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Response to the Communist Party on Quebec(1972)

These two articles appeared in Labor Challenge in April 1972. They responded to articles by the head of the Communist Party of Quebec, Sam Walsh, who was sharply critical of the Trotskyists' support for Quebec independence and the movement for a French Quebec.

The Socialist History Project had hoped to post Walsh’s original articles as well, but we have so far been unable to obtain the relevant issues of Combat and Canadian Tribune. We would appreciate hearing from anyone who has copies of those issues, or who knows where they may be available: please email ian@socialisthistory.ca

What Strategy for a French Quebec

Labor Challenge, April 10, 1972

by Colleen Levis

[Introduction from Labor Challenge] The following article (originally titled "In defense of nationalism and the struggle for unilingualism") is taken from the French language Québécois Trotskyist paper Liberation. It answers several attacks on the mass movement in Quebec for a French Quebec — a movement to defend the national language against the present tendency of attrition and destruction.

The Communist Party denounces the movement for a French Quebec, the unilingual movement, as the "battle cry of the French-Canadian petty-bourgeoisie" and accuses it of "dividing the working class according to nationality."

Colleen Levis, the author of this article, is the organizer of the Ligue des Jeunes Socialistes in Montreal, which has played a leading role in building the Front Commun pour la Défense de la Langue Française. Levis wrote the article, as she explains, as a reply to Sam Walsh of the Communist Party.

Walsh has since answered Levis’ article with yet another diatribe against the Québécois language movement. Walsh spends the whole of this second article in a sterile attempt to fit together six quotes from Lenin, torn out of their literal and historical context, to show that Lenin too would have opposed the demand for French unilingualism. In our next issue Labor Challenge will take up Walsh’s distortions of Lenin’s position.

The references Levis makes to Bill 63 and Bill 28 may not be understood in English Canada. Bill 63, passed in 1969 by the Quebec government, guaranteed in law the right to school education in either French or English. As predicted by the nationalist movement, the Bill speeded up the process of assimilation into English in Quebec, especially on the part of immigrants.

Bill 28, a law to reform the Montreal school system and to implement Bill 63 in Montreal, was recently withdrawn by the Quebec government after massive protest.

The important decisions on the national question taken at the recent convention of the Quebec Federation of Labor are a part of the leftward turn in the labor movement toward mass struggles. The radicalization of the Quebec workers is shown by a more pronounced nationalism.

Among the organizations of the left, only the Communist Party of Quebec sees something dangerous and reactionary for the working class in these decisions. In the Dec. 10, 1971 issue of Combat, the paper reflecting the viewpoint of the Communist Party of Quebec
(PCQ), Sam Walsh attacks nationalism and the struggle for French unilingualism.


The position taken by the QFL in favor of French unilingualism, a position put forward for a long time by the Trotskyist movement, is according to Walsh of the PCQ "the other side of the coin of discrimination and coercion. The fact that the Trotskyites have adopted unilingualism as their own demand, a very dangerously nationalist one, is a measure of their opportunism, wanting to make nationalists out of internationalist workers instead of the contrary." It is the Canadian capitalist system and not the Trotskyists which has created Québécois nationalism. In any case for real Marxists there is no contradiction between the nationalism of an oppressed nation and working class internationalism.

In another article in that issue of Combat, the PCQ explains its support of Bill 28. It criticizes from the right the amendment of the Parti Québécois which, according to the PCQ, "risk dividing the working class even further..." The Communist party is even more moderate on the language question than the Parti Québécois!

"The struggle for the survival and the growth of the national language of French Canadians must not be waged by denying the English-speaking minority, whatever its ethnic origin, the freedom to use its language and the right to education in the language of its choice."

This is not a statement of the Canadian government to a meeting of Anglophones nor a statement of Bourassa. This is a statement of a party which calls itself "communist." In fact, in reading the PCQ solution to what it calls the "delicate linguistic problem," it is very difficult to distinguish it from the solution proposed by the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism.

