TheStudent Struggles in Québec
(«Proletarian»;Nr. 9; Winter 2012-2013)
On 13 February 2012, an unlimited general student strike was launched in Québec against rising tuition fees decreed by the Liberal government of Jean Charest. The projected increase is $1,625 over five years, representing a phenomenal increase of over 80% for costs which are currently $2,168 per year, not to mention related costs that are constantly increasing and represent a disguised way of increasing the cost of education. The avowed intent is to catch up with the Canadian average which is around $4000 per year.
Quebec currently has the lowest tuition in North America. An increase of $500 over five years had already been adopted in 2007 as the first step towards deregulation of tuition fees. In mid-April, the strike movement involved more than 200,000 students across Quebec, including just over 170,000 in a general strike of universities and CEGEP’s (colleges of general and professional studies, a somewhat intermediate level of education between high school and university).
The increase was decided by the Charest government in its budget in 2010 which was marked by numerous brutal measures to gradually destroy the social benefits of the proletariat and working people, including an annual health-tax of $200 person, regardless of income, while the Québec public health system is tumbling into ruins.
Finance Minister Raymond Bachand declared that a “cultural revolution” was needed to convey to Québec workers that public services have a price, i.e. that they must be progressively privatized to increase the rate of profit of the bourgeoisie. In this case we should be talking about a cultural counterrevolution! Despite the utterings of Minister Bachand utilities have never been “free”, they have been financed by fees and taxes whose main burden falls on the working class.
The protest movement of the students has developed rapidly since February 13, marked by increasingly numerous demonstrations, some of which have turned into confrontations with the police. On March 7, the most eventful demonstration took place and a student named Francis Grenier practically lost the sight in one eye. The outrage of the students and all those who support them escalated and the student movement was galvanized. On Sunday, 18 March a demonstration with families assembled more than 30,000 people in Montreal and thousands more in Québec City and Sherbrooke.
On March 22 a national demonstration was held in Montreal with over 200,000 participants, making it one of the largest political demonstrations in the history of Québec and even Canada! The Charest government turned a deaf ear to student demands and let loose a profoundly dishonest and demagogic propaganda about the students who would not give their “fair share” to save the education system and the fiscal consolidation!
Coming from a government marked by scandal and which didn’t hesitate to give millions of dollars to banks and other large businesses, while imposing drastic austerity measures on the working class, this is all simply revolting!
With the spread of the movement police repression has become increasingly brutal, marked by numerous arrests, and by the onslaught of the bourgeois media calling the students “spoiled rotten, irresponsible and vandals”.
This has not prevented the student protests from multiplying and amplifying from April on, notably including nighttime demonstrations that began at the end of that month to protest the intransigence and bad faith of the government. The Montreal police attempted unsuccessfully to prevent these by declaring them “illegal”, but without success. Similar demonstrations took place in Québec City where the National Assembly of Québec is situated. Faced with the obstinate resistance of students and their supporters, the government enacted Bill 78 (Loi 78) requiring any gathering of more than 50 people to provide their itinerary at least eight hours in advance on pain of otherwise being considered illegal. Police have the mandate to arrest demonstrators who refused to disperse. Exorbitant fines are also planned for any organization, especially student, which refuses to comply with the law. Mass arrests followed the enactment of this Act, at demonstrations declared “illegal” by the Montreal Police Department.
But the determination of the demonstrators, which encompassed more than the students including even trade union activists and grassroots groups, has not wavered and the police although declaring the demonstrations illegal have let the demonstrators march night after night. On May 22, a massive demonstration that assembled more than 300,000 people according to organizers, broke Bill 78 by changing the route along the way without notifying the police and the cops were unable to stop the rally and carry out mass arrests. In late June, although the government had closed the universities for three months, tens of thousands of people demonstrated again in Montreal and Québec City.
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Journalists have pointed to a revival of Quebecois nationalism in the student movement. While it is clear for the student movement that the adversary is in Montreal and not in Toronto, this revival is not surprising: historically the struggle for access to education has always been an integral part of the struggle of Quebecois nationalism, especially during the “Quiet Revolution” in the 1960s. The development of Québec capitalism had as a consequence, exactly as in other developed capitalist countries experiencing full growth during the same period, an increase in the number of students to meet the need for highly skilled technicians and employees, as well as further developed marshalling and supervision of the proletariat. In 1966 the United Nations called on member states to ensure free access for all to higher education and advocated the introduction of free education (1); the oft-praised “democratization” (relative democratization, because working-class children have always had the greatest difficulty gaining access) championing higher education through grants, scholarships systems, etc.., was a necessity for capitalism which was going through a period of continued expansion.
