Four books to fan the flames of discontent

From the heroic class struggles of late nineteenth century America, to an environmentally toxic, tyrannical, all too possible near future, here are some mid-winter readings likely to stimulate your dissidence.

Unsurprisingly, the fiasco of the climate change summit in Copenhagen led me to Margaret Atwood’s latest eco-disaster novel “Year of the Flood” (McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 2009, 431 pages). Not a watery deluge, but a dry killer tide of disease (like an H1N1 on steroids) wipes out most of humanity. The imaginative prowess and literary skill of Canada’s most celebrated fiction writer set the stage for the unspecified plague by presenting a dystopia just one remove from present day late-capitalism in decay.

It is a world of advanced social disintegration and environmental ruin. Murderous impoverished ghettos bump up against privileged gated communities whose members are numbed by mindless consumerism. And running amok, through town and country, is a bizarre assortment of bio-engineered animal species, not all of which are benign. Giant corporations govern the fragmented world order with unabashed venality and total impunity. Their enforcement arm is aptly called CorpSEcorps, a lethal private security army, a fitting successor to Blackwater – Xe and company.

“Year of the Flood” could be considered a sequel to Atwood’s highly acclaimed “Oryx and Crake”, except that it is a parallel tale that arrives at a common point – a handful of surviving ordinary-people encounter a bizarre group of ‘blue’ mutant humans with a hyper-active libido.

The author has confected a tale that is half-prediction, half satire – like a blend of George Orwell and Jonathon Swift. So, through the eyes of the finely drawn protagonists Ren and Toby, a sex club dancer and a waitress respectively, we learn of the suspect serums of HelthWyzer (rhymes with Pfizer), the immortality vending CryoJeenyus, the soma-like HappyCuppa, the indulgent AnooYoo spas, and the notorious Painballers (inmates of a Survivor-reality prison camp). A malicious Painballer is hunting Toby, who earlier escaped his control when she fled the Sticky Zone where she was a hapless server of Secretburgers.

The disappointing aspect is that the foremost resistence to the pervasive repression and moral decay is a hippie vegetarian cult, God’s Gardeners, who absurdly, self-righteously try to blend religion and science. Is this the author’s conscious snub of the working class movement and the materialist left, or is she prodding us to see what will be if socialism doesn’t soon gain more traction?

While “Year of the Flood” is very derivative of “Oryx and Crake”, though more overtly feminist in its portrayal of personal relationships and gender oppression, that really constitutes an argument for reading both novels. Given Atwood’s pungent satire of present trends, her latest writings, redolent with anti-capitalist implications, may leave you wondering why she is not a Marxist firebrand.

There was a time when hundreds of thousands of American workers defied politicians, courts, the cops and paramilitary gangs to strike for decent wages and union rights – and when over a million men voted for a revolutionary socialist to be President (before women won the right to vote). The first great U.S. mass radicalization against deadly work conditions and miserable exploitation produced a generation of proletarian rebels. “Eugene V. Debs, A Biography”, by Ray Ginger (Collier Books, New York, N.Y., 1962, 543 pages), is the story of the leading voice and most resilient symbol of that late 19th century generation.

Eugene Debs (1855-1926), a shy, polite son of Terre Haute, Indiana quit school to labour as a boilerman on the Vandalia railroad. When his friend fell under a train and died, Debs quit and pledged to reform the horrendous working conditions by recruiting for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. Starting with conservative views about strikes and political action, Debs radicalized alongside his co-workers, founded the American Railway Union, and became a leading proponent of industrial unionism and class struggle politics. He became a prominent national figure due to his tireless, eloquent and courageous leadership of the Great Northern Railway strike of 1877 and the famous Pullman Boycott of 1894 (for which he went to jail). He quit the Democratic Party and embraced socialism as the solution to economic tyranny, poverty and waste. Though the momentous labour struggles he led suffered vicious repression, and often had mixed immediate results, they laid the basis for mass working class self-organization. They also challenged the complacent, pro-capitalist policies of the dominant craft unions, symbolized by Samuel Gompers, President of the American Federation of Labour, with whom Debs frequently clashed.

The author portrays Debs in all his complexity. He was a chivalrous Victorian gentleman whose fiery speeches were the bane of the ruling class; a proponent of sedate home and family values who lived mostly on the campaign trail, away from his wife Kate for months at a time. He eschewed the comforts of union office, and routinely gave away his money, even his overcoat and jacket, to fellows he met who appeared to be in need. Debs’ extreme selflessness had a political counterpart in his aversion to fight for his policies within his own organizations. This applied especially to the U.S. Socialist Party, whose candidate for President he was on four occasions. The SP was a broad coalition of disparate currents, from anarcho-syndicalists to Marxists to pro-business reformists. Although the SP enjoyed a massive radical base, boasting up to 135,000 members and nearly half a million subscribers to its weekly newspaper Appeal to Reason, not to mention a host of other publications, its apparatus was dominated by crass reform politicians, dubbed ‘sewer socialists’ for their association with basic municipal improvements. Under their influence, the SP capitulated to the craft unionism of the AFL, to its tolerance of racist job segregation, and to the patriotic hysteria linked to the imperialist First World War.

