The dangers of Quebec nationalism

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In one of his first letters, our reader asked what the ICC thought about the Quebec national question.

Here is our first reply:

"As regards the Quebec national question, it's no different from all the other questions by movements for national independence for over a century now: these movements reinforce nationalist illusions and weaken the workers' struggle. We consider that any organisation which, in Quebec, supports the demand for the independence of the "Belle Province" helps, whether consciously or not, to weaken the Quebecois, Canadian and North American proletariat."

In a second letter on this question we made our position more precise:

As regards the specific question of Quebec and the attitude to adopt towards the independence movement, you write in your message of January 1st: "Concerning Quebec, I understand your opposition to the independence of Quebec and to Quebec nationalism, but I don't believe that Canadian nationalism is more ‘progressive', far from it. I believe that we have to resolutely oppose all the campaigns for the defence of the Canadian state and for the maintenance of the ‘national unity' of Canada. Canada is an imperialist, oppressor state which has to be destroyed from top to bottom. I'm not saying that we should support the independence of Quebec and the native peoples, but we also have to reject any appeal to Canadian-English chauvinism, which is dominant within the Canadian state."

Clearly it is out of the question for communists to give the slightest support to Canadian-English chauvinism, or to any form of chauvinism. However, you talk about "Canadian-English chauvinism" and "Quebec nationalism". What is the significance of this difference in terminology? Do you think that Quebec nationalism is less pernicious for the working class than Canadian-English nationalism? This is certainly not our view. And to illustrate that, we can envisage a situation which is hypothetical but by no means absurd, in which there is a powerful movement of the working class in Quebec which does not at first spread to the Anglophone provinces. It is clear that the Canadian bourgeoisie (including in Quebec) will do all it can to prevent it spreading to these provinces and one of the best ways of doing that is for the workers of Quebec to mix up proletarian class demands with autonomist or separatist demands. In this way we can see that Quebec nationalism is the worst kind of poison for the proletariat in Quebec and Canada as a whole, probably more dangerous than Canadian-English nationalism, since it seems unlikely that a class movement of Anglophone workers would be inspired by opposition to Quebecois independence.

In a situation which has some similarities with that in Quebec, Lenin wrote about the question of Polish independence:[1]

"The situation is, indeed, bewildering, but there is a way out in which all participants would remain internationalists: the Russian and German Social democrats by demanding for Poland unconditional ‘freedom to secede'; the Polish Social democrats by working for the unity of the proletarian struggle in both small and big countries without putting forward the slogan of Polish independence for the given epoch or the given period."[2]

Thus, if we really wanted to be loyal to Lenin's position, communists would have to defend the independence of Quebec in the Anglophone provinces but reject such a position in Quebec itself...

For our part, we don't share Lenin's position: we think that we have to speak the same language to all workers no matter what their nationality or their language. This is what we do in Belgium for example where our paper Internationalisme publishes exactly the same articles in French and Flemish. This said, we do recognise that Lenin's position, even though mistaken, was inspired by a deep-seated internationalism, which is certainly not the case if you don't vigorously denounce nationalism and demands for independence in Quebec.

Our reader replied vigorously:

"I think that you have a profoundly mistaken view of the relationship between Quebec nationalism and Canadian-English chauvinism. The latter is DOMINANT within the Canadian state and nourishes anti-Quebec and anti-Francophone racism. The existence of this chauvinism and its deep roots in the Anglo-Canadian working class prevents any Pan-Canadian unity of the working class. It encourages the development of nationalist tendencies among the Quebecois workers. One of its aspects is the rejection of bilingualism, which in any case is more a myth than a reality in Canada. Most Francophones are obliged to speak English and most Anglophones don't speak or refuse to speak French.

"Contrary to what you say the workers' movement in English Canada is based on the defence of Canadian unity and the ‘integrity' of the Canadian state, to the detriment of the Quebecois and the First Nations. There will NEVER be working class unity in Canada as long as the oppression of national minorities and Anglo-Chauvinist racism lasts...

"It's one thing to reject Quebec nationalism and to consider that Quebecois independence is an impasse and even a deception for the working class, but to go from there to claiming that it is more ‘dangerous' than Anglophone chauvinism, which is quite similar to Protestant Orangeism in Northern Ireland, there is a huge gulf.

