Workers Tribune No. 1
Documents of the Struggle in the Trotskyist League
Spartacist Canada on the 1976 Air Traffic Control Strike:
A Capitulation to Anglo Chauvinism
We print below a document by three Québécois comrades criticizing the article in SC on the 1976 air traffic controllers strike, a document which truly launched the discussion on the national question in our organization. It was originally written in English, seeking above all to convince anglophone comrades of the section. As we explain in the front-page article of this issue, the Québécois comrades were able to win other cadres to their opposition to Anglo chauvinism on the basis of this document, while they themselves were subsequently won to a position in favour of a single language of the air (and to the position that the strike by CATCA/CALPA was supportable), thus laying the basis for the principled struggle that followed.
When reviewing old SCs, we came upon the article “Bilingual Air Traffic Control Dispute Rocks Canada” (SC No. 8). We think that the line on this strike is wrong, that the article capitulates to Anglo chauvinism and that it should be repudiated.
The 1976 strike of the CATCA and CALPA unions was a strike against bilingualism and shouldn’t have been supported by the TL/LT. The French workers were simply asking that bilingualism be applied. The demand from Québécois air controllers to use English and French at work is a democratic right that the TL/LT should have championed.
The hysteria over safety was just an excuse to deny basic democratic rights to Québécois workers. As the article acknowledges, bilingualism in air traffic control is the normal policy of a number of countries like France and Spain. Bilingualism has been the official policy of air traffic control in Quebec since 1979, when a government commission concluded it was safe. As far as we know, more than 35 years of use of both English and French in the Montreal international airport hasn’t caused any major safety issues.
Capitulation to Anglo Chauvinism
This article was written for English Canadian workers and feeds Maple Leaf chauvinism instead of fighting it. The whole framework of the article capitulates to anti-Québécois tendencies in the labour movement and mocks the just struggle of the Québécois to be able to work in French. The small part about the necessity to oppose anti-Québécois chauvinism means nothing if you take the article as a whole.
Firstly, we slander the correct portrayal of the issue by Roger Demers [founding member of the Association des Gens de l’Air] as being “nationalist parochialism.” We also wrongly characterize the demands of the Gens de l’Air as “philistine nationalism.” In contrast, our treatment of the chauvinist labour misleader Jim Livingstone is a slap on the wrist. All this in the context where francophone air controllers were being told to “speak white” and were being suspended for using French with their francophone co-workers. Although the Gens de l’Air were undoubtedly nationalists, their demand for bilingualism in air traffic control was correct.
Secondly, our defense of language rights in the tiny section “For Language Rights for the Québécois!” doesn’t go beyond the fake bilingualism of Trudeau.
Thirdly, we shamelessly use Lenin to present the assimilation of Quebec as a progressive thing. Our program is not to promote the assimilation of oppressed nations under capitalism. The quotation is also missing this crucial part that follows:
“The Marxists’ national programme takes both tendencies into account, and advocates, firstly, the equality of nations and languages and the impermissibility of all privileges in this respect (and also the right of nations to self-determination with which we shall deal separately later); secondly, the principle of internationalism and uncompromising struggle against contamination of the proletariat with bourgeois nationalism, even of the most refined kind.”
— Lenin, “Critical Remarks on the National Question,” 1913
Fourthly, the sentence in the last paragraph saying “The bilingual policy which is suitable for the labeling of pickle jars is inapplicable to international air travel” is just disgusting.
The contempt expressed in this sentence echoes the general tone of the article.
The TL/LT should repudiate this position and this article. It could be an obstacle to winning over Quebec workers and is contrary to our perspective of common class struggle between the Québécois and the Canadian working classes. Actually, this strike is a clear example of how English Canadian chauvinism pushed the Québécois workers into the arms of the bourgeois nationalists of the PQ.
We are troubled that an article like this was published in WV, then SC. We should organize a conscious and collective review of our articles on the national and language questions.
For the building of a binational TL/LT!
