Letter to Workers Vanguard

Quebec, Tibet and Falun Gong

15 July 2004

Workers Vanguard
New York, NY

To the editor:

Your lengthy response to our 12 March letter on the Canadian National (CN) rail strike (Workers Vanguard [WV], No. 827, 28 May) attempts to sidestep the key issue in dispute, i.e., that this labor action:

"seems to us a good reason for you to reconsider the proposition that: The recognition by the workers of each nation that their respective capitalist rulers not each other are the enemy can only come through an independent Quebec"
(Spartacist Canada, September-October 1995).

The CN strike demonstrates that, contrary to your pessimistic prognostications, the objective interests of English-Canadian and Québécois workers continue to produce instances of proletarian class unity. Your reply implicitly concedes this, but attempts to give it a negative spin:

"Even the CN strike one of all too few examples of common labor struggle testified to the depths of the national divide: in English Canada, picket lines were festooned with the Maple Leaf flag; in Quebec, with the fleur-de-lys."

The fact that the "depths of the national divide" did not prevent joint action during rail, postal and civil service strikes over the past 40 years is highly significant. We do not share your assessment that we are currently witnessing "the biggest outburst of anti-Québécois chauvinism in the last 15 years". But if you were right, it would only make the united action of the railworkers all the more important.

There is no question that workers on both sides remain in the grip of nationalist, reformist and other pro-capitalist ideologies, but this does not change the fact that Québécois workers, the most militant and relatively class-conscious sector of the North American proletariat, continue to exert a positive political influence on their English-Canadian sisters and brothers on issues ranging from imperialist military adventures to same-sex marriage. This connection could be of major strategic importance in future class battles on this continent and is, therefore, not one that Marxists should be eager to sever.

Your insistence that united class struggle by Anglo and Québécois workers is impossible, despite all the evidence to the contrary, reflects profound political demoralization. For two decades after its formation in 1975, the Trotskyist League (TL) maintained a Leninist position on the question:

"In oppressed nations within multi-national states the question of whether or not to advocate independence depends on the depth of national antagonisms between the working people of the different nations. If relations have become so poisoned as to make genuine class unity impossible within a single state power, we support independence as the only way to remove the national question from the agenda and bring the class issue to the fore."
Spartacist Canada No. 12, January 1977

You now characterize this as "Kneeling Before the Body of General Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham," and claim that it amounts to "opposing independence for Quebec". In fact, like the TL in the 1970s and 80s, we have always unequivocally defended Quebec's right to independence. In its 1977 article Spartacist Canada also observed: "opposition to advocating independence now by no means precludes advocating independence in the immediate future (e.g., by the time of the PQ-proposed referendum in two years)." Three years later, when the Parti Québécois government held its referendum, the Trotskyist League argued:

"As Leninists we adamantly defend the right of the Québécois to self-determination including their right to form a separate state. But we are not nationalists, and we do not advocate such a move unless national antagonisms have grown to such a point that the possibility of unity between English- and French-speaking workers is decisively blocked. The militant Québécois working class can and does play a leading role in united class struggles across the country, notably the 1976 one-day general strike and the bitter 1978 CUPW battle. Therefore at this time the Trotskyist League does not advocate the independence of Quebec. In a clearly worded, democratic referendum, we would today vote no."
Spartacist Canada No. 43, Summer 1980

This position was correct in 1980 and remains correct today.

Some newer members of your Toronto branch have suggested that it may not be appropriate for non-Québécois to express an opinion on the question. Lenin addressed this concern in his comments on Norway's separation from Sweden:

"The Swedish worker could, while remaining a Social-Democrat [i.e., revolutionary], urge the Norwegians to vote against secession. But the Swedish worker who, like the Swedish aristocracy and bourgeoisie, would deny the Norwegians the right to decide this question themselves, without the Swedes and irrespective of their will, would have been a social-chauvinist and a miscreant the Social-Democratic Party could not tolerate in its ranks."
A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism, August-October 1916, emphasis in original

While the TL claims to be the most consistent opponent of Anglo-Canadian chauvinism, it has yet to set the record straight on its Canadian nationalist political wobbles:

" The Robertsonians [i.e., members of James Robertson's International Communist League (ICL) to which the TL is affiliated] have, at least since 1992, repeatedly stated that, in the event of Quebec's separation, they were opposed to the disintegration of English Canada which at present could only strengthen the power of U.S. imperialism. We have challenged them on this, and pointed to the reactionary implications of championing English-Canadian unity (see 1917 Nos. 12 & 16). Other leftists have also criticized this social-patriotic declaration. We therefore note with interest that the TL's 1995 Quebec statement takes a confused half step back and admits that its former position was potentially one-sided and that Anglo-Canadian disintegration after Quebec separation poses no particular question of principle. Yet they claim that they remain far from indifferent, however, if the principal aspect of such an act would be to strengthen American imperialism. No one in the Trotskyist League understands what any of this means why they had the position in the first place, or why it was changed. Nor does Joseph Seymour, their tendency's leading theoretician. Like many of the group's other idiosyncratic positions, it was initially introduced and subsequently modified by James Robertson, who is a power unto himself."
1917, No. 17, 1996

On Combating the Opiate of the Masses

Instead of addressing the substance of our differences on Quebec, your 28 May polemic raises a welter of unrelated issues, most of which we have dealt with previously. One, however, is new and noteworthy your denunciation of our supposed "embrace of counterrevolution" and "desire to 'co-exist' with feudalism" in China. These allegations are based on the following passage from our recent article on China:

"It is clear that the Tibetan people, who have their own language, culture and territory, resent Han domination. Like the Uighur, the Tibetans are entitled to their own national existence, but for socialists the defense of the national rights of oppressed peoples in China must be subordinate to the defense of the deformed workers state. The international campaign to free Tibet is one prong in the imperialist drive against China.

