Quebec Student Strike & the National Question
Letter to the Internationalist Group
8 June 2012
We were pleased to learn that you raised the issue of solidarity with the Quebec student strike during demonstrations at CUNY on 10 and 18 May. We agree that “To win the strike, it is absolutely necessary to extend it to the workers movement” (“La grève étudiante québécoise : il faut vaincre l’attaque capitaliste,” 20 May), and also that the perspective of forging a revolutionary workers’ party on a global scale requires a serious political struggle against the poisonous reformist/nationalist ideology of the trade-union bureaucracy.
However, your advocacy of “the independence of Quebec in the framework of a federation of workers states of North America” (Ibid.) is seriously mistaken, especially in the context of the current struggle. You inherited this position from the degenerated Spartacist League/International Communist League (SL/ICL), which rejected its original (and correct) analysis of the relationship between the Quebec national question and the North American revolution.
Nationalists advocate independence as an end in itself, but Leninists approach the national question from the perspective of how best to push forward the class struggle. The position developed by the SL in its revolutionary period (which we uphold today) recognizes that the Quebecois have the inalienable right to self-determination, i.e., the right to separate from Canada and form a new state. The duty of Marxists in English Canada, should the Quebecois decide to separate, would be to actively defend their right to do so by every possible means. However, Marxists would only agitate for immediate separation if national antagonisms had so poisoned relations that joint class struggle was no longer possible.
In Spartacist No. 52, the ICL claimed that “successful proletarian struggle [in Quebec and English Canada] demands separation into two independent nation-states.” The same article asserted that “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.” This pessimistic and objectivist assessment has been repeatedly falsified by events in the class struggle. The strike by Canadian Pacific rail workers (who were legislated back to work on 30 May by the federal Conservative government) is just the latest example of joint class struggle by Anglo and Quebecois workers.
From a Leninist standpoint, advocating Quebec independence today makes even less sense than it did in the mid-1990s, given the precipitous decline in popular support for separation. The ICL’s repudiation of the Spartacist tendency’s historic position represented a politically demoralized retreat from Trotskyism and, as such, a manifestation of what the Internationalist Group in another context described as the SL’s “Drift Toward Abstentionism,” culminating in its “Desertion from the Class Struggle.”
Your recent statement correctly describes the ongoing student strike as “the biggest student mobilization in the history of Quebec and one of the most bitter social struggles in Canada for decades” (Op cit). This massive anti-austerity struggle—which has now acquired international significance—completely refutes the claim that without independence significant social struggle is impossible. Striking francophone students are well aware that it is not the Anglo bourgeoisie headquartered in Toronto and Ottawa but rather the Quebecois bourgeoisie represented by Jean Charest’s Liberal government in Quebec City that is the immediate enemy. It is no coincidence that the symbol of the student strike has not been the fleur-de-lys but the red square.
Referring to the effects of the student struggle, the Toronto Globe and Mail (2 June) observes that “a sort of ’grand awakening’ is under way, bringing with it the level of public discourse that Quebeckers call a débat de société”:
“As well as protesting against the tuition rise and the legal measures imposed to tighten the rules on protests, Quebeckers are marching against dwindling economic opportunity, corruption, and a widespread view that their Liberal rulers are tired and disconnected.
“Nationalist and progressive politics are often aligned in Quebec, but it’s far from clear that there is any resurgence of the sovereignty movement on the horizon—the issue has barely even come up.”
The position developed by the revolutionary Spartacist tendency of the 1970s was premised on a recognition of the enormous potential strategic significance of the linkages between the historically more militant and volatile Quebecois working class and its counterpart in English Canada (and through it the American proletariat). The current mass resistance to austerity by the Quebec students is beginning to resonate in English Canada, and this worries the Anglo rulers. The 2 June Globe and Mail mused: “After hundreds of demonstrations [in Quebec]—several have drawn crowds of 100,000 or more—scattered protests have begun to appear in other Canadian cities, leading many to suggest that Quebec’s unrest will carry on for months and the rest of Canada may yet be in for and [sic] awakening of its own.” Solidarity rallies have been organized across English Canada, from Halifax to Vancouver. In Toronto, these demonstrations have drawn thousands.
This is not the first time that struggles beginning in Quebec have spread to English Canada, as we documented in Trotskyist Bulletin No.7, which includes the transcript of a debate we had on this question with the ICL’s Canadian affiliate in 1999. We suggest that you reevaluate your stance and recognize that, in the current context, calls for independence are best left to petty-bourgeois nationalists and their fake-socialist hangers-on.
International Bolshevik Tendency