increasingly complex.

Above all, the accord effects a further huge transfer of power to the judiciary. Judges will have to determine the meaning of terms like “distinct society,” “national objectives,” and “reasonable compensation.”

Ironically, some critics of Meech Lake would rely on the courts to remedy perceived injustices in the accord, by extending the scope of judicial review under the Charter of Rights. Some unions and women’s groups are calling for an amendment that would make the “distinct society” clause subject to Charter protection of women’s equality rights. They point out that the accord specifies that the recognition of Quebec as a distinct society is not to affect federal jurisdiction over Indians or the multicultural character of Canada under the Charter. The failure to provide a similar exemption for women, they say, permits Quebec, in the name of promoting its distinc­tiveness, to override women’s rights.

In legal terms, the pro-Charter argument is less than overwhelming. It can also be argued, as does the Quebec women’s federation (FFQ), that in terms of the constitutional division of powers native people and cultural minorities are analogous with Québécois, in that they all have national or ethnic charac­teristics. Women, however, are not a nationality and there is therefore no need to mention them in the accord.

Politically, the pro-Charter argument is disastrous. It is offensive to Québécois, both male and female. It suggests that unless the Quebec government is subject to external consti­tutional constraints, it will continue to oppress women; that is, that the Québécois themselves are unable to eliminate sexual oppression. This position has divided Quebec and English-Cana­dian feminists and has been effectively exploited by Mulroney, Bourassa and other supporters of the accord to demoralize those in Quebec who criticize the “distinct society” clause as providing insufficient protection of Quebec’s vulnerable language and culture. (“You see, even this is too much for English Canada; it’s the best you can hope for.”)

The National Association of Women and the Law, tes­tifying before the parliamentary committee on the accord, cited the “potential” for “misuse of population control in the name of preserving or promoting distinct populations.” But the old stereotype of a priest-ridden Quebec engaged in a “revenge of the cradles” hardly squares with contemporary Quebec’s compara­tively progressive approach to women’s rights, reflected, for example, in the greater access to abortions. As the FFQ noted, “in Quebec, respect for women’s rights is increasingly a part of our political culture. The progress we have made in terms of women’s status is not unrelated to this characteristic as a distinct society.”

The federal government-sponsored Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women has even called for making the entire Constitution subject to the Charter — and for a judicial opinion on the accord before it is adopted by Parliament.

This resort to the Charter and the courts is misguided. As many in the left are coming to understand, the Charter of Rights is at best a dubious instrument for advancing the struggles of the oppressed and exploited.

Charter rights are abstract. Their content is defined by the judiciary, with its traditional conservative bias. Legal reasoning tends to discount arguments founded on history and class — essential considerations when assessing laws that engender inequality or that are designed to overcome it. Is it mere coincidence that the overwhelming majority of cases so far under the sexual equality provision of the Charter have been initiated by men seeking “equal” benefits for men?

The courts tend to favor the individual over the collective, and private enterprise over government. Thus the Supreme Court had no difficulty finding that the “fundamental” freedom of association in the Charter did not protect union members’ right to engage in collective bargaining or to strike, while the right of protection against arbitrary search and seizure protected the Southam newspaper chain from a federal law designed to curb monopoly concentration.

In fact, the general thrust of Charter litigation, as of all judicial review, is to restrain government action or legislation. This can be useful in some circumstances — for example in defending individual rights against arbitrary police action, or women’s right to choose against the criminalization of abortion. But what women, Québécois, and all working people need above all is positive government action that protects them against unfettered corporate power and the inequalities of the “free market”.

Charter litigation has definite limits as part of an offensive political strategy. It tends to divert attention away from the need for collective action to obtain specific reforms and governmental change, in favor of the courts and abstract judicial arguments of principle.

For example, opponents of cruise missile testing launched a court challenge under the Charter that received massive media attention. The courts in the end ratified the tests. Meanwhile, Operation Dismantle’s alternative strategy of promoting binding municipal referenda across Canada on cruise tests as well as NATO membership got lost in the Charter mania. Similarly, unions confronting wage-control legislation in several provinces chose to fight it with a Charter challenge in the courts instead of organizing on-the-job protests and strike action as they had in 1976 in response to Trudeau’s wage controls. Again, the courts upheld the legislation and the unions were back to square one.

An alternative approach would focus on rallying support for specific actions and laws rather than leaving the solution to the discretion of judges. For example, feminists say their desire to amend the Meech Lake accord is prompted by a recent ruling that the rest of the Constitution is not subject to the Charter. In that case, teachers and school boards in Ontario went to court to challenge the provincial government’s decision to extend Catholic school funding to senior grades. They argued that the protection of denominational schools in Ontario and Quebec in section 93 of the Constitution Act, 1867 was contrary to the Charter. They lost. The Supreme Court said that it would not interfere with the “fundamental compromises” negotiated between the provinces and the federal government. In effect the judges threw the decision back into the political sphere, where it should have been all along. What should the Ontario teachers do now? Certainly not fight to make the Charter override the rest of the Constitution. Instead, they could join forces with the Quebec unions and community groups that have been fighting to secularize the schools by ending the religion-based distinctions in section 93.

The Charter directs us to rely less on legislatures and governmental power and more on the courts for solutions to our problems. It is no accident that its adoption coincided with the unilateral patriation of the Constitution following defeat of the Quebec referendum on sovereignty. The Charter is a cen­tralizing instrument: it subjects Quebec’s laws and government action to judicial scrutiny for compliance with a pan-Canadian jurisprudence. In doing so, it restricts Quebec’s capacity to develop its own institutions and laws adapted to its national character or distinctiveness.

Until now Québécois have been somewhat diffident toward the Canadian Charter. The Parti Québécois government was applauded when it invoked a Charter provision to exempt Quebec legislation from some key provisions of the Charter.

But in mid-April 1987, a few days before signing the Meech Lake accord,  Bourassa quietly let the provision lapse. With the accord, Charter politics now acquire greater force in Quebec — even though Quebec’s own Charter, an act of its National Assembly and therefore subordinate to the Canadian Charter, is in some respects more advanced. (For example, it prohibits dis­crimination on grounds of political views or sexual orientation, and it is directed against arbitrary discriminatory action by private agencies, not just governments.)

The proposal to extend the jurisdiction of the Charter, and therefore the courts, simply reinforces these trends. And it stands reality on its head. Quebec’s struggle for its rights as a nation, however imperfectly reflected in the Meech Lake accord, does not threaten the struggle by women against their oppression as a sex. The interests of Québécois and women lie in a common struggle against a central state that maintains the oppression of both.


[1] Flavie Trudel, “L’Engagement des femmes en politique au Québec: Histoire de la Fédération des femmes du Québec de 1966 à nos jours.” I am indebted to Raghu Krishnan for drawing this work to my attention.

[2] Jill Vickers, Pauline Rankin, Christine Appelle, Politics as if women mattered: A political analysis of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1993), p. 119.

[3] Toronto, Thompson Educational Publishing, 2nd ed. 1994.

[4] Trudel, op. cit., p. 253.

[5] Ibid., p. 254.

[6] Vickers et al., op. cit., p. 9. See also “NAC Response to Federal Constitution Proposals,” October 25, 1991. Copy in my possession.

[7] Trudel, op. cit., p. 285.

[8] Richard Fidler, Canada, Adieu? Quebec Debates its Future (Institute for Research on Public Policy, 1991), pp. 159-60.

[9] Ibid., p. 163.

[10] Ibid., p. 164.

[11] Trudel, op. cit., p. 292. My re-translation from the French.

[12] Ibid., p. 292.

[13] Ibid., p. 316.

[14] Abbie Bakan, Quebec: From Conquest to Constitution, A Socialist Analysis (Toronto: An International Socialists Pamphlet). A pdf copy is in my possession.

[15] Ibid., p. 3.

[16] Dated February 17, 1988. Copy in my possession.

[17] Cy Gonick (ed.), Canada Since 1960: A People’s History (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 2016).

Sunday, August 16, 2020

More on that failed fusion experience: a report from the past

Introduction

John Riddell, in his “Inquest into a failed socialist fusion” published last November, cited a number of reasons behind the ultimate failure of the RWL/LOR[1] to live up to the ambitions of its founding components.[2]

One was the false rationale behind the fused organization’s “turn to industry,” initially a campaign to persuade a large number of comrades to take jobs in Canada’s major industrial unions. The “industrial turn,” says John, “was based not on existing reality but on a prediction regarding future conditions. Such a future-based orientation is impervious to the test of experience.” John’s analysis largely focuses on the period after 1980, the year in which the RWL and I parted company.

In a parallel critique of the fusion experience cited by John, Bernard Rioux points to a related factor, in my opinion of more importance in the first years following the 1977 fusion: political differences within the new organization over the course of the class struggle in the Canadian state.

“The first year of the LOR/RWL (1977-78) was marked by some definite successes in the building of a Trotskyist organization in the Canadian state.

“But significant political differences soon reappeared: in our activities, in writing articles, and in the educational content of the members. Was it necessary to call ‘For an NDP government,’ the traditional slogan of the LSA/LSO, or should we have been advocating abstention in the elections, the traditional position of the GMR? Would we call for an NDP vote in English Canada while rejecting it in Quebec? How were we to explain our support for independence? Responses differed as the issues arose in quick succession.

“The differences were expressed around three sets of problems: what was the weight of the Quebec national question in the Canadian revolution; what form and rhythm was our involvement in the unions to take; and what weight should be given to the new radicalizing layers among women and gays and lesbians?”

