Memo to Mulcair: Quebec needs solidarity, not opportunism

As the Quebec student strike was gaining momentum, federal New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair instructed his MPs to not vocally support the students. And now, as the left is poised for an historic electoral breakthrough, Mulcair has announced that the NDP will run candidates in the next Quebec election.

Sadly, both moves undermine the social movements and Quebec’s right to self-determination, and threaten to roll back the success of last year’s Orange Wave.

Since Conquest in 1760, Quebec has been an oppressed nation within the Canadian state. The War Measures Act in 1970 and the Clarity Act in 2000 are both examples of this fact. Quebec’s trade unions and social movements have traditionally supported the bourgeois nationalist Parti Québécois (PQ)—which more or less shares the program of the Quebec Liberal party, except on sovereignty—and the Bloc Québécois, federally. At the same time, politics in Quebec have aligned roughly on the two sides of the national question, and not on a right-left, progressive-conservative axis. Arguably, this situation has made it more difficult for social movements to achieve their goals and fight for reforms.

But the past few years of struggle have created the possibility of a break from this situation, with three important developments: the emergence of the left-wing political party Québec solidaire, the historic Quebec student strike, and the Orange Wave during the May 2011 federal election.

Orange Wave

The Orange Wave that catapulted the federal NDP into the Official Opposition represented a surge to the left by the general public: deepening anger against Harper and the austerity agenda, disillusionment with the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois, inspiration from the Arab Spring, and the hope that the NDP could provide a real alternative to the status quo.

Within Quebec, the surge for the NDP was not a rejection of sovereignty, but an electoral expression of the growing anti-austerity sentiment that eventually exploded with the student strike. Simmering under it all was the ongoing resistance to national oppression in Quebec, which has contributed to making Quebec the site of the largest social movements in Canada—from the 80,000 who protested the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in 2001, to the hundreds of thousands who marched against the Iraq War in 2003 (successfully stopping Canada from officially joining the invasion), to the 100,000 who marched for May Day in 2004, to the quarter-million students who struck in 2005, and to the 30,000 who marched against the Lebanon War in 2006.

Out of these mass mobilizations emerged Québec solidaire (QS), “a party of the ballot box and the street,” which was the result of a merger between Option citoyenne and Union des forces progressistes—the latter of which was a continuation of the Parti de la démocratie socialiste (PDS), the former Quebec NDP.

Québec solidaire

Since its founding in 2006, QS has become a megaphone for the social movements it has been a part of—labour, anti-poverty, student, feminist, environmental. During the federal election in May 2011, many members of QS and others campaigned for the NDP as a tactic to fight Harper—and not as a way to abandon independentism. As QS co-spokesperson, Amir Khadir, explained: “The Quebecers who voted for the NDP in a large majority did it to block the Harper government, not to bring an NDP to Quebec.”

Québec solidaire co-leaders Amir Khadir and Françoise David

Since then, QS has continued to support and mobilize with the social movements, especially the Quebec student strike—helping connect them to labour fights like the Rio Tinto lockout in Alma. Khadir, QS’s only elected Member of the National Assembly (MNA), called for civil disobedience against Bill 78—and was arrested and had his house raided for doing so.

By connecting the ballot box to the street and by supporting self-determination, QS has created the possibility of an historic break from the PQ. QS membership has risen to 12,000 (up by 5,000 in the last six months), and formerly striking students are now QS candidates in several ridings. Longstanding CLASSE student leader, Renaud Poirier St-Pierre, explained his decision to join QS by stating: “The PQ is more or less the Liberal party. The only political party who really embodies the political values that were present in the strike is QS.”

Members of Québec solidaire march as a contingent during the July 22 demonstration in Montreal in support of the Quebec student strike.

QS’s other co-spokesperson, Françoise David, is expected to win her seat, and there has been optimism about other candidates like Manon Massé, a Canada Boat to Gaza participant and a tireless activist against Islamophobia and for women’s rights, and Andrés Fontecilla, a community organizer of Chilean descent who has rallied students around his campaign.

