Marxism and the National Question

(incorporating writings by Ernest Mandel and Robbie Mahood, edited by Barry Weisleder for a presentation on May 4, 2022.)

National oppression and racism are fundamental features of capitalist states in the world today. In few of them does the national question play such a central role as in Canada. This is most clearly demonstrated in the case of Quebec, where national resentment periodically erupts to take centre stage in political life. It is seen in the rising national consciousness and demands of Indigenous peoples in Canada and Quebec. French-speaking communities outside Quebec which have survived Anglo-assimilation, notably the Acadians in Atlantic Canada, also claim nationhood. And it applies, arguably, to Newfoundland, where a separate society existed for three hundred years before its incorporation, by a fraudulent set of referenda, into the Canadian state in 1949.

But what is the role of the National Question in classical Marxism?  In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels declare: “the working men (sic) have no country”.  This remains the clarion call for internationalism that is at the heart of the struggle to overthrow capitalism. Is nationalism simply then a tool through which the bourgeoisie ideologically disarms the workers and enlists their support for austerity, domestic repression and war? Should socialists then stand in uncompromising opposition to nationalism, full stop?

In the same passage from the Manifesto, Marx and Engels say: “The (workers) have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got. Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation, it is, so far, itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word.”  This is an altogether richer and more dialectical understanding of the nation-class relationship, projected onto the concrete struggle between contending classes in specific states or nations.

Initially, the views of Marx and Engels on the national question were shaped by the bourgeois democratic revolution that swept across Europe in 1848. They welcomed the struggles for national unity and the independence of the German, Italian, Polish and Hungarian peoples. In contrast, the struggles of the smaller nations of eastern and southern Europe, such as the Czechs, Slovaks, Croats, Serbs and Bulgarians, did not attract their support due to the backwardness of these social formations and their alliance with the most reactionary power in Europe, Tsarist Russia.

After he moved to London and became acquainted with the Irish question, Marx took a different stance toward national oppression. Instead of Irish national liberation taking a back seat to the English revolution, he came to see the colonization of Ireland as a block to the class consciousness of the English working class. So long as it acquiesced in the subjugation of Ireland, the English working class would never be able to wage an effective struggle against its own ruling class. Therefore, the working class of the oppressor nation must break with its bourgeoisie and support the struggle of the oppressed nation for self-determination, including political separation.

European Marxists in the early 20th century engaged in a long debate on the national question. The most advanced expression of this interchange remains that of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who championed the rights of oppressed nations not only in the Russian Empire, but also in the colonial and semi-colonial world dominated by imperialism.

National self-determination, up to and including the right to secede, is a pre-requisite to the voluntary amalgamation of nations envisaged in a world socialist order. Against Rosa Luxemburg’s charge that unconditional defense of national self-determination subordinated the working class in an oppressed nation to its own bourgeoisie, Lenin argued as follows: “Insofar as the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation fights the oppressor, we are always, in every case, and more strongly than anyone else, in favour, for we are the staunchest and the most consistent enemies of oppression. But insofar as the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation stands for its own bourgeois nationalism, we stand against. We fight against the privileges and violence of the oppressor nation and do not in any way condone strivings for privileges on the part of the oppressed nation.”

Defense of national self-determination did not necessarily mean secession. According to Lenin, that would depend on “a thousand unpredictable factors”, and on the unfolding rhythm and needs of the class struggle in a given instance. What he insisted on is that the fight against injustice and for democratic (including national) rights is not secondary, but is rather an essential component of the class struggle, waged as it is politically on all fronts.

Socialist Action maintains that national oppression is embedded in the Canadian federal state. With respect to Quebec and Indigenous people, the demand for self-government has deep historical roots and should occupy an important place in the strategic thinking of revolutionary socialists. Its realisation would strike a blow against the Canadian capitalist state at one of its weakest points. And it would encourage independent working class politics in Quebec, among First Nations, and across the rest of Canada, increasing the scope for anti-capitalist struggle and revolutionary social transformation.

