Spartacist Canada No. 174
The Communist Party of Canada and the Quebec National Question
Part One: The 1920s
We print below the first part of an edited presentation by comrade Charles Galarneau at the Twelfth National Conference of the Trotskyist League/Ligue trotskyste, held in the summer of 2011. The presentation was part of a panel on the stance of the Canadian left toward the Quebec national question from the 1920s to the 1950s.
Inspired by the Russian workers revolution of October 1917, led by the Bolshevik Party of V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky, the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) was founded in 1921. Its clear intent was to build a Bolshevik vanguard organization on Lenin’s model, in order to lead a workers revolution to victory. Much of the party’s work in its early years was powerful and even admirable. A useful account of this history is provided by Ian Angus in Canadian Bolsheviks: The Early Years of the Communist Party of Canada (1981). However, these early pioneers of revolutionary Marxism failed to grapple with the national question in this country, i.e., the oppression of Quebec in an Anglo-dominated Canada.
Crucial to the Bolsheviks’ victory in the 1917 Revolution was their defense of the right to self-determination for the many nationalities trapped in the tsarist “prison house of peoples.” This was an integral part of the Bolsheviks’ struggle for world socialist revolution leading to a communist society in which the rise of international productive forces brings about the dissolution of all nation-states. The Bolsheviks could not have won influence over Russia’s multinational working class, to say nothing of the urban petty bourgeoisie and rural peasant masses, without being the best champions of the just causes of the myriad oppressed nationalities of the Russian empire. This was particularly true during World War I (1914-18), when most of the “official” socialist parties descended into the grossest national chauvinism, backing their own ruling classes in the first great interimperialist conflict.
The Bolshevik position on the national question was summed up by Lenin in “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination” (1914):
“In this situation, the proletariat of Russia is faced with a twofold or, rather, a two-sided task: to combat nationalism of every kind, above all, Great-Russian nationalism; to recognise, not only fully equal rights for all nations in general, but also equality of rights as regards polity, i.e., the right of nations to self-determination, to secession. And at the same time, it is their task, in the interests of a successful struggle against all and every kind of nationalism among all nations, to preserve the unity of the proletarian struggle and the proletarian organisations, amalgamating these organisations into a close-knit international association, despite bourgeois strivings for national exclusiveness.”
The Leninists’ aim was to get the national question off the agenda, to counterpose to all variants of bourgeois nationalism an appeal to the workers for international unity in their class struggle.
As comrade Galarneau lays out below, the opportunity for the early Canadian Communist Party to eventually draw the correct lessons on the national question from the Bolsheviks’ experience was to be foreclosed by the Stalinist political counterrevolution. Following the defeats of workers revolutions elsewhere in Europe between 1918 and 1923, a conservative, nationalist bureaucracy, with J.V. Stalin at its head, had by 1924 usurped political power from an exhausted and demoralized Soviet proletariat.
The Bolsheviks’ revolutionary, internationalist policies began to be reversed. The dogma of “socialism in one country” proclaimed by Stalin in late 1924 was to become synonymous with the sellout of countless revolutionary opportunities abroad in the coming decades, as the Stalinists came to pursue an illusory “peaceful coexistence” with the rapacious imperialist powers. Along with the other parties of the Communist International (Comintern), the Canadian CP became a servile machine for the implementation of the bureaucracy’s futile attempts to appease world imperialism, and a promoter of class collaboration with its own bourgeoisie.
But the Stalinist degeneration of the international Communist movement met strong resistance around the globe as Communist leaders and working-class cadres from America to France, from Poland to China joined the fight to continue Lenin’s road. In Canada, founding CPC leaders Maurice Spector and Jack MacDonald were among those won to the Left Opposition led by Trotsky (see “How Stalinism Wrecked the Communist Party of Canada,” SC No. 77, Winter 1989/90).
