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The Recent PQ Victory and the Apparent End of the Quebec Student Strike

If the success of the Parti Quebecois (PQ) in the recent Quebec provincial election proves anything, it's that elections are used by the ruling classes to undermine rebellion.  Indeed, as a recent Partisan article indicated, the elections were used to contain and undermine the anti-capitalist sentiments of the Quebec student strike.  The fact that the PQ was able to speak, if only hypocritically, to the legitimate demands of the Quebecois students––and to rearticulate these demands within a bourgeois framework––says more about how elections are used to de-radicalize organic uprisings than the political veracity of the PQ.  Realizing that the rebellion lacked revolutionary coherence, and hoping for a return to business as usual, the ruling classes proposed an election––the only legitimate avenue of "freedom" in these so-called democratic societies––and one of its parties––still bourgeois regardless of its franco-nationalism, and clearly more politically enterprising and opportunist than its counterparts––is now in the position to quell the student strike by providing its disunified participants with what they believe they wanted.

Over a year ago, in the aftermath of the 2011 Canadian federal elections, I discussed how the fall of the Bloc Quebecois was possibly evidence that franco-nationalism had, in accordance with the analysis of the PCR-RCP, had run its course amongst that sector of the masses that still wasted their time participating in the electoral farce.  So what do we make, then, of the provincial victory of the PQ, which is in some ways even more franco-nationalist than the BQ?  Mainly the fact that this is not evidence that french nationalism is still the dividing issue of the Quebecois working class: the victory is only because the PQ, in this electoral "pressure-valve", was the only party that actually spoke to the demands of the recent student strike.  This is why the election was called: so at least one party would find a way to obliviate the recent student strike by absorbing student angst into the spectacle of elections.  And the PQ was really the only party that figured out how to speak to student demands without having to recognize the most radical aspects of these demands––they fell back on the initial demand of tuition and, in this moment of falling back, "the two major student unions known for their loyalty to the PQ and the state apparatus… resumed the old habits they were forced to set aside with the outbreak of the powerful strike ([that] they never organized nor desired)." [see link to previous Partisan article]  This is not an unexpected victory of french nationalism; it is the failure of the other ruling class parties to find a way to absorb the student strike.

Several months ago, however, the regular movementist fetishists were imagining the Quebec student strike, like they erroneously did with the Arab Spring, was going to end capitalism.  Grounded in the usual failure to analyze class composition and organizational power, they thought that CLASSE's often incoherent demands were tantamount to revolution.  Back then, I argued that anglo-Canadians should pay attention to the Mouvement Etudiant Revolutionnaire's analysis of the strike.  Now, I would argue that they pay attention to the MER's hypotheses gleaned from their involvement in this strike: here, here, and here… For in these hypotheses they declare: "We believe that the election will first enable the government to regain control of the crisis, to restore its authority.  It serves to endorse the policies needed to escape this crisis of capitalism."  And in this the MER was correct; the success of the PQ has provided an escape from the crisis witnessed by the student strike by absorbing the rebellion in the moment of its original demand.  This is what elections often do––they are those moments where the ruling class can pretend that is extending freedom to the masses and, in this state of extension, neutralize the threat contained in a disorganized but legitimately angry period of rebellion.

[Edit: it is also worth reading the analysis the MER posted just recently on its site, written by a PCR-RCP supporter and before the PQ's victory, that examines in more detail the role of elections and the student strike.]

At the moment it seems as if the strike is dead; it did not appear to renew itself before the fall semester.  Students possess a lot of rebellious potential but they are still governed by the vicissitudes of their schooling––the school year, vacation periods, the fact that parents often pay tuition, academic and spacial dislocation from the working class.  A strike that begins with only the demand for a tuition freeze, beautifully transforms into something more (thanks to the participation of students in high-schools and CEGEPs), but then is unable to theorize this transformation through a militant and dedicated organization… Let's be clear: those who imagined that the CLASSE-led (if it was truly the leader) student strike would be a revolutionary success are the same people who think that every movementist moment is a success when they have just been repetitions, and never additions because their disconnection cannot ever be additive, and the response has always been the same.  You keep speaking of rebellions––which, yes, we should always celebrate––when an organized revolution is necessary.

