January 15, 2016

"Fuck it all": Review of the Spring 2015 Quebec student strike

Marianne Breton Fontaine

We need to be careful not to underestimate the importance of ideology in shaping our strategies and our daily struggles. This is demonstrated by the latest attempted general strike, which the Quebec student movement initiated last spring. This strike was conducted primarily based on anarchist principles. It was also the result of dissatisfaction among activists from the Maple Spring which ended in 2012, a dissatisfaction that comes from an incorrect analysis of the transformative potential of a student strike.

Spring 2015

The 2015 student strike began on March 21, 2015 against the austerity measures of the Liberal government of Philippe Couillard and against the hydrocarbon economy, including opposition to the “Energy East” project of TransCanada. The demands were meant to be a general challenge to the direction Quebec was taking. The slogan ‘Fuck it all!’ was emblematic of the strike. The content of the demands were not considered what was most important. The strike itself was seen as a goal.

The strike unfolded in the same context of austerity and economic crisis that has been raging since 2008. With public sector negotiations and pension reforms underway there was a lot of agitation among workers. Austerity measures cut deeply everywhere. Anger roared. However, the right always had wind in their sails.

It was under the banner of Spring 2015 (P15) - a collection of decentralized affinity groups - that the strike was organized. They used the wolf as a symbol like the red square, which was the emblem of 2012. These horizontal committees represented no one besides themselves and were composed of students, teachers and other activists. They had no spokespeople or internal representation from organizations (members were only there individually) and they had no form of accountability. In fact, the rejection of all representation including that of the ASSÉ (Quebec’s militant student union federation) was a fundamental principle of P15. Contrary to confused media reports, the strike of spring 2015 was mainly organized outside of the ASSÉ and its general meetings. Tensions between the representative bodies of the ASSÉ and the P15 committees were clear throughout the strike.

In way of strategy, P15 advocated for spontaneous action. For them, agitation created agitation and therefore political awakening. The movement was compared to a living being that would intuitively “rise through actions up to the height of task”. The promotion of a common strategy or calls for unity were seen as attempts to contain the protest.

P15 was very aggressive towards labour union structures. To them, “union bureaucrats” were traitors who refused to fight a political struggle against austerity and for the environment. In some literature P15, even qualified union demands in the public sector, in particular those for wage increases, as “corporatist”.[1]

Repression was very strong against the 2015 strike. Strikers suffered mass arrests, court injunctions and expulsion threats by educational institutions. Still, more than 130,000 students went on strike during the national demonstration of April 2, 2015, of which 55,000 were part of a longer general strike. Even the faculties of law and medicine were on strike for a few days, which is rare.

While the mobilization was impressive, on the ground, several activists were concerned. The labour unions confirmed in the media that they would not join a social strike, as had been hoped by P15. They would wait until the fall, when they could legally strike. Analyzing the strike might remain a student strike, or even start crumbling; the ASSÉ executive published a proposal for a strategic retreat to be presented to its Congress on April 5. The proposal was rejected and the executive, strongly criticized, was thrown out in an extraordinary way.

May 1st, a huge 24 hours mobilization around the whole of Quebec, brought together unions, students and community groups in hundreds of local actions. About 30 unions that mainly came from the teachers of local CÉGEPs (most affiliated with the CSN) voted for an illegal strike for the day of May 1st. P15 still hoped that local trade unions would join the student strike movement in defiance of central leaderships, but that was not the case. Because the protests were out of breath the movement focused on the local struggle at UQAM, which included 9 activists facing political expulsions. If in 2012 bourgeois legality had been undermined, 2015 demonstrated its repressive force.

History repeats itself: The strikes of 2007 and 2012

Let’s go back to the past. In 2007, the ASSÉ had quickly launched the call for an unlimited general strike (GGI) after the Liberal government’s announcement that it would increase university tuition fees by $500 over 5 years. It launched the call alone, without the other student federations (the FECQ and FEUQ), as the ASSÉ was still bitter about the betrayal of these federations in 2005. The strike was intended to be more than just a reaction to the rise in tuition fees. The ASSÉ asked for GGI mandates from its member associations on the basis of its historical demand for free education. With little time to mobilize and using a demand that was disconnected from its base, the votes did not pass. General meetings rejected the GGI one after the other. A limited strike had been voted for, but nothing else followed.