"The Canadian government does everything in its power to keep Quebec in the Confederation, including the threat not to recognise a positive result in the 1995 referendum and even to carve up an independent Quebec along ethnic lines, which amounts to calling for the partition of Quebec. Then there was the law on referendum clarity where the federal government gave itself the right to decide on the rules of the next referendum on sovereignty, whether at the level of the way the question was posed or the size of the majority needed to carry through with the independence of Quebec.

"Above all, don't tell me that Anglo-Canadian nationalism is less pernicious for the unity of the working class. I strongly invite you to educate yourselves more about the Quebec national question."

We responded as follows:

You have replied particularly vigorously to our suggestion that, in certain ways, Quebec nationalism could be "more dangerous than Canadian-English nationalism".

We don't contest the facts you put forward to support your critique of our position, in particular that "Canadian-English DOMINANT within the Canadian state and nourishes anti-Quebec and anti-Francophone racism" and that it "encourages the development of nationalist tendencies among the Quebecois workers". We are also ready to accept that "Anglophone chauvinism is quite similar to Protestant Orangeism in Northern Ireland."

In fact, we are going to base our reply on this latter argument.

To begin with, we think that there is here a false interpretation of our analysis. When we write that Quebec nationalism may prove more dangerous for the working class than Anglophone nationalism, this in no way means that we see the latter as a kind of "lesser evil" or that it is less hateful than the former. In fact, it's true that, given that the Francophone population is subjected to a form of national oppression by the Canadian state, pro-independence demands can be presented as a sort of struggle against oppression. And it's true that the class struggle of the proletariat is also a struggle against oppression. And it's here that the greatest danger lies.

When the Anglophone workers enter into struggle, in particular against attacks launched by the federal government, there is not much chance that their fight could be portrayed as a demand for maintaining the national oppression of the Francophone workers because the latter would also be victims of the government attacks. Even if the Anglophone workers don't have a great deal of sympathy for the Francophones in normal times, it would be surprising if, during a conflict with their bourgeoisie, they were to treat the Francophones as scapegoats. History shows that when the workers enter into struggle (a real struggle and not a typical union action aimed at derailing and sabotaging workers' militancy), there is a strong tendency for them to express their solidarity with other workers with whom they share a common enemy.

Once again, we don't know the situation in Canada very well, but we have had many experiences of this kind in Europe. For example, despite all the nationalist campaigns aimed at the Flemish and Francophone workers in Belgium, despite the fact that the political parties and unions are organised on a communitarian basis, we have seen that when there are important struggles in this country the workers are not much bothered about their linguistic or geographical origins and that they actually gain a real satisfaction from finding themselves shoulder to shoulder with workers from other linguistic groups, even though in "normal" times they are constantly being set against each other. Another example was provided a year ago in one of the countries where nationalism has been a huge weight, Northern Ireland. In February 2006 the Catholic and Protestant postal workers came out on strike together and held demonstrations in both Catholic and Protestant areas against the common enemy.[3]

You write:   

"There will NEVER be working class unity in Canada as long as the oppression of national minorities and Anglo-Chauvinist racism lasts..." You seem to be saying that this means that the rejection of their own chauvinism by the Anglophone workers is a sort of precondition they have to fulfil before they can engage in struggle against the Canadian bourgeoisie. In fact, all the historical examples give the lie to such a schema: it's during the course of the class combat, and not as a precondition for it, that workers are led to go beyond all the mystifications, including nationalist ones, that the bourgeoisie uses to maintain its grip on society.

In the final analysis, if we say that Quebec nationalism may prove to be more dangerous than Anglophone nationalism, it's precisely because there is a form of national oppression against the Francophone workers. When the latter enter into struggle against the federal state, they run the risk of being more receptive to arguments that present the class struggle and the struggle against national oppression as two complementary struggles.

This question is analogous to the question of democracy and fascism. They are two forms of class rule, two forms of class dictatorship. The latter is more brutal in the way it exercises this dictatorship, but this doesn't mean that communists have to choose the "lesser evil" between the two. In fact, the history of the Russian and German revolutions between 1917 and 1923 teaches us that the greatest danger for the working class was represented not by the openly reactionary parties but by the "social democrats", those who benefited from the workers having much more confidence in them.

