These articles were published in the November-December 2006 issue of Relay: A Socialist Project Review, and in the December 12, 2006 edition of Seven Oaks. They are posted here with permission from Mordecai Briemberg, Raymond Legault, and Socialist Project.
by Mordecai Briemberg
Gore Vidal has said "history is Tuesday." His acerbic witticism was directed at the infamously blank historical consciousness of the people of his country, which he dubbed the "United States of Amnesia."
Still it is so much easier to recognize than to remedy an absence of historical consciousness. The transmission from past to present of the experiences of peoples’ struggles for a different world – in ways that are of practical use – is no simple task. Charles Gagnon undertook that task, and in this article we act simply as facilitators.
Charles Gagnon was the fourteenth child in a poor, farming family living in Bic, a small village on the Gaspé peninsula of Québec. He was born March 21st, 1939. In the subsequent decades, he became an important contributor to the revolutionary struggle for a different Québec and a different Canada. Charles Gagnon died November 17, 2005. On March 25, 2006 over 300 people gathered in Montreal to pay homage to his contributions.
The evening was an harmonious blend of readings, poems, film clips, photo-montage, live music and personal reminiscence. One reading was by Charles Gagnon himself, excerpts from an early book, in the form of a public letter to his father, recorded on film. Another reading was from Charles Gagnon’s last published essay, addressed to Québec youth. Most readings were excerpts from interviews with Charles in the last weeks of his life, where he reflected on his political journey.
Below are four voices from that evening, most importantly that of Charles Gagnon. His reflections on his political journey are presented by Marie-José Nadal (‘The Last Testimony of Charles Gagnon"). She gathered them in conversation with Charles during his last weeks in hospital. Preceding that is a personal tribute delivered at the commemoration evening, by one of Charles’ anglophone comrades, Mordecai Briemberg. First we start with the voice of Raymond Legault, a co-chair of the commemoration evening, a long-time Québécois comrade and friend of Charles Gagnon. This transcription of an English-language radio interview with Raymond Legault was broadcast April 8th, 2006.
Mordecai Briemberg is active in the Stopwar.ca coalition in Vancouver and in Palestine solidarity work and in radio programming.
An Interview with Raymond Legault
This interview was broadcast on the "Redeye" program of Vancouver Cooperative Radio. Host for the interview was Mordecai Briemberg. The audio is available at http://www.radio4all.net/proginfo.php?id=17564
In 1964 Charles was one of the founders of a new journal called "Québec Revolution" and a short time later became a member of the FLQ, the Québec Liberation Front. Could you sketch the character of the FLQ and Charles involvement with it?
The FLQ was a nationalist and revolutionary organization, a Québec-based organization of the mid- and late-1960s. I guess you could say it was our small, local component of a much broader national liberation movement around the world in the 50s and 60s.
It basically advocated Québec independence from what could be summarized as British-Anglo colonialism. It also advocated on behalf of workers’ rights against big capital, but this aspect was less prominent than independence. The FLQ was known for some writing and also a few bombings, but most notoriously for two kidnappings, that of Richard Cross, a British diplomat, and of Pierre Laporte, who was then Québec Minister of Labour. Charles was a leader of the FLQ and was identified with Pierre Vallières as one of the two main ideologues of the movement.
He was imprisoned, was he not, for his involvement with the FLQ?
He was actually imprisoned a few times. He was imprisoned in New York when he and Vallières protested at the UN calling for political prisoner status for FLQ detainees in Québec. But he was jailed in Québec for over two and one-half years in two segments for his FLQ activity and also after the October crisis in 1970.
What led Charles to turn away from the FLQ and propose instead the formation of a revolutionary workers’ party?
I guess it was the main contradiction within the FLQ: on the one hand, some people stressed much more the national liberation aspects and some people, including Charles, put much more emphasis on the social and economic contradictions, the fundamental opposition to capitalism and imperialism, and denouncing both foreign and home-grown capital. This group of people also a definite interest in organizing a structured movement, a structured party, to overthrow our capitalist system, as opposed to relying on the spontaneity of loosely connected cells. You could also say they were gradually moving from a Québec-centered approach to a more Canadian framework for the overall struggle to overthrow Canadian capitalism.
In Struggle, however, was never a party. It always considered itself as an organization that was struggling to bring about the conditions for a party that would have broad-based, working class support.
