Charles Gagnon 1939-2005

On November 17th, 2005, Charles Gagnon – a veteran of the revolutionary struggles in Quebec in the 1960s and 70s – passed away.

Gagnon was a critically important figure in the development of revolutionary politics in Quebec. Unfortunately, most non-francophone comrades who were not themselves active in the 60s or 70s probably have no idea who he was.

It was partly because it struck me as such an unusually mature and balanced piece of writing, and partly because i think many anglophone comrades in Quebec are missing out on a lot of the inspirational history of the revolutionary movement in this society, that i first thought of translating the following article.

Then shortly afterwards i heard that Pierre Foglia had actually commented on this article in the newspaper column he writes for La Presse. Not only did Foglia misrepresent what the authors had written – accusing them of calling Gagnon a “traitor” and even “digging him up to put him in front of a firing squad” (!) – but he did so in order to attack the entire far left in Quebec. As if to say “these are the nutbars who still reject capitalism.”

At which point i felt “wow, gotta translate this”… and i did… and then you see i never actually got along to uploading it. Mea culpa!

So here, at last, i am getting around to uploading it.

A disclaimer of sorts before you read on: the following article was written by members of the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party, a “left communist” organization. The IBRP’s line on reality – which you can check out here – is not my own. The differences should be obvious enough to those who read this blog (i.e. regarding the strategic importance of anti-patriarchal struggle, regarding the importance of anti-colonialism, regarding divisions within the working class), so i won’t go into details here. Except to say that, in regards to what follows, i would perhaps not be so harsh in my appraisal of the Marxist-Leninist movement in Quebec and internationally, nor would i be so quick to generalize the critique of Quebec nationalism into a general critique of any and all national liberation movements.

But then again, i never knew Gagnon, i was not active in the 60s or 70s, i was never a member of an ML group… so i’ll just shut up and let the authors speak for themselves… for not only do they pay their respects to Charles Gagnon, but hopefully they may also provide a glimpse at the realities and complexities of recent revolutionary struggle in Quebec…

Charles Gagnon 1939-2005

An Intense Commitment, A Sincere Revolt – But To What End?

“The Leader of Quebec’s Communists Is Dead” was the headline of Le Devoir on November 19th, 2005. Some might be surprised that a left communist publication [the IBRP’s Notes Internationalistes] would note the death of Charles Gagnon. Most people may have lost track of him some time ago – but it would be wrong to forget him.

We readily agree with Karl Marx’s statement, Nihil humanum alienum est Nothing human is foreign to us. Gagnon was an important figure in the Canadian social movement for over twenty years, and so it is worth retracing his political itinerary. We are all the more interested in doing so for once upon a time some of us followed this same path.

Furthermore, we don’t want to leave the last word to the (big and little) bourgeois press, which was generally quite uncharitable and unforgiving in the various obituaries they devoted to Gagnon. Without a doubt, the nationalists wanted to make him pay one last time for all his criticisms – no matter how inadequate – of the Quebecois nationalist movement, indeed of all national liberation movements.

Gagnon was a leading member of the Front de Libération du Québec, and later General Secretary of the Canadian Marxist-Leninist organization En Lutte!, of the Maoist variety of Stalinism – so Gagnon, at least in his public life, was very far removed from the political positions we defend. We are talking here about Charles Gagnon’s public life, for after En Lutte! dissolved he seemed to retreat into a life where personal disillusionment and the need for distance combined, and generally won out over any ideas of once again intervening into current events.

Our critique of Charles Gagnon is political, not personal. It is intended to analyze ideas rather than the man, no matter how noble his intentions may have been. Karl Marx, in his famous preface to the Critique of Political Economy pointed out that you cannot judge a man based on what he thinks of himself. Our political tendency has already stated its skepticism elsewhere as to the role of this or that individual in history. In Le Bordiguisme et la Gauche italienne, we wrote: “First of all, how can we size up the work of a militant from the revolutionary vanguard, evaluate the contributions he made to general, economic or historical theoretical problems, or those that relate more directly to political practice and tactics? We believe such judgments should be considered as impersonally as possible, even when they are in fact extremely personal. In this way the revolutionary, whoever they happen to be and in whatever period they happen to have made their contribution, is always working with material provided by the historical experience of the class. They take up elements that others before them were able to develop to a certain point, as determined at the time by the level of development and experience of the class subjected to the objective conditions and necessities at that point in the history of capitalism.”

