First Published: In Struggle! No. 282, March 9, 1982
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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May 20, 1980, led directly to November 5, 1981. The NO victory in the referendum provoked an enormous setback for Quebec and plunged it into a sharp political crisis whose resolution is far from evident.
It has already been said often enough that the Quebec left is in a crisis. But the Parti Quebecois is also split – torn between its moderates and its radicals. Furthermore the Liberal Party is divided between the supporters of renewed federalism (the “Ryanites”)and the unconditional federalists (the “Trudeauites”). As for the other parties (Union Nationale and Social Credit) that had somehow managed to survive up till 1980, the polarization has thrown them right off the political map. All of Quebec is torn apart by the national question.
The right to self-determination has been at the heart of the constitutional debate. Indians, Inuit and Francophone minorities have all been victims of the federal steam-roller. For Quebec, the setback suffered May 20, 1980 took legal form on November 5, 1981. This collective defeat fur Canada’s minority nations constitutes a major failure to recognize national particularities and is therefore a setback for democracy.
To say that the defeat of the YES position was a defeat for democracy and a setback for Quebec is to say that a YES victory could have put Quebec in a better position. Saying this means recogniting that our opposition to Quebec Independence (which translated into a campaign for spoiling your ballot during the referendum) is based on a fundamentally erroneous evaluation ol Quebecois nationalism.
The text which follows is intended as a critique of IN STRUGGLE!’s positions on Quebec independence and the Quebecois national movement. In the first part, the national struggle in Quebec is placed in the context of the vast movement of revolt which has shaken all the multinational industrialized countries over the last twenty years. The second part tries to explain these national revolts by looking at them in the context of the historical destiny of nation States. The third part presents Quebec independence as a demand which fundamentally seeks to broaden democracy for the Quebecois nation. Finally, the fourth part argues that the federal framework is essentially a straitjacket which stifles minority nations and therefore holds no possible solution for national oppression.
The crisis of nation-States in the industrialized world is without a doubt a major phenomenon of the period which began during the 1960s.
The multi-national character of all the developed countries is a fact. In Western Europe, Portugal is the only single-nation State; in all the other countries, a large number of nations, national minorities and linguistic groups co-exist. France has its Bretons, Corsicans, Basques and Catalonians. Great Britain has its Scots, Welsh, Irish and the people of the Isle of Man. Italy contains notably the Sardinians as well as Crotian, Greek and Albanian communities. Spain extends itself over a territory inhabited by, amongst others, the Basques, Catalonians and Galicians. Even Germany has its minorities, including the Frisians and the Danes. All these groupings of people have taken up (more or less over the last twenty years) national demands which have shaken and seriously challenged the unitary structure of the nation-State.
In North America, much the same kind of thing can be seen. In the United States, there are twenty million Spanish Americans and thirty million Blacks who haven’t blended into the great American “melting-pot”. In Canada, the Quebec national movement, the demands of Indians and the Inuit, and the will for survival on the part of Francophone minorities are well known.
All these “little” peoples (some regrouping millions of persons, others a few thousand) have been fighting assimilation, often for centuries. This implies that among these peoples there is a national will, a desire to affirm their cultural (and often linguistic) difference. In addition, we have seen languages that were practically dead (like the Basque language or the Gaelic of Ireland) brought back to life thanks to the stubborn efforts of a handful of dedicated individuals. Should we see this promotion of national languages as a matter of folklore? In my opinion, the development of national particularities is inseparable from that of democracy: uniformity and assimilation always stand for the triumph of oppression.
One common denominator of all these national demands is the demand, for recognition as a nation. In certain cases – the Basques. the Irish and the Quebecois, for instance – recognition as a nation is seen as meaning the creation of a separate State. It can, however, take the form of regional autonomy which implies a decentralization of the powers of the central State. For the smallest groups, national recognition will take on first a cultural or linguistic character.
It’s important then to grasp the revolt of these small nations as a historical phenomenon. Then we will no longer see nationalism as an ideology which seeks to cover up class antagonisms with the flag of national unity. I think, on the contrary, that there are many nationalisms and that it is necessary to analyse each of them from a historical point of view. It would be ridiculous to establish an equation between Nazi nationalism and that of the anti-Nazi resistance; it would be equally ridiculous, to my mind, to put Quebecois nationalism on an equal footing with pan-Canadian chauvinism.
We will therefore have to analyse more specifically the kind of nationalism which has developed over the last twenty years, not only in Quebec but amongst the oppressed national groups throughout the industrialized world. For we must, in my opinion, see the resurgence of the Quebec national movement since the beginning of the 1960s as part of this general movement of revolt.
The phenomenon of the revolt of small nations in the industrialized world has already been labelled as the “crisis” of the nation-State. To understand the phenomenon, it is indeed necessary to examine the historical developement of the nation-State.
