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National Chauvinism Poisons Class Struggle; Independence for Quebec!

From the Workers Vanguard, 22 September, 1995

Last week, the Parti Quebecois (PQ) government of Quebec announced that a referendum will be held on October 30 proposing "that Quebec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership." The Anglo-chauvinist federal government in Ottawa has historically kept the Quebec nation forcibly confined within the Canadian confederation, and is not about to agree to any amicable "partnership." Thus this referendum is in effect a straight vote for or against secession from Canada. Legislation introduced simultaneously in the Quebec National Assembly makes clear that a "yes" vote will lead to a declaration of independence within one year, regardless of the outcome of negotiations with Ottawa.

The prospects for anti-capitalist class struggle in Canada are deeply poisoned by chauvinism and nationalism. Spawned by the oppression of the Quebec nation under the heel of the unitary Canadian state and fueled by the bourgeois nationalists of the PQ who seek to be the exploiters of their "own" working class, these animosities have divided the working class along national lines. In seeking to unite the workers of Quebec and English Canada, Marxists today call for an independent Quebec as part of the struggle for socialist revolution. Thus we believe that class- conscious workers in Quebec should vote "yes" in the coming referendum.

The following article, written just before the referendum was announced, was first published in English and French in Spartacist Canada No. 105 (September/October 1995), the newspaper of our comrades of the Trotskyist League/Ligue Trotskyste. It is reprinted here in abridged and slightly adapted form.

Twenty-five years ago, in October 1970, Quebec Liberal cabinet minister Pierre Laporte and British diplomat James Cross were kidnapped by a small group of Quebec separatist militants, the Front de Lib ration du Qu bec (FLQ). Using the "FLQ Crisis" as a pretext, the federal government under Pierre Trudeau imposed the War Measures Act and sent the army to occupy Montreal. Ottawa's troops stormed houses and apartments, rounded up hundreds of trade unionists and left-wing activists at gunpoint and threw them in prison where they were held incommunicado. Their "crime": an association with the belief that the oppressed Qu b cois nation had the right to determine its own fate. Thus martial law starkly exposed the enforced subjugation of Quebec, which is a foundation stone of the Canadian capitalist state.

The existence of two separate and increasingly divergent nations, one oppressing the other, continues to define the political landscape in this country, and has terribly undermined working-class struggle. As revolutionary Marxists, we unconditionally defend the national rights of the Qu b cois people and at the same time oppose all manner of nationalism and chauvinism, which strangle the fight against capitalist exploitation. We seek to advance the cause of all working people through building a revolutionary workers party that is a tribune of the oppressed. The forcible confinement of Quebec within Canada has poisoned relations between the English Canadian and Qu b cois working class. The recognition by the workers of each nation that their respective capitalist rulers--not each other-- are the enemy can only come through an independent Quebec.

In the late 1960s/early '70s, opposition to the suppression of national and language rights fueled militant proletarian struggle in Quebec. The Qu b cois working class emerged as the most combative in all North America. This was underlined in the near-insurrectionary general strike of 1972, which saw whole towns taken over and run by striking workers. But in English Canada, the anti-Quebec chauvinism of the trade-union officialdom and the social democrats of the New Democratic Party (NDP) served to tie the workers to their "own" bourgeoisie in the name of "Canadian unity." This Anglo chauvinism helped impel the Qu b cois workers increasingly into the arms of the Parti Qu b cois, the political representative of Quebec's newly emergent francophone (French-speaking) bourgeoisie.