The article claims that the linguistic policy of the PCQ is "neither bilingualism nor unilingualism," although the PCQ is in favor of Bill 28, just as it was in favor of Bill 63 in 1969. In reality this is a policy which goes completely in the direction of protecting the privileges of the English-speaking population. Rejecting French unilingualism in Quebec can only lead to English unilingualism.

English privileged language

All the studies show a clear tendency towards the total assimilation of the French-speaking Québécois. All the statistics prove that, given free choice; the Anglophones, the immigrants and more and more even the Francophones, choose English. This is because English is the privileged language in Quebec. It is the language of those who oppress the Quebec nation, that is to say the English-Canadian and American capitalists. Those who do not speak English have limited chances of advancement and most often receive lower wages.

The article in Combat cites Lenin in order to justify the rotten policy of the PCQ. What a slander against Lenin and the Russian revolution of 1917! Lenin, like Trotsky, was in 1922 among the most steadfast in affirming that the one hundred national minorities in Russia needed real self-determination. He took a position against Stalin’s policy on the Georgian question.

On Dec. 31, 1922 Lenin wrote, "Internationalism on the part of oppressors or ‘great’ nations as they are called ... must consist not only of the observance of the formal equality of nations but even in an inequality of the oppressor nation..."

Lenin would have said that for Quebec we should not demand equality for the French language but inequality for the English language in order to restore French to its rightful place.

One cannot speak abstractly of the equality of two unequal languages. English, the dominant language, is based on conquered rights — on the conquest of the Québécois nation — and not on the so-called "acquired rights of the minority." The English language, the language of the majority in North America, has no need of protection. It is the language of the oppressed Québécois nation which must be protected by laws.

Is it the struggle for French unilingualism which divides the workers? The PCQ talks about a false and illusory unity which will disappear with the first offensive of the bourgeoisie. Unity is built in struggle and not by way of compromises. Moralists and pacifists look for policies which will please everyone and will change nothing. All struggles create divisions.

Whether a strike, a campaign for the right to abortion or even a revolution, the result of any struggle is a polarization even among the workers. Is it necessary to end a strike in a factory, if 10 or 15 percent of the workers oppose it, on the pretext that the strike divides the working class? Is it necessary to curb the majority of the class which goes into struggle and subjugate it to the most backward, most privileged or most prejudiced elements?

The language struggle at St. Leonard was not abstract. The PCQ fiercely attacked the Francophones because they had not succeeded in winning the support of all the non-Francophones. The Francophones, according to the PCQ, had to abandon their struggle to defend their language in the name of "unity." There are still a large number of American workers who, against their own interests, support the war in Indochina, even actively. But that does not mean it is not necessary to build the antiwar movement.


Socialism will not be built with abstract appeals for "unity"; socialism will be built through concrete struggles of the most oppressed sectors of capitalist society.

The PCQ invokes the call for "unity" against the revolutionary dynamic of the mass struggles in order to hide its Stalinist, counter-revolutionary and passive politics. The Communist Party does not develop a program for Quebec which serves the needs of the Québécois, utilizing the method of scientific Marxism, but one which suits above all the interests of the conservative bureaucracy in the USSR.

The Russian revolution has been betrayed by Stalinism. The right of oppressed nations to self-determination has been reversed by the Stalinist degeneration of the USSR. In spite of the warnings of Lenin on this question before his death, the Stalinist course won against the Left Opposition led by Trotsky and inspired by the traditions of Lenin. In order to maintain their privileged positions, Stalin and his heirs developed a strategy of peaceful coexistence with imperialism, seeking to uphold the status quo.

We see the total lack of solidarity of the USSR with the revolutionary nationalist struggles around the world. Kosygin’s visit to Canada and his statements are an example. For him, national oppression exists neither in the USSR nor here. He never breathed so much as a word on the national oppression of the Québécois. He spoke often of Canada as a "nation strong and united."