In all his years as the leading spokesperson for the SP, Debs only once attended a convention of his party. He refused to organize a fight for revolutionary socialist policies within the organization, believing that his job was ‘to convert the rank and file, who would then convert the leaders’. Unfortunately, this extended to a belief that revolutionary politics would spontaneously survive and prosper in a broad, undisciplined party riven by factions. Another weakness was his view that, despite widespread racism and sexism, socialists should advance no special measures, no affirmative action policies for any distinctly oppressed section of the working class: his answer to oppression under capitalism was socialism, full stop.

Debs’ dream of the SP as the voice of a united, triumphant working class, independent of the bosses’ parties, was publicly desecrated when the party backed the capitalist Progressive Party in the 1924 election. After the vote, the Progressives dissolved and the discredited SP shrivelled. The nascent Communist Party, champion of the Russian Revolution (which Debs ardently supported, in contrast to the ambivalent SP leadership), attracted the bulk of radicals.

Although Debs’ health was broken by the two and a half hard years he served in an Atlanta, Georgia prison for opposing WW1, his militant spirit, his promotion of industrial unionism and mass action, his faith in socialism as the antidote to capitalist exploitation and war, continues to inspire generations of fighters for social justice and workers’ power. The great socialist was a leading campaigner for civil liberties and defender of victims of capitalist repression, from the Haymarket Martyrs to Big Bill Haywood. He identified closely with the victims of capitalist injustice. No one expressed the thought more forcefully, more eloquently than he did in his own defense in 1918: “While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

This biography is worth reading, if only for the many fabulous quotes from some of the greatest speeches ever delivered by a working class leader. Despite its superficiality in dealing with Marxist theory, competing tendencies on the left, and questions of political strategy, Ray Ginger’s book is artfully packaged with fascinating details, delivered in a heart-warming fashion, about a great man and a great time in American labour history.

“The Sweetest Dream – Love, Lies, & Assassination – A Novel of the Thirties”, by Lillian Pollak, (iUniverse, Inc., New York, 2009, 370) is a charming account of the friendship of two young women who were part of the next wave of rebellion. For those yearning to know what it was like to be active participants on the radical left in Manhattan during the Great Depression, this story of the conflicting relations between the young Trotskyists and Stalinists of the time is the ticket.

For the author, Lillian Pollak, born in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen in 1915, and today still a “Raging Granny” anti-war activist, this zestful romantic novel is also autobiographical. Her keen eye and great powers of recollection have produced a vivid account of the streetscapes, new artistic movements and key political events of the thirties. The latter include the powerful sit-down strikes of 1934 across the United States, the rise of fascism in Europe, the Spanish Civil War, and the seminal defense campaigns for victims of state terror Sacco and Vanzetti and the Scottsboro Boys.

Pollak, from personal experience, richly portrays as too few others have done the central leaders of the left opposition Communist League of America and its successor Socialist Workers’ Party, James P. Cannon, Max Shachtman, Martin Abern and Joseph Hansen. She transports us to Mexico where she met the co-leader of the Russian Revolution and founder of the Fourth International, Leon Trotsky, as well as legendary artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and members of Trotsky’s beseiged household in Coyoacan.

A great strength of the novel is its representations of the young Jimmy (and Jane) Higgins of the revolutionary workers’ movement, the heroic grass roots activists who marched, sang, carried banners and sold the communist press at street corners, even door to door in Harlem. They defied capitalist conventionality, and denounced the betrayal of the principles on which the Russian Revolution and the Communist parties were based. The main protagonists of the novel are two of those militants. But the life-long relationship between beautiful, vivacious Ketzel, born to affluent Mexican parents, and the plain, but indomitable Miriam, the daughter of the poor New York Jewish ghetto, is strained almost to the breaking point by their differing responses to revelations of the worldwide crimes of the Stalin bureaucracy – until the much-feared tragedy occurs, the assassination of Trotsky in 1940.

The fact that the two young women were unwitting acquaintances of the murderer, Ramon Mercader, is the cruel fulcrum of the story. It also exposes one significant flaw in the narrative. On page 313, Ketzel and Miriam are told of the imminent plan to kill Trotsky. “Your Old Man is doomed. It’ll be soon, my dear.” Inexplicably, neither one of them informs Cannon, or any SWP leader, or the guards at the fortress villa in Coyoacan, that Mercader, alias Frank Jacson, is on his way. This jagged pebble is harder to swallow than the copious typos that have survived the second printing of the book.

