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Revolutionary Marxist Organizations in Quebec Since the Early 1970s

Published originally in 1989 as "Bilan d’un cheminement, les organisations marxistes-révolutionnaires au Québec depuis le début des années 70". Available on the web site of Gauche socialiste, and at the Socialist History Project.

Translation by Richard Fidler.

Revolutionary Marxist Organizations
in Quebec Since the Early 1970s:
Our Continuity

By Bernard Rioux

Groupe Marxiste Révolutionnaire (1972-1977), Ligue Ouvrière Révolutionnaire (1977-1980), Organisation Combat Socialiste (1980-1982), Mouvement socialiste (1982-1983), Gauche socialiste (1983-...): such is the political itinerary taken through the anti-capitalist left in Quebec by those whose plumb line has been the defence of the program of the Fourth International as we understood it.

To understand the continuity of a revolutionary Marxist political current, it is necessary to examine its history, its legacy and its evolution. The purpose is not to inventory the errors and failures, but rather to sift through its experiences in an effort to see what remains valid, what has proved reliable, what should be changed and what really needs to be uprooted if we are to continue in our efforts to build a revolutionary Marxist organization in Quebec. This is no mere academic exercise.

I. A new far-left emerges in Quebec in the early 1970s

May 68. The student movement occupies the streets. There is a general strike in France. The Prague Spring. The development of the guerrilla struggle in Latin America. American imperialism staggers in the face of the heroic resistance of the Vietnamese people. A new era has opened.

October 68. Quebec’s universities and junior colleges are occupied. In the following year, the nationalist movement mobilizes: McGill français, demonstrations against Bill 63, including a mobilization of 60,000 at the National Assembly. The "FLQ" sets off some bombs. But the masses are in motion, "Everything is possible". "No more tradition’s chains shall bind us." That’s the spirit of the times.

The October Crisis, 1970. The authorities strike back. The Canadian army occupies Quebec. An army against a spirit. A spirit that rejects Canada and its oppressive institutions. A spirit that rejects the established authority.

But the October Crisis marked the end of an era. At the end of the 1960s, the organizations of the radical national left collapsed. It was the end of the big extra-parliamentary nationalist mobilizations led primarily by the student youth.

The new period was characterized initially by the establishment of the Parti québécois’ hegemony over all the nationalist forces and the labour movement, but also by increased militancy in the ranks of that movement. The struggles were hard fought. The strike at the newspaper La Presse in 1971 inspired a huge demonstration by the unions in the streets of Montreal. This demonstration was savagely repressed by the police anti-riot squad.

The common front of public sector workers produced a wave of city-wide strikes and occupations. Sept-Îles was literally occupied by the workers. Many radio stations were taken over by protesting workers who produced their own programming. The trade-union movement became the centre of attraction for activists seeking social forces that could carry their hopes to fruition.

The Parti québécois claimed—and many believed—that it had a realistic solution to the national struggle: sovereignty-association. A large part of the late-Sixties left disintegrated. Membership in the PQ soon found its theoretical rationale. First independence; as for socialism, we’ll see later. This was the first version of the stages theory. Soon there were more stages, each with its own theory. The PQ reaped the harvest of the nationalist radicalization.

Some activists rejected this entry into the PQ, this cop-out. They had no confidence that a former Liberal minister could lead a struggle for national liberation. We knew this and we said so. The PQ would lead us into a dead end. It would defend the interests of the Quebec capitalists, not the interests of the working class and the masses.

It was around this question of whether or not to support the PQ that the demarcation between the revolutionary left and the reformisms of every kind took place. It was necessary to develop a class program in opposition to the PQ. A socialist strategy.

The adoption by the central trade-union bodies of socialist-style manifestoes raised hopes that the unions would take their distance from the PQ. But these manifestoes had a fundamental weakness. Yes, they talked about socialism. But they said not a word about how this proposed socialist society would be built. They said nothing about the political organization of the workers. And the perspective of a workers party was rejected in the early 1970s. Most of the labour leadership opposed the formation of a workers party. They preferred to support the PQ, whether explicitly or implicitly. They preferred to build a bloc between the labour movement and the PQ.

It was all set up so that the workers and mass radicalization would not be expressed directly on the class political terrain. The desire to fight social and national oppression would be expressed politically by a more or less substantial support to the PQ. The workers’ radicalization would put the PQ in power. It’s paradoxical, but true.

In the early Seventies, the revolutionary left was scattered. But some political action committees were at work in the neighbourhoods, the universities and the CEGEPs. Under the impact of the Chinese cultural revolution and the dominant current in the French university Marxism, these activist layers became vaguely Maoist (or Mao-spontaneists, as we said then).

