Spartacist Canada No. 185
Against Capitalist Austerity:
Mobilize the Social Power of the Working Class!
For a Revolutionary Workers Party!
Tens of thousands of Quebec students staged another round of mass strikes and demonstrations this spring against attacks by a Liberal Party provincial government. The protests did not reach the level of the 2012 student strike, which saw marches of up to a quarter million people and drew in layers of the working class. But once again, students and their allies faced brutal repression at the hands of the police. On May Day, the cops violently attacked a demonstration called by the Convergence des Luttes Anticapitalistes (Anti-Capitalist Convergence) after only ten minutes, firing tear gas at protesters and bystanders alike and arresting nearly 100 people.
Late last year, some Quebec union leaders threatened to organize a mass “social strike” against austerity for May Day. But in the end, the bureaucrats who head the CSN and FTQ labour federations did not even hold the traditional union May Day demo in Montreal. Instead, working-class anger against austerity was dissipated in a series of symbolic occupations and picket lines, while relatively small marches were held in cities and towns around the province.
We publish below, in adapted form, the translation of a leaflet issued on April 25 by the Ligue trotskyste in Montreal. Our comrades have distributed the leaflet at student, labour and other protests in the city, including on May Day. In adapting the leaflet for SC, we have corrected two formulations that, in light of subsequent internal discussion, we realized were politically flawed. (See “Labour Struggle and Revolutionary Leadership,” page 18.) Some explanatory material has also been added in square brackets.
The Liberal government of Philippe Couillard has unleashed its austerity campaign, attacking the workers’ gains in the name of “balancing the budget.” It is cutting salaries, pensions, social programs, health care, education, etc. While the 400,000 workers in the public-sector union Common Front get insulting offers from the government—a three percent raise over five years and a hike in the retirement age—the big corporations are raking in ever-growing profits and the latest government budget again offers them a plethora of gifts.
The union federations and other organizations have launched the Refusons l’Austérité [Refuse Austerity] collective. During March and April, tens of thousands of students went on strike to protest the austerity attacks. In response, the government has unleashed its guard dogs against student protesters. Police brutality and mass arrests are again common coin. Students at UQAM [Université du Québec à Montréal] face threats of expulsion for their political activities. On April 8 the administration brought the cops onto campus to prevent students from respecting strike votes. The cops then violently broke up the occupation of one of the campus buildings that evening. We demand: Drop the charges! Down with the UQAM administration’s persecution of student militants! Cops and security guards off campus!
The anger among the working class and among students is palpable, as shown by the many demonstrations that have brought out thousands of people. But the demands of their leaders are based on the false premise that capitalism is capable of serving the interests of everyone. The Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante [Association for Student Union Solidarity] (ASSÉ) calls on the government to “live up to its responsibilities and listen to the population” (ASSÉ, 12 November 2014). Meanwhile, the Refusons l’Austérité collective advises it to “spend more to boost the economy, and ensure the permanent continuation of public services and social programs” (“Solutions,” refusons.org, undated). In fact the Liberal government, like all capitalist governments, fulfills its responsibilities by serving the interests of the bourgeoisie. Public services will never meet the workers’ needs in an economic system characterized by periodic crises that block production, destroy wealth and inflict deep suffering on the working class and poor.
The capitalist class that owns the means of production—the factories, mines, transportation, etc.—has interests counterposed to those of the working class, which is forced to sell its labour power in order to survive. It is the workers who produce the goods and services that make society function, but a handful of capitalist parasites steals all the riches. To try and shore up its rate of profit, the bourgeoisie has to constantly cut wages, lay off workers and reduce public services. Since austerity is intrinsic to capitalism, the fight against it must be linked to a fight against the capitalist system.
Myth of the “Welfare State”
Internationally, workers and the oppressed face all-out austerity attacks. Europe has been shaken in recent years by many general strikes and impressive demonstrations against austerity. The desperate situation of millions of workers and the poor has fuelled the growing popularity of parties that present themselves as anti-austerity, such as Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece. But these are bourgeois parties loyal to the capitalist system. The Syriza government, elected on January 25, has backtracked on most of its already limited promises, capitulating to the diktats of the imperialist European Union. Now Syriza has accepted the extension of the hated bailout plan, promising to impose even more austerity.
In Quebec, union leaders and the student left counterpose to austerity the myth of the “welfare state” or “social state” that supposedly existed in the 1960s and 1970s. This period, known as the Quiet Revolution, saw a massive erosion of the power of the church and some reforms necessary for the development of a modern capitalist society. Yet it also corresponded to the emergence of a Québécois bourgeoisie which sought to institute an autonomous political economy where it would be the centre and the main beneficiary. In criticizing the politics of austerity, various leftists are spreading an incredible number of illusions, suggesting that in the 1960s and ’70s the capitalist state cared about the situation of the working class and the oppressed.
