After a year of varied activity within Serve the People – Montreal [STP-MTL], we the members of the organization have seen fit to formally sum up our work. In order to advance our practice, this summation must allow us to reflect on our experience and properly move forward with organizational changes imposed, on the one hand, by the lessons learned from this experience, and on the other hand, by the demands of the housing struggle. The present document is an attempt to begin such a synthesis in writing; in this respect, it does not represent the whole of the summation, but rather a first step, as part of a process that can only be validated or invalidated by continuous militant practice with the masses. To crown this process, STP-MTL is set to be founded anew on the basis of a refined organizational structure better suited to our goals as a collective; this text goes over the contradictions encountered in our work so as to explain how we aim to resolve them, principally in adopting this structure.
Foundation and going to the masses
Serve the People – Montreal was founded at the initiative of the now dissolved Revolutionary Student Movement – Montréal [RSM-MTL] in early August 2020 . Originally, the organization’s primary purpose was to allow student activists to investigate the material conditions of residents in working-class neighborhoods of Montreal, in order to identify issues from which to launch mass actions or campaigns. In a secondary capacity, STP-MTL had the task of training these same activists to link up with the masses and, through the organization’s activities, to consolidate a common theoretical basis for these activists. Basically, STP-MTL was to serve as a means by which to give concrete form to the “students to the streets!” line, adopted at the Seventh Pan-Canadian Congress of the Revolutionary Student Movement .
In order to give momentum to the organization, Côte-des-Neiges was selected by the activists behind STP-MTL for three simple reasons:
1. Jeunesse Debout! [JD!] – still known as Jeunes Socialistes pour le pouvoir populaire while STP-MTL was in its infancy – had previously held some popular activities in the neighbourhood with favorable reactions from the population, but this work had been abandoned by JD! due to lack of time and resources; 2. This is a neighbourhood with a high tenant, immigrant and low-income population; 3. Unlike some other working-class neighbourhoods in Montreal, we did not feel that there was already a militant organization established among the masses in Côte-des-Neiges, an organization in whose affairs STP-MTL would be meddling.
We have here an unresolved problem, that of an organization choosing, with the intent to engage in militant activity among the masses, a place that its militants do not inhabit and where they do not intend to move for these purposes. In the case of STP-MTL, we became aware that we did in fact have some forces in the neighbourhood, but only after selecting it! The problem is not so much coming into a “community” from the outside, no matter what the word “community” means; so far, our experience is that most people are willing to talk to us when we have something to say, despite certain people’s initial distrust . No, the problem is simple: if we do not live in the location selected for our mass work, we have to travel to get there, we are less regularly in contact with its masses, we are less directly concerned with its issues, we have to investigate more to become familiar with the place, etc. None of this is insurmountable, of course, but the question remains whether it is better to either do work where we are or to move to do it, at least initially. Comrades working in tenant organizing in another city have told us outright that it has helped them greatly and heck, to “live with” the masses has been understood as a principle of mass work for almost a century… Perhaps we should learn a thing or two!
Moreover, seeing what we were doing in Côte-des-Neiges, comrades living in other parts of Montreal also expressed a desire to organize their neighbors with us, but STP-MTL being a single, closed cell operating in a single area made it difficult for us to do so. Because of all this, among other things , we feel it is necessary to rebuild the organization around Neighbourhood Committees [NCs] – based on Militant Tenants’ Committees [MTCs], or so we’ve called them – allowing us to continue the work in Côte-des-Neiges and, at the same time, to open the possibility of work elsewhere, in neighbourhoods where other members of ours live.
It was without raising such questions, however, that we began our investigation in Côte-des-Neiges, through Saturday night distributions at Martin Luther King Park. Twice we handed out hot dogs and twice we handed out school supplies. Much has been written in the North American revolutionary movement about such distributions , so we will limit ourselves to commenting on our own practice.
As we experienced it, distributions have their positive aspects. From our first distribution, community groups in the neighborhood took an interest in STP-MTL and even gave us some additional materials to distribute; although nothing came out of it in the end, we came close to having access to an indoor space not far from the Park thanks to these groups, a plan that was only hindered by the sanitary measures imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. More generally, the distributions create a friendly space that can help new comrades to shed their initial shyness. They attract the attention of passers-by and offer a pretext to go and meet them. This is the only way in which distributions have value – as a pretext for initiating exchanges with the masses.