The "internationalism" which the PCQ speaks about has nothing to do with proletarian internationalism. True internationalists must support unconditionally the just struggles of oppressed nations. It is hypocritical for those who uncritically supported the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the USSR to speak of internationalism. The Québécois workers who are nationalists identify with the struggle against oppression around the world — in Bangladesh, in Ireland, in the United States, the women’s struggle, and the struggle in the colonial countries. We can best develop an internationalist consciousness through our own concrete experiences.

Those in Quebec who recognize neither the double oppression of Francophone workers nor the importance of the struggle to defend the national language will hardly be capable of recognizing the necessity of socialism.

In Defense of Quebec Nationalism

Labor Challenge, April 24, 1972

by Robert Dumont [Richard Fidler]

"Trotskyite nationalists" is the title of an article by Sam Walsh in the Feb. 16 issue of Canadian Tribune, which expresses the views of the Communist Party.

Walsh, president of the Quebec CP, is replying to an article by Colleen Levis in the Quebec revolutionary socialist monthly Liberation (translated in the previous issue of Labor Challenge). Levis explains why the Trotskyists of the Ligue Socialiste Ouvrière and the Ligue des Jeunes Socialistes support the struggle for a French Quebec and how the CP, a supporter of federalism, goes wrong in its violent hostility to this movement.

"Nationalism and unilingualism," Walsh informs his readers, are "the battle cries of the French-Canadian petty-bourgeoisie." The bulk of his article is a collection of quotations from V.I. Lenin, torn out of context to distort their meaning, in an attempt to "prove" that Lenin — who was largely responsible for formulating the revolutionary Marxist policy on the national question — was in fact an antinationalist, and would have opposed the demand of growing numbers in Quebec, including the trade unions, for French to be made the sole official language. Walsh and the CP would have us believe that Lenin’s policy on the national question was in irreconcilable opposition with Trotsky’s.

Leon Trotsky, Lenin’s closest collaborator in the Russian revolution of 1917, had a quite different assessment. "The national policy of Lenin will find its place among the eternal treasures of mankind," he wrote in his monumental History of the Russian Revolution. "Lenin appraised with admirable profundity the revolutionary force inherent in the development of the oppressed nationalities, both in Czarist Russia and throughout the world."

Language rights

A reading of Lenin’s works on nationalism, which played a key role in arming the Bolshevik party in the struggle for power in an empire of many nations and nationalities, reveals that the CP’s opposition to Québécois nationalism has nothing in common with Leninism — that it is in fact a denial of the revolutionary Marxist view of national struggles upheld by Trotsky and carried forward in Quebec by the LSO and LJS.

Walsh quotes Lenin: " ... Russian Marxists say that there must be no compulsory official language ..." and triumphantly concludes: "It takes Trotskyites to dare pretend Lenin could support unilingualism!" In this, Walsh reveals only his own dishonesty.

The quotation is from an essay by Lenin written shortly before the First World War, entitled "Is a Compulsory Official Language Needed?" Far from arguing against the demand by oppressed national minorities for official recognition of their language rights, Lenin is polemicizing against "liberals and opportunists" who called for accepting the imposition of Russian as the sole official language in the non-Russian nationalities oppressed by Czarism. These elements argued that Russian culture was more advanced and that assimilation into the Great Russian culture was historically progressive.

The equivalent to this argument which Lenin is opposing would be the demand that English be made the sole official language in Quebec, on the grounds that English is the predominant language of commercial and cultural intercourse, and is growing in influence! Whatever legal recognition the Québécois have been able to win and maintain for their French language would be abolished.

Lenin fought consistently against such fatalistic capitulation to imperialist domination, and for the right of oppressed nationalities to develop their own schools, culture, courts in their own languages. That is why the second part of the sentence quoted above by Walsh states: "A fundamental law must be introduced in the constitution declaring invalid all privileges of any one nation and all violations of the rights of national minorities."