Nonetheless, “The Sweetest Dream” is a wonderful, lively, well-written period piece and a very compelling read. It is full of insights into Depression-era living conditions, a tenderly related story of friendship, love and disillusionment. Moreover, the novel is an indispensable source about a time of social turmoil when many thousands of North Americans rallied to the radical cause, and dared to dream of a better world.

The fourth book in this short survey transports us to the post-WW2 capitalist boom. “Marxism in Our Time”, by Isaac Deutscher (Ramparts Press, San Francisco, 1973, 312 pages) is an anthology of speeches, articles and interviews that document one remarkable person’s struggle to keep revolutionary theory alive and potent in a period of working class political retreat.

Isaac Deutscher (1907-1967) was a Jewish-Polish political activist expelled from the Polish Communist Party in 1932 for “exaggerating the danger of Nazism”. In 1938 the Stalinist Comintern dissolved the Polish party under the pretext that it was corroded by “Trotskyist and Pilsudskist influences” and had become an agency of fascism and the police. Members of its Central Committee sought refuge in Moscow, but were imprisoned and executed as traitors, on Stalin’s orders.

A life-long opponent of capitalism and Stalinism, Deutscher’s chief difference with the Trotskyist movement was his view (in 1938, and subsequently) that it was premature to launch the Fourth International. His voluminous writings are steeped in the classical Marxist tradition. Best known is Deutscher’s masterwork, his three volume biography of Trotsky, “The Prophet Armed”, “The Prophet Disarmed”, and “The Prophet Outcast”. Among his other acclaimed works are “Stalin: a Political Biography” 1949, and his anti-Zionist “Non-Jewish Jew and other essays” (editied by Tamara Deutscher) 1968.

The present outstanding collection merits serious study. It includes: “Trotsky in Our Time”, “The Tragedy of the Polish Communist Party” (which exposes the destructiveness of the Comintern’s policy zig-zags from opportunism to ultra-leftism, and back again), “The Roots of Bureaucracy”, “On Socialist Man” and “Discovering Das Kapital”.

Two chapters of the book seem particularly relevent at this end of the first decade of the 21st century. In “Marxism in Our Time”, notwithstanding the post-war boom, Deutscher returns to the very essentials in the Marxist critique of capitalism: “there is a striking contradiction between the increasingly social character of the process of production and the anti-social character of capitalist property”. To those who say such a critique is obsolete, that “since (John Maynard) Keynes, capitalism knows how to plan the economy”, Deutscher asks: has capitalism “ever planned except for war purposes?” “Is planning congenial to capitalism?” Looking back at the decades since the 1960s, at his insistence on the anarchic character of the capitalist mode of production, its proclivity to war as an extension of its cancerous growth and clash of monopolies, and the overall steady proletarianization of humankind, Deutscher and Marxism seem to stand up rather well.

“Marxism and the New Left” presents a cogent argument against those who, responding to the apparent decline in class struggle in the most developed countries, would discount the working class and socialism. We still encounter such views, including in the so-called ‘Zeitgeist movement’ which calls for a purely ideological break with religion, militarism, the big banks and powerful conspirators, without grasping the need to organize working people to take control of the economy.

Speaking to students at Binghampton, New York in 1967, Deutscher said: “Some of you, on the so-called New Left, want to leave behind all ideology in favor of pragmatism… But pragmatism is also an idea… you are only exchanging one ideology for another.”

Concerning political differences on the left, which are often blamed for lost opportunities for revolutionary change, he counters: “All human thinking and all human organization is subject to differentiation. Whether you like it or not, ‘squabbling’ is the stuff of life; do not be contemptuous of it.” “The (U.S.) Communist Party did not want to ‘squabble’ with Roosevelt, and it supported fully and uncritically the New Deal… The members of the CP from Marxists became Rooseveltians. Then the Communists did not want to ‘squabble’ with Stalin, to criticize his policy, and therefore they allowed themselves to be turned into mere stooges of Stalin’s policy. In this way they committed moral and political suicide. They did not want to ‘squabble’ with Stalin, nor with Roosevelt – and you will not be much wiser if you too shun ideological debate.”

He noted that “the New Left is confined mostly to students and intellectuals.” “The role of students is transient. They are not a stable element in society.” They can be a vanguard of fascism or communism. Likewise “Lumpenproletarians don’t change society. If the basic classes change society, then the lumpenproletarians may follow them. But when I speak of the working class, I do not have in mind the trade unions, which are only a bureaucratic outgrowth of the working class…” “…Crumbs from the table of the affluent society do not satisfy you and they do not satisfy the young workers. Have you tried to talk to them?”

Thus Deutscher formulated an appeal to New Leftists to involve themselves in the working class and its struggles, and at the same time to keep in mind clarity of purpose, that is, programmatic clarity in the process of struggle.

“Do not delude yourselves that your aim — “participatory democracy”… — is anything more than a vague and meaningless slogan. It implies that you want to participate in the management of society as it is; but the society as it is excludes you from participation by definition. For this, a new form of society is needed. And when you proclaim the end of ideology you also implicitly accept the dominant ideology of the very society which excludes you from participation, the very society against which you are in revolt.”

