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Progressive Workers Movement

For An Independent and Socialist Canada: A Marxist-Leninist View

Chapter 1: Nations and Nationalism

A. The Historical Development of Nations

The national question is a relatively modern problem. The nations which have played such a prominent role in modern history, such as France, Germany, Britain, Italy, the US, etc., did not exist as nations just a few centuries ago. Nations and the concept of nationhood are not eternal phenomena that have always existed: their appearance on the stage of history is the result of particular and concretely identifiable factors, occurring at specific historical periods in specific historical contexts.

What is a nation? It was Stalin who formulated the classic Marxist definition in his Marxism and The National Question:

“A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.” (Works, Vol. 2, p. 307)[1]

This definition of nationhood is the result of concrete historical analysis of the circumstances in which such “stable communities” arose, became able to act in common, and evolved a national consciousness, a desire to form a national state.

From the Feudal State to the Capitalist Nation

National states did not exist before or under feudalism, for feudal conditions were not conducive to the development of large national communities. A more advanced development of production, commerce, and traffic was necessary before such states could be established. The feudal states were united by virtue of who ruled them, regardless of “national” considerations. The power was vested in the king, not in the nation. For example, in the Hundred Years’ War, the French vassals of the King of England naturally fought against the King of France – there was not yet any question of national loyalties. Feudal Germany consisted of hundreds of principalities having only a very loose connection in the German Reich. The Prussian was as much a foreigner to the Bavarian as the Frenchman to the Italian.

It was modern capitalism that brought about a closer connection between different parts of a country and different sections of the population. Capitalism was the powerful integrating force that broke down the barriers of feudalism, concentrated masses of people in big industrial centers, connected the countryside with the towns and produced the middle class of petty merchants and traders which, in the beginning, became the main representatives and ideologists of the new idea of nationality. Therefore, the origin of modern nations was closely connected with the bourgeois-democratic revolutions, which destroyed the seclusion of feudalism, and for the first time united popular masses in a common struggle with common ideas. It was in this way that the British nation arose from the revolution of the 17th century, and the French nation from the Great Revolution of 1789. It was the representatives of the French middle class, in The Declaration of the Rights of Man, who gave expression to the idea of national sovereignty as opposed to the feudal royal sovereignty:

“The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.”

The bourgeois revolutions, and the nations to which they gave birth, arose out of feudal society only after many decades of protracted class struggle, during which the town merchants pitted their strength against the feudal lords and the monarchy, steadily gaining strength and influence as their foes perceptibly weakened. The new capitalist class was compelled to carry on war with the feudalists to destroy their domination so that they could carry on trade and commerce unmolested and free from the damaging tolls and fines imposed by the feudal landowners on the goods of merchants traversing their territory to reach a distant market. Also, the serfs had to be released from the ties that bound them to the feudal lord so that a plentiful supply of cheap labour would be available in the towns for employment in the workshops, and so that agriculture itself could be transformed from a feudal to a capitalist economy. To be victorious in this struggle, the bourgeoisie had to gain the support of the lower classes and appear to speak in the interests of the whole nation to oppose the interests of the monarchy, the feudal church, and the nobility.

From the very beginning, therefore, the nation was a particular development of class struggle. In its origin, the fight for the nation was fundamentally a question of whether political power would rest in the hands of the new class of merchants or remain with the feudalists – could the rising capitalist class overthrow the feudal state, replacing it with their own particular state form, ruling over a creation that was essentially their own: the capitalist nation.

Naturally at this time, there was also a working class; for without a working class, there could be no class of exploiters, no capitalist class. In the main, the basic interests of the workers coincided with those of the rising merchants. Both had a fundamental class interest in the overthrow of the feudal state and that was the primary task that had to be disposed of before new and more advanced tasks, already existing in embryo, could be tackled. Thus, while the bourgeoisie was the leading force behind the rise of nations and nationalism, the working class also had its stake in this development. Thus wrote Engels of the German proletariat and its role in the creation of the German nation:

“The interests of the proletariat forbade equally the Prussianization of Germany and the perpetuation of her division into petty states. These interests made imperative the definitive unification of Germany into a nation, which alone could provide the battlefield, cleared of all traditional petty obstacles, on which proletariat and bourgeoisie were to measure their strength.” (Marx & Engels, Works, V. 2, p. 332)[2]

This is not to say that the working class did not make some attempts also at advancing their own demands. Every bourgeois revolutionary movement had within it a group which vigorously advanced these primitive working class demands, mostly centering around primitive communist or Utopian ideas and reflecting, as they must reflect, the political immaturity of the class and its lack of independent organisation. The Levellers in the English Revolution and the Babouvists in the French are examples of such primitive communist movements. But, given the development and strength of the various contending classes, the inevitable happened: the evolution of the nation saw a minority of exploiters in power over a majority of exploited.