"Marxists recognize that reactionary ideologies and nationalist sentiments are rooted in the material inequality of class-divided society. Whenever possible, we would seek to erode the influence of social backwardness through education and economic incentives rather than repression. A Leninist regime would combat Han chauvinism by combining generous subsidies for development with real regional autonomy for national minorities, including the right to control local political institutions, to receive education and government services in the language of choice, freedom of political expression and freedom to travel. By agreeing that the Tibetans or Uighur have the right to control their own domestic affairs, a revolutionary government in China would signal its willingness to coexist with Tibet's traditional ruling caste and Xinjiang's mullahs as long as they retain popular support."
1917, No. 26, 2004

As every beginner socialist knows, a workers' state (even a bureaucratically deformed one) can only be created through a social revolution i.e., the effective expropriation of the indigenous ruling classes. This was the major accomplishment of the Chinese Revolution led by Mao Zedong's Stalinist Communist Party. Yet the transformation of property relations did not put power directly in the hands of the working class, nor did it automatically eradicate the influence of capitalist and pre-capitalist ideologies, particularly among the oppressed nationalities. The latter is the problem we sought to address.

Our proposal for regional autonomy for national minorities in China, including the right to elect whoever they choose to administrative positions, is simply an attempt to speak to the deeply-felt grievances and suspicions of peoples long oppressed by the dominant Han. The social backwardness of Tibet and Xinjiang make it likely that, initially at least, members of the reactionary traditional elites would be among those elected. "Co-existing" with such persons within the economic/legal framework of a workers state does not imply tolerating attempts to undermine the system of collectivized property.

You sneer at us for showing "respect for the devotion of the benighted peoples to their religious leaders," but what we propose is exactly how the Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky sought to deal with the peoples of the former Czarist Empire among whom superstition and ingrained habits of deference to traditional authority persisted. In its first appeal to the Muslims of the former Tsarist Empire, the fledgling Soviet government proclaimed:

"Muslims of Russia, Tatars of the Volga and the Crimea, Kirgiz (i.e. Kazakhs) and Sarts of Siberia and Turkestan, Turks and Tatars of Transcaucasia, Chechens and Mountaineers of the Caucusus, and all you whose mosques and oratories have been destroyed, whose beliefs and customs have been trampled under foot by the Tsars and the oppressors of Russia. Your beliefs and usages, your national and cultural institutions are henceforth free and inviolable. Organize your national life in complete freedom. You have the right."
To all Muslim Toilers of Russia and the East, quoted in E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, v 1, p 318

Despite this pronouncement, the first period of the Russian civil war saw conflicts between Red Army units and various "benighted peoples" of the East in which:

"the opposition was intensified by the intransigent attitude of Soviet emissaries towards the Muslim religion. The Soviet leaders had had little knowledge of the eastern parts of the vast domain which they had so unexpectedly acquired. They had in their minds a vague picture of oppressed peoples awaiting emancipation from superstitious mullahs as eagerly as from Tsarist administrators; and they were astonished to discover that, while the hold of Islam over the nomadic peoples and in parts of Central Asia was little more than nominal, it remained elsewhere a tenacious and vigorous institution which offered far fiercer resistance than the Orthodox Church to new beliefs and new practices. By the end of 1919 the Soviet authorities seem to have reached the conclusion that the only course was to divide the priesthood against itself by wooing the support of its younger members. This involved a compromise with Islam; in other words, an abandonment of the stiff ideological attitude of the civil-war period and a return to the toleration of the first winter of the revolution."
Ibid., pp 324-25

The Bolsheviks provide us with a model of how a revolutionary leadership in China should seek to deal with Islamic mullahs, Tibetan monks and other purveyors of reactionary mysticism, as WV noted in a major article on Falun Gong a few years ago:

"Under Lenin and Trotsky, the Bolshevik regime enforced the separation of church and state and carried out a concerted ideological effort to educate the masses in materialism. The revolutionary government nationalized the vast property holdings of the Russian Orthodox church, but the church itself was not banned. The Bolsheviks understood that religion could not be abolished by decree but would disappear only as want and suffering disappeared."
WV No. 762, 3 August 2001

Yet, while you cited the Bolshevik example, your article hints that in contemporary China you incline to a policy of repression, at least toward Falun Gong. Branding it a "Force for Counterrevolution in China," you chastised two Hong Kong-based ostensibly Trotskyist tendencies (the USec-affiliated October Review and the Pioneer group) for opposing the "persecution of Falun Gong" and "rally[ing] to the defense of the Falun Gong reactionaries against Beijing's 'high-handed repression'." While acknowledging that Falun Gong is "not different in substance from any other religion," you nevertheless equate defense of it with the USec's scandalous support to the CIA-connected leadership of Polish Solidarnosc in 1981 (see our pamphlet "Solidarnosc: Acid Test for Trotskyists").