The organizations linked with international currents—the pro-Chinese Canadian Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) and Mouvement révolutionnaire des étudiants québécois, and the Ligue Socialiste Ouvrière (Fourth International) ¾ had little connection with the anticapitalist activist layers that had emerged from the recent struggles.

II. The Groupe marxiste révolutionnaire (1972-77): some programmatic achievements

(a) Some genuine programmatic achievements . . .

The GMR was formed in August 1972 by a minority that had split from the Ligue socialiste ouvrière and its youth organization, the Ligue des jeunes socialistes. The GMR founders argued that the LSO majority failed to understand the Quebec national question and adhered to a right-wing orientation in the various social movements.

The GMR defended a series of positions that were generally linked to its membership in the Fourth International. The GMR supported Quebec independence. From the outset it was a part of the independentist and socialist current. It held that only the working class could lead the struggle for independence all the way and give it a clearly anti-imperialist dimension. Independence would be socialist or it would not be.

The GMR shared with the majority of the left, before the hegemony of the "Marxist-Leninists" was established, a strictly Quebec perspective, and viewed the struggle for national liberation within a strictly Quebec framework somewhat on the model of the struggle of the Irish people. In fact, the GMR borrowed the formulation of its strategic perspective "For the workers republic of Quebec" from the great Irish revolutionary James Connolly. It was on the basis of this understanding that the GMR called for a Quebec section of the Fourth International.

This understanding of the national question, limited as it was, allowed the GMR to demarcate itself from the Parti québécois. It enabled it to avoid the Maoist demarcation from the PQ which led that current to reject not only the PQ but the independence of Quebec.

Another precious programmatic acquisition of the GMR was linked to its understanding of the democratic question in the revolution and in the construction of the organizations. This understanding was based on some profound thinking by the Fourth International concerning the reality, variety and scope of bureaucratization processes.

The GMR also shared with the Fourth International a democratic conception of socialism and opposed its bureaucratic caricatures. We were fighting for a socialism of workers councils, a socialism in which the party would not be the leader of everything. We were fighting for a socialism in which a pluralism of parties would be possible and we were opposed to the conception of the single party. The GMR never yielded to the concept of the monolithic party, which is a post-Leninist, Stalinist concept that marked the entire revolutionary left in Quebec, in particular the "Marxist-Leninist" current which we described more correctly as Mao-Stalinist.

The GMR was genuinely sensitive to the radicalization of women. It understood the need for the left to defend the autonomous women’s movement. The GMR never denounced feminism as a factor of division of the workers and mass forces as the Mao-Stalinist organizations did until the late 1970s. On the contrary, it always insisted that it was the oppression that divided, and not the autonomous organization of women in opposition to that oppression. It always emphasized the relationship between the struggle of women and the struggle for socialism. Its central perspective was: "No liberation of women without socialist revolution, no socialism without the liberation of women."

The GMR was consistently concerned with maintaining a democratic relationship to the movements in which it was involved. Its perspective of "building the movement in order to build the party" clearly illustrates this concern, which unfortunately went so far as to neglect the tasks of building the organization in favour of activism in the movements engaged in struggle. This attitude was based on the understanding—unilateral, it is true—that anticapitalist consciousness advances more through concrete experiences than through written or other propaganda.

The GMR situated the building of the national organization within the framework of building an international. This internationalist concern was manifested in the ongoing nature of the international solidarity work in which the GMR was involved. Let us note simply its key role in building the Québec-Chile students committees in 1973 and 1974.

(b) . . . limited by an ultraleftist understanding of the situation and the tasks

Like the far left as a whole, the GMR had a catastrophist analysis of the political period. In our thinking whole sections of the population were about to free themselves from PQ influence and turn toward socialist solutions. The strike movement would outflank the bureaucratic leaderships. Entire layers with an anticapitalist consciousness would put the overthrow of capitalist society on the order of the day. In 1975 the GMR even went so far as to write that a prerevolutionary situation was foreseeable in Quebec within the next three or four years. The GMR held this characterization of the situation until March 1976.

(b.1) Peripheralism, or the "theory" of our externality to the workers and mass movements

The GMR was basically a student organization. It thought it could build itself in the revolts of the student youth that would soon occur. Intervention in the revolt of the student youth movements would give the organization enough credibility to enable it to root itself in the trade-union movement. This tactic was referred to as the tactic of the "periphery (student youth) to the centre (workers movement)". Our basic task was to promote and support these struggles.