This failure forced a long discussion within the student movement on what strategy to adopt. A reflection addressed to the Congress of the ASSÉ in 2009 was signed by nine students who were also candidates for the executive, including Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, which criticized the choice of free education as the central demand of the strike. According to this group, ASSÉ had an incorrect analysis of the political situation. 2007 reflects the same ideological debates as in 2015:
“The ASSE is currently experiencing one of the most critical periods in its history. Our inability in recent years to develop truly unifying campaigns leaves the field open to the growing success of right-wing policies. (...)In formulating realistic short-term trade union objectives, we would put the chances on our side to rally a sufficient student base and to start to use this scale of leverage. (...)Struggle unionism must articulate big ideas to concrete issues such as maintaining the tuition fee freeze. At the time that struggle unionism was the norm, the unions did not engage less in concrete campaigns. For example, the FTQ, the CEQ and the CSN, in the common front of ‘72, even if they cherished the ideal of a socialist Quebec with a socialized means of production, did not hesitate to enter into a  general strike to demand a salary of $100/week for all workers of the public service of Quebec, without necessarily putting the ‘Great Night’ on their agenda.”[2]

In this text reflection, the debate focuses on the question of the demand, but objectively, it also addresses the question of unity. In 2007, there was a sectarian approach used towards the student union federations, which had been adopted due to the fear that the movement would be “co-opted” as it was in 2005. There had been no real attempt to look for allies outside the student movement, nor to establish an ad hoc coalition around the ASSÉ, as had been done with CASSÉ in 2005 and would be established with CLASSE in 2012. Disappointed with 2005, activists of the era had assessed that this time they should adopt a maximum program to enter into an offensive strike. The search for unity, which involves compromises with other social actors, was seen as a step backwards. The strike needed to be made on the militant base of the ASSÉ and not tail current economic conditions. Disconnected from its membership base and the general population, the ASSÉ had then failed to lead a movement that could sharpen class-consciousness.

2012 Student Strike: the longest student strike in Quebec
history, which stopped a large tuition fee increase
In 2012, the approach was completely different compared to 2007. The student movement relied on two-years of mobilization. The demand was clear: the abolition of the increase. It was the same demand as that of the FECQ and FEUQ, but the political discourse of the ASSÉ was much broader. It was part of a general protest movement against capitalist austerity. This clear anti-austerity discourse was shared by allies outside the student movement, mainly by the “Red Hand Coalition”, made up of community organizations, feminists, unions and students.  In forming a united front against the government, this time the ASSÉ was not alone.

Gradually, the mobilization grew, as repression and political discussion was widening. Faced with a deadlock, the Charest government called an election. The student movement had no common strategy in regards to the election. The majority of associations affiliated to the CLASSE voted in their general meetings to end the strike. On September 4, the Liberals were defeated and the Parti Québécois was brought to power on the promise to cancel the increase and other social democratic promises they quickly betrayed.

After 7 months of striking, the student movement only won the cancellation of the tuition fee increase. The rest of the anti-austerity political project developed during the strike had been abandoned. Worse, in the end, the new government eliminated a tax credit for students, and anti-protest measures inspired by Bill 78[3]  had been passed at the municipal level.[4]  Therefore, for many activists who had invested a lot of energy into 2012, the conclusion of the strike was a great disappointment.

Left opportunism

Anarchism is an opportunist ideology. Opportunism is defined as a political tendency that cultivates spontaneity, that either awaits the initiative of the masses (right opportunism), or embarks on adventurist actions without the masses (left opportunism). If a political tendency is repeating the dominant ideas, it does not develop class-consciousness. If, on the contrary, the speech is so advanced that it does not succeed to mobilize people into struggle and thus politicize them - since class consciousness is gained in practice with the struggle against the bourgeoisie - it does not change anything either.

The opportunism which defined P15 can be expressed in 4 points.
1. The rejection of economic demands
2. The fetishism of the strike itself at the expense of its concrete objectives
3. The cult of spontaneity
4. The rejection of unity

The refusal to formulate economic demands

In the analysis of P15, the fact that the 2012 strike was based on specific economic demands led to its end at the time of the resolution of these demands, which partly explained the “defeat” of this great movement. This time, P15 wanted a political strike that challenged capitalist society more broadly.