Historically, what is the origin of nationalism? The national question arises from the class struggle. To identify the national question with the first existence of the state, with an ethnic group, with a tribal grouping, or the communal or village association is false. The Roman Empire was no more an example of a national entity than was the Holy Roman Empire of the Middle Ages. England was not a nation in the twelfth or thirteenth century since a considerable part of the ruling class there spoke a language different from the language of the people and had a different origin—the Normans who had conquered England.

Marxists maintain that the nation is the product of the struggle of a specific class, namely the modern bourgeoisie, the first class in history to give birth to a nation. It created a nation economically, because it required a unified national market. In order to safeguard the unity of this national market it eliminated every pre-capitalist, semi-feudal, guild, and regional obstacle to the free circulation of commodities. It also created this national unity from the politico-cultural point of view, because it based itself on the principle of popular sovereignty—a principle opposed to the legitimacy of the monarchy, nobility, or church—in order to mobilize the masses against the old structures.

The concept of the nation arose with the great bourgeois democratic revolutions. The first great bourgeois-democratic revolution in history took place in Netherlands and Belgium. It was the national uprising against the king of Spain that began in Flanders, that was defeated there, but succeeded in Holland, that gave birth to the first modern nation with a national consciousness based on a capitalist infrastructure. The same process was next seen in Great Britain, in France with the French Revolution, in Spain, in Germany, in Italy, in Poland, in Ireland, etc. In each of these processes the material interests underlying the concept of the nation are clear. During this period of its history, that is, the era in which it was still revolutionary and progressive, the bourgeoisie itself stated things rather bluntly. If one reads the declarations of the Gironde – which was at the time the most bourgeois and the most nationalist party in the French Revolution, much more nationalist than the Jacobins since they were the ones who pushed for continuing the war and not the Jacobins – you will see the link between these factors. And, because in 1790 we are already in a more advanced period than in the Netherlands of the sixteenth century or in the United States of 1776, there is a third theme as well: commercial competition between the industrial-manufacturing bourgeoisie of France and the English bourgeoisie. This competition played a much more important role in the wars of the Revolution and Empire. These wars were not merely a struggle between the French bourgeoisie against the other, more or less counter-revolutionary, European powers who intervened to defend the privileges of the French nobility and royalty.

The nation is born from the struggle of the bourgeoisie against feudalism and pre-capitalist semi-feudal forces. The role played by the absolute monarchy in this can not be ignored. In the case of France, it is quite clear. The nationalism embodied in a personage such as Louis XIV is not yet nationalism in the modern meaning of the term, but is a dynastic pre-nationalism in the sense that the absolute monarchy prefigures a change in the relationship of forces between the nobility and the bourgeoisie. What happens when the bourgeois state, the bourgeois revolution, triumphs? The class struggle does not halt, although the bourgeoisie wanted it to stop.

In the world of 1848, Marx and Engels were confronted with a situation of combined development. In every country of Europe where national unification was not carried out by the bourgeoisie it was because, in a certain sense, this bourgeoisie had arrived too late on the historical scene, at a moment when the working class was already strong enough to play an independent political role. The bourgeoisie’s fear of aiding the revolutionary process was greater than their desire to accomplish the task of national unification. In other words, in all these countries a process of permanent revolution was on the agenda.

Moreover, it was at this moment and in this specific context that in 1850, for the first time in the history of Marxist thought, Marx made use of the term permanent revolution. Workers in Germany must begin, he said, by supporting the struggle for the unification of the country, for the victory of a bourgeois-democratic republic. But they must not interrupt the struggle when this classic victory of bourgeois democracy is accomplished. They must continue the struggle to defend their own interests as a class opposed to the bourgeoisie. At no time should they give up their independent organization, especially in view of the fact that it was highly unlikely, if not impossible, that even these bourgeois tasks would be accomplished under the leadership of the bourgeoisie. It was much more likely that the Jacobin petty bourgeoisie, with their sword in the back of the working class, would be the ones to accomplish this national unification. This was a possible pattern for the Revolution of 1848. It was not realized. Humanity paid a very high price for this because all the conservative and reactionary forces of Germany pushed forward in the wake of this defeat influenced the fate of Europe, including the destiny of German imperialism and the birth of Nazism.

