Workers Hammer No. 243
IMT in Quebec
Behind the mask, neither socialism nor independence
The following polemic originally appeared in French as a June supplement to République ouvrière, publication of our comrades of the Trotskyist League in Quebec and Canada. The translation, which incorporates a minor factual correction, appeared as an August supplement to the TL’s English-language newspaper Workers Tribune.
The oppression of Quebec is at the core of the Canadian state and the fight for liberation from anglophone domination has always been a powerful motor force for class struggle. The national question is the strategic question for revolution in Canada and in Quebec. At the centre of the Trotskyist League’s programme is our commitment to national liberation and to the workers republic of Quebec. To wage this fight, we seek to build a party on the model of the Bolsheviks, independent of all bourgeois and reformist parties. It is by following the example of the Russian Revolution and fighting for the proletarian dictatorship that the working class and all the oppressed can liberate themselves.
Diametrically opposed to this perspective, we find the reformists of La Riposte Socialiste, the Quebec group of the International Marxist Tendency (IMT) [whose British section is Socialist Appeal]. As we showed in the first issue of République ouvrière, this group’s line has always been to oppose the fight for the national liberation of Quebec. In their article “National and class struggle in Quebec” (12 January 2018) La Riposte adopts a new posture, using language that could seem sympathetic to the fight against national oppression. The article quotes Lenin and the poem “Speak White”, opposes the Clarity Act [against Quebec’s self-determination] and talks about Anglo chauvinism and the “reactionary Canadian federal state”. But far from being a serious change of programme, this is an article that tries to hide their real position. Like a flag, La Riposte can blow with the wind, but can’t get away from the pole that supports it: the entire politics of La Riposte revolve around Canadian social democracy.
Contrary to Lenin, who tried to liberate the working class from the ideological hold of the reformist parties of the Second International, La Riposte peddles the illusion that the election of the New Democratic Party [NDP] could enable the building of socialism. In seeking to uphold unity with the NDP at all costs, they adapt to its pro-capitalist programme of Canadian unity. Their opposition to Quebec independence flows from this, but also from their reformist illusions in the capitalist state, which they think can be placed at the service of the workers. For example, they claim that the police and prison guards, the capitalists’ guard dogs, are “workers in uniform” who can be won to the side of the working class. In Quebec, La Riposte also tries to build Canadian social democracy, but this time inside Québec Solidaire [QS], a petty-bourgeois party with a populist posture, which does not even pretend to be a party of the working class (see “QS et GND: charlatans populistes”, République ouvrière no 1, Fall/ Winter 2017-2018). In trying to conciliate the NDP’s Anglo chauvinism within the nationalist QS milieu, La Riposte has to perform impressive feats of tightrope-walking. But these acrobatics don’t hold up under serious Marxist analysis.
Leninism and the Quebec national question
Unlike the confusionist theories of the reformists, the starting point for Leninists on the national question is relatively simple. Above all it is a matter of opposing the oppression of one nation by another. As Lenin said:
“The national programme of working-class democracy is: absolutely no privileges for any one nation or any one language; the solution of the problem of the political self-determination of nations, that is, their separation as states by completely free, democratic methods.”
— “Critical remarks on the national question” (1913)
The application of these principles to a given nation depends on its particular development. Our call for the independence of Quebec, without preconditions, under capitalism or within a workers state, flows from our understanding of the historic oppression of Quebec within Canada.
According to La Riposte, “the national question — more specifically the question of Quebec — has dominated Canadian politics since the 1970s” (12 January 2018). In reality, the question of the national oppression of Quebec has been decisive since the Conquest of 1759 when the British Empire conquered Quebec, occupying it militarily while trampling on the democratic rights of the francophones. Every Canadian constitutional document has as its premise the subjugation of Quebec. Quebec’s whole history is a struggle against anglophone oppression and for the right to exist as a nation. To this day, the class struggle and the fight against national oppression are inseparable. One cannot separate the Patriote Rebellion, the conscription crises, the Asbestos strike or the Quiet Revolution from the fight for the national liberation of Quebec.
