Mail: l Égalité in favor of Quebec nationalism? Nationalism, Burden or Catalyst? An Oppressed Nation - PDF

Exchange with l Égalité Marxism vs. Quebec Nationalism Reprinted below is an exchange between Marc D., a supporter of the International Bolshevik Tendency, and Damien Elliott, the leading figure in the

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Exchange with l Égalité Marxism vs. Quebec Nationalism Reprinted below is an exchange between Marc D., a supporter of the International Bolshevik Tendency, and Damien Elliott, the leading figure in the JCR-Gauche Révolutionnaire, the French affiliate of the Committee for a Workers International. The first two items were originally published in French in the March 1994 issue of l Égalité (No. 28). Mail: l Égalité in favor of Quebec nationalism? (...) I noted the article on the Canadian elections and the photo of the indépendantiste demonstration in the last issue (No Editor s note) of l Égalité. Does this signify support for Quebec nationalism? (...) The weight of nationalist sentiment in the workers movement represents a burden, and not a catalyst or an objective dynamic in the development of revolutionary class consciousness. ----M.D. Debate on the National Question in Quebec For an Independent and Socialist Quebec! by Damien Elliott The article to which our reader refers gave some news on the breakthrough of Bloc Québécois nationalists in recent Canadian elections. To illustrate this, we chose----on purely journalistic grounds----a photo of an in-dépendantiste demonstration. The JCR-Gauche Révolutionnaire has not yet had the opportunity to address this question and to formulate its point of view. Nor has this debate been carried out with the editors of Militant Labour, a new Canadian newspaper, which we welcome in passing, sharing the views of this editorial board. Militant Labour, addressed to an anglophone public, has declared itself in support of Quebec s right to self-determination. In the following article, Damien Elliott expresses his personal viewpoint, seeking to open a discussion indispensable for all who wish to build a revolutionary workers party in Quebec. * * * Having a correct position on the national question is indispensable for whomever claims to defend workers interests. This is evidently the only means of winning a hearing in countries where national conflicts exist. This has nothing to do with support to nationalism in general for there are two nationalisms: that of the oppressors (reactionary) and that of the oppressed (progressive). The demand for national independence by proletarian revolutionaries doesn t imply support to bourgeois nationalist leaderships. On the contrary, raising the demand above all is intended to fight them by removing the major obstacle to rallying workers to the program of socialism and internationalism. If the unity of nations is desirable, it cannot be achieved otherwise than in terms of strict equality. In the case of an oppressed nation, separation with the oppressor nation is often the first necessary step toward future unification. But let us start by stating clearly that Quebec is an op- pressed nation within the Canadian State. An Oppressed Nation A publication of the LSO/LSA 1, a revolutionary organization no longer in existence, gave this subject some valuable guidelines: The Québécois constitute a nation sharing a common national language, French; a culture and a history which date from the former North American colony of France; and a common territory more or less delimited by the present borders of the province of Quebec...The background of the oppression of the Quebec nation goes back to the British conquest of the French colony in 1760 and the defeat of the revolutionary national uprising of 1837, which was an attempt at bourgeois democratic revolution, similar to that launched by the American colonists more than 60 years earlier...the Quebec nation is deprived of its democratic right to political self-determination. The Canadian constitution nowhere recognizes the right of the Québécois or of any other nationality to decide their own fate, extending to and including the right to separate and to form their own State if they so desire... Francophones----who constitute more than 80% of the population of Quebec (Editor s note)----are subject to linguistic discrimination, which renders them second class citizens. English, the language of the oppressor nation, holds a privileged position. Francophone workers, among whom one notes a much higher rate of unemployment than among anglophones, are a source of cheap labour for the capitalists. The Quebec economy is dominated by large Anglo-Canadian and American corporations. The main instrument of domination is the imperialist Canadian State. 