Spartacist Canada No. 169
NDP Surge: Dead End for Workers
Independence for Quebec!
The “orange surge” that saw the NDP win more than 100 seats in the federal election, chiefly in Quebec, was greeted with elation by the Canadian Labour Congress trade-union bureaucracy. Delegates to the CLC convention in Vancouver a week after the election gave NDP leader Jack Layton a thunderous ovation. Congress president Ken Georgetti exulted: “Sisters and brothers, the future is bright orange for the working people of Canada.”
The reformist left groups who operate in and around the NDP were no less effusive. The International Socialists (I.S.) called to “take the surge to the streets” and “continue the inspiring orange wave” (Socialist Worker, May 2011). Socialist Action (May 2011) hailed the NDP’s rise as “an obstacle in the path of the capitalist austerity drive.” Fightback cheered that there is “a real opportunity for class politics to come to the fore and for the NDP to become the political conduit for the fight back against the Harper austerity” (marxist.ca, 3 May).
It is vitally necessary for the labour movement to lead a struggle to throw back the Tories’ attacks on working people and the poor, which promise to intensify under a Harper majority. But in asserting that the NDP social democrats are poised to lead such a fight, the fake-socialists are lying to the workers. When the pent-up anger that is growing at the base of society erupts in class struggle, the role of the New Democrats—and their allies in the labour bureaucracy—will be to derail it into the dead end of parliamentary maneuvers and Canadian nationalism. Especially over the last three years of capitalist recession, the labour tops have surrendered concession after concession to the bosses, who have only been emboldened to step up their attacks. And whenever the NDP rules provincially it acts as a loyal administrator of the rulers’ profit system against the direct interests of workers and the oppressed.
The NDP’s electoral platform included not a single mention of the working class, let alone the class struggle. Instead, it highlighted calls to “invest in small business,” “hire more police officers” and “balance the federal budget”—code for deep cuts to spending on social services. According to a well-informed report in the right-wing National Post (3 May), on the day of the election NDP officials were “phoning Bay Street to reassure the capitalists” that they “could be trusted with the economy, should it come to that.”
The Toronto Star’s Thomas Walkom summed up the NDP campaign in an April 30 column titled “Take a breather. He’s not Lenin, he’s just Jack.” Noting that “the NDP platform is resolutely minimalist,” Walkom continued: “Some measures have been lifted from Harper’s Conservatives. Others are nearly identical to those of Ignatieff’s Liberals. Whatever he is, Layton is not Lenin. He’s not even Tony Blair.” Indeed.
Since its founding some 50 years ago the NDP has always been a particularly rightist social-democratic party, not even paying the hypocritical lip service to socialism once typical of the British Labour Party and various European Socialist parties. In recent years, the New Democrats’ posture has shifted even further rightward.
The NDP spent much of the past decade propping up Liberal and Tory regimes in Ottawa, voting for austerity budgets and huge increases in military spending. On the eve of the election they joined with the Tories, Liberals and Bloc Québécois in voicing unanimous support for Canada’s role in the NATO bombardment of Libya.
A front-page article in the May 9 National Post noted with approval the NDP’s “hawkish turn,” commenting that “Layton has been undisguised in his panders to the pro-military zeitgeist.” The New Democrats have also backed Conservative “law and order” legislation, strengthening the repressive powers of the capitalist cops and courts whose central targets are working people and oppressed minorities. The necessary fight to unite the workers, at the head of all the oppressed, in a struggle against the rapacious capitalist system requires a break with NDP-style social democracy and the forging of a new, revolutionary leadership.
“United Canada” Anglo Chauvinists
The reformist left groups had particular praise for the NDP’s breakthrough in Quebec. Socialist Worker declared that the NDP now “unites workers and their struggles in Quebec and Canada.” Fightback claimed that the NDP rise signaled Quebec workers’ “rejection of the old sterile federalist-nationalist debate.” Utterly besotted with the New Democrats’ parliamentary gains, Fightback even equated these to the massive 1972 Quebec general strike, writing: “For the first time since the Common Front general strike of 1972 there is the possibility of working class issues dominating the politics of the province” (marxist.ca, 27 April).
