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In Struggle!

Bolshevik Union and the question of the native people

When bourgeois nationalism replaces a class viewpoint

First Published: In Struggle No. 85, March 31, 1977
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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We must undoubtedly give Bolshevik Union (BU) ot Toronto credit for having engaged in the debate on the question of the Native people and the Inuits within the Canadian Marxist-Leninist movement – or at least within the English Canadian part of it, for it has never translated its texts into French. However, the text this group published in the journal Canadian Revolution [1], far from providing a proletarian viewpoint on this important question of the socialist revolution in Canada is the carrier of a bourgeois nationalist viewpoint undertaken as a denunciation of the chauvinist tendencies that supposedly mark the Canadian Marxist-Leninist movement.

We do not have the intention here of presenting a detailed position on the question of the Native people for such a position remains to be formulated. However, there are a certain number of things that are clear; above all, that the living conditions of the Native people are intolerable, more so than those of the masses of the oppressed nation of Quebec. Capitalism is the source of this oppression which grows as Canadian and foreign monopolies industrialize the northern regions of the country in search of raw materials and energy resources.

That is why we consider that the struggle of the Native people is an integral part of the proletarian revolution in Canada. IN STRUGGLE! supports the national rights of the Native minorities and has drawn attention to and spoken of their struggles and demands on many occasions, especially through the newspaper [2].

As for the Bolshevik Union in Toronto, it is trying to prove that Native people form a nation whose territory represents more than half of the area of Canada, including a major part of the territory of Quebec, British Columbia and the Atlantic provinces in their entirety (p. 9)! As well, BU affirms that the Native people constitute a colonized ’people of the Third World, and that their territory is a colony of Canada (p. 11); that they must wage their own national liberation struggle against Canadian and American imperialism! In addition, BU insists that the Native people should form their own party.

It is not in the objective historical interest of Native people to wait, divided and weak, until the working class of the oppressor nation exercises leadership over the liberation struggle against imperialism. Their objective historical interest lies in, and only in. uniting into a strong, self-reliant national struggle against Canadian imperialist encroachment upon, their life and homeland (p. 40).

This is an anti-Marxist, bourgeois position, the likes of which have never been equalled before in the Canadian Marxist-Leninist movement.

Contemptuous of the leading role of the working class which is supposedly stalling things here in Canada, our champions of the struggle against chauvinism (!), by putting the national struggle above all others, particularly above the class struggle here in Canada, spread the extremely dangerous illusion that the Native people could, isolated from the Canadian proletariat and its struggle for socialism, defeat Canadian and American Imperialism!

An idealized history

To make us accept its nationalist positions, BU endeavors to present a history of the Native people – but it is thoroughly coloured by bourgeois idealism. By presenting the lifestyle of Indians before the arrival of Europeans in America as a veritable lost paradise, BU proceeds to deal with the question of the indigenous populations outside of the current context of the class struggle. Thus a reader who has not been forewarned could easily come to the conclusion that it would be better to go back to this “golden age”, or at least, try and isolate it, instead of working for the unity of the Canadian proletariat with other oppressed and exploited sectors of the country’s population.

BU uses the same idealistic method to “prove” that the Native people form a nation, having beforehand taken the trouble to revise the Leninist definition of a nation [3]. After affirming that the definition of a nation systematized by Stalin is but an “instructive guideline”. BU claims that this scientific concept is nothing other than a “formal, even legal definition”. As well, BU claims that Stalin’s definition is only valid for a nation born from feudalism and not for one which results, as in the case of the Native people, from prefeudal modes of production. But this argument is doubly false. False, because first, Stalin’s definition is based on the concrete analysis of the formation of many nations and it is precisely from these cases taken together that the general definition came to be established, a definition valid for all nations. It is false, too, because whatever the history of its formation, the nation corresponds to a precise reality characterized by its fundamental traits that were so rightly systematized by Stalin. Moreover, the arguments employed by BU to “prove” that the Native people form a nation are practically non-existent.

How to twist reality to justify a nationalist point of view

After having tried to prove that the criteria put forward by Stalin to define a nation are not valid. BU, just in case its criticism of Stalin doesn’t work (which we have just seen, is precisely the case!) tries to show that, in spite of everything, the criteria do apply to the Native people’s “nation”.

Do native people have a common language? BU says yes and no: yes because practically all of them speak either English or French: no. because there are a multitude of dialects. But aside from English, French and the other dialects, what is the language common to all Native people? And what does BU do with the Inuits’ demand that they have education in Inuit? All BU can find to reply to that is that the criterion of a common language is false because a nation can have more than one language. But comrades, the question is not whether a nation can have several languages, the question is to see whether it has at least one in common.

