First Published: The Worker, Vol 10, No 23, October 24, 1978
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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1. Quebec is an oppressed nation. The distinction between oppressed and oppressor nations was described by Lenin as “the focal point” and “the cardinal idea” of a communist position on the national question. Refusal to recognize this distinction has historically been the hallmark of opportunists in the working class movement.
The oppression of nations is a vital aspect of capitalist rule that becomes increasingly acute in the epoch of imperialism. The bourgeoisie makes use of national oppression to enhance its own profits, to expand its empire, and to corrupt its own working class with the crumbs of the super-profits.
On the other hand, this national oppression calls forth great revolutionary sentiment in the oppressed nation. National capitalists, who have narrow interests of their own and who wish to prevent the national struggle from taking on a revolutionary and socialist aspect, try to exploit this mass hatred of national oppression.
2. The democratic struggle against national oppression is an important and essential element in the proletarian revolutionary struggle for socialism. It would be a “fundamental mistake”, writes Lenin, to suppose such democratic struggles are a “diversion”. The struggle for political democracy, of which the fight against national oppression is one part, is necessary to prepare the proletariat for victory over the bourgeoisie.
“The socialist revolution,” writes Lenin, “may break out not only in consequence of a great strike, a street demonstration, a hunger riot, a mutiny in the forces, or a colonial rebellion, but also in consequence of any political crisis, like the Dreyfus affair, the Zabern incident, or in connection with a referendum on the secession of an oppressed nation, etc.”
The struggle against national oppression, far from being “solved” in the advanced capitalist countries, is a profound contradiction with great revolutionary potential. The “national question” is not something that capitalism outgrows. It is significant that Lenin’s three examples – the Dreyfus affair, the Zabern incident, and a referendum on secession – are all drawn from Western Europe.
3. For more than 200 years Quebec has been an oppressed nation, first within Britain’s North American colonies and then within independent Canada. The suppression of the 1837 rebellion, the Durham report (which advocated liquidation of the French nation), Confederation, the hanging of Riel, the conscription crisis of World War I through to the October crisis of 1970, are all episodes in the continuing oppression of Quebec. The oppression of Quebec is the cornerstone of Canadian capitalism and the basis of its strength in much the same sense as Ireland has “served” English capitalism.
4. The central slogan in communist work around the national question must be “the right of Quebec to self-determination, up to and including secession”. We must distinguish ourselves from these opportunists who vaguely stand for “national equality”, “union of nations”, and “an end to racism” in a general and totally abstract manner.
The slogan of “the right of self-determination” gives concrete recognition to national equality. It leaves the question of separation or federation up to Quebec. In order to free Quebec of national oppression, of forcible containment within Canada’s borders, it must be left to decide the question of self-determination by itself.
Fighting for this democratic right does not in the least suggest that we support separatism, only that we recognize Quebec’s right to secede. We must point out, particularly in Quebec, the dangers of nationalism. But any recognition of rights based only on the condition that they be exercised “properly” would only be a fraud.
The right to self-determination can be achieved – naturally in a limited sense – under capitalism. The achievement of Quebec’s right to self-determination, fought for and won by Canada’s working class, especially the English-Canadian workers, would be a great boost to proletarian unity and a blow to the bourgeoisie. “The right to self-determination” is not a cliche to be paid lip service, but a fighting slogan for the Canadian working class.
5. The right of nations to self-determination is part of a body of democratic demands that are part of a complete communist program. “We must combine the revolutionary struggle against capitalism with a revolutionary program and tactics on all democratic demands: a republic, a militia, the popular election of officials, equal rights for women, the self-determination of nations, etc.,” wrote Lenin. “While capitalism exists, these demands – all of them – can only be accomplished as an exception, and even then in a incomplete and distorted form. Basing ourselves on the democracy already achieved, and exposing its incompleteness under capitalism, we demand the overthrow of capitalism, the expropriation of the bourgeoisie, as a necessary basis both for the abolition of the poverty of the masses and for the complete and all-round institution of all democratic reforms. Some of these reforms will be started before the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, others in the course of that overthrow, and still others after it. The social revolution is not a single battle, but a period covering a series of battles over all sorts of problems of economic and democratic reform, which are consummated only by the expropriation of the bourgeoisie,”
This profound explanation of the relationship between reform and revolution spells out the role of the demand for Quebec’s right to self-determination in the communist program.