Influenced by the debates in the French section of the Fourth International, the GMR then developed a second party-building tactic, called "winning hegemony within the broad vanguard". The broad vanguard was the layer of anticapitalist or potentially anticapitalist activists found in the various social sectors and primarily of course, in the GMR’s view, in the student movement. Our task was to help to connect the mass anticapitalist fronts so that these activist layers could develop their capacity for initiatives in action. By helping to link up these activist layers and to develop struggles, the organization would gain credibility and build itself.

Under the impact of the rising strike movement and in particular the strikes in May ’72, the more radicalized activist layers began to define themselves in terms of the workers and mass movement. It was by winning hegemony among these layers that the Mao-Stalinist organizations were built.

Inspired by nostalgia for May 68 and the extraparliamentary student and nationalist mobilizations of the late Sixties, the GMR clashed frontally with the spontaneous mode of radicalization of the activist layers in Quebec at that time. Its thinking lagged behind reality, to say the least.

And this backwardness was evident in more than one way. The GMR of the early years (1972-76) opposed the fight for a workers’ party while the left-wing trade unionists were conducting some major struggles in the labour movement to establish such a party. The GMR denounced that fight, somewhat like the Mao-Stalinists later, in the name of the revolutionary party. We failed to understand that the freeing of the labour movement from the hold of the dominant ideology will be a complex process extending over prolonged periods of time and could assume a whole series of forms.

Even in the milieu in which its entire social base was found, the student movement, the GMR proved incapable of understanding the importance of the fights being led by the activist layer. The ANEQ was at first perceived as a corporatist student organization. How could the GMR make such an error? The explanation is relatively simple. Experience had shown (the French May, the late Sixties in Quebec) that in a period of radicalization of the student movement, the student syndicalist organizations tended to blow up. What needed to be built, the GMR argued, was anticapitalist mass cadres to organize the youth revolt. That was when we proposed to build the Anticapitalist Tendency (the ACT). It was not long before the GMR had to recognize that the ACT was nothing more than itself and its immediate periphery.

III. Factors favouring the Mao-Stalinist current’s hegemony over the revolutionary left

We were caught in a vicious circle. We were good militants in our intervention but we were unable to gain from the initiatives that we took.

In addition to basing itself on the pro-Mao sympathies of a broad layer of activists, the Mao-Stalinist current responded to two needs perceived by those militants who had gone through three, four or five years of piecemeal work on a local or sectoral basis. On the one hand, these militants understood the need to organize in a united and centralized way on a homogeneous programmatic basis and to do away with dispersed efforts. On the other hand, they felt the need to strengthen their links with the working class. The Stalinist organizations met these aspirations.

And it was on the basis of the attitudes of the Chinese leadership to Stalinism that entire layers of militants went from Mao-populism to Stalinism and that the myths about the revolutionary nature of the Stalinist policy made headway. And if this was possible, it was because Stalinism had until then been a fairly marginal phenomenon in Quebec and an unknown quantity in its tangible practice. The acceptance of this degenerated Marxism from the outset was facilitated by this profound ignorance.

The GMR likewise bears some responsibility for Mao-Stalinism’s winning of hegemony over the anticapitalist militant layers. The GMR was slow to understand (not until 1977 in fact) the need to place the work of building the vanguard organization at the centre of its concerns. It focussed unilaterally on the development and self-organization of the mass movement, thereby erasing the specific role of the revolutionary organization. Its analysis of the situation left room for extreme overestimations that led it to set impossible tasks for itself to achieve. Its strategic project was suspended from a single formula: "For the workers republic of Quebec". The political and ideological struggle to defend the revolutionary Marxist theses was not a priority. The turn toward trade-union work was undertaken only belatedly. These factors helped the Mao-Stalinist organizations to occupy the major part of the far-left field in the Seventies.

They constituted a set of recipes for facilitating our marginalization and the Mao-Stalinists’ hegemony over the revolutionary left between 1974 and 1977.

IV. Political maturing of the GMR, a belated phenomenon that could not overcome its marginalization within the revolutionary left

Beginning in 1976, a series of important discussions took place within the GMR that resulted in a more extensive and objective analysis of the situation of the bourgeoisie, the workers movement and the other social movements and activist layers. These discussions led to a radical break with the catastrophism concerning our analysis of the period. The period was correctly defined as one of a rise in the PQ’s popular influence and a very limited and extremely slow emergence of some anticapitalist activist layers. The GMR rejected the idea that there were anticapitalist activist layers able to act independently of the far-left organizations. It broke with its past liquidationism. It criticized its tendency to act as a multifunction struggle committee tossed back and forth by the ebb and tide of the various movements in which it was operating.