It was in the 17th and 18th centuries that modern States began to establish themselves: this was the epoch when feudal absolutism was drawing to a close and the primitive accumulation of capital was taking place. These modern States were based on three pillars: a compulsory national language, spoken and written throughout the territory: the taxation of citizens; and the establishment of a unified national army. The most ardent advocates of the idea of the nation. conceived of as a high ideal and based on these three pillars, were the bourgeoisie.
The crucible for nationalism was the French Revolution. Robespierre. leader of the bourgeois radical tendency. the Jacobins, defined the homeland as “the country where one belongs to a sovereign body”. The revolutionaries were trying to build a national civilization, a national literature and national language. When the revolution became entangled in a series of internal contradictions, its leaders threw the nation into war against neighbouring feudal regimes in the hope of reinforcing internal unity.
The population of these neighbouring countries didn’t welcome the French soldiers as saviours. The bourgeois revolution in them was not made in support of France but rather in reaction to it. In the countries attacked, the people undertook the struggle against both foreign invasion and feudal absolutism; at the same time they sought to unify the national territory.
In the majority of these countries, the national minorities that struggled to preserve their particular characteristics linked up with the feudal resistance and were ruthlessly crushed. The first socialists, notably Marx and Engels, severely condemned these nations. Engels made a distinction between the historic and non-historic nations. He wrote in 1866: “Certain peoples, like the Scots and the Bretons, have only appeared in history to then later be absorbed by more powerful nations.” We had to wait til the end of the century for socialists (Connolly in Ireland, McLean in Scotland) to link the cause of the small nations with that of the workers’ movement.
With the development of capitalism and eventually the domination of monopolies, the weight of the central nation in the national market rapidly outstripped that of the minorities. Many of these minorities were, moreover, too small to constitute a national market in and of themselves. The rivalry between the industrialized countries led to heightened capialist exploitation of the minorities. Up until after the second world war, the tendency toward unification and uniformity carried the day; only a handful of nostalgic intellectuals took up trying to preserve the national character of the minorities.
With the 1960s, the wind changed. The successful liberation struggles in Cuba, Algeria and Vietnam had a resounding impact throughout the industrialized world. A good number of minorities woke up and asserted their opposition. In many eases, there were vast popular movements whose extreme wings, inspired by Third World guerrilla forces, launched violent actions. Some of these armed movements obtained significant support and took up embryonic and prolonged civil wars (Northern Ireland, Basque countries). Others were cut short because conditions were not ripe or the repression was too severe (Quebec, the Black Panthers in the United States).
In the majority of cases, there was a close link between national demands and the demands of workers and community organizations. The emancipation of small nations stood in direct opposition to monopolies and the central State and thus took on an anti-imperialist character.
Canada has followed a similar historical process, from formation to crisis, And if we want to correctly assess the Quebec national struggle and the demand for political independence, we must understand this history.
Confederation in 1867 united the national market for the benefit of the dominant classes of the times on the basis of the lessons of the 1837-38 revolt. This insurrection was not only the act of the petty bourgeoisie but also that of the popular masses fighting for more democracy. It was also, it must be emphasized. a struggle for Lower Canada’s political independence. The 1840 Act of Union, and later Confederation, were political attempts to avoid further uprisings of this kind. In the confederation framework, French Canadians saw their political weight seriously reduced: they became one province amongst others. In addition, the central State gave itself crucial political levers (notably the control of immigration) that allowed it to master the Quebecois nation. It goes without saying that the economic role of the State developed significantly throughout the 20th century and the federal government cornered an important number of economic levers and thus reiforced its domination over Quebec.
At the beginning of the 1960s, Quebec adjusted to the realities of modern-day capitalism. The adjustment was accompanied by numerous upheavals. It was at this time that the national movement reappeared in force; a movement which opposed the different forms of national oppression which the Quebecois were subjectd to. The movement very soon ran up against the federalist straitjacket and embraced a demand that had previously only been advocated by a few nationalist groups on the right: independence.
The national movement thus spread throughout the nation. Since the key political and economic levers were in the hands of the central government, all classes in the nation were hit, except the sectors of the bourgeoisie (Desmarais, De Grandpre) belonging to the Canadian establishment. Thus, the national movement included: a popular section who suffered national oppression linked to capitalist exploitation (wages lower then the Canadian average; inadequacies in education; the impossibility of working in French); and a bourgeois component whose full development was impeded by the political framework and who therefore opted for the national movement.
Throughout the 1960s. the popular classes played a major role in the national movement: workers’ struggles and demonstrations followed one right after the other. In its first election, the PQ, a party controlled by the bourgeois component of the movement (but which had taken up some of the popular demands) won an impressive 25% of the vole. In October, the FLQ’s impatience provided the central government with the opportunity to come down hard: the national movement was seriously shaken up.
In these conditions, the PQ’s assertion that radicalism and violence lead to an impasse was favourably received by the masses. Popular demonstrations continued (La Presse, Bill 22) but they were increasingly oriented by the PQ or the union centrals which supported it. Very quickly, the PQ’s hegemony over the national movement became almost total. A part of the left thus turned away, and eventually completely abandoned the national terrain. November 11 1976, the PQ was elected and formed the provincial government.