Nationality then is the product of the struggle of the bourgeois class against feudal and semi-feudal forces, while proletarian internationalism is the product of the struggle of the working class against capitalism. The bourgeoisie developed productive forces on the basis of unified national markets. Its commodities conquered and constituted the world market. But this market was far from unified: there was no worldwide development of capitalist industry. The framework for capitalist competition was founded on national markets and nation-states. The capitalists tried to carry over this competition into the working class. From the period of the First International on, the most conscious workers replied that it was in their interest, including their immediate economic interest, to counter-pose international solidarity of workers to worldwide competition by the capitalists. Without this solidarity, the workers are defenseless and would be systematically crushed by the capitalists. The only effective counter-blow they could use in face of the enormous superiority of financial power was as broad as possible a joint, cooperative organization unrestricted by national boundaries, race, or ethnic group.

And thus, we arrive at the point, where the principle stated by Marx in the Communist Manifesto begins to have a universal application—namely, the beginning of the imperialist epoch. At this stage the bourgeoisie of the countries of Western and Central Europe, as well as of countries like Japan, Russia, and the United States, no longer played a progressive historical role and became a conservative reactionary, counter-revolutionary class, exploiting in addition to their own working class, a large part the world as well. Marxists—first of all Lenin and the Leninist school, and before the First World War all those who called themselves Marxists—without reservation considered the nationalism of this imperial bourgeoisie strictly reactionary. Karl Kautsky himself and other Social Democrats before 1914 repeated that whenever the imperialist bourgeoisie used the words “defense of the country,” or “defense of the nation,” what they really meant was not defense of a cultural entity or of democratic rights in general but rather the defense of their privileged position in the world market, defense of colonial super-profits, and defense of the possibilities for super-exploitation in the part of the world they controlled.

Does this mean that Marxists, and particularly Marxists of the Leninist school, identify every national idea and all nationalism in the 20th and 21st centuries with imperialist nationalism? They do not. An idea already present in the writings of Marx in the last ten years of his life, was expanded upon in Marxist thought in the imperialist epoch and assumed an absolutely decisive place for assessing national struggles in our century. It is the simple notion that it is necessary to make a distinction between the nationalism of oppressors and exploiters and the nationalism of the oppressed and exploited.  It was Marx who was first to develop this notion in response to two concrete questions which he accorded a colossal importance in his entire strategy for the international class struggle: the Polish and Irish situations.

The Irish question is most clear in this regard. As early as 1869-1870, in an article appearing in the Belgian journal L’internationale, Marx wrote that as long as the English workers failed to understand that it was their duty to help the Irish obtain their national independence, there would be no socialist revolution in England. Far from the notion that English and Irish nationalism were equivalent, that the nationalism of an oppressor nation and an oppressed nation are identical, Marx begins from this fundamental distinction. And history has shown him to be correct. If the English workers did not identify with the Irish struggle, he said, the exploitation and oppression of the Irish nation by the English bourgeoisie would result in the Irish workers, who were destined to become a growing minority of the English proletariat, being lost to the class struggle for a long time. The Irish workers would be unable to form a united front against the English boss class because the English workers, in effect, would have formed a united front with their own bourgeoisie against the Irish nation.

