Québec solidaire: Building a Left to the North of the Behemoth

Unbeknownst to many progressives south of the 49th parallel, an interesting political experiment is unfolding to the north.  Quebec solidaire (QS), a recently formed left-wing party based in the seven-million-strong French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec, is making significant inroads at the electoral level.

Following the election of its first and only parliamentarian in December 2008, QS is now credited with a steady 7 to 8% of the polls, roughly twice its result in the Quebec general elections of last year.  Even more telling is the rapidly growing popularity of the party’s first elected MNA (member of the National Assembly of Quebec), the Iranian-born physician Amir Khadir, representing the Montreal area riding of Mercier.  A well-known anti-imperialist, with a pronounced fondness for quoting Quebec’s great national poets dead or alive, he burst into the national limelight when he hurled his shoe at an effigy of George Bush during a demonstration barely a few days after being sworn in.  He thus incurred a gaggle of right-wing calls for his impeachment even before assuming his seat in the Quebec parliament.  To the chagrin of his detractors, a recent poll conducted for Le Devoir, Quebec’s most authoritative newspaper, dubbed the 48 year-old Dr. Amir Khadir the 3rd most popular political personality in Quebec, ahead of the current Prime Minister of the province, the Liberal Jean Charest, and a tad behind the leader of the official opposition, Pauline Marois who heads the sovereignist Parti québécois (PQ).1  Françoise David, past president of Quebec’s Federation of Women and co-spokesperson of the young QS party, sharing its leadership with Amir Khadir, ranked a surprising 8th in the very same poll.

Since its founding in February 2006, QS has challenged openly and publicly the PQ’s hold on the ‘progressive constituency’ in Quebec.  It has argued forcefully that labor, community groups, and social movements must have their own autonomous political expression, distinct from and opposed to the PQ’s ‘neoliberalism with a human face’ practice and program.  Even more ominously from the PQ’s point of view, QS opposes its strategy of putting the social program on the back burner in favor of a ‘grand national coalition’ and calls for an explicit link between Quebec independence (or sovereignty) and social progress.  In Quebec solidaire’s own words, the Quebec ‘National Question’ and the ‘Social Question’ must be linked in a strategy of social transformation.

QS: Emergence of a Left-of-the-Left Formation?

The first decade of the 21st century has seen the rise of new ‘left of the left’ formations in several Western countries.  The best known cases are the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA) in France and Die Linke (The Left) in Germany.  These new parties share some common traits: they are based on an explicit rejection of the institutional left in their respective countries, take a good deal of inspiration from the post-Seattle anti-globalization movement and exhibit a coalition character with membership drawn from several social and political movements (e.g., feminist, ecological, anti-war, far-left, libertarian, and community groups).

Québec solidaire, though not as well known as the NPA or Die Linke, shares a surprising number of traits with these formations.  This includes a growing electoral presence which irks and worries the party fulfilling the role of the ‘institutional left’ in Quebec, the aforementioned Parti québécois.

The genesis of QS is intimately linked to the rise of the anti-globlalization movement after 2000.  The first few years of this decade witnessed major extra-parliamentary mobilizations in Quebec.  April 2001 saw a combined labor-social movements demonstration of 70,000 people at the Quebec Peoples Summit.  This was followed by two massive anti-Iraq war demonstrations in Montreal during the month of February 2003 bringing over a quarter-million people in the streets in sub-zero temperatures.  These were the most massive demonstrations in North America and among the biggest in the Western world!  On December 11th, 2003, Quebec trade unions launched a day of protest against the incoming provincial Liberal government’s anti-union legislation.  Wildcat strikes and illegal walkouts shut down public transit and, among others, the Port of Montreal.  In 2005, 80,000 university and college students went on a six-week general strike against the government cutbacks in loans and bursaries, demanding a freeze in university tuition fees.  Since then the mass mobilizations have noticeably flagged.