A significant minority within the RWL/LOR leadership began to dispute the answers the majority leadership was posing to these questions. The following report, which I gave to our united leadership on behalf of the Political Committee minority in May 1979, explains our view of the issues at that time.

The political context was the preparation of the RWL/LOR’s approach to the May 22 federal election. Our debate occurred in the wake of the organization’s April 1979 convention, where these differences were first clearly expressed. My report reflected the valuable input of such comrades as Riddell, Ernie Tate and the late Colleen Levis. I think it stands up well, even now. Apologies for its length; I have never been a “man of few words”!

Worth noting are a few pseudonyms. Tyson is Steve Penner. Samuels is Judy Rebick. My byline replaces the pseudonym used in the report as published in the RWL/LOR, from which I have scanned the text.

Incidentally, here are the results registered in the May 22 federal election, when the Conservatives under Joe Clark were elected to office with less than a parliamentary majority.

Richard Fidler

* * *

Report to Political Committee on federal election campaign, May 6, 1979

By Richard Fidler

The following report reflects the line of the PC minority. It was rejected by a vote of 5 for, 8 against.

(The information on the CLC campaign in this report was compiled with the assistance of Comrade Dennis Marlon of the Toronto branch.)

I want to deal with four things in this report: 1. the Canadian Labor Congress campaign in support of the NDP; 2. the question of the NDP in Quebec; 3. the election statement and draft platform of the majority leadership; and 4. what we should be doing with the RWL campaign.

Political Context

Any bourgeois election campaign presents an important opening for a small propaganda group like the RWL to fight for our ideas and our program. This is all the more true in the current context—one of rising class struggle, both internationally and in Canada.

We are now in the fifth straight year of capitalist “austerity.” Workers’ real wages continue to decline; unemployment remains at post-Depression records and threatens to rise still further. Slashing cutbacks in social services continue apace; democratic rights are under attack on all fronts.

Lacking a class-struggle leadership, workers have taken some harsh blows from the capitalist offensive. Yet they have suffered no decisive defeats. Their combativity remains intact, and is rising. Strikes are increasing in number; they are harder fought (Inco, CUPW). Nationalist sentiment continues to deepen in Quebec. This pattern in Canada reflects a similar pattern internationally—from the revolutionary up­surge in Iran to the rising workers’ struggles in Western Europe and the United States.

Among working people there is less and less confidence in the ability of the capitalist system to “deliver the goods”—to maintain, let alone improve, the standard of living and rights of the masses. Everywhere we find growing receptivity to socialist ideas.

These developments must shape our approach to the election campaign. Above all, we must be concrete: the basic themes of our class-struggle program must be directly linked to the experiences of the mass of working people.

Our central axis must be class political independence from the bourgeoisie. On all the major questions facing the workers and their allies, we outline a class-against-class response. This includes the fight against the imperialist war drive; against capitalist austerity and the anti-working class offensive, for the shorter workweek and the sliding scale of wages; for the rights of the oppressed, above all active defense of Quebec’s right to self-determination in English Canada and the fight for independence and national liberation in Quebec.

At the apex of our program is the concept of the workers and farmers government, a government of the workers and their strategic allies that governs in their interests.

This program must be linked to the actual struggles of working people as they are unfolding today—from solidarity with the struggles of the Iranian workers and peasants, to the fight against nuclear power.

In the election campaign, as in all our activities, we advance a program to unite the working class and the oppressed in struggle independently of the bourgeoisie.

1. The CLC campaign in support of the NDP

The Canadian Labor Congress’s campaign to mobilize union support behind the NDP is the most
favorable opening for us in this election—both for what it means in the class struggle, and as an opportunity to turn the RWL outward and get a feel for the situation in the unions.

Some of the main aspects of this campaign were described in the article in the April 9 issue of Socialist Voice (“Unions mobilize behind NDP election effort”). The campaign is without precedent; it is probably the CLC’s most important involvement with the NDP since the founding of the labor party in the early 1960s. The campaign is “separate but parallel” to the NDP’s. Seminars have been held at various points across the country, involving up to 500 or more union stewards, local presidents and executives, committee people, business agents, and in some cases rank-and-file militants. Local unions are distributing leaflets,
stickers, and buttons at plant-gates, on the shop floor, and door to door; the theme is “The perfect union—me and the NDP” (in French, “L’union fait la force”).

Union newspapers carry extensive coverage on the NDP; examples are the four-page inserts in the CBRT&GW’s Canadian Transport and the CUPE newspaper, The Public Employee. Most of this material appears also in the French-language editions of the union newspapers. In addition, the Quebec Federation of Labor has put out a special eight-page election edition of its monthly Le Monde Ouvrier; besides listing all the NDP candidates in Quebec, and calling on workers to support them, it contains numerous articles on the struggle against wage controls, the fight of the postal workers, unemployment, inflation, women’s rights, health and safety in the workplace, the situation of working farmers, and the RCMP and repression.

Phone banks have been established in many areas; the goal is to contact union members individually to talk about the NDP with them. Immigrant workers are reached in their own language.

Many union officials and newspapers compare the election effort to labor’s mobilization in the cross-country strike against wage controls on October 14, 1976. It is certainly labor’s biggest mobilization since then.

The model frequently cited is a federal by-election in Newfoundland last fall, when unions—in particular, the Canadian Paperworkers Union and the Newfoundland Fishermen’s Union—mobilized in support of the NDP, increasing its vote from 4 percent in the previous election to 44 percent and electing an MP.

The basic theme of the union campaign is that it is not enough to “defeat Trudeau.” Workers must vote for a party that is based on the unions, and that can defend the interests of working people. Union literature emphasizes the need to defeat both Trudeau and Clark, and with them the parties of big business. The pro-NDP campaign is explained as a continuation of labor’s campaign against the wage controls.

The context of the campaign, as I have mentioned, is the increasing politicization of workers and their unions in response to the capitalist crisis. It corresponds to and is an extension of similar developments we have noted outside the federal election arena—for example, the growing involvement of the Metropolitan Toronto labor council with the NDP at the municipal level, as in the recent campaign in the city’s Ward 4 aldermanic by-election, and the slate of NDP-Labor Council candidates in last November’s civic elections.

The campaign is centered in key industrial unions that we have targeted for colonization—Steel, Auto, the IWA, as well as the CPU and other unions like CUPE. It involves many unions not affiliated to the NDP, or not previously identified with the party. An example is the Public Service Alliance of Canada, one of the country’s largest unions; the pro-NDP campaign is the concrete form taken by PSAC’s earlier proposal to form “Political Action Committees” during the election to fight Bill C-22. At a CLC election strategy meeting in Toronto March 1, unions representing about 90 percent of the CLC’s 2.3 million members were present. Only 10 percent of CLC members are actually affiliated members of the NDP.

Response to the campaign

The campaign is strongest in the industrial union centers—union bastions like Sudbury, Brantford, and Windsor in Southern Ontario. At a union election seminar in Windsor, the 600 militants present adopted a proposal to publish a leaflet on women’s issues in the campaign.

In Winnipeg, unions have focused their activity in Bird’s Hill riding, where the NDP has strong chances of election. The unions’ May Day rally was to feature NDP candidates as speakers. In Vancouver, the Steelworkers and IWA are in the forefront of the campaign.

It was reported in the Toronto branch that in Hamilton, the new leadership in the 10,000-member Steel local 1005 at Stelco, led by the ex-”Waffle” militant Cec Taylor, campaigned to “put 1005 behind the NDP.” This is particularly significant because the Liberal party has traditionally played an influential role in that union.

In Toronto, the UAW held a “cadre school” on the elections attended by some 300 local union officers and militants. Comrade Joe Flexer attended; he reports he received a good response when he criticized the NDP program in the framework of supporting the CLC’s initiative. The CLC campaign is relatively weak in Toronto; one factor is the slow pick-up by Steel locals, most of which have been immersed in local elections until last week.

I’ll deal with Quebec at greater length later in this report. It’s worth noting, however, that at Sept-Îles on the Côte Nord, one of the centers of the May 1972 upsurge, a leader of the Steelworkers union, the main union in the area, is running as an NDP candidate. At Ste-Thérèse the president of the UAW local at General Motors is the NDP candidate. Comrade Joe Young went up there and found that the local was discussing support for the NDP campaign at its membership meeting.

At the Ontario Federation of Labor women’s conference, as Linda Blackwood reports in the April 30 Socialist Voice, the question of the NDP was a dominant theme.

Perhaps most interesting is the shop-floor response to this campaign. Everywhere, comrades report, the distribution of pro-NDP literature in their factories sparks political discussions. As Comrade Art Young says, it “changes the atmosphere in the plant,” politicizing it.

The bourgeoisie is paying close attention to the CLC campaign. The Financial Post and Globe and Mail, two leading big-business mouthpieces, have in particular described its impact in the unions, and speculated publicly on the longer-term implications for the labor movement. The New York Times has also discussed its importance.

Some weaknesses

It’s easy to spot the weaknesses in the CLC campaign. In the Voice article we listed four main ones.