Now, we may wonder, do distributions allow for meaningful exchanges with the masses? In addition to all the confusion they prolong or cause in general, distributions have proven their disadvantages even as a simple tool for reaching the masses. Sure, they attract people’s attention, but to what? Not to our investigation, our revolutionary goals, our ideology, etc. Distributions mainly draw people’s attention to the goods being distributed, on the one hand, and the practice of distribution itself, on the other. Thus, the attention of the masses is actually diverted from what matters. Similarly, we find ourselves too busy with the distribution itself and lose sight of our own goals; for example, there have been times when we thought our survey session was over because we had no more materials to distribute. In the future, we might as well set up in a park with only a banner on a table and some propaganda material, and then go out to meet the masses; there is no need for us to distribute food or other essential goods if our goal is to survey a neighborhood – we just need to be able to talk to the people we meet .
Throughout and perhaps in spite of the distributions, we nevertheless managed to conduct social investigation and to speak directly to the folks from the area to get their thoughts on the issues at hand. This, we carried out with a pre-written form containing questions about income, housing, policing, etc. which we distributed either during our servings or simply going around the Park, asking people to fill it out. There were evident faults with this method of investigation. The use of forms encouraged a detached attitude in regards to those we would speak with. If they accepted to fill out the questionnaire our conversation was interrupted; if we decided to ask the questions orally we would tend to be stuck to the script. When conducting an investigation, it can be helpful to have a short introductory speech prepared and having a written form can facilitate the process of gathering precise quantitative data. The problem, therefore, wasn’t that we used a form as such, it was rather the tendency to prioritize collecting data over having meaningful exchanges with the masses. Establishing a foothold in the neighbourhood and linking up with the masses are important steps in conducting good investigation; bypassing them we risk falling into bureaucratic practices of data collection which most university or State-funded surveyors are already glad to take off our hands.
One of the main lessons from this early period is that there really is no substitute for direct and meaningful interactions with the masses. Distributions and interview forms are imperfect methods to say the least; they present advantages as well as disadvantages. We should not reject them wholly, but make sure their advantages outweigh their disadvantages with regard to our objectives — going to the masses, making meaningful ties, meeting new contacts and establishing a presence in the neighbourhood. Going forward, we should strip back superfluous practices. Given our current circumstances, we have no need for distributions or forms; it should really suffice for us to table in a park on a regular basis, armed only with a basic script to initiate discussions and a notebook to jot down any relevant information.
Door-knocking: its advantages and disadvantages
In September 2020, having decided we wanted to concentrate on issues related to housing, the organization delved into door-knocking. This new practice would go on to replace the model we had relied on (investigation through distributions accompanied by forms). Seeing the cold season coming along also pushed us towards doing things indoors, although “indoors” was considerably limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At least one militant organization in Canada does hold outdoor activities in the winter, or so we have been told, but we were not to do the same. Over the course of the next few months we alternated between three main “types” of door-knocking depending largely on changing circumstances.
Door-knocking without a contact in the building was the tactic we adopted the first time around. It yielded poor results: the tenants weren’t much interested in talking to us and few if any of them had issues with their housing situation. However, this tactic isn’t entirely ineffective: a few months later, with more experience behind us, we attempted this strategy a second time with the intended goal of expanding support for our struggle in neighboring buildings. This effort was met with greater success, we had set foot in an ongoing process of renovictions where tenants welcomed our help. Nevertheless, it is generally easier to go door-knocking when one already has a contact in the building. They can inform interviews by pointing out some problems that other tenants might face, they can also steer one away from undesirable units, e.g. where the concierge or, in some cases, the landlord, resides. The third option is to go door-knocking with a contact from the building. We’ve found that oftentimes a fellow tenant is able to rouse their neighbors; where we as organizers might be less pushy, a person from the building might be emotionally involved in the struggle, trading in tact for conviction. Hopefully, this brief sketch of different situations can point to some of the potential obstacles encountered in the hallway. Though it is important to remark that these different “types” differ mainly in terms of distance. In the first form, one essentially starts from zero, knowing nothing of and nobody from the building — additional legwork will be required to bridge the gap. In the other two forms, the distance decreases, as one already has an idea of what to look out for, having a connection with the tenants through a contact.
