Action Socialiste (1986-2000): An Unforgettable Experience

After the November 2000 Revolutionary Communist Conference held in Montréal, members of the then Action Socialiste (AS) group decided to end its activities and join the Revolutionary Communist Party (Organizing Committees), which was founded on that occasion. Action Socialiste was formed in January 1986 and fought for 15 years to give birth to what is now the PCR-RCP. In 2002, the Socialisme Maintenant! journal interviewed one AS founder who later joined the PCR-RCP, to recall the group’s history and learn a few lessons. A few years later, we think this interview is still useful to understand the ideological and political foundations of our Party. We are happy to issue it for the first time in English language (many thanks to the comrades who helped in translating and proofreading).

The PCR-RCP Political Information Bureau
July 2009

Where did the Action Socialiste group come from? In what context was it born?

A small collective of young radicals called “Centre Étudiant de Recherche et de Formation” (Student Center for Research and Education, CEREF) formed the Action Socialiste group in January 1986 after being active in the youth and student movements for several years. Their goal was to develop an offensive struggle and movement independent of the state, which at the time was trying to recuperate, organize and dominate social movements, a task it more or less succeeded in.

Eventually, CEREF would widen their activities and focus, enveloping and developing issues outside the student movement such as workers’ and women’s struggles, and internationalism. The issue became about a broad struggle against the State and the exploitation it represented, and eventually the development of a movement that would bring a global-scale, revolutionary transformation of society.

CEREF’s influence and reach has limited solely to Québec. The social and political context there and then was much different than today. The official reformist Left had an almost hegemonic domination in people’s movements. Major Marxist-Leninist organizations like In Struggle! and the Workers Communist Party had begun critiquing revisionism in the 1970s and wanted to bring back a truly revolutionary agenda. They were both disbanded, however, in 1982 and 1983 respectively. The “Left” was limited to various Trotskyist organizations and Anarchist groups much smaller and less radical than we see today (Philippe Duhamel and other pacifists dominated the Anarchist milieu).

Many believed the union movement could still be used as a tool for change (a feeling we also held at the time). The FTQ (Québec Federation of Labour) had just created its solidarity investment fund and during the 1970’s union rhetoric about “breaking the system” had softened into a more “responsible” trade unionism; despite this, trade unionism still attracted the majority of progressive activists due to the lack of viable alternatives. Trotskyist groups such as Gauche Socialiste focused mainly on trying to radicalize the unions, at least at first glance; their main efforts went towards trying to politicize the unions and build a broad-based political party akin to the New Democratic Party.

So it’s in this context that Action Socialiste started out. The reasons for forming a new organization were written down in a small brochure called “Document de fondation du groupe Action Socialiste” (Founding Document of Action Socialiste), which formed our basis of unity. We wanted to bring the aspects of our struggle into a global perspective. The idea was that our intervention on any issue (student, women’s or workers’ struggles, ecology, international solidarity, etc.) would be towards “building a revolutionary organization—a revolutionary party—able to organize and develop workers’ mass struggles in Québec and Canada.” The goal of this “mass struggle” for us was, of course, socialism. However, we were still far from a clear understanding (or even a minimal one!) of what that meant…

Naturally, we agreed that capitalism was the source of exploitation and oppression in the modern world, that society was divided into classes, that class struggle was the motor of history, and that the proletariat was the main revolutionary class, if not the only one, capable of carrying through with revolution. But we believed, just like the Trotskyists, that we had to radicalize the struggles (vis-à-vis the progressive movements and organizations that existed at the time). Our main difference with them was the fact that our work was of a more radical character than theirs, willing to take criticism of the state further. In the end our point of view proved to be very empirical and was based on limited experience (a few years of activism in Québec, with students and youth). We were far from having a scientific analysis of history, or even of the modern society we lived in. No class analysis, no strategic perspective, no programme, and no real will to develop one! We had, for all intents and purposes, started from scratch, as if history had no experience from which we could learn; questions about socialism in the USSR during 1986 and other historical questions were left on the backburner in favor of more “important issues,” such as the next general student strike…

But the primary positive lesson we learned—more than our will to fight and organize which was there before Action Socialiste—is that we were able to clearly understand the need for a revolutionary party, a vanguard organization able to lead the mass struggle. This was a fundamental distinction between us and Trotskyism. It also set us apart from Anarchists, even if their “disorganizing” ideas were less present then.