La Riposte is now working overtime to make people believe they are opposed to the oppression of Quebec. Notably, they defend themselves by claiming:
“This does not mean that Marxists are opposed to the independence of Quebec. Nothing could be further from the truth. As an oppressed nation within Canadian confederation, we stand firmly for Quebec’s right to self-determination. This means fighting against anglo-chauvinism, anglo-imperialism and forced assimilation.”
Don’t be deceived. Further on they claim that “it is within this [present] context that we believe that focusing on independence is a negative thing for the movement”. So, for La Riposte, to promote independence — the only consistent solution to ending national oppression — would be “negative”. These reformists can make all the declarations they want, but in the context of Quebec, one cannot be for national liberation and against independence. For La Riposte, national liberation is not a strategic or principled question, but rather depends on the social-democratic (or bourgeois) milieu in which their organisation is seeking to manoeuvre.
Class independence against opportunist capitulations
As Leninists, we fight for the independence of Quebec and for socialist revolution. We seek to lead the fight for national liberation against all wings of the bourgeoisie and towards the seizure of power by the working class. The bourgeois and petty-bourgeois pro-independence parties (Parti Québécois [PQ] and Québec Solidaire) are obstacles to this perspective. The absence of an alternative that is proletarian, revolutionary and pro-independence leaves the field open to the nationalists, who can channel the fight for national liberation and social struggles into electoral support.
La Riposte cannot conceive of a road for the working class independent of the reformist and openly capitalist parties. Therefore, they cannot separate the fight against national oppression from the nationalist misleaderships. In their article on the national question, La Riposte use this methodology to paint the national liberation of Quebec as being essentially reactionary:
“The national question has constantly been used to cut across the class struggle, to co-opt the unions and destroy the militant traditions in order to demobilize and paralyze the workers in the face of attack from an increasingly belligerent Québécois bourgeoisie.”
It is not the national question that deflects class struggles, rather it is the political support given by the left and the unions to bourgeois-nationalist parties, especially the PQ. For its part, La Riposte opposes independence and crosses the class line in building QS. If QS were elected, it would administer the capitalist state and attack the workers just like the PQ does. If the Québécois workers are so solidly chained to their own bourgeoisie through nationalism, it is because they are victims of national oppression. The Canadian state oppresses Quebec, while the leaders of the English Canadian workers movement partake of the chauvinism of their own bourgeoisie. This makes it easy for Quebec nationalists to exploit the legitimate anger against oppression to push the lie that the bourgeoisie and workers of Quebec have a common interest.
All capitalist societies are permeated with chauvinism and racism; Quebec is no exception. It is imperative for communists to oppose all racist and anti-Muslim measures, such as Law 62 [restricting wearing the niqab]. But in their article, La Riposte uses the very real chauvinism of the Quebec nationalists as a pretext to oppose independence. In reality, far from strengthening nationalism, the separation of Quebec would cut the ground from under the nationalists’ feet, and would expose them even more as the sworn enemies of workers and oppressed minorities.
While denouncing Anglo chauvinism here and there, the purpose of La Riposte’s article is to show that it’s mainly Québécois nationalism that is reactionary and that proletarian unity will be built by sidelining the national liberation of Quebec. On the contrary, it is in opposing the chauvinism of the Great Russian oppressors that the Bolsheviks were able to win the confidence of the oppressed nations in tsarist Russia and lead the Russian Revolution. In The history of the Russian Revolution (1932), Trotsky contrasts Lenin’s politics to those of the Austrian social democracy:
“Bolshevism based itself upon the assumption of an outbreak of national revolutions continuing for decades to come, and instructed the advanced workers in this spirit. The Austrian social democracy, on the contrary, submissively accommodated itself to the policy of the ruling classes; it defended the compulsory co-citizenship of ten nations in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, and at the same time, being absolutely incapable of achieving a revolutionary union of the workers of these different nationalities, fenced them off in the party and in the trade unions with vertical partitions.”