Scrapping our earlier interview forms, we conducted most exchanges in a more open manner, we remained attentive both to objective conditions (the condition of the building, the specific problems, etc.) and to subjective conditions (what folks thought the causes of the problem were, how did they think we could solve them, what level of militancy did they endorse, etc.) This second aspect was a crucial first step in organizing the tenants from the bloc, it allowed us to map out tenant militancy and to begin synthesizing their experiences as well as their ideas pertaining to how we could solve specific problems. With regard to the objective situation, we learned that in two of the four apartment buildings owned by the same landlord there were mice; that management was utterly unhelpful, asking money in exchange for the simple task of unclogging the sink; and that a rent increase beyond the normal rate had been proposed to the tenants, most of whom also found it excessive considering the poor state of their building and the economic difficulties brought upon by the pandemic. As we expanded this process of investigation, we decided to hold a tenants’ assembly over Zoom to work towards a solution. We printed a flyer which distilled what we had learned from all our conversations with tenants and invited them to this assembly. In turn, this lead to the drafting of a letter and a petition expressing tenants’ demands which was delivered to the landlord’s doorstep in the wealthy Westmount neighborhood. We seized the opportunity and made this into a small demonstration.
Overall, these few weeks of door-knocking were successful, they enabled us to make new contacts, get a foothold in four different buildings and start organizing resistance. Nevertheless, this tendency to focus almost exclusively on door-knocking as a means of going to the masses was limited. We would come to realize this during the spring of 2021: concentrated on going to people’s doors, we had forgotten to occupy public spaces, parks, and the like. The minor successes we had with organizing directly in folks’ buildings caused us to artificially relinquish the park as a public space to gather in, meet new contacts and conduct social investigation. With the new structure we wish to adopt, we hope to adress this problem by operating on two fronts. As noted, the basic unit of the organization will be the Militant Tenants’ Committee. Composed of two (2) or more tenants, an MTC will principally serve to unite these tenants with their neighbors against their landlord, operating within one building or a few buildings at walking distance from one another. The various MTCs will convene in the context of public events and assemblies held by a Neighborhood Committee. In this manner, our organizing efforts will cover both particular buildings and the neighborhood more broadly, all the while providing a means through which the tenants themselves can manifest their initiative and begin to break the persistent barrier between organizers and organized.
Problems encountered with the mass line
After we took the letter and the petition to the landlord’s house, her retaliation was swift. That evening, her janitor went to her blocks to identify and intimidate those who had signed the petition. In the days that followed, we learned that the landlord had damaged a tenant’s car, that she had contacted the police to report our small protest in front of her house as a hate crime, that she was taking a tenant to the Tribunal administratif du logement for two months of allegedly unpaid rent, and that she was trying to evict an elderly tenant. Because of our lack of experience, this sequence of events quickly overwhelmed and scared us. It didn’t help that there was confusion, due to miscommunication on our part, about a tenant being pushed out of her bed during the night: we thought it was a consequence of the action at the landlord’s house, only to learn later that it had happened months before! We already knew that the landlord was responsible for a fire in one of her blocks a few years before, so we expected the worst to the point of losing sight of the facts.
Although we lost our cool, we comforted ourselves with the perfect legality of our action, on the one hand, and the confidence of our mass contacts with regards to this action, on the other hand. Correctly, we understood that the landlord, too, was afraid. But we did not know how to get back on track and follow up accordingly. Our later mistakes, which we detail below, could generally have been avoided had we waited, come back to our senses and further investigated the situation; since, we have learned that landlords will attempt to scare us and their tenants in every imaginable way, but that their threats are almost always empty. Landlords are paper tigers, too! Often, we have more time to think over a course of action than we may believe at first, and things are likely not as bad as they may seem. Consequently, it should be a rule always to “take a chill pill“.
As the landlord’s reprisals sowed chaos in our organizing efforts, our subsequent events and activities didn’t attain the same level of success as the petition campaign and, it seemed, reached fewer tenants. The main problem confronting us from then up until the present date is an inadequate implementation of the mass line. The mass line is generally defined as a method of leadership which consists in combining the leadership with the masses. In Mao’s often-cited description of the mass line there are three essential steps: gathering ideas from the masses, synthesizing their most advanced ideas in a general line and returning to the masses with this line . Two determining factors have lead to our deviation from this understanding of the mass line.
