First Published: In Struggle! No. 285, April 21, 1982
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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I have decided to reply to Jack’s comments on a supplement that came out of our region last fall. I was one of the three authors of this document. The following reply is not a collective one, however: I am solely responsible for it. I have numbered the paragraphs in Jack’s response from I to 20 and will comment on them by referring to these numbers.
You point to the Marxist-Leninist movement internationally going down the tubes; you ask why this movement has always been so marginal. I think these are correct observations and questions. I think much of this is due to dogmatism and sectarianism, simplistic analyses – often only the repetition of principles, etc. However, I think it is one thing to look at the movement we were a part of and what we had in common with them and struggle to understand this better and reject it fully. But, in my view, we also have to analyse the specifics of IS! in doing this. If we look at the Canadian scene, we had things in common with the CCL(ML)/WCP, BU, CPC(ML), etc. (all of which can be said to be part of the Marxist-Leninist trend internationally), but we surely were different from them too! Internationally, in the Marxist-Leninist movement, there are many groups like the Canadian ones listed above; in fact, they comprise the vast majority of such groups in my view. Even if we had points in common with them, we were also different. We were some sort of hybrid cross between the typical dogmatic-sectarian Marxist-Leninist trend and revolutionaries that think for themselves and make concrete analysis. This is recognized by Jean in his text in an IB where he sums up our ’lessons’ in organization but he doesn’t talk at all about the good side of this hybrid character; the same was done by, Charles Gagnon too in his pamphlet on the crisis of Marxism-Leninism. The difference, however, is that Charles has recognized this weakness since and has worked at a more balanced evaluation of our past and programme, whereas others are content with saying “for sure we did some good things” and then they go on for hours and hours about the wrong things we did...
I do not think that we were so marginal in Canada, overall. There was a period between 1976 and early 1980 where we were more sectarian but even then we were not totally “off the wall” and we did good work around Operation Liberty, around Quebec’s right to self-determination and on more particular fronts too.
I agree with you that our demise is not due to Trotskyism and that we are trying to get away from this way of explaining things. I do not think at all that we move away from that idealist approach when we blame Marxism-Leninism instead of Trotskyism!
I agree with you that there was a certain amount of extremism in the defence of the “principles” (last line). I do not agree with the way you look back at “a movement characterized by the defence of the principles (on almost exclusively ideological grounds) dropped by others”. As materialists, we don’t judge a book by its cover. We not looked a their line when we demarcated fom CPC(ML) and WCP, to take two examples. We have to look at what people say they are how they define themselves and then also at their practice. Despite dogmatism and sectarianism, we were not only a flying programme or a series of principles circulating in the masses. We had a paper whose content was not all principles; we had actions organized; we intervened in some struggles; etc. The ideological and political line doesn’t decide everything, in my view, whether successes or errors. Blaming everything on our programme is just a new form of our old idealism.
You say you understand our analysis of the crisis as due to the abandonment of principles and a caving in to the pressure of right opportunism. This is not the complete story.
First, there was some editing of our supplement by the national press. The original title of part I was very bland: “The text” (in contrast with the title of the second part , “The debate”). This was edited to a new title, “How do we see the crisis”. Although there was no wrong intention there (on the part of the editors) it makes people wonder if we totally underestimate the ideological crisis. But as explained at the beginning it was mainly a reply to the editor’s position in issue 267, not our complete analysis of the crisis.
Second, I’ll explain where I stand generally. I think there were two stages in this crisis. First, a deep ideological crisis due to all the setbacks in the struggle for socialism for which no explanation is readily available (no satisfying explanation) and which is contrary to often-repeated statements of the international communist movement that the situation looks good for revolutionaries around the world, etc. So we’re in front of a great vacuum, enormous challenges. This is good; it is a chance to get out of our dogmatism, cliches and pursue serious analysis to start better understanding our world. But there are many deep economic factors behind historical setbacks in my view and also we are in the midst of a deep economic crisis ouiselves! Then comes phase 2 of the crisis, i.e. quite different ways of responding to this vaccum. And here, yes, I think one trend is caving in to the pressure of right opportunism while others struggle to take up the challenges, while remaining revolutionary.