So, what were the consequences of the group’s formation?

We had a certain success in the beginning. The initial number of core activists from CEREF tripled within a few weeks. The first cells were set, including outside Montréal for the first time. The first issue of “Socialisme Maintenant!” newspaper was published in April. There was a clear need among activists to coordinate their actions, to act under a more organized framework. At least, that was what motivated many to join us. This was very obvious in the first public appearances we made where some members were remarkably absent. We were ready to participate in all kinds of internal meetings to coordinate our activities in immediate struggles. But when it was time to present our political line (although embryonic) to the masses, or to discuss general issues out in the open, some members literally went missing.

This being said, the fact that we went forward, founding an organization aimed at leading mass struggle in the name of socialism, had very positive consequences. In fact, it’s as if the whole idea of class struggle had caught up with us and forced us to clarify our analysis and opinions. For example, to publish a newspaper we had to develop our points of view and take a stand on lots of issues. Important line debates appeared without us having the capacity to solve them all correctly. Those debates, however, brought us to progress and further define our political line, and eventually our ideological line too.

The first serious debates were on the Québec national question, and eventually on women’s liberation. In both cases it took us to a more precise class analysis, and to reaffirm our point of view in favor of the proletariat’s interests. Debates on those issues lasted for almost four years! We also continued to take on student struggles, the women’s movement, and community groups.

Eventually, the 1990 events surrounding the Mohawk Nation’s resistance against expanding a golf course on a traditional cemetery in Kanehsatake showed us how a well-developed political line allowed us to intervene in a struggle correctly (and in a political way) and not only efficiently (from an organizational point of view). Our opposition to bourgeois Québec nationalism, our active and unconditional support of the Mohawk struggle and our strong defense of the principle of “absolute equality for all languages and nations” allowed us to positively influence advanced elements of the Québec working class. Unfortunately not all Action Socialiste comrades were able to assimilate the political meaning behind these events, and we learned that sometimes it is necessary to promote and defend a clear point of view, even if it meant going against the current, to influence and organize vanguard elements.

Another feature of that period for us between the group’s forming in 1986 to 1990 was the regrouping and integration of former activists from the Marxist-Leninist groups of the 1970s. Among them were a number of former members of the WCP who had continued their political activities through a group called Liberation after the WCP was disbanded in January 1983. When they proved unable to secure their organization’s survival, they contacted us in early 1988 to let us know of their willingness to unify with us. The great enthusiasm for this possibility on both sides caused us to abandon debates with Liberation which could have identified and clarified diverging and differing points of view in order to create some semblance of ideological unity, but instead a rushed integration of our two groups went forward, lacking any real principles.

The integration of the members of Liberation, most of which were union activists, would allow Action Socialiste (so we hoped) to intervene in the union movement. But without a solid ideological unity (we were starting to identify as “Marxist-Leninists” but with no clear definition), this “diversification” of our activity would accelerate internal divisions. Rather than uniting around a point of view, relatively small issues became a catalyst for strife as each side felt it had to secure ideological superiority over the other.

Around the same time, the bourgeois nationalist movement, which reemerged after the Meech Lake failure, began to put us in a difficult situation in some mass organizations that AS activists were involved in. The whole organization was deeply affected by what we called “economism;” spontaneous intervention within immediate (economic) struggles, abandoning agitation, propaganda and communist organizing. Economism is a form of right-wing opportunism; for its proponents, the movement represents everything, while the final goal (communism) no longer means anything. In doing so, we neglect to develop the revolutionary camp, and begin to abandon our most basic principles in order to achieve more immediate gains.

Several comrades then held leadership positions in student unions, community groups or workers’ unions. The important goal for us at the time was to conquer the organizational leadership of mass movements. We sometimes got there, in some cases easily, because of our organizational talents. But this rarely meant ideological or political leadership. The contradiction between our “communist” orientation and the dominant bourgeois viewpoint, even within the masses, was becoming more obvious as we escalated in the mass movements’ hierarchy. (Some of us had the feeling that, the higher we went, the more interesting it became…) What tends to happen in those times is either we put aside and “hide” our real points of view (or even defend viewpoints we don’t believe in), or we begin to develop bureaucratic practices to impose our minority viewpoints and keep the positions we attained in one movement or another.