It is a singular feature of the imperialist epoch that making this distinction between the nationalism of the exploiters and the nationalism of the exploited does not divert the proletariat from the struggle for state power and socialism but, on the contrary, leads them toward it. This is because of the fact that in the imperialist epoch the tasks of national liberation and unification of oppressed nations can only be accomplished through an alliance of the proletariat and the poor peasantry, under the leadership of the proletariat, and through the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Revolutionary victory in an underdeveloped country under the leadership of the proletariat cannot be restricted to achieving national and democratic tasks. It gives impetus to a process of permanent revolution, culminates by achieving the historical tasks of the socialist revolution, and stimulates an international extension of the revolution to the highly industrialized countries where the immediate revolutionary task is the achievement of socialism.  Guy Mollet, who was the Social-Democratic prime minister of imperialist France, attempted to give lessons in internationalism when he made the argument, as he did in 1955, that in the twentieth century, in an epoch when the concept of nationalism was outmoded, the Algerians were wrong to demand national independence. The simple reply to Monsieur Guy Mollet was:  Well, isn’t that a fine thing? The concept of nationalism is outmoded! Why don’t you begin by rejecting the concept of the French nation? Why do you demand that an oppressed nation first overcome its nationalism, while you, the leader of a colonial and oppressor state, then refuse to give up the nationalist outlook yourself?” The slave is not required to set the example. It is not the slave who should be asked to refrain from violence in ridding himself of his chains. It is necessary, if one wishes to speak in this tone, to begin by demanding that the policeman, the slave-master, cease their oppression and cease to defend their exploitation with violence. Then we shall see.

Marxists are internationalists, not nationalists.  But we reject any equation of the nationalism of the oppressed with the nationalism of the oppressors. Inasmuch as the nationalism of the oppressors is detestable and makes no contribution to ideological or moral progress, it is all the more important to take a careful, concrete approach to the nationalism of the oppressed. When we speak of colonized peoples (not only of peoples colonized from the outside, of peoples who live in overseas colonies, but also those who live in internal colonies, like Black people in the United States, like Indigenous people across Turtle Island, North and South America).  When we see the deplorable state in which these oppressed populations exist, when we see that they are the victims of economic, political, moral, and cultural oppression, and that this moral and cultural oppression very often constitutes an indispensable superstructure for maintaining economic and political oppression, then we must repeat what Trotsky said. The birth of national consciousness in a nation so oppressed, the attempt to win liberation not only from economic and political imperialism but also from cultural imperialism, is a first step on the path toward a realization of one’s own human dignity and thus represents an enormous advance for humanity.

As I mentioned before, the weight of national oppression in the formation and subsequent development of the Canadian capitalist state was huge.  The establishment of settler colonies in eastern North America by both France and Great Britain involved the dispossession and subjugation of the native inhabitants through war, theft, religious conversion, unequal terms of trade and the exploitation of the skilled labour of aboriginal men and women, notably in the lucrative fur trade.

In 1755, after its military successes in Canada’s maritime region, the British expelled thousands of French Acadian settlers, an early example of brutal ethnic cleansing.

Larger concentrations of French settlers in Quebec required a different strategy. After their victory on the Plains of Abraham, the British imposed colonial rule on their new subjects through the active collaboration of the Roman Catholic Church and the landed seigneurial elite. They sought to build an English-speaking majority in both Upper and Lower Canada, aided in this respect by the influx of United Empire Loyalists opposed to the American Revolution of 1776.

In 1837, the British colonial administration suppressed armed uprisings in both French and English-speaking Canada after years of popular democratic agitation. The rebellion in Lower Canada (Quebec) was crushed with particular brutality because it was also a struggle for national rights.

The launch of the Canadian federal state in 1867 was a bid by the Anglo-Canadian bourgeoisie for expansion into the vast northwest territory of British North America, and to counter the threat of American annexation.

First in Manitoba in 1870, and then in Saskatchewan and Alberta in 1885, Ottawa deployed armed force to crush a Metis and Indian insurgency, securing Anglo-Canadian supremacy and delivering a decisive blow to a French or indigenous people’s role in the development of the West. A colonial apartheid regime awaited the defeated native peoples, consisting of their relocation to reserves under the authority of the federal Department of Indian Affairs, while their language and culture (and even their children, literally) were under assault in the church-run school system. The legal status of the French language was suppressed in one province after another.