Well said, Old Mole. The Deutscher anthology “Marxism in Our Time” is an important tool in the toolkit of all who are determined not to re-discover the wheel, but rather to stoke the engine of revolutionary change. -Barry Weisleder

Canadian corporate CEOs average $7,352,895 each

Canada’s highest-paid CEOs raked in an average of $7,352,895 in 2008, the latest year for which statistics are available. That is 174 times more than the average wage of a worker in Canada.

“To put that in perspective, Canadians will work full-time throughout the year to earn the national average of $42,305,” says Hugh Mackenzie of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), which released a new report on the subject.

Yet as of 1:01 p.m. on their first working day of this year (Jan. 4) the top 100 CEOs in the country had already pocketed as much as the average Canadian worker will in all of 2010.

The CCPA study says average compensation for the top CEOs has outpaced inflation by 70% between 1998 and 2008. During the same period, Canadians earning the average income lost 6% to inflation.
Here are the top 10 hogs at the corporate trough:
  • Thomas Glocer, Thomson Reuters Corp. – $36,595,233.

Ted Rogers, Rogers Communications Inc. – $21,484,708.

J. M. Lipton, Nova Chemicals Corp. – $19,753,245.

George Cope, BCE Inc. – $19,551,345.

Robert Brown, CAE Inc. FY end March 08 – $17,293,144.

William Doyle, Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan – $17,026,317.

Hunter Harrison, Canadian National Railway Co. – $13,350,048.

Dominic D’Alessandro, Manulife Financial Corp. – $13,251,274.

Stephen Wetmore, Bell Aliant Regional Com. Income Fund – $11,563,250.
    For all 100 names, please go to the link below and read as much as you can bear. Caution: Not for those with weak stomachs.

    Québec solidaire: A Left-of-which-Left Formation?

    Answer to Roger Rashi

    Québec solidaire is not Die Linke, still less the French NPA… Rather more like an NDP-plus which could evolve into a plain NDP. Québec solidaire is not to be compared to old left 20th century parties, which became socio-liberal, but to the Parti québécois (PQ), a nationalist populist party which became fully neoliberal a long time ago. Winning over political activists to the left of the centre-right, Québec solidaire unites centre-left people, that is social-liberals, and left people, that is anti-liberals and anti-capitalists, the first group mostly at the top, the second one mostly in the rank and file. It has an anti-liberal ideological discourse, sometimes bordering on anti-capitalism, in contradiction to its social-liberal positions and its vote-catching practice. Hence the lack of a program after existing for almost four years and participating in two general elections. It takes the flattering media stardom of its two spokespersons to glue the party together. Québec solidaire has its origins in the rise of the anti-globalisation and anti-war movements of 2000-2003 but also in the strategic defeat of the social movement in 2005-2006. There are a good number of feminists and community activists in the party while the trade union and even the ecology movements are much less represented. The QS membership has stagnated, with ups and downs, since its foundation.

    Social-liberals are split between Québec solidaire and the PQ

    Why choose as a benchmark the French anti-capitalist NPA and not the ambiguous anti-liberal Parti de la Gauche closer to the German Die Linke? Why ignore the social-liberal Canadian NDP? Is it not a way to subtly draw Québec solidaire to the left? Roger Rashi`s point of comparison is entirely problematic. First he states that the PQ is only “fulfilling the role of the `institutional left` in Québec…” But this party, which is not left, would have a practice and program marked by `neoliberalism with a human face`. To resolve the contradiction in which the author finds himself, we just have to examine the reality and the last program of the PQ. Right at the advent of neoliberalism, in 1982, the PQ government cut by 20% the salaries of employees of the State. While in opposition, in the late 80s, it was the Canadian champion of free trade with the United States. Returning to power in the late 90s, the PQ became Ottawa`s faithful relay, pursuing a policy of “zero deficit” and implementing cuts in corporate and high income taxes from which Quebec public services have yet to recover. This item from the PQ 2008 election platform could not be clearer:

    1.2. Supporting business
    • Eliminate by 2010 the tax on capital.
    • Lowering the marginal effective corporate tax.
    • Adopt tax measures aimed at encouraging private investment, including investment in equipment.”

    Where then are the social-liberals? Because of the national question, many of them remain in the PQ, especially trade unionists and francophone environmentalists. After all, the PQ in initiating the referendums of 1980, and especially 1995, needed to build a nationalist bloc including the union brass. Those more sensitive to social issues — particularly anti-poverty activists and social workers repelled by the contempt of the PQ for the poor — are mostly in Québec Solidaire, particularly in the national leadership, including the one elected at the Congress of November 2009. While the QS rank and file took a step forward by proclaiming the party to be as “indépendantiste” as it is “souverainiste”, surpassing the original “Declaration of Principles”, the new leadership (elected by acclamation, without a debate between alternative platforms, on the basis of only brief biographies), is less “souverainiste” than the former one. Yet, the former leadership, in the pre-Congress debate, had favoured dropping any reference to both sovereignty and independence in favour of a populist appeal to the “pays”!