By studying the strikes which occurred during the 1905 revolutionary upsurge in Russia, Lenin explained from a Marxist point of view, that an inadequate conjunction between economic struggle and political struggle is a weakness of a movement, while strengthening economic struggle gives a broad basis for strengthening the political struggle. Without a link between the economic strike and political strike, “the mass of the working people will never agree to conceive of a general ‘progress’ of the country without economic demands, without an immediate and direct improvement in their condition.”

This lesson of Lenin can be applied to the 2012 strike. The Maple Spring strike would not have been what it was without the economic demand to cancel the increase in tuition fees that gave the movement broad support from its membership base. Anarchists confuse having economic demands with economism - a form of right opportunism - which is a rejection of the political struggle.

In its editorial in May 2015, Clarté, the paper of the Communist Party of Quebec, made several important points around economic demands put forward by unions but rejected as “corporatist” by P15:
“The negotiation of the public sector in Quebec, although based on economic demands for collective agreements, is in itself a highly political objective for three main reasons:  
• It concerns and involves at the same time a large part of the unionized workforce in the province, about 35%. 
• It involves a large majority of women and the result reflects necessarily on the status of women in Quebec. 
• It puts into question the state’s budget.”
Moreover, in the current situation of the economic crisis, the objective of governments is to restore the capitalist rate of profit by attacking wages. Not only would the defeat of the unions in these negotiations be essential for the continuation of the government’s plan to privatize our public services, but also lower wages in the public sector will have a general impact on all wages. It is in the student movement’s interest to show solidarity with the unions’ economic demands in the current negotiations, instead of finding a contradiction within the broader struggle, while basing student mobilization on concrete demands from its base.

Saying that we need a broader political strike is not enough to create such a movement. It is the level of the class struggle that is decisive. Today, without an alternative model since the end of the USSR, the bourgeoisie act like a bulldozer to crush the working class - appending to this destructive agenda the strengthening of political repression. To reverse this trend, we must first form concrete and immediate demands that may constitute a victory. It is in the struggle for these reforms, a living political school, that political consciousness and political discourse broaden. It is in these struggles that the class enemies are revealed.

Fetishism of the strike at the expense of its objectives

The anarchist liberation theory focuses on the experience of real freedom by individuals via the existence of a prolonged strike. Experiencing the struggle will create the “Great night” which will overthrow the state, the ultimate instrument of repression. It is only in the experience of the revolt that class-consciousness is born, no matter the subject of the revolt. In other words, for the anarchists, the revolt is the revolution. In this design, the political leadership like that of the Communist Party is useless, if not harmful, since it constitutes an authority, therefore an oppressor. This theory shaped P15, which focused on the experience of the strike itself and not on its objectives. The strike was not a means to an end but an end in itself.

In a polemical text dealing with the P15 strategy, an activist, Jonathan Durand Folco, criticized this vision of a strike for the sake of a strike. He criticized the fact that the radical discourse of P15 did not succeed to connect with working people. A P15 collective responded:
“Only this question can uncover, behind the glitzy artificiality of the antagonism between the “radicals” and the “citizens”, a dividing line that all the Johnnys of this world seem to ignore. A dividing line between, on the one hand, supporters of a deposing (French: ‘destiutante’) power, for whom the infrastructural proliferation of power must be blocked by all means, and on the other, supporters of a co-opted institutional infrastructure run by the People for a more caring and clearner management of the same disaster.”[5]
Following this “destituante” logic, the effectiveness of an action, such as strikes, are not to be evaluated by the results of the strike or their size, or their effect on class-consciousness. Action should be assessed according the greatness of its opposition to all power, all norms and particularly its opposition to state norms. In other words, according to its opposition to legality. In another text signed “Collectif de débrayage”, it cannot be clearer:
“A legal strike can do nothing, and never has, against the reactionary era, against its wave that engulfs us until erasure. For wanting to fight the reactionary era, to survive it beyond its orders, it already means installing oneself in illegality. This is already risking being hit with batons. This is already exposing yourself to the arbitrariness of their repression.”[6]
Once this philosophy is understood, a number of strategic choices of P15 make sense. It was not mere errors in judgment, but logical consequences of a certain ideology.