Also in 1976, the GMR abandoned its ultraleft "theories" about the student movement and learned how to make a genuine contribution to the student movement by participating in the struggle to democratize the ANEQ.

In 1977, the GMR prepared for its second convention. A series of new orientations were proposed.

Under the impact of the Canada-wide general strike of 1976, discussions with the comrades of the RMG and the LSA/LSO, and the pan-Canadian perspective promoted by the Mao-Stalinist organizations, the GMR redefined its strategy; it was no longer simply a question of Quebec’s liberation struggle within a socialist perspective, but was also one of building a workers’ alliance of Canada-wide scope and struggle against the federal state. This development led to the proposal to reconstitute an organization with a pan-Canadian presence.

Overcoming its unilateral analysis of the development of class consciousness, the GMR now understood the crucial importance of the struggle for a workers party. The fight to break workers from the bourgeois parties could not simply be conceived as one of winning them to the revolutionary organizations, which was and would continue to be the choice of a very small minority among the masses. The trade-union organizations, the only mass organizations of the working class, had a role to play in promoting this advance toward political independence.

This was a perceptual break that enabled the GMR to draw the link between its own struggle and a part of the trade-union left that focussed its own efforts on this perspective. This position removed an obstacle to the establishment of more collaborative relations with the other components of the left within the general ambit of Trotskyism.

The GMR then began to overcome its peripheralism in terms of both its (exclusively student) social composition and its areas of intervention. Some members became active in hospital unions, the post office, the automobile industry. The GMR began to place its own construction and the dissemination of its strategic concepts at the centre of its concerns.

All of this was a notable break with what the GMR had been.

V. The fusion, foundation of the LOR, or "you can’t make up lost time so easily"

In August 1977, the Groupe Marxiste Révolutionnaire, the Revolutionary Marxist Group (a sympathizing group of the Fourth International in English Canada with which the GMR maintained close relations) and the League for Socialist Action/Ligue socialiste ouvrière (the section of the Fourth International) fused to form a new Trotskyist organization in the Canadian state.

The Canada-wide general strike of October 14, 1976 turned out to be the high point of the strike movement in the Canadian state, much more than the harbinger of a new rise of the workers movement as we were still thinking. The PQ had taken power in 1976, introducing a major political crisis in the Canadian state. Some important debates were developing in the workers movement: for or against tripartism, for or against participation in the economic summits; for or against the independence of Quebec; what weight to assign to the demands of women, etc.

The change in the trend lines was not yet clear. We did not yet have a correct assessment of how the unions had been thrown on the defensive starting in the mid-1970s. The women’s movements expanded the struggle for abortion on demand in 1977 and 1978. The feminist radicalization sank roots in the unions. The course of events still offered some good possibilities for building a revolutionary organization, or at least of securing an initial accumulation of members. The Mao-Stalinist organizations were proof of this. It was possible to build an organization capable of becoming a genuine pole of attraction among the most radicalized activist layers.

On all the big questions there was a political convergence with the LSO: the analysis of the political situation, the need to fight for the workers’ party; the importance of the struggle for abortion on demand; the work to be done in the student movement; the need to tackle the building of a pan-Canadian organization, etc.

The desire to overtake the Mao-Stalinist current or just to put ourselves in a better position in the race had a major impact in justifying this fusion. The fusion allowed us to start off with two bi-weekly newspapers (one French, one English); to count on about 400 members across Canada and to anticipate more (the presence of 500 delegates and observers at the fusion convention in August 1977 served to confirm the GMR members in this hope). And we were also anticipating that the dynamics of the fusion would also promote closer relations with the Groupe Socialiste des Travailleurs du Québec (GSTQ, a Lambertist Trotskyist group with substantial roots in the trade unions) and possibly a fusion with that organization.

The rapprochement process between the GMR and the LSO was begun in 1977. The process picked up speed. In June 1977, it was decided to merge our forces in seven weeks.

The fusion was precipitated by the leading bodies in the respective founding organizations without giving ourselves the time to clarify the differences that still existed; without a full debate that would encourage the participation of all the members. A whole series of temporary agreements on matters ranging from strategic issues to internal organizational procedures were quickly pieced together. Some members in the organization were particularly offended by this lack of democracy in the procedure.

The fused organization experienced increased recruitment. Its meetings attracted more activists from the unions and the other social movements than ever before. 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?