I agree with you that the struggle for democracy and reforms does not obscure the fact that imperialism is reactionary but rather brings it out even more sharply. But this is not due to the fact that a great number of reforms can be won or that people can gradually win control over their lives and communities, as Jean and Howard are presenting to us! It brings out imperialism’s reactionary character precisely because it cannot grant these things we want and fight for, overall. And to the extent that it can (like in the 1960s in Canada), yes comrade, it succeeds in obscuring its deep character.
You argue that changing our fine on the PLO went against the programme, more precisely where it says “only proletarian leadership can lead the revolution on the path towards socialism”. In my view, the only thing that this quotation says is that it is the working class that has an interest in socialism primarily and not other classes and that revolution where the driving force is some other class doesn’t lead to socialism. I don’t see what can be wrong with saying this. Of course, this is not a straight-line path and not a simple one either; of course, the working class has a long way to go before it acts as a class in its own specific interest, etc... but what can you oppose to the quote you take put of the programme? Do you think that petty-bourgeois or bourgeois leadership can lead to socialism?
In my view, changing our line on the PLO did contradict something, but not our programme: it contradicted part of our adopted report to the 3rd Congress where we had a clear tendency to consider that only revolutions led by the working class could have a progressive character in our era and in fact we did not recognize that other revolutions than revolutions led by the proletariat deserved being called “revolution”. Some comrades tried to get this section of the 3rd Congress report amended (including myself), but it was then defeated overwhelmingly... Must I also remind you that some comrades from “dogmatic” B.C. played a key role in this change of line on the PLO?
You say you feel uncomfortable with militants from our region insisting that we have corrected our sectarian errors in the main. I feel the opposite: uncomfortable with people who claim we haven’t changed at all, who don’t acknowledge developments. I think it is not sufficient to say (although it is true) that sectarianism is in fact a common feature of the left in our country. Here again, we must make differences: even though we were quite sectarian at times, we generally were not manipulative in mass organizations; we did not try to sneak into the leadership of mass organizations, to hide our politics yet pull strings behind the scenes, etc. Other organizations have done so and not only in the Marxist-Leninist trend! One such organization is the Socialist Organizing Committee (SOC) in Vancouver, with whom our editors went on a blind date in an editorial last summer.
I agree with you that some of the source of our sectarianism can be linked with the analysis we made of who is or isn’t in the revolutionary camp. We considered for some time that left social democracy was the worst enemy of workers and treated progressives accordingly.
You say you don’t agree with us “that the task of uniting the revolutionaries around a programme is complete”. I would like to know where we say this! If you are trying to rally people around a programme, you don’t think this task is completed, I think. On the other hand, there are distinctions to make: we can talk of uniting revolutionaries in general and we can talk of uniting left organizations. The fact that you don’t distinguish the two is problematic. I think there are many (relatively speaking) unorganized revolutionary-minded people, young people, independent activists, etc... (they can be or not members of the NDP too). We have never given up on rallying them, I think. On the other hand, there are many groups that claim to he revolutionary. Many of them are and some aren’t. For example, I think that Socialist Challenge, the WCP, Bread and Roses, some anarchist groupings, etc., are revolutionary (from what I know, not only of what they proclaim themselves to be, but from what I know of their practice). But I do not think RWL and SOC, for example again, are revolutionary. I am not saying that they are not progressive in some respects, but that doesn’t make them revolutionary. So when we talk of the unity of revolutionaries, I refuse to take at face-value every body’s self-description and prefer to look at their practice.
It is wrong to say that we have resigned ourselves to the present level of unity of revolutionary forces: we’ve had special meetings with SCO (Socialist Challenge) to discuss their creation and work in common that we could accomplish; when the CPC (ML) attacked an anti-racist demonstration, we went to see SCO, RWL, WCP, etc., to discuss the possible organizing of united marshall teams that would be more or less permanent and that any participating group (and others) could draw on, etc. Between March 1981 and May 1982, we will have held ten public forums on questions of theory, strategy and tactics, aimed at advancing debate in the left, We work both within Bread and Roses as individuals and jointly as organizations. At our public forums, we often have revolutionaries from outside our ranks as panelists. We often caucus with Socialist Challenge militants and others before key interventions in many mass organizations. For a while there was a project of a joint forum with SCO on Poland (dropped for lack of energy), etc, etc...
