PIERRE BEAUDET, ACTIVIST, strategist, intellectual, friend and comrade died earlier last month. As well as the loss to me of a friend and comrade of 35 years, he is a loss to many in the progressive and revolutionary movements across the world.
Pierre was a friend of Amandla! magazine and of Amandla’s politics. Here I celebrate his life and his politics, which were pretty much inseparable, mainly in his words and the words of his friends and comrades who have written tributes to him from round the world.
But to start at the end – his last piece of writing, on Ukraine on 2nd March:
Now that Russia has attacked, there is no turning back. Either Putin succeeds in his bet to submit Ukraine, which would allow him to “entrust” a new government with the task of “restoring order”. Or the situation gets bogged down in an endless confrontation…In either case, the conditions will have been created to revive a kind of new cold war, which will be fuelled by violent attacks on the Russian economy, the over-militarisation of central Europe around the strategic allies that are the Baltic countries and Poland, support for the Ukrainian resistance, etc.
This new Cold War 2.0 is going to represent a huge realignment of priorities and strategies. Nato, whose relevance we saw less a few years ago, will come back in force. The member states will be required to substantially increase their military spending and to become directly involved in the strategy of counter-attack and weakening of Russia: very harsh economic sanctions, military and political support for the states and movements confronting Russia, a large “ battle of ideas” to reinvent the monster that had scared Western opinion so much for more than 30 years, etc.
Nearly four weeks later, that is pretty much precisely where we find ourselves. Germany leads the way in the re-arming of Europe. And sanctions are imposed harshly to inflict maximum damage on the Russian economy.
So much of Pierre’s politics can be seen from the most recent article he wrote for Amandla! on Quebec Solidaire (QS), a quite new “rainbow coalition” party which came together in Québec from mass movements.
He had talked to me about a central challenge for this party, paradoxically stemming from its gain of 10 seats in the Québec National Assembly. He understood the perils of bureaucratisation long before they were a speck on the horizon, and the political degeneration that accompanies them:
There is a trend within QS, as with other “new” parties, to become “realistic” – to move to the centre, with limited but more widely-supported demands. There are plenty such demands and they are urgent enough: on education, health, housing, environment, etc. The “ordinary issues” are what attract people. QS can gain votes by proposing a “new governance”, more or less along the lines of Keynesian policies (a bigger and better welfare state).
The long-term objectives, towards a post capitalist society and a republican and independent state, are left in the corridors. This is what tends to happen to parties that are making electoral progress. The elected officials are now in the media. They have an important “machine”, including a lot of staff and financial resources from the state.
In QS, the original idea was to combine the struggle “on the streets and in the ballot box”. But there is a definite trend towards accepting the terms defined by the anti-democratic state and its vast arsenal of laws and regulations.
This is exactly what some popular movements envisaged when they stood in the South African local government elections last year. Elect representatives from the Botshabelo Unemployed Movement or the Unemployed People’s Movement rather than from political parties which only exist for elections.
Pierre was always an internationalist. Gustave Massiah, one of the founders of the French Attac movement, describes Alternatives, the NGO that Pierre was part of establishing in the mid-1990s:
First, in supporting the movements of the peoples of the countries of the South. Then, in the emergence of the anti-globalisation movement with the struggles against debt and structural adjustment programs, against the policies of international institutions, the IMF, the World Bank, then the WTO. We learned a lot from Alternatives. From the long struggle against the Free Trade Area of the Americas which began in 1994, to the great mobilisations of 2001.
Monique Simard, a well-known Québec feminist told Judy Rebick (a Canadian friend and activist):
His vision of international solidarity was unparalleled. He had a global vision of politics. Pierre knew everything about everywhere, not only about the big picture, but he could tell you about the details in each country. The spectrum of his knowledge was so wide. It was amazing.
And Pierre himself, again on Ukraine, contrasting the treatment of Ukrainian refugees with others in graphic terms:
Right now, at least 10 million Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans (to name a few) languish in state-run detention camps paid for by Nato member countries. The vast majority of these damned of the earth already know that they will never be accepted as refugees.
His internationalism led to his role in establishing the World Social Forum. Gustave Massiah again:
From 2001, alter-globalism opened a new period of encounters and internationalist visibility. It was the start of the Social Forums in Porto Alegre in 2001. At the same time, the Québec movement played a major role in the mobilisations that were to get the better of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Pierre and Alternatives Montréal played a leading role in the succession of social forums, in Porto Alegre (2001, 2002, 2003, 2005), Mumbaï (2004), Bamako (2006), Caracas (2006), Karachi (2006), Nairobi (2007), Belem (2009), Dakar (2011), Tunis (2013, 2015), Montreal (2016), Salvador de Bahia (2018).
And this vision of the World Social Forum from Pierre is testament to his politics, again quoted by Judy Rebick in her tribute:
The WSF process was original because it was an open space where participants themselves were to define the agenda through self-organised political and cultural activities. Much of the work involved drafting an alternative economic program… At the same time, there was much discussion of how to “democratise democracy,” for meaningful citizen participation within the framework of liberal democracy.
These immense brainstorming sessions were carried out by many social movements that also took advantage of the WSF to create new international and action-oriented networks, such as Via Campesina and the World March of Women.
And he had already expressed his internationalism by relocating to South Africa. South African writer Hein Marais describes his work:
In the mid-to-late-1980s his work on South Africa was focused especially on supporting the independent trade union and civics movement. He saw there great potential for democratising and localising potentially radical projects and interventions that could remain independent from ANC control/sway but obviously supportive of the liberation struggle. This was grounded in an important and healthy critical understanding of the transformative limits of national liberation projects, perhaps reflecting lessons he’d taken from the Québécois liberation struggles of the 1970s.
The National Question
And of course his earliest political activity, which left him for life with shrapnel in his back, and to which he returned in recent years, was around the liberation of Québec. As he wrote in 2017:
The Canadian state, from its creation till now, is not and cannot be the terrain of emancipation. This state is illegitimate. Its foundations are rotten, since it was erected on class and national oppression, whereas the First Nations on the one side, and the Québécois on the other side, have been dispossessed. To put it bluntly, this state has to be broken and eventually reinvented. Speaking about reforming Canada on the left does not make sense unless, from the onset, there is clear and explicit commitment to work with the First Nations and the Québécois by recognising their right to self-determination and their nationhood.
And finally on a more personal note
André Frappier, former union activist with the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, remembers a side of Pierre that those of us who knew him would immediately recognise:
Pierre was a passionate being and a walking, talking political school. Two years ago, I worked for two weeks building a new fence in his backyard. Carpentry was not his strength, but while he held the boards I needed, he told me about his understanding of Lenin’s writings and the history of communism, as if he had a book in his hand.
And then there was the slightly off the wall, lateral thinking side of Pierre. This, to me, from an email:
Edgar Morin, one of my favorite unclassifiables, says that what really distinguishes us from the great apes is the craziness in our mind, which leads us to imagine, be happy, buoyant, depressed, violent, loving, with ups and downs all the time that we control very erratically.
And finally this, just before he started the cancer treatment that he didn’t survive:
“If you fight, you cannot be sure of winning. If you don’t, you are sure to lose.”
Roger Etkind is a member of the Amandla Collective.