    A nationalist independentism for a social-liberal “social project”

    Still, the QS Congress failed to defend its pro-independence stand as the answer to national oppression. Instead, it justifies it as a nationalist affirmation based on the cultural and social differences of a minority nation and on the need to acquire a set of powers to fully realize its “social project”… for which there is yet no program. For example, the leadership of Québec solidaire has remained completely silent on all issues related to the conference at Copenhagen, on which the Liberals and the PQ had taken clear positions, before and during the conference and since then, up to today. This nationalist based independentism leads Québec solidaire to be for the land rights of Aboriginal and Inuit … but at the same time to deny that they have territories of their own by affirming “the necessary coexistence on the same territory”. This is far from the “full recognition of their right to self-determination” as Roger Rashi says. The Congress was unable to affirm that “the Quebec ‘National Question’ and the ‘Social Question’ must be linked in a strategy of social transformation’” on an equal footing. The tendency is still to present a kind of reverse mirror image of the program of the PQ, that is, to subordinate the national question to the social question. For Québec solidaire, independence is not (yet) the spearhead of a project of national liberation, in all its dimensions, in which the people of Quebec act autonomously in the affairs of a world more interdependent than ever.

    While it is true that the rise of the anti-globalization movement at the beginning of the decade had demonstrated the viability of a Quebec left party, it is the strategic defeat, a few years later, of the entire social movement that was the main backdrop to the founding of Québec solidaire. The national leadership concluded from these defeats of “the street” that electioneering was now viable. For them, the relation between electoral activity and involvement in social struggles has been “resolved” since the beginning in favour of the former. To the malaise created by this choice with the anti-liberal rank and file, the leadership offered a never debated nor voted Manifesto, “To overcome the crisis: beyond capitalism?” which has the virtue of a soothing Sunday speech concealing a real social-liberal anti-crisis program. For example, the Manifesto recommends that victims of collective dismissals form thinly subsidized cooperatives and that victims of capitalized private pension funds voluntarily invest a larger portion of their salary into a capitalized state fund that has lost 25% of its market value, more than most private funds. The anti-crisis program is not so much about relieving the suffering of the people than supporting a green and socially responsible Quebecois capitalism. After his election, Québec solidaire`s only Member of the National Assembly (MNA) told the leading newspaper in English Canada:

    There’s nothing radical about Québec solidaire‘s demands, Mr. Khadir said, rejecting the notion his party lacks credentials to defend economic policies. He maintained that Québec solidaire was asking nothing more than what president-elect Barack Obama has promised in the United States.” (Rhéal Séguin, Globe and Mail, December 18, 2008)

    Searching for an alliance with PQ

    What about the relations with the PQ, Québec solidaire’s major electoral competitor in the winnable electoral ridings? Is it a rivalry between a neoliberal and a anti-liberal party as an alternative to the rightist federalist Liberal Party, the “normal” party of the bourgeoisie, now in power? As stated by the spokeswoman, and now president, of Québec solidaire, in the election campaign of November/December 2008 about the possibility of an alliance with the PQ, “the phone never rang. […] We’re open to dialogue. “(Radio-Canada). This opening was confirmed by the new MNA: “It’s up to us to agree. Even 4% can make a difference in a close election. “(L’Aut’Journal, February 2009). Therefore there is no question of “wresting away sections of labour and the mass movements from the PQ … ” as Roger Rashi says. For now the PQ does not want such an alliance which does not seem to be electorally profitable since, first, the electoral score of Québec solidaire has stagnated at just under 4% from the 2007 election to the 2008 one, which corresponds to somewhat higher scores in the polls, and secondly because the PQ is chasing after the vote of the federalist, nationalist and ultra-right ADQ which is rapidly losing ground.

    Searching for anti-capitalist collectives

    What are the small anticapitalist organizations doing in this galley? They recognize that Québec solidaire is the first attempt to organize a mass party of the left since the early 80s; the first rank and file party, not coming from the nationalist wing of the Liberal Party as the PQ does, to have succeeded electing an MNA since the late ’40s when the Quebec wing of the CCF managed to have a sitting member in Quebec City. They find they are statutorily recognized as collectives, however with no right of representation anywhere, the alternative being a propagandist isolation often leading to sectarianism. The problem is not there. These groups are happy, to varying degrees depending on the group and on the circumstances, to oscillate between ideological statements, revolutionary or ecosocialist, and tactical manoeuvres at the top of the party to push the leadership to the left. The common axis of their approach remains an alliance with the social-liberal leadership while standing to its left and making itself useful by providing organizational work. Excluded is any construction of a visible and vocal oppositional pole based on an independentist and anti-capitalist axis that would propose an emergency anti-crisis program, a tactic for building a party of the streets and an alternate leadership.