The strong growth in access to university and higher education in general, and the upsurge of Quebecois nationalism were two aspects of the rise of the Quebecois fraction of Canadian capitalism and its efforts to gain more prominence in the Canadian state (or to take the path to independence if this was not possible). Also in Québec as elsewhere, the development of education had become, thanks to this “democratization” of education, a way for some elements from the proletariat to escape their social status and gain access to the petty bourgeoisie: it was the royal road of the famous “social elevator” that actually worked at that time. As far as the petty bourgeoisie was concerned, it was its preferred means to ensure that their children maintained this class status.
The Quebecois bourgeoisie, through both the nationalist Parti Québécois and the federalist Liberal Party, retained the tuition freeze at the University level for several years, from 1994 to 2007. However the current situation of international economic crisis requires all governments to tighten the screws to maintain or restore the profit rates of capitalism, not only by strengthening the direct exploitation of the proletariat, through cuts in social spending but also by getting rid of unproductive or parasitic strata of the petty bourgeoisie.
The two main parties of the Quebecois reformist left, Québec Solidaire and the new independantist party Option Nationale, have assured the students of their support and they even came out in favor of free education from kindergarten to university, a demand already voiced by the ASSE (Association for Student Union Solidarity ), the student union which demonstrates a certain militancy and which is largely the instigator of this current strike.
But what good are the promises of reformist parties who above all want to position themselves in relation to possible early elections?
The current measures are not due to the particular malice of the Charest government; they are part of an overall trend of capitalism faced with a general crisis of overproduction that requires bourgeois governments of the right or left to take still more pronounced anti-proletarian and antisocial austerity measures, to find an even temporary solution to the economic difficulties. It is also futile to try to negotiate new means of funding, as do the other students’ unions: today there are too many students and they are too expensive for the needs of capitalism in Québec.
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The importance, the duration of the student struggle and the positive echo it met with a significant portion of the population despite the hostility of the media, all this shows that we are dealing with something much broader than just a corporatist student struggle. The tens or hundreds of thousands of people – petty bourgeois and proletarians – who have mobilized in demonstrations do not do so only out of love for democracy and to support the students, but because they too feel threatened by the capitalist offensive and they instinctively fear suffering their fate: increased exploitation, proletarianization, repression. The capitalist offensive threatens to precipitate the petty bourgeois (or those aspiring to the petty bourgeoisie) into the proletariat, provoking revolt in one form or another. It is inevitable that this revolt occurs first under a reformist orientation, based on the aspiration to return to the previous period of capitalism where strong economic growth ensured their privileged social status compared to the proletarians, and the belief in a “human”, “fair”, “social”, etc. capitalism.
But a segment of the students, even if a very small minority, realize that with or without diplomas, they may be condemned to share the fate of the proletariat; the best of these elements can and must realize that their real opponent is ultimately not a reactionary government, but capitalism itself and its inflexible laws. They can then understand that if it wants to be successful, the fight must go beyond the narrow straightjacket of petty and hopeless aspiration to a privileged social status and that they have to enlist themselves in a much broader and much more long term struggle: the class struggle of the proletariat against capitalism.
This is obviously not the orientation that student organizations advocate, nor the various far-left groups.
CLASSE, usually presented as the most militant student association, agitates for a perspective that seems more radical than that advocated by the college and university student federations (FECQ and FEUQ), and this is why the government wanted to exclude it from the negotiations held in mid May (it participated and finally accepted the compromise nearly unanimously rejected by the striking students); but in reality this perspective does not go beyond the petty bourgeois democratic framework. Its evocation of a “social strike” and its appeal to trade unions to support the fight should not sow any illusions. Trade union leaders have actually already been called to the rescue by... the government, so as the proven servants of capitalism, they advise the students to compromise, to respect the rule of law and reject the most effective forms of struggle. The existing trade union apparatuses are organizations of class collaboration which, at best, negotiate the workers’ demands with the bosses while containing struggles so they do not jeopardize social peace, and at worst openly sabotage these struggles.
How could they help students break lBill 78, as they were careful in May not to call upon the strikers at Canadian Pacific Railway to disobey the back-to-work order adopted by the federal government?
How could they organize real support to the student struggle, when they do not or can not organize any real support for locked-out proletarians and workers’ struggles in general? In the best case all they can do is to pass motions of support that are not binding.
As for the “social strike”, it appears to be a kind of... interclassist strike where the entire population would be called upon to cease its activities to defend the students and democracy (2).
For their part, the far-left organizations support the general demands of the students such as the “right to education for all”, fight against the “commodification of education” and call on workers to support their struggle. This amounts to the call to fight for perspectives and class interests that are not theirs!