Since our inception, the Trotskyist League/Ligue Trotskyste has actively championed Quebec's right to independence. As we wrote in 1978, when Trudeau again threatened to "use the sword" against Quebec:

"Labor must proclaim its unconditional support for the Qu b cois' right to self-determination.... "The Quebec working class is today the most combative on the North American continent. This gives burning importance to the defense of Qu b cois national rights by English-Canadian and U.S. labor. Such a revolutionary program which combats all forms of social oppression, including the national oppression of the Qu b cois, is essential to truly unite the English- and French-speaking proletariat of North America."
--"Trudeau Threatens War on Quebec," Spartacist Canada No. 23, February 1978

While unconditionally defending Quebec's national rights, we did not then advocate the separation of Quebec. Our perception was that national antagonisms had not yet become so intense as to make Quebec independence the only means of cutting through these hostilities and bringing the class struggle against capitalism to the fore.

But within the context of an Anglo-chauvinist unitary Canadian state, the national divide has poisoned relations between the working class of English Canada and Quebec. The depth of this schism can be amply seen in the parties that currently occupy the opposition benches in parliament. On the one side is the rabidly Anglo-chauvinist Reform Party. On the other is the ind pendantiste Bloc Qu b cois. The long-ruling federal Tory party has been obliterated, and the Liberals rule only by virtue of having swept Ontario in the last elections.

The same mutual national suspicions and hatreds which led to this parliamentary shake-up reach deep into the working class. Hundreds of thousands of unionists and other working people in English Canada, disillusioned at the NDP's wholesale capitulation to Bay Street's austerity diktats, abandoned "their" party and cast their votes for the unvarnished chauvinism of Preston Manning's Reform Party in 1993. In Quebec, working-class militancy and combativity has been dampened, submerged into support for the PQ, which was elected for the third time last fall pledging to hold an early referendum on independence.

These events only confirm that nationalism and chauvinism are, and have long been, a decisive brake on the workers' struggle in both nations. Through an extensive internal discussion on the Quebec national question, the Trotskyist League/Ligue Trotskyste re-evaluated our previous position. A motion adopted at a July plenum of our Central Committee noted in part:

"As revolutionary Marxists who seek to advance the cause of proletarian internationalist class struggle, the Trotskyist League/Ligue trotskyste advocates independence for Quebec. Our historic position of upholding Quebec's right to self- determination, while not advocating independence, was at best based on a superficial appreciation of the evolution of a self-conscious Quebec nation and the class struggle within it. Although the question of independence has yet to be put to a referendum vote of the Qu b cois population, the question was effectively resolved with the implementation of French-only language laws in the 1970s (i.e., the choice of assimilation or separation was decided in favor of the latter).... "For Leninists, the advocacy of an independent Quebec is the means to get this question `off the agenda,' particularly to combat the orgy of Anglo chauvinism in English Canada, but also to foil the aims of the bourgeois nationalists in Quebec who seek to tie the historically combative Qu b cois proletariat to their coattails. This is the only road to bringing to the fore the real social contradictions between the working class and their `own' bourgeoisie in either nation, and thereby laying a genuine basis for common class struggle in the future."

The Development of the Quebec Nation

Quebec was forcibly incorporated into British North America following the defeat of the French garrison on the Plains of Abraham in 1759. The British conquerors, who had expelled the French-speaking population of Nova Scotia (the Acadians) some years earlier, subjugated the rest of New France through a deal with the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Centuries of dynastic and commercial warfare between France and England made anti-French chauvinism a defining feature of the consciousness of the English ruling class. Thus the true founders of the Anglo Canadian state- -counterrevolutionary British Loyalist refugees fleeing the American War of Independence--poured into Ontario and the Maritimes with truly hardwired arrogance and bigotry toward the conquered French.

Isolated from the rationalism and anti-clericalism of the Enlightenment, and from the French Revolution of 1789, for well over a century Quebec remained largely a priest-ridden rural backwater. Any indigenous French-speaking bourgeoisie was eliminated as a factor. In 1837, a national-bourgeois revolt, the Patriote rebellion, was brutally crushed. Through the nineteenth century, Anglo Canadian (later joined by American) capital gradually displaced the British overlords.