For the members coming from the various founding organizations, but primarily those from the GMR and RMG, the Quebec national question began to point to a new dimension in their conceptions. Thinking the question through in a Canadian framework helped to expand the national question to encompass other oppressed nationalities. The form of the Canadian state, defined as a state built on the national oppression of Quebec and other nationalities, also defined its possible fault lines on which we needed to focus our attack. The political crisis induced by the PQ’s coming to power and the rise of the nationalist movement in Quebec, which did not even seek a direct confrontation with Canadian imperialism, reinforced us in this perspective. It was necessary to ensure that the Canada-wide workers’ alliance of the working classes and oppressed nationalities took into account, in a radical way, this mode of construction of the Canadian state. The search for political independence from the bourgeois parties by the classes in each nation was to assume the form, in Quebec, of the struggle to take the leadership of the national movement from the bourgeois nationalists, and, in English Canada, of the struggle to get the workers movement to break with its support of centralizing federalism and to recognize Quebec’s right to self-determination. Opposing this entire conception, a current originating for the most part from the LSA/LSO called for a vote for a government of the NDP and the organizations of the Quebec labour movement as its entire strategy.

But it was around the debate on the turn to industry that a factionalist dynamic developed in the LOR/RWL. Rooting the organization in the trade-union movement was a priority recognized by all comrades. But the comrades from the LSO/LSA argued that it was necessary to get all comrades to look for jobs in industry. All comrades, including comrades with lengthy experience in the public sector unions, were to abandon their jobs and turn toward the industrial unions. All political problems were to find their solution in the hiring of the comrades in industrial jobs. Those who refused to commit themselves to this industrial turn were characterized as petty bourgeois opposed to the "proletarian line" that this current claimed to defend. The members in Quebec, who refused to sacrifice their trade-union roots in the public sector, were yielding to the pressures of petty-bourgeois nationalism.

This workerist current began to identify tactical or conjunctural differences with programmatic differences, political differences with different class interests. The dynamic of the factional struggle did the rest, poisoning the atmosphere and provoking the exodus of many members.

The economist and workerist approach to developing a presence in the working class resulted in some political regression in the organization’s understanding of the women’s movement. Intervention in the women’s movement was reduced to the struggle for hiring women in male job ghettos, an important fight but not one to which the substantial contribution of the radicalization of women and the women’s movement to the critique of capitalist domination can be reduced.

The logic of the workerist current led it to neglect intervention in a political issue as central as the referendum. It was in spite of and in opposition to this current that an approach advocating a blank ballot on behalf of Quebec independence and the independence of the labour movement was developed. In point of fact, the members of this current refused to campaign around this important issue.

The economist, workerist profile taken by the organization led other members to flee the RWL/LOR. And these departures soon included entire tendencies. In less than one year, from April 1979 to April 1980, the RWL/LOR went through a veritable self-destruction process.

What remained of the revolutionary Marxist current, instead of exhausting itself in a sterile and demobilizing internal struggle to reform the RWL/LOR, decided, in order to protect the political continuity of the fusion, to begin anew by building a new organizational framework, which would be the Organisation Combat socialiste/Socialist Challenge Organization.

VI. Combat socialiste: Defence of political continuity in a period of retreat and decomposition of the far left

Combat socialiste appeared in a very difficult context, in the fall of 1980. The trade unions were going through a crisis. The labour movement had a hard time resisting the employers’ offensive. The mass movements were marking time. Nationally, after the referendum defeat, the federal government had continued its offensive by moving to "patriate" the Canadian constitution.

The militant anticapitalist layers were falling apart. The Maoist left began to disintegrate rapidly. Conceiving the struggle for socialism in a Stalinist framework could not help but cause some major difficulties: a lack of understanding of the national question and the radicalization of women, the establishment of authoritarian relationships with the mass movement, an internal regime in the organizations that was characterized by bureaucratic centralism.

At another level, the slowdown in the pace of the world revolution had resulted in a crisis of activism itself for an entire generation of militants. In the summer of 1982, En lutte! dissolved. A few months later, the Parti communiste ouvrier committed harikari. And the RWL/LOR continued to decline.

We too had to rethink what it meant to conduct a revolutionary struggle in the advanced capitalist countries. The construction of a revolutionary organization would be a very lengthy and complex process that would go through a whole series of particular experiences.

The political understanding of the crisis of the workers movement and the transformation of the relationship of forces between classes, the understanding of the reformist hold on the masses, the lack of illusions about the Chinese bureaucracy and its course, the understanding we derived from the International about inter-bureaucratic armed conflicts such as those that were then developing between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese regimes and between the Vietnamese and Chinese regimes, and the attachment to the historic program of the Fourth International enabled the members of the OCS to avoid the drift that led other organizations of the revolutionary left to go under.