Scotland, Catalonia: La Riposte mired in its contradictions
To demonstrate that today in Quebec the national question is used against the class question, La Riposte contrasts Quebec’s movement for independence with those in Scotland and Catalonia, claiming that “in both Scotland and Catalonia, it is fairly clear that the movement around the recent referendums was pushing the class struggle forward”, while “we have seen almost an opposite process in Quebec compared to Catalonia or Scotland” (12 January 2018). Once again, La Riposte’s position has nothing to do with the historical evolution of these nations, or with national liberation, but rather with the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois leaderships of these movements.
The 1707 Act of Union between England and Scotland made Scotland the junior partner in building the British Empire. Historically, Scottish nationalism was weak and the workers movement in England, Wales and Scotland waged joint struggles. But since the ebb in class struggle following the defeat of the 1984-85 British miners strike, Scottish nationalism had been fuelled by Westminster’s chauvinist policies against Scotland, an oppressed nation. We are firmly opposed to every expression of English chauvinism and we have always been for Scotland’s right to self-determination. The case of Scotland is different from that of Quebec, whose entire history is one of resistance to conquest and assimilation, and where the application of the right of self-determination can only mean championing the fight for independence. In Scotland, in the 2014 referendum, our British section did not advocate either a yes or a no vote (see “Behind Scotland’s no vote on independence”, Workers Hammer no 229, Winter 2014-2015). While the Scottish people may decide differently in the future, the outcome of the referendum showed that the right of self-determination may also mean the right not to separate.
La Riposte claims that the Scottish independence movement, unlike Quebec’s, advances the class struggle because:
“Especially due to the fact that independence did not have strong traditions in Scotland, this led to it being seen as an anti-establishment struggle. The SNP [Scottish National Party] had abandoned their tartan tory image and now presented a social democratic face.”
— 12 January 2018
The SNP is not any kind of workers party, but simply a bourgeois-nationalist party that supports the European Union and NATO, and whose version of Scottish “independence” would maintain the British monarchy and the pound sterling. La Riposte’s position has nothing to do with the will of the Scottish nation, but simply with the opportunist appetite of La Riposte’s Scottish co-thinkers to tail the bourgeois SNP. The contrast with Quebec is all the more fraudulent since in 2013 the IMT was as opposed to Scotland’s independence as it was to Quebec’s:
“We need the unity of the British working class armed with a socialist programme and a fighting labour movement. That is why Socialist Appeal welcomes a socialist ‘no’ campaign as well as fighting for socialist policies in the labour movement.”
— “Yes or no? A Marxist view on Scottish independence” (20 September 2013)
Despite their contradictory appetites, nothing was going to detach the IMT from its touchstone, the unionist chauvinism of the British Labour Party.
In the case of Catalonia, it is a nation oppressed by both Spain and France, and we call for independence north and south of the Pyrenees — for a workers republic of Catalonia! For hundreds of years, the Catalans have been fighting against assimilation, expressing their wish to exist as a nation. Catalonia’s independence would not only be a great blow against the Spanish prison house of peoples, but also against the reactionary imperialist bloc that is the European Union.
For the IMT and La Riposte, the determining element is the “movement”, not national liberation based on class independence. They support the anti-independence bourgeois party Podemos, as well as the petty-bourgeois Catalan nationalists of the Candidatura d’Unitat Popular. In fact, they are historically against the independence of Catalonia. Two months before the referendum, they said scornfully:
“One may well wonder why a referendum is necessary, when the elections of September 2015 were presented as a plebiscite on independence. But there is little logic to the bourgeois nationalists’ improvised pirouettes, other than to save their careers and their reputation in the short term.”
— “The independence referendum and the Catalan national question” (28 July 2017)
Two days before the referendum, they tried to cover their tracks by claiming that “a vote YES is a vote against the 1978 regime” (“IMT statement on the Catalan independence referendum”, 25 September 2017). The only constant in the IMT’s manoeuvres is opportunism, hostility to Leninism and to national liberation. La Riposte’s comparisons between Quebec, Catalonia and Scotland are false, rightist and dishonest.