It’s kind of what happened, especially in the student movement, where our comrades had been leading the main Québec student union, ANEEQ (“Québec National Students’ Union”). Nationalist currents linked with the PQ, fed by the Trotskyist and, surprisingly, some Anarchists, threw us out little by little from the three or four student unions we were present in. The problem escalated to such a scale that at a certain point, our practice even became a caricature of economism, while we occupied the top of the national student union without support from any local associations.

What impact did that have on the organization?

Actually, all of this led us to criticize economism. But the struggle that should have normally allowed us to change our ways and improve our practices was made in a totally bureaucratic and un-principled way. Several student comrades simply distanced themselves from our organization. Most of them even quit activism altogether.

The critique of economism was lead by comrades who had the most political experience in this, namely former members of Liberation, mentioned earlier. But that critique proved unconvincing, if not disastrous. It was made in a dogmatic way, with loads of misunderstood quotes. It was mostly trying to hide economism in those who carried it (it never was able to hide it, in fact, which caused a malaise), and claim that it was justified in some areas but not others, based on their notions of importance (some practices, for instance, were justified within the workers’ movement, but not the student movement).

So we found ourselves, at the beginning of the 1990s, in a very precarious situation, where internal divisions got more critical and recruitment became stagnated. To go forward, we had a choice: either we took advantage of the situation to consolidate our ideological unity, define strategic perspectives and go back to the masses with a much more clear and stimulating orientation; or trying to escape forward adopting the smallest common denominator and aligning our work on the most backward elements of retreating mass movements. The struggle between these two options continued until its end in 1994.

Here you are referring to Action Socialiste’s Fifth Congress and the important two-line struggle that culminated there…

Yes. But we must say before going further that in the period between 1990 and 1994, this struggle slowly began and a few events occurred without reaching the level it did in 1994.

There hopefully were a few comrades in the organization (some of which from the Marxist-Leninist movement, either In Struggle! or the WCP) who saw the need for ideological struggle to strengthen our unity. Those comrades often insisted that the organization study past revolutions and appropriate positive and negative experiences from the International Communist Movement, so we could avoid reproducing the same mistakes and learn from their successes to update the communist endeavor. We also pushed the organization to take part in debates inside the ICM in the early 1990s, to learn from our comrades’ experience across the world who continued the struggle in often uneasy conditions. One allied organization from France, called “Voie Prolétarienne” (Proletarian Path) also struggled for us to appropriate the working class’s revolutionary ideology and link it with the most advanced current revolutionary experiences.

So we began to collectively appropriate and learn from the successes of the Chinese revolution, including Mao’s fight against Soviet revisionism and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. This period has been the most formidable advance of the revolutionary movement in its struggle to overthrow the ruling class, to build socialism and advance society towards communism. We finally began studying Mao’s contributions to the proletariat’s revolutionary science. This allowed us to understand the importance of class analysis, and develop a clear strategic line, the need to align our praxis to theory, and also to apply what Mao called mass line.

In the meantime, the organization began developing solidarity work, which proved crucial for the following events, with the People’s War led by the Communist Party of Peru (CPP) and its leader Chairman Gonzalo (Abimael Guzmán, a high level revolutionary leader). After a long stretch of setbacks following Mao’s death and capitalist restoration in China, the People’s War initiated by the CPP in Peru (that reached unprecedented levels in the early 1990s) strongly contributed to bring back the debate on the need and validity of the revolution. The CPP demonstrated that is was possible to advance on the revolutionary path when adopting a correct political and ideological line and to draw, and assimilate from the revolutionary communist movement’s 150 years of history. The experience is synthesized in what we now call Marxism-Leninism-Maoism (or simply, Maoism).

This solidarity work with revolution in Peru made it possible for us to be in contact with a number of anti-imperialist activists from third-world countries, whose experience and exceptional qualities also greatly contributed to the progress of our ideological struggle.

In late 1993, an event that would normally go unnoticed and without consequence came to shake organizational life. At the Expro plant in Saint-Timothée (in southwestern Québec, now part of Salaberry-de-Valleyfield) where we would sometimes distribute our written materials, the CSN-affiliated union (Confederation of National Trade Unions) agreed to sign a “social contract” with their employer, guaranteeing “social peace” (on the part of the union) for five years (contrary to regular labor legislation that limited collective agreements to three years), pay cuts, slashed benefits and many other setbacks and perhaps most importantly 150 layoffs, with the union itself deciding who would keep their jobs! A great editorial was then published in our newspaper “Socialisme Maintenant!” to criticize this decision, more or less imposed by local union leaders and backed by the CSN’s highest provincial authorities. Comrades from Liberation took advantage of the occasion to attack and impose a completely opportunistic line sold to our organization.