Meanwhile, the rapid spread of casserole demonstrations across Canada has demonstrated a real solidarity with Quebec—breaking down the anti-Quebec chauvinism that the media continually whips up—and a widespread mood to fight austerity locally. Supporting QS within Quebec and showing solidarity with the student strike are the obvious steps to building the fight against austerity. Unfortunately, Mulcair is pushing the NDP in the opposite direction.

Solidarity, not opportunism

When the federal NDP fails to support Quebec’s right to self-determination, it disappears from Quebec politics. For example, in 1995, the Quebec wing of the NDP split from the federal party over the national question, and renamed itself the Parti de la démocratie socialiste (PDS).

Drawing the wrong conclusion that the Orange Wave was against sovereignty and that it opens up space for the NDP to fill the middle of the electoral spectrum, Mulcair seems completely unaware that a big section of QS has its roots in the old Quebec NDP, and that many QS members helped make the Orange Wave possible. These facts alone should demonstrate the risk Mulcair runs in sinking the NDP’s chances in Quebec.

Mulcair, who was a Liberal cabinet minister from 2003 to 2006, under current Quebec Premier Jean Charest, may be trying to position his party to take advantage of what is expected to be a Liberal defeat on September 4. But this move will only serve to divide the left in Quebec, at a time when QS—an openly left-wing, anti-neoliberal alternative—is enjoying its best support since its founding in 2006. It could also undermine the solidarity across Canada that has been built with the Quebec student strike, by imposing a federalist party in Quebec in competition with the left-sovereigntist QS.

Quebec social movements are leading the fight against austerity and creating an exciting new electoral alternative in QS, while solidarity is building between Canada and Quebec. We need to deepen this process by supporting Quebec’s right to self-determination, and by learning the lessons of the printemps érable—building mass movements from below, and using electoral parties to amplify, and not dampen, movements.

Thousands protest McGuinty’s attack on education

By Pam Johnson

Public school and college teachers are the first public sector workers to receive the brunt of  budget cuts to jobs and services in Ontario. The mass turnout in opposition at today’s rally shows the growing anger against the austerity agenda.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s budget includes provisions to legislate contracts and outlaw strikes if workers do not accept the government’s conditions. Even before teachers have entered in to the bargaining process, McGuinty called the legislature into emergency session on August 27, tabling a bill to force teachers to accept a wage freeze, reduction of sick days, and unpaid days—a chilling attack on workers’ rights.

Ontario Elementary (ETFO) and Secondary (OSSTF) unions, representing the majority of teachers, have condemned this action. ETFO is continuing with strike vote plans and has called for a day of action this fall. OSSTF has called off a planned strike vote but is leaving the door open for future action.

College teachers, members of Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), are facing similar strong-arm tactics.  The colleges have refused every union demand since bargaining began in June. Instead, they are proposing a new work category that would drastically undercut existing rights and conditions. Union negotiators refused to accept this and the colleges’ response was to file for a “no-board” report which sets the stage for a lock-out or an imposed contract for college teachers.

Thousands of teachers and supporters rallied on August 28 against the cuts and the heavy hand of McGuinty. Queen’s Park was filled to capacity, with placards and flags, and anger at McGuinty. This is a good indication that despite the fear and intimidation, there is growing anger at the austerity agenda. They key will be organizing this amongst rank-and-file workers, to push for future protests and strikes.

Springsteen concert reflects growing struggle

By Faline Bobier

Friday night August 25 at the Sky Dome in Toronto, Bruce Springsteen & the expanded E Street Band led the crowd in a kind of revival meeting without religion. What was elevated was not the power of God or a higher being, but the power of the ordinary, of ordinary people trying to get by in hard times.

If the performance in Toronto is representative of the tour for Springsteen’s new CD, Wrecking Ball, and I think it is, this is the best Springsteen & the band have been in years. It has to do not only with the fact that they are brilliant musicians and Springsteen is a master storyteller, but with the times we are living in. Springsteen has said himself that Wrecking Ball was inspired in part by the Occupy movement.

After beginning with what he called three summer songs to get the crowd moving, the band launched into three songs from the new CD: We Take Care of our Own, Wrecking Ball and Death to my Hometown. These songs are about the economic meltdown which began in 2008 and from which American workers and the poor have never recovered.