Following the large mobilization around the Quebec Peoples Summit of April 2001, the forerunners of QS, the UFP (Union des forces progressistes) and Option Citoyenne, were founded respectively in 2002 and 2003 with the explicit purpose of giving this rising social movement a political voice.  Thus, at its founding in 2006, which saw the merger of UFP and Option Citoyenne in a unified political party sporting 6,000 paid members, QS defined itself as “alter-mondialiste, féministe, écologiste, anti-guerre et de gauche” (anti-globalization, feminist, ecological, anti-war, and left-wing).  Its membership, drawn extensively from these mass movements, is a mix of younger activists, more mature community and labor activists, as well as far-left activists acting openly as “recognized collectives” (akin to recognized tendencies) within the party.2

The programmatic and practical challenges facing QS also bear a striking similarity to those faced by the NPA or Die Linke.  While the ‘anti’ aspect of the platform or program is well spelled out, the ‘pro’ aspect is yet to be defined.  Indeed, what is the “post-neo-liberal” society envisaged by QS?  In its April 2009 manifesto, the question of the link between capitalism and neo-liberalism is explicitly stated for the first time and the question posed openly: ‘Pour sortir de la crise: dépasser le capitalisme?’ (To overcome the crisis: should we go beyond capitalism?)3

This question lies at the root of QS’s present attempt to define its program.  Following its recently held 5th congress centered on the National Question, the party will be tackling the socio-economic and environmental parts of the program.  At a party school held in early fall, some of the preliminary proposals of the Political Commission going towards an anti-capitalist and eco-socialist position were received with a good deal of enthusiasm by the 100 or so participants.  But it remains to be seen whether these positions will gain greater acceptance in the party as the internal debates get going ahead of the next congress.

Open Questions, Coming Challenges

Practically, the link between electoral activity and involvement in social struggles is yet to be resolved as many activists are returning to their movements after the election campaign.  How will the party build on its electoral successes over the next three years, particularly outside Montreal, where the left is not as entrenched?  What kind of organic links can be built with labor and the social movements at a time when mass struggles seem to be ebbing in Quebec?  These are open questions that QS must deal with in the coming period.  A positive sign is the willingness of some of the younger labor activists to begin coordinating their actions in the trade unions as QS gains greater recognition, acceptance, and backing in some cases among some local and regional union officials.

There are obviously some key differences between the history of the left in Germany and France and that in Quebec.  Both the NPA and Die Linke must deal with the complex issues of existing social-democratic and left formations in their countries and its attendant question of electoral alliances (or not) in local, regional, national, and European elections.  In Quebec, however, there is no history of mass labor or communist parties and therefore this kind of tactical question is not on the agenda.  Furthermore, in the present first-past-the-post electoral system, the kind of tactical alliance that a two-stage election (France) or proportional representation (Germany) may require is not an issue.  A question that will dog QS in the near future will be its attitude towards the PQ, if that party should come back to power and call a referendum on the National Question.  But that is, at the very least, three years down the road.

A greater problem is the nature of the link with labor and the social movements.  In Western Europe there is a long history of organic links between these movements and left-wing parties.  In Quebec, despite a history of radical action by labor and popular organizations, there is no history of such organic links.  The PQ has no organizational roots in labor despite its history of support from trade-union leaderships.  And Canada’s social-democratic party, the New Democratic Party, overwhelmingly English-speaking and shorn of a Quebec provincial wing, has never been a factor in the 80% French-speaking province.  Thus, QS faces a dual task: wresting away sections of labor and the mass movements from the narrow nationalism of the PQ and, at the same time, developing a form of organic linkage which is new to local political traditions.  Not an easy task by any means.

Lastly, the Quebec National Question poses some specific strategic and tactical problems to the Quebec left, namely: what kind of alliance to build with progressive non-French speakers (English speakers and immigrants) in Quebec who are wary of its pro-independence stand?  What kinds of alliances with Native Peoples?  What kinds of alliances should be built with progressives in the Rest of Canada (ROC)?