Such claims that the working class is now united under Layton’s NDP and that the Quebec national question is passé are utterly bogus. The NDP has always been an Anglo-chauvinist opponent of the national rights of the Québécois, and thus of any prospect of united working-class struggle against Canadian capitalism. The election has changed none of this.
Quebec is a nation with its own language and culture and an increasingly distinct political economy. Opposition to national oppression has long fueled class and other social struggles there, particularly since the shackles of the Catholic Church were thrown off in the 1960s and early 70s. This was a period of tumultuous social protests and workers struggles, culminating in the 1972 province-wide general strike, which saw trade unionists take over radio stations, factories and whole towns.
Far from offering even token “solidarity” to the Quebec workers, NDP leader David Lewis supported the jailing of their leaders, while the CLC bureaucrats used the occasion to condemn Quebec’s national rights as “selfish.” Confronted with such hostility, the Quebec working class turned increasingly to the bourgeois nationalism of the Parti Québécois and later also the Bloc, which emerged in the federal parliament after the collapse of the Meech Lake constitutional talks in the early 1990s. The New Democrats strongly backed the “pro-Canada” forces in the 1980 and 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendums, the latter of which lost by a mere percentage point despite a mixture of bribes, threats and shadowy military maneuvers orchestrated by the government in Ottawa.
The continued existence of an artificial “united Canada,” where one nation dominates and oppresses the other, has long inflamed national animosities and tensions. In English Canada, the Maple Leaf patriotism pushed by the NDP and labour tops binds the workers to the interests of their own exploiters. In Quebec, the labour misleaders push workers to support “their” capitalists via the PQ and Bloc. The Trotskyist League/Ligue trotskyste advocates Quebec independence in order to remove this source of division among the workers, and bring to the fore the need for them to fight against the capitalist exploiters of each nation, not each other.
The New Democrats’ long record of upholding chauvinist “Canadian unity” against the national rights of the Québécois was highlighted in 2000 by their support to the Clarity Act, a reactionary federal law that effectively bans Quebec’s democratic right to self-determination (i.e., to independence). Layton and his Quebec lieutenant, former provincial Liberal cabinet minister Thomas Mulcair, sought to obscure this during the election campaign. Seeking to attract so-called “soft nationalists,” they pledged to expand the use of French in the federal public sector and reopen negotiations on the constitution, which successive Quebec governments have refused to sign since it was adopted in 1982.
They also promoted the “Sherbrooke Declaration,” a hitherto obscure policy paper adopted at the party’s 2006 convention. The pro-NDP reformist groups in English Canada joined in painting this as a move toward upholding Quebec’s national rights. Socialist Action, for example, claimed that Layton “asserted that he would repeal the undemocratic Clarity Act” and “recognize a declaration of Quebec independence after a sovereignty referendum win.” The I.S. alleged that the NDP now “respected Quebec sovereignty.” In fact, the Sherbrooke Declaration explicitly upholds the NDP’s past positions on Quebec, including its support to the 1998 Supreme Court ruling that barred Quebec’s unilateral right to secession.
A useful summary by Richard Fidler in The Bullet (11 May), e-bulletin of the Socialist Project, notes:
“The document refers to Quebec only once as a ‘nation’ (quotation marks in the original) and says that Quebec’s national character ‘can be expressed in the context of the Canadian federation.’ It ‘recognizes Quebec’s right to self-determination,’ but emphasizes that in the NDP view this right can be ‘exercised within Canada,’ and that in any case it ‘is not useful or necessary’ to ‘legally formalize this process.’…
“There is nothing in this document that is incompatible with the parliamentary NDP’s support of the infamous Clarity Act.”
So much for the New Democrats “respecting Quebec sovereignty.”
Myth of the “End of Separatism”
Much of the capitalist media, especially in English Canada, saluted the NDP’s gains in Quebec, saying, in the words of one right-wing pundit, “Better socialists than separatists.” Echoing this, NDP grandee Stephen Lewis crowed to a “Democracy Now” interviewer that the Québécois “have rejected the separatist, sovereignist instinct” and that the election “brings Quebec back into Canada.” In reality, the New Democrats benefited from a protest vote, not a rejection of Quebec nationalism.