Pontiac, Tremblay and David
The TL/LT and Quebec Self-Determination in the 1980 Referendum
15 November 2016
Despite our line change on the national question in 1995, when we finally took a position in favour of independence, our organization never undertook a serious review of its earlier position on the 1980 referendum. The following document by comrade Tremblay (translated from the original French) is the first to make this essential corrective. In contrasting our line in 1980 to cases where no question of principle is posed by the national question and where we do not recommend a vote for or against separation (as in Scotland in 2014), the comrade suggests that our line for a boycott was equivalent to denying Quebec’s right to self-determination. The document argues correctly that the referendum was not just a means to support the PQ, but that it posed concretely a principled question of self-determination for the oppressed nation. The correct Leninist position would have been to vote “yes.”
With the turn of the current TL/LT discussion toward the national question, I am trying to deepen my knowledge of this question and to better understand our approach. I thus read the Spartacist Canada articles concerning the question of the 1980 referendum, which I wrongly did not do before. I knew that we criticized the line that we had because we did not call for independence at that time, but that we said we have always correctly defended the Leninist perspective of the right of self-determination for Quebec. In our article coming off the discussion on calling for independence for Quebec, “National Chauvinism Is Poison to Class Struggle—For Quebec Independence!” we state: “Since our inception, the Trotskyist League/Ligue trotskyste has actively championed Quebec’s right to independence” (SC No. 105, September/October 1995). Indeed, we declared for the right of self-determination of the Quebec nation in our articles on this question.
However, in our 1980 articles concerning the Parti Québécois referendum, we took a position for boycotting this referendum: “The only choice for Quebec workers is to boycott Lévesque’s referendum!” (SC No. 40, December 1979/January 1980). I wonder why we made this call rather than not take a position. We wrote concerning the referendum on the independence of Scotland: “We support the right of self-determination for Scotland and Wales, which includes the right to form independent states. In itself, the referendum does not pose an issue of principle and we do not advocate either a yes or a no vote” (Workers Hammer No. 228, Autumn 2014). In my opinion, this is the appropriate approach that we should take in a referendum on the national question where the working class does not have a side.
We justify the call for a boycott in 1980 by saying: “Lévesque’s referendum has nothing to do with Quebec’s right to self-determination” (SC No. 40). We present the referendum as being simply a means for the PQ to seek support against the Canadian government in negotiations. In the article “PQ Referendum: Federalists Gloat—Lévesque Loses,” we write: “Despite the claims of Bay Street’s media that the referendum was just another step on Quebec’s road to independence, Lévesque was really only demanding a vote of confidence in his ability to wrest a few legislative powers and some more tax revenue from Ottawa” (SC No. 43, Summer 1980). So, for us, a yes vote in the referendum meant nothing but support to the nationalist PQ government.
It is true that the question posed in the 1980 referendum was pretty ambiguous. However, despite the form in which the PQ posed the question in the referendum, it seems clear to me that a vote in favour of the 1980 referendum constituted opposition to the federal Canadian state. The referendum campaign polarized all of Quebec, not over support to the PQ provincial government, but rather over the desire of the Québécois for independence from, or for unity with, the Canadian state.
The arguments used to take a position of boycott seem to me entirely contrary to the arguments that allowed the ICL to elaborate its line on the Syriza referendum in 2015. We took the position for a no vote in the Greek referendum although the question in the referendum was not an explicit opposition to the European Union. The question, rather, concerned the adoption or rejection of the accord proposed by the EU, and we correctly took the position of voting against the accord. We opposed the policy of the KKE [Communist Party of Greece], which claimed that to vote no in the referendum would give support to Syriza’s alternative accord. The KKE, despite its opposition in words, thus did not concretely take a position against the EU when the issue was posed.
To come back to the 1980 referendum, it seems to me that despite the fact that we mention recognition of Quebec’s right to self-determination, our call for a boycott testifies, in my opinion, to the fact that we were not able to defend the right of self-determination when the question in Quebec was concretely posed for the first time.
“Binational Workers Party”
7 November 2016
The following letter, written by a comrade of the International Secretariat (I.S.) during discussion before the 2016 Canadian conference, introduced an important point of precision concerning the type of party we need to build, especially in light of our strategic task for Quebec independence. This perspective is now reflected in our call to build a binational party with the goal of having two parties in two separate states.
