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 to live up to the ambitions of its founding components.
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.
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.
It’s easy to spot the weaknesses in the CLC campaign. In the Voice article we listed four main ones.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
 John’s title on both parts of his article misstates the fused organization’s name: Revolutionary Workers League/Ligue ouvrière révolutionnaire (RWL/LOR).