Spoil Your Ballot!
For Working–Class Unity—Not National Unity
Reprinted below is the BT’s October 1992 statement on the referendum which was published in English and French:
“Do you agree that the Constitution of Canada should be renewed on the basis of the agreement reached August 28, 1992?”
Pierre Trudeau’s 1982 constitution provides a legal framework for the rule of a tiny handful of capitalists through their courts, cops and parliamentary hacks. The 1992 “renewed” constitution has exactly the same function, but it also includes a preamble that nods in the direction of aboriginal self–government and gender equality, and refers to Quebec as a “distinct society.” Recognition of these “fundamental values” however, is explicitly subordinated to the maintenance of “peace, order and good government” in the interests of big capital.
Marxists are not indifferent to bourgeois democracy, nor are we opposed to participation in referendums as such. But this referendum poses no essential democratic issue, nor is there anything else at stake for the workers and the oppressed. Despite the nationalist hype from both camps, the question on October 26 is whether or not to accept a package of minor amendments to the legal mechanisms through which the capitalists rule. Workers in English Canada and Quebec should stand aside from the bickering between the YES and NO camps. On October 26 vote against the bosses’ constitutional circus—spoil your ballot!
The Canadian state is not a product of a series of gentlemanly handshakes at constitutional conferences. Canada’s social contract was sealed with the blood of the conquered: with genocide and wars of extermination against the aboriginal peoples; with the execution of rebellious francophones and aboriginal leaders; with discrimination, terror and repressive legislation aimed at those communities which resisted assimilation into the white Anglo–Canadian mold.
The designation of Quebec as a “distinct society” within Canada obscures the fact that it is a nation, and as such, has an unalienable and unconditional right to self–determination. If the Québécois decide to separate and form their own state (something that we do not advocate at present), we will support their right to do so. If the Canadian bourgeoisie attempts to forcibly retain Quebec, it would be the duty of class–conscious workers across English Canada to defend the Québécois with every means at their disposal, including protests, strikes and even military assistance.
The “renewal” of the constitution is chiefly aimed at getting Quebec to sign the basic law of the Canadian state. Quebec’s status in Confederation was at the center of the wrangling and horse–trading that went on prior to striking the deal. The Western premiers insisted that Canada is a confederation of equal provinces, while Quebec’s Liberal government argued that Canada is a contract between two founding (colonial) peoples.
The Charlottetown accord attempts to integrate these two fundamentally incompatible visions. Parliamentary representation will be apportioned slightly differently (with a guarantee that Quebec will always have at least 25 percent of the seats in the House of Commons). There is also to be some devolution of powers from federal to provincial jurisdiction in areas of immigration, culture, urban affairs, natural resources and vocational training.
A key part of the deal for the Maritimes and the West was the recomposition of the Senate with an equal number of representatives from each province. Ontario gets the same number of seats as Prince Edward Island even though it has twenty times the population. This is called an “equal” senate. To balance this concession, the new upper house will have fewer powers than the existing patronage trough.
The Senate was created as an unelected chamber of propertied interests to safeguard the traditional elites against the possibility of democratic “excesses” by the popularly elected lower house. Marxists call for the abolition of the Senate—it is of no interest to us whether Ottawa makes the patronage appointments or if they are left up to the provincial governments to decide.
Quebec and the Referendum
The YES side has presented the referendum as a vote on national unity. A NO vote in Quebec, they say amounts to a vote for separation. But the NO camp in Quebec includes prominent federalists who simply favor a different constitutional model.
All three parliamentary parties in English Canada (NDP, Liberals and Tories) are promoting the “renewed” constitution. In Quebec the Legislative Assembly is divided, with the ruling Liberals pitted against the official opposition, Jacques Parizeau’s bourgeois separatist Parti Québécois (PQ). The PQ, claiming to represent “the most dynamic forces of Quebec,” is furiously denouncing Premier Robert Bourassa as a usurper, liar, deceiver and deserter. Bourassa’s lieutenants counter these attacks with assertions that the PQ separatists are reckless adventurers and “fans of bungee politics….They’re not sure of the elastic, but they’ll jump anyway” (Montreal Gazette, 5 September).