The era of large street demonstrations was over, and for a good reason: the national movement had succeeded in bringing to power a party that promised to institute certain desired reforms and that now had some power to do it. In other words, the coming to power of the PQ put the struggle against national oppression on the political level, on the parliamentary level. This is a fact that we in IN STRUGGLE! did not recognize: because the struggle against national oppression was no longer taking place in the street, we began to doubt it was still taking place.
Thus we can say that Bill 101 was the outcome of all the demonstrations and demands for the French language during the 1960s and the early 1970s. The general support it immediately enjoyed and which it still enjoys shows that is was in large part a response to these demands.
Similarly, the endless arguments between Quebec and Ottawa over jurisdiction were, ultimately, a battle over the right to self-determination. It was an attempt to achieve self-determination for Quebec bit by bit, instead of in one fell swoop.
As a result, we did not correctly judge the importance of the referendum and were led to the spoil-your-ballot position. After the fact, we can realistically say that a victory for the YES would have prevented or at least seriously impeded Trudeau’s power play. In addition to placing Quebec in a better position, a victory for the YES would perhaps have helped, to some degree, other oppressed national groups in the country.
If part of what national oppression means concretely is the impossibility of working in ones own language, lower pay, poorer educational facilities. etc. then the struggle For powers over language. education and economic development are necessarily part of the struggle against national oppression.
We can say that the struggle of the Quebec people to take in hand the political and economic levers which decide their destiny constitutes a struggle to extend democracy and that the demand for independence is thus a response to the federal straitjacket.
In its critique of nationalism, IN STRUGGLE! has always separated the struggle against national oppression from the struggle for greater sovereignty for Quebec. Such a point of view leads to keeping the struggle at the level of principles, to supporting the right to self-determination in theory but avoiding taking positions on the political demands, to refusing any concrete application of self-determination.
Given that the federal system is essentially a straitjacket imposed on minority nations, there can be no satisfactory solution to national oppression within this system. The minority nations’ constant search for new political structures in which they can take their lives in hand is evidence of this fact.
To subordinate the struggle against national oppression to the unity of the Canadian proletariat amounts to ignoring this oppression, to forgetting it, Or, more definitively, to preferring a unity based on inequality to equality which “ could imply separation. IN STRUGGLE! has certainly always said that this unity can only be based on equality, but in practice the position was always: unity now, perhaps equality later. 
The kind of unity IN STRUGGLE! conceived of was, moreover, very formal. Why would a unity arrived at by two partners having recognized their differences and assumed their independence be less viable? Hasn’t history shown that cultural, national and linguistic differences (and the inequalities between Quebec and English Canada) have persisted for centuries? Any unity which tries to minimize these differences is, in my opinion. doomed to failure. The Canadian proletariat doesn’t exist: what exists are English-Canadian workers, Acadian workers, Quebecois workers, immigrant workers, Native workers, working-class women, young workers, industrial and service workers. etc. Any unity and all equality necessarily demands the full and complete recognition of differences.
Doesn’t the history even of our own organization attest to this fact? Despite enormous human and financial efforts, we have not really succeeded in Canadianizing the organization. In English Canada, we have hardly rallied anyone apart from members of collectives which already existed. The only development was sending Quebecois militants there. Should we conclude that even greater efforts were necessary? Or should we blame the nationalism of our membership? Or should we instead recognize that there are basic differences and act accordingly on a consistent basis?
In the past we opposed the idea of independence because the fusion of languages and nations was an integral part of the notion of history. Let’s leave science fiction to the science fiction writers and recognize instead that emancipation and liberty develop through the affirmation of differences. The multiplying of States throughout the century, the national movements whether separatist or not, are ample proof of this.
In Quebec, sovereignty-association, which is a form of expression of what sovereignty could be, is already supported by 40% of the population, including the most progressive elements of society.  In 1966, the RIN (Rassemblement pour l’independance nationale) received only 6% of the popular vote. You can see how far things have come. If there is a real movement in Quebec, it’s certainly this one. Can we continue to deny it much longer?
Political affairs journalist
 We should remember that this question raised a controversy even in our own ranks. In British Columbia, the brochure entitled Our rights are on the line was judged alarmist. Today, we can easily conclude that the rights of Quebec were indeed “on the line”.
 Shouldn’t we also see in this position an indication of our attitude toward democracy and reforms? Our whole ideology led as to conceive of reforms as traps even though the corresponded in many cases to popular demands and brought useful improvements.
 The group was orginally for independence (from 1972 to 1974). It was with the adoption of the body of M-L principles that this perspective was abandoned, for doctrine demanded the unity of the Canadian proletariat.
 Haven’t we always said that the main obstacle for advanced workers in Quebec was nationalism!