First, our prompt but chaotic response to the reprisals made us lose focus: we were dazzled by the enemy’s tactics and in trying to counter them were drawn away from our main task — organizing the tenants. In order to react to what we incorrectly perceived as dangerous threats, we drafted a new plan which involved self-defense lessons and further door-knocking to gather support from neighboring buildings. In doing this we completely dropped the petition campaign we and the tenants had just accomplished. The results from this campaign were never tallied and, consequently, the tenants were never made aware of those results. This is a crucial mistake: we took the enemy’s bait and, in the process, failed to report on our allies’ achievements!
Second, our will to elevate the struggle no matter what lead us away from the masses’ ideas. Elevating the struggle is a fundamental part of mass work, as after all we want to move the masses into more militant means of struggle; we want wins and believe they need to be pried from the hands of the enemy. Since this is such an important part of our work, we need to reflect on the correct way of doing this in given circumstances. After the petition, we organizers came up with a few tactics which we thought could advance the struggle (phone zap, smear campaign). We then held an assembly two weeks after having gone to the landlord’s doorstep, where we suggested these tactics to the tenants and, seeing that there was a moderate amount of support, ran with them. What was the problem here? As we were attempting to elevate the struggle and respond to the landlord’s reprisals, we mostly skipped the first step of the mass line — gathering ideas — either thinking our ideas were better or not trusting our contacts to come up with radical ideas of their own. Unsurprisingly, our subsequent actions garnered little support, with the same core of 3 or 4 tenants attending Zoom meetings and even fewer at the self-defense activity. Leading up to the petition we had done things differently: a substantial amount of door-knocking went into gathering data and ideas, which we synthesized in our propaganda; we then returned to the masses with our findings and organized an action which had first been suggested by tenants — a petition, certainly not the most radical of tactics, but it rallied support, made for an enthusiastic gathering and convinced some to join the struggle. The process of gathering ideas can be painstaking, but it can hardly be done away with. An assembly, then, should not be called willy-nilly to suggest tactics and organize the tenants; no, an assembly should be the result of a careful process of investigation where we gather ideas, it should be dedicated to the third step of the mass line — returning to the masses with the results of our work.
Of course, we did not wholly fail to gather the masses’ ideas in determining a response to the landlord’s reprisals: for specific problems, such as threats of eviction, we sought solutions. But even then, we did not gather a sufficient quantity of ideas. To correctly practice the mass line, it is necessary not only to have strong but also to have broad connections with the masses, not only a handful of people; in short, the mass line has a quantitative aspect, a mass character, which we have been neglecting. Obviously, the quantity of ideas we must gather is not absolute; it is relative to our capacity and our objectives as well as the sector, class or class strata of the masses with which we are working. But the masses in general being the majority of the exploited or, at the very least, a part of that majority which represents its interests, we cannot rest content with a small pool of ideas, especially since this has its negative consequences. As a matter of fact, in collecting too few ideas, it is all too easy to miss what are in reality the most advanced ideas of the masses, and to mistake intermediate for advanced ideas, as we have little with which to compare the ideas we have on hand. Likely to be dissatisfied with our pool of ideas in this way, we risk falling back on our own ideas, yet again; one such situation occurred when it seemed to us that no other way forward than going to the Tribunal administratif du logement (TAL) was being proposed by our tenant contacts in order to fight evictions, leading us to disregard their suggestions. We return to this particular issue below, but it is safe to say that all this, too, leads us to organize activities in parks anew, in order to hear out a greater amount of people, and also to increase tenfold our output of certain propaganda material: leafletting at street corners, for example, has in our experience proven itself as an effective means, perhaps not for mobilization, but for initiating conversation with passers-by; however, we have been casting too small a net and aim to begin distributing thousands of leaflets at a time, as opposed to a couple hundreds.
Onward advances the tenants’ struggle!