  1. The “critical support to a (capitalist) minority government” line of the CLC and NDP leadership. The union brass are focusing their efforts on only 60 ridings, where they estimate the NDP has the best chances of victory. The aim is to elect enough NDP MPs to hold the “balance of power” in the next Parliament, should neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives get a majority. We have explained what is wrong with this approach. However, we should note that the logic of the campaign is to center less and less on that narrow electoralist goal, and increasingly on the general theme: “more New Democrats.” The “balance” of parliamentary power is not a perspective with much appeal to rank-and-file unionists!
  2. The campaign is not conceived as a break from tripartism and class collaborationism. For the union brass, it is their complement; by increasing NDP strength it is designed to increase the CLC’s ability to press for tripartite deals with the employers and government. In this, of course, the CLC’s approach does not differ at all with the NDP’s program, which is class-collaborationist to the core. As we have always pointed out, the fact that the unions are campaigning in support of the NDP’s program, a program that doesn’t differ substantially from the program of the capitalist parties, seriously undercuts the potential political impact of the campaign.
  3. The CLC campaign is organized strictly from the top down. It is not designed to encourage rank and file members to mobilize on their own behind the NDP. Few mass meetings are being organized during the campaign; instead, the union brass have focused their efforts on individual contact with workers, as through the “phone banks.”

We countered this in the Voice article by citing the experience in the Newfoundland by-election, when the Corner Brook paperworkers twice shut down the mill in strike action and canvassed support for the NDP. We have also pointed to the need to take the defense of workers struggles into the campaign—for example, by challenging the NDP and CLC to take up the defense of the postal workers union and the Inco strikers, and to speak out in defense of Quebec’s national rights.

  1. A glaring weakness, of course, is the campaign’s relatively limited character in Quebec. I’ll deal with that later.

A big step forward for labor movement

These are all important weaknesses of the CLC campaign, and we shouldn’t hesitate to explain them. But they should not blind us to the overriding positive nature of the campaign.

The analogy with the October 14, 1976 mobilization is an appropriate one. We see the same kind of contradictions: a mass mobilization of the union ranks for a class-collaborationist project. In the case of October 14, the general strike action was designed simply to build pressure for the CLC bureaucracy’s proposed “tripartite” labor-management-government collaboration in administering the capitalist economy. That didn’t stop us from seeing the immensely progressive nature of the proposed action; we jumped right in, and together with union militants everywhere helped to build it. We should recall that it was the rank-and-file activists, not the CLC brass, who ensured the success of October 14—making it a powerful demonstration of labor’s rejection of the capitalist austerity program. Likewise, it would be a big error to turn our backs on the current CLC campaign with ultimatist rhetoric and abstract denunciations, because of the reformist political content the union brass give it.

The campaign by the unions to build support for the NDP—even conducted as it is around programmatic support for the NDP, and with strictly electoralist methods—is highly progressive. The vast majority of workers in this country do not yet understand even the necessity to stop supporting the parties of the capitalists; according to one study, only 20 percent of trade unionists’ votes went to the NDP in the 1974 federal election, while the Liberals’ share was 51 percent.

We should get into this campaign and build it, as an important step in the direction of independent labor political action. The CLC-NDP campaign should be the central focus of our press, our candidates, and our forums during the election campaign.

Unfortunately, the approach of the majority leadership of the RWL has been exactly the opposite, up to now. The election statement published in our press takes a sectarian stance. In the English version, it mentions the CLC campaign only in negative terms. In the French version, there is no mention of the CLC campaign. In the draft platform the majority comrades have submitted to this PC meeting, they seem to have modified this position. The draft states: “The CLC campaign is an important step forward for Canadian labor and should be supported by all socialists.” (I presume that also means we think workers should support it, too.) But that is still the only positive thing we say about it. The rest is all badmouthing of the campaign, counterposing it to mass action by the union ranks for their demands. In other words, the R WL majority leadership accepts the framework imposed on the campaign by the CLC bureaucracy.

Our approach should be just the opposite. We should get into this campaign, and take our program into all the debates around it. We should link it with our proposed solutions to the capitalist crisis, including our program of mass-action struggle for transitional, democratic, and immediate demands.

There are some other things we should note about this development. We’ve debated whether we should favor affiliation by unions to the NDP. (The convention voted to favor affiliation when the Tendency 3 reporter on the national question incorporated the Tendency 4 amendments into the majority resolution.) Essentially what we were debating was whether it is progressive for unions to strengthen their ties with the NDP. That is the meaning of the CLC campaign: it is the concrete form today of the unions’ efforts to increase labor’s weight in the labor party. To the degree that the ranks become involved, this will increase the weight of workers in the party against the petty-bourgeois elements that predominate in the party’s leadership.

It is unclear at this point what the electoral impact of the CLC campaign will be, whether it will result in a qualitative increase in the NDP’s popular vote. But what is clear already is that it will have an impact on the unions going far beyond May 22, election day. It will shake up the whole CLC—not only in the narrow sense that the McDermott leadership has staked its reputation on the success of this maneuver, but more significantly in its implications for the unions and the union ranks. It puts the question of labor political action on a new footing. The NDP becomes more of a factor in labor’s struggles. Linked with the perspective of electing the NDP, labor’s struggles take on a greater political dimension.

This increased identification between the unions and the NDP will tend to raise the question of affiliation to the NDP in a number of local unions. We have already encountered that in CUPE’s Ontario Division.

Above all, it tends to raise political questions in the unions that we are in—unions that are central to the class struggle in this country. We have to be part of that process.

It is in the CLC campaign that we see motion in the working class in this election. Workers are mobilizing around this campaign in much greater numbers in this election that they are on the Quebec national question—important as the latter is in our program. The CLC-NDP campaign is the concrete form today of labor’s struggle for governmental power.

2. Quebec and the struggle for the labor party

In Quebec, we are fighting for a labor party that can lead the struggle for independence and socialism, the fight for a workers government. We advocate that the unions present workers candidates in elections—that they take the initiative in establishing a mass workers party.

In this framework, it was correct to support the initiative by the Rassemblement des Militants Syndicaux (RMS) and the GSTQ for 75 workers candidates” in the federal election. But our support should have been critical support—which it wasn’t. There were major errors in the RMS campaign.

  1. It was presented solely in a national framework. The workers’ candidates were to fight for Quebec’s national rights, and virtually nothing else. The campaign failed to address the question of government.
  2. It was sectarian with respect to the NDP in English Canada. The RMS petition denounced the NDP’s position on Quebec while failing to give the party critical support against the capitalist parties. In fact, it failed to make any distinction between the NDP and the capitalist parties. Moreover, while advocating a full slate of “workers’ candidates” in Quebec, the RMS failed to speak to the logic of this position—the need for a labor party in Quebec.
  3. The most important error, however, was that supporters of the RMS campaign did not take it into the unions as such. The entire axis of the campaign was to get individual signatures on a petition, instead of trying to get local unions to take the initiative in nominating candidates, and talking up the need for the unions to run candidates with the union membership, on the job. For the GSTQ and the RMS, the goal of the campaign was simply to mount pressure on the union bureaucracy, not to encourage action from below.

The draft election platform drawn up by the RWL majority leadership falls into the same trap, when it says that “the union federations rejected an appeal... for labor candidates.” The task was not to pressure the federations to field candidates, but to take the proposal for workers candidates to the ranks. For example, the Montreal transit workers union, with a relatively strong base of GSTQ and RMS supporters, might have been won to running a candidate.

The RMS campaign won significant support; the petition was signed by about 2,500 union members, including some secondary leadership elements. That is a significant demonstration of support for moves toward independent labor political action. Nevertheless, the campaign was, as Lutte Ouvriêre now says in its current issue, “a failure.” No workers candidates resulted from the campaign.

So what is the situation today in the Quebec labor movement, with respect to the federal election? In no other part of the country is the union bureaucracy so completely immersed in overt class-collaborationist politics. The leadership of the teachers union (CEQ) has issued a scarcely veiled call to vote for the Créditistes, an especially reactionary bourgeois party. In this it echoes the Parti Québécois leadership. The Confederation of National Trade Unions (CSN) leadership says defeat Trudeau at all costs, and condemns all the parties, including the NDP, equally. The leaders of the CLC’s Quebec affiliate, the Quebec Federation of Labor (FTQ), say defeat Trudeau ... by voting for NDP candidates.

As for the majority leadership of the RWL, it says (in this draft election platform) that “The FTQ support to the NDP is a bad joke.” (There is no criticism of the voting formulas of the other union federations.) The election platform counterposes the FTQ’s support of the NDP to the struggle for a labor party, just as Comrade Tyson did in his document on the NDP, when he said the FTQ stance was a “block” to the creation of a labor party (in Thesis 38). And Comrade Samuels echoes this position today in her report for the majority.

This approach is fundamentally wrong.

How is the FTQ’s endorsement of NDP candidates an obstacle to the fight for a labor party—the struggle for the unions to fight politically in opposition to the bourgeois parties? The FTQ at least draws a class line in the electoral arena. Are the CSN or CEQ positions any better? Aren’t they worse? The CSN and CEQ are on the wrong side of the class line. (And so are the FTQ leaders in cases where they support, covertly or overtly, candidates of the bourgeois parties.)

It is the labor bureaucracy’s support of bourgeois parties that constitutes the main obstacle to independent labor political action in Quebec, not the Quebec NDP.