Previously a marginal force in Quebec, the NDP managed to tap into popular disenchantment with all the entrenched federal parliamentary parties, including the Bloc, which was widely seen as tired and worn-out. Yet polls show that 40 percent of the Québécois continue to seek a sovereign country, and the PQ is widely expected to win the next provincial election against a deeply unpopular Liberal regime. Many supporters of Quebec independence decided to vote NDP federally this time around, with the understanding that the fundamental decisions about Quebec’s place in (or outside) Canada will eventually be decided within Quebec, not by politicians in Ottawa.
Writing in the Toronto Star (13 May), Université de Montréal professor Pierre Martin noted: “The NDP attracted Quebec voters with a promise of creating elusive ‘winning conditions for Quebec in Canada,’ which may lead some ‘soft nationalists’ to give Canada another chance.” He continued:
“But the NDP is in no position to fulfill these expectations, and with little Quebec representation in the Harper cabinet, the stage has been set for renewed disillusionment with federalism.
“All these factors seem to suggest the election could lead to a strengthening rather than a weakening of the idea of sovereignty.”
While backing the NDP in English Canada and thus adapting to the chauvinist Canadian capitalist status quo, in Quebec most of the reformist left tails bourgeois nationalism. (An exception is the Fightback group which, in a direct echo of the English Canadian labour tops and NDP, denounces Quebec independence as “divisive.”)
Just about every “socialist” group with a presence in Quebec has liquidated into the petty-bourgeois populist Québec Solidaire. QS, which won a seat for the first time in the last Quebec election, portrays itself as an alternative home for sovereignists repelled by the austerity attacks of the PQ when it was in power in Quebec, most recently from 1994 to 2003. But for all its for-the-people rhetoric, QS’s program does not even pay lip service to the class struggle, let alone socialism.
A recent QS conference made this explicit, coming out for a “plural economy” based on a “quadripartite [!] model” including a “private economy composed of private enterprises.” In the federal election, QS merely said, “Don’t vote Conservative”—i.e., vote Bloc, NDP or even Liberal. After the vote, party leader Amir Khadir praised Layton for his “intelligence and understanding of Quebec.” Far from representing a “left alternative,” as the I.S. et al. would have it, Québec Solidaire is a populist obstacle to working-class consciousness and struggle.
For Class Struggle, Not “National Unity”!
A May 3 editorial in the Globe and Mail saluted both the Tory victory and the NDP’s advance in Quebec but expressed concern at the continued national divide in Canada. “Not since 1917 has a majority government been so under-represented in Quebec,” it noted, adding:
“And with the Parti Québécois well-placed to take eventual power in Quebec City, we are entering a new phase in Canada’s dealings with Quebec. Mr. Layton and Mr. Harper will be fierce opponents in the House of Commons. On national unity, they must speak, as much as possible, with one voice.”
Against the “national unity” pushed by the bourgeois rulers and their social-democratic agents, it is necessary to fight for a program of proletarian class struggle that defends all the oppressed. In English Canada, that means unstinting opposition to Anglo reaction and advocacy of Quebec independence in order to break the Maple Leaf national chauvinism that holds sway among the workers. In Quebec, while it is necessary to support independence and oppose all manifestations of national oppression, the central task is to fight against the bourgeois nationalism that continues to dominate among the workers.
The Trotskyist League/Ligue trotskyste is fighting to build the nucleus of a revolutionary Marxist party that can root itself in the working class. Such a party would be binational, multiracial and internationalist, and would champion forthrightly the cause of all those victimized and oppressed under capitalism. It would give conscious leadership to the struggles of the workers not only to improve their present conditions but to do away with the entire system of exploitation and wage slavery.
“Unity” with the oppressors, or with their social-democratic political agents, is the road to defeat. The only way to smash the all-sided assault on social programs, to win jobs, decent living standards, free quality medical care, childcare and decent pensions for all is by ripping the productive forces from the hands of the capitalist class through socialist revolution and putting them in the hands of those whose labour makes society run.