The Left Opposition opposed the nationalist reformist program of Stalinism and sought to preserve and extend the gains of the Russian Revolution which had been betrayed but not yet overthrown. The Trotskyists fought for a political revolution to oust the bureaucracy and restore workers democracy and an internationalist leadership to the Soviet Union, while standing in unconditional defense of the conquests of the October Revolution against capitalist counterrevolution. Among its many crimes, the Stalinist bureaucracy came to replace revolutionary internationalism and defense of oppressed peoples with the crudest Great Russian nationalism and chauvinism.
In Canada, the Trotskyists were expelled from the CPC starting in 1928. Eventually—by the late 1930s—these comrades were able to find their way to correctly advocate the right of self-determination for Quebec, and they made persistent efforts to establish an organizational expression of authentic communist politics among the Québécois proletariat.
Building on that tradition, from our inception in 1975, the Trotskyist League has vigorously upheld the Québécois’ right to independence. Following extensive internal discussion, recognizing that the national animosities within the Canadian state had come to constitute a decisive barrier to the development of anti-capitalist class consciousness, we have since 1995 advocated the exercise of that right. Independence for Quebec would help clear the way for united struggle by the working class of the whole continent against the capitalist system that threatens the future of all humanity.
Part one of this presentation covers the early history of the socialist movement in Quebec and, in particular, the stance toward Quebec of the CPC from its origins to the late 1920s.
Today we will look at political events and characters that shaped a fascinating period in the history of the left in Canada and Quebec. From the Great Depression of the early thirties until 1947, the Communist Party of Canada recruited in Montreal hundreds of young francophone working-class men and women, workers in longshore, transit, rail yards, city works, clothing, tobacco, the building trades, etc. Together with their anglophone, largely Jewish comrades in the Montreal branches of the CPC, they played a leading role in building the industrial trade unions of Quebec, which remain powerful to this day. A reflection of their success was the two election victories in Montreal of the only-ever Communist MP in the House of Commons.
In spite of their party’s profound Stalinist deformations, many of these activists believed with burning hearts in the defense and emulation of the Soviet socialist “motherland.” On top of their trade-union activities, their belief and propagation of communism as they understood it earned them the most severe repression then meted out anywhere in Canada. They had their offices and homes raided, they were thrown in jail, religious family and friends would pressure them to quit.
They stuck it out through all of this, with slow incremental recruitment building up to about 500 francophone members by the mid-1940s. These were typified by a smart and strapping young electrician named Henri Gagnon, who was to become the recognized leader of this group and later the prime target of CPC Stalinist leader Tim Buck’s Anglo-chauvinist and bureaucratic manoeuvres. Indeed, in the end they were practically all lost by the party not because of state repression or the pressure of the Catholic church. These determined leftists walked away thanks to the Communist Party’s reactionary position on the Quebec national question.
We will cover the origins and development of this position. We will speak more of the CPC’s history in Quebec. And we will paint portraits of extraordinary characters, all of whose political trajectories, though in different fashions, ended in tragic waste. First however, let’s turn the clock back even further, to look at the Montreal left prior to the founding of the Communist Party, indeed, prior to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, and in particular to a man who could or should have been a great early leader of communism in Quebec—but never was.
Pre-History: Albert St-Martin and the
Early Socialists in Quebec
A significant industrial proletariat did not emerge in Montreal until the late 19th century. Working-class revolts occurred as far back as the building of the Lachine canal in the 1840s. A number of Montreal workers had also participated in the 1837 Lower Canada Patriote Rebellion, a bourgeois-nationalist revolt that was brutally crushed by the British. While largely rural, this Rebellion also swept the streets of Montreal. At one demonstration, Wolfred Nelson, an English doctor, Patriote and ardent champion of the rights of the oppressed French Canadian population, roared at a crowd that they should seize thousands of dollars from John Molson Jr.’s outlandish mansion on Sherbrooke Street. (Incidentally, the Rebellion was saluted by a special address of solidarity from the Chartist London Working Men’s Association, “To the People of Canada.”)