Nations Under Imperialism

This, then, is how nations arose. Various aspects of our definition of nationhood may have existed before, but it was only in recent centuries that these aspects were combined under the bourgeois revolutions to form the modern nation. Do all these characteristics of nationhood have to exist if a people is to be defined as a nation? If one were looking at only the nations of Western Europe whose historical development gave rise to the definition, or if all peoples in the world had been free to develop un-interfered with along the same lines, then the answer would have to be yes. But the fact is that the rise and world-wide activities of imperialism have everywhere created new conditions, have posed new problems, and this causes us to look at all situations in a new light. (Stalin himself remarked later that the article in which his definition appeared had been outdated by the further development of imperialism.)

What imperialism did everywhere was to forcibly restrict and distort the natural, internal development of social conditions in the countries it brought under its rule. On the one hand, it introduced advanced capitalist methods, technology, and concepts to many areas pf the world still in the grip of feudalism, but on the other, attempted to prevent the subject peoples from making use of such methods, technology, and concepts for their own benefit. On the one hand imperialism had to introduce capitalism on a limited scale in many countries, but on the other had to obstruct the development of indigenous capitalist classes that could challenge its control of the colony.

Having established itself in a particular country, imperialism would invariably ally itself with the most reactionary elements of the local ruling classes, the ones most likely to oppose any revolutionary activity on the part of the people. In the semi-feudal countries, these elements would be the great landowners whose interest it also was to prevent the development of an indigenous and independent capitalist class, and the comprador-bourgeoisie, those capitalists who were in the direct service of the imperialists. Under such conditions, it is obvious that the same developments that led to the formation of the Western European nations under the leadership of the revolutionary bourgeoisie could not occur in the countries dominated by imperialism. Here, the nation would not reach its full development except through the fight against imperialism. Prevented by imperialism from developing fully the national culture and common economic life, the fact of nationhood would assert itself most boldly in the people’s will for independence and freedom.

B. Quebec and English Canada as Nations

It is not very difficult to recognize, even for the most doctrinaire “internationalists” on the left, that the French Canadians of Quebec form precisely such a nation. Quebec never enjoyed independent nationhood, having been first a colony of France and then of Britain. The British conquest having severed her connections to France, Quebec had to develop a national culture and national identity as a matter of survival in the face of British attempts to Anglicize the French Canadians. But what of English Canada where no such clearly recognizable “national culture” exists? In what sense do the English-speaking Canadians form a nation?

English Canada is a nation most importantly in the fact that its people wish it to be a nation. They think of themselves as Canadians and do not wish to be thought of as anything else. If we do not fully reveal the characteristics of nationhood possessed by the nations of Europe and other places in the world, if we do not have the national culture that Quebec can boast of, the reasons for this lie in particular factors in Canada’s history. We shall in a later section deal specifically with these factors and what effects they have had on the development of the Canadian nation, but some of them should be mentioned here. The most obvious factor is that Canada as a whole, like Quebec, has never experienced real independence and has always been dominated, but, unlike Quebec, the English Canadians have always spoken the language of the foreign imperialist – whether British or American. Thus the culture of the imperialist could much more easily be made into the dominant culture in English-speaking Canada than in Quebec. Secondly, most of our population lives within one hundred miles of the American border: even if our own cultural institutions and media played an independent role, this proximity would be a formidable weapon in the hands of the imperialists. As it is, our own institutions and media are barely distinguishable from those south of the border, reflecting and reinforcing U. S. control of our country. Thirdly, English Canada has had a relatively very brief history as a unified nation. The original act of Confederation took place a mere hundred years ago, and the last of the provinces did not join until 1949.

Even under normal conditions of independence, this is a very short period for a national culture and a national character to evolve and take root. With our dominant culture being always the culture of the foreign imperialist it is no wonder that we lack the distinct cultural identity many other nations possess. And yet if Canadians did not wish to be an independent nation, the country would not have come into being in the first place or would have lost even the semblance of independence and been swallowed up by the United States a long time ago. Why was Canada formed out of the former British colonies in 1867?