True, the NDP in Quebec is not the form that an indigenous Quebec labor party will likely take. But it is a workers party. It is a current in the workers movement, as are the Maoists, the CP, the RWL, the GSTQ, etc. Unlike those other organizations, the Quebec NDP is linked to the mass party of the English-Canadian labor movement. And it has much greater electoral support than they do. Its vote has ranged in recent years between 5 and 10 percent of the total popular vote. That’s not much in comparison with what it gets in most areas west of Quebec. But it is more, by the way, than the NDP gets anywhere else east of the Ottawa River with the exception of parts of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. (In the New Brunswick provincial election last fall the NDP got 4 percent of the total vote; the Parti Acadien, with a nationalist program oriented to the one third of New Brunswick that is Acadien, got 2 percent. In Prince Edward Island the NDP was able to nominate only five candidates in the recent provincial election.)

If we had forces in the FTQ unions, which are among the major industrial unions in Quebec, how could we have responded to the Canadian Labor Congress campaign in support of the NDP? Instead of opposing it, we could have grasped it and sought to turn it into a weapon to advance the struggle for a Quebec labor party. We could have pointed to how the unions in English Canada were mobilizing behind the NDP, explained the need for a labor party in Quebec that could fight for power, and urged that the FTQ unions present their own candidates in the election on a program of class-struggle demands. They could invite non-FTQ, non-CLC unions to join with them in this effort, perhaps through holding an inter-union conference, just as the unions in the Montreal area did in 1970 in launching the Front d’Action Politique to contest the municipal elections.

We would call on the NDP and the CLC to support these workers candidates. The CLC should give them the same money and resources it would contribute to NDP candidates in English Canada. And we would encourage these union-nominated candidates to tour in English Canada, to argue the case for Quebec’s right to self-determination (and other class-struggle demands) to trade unionists and NDP supporters in the other nation.

Independent workers candidates nominated by the unions could fight for independence and socialism; and they could explain the need to fight for government in alliance with their class brothers and sisters in English Canada, around a perspective of a government of the Quebec labor movement and the NDP.

Comrade Samuels, in her report today, complained that the FTQ leaders used their support of the NDP to avoid taking a stand on the RMS campaign for workers candidates. But if the RMS had taken its campaign for workers candidates into the union ranks in the way I’ve outlined above, I think it is safe to say that the FTQ brass would have had much more difficulty in getting away with this excuse. It is true that the FTQ is not waging a campaign for the NDP of a scope comparable to the CLC unions’ campaign in English Canada. But it is equally true that they are under very little pressure to take any other course, such as sponsoring independent workers candidates and fighting for an autonomous Quebec labor party. And with the RWL’s current blind eye toward the reality of the FTQ’s support to the Quebec NDP, we contribute to that problem.

‘Spoil your ballot’—or vote NDP?

Whatever we might have done, whatever might have happened, the fact is that nominations are now closed. Who are the “workers candidates” in Quebec—the candidates we should urge workers to support? (Let’s not forget that most Quebec workers intend to vote in this election.) One of those candidates, obviously, is Michel Dugré, the RWL candidate in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve.

Another is René Denis, a GSTQ leader running in Montréal-Rosemont. It is not yet clear on what basis Denis is running; he says he hopes to become the candidate of those who signed the RMS petition. Samuels suggests we can support him because he is for Quebec’s independence. That is insufficient
programmatic grounds; would we support the Parti Québécois? I think we can support René Denis for one reason alone, which we should explain clearly in motivating our position: his campaign is independent of the capitalist parties and, as a member of the GSTQ, he is identified with the program of revolutionary Marxism.

The other candidates we should support in the remaining 73 Quebec ridings are the NDP candidates. The Quebec NDP has presented a full slate of candidates; 22 are members of FTQ unions; seven are members of the CEQ; five are members of the CSN; and one is a member of the union of small farmers, the Union des Producteurs Agricoles. (In fact, union members are probably a higher proportion of the NDP candidates in Quebec than they are in English Canada. Where the party’s electoral prospects are more favorable, it tends to run more lawyers, clergy, and professors—those the leadership sees as potential parliamentarians.) In a few cases, as we noted earlier, local unions have become involved in the NDP candidates’ campaigns.. The NDP candidates are the “workers’ candidates” in this election.

All the arguments that I have heard for withholding support to the NDP candidates in Quebec in this election come down to one programmatic criterion: the federal NDP’s opposition to Quebec’s national rights. That is not sufficient reason to reject a vote for the Quebec NDP candidates, as I have explained elsewhere (see “For a Government of the NDP and the Quebec Unions,” Preconvention Discussion Bulletin, Vol. 2, No. 12, March 1979). Quebec is not on the verge of insurrection, and the NDP is not spearheading federalist opposition to Quebec’s rights.

Moreover, opposition to an NDP vote misses the potential to exploit contradictions in the NDP’s situation. Most NDP supporters in Quebec don’t agree with the federal party’s stand on Quebec. At its March convention, the Quebec NDP voted against Broadbent’s “national unity” line, and in support of Quebec’s right to self-determination. The convention also voted to withdraw from the federalist Pro-Canada committee and denounced Trudeau’s federal referendum bill, which has been supported by the Broadbent leadership.

Quebec is the only place in the Canadian state, to the best of my knowledge, where the trade union leaders who support the NDP—and the NDP candidates themselves—are openly critical of the NDP’s program on an important subject, in this case the Quebec national question. FTQ president Louis Laberge has sharply attacked the federal NDP’s position on Quebec, on several occasions.

In the May 4 issue of La Presse we read that the Quebec NDP leaders have attacked Laberge because he came out in support of Conservative Roch Lassalle and Créditiste Fabien Roy. Laberge says the NDP shouldn’t have run a full slate, and charges that not enough of its candidates are trade unionists; the NDP replies that it wants to offer an electoral alternative in all the ridings, and boasts of how many trade unionists it is running. The same issue of La Presse reports that the Quebec convention of CUPE debated whether to support the NDP candidates; one workshop called for supporting the NDP, while three others voted against, and one workshop said “no party seems to represent the interests of the Quebec workers.”

The point is that there is motion on this question. Class-conscious Quebec workers sense they are in a real dilemma. In the major political event now taking place, how are they to register an independent class position? Their leaders for the most part tell them to put their confidence in candidates of the bourgeois parties. Many workers are rightly skeptical of this line. They are debating and thinking about alternatives.

For the comrades of the RWL majority leadership, all of this seems to be a closed book. Comrade Bob Mills, in his report on the RWL convention in Socialist Voice, speaks of the “pure trade unionism” of Quebec unions. The English version of the majority’s election statement says that “In Quebec the labor leadership has been silent during the elections....” The draft election platform of the majority says “In Quebec the labor movement has been totally inactive in the campaign.” All these statements are false. The union leadership is not “silent”—most of them are calling for support of bourgeois candidates and parties. On the other hand, there is some motion in the direction of independent labor political action, even though feeble—and it’s expressed primarily around the NDP campaign, with at least the verbal support of the Quebec Federation of Labor.

And the RWL’s answer to this? “Spoil your ballot.” This slogan on the election poster in Quebec (“annulation”) does not appear in the collection of slogans on the English version of the poster. Were the comrades afraid to let English-Canadian workers know the poverty of their political intellects in Quebec?

How does this “spoil your ballot” position demark us from the rest of the confused “left” in Quebec? We’re the “sick joke,” not the FTQ leaders. We allow Laberge of the FTQ, with his “critical support of the NDP” line, to appear to have more of a class line than we do in these elections! It shows how completely out of touch we really are.

3. Critique of the RWL election program

I don’t have time to make a detailed criticism of the majority leadership’s election statement, published in two somewhat different versions in our English and French language press. A few comments are in order, however.

The worst feature is its abstract and sectarian character. It is completely removed from the real clash of class forces in the election—and from developments in the overall class struggle. An example is the treatment of the CLC’s pro-NDP campaign, which is the concrete form today in both nations of labor’s struggle for power. There is not a word on this campaign in the Lutte Ouvriêre version of the statement; in the Socialist Voice version, it receives only passing condemnation.

The supplementary “platform” the comrades have now drafted is no improvement. There are lots of “themes” ‘—sometimes good themes—but no attempt to link them to the real action of the class. None of this material has any educational value.

For example, on Quebec. What about the union resolutions on self-determination? What about the fight by militants in the NDP in support of Quebec’s rights? What about the evidence that the bourgeoisie’s “national unity” drive—its attempt to make the Québécois the scapegoats for the economic crisis, among other things—is failing among workers in English Canada? This is a fact of immense importance for us, which we have yet to discuss, let alone explain adequately. Trudeau’s Pepin-Robarts Task Force on National Unity noted this; it’s one of the main themes of the report. But in analyzing the report in Lutte Ouvrière, the comrades simply repeated the old clichés about the danger of the “sword” being used, ignoring the real class dynamics of the national question revealed by the Task Force.

On the shorter workweek. What about the CLC’s formal commitment to the 32-hour workweek, or the postal workers’ heroic strike for the 30-hour week? Don’t these deserve a mention?

On nationalization. Why not explain it by reference to the Inco strike; the workers of Steel Local 6500 have raised the demand for nationalization in the course of their struggle. Shouldn’t we pick up on that, and link it to the need for socialized planning under workers control?

On women’s rights. What about the struggles for abortion rights—a major issue across the country, and especially in Quebec? What about the strike struggles for equal pay, and the need for affirmative action programs and job quotas for women and oppressed minorities? The NDP program talks about those things. Why not the RWL’s?

On international questions. These were totally missing in the English version of the statement, and got only a short paragraph in the French version. A strange performance for internationalists! The platform at least talks of “solidarity” with international workers’ struggles. It even mentions Iran. Fine. Why not bring that up front a bit, and say something about the lessons of the tremendous upsurge in Iran? And why don’t we clarify our position on defense of the workers states in face of the imperialist war drive?