When Walsh and the CP use Lenin’s polemic against making Russian the official language throughout the Czarist empire, in order to argue against the Québécois demand for French unilingualism, they ignore and violate the distinction between oppressor nation (Russian, or English-Canadian) and oppressed nation (Quebec) that is vital to the Marxist concept of self-determination. The result is a purely liberal approach, which substitutes an abstract demand for "equality" of French and English languages in Quebec in the place of the actual living struggle of the Québécois against the inequality of the French language, the constant debasement of their language and culture in an English-dominated society.

The CP rages indignantly against the Trotskyists’ support of the mass movement for a single French-language school system. The CP lamented the 1968 victory of the pro-unilingualists in the school board elections in Saint-Leonard, a Montreal suburb, because it deprived Italian immigrant parents, as Walsh puts it "of their right to have their children taught in English, which, unfortunately, is still the language of work in Quebec." The "Trotskyites," he cries, are "dividing the working class according to nationality."

The facts speak otherwise. A year after the 1968 victory of the Ligue pour l’Integration Scolaire (LIS), the Saint-Leonard school board’s decision to phase out English-language instruction was overruled by Bill 63, which protected the English school system. At that time, nearly 25 percent of the municipality’s 5,614 elementary students were in "bilingual" (English-French) classes and the rest were French-language schools.

And what is the record since Bill 63 imposed "bilingualism" on Saint-Leonard? A study released last January showed that 2,258 of the 2,691 immigrant children in Saint-Leonard were enrolled in English-language schools for the 1971-72 academic year. The local Italian-language weekly, Il Cittadino Canadese, comments: "This means that within the near future, Saint-Leonard will be a more or less English-speaking municipality, like the west end of Montreal island."

Devastating statistics! Those who are dividing the Italian immigrants from the French-speaking workers who make up 90 percent or more of the Quebec proletariat are not the advocates of a French school system, but the same "provincial" government which serves so faithfully the interests of the English Canadian and U.S. monopolies that exploit Quebec. The same corporations which — "unfortunately" (Walsh) — impose their language upon the Quebec workers by forcing them to learn and speak a foreign language to earn a living; the same corporations which pressure the immigrants to learn English because it is the language of business. To speak of "free choice" or "equality" of languages in such circumstances is to stand things on their head.

Hostility to nationalism

Behind the CP’s opposition to French unilingualism in Quebec is its hostility to Québécois nationalism itself. Here again, Sam Walsh tries to invoke Lenin’s authority, but with no greater success.

He recites a string of quotations in which Lenin argues against "bourgeois nationalism." Marxists must avoid getting "bogged down in bourgeois nationalism," Marxists do not condone the striving for privileges on the part of the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation, etc., etc.

A diligent researcher can locate many such passages in Lenin’s writings, particularly in the pamphlet The Right of Nations to Self-Determination. But here again, the context of the polemic is what’s important. Lenin was addressing himself to the particular problem posed in Central and Eastern Europe, just after the turn of the century, where strong nationalist movements led by capitalists — themselves oppressors of subject nationalities within their borders — sought to re-establish privileges they had previously enjoyed before their conquest by neighboring states. Thus, the Russians oppressed the Poles, the Poles the Ukrainians within Poland, and all oppressed the Jews.

But it would be a gross distortion of Lenin’s views to make out, as Walsh does, that he saw only that reactionary side of nationalism. Because national movements are historically associated with the bourgeois-democratic revolution, and the creation of modern capitalist states, was no reason for revolutionary socialists to shy from supporting national demands in nations which had failed to establish full self-government.

"All general democratic demands are bourgeois-democratic demands," Lenin wrote in The Cadets and the Right of Nations Self-Determination. "But only the anarchists and opportunists can deduce from this that it is not the business of the proletariat to back these demands in the most consistent manner possible:"

One such demand is that French, the national language of the Québécois, the use of which is key to their definition as a nation, be made the national language in schools, government and industry — and given strong protection in law against encroachments and degeneration by English. When the CP claims the Québécois movement for French schools is "racist," it makes the victims of national oppression the criminals.

