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June 26, 2006

Québec Solidaire: Betting on Unity

New Quebec Left Party Faces Great Challenges and Opportunities

By Benoit Renaud

Benoit Renaud is a member of Québec Solidaire and the International Socialists, and an editor of Résistance. The following article is reprinted and adapted with permission from À babord, a bimonthly Quebec magazine published by “militants, independent journalists, teachers, students and rebels of all kinds and all origins” that is generally sympathetic to Québec Solidaire.

The launching of Québec Solidaire, a new party bringing together the Union des Forces Progressistes (UFP) and Option Citoyenne, has produced a minimal organizational structure and a political profile which has been left deliberately vague. Uniting the 4,000 members of the two groups around a very general statement of principles involves taking a calculated risk. Only through practice, during the coming years, will we learn whether the bet has been won.

Québec Solidaire (QS) is best defined in terms of the political trajectories that converged in its foundation in February 2006.

The new party is the product, first of all, of more than 10 years of mass struggle against neo-liberalism as imposed by the Parti Québécois/Liberal Party duo. The thousand persons gathered at the University of Montreal founding convention could see their common history in these mobilizations, ranging from the “Bread and Roses” women’s march (1995) to the union campaigns against the Charest government, the illegal nurses’ strike of 1999, to the massive student strike last year. The zero-deficit policy of the Bouchard PQ government, adopted in 1996, and its refusal to respond to the World March of Women in 2000 contributed to breaking what remained of the PQ’s links to a large part of its trade-union and mass base.

QS also results from the new international political context shaped by the Zapatista uprising in Mexico, the Seattle demonstrations in 1999, and the anti-war movement since September 11, 2001. Those present at its founding convention could also identify with the campaign against the Free Trade Area of the Americas and the mass demonstrations at the Summit of the Americas, the movement against the Iraq war, and in the ambitious but vague movement called “altermondialisme,” the struggle for a new world based on social justice.

This is the most successful effort in Quebec’s history to establish a mass left-wing party. To get this far, it was necessary to fight the ideology that had fastened working people to the PQ’s hegemony: namely the idea that sovereignty supporters must be united whatever the price – or, more specifically, at the price of the left’s self-effacement.

QS already has more members than the right-wing ADQ, which has five members in Québec’s National Assembly. The UFP was already the third-largest party in some regions, including Montreal. We can anticipate rapid growth in coming months and good results in the next general elections. At last, the left has a real party.

However, we should note that the process that brought about this fusion, while democratic in a formal sense, fell short of the agreed concept of a different type of politics. During negotiations, members were asked to offer opinions, not to make decisions. This process aroused much frustration and produced a document—the statement of principles—that is essentially a lowest common denominator.

This approach was carried forward in the structure of the Political Commission, a sort of committee of experts appointed by the National Coordinating Committee, which is to lead in formulating a party platform.

The very idea of bringing a thousand people together in a great unity celebration, rather than delegations chosen by local and regional groups, did not encourage discussion and debate in the regions or at the congress. Not much was left to do but to accept what had been previously negotiated.

Nonetheless, the structures established by the provisional statutes will enable the local and regional bodies to play a major role in the coming debates on the platform and in preparing the first general election campaign. It is local and regional delegates who will vote at National Council meetings and at the orientation congress planned for the end of November.

What will be at issue in this discussion? As the Manifeste pour un Québec solidaire [1] shows, the absence of a mass social-democratic tradition in Quebec endows this new left with an excessively optimistic view of what can be achieved within capitalism. The NDP expresses an aged social democracy whose reformism has become pessimistic, almost devoid of reforms. The Manifesto of the solidaires, by contrast, expresses an enthusiastic and almost naïve reformism, with a political economy that verges on left populism.

The notion that “another capitalism is possible” must be subjected to constructive but rigorous criticism. We need political education on the capitalist system and the history of the different international left movements, as well as opportunities to debate broad strategic choices. How will the values expressed in the Statement of Principles be realized? Is it enough to elect members of parliament? What is the role of the social movements, and how should the party relate to them?

The new party’s relationship to the various components of the trade-union movement remains undefined. Given the bureaucratic and conservative role of the union apparatus in the NDP and similar political formations, its support is possibly more to be feared than desired. On the other hand, the hundreds of thousands of organized workers are a natural base for a left formation and any fight against the bosses and their governments.

It appears that the top of Québec’s union officialdom is determined, for now, to maintain its strategic alliance with the PQ. This is also reflected in the activity of SPQ-Libre, a left formation within the PQ. SPQ-Libre responded to the formation of Québec Solidaire by advocating a broad coalition for sovereignty, including possible sharing of constituencies in 2007. But if the PQ were to accept that it no longer is this broad coalition, how could it maintain its popular base? Not surprisingly, the PQ left lost this debate at the first opportunity, and it is unlikely to resurface.

The new party will also be called on to address the type of democracy that it wishes within its ranks. Speaking to the media outside the QS congress, Amir Khadir and François Saillant, former leaders of the UFP and OC, both said that the party would elect a leader before the next elections, and that they would be supporting Françoise David for this position. But the position does not exist! The UFP had created a collective leadership to avoid a leadership cult, to reflect the notion of “doing politics differently”. It would be a shame if QS took a step backward in this regard.

Of course media pressure and the nature of the British parliamentary system push in this direction. But what does the promise of a different breed of politics, of participatory democracy, mean if we give way on this question, at a time when the party is far from taking power—and when the concession is made publicly before any membership discussion?

It would also be useful to revisit the question of the rights of political tendencies within the party. The compromise reached in pre-fusion negotiations was to allow “collectives,” which have the right only to exist and to set up literature tables at national gatherings. At the founding convention, an amendment that would have allowed collectives to participate in meetings of the National Council and Conventions with the right to speak and move motions but not to vote was adopted by at least three workshops. A provision of this nature would enable the different political currents to find expression in national bodies and promote a pluralist political culture. In this way, unity becomes not a formula for conformity but the result of open debates between different strategies and political traditions, with respect for differences.

Finally, we cannot postpone indefinitely the “strategic voting” debate that has undermined the English Canadian left for many years. In Quebec it takes the form of “anyone but Charest”, or the sacrosanct unity of sovereignty supporters behind or within the PQ. What kind of campaign will we wage in 2007? Will we go all out to present a principled left alternative in as many constituencies as possible? Will we try to elect candidates by any means? Will we give way before the vitriolic campaign of the PQ leaders and house intellectuals, who will be quick to attack us with all the demagogy they can muster?

Ultimately, the new party’s course depends on the involvement of its present and future members and on the debates they conduct in the coming years. Given that this period brought out 80,000 in Quebec City in April 2001 to oppose the FTAA, 200,000 in Montreal on February 15, 2003, to oppose the Iraq war, and the largest student strike of our history, we can allow ourselves some degree of optimism as to the prospects opened by the convergence of thousands of activists in Québec Solidaire.


Notes

[1] The Manifesto was published November 1, 2005, under the signatures of a wide range of personalities including some PQ and Bloc Québécois parliamentarians, in response to the publication in October of a right-wing manifesto Pour un Québec lucide (For a clear-eyed vision of Quebec), by former PQ premier Bouchard along with prominent péquistes and Liberals. The manifesto of the “solidaires” was authored by leaders of the UFP and Option citoyenne, which later merged to form Québec solidaire. See Socialist Voice – “PQ’s Rightward Shift Opens Space for New Left Party in Quebec.” —SV

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