2 Nationalism, Burden or Catalyst? As long as the nationalist and indépendantiste movement obtains minority support among the members of an oppressed nation, defenders of workers interests have to denounce this oppression and to recognize the right of the nation in question to self-determination. Such is the correct position with respect to Corsica or to the French Pays Basque. Things change the moment when the indépendantiste demand assists the development of the class struggle or if it shows signs of winning the support of the majority of the oppressed nation. In Quebec s case, support for the national movement has been on the rise since the early 1960 s. One of its by-products has been the rise of the PQ (Parti Qué-bécois) a bourgeois formation strongly rooted in all sectors of the population, including the industrial proletariat. But the national bourgeoisie, represented today by the Bloc Québécois, has shown itself to be incapable of consistently defending (Quebec s) national interests. The satisfaction of this demand however has an exceedingly progressive character as it directly challenges the central State, the heart of Canadian capitalism. As the LSO/LSA notes: Quebec nationalism is currently a major challenge to the governments of Ottawa and Washington, to Bay Street and to the rue Saint Jacques. The national movement has allowed the Québécois to obtain a number of rights but the central state refuses to delegate further government prerogatives and to admit the idea of asymmetric federalism, which would give more powers to Quebec than to the other nine provinces, because of its national distinctiveness. With the deepening of the 1 2 economic crisis, nationalist sentiment continues to grow and, given the serious threats of the federation s explosion, the national struggle is one of the most likely channels for the working class to take power. If a workers government seized power in Quebec, an event this important would immediately have gigantic repercussions and would shake not only the rest of Canada but all of North America from top to bottom. An Objective Dynamic? The struggle for Quebec s national liberation, like all similar processes, contains a certain dynamic which pushes toward its transformation into socialist revolution. On the other hand, it is obvious that this cannot be produced spontaneously, without the national movement passing at one moment or another under the leadership of a class party having a clear consciousness of its goals. This is even truer today, after the disappearance of the USSR and the Soviet bloc. It is thus hardly a question of extending the least confidence in the Bloc Québécois, a priori hardly susceptible of winning Quebec s independence and certainly incapable of guaranteeing a real independence, that is to say a break with the Anglo-American trusts, NATO and international financial institutions. In Canada, the principal workers party is the NDP, a Social Democratic organization which never succeeded in winning support in Quebec because of its refusal to support even self-determination. But a Canadian workers organization which seriously wants to take power to introduce socialism will never achieve this by turning its back on the national aspirations of Quebec s working population. In this field, it would become the champion of national independence and would try to lead the national movement by placing it under the flag of socialism. In English Canada, it would work to counter the chauvinist prejudices of anglophone workers, explaining to them that their own emancipation depends in large measure on their capacity to support Quebec s right to self-determination. * * * Notes 1. Ligue Socialiste Ouvrière/League for Socialist Action, Canadian section of the IVth International ( United Secretariat ) 2. La question nationale au Québec, in Pour un Québec indépendant et socialiste (éditions d Avant-Garde. Montréal. 1977) 1 March 1995 Montreal Reply to l Égalité Dear Comrades: Damien Elliott, through taking issue with some views I expressed (see the reply to a reader in the March 1994 issue of l Égalité----No. 28) opened a debate on the national question in Quebec. I welcome the opportunity to respond, as this raises many important questions for revolutionaries that are quite timely, given the recent election of a Parti Québécois government and the pending referendum on Quebec sovereignty. Comrade Elliott s position stands in striking contrast to the social-democratic, laborite tradition of major components of the Committee for a Workers Internation-al, including the Canadian publishers of Militant Labour. Militant Labour, as noted in l Égalité s introduction, claims to defend Quebec s right to self-determination, but has historically sought a niche among the Canadian-unity advocates of the New Democratic Party. Unlike the editor of l Égalité in Paris, the Canadian Militant Labour is certainly not raising a call for Quebec independence. The issue is not whether revolutionaries, particularly those in English Canada, should vigorously defend Quebec s right to self-determination. This is the self-evident duty of all Marxists. The question posed is whether revolutionaries, particularly within Quebec, should raise the call for independence today. We say no. I have not always held this position. In the past I was a vigourous defender of the views