Partly of course because Britain saw Confederation as a method of preventing the loss of her North American possessions to the United States. Also, Confederation and the granting of internal “autonomy” to Quebec was a means by which to contain and subvert the national aspirations of the French Canadians. But neither could Britain ignore the possibility that an independence movement amongst English Canadians would lead Canada along the same path as had been taken by the thirteen colonies in 1776. She had had full warning of such an eventuality when the rebels of 1837 led in Upper Canada by William Lyon Mackenzie declared that independence from Britain was one of their main aims:

“For nearly fifty years has our country languished under the blighting influence of military despots, strangers from Europe, ruling us, not according to laws of our choice, but by the capricious dictates of their arbitrary power. They have taxed us at their pleasure, robbed our exchequer, and carried off the proceeds to other lands – they have bribed and corrupted Ministers of the Gospel with the wealth raised by our industry... they have bestowed millions of our lands on a company of Europeans for a nominal consideration, and left them to fleece and impoverish our country – they have spurned our petitions, involved us in their wars, excited feeling of national and sectional animosity in counties, townships, and neighbourhoods, and ruled us, as Ireland has been ruled, to the advantage of persons in other lands, and to the prostration of our energies as a people. We are wearied of these oppressions, and resolved to throw off the yoke.”[3]

Although Britain defeated the 1837 rebellion, she could not, without further endangering her rule, ignore the lessons of the American Revolution. It was only after 1837 that Britain began to institute the measures to grant greater local “autonomy” that eventually culminated in the British North America Act and Confederation. And so the very fact of statehood and the pretense of independence was in no small degree a result of a movement for independence on the part of the Canadian people.

And why was the newly formed country not eclipsed by the “Manifest Destiny” of the United States to control all of North America, even after Britain became too weak to defend her neo-colony? Only because Canadians have rejected all suggestions (and these were not lacking) that they become Americans, and the threat of resistance has made attempts at overt takeover too costly to contemplate.

Is it a good thing that Canadians should have this desire for independent nationhood? Is this sentiment progressive or is it a narrow “bourgeois nationalism” that can only impede the struggle for socialism in our country? Let us look at the world situation and let us place nationalism into a world-wide context.

C. The Role of Nationalism in the World Today

There exist basically three types of countries in the world today. There are the imperialist powers – those countries which control, dominate, and exploit foreign countries and peoples. The most powerful and wealthiest of these is the United States which controls and oppresses many nations on all continents by means of the economic domination of American corporations, the direct presence of American troops, and the assistance rendered to reactionary native governments by the U. S. government. The other great imperialist power is the Soviet Union which controls and oppresses not only the nations of Eastern Europe, but is making attempts to extend her control in many other places as well, such as the Middle East, Asia, and even Latin America.

The largest group of nations both in terms of number and in terms of total population are the countries dominated by foreign imperialism. Some of these countries are directly controlled from abroad, but most of them are ruled by a native ruling-class which maintains power by serving the interests of the imperialists and which receives the support of the imperialists in return. Most countries in Latin America, Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and the Balkans fall into this category.

The third group is comprised of those countries, chiefly the socialist countries of Asia – China, North Vietnam, and North Korea – which neither practise imperialism abroad nor are oppressed by it at home. If one is to make a judgment about nationalism in principle as to whether it plays a progressive or reactionary role in the world today, one has to see it against this background.

One indication of the role that nationalism can play in the present world situation is the attitude taken towards it by the imperialists and those who serve them. Such a person is former Canadian Prime Minister, Lester Pearson now the head of a commission for the U. S. dominated World Bank, who stated recently that “the problem today is not the creation of new free states but subordinating the sovereignty of all states to the necessity of peace, security, and progress.” These are noble words, until we place them against the realities of the existing international situation as seen above. It would seem that in a world in which most of the peoples are dominated and oppressed by imperialism of one sort or another, the problem is precisely the creation of new free states and the emergence of many more independent nations. And that Lester Pearson and those whom he serves should be eager to see the disappearance of all national feeling and all movements for independence is only natural. National independence movements such as the struggle of the National Liberation Front in Vietnam certainly do pose a threat to the peace, security, and progress of the imperialists. But the fact that some people who claim to be revolutionary also look upon all nationalism as harmful and “reactionary” – this is somewhat more difficult to understand.