You agree that boosting reality can lead to exaggerated objectives but think it is too simple to simply reduce our quotas. First of all I will say that this is not all we propose, for if we say that we were boosting reality, one of our major tasks is to make better assessments of that reality, to better analyse the conjuncture, etc. I think Jean and Howard (and yourself, Jack) duck the issue of what is the level of development of class struggle in Canada today. Instead you question mainly the orientation we were presenting to the masses. In doing so, you perpetuate our idealism, our flying in the face of reality. In Jean and Howard’s supplement, they say that we are closer to communism in advanced capitalist countries. In presenting verbally their draft to the CC before they printed it, Jean insisted a lot that we had not fully grasped all the communist aspirations of the masses in countries like ours, etc. I do not deny that some of these aspirations exist, nor that productive forces are much more developed here than in most countries. But I do not think that communist aspirations are directly proportional to the level of productive forces in advanced capitalist countries. I think that ideologically the dominant feature of these advanced capitalist countries is how they have been able to distract the masses from communist aspirations, how bourgeois aspirations are still very alive and the increase in the standards of living since World War Two has given more credibility not to communist aspirations but to bourgeois ideology. This is now gradually being undermined by the crisis...
You also duck the issue of how come the Waffle, Dimension and SOC, who never had a Marxist-Leninist line, don’t attract thousands and thousands of people? Or even, how come the NDP gets only around 20% of the vote federally, etc. To be more popular, they should also review their orientation and lean even more towards straight Liberal party polities... which is what they are doing and which might draw more support for them but which won’t make their politics any better or get us any closer to socialism. I know this can seem like a caricature but this is where the automatic connection you make between low results and wrong orientation leads to. Are we simply after a more marketable product? For some, this seems to be their way of looking at the crisis: at a recent CC meeting, a member asked the editor why he no longer was defending his platform (minimal) and he simply turned around and said, “Nobody would buy it”!! Before we would have expected him to explain how he was convinced by his opponents or else that he respond to their arguments and prove them wrong.
Finally, don’t get me wrong: I am not saying nothing was wrong with our orientation! We had serious difficulties with idealism and sectarianism but that doesn’t mean we should throw away the baby with the bathwater.
I agree we have to ask why we have not struggled positively against national oppression in Quebec and I also agree with the answer you give to this question: we were afraid that it would just promote narrow nationalism. And that is wrong! If we recognize that there is national oppression, then we must fight against it!
But this line struggle has its history within IS! and many comrades fought against our errors, all over the country. In B.C., as early as 1979 (during the Declaration campaign), militants would insist with every PB visitor that our paper should be much more vocal about national oppression in Quebec; we did not want to get Declaration signatures only based on a general principle... we wanted the paper to provide us with all the facts so we could convince people in English Canada that Quebec was a nation and an oppressed one. Criticisms were also made to the press directly and CC members from B.C. raised this in CC meetings too... Most regions (if not all) in English Canada voiced similar concerns about the paper’s silence on Quebec’s national oppression and many militants in Quebec too, I’m sure. And we did learn some lessons: in 1980. right after the referendum, the CC adopted that we needed a programme of positive demands to fight national oppression in Quebec. So why, in 1982, do we see some comrades acting as if there was no concrete history to this internal struggle and no advances made ever?
You write, “If the revolution was on the agenda I would look at the first demand of section 8 favorably.” And a little further you blame this demand for our “spendid isolation from the institutions of this society which are a part of the State apparatus”.
Here again I differ with you. How can you not support article 8a)? The call for complete independence of mass organizations from the bourgeois State simply means that we are against State interference in workers’ and other progressives’ organization. We are against stuff like the Cliche Commission in Quebec; we are against legislation that ties up the workers’ movement as in social-democratic Germany, where you need two-thirds of the vote to go out on strike but only something like 40% to force you back to work and the whole process has to be supervised by State officials. This call also means we are against tripartism. Being against tripartism is not the expression of the splendid isolation of Marxist-Leninists, must I remind you: it is the stand of opposition forces within the trade-union movement; it is the official policy of unions like CUPW, CUPE and the CCU, to give examples.
This is the actual context of article 8a) and the reasons why people voted for it at the 3rd Congress (most people, at least). What’s wrong with that? Why could you only look favorably at this stand if revolution was on the immediate agenda? I think you read into this article that it’s a stand against taking part in elections (local, provincial or federal). I don’t think it is at all and I don’t think it ever was for IS! collectively. Maybe some individuals interpreted it that way however, but that certainly is no reason to reject it!