expounded by comrade Elliott. But my ideas evolved as a result of my political experience. As a former member of successive organizations of the United Secretariat in Quebec (the Ligue Socialiste Ouvrière [LSO], the Groupe Marxiste Révolutionnaire [GMR] and the unstable fusion between the two, the Ligue Ouvrière Révolutionnaire [LOR]), I accepted as axiomatic the notion that socialism and Quebec nationalism were integrally connected. From 1972 to 1974 I was a member of the editorial board of the LSO s publication Libération, which seems to have influenced Comrade Elliott s thinking so extensively. It is therefore somewhat ironic that the comrade based his reply to my original comments on the LSO s earlier publications. As the JCR-GR originated from a split within the USec youth in France, the political continuity within the new organization is not surprising. Comrade Elliott s assertion that the struggle for national liberation in Quebec, like all similar processes, contains a dynamic which leads toward socialist revolution, poses a question of method. Like many other leftists outside Quebec, the comrade tends to romanticize Quebec nationalism by equating it with the desire for national liberation by a Third World neo-colony. The LSO, which comrade Elliott looks to as a model, asserted that the dynamics of consistent nationalism (at least in Quebec) would transcend simple nationalist goals and lead toward socialist objectives. The LSO sought to outflank bourgeois nationalists on the French unilinguist terrain of the Front commun pour la défense de la langue française and found itself in a bloc with a variety of xenophobes and ultra-nationalists. This fixation on the national question came at the expense of any serious orientation to work in the unions, which were engaged in a series of massive class confrontations. This reached a peak in the 1972 general strike, which the LSO mistakenly viewed as a primarily nationalist, rather than class, conflict. The axis of their intervention was the call for Quebec independence. But the struggle was not about Quebec appropriating more power from the federal state. While the strike adopted a nationalist coloration, it was directed against the Quebec government, and the strikers were formulating economic demands calling for more power to Quebec workers. The emergence of several sizable Maoist formations in Quebec, composed of radicalized students who rejected the bourgeois nationalism of the PQ, and which were able, for a time, to wield substantial influence in the most militant sections of the workers movement, can largely be attributed to the absence of any organization capable of projecting the essential core of the Leninist-Trotskyist program. The LSO s opportunism on the national question in Quebec, which was matched by the loyalty of its English-Canadian affiliate to the Canadian-unity chauvinists of the socialdemocratic New Democratic Party, was the subject of a disingenuous and factionally motivated, but substantially accurate, critique by Ernest Mandel (see In Defense of 3 Leninism in the 1973 USec internal discussion bulletins). Progressive and Reactionary Peoples Comrade Elliott posits the existence of progressive and reactionary nationalisms, corresponding, one must assume, to progressive and reactionary peoples. Quebec belongs to the former, along with Corsica, the Pays Basque, Catalonia, Ireland, etc. While the nationalism of the oppressor nations (e.g., Canada) is reactionary to the core, this does not mean that Quebec nationalism is inherently progressive, much less revolutionary. This was perhaps less obvious 25 years ago, when powerful left-wing nationalist tendencies existed in the Quebec labor movement. But today the anti-mohawk demagoguery of the Parti Québécois and the Bloc Québécois (BQ----the PQ s federal counterpart), which are tacitly approved, if not explicitly endorsed, by the union bureaucracy, makes it all rather obvious. A paradox of the growth of the nationalist movement since the 1960s is that its legislative achievements on the cultural and linguistic front (Quebec s repressive language laws) have largely undercut the cultural insecurity which fueled the drive for political sovereignty in the first place. Nationalist sentiment in Quebec has always been at its height when the survival of the nation appeared threatened, and today such sentiment is on the wane. The majority of Québécois are certainly not enamored with the constitutional status quo, which relegates Quebec to a mere province, thereby denying its rights as a nation, but only a minority favor outright independence. The sudden decline in support for sovereignty in Quebec in the past year is a frequent topic for discussion in the bourgeois media: The current leaders of the sovereignty movement have themselves deliberately drained their message of much of its emotional content, by concentrating on the presumed economic benefits to be derived from independence, and their insistence that Quebec nationalism is territorially, not ethnically motivated. No longer is independence