In the second half of the 19th century, Montreal started to draw massive numbers of poor Québécois pushed out of the countryside by rural population growth and the mechanization of agriculture. Greater Montreal grew sixfold between 1870 and 1930, when it reached a population of one million. Many others fled to the industrial regions of Ontario and the U.S. eastern seaboard, including, among others, the Québécois parents of legendary Beat writer Jack Kerouac. In Montreal, along with immigrants from Ireland and Eastern and Southern Europe, they became factory hands in the rapidly growing industries owned by the city’s Anglo capitalist masters. In contrast to the palaces and clubs of Westmount and Pine Avenue (and the fairly cool digs of Outremont), the working-class slums spreading all around the old city saw the reign of poverty, overcrowded tenements and early death.
Appalled at this state of affairs, in the 1890s a young clerk at the Montreal municipal courthouse decided to dedicate his life to ending the oppression of the working masses. Albert St-Martin was born in 1865 in the working-class borough of Sainte-Marie, near the Molson breweries and around where we now find the Jacques-Cartier bridge and Radio-Canada tower (the construction of the latter having caused the razing of the Sainte-Marie district). At the courthouse, St-Martin sought to help the poor and the illiterate with complex legal documents. He had the mind of an internationalist: he learned Esperanto and became a supporter of the international socialist movement. In 1904, he was a founding leader of the first workers party, the Parti Ouvrier, in Montreal. In the next decade, he would go on to lead the Quebec branch of the Socialist Party of Canada.
Albert St-Martin was a prominent leader of the movement against conscription in Montreal in 1917. He was also an orator at many other public protests. He definitely maintained nationalist leanings, as can be seen in his participation with reactionary nationalists such as Henri Bourassa (the founder of Le Devoir) in a protest movement against opening businesses on Sundays, which was anathema to the Catholic church. Yet he was deeply anti-clerical and a fervent atheist, which would bring him into innumerable conflicts with the church and the state.
St-Martin was over 50 years old when the 1917 Russian Revolution struck victory. He showed his colours in a searing 1920 indictment against imperialist intervention into the young Soviet republic. In his pamphlet “T’as menti” (You Lied), he stated that after having sought to isolate Soviet Russia, the bourgeoisie aimed:
“through Associated Press dispatches, through the writings and speeches of its prostitutes, through its newspapers, its governments, its clergy, its animated flicks, in a word through all the means of propaganda at its disposal, to build a campaign of denigration, of lies, of odious slanders, of charges of every imaginable crime against the Soviet Republic of Russia.”
—quoted in Marcel Fournier, Communisme et Anticommunisme au Québec 1920-1950 (1979)
Speaking of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, he added: “This dictatorship will disappear the day the bourgeoisie disappears, melted in the future, sole and only class: the workers of the earth.”
I could not find any clear documentation of the relationship of the fledgling Communist Party of Canada with Albert St-Martin in the early 1920s. They certainly were aware of each other, although St-Martin was probably not present at any of the early conferences of the party. Tim Buck’s later claim that St-Martin had briefly been a member but had to be expelled for “bourgeois nationalism” is almost certainly false. What is undisputed is that in 1923 St-Martin asked for a charter for his Quebec group directly to the Communist International. He was rebuffed for the valid Leninist notion of “one state power, one revolutionary party”—the need for a centralized political force of the proletariat to take on and defeat the centralized force of the bourgeoisie. I don’t know if this episode reflected his own nationalist leanings, or just an understandably poor grasp of Leninist party building. Probably a little bit of both. Whatever the case, it doesn’t sound like the early Canadian CP ever made much of an effort to bring him on board—and they certainly never attempted to win him away from whatever nationalist leanings he had through a correct exposition of the Leninist position on the national question. As we will see, they had no such understanding themselves.