An implicit critique of capitalism has often been there in much of Springsteen’s work, but in the new album this critique has moved front and centre. There’s no ambiguity about who is to blame in the rousing “Death to my Hometown”:

“robber barons…the greedy thieves who came around

And ate the flesh of everything they found

Whose crimes have gone unpunished now

Who walk the streets as free men now.”

The title song, Wrecking Ball, ostensibly about the demolition of the Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, becomes a metaphor for much more – mortality, the passing of time, Springsteen’s own history—“I was raised outta steel here in the swamps of Jersey some misty years ago”—but also the economic wrecking ball that has shattered so many small hopes and dreams. As the song rang out under the stars in Toronto it was also a shout of defiance and an exhortation against despair:

“Hold tight to your anger

Hold tight to your anger

Don’t fall to your fears.”

The night was a tour of Springsteen’s career and the shared experience of those who are currently with him and those who are no longer. Springsteen talked about getting older as partly a question of getting used to living with ghosts. He referred to two E Street Band regulars who have passed on—Danny Federici and most notably Clarence Clemons—the Big Man who played saxophone with Springsteen for over 40 years. There was a moving tribute to Clemons with images projected over the jumbotrons. The stadium stood and clapped for the duration of the tribute.

But this was not a night for nostalgia only. The audience was multi-generational and the composition of the expanded E Street band also spoke to this. Clarence’s nephew Jake Clemons has been playing sax on this tour, along with an expanded horn section, back-up singers and other musicians from the Peter Seeger sessions.

Springsteen was able to forge a collective experience by mining the riches of his musical past and present. He did a haunting piano solo of Incident on 57th Street from 1973’s The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle; classics like Candy’s Room, Prove it all Night, and Spirit in the Night; and then feel-good sing along favourites like Dancing in the Dark, Badlands and Glory Days.

But threaded throughout the night were reminders of our collective past and present. The ghosts Springsteen talked about were not only his own personal remembrances but the ghosts of all those who have resisted the “wrecking ball”:

“A voice cried I was killed in Maryland in 1877

When the railroad workers made their stand

I was killed in 1963/One Sunday morning in Birmingham

I died last year crossing the southern desert

My children left behind in San Pablo

Well they’ve left our bodies here to rot/Oh please let them know

We are alive

And though we lie alone

Here in the dark

Our souls will rise

To carry the fire and light the spark

To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart.”

Springsteen and the band played a full 45 minutes after the house lights came up, although he kept joking that the plug might be pulled after every song. A marvel at 62, Springsteen crossed the stage back and forth, interacted with audience members, including dancing with a woman whose husband had a sign reading “Please dance with my wife on our anniversary.”

His energy was returned by the Toronto audience. As Bruce came off the stage after three hours and 37 minutes, he said to his team, “That was the greatest audience we have ever had in Toronto.” The evening was a testament to the restorative power of music and resistance.

Bolivian indigenous communities win nationalization of Canadian mine

Indigenous activists battle police, demanding nationalization of Canadian mining subsidiary

After pressure from indigenous communities, the Bolivian government nationalized the Canadian corporation South American Silver’s mining project in Malku Khota. The Financial Post calls this the action of an “outlaw nation,” but the real outlaws are the imperial states and corporations that have been stripping wealth from Bolivia for centuries.

Malku Khota is in the department of Potosí in southern Bolivia. For 100 years, after being conquered by Spain, the mines of Potosí, through the use of forced indigenous labour, produced half of the entire world’s gold and silver. None of that wealth stayed in Potosí.

The social movements sweeping Latin America carried Evo Morales into office, and under the new constitution indigenous communities are supposed to have official control over their land and its use. But when Vancouver-based South American silver failed in its attempt to get the last three of the 46 communities in Malku Khota to sign onto a deal, 50 police officers broke into people’s homes on May 5. In response, community leaders detained two of the police, releasing them later.

The theft of resources by transnational corporations have pitted communities against each other, and on May 18 three people were injured in a confrontation between those for and against the project—which police used as pretext to arrest anti-mining leader Tata Cancio Rojas.