Let's look at the past two years of movementist fetishism: Arab Spring [minus the NATO controlled movements in Libya and Syria], #occupy, the Quebec Student Strike… repetition, repetition, repetition. Important repetition, to be sure––something that tells us that people are angry and that capitalism needs to go––but still repetition.  And a repetition that cannot add up into a continuous movement because there is nothing theoretically and practically coherent behind these movements that provides them with connection and continuity.  We step from one space to another, repeat the same disavowals of the system, repeat the same tragic conclusions.  This is an epoch of rebellion, and we must celebrate this rebellion, but at the same time we need to do something more coherent than simply rebel.  We need to make revolution; we need to stop following supposedly spontaneist vicissitudes and calling them "revolution" over and over even though we keep being proved wrong: "the revolution is coming," some of us continue to say at every spontaneous moment, hoping other people will do the work for us and we can just grin from ear to ear and tail the masses.

But the revolution is not coming if this let-reality-figure-things-out-for-itself-well-I-watch attitude is the normative imaginary of the left.  It's not coming because you're not doing anything but waiting.  It's not coming because, in this moment of your waiting, the PQ won in Quebec and is absorbing the student strike's rebellious momentum.  It's not coming because you always think it is coming when you do nothing except move to-and-fro amongst supposedly "spontaneous" moments of rebellion, ignore everyone and every organization that might know more about these moments than you, and abdicate your critical responsibility.

As Lenin long ago pointed out when he critiqued spontaneity, the response of a revolutionary in these moments is two-fold: on the one hand, we have to recognize the legitimacy of spontaneous sentiments of rebellion and declare, as Mao would put it, that "it is right to rebel"; on the other hand, we have to recognize that these large-scale spontaneous rejections of business as usual are not enough to signify a revolutionary movement, that a practical theory and militant structure is necessary, and that there is always a danger of tailing the masses who will, for lack of a coherent and organized political project, fall into the trap of supporting whatever organized political line appears to best represent the most banal aspects of their rebellion.  Hence: "it is better to make revolution."  In this context, therefore, revolutionaries also have a two-fold duty: to involve themselves in these moments, to not be so purist that they ignore them altogether, and to show that they are willing to put themselves militantly on the line; to use these moments to intervene, as best as they can, in a theoretically coherent and organized manner rather than being tourists.

Unlike #occupy which, whatever its merits, was an American import that ended up being a farcical repetition of its counterparts south of the border, the Quebec student strike was Canada's version of the spontaneous rebellions that have been spreading throughout the world.  But like #occupy, it was limited to a certain sector of society and ultimately trapped within a petty-bourgeois framework… But again, unlike #occupy, aspects of this movement were able to achieve a certain level of militancy and radical demands that went beyond its apparent boundaries.  But these boundaries were thrown back into stark relief at the moment of the electoral "trap", that "pressure-valve" that was able to drain the tensions the strike was pushing to the surface.

In any case, how do we make sense of the PQ victory in this context?  For though I'm suggesting that this victory was primarily due to the PQ's ability, compared to other parties (even Quebec Solidaire which some imagine is "revolutionary"), to speak to the demands of the student strike, the fact remains that it is a party primarily devoted to Quebecois nationalism.  And though I'm suggesting that the PQ victory was primarily due to its ability to relieve the pressures of the student strike, this does not mean that a nascent franco-nationalism did not play some role in the victory.  Even if this is no longer a primary contradiction, even if it appeared to evaporate in the federal elections, the ideology of Quebecois nationalism, regardless of whether or not it is justified in class struggle, did not just disappear.

As regular readers of this blog are aware, I take anti-colonialism and what is often termed "the national question" very seriously.  Indeed, around a week and a half ago, I wrote another entry on this issue and, in the comment section of that entry, ended up having to talk about (again, and I'll admit sloppily) about why I don't think the national question applies anymore to Quebec.  First of all, I generally tend to short-hand french canadians as "losing colonizers" in order to indicate they were part of the settler-colonial project and were only placed in a subordinate position to anglo-canada because they lost a colonial war––not because they were settled.  This is an important point because it speaks to the origination of Canada as a capitalist nation state, intersects with questions of the development of capitalism through the period of mercantilism which was also intensely colonial, and has to do with the question of primary colonial contradictions: where is the colonizer-colonized relationship upon which this country is built?  The answer is often gleaned from the advent of a colonial formation and, in this advent, the recognition of what nations were suppressed and what nations were imported––those, in Fanon's polemical jargon, "came from elsewhere."  And it is upon this material relationship that an entire state was built and entire capitalist mode of production emerged.  [I could go on forever about this, and indeed I wrote an entire doctoral thesis which was a philosophical investigation of this problematic, but I'll stop myself here.]