So within that organization that you mentioned, In Struggle, (which in French was known as En Lutte, and which went by both names because it was an organization across Canada) Charles was important both in founding and leading it through the 70s and into the early 80s. In 1982 that organization dissolved itself. Looking back retrospectively, how did Charles understand the failings of that endeavor to form a revolutionary workers party?
There were many contradictions at play within the organization, which was recognized by Charles. One of the contradictions was the little recruitment that the organization had managed to operate within the working class. Other contradictions included the connection between capitalism and patriarchy as major dominant systems of oppression, including contradictions with women’s situation within the organization. However he was, I would say, deeply preoccupied with other shortcomings of the organization which many activists did not necessarily see as he did. One of them is actually the fact that our own activism had prevented us from serious reflection on the question of revisionism. He was struck by and indeed waged a struggle within the organization on the blatant contradiction in our own ways of looking at the world: when it came to analyzing capitalism, looking at it fundamentally through its economic basis, and when it came to the short comings of the struggle for socialism in the USSR and other countries, looking at it only at the level of ideas and the abandonment of certain ideas and certain principles – as opposed to trying to understand the fundamental forces that were at play in the changes in those societies. So that was one of his major concerns. The other was humanism – the relation between Marxism and humanism – and an assessment of all the developments in science and in capitalism itself and how humanism could be updated through all of this and become a fundamental aspect of charting a course to advance the people’s interest.
After 1982 with the dissolution of the project of In Struggle where did Charles focus his intellectual energies?
Just before answering your question on this, it’s quite important to note that these were extremely difficult times for Charles Gagnon. After some decades of charting the course and leading two very different revolutionary organizations, the FLQ and then In Struggle, a deep sense of being abandoned, and possibly of personal failure to some extent, was quite present in his life. However, he did remain very active intellectually. He lived for two and a half years in Mexico and did some investigation into the Asian production mode in pre-capitalist societies. Then he came back to Québec and wrote a doctorate thesis on the American new left. Then he started a major investigation which continued through to the end of his life, which he titled the "Crisis in Humanism", on which he was still working when he died. Actually a number of those later writings will soon be published as part of an anthology of his work.
We have focused a bit on the changes in Charles thinking. What would you identify as continuities in his perspective?
Well, a very persistent, constant search for a deep understanding of our world, of the lives that we’re living in this world, and what is the fundamental course of human society presently. And a commitment to find through this analysis a way forward in the interest of people, of their well-being, of opposing the destruction and despair and the dehumanizing character of capitalism and eventually defeating it. I’d say that’s the theme contribution that he’s steadily working at, and making important contributions to, I’d say.
There certainly was a mood of warm affection for Charles, as a person, at the memorial evening, which I was very glad to have been a part of. What were his individual qualities that you think elicited this emotion?
To most activists Charles was not someone that they would be in contact with daily because of the way In Struggle, our organization, was shaped and set. So most people saw him as the leader of In Struggle, someone who definitely provided inspiration and orientation for their daily activist activities. But many people also had the chance of knowing Charles and testified as to his very noticeable warmth and kindness as a human being, his modesty – which was extremely striking – and the fact that he was really not judgmental: he saw all his comrades as human beings, as struggling in the context of this capitalist society, and was very, very open to discussion about everything. One comrade who had the chance to live with Charles for a couple of years, who was a rank and file member of In Struggle and had no particular leadership role in the organization, told me at the commemoration that whenever he spoke with Charles, he had the sense that he was the only person in the world and that all Charles’ attention was focused on him. And whenever people had differences of opinion with Charles, political opinions, he was always extremely open to hear their opinions, to think about them. And you could actually sense that. There weren’t instant replies to whatever someone would tell him. He was thinking about what he had heard and was making his responses – I would say – in a measured way, always very respectfully.
His last published essay was addressed to youth. And one of the co-chairs of the memorial evening, along with you, was a young, anarchist-activist woman who only came to know Charles in the last five years. Why do you think Charles political journey ends with an address to youth?