On June 7 indigenous people fought riot police outside the vice-president’s office—demanding Morales cancel the agreement with the Canadian subsidiary—and on June 29 anti-mining forces detained two engineers working for South American Silver. Police responded on July 7 with a “rescue” operation that shot and killed Jose Mamani, one of the anti-mining activists.

As a result of the revolt, Morales met with local indigenous leaders who were opposed to the mining project, urged the Public Ministry to carry out an investigation into the killing of Mamani, and nationalized the mine.

This is the latest nationalization won by the social movements that swept Morales into office. As the Financial Post noted, “Under Morales the country has become a world leader in this department. He nationalized Bolivia’s national gas industry in 2006, its biggest telecommunications company in 2008, its hydroelectric complex in 2010 and its leading power company in 2012”.

Communism and the colonies

Manabendra Nath (M.N.) Roy, founder of the Indian Communist Party

By Abbie Bakan

The Fourth Congress of the Communist International, or ”Comintern,” in 1922 considered many issues that would be familiar to socialists today. In this politically explosive period­—following World War One and the Russian Revolution—much ­attention turned to the “colonial question.”

The recently published proceedings, Toward the United Front, reveal the scope of debates that were characteristic of the first four congresses of the Comintern. As summarized by translator and editor John Riddell:

“At the time of the Fourth Congress, the Communist movement in Asia and North Africa was just getting established. Communist groups were beginning to take root among peoples in Soviet Asia, where the anticolonial revolution was unfolding at a rapid pace. Small Communist parties had been formed in Iran and Turkey, and a revolutionary group in Egypt had applied for membership. The newly formed Communist Party of China was small but growing rapidly, and Communists in India, led by M.N. Roy, were taking their first steps. In the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), Communists among the settlers had led the transformation of their nucleus into a wholly indigenous movement. In contrast, the Communist Party in Algeria was composed of colonial settlers who were uninterested in recruiting native revolutionaries to their movement.”

National Liberation

The Fourth Congress had a solid foundation in earlier congress meetings, with a commitment to support national liberation movements against imperialism and colonialism.  But applying this in practice on the ground proved a challenge. Even the allotment of a reasonable amount of time to discuss the “eastern question” was contentious. Manabendra Nath (M.N.) Roy, a founder of the Indian Communist Party and a delegate to the Fourth Congress, indicated the sense of frustration:

“Comrades, the Eastern question should have been dealt with many times already.… And now that this question finally is posed for debate, the time allowed for that is so limited that it is in practice simply not possible to handle the question in anything like a clear manner.”

Roy stressed the changes that had taken place since the revolutionary and anti-colonial upsurge of 1919. He implored the delegates to take heed of the variation among different eastern colonies and contexts, and to note the emerging role of the local bourgeois classes. In some countries, such as India, significant class divisions were emerging within the national resistance movements.

“[T]he various forces and social factors that comprised these movements have become more distinct, even as their economic foundations have developed.…Thus in the countries with more capitalist development, for example, the highest layer of the bourgeoisie, that is, the layer that already owns what one might call a stake in the country and has invested significant capital and built up industry, now considers it more advantageous for them to shelter under imperialist protection.…In other words, the industrial development of the bourgeoisie requires law and order, which in most of these countries was introduced by foreign imperialism. Given the threat posed to this law and order and the possibility of disturbances and revolutionary uprisings, it now seems more appropriate to the native bourgeoisie to conclude a compromise with the imperialist authorities.”

Marxism and Islam

Other delegates identified the changing relationship between Marxist and pan-Islamic currents within the anti-imperialist struggle. Tan Malaka, for example, a delegate to the Fourth Congress from the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia after independence in 1945), addressed the promise of uniting in practice, and the dangers of a sectarian attitude.