There is no phenomenon in the world which exists independently of objective conditions, and which can be understood independently and in itself. To say that all nationalism is reactionary is as abstract and stupid as it would be to say that all nationalism is progressive. Clearly in today’s world all that helps the imperialists but harms the oppressed peoples is reactionary, and all that helps the oppressed but harms the imperialists is progressive. Thus the nationalism fostered by the imperialist in his own country is definitely reactionary, because it obscures the class struggle and unites the nation in the service of imperialism. The nationalism of the oppressed, however, is definitely progressive because it unites people in the struggle against their main enemy – imperialism.

The Bolsheviks in the First World War repudiated the slogan “defense of the fatherland” raised by the bourgeoisies of all countries, and called for the defeat of their own capitalist class through the transformation of the world war into world-wide revolutionary civil war. But Lenin made it very clear that “defense of the fatherland” in itself was not reactionary, only the use of it made by the imperialists: we cannot, he said, make “a repudiation of defense of the fatherland a pattern, to draw conclusions not from the concrete historic peculiarity of this war by ’generally speaking’. This is not Marxism.” And further he pointed out:

“No, for we are not ’generally’ against ’defense of the fatherland’ (see resolution of our party) but only against the embellishment of this imperialist war by this deceitful slogan.”[4]

Elsewhere Lenin said: “The central point in the Social Democratic program must be the distinction between oppressing and oppressed nations, which is the essence of imperialism, which is falsely evaded by the social chauvinists... ”[5] Is it not easily seen that the role of nationalism is defined precisely by whether or not it is being put forward by the oppressor or the oppressed?

Those who say that all nationalism is reactionary do not understand Marxism at all and reduce themselves to the level of some bourgeois thinkers who never tire of proclaiming that the real problem in the world is “war”, or whatever other abstraction. It is obvious that a war waged by a revolutionary people against its oppressors is progressive, while a war waged by the exploiter against some nation it wishes to dominate is reactionary. It is the same with nationalism. Like all other questions, the national question is fundamentally a class question. All classes can and do make use of it for their own purposes, just as they make use of warfare. Certainly the imperialist bourgeoisie can use nationalism in order to further its reactionary activities, but so can the working class in the exploited nation make use of it by uniting all forces possible against the imperialist. This is precisely what led to the defeat of imperialism and the subsequent establishment of socialism in China, North Korea, and North Vietnam; this is what is taking place right now in South Vietnam; and this is what must take place in many other countries as well if imperialism is to be defeated on a world-wide basis.

We must now return to our original question. Can nationalism play a progressive role in the Canadian situation, or is it necessarily reactionary? As can be seen from the above discussion, the answer depends mainly on whether Canada is an oppressed or an oppressor nation. This question will be dealt with fully in the following sections of this paper. Briefly, it is the position of the Progressive Workers Movement that the development and success of a national independence movement in Canada is absolutely vital in our struggle for socialism, that no advances towards the goal of socialism can be made without such a movement developing, and that socialists must take an active and leading role in the building of this independence movement. This is our position, and it is based on our analysis of Canada’s present social, economic, and political situation, as well as on our analysis of the historical developments that have brought Canada to her present state.

Some groups and individuals on the left who disagree with our position on the national question state simply that Canada is an advanced industrial capitalist country and the major and immediate problem is the mobilizing of the working class against the capitalist class, the problem of socialist revolution. Now, no one could argue that Canada is not an advanced capitalist country as compared to most colonial nations. But to put the case in such simple terms is to either ignore or distort the nature of Canadian capitalism and its relationship to the world imperialist system.

The key to understanding Canada’s class structure is to be found in an examination of our historical development. How has Canadian capitalism evolved? What was the role of the indigenous capitalist class in the transformation of Canada from a series of unconnected British colonies to a unified and, at least nominally, independent state? How did this Canadian capitalist ruling class face the challenge mounted by the imperialist and continentalist American bourgeoisie? These are just some of the questions that must be answered if our present political tasks are to be clearly understood.


[1] Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1953.

[2] Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow.

[3] Edwin C. Guillet, The Lives and Times of the Patriots, Thomas Nelson and Sons, Toronto, p.256

[4] Gankin and Fisher, (eds.) The Bolsheviks and the World War, p. 233

[5]Lenin, The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, International Publishers, 1951, p. 68