Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

In Struggle!

The Canadian left: It’s time for a real debate

First Published: In Struggle! No. 231, December 16, 1980
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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For many months now, an important debate has been going on within a number of left-wing organizations in Canada, those which are declared supporters of the struggle for socialism. What programme will succeed in winning over Canadian workers to socialism? What strategy and tactics will ensure victory for socialism? What is the best way to link together the different immediate struggles for better wages, the equality of women, the elimination of national oppression and so on to the more long term struggle for socialism? These are some of the key questions which have been posed recently in the Vancouver Socialist Organizing Committee newspaper Leftwords, Canadian Dimension magazine and in different writings of supporters of the option of an independent socialist Quebec.

Those who raise these questions implicitly presuppose one undeniable fact. The economic crisis is more and more devasting in its effects on workers. The reactionary forces are on the rise on all fronts. Yet the “socialist alternative” remains very much a fringe phenomenon within the workers movement.

Referendum results provokes renewed debate

This new wave of reflection appears to have really picked up steam in Quebec in the wake of the May 20 referendum. The referendum results shook up a lot of progressives. In fact, what we are witnessing is the revival of an old debate which began in the Sixties: how should the national struggle be linked to the light for socialism?

The Parti Quebecois has become more and more obvious about its abandonment of the goal of independence, all the while stepping up the use of nationalist rhetoric to attack the workers movement. The PQ’s attack on the right to strike in the public sector was the straw that broke the camel’s back for many. A lot of progressives have withdrawn their support for the PQ. Another factor was the lack of impact of their tactic of giving somewhat critical support to the yes option.

Many people around former CNTU president Marcel Pepin and ex-CEQ president Yvon Charbonneau are thinking seriously of setting up a new Quebec workers party with a social-democratic programme. Others want instead to see a party “which should not be like either a communist party or a labour party.” That is the view expressed by Gilles Bourque and Gilles Dostaler in their book Socialisme et independence which came out just before the referendum. The introduction to this collection of articles concludes that what it calls the three main trends in the Quebec left for the past 15 years have failed: left-wing nationalism, counterculture politics and Marxism-Leninism. (Mind you, this conclusion is reached rather rapidly with few arguments marshalled to buttress the case). Bourque and Dostaler reaffirm that the only solution to the contradictions of capitalism is socialism. They contend that a new working class political organization is necessary. Its role would be to “co-ordinate rather than to absorb (“integrer” in French original) the progressive organizations which exist right now and the various arenas of struggle against all forms of oppression and exploitation. It should be a centre for the evaluation of reflection on current developments, imperialism, the nature of socialism and the ways in which the break with capitalism will have to be made.” Interestingly enough, although Dostaler and Bourque continue to call for Quebec independence they do not exclude the possibility that socialism will be achieved on a Canada-wide level.

Rejection of “foreign models”

In English Canada, Canadian Dimension and Leftwords have opened their pages to the expression of similar viewpoints. Vancouver’s Socialist Organizing Committee (SOC) has thus far published two of a projected three articles on the Canadian left. SOC argues that the entire left – the Communist Party, the Trotskyist groups and the Marxist-Leninists – have failed to develop a programme, strategy or tactics adapted to the specific conditions of Canada. This, SOC contends, is due to the history of the left’s dependence on foreign models – the Soviet Union or China or Albania. All left groups have been guilty of sectarian practices which “hinder the growth of a socialist alternative.” SOC also calls for a new Marxist party and makes a special appeal to the Communist Party to contribute to the formation of such a party. The third article in the series should explain this perspective in more detail.

Canadian Dimension has also been promoting the idea of a new working class political organization, albeit still rather ill-defined, for quite some time now. Its latest issue may mark a significant new development in clarifying its views since it is entirely devoted to summing up the experience of the Waffle (the former nationalist left within the NDP). Dimension concludes that there must be a movement for Canadian independence and socialism which “steers between the shoals of bourgeois nationalism and Canadian exceptionalism on the one side and ultra-leftism and liquidation of Canadian specificity on the other.”

A very important debate

As we said at the outset, we consider this to bean extremely important debate. First, because beyond the groups and individuals actively involved, it addresses the concerns of thousands of workers and progressive intellectuals. More and more people in the trade union movement, women’s movement, anti-racist organizations and so on are becoming acutely aware that waging immediate struggles alone is not enough to bring about victories which last. They see that those struggles must be fought clearly within the framework of a conscious struggle to overthrow the entire capitalist system.

We hope to be able to get involved directly in those debates as well. Although we may have divergent viewpoints on a number of questions we share many of the concerns which these organizations and individuals have brought forward. It is our view that Marxism must cease to be thought of as a dogma and become once more a penetrating tool for making an analysis of capitalism. Capitalism can be transformed more effectively to the extent that we properly understand the specific conditions of this period and this country, Canada. We also think that the socialist experiences must be subjected to scientific analysis instead of being either put up on a pedestal and glorified beyond recognition or condemned as completely horrible and negative.

We believe that we should be a part of those debates also because we have something to say. We have a political programme, adopted at our last Congress. We consider that it remains a solid basis for a consistent and effective strategy and tactics for the struggle for socialism in Canada. There have been a few rather off-hand and superficial attacks on it for being “dogmatic”. However, we have yet to see a rigourous and reasoned critique of it, one which takes issue with its contents by marshalling specific facts and theoretical arguments.

The above considerations all lead us to the conclusion that greater attention must be paid to the views of those who, like us, think that there are many unresolved questions which must be answered about the struggle for socialism and a number of fixed ideas to overcome. It is time to develop a more scientific approach.

We have been concerned with all this for a number of months now. So far we have published working documents dealing with the history of the working class movement internationally because we view this as an essential element in coming to terms with present-day problems. Soon we will be undertaking a debate with our readers who have already begun to write us in great numbers. Finally, we hope to have the opportunity to talk out all of these issues face to face and publicly with all those organizations and individuals who express an interest in doing so.

What is at stake goes far beyond the interests of our particular organization. The debate is about the road the working people of this country must follow to free themselves of capitalist slavery and promote the liberation of other peoples in the rest of the world. That is why we are getting involved in this battle with the same energy and enthusiasm that we have put in for seven years now into the struggle to build the proletarian party.