The local union happened to still be indirectly led by Marc Laviolette (who later would become President of the CSN). Laviolette had presided over the Expro plant’s union in the 1970s when he was active in the Workers Communist Party. (He’s another one of those former “Marxist-Leninists” now converted to “capitalism with a human face.”) In 1993, he led the CSN’s Steelworkers Federation and was about to run for executive office. Our comrades active inside the CSN thought it better not to criticize him or the social contract he forced onto those Expro workers (which 40% of them rejected with dignity in their general assembly), because he supposedly was an ally of “union leftists” and we had to support him in his run for top office at the CSN.

Suddenly it was like an abyss had appeared between us and comrades from Liberation. More than a simple tactical question, it was a deep divergence. For them, there was no problem accepting such a contract guaranteeing social peace. Despite the FTQ’s Solidarity Fund, despite its CSN counterpart Fondaction, despite positions calling for “participative management” and more moderate union activism now dominant even in traditionally more left-wing union branches (like CSN), despite multiple and constant treasons, nothing had really changed according to our comrades. For them, unions still were the main tool for social change, like in the 1970s. And anything that could cast reasonable doubt on this suddenly became dangerous and to be condemned. So, according to them, “Socialisme Maintenant!” was talking too much about revolution and liberation struggles in the third-world, which no longer interested anyone in unions. It was too openly critical of the PQ, which might disappoint some “allies”; it didn’t propose enough “immediate demands” and suggestions to improve capitalism’s functionality while waiting for the “great night” (like fiscal reform, a Canadian “industrial growth plan,” etc.) In fact, the contradiction with former Liberation members was becoming antagonistic.

During an internal conference held in late 1993, ex-members of Liberation, who above all hated the years of work done by comrades towards unorganized and overexploited workers (who couldn’t necessarily be called “rear-guard” because of their lack of unionization) made a proposal in preparation for Action Socialiste’s Fifth Congress. They wanted the group to abandon these people, as well as anti-imperialist work, and concentrate all its energy in the trade union movement. Only in this movement, according to them, would we find the proletariat’s advanced elements; for them, it was mainly by ascending the leadership ladder into the union’s upper hierarchy that we could find the most advanced elements, because they were more experienced.

In the following months, on the basis of our recently better grasping of Maoism, the group’s leadership organized and led the two-line struggle to clarify divergences and help build a correct position to reflect the proletariat’s general interest. We undertook a deep study into the Canadian proletariat’s situation. It made us better understand what layers it forms, how exploitation develops, the proletariat’s relations with the Canadian ruling class, workers’ levels of consciousness and organization, etc. We carefully analyzed the situation inside unions and their developments in the previous 10 or 15 years. This study, published as “Perspectives pour le prolétariat canadien” (Perspectives for the Canadian Proletariat), concluded by a call to go “deep down” into the working masses, to bring life to revolutionary politics. The analysis and proposals inside this document were a living application of the mass line principles developed by Mao. The whole document represented a model of “ a concrete analysis of a concrete situation,” as opposed to pre-made formulas and dogma carried by opportunists. We believe this work is still worth reading, studying and applying to this day.

Unfortunately, knowing their point of view was in the minority, and maybe because they knew it wasn’t defendable, former members of Liberation abandoned the organization even before the Congress. After trying in vain to create their own organization, they finally sought refuge, in 1999, in the old revisionist Communist Party of Canada, where they received a few privileges in exchange for their membership. In their absence, Action Socialiste’s Fifth Congress rejected the right-wing opportunist current they represented. It also ratified the theses included in the “Perspectives” document and adopted a very important resolution clarifying our ideological line and formalizing our upholding of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism.

What happened afterwards?

Proponents of the opportunistic line were among the most experienced activists within our organization. We first had to go through a short reorganization period. We then initiated a serious rectification campaign and, in our daily work, developed the strategic orientation we adopted at the Congress.