6. The distinction between oppressed and oppressor nations requires that communist propaganda have different content, depending on the type of nation. Among the workers of the oppressed nation, for whom chauvinism and privilege are the central impediments, propaganda must be concentrated on the question of the right of self-determination of the oppressed nation. In the oppressed nation, it must be focussed on the necessity of unity with the workers of the oppressor nation. Deviation from this means that communists in either nation become the adjunct of their own bourgeoisie, while in the oppressed nation they pander to the nationalism of the local petty-bourgeoisie.
The Communist Party of Canada, which recognizes only in words Quebec’s right to self-determination, in fact conducts chauvinist and nationalist propaganda that reflects the views of the bourgeoisie in English Canada and Quebec. Within the oppressor nation, English Canada, it talks of “an independent Quebec within a strong Canada”, “the right of English Canada and Quebec to self-determination” and in general promotes Canadian nationalism. In Quebec, the CP (which is organized under a nationalist sub-group called the Communist Party of Quebec) forgets about “the right” and plainly calls for “self-determination of Quebec”. It tries to cater to nationalist sentiment in Quebec, and chauvinist sentiment in English Canada. This is “dualist” propaganda all right, but the CP turns Lenin’s formula upside down.
The “left” deviation from Lenin’s teaching on the necessity for two types of propaganda is that of the Maoites, who insist on attacking “Levesque and Trudeau, the two sides of the bosses’ coin”. Denying the necessity of dualist propaganda, they nevertheless perform a similar role to the CP. They insist on regular attacks on Levesque in their English-language literature and maintain that to do otherwise would “create illusions”. The only illusion they create is that they are a left-wing echo of the Globe and Mail. Carefully following Maoist “three worlds” dogma which puts Canada as a “progressive” anti-imperialist power, the Maoites can call Quebec an oppressed nation but choke on calling English Canada an oppressor nation.
Failure to conduct two forms of propaganda suggests that the crucial distinction between the objective condition of workers in the oppressed and the oppressor nation has not been recognized. Ultimately, this amounts to a refusal to recognize the existence of national oppression. It is the basis of Proudhonism – attacked by Marx – which claims that the national question no longer exists, and that workers now face only a “class question”.
7. If Levesque’s proposed referendum takes place, workers in Quebec must be urged to vote to remain in Canada in the interests of proletarian unity. The international union movement has often demonstrated to the workers of Quebec and English Canada the value of proletarian unity (although chauvinism within the international unions has also lent fuel to the nationalists). The battle for the UAW at GM in Ste Therese was backed by regular donations from autoworkers in Oshawa; more recently, the Quebec Iron and Titanium strike was aided by a powerful wave of communist-organized support that extended to unions across Canada and into the United States.
Chauvinism and nationalism have been especially treacherous obstacles in all-Canada unions such as the CBRT & GW and the CUPW, where coast-to-coast strikes are necessary. When these obstacles have been overcome, the advantages to the movement have been obvious. These very unions have provided CPL, and the working class as a whole, with practical experience in the need for organizational unity of the proletariat and of the tragic dangers of separation.
Quebec militants in the CUPW have toyed with a separate union in response to the chauvinism and splitting of the right-wing leaders such as Lou Murphy who once led the Toronto local. Under our party’s leadership during a protracted struggle in which the Quebec question played a part, Murphy was driven from office. At the 1977 national convention the efforts of our Ontario comrades to further unity with the Quebec members of the union (including such gestures as refusing to stand for “0 Canada”, something that took even the Quebecois by surprise) taught that nationalist spirit among the French-speaking workers was shallow, and that given concrete demonstration of the English members’ determination to battle chauvinism, they desired international unity as much as anyone.