The nationalists are playing to the most backward layers of the masses with their demagogic assertions that aboriginal communities obtained the “self–determination” which was denied to Quebec, and that the Liberals capitulated to an Anglo–Canadian/First Nations bloc.
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, the least popular Canadian politician in living memory, is playing the national unity card, and issuing dark warnings that the “enemies of Canada” are “out in full force” to kill the deal. His constitutional minister, Joe Clark, suggested that, if the NO side wins, Montreal may soon look like Beirut. Meanwhile the reactionary Anglo–chauvinists of the Reform Party and the Confederation of Regions (COR), who are calling for a NO vote, entertain credulous bigots in English Canada with visions of Quebecers rejoicing and dancing in the streets, celebrating their triumph at Charlottetown.
Bourassa is well aware that popular opinion in Quebec is running in a different direction. He is ill at ease defending an unpopular deal and is scrambling to prove that he did not trade Quebec’s cow for a handful of beans. But he cannot claim to have gained much in the negotiations. The only thing that sets Quebec apart from the other provinces in the deal (besides a guarantee of a quarter of the parliamentary seats) is the legally meaningless recognition as a “distinct society.”
Union Bureaucrats Push Nationalist Poison
The nationalist labor misleaders in English Canada and Quebec are taking opposite sides in the referendum. CLC head Bob White, who lead a Canadian nationalist breakaway from the United Auto Workers a decade ago, has followed the English–Canadian bosses in calling for a YES vote. The FTQ, and Quebec’s other two major union federations (the CSN and CEQ), have thrown in their lot with Souveraineté Québec Inc., the separatist business lobby.
Both labor bureaucracies are lining up the workers in opposing camps around issues devoid of any real social content. The working class has no interest in bourgeois squabbles about parliamentary appointments, constitutional preambles or the allocation of administrative responsibilities to different levels of the capitalist state machine.
The three Quebec union federations have recently joined the Mouvement Québec coalition, which also includes the rabidly xenophobic Société Saint Jean–Baptiste (SSJB). This coalition launched an immigrant–bashing ad campaign in the francophone press, claiming that a combination of a “dropping birthrate” and the “arrival of newcomers” dooms francophones to eventually becoming a minority in Quebec. These attacks are supplemented by attempts to scapegoat immigrant workers for the irrationalities of the capitalist business cycle. All this has created a fertile milieu for the growth of openly fascistic fringe groups intent on carrying the reactionary logic of bourgeois nationalism to its logical conclusion. Yet the nationalism of the union tops blinds them to the dangers posed to the labor movement itself (as well as to immigrants and minorities) by the fascist vermin.
GS: Fifth Wheel on Nationalist Wagon
For years the pseudo–Trotskyist Gauche Socialiste (GS) has joined the nationalists in demanding: “Nous voulons un pays”—we want a country. The GS imagines that some mystical dynamic automatically connects the struggle for an independent Quebec with socialism. But uncritically supporting the nationalists is becoming increasingly awkward for the GS as SSJB–sponsored ads in the francophone media call for ridding Quebec of non–francophones. What these more rabid “consistent nationalists” are actually campaigning for, with the union bureaucracy in tow, is an ethnically cleansed throwback a la Nouvelle France.
Last spring the GS joined the “Rassemblement des jeunes souverainistes” (RJSQ), a youth front group for the PQ. The GS only recently left this bourgeois formation—not on principled grounds, but because they were making little headway among the PQ youth. All the GS can offer the nationalists and labor bureaucrats is some socialist camouflage for their class–collaborationist project. But leftist rhetoric is of little use to the union tops in their efforts to tie the labor movement hand and foot and deliver it to the bourgeoisie with hollow promises of a New Jerusalem through Quebec sovereignty.
Nationalism and the Quebec Bourgeoisie
When Gérald Larose of the CSN and Fernand Daoust of the FTQ held a conference in Montreal last April, they did not invite their “socialist” cheerleaders, but rather the representatives of the sovereigntist wing of the bourgeoisie. The labor tops and the separatist bosses agreed that the grinding poverty and chronic unemployment of east–end Montreal was a product of the federal political structure, not the capitalist economy. They also agreed that, after independence, the Quebec bourgeoisie would build a modern, robust, competitive economy and end unemployment.