Lenin waged an unceasing struggle against those in the left who refused to support national liberation movements for fear of becoming compromised with bourgeois nationalists.

When Karl Radek slandered the 1916 Irish rebellion as "purely ... petty-bourgeois" and "putschist," Lenin responded: "To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the land-owners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc. — to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution ...

"The struggle of the oppressed nations in Europe [we might add, in North America — RD], a struggle capable of going all the way to insurrection and street fighting, capable of breaking down the iron discipline of the army and martial law, will sharpen the revolutionary crisis in Europe to an infinitely greater degree than a much more developed rebellion in a remote colony ...

"We would be very poor revolutionaries if, in the proletariat’s great war of liberation for socialism, we did not know how to utilize every popular movement against every single disaster imperialism brings in order to intensify and extend the crisis. If we were, on the one hand, to repeat in a thousand keys the declaration that we are ‘opposed’ to all national oppression and, on the other, to describe the heroic revolt of the most mobile and enlightened section of certain classes in an oppressed nation against its oppressors as a ‘putsch,’ we should be sinking to the same level of stupidity as the Kautskyites."

Revolutionary dynamic

Today, in most if not all of the oppressed nations and colonies, the national bourgeoisie is very weak and dependent for whatever privileges it enjoys on its collaboration and complicity with imperialism. The new national liberation movements, based on proletarian and other oppressed layers, have a correspondingly greater impact. To underline this distinction, Lenin proposed to the Second World Congress of the Communist International in 1920 that these non-capitalist-led movements be designated "national-revolutionary" rather than "bourgeois-democratic."

Walsh’s claim that in Quebec "nationalism and unilingualism" are "the battle cries of the French-Canadian petty bourgeoisie," "divisive slogans of the bourgeoisie," is totally false and irrelevant. In reality, the Québécois capitalists violently oppose the struggle for French unilingualism, as does their most nationalist wing, the Parti Québécois. The demand for a French-only school system has drawn a dividing line between left and right wings of the nationalist movement — between those with a consistent anti-imperialist perspective and those who seek only greater "sovereignty" for Quebec while allowing the imperialist corporations to continue to plunder the nation’s natural resources and labor.

The Communist Party attacks the Quebec independence movement not because it really sees Quebec nationalism as "bourgeois," but precisely because it fears the revolutionary dynamic of the movement for national liberation. While paying lip service to Quebec’s right to self-determination, the CP is wholly committed to maintaining the basic structures of the Canadian state.

Its official program calls for a "freely-negotiated new confederal pact" based on "voluntary equal partnership of the two nations in a binational, sovereign and democratic state." Each nation is accorded "the right to separate if the majority of one or the other nation so desires."

But "self-determination" for English Canada is hardly the issue! By constantly harping on the "danger" of "French Canadians" gaining special "privileges" the CP turns its back on the real living struggle against privileges, the Québécois struggle against oppression by English Canadian business and government.

The CP’s support of Canadian federalism, its hostility to Québécois nationalism, flow from its adherence to the counter-revolutionary line of peaceful coexistence with imperialism that is advanced by its Moscow mentors. The Kremlin bureaucrats fear the influence of the rising nationalist and revolutionary struggles around the world in encouraging oppressed nationalities in the USSR to themselves mobilize against their national inequality, to overthrow the ruling bureaucratic caste and establish workers’ democracy.

Under the banner of peaceful coexistence, the Communist parties in colonial countries have openly advocated and practiced class collaboration with the national bourgeoisie. So much for Walsh’s pretended disavowal of "bourgeois nationalism."

As leading militants in the mass action wing of the movement for a French Quebec, the Trotskyists are boldly and successfully applying the Leninist approach to the national question. They are building the movement that will overthrow capitalist rule in Quebec, and shake the very foundations of capitalist rule in English Canada. In doing so, they are laying the basis for meaningful equality between the workers, of Quebec and English Canada.

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