According to the CSN bureaucrats, for example, the Liberal Party’s agenda is to dismantle “the social state in Quebec which was set up 50 years ago” (“Solutions,” refusons.org, undated). For ASSÉ, the role of the Quebec state at the time of the Quiet Revolution was to “guarantee citizens’ welfare and emancipation” (Summary of “Evolution of Public Services in Quebec: Challenges and Perspectives,” 1 October 2014). This jovial and idealized vision of the state denies the fact that capitalist society is divided into antagonistic classes. In Quebec as on the federal level, the capitalist state is a tool of the bourgeoisie to maintain its domination. In the words of Lenin, leader of the Russian Revolution of October 1917 (the only victorious workers revolution in history), the state is “a machine for the domination of one class over another” (“The State,” 1919).
It is an illusion to think that a state which passes repressive laws like P-6 [used to ban leftist demonstrations], which breaks strikes with its police and “emergency laws,” which participates in imperialist wars in the Near East and constantly sends its armed forces to brutalize Native people can suddenly interest itself in the well-being of the working class and the fate of the oppressed. The true face and the heart of the bourgeois state is its apparatus of repression, composed of the police, standing army, prisons and courts. No matter which party runs it, the bourgeois state exists to defend the bosses’ interests.
Whatever gains Quebec’s workers and oppressed enjoy weren’t given to them in a spirit of kindness by the bourgeois state. They were taken from the ruling class in the course of hard struggles by the labour movement. For example, the greater access to education established during the Quiet Revolution had been one of the historic demands of the unions. Nurses, teachers and government employees had to wage hard battles against the “modernizing” governments of the 1960s to win the right to unionization, through which they won better working conditions. But in the framework of capitalism these gains, which must absolutely be defended, are always partial and constantly reversible. The only perspective for putting an end to wage slavery is to fight for socialist revolution, in the course of which the bourgeois state will be destroyed and replaced by a state based on workers councils—in other words, the replacement of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie by the dictatorship of the proletariat.
The Social Power of the Working Class
Up to now it has mainly been students who have mobilized against austerity. Even if large and frequent student demonstrations can at times annoy the government or disturb some economic activity, they cannot attack the nerve centre of the capitalist system. It is the workers who, when they strike and withdraw their labour power, stop the flow of production that generates the bourgeoisie’s profits. Students, a petty-bourgeois social layer with no direct relationship to the means of production, do not have that kind of social power. Student struggles can be the spark for more general social conflicts, but in the final analysis the only solution is to ally with the workers movement.
The exploited working class, which is paid only enough to support itself and produce the next generation of workers, has no interest in the survival of the capitalist system. On the contrary, it objectively has every interest in its overthrow. The workers possess enormous power because of their role in production, their numbers and their organization. It is this power that could, for example, be mobilized against the brutal repression of students who are challenging capitalist austerity.
The Quebec proletariat has a rich history of militant struggles whose peak was the 1972 general strike. Little known among young workers and leftists today, the strike demonstrated the social power of the working class. It posed the question of political power: whether the workers or the capitalists would run society.
This semi-insurrectionary class struggle began in April 1972 with a large strike by the Common Front of the three union federations amid negotiations over public sector contracts. After ten days, the union leaders called for a return to work against the will of the workers, who wanted to continue the strike. The three union leaders, who were nonetheless accused by the bourgeois state of having disobeyed injunctions, were imprisoned by Bourassa’s Liberal government, setting off a huge, spontaneous strike wave throughout Quebec in May. More than 300,000 workers in the mines, hospitals, airports, factories—in short, in all the key industrial sectors—went on strike. In cities such as Sept-Îles, Sorel, Thetford Mines and Joliette the workers seized radio stations, barricaded streets—in a word, they took control of the cities.
Only an appeal for calm by the three jailed leaders brought an end to the conflict, under the pretext of a negotiated agreement with the government. As we wrote in an article assessing this struggle:
“In 1972 the determined militancy and combativity of the Québécois proletariat was pushed to the limit, to the point that what became brutally clear was the need for a proletarian internationalist program and leadership…. But where the nationalist Quebec labor bureaucrats used 1972 to build labor support for the bourgeois-nationalist PQ, the Maple Leaf jingoists heading up the English-Canadian labor movement attempted to keep the general strike from spilling over into their own ranks through orgies of chauvinism.”