    -Marc Bonhomme, anti-capitalist activist of Québec solidaire

    December 23, 2009

    Quebec Solidaire Opts for Independence/Sovereignty

    by Robbie Mahood

    Quebec’s small mass left-wing party, Quebec Solidaire(QS), held its fifth convention in a Montreal suburb on November 20-22, 2009. About 300 delegates and observers gathered to further a process of political clarification initiated by the leadership.

    In 2008, QS managed to get one of its popular leaders, Amir Khadir, elected to Quebec’s National Assembly. However, its vote across the province has yet to pass 5%, even if polls sometimes place it as high as 8%. The party has about 5,000 members.

    QS was formed in 2006 defining itself as “alter-mondialiste, féministe, écologique et de gauche”, a party representing diverse social movements and dedicated to breaking the neo-liberal strait-jacket in Quebec politics. Anti-neoliberal it is, but without an explicit working class or socialist perspective, although several left-wing organizations were permitted to form political `collectives` or tendencies within QS.

    QS has a history of avoiding controversy in favour of lowest common denominator consensus. The leadership`s improvised public pronouncements have often fallen far short of its own militants`expectations, for example on the Afghan war or in response to community outrage at the police killing of a young man, Freddy Villanueva, in one of Montréal`s immigrant neighbourhoods.

    Highlighted at this convention were debates on the national question, and on secularism in relation to immigrant religious and cultural rights — issues that are controversial in Quebec politics as well as within QS.

    Socialists in English-speaking Canada and the United States may question the obsession with the national question in Quebec, or wonder whether the Quebecois any longer suffer national oppression. After all, the national and class agitation of the 1960’s and 70’s led to significant advances for the francophone majority in Quebec. Two failed bids for independence in the referenda of 1980 and 1995 have led the sovereignist movement, dominated by the bourgeois nationalist Parti Quebecois, to an impasse. At present, sentiment for independence is at a rather low ebb. Should the struggle for an independent Quebec any longer occupy the place it once did in the strategic thinking of revolutionary socialists?

    The view that independence is passé takes little cognizance of the national tensions that have been and continue to be a decisive factor in Canadian politics. Regardless of their views on independence (which fluctuate greatly depending on the conjuncture), the Quebecois have a more clearly defined national consciousness than ever before. The exercise of their national rights brings them continually up against the power of the Canadian state and constitution. This is most clearly seen in struggles around language and culture but periodically broaches questions of economic control, defense of social programs and participation in imperialist wars. This unresolved national problem continues to fester away at the heart of the Canadian federation, undermining the stability of class rule exercised by the Anglo-Canadian bourgeoisie and by its junior Quebec partner.

    This is the context which impelled QS to adopt a more coherent position on this perennial question in Quebec politics. Up to this point, the party had defined itself as ‘sovereignist’, a term that leaves some ambiguity. After a vigorous debate over four competing options, delegates opted for the use of “independence or sovereignity” interchangeably, narrowly edging out those who argued for “independence” only. Two other choices, “sovereignity” only, and ”neither independence or sovereignity”, were decisively rejected.

    At the same time, the delegates recognized the sovereignity of “the ten Amerindian peoples and the Inuit people who also inhabit Quebec territory” , affirming their right to self-determination whether through independence or in the form of self-government within Quebec.

    Delegates also repudiated the ethnic nationalism increasingly promoted by the Parti Quebecois (PQ). For Quebec Solidaire, the Quebec nation is “ethnically and culturally diversified, with French as the common language” and the Quebecois are all those who “live in Quebec and participate in its life”.

    As for how to achieve independence, Quebec Solidaire proposes a democratic Constituent Assembly charged with conducting a vast consultative process on Quebec`s “political and constitutional future and the values and political institutions pertaining to it.“ This exercise in popular sovereignity is in contrast to the narrow and elite-driven referendum strategy of the Parti Quebecois (now placed in cold storage by the party brass until so-called ‘winning conditions’ reappear).

    Anti-immigrant sentiment surfaced in a major way in the Quebec election of 2007 when the right wing populist party, Action Democratique du Quebec (ADQ) , capitalized on latent hostility to cosmopolitan Montreal, especially to its Muslim and Hasidic Jewish minorities, to propel itself into official opposition status in the National Assembly.

    Subsequently, the Bouchard-Taylor Commission held public hearings on so-called `reasonable accommodation` of new immigrants.

    One of the major achievements of Quebec`s `Quiet Revolution `in the 1960`s was ending the Catholic Church`s control over education, health and social services. The secularization of Quebec society enjoys overwhelming support in the population and is closely linked in the public`s mind with advances in women`s and to a lesser extent gay/lesbian rights. But these arguments for separation of church and state and against patriarchal oppression are now being recruited to a xenophobic campaign against religious or cultural minorities, targeting primarily traditionally-attired muslim women. Most recently, debate has erupted over whether public employees have the right to wear religiously identified clothing or symbols.