Let us take one final example of the danger of the nationalism of oppressed nations: Poland.    

The independence of Poland from Czarist oppression was one of the central demands of the 1st and 2nd Internationals. However, from the end of the 19th century on, Rosa Luxemburg and her Polish comrades began to question this demand, showing in particular that the socialists' demand for Polish independence ran the risk of weakening the proletariat of that country. In 1905, the proletariat in Poland was in the vanguard of the revolution against the Czarist regime. By contrast, in 1917 and afterwards, it didn't follow the same path. On the contrary: one of the most successful methods used by the British and French ruling classes to paralyse and undo the Polish proletariat was to give their support to Polish independence. The workers in Poland were then caught up in a nationalist whirlpool which made them turn away from the revolution unfolding on the other side of their eastern frontier, and in some cases even led them to enlist in the troops sent to fight against the revolution.

In the end, which nationalism proved to be the most dangerous? The odious "Great Russian" chauvinism which Lenin denounced, full of contempt for the Poles and other nationalities, but left behind by the Russian workers at the moment of the revolution, or the nationalism of the workers in the oppressed nation par excellence, Poland?

The answer is self-evident. But we should also mention the tragic consequences of the fact that the majority of Polish workers followed the sirens of nationalism after 1917. Their non-participation in the revolution, even their hostility towards it, prevented the Russian and German revolutions from joining up geographically. And if this junction had taken place, it is probable that the world revolution would have been victorious, sparing humanity from all the barbarism of the 20th century, which continues to this day.

After that letter, our reader wrote:

"Concerning the national question, I can understand that you are opposed to national demands, but I don't think this should make you close your eyes to national oppression. For example in the 60s and 70s one of the main demands of the Quebecois workers was the right to speak French at work, since a large number of enterprises and shops, above all in the Montreal region, functioned solely in English. Much progress has been made at this level, but there is still much to do. In my opinion it is vital to support this kind of democratic demand. We can't say to the workers ‘wait until the coming of socialism to sort that out', even if capitalism is by its nature incapable of putting an end to national oppression...

"I don't think that this kind of (democratic) demand, while not being revolutionary, can undermine the unity of the proletariat. On the contrary! The right to work in your own language, even if it doesn't put an end to exploitation, is an indispensable right for the workers. In the 1960s, the Quebecois workers didn't even have the right to speak to foremen in French in certain companies in the Montreal region. Certain restaurants in the west of Montreal only had their menus in English and the big stores in this area only operated in English.

"As I mentioned in my message, the situation has improved a lot, but there is still progress to be made, especially in the small companies with less than 50 employees. At the all-Canada level, bilingualism is far from being a reality despite all the fine official speeches.

"Concerning the Quebec national question, you asked me why I use the term chauvinism for Canadian-English nationalism and I don't use it to describe Quebec nationalism. Generally the organisations of the left use the word chauvinism to describe Canadian-English nationalism, because it is the dominant nation within the Canadian state. This doesn't mean that Quebec nationalism is more ‘progressive' than its Canadian-English counter-part.

"The Canadian-English workers' movement already raised the banner of Canadian unity during the 1972 general strike in Quebec. The NDP (New Democratic Party) and the CTC (Canadian Labour Congress) denounced this strike for being ‘separatist' and ‘undermining Canadian unity'. In my view an internationalist position has to resolutely and without compromise oppose both bourgeois camps and both nationalisms (Canadian-English and Quebecois). Even if today a movement of the working class in English Canada has little chance of being based on the defence of the oppression of the Quebecois, Anglophone chauvinism is still present all over Canada and is prejudicial to the unity of the working class. Any defence of the Canadian state and its so-called ‘unity' is at least as reactionary as promoting the independence of Quebec."

We wrote a long reply to the comrade's various letters on this question of demands against linguistic oppression, which we will see in the sections that follow.

[1]. With a significant difference in scale: the oppression meted out to the different nationalities in the Russian empire cannot be compared to the attitude of the Ottawa government to the different nationalities in Canada.

[2]. "The discussion on self-determination summed up", July 1916, Collected Works, Vol. 22.

[3]. See