Thus, from the beginning, capitalist development in Canada took on a double form of inequality, not only in terms of the struggle of workers and small farmers against capitalists, but also between dominant and subordinate nations within the federation. Following the execution of Metis leader Louis Riel by the Conservative government in 1886, and for many decades thereafter, Quebecois favoured the Liberals. Thanks to their Quebec base, the Liberals were the dominant party of the Canadian bourgeoisie, exercising power at the federal level through most of the twentieth century.  Q  uebec’s bourgeoisie sought to advance its interests through an alliance with Anglo Canadian capital. But Quebec as a whole remained a backward society characterized by the prominent power of the church, the marked subjugation of women, high levels of poverty with massive out-migration, and English as the language of preference in the workplace and amongst new immigrants. National consciousness took on a reactionary and parochial form, although it could also display an anti-imperialist dimension as it did in the Conscription crises of WWI and WWII.

All this changed with the wave of nationalist and social agitation which swept Quebec in the 1960’s and 70’s. For the first time, the demand for Quebec independence was raised, creating panic in the Canadian ruling class and its political representatives. Ottawa mustered two distinct responses to this mortal threat to the Canadian capitalist state: an unrelenting hostility to Quebec’s national demands under Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, followed by a softer more cooptative approach under Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Neither strategy was able to put the genie of separatism back into the bottle, even though the federalist side prevailed in the two referenda on independence.

National humiliation at the hands of the Canadian state – the War Measures Act (1970), exclusion from the repatriated Canadian Constitution (1982), the failure of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords (1990, 1992), the ‘sponsorship scandal’ (1995) and the Clarity Act (1997) – have driven a deeper wedge between Quebec and the Rest of Canada than ever before. The effect has been to weaken Quebecois attachment to the two parties of Anglo-Canadian capital, in particular, the Liberal Party.

The example of Quebec has stimulated the national consciousness of Indigenous peoples, as well as the demands of the francophone minorities outside Quebec. The First Nations of Canada and Quebec have demonstrated their determination to maintain their sovereign rights through the courts, in negotiation with Ottawa and the provinces, and by militant direct action to defend their traditional lands and treaty rights when these have been threatened.

The existence of national oppression in the Canadian state was not recognized, let alone did it become a central issue of the early workers’ movement. The 1933 Regina Manifesto, founding document of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, social democratic precursor of the New Democratic Party, commits the party to “replace the current capitalist system, with its inherent injustice and inhumanity, by a social order from which the domination and exploitation of one class by another will be eliminated.” But it does not make a single reference to Quebec or to Indigenous peoples. Neither did the early Communist Party take up the national question, despite the example provided by the Bolsheviks.

During WW II, both the CCF and the then-Stalinized CPC, supported conscription, thus alienating them from the working class wing of the anti-conscription movement in Quebec. Stanley Ryerson, the CP’s leading intellectual, wrote the most authoritative Marxist account of the national question in the formation of the Canadian state in his book Unequal Union. But because of its orientation to an allegedly progressive wing of the Canadian bourgeoisie ready to break with the Ottawa-Washington axis, the CP did not tolerate nationalist leanings in its Quebec wing.

The NDP’s finest hour with respect to Quebec came when federal leader Tommy Douglas opposed Trudeau’s War Measures Act during the 1970 FLQ crisis. Douglas argued from a strictly civil libertarian stance. Still, it took courage to swim against the tide of hysteria that Ottawa fostered to justify sending the army into Quebec and jailing over 400 activists without charge. For the most part, however, the NDP leadership has mirrored the chauvinism towards Quebec that operates across the political spectrum in English-speaking Canada. For example, then Saskatchewan NDP Attorney General, Roy Romanow, was a key collaborator in Trudeau’s freezing-out of Quebec during the 1982 constitutional negotiations between Ottawa and the provinces, what is known in Quebec as ‘the night of the long knives.’

During the 1960’s and 70’s there was strong sympathy on the English Canadian left for Quebec’s aspirations, up to and including independence. By the 1990’s and into this century that sympathy had largely evaporated. The reasons offered for this change of heart are as follows. The Parti Quebecois had abandoned its alleged social democratic origins and transformed itself into a right-wing pro-capitalist party. The Quebecois had supported the Free Trade Agreement with the United States. They had succumbed to a reactionary ethno-centric nationalism intolerant of Quebec’s aboriginal and immigrant minorities. Francophone Quebeckers had successfully dismantled the system of English privilege and supposedly were now bending the stick too far the other way.