At the same time, however, and as the Sketchy Thoughts has recently and aptly pointed out, it is also a mistake to crudely apply the theory of the national question to an analysis based on what national oppression came first: "many leftists seem unable to transcend the liberal idea of colonialism being measured by how long the colonized had been here.  According to this logic, Indigenous people are the 'most' colonized (which is self-evident) but not because of current conditions of nationhood and national oppression, but because of some kind of colonial-seniority system." So while I believe the question of the originary moment of colonialism is necessary to understand the colonizer-colonized contradiction upon which Canada emerged as Canada, I agree with this post [which, by the way, is also an insightful analysis of the recent PQ victory] that we cannot do so simply by some appeal to chronology.

What matters for those of us who call ourselves "historical materialists" is the now and how we understand the past according to this now: the originary moment of colonialism matters because the now demonstrates that so much has been built upon it; the national question applies primarily to indigenous nations because the now tells us that their nationhood is still a revolutionary demand; the national question does not apply to Quebec now because it has been completed and because Quebec is also parasitical, and in a colonizing relationship now [as well as then] with indigenous nations.

Which is why we cannot just dismiss the past struggles for Quebecois nationalism, even if Quebec was the result of losing colonization [which it was], as simply reactionary and worthless.  The reason we must reject them as having no cache in the national question is primarily because of the now: there is no fundamental contradiction between the franco and anglo masses, there is a franco-bourgeoisie which possesses the complete autonomy of a bourgeois class bound up with the Canadian capitalism system, and the only thing that lingers is anglo-chauvinism and a franco-nationalism that is the result of a long history of anglo-chauvinism.  I won't go into further detail here––I think the Sketchy Thoughts article, cited above, does a good job of explaining the erroneous thinking in this regard, critiquing both the bland "french nationalism is progressive" position and the anglo-anxiety of the separatist shibboleth.

My point here, then, is that franco-nationalism, whether or not it counts in the now as legitimate point of revolutionary agitation (it doesn't), still has a significant history, and a history that at one point was connected to revolutionary struggle, that it can be compelling.  I do not think this lingering ideology is the primary reason why the PQ won, but it was still there.  Most importantly, there were aspects of the student strike that connected with this nationalistic throwback: the general whiteness of the movement, the moments of chauvinism and anti-immigrant franco-settler ideology that manifested here and there (and we cannot forget that the PQ, as "progressive" as some might want to cast it, is a party that has a history of anti-immigrant white supremacism)… and within this context, as noted in that Partisan article cited above, the agitation of two major student unions bound to the PQ and the state.  So again, even in the case of the influence of Quebecois nationalism, it is the event of the student strike which has primarily determined the PQ victory––this nationalism could only be an influence if it was placed in connection with the strike, a connection that might have been present in some of the strike's aspects but which was also forced.

So now the student strike appears to be contained and the PQ, by being the party that could provide the best plan for this containment, is now in power.  Does this mean, as those anglo-Canadians living in Quebec seem to believe, that the spectre of separatism is some great evil that will reduce them all to minorities even if they are privileged white Canadians who imagine, just because they speak english in Quebec, they're some sort of oppressed minority?  Obviously not: the PQ is another ruling class party, ultimately no more or less capitalist or racist than the party they displaced, which has come to prominence by absorbing the rebellion of the student strike.  Only anglo-chauvinists will think they are the greatest evil––agitating manically as they were for people to vote for the Liberal party or what have you out of the fear that they would have to speak French even though they live and work in a predominantly francophone context… Whatever the case, the strike as ended and capitalist business as usual continues.


  1. Contained? They got the minimum demand. I agree with the critique of movementism but in terms of what the specific reformist goal of the strike in the first place (which was not at all revolutionary, but certainly worthwhile), they were able to embarrass a corrupt and organized-crime linked Liberal government and force a new government not to neutralize them (after all, as you point out, they were not revolutionaries in any but the most blinkered movementist sense) - but to capitulate within the bounds of bourgeois legality. So like all trade union victories, this is limited, but certainly still a victory in a material sense.

    1. The minimum demand was not what the strike became about, and rather quickly. In fact, they rejected this minimum demand earlier into the strike. Why this was a containment was that it contained the rebellious aspects of the strike by meeting what it was initially about. The militant line in the strike, pushed by the involvement of the CEGEPs and the highschool students (and these were the groups responsible for the more militant actions that made the strike the strike) was about universal access to information. Read the linked articles.