In 1925, St-Martin founded the Université Ouvrière, modelled on the English-language Montreal Labor College, which then-Communist Party leader Michael Buhay and others had founded a few years before. St-Martin refused to fuse the Université with the CP organization, but he never stopped his supporters from joining the CPC. During the 1920s, the school effectively became the training ground for the first generation of francophone party cadres. An eclectic place, reflecting an eclectic founder, the Université held classes on everything from the Russian Revolution to anti-clericalism and astronomy, through to lectures on the virtues of free love (St-Martin was also a fervent advocate of women’s rights). In the late 1920s, according to Marcel Fournier, there were reports that St-Martin was sympathetic to the struggle of Leon Trotsky’s Left Opposition within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
In 1933, at age 68 and still an activist, St-Martin was brutally beaten by fascist youths in Montreal. He fell victim to an anti-Communist state witchhunt in that same year, convicted of “blasphemous libel” under Section 198 of the Canadian Criminal Code for articles which appeared in Spartakus, a newspaper of the unemployed. He died a forgotten and broken man in 1947, then in his eighties.
I do not know what St-Martin and the Socialist Party he led could have brought in terms of numbers to a young CP organization in Quebec in the early 1920s. More research is needed on that. I don’t know much about his relation to the early trade unions either, though I know he had some. What I do know is that if the early, revolutionary Canadian CP had had a correct, Leninist approach to the Quebec national question, it would have had a great chance of winning St-Martin and/or some of his supporters. Communism could thus have become a serious factor in Quebec very early on, especially in the cosmopolitan, industrial city of Montreal.
For Leninists, the point is to find the way to best break the hold of chauvinism and nationalism, to turn workers against their exploiters and open the road to socialist revolution. In Canada, that meant standing forthrightly against the repressive chauvinism of the dominant Anglo-Canadian rulers and championing the right of self-determination for the oppressed Québécois nation while calling on Québécois workers to oppose their “own” nationalist leaders, who were then tied closely to the Catholic church. But the early Communists didn’t have such an approach, to say the least, and our movement has paid dearly for that.
The Early CPC and the National Question
The elites of Quebec also reacted to the Russian Revolution, but with absolute hostility and fear. Among other things, in 1921 the clergy helped found the Catholic union federation, the Confédération des Travailleurs Catholique du Canada, in direct reaction to workers’ radicalization around the world. And the anti-Communist laws of both the federal and provincial governments were no less brutal than the later ones under the reactionary rule of Maurice Duplessis. Even with the best political tools at its disposal, Communism faced an uphill battle in Quebec. So let’s look at the tools that the early CPC was working with.
As comrades know, the Communist Party of Canada was founded by 22 delegates in Guelph, Ontario in June 1921. There were no Québécois (or “French Canadians” as they said then) in that group, and no indication that the Quebec question was brought up in any form. The following December, a preliminary conference assembled in Toronto in preparation for the creation of a legal party, the Workers Party. Michael Buhay came in from Montreal and spoke to the issue of recruiting francophones, but mostly in negative terms: “Our difficulty is French Canadians who are Reds, we cannot get them to work, they think all we need to do is sing the Internationale three times every Sunday” (Workers Guard, 17 December 1921, cited in Bernard Gauvin, Les Communistes et la Question Nationale au Québec, 1981). He then expressed some optimism in recruiting a few of those singing Frenchmen anyway.
Later in the 1920s, the party finally did recruit a handful of Québécois. A sporadic newspaper called l’Ouvrier Canadien published 12 issues between 1927 and 1931, with content very similar to that of the CPC’s newspaper, the Worker. The Communist Party members in Quebec remained overwhelmingly anglophone, or at least not francophone. In 1924 federal government reports put the total membership in Montreal at about 100, mostly Jewish.
The Quebec national question hardly came up at all from those founding conferences until 1929. According to Gauvin, who studied the party documentation in detail, when it did, either in congresses or in the pages of the Worker, it was usually a variation on the theme of how difficult it was to recruit French Canadian members. At best, they occasionally recognized the economic oppression of the francophone workers of Quebec, but never even hinted at an analysis based on the Leninist understanding of the national question. They never referred to Quebec as a nation.
Stalinism Wrecks the CPC
From the outset, the CPC and the Comintern had unambiguously and accurately characterized Canada as an imperialist power. But in 1925, as the anti-revolutionary
politics of Stalinism began to take hold, this understanding was overthrown. Consistent with the dogma of “socialism in one country,” the Comintern had begun to seek alliances internationally with a supposed “progressive bourgeoisie.”