The most important decision we took in those days was to launch a new paper, “Le Drapeau Rouge” (The Red Flag) and transform our former publication “Socialisme Maintenant!” into a political Marxist-Leninist-Maoist magazine. We then systematically began to distribute “Le Drapeau Rouge” at factories (whether unionized or not…), in poor neighborhoods, around schools, outside Montréal and also (occasionally) outside Québec. In parallel, we ran greater scale political campaigns, like the one at the Québec Youth Summit in February 2000. “Le Drapeau Rouge” proved an effective tool to popularize the agenda we were putting forward (like “Attack the Summit!”) and organize the masses’ revolutionary action. Little by little, small discussion and training groups formed around “Le Drapeau Rouge”, along eventually with some committees that, together with Action Socialiste, proceeded to call for, prepare and organize the historic Revolutionary Communist Conference that was held in November 2000. At that conference, revolutionary activists from several Canadian cities decided to form the RCP(OC) and circulate a Draft Programme, in order to hold in the best delays the First Congress of the Revolutionary Communist Party. Members of Action Socialiste decided to cease its activities and join the RCP(OC) to work within this new organization.

Now that the RCP(OC) exists and revolutionary work is moving forward in Canada, what lessons can we draw from Action Socialiste’s experience?

From a historical viewpoint, for the Canadian proletariat and the International Communist Movement, the 15 years of Action Socialiste history represents very little. But they are rich in lessons and teachings. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the intrepid (and also sometimes courageous or careless) character in comrades who formed Action Socialiste and all those who joined to bring the struggle to an end, we wouldn’t be as well equipped today to survive (let alone advance) the new era of revolutionary confrontation and uprisings we are seeing.

Action Socialiste’s experience showed us the need to think, adopt and apply a correct ideological and political line, based on scientific analysis of classes, class struggle and the evolution of social relationships, in Canada and around the world. It also proved that the struggle between two lines, between two major world conceptions (those of the ruling and working classes) is an objective, permanent and unavoidable reality. Knowing that, we can and must use it as a factor for progress and consolidation, to constantly learn from our mistakes, correct them, and always go further along the revolutionary path.

In an imperialist country like Canada, where there’s a fairly large workers’ aristocracy and the wage-earning portions of the petty bourgeoisie dominate and lead a great large sections of various mass movements, the struggle against bourgeois conceptions is very important. In the absence of a mass revolutionary movement able to somehow shake the foundations of its power and domination, the imperialist ruling class maintains a climate of “freedom” (a false freedom, far removed from real proletarian democracy) the best way it can, in which opportunistic points of view have all the latitude to express themselves. As Lenin said, opportunism is “the fruit of legality,” and Action Socialiste’s experience, like that of all organizations tending towards communism in imperialist countries, shows that right-wing opportunism is a daily danger we must fight whenever it rears its unglorious head.

What we can also learn is the necessity to align our praxis to revolutionary theory. We may adopt the best principled positions and publish the best analysis, but if our praxis comes back to doing the same as Marc Laviolette or Francoise David [actual leader of provincial party Québec Solidaire, translator’s note], following the mass movement or at best to push it slightly forward, and if we don’t carry the revolutionary viewpoint into the heart of the mass movement and fail to organize or accumulate forces for revolution, then we stick to being “paper revolutionaries.”

To make revolution, we don’t have to limit ourselves to talking about it. A few years ago, an ex-comrade criticizing the opportunistic viewpoint within our group said that to be revolutionary, it wasn’t enough to add a small “communist” sentence at the end of an economist article or pamphlet to give ourselves the feeling of a good conscience (he called it “red tailing,” like our articles were ending to a certain extent). If we want to make revolution, then we must seriously undertake it. Beginning with forging its instruments the working class absolutely needs to make it – a party, an army and a revolutionary mass movement.

The fundamental problem in any revolution is that of power, meaning the destruction of the reactionary classes’ power (here in Canada, the bourgeoisie) and the conquest and establishing of the new revolutionary power. From now on, our practical activity must be relevant with this principle, it constantly must thrive to bring forward the struggle for power. In the Canadian context, the Protracted People’s War strategy, outlined in the RCP(OC)’s Draft Programme is the one that best suits this requirement.

To readers of “Socialisme Maintenant!” already involved in the revolutionary struggle, members of a RCP(OC) organizing committee, or of a study circle, or a “Drapeau Rouge” committee or who are working to build the Revolutionary Communist Party, we say dare to keep fighting, dare to go forward and dare to win! In fighting like you are, you are earning your own liberation and are opening the door to emancipating all humankind. And to others, we say: wait no longer, comrades, and join the struggle: you only have your chains to lose; you have a world to win!

(First published in Socialisme Maintenant!, No. 8, Spring 2002)