As noted, a problem specific to tenant organizing which we’ve encountered is a tendency on the part of certain tenants to resort to the TAL (Tribunal administratif du logement) as a final solution to disputes with their landlord. Due to a lack of systematicity in our investigation we aren’t at present capable of determining the extent of this problem, but our current hypothesis is that it is more prevalent among petty-bourgeois tenants. Only further investigation can give us a clearer understanding, but the fact remains that this tendency is a constant concern. Of course, it is logical for tenants to resort to the only legal body which holds the authority to make judgments on matters regarding their grievances. This is exacerbated by the absence of any substantial counter-power: the tribunal for and by the people does not exist, and so people default to the State institution which is conferred legitimacy. The issue, however, is that the TAL demonstrably skews towards landlords . This is a fact many landlords are acutely aware of, as evidenced by the COGIR investment group’s constant recourse to the TAL in a bid to squeeze money from their tenants, despite oftentimes lacking any form of evidence to back their claims. It follows from this that militants with the ambition to circumvent the TAL’s authority and advance the tenants’ struggle have a dual task: a) to wage ideological struggle exposing the clear-cut class interests which the TAL serves; b) to build organizations which defend the people’s interests and can function as an efficient replacement to bourgeois tribunals. Before we further expound on point (a), let us note that purposeful ideological struggle is conditional to a correct application of the mass line. We must know and understand the backwards or intermediate points of view against which a struggle is required, on the one hand, and we must reply to these points of view armed with advanced ideas we have gathered. Once this is done, there are four methods by which we can carry out ideological struggle. They are as follows:
- i. Individual discussion and agitation with contacts;
- ii. Collective debates during assemblies involving comrades and contacts;
- iii. Written documents and propaganda, preferably our own which is detailed, readable, engaging and practical, but also that produced by mainstream organizations.
- iv. A political program setting mid to long-term goals for the organization which can only be resolved outside the bounds of bourgeois legality.
Concerning point (b), we believe that centering the organization around tenants’ committees could be a start to superseding the TAL’s authority. As they carry out their work, these committees should show that they can organize mutual aid, bring creative and efficient solutions to tenant issues, and exert greater pressure on the landlord than individuals. The committees would have the clear advantage over the TAL whose proceedings are bogged down by extremely slow reaction times and bureaucratic thumb-twiddling, without mentioning its favoritism with regards to landlords. Eventually, the committees, provided their work is done well, should gain the people’s preference, they should be seen by the majority as the primary instance for resolving housing issues.
The restructuration of STP-MTL around tenants’ committees should formalize our intervention on the front of housing. Taking on a new name reflecting this change, our organization aims for the mass mobilization of tenants around a revolutionary strategy for the housing struggle; that is, a strategy inseparably linked to the struggle for political power. The necessity of a tenants’ movement in Montreal is sufficiently demonstrated by our first hand experience, as well as the plethora of articles published from January to June 2021 dealing with the current housing crisis, broadly speaking. However, the place of such a movement within a broader revolutionary strategy is yet to be clarified. To rectify this, a political program with which to organize and lead the housing struggle to greater heights, such as already suggested above, becomes all the more necessary. For this purpose, we must set into motion a process of study, discussion and debate with the objective of understanding what revolution means for tenants, why housing has become one of the main theaters of class struggle in Canada, and what opportunities this situation presents in regards to our ultimate goal.
As part of this initiative, it is essential for us to concentrate our efforts on working alongside proletarian tenants. When conducting social investigation we’ve had the tendency to focus on getting a clear picture of the issues at hand, gathering people’s opinions on the matter, and identifying their level of engagement with the work. What we failed to do was to determine their class position and background. Although this kind of socio-economic data doesn’t on its own show the way forward as does the struggle itself, it nevertheless provides an objective basis to our assessment of the different elements composing the masses. It also affords opportunities to better push proletarian ideas. But, more than anything else, it allows us to organize proletarians, and provides us with one possible avenue leading to the organization of the proletariat as a class, that single social force which can turn a revolutionary program into a material force and a reality.