On unity of the working class. Why not explain how it takes shape concretely in defense of the demands and needs of all the exploited and oppressed, using some examples: the struggle against wage controls, the need to defend CUPW, women’s struggle against the federal abortion law—as well as defense of Quebec’s rights.

Why the high degree of abstraction in these leadership pronunciamentos? In large part, it reflects our isolation from the class struggle, particularly from the industrial unions that are now at the heart of labor’s response to the capitalist offensive. But that observation in turn begs an explanation. A major reason is suggested by the framework of the election statement, in which the entire social and political context of the election—and the class struggle—is presented as the national question. This method reaches the point of absurdity when the statement, in its French version, argues that all the ills of capitalism are the result of the “national unity” drive of the ruling class.

It’s a schema, based on the false concept that the Quebec national struggle is the key to unlocking all the contradictions of the class struggle in the Canadian state. The schema blinds us to a lot of other things that are happening—things that are often only distantly related to the national struggle, if they are related to it at all. And in Quebec it has led us into a blind alley of sectarianism with respect to the most important feature of this election campaign: the very limited but nevertheless real motion that is taking place around the NDP.

A small revolutionary propaganda group like the RWL can make mistakes—even grave mistakes—and survive. But the mistakes we are making today are unnecessary mistakes. We are miseducating our cadres. We are dropping class criteria in our approach to key political questions. The error on the Quebec NDP vote may not loom large in the overall picture of the class struggle in Canada. But it is symptomatic of an underlying problem in the RWL—the increasing divorce of a majority of our membership and a major part of our leadership from the workers movement. We have already paid a heavy price for this course, in the loss of valuable cadres and disorientation of our program. We cannot afford to continue it any longer.

4. The R WL at this stage in the campaign

How can we use our participation in the election campaign to win support for our class-struggle program? It is not enough to present RWL candidates running on the full program of revolutionary Marxism. The five candidates we are running ensure that the RWL has a public presence in its own name. That is good. But the program they put forward, and that the whole organization defends in these elections must be related to the real struggles of the masses of working people.

We must take our program and our campaign into the unions above all, and use this election to help turn the RWL outward into active involvement in the class struggle.

The key here is to get into the CLC campaign. Branch executives—not just NDP or trade union fractions—must take responsibility for directing our participation in this campaign We should mobilize the branch memberships behind it. In Winnipeg, for example, I understand that the comrades have decided to make the unions’ campaign in Bird’s Hill their primary emphasis; only a few comrades are assigned to Larry Johnston’s campaign as their main assignment. We will try to take the Johnston campaign into the unions, especially to those union members involved in the Bird’s Hill CLC-NDP campaign. It is in the framework of overall support for the unions’ fight to elect the NDP that we will gain the widest hearing for our programmatic proposals and our criticism of the union-NDP program, as indicated by Comrade Flexer’s experience cited earlier.

Above all, we should put the CLC campaign at the center of our campaign. We should talk it up everywhere, identify with it, and seek to build it in our union locals. We should use the opportunity provided by this election campaign to conduct a real probe of what is happening in the labor movement right across the country. That means our press should carry lots of information on what’s happening in the union campaign, and the NDP campaign as a whole. Press sales should center on unions and plants where the campaign is getting particular attention. We should write educational polemics in our press on various aspects of the union-NDP program; an example is Comrade John Riddell’s critique of the NDP’s “industrial strategy” in the April 30 Socialist Voice, the first in a series he will write. The more we get into the unions and this kind of campaign, the more we will be confronted with the need to arm our comrades to answer the reformists’ program, not just denounce it. That means we must follow closely what the NDP and union leaders say in this campaign, and pay particular attention to the response the campaign gets among rank and file workers with whom we are in contact.

In short, we should consciously seek to use our participation in the CLC-NDP campaign to deepen our as-yet fragile roots in .the unions, as part of our central task of moving the RWL into the strategic centers of the proletariat in this country.

From the Summary

Comrade Foco spoke of the “indifference of workers in English Canada” to the national rights of Quebec. I don’t think that is quite accurate. Generally, workers in English Canada are not indifferent to the rights of the oppressed. If they are conscious of a real threat to those rights, they are prepared to mobilize in support of them. Recall the NDP’s opposition to Trudeau’s War Measures in October 1970. I think that position - a very unpopular one with the ruling class - reflected something more profound in the base of the NDP and the unions.

The real question is how to harness workers’ underlying sympathy for the Québécois and other oppressed. We have to be concrete. The CLC campaign behind the NDP is an important opening. We should take into it the resolutions a number of unions — inclu­ding for the most part CLC affiliates — have passed in sympathy with Quebec’s rights. That’s what Dennis Lomas did at the Ontario NDP convention. He took the adopted position of his union, CUPE, in defense of Quebec’s right to self-determination and challenged the CUPE secretary-treasurer Kealey Cummings to defend it before the NDP delegates. We could cite many other examples, of course.

There was an interesting discussion here about the relative importance of the national question in the election. The polls are unanimous in saying that for workers everywhere, including in Quebec, “national unity” ranks way down the list of their concerns behind such items as inflation and unemployment. Comrade Connolly pointed out that it was only in the wealthy Anglophone bastion of Westmount in Montreal that “national unity” ranked as the top concern. That doesn’t mean that the national question, or binational unity, are not key issues that we want to raise. But we should think about how to raise them.

I think many comrades have at best an abstract understanding of how the unity of the workers in both nations will be built. It will be built not just on explicit references to the national question and national demands, but around concrete struggles on issues of central concern to the workers in both nations. The struggle against wage controls, conducted jointly in both nations, did much more to cement binational unity of the working class against the federal state than all the trade union convention resolutions on Quebec self-determination. That’s a fact.

Our program for binational unity of the working class is our entire program of class-struggle demands, directed against the employers and their government and central state. You can’t reduce it to simply the defense of Quebec’s national rights, important as that is.

And it should be added that the defense of Quebec’s rights can’t be reduced to relatively abstract concepts like self-determination and independence. It involves defending the language rights of Québécois, fighting against wage discrimination, etc. Worker comrades in Quebec all say that it is the question of language discrimination that bears heaviest in workers’ minds when they think of the national question. That’s where it hits them in the guts.

Comrade Rivière told us the national question was the key issue in this election because it has to be resolved if workers’ struggles are to have an “outlet” (débouché) — that is, a perspective of victory. It’s true that without a real perspective of binational unity the struggle for governmental power cannot succeed — in either nation, in my opinion. But Rivière’s formulation suggests that united binational struggles of the workers are virtually ruled out unless and until workers in English Canada have been won to explicit support of Quebec’s right of self-determination. Here again, this stands the dialectic of binational workers’ unity on its head. The workers of English Canada will come to an understanding of the importance of Quebec’s rights in the course of common struggles with their Québécois comrades — that understanding cannot be a prior condition of those struggles.

On the Quebec side of the equation, I think we have to be much more conscious of how nationalist parochialism has poisoned the left and the labor movement. Rivière cited the new book by Roch Denis, a leader of the GSTQ: Luttes de classes et question nationale au Québec. There’s a very interesting section in that book in which Comrade Denis describes the split in the labor party forces in Quebec in the early 1960s. The “gauche nationale” (national left) that broke from the NDP to establish a party independent of both the NDP and (as it happened) the trade unions was largely motivated by nationalist as opposed to class considerations. Denis quotes extensively from the documents of this current, which argued explicitly against a party based “on the interests of the working class” in favor of a party based “on the interests of patriotism.” This current also argued that because of the unique national character of the Québécois, it was impossible to envisage a common binational struggle for governmental power.

Whatever the wisdom of the move at that time to establish a distinct Parti Socialiste du Québec independent of the NDP (and I think we were correct to participate in this movement) there can be no doubt that much of the argumentation behind it was false, as the material in Denis’ book indicates.

We should also be clear on why the union bureaucrats in, Quebec — including the FTQ bureaucrats — don’t really want to build support for the NDP. They say it’s because of the NDP’s position on the national question. But of course if they wanted they could change that position; all they have to do is mobilize a little union muscle within the NDP. No, they fear any mobilization behind the NDP for the same reason they fear any moves in the direction of a labor party, including the running of independent workers’ candidates. They are dead opposed to taking any serious steps toward a break with the bourgeois parties — in particular, with the Parti Québécois. If they mobilize the unions against the bourgeois parties on the federal level, the question will inevitably arise — why not on the Quebec level? Why not build a union-based alternative to the PQ? That’s just what they want to avoid.

Comrade Dubois asked if I was advocating that we join in the campaign for the NDP now, in Quebec. Sure, why not? Now that it’s clear that the NDP candidates are the only “workers candidates” in most of Quebec, we should get into that campaign with our own program, and see what’s happening. Efforts to elect NDP candidates in Quebec in this election can only help build support for the labor party; NDP supporters necessarily include union militants who are trying to grapple with the real problem posed by their lack of a viable working-class political alternative. We want to meet those militants, talk to them, struggle with them.

Yes, Comrade Klément, I propose that the axis of our election intervention in Quebec, as elsewhere, be the CLC’s campaign. In the conditions that exist today, it is a step forward to support NDP candidates in Quebec, and to the degree that it helps, even minimally, to pose the need for independent labor political action, it will assist the process of forging binational workers’ unity.

May 6, 1979


[1] John’s title on both parts of his article misstates the fused organization’s name: Revolutionary Workers League/Ligue ouvrière révolutionnaire (RWL/LOR).

