Rooted in Social Movements

Tuesday 1 October 2002, by Judy REBICK

There have always been common issues between the left in Quebec and the left in English Canada, but that commonality ended when we arrived at electoral politics. Most of the left in Quebec supported the Parti Quebecois, and in English Canada the left was divided between those who supported the New Democratic Party and those who turned their back on electoral politics.

The national question has always been a dividing point. When sovereignty was a central political issue for the Quebec left, there was little common ground. During the era of Rene Levesque, the left in English Canada, with the notable exception of the NDP, supported Quebec’s right to self-determination. But as the PQ moved to the right and Quebec supported Mulroney and free trade, hostility towards Quebec nationalism in English Canada, including on the left deepened the divide.

We still worked together - against the Free Trade Agreement, on the World March of Women and on the Quebec Summit - but tensions were pretty high. Now I sense a new opportunity to bridge the divide.

For one thing, we are starting to grapple with the same political problems. At the Alternatives retreat this summer and at the Colloque organized in September by the Chair of socio-economic studies at UQAM, the issue of the relationship between the social and political came to the fore in Quebec.

With the PQ in deep crisis and the dramatic rise of the ADQ, the issue of political action and the left has become a central issue. In English Canada too, many groups are trying to grapple with this issue. While the majority of activists are still content to focus their energies on building social movements, there are an increasing number asking how they can go beyond protest.

The New Politics Initiative, which I helped to found, posed these questions with some fanfare last summer. The NPI said that we need a new kind of political party on the left, one that is rooted in social movements and practices a new kind of participatory democracy. We felt that the time had come for a bold left political initiative.

With neo-liberalism unable to deliver the benefits it had promised, the NPI believed a new party with a bold alternative platform that campaigned with social movements inside and outside Parliament and focused on involving ordinary citizens in politics could have an enormous impact.

We believed that the best way for this to happen was to convinced the NDP to initiate the formation of such a party, one with the support of two sitting NDP MPs, Libby Davies and Svend Robinson, we organized a challenge to the NDP at its last convention in Winnipeg. With few resources and no staff, the NPI managed to win 40% of the delegates to a resolution that called on the NDP to actively explore the formation of a new party.

But the resistance to the idea inside the NDP was not as great as the resistance we met in the social movements. Despite defeat after defeat for the left in English Canada over the last ten years, leaders in various social movements were unwilling to re-consider their relationship with a political party. The autonomy of social movements from any political party has become an inviolable principle.

Yet the most successful left-wing political party in the world at the moment, the Workers Party in Brazil shows us a different model of a party rooted in social movements that are at the same time independent from the party. What that means is that most party members are also members of social movements and bring their issues into the party. During elections, the social movements mobilize for the party that shares their values and platform but at the same time they maintain their independence and are critical of the party when it falls short of their expectations.

In order to make this work, we have to divide support from loyalty. We have adopted the idea that supporters of a party who publicly criticize it are disloyal. This is nonsense. Sometimes the best way to support a party is to criticize it when it is doing something wrong. And certainly social movements can be critical of a political party and still mobilize to support it during elections.

Nevertheless, it is not a one-way street. If a party, like the PQ I would argue, is embracing a neo-liberal agenda and betraying its social roots, the time has come to cut ties. I think that time is coming with the NDP as well, not so much because of its betrayals, although there have been many, as because of its inability to adapt to the new realities of creating alternatives to globalized neo-liberalism.

The NPI will discuss these issues among others at its upcoming conference in Ottawa on October 18,19 and 20th. You can find out more from

The author is also the publisher of

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Vol. 7 No. 2

Examining Canada’s Left

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