I strongly disagree with your statement. “Even if we spent all our work on the question of electoral activity (in and around that) for the next number of years – that wouldn’t mean that we no longer see socialism as the ’immediate goal’.” For me, struggling for socialism is not only a matter of stating that you are or that you haven’t abandoned this goal... The social democrats before World War One did not state that they were adopting an opportunist course and abandoning a revolutionary perspective: they stated the contrary for sure. But objectively that is what they were doing in fact nevertheless. Similarly, the leading party in the U.S.S.R. claims that they are building integral communism(!), but that has nothing to do with what they are actually doing, nor with what their policies aim for and result in. If one really struggles for socialism, one must try to understand some of the historical experience about it. Minimally, one recognizes that electoral activity alone (or even mainly) cannot lead to socialism. If we did spend the next number of years only in electoral activity, we would have in fact abandoned the struggle for socialism, regardless of what we would say!
I do not think it was reformist to work around the constitutional reform as such. Also, nowhere in the supplement do we say that our work on this issue was “basically reformist”. We say it was marked by such errors. In my opinion, one does not have to wait until our work is principally erroneous before we start criticizing it. This way of responding “but it is not principal” has historically been a method of silencing criticism in our history. The B.C. regional committee wrote a fairly long text to the PB in October 1980 on this, and I will try to make it available to you if you are more interested in this matter.
I agree with you that stating that rape and racism still exist in Saskatchewan won’t convince people that the NDP should not be supported. It could be interpreted as an idealist conception of socialism – i.e. as soon as the working class takes power all social evils disappear. But you picked and chose what you wanted in the letter from comrades in Regina (no. 268, p. 4). Their letter is very good. They both challenge the undemocratic reversal of past IS! policies in relation to social democracy and provide a number of sound arguments about why our past policy was the correct one.
They demarcate from the war preparations, national chauvinism of social-democratic governments and parties and indicate that in relation to immediate social conditions no significant improvements have occurred either (none that would justify the kind of compromises we are moving into!). On the other hand, reading the end of your article on provincial elections (same issue, no. 268, p. 5), it almost seems as if the NDP has only started existing last year and we do not really know what it is up to!.., They have been in Saskatchewan for years and years; how better off are the people there? There was also a pretty good article on the NDP’s practice for the last election in Ontario. I still agree with that kind of analysis.
It is true that “the character of an advanced capitalist country shapes the form and content of the revolutionary struggle”, but an important problem in this crisis seems to be that some comrades think there haven’t been more advances in the revolutionary struggle in Canada simply because communists were not sensitive enough to the original demands of people in advanced countries, were not creative enough, etc. Being in an advanced capitalist country might mean precisely that the demands of the masses aren’t that revolutionary for a prolonged period (which for me doesn’t mean at all that they should not be supported). You say: “Saying that we have to overthrow violently the bourgeois state, establish the dictatorship of the proletariat, strengthen the camp of revolution and weaken that of the bourgeoisie, etc. etc. doesn’t solve the problem.” I will agree that doesn’t solve everything but it surely puts you on a much surer course than stating all the opposite! For me it is very telling that people who oppose my view can say things like:
– violence? maybe... probably... We don’t have to talk about this now... A left coalition in government will dismantle the army.... but before they will hold a referendum on this... (from Charbonneau’s verbal presentation at the November CC: his and Howard’s supplement and a subsequent conversation with Jean in January)
– we must reject the dictatorship of the proletariat, it has never worked... we must question the very foundations of Marxism, not only Leninism... How could Marx who lived at the very beginning of capitalism understand really what it was all about? (interventions of the editor at recent CC meetings)
– the working class is a myth... a fiction... it doesn’t exist. We need a much more serious sociological analysis... What exists is many nationalities, strata, the women’s movement, the anti-nuke movement, the ecological movement, etc...
Very simply, I do not think that second-guessing the need for violent revolution, rejecting the dictatorship of the proletariat to struggle for pure democracy against pure dictatorship, or rejecting the very existence of the working class makes for a more concrete path for revolution taking more into account the specifics of an advanced capitalist country!
Raymond (B.C. secretary)
(A discussion with another comrade in Vancouver resulted in a number of improvements incorporated into the final version of this response.)