[2] See Statement of Principles of the Revolutionary Workers League.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Bolivia’s Perfect Storm: Pandemic, Economic crisis, Repressive coup regime

COB mobilization marches through El Alto Photo by La Razón

Introduction

The rising toll of diseased and deceased from the Covid-19 pandemic has hit Bolivia particularly hard, in a continent that is now in the lead in global contagion rates. As of August 8, more than 100,000 cases were officially confirmed or suspected, with 3,600 deaths among a total population of just over 10 million.

The coup government, installed in November, has mismanaged the crisis from the outset. Hospitals are understaffed and ill-equipped, testing is minimal, and the main response by the de facto authorities is to threaten lengthy jail terms for those who circulate “inaccurate” information about the pandemic — in a country where only a minority of workers are employed, the vast majority eking out a living in the “informal” economy of street markets and self-employment.

Typical of its approach, the interim regime headed by President Jeanine Añez was quick to expel more than 700 Cuban healthcare workers who, under the previous government, had provided needed services in remote areas and helped to train new medical staff.

Aggravating the misery is an unprecedented economic crisis. The coup regime paralyzed state development projects initiated by the previous government, privatized key state enterprises, and brought the IMF back with a $327 million loan. These policies, writes Bolivian journalist Oliver Vargas, have had “dramatic consequences for the ability of the country to weather the economic impact of Covid-19. 38% of the country has lost the entirety of their income, while 52% have lost a part of their income. The deliberate retreat of the state has meant that the 90% who are suffering during quarantine haven’t received any income support, the only gesture has been a one-off universal payment of US$70. In April, to last four months of lockdown.”

Remittances from relatives working abroad — crucially important for many families — have fallen by more than 30% in the first six months of this year, as many of the 3 million Bolivians living abroad in economic exile have lost their jobs.

“Bolivians are again experiencing shortages,” tweets deposed president Evo Morales from his Buenos Aires exile. “Long lines to buy food, drugs and gas amidst uncertainty and pandemic. The people have to struggle not only against the #Coronavirus but to survive as best they can, totally abandoned.”

“In the face of this desperate situation,” says Vargas, “voters were looking forward to ending the eight month coup experiment at the ballot box in September. Polls show that the MAS [the party led by Morales] is on course for a first-round victory, with Añez trailing behind in a distant third. It might have been a peaceful end to a violent period. However, determined to cling on to power whatever the cost, the regime is using Covid-19 as an excuse to postpone those elections. Claiming that elections would spread the virus, even as public transport and most of the economy re-opens, they have pushed for further delays.”

When the new elections tribunal, the TSE, arbitrarily postponed the election to October 18, overruling the legislated date of September 6, mass protests broke out throughout the country, initiated by the Bolivian Workers Central (COB) and the Pacto de Unidad, the coalition of organizations allied with the deposed government party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS). Starting August 3 more than 100 roadblocks were set up, only vehicles delivering medical supplies being allowed through. Thousands of Bolivians have taken to the streets demanding the national elections be held September 6.

Road blockade opens way for trucks carrying medical oxygen toward the Altiplano. Photo by La Razón

COB leader Juan Carlos Huarachi stated: “We need a democratically-elected government so as to discuss new policies, not just for social issues, but also for economic issues… in eight months we’ve seen the collapse of our country. Sadly, this is the reality, with recipes from the IMF, by blackmailing the people, by blackmailing the legislature.”

The Añez regime has responded by charging MAS leaders with “terrorism, genocide, sedition” and “offenses against public health.” And it has supported demands that the TSE disqualify the MAS candidates from the election. The TSE has referred the matter to the Supreme Court.

The following article by Cochabamba-based journalist Fernando Molina, published before the most recent events, describes the political climate, the MAS reactions to its overthrow in November, and the difficult perspectives it faces, whether it wins or loses the elections. I have translated it from the July-August 2020 issue of the magazine Nueva Sociedad, edited by Pablo Stefanoni in Buenos Aires. I have supplemented Molina’s notes with a few of my own, for clarification, signed R.F.

– Richard Fidler

* * *

What Outcome for Bolivia’s Crisis?

Elections and political reconfiguration

By Fernando Molina

Bolivia is heading toward presidential and legislative elections amidst a new political scenario. After the fall of Evo Morales and the blow suffered by his political force, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) has regained ground and could win again. Will it succeed? If so, can it return to power? Whatever the case, a polarized battle looms between the MAS and its adversaries.

Bolivia’s elections, scheduled at this point for next September 6, will express a huge political and social polarization. It is not unique in this: so does the U.S. election in November. But while this is characteristic of the bipartisan U.S. electoral system, it is unusual in Bolivia. Several parties will be participating but the electorate will be divided according to a single alternative: for or against the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS).

We still don’t know which party will manage to represent the anti-MAS voters. Various Center and Right-wing parties are competing, encouraged by Bolivia’s electoral laws which allow for a second round of voting where no party wins a sufficient plurality. This opens space for the parties to make individual calculations — a practice that many MAS opponents consider outrageous, since it jeopardizes what was achieved with the overthrow of President Evo Morales last November, that is, the abrupt departure from office of the socio-political bloc that had managed the country since the early 21st century.

This is now the main concern of Bolivia’s economic, intellectual and media elites: to prevent dangerous games between the old opponents of Morales (who resist yielding to each other and are unable to form a united front against “public enemy number one,” as a La Paz daily calls the former president[1]) evoking the most terrifying specter for the upper classes: the “return of the MAS.”

These parties respond to their critics with claims that each is not only the very opposite of the MAS but has the unique ability to guarantee a definitive and sustainable victory over it.[2] At the same time, each of them seeks to show that their rivals are not trustworthy because their actions bring water to the mill of the MAS. The common accusation is that they are “functional to the MAS.” This was the tone adopted, for example, by the de facto government, which is running interim President Jeanine Añez as the presidential candidate of the Juntos group, toward opposition candidates Carlos Mesa and Luis Fernando Comacho when they criticized her handling of the health crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.[3]

Conversely the other opposition parties have accused the interim government of promoting the return of the MAS through its mismanagement of the crisis.[4] The media are playing the same game, as indicated by this headline in El Deber, the main daily in Santa Cruz, when reporting on the former president and current candidate Carlos Mesa: “Mesa shares a forum with the President of Argentina Alberto Fernández, who gave refuge to Evo.”[5]

Hatred of the MAS

Abhorring the MAS is the dominant passion of the country’s traditional elites. The roots are found in a mix of memories of grievances suffered (the loss of spaces of power due to the dissolution of the technocracy of the 1990s and the devaluation of their “genealogical capital” for 14 years), ideological differences (liberal-republicanism versus national-caudillismo), and racism against the Indigenous and mestizo plebeians or “cholos.”

Hatred of the MAS began even before the coming to power of the “first Indigenous president” and the installation in the government of social movements that brought together Indigenous peoples, peasants and workers. This could already be felt in 2002, when the MAS because a serious alternative for office. Between 2006 and 2008, during the first two years of Morales’s government, it came close to unleashing a civil war between the north-western and south-eastern regions of the country. If this did not happen, it was due to the weight of the president’s popularity, although he did not manage to consolidate himself in government without first blunting the more radical edges of his program of state reforms and reducing to the minimum his program of redistribution of agrarian property.

Despite this, the abhorrence of the leftist party and its leader did not disappear. Even during the boom period, 2009-2015, while the country was experiencing the best economic moment of its history, the majority of Bolivians had more income and social welfare increased, the animosity smoldered like a votive candle on the secret altars of the business organizations, social clubs, lodges, fraternities of the Santa Cruz carnival, the card games of wealthy women, and ultimately in the multiple settings of private life in which the traditional white elites had not lost their primacy. Even if some bourgeois leaders “went over” to the MAS government or pretended they were fraternizing with it, or if most of the intellectuals and journalists were careful not to “overly criticize” the powerful regime, the class and racial enmity was always there, awaiting a better time in which to express itself.

The same thing occurred with racial prejudice. Although public expressions of this prejudice were tempered by fear that the government would implement the legal and moral sanctions it deserved, the country continued to be weighed down by the vestiges of the estates of the colonial order. The MAS even had to make realpolitik concessions to racism, such as appointing figures that were more picturesque than persuasive in the newly created Vice-Ministry of Decolonization, which was intended to direct egalitarian policies, or allowing the Armed Forces to maintain a rule that discriminated against sergeants and corporals, most of whom are of Indigenous origin.[6]

Those longing for the old powers and the old relations between the classes were gradually strengthened as the MAS government was weakened by the natural wear and tear of its prolonged stay in power, the errors it was making and the limitations it revealed. Being “anti-MAS” became a sign of social and racial status, and therefore began to be internalized by the lower middle classes as an “aspirational” element, that is, as a mechanism for social advancement.

What were the mistakes made and the limitations that the MAS government revealed? Its “electoralism,” which ended up reducing the social process to a succession of triumphs at the ballot box and the retention of power at all costs, even with authoritarian methods; its “peasantism,” which must be understood as a relative indifference to the demands of the urban sectors; its cooptation of unconditional “Evistas” as a part of the leadership; its corruption and bureaucratization; its ideological unclarity between extreme pragmatism and “national-Stalinism,”[7] and above all its caudillismo.

