First Published: In Struggle! No. 235, January 27, 1981
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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Socialisme et indépendance is definitely one of the best of the many books published to the course of the debate presently going on within the Quebec left over the way forward in the fight for socialism. The collection of articles came out during the referendum period. It contains twelve pieces written by either Gilles Bourque or Gilles Dostaler between 1967 and 1979. This chronological arrangement makes it possible for the reader to follow the evolution of the views of a section of the Quebec left which wants Quebec socialism as well as Quebec independence. But the best part of the book of all is the long introduction.
In it, Bourque and Dostaler first try to explain why they took a critical yes position during the referendum. Then they do a rapid survey of the experience of the Quebec left, concluding with various questions and views on Marxism, socialism and the kind of party the working class should be building for itself.
Bourque and Dostaler do not come up with any really original arguments for supporting the yes (to the PQ’s request for a mandate to negotiate sovereignty-association) vote position. Granted, they do have the distinction of being two of the very few persons to have publicly declared before the referendum that the Parti Quebecois had cast aside the goal of achieving independence. Their backing for the yes stand is based on the assumption that a yes victory would move Quebec another step towards independence nevertheless. Separation “in the present political, social and economic context prevailing in North America is a political reform that capitalism cannot tolerate. Hence, independence is a very important factor in politicizing people.” (p. 14)
We already answered this argument in our booklet, No to renewed federalism, No to sovereignty-association. Let us simply say here that you do not base a revolutionary strategy simply on the determination of what demands the ruling class cannot meet or tolerate. A strategy is only valid if the raising of those demands will serve the interests of the exploited classes, or, in a more general sense, represent historical social progress for humankind. This is particularly true with a demand like independence which in Quebec has been used to justify 12 years of collaboration by the workers movement and progressives with a capitalist party, the Parti Quebecois. What do Bourque and Dostaler have to say about this now that the referendum is over given the evident impact of the collaboration on the left? It would be especially worthwhile to hear what they have to say on this matter because they have not yet closed the door on the possibility that socialism might be attained within the framework of Canada as a whole. That of course would mean making common cause with English-Canadian workers against the Canadian State.
Let’s take a quick look at the evaluation made by Bourque and Dostaler of the practice of Marxist-Leninists. To begin with, they are at least honest enough to acknowledge that the “M-L’s” have been one of the three main trends within the Quebec left over the past decade. However, their analysis is pretty superficial, largely because they mix up the practice and programme of organizations as markedly different from one another as the Workers Communist Party (WCP) and IN STRUGGLE! treating them as one and the same.
Much more useful are those parts of the book which raise fundamental questions about the nature of socialism, the theory of Marxism and what a real workers party looks like. Bourque and Dostaler defend socialism and Marxism. They recognize the fairly recent setbacks of socialism in the Soviet Union, China and elsewhere. They see the difficulty that contemporary Marxism is having in coming up with answers to the burning issues of the day. But they thoroughly reject the stand of those who try to take advantage of those difficulties in order to call for the rejection of Marxism and the adoption of the most nauseating variants of petty reformism (or even outright rightism).
Bourque and Dostaler are also very explicit about the need to carry out ’an evaluation of the successes and failures and consequent lessons of the struggle for socialism thus far by looking at them in their specific historical and social contexts: “The events which we have mentioned (Ed.note – the problems of socialism in the U.S.S.R., China, Cuba, etc.) cannot be fully explained as problems with the “political leadership”. A full explanation, in our books, requires a look at all the social forces at work in those countries as well as the relations of force on a world level between countries and blocs.” That perspective has a lot in common with the one we have adopted ourselves in carrying out the evaluation of the history of the struggle for socialism (see issue 211).
Bourque and Dostaler define socialism in a way which is worth taking a closer look at. On the one hand, they are careful to avoid the trap of pigeon-holing socialism with a rigid definition which is incapable of taking account of the lessons and gains achieved by the struggles of the mass of working people: “Socialism will be the result of social movements, of class struggles. It will not be decreed from on high in accordance with a pre-conceived model. To paraphrase Marx, building socialism is not a matter of getting ready the stew-pots of the future.” (p. 40) On the other hand, this understanding of what socialism is appears to be inextricably linked to a strategy for getting to socialism which is “something else” indeed. That strategy is to simply let the class struggle take its own course. The conduct of those struggles “will constitute the essential content of socialism and democracy.” One gets the impression from several passages that socialism can come out of the normal evolution of the day to day struggles going on within the capitalist system. There would be no need for the conscious intervention of the exploited masses, no need to takes up the question of the seizure of political power as such.
All of this remains confused because Bourque and Dostaler do not detail how they see the transition from capitalism to socialism. Their complete silence on the necessity of a consciously wrought revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat is significant.
This is the context in which their sweeping critique of the Leninist idea of a party and of democratic centralism as its basic organizational principle must be situated: “Democratic centralism reproduces hierarchical relationships within the party. It makes the party a place where all social struggles are subsumed into one. It tends objectively to reproduce two of the main features of capitalism: hierarchical domination in interpersonal relationships and political centralization... We do not wish to question the need for a party. But it is imperative that it not be viewed as the only locus of political struggle.” (p. 50)
Democratic centralism certainly ought to be subjected to the test of examining its practical effects historically. But to jump from there, as Bourque and Dostaler do, to saying that democratic centralism is one of the major causes of the inability of communist parties to really threaten the social order in the advanced capitalist countries is quite something else. First of all, the historical analysis of its role has not yet been done. Further, there is not are single way to apply democratic centralism. Indeed, there are very many different ways to apply (or not apply) it if you look at the practices of those who say they support and use it. Bourque and Dostaler’s critique thereby loses most of its bite as long as they fail to spell out precisely what wrong expressions of it they are referring to. To take but one example, we have always viewed the right of all members to express their views and air their differences, which Bourque and Dostaler are concerned about, as an essential feature of what we understand democratic centralism to be. On top of that, the idea that there must be a leading party, based on democratic centralism, to make a successful revolution is not just a mechanical or simplistic quoting of something written by one individual, Lenin. It is rooted in the large number of revolutionary experiences in the twentieth century where victory was possible because of the leadership of parties which applied democratic centralism.
Bourque and Dostaler reach the conclusion that a workers party must above all be a centre for debate, reflection and loose co-ordinating of struggles (as opposed to centralization). This appears to us to be incompatible with the unity and discipline which are needed if we are to overthrow the colossal machinery of repression which stands on guard for capital these days. We realize that we have not yet come up with full response to all the problems raised by our taking that position. We have not yet dealt, for example, with the question of where democracy fits in within a centralized organization or the matter of the coexistence of several revolutionary or worker parties. But one fact remains: no analysis of the history of the fight for socialism and no proposals for future socialist strategy can genuinely differentiate themselves from reformism in the final analysis if they set aside the necessity of revolution and thus of the preparation and organization necessary to carry it out. All the same, the book of articles by Bourque and Dostaler, is a useful contribution to the historical analysis both because of the questions it poses and the problems it identifies.