It is an unfortunate fact that QS influence is presently very weak among non-French speakers (2% according to the latest polls, which is way below the QS province-wide average of 7 to 8%).  While interesting positions have been adopted on this issue, it remains a question that the party must seriously tackle in the coming years.  On the question of Native Peoples, Quebec solidaire has adopted a position of full recognition of their right to self-determination.  As for the question of links with ROC progressives, there has been no serious thought given to this issue yet.

Completely absent until now has been the potentially crucial question of cross-border links with US-based leftists and activists.  Hopefully, the upcoming United States Social Forum in Detroit could be an opportunity to begin exploring more meaningful exchanges between Quebec activists and the many social movements growing to the south.

Rebuilding Left Alternatives

To sum up, it is my contention that QS is similar in nature to the ‘left-of-the-left’ formations which we see rising in many parts of the world and that it shares many of the challenges they face.  Like many of these new formations, Quebec solidaire is far from being a fully set phenomenon.  It is an evolving formation, with a program that has yet to be completely defined and a praxis which is still in a state of flux.  How the party deals with the challenges ahead — the economic and environmental crisis, its relative electoral successes, the task of linking up with labor and mass movements — will go a long way towards defining its future and role in Quebec politics.

These various left-of-the-left experiments must be put in the larger historical context of rebuilding left alternatives after the collapse of Soviet-style socialism and the bankruptcy of Third Way Social Democracy.  The radical French philosopher Alain Badiou speaks of us being on the threshold of a “third sequence of emancipatory politics.”4  Roughly speaking, he posits that the first sequence saw the rise of the working class movement in the 19th century.  The second sequence saw the rise of Bolshevik-style parties and the ultimately failed attempts to build socialism in the 20th century.  The third sequence, which we might be entering, will see new forms of political endeavors transcending the experiments of the past.  While I do not agree with his proposal of seeking new forms of political praxis “at distance from the state” and “away from the party form” (much too post-Marxist for my taste, and something the left has experimented with for two decades with marginal gains at best), I do think that the notion of entering a third sequence of emancipatory politics is an interesting one to explore.  In this perspective, both the ‘left-of-the-left’ experiments in Western countries and the ‘Socialism of the 21st Century’ experiments in Latin America take on a new significance and a new light.



1  For more information on that poll, please see the French-language newspaper Le Devoir of December 1st 2009 at <ledevoir.com/politique/quebec/278354/les-elus-venus-de-la-television-ont-la-cote>.  Or, consult the complete Leger Marketing poll at <www.quebecpolitique.com/2009/12/sondage-leger-marketing-de-novembre-2009-limage-des-politiciens/>.  For a report by Canada’s self-styled “national newspaper,” the Globe and Mail, on the now infamous shoe-throwing incident involving Amir Khadir, please see <www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/article963582.ece>.

2  In June 2007, Québec solidaire granted the status of “recognized collectives within the party” to Gauche Socialiste, an affiliate of the Fourth International, and to Masse Critique, an anti-capitalist and eco-socialist collective, to which I belong.  Since then, two more collectives have been recognized: the Parti communiste du Québec and Le collectif pour la décroissance, a zero-growth radical-ecology collective.

3  For a full version of the QS Manifesto, please see <www.quebecsolidaire.net/files/2009-05-Manifeste-Crise.pdf>.

4  See Alain Badiou, “The Communist Hypothesis,” New Left Review, N. 49 (Jan.-Feb. 2008); and Badiou, The Meaning of Sarkozy (London: Verso, 2008).  For full treatment of the Communist Hypothesis, see L’hypothèse communiste (Paris: Nouvelles Éditions Lignes, 2009).

Roger Rashi is a social and political activist living in Montreal.  He is a founding member of Quebec solidaire and presently sits on the steering committee of the riding of Mercier which elected Amir Khadir to the Quebec National Assembly in December 2008.  He is also a member of Québec solidaire’s Working Commission on the Environment.  The views expressed here are strictly his own.

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