projected as a matter of throwing off the chains of the rapacious anglo oppressor, but a yearning by Quebecers of all backgrounds to take full responsibility for their own affairs, as [BQ leader Lucien] Bouchard put it in an interview with The Gazette last week.... In doing so, they have abandoned or fudged the emotional argument that sustained the modern sovereignist movement from its infancy----that only an independent state created for and by French-Canadians can assure the survival of the French language in Quebec. ----Hubert Bauch in The [Montreal] Gazette, 22 October 1994 That same week La Presse columnist Marcel Adam observed that: because an ethnocentric sovereignist enterprise is philosophically indefensible, and destined to failure when it claims a territory with a heterogenous population, today s sovereignists have had to find another justification for their project. An ethnocentric sovereignist enterprise is viewed as philosophically indefensible, i.e., politically undesirable, by the mainstream bourgeois nationalists of the BQ/PQ. The PQ could attempt to pull off a referendum victory with a solid majority of francophone voters. Hard-core nationalists such as Pierre Bourgault actually advocate such a course. Parizeau prefers to court the soft ethnic vote, which is perceived as wavering between affinity with Quebec and Canada. Ultra-nationalist demagogues such as Guy Bouthillier of the Mouvement Québec français, who sought PQ nominations in Quebec s September 1994 election, did so against PQ leader Jacques Parizeau s wishes. In some instances they displaced the official ethnic candidates, and thereby sab-otaged the PQ s efforts to win the non-francophone ethnic votes largely concentrated on the island of Montreal. Parizeau managed to win the general election despite heavy losses among immigrant voters, but in the forthcoming referendum on sovereignty such votes will be crucial. The question of immigrants, many of them from impoverished Third-World countries, is becoming as hot an issue in Montreal as it is in Paris. At the beginning of the 1994 school year, 12-year old Emilie Ouimet was expelled from Montreal s Louis Riel high school for wearing a hijab, a traditional Muslim headdress for wo-men. Bourgeois nationalists, from péquistes to Société St. Jean Baptiste (SSJB) xenophobes, have been demagogically denouncing the dangers posed by the concentration of immigrant children in the French-language schools of Montreal. Seventeen years after the French Language Charter began channelling ethnic and immigrant children into the French school system in Quebec, a kind of panic has blown up around the very presence of these children in French schools. The island s French schools have become overwhelmed with immigrants and can no longer even hope to integrate them into mainstream Quebec society, the Montreal Island School Council [Conseil scolaire de l Ile de Montréal] charged this spring. As francophone families leave the island for the lower taxes and bigger homes of off-island suburbs, fewer than half the students in Montreal s French schools now have French as their first language. Integration is not just the ability to speak a language, said Jacques Mongeau, head of the Island School Council. It s also a shared value system, a shared culture. ----Gazette, 15 October 1994 Quebec nationalists condemn the children of immigrants, not for failing to learn French, but rather for failing to become perfect Québécois de vieille souche with the shared value system of the French Catholic Mouvement Québec français and the Société St. Jean Baptiste. Winning a Hearing We do not seek to march at the head of the St. Jean Baptiste procession. We do not seek to lead the struggle for a French Quebec. We do not support Quebec s language laws. Unlike comrade Elliott, we are not concerned about winning a hearing among the hard-core nationalists, and have no need to pander to their backward prejudices or to repeat what demagogues would have them believe. The duty of revolutionaries is to say that which needs to be said, irrespective of one s prospects in popularity polls. The adoption of the slogan of independence and socialism by the Quebec left in the 1960s was based on the assumption that the struggle for independence against the Canadian state would spill over into working-class revolution. The higher level of class struggle and leftist/nationalist political activity in Quebec appeared to verify this perspective. In 1970 Pierre Trudeau invoked the draconian War Measures Act and sent the Canadian Army in to occupy Montreal. Hundreds of leftists, nationalists and trade unionists were interned on the grounds that they were 4 all part of an apprehended insurrection led by the terrorist Front de Libération du Québec. Two years later the jailing of three labor leaders touched off a massive general strike, which for a few days put the unions in control of some towns. The Canadian (and American) governments were deeply disturbed by such developments, and
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