In keeping with this, the CPC adopted its terrible line for “Canadian independence,” declaring that Canada was still a colony of Great Britain. This “independence” was sought, alternatively or simultaneously, from Britain and/or the U.S. This statement by Tim Buck in the Worker (21 March 1925) is typical (note that this position was shared by the entire leadership, including future Trotskyists Maurice Spector and Jack MacDonald):
“In their [the Canadian bourgeoisie’s] fight for complete independence from Downing Street, the Communists of Canada will help them with all their might. Having won independence, however, when they attempt to turn over Canada, lock, stock, and barrel, to Wall Street, they will find in us their bitterest opponents. Independence is only a step for each of us. For the dominant economic interests it is a step toward Americanization. To us the Communists, it is a step towards a Workers’ and Farmers’ Republic.”
—quoted in Norman Penner, The Canadian Left:
A Critical Analysis (1977)
This is very wrong on many levels. Most importantly, it 1) incorrectly paints Canada as some kind of oppressed neocolony, and 2) from there takes the wrong position (even if it were a neocolony!) of a “strategic united front” with the Canadian bourgeoisie. As Penner notes, this position had hardly anything to do with even a deformed version of Leninism, but a lot more to do with bourgeois Canadian nationalists such as the then well-known J.S. Ewart.
For the purpose of this presentation, however, the key point is that it was the “oppression” of Canada that the CPC was now concerned with. It appears from this that the poor recruitment of francophones had little to do with the French Canadians’ lack of a work ethic, but much to do with the CPC’s capitulation to Canadian nationalism and ignorance of, and/or indifference to, Quebec’s actual national oppression.
As Ian Angus recounts in Canadian Bolsheviks, the Canadian CP was at first left largely untouched by the anti-Trotsky campaigns taking place elsewhere in the Stalinized Communist International. Indeed, the pages of the Worker, edited by Spector, maintained a conspicuous silence on the anti-Trotsky campaign. The rest of the Canadian leadership acquiesced to this with the notable exception of the one nascent Stalinist among the party leaders, Tim Buck. This situation did not last forever of course, as 1928 saw the expulsion of Spector, along with James P. Cannon and his supporters in the U.S. party, shortly after they openly began to fight for Leon Trotsky’s Left Opposition.
It was Cannon, Spector and their comrades around Trotsky, co-leader with Lenin of the October Revolution, who remained true to the revolutionary program that animated the Bolsheviks. Leading the fight against the bureaucratic degeneration of the world’s first workers state, Trotsky and the Left Opposition took up the Bolshevik banner of revolutionary proletarian internationalism against the nationalist dogma of “socialism in one country.”
A year later, in 1929, the CPC’s social-patriotic line of “Canadian independence” fell victim to Stalin’s “Third Period” ultraleft turn, itself the fruit of Stalin’s betrayals and political zigzags. Inside the Soviet Union, Stalin’s rightist course in 1926-27—centrally the disastrous capitulations to the rich peasants epitomized by his then ally Nikolai Bukharin’s exhortations to these kulaks to “enrich yourselves”—had brought the workers state to the brink of catastrophe. Internationally, the Chinese Communist Party was directed by Stalin and his henchmen to subordinate itself to the bourgeois-nationalist Guomindang led by Chiang Kai-shek. The result of this betrayal was the slaughter of tens of thousands of Communists and militant workers by Chiang’s forces in the Shanghai massacre of April 1927.
Reeling from these and other debacles, Stalin responded at home and abroad with panicked adventurism. Proclaiming the imminence of the world revolution, the Stalinized Comintern and its parties now abjured united fronts with other workers organizations and built “red trade unions” in counterposition to the existing unions led by social democrats and others. At bottom, the pseudo-leftist policies of the Third Period, as Ian Angus puts it in Canadian Bolsheviks, “stemmed from a single source: the bureaucracy’s commitment to national autarky under the label ‘socialism in one country,’ and its need to use the Comintern as an agency of that policy.”