The majority of the Quebec bourgeoisie is currently more interested in broadening its autonomy within Confederation than in outright independence. While there is a small committed sovereigntist minority, the dominant sectors of the bourgeoisie see the nationalist movement as a lever to pressure their Anglo counterparts and a tool for securing the allegiance of the masses. Despite their numerical insignificance, however, bourgeois interests provide the nationalist movement with both its leadership and its program. It is Jean Campeau (president of Domtar, who heads Souverainété Québec Inc.), Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard, not Quebec’s union leaders, who set the tone and determine strategy and objectives.
Whatever the result of this round of constitutional bickering, the Quebec bourgeoisie understands that ultimately its common class interests must take precedence over particular preferences regarding the form of political rule. Campeau’s federalist rivals and bourgeois friends in the Conseil du Patronat, in consultation with the Quebec government, recently announced that to compete effectively internationally it will be necessary to cut labor costs in most major sectors. Their initial proposal is to slash wages by at least 11 percent. This is the real program of the Quebec bourgeoisie—federalist and nationalist alike. This is the danger to Quebec labor—not the fictitious Anglo bogeymen so dear to Parizeau, Bouchard, Campeau and their labor stooges.
The NO Camp
The NO camp stretches from those who think Quebec, aboriginals and women are offered too much, to those who think they get nothing from the deal. It lumps together people who advocate Quebec sovereignty and native rights with others who would like to see the Canadian army crush any attempts to upset the status quo. National Action Committee feminists, Trudeauite advocates of a strong central state, Anglo–Canadian bigots and Quebec nationalists all huddle together beneath the NO umbrella.
On the left, the pseudo–Trotskyists of Gauche Socialiste/Socialist Challenge, the misnamed Trotskyist League (TL) and Hardial Bains’ acolytes in the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist–Leninist) (CPC–ML) are all voting NO. While the GS is looking for a niche on the fringe of the PQ, the TL and CPC(ML) have other motivations. CPC(ML), which claims to be “spearheading” the NO campaign, shares Mulroney’s desire to keep their imperialist country intact but differs on how to do so. According to the super–patriotic Bainsites, everyone should vote NO because a YES vote means that “the danger of Canada splitting up will become real.”
The TL initially treated the whole referendum business as a non–event. At a Montreal meeting called to discuss the question in early September, the TL intervention focused on the situation in Eastern Europe. Recently, the TL has been showing more interest in the referendum. A September 30 TL statement urges a NO vote because to vote YES is to “shore up the reactionary status quo.” But there is no explanation of how the TL sees a NO vote as a break with the status quo. Pierre Trudeau, author of the 1982 constitution, is explicitly calling on citizens to vote NO to express their preference for the status quo over Mulroney/Bourassa’s “renewed” version.
The main reason to vote NO, according to the headline of the TL piece, is because “Charlottetown Accord Aims to Strengthen Bosses’ State…” This assertion is repeated several times, but never explained or motivated. Marxists should indeed oppose a constitutional package aimed at creating a “strong state,” in order to preserve existing democratic rights. But it is ludicrous to portray the Charlottetown deal as a step toward bonapartism. If anything, the “renewed” constitution would marginally reduce the power of the central state. There is no reason for working–class militants to take sides in this intra–bourgeois squabble.
The constitutional question poses a similar problem for the left to that raised by the 1988 Free Trade Agreement. At that time we wrote:
“the free trade debate is a wrangle within the capitalist class in which workers have no vested interest….
“it is class struggle—not a renegotiation of capitalist tariffs—which will determine what happens to working class living standards in the future.”
The TL took the same approach. Today, as they take a side in a similar intra–bourgeois dispute, they have decided to retro–fit their position on free trade. The 30 September TL statement disingenuously claims that: “Four years ago we called for internationalist opposition to the free trade deal.” This is simply not true. In the TL’s major statement on free trade prior to the 1988 federal election they wrote:
“Not only is the anti–’free trade’ campaign reactionary, it’s ludicrous. The Canadian economy is already completely tied to the U.S….What’s needed to rip through this rotten ‘free trade’ faction fight between profit–bloated bosses is some good old–fashioned class struggle.”
—Spartacist Canada, February 1988
Why should the TL now deny this position? We can only assume that they think no one will notice if, with a stroke of the pen, they eliminate the contradiction by rewriting their earlier position so that it conforms with their current stance.