Within the union movement, splits along national lines weaken and debilitate. Separation of Quebec would have the same effect, only on a vaster scale. Therefore, in the interests of unity of workers in Quebec and English Canada, a necessary condition for proletarian revolution, the PQ’s separation proposal must be opposed. To be neutral in a referendum, to advocate a boycott, is politically sterile because it effectively removes us from the debate. It is also a declaration that on the question of proletarian unity we are “neutral”, that we have no preference.
Propaganda around the referendum should be accompanied by concrete action to further proletarian unity. A postal or rail strike, for example, or another QIT, in the midst of a referendum campaign, would be an apt declaration to Trudeau and Levesque that neither had succeeded in his nationalist or chauvinist schemes. “The most difficult but the most important task is to merge the class struggle of the workers in the oppressing nations with the class struggle of the workers in the oppressed nations,” writes Lenin.
We can expect opportunists in the labor movement to do the opposite, to promote incidents in the midst of a referendum campaign that will divide the proletariat and fan the flames of national hatred. Besides the chauvinist propaganda of Trudeau, the CLC and the NDP can be expected to offer wavering half-baked alternatives. The same holds true in Quebec, where the divisive nationalism of Levesque and the compromise nationalism of Ryan must be attacked. And there is a growing “left” nationalism based in the Quebec unions, the CSN and the CEQ. Its leaders oppose Levesque’s antiworking class measures but contiune to sow nationalist feeling within their increasingly militant and powerful unions. The latest CSN document, for example, calls for an impressive campaign against national oppression but says nothing about unity with English workers. All of these problems will challenge our Party’s propaganda and agitation during the referendum.
8. Exaggeration of the role of the imperialists, generally taking the form of a proposition that Levesque is merely a puppet of the French or the U.S., utterly distorts the heart of the Quebec question: that it is a matter of national oppression. Naturally in an era of bitter inter-imperialist rivalry, featuring the redivision of spheres of influence and of neo-colonies, any struggle against national oppression is likely to attract the interests of this or that bourgeoisie. Even a proletarian revolutionary struggle may find itself being aided by an imperialist power that has perceived some conjuncture of interests. The French are definitely fishing in troubled waters, trying to cause U.S. imperialism some problems in its own backwater (the U.S. did the same to France in Algeria). And Rockefeller is anxious to remain on good terms with Levesque should his plans succeed, though there’s little doubt the U.S. bourgeoisie would prefer a quiet Quebec within a united Canada. It’s got enough problems elsewhere.
We made a similar mistake in the past, when we allowed our criticism of the Soviet-backed revisionists in North Vietnam to cool down our dedication to the cause of the Vietnamese.
9. The Quebec question may lead to a revolutionary crisis in Canada. Domination of Quebec is the cornerstone of Canadian capitalism. Plagued by contradictions not only with Quebec but also with a long history of separatist movements in Maritime and Western Canada (basically annexationists who wanted to join the U.S.), the main source of strength of the dominant Montreal-Toronto capitalist group has been its rule and oppression of Quebec. Quebec’s favored natural resources, advantageous geographic position along the St. Lawrence, and rich source of labor (paid less and treated worse than workers elsewhere in the country) all contributed to the strength of the oppressor. Quebec was the plum that made this Toronto-Montreal group supreme not only in Central Canada but on the Atlantic and Pacific as well. Therefore, the possible break-up of Canada, prompted by the aspiring national bourgeoisie of Quebec, could cause a crisis that would devastate the chauvinist bourgeoisie.
This possible collapse is very much in the minds of the dominant circles of the Canadian bourgeoisie. Faced with growing separatist strength in Quebec, they enlisted Pierre Trudeau to save the bacon. His specific assignment, when he was hastily plucked from the fringes of the NDP and the separatist left and pushed to the pinnacle of Liberal power, was to “solve” the Quebec problem. He tried to “solve” it with the army in 1970, and with the RCMP. But Quebec has been a bone that has stuck in his throat. Now even the Quebec Liberal Party is “insecure”. (Back in 1970, Claude Ryan urged Trudeau to meet the FLQ demands and was the rumored head of a “provisional government”).