—“Lessons of the 1972 Quebec General Strike:
From the Barricades to the Parti Québécois,” Spartacist Canada No. 57, March 1983
For a Class-Struggle Leadership in the Unions!
The union leaderships in the 1960s and 1970s were pushed to lead more militant actions by a base that was more combative than today. However this militancy was channelled into the bourgeois nationalism of the PQ. Today the union tops are completely locked into the framework of bourgeois legalism, very reluctant to unleash strikes and, as in the past, remain an obstacle to mobilizing the social power of the proletariat against capitalism. They are committed to the smooth functioning of the bourgeois economy and seek collaboration with the ruling class and its government.
The example of the Coalition pour la Libre Négotiation [Coalition for Free Negotiations]—set up to fight against Bill 3, which attacks the pensions of municipal workers—shows clearly how the union bureaucrats refuse to unleash class struggles to defend the workers’ interests. After having vaguely raised the spectre of a strike in October, the Coalition leadership chose to refer the issue to the Superior Court, a process that will take months, if not years. The Coalition’s strategy is reduced to challenging the constitutionality of Bill 3 before the very courts that regularly impose injunctions against striking workers and impose penalties on youth who demonstrate against austerity.
But the worst crime of the Coalition leadership is surely to have included the cops. The police, like prison guards and security guards, are not workers. Their job is to preserve the system of capitalist exploitation through organized violence. When workers go on strike, the bourgeoisie sends the cops to break up picket lines and arrest strikers. The workers movement must fight independently of the forces of the bourgeois state. That is why we say: cops, security guards, prison guards out of the unions!
In addition, almost all the union leaders give open or tacit support to the PQ. Daniel Roy, Quebec director of the Steelworkers union, has publicly supported Martine Ouellet’s candidacy for PQ leader, presenting the PQ as the party of the “middle class” and calling to “rebuild bridges” with it (Le Devoir, 22 January). The PQ is a bourgeois party, dedicated to safeguarding the interests of the Québécois capitalists. At the beginning of the 1980s, René Lévesque broke the strike of the Common Front unions. Then in the 1990s, Lucien Bouchard slashed public services with his “zero deficit” campaign. More recently, it was the government of Pauline Marois that broke the construction strike by passing an emergency law. The fact that Pierre Karl Péladeau, the big bourgeois “lockout king,” is the leading candidate to become the PQ’s new leader [and has subsequently become such] makes its anti-working-class character crystal clear. It’s the same story every time: a Liberal government attacks the workers and the most impoverished; the union leaders channel widespread anger into support to the PQ; the PQ takes over and mounts its own attacks.
The heart of the matter is the nationalism pushed by the union leaderships. Nationalism is a bourgeois ideology that serves to tie the oppressed to their oppressors by claiming that they have common “national interests.” The Canadian working class has long been deeply divided along national lines, reflecting the historic oppression of the Québécois nation within the Canadian state. Québécois nationalism is nourished by the “Canadian unity” chauvinism spread by the NDP and the union tops in English Canada. In response to this chauvinism, the Quebec union bureaucracy waves the fleur de lys and pushes the workers into the arms of the nationalists, especially the PQ. We advocate independence for Quebec in order to take the national question off the political agenda and show the workers of both nations that “their” respective bourgeoisies are not their ally against “the French” or “les Anglais,” but their class enemy.
We oppose any privileges granted to languages and to nations. We denounce the imposition of English as the language of work where the workers are French-speaking. In March, the majority francophone FTQ workers building the Université de Montréal Hospital Centre denounced the predominance of English in the construction blueprints and instructions that they receive. This puts their safety in danger and violates their right to work in their own language.
As adversaries of all nationalism, we equally oppose the Charter of the French Language (Law 101), which makes French the official language of Quebec and thus imposes discriminatory restrictions on English-speaking and immigrant minorities. Marxists oppose laws which impose “official languages,” as well as school systems based on language or religion. The unity of francophone, anglophone and immigrant workers can only be created on the basis of upholding the equality of languages.
It is necessary to forge oppositions inside the unions that will replace the union bureaucracy with a class-struggle leadership. Such a leadership will politically arm the workers to wage hard-fought battles against the capitalist exploiters. This task goes hand-in-hand with the fight to build a revolutionary workers party. Such a party is needed to arm the workers with the understanding of the need to struggle for a socialist revolution in order to put an end to austerity and capitalism once and for all.
The Workers Movement Must Defend the Muslim Minority!
