Last March, the progressive publishing house Écosociété surprisingly launched “À la Croisée des Siècles,” an original essay from the late revolutionary activist Charles Gagnon. Edited with the agreement of the Charles-Gagnon Foundation, the book comes from an unfinished manuscript written by the former leader of the Marxist-Leninist Organization of Canada, In Struggle! As far as we can judge, the result appears respectful of the author’s views—at least those he was expressing at the time these notes were written from 1997 to 2004. In an addendum to the book, the publisher also asked two activists of the younger generation—a supporter of Québec Solidaire, Jonathan Durand Folco, and the former co-spokesperson of “la CLASSE” during the 2012 student strike in Québec, Jeanne Reynolds—to comment on Gagnon’s work.

Dying in 2005 at the age of 66, Charles Gagnon has been a key player in the Québec upheavals the Left experienced during the 1960s and 1970s. Figurehead of the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ), Gagnon broke with the Parti Québécois’ bourgeois nationalism after the October Crisis to become the founder and the main leader of In Struggle! This organization disappeared in 1982, a few months before the liquidation of the other major Marxist-Leninist organization of that time, the Workers Communist Party.

Even before the collapse of In Struggle!, Charles Gagnon had already begun to question Marxism-Leninism. However—and unlike so many other activists from the M-L movement of the 1970s (some of whom, namely Pierre Karl Péladeau and Gilles Duceppe, are now heads of the two main bourgeois nationalist parties in Québec!)—Gagnon has never repented, remaining committed to the idea of a global social change that would enable the working class to exercise power. He also remained very critical of bourgeois nationalism, a stance that closed many doors in the academic and institutionalized circles (even leftist circles).

A critical observer of the 1990s and early millennium Left—both its reformist and more radical currents—Gagnon thought a lot, while failing to achieve a consistent conclusion, about the ideological framework of a new project that could “lead the struggle on the way of overcoming the present social order” [p. 198], a project he described as a “New Humanism.”

The disorderly views that could be found in the 20+ chapters included in the essay reflect Gagnon’s quest to achieve the above project, but also his inability to produce a coherent synthesis. Having himself a working-class background, Gagnon maintained, until the end of his life, a strong commitment to the struggle of the “ordinary people.” He despised bourgeois society and considered the capitalist system as one that destroys men and women from the popular classes. Even if he ended up rejecting Marxism-Leninism, and had never fully grasped the important contribution of the Chinese revolution and the advances it produced to revolutionary theory and strategy, Gagnon was critical of the current anti-capitalist networks for their rejection of any “globalizing project;” he was always looking for a global political alternative.

The pages of “À la Croisée des Siècles” are filled with sharp formulations against those who “went overnight to the opposite camp” [p. 24] and who now put forward “more than doubtful solutions, such as this kind of small capitalism that social economy is” [p. 37].

Gagnon was angered by the fact that “social integration to capitalism has prevailed over social protest” [p. 56], partly as a result of “the acceptance of trade unions by big business,” who are now working hand-in-hand in “countless committees, joint boards and economic summits” [p. 59]. According to him, the disappearance of a critical analysis of capital and its replacement by a “civil rights only” discourse was another consequence of the same debilitating phenomenon. However, his essay shows that he was himself influenced by this phenomenon.

Despite his critique of bourgeois nationalism and of trade unions who “put Québec sovereignty to the forefront of their concerns” [p. 117], Gagnon nevertheless ended up supporting this option at the PQ’s 1995 referendum. A strong denouncer of the numerous betrayals of Social Democrats, he was yet openly dreaming of a political project that could propose “a truly equitable redistribution of wealth” [p. 130] within the framework of the current bourgeois political and electoral system. While despising the supporters of a so-called “social capitalism,” he was also denouncing those who were still “taking their dreams for reality and advocating for a revolution” [p. 193] that, according to him, was no longer on the agenda. Clearly, the contradictions of the Québec left so eloquently exposed by Gagnon were also his own.

The book contains an interesting, while disappointing, twenty-page chapter in which Gagnon attempts to settle accounts with Maoism. Those who knew him at the time of In Struggle! know that Gagnon was always uncomfortable when the group was associated with Maoism. The fact that he portraits the Maoist critique of Soviet countries as being reduced “to a simple question of revisionist deviation from the leaders of the concerned parties” [p. 145] shows that he never seriously engaged with Maoism. Rather, one of the key features of the anti-revisionist struggle and of the Cultural Revolution was to demonstrate that restoration of capitalism in socialist countries was not a question of good or bad individuals, but was related to the persistence of bourgeois right and various inequalities in social relations. By reading these pages from Gagnon’s essay, one better understands the injurious role he played in the process that led to the dissolution of In Struggle!, even if he objected.

It is therefore not surprising that in his concluding remarks, Jonathan Durand Folco welcomes Gagnon’s denunciation of the current he has himself been fighting against for years, namely “the dogmatic anti-capitalism of a youth that seems to repeat the Marxist-Leninist enthusiasm of the past” [p. 239]. While most probably under the impression that he has discovered something totally new, Durand Folco emulates Gagnon’s ambiguity and advocates for “a worldview that could overcome the rigid opposition between revolutionary intransigence and cushy reformism” [p. 246]. All this in a world that in fact urgently calls for more revolutionary intransigence—a world that no longer provides any space for cushy reformism to play any useful work of distributing crumbs.

Fortunately, Jeanne Reynolds proves to be much more audacious by critically analyzing the evolution of the Québec national question, pointing to “the emergence of a national French-speaking bourgeoisie” [p. 254]. Reynolds suggests “making room for new militant forms of subjectivity based on class contradictions in the Marxist sense, instead of cultural identities” [p. 255]. Rightly criticizing the dead-end pursued by the Québec Solidaire Party—whose electoral strategy will inevitably lead them to more and more assume the role of a capable bourgeois state manager—Reynolds has unfortunately little to propose, apart from “reforming trade unionism and creating an open militant organization which, unlike QS, will assume the revolutionary character of its social project” [p. 262].

However, Reynolds’ call for “open discussion on the revolutionary project” [p. 263] could not be more relevant; there is no doubt that she has a far greater potential for making a positive contribution to this debate than her former comrade, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, who was jointly acting with her as a CLASSE spokesperson in 2012. Pampered by the media, Nadeau-Dubois is now performatively weeping over the graves of missing nationalist leaders, like he did after the recent death of Jacques Parizeau. We not only agree with Jeanne Reynolds on the need for having the kind of open discussion she suggests, but we think that, in many ways, Charles Gagnon’s ideas and hesitations should be part of this debate.

Serge Gélinas
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