The whole of tenants in Montreal are a heterogeneous group. It would be false to claim that only workers and minimum wage earners are tenants; in fact, the majority of the city’s population is comprised of tenants , from the unemployed, the most precarious workers, artists, the intelligentsia, low-level white-collar workers to large sections of the petty bourgeoisie. Aside from working to organize mainly proletarian tenants, the challenge then for militants is to rally tenants of other classes and strata in a democratic way that maintains proletarian politics in command. This isn’t always a given when some tenants have the means to keep up with the rent hikes, or the funds to challenge their landlord in court. In our work, we’ve encountered a situation where the most proactive tenant challenging a landlord were themselves the owner of small businesses and residential units. No wonder then that the struggle was being lead through legal means many workers can’t afford! From our point of view, the solution to this also lies in the methods of ideological struggle outlined above, refined by an explicit integration of inquiries regarding class in our investigation. Broadening the latter, again, we should manage to reach, identify and organize a greater number of advanced tenants whose ideas we should encourage, sharpen and synthesize so as to form a proletarian line on the concrete conditions of the housing question in Canada. Around this, and only this, should petty-bourgeois elements be united. The heterogeneous character of tenant organizing can’t be done away with, though it can be oriented by proletarian politics and toward them; such is our aim.
All in all, we’ve encountered considerable problems in our work over the year. Although these problems had roots reaching back to our formative period, they cropped up in the numerous failures encountered in the spring of 2021. To sum up, these were: concentrating almost exclusively on door-knocking; failing to assess the results of our actions; neglecting tenants’ ideas; failing to expand our mass base; and, finally, failing to engage in meaningful debate with our contacts. This, in turn, resulted in our being disconnected from those we want to mobilize. Albeit we have devised individual solutions to these problems as indicated above, it has become clear that these issues can’t be addressed through superficial or isolated changes in our practice — they require a general overhaul of our organizational structure placing tenants at its core. For all the above reasons, the projected structure would move the locus of operations to the aforementioned Militant Tenants’ Committees. These committees, by putting tenants in contact with one another, would partially reduce the need for door-knocking which tends to produce isolated encounters, and provide a means through which they could assert their collective power. At the same time, the committees would afford channels through which tenants can propose solutions and mobilize their neighbors, thereby constituting the basis of mass ideas currently missing from our mass line practice. Finally, this structure could help us better integrate with the masses, a necessary condition for mobilization and ideological struggle. We believe this new orientation to be a step in the right direction, all the while taking into account the fact that it may not provide a solution to every issue, that it may have issues of its own, and that it must be correctly put into practice, as with all the lessons we take away from our work. The new structure, therefore, should by no means be seen as a final and decisive solution, rather it is a flexible framework through which we hope to address concrete problems of political struggle for housing.
“The people, and the people alone, are the motive force in the making of world history.”
“The masses are the real heroes, while we ourselves are often childish and ignorant, and without this understanding, it is impossible to acquire even the most rudimentary knowledge.”
“Fight, fail, fight again, fail again, fight again . . . until their victory; that is the logic of the people […].”
– Chairman Mao Zedong
 For details on the dissolution of the RSM-Montreal in January 2020 see https://www.facebook.com/merrsmtl/posts/1347487008952173 and https://lignedemasse.com/2021/04/03/a-criticism-from-the-comrades-of-the-ex-rsm-montreal/.
 To this effect, see the resolution (3) from the Congress at the following link: https://mer-rsm.ca/resolutions-of-the-seventh-congress-of-the-revolutionary-student-movement/.
 In this regard, our experience corroborates the point of view expressed in kites concerning investigations lead in a “community” which isn’t our own: https://kites-journal.org/2021/04/18/a-call-for-communist-social-investigation-a-year-after-the-summer-of-rebellion/.
 We will circle back to our new structure.
 See https://forthepeopleboston.wordpress.com/2020/12/29/one-step-forward-two-steps-back-mutual-aid-mass-work-and-communist-strategy/, https://kites-journal.org/2020/12/22/malcolm-x-didnt-dish-out-free-bean-pies/ and https://struggle-sessions.com/2021/02/17/four-points-on-mutual-aid/.
 Note that we do not deem distributions as a means to conduct social investigation to be economistic in character, insofar as they are not a means to carry out economic agitation nor imagined as a means to answer the masses’ needs in a way that the State cannot. In this regard, the criticism of opportunists directed at JD!’s distributions has been in line with the nature of its authors – that is, it has been opportunistic – for these distributions are only a backdrop to the organizations’ meetings, and nothing more. As such, our own criticism of distributions does not apply to JD’s practice either.