Do you imagine that the best way to destroy the popular influence of Falun Gong practitioners, Tibetan monks and Xinjiang's mullahs is to round them all up and throw them in jail? Repression is appropriate when dealing with active counterrevolutionaries like Lech Walesa, but Leninists, unlike Stalinists, recognize that the popular influence of religion and other forms of reactionary idealism can only be effectively combated by a combination of education and the eradication of "want and suffering." Your assertion that this amounts to "embracing counterrevolution" only demonstrates your distance from the Trotskyist tradition you purport to uphold.

Robertson's Vulgar Chauvinism

The semi-hysterical tone of your response appears to reflect acute sensitivity to our earlier criticism of Spartacist League (SL) founder/leader James Robertson's grossly chauvinist reference to Kurds as "Turds" (see "Kurdistan & the Struggle for National Liberation"). While it may be embarrassing to admit, particularly given your penchant for characterizing your leftist opponents as chauvinists and racists, the SL cadre have long been familiar with Robertson's propensity for such vulgar slurs. In the same internal talk, as we pointed out, he referred to an Irish comrade as a "stupid Mick" and casually observed: "Okay, I have to admit that I m prone occasionally to ethnic jokes" (iSt International Discussion Bulletin No. 10 Part 1, p61, p54). These "jokes" are nothing more than vulgar, great nation chauvinism, which is why Workers Vanguard initially sought to duck the issue by editing out our comment.

In an outfit where the fundamental organizing principle is that the lider maximo is always right, such displays of independence are intolerable. So we had the public mea culpas and a bunch of unintelligible nonsense about heads in toilets which supposedly explained the meaning and context of Robertson's inexcusable remark (see: "'Fear and Obedience' in the ICL: The Emperor Has No Clothes", 12 September 2003). But there can be no defense for the indefensible, and those SLers who retain a minimum quotient of political integrity are clearly uncomfortable with the whole business, and show little appetite for defending their leader's "joke".

Besides Tibet, and a defense of Robertson's spotty reputation, your reply recycles a litany of charges against the IBT in general, and comrade Bill Logan in particular, that appeared in your 1995 pamphlet "The International Bolshevik Tendency What Is It?" We reprinted this document in its entirety, along with a point-by-point response (see: Trotskyist Bulletin No. 5, "ICL vs. IBT"). We remain ready to publicly debate any or all of the disputed issues should you ever find the political courage to do so.

* * *

Your complaint that the "oh-so-comradely" tone of our letter and our willingness to address you as "serious socialists" reveals two counterposed lines on the ICL is entirely mistaken. While there are doubtless still a few serious socialists within the ranks of the ICL, we have made no secret of our view that your central leadership cadre have long operated like political bandits for whom questions of program and principle are subordinate to the exigencies of the moment. This is evident in a tendency to repeatedly flinch under pressure e.g., the SL's denunciation of revolutionary defeatism toward the U.S.-led assault on Afghanistan in 2001 (see 1917 No. 25) and its earlier lamentations about the "tragic loss" of U.S. military cadres in Lebanon (see Trotskyist Bulletin No. 2) and aboard the ill-fated 1986 Challenger "Star Wars" mission (see 1917 No. 2).

You object to our description of the SL's internal life as an "obedience cult" around James Robertson, yet this view is shared by many former members. Certainly the SL is an organization in which one of the unwritten rules is that members must believe, or at least appear to believe, any pronouncement, however irrational, from their leader a characteristic the SL shares with Jack Barnes' Socialist Workers Party and various other leftist groups WV has characterized as "cults". The absurdities offered as explanations for Robertson's chauvinist "Turds" remark are a textbook example: no reasonable person can understand them because they are literally meaningless, except as a test of faith. Yet members of the ICL who express doubt risk excommunication.

The SL is hardly the first organization to operate like this the Socialist Labour League/Workers Revolutionary Party did so for many years in Britain. It too had a glorious founder/leader who brooked no criticism, bullied his subordinates and was much given to tantrums and delusions of grandeur. Like the ICL today, the SLL/WRP tended to characterize those who raised awkward criticisms (including the then-revolutionary Spartacist League) as "provocateurs" and police agents. Yet despite its unsavory reputation, the SLL/WRP remained capable of destroying scores of subjectively revolutionary youth attracted by its formally Trotskyist posture. Exposing such counterfeits, and regrouping the serious socialists within them, is an integral part of the struggle to forge an organization worthy of the tradition of Lenin and Trotsky the task to which we of the International Bolshevik Tendency are committed.

Bolshevik Greetings,

Tom Riley,
for the International Bolshevik Tendency

Posted: 19 July 2004