Significant industrialization and urbanization began to change the character of Quebec society by the end of the century, but it took many decades for these developments to find political expression. The weak francophone bourgeoisie was thoroughly integrated with dominant English Canadian capital, while the petty-bourgeois elite remained tied to the church.

The Catholic hierarchy maintained an iron grip on Quebec society, including the working class. For a period in the late 1800s, membership in the Knights of Labour union organization was even declared to be a "mortal sin." The church continued to exercise direct or indirect control over much of the labor movement right up to the 1950s.

Throughout the long rule of Maurice Duplessis beginning in the 1930s, a period known as the "Great Darkness," virtually all social discontent was met with state repression. But from World War II on, a series of strikes--notably the illegal five-month battle by 5,000 miners in Asbestos and Thetford Mines in 1949-- showed that the proletariat was beginning to stir. Then the death of Duplessis in 1959 gave rise to a sea change in Quebec society.

With the "Quiet Revolution" of the 1960s, a Qu b cois bourgeoisie emerged, striving to cohere an autonomous political economy of which they would be the apex and chief beneficiaries. The Liberal government of Jean Lesage carried out a series of major nationalizations. Hydro-Qu bec in particular became the symbol of the growing power of Qu b cois capital. The new Caisse de D p t et de Placement state pension fund created a huge capital pool to invest in building up Qu b cois-owned industry. Socially, the dominance of the Catholic hierarchy was broken. Birth rates plummeted, from one of the highest in the world to one of the lowest. French-language education was secularized and vastly broadened, including new francophone universities and CEGEP junior colleges.

Politically, two distinct trends emerged, reflecting the choices confronting the rapidly modernizing Quebec society: toward assimilation (leading to the eventual disappearance of the nation) or toward separation and the creation of an independent state. The chief representative of the former trend, Pierre Trudeau, sought to use the federal government in Ottawa to incorporate and submerge Quebec into the rest of Canada. Trudeau couched this program in "liberal" trappings of "bilingualism and biculturalism," necessarily weighted in favor of the economically and politically dominant English-speaking people. While government services in French became available for the first time in much of the country, the mere appearance of French in everyday life (e.g., French translations on cereal boxes) drove English Canadian bigots into a frenzy. Meanwhile, Trudeau's answer to ind pendantiste agitation in Quebec was to send in the army in 1970 and to threaten again in later years to invade Quebec. Today, this legacy is carried forward by his lieutenant, Jean Chr tien.

The key weapon of those who sought to counter the assimilation of Qu b cois society became language legislation. A common political economy requires a common language, which is also then the vehicle of the culture. Beginning in the late 1960s, the Quebec National Assembly began to pass a series of ever more discriminatory laws, culminating in the PQ's 1977 Bill 101 which declared, in effect, a unilingual French Quebec. French was made the official language of work, while "foreigners," including English speakers from elsewhere in Canada, were required to send their children to French schools. We opposed such anti-democratic measures, upholding equal language rights for all, including francophones in English Canada and anglophones in Quebec.

Large sections of Anglo Canadian capital and hundreds of thousands of English speakers decamped down the highway to Toronto and beyond. Not only did the historic anglophone population, centered on the West Island of Montreal, decline sharply, but new immigrants began to be assimilated into French- speaking society. In 1971 only 15 percent of children whose mother tongue was neither French nor English were registered in Quebec public schools where French was the language of instruction. Around this time, there were significant protests among immigrant communities, notably Italians in the Montreal suburb of St-L onard, for the right to continue to send their children to English schools. But by 1989, over 70 percent of such children were in French-language schools.

In the decades since the Quiet Revolution, Quebec society has been reshaped. The decisive pinnacles of industry and finance are no longer in Anglo Westmount. As the Qu b cois bourgeoisie continues to consolidate its own separate political economy, the logical end product is the creation of an independent state, a new minor imperialist power la Austria or Denmark.