During the sixteen months that it existed, the OCS did not rest on its laurels. A regular press was established; the organization got involved in the unionization of the caisses populaires, and in international solidarity work with the revolutionary struggle of the people of El Salvador; it also conducted work in solidarity with the struggle of Solidarność in Poland and with Soviet feminists. And it also made a contribution to the debate then enveloping the En lutte! group.

Within the OCS, the women comrades drew some basic lessons from their experiences in the RWL/LOR and identified what was needed in order for women to play a full role in the revolutionary organization: the organization of women-only caucuses, general meetings of the women members, alternating female-male speakers lists and the creation of a general non-sexist atmosphere in debates, etc. All of these developments would be precious achievements for Combat socialiste and our current.

But the OCS members were quick to understand that no organization can build through mere recruitment of individual members to the organization. Only those organizations that can find a way to insert themselves in the process of recomposition of the militant layers that are still active can make meaningful progress by participating in the political advance of those layers.

Under the pressure of the objective conditions, the tactic of construction developed by the OCS could be summarized as follows. The OCS cannot build itself unless it becomes an instrument for the construction of a unitary socialist movement for independence, an effective force in the regroupment of the independentist and socialist layers and the strengthening of their capacity for action. In fact this is not a tactic for building the OCS, it is a tactic for building the independentist and socialist current. It is a movement-building approach. This analysis was to lead us a few months later to enter the Mouvement socialiste.

VII. The passage to the Mouvement socialiste, participating in the recomposition of the left

Combat socialiste decided therefore to dissolve and enter the Mouvement socialiste (MS), which had been launched shortly before by the Groupe des 100.

(a) Our objective in the Mouvement socialiste

Our objective in entering the MS was to help build it without renouncing our program, as we informed the leadership of the Mouvement socialiste. We thought the MS would prove extremely attractive and become the political framework that would organize the entire socialist, feminist and independentist current, bringing together all the political trends from the far left to the social democracy. The political debates, conducted in a unitary spirit, would contribute to the maturation of its members’ political consciousness.

(b) Conditions for this perspective

There were three conditions that would make this perspective realizable: a rapid development of the Mouvement socialiste; the definition of the Mouvement as a united front of the socialist, feminist and independentist left and, in order to do this, the institution of procedures for the coexistence of the different political currents; accordingly, a rejection of any attempt by the MS to revert to a political party; and finally, intervention that would coalesce in action the left wing of the social movements.

But none of these conditions was fulfilled. Essentially because the condition that would have cleared the way for all the others, the rapid growth of the MS, did not occur. The thousands of individuals who had purchased the Manifesto did not join the MS. Was it that we had failed to understand in time the obstacles that would be erected by objective conditions to block the construction of the MS?

(b.1) Situation of the activist layers, the decisive obstacle to the growth of the MS

The Mouvement socialiste appeared in the context of a mass break with the Parti québécois, a retreat of the trade-union movement and the decomposition of the 1970s far left.

The break with the PQ occurred in the wake of the neo-federalist course taken by the party and in reaction to the profoundly anti-union orientation adopted toward workers in the public sector, mainly women. It was not a break to the left from the PQ’s former nationalist, populist and modernist project. Rather, it was a break with a party that had betrayed its original project. With most people this break took the form of a rejection of any and all political action. At best, the resulting forms of consciousness remained within the framework of a class-collaborationist reformism and devoid of any desire to engage in militant action.

Why were the activist layers who primarily defined themselves in relation to the labour and other mass organizations so reluctant to join the MS? The retreat and demobilization of the unions under the weight of the crisis and the crushing defeat inflicted by the PQ on the public sector unions had produced a corresponding retreat by these activists to those organizations that seemed to them to be their only real organizational achievements. It would be a misreading of these realities to believe in the possibility of a smooth and automatic transfer of loyalties from the PQ to the Mouvement socialiste or a growing over of trade-union consciousness into socialist consciousness.

(b.2) Refusal of the MS to define itself as a united front of the socialist, feminist and independentist left

Given its initial lack of programmatic definition, the MS might have developed as a united front of the socialist, feminist and independentist left. The Manifesto spoke of socialism, but what did it mean by socialism? It did not say. The Manifesto spoke of democracy. But the content of this democracy was not explained. It identified with feminism, but likewise was silent as to what this meant. How were these objectives to be achieved? The strategic questions were not addressed. By every logic, a wide-open debate should have been initiated in the MS on the most fundamental questions.