All of this points to a potential revolutionary crisis of great dimensions. Lenin says that a revolutionary situation arises when not only the oppressed masses are seething with revolt, but when the exploiters “cannot carry on in the old way”. Lenin even suggests that such a revolution might develop “in connection with a referendum on the secession of an oppressed nation”.
10. Given these developments, violent attack on Quebec is Trudeau’s last but increasingly likely resort. Historically, the Canadian bourgeoisie has regularly turned to the sword: its first campaign for “national unity” was conducted over the dead body of Louis Riel. Now great publicity is being given to military preparations and the spectre of October 1970 continues to haunt Quebec.
In the event of such an invasion, our slogan within Quebec would have to be “defense of the fatherland”. Lenin says that this is a correct slogan in a “just war”, a “national war”, a war against national oppression. Within English Canada our slogan would be in the spirit of “Hands off Quebec”. In both nations, we would strive for the greatest unity between workers and endeavor to sharpen the struggle and turn it into a revolutionary battle, for socialism.
We shouldn’t be intimidated away from the slogan “defense of the fatherland” out of fear that Quebec’s petty-bourgeoisie might join our ranks. Its wavering and cowardice makes it an unlikely force to wage a determined and consistent armed struggle against the Canadian bourgeoisie. But how can we object to forces which agree to support our slogans, and to recognize our right to independent communist agitation, from joining in a united front against a chauvinist invasion.
Should we defend Levesque, if he were incarcerated by Trudeau? Such an attack or some similar action would be likely to rouse the masses in revolt against national oppression. Could we ignore or criticize such a movement on the grounds that Levesque is a bourgeois nationalist? Lenin urged communists to join the fight to free Leopold Dreyfus, who was an intelligence officer in the French imperialist army, as well as a celebrated victim of anti-Semitism.
The greatest danger, and one which our past errors makes us painfully aware of, would be to stand on the outside of such a struggle, waving red flags and chanting “fight for socialism”, while the masses are swept up in a major struggle against national oppression, and one that would have the possibility of developing into a struggle for socialism. The bourgeoisie will surely try to infect the national struggle with its poisonous nationalism; the only way we can guarantee it will succeed is to refuse to participate!
11. The slogan “Smash all borders” is un-Marxist and has no place in our program. Demagogically posed on the “left”, its defenders argue that this is our ultimate objective, and therefore consistent with proletarian internationalism. Of course many such “advanced” slogans, when posed before their time, turn into their opposite.
“Smash all borders” is the outlook of the imperialist, who shows total disregard for all borders except perhaps his own. If we recognize the possibility of socialism in one country, then we are saying that socialist countries must have borders. Moreover, the defense of those borders is a prime responsibility of communists. Marx ridiculed Proudhon’s national program, which was similar to the “Smash all borders” line, and pointed out its affinity to French great-nation chauvinism: “All Europe must and will sit quietly on their hindquarters until the gentlemen in France abolish “poverty” . . By the negation of nationalities, they appeared, quite unconsciously, to understand their absorption by the model French nation.”
At this stage in historical development, respect of borders, and the opposition to imperialist schemes to trample over them, is a truly revolutionary democratic demand. As for the incorrect slogan being “too advanced”, actually Marxism teaches that borders will “wither away”, not be “smashed”.
12. Can we lead the “national struggle”? We are opposed to all forms of national oppression, and aspire to lead concrete battles to end them. The “national struggle” is not the same thing at all as the “nationalist struggle”. To be a true internationalist, a party must fearlessly participate in the national struggle. Saying that we aim to lead the national struggle is merely giving a more exact, scientific and Marxist Leninist expression to our slogan of “Fight racism”.
Lenin wrote: “Socialist Parties which fail to prove by all their activities now, as well as during the revolution and after its victory, that they will free the enslaved nations and establish relations with them on the basis of a free union – and such a free union is a lying phrase without a right to secession – such parties are committing treachery to socialism.”