Is the criterion of a “common economic life” applicable? Does there exist that network of economic exchanges without which it is impossible to speak of a nation? On this question, BU advances a very weak argument: this common economic life is reduced to the fact that they have the same type of activities in common (fishing, hunting, etc.) and all their economic activities are dependent on the bureaucrats of the Department of Indian Affairs! Economic unity, in the way that Stalin meant it, is consistent economic relations between all members of the nation in question. But the knowledge that the links between the Indians in BC and the Inuits in Quebec are practically non-existent, certainly leads to questioning the objective reality of this “common economic life”!

The criterion of a “common territory” does not apply, either. It is clear that Native people, scattered on reserves, do not have a unified national territory. It is not the fact that BU hopes that such a territory will be definitively established in the future that should lead us to abandon this criterion right away. If not, it would be to take wishes for reality. For far from indicating the boundaries of this Native people’s nation whose existence it is trying to prove, BU prefers to affirm that “the boundaries of Native Canada will be determined in the process of struggle and struggle alone” (p. 11). This is idealism in its purest form: a nation demands the territories, it occupies and struggles to have this reality in fact recognized as a right. To believe BU, the territory of the Native people will depend on their capacity to conquer it! As far as “common psychological makeup” is concerned. BU reduces it to the characteristics of primitive peoples (like attitudes towards the land, towards the Great Spirit, etc.). In this regards, the Mayas of Mexico have a common psychological make-up with the Native people of North America since they share a certain number of traits which characterize tribal society!

A negation of history

To speak of a nation is to speak of a well-identified reality and a well-determined historical category that is linked to the historical development of capitalism and its national markets. If Stalin insists on the fact that “It is only when all these characteristics are present together that we have a nation” [4] it is because the absence of even a single of these fundamental characteristics can put into question the objective possibility for a given human community to constitute itself into a nation-State, that is to say, an independent country. But BU, instead of dealing with the question of the Native people from a materialist viewpoint and in function of the interests of the proletariat, replaces the analysis of objective reality by an idealist vision of an Indian nation which would define itself through what it becomes, by a future national liberation struggle that it would undertake: “Native people in Canada are being welded into a nation in the process of their struggle against imperialism” (p. 40).

It is clear that before the arrival of Europeans in America the native populations did not constitute a nation but a series of independent tribes, independent from each other. And the arrival of British and French colonialists, far from bringing the Native people together and unifying them into a nation, as happened in Africa, for example, instead led to the massacre of thousands of these Native people and their integration into the distinctive colonies peopled in the main by European colonists, themselves subject to the imperial metropolis. That is why BU is incapable of proving the objective existence of a nation of Native people who were prevented from constituting a nation by the concrete historical development of capitalism. The existence of a rights’ movement among Native people as much in Canada as in the United States (and in Latin America) aimed against the ferocious oppression which the bourgeoisie subjects the native populations to, in no way allows us to evacuate the analysis of objective reality which, if we stick to the evidence, will demonstrate that the Inuit and the Native peoples constitute oppressed national minorities. National minorities of which nation? Of a nation whose historical constitution was never completed because it was blocked by the concrete development of capitalism in North America.

Putting the Canadian Marxist-Leninist movement on notice that it must recognize as a question of principle the right to self-determination of the Native people’s nation whose existence remains to be proven, Bolshevik Union does not hesitate to place all Marxist-Leninists who are led to think that the native populations of Canada form national minorities in the ranks of the social-chauvinists (socialists in words, chauvinists in the facts). This way of going about things is typical of this group which places differences within the movement on the same footing as those differences which oppose us to the bourgeoisie and to counter-revolutionary groups.

Thus, rather than pointing out that the debate on the question of the native peoples is still very new within the movement and that the positions of different groups are not very developed. BU treats all divergencies with its own positions as antagonistic without even situating the importance of the differences on this question in relationship to our objective, the proletarian revolution. This is certainly in keeping with the content itself of the analysis of the BU on the question of native peoples. Because when idealism replaces materialist analysis of reality, when the nationalist viewpoint takes the place of a class analysis, when the national liberation struggle replaces proletarian revolution and when isolation of the native populations replaces the unity of the proletariat and the Canadian people in the struggle against the bourgeoisie, it is understandable why BU is not particularly apt to wage the debate within the Marxist-Leninist movement in a spirit of unity. For our part, we intend to continue our criticism of the erroneous positions of Bolshevik Union on several points, positions that are an important element of division within our movement.


[1] Nationhood or Genocide?, Canadian Revolution Vol. 1 No. 4, p. 3 and following.

[2] In particular IN STRUGGLE! supported the demands of the native populations of Quebec to protect their hunting and fishing territories threatened by the James Bay project, as well as the demands of the native people of the Yukon and Northwest Territories that together they constitute an 11th Canadian province.

[3] See Stalin, Marxism and the National Question.

[4] Ibid.