From the outset, the MS leadership refused to acknowledge this reality of the Mouvement socialiste as a crossroads of currents, a united left in which all the political trends within the independence and socialist movement in Quebec could find expression.

(b.3) Refusal to implement ways for different political currents to coexist

And yet there were differing political currents within the MS. There was a social-democratic current, itself heterogeneous, a major part of which later joined the Quebec NDP; a left nationalist current; a current oriented toward rank-and-file initiatives; and a Marxist current of which the former members of Combat socialiste were the backbone, but which was broader than those forces.

But the social-democratic current in the leadership considered the initial accumulation of members as only the first step toward the launching of an electoralist political party. In the end, it imposed this perspective by prohibiting the right of tendency and effectively excluding the Marxist left.

The debate over the right of tendencies was imposed on the Marxist left within the MS in an effort to preclude it from participating in the substantive debates on the movement’s strategy. Despite the activist contribution by this left to building the MS, the idea that it could defend its ideas within the movement was considered unacceptable. However, we did make a major contribution to the MS. The MS program on employment was strongly influenced by our concepts. The organizational structures facilitating the integration of women in an organization open to both sexes were in large part attributable to the proposals developed by the OCS women and their ability to collaborate with other feminists in the MS.

(b.4) Refusal of moves to unite the left of the social movements in action

From the outset, the MS leadership defined itself in opposition to intervention in the mass movements and particularly in the trade-union movement. They referred to such intervention as "entrism". There were a number of reasons given for this rejection of organized work by political activists in the social movements. On the one hand, there was a reluctance to be identified as the MS and repeat the experience of the Mao-Stalinists, who often, in such activities, were contemptuous of the internal democracy in the organizations in their defence of the "correct line". On the other hand, there was the hope that the union leaderships, or at least some sectors of those leaderships, would endorse the building of the MS provided it respected the separation between trade unions and politics so cherished by those leaderships. But no such approval was forthcoming.

This refusal to intervene in the social movements left the MS with a choice between becoming an electoral machine or confining itself to abstract propaganda on the need for socialism.

By rejecting MS intervention in the social movements and especially the trade unions, the MS erected a further obstacle to its construction.

The leadership refused to translate its fight for socialism in terms of demands, methods of action and strategic orientations for the actual struggles of the mass organizations. Concretely, this made it impossible to even begin developing joint action on a national level in the unions, to take strong internationalist positions and commit the movement to the existing campaigns in solidarity with the oppressed nations of Central America, or Poland, or to apply the lessons that had been learned in women-only structures by turning toward work within the autonomous women’s movement and developing feminist and socialist perspectives in that movement. In fact, nothing was done to show that the Mouvement socialiste was worth building.

(c) A lost opportunity

We were unable to get across the need for a unitary and pluralist socialist movement; to get the MS leadership to open a full and frank programmatic and strategic debate open to all contributions by members irrespective of the orientation that was proposed provided it was done in the context of defending independence, socialism, democracy and equality between men and women.

During this time, as a militant nucleus, we had taken some significant risks in order to participate in building the MS. We had dissolved our own organizational framework, interrupted the publication of our press, liquidated our structures, closed our bookstores, stopped educational classes on our own political conceptions, and stopped discussing collectively what we thought should be done in the social movements as revolutionary Marxists. Some accomplishments and traditions of our organization were lost.

The Gauche socialist tendency, formed for the defence of democracy and a class-struggle orientation within the MS, had to leave after its formal proscription in June 1983.

VIII. Building Gauche socialiste and recognizing the nature of the period

(a) A period of retreat

1982-83 was a time of crisis. There was massive unemployment, which weighed heavily on the labour movement’s capacity for mobilization. The fight for jobs was on the order of the day, but the dominant trend was to favour class-collaborationist projects. The PQ government had just inflicted a major defeat on the public sector workers. The left caucuses were falling apart. No significant layer of anticapitalist militants emerged anywhere.

(b) Major stages in the definition of Gauche socialiste’s political profile

Gauche socialiste was formed at the second national meeting of the tendency, on September 10-11, 1983. But for many members of the tendency, the defeat suffered in the Mouvement socialiste was an inducement to withdraw from politics.

Gauche socialiste saw itself as a transitional organization—socialist, feminist, independentist, favouring socialist democracy. It was a strong proponent of working in genuine social struggles with the goal of promoting the development of anticapitalist perspectives in action.