I think he wanted very much to maintain a continuity between the past revolutionary struggles within Québec and Canada, and what is going on presently. This ‘Tale for the youth of my country’, which is sort of a subtitle, is trying to present the FLQ and In Struggle, in a way, as youth movements, that these were young people, that they were like young people today. They were rebellious, they were energetic, wanted to challenge many things in the world, and that they did try to do this in persistent ways. It sort of depersonalizes that experience quite a lot and brings it to its general character. Charles also was of the opinion that changing the world was something that was predominantly resting on young peoples shoulders. And he ends his essay with that, saying that he has much more confidence in their ability to understand the world and challenge it than in some university intellectuals’ convoluted ways of trying to present the complexity of our world. R
Raymond Legault currently is active in the antiwar coalition in Montreal, Echec a la Guerre, and in Iraq solidarity work with Voices of Conscience/ Objection de conscience
by Mordecai Briemberg
There is an unusual experience, startling and yet strangely comforting. It’s when a dear friend who has died appears before you, not in a dream but in daylight, not imagined but real.
I was at a recent film festival, one featuring documentaries of struggles in the global south, watching a film about the Mexican teachers. Suddenly in a scene of teachers meeting together I saw Charles in the face of one of the Mexicans. Exuding warmth, gentleness, attentively listening, not speaking except with the twinkle in his eyes. It was mere seconds, and Charles disappeared never to return in the remainder of the film.
I knew of Charles before I ever saw him. He was an "image" in those days when so many of us drew our optimism from the rising wave of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles around the globe. In remote Vancouver I situated Charles in that context of heroic liberation struggles. I initiated a Vallières-Gagnon political prisoner committee working to gain popular support for their freedom.
On a few trips to Montreal, where Lise Waltzer was as caring a host as anyone could want, I saw Charles in the court room many months before I ever met him.
It was in that brief interlude between his FLQ imprisonment and his War Measures Act imprisonment that we first spent time together. Charles came to speak in Vancouver, and stayed with my wife and I and our two very young children, whose well being he always asked after even in his last days, 35 years later.
Beginning in 1970 and through all the subsequent years of friendship and joint endeavors, Charles provided me with a deeper understanding of courage and character than I had drawn from the heroic "image" that first drew me to him.
An English playwright and radical activist, Harold Pinter, was awarded the 2005 Nobel Prize for literature. In his acceptance speech Pinter spoke of the pursuit of truth through dramatic art, which remains "forever elusive," indeed creating multiple and contradictory truths. Pinter contrasted this with the necessity for a citizen to define the "real truth of our lives and our societies." He argued, if a "fierce intellectual determination" to identify this real truth "is not embodied in our political vision we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us: the dignity of man."
In support of Pinter’s view, I would add: without such political vision our voices are muffled – when they need to be heard clearly; our passions are stilled – when they need to be vibrant; our motion is frozen – when it needs to be focused; and our capacities to change the world are crippled – when they need to be enhanced. For me the courage of Charles was just that: his fierce determination to embody in a political vision the truth of our lives and our societies, for the purpose of securing the human dignity of people everywhere. And his courage, that neither needed nor wanted any bravado, encompassed the willingness to evaluate his own political vision no less critically than the political vision of others.
In one of my last conversations with Charles, here in Montreal at Notre Dame hospital, he commented with surprise at the warmth of some comrades who had been visiting with him, warmth he had not noticed in them earlier. Perhaps it was Charles who had missed observing these qualities before. Perhaps… but maybe it was the activism, the certainties that had suppressed those qualities in bygone years.
Yet, and this speaks to Charles’ character, who could have failed to recognize his gentleness, his warmth, as much in his days of intense political activism as in his days of dying!
So listening, as we are this evening, to words that embody the courageous, fierce determination of Charles’ pursuit of political vision, let us simultaneously enhance our own humanity by remembering Charles’ kindness, his attentiveness to and caring for others, and the simple naturalness with which he conveyed respect to those who were fortunate enough to have encountered him. And remember too that bright twinkle of laughter in his eyes.
by Marie-José Nadal
With this article, I will mostly let Charles Gagnon speak his own words in order to contribute to the spreading of the last reflections he wanted to make public before dying. This project, which should have taken the form of an introduction to the anthology of his works, was interrupted by illness. Hospitalised, he asked me to help with the recording of his thoughts: our conversations took place between October 17 and November 10, 2005. We agreed to revisit the most significant political periods of his life: his critical involvement in the FLQ of the 1960s; the radicalization of his thinking, coming out of prison, which brings him to write Pour le parti proletarian [for the Proletarian Party], the founding document of the In Struggle! organization. Concerning this organization, Charles stressed the ideological limitations which prevented a consistent critique of revisionism. From then on, distancing himself from left movements, who remained too weak to struggle against exploitation and inequalities, he pursued on his own a reflection on humanism which he had begun much earlier, during his pre-university studies: the human being, as well as individual and collective freedom, must be at the heart of political thought. Marxism must be a form of humanism. His work on La Crise de l’humanisme [The Crisis of Humanism] has taken the form of several unpublished manuscripts; let us hope that it soon will be made public.