National Chauvinism: Poison to Class Struggle

The utterly anomalous situation where Canada is split on national lines while Quebec has not yet separated produces deep nationalist animosity. The workers in both nations have been driven ever deeper into the clutches of their respective bourgeoisies, undermining the class struggle against capitalism. The Quebec General Strike of 1972 was the most explosive class conflict in the Canadian state since 1919. Yet it was opposed and denounced by the leadership of English Canadian labor. In the midst of the strike, the Canadian Labour Congress executive waved the flag of Anglo chauvinism against Quebec labor militancy, declaring:

"It is, therefore, essential that the Congress and its affiliated unions oppose those elements, in any part of Canada, which advocate the destruction of Confederation or a reduction of the federal powers as a means of pursuing selfish regional aims."
--quoted in Globe and Mail [Toronto], 15 May 1972

As for the NDP, federal leader David Lewis publicly applauded the jailing of the Common Front strike leaders. Betrayed and abandoned in that pivotal struggle by the leadership of English Canadian labor, the militancy of Qu b cois workers was channeled toward the bourgeois nationalists, leading to the election of the first Parti Qu b cois regime of Ren L vesque in 1976.

Six years later, Qu b cois workers got a taste of mass union-busting from their "own" PQ government, which slashed wages and ripped up union contracts in the public sector. Fifty thousand angry unionists demonstrated outside the National Assembly with signs reading "Duplessis-L vesque: Like Father, Like Son." In an article entitled "For a Quebec General Strike!" (printed in French and English in Spartacist Canada No. 57, March 1983), we wrote: "This critical showdown between Quebec labor and the PQ provides an unprecedented opportunity to win this militant labor movement to a perspective of multinational revolutionary class unity where it is destined to play a vanguard role." But the nationalist union tops called off the strikes and the PQ was able to carry through its sweeping attacks, dealing Quebec labor a blow from which it has yet to recover.

Today all three Quebec labor federations are locked in a deadly nationalist embrace with the hauts bourgeois Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard. In rallying round the PQ and Bloc, Qu b cois workers are responding to the pervasive, ugly Anglo chauvinism that dominates English Canada. Five years ago, the Meech Lake Accord collapsed amid ranting and raving in English Canada against its simple statement that Quebec is a "distinct society." Then came the federal Tories' Charlottetown Accord, supposedly the final attempt to resolve the "constitutional crisis" and end the "Quebec problem." It was rejected by majorities in both nations.

Following the election of the latest PQ government last fall, another upsurge of bigotry has erupted in English Canada. A Quebecois woman tourist whose car broke down in an upscale Vancouver neighborhood was brutally beaten by thugs who spotted her Quebec license plates. This summer in Owen Sound, Ontario, a Qu b cois woman and her family were virtually driven out of town when their home was pelted with eggs and defaced with "Frogs Go Home" written in excrement on the living room window.

While there have been episodic examples of common class struggle, for example in the federal public-sector strike of 1991, the national divide goes very deep in the organized working class. The vast majority of unions in Quebec are either entirely separate from those in English Canada, or exercise nearly complete autonomy. And it speaks volumes that during this year's rail strike, former Tory cabinet minister Bouchard could get away with grandstanding as a "friend of Quebec workers" by initially opposing federal strikebreaking legislation.

National animosity cripples working-class struggle. As Karl Marx said a long time ago, a nation which oppresses another cannot itself be free. Marx's arguments for Irish independence from England, despite the different particulars, are instructive for the situation in Canada today:

"...it is in the direct and absolute interest of the English working class to get rid of their present connection with Ireland.... The English working class will never accomplish anything before it has got rid of Ireland.... The English reaction in England had its roots (as in Cromwell's time) in the subjugation of Ireland."
--Letter to Engels, 10 December 1869

Leninism and the National Question

Twentieth-century capitalism has intensified national oppression and exacerbated reactionary national conflicts. Nationalist reaction was a driving force for capitalist restoration in the former workers states of East Europe and the Soviet Union. At the same time, in the wake of counterrevolution, nationalist hostilities have exploded worldwide, along with an escalation of interimperialist rivalries.