Fightback: tribune of Canadian unity, against Law 101
As Leninists in Quebec and Canada, we seek to build a binational revolutionary party, but our perspective is two parties in two separate states. The precondition for building such a party is that our comrades in English Canada must be the most consistent defenders of the national liberation of Quebec. It is essential for the liberation of the anglophone workers that they break with the anti-Québécois chauvinism of their bourgeoisie. Our struggle flows from the communist principle that a nation that oppresses another nation can never be free. This perspective was gained in the course of a hard internal fight where the International Communist League broke sharply from wrong positions and renewed our Marxist continuity on the national question (see Spartacist [English-language edition] no 65, Summer 2017). This battle laid the programmatic basis to build a truly Leninist party, a tribune of the people in Quebec and Canada.
For La Riposte it’s the opposite. The main concern of their comrades of Fightback in English Canada is to oppose Québécois nationalism. Moreover, the demands for Quebec featured in the programme at the back of each issue of Fightback and La Riposte change according to the language of the publication. While in French they declare themselves to be for “bringing down the capitalist federal Canadian state” and call on the Québécois workers to “unite with those who are battling the Canadian state, including the Anglo- Canadian workers” [our translations], their programme in English contains not a trace of this rhetoric and makes no call for anglophone workers to fight Canadian chauvinism. It is clear that La Riposte’s new posture is solely for the Quebec branch to cover its backside. Even though the new article from La Riposte/Fightback has some phrases here and there about anglophone chauvinism, the overwhelming majority of their articles on the national question are against the nationalism of the Québécois, the oppressed.
In their article following the “orange wave” [NDP victory] of 2011 (only in English), we see the true colours of La Riposte and Fightback. This contemptuous article, which opposes Law 101 [making French the official language in Quebec], entirely blames the Quebec workers movement for the division of the working class in Canada and disappears the chauvinism of the NDP. Worse yet, the article blames the NDP for having been too conciliatory on the national question:
“At some points during the campaign, however, some ideas put forward, particularly by Thomas Mulcair, went further than diffusing the defensive mistrust of the Québécois.”
— “What social forces led to the NDP wave in Quebec?” (27 July 2011)
Why is the profoundly Anglo-chauvinist NDP too sympathetic to the Québécois for Fightback’s liking? Because Mulcair spoke against certain ways to get around Law 101, for example by using private schools. Fightback exclaims: “Unfortunately, the NDP has waded in on this question, supporting the same slogans of the nationalists, ‘close the loopholes,’ ‘defend the french language,’ etc...”. This is one of their only articles dealing with Law 101, but their position is perfectly clear:
“This law only reinforces the ghettoization, particularly in Montreal, of anglophone and francophone workers. It has created a society where children are raised in two separate environments from a very young age. If we want to know where Canadian chauvinism and Québécois nationalism get their virulence, this fact plays the most pernicious role in reinforcing them.”
No, Law 101 is a legitimate response to centuries of imposition of English! Fightback’s position on the language question is a chauvinist, assimilationist position that denies the self-determination of Quebec.
Our programme to resolve the language question in Quebec is independence. However, in the absence of independence we defend Law 101. It is a defensive measure against the anglophone bourgeoisie’s policy of forced assimilation. For Leninists, the equality of languages begins with the fight against the privileges of the language of the oppressors. Despite this law, the privileges of English remain. The Anglo-chauvinist programme of Fightback/La Riposte, in defence of the privileges of English and against independence, is the expression of their reformist programme on the national question. As Lenin said:
“A reformist change is one which leaves intact the foundations of the power of the ruling class and is merely a concession leaving its power unimpaired. A revolutionary change undermines the foundations of power. A reformist national programme does not abolish all the privileges of the ruling nation; it does not establish complete equality; it does not abolish national oppression in all its forms.”
— “The discussion on self-determination summed up” (1916)
La Riposte no more has a programme for liberating Quebec from national oppression than it has one for socialist revolution. Those who want to fight to build a revolutionary vanguard party capable of leading the fight for a workers republic of Quebec and for a communist future should rally to the banner of the International Communist League and the Trotskyist League, the true continuity of Leninism.