Comrade Robertson recently pointed out a problem in the draft title of the first draft TL/LT document, “The Fight for a Binational Workers Party.”
I believe that I introduced the idea of our current task in Canada to be that of building the nucleus of a binational workers party. It has appeared to me that there was a de facto tendency towards English Canadian narrowness and I wanted comrades to understand the kind of party we must build now, particularly given our call for independence of Quebec and having acquired a group in Quebec. However, I hope I am not the source for comrades’ over-generalizing our current need for a binational workers party. The problem of Canada is that two peoples—English- and French-speaking (the latter on the oppressed side)—are trapped in one state, with the oppressive federal government sitting on top. Generally, we build one party per state power.
A strategic question at this time in Canada is our struggle for an independent Quebec. When Quebec does achieve independence, it would be quite wrong to continue to have a “binational workers party,” as it would effectively be an argument that Québécois workers remain trapped in a party dominated by English speakers; but the latter also historically form the oppressor nation. The current need for a binational section in a sense is a concession driven by the fact that we are building a section in a society where Quebec is oppressed, rather than reflecting our current goal of separation. In the case of the latter, Quebec would have its own party, and we would have to concretely build a party on the English Canadian side, depending on what would happen with the English-speaking parts of North America.
Even after a workers revolution, the problem of oppressed nations will continue to require special attention from the parties of the dominant nations. In contrast to Lenin, both Stalin and Ordzhonikidze envisioned Georgia (and the Ukraine) as being part of an involuntary “union,” subordinated to the Russian Federation. In 1921, they effectively carried out a coup against the best indigenous Georgian Communists and treated them in a piggish manner. A subsequent investigation by Dzerzhinsky was a cover-up. In late 1922, Lenin figured out what had happened and wrote a series of very sharp letters on 30 and 31 December 1922 that I would recommend comrades read (“The Question of Nationalities or ‘Autonomisation’”). Alongside the sharpest denunciation of Great Russian chauvinism, he argued:
“Obviously the whole business of ‘autonomisation’ was radically wrong and badly timed.
“It is said that a united apparatus was needed. Where did that assurance come from? Did it not come from that same Russian apparatus which, as I pointed out in one of the preceding sections of my diary, we took over from tsarism and slightly anointed with Soviet oil?”
Motions Against Anglo Chauvinism Adopted at the Historic Conference of the TL/LT
19 November 2016
These two motions adopted at the 2016 Canadian conference codify the results of the struggle. The first deals with the discussion around air traffic control and the principled agreement that followed. The motion also raises the question of what language would be most appropriate as the language of the air; this was finally settled at the ICL’s Seventh International Conference in favour of (Mexican) Spanish.
The second motion characterizes the earlier capitulations to Anglo chauvinism that marked our organization before and after 1995. It was written in opposition to the proposed conference document, which buried the section’s central problem on the Quebec national question. The motion refers to a discussion around the Toronto G20 summit in 2010, where the section refused to raise the special oppression of Québécois militants who were particularly targeted by the repressive forces of the bourgeois state. The politics that prevailed at this conference laid the basis for the extension of this struggle into our international, in the course of which certain positions were further clarified. Thus the motion still contains our earlier opposition to Law 101, to which we now give critical support (for our change of position, see the front-page article of this issue and Spartacist [English edition] No. 65).
Motion: Comrades Pontiac, David and Tremblay were correct to object to the treatment of the national oppression of the Québécois in SC No. 8, “Bilingual Air Traffic Control Dispute Rocks Canada.” As they noted (24 October): “This article was written for English Canadian workers and feeds Maple Leaf chauvinism instead of fighting it. The whole framework of the article capitulates to anti-Québécois tendencies in the labour movement and mocks the just struggle of the Québécois to be able to work in French.” However, the just struggle of French workers to use their language is a separate question from the language of air traffic control. On the basis of air safety, the CATCA/CALPA strike was supportable.
The essential question for us as a vanguard is that there be one language of the air. While that language is currently based on English, what the language of the air should be is debatable and also a technical question. There are good arguments for it to be based on French or Spanish, given the existing reach of those languages, that they are relatively easy to learn and understand, and that it would be a push back against the domination of the U.S. in the world. Chinese is not easily understandable from one region to another and it has limited geographical reach, despite China’s large population.