    Delegates voted for a position which distinguishes between the state, which must be secular, and individuals, who have the right to express their religious beliefs. Government employees working with the public should be able to wear religious “insignia” provided they do not proselytize and are not as a result impeded in the performance of their duties. This position clearly distinguishes QS from the PQ, which is seeking a ban on religious apparel in the civil service akin to the coercive laicity of France where the hijab (head covering) has been prohibited in public schools.

    QS marked a step forward at this convention in more clearly aligning itself with the perspective of Quebec independence, explicitly acknowledging the sovereignity of aboriginal peoples and rising to the defence of religious and cultural minorities. At the same time the party suffers from some important deficits.

    In general, the positions adopted are premised on the future election of a QS government, lending them a rather abstract character (for example, the constituent assembly) or similarly, posing solutions in administrative terms, for example, qualifying the conditions under which a state employee would be allowed to display personal religious insignia.

    Largely missing from this convention were resolutions that would orient QS to organizing struggles that are immediate and pressing, both in the electoral and extra-parliamentary arenas. One exception to this was the unanimous support given to a resolution in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle committing the party to help build the global Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against the Israeli state.

    Indeed, there is a noticeable gap between QS’s initial electoral success and its low or non-existent political profile on the streets and in the movements — ironic for a party formed in large measure by social activists. In this respect, the downturn in mass struggles in Quebec over the last 5 years has reinforced the party’s electoral pre-occupation. The risk is that with any resurgence of mass mobilizations, QS will be a passive observer content to reap whatever benefits come its way in the polls.

    Shifting to a stronger pro-independence stance may lead to a broader and more comprehensive programmatic debate on the measures needed to combat the twin economic and ecological crises. Demands to nationalize the banks, abrogate NAFTA, withdraw from NATO and NORAD, develop unemployment insurance to provide a living wage and re-train workers laid-off in the crisis, bring financially or ecologically bankrupt industries under public ownership and re-orient toward green production, defend public health care against Supreme Court authorized privatisation – these and other anti-capitalist measures imply not only mass mobilization within Quebec but, more often than not, a confrontation and break with the federal Canadian state.

    Various observers have noted that whatever its limitations, QS is a party in formation. One must be patient and allow time for deficiencies to be overcome. But political differentiation, suppressed for the most part up to now, is becoming more apparent. It would be naïve to overlook bureaucratic and reformist tendencies, nor should it be surprising given the relationship of political forces within QS since its founding and the impact of its modest electoral success.

    The weakness of ‘class’ politics in QS is a reflection of the society around it. Neither Social Democratic reformism nor Stalinism have ever established a significant presence in Quebec, a reality that brings with it mixed blessings. On the one hand, a labour movement reknowned for its militancy has yet to assert itself as an independent political actor. On the other hand, there is an absence of hardened reformist currents exercising control over working class politics.

    QS’s election campaigns have been endorsed by more radical elements in Quebec’s labour movement, notably the Montreal central council of the Confederation des syndicaux nationaux (CSN). But the relationship between the party and the unions is tentative at best. Certainly, the working class has been given no particular strategic weight in the party’s thinking. However, the notion that QS should limit itself to being the political voice of a coalition of movements dedicated to a more just and equitable society (superceding the struggle between social classes) is being undermined by the depth of the current crisis which brings class contradictions in the broadest sense into greater relief.

    This convention demonstrated that party militants are capable of vigourous debate and retain a certain independence from the leadership. The role of socialists within QS in advancing a class struggle perspective around transitional anti-capitalist demands, such as those listed above, will be very important. To be sure, this task is not to be approached in a mechanical way from the stance of bringing received wisdom from outside, but rather in the context of discussions as they actually unfold within the ranks of the party. But it is a task that must surely be taken up.

    *Robbie Mahood is a federal steering committee member of Socialist Action / Ligue pour l’Action socialiste. He is a physician working in a Montreal neighbourhood clinic, and was a Quebec Solidaire candidate in the constituency of Mont-Royal.

    Ottawa culprit in Copenhagen fiasco

    by Barry Weisleder

    For the Canadian government, the 12-day Copenhagen climate change summit in December 2009 was a public relations disaster – deservedly so, as the Stephen Harper Tories slavishly followed Washington’s lead, even trying to scupper the weak legacy of the Kyoto Accord.

    Environmentalist activists at Copenhagen ‘awarded’ the daily Fossil of the Day to Canada, on its own, or as one of a group of countries, ten times — more than any other state present. Toronto Mayor David Miller, followed by Ontario and Quebec’s representatives, condemned the Harper regime. A leaked cabinet document suggested the emissions from Alberta’s oil sands will rise 165 per cent in the coming years. And an elaborate stunt by social media pranksters exposed Ottawa’s perfidious position to the world media.