“We have a long experience of pan-Islamism.…In Java there is quite a large association called Sarekat Islam (Islamic Federation), which includes many poor peasants. Between 1912 and 1916 this organisation had perhaps a million members—it could well have been as many as three or four million.…Our party, with thirteen thousand members, went into the popular movement and carried out propaganda there. In 1921 we were successful in getting Sarekat Islam to adopt our programme. The Islamic association spoke out in the villages for control of the factories and for the slogan: All power to the poor peasants, all power to the proletarians! …But in 1921 a split occurred as a result of clumsy criticism of the leaders of Sarekat Islam. The government, through its agents in Sarekat Islam, took advantage of this split and also made use of the decision of the Second Congress of the Communist International: ‘Struggle against Pan-Islamism!’ What did they say to the ordinary peasants? They said: You see, the Communists do not merely want to split your religion, they also want to destroy it…. So we had a split.”

As Tan Malaka appealed to the delegates to understand this error, and to apply the tactic of the united front consistently, the chair interrupted, “Your time is up.” But Tan Malaka replied, “I come from the Indies; I travelled for forty days.” At this point, the proceedings indicate “Applause,” and Tan Malaka continues to draw lessons for the Comintern.

Clearly there are rich lessons in these discussions for socialists who continue to challenge imperialism and to strive to build global solidarity today.

Syria: “no-fly zones” will undermine the revolution

By Jesse McLaren

As the Assad regime turns to increasingly brutal methods in a desperate attempt to stay in power, the West is threatening to undermine the revolution with “no-fly zones”–while ignoring Israel’s threats to bomb Iran.

The revolution against Assad continues to spread, involving battles for control over every major city. Assad is losing control, with defections from high-ranking officials (the Prime Minister fled to Jordan) and troops refusing to fight and defecting. With his regime crumbling, Assad is resorting to increasingly brutal methods to stay in power—including sending fighter jets to bomb cities. Already 20,000 have been killed, 200,000 are refugees and Assad has threatened to use chemical weapons.

The West is arming sections of the Free Syrian Army through Saudi Arabia, and backing the right-wing leadership of the Syrian National Council—in order to try to hijack the revolution. The West has long wanted to remove Assad and impose a more compliant regime as a stepping-stone to confronting Iran.

As with Libya there is inter-imperial rivalry over Syria: France (under its new “socialist” government) is joining the US in pushing for “no-fly zones”, while Russia and China continue to support Assad. “No-fly zones” in Libya allowed NATO powers to bomb and hijack the leadership of the revolution, but the lack of forces on the ground limits their control.

The West’s hypocrisy over “no-fly zones” is revealed by the silent endorsement of Israel’s threats to bomb Iran. The US overthrew Iran’s democratic government in 1953 and installed the brutal shah, and when the Iranian revolution overthrew him the US armed Saddam Hussein to fight Iran. The 2003 Iraq War was supposed to pave the way for invading Iran, but resistance across the region has so far prevented it. So the US unleashed Israel to attack Lebanon in 2006 (during which there were no calls for “no-fly zones”) and threatens to support and Israeli attack on Iran before the US elections.

The best way to support people in the region is by stopping Western military intervention—whether it be “no-fly zones” in Syria, arming Saudi Arabia, or support for Israel.

Chile: public protest against a private education system

By Sarah Varnam

High school and university students in Chile have been protesting for over a year. Thousands of students have marched through the capital and other cities. They are conducting casseroles, banging pots and pans to draw awareness to their cause.

There are reports of violence by both students and police, including burnt buses and tear gas. Students in Chile are demanding a solution to their debt crisis. They cannot afford to pay up to $10,000 a year on tuition when the average income is $16,000. The school system has been privatized since Pinochet. Students complain of low quality and high costs. They say that poor students suffer because they can only afford under-funded state schools.

What is the solution? The government has proposed to raise $1 billion toward thousands of new scholarships and reducing student loan interest (from an average 6 per cent down to 2 per cent). The students, however, want to see a free school system.

Some Chilean students see their struggle as one they directly share with Quebec students. A letter to Quebec students has been circulating the internet in which “Chilean academics and student leaders, denounce to national and international public opinion the persecution of the student movement in Quebec, Canada, expressed in Act 78, which was enacted on Thursday, May 19 by the government of Prime Minister Jean Charest.” These academics and student leaders further state that “the struggle of students, academics, and workers in Quebec is also our struggle.”