The initial platform of Gauche socialiste contained no reference to Trotskyism or the Fourth International. We knew there was a need for a considerable period of discussion with the comrades from a non-Trotskyist background who had joined the tendency.

After a year of practice and several months of discussion, the Second Convention of Gauche socialiste, in 1984, agreed on a new basis of unity and a resolution explaining why we were joining the Fourth International. The document was entitled "Quelle internationalisme, quelle Internationale" [Which internationalism, which International?].

Finally, a third phase in the definition of our political profile was accomplished through the fusion with the Trotskyist forces in the Alliance for Socialist Action in English Canada.

It should be noted that Combat socialiste had been a Canada-wide organization. Our decision in the 1980s flowed naturally from our continued adherence to the basic strategic principles developed by our current within the RWL/LOR in 1978-80.

The entry of the OCS comrades into the MS had resulted in the organizational disappearance of our current on a pan-Canadian scale. With the appearance of Gauche socialiste as, de facto, a Quebec organization, it was necessary to rethink the political necessity for building an organization in the Canadian state as a whole. These strategic issues were thoroughly aired and clarified anew through a process of discussion leading up to the fusion convention of May 1988. The unification of Gauche socialiste and the Alliance for Socialist Action represented an important step toward overcoming the fragmentation of the forces of the Fourth International in the Canadian state. In fact, not since 1979 had there been an organization of the Fourth International in as many cities in Canada and Quebec as there was now. The new organization, Gauche socialiste-Socialist Challenge, as it was now called, combined the efforts of comrades in the workers movement from Vancouver to Quebec City who were active participants in the women’s movement, the youth movement, the gay movement, and in solidarity work with the peoples of Central America. It was a modest achievement, but significant given the period of retreat we had just come through.

(c) Building our forces in the struggles

Gauche socialiste saw its primary task as one of building the movement for political independence of the working class. It hinged its efforts on the fight to build a coalition of workers, feminists and youth together with other mass organizations. It sought to be an active participant in the new social movements: the feminist movement, the peace movement, the mobilizations of young people in opposition to the reform of social assistance. Gauche socialiste was a founding participant in the RAJ [Regroupement autonome des jeunes], the Coalition québécoise pour le désarmement et la paix, the SCRAP-Paradis [a social assistance coalition fighting "reforms" piloted by the minister, Paradis], and the Coalition québécoise pour l’avortement libre et gratuit [Quebec coalition for free abortion on demand]. And during these years it began again to carry on work in the student movement.

IX. Maintaining our course toward the construction of the revolutionary organization

Yes, we need to rethink the time frame of the revolutionary perspective. The fight will be longer and more complex than we once thought. But notwithstanding the tears and the jeers by the skeptics and doomsayers of all kinds, our patient work in real struggles has proved to us the importance of our efforts and of maintaining our course toward building a revolutionary pole of attraction.

The need to unite those who identify with the fight for a self-managed, feminist and anti-bureaucratic socialist society reflects our understanding of the need to fight to build a revolutionary socialist organization that can sink deep roots among the working class and the dispossessed, to build relationships of trust with the most active workers and to map the continuity of a social agenda that is shaped through the day-to-day struggles.

In Quebec, an entire generation of the revolutionary left fell by the wayside because it had overestimated the rhythm of events and was unable to conduct the rigorous analysis that was needed, to establish tasks for itself that were within its capabilities, and to understand the political needs of the activists in the social movements, because it was unable to situate socialist democracy and respect for the dynamics of the mass organizations at the centre of its efforts.

But the course of the revolutionary left, and of the revolutionary Marxists in particular, also teaches us what is necessary in building a revolutionary organization: serious analyses of the political situation and the relative strengths of the social classes, a democratic regime that allows worthwhile discussion, policies that encourage the integration of women and other oppressed sectors of the population, tasks that are adapted to the resources at our disposal, etc.

Wide layers of activists are looking around. The present radicalization is still diffuse and uneven. But the struggles to come, like those today, will again pose the need for a revolutionary organization that endeavours to fight tendencies toward fragmentation and dispersion of forces and places at the centre of its efforts the need for unity in the struggle.

The revolutionary organization will not be built through retreat to hard and fast principles while awaiting the seizure of power; it will be built as a logical consequence of the rejection of this system and the need to assemble the forces who share this perspective, beyond and irrespective of their partial identity at this point as members of a particular social movement.

We think the best way to influence the development of the present situation is to build a revolutionary organization capable of tackling, even now, dispersion and division, and fighting for unity around a program for a socialist, feminist and democratic society.

Bernard Rioux

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