In contrast, in relation to First Nations peoples, the English Canadian left has retained a basic sympathy and recognition of the justice of their struggles. This difference reflects a degree of liberal moralism, paternalism and superficiality to which many on the left in English-speaking Canada have retreated. It is enough for the Quebecois to have registered gains for their ongoing struggle to become suspect. Or because there is racism and xenophobia in Quebec we can no longer extend the hand of solidarity. Some Canadian leftists seem surprised to discover that Quebec is a capitalist society dominated by the bourgeoisie in which there is an ebb and flow in struggles, and where the possibility of social advance or retreat depends on the relationship of forces, as is the case for any other society in the world today.

While gains for the francophone majority are tangible, they are fragile, particularly in the crucial language battleground of Montréal, which gives rise today to Quebec’s Bill 96. But these changes fall far short of national liberation. They do not include power over banking and finance, over the judiciary at the highest level, over the army and foreign policy. And Quebec is still the prisoner of a constitution which does not recognize its national rights, on which it was never consulted, and which it is next to impossible for it to amend.

A certain left nationalist discourse still prevails in English-speaking Canada. It subscribes to the myth of Canada as a gentler, more civilized variant of capitalism. It is the land of medicare with all the trimmings. The Tories are reviled for wanting to betray this vision and install a more brutish American-style model which would not be consistent with Canadian ‘values’. To be sure, this view suffers from the absence of a class analysis. The determined pursuit of capitalist austerity at home and imperialist militarism abroad, previously by Stephen Harper and now Justin Trudeau, is fully supported by the Canadian ruling class. The problem with left nationalism (and its attendant ‘values’ discourse) is that it tends to obscure the class nature of the Canadian state and to oppose anything that would threaten the unity of that state, such as Quebec independence and Indigenous sovereignty.

There is another barrier to understanding and opposing national oppression. In some parts of the socialist left, the central contradiction in capitalist society is reduced to the antagonism between worker and capitalist in an abstract and ahistorical manner. Other contradictions of class society, such as national or gender oppression, are deemed non-class issues that are less important, or even diversions from the real struggle. In this framework, which we might term economist, Quebec and Indigenous national grievances might be recognized, but the solution proposed, by organizations like the Communist Party and Fightback, relies abstractly on uniting the workers of both nations in a common struggle against the bourgeoisie. Anything that throws the working class in the oppressed nation into the same camp as its bourgeoisie is to be resisted. For example, the demand for Quebec independence, and even upholding the province’s language law, is opposed because they divide the bi-national working class.  At the Labour May Day Committee in Toronto, when it discussed slogans for May 1, 2022, Fightback opposed “Self-determination for Indigenous people” on the grounds that Indigenous people do not want self-determination. In opposition to what they call a divisive slogan, they favour, instead the phrase “Before reconciliation, revolution!”  The Socialist Action slogan is “Before reconciliation, Restitution”.  Notice that it advances national liberation concretely, not abstractly,

For us in Socialist Action, national oppression is pre-eminently a class question. The national oppressor of an oppressed nation is not primarily another nation, but the state as the instrument of an exploitative ruling class. The struggle of an oppressed nationality is against the state, in order to break its authority and control over the oppressed.

In the case of Indigenous peoples in Canada and Quebec, we support their right to self-government, to control of their resources, above and below ground, and the right to develop their system of education, employment, health care and infrastructure according to their own values. We do not believe that the capitalist system can meet these aspirations. Since its importation from Europe, capitalism has reaped immense profits from the expropriation of the native peoples of the continent, and it will continue to do so until it is eradicated.