Born into a large and poor family in the Bic, Charles Gagnon pursued his classical studies at the Rimouski Seminary in the 1950s. In the early 1960s he enrolled in the University of Montreal’s Faculté des Lettres where he was active in student groups and briefly collaborated on Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s magazine Cité Libre.

In 1963 he met Pierre Vallières, with whom he would work so closely (we remember the Vallières-Gagnon Committees) in various left nationalist projects. These included Révolution Québecoise, Parti Pris, the Mouvement de liberation populaire and the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) in 1966 [1]. That same year he was arrested along with Vallières in New York City (they were trying to establish a multi-national liberation front) and the two were extradited to Quebec in January 1967, where they were held for an extended period of time in Bordeaux prison. It was there that Gagnon wrote Feu sur l’Amérique – Une proposition pour la révolution nord-américaine. Released in February 1970 after spending 41 months behind bars and being acquitted of charges of murder, he was once again imprisoned during the 1970 October Crisis and was finally released on June 16th 1971.

This was the beginning of a new chapter in his life.

The first sign of this new stage was a very public break with his comrade and friend Pierre Valllières, who in 1971 had published L’urgence de choisir and joined the Parti Québecois. The usual explanation for this break between the two longtime comrades is that Gagnon understandably refused to follow Vallières into the PQ. But this explanation conveniently forgets the fact that they in fact parted company before that, following differences regarding the armed activities of the FLQ, which Vallières would support right up until his spectacular conversion to the PQ (2).

Gagnon responded to Vallières’ PQ turn with a small unimposing work of forty pages, Pour le parti prolétarien, published on October 29th 1972. This document was widely distributed and discussed in activist circles. We remember that when we first read it we were struck by the following paragraph, which represented a real break with what we had believed before, and with anything we could have expected from the Charles Gagnon of the FLQ period:

“Already our history shows us that the ‘nation of nationalists’ is a very deceptive idea. In nationalist party programmes and during election campaigns, the ‘nation’ refers to everyone: firefighters, workers, politicians, police, judges, businessmen, housewives and the unemployed, everyone except the Jews and the English! But as soon as they win, come the first important conflict, we see the ‘national’ State sending the ‘national’ police to attack the ‘national’ workers, all of which is legally sanctioned by the ‘national’ judges. The ‘national’ housewives and their children go without and the ‘national’ businessmen, whether or not they are Jewish or English, maintain their profits while the ‘national’ banks make money hand over fist…” (3)

At the time it was as if someone had removed a blindfold from our eyes. At last we could see! That said, when we read this pamphlet again thirty four years later, we were struck by how the whole document remained stuck in the trendy lefty nationalism and third-worldism of the time. Unfortunately, things have not really changed in that regard. This manifesto would become a founding document of the “Marxist-Leninist” movement in Quebec, which at its height was one of the strongest in the western world, along with those in Norway, Portugal, Belgium and Spain. (4)

An Équipe du Journal (EDJ) formed around this document, and on May 1st 1973, the first issue of the newspaper En Lutte! appeared in French. Later in September that year the EDJ began publishing this newspaper every two weeks, distributing it across Quebec. From that point on En Lutte! was affiliated with the Comité de solidarité aux luttes ouvrières (which was involved in the very heavy and frequent proletarian struggles of that time) and with the Atelier Ouvrier, which was mainly made up of workers from the shoe industry, and which notably produced a particularly insightful critique of the role of collective agreements and trade unionism.

In November 1974 the group En Lutte! held its first congress; it was built around the document “Créons l’organization marxiste-léniniste de lutte pour le parti” [translation: “Create the Marxist-Leninist Organization of Struggle for the Party”] (5), which was published in supplement #29 of the newspaper. The initial critique of trade unionism was rejected as was the Quebec national liberation struggle. The organization was decidedly “Marxist-Leninist” and “anti-revisionist”.