This fetishism of form is not new to the anarchist current in the student movement. An obsession by the anarchists over creating the ideal structures in student unions as the main way to increase political mobilization, is another fetishism of the form. The obligation to organize more general meetings is not the sole solution to low levels of mobilization in English Canada - even if it is indeed part of the solution. The political content of general assemblies, is equally, if not more important. The forms of struggle or of organization respond to political content, through the needs created by struggle. These are means to achieve political ends. Without these political purposes, these forms are empty, whether it’s the tactic of a strike, or the tactic of a general meeting.

The cult of spontaneity

Interestingly, in ‘What is to be done?’, Lenin places supporters of spontaneity with business trade unionists - in other words the “corporatists” as the Quebec student movement would call them today. He warns about the rejection of political struggle in the labour movement because if a movement is merely spontaneous then it will be difficult to break away from the dominant ideology and only immediate interests will be reflected in the struggle. He said:
“But why, the reader will ask, does the spontaneous movement, the movement along the line of least resistance, lead to the domination of bourgeois ideology? For the simple reason that bourgeois ideology is far older in origin than socialist ideology, that it is more fully developed, and that it has at its disposal immeasurably more means of dissemination.”
Lenin explained that spontaneity reflects the rage and anger of those oppressed by the system, but that it will not go further. P15 has managed to express this strong anger without going further. In The Foundations of Leninism, Stalin summed this up: “The theory of spontaneity is the theory of belittling the role of the conscious element in the movement, the ideology of following, the logical basis of all opportunism.”

This cult of spontaneity is not merely presented by the anarchist callout for ‘spontaneous’ actions by affinity groups, but in the spontaneous vision anarchists have for movements they work in.  For them, it is enough to radicalize a certain struggle in order to have revolutionary transformation come from it. They do not see a need for the hard work of creating a political vanguard. The strikes are part of the revolution, but they are not the revolution.

The rejection of unity

P15 rejects the notion of unity that it has even described as “clerical-Stalinist.” The unity of our class is our strongest weapon in the face the bourgeoisie, which uses the means of production of life and its ideology as its weapons. However, someone from P15 has written: “There is a sort of incorrigible defect that seems to overwhelm the Quebec left: the belief in a social totality that should be preserved, the myth of a reconciled and unified society without divisions.”

Of course there are divisions in society. Unity does not mean uniformity. There are all kinds of contradiction even within the working class. Recognizing these contradictions and divisions does not overcome the fact that it is also true that we share common interests. Refusing to work in a united way does not make these divisions disappear. It only ensures that certain individuals can believe it to be the case, isolated in their small affinity groups.

[1]                 An anarchist critique of business unionism, which includes the view that demands on wages are limited to fighting for their membership, and are therefore a rejection of the broader political struggle.

[2]                 “Great Night” refers to a romantic revolutionary moment.

[3]                 Bill 78 was a law that tried to stop the student strike movement in 2012, which gave rise to the “casserole” protest movement. The very anti-democratic law, made all strike action illegal around educational institutions and forced all demonstrations to give their itineraries to the police, or face fines of tens of thousands of dollars.

[4]                 This is the case with P6 in Montreal that makes it illegal to cover your face at a protest and makes all protests illegal that do not give their itinerary to the police.

[5]                 http://www.littor.al/2015/04/johnny-sen-va-ten-paix/

[6]                 http://www.littor.al/2015/03/appel-a-la-greve-illegale/

[7]                 An anarchist critique of business unionism, which includes the view that demands on wages are limited to fighting for their membership, and are therefore a rejection of the broader political struggle.

[8]                 “Great Night” refers to a romantic revolutionary moment.

[9]                 Bill 78 was a law that tried to stop the student strike movement in 2012, which gave rise to the “casserole” protest movement. The very anti-democratic law, made all strike action illegal around educational institutions and forced all demonstrations to give their itineraries to the police, or face fines of tens of thousands of dollars.

[10]               This is the case with P6 in Montreal that makes it illegal to cover your face at a protest and makes all protests illegal that do not give their itinerary to the police.

[11]               http://www.littor.al/2015/04/johnny-sen-va-ten-paix/

[12]               http://www.littor.al/2015/03/appel-a-la-greve-illegale/


This article is printed in Issue 19 of Rebel Youth which is now available! The issue deals has a focus on student struggles and the federal elections. Find out more and subscribe today!

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