One of the main tasks of the labour movement is the defense of immigrants and ethnic and religious minorities. The campaign of racist hysteria pushed by the state against Muslims has recently redoubled in intensity. Mosques have been shut down by some municipalities and a Court of Quebec judge even refused to hear the case of a Muslim woman on the pretext that she was wearing a veil. While the veil is a symbol and instrument of women’s oppression, it is necessary to oppose government attacks against the democratic rights of Muslims, including the right to wear the veil.
These attacks have given a boost to the racists who have stepped up their acts of vandalism against mosques (notably in Quebec City, Limoilou, Sainte-Foy and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu). Under the banner of Pegida Québec (a racist movement that started in Germany which opposes the so-called “Islamization of the West”), some people even tried to organize a reactionary anti-Muslim parade in the heart of Little Maghreb in Montreal in March. Hundreds of leftist and anti-racist militants mobilized and spiked this provocation.
Racism is intrinsic to the system of capitalist exploitation and the bourgeoisie ceaselessly resorts to such campaigns to divide the workers according to their different origins. The PQ hypocritically opposed the Pegida demonstration, even though they pushed their racist “Charter of Values” when they were in power. As for Québec Solidaire [QS], its denunciations of Pegida contrast with its desire to ban women who wear the full-face veil from receiving public services. Muslims and other ethnic and religious minorities constitute a growing part of the working class in the Montreal region. It is in the interest of the workers movement to defend the most vulnerable against racist anti-immigrant attacks. But the union bureaucracy renounces this fundamental task. Apart from an empty declaration against Pegida’s provocation issued by the leadership of the CSN’s Metropolitan Montreal Central Council (published the same day!), nothing was done to defend the Muslim minority. Down with anti-Muslim racism! An injury to one is an injury to all!
Québec Solidaire and the Fake-Marxists
Practically the whole Quebec left looks to QS as an alternative to the PQ. QS is a party with a petty-bourgeois base and no links to the workers movement which proposes only a capitalism “of solidarity, ecology and democracy.” QS even agrees with getting back to a balanced budget, only a year later than what the Liberals propose. Since Couillard’s election it has multiplied its offers to collaborate with the Liberals to try and put a more “social” face on austerity. In fact QS is really no different than the PQ of the early 1970s. Just as nationalist, it is an obstacle to the perspective of workers revolution to overthrow capitalism.
Many self-described socialists have liquidated into QS including Alternative Socialiste (AS, associated with the Committee for a Workers International) and La Riposte [Fightback] (associated with the International Marxist Tendency). In addition to arguing that QS could be an anti-capitalist alternative, these two organizations betray the ABC of the Marxist conception of the state. AS claims that cops are “workers in uniform” (alternativesocialiste.org, 9 July 2014) and La Riposte says that including the police in the movement against Bill 3 “weakens the government’s capacity to use them to repress the coming movements of workers and youth” (marxiste.qc.ca, 29 August 2014). Thus these fake socialists want the workers to believe that the police force—a reservoir of racism, sexism and homophobia—could be on the side of the working class. Or that their “unions”—in reality, organizations of legal gangsters—are part of the labour movement. Nothing could be more dangerous for the working class, because the cops are the first line of defense of the bosses’ interests.
In addition to these reformists who nestle inside QS, we have the Maoist Parti Communiste Révolutionnaire (PCR) which counterposes itself to it. Don’t be taken in by their red flags! The PCR rejects the proletarian perspective which is essential to Marxism by upholding “protracted people’s war” as “the road to revolution in Canada.” As Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky always explained, the working class is central to a revolutionary struggle because it is the only class which has the social power to overthrow the bourgeois order. A perspective based on “people’s war” dissolves the workers into “the people” and necessarily leads to class collaboration.
The Revolutionary Student Movement (MER), created under the PCR’s auspices, denounces the unions as “a powerful factor in the allegiance of the workers to capitalism” (MER, 5 April). These Maoists wipe out any distinction between the working-class base of the unions and the union bureaucracy. The unions are organs of working-class defense against the capitalist exploiter. They should encompass as many workers as possible to strengthen unity in the economic struggle. The authentic Marxist program is to defend the unions against the bosses and the bourgeois state while fighting to forge a revolutionary leadership.
The workers of Quebec and English Canada need their own party to defend their interests. Such a party will fight for the unity of the working class and act as a tribune of the people, defending immigrants, Native people, women and all the victims of capitalist oppression. This rotting economic system—which produces crises, perpetual wars and, as a byproduct, austerity—must urgently be replaced by a planned economy where production will be run rationally according to the needs of all and not of profit. The International Communist League, whose Canadian section is the Ligue trotskyste/Trotskyist League, is dedicated to reforging the Fourth International, the party that is needed for the overthrow of capitalism in North America and throughout the planet.