The fight against commodification of education is a petty bourgeois utopia: under capitalism all education is entirely shaped and strictly conditioned by the laws of this mode of production; it is also as impossible to imagine an educational system which escapes them, as it is a State above classes. No more than other state or parastatal institutions, schools and universities cannot be reformed to be quietly put to the service of the “people” or the exploited, contrary to what all the defenders of capitalism would have us believe .
This is why the proletarian political demand in this area is not a reform of the educational system, i. e. the democratization of education, free access to higher education, “non-commodification” of education: it is the destruction of the bourgeois school and university, just like all the other institutions of the bourgeois state, giving way, in a new classless society, to new forms of education of young and old people, which will not lead to the formation of socially privileged specialists. Of course this demand is impossible without revolution and the seizure of power by the proletariat.
However, there is no doubt that the proletarians cannot remain indifferent to the difficulties and struggles of the petty bourgeoisie (or petty bourgeois aspirants that students are); there is no doubt that they need to oppose all the repressive measures taken by the bourgeois powers against the students – not for humanitarian and democratic reasons, but in their strict class interests, because the same measures are (and will be) used against their own struggles: the struggle against bourgeois repression, against repressive laws is part of the elementary proletarian struggle .
More generally, the workers cannot remain indifferent because the attack inflicted on the petty bourgeoisie is part of the general capitalist offensive of which they are the basic target. If one had to demonstrate the interest they have that the attack fail, it would suffice to read an editorial in the leading bourgeois Montreal daily that if the government gave in to the students “there would be no means for providing any reform whatsoever in Quebec” (3), provided that by “reform” the bourgeois mean antisocial and anti-worker measures.
But this does not at all mean that the proletariat must mobilize and enter in struggle to defend the social position of the petty bourgeois strata, moreover when they are already experiencing the greatest difficulties in mobilizing for their own cause!
The proletarian orientation is not one of becoming an auxiliary to the aspirations of students, to support their perspectives, therefore to move on to their terrain of the reform of state institutions (or the defense of their old ways of working) and the bourgeois social order, but to call on them to come on to the proper terrain of the proletariat, which is the class struggle against the bourgeois state and against capitalism: it is against capitalism that we must fight! Not for democratic reform, but for the communist revolution!
The reformists are already at work striving to channel the “Maple Spring” into the inoffensive path of electioneering, and negotiations between the parties are going well. But no electoral change will stop capitalist attacks, it will only serve to try to paralyze those affected.
The struggle of the students and the echo it encounters are a sign that social contradictions accumulate inexorably; sooner or later they will push the workers themselves to enter into much less episodic and isolated struggles than has been the case. The oppositions between classes, which in reality never cease under capitalism will increasingly manifest openly.
In order to resist the capitalists and their State, peaceful demonstrations, democratic orientations, appeals to public opinion, will have to give way to the real class struggle between the two opposing fundamental classes of society, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.
And then it will become more and more clear that to lead and centralize its struggles, the proletariat needs a class party, endowed with a clear and unambiguous perspective based on defending the exclusive interests of the proletariat, with the ultimate objective of ending the dictatorship of capital and establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat, the first step towards a classless society.
While this may seem today a difficult and distant perspective, it is really the only realistic one; any other political perspective, such as a return to the “golden age” of the welfare state can only lead to a stalemate and failure.
In this era of mounting generalized economic crisis of the capitalist system, there is no more room for social reforms to give crumbs to the workers in exchange for social peace. The bourgeoisie wants us to pay for the crisis of its system and only the class struggle will enable us to repel its attacks – of which rising tuitions in Québec is only one small part –, before gaining the strength to move on to the offensive!
(1) Quoted in an article by the Trotskyist group Internationalist Group. see http://www. internationalist.org/quebecstudent strikeagainstcapital1205.html
(2) Read the appeal on the site bloquonslahausse.com: “We do not make an appeal for a facade of support where some union officials prepare a press release for the umpteenth time to reiterate yet again their support for the student struggle. We want instead to call for a convergence of all of Québec’s population against the policies of cuts and commodification of social services and our collective rights. Only a generalization of the student strike in the workplace can make this an effective convergence. It is, therefore, a call for the social strike which we hurl out to the entire population!” (our underlining). www. bloquons lahausse. com / vers-la-greve-generale / vers-une-greve-sociale
(3) La Presse, 4/13/12. With fulsome bourgeois arrogance, the columnist describes the student strike as “playing hooky from school”! http://www.lapresse.ca/debats/editoriaux/andre-pratte/201204/12/01-4514826-une-crise-artificielle.php
International Communist Party