The drive by major powers to redivide the world into regional trade blocs and the increasing offshore production in low-wage Third World countries underscores the need for communists to champion the rights of oppressed nations. Only by standing forthrightly against the nationalism of an oppressor nation can the proletarian vanguard claim the moral authority to call on workers of an oppressed nation to fight their "own" nationalist leaders, who seek to solidify their place among the exploiters and oppressors.

In a series of major writings, Russian Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin developed the Marxist approach to the national question in the epoch of imperialism, i.e., the epoch of capitalist decay. The tsarist empire was a prisonhouse of peoples, the Great Russian autocracy lording it over millions of Ukrainians, Poles, Georgians and a multitude of other oppressed nationalities. In his "Right of Nations to Self-Determination" (February-May 1914), Lenin wrote:

"In this situation, the proletariat of Russia is faced with a twofold or, rather, a two-sided task: to combat nationalism of every kind, above all, Great-Russian nationalism; to recognise, not only fully equal rights for all nations in general, but also equality of rights as regards polity, i.e., the right of nations to self- determination, to secession. And at the same time, it is their task, in the interests of a successful struggle against all and every kind of nationalism among all nations, to preserve the unity of the proletarian struggle and the proletarian organisations, amalgamating these organisations into a close-knit international association, despite bourgeois strivings for national exclusiveness. "Complete equality of rights for all nations; the right of nations to self-determination; the unity of the workers of all nations- -such is the national programme that Marxism, the experience of the whole world, and the experience of Russia, teach the workers."

While upholding the right to independence, Lenin emphasized that the question whether or not to advocate separation can and must be judged only in the concrete: "The party of the proletariat must decide the latter question quite independently in each particular case, having regard to the interests of social development as a whole and the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat for socialism" ("Resolution on the National Question," May 1917). In Russia, it was clear that national separation or the attainment of any other substantial democratic demand was inconceivable without a thoroughgoing revolution. Thus Lenin advocated to the non-Russian nationalities a course of common struggle against the tsarist autocracy.

In each case the question for Marxists is: how best, under the given historical circumstances, to break the hold of nationalism and chauvinism and turn the workers against their own bourgeoisie, opening the road to revolutionary struggle. The answer is not the same at all times and in all places, nor can a policy for one country be mechanically transposed to another. The differences between English Canada and Quebec are much greater, for example, than those between the Swedes and Norwegians, who separated peaceably in 1905, or between the Russians and Ukrainians, whose Slavic languages are largely mutually intelligible (not to mention the Croats and Serbs who speak the same language!).

The closest contemporary parallel would appear to be the Walloon-Flemish division that is Belgium. National/ linguistic antagonisms in that country have significantly deepened over recent decades, and are today a strategic obstacle to working- class struggle against capitalism.

In Canada and Quebec, the experience of at least the past two decades demonstrates clearly that successful proletarian struggle demands separation into two independent nation-states. Thus, regardless of the outcome of the coming referendum, and in general in the future, we will continue to advocate Quebec independence. At the same time, we recognize that self- determination is a bourgeois-democratic right and as such is subordinate to the broader interests of proletarian revolution. Thus our position advocating Quebec independence could dramatically change in any case or at any juncture where this would cut against the historic interests of the proletariat.

Quebec Independence and Canada's Future

There is much speculation that Quebec's separation could accelerate already strong centrifugal forces, leading to the breakup of English Canada and its unification in whole or in part with the U.S. We are strategically indifferent to such a development, and certainly think it has absolutely no bearing on the question of advocating independence for Quebec.

The unification of English Canada with the U.S. poses no particular question of principle for Marxists other than that it be democratically arrived at. We are far from indifferent, however, if the principal aspect of such an act is to strengthen American imperialism, particularly in the face of the sharp rise of interimperialist rivalries. In this regard, the statement in the document adopted by the Second International Conference of the International Communist League that "we are opposed to the disintegration of English Canada which at present could only strengthen the power of U.S. imperialism" is truncated and correspondingly potentially one-sided.