    Still, Prime Minister Harper maintained that his government’s insistence on ‘realistic targets’ was vindicated by the bargaining process at Copenhagen. The result, of course, was no enforceable agreement on emission reductions, and only offers of inadequate aid to less developed countries, to be meted out via imperialist financial institutions. It’s a case of finding ‘vindication’ in an elite-crafted failure.

    Canada is the only country to ignore its international obligations under the previous Kyoto climate treaty. At Copenhagen it blocked all attempts to reach a new treaty to significantly cut carbon emissions.

    “Canada is the dinosaur at these talks,” said Canadian David Cadman, president of ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, an international association of local governments that hosted a Mayor’s Conference on climate change.

    “They are all about protecting Canada’s fossil fuel sector instead of protecting the interests of the Canadian public,” Cadman told TerraViva.

    Canada is “throwing a spanner into the works wherever it can”, agreed Dale Marshall of the David Suzuki Foundation, a Canadian environmental group. “They are even blocking agreement on the use of 1990 as the base year,” Marshall said in an interview.

    It’s not hard to understand why. Not only are Canada’s emissions 34 percent higher than the 1990 baseline and rapidly growing, its massive Alberta tar sands production is believed to be the world’s biggest single industrial source of carbon emissions.

    The emissions cut offered by Stephen Harper’s government is just three percent under 1990 levels by 2020 – less than the Kyoto obligation of cutting six percent by 2010. Scientists have repeatedly warned that to have any chance of keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius (which is likely insufficient to avoid eco-catastrophe), industrialized countries must cut emissions 25 to 40 percent by 2020 compared to the baseline of 1990.

    Canada also lobbied hard alongside the U.S. to abandon the Kyoto Protocol process entirely, to the outrage of developing countries. Ottawa expects them to make significant emissions reduction commitments despite Canada’s unwillingness to live up to its legal obligations from 1997.

    The poorer countries, represented in a bloc known as the G77, want the Kyoto deal extended past its 2012 deadline. China, India, Brazil and South Africa called on rich countries to take on targets under an extended Kyoto plan that would cut emissions by 40 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020.

    New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton said “despite the support of Canadians for a real plan to cut emissions, Harper has sided with the big polluters”.

    He’s right. Unfortunately, Layton’s solution is a ‘carbon trading’ scheme, which British environmentalist author of “Heat”, George Monbiot, says is like the medieval Catholic Church selling indulgences. It might make some people feel better about their sins, but it won’t reduce carbon emissions.

    Representatives of Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia hit the mark squarely when they argued at Copenhagen that the real obstacle to the cutting of emissions is the global capitalist system, which profits from the destruction of nature.

    Consider the scope and trajectory of the problem. How can a system that has consumed more resources and energy in the last 50 years than all previous civilization be made to stabilize and reduce its rate of resource depletion and pollution emission? How can such a wasteful, poisonous and unequal economic system be compelled to introduce technologies, consumption patterns and radical income redistribution, without which sustainability is only a cruel joke?

    The reason there is no capitalist solution to climate change is simple. Capitalism is made up of thousands of corporations, all competing for investment and profits. There is no “social interest” in capitalism – only separate interests. If a company decides to invest in cutting emissions, its profits will go down. Investors will move capital into more profitable investments. The ‘green’ company goes out of business. “Grow or die” is the motto of the private enterprise economy. Capitalist anarchy, its social irrationality, is not accidental. It is not the product of a ‘market failure’. It is the very nature of the beast.

    The solution lies in the direction of less, not more reliance on the market. Society needs more social control, more economic democracy. Only public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy makes that possible. The place to start is the energy industry: Nationalize Big Oil. Then make the corporations that produce greenhouse gases pay the full cost of cutting emissions, end all subsidies to fossil fuel producers, and re-direct the billions of dollars now being spent on wars and debt into public transit, into retrofitting homes and offices, and into renewable energy projects.

    Changing from fossil fuels to other energy sources will require massive spending, which in the short run will be unprofitable. Carbon emission reductions must be global. Air and water do not respect borders. Change must be all-encompassing. In every economic sector Capital will resist. Only the expropriation of Capital, followed by the institution of democratic economic planning by workers and communities, can overcome the anarchy of production under capitalism.

    Revolutionary Cuba has shown that it is possible, even in a poor country suffering under a 50-year embargo by the world’s dominant power, and even after the loss of its major trade partner, to reduce the carbon footprint while defending and raising health and education levels for the population as a whole, and building an egalitarian and highly participatory society.

    A century ago the great socialist leader Rosa Luxemburg predicted the future for humanity would be “socialism or barbarism”. In light of the fiasco at Copenhagen, and the deepening crisis of climate change, we are compelled to revise the slogan to read: “Eco-socialism or extinction”.

    Ligue pour L'Action Socialiste