En Lutte! was the product of an entire generation of rebels, not just in Quebec but around the world, who were rising up to fight against all forms of oppression and exploitation, and who were disgusted by what they knew about the gulag in the USSR and the Eastern Bloc. Nevertheless, they swallowed whole the belief that the socialist project might be renewed by Maoism and the “youth” movement. We know what came next. Barely ten years later, En Lutte! joined dozens of other “new communist movement” organizations around the world who were blown away one after another like so many straw houses.

This phenomenon would be worth analyzing in and of itself, and our group will soon publish a critical analysis of Maoism, which is enjoying a mild comeback in North America and still remains strong in Asia (so much so that the prestigious Financial Times has recently devoted an article to the subject).

All of which is to say that after a promising start, En Lutte! was repeatedly shaken by one atrocious Chinese foreign policy decision after another, and this while Mao was still alive, the Sino-Albanian split which spread throughout the “Marxist-Leninist” movement, the war between the “socialist” countries of China and Vietnam, the horrific news of what happened in Cambodia, etc.

Monique Simard, a former trade unionist and failed politician who has recycled herself as a film-maker, has tried to explain the failure of En Lutte! and the Workers Communist Party (see note 4) as proof that these organizations had fulfilled their underhanded  “anti-nationalist” function during the 1980 referendum [on Quebec sovereignty – translator] and could now disappear (see Il était une fois… le Québec rouge). Such ignorance and conspiracy mongering leaves us speechless… but nevertheless, it is true that in Quebec, the position in favour of spoiling the ballot in the referendum did help to provoke the group’s liquidation.

Today many former “MLs” have become big-shots in various nationalist organizations. Gagnon never did. In fact, both his desire “to be a very bad nationalist” and the fact that he never supported Canadian federalism (regardless of the lies spread by the bourgeois press) probably contributed to his professional difficulties later on.

As En Lutte! was nearing its end, Gagnon carried out theoretical work and produced critical articles of a rather high caliber, displaying a relatively independent line of thought given his ideological affiliations at the time. In June 1982, at its fourth convention, En Lutte! voted to dissolve, and Charles Gagnon never quite got over this. His deep bitterness regarding this period was as much the result of friendships ruined and betrayed during the intense internal struggle, as by the ideological and organizational disarray that followed so many years of hard work and sacrifice.

The following years were marked by a certain isolation. Certainly, the last period of his life was difficult on a human level. While he only sporadically intervened politically, we think it is worth pointing out that these interventions remained critical of capitalism. And yet his writings became more and more vague, and increasingly he referred to imprecise humanist concepts and/or appealed to non-class entities such as “youth.” Indeed, he became something of a Shakespearean character, losing himself in his thoughts all the while nurturing the desire to once again get involved. It was as if he was waiting for us to call him back to action.

In the last text published while he was alive, he wrote nostalgically about his years of activism: “I knew why I was getting up early and why I was going to bed late. I was happy to be with my comrades. Together we were going somewhere, we knew where we were going and we knew why.” (6)

Retreating back in himself, relatively isolated from the social struggles which had initially fed his own revolt, his political thought and commitment, Charles Gagnon reminds us of the figure of Antaeus from Greek mythology. Antaeus was the son of Poseidon, god of the sea, and Gaia, the Mother Earth. He was a great warrior who was invincible as long as he was touching the earth, through which his mother Gaia could magnify his strength. Yet Hercules guessed this secret source of strength, and in one decisive battle managed to lift him up from the ground, at which point he could break his bones, keeping him suspended until he died.

Similarly, Charles, who had not been broken by years in prison or by the public and personal difficulties he encountered while playing such an important public role for so many years, was finally defeated politically by his self-imposed isolation. Cut off from the struggles and from contact with the proletarians with whom he had been able to communicate with so easily and “organically” (7), he gradually lost the thread of the relatively promising theoretical work (8) he had undertaken in the period leading up to En Lutte!’s dissolution. At that time he was taking stock of things and trying to understand the failure of twentieth century socialism, with the aim of surpassing it, of an aufheben (9) of his previous leftist and Stalinist positions. Even though we had recently renewed a discussion about trade unionism with Charles, we have no idea how he came to his theoretical deconstruction/confusion. Marx often speaks of the “false appearance of things.” In Capital he writes that “A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very complex thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” Just think how complex a human being is!