    2. Correction (I wrote this fast, as I tend to write my replies): I shouldn't have used the word "minimum" in response because you're correct: the minimum demand was the reformist goal. This article, though, was about what the demands of the strike quickly became that spilled beyond its boundaries. Hence the term "containment": the strike was contained within its initial boundaries.

    3. But did it have the capacity to achieve what some of the headier movementist types wanted it to achieve? I'm unsure. I know the broader demands - I read those pieces when they first circulated.

    4. No I don't think it did, and I say that I don't think it had that capacity in this article, but that doesn't mean that it needed to be contained by the electoral process. These uprisings always need to be contained and channelled in certain directions because they always are damaging to the state the longer they continue––especially when the demands become more radical. But, contra movementism, they can usually be contained without much difficult since the spontaneous nature means that it is not militantly organized against the state… but the state often needs to do something to make sure these movements are contained otherwise the forces involved could start building organizations and structures.

    5. I don't think it was contained by the electoral process any more than LBJ contained the civil rights movement - which only became more militant after civil rights legislation was signed. Otherwise agreed.

    6. I've been arguing this point on Facebook with some people frome Fightback, who have taken to calling this a "Great Victory for the Student Movement". I disagreed that it was a great victory on the grounds that the state effectively outmanvouvered the strike by channeling it down harmless lines that does not weaken the image of the state and in fact strengthens the illusions in bourgeosie democracy.

      If the strike had been able to force Charest to back down and conceed, that, I think, would have been a great victory for such a movement, as far as revolutionaries are concerned. It would have met the demands, weakened the image of the state, and would have given strength to the masses for future radical actions, because they would see they can take on the state and win. The ending of this movement was, in this particular case, probably the best ending that the bourgeosie could have hoped to cobble together because it:
      A) makes their bourgeosie parties and elections look relevant.
      B) Gave an effective state-controlled outlet to a movement that was radicalizing.
      C) Sows doubt in some people's minds about the necessity or effectiveness of social action (Some will argue that we should have just gone through official party politics to begin with)
      D) Maintains the invincible image of the state apparatus, even if it did discredit the Liberal party.

      Given these outcomes, I don't see how this can be classified as a "Great Victory for the Student Movement" since it ended on practically the best possible terms for the state aside from the complete crippling of the strike and the selling out of the leadership (which in a way did happen too, but not in a dramatic fashion)

    7. Indeed... I really don't see how something that caters to the student movement's original and reformist demands, and ignores what the movement started to demand and became pretty militant about very soon after it began, is seen as some sort of great victory rather than a moment of depoliticization. At the same time, however, it is worth celebrating the fact that something was won; we still need to be sober about the costs, and the fact that something was also contained. Your points from A-C appear correct, though I'm not sure about D––there's something about it I agree with, but at the same time I think that there will be a memory (or maybe this is just me hoping) that the state apparatus is not as invincible as wants us to believe it is.

      In other news: some of your former fightback friends are also kicking up a storm on my string about the uselessness of international parties, complaining about my analysis of history by demanding I show my sources and yet using for their source an IMT article that cites primarily from the Spartacist League and a member of US intelligence. I have no idea why they've taken to spamming me, but their cultish way of seeing the world is getting bloody annoying.

  2. Thanks for your reply to my question in the comment thread of your last article on the national question. I think I broadly agree with you on the national question in general, and I strongly agree with the last paragraph of this article.
    I think that what leads many young francophone progressives to franco-nationalism (and what used to delude me into thinking sovereignty was still a progressive cause) is mainly the prevailing anglo-chauvinism (expressed through strong anti-québec sentiments throughout canada), the canadian nationalism aka canadian federalism always associated to the worst elements of liberalism and conservatism, and the historical links between franco-nationalism and the worker's movements in québec. And there's also something fundamentally irrational and romantic (but ultimately tragically reactionary) about those of us francophones lefts who are incapable of looking past the fact that Québec still isn't its own country; I don't know why, but despite having abandoned any political demand for separation I will always have something of a souverainiste in me...

    1. Glad that we're generally in agreement. While you might always have something of a souverainiste in you, a lot of anglos will never see that Quebec nationalism *was*, regardless of the deeper colonial question, the most significant revolutionary movement in Canada at one point in time. Even some indigenous revolutionaries I know, regardless of their criticisms of French Nationalism as a valid anticolonialism, have said things like "I'll always have a soft spot for the FLQ."


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