IS Votes YES
The International Socialists (IS) have the distinction of being the only left group wretched enough to actually endorse the proposed constitution (“critically” of course). While it is no surprise to find the IS tailing the NDP and the labor bureaucrats, there must be some ISers who have qualms about aligning themselves with Mulroney’s “say yes to Canada” campaign.
The September issue of Socialist Worker defended its YES vote by claiming that Canada’s rulers:
“have been forced to give an inch. Our attitude must be that we’ll take the inch, and we’ll keep fighting until we get the mile.
“As in the Meech Lake Accord, a defeat for this deal would not be a victory for the forces that oppose oppression, but for those that thrive on it.”
Does the IS think the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the rest of the monopoly capitalists in the YES camp should be counted among the forces that “oppose oppression”?
Serious people in the IS should take a hard look at the “inch” their leaders are trying to sell them on: some inconsequential tinkering with the federalist political institutions, the entrenching of a regional upper house, and the formalization of provincial status for Quebec. All these “gains” are garnished with a few toothless declarations of intent for the oppressed. Unlike social democrats, Marxists do not aspire to make the bourgeois state “work” by prodding the capitalists to reform an inch at a time, never mind endorsing pseudo–reforms as real gains. Real socialists work for the eradication of oppression by leading the working class along the path to social revolution.
For Working–Class Independence!
Social revolutions are not the product of an automatic process whereby the proletariat somehow miraculously and spontaneously rises to its full stature and acquires consciousness of its historical and class interests. The groundwork must be painstakingly laid through the construction of a Marxist organization that struggles to win authority in the working class. A revolutionary movement can neither be forged through abstractly preaching the virtues of socialism from the sidelines, nor by tailoring the Marxist program to the prevailing political winds of the moment. The working class can only be moved toward recognition of its historic interests through the active intervention of revolutionaries in the questions of the day.
The current constitutional wrangle is not our invention, nor is it our preferred terrain for political intervention. But it will not go away if we simply ignore it. We have to take things as they are, not as we would like them to be, in order to chart the way forward. The upcoming referendum is a dispute within the ruling class in which nothing of vital interest to the working class is at stake. The appropriate response of class–conscious workers in English Canada and Quebec therefore is to reject the bourgeois leaderships on both sides—not to choose between them.
The capitalist interests dominating both camps, and their apologists within the workers movement, are pitching their propaganda in nationalist terms. Yet as Lenin, Trotsky and other Marxists pointed out in the early decades of this century, the national state has become an impediment to economic and cultural development, a historical brake which must be removed in the course of the struggle to overturn the capitalist property forms which gave rise to it.
Today all the imperialist powers are scrambling to find economic arenas beyond the confines of the national state. This has led to the creation of protectionist “free trade” blocs and spheres of influence. The corrupt and cowardly trade–union leaderships in both Quebec and English Canada dream of an end to class conflict through the reactionary utopia of self–contained national economies. In the real world, this translates into the poison of protectionism as the labor traitors of each nation scramble to cement a sacred union with their own capitalists.
Under Lenin and Trotsky’s leadership, the Communist International was a powerful agency for the promotion of revolutionary internationalism. It taught the workers in every capitalist country that their main enemy was their own ruling class. The bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian Revolution, paralleled by the physical eradication of those Bolsheviks who remained true to Leninism (known as Trotskyists), took place under the anti–internationalist banner of “Socialism in One Country.” With this theory, the Stalinist oligarchy justified subordinating the interests of the international proletariat to the narrow national requirements of the Kremlin’s ruling clique. From promoting solidarity among the world’s toilers, the nationalist Stalinist bureaucracy turned the international Communist movement into an agency of class collaboration.
As Leninists, we oppose all forms of national oppression and defend the right of all nations to self–determination, but in doing so we begin from the internationalist proposition that workers have no country. As Trotsky wrote in the 1930s, the national state has become a “frightful impediment to the economic and cultural development of humanity.” The task of the working–class vanguard is to cut across divisions among the oppressed and exploited—to promote class unity across national lines, not national unity across class lines. This is why we call on workers in English Canada and Quebec not to choose between the original 1982 constitutional package and the “renewed” 1992 version—but rather to vote against the whole capitalist project.
On October 26—Spoil Your Ballot!