Especially an exceptional human being like Charles…

When En Lutte! dissolved many of his old comrades openly renounced Marxism (10), but for some of us theoretical reflection and ongoing participation in workers’ struggles led – with more than a few detours and false starts – to Left Communism and the International Bureau for a Revolutionary Party. Those of us who chose this difficult path will remember Charles fondly as a deeply human and sincere human being and activist, but one who sadly did not fare as well as we would have hoped when faced with all the difficulties of the communist struggle.

Of the times we shared with him, we will try and remember his “moments of truth,” while at the same time pursuing his struggle for a proletarian party in different ways. It will not be the party of a mere Québecois or Canadian revolution, but an international and internationalist party of a global workers’ revolution. It is this revolution, and only this revolution, that will be able to save the world from the environmental and social decay caused by a system based on production-for-profit, and which will be able to replace it by a system of production based on social usefulness and sharing.

Goodbye Charles!

Réal Jodoin
Richard St-Pierre

(1) In a 1986 interview with the magazine Révoltes, Charles explained: “I was a member of the FLQ in 1966. I insist on this distinction because the first FLQ groups, from 1963, were much more nationalist that those of 1966, for whom social questions were more important. The group I was a part of mainly carried out actions in workers’ conflicts like Lagrenade and Dominion Textile.”

(2) We are especially grateful for this self-criticism, as it certainly prevented the needless loss of human life, repression and imprisonment. Gagnon’s reputation and the certainty that this new position had nothing to do with fear or backing down definitely helped to put an end to these sterile and hopeless “years of the gun”.

(3) Pour le parti prolétarian, October 1972, Third Edition, En lutte!, page 25.

(4) Prior to this there had been Jack Scott’s Progressive Workers Movement on the West coast, the Canadian Party of Labour (close to the U.S. Progressive Labor Party) and also Hardial Bains’ series of organizational hallucinations (of which the CPCML remains today). Nevertheless, it was Gagnon’s text that caught “public opinion”. Even if he would later lead an even larger organization, the Workers Communist Party (the official Chinese Communist Party franchise in Canada), Roger Rashi would never enjoy the credibility of Gagnon.

(5) Many similar texts were written by various groups at the time. Some would join En Lutte!, others would go on to form the Canadian Communist League (Marxist-Leninist) which would later call itself the Workers Communist Party. This organization would be the servile Canadian franchise of Chinese Stalinism and its “Three Worlds Theory”.

(6) Il etait une fois… Conte a l’adresse de la jeunesse de mon pays, in the Bulletin d’histoire politique, Lux, vol. 13 #1, page 56. []

(7) One of the authors of this article can recall a memorable meeting with several dozen miners of the Normétal Mining Corporation as well as similar exchanges in the “country and western” bars of Abitibi.

(8) The documents he worked on at this time, no matter how inadequate they may have been, nevertheless broke with the boring truisms, the moralistic preaching and the formulaic catch-phrases that were being churned out by the other supposed leaders of the world proletariat (Klonsky, Jurquet, Dinucci, Aust, Hill, Palacios, Rashi, Bains, Avakian, etc.) We can already hear our local Maoists raising their voices in defense of Avakian. In a few months we will answer them with a political argument against Maoism. Indeed, the text Pour une appréciation juste de la question de Staline which appeared in Arsenal #5 has given us an opportunity to identify and deal with the different issues now more than ever.

(9) A German word which does not really have a French (or English?) equivalent. It more or less means “to conserve/to suppress” and Hegel used it to describe a dialectical process whereby a superior form of thought succeeds an inferior one, while retaining the “moments of truth” of the latter.

(10) Needless to say, we are merely using the word “Marxism” for the sake of readability here. The Stalinism and Maoism of En Lutte! ruled out any possibility of that organization ever actually being Marxist. Amongst those former members who completely abandoned the class struggle, several have found comfortable homes in the business world (and not modest ones either…), while others can today be found in the Québec Solidaire reformist recuperation racket or in the highest levels of the trade union bureaucracy. It is to Charles’ great honour that he never wanted or would have been able to find a place in that world. Yet most of the “ex-MLs” never did compromise themselves in such business or political opportunism. Our own experience and contacts lead us to believe that a majority are still willing to get involved and fight during the next wave of anti-capitalist struggle.


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