In the 1970s, American ruling circles expressed concern about the instability which could be ushered in by the creation of an independent Quebec. While Washington hardly considered Ren L vesque a Fidel Castro of the north, it was worried by the widespread labor and leftist radicalism which was shaking Quebec at the time. More broadly, in the context of international Cold War, the U.S. sought to maintain Canada as a reliable forward base for war against the USSR.

Now, with the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet degenerated workers state, this is no longer so important, especially as Parizeau, Bouchard & Co. have sworn fealty to NATO and other military pacts. Additionally, the North American Free Trade Agreement creates a framework for continued and strengthened economic ties whether Quebec is independent or not-- not least, access to relatively cheap hydroelectric power.

Nonetheless, during his recent visit to Canada, U.S. president Clinton again made clear Washington's preference for a "united" and independent Canada. Ottawa has proved extremely useful over the years as a soft cop for American imperialism, the "peacekeepers" who have provided a front for the U.S. from Korea to Vietnam to Africa and the Middle East. But in the end, Wall Street could care less whether Montreal bankers and industrialists speak French or English--as long as the dividends and interest payments are in convertible currency and are paid.

For North American Socialist Revolution!

As in 1980, there has been much jockeying and maneuvering among Quebec's separatist leaders over the wording of the question to be put to a referendum vote this fall. Not surprisingly, the Qu b cois are a bit ambivalent about departing- -especially with one-quarter of the Canadian national debt as their inheritance from having been under the English for so long. Comedian Yvon Deschamps captured the contradiction in his famous quip that what the Qu b cois really want is "an independent Quebec within a strong and united Canada."

But whatever the conjunctural sentiment, the fact remains that Quebec has, in all concrete ways, insisted on la survivance (survival), necessarily through compacting an insular francophone culture and society. And in English Canada, the chauvinist outcry against Quebec's assertion of national sovereignty erects profound barriers to proletarian class struggle. It is necessary, and has been for quite some time, to cut the Gordian knot.

Nationalism and chauvinism have been the key strands in the ropes which bind the English-speaking and French-speaking workers to their "own" capitalist enemies, setting them against each other, and against anyone else who is "not us." Thus French- speaking Haitians in Montreal, English-speaking Jamaicans in Toronto, Asians in Vancouver, aboriginal peoples struggling to assert their rights, are all victims of racist abuse and open state terror "justified" in large part by the vicious logic of nationalism which currently defines and bedevils this country.

We advocate independence for Quebec to help clear the way for united struggle by the racially integrated working class of the whole continent against the system of exploitation and oppression that threatens the future of all humanity. For an independent Quebec! For class struggle against all the capitalist exploiters, from Bay Street and Ottawa, to Rue St-Jacques and Quebec City, to Wall Street and Washington! Forward in the fight for North American socialist revolution! Defend Native Peoples!

Caught up in the nationalist crossfire, Canada's Native Indian and Inuit peoples are targets of vicious chauvinism from all sides. In 1990 the Quebec police and Canadian army staged armed assaults (below) against Mohawks seeking to protect an ancestral burial ground at Oka, near Montreal. Nearby, thousands of racists hanged Natives in effigy and chanted, "Qu bec aux - Quebecois."

The federal government in Ottawa has tried to manipulate the Native peoples of Quebec to look to the Canadian state as an "ally" against the prospect of Quebec independence. But Ottawa's cynical con game was exposed as police and army in British Columbia and Ontario opened fire on Native land occupations earlier this month, murdering Chippewa protester Anthony George and wounding two others. The working class in both English Canada and Quebec must actively champion the cause of the Native peoples against capitalist oppression and degradation, as part of the struggle for an egalitarian socialist future.