First Nations peoples have sometimes become caught in the struggle between Quebec and the pan-Canadian state. In our view, it is not in the interests of indigenous peoples to oppose the legitimate national aspirations of the Quebecois so long as their own national rights are also respected. Any successful bid by the Quebecois for their own state must accord the Indigenous peoples of Quebec the same full right of self-determination, up to and including the right to secede and/or to stay within the Canadian state. This right should also apply to Indigenous peoples who may wish to leave Confederation to be part of a future independent Quebec.

We support not just the right to self-determination of the Quebecois, but also the concrete political expression of this right which for over fifty years has been the demand for Quebec independence. This demand is supported by all the Quebec labour union federations and has deep roots in the Quebec working class and other social layers. Our support for independence is informed by a serious examination of Canadian history and the central role and weight of national oppression in that history. The national question remains the Achilles heel of the Canadian bourgeoisie presenting a direct challenge to the stability and authority of the federal state, which is the main guarantor and enforcer of its elite class interests.

Within Quebec we support a break with the bourgeois nationalist leaderships of the Parti Quebecois and the Bloc Quebecois, and the building of a mass working class political party which can address all the problems affecting Quebec society from an independent working class perspective, and which is capable of leading a struggle for Quebecois national liberation. The emergence of Quebec Solidaire represented a step in that direction, although less so today. Revolutionary socialists participated in that party as an organized tendency to fight for an anti-capitalist program.

Inside the NDP, including through our participation in the NDP Socialist Caucus, we defend unequivocally the national rights of Quebec and Indigenous peoples, and oppose the party leadership’s vacillation or outright collaboration with the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the Canadian state`s violation of these rights. NDP Leader Jack Layton’s equivocation on the Clarity Act (enacted in 2000), which gives Ottawa the power to determine the validity of any future referendum on Quebec independence, is a case in point.

Our support for Quebec independence is aimed at creating the best conditions for the class struggle in both Quebec and the Rest of Canada. To that end, we favour an alliance between the working class organizations of Quebec, First Nations and English Canada to install a workers’ government in Ottawa. Indispensable to this task is a clear recognition of the enduring reality of national oppression in the Canadian state and the need to combat it.

The difference between the nationalism of the oppressed versus the nationalism of the oppressor is evident around the world, from Chile to Catalonia, from Iran to Indonesia, from Eritrea to Sri Lanka to Kashmir to the Uighurs of Xinjiang.  Perhaps the most vivid example of this distinction today is found in Occupied Palestine.

Israel, established in 1947-48, is a colonial-settler state.  It is the cat’s paw of imperialism in the oil-rich Middle East. Founded on the expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinians from their homeland, the institution of an Apartheid Zionist state was approved by vote at the United Nations on the partition plan that created Israel.  The Stalinist-led Soviet Union, backed by Communist parties around the world, voted for the partition of Palestine.  The Stalinists threw the Palestinians under the bus. They hoped and expected that the CP in Palestine would be part of a coalition government in the new Zionist state.  To this day, communist parties support the so-called Two State Solution, that is, the preservation of the nuclear-armed Zionist apartheid entity, alongside impoverished and defenceless Arab Bantustans (whose people face total eviction).  Ostensibly Trotskyist groups like Fightback and Socialist Alternative, together with the Stalinists, uphold the bankrupt Two State Solution.  They assert the self-determination of an oppressor nation, Israel, a tool of imperialist domination of the region.  They oppose the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, which is led by unions around the world, against the Zionist state, claiming that it is divisive of the class struggle.

When progressives ask “Why can’t the left unite?”, this example clearly demonstrates one reason why.  Complicity with imperialism, chauvinism, racism and occupation anywhere is incompatible with the struggle for freedom and socialism everywhere.

Socialist Action believes that such differences are not insurmountable.  They can, and they will be overcome in practice through joint international solidarity campaigns that distinguish between oppressor and oppressed nations.  To advance that perspective we promote the United Front tactic, which is the topic of the next session at this conference. 

The above text draws amply on the writings of Ernest Mandel and Robbie Mahood.  If you agree with the message, please join the champions of Permanent Revolution and national liberation.  Join Socialist Action.