This is the context for the Comintern’s directives to the CPC to get rid of its idiotic “Canadian independence” line, recognize the Canadian bourgeoisie as the main enemy and start making real efforts to recruit Québécois workers. Referring to the 1917 conscription crisis, a Comintern Executive Committee (ECCI) letter of 1929 noted “the strong anti-British sentiment among the French Canadians which played a very important role in the last war.” In another letter, the organizational department of the ECCI wrote prior to the CPC’s 1929 convention:
“The Party must immediately set to work amongst the French Canadian masses of Quebec. An organizer should be immediately placed in Quebec province for this purpose; the discontinued French paper should be renewed; special forms of approaching the French Canadian masses must be found in view of religious prejudice, language, etc. Upon no account must the French Canadian units be regarded as ‘language units’ in the ‘immigrant’ sense because Canada is a bi-lingual country and the French Canadians are native masses.”
—quoted in Penner, The Canadian Left
The Comintern expressed the wish that francophones, who made up a third of the population, make up one half of the party’s membership. Also around the same time, Montreal youth leader Fred Rose criticized the CPC’s 1929 Sixth Convention draft resolution for not mentioning “the French-Canadian question.”
Of course, “half of the membership” was not to be, not by a long shot. The Sixth Convention centrally dealt with the changes in line and leaderships both in Moscow and in Canada. The Trotskyist Spector had been expelled a few months prior and Tim Buck would use the occasion to seize the leadership from his other internal rivals. It was at this point that the CPC became “Tim Buck’s party.” Political battles revolved around the “Canadian independence” question—which the leadership would formally reject, at least for now. The Quebec issue continued to play a tertiary role at best.
Nevertheless the Third Period turn and the professed new interest in Québécois recruits would enable the party to win over a significant layer of activists in Quebec in the next decade. This was true even after 1933 when the Comintern made another about-face, which led to embracing the politics of the “popular front” (class-collaborationist alliances with and participation in the governments of the bourgeoisie and the calculated containment of revolutionary proletarian struggles).
Something else caught my attention in the disputes around the Sixth Convention. Reading excerpts from Fred Rose’s critical Worker article of March 9, 1929, “The Problems of the French Canadians,” I got to thinking about the situation from another angle. Rose wrote:
“…our C.E.C. [Central Executive Committee] still pays no attention whatsoever to this important question. It seems that they are busy discussing the Ukrainian or Finnish problems which always fill the agenda. At the last party convention not a moment was given away to the French Canadian question, while a whole night session was utilized to discuss the Youth sections of U.L.F.T.A. [Ukrainian Labor-Farmer Temple Association] which is always a problem for our C.E.C…. Our C.E.C. did not even see the necessity of putting one of the Quebec delegates on the organizational committee of the Convention [so] as to be able at least to bring the French Canadian problem before this body.”
—quoted in Gauvin, Les Communistes et la Question Nationale au Québec
From its origins, the vast majority of the CPC’s membership was Finnish, Ukrainian or Jewish—even as late as 1929, such immigrants made up 95 percent of the party’s members. And those “ethnic federations” constituted the bulk of the Canadian CP’s actual work on the ground. While not excusing the party’s terrible anti-Leninist line on Quebec, the weight of these federations sheds some light on the failure to grapple with this important political question.
Along with the ECCI organizational department’s 1929 letter, the ECCI Political Secretariat raised the Quebec question in more theoretical terms. It said that the French Canadian workers “form the most exploited section of the Canadian working class” and called on the Party to take up the fight for “complete self-determination” for French Canada (Penner, The Canadian Left). While vague, this is the first document I know of to speak of Quebec in terms of “self-determination.” But while instructions from Moscow to significantly increase the organizational work in Quebec were carried out, at least for a period, the Canadian CP’s theoretical political views of the Quebec national question actually got worse over the next few years. The party went from its previous agnosticism to openly denying the right to self-determination and, at least for the next dozen years or so, the very existence of a Quebec nation.
[TO BE CONTINUED]