With his political, economic and governmental success, Morales became the most important caudillo in a country that had been full of them; a country in which, as its most creative sociologist, René Zavaleta, put it, “the caudillo is the way that the masses organize.”[8] The centrality of the president and the state cult of his personality attained levels as high as those achieved by other great national leaders such as Victor Paz Estenssoro or José María Linares. If at first the official flattery of Morales corresponded in part to reality, it later became a mirage and a mechanism for ratification and manipulation of the Bolivian president’s narcissism. To such an extent that he believed he was even strong enough to turn his back to the source of his power, the electoral majorities, if they were to oppose him.

That was what happened with regard to the constitutional referendum of February 21, 2016, which ruled out his re-election,[9] and perhaps also with regard to the result of the elections of October 20, 2019, which, as most Bolivians perceived it,[10] he had arranged to alter in order to avoid a second round (a notion, however, that Morales and the MAS deny and that is now a subject of dispute in the election campaign and the courts).[11]

In any event, to assume that the undeniable strength of his figure was superior to Bolivians’ attachment to the vote — which in this country is key because it serves to resolve the everlasting disputes over the rents derived from natural resources — was a very serious misstep. It ended up confusing and fragmenting the social bloc that had backed the MAS government, and which was already weakened by its long incorporation within the ruling party with all the advantages and temptations that this situation implied.[12]

In the end, in the final hours of his government the MAS, which had arisen from social struggles, was unable to mobilize its adherents. It had been transformed into an electoral machine that could still get out the vote but which no longer aroused any progressive fervor. Only the ultraloyal cocaleros of the Chapare, the residents of the most Indigenous neighborhoods of the Aymara metropolis of El Alto, and certain groups of state functionaries were willing to fight effectively to prevent Morales from falling.

After his overthrow, the burning of buses, factories and homes of opponents of Morales in La Paz, as well as the “siege of the cities” ordered by the ex-president from exile, aroused the age-old terror of the Bolivian whites of the “Indian thug” and raised the hatred of the MAS to the level of collective hysteria. It was then that there arose the ferociously anti-socialist narrative that still prevails today.

Pablo Stefanoni has singled out “three key words in it: ‘hordes’ (the MAS members are reduced to mere criminal shock troops); ‘waste’ (the widely praised macroeconomic management [of Morales] was simply virtual reality; and ‘tyranny’ (the last 14 years are said to have been pure state despotism).”[13] This narrative has served in part as the motive and in part as the cover for the repression of the MAS carried out by the interim government. Groups that mobilized in support of ex-president Morales were dismantled by the combined forces of the Police and the Army, costing the lives of more than 30 people. Almost 1,000 leaders were temporarily detained. Several dozen former officials, among them Morales and his vice-president Álvaro García Linera, had to leave the country for Mexico and Argentina. Hundreds have been investigated for corruption. Two ex-ministers were arrested and remain in jail. Seven MAS leaders took refuge in the Mexican embassy in La Paz, where they are stranded due to being denied safe conduct to leave the country.

At the same time, the public sphere has been taken over almost completely by the spokespersons — genuine and upstarts — of the “revolution of the pititas,” as the press called the protests that preceded the overthrow of Morales.[14] Even intellectuals who had been linked with and thrived from the previous government have begun to practice target shooting against Morales, making him the “punching bag” of anyone who knows how to string together a few phrases to produce an opinion piece. The most important left-wing academics have been careful not to go against this climate of opinion, and have sought to exonerate themselves.[15] From the outset, the Añez interim government has enjoyed hegemony over the mass media,[16] and only recently has this begun to lessen due to the rapid erosion in the government’s management although it is still unanimous if invoked against the MAS.

In this context, one would have thought that the MAS’s days were numbered, that its future would be that of a secondary political group, and exclusively rural. However, early in the new year, notwithstanding the adverse conditions we have described, the MAS appeared to be heading the first surveys of voting intentions, even before it had named any candidates. The acronym attracted “hard-core” support — ideological and sociological — of massive scope. In January 21% of the electorate was prepared to vote for it regardless of who its candidates were or what they were offering.[17] In March, with its candidates now chosen, 33% of the population supported it.[18]

The workers, the plebeian sectors of the population, the Indigenous peoples and the cholos who had not been upwardly mobile to another social class continued to see the MAS — although it had made no consistent self-criticism of its errors — as the only force capable of representing them and defending the statism, nationalism and racial egalitarianism that the return to power of the traditional elites seemed to have put at risk. But in addition, that force is associated with a period of unusual prosperity and political stability. That is why, among other reasons, the initiative of the most radical “pititas” to use the charge of fraud hanging over the MAS to veto its participation in the election went nowhere. This outcome was counter-intuitive. Despite everything that had occurred, the MAS continued to be at the centre of politics, and the other forces had to position themselves in relation to it. Not even the defeat of historic scope that the party had suffered last November had displaced it from this focal location. It was a surprising example of political resilience that no doubt expressed, as we have said, simultaneous processes of class and racial identification.

The MAS response since its fall

“Evismo,” or the admiration and loyalty — not always healthy — manifested for Evo Morales, on the one hand, and on the other the possibility of obtaining an electoral victory in the coming elections are the two forces that have preserved the unity of the MAS after the terrible earthquake that its violent departure from government meant for this party. For those who suppose that its fall was due solely to the action of an external force (the “empire’s conspiracy to appropriate Bolivian lithium,” or the “police and military coup”), the unity of the Masistas may seem an obvious premise. But this is not the case because, as we have seen, the overthrow of the Morales government was the result of both external and internal causes. Furthermore, the MAS has never been an ideological party; it is “sindicalista,” and part of its appeal has been its ability to enable the social ascent of the most awakened and ambitious elements of the unions and the plebeian middle classes. So the expectation of an early return to power has influenced its unitary behaviour.

Morales has also played a fundamental role in this, by becoming the only reference for groups that without him would probably seek to compete with each other to express that 33% or more of the electorate that today leans to the left. This has always been the role of Morales. If the MAS managed to fulfil one of the most cherished hopes of the 20th century progressives, the “unity of the left,” it did this not on the foundations predicted (ideological hegemony, defensive front, etc.) but in the Bolivian style, around a guardian figure.[19] Morales articulates the three main wings of his party, all of which are “Evistas.” This ensures that “they stay in the Political Instrument,” while at the same time avoiding the emergence of dangerous competitors for his charismatic leadership.

The three major factions of the MAS, each of which includes many minor groups, are as follows:

(a) The one formed by the workers and peasants organizations of the so-called “Unity Pact.” This is led, on the one hand, by David Choquehuanca, an Indigenous leader in the Altiplano who served as foreign minister between 2006 and 2018 and is now the MAS vice-presidential candidate, and on the other by the young Andrónico Rodríguez, the effective leader of the cocalero union federations that Morales continues to head.

(b) The one formed by the numerous groups of militants that come from the traditional left; radical and “national-Stalinist” leaders predominate in this wing, although it also contains the more moderate candidate for President, the former Minister of Economy and socialist activist Luis Arce.

(c) The one formed by the neo-Marxist, post-modern, left-wing humanists and progressive democrats who joined the MAS just before and after it came to power and who, given their educational capital, played an important role in government management. A minority part of these middle-class elements have links with Choquehuanca, while another, larger part was related with García Linera (whose future role is uncertain).[20]

The Indigenous and sindicalista wing read Morales’s departure from power in a purely racial key. In part, this sentiment was turned against the middle-class members of the MAS, whom they considered opportunists who had taken advantage of the “government of the Indians” to build their fame and fortune. This was the context for the resurgence in popularity of Choquehuanca, who had been “in the freezer” for a couple of years after Morales kicked him out of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when he was considered a possible successor in the Presidency just at the time when the Chief of State was seeking the unconditional support of his party for his third re-election. Choquehuanca had actually played an important role, as the coordinator of several rural-based NGOs, in promoting the rapid rise of the young “brother Evo” from peasant syndicalism to national politics.

When the MAS was founded, Choquehuanca was its main operator in the Aymara area of the country (the altiplano that includes La Paz and Oruro), while Morales, despite his Aymara origin, dominated the valleys of Cochabamba where the population was primarily of Quechua origin. Choquehuanca is a cultural Indianista and therefore a moderate but he tends to gather political strength from the opposition between the Indigenous and the middle class of the MAS. Within the cabinet, he found himself in muted conflict with García Linera. In accordance with his racially-shaded view of the balance of forces within his party, he accused the then vice-president of being guilty of all the government’s failings, including his own departure from power, while absolving Morales, at least in public.

After losing control of Foreign Affairs, Choquehuanca’s supporters were removed from the government and Choquehuanca himself was sent into “golden exile” in Venezuela as executive secretary of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). After Morales’s ouster, the Unity Pact nominated him and Andrónico Rodríguez as candidates for President and Vice-President, respectively. The party approved this nomination along with the list of candidates determined by the Unity Pact — an illustration of which of its wings was the strongest. However, Morales objected to this formula and imposed instead a middle-class figure who was close to him, Luís Arce, shifting Choquehuanca to second position. Unlike Choquehuanca, Arce has no social base of his own, and if elected would be dependent on Morales. Characteristically, the former foreign affairs minister accepted Morales’s decision in public, but was reluctant about it in private and attributed it to an intrigue by García Linera. His compliance, hypocritical or not, prevented a clash between the Unity Pact and the exile in Buenos Aires, which would have been very dangerous for the MAS.