In selected excerpts, the reader will notice that Gagnon’s thinking remained challenging, holding surprises for many. A case in point is his position on power, which drew strong responses when the content of the interview was first revealed. This former Marxist-Leninist considers that power is not to be taken (neither by elections, nor by revolution). That it is by achieving concrete changes in the relations of production and in the social relations that the balance of forces will be changed in favour of greater justice and freedom. Charles liked to meet with youth organizations, and it is certainly through these encounters that he reached this conclusion.
Concerning the FLQ
Many writings of Charles Gagnon are witnesses to this period: his articles in Révolution québécoise [A journal begun by Charles Gagnon and Pierre Vallières in 1964] and his writings from prison, including Feu sur l’Amérique [Fire on America ]. Already the ideological foundations of his thought can be found: anti-capitalism, anti-racism, anti-imperialism, class analysis – the struggle will be revolutionary and will unite all the oppressed ("the world class of the poor", in his words). To struggle against capitalist dispossession, he suggests that power should be brought back to the level of work units or residence units: factory and neighbourhood committees will be the engines in the construction of a new society in a broad multinational liberation front. Forty years later, here is what Charles thought about the FLQ:
Pour le parti prolétarien (For the proletarian party)
Coming out of prison, Gagnon breaks with the FLQ in 1971; he writes Pour le parti prolétarien. With a small group of activists, he sets up l’Équipe du journal [The Newspaper Team], emphasizing the ideological struggle required to build the proletarian party. In his interview, he recalls the ideological breaks which led him to this view:
According to Charles Gagnon, the proletarian party will forge itself in the struggles of the working class. It will emerge from the action and determination of workers, not from the self-proclamation of young activists. Thus, ideological struggle is key to unite the proletariat under the banner of the socialist revolution, as well as to create the unity of the Marxist-Leninists of the world. In Struggle! was an organization regrouped around a newspaper and two journals of national and international analysis, which tried to carry out the unification of communists in order to build a non-revisionist, proletarian, Marxist-Leninist, revolutionary party.
Charles Gagnon never renounced his commitment this project. But as he acknowledged several positive contributions of In Struggle!, he emphasized the ideological shortfalls which led to its dissolution. The following excerpts point to his ability to draw links between the crisis of his organization and the weakness of the philosophical and political thinking of an entire period which renounced humanism and remained content with a superficial criticism of the traditional communist parties and the experiments in socialism of the 20th century.
The End of In Struggle!
After the dissolution of In Struggle!, Charles Gagnon did not belong to any other political organization, but he remained in touch with some old comrades and some young activists. He continued a solitary and unfinished reflection, around the persistent doubts that he harboured. Here is how he summarized his latest preoccupations on the Québec national question, on humanism, and on social change:
The presentation of these excerpts pays homage to an activist and a thinker who never renounced his convictions. All his life, he has defended the notion that the dignity of a human being can only be achieved by struggling against the injustices of the capitalist system. He belonged to various, even contradictory organizations, yet he always defending the unity of the most exploited, international solidarity and the necessary radical transformation of production and social relations. Some might be surprised by the final leanings of his political thought. This should be seen as the fruit of an analysis which tries to reach beyond the aborted criticism of revisionism and experiments in socialism, and to lay the foundations of a new humanism that leaves aside the thinking of the Enlightenment and fully sets itself in our contemporary world. Finally, internationalism remains a central feature of his thinking, be it when he was in touch with the Blacks Panthers or with African or Latin-American national liberation movements at the time of the FLQ, or when he proposed the unity of Marxist-Leninist organizations around the world. His involvement against the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas shows that he did not forget, in his last years, to participate in a struggle that unites the left forces of the Americas.
Coming back to the last text that Charles Gagnon published, Conte à l’adresse de la jeunesse de mon pays [A Tale for the Youth of my Country], I will let him have the last word:
Marie-José Nadal is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the Université du Québec a Montreal (UQAM). She wrote the "The Last Testimony" in French and Raymond Legault made the English translation.
Copyright South Branch Publishing. All