Motion: We reject the document “The Fight for a Binational Workers Party—Toward Two Sections in Two States” (although we agree with the title) because it neglects the central programmatic questions that have been brought to light through discussion over the past few months. The central task of the conference is to recognize the TL/LT’s historic deficiency on the national question, and to lay the basis for the formation of two sections in two states.
From 1975 to 1995, the section did not have a Leninist program on the national question. The articles announcing the founding of the TLC [Trotskyist League of Canada, the section’s former name], and the launching of its newspaper, published in SC No. 1 (October 1975), did not reflect an understanding of the strategic nature of the national question; in fact, it wasn’t even mentioned in the articles. Moreover, in the important historic moments that followed in Quebec, like the 1976 air controllers strike, the election of the PQ the same year, the 1980 referendum on Quebec independence and the linguistic battles of the 1970s and 1980s—that is to say, when it really counted—the TLC capitulated to Anglo chauvinism. While professing to defend the right of self-determination for Quebec, the articles on these events echo Anglo-chauvinist hysteria rather than opposing it. Among other things, these articles argue for the assimilation of Quebec into North America.
The article “Bilingual Air Traffic Control Dispute Rocks Canada” (SC No. 8)—even though it defends a correct line on the language of the air and the CATCA/CALPA strike—echoes the hysterical Anglo-Canadian chauvinism. The following year, a memorandum (“Quebec Nationalism and the Class Struggle,” SC No. 12, January 1977), which followed an internal discussion, explicitly rejected the call for Quebec independence. Our articles on the 1980 referendum effectively deny the right of self-determination, characterize this referendum as having “nothing to do with Quebec’s right to self-determination” (SC No. 40) and assert that, even if the question had been clear, we would oppose independence. In fact, the correct position would have been to vote “yes.” The 1988 article “Nationalism, Racism and the Quebec Left” (SC No. 72, Fall 1988) lumps together fascism and the movement to defend the (non-supportable) Law 101.
Further, in polemics with our opponents throughout this period, we opposed slogans calling for an independent Quebec under socialism and qualified such calls as reactionary, utopian and capitulatory towards nationalism. In the same vein, we never specified that our position for independence is valid after a revolution, as well as before. Furthermore, the call for a “North American socialist revolution” disappears the national distinctions between Quebec, anglophone North America and Mexico. This conference rejects this slogan, and affirms that a slogan such as “For the workers republic of Quebec” is principled.
Since 1995, our call for Quebec independence has represented a qualitative improvement in our program on the national question; however, that position did not lead the section to break from its characteristic English Canadian narrowness. The section continued to adapt to the pressure of English Canada and minimized the strategic importance of the national question, as shown by the G20 discussion in 2010. Another expression of the problem was how little effort was made to establish a presence in the oppressed nation, and to break from the deforming situation of having a presence limited to English Canada. The Canadian section did not intervene into the 2005 Quebec student strike and the event was barely mentioned in the pages of SC. In 2012, the intervention into the largest student strike movement in Quebec was initially treated as the Canadian leadership’s ninth priority. It took a sharp intervention from the I.S. for the section to intervene more seriously.
The establishment of a Montreal local finally gave us the concrete possibility to build a binational party. But this crucial extension into the oppressed nation was not seen as the nucleus of a future Québécois section, but simply as the “third” Canadian local. There was no effort to make the education of the new comrades a real priority, particularly on the national question. Furthermore, the new Montreal comrades had never read certain key articles of the section on this question, notably the article on the air controllers strike.
The task of producing propaganda in French was neglected by the central leadership and was subordinated to the production of the press in English. A French-language press is essential to the perspective of building two sections in two states.
Given the historic oppression of the Québécois nation within Canada, the TL/LT should aspire to a 70 percent Québécois and minority party. The leadership has done very little to integrate the Québécois comrades into leadership positions. The recruitment of a group of comrades in Montreal, which should have been treated as a fusion, should have led to a reconfiguration of the leading bodies. Several Québécois comrades should henceforth be in the leadership of the section.