However, the tensions between “workers,” “professionals,” rural “founders” and urban “guests,” “nationalists,” and “communists” continue to exist and will surely be expressed more openly in the future, whether the MAS wins or loses the elections. […]

Another political figure who has emerged from the social organizations is the President of the Legislative Assembly, Senator Eva Copa, who has upheld the Indigenista claims and has led the MAS parliamentarians with a certain independence of both Arce and Morales. She can not easily be classified among the Choquehuanca supporters. Shortly after the November overthrow of Morales, Copa reached certain agreements with the Añez government that she did not coordinate with her comrades in Bolivia or, in some cases, with those in Buenos Aires. And she has criticized publicly middle-class leaders like Senator Adriana Salvatierra despite the fact that she was in a difficult personal situation.[21]

None of this has been disavowed by Morales. He, like so many other caudillos, maintains relations with all groups and individuals that he can use to achieve his plans. Evo’s attitude — and, on the other hand, the interim government’s lack of interest in or commitment to achieving this — has prevented the defection of the MAS caucus in the legislature. After the most crucial moment of the repression, when this defection seemed imminent, had passed, the parliamentarians regained the initiative and launched what some observers have viewed as a counter-attack by the national-popular bloc.[22]

The extreme tolerance and even the ideological neglect of the MAS are due to the fact that this party is profoundly electoralist. At the same time, these characteristics determine that it remains as such: amorphous, and thinking that the solution to all its problems — or, better yet, that its only problem — lies in winning the coming elections. Obviously, this has forestalled any systematic debate on the causes of its political defeat, learning from its mistakes, or improving…. If Morales, very reluctantly, came to accept that he had been wrong in trying to re-elect himself for a third time,[23] he has now changed his mind in view of the slight improvement of his situation in Bolivia owing to the problems of administration confronting Añez, among them those related to the health crisis. He has just said, once again, that he was not mistaken in running once again.[24]

Can the MAS return to power? Is this advisable in the medium term?

Can the MAS return to power in September? Technically, yes. It needs to win more than 40% of the votes — not impossible, given that it now polls between 33% and 35% — and hope that Mesa and Añez, running separately, do not rise far above the 20% support they now have. The major obstacle to this lies in the possibility that the anti-MAS electorate, on the eve of the elections, turns massively in favour of either of those candidates. This is what happened in October 2019, and the polling does not discount it. Should the MAS be forced into a run-off second round with either Mesa or Añez, the intense polarization would probably result in a slim victory for the anti-MAS candidate.

Should the MAS win, could it take office? In Bolivia’s history there is a period with similarities to the current one. In the late 1940s, the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR), which had co-governed with nationalist military officers between 1943 and 1946, likewise faced the hatred of the elites. In the 1951 elections Mamerto Urriolagoitia, the outgoing president, did not accept the victory of Paz Estenssoro, and instead handed over power to a military junta. This maneuver went down in history as the “mamertazo.”

Is there room for a new “mamertazo” in Bolivian history? Today, of course, the international situation is quite different. However, very powerful forces could resist with all the resources at their disposal the return of “Bolivia’s cancer” — as a columnist has called the MAS.[25] Among them, a section of the Army.[26]

Urriolagoitia argued that the MNR victory could not be recognized because the “communists” could not be allowed to take power. Today some might argue that it should not be given to “narcoterrorists,” or that the rise of a party that tried to cheat the country with a fraudulent election should be prevented, perhaps by banning it before the elections are held. Morales has warned of this possibility, referring to it as their “Plan B.”[27]

The more democratic section of the Bolivian elites, however, would see a re-edition of a “mamertazo” as the repetition of an error. Bear in mind that a few months after Urriolagoitia’s action, the National Revolution exploded and Paz Estenssoro returned from his Argentine exile to take office as President. An even more interesting (if naïve) question is whether an immediate return to power is advisable for the MAS. It is conceivable that in such case it would not have time or space to overhaul itself, recover from its wounds, establish a healthier relationship with its “President Evo,” in short, it could not avoid making the same errors and suffering the same damages as before. On the other hand, it is also true that as a party now hemmed in by the state security services, staying out of government could end up decimating and dividing it. There is no doubt that such a thing as the “advantage of losing” is not in the mind of Morales, Arce and the other MAS leaders, and much less in the minds of the Masistas involved in trials, imprisoned or exiled.

What would Arce and Choquehuanca do if they came to govern? What would they have to face in 2020-2025? Some forecasts: they would face resistance, at least initially, from the state security agencies; the relentless campaign against them by the economic, social, university and media elites; the constant mobilization of certain sectors of the middle class that would not want to retire to their winter quarters after having tasted again the fruits of power; a divided parliament; a MAS agitated and eroded by the battle between “revanchists” and “conciliators”; and above all the blows of the pandemic and one of the worst economic crises in the country’s history.

In this context, there is no doubt that Arce would be lucky if he could stop the restoration process that his enemies have begun, and administer the state from the perspective of those below. Assigning him any other objective would be unrealistic. And if he failed in this, it would probably compromise even further the possibilities of mounting a far-reaching leftist project in the future. In any case, as the annals and epics testify, the generals have never heeded the fortune tellers when they have already decided to go into battle.


[1] Robert Brockmann, “El enemigo público No 1,” Brújala Digital, June 18, 2020.

[2] “[Carlos] Mesa: mi responsabilidad es ganarle al MAS en elecciones para evitar que siga gobernando el país,” ANF, June 24, 2020.

[3] “Samuel [Medina Dorado, Junto’s vice-presidential candidate] accusa a ‘Camacho, Mesa y el MAS’ de conformar un bloque contra el Gobierno,” Correa del Sur, May 26, 2020.

[4] Erika Segales: “Camacho, Mesa y Tuto pasan a la ‘ofensiva’ contra Añez,” Página Siete, May 26, 2020.

[5] Marcelo Tedesqui, “Mesa comparte foro con el presidente de Argentina, Alberto Fernández, qui dio refugio a Evo,” El Deber, June 20, 2020.

[6] For example, they were not allowed to eat in the same canteens as the officers. See Fernando Molina, “Patria o muerte. Venceremos. El orden castrense de Evo Morales,” Nueva Sociedad No. 278, November-December 2018.

[7] That is, a stereotypical anti-imperialism, inclined to fantastic conspiracy theories, with little attachment to democracy and a tendency to organize internal purges.

[8] Zavaleta, “La Revolución Boliviana y la cuestion del poder [1964],” Obras completas Tomo I, (Plural, La Paz), p. 112. [See also Moira Zuazo, “The MAS government in Bolivia: Are the social movements in power?”]

[9] After its narrow loss in the effort to overrule the constitutional re-election limitations, the MAS chose not to select other candidates for president and vice-president but instead to devote its energies to finding ways to circumvent the popular verdict. In the end it got the Supreme Court to adopt a dubious international legal precedent ruling out re-election limits for all elected positions in the country. – R.F.

[10] Katiuska Vásquez, “El 70% cree que Evo se fue por revuelta y 62% que hay fraude,” Los Tiempos, December 23, 2019.

[11] Claims of fraud have been refuted by several studies. See, for example, “New York Times and New Report Confirm CEPR Analysis Refuting OAS Claims of Flawed Bolivian Election Results,” CEPR, June 7, 2020. – R.F.

[12] Pablo Stefanoni, “Las lecciones que nos deja Bolivia,” Sin Permiso, March 14, 2020.

[13] Pablo Stefanoni, “Bolivia: anatomía de un derrocamiento,” El País, January 21, 2020.

[14] An allusion to the strings and thin ropes used to block streets, obviating the need to mobilize many demonstrators — a custom of the Bolivian middle classes ridiculed by Morales in one of his last speeches as President.

[15] For example, see Luis Tapia, “Crisis política en Bolivia: la coyuntura de disolución de la domination masista. Fraude y resistencia democrática,” CIDES-UMSA, November 19, 2019.

[16] Fernando Molina, “Hegemonía instantánea: la prensa en la crisis boliviana,” Contrahegemonía, on-line, December 3, 2019.

[17] Paula Lazarte, “Ciesmori perfila al candidato del MAS como ganador en encuesta,” Página Siete, January 2, 2020.

[18]Arce aumenta ventaja y Mesa afianza el segundo lugar, según encuesta de Ciesmori,” Página Siete, March 15, 2020.

[19] Fernando Mayorga, Mandato y contingencia. Estilo de gobierno de Evo Morales, Fundación Friedrich Ebert (La Paz, 2019).

[20] The exiled García Linera has accepted an academic position in Argentina. – R.F.

[21] Salvatierra, Senate president at the time of the coup, was next in line for President following the resignations of Morales and García Linera. She promptly resigned too, alleging later that she was instructed to do so by her party leader Evo Morales. – R.F.

[22] Fernando Mayorga, “‘Elecciones ya’: ¿el MAS recupera la iniciativa?,” Nueva Sociedad, June 2020.

[23] Deutsche Welle, Evo Morales: “Fue un error volver a presentarme,” January 17, 2020.

[24] Boris Miranda, “Evo Morales en entrevista con BBC Mundo: ‘Nosotros vamos a recuperar el gobierno,’” June 24, 2020.

[25] Francesco Zaratti, “El cáncer de Bolivia,” Página Siete, November 16, 2019.

[26] Isabel Mercado, “El plan del MAS es «sacar esta ley, maniatarnos y crear milicias»,” Interview with Añez’s Minister of Defense Fernando López, Página Siete, June 29, 2020.

[27] Natalio Cosoy, “Evo Morales cree que puede haber un ‘golpe’ si el MAS gana las elecciones en Bolivia,” France 24, March 17, 2020.