Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Forty years ago: How Canada’s Indigenous Peoples rallied for constitutional recognition

It is now 40 years since the Trudeau Sr. government “patriated” Canada’s constitution, ending Britain’s vestigial control over changes in the country’s founding document, the British North America Act.

Much of the critical analysis at the time focused on how the 1982 Constitution Act marginalized Quebec’s status within the federation through explicit limitations on French-language rights in Quebec, denial of Quebec recognition as a distinct nation, and an amending formula that omitted a Quebec veto, etc. Above all, through the adoption of a “Charter of Rights” that recognized individual rights but failed to recognize the collective rights that would acknowledge the country’s plurinational reality. A valuable critique of what was involved in the “patriation” process and its result is contained in the late Michael Mandel’s book, The Charter of Rights and the Legalization of Politics in Canada.

Also marginalized in the new constitution were the Indigenous Peoples, despite a massive mobilization by their communities, in Canada and abroad, for recognition of their sovereign rights as First Nations. All they got, in the end, was a section of the constitution that formally recognized their “existing aboriginal and treaty rights” – it being left to the courts to define what that meant – and a promise of subsequent constitutional talks in which Ottawa and the provinces would determine “the identification and definition of the rights of those peoples.” Three such conferences in later years ended in failure, and there is still no constitutional recognition of the sovereign status and rights of Canada’s Indigenous Peoples.

A groundbreaking study of how and why the Indigenous Peoples mobilized in the early 1980s has been published in the current issue of BC Studies, the British Columbia Quarterly. Edited by Emma Feltes and Glen Coulthard, it is a retrospective account of the Constitution Express, the massive effort mounted by Indigenous leaders in the western provinces to fight Trudeau’s attempt to exclude from the new constitution any mention of their rights, treaties or the Crown’s obligation to them. cover_issue_183063_en_US

Emma Feltes is a legal and political anthropologist, writer, and organizer, now at Columbia University. Glen Coulthard is an associate professor in the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia; among his works is an important Marxist study Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition.

Published below are extensive excerpts from the introductory essay by the editors of this volume. (The full text is online.) Readers are strongly urged to purchase their own copies of this issue of BC Studies.

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Introduction, The Constitution Express Revisited (excerpts)

By Emma Feltes and Glen Coulthard

“Today at long last, Canada is acquiring full and complete national sovereignty,” began Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau at the rainy ceremony marking the end of patriation on 17 April 1982 – exactly forty years ago this spring. He continued:

“We became an independent country for all practical purposes in 1931, with the passage of the Statute of Westminster. But by our own choice, because of our inability to agree upon an amending formula at that time, we told the British Parliament that we were not ready to break this last colonial link.”

On that day, he, along with Queen Elizabeth II and Minister of Justice Jean Chrétien, sat down at a desk set up on Parliament Hill to sign the proclamation that would bring the Constitution Act, 1982, into effect, formally transferring the Constitution from the United Kingdom to Canada. […]

For Trudeau, a personal ambition had been fulfilled. The Constitution belonged to Canada now.

Among Indigenous Peoples, however, the mood was a little different. The National Indian Brotherhood declared 17 April a day of mourning. In British Columbia, the Vancouver Sun quoted then Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) President Robert (Bobby) Manuel as saying that anyone who participated in the celebration of patriation would be committing a “treasonous act against the Indian nations and their citizens.” All the way along, Indigenous Peoples from across the province had been fighting to stop patriation from happening without Indigenous consent. As Herman Thomas wrote in an editorial for UBCIC’s newspaper, Indian World:

“The fight has been a long tedious one and shall not end here, the Indian people are presently planning how to further continue the fight not only nationally but internationally. Indian people have found no reason to celebrate patriation; in fact Indians are demonstrating across Canada stating that the Constitution is unconstitutional. If Canada’s version of democracy means stripping Indian people of their pride, dignity and depriving them of self-determination and self-government, then I shall not stand for thee O Canada, but continue to fight for democracy and freedom as we see it.”

The “fight” to which he was referring had begun in earnest about eighteen months earlier (though the seeds were laid long before), when UBCIC declared Canada’s plans to patriate the Constitution to be a “state of emergency” for Indigenous Peoples. Within five short weeks from this declaration, UBCIC would charter two full passenger trains from Vancouver to Ottawa, determined to derail patriation until it gained Indigenous consent. Thus launched a movement that would come to be known as the Constitution Express.

When Trudeau began pushing for patriation in the late 1970s, he touted it as a decolonial move – one that promised to rid Canada of any “residual colonialism.” Yet, at the same time, his 1978 proposal, “A Time for Action,” excluded any mention of Indigenous Peoples’ rights, treaties, or the Crown’s obligations to them. Meanwhile, his process for achieving patriation was equally exclusionary, relegating Indigenous Peoples to observer status. “Patriation,” a made-up word, perfectly captured this revisionist appropriation of decolonial sentiment – a bringing home of something that had never been here in the first place, while absolving Canada of any responsibility to the peoples whose lands and authority it had dispossessed. In addition, Trudeau promised to add a new Charter of Rights and Freedoms to the package – one whose liberal equality provisions, many worried, would have a kind of levelling effect, achieving the goals of the 1969 White Paper by effectively wiping away Indigenous Peoples’ collective rights and status. It was a tactic Canada had deployed repeatedly in the postwar period, weaponizing “equality” against Indigenous nationhood.

So, Indigenous Peoples across the country mobilized to stop this from happening. The Constitution Express, a movement led predominantly (though not exclusively) by Indigenous people from British Columbia, was a massive grassroots expression of this mobilization.

The train ride itself, from which the movement got its name, was a mammoth operation. Though initiated by then UBCIC President Grand Chief George Manuel, and coordinated by UBCIC, it was powered by community. For example, Tk’emlúpsemc historian Sarah A. Nickel writes in this issue about the incredible feats of fundraising – led mostly by women – that were performed to pull it off, as every community across the province was asked to support at least one representative to go on the journey (some, however, sent dozens). By the time of the trains’ departure from Vancouver Pacific Central Station on 24 November 1980, their passengers included Elders, community leaders, women, and children (lots of them, as they travelled for free). Further, the advantage of having two train routes meant that it would be easier for passengers from northern, and not just southern, communities to join in the ride. When the northern train stopped in such places as Clearwater, Vavenby, Avola, and Jasper, it gathered travellers from as far as Williams Lake, Bella Coola, and Kitimat before carrying on through Edmonton and Saskatoon. Meanwhile, the southern train stopped in Salmon Arm, Sicamous, Revelstoke, Golden, Banff, Calgary, and Regina. As they travelled, the movement’s spokespeople and UBCIC staff held roving workshops in each train car, discussing and honing their aims. In these meetings Elders began to bring forward oral history, deepening the discussion of their nationhood and law. The trains conjoined in Winnipeg, where, after a raucous night of rallying hosted by the Four Nations Confederacy of Manitoba, they carried on to the capital. Upon their arrival, they immediately delivered a petition to Governor General Ed Schreyer before joining the All Chiefs Meeting on the Constitution being hosted by the National Indian Brotherhood.

The message of the Constitution Express was clear: patriation could only proceed with Indigenous consent. To get to consent, the movement proposed an internationally supervised trilateral conference, at which Indigenous Peoples, Canada, and the United Kingdom would sit down together to work out their respective realms of authority, “define the terms for political existence” between them, and create the “conditions necessary to enable the Indian Nations of Canada to achieve self-determination within the Canadian Federation.” It was a proposal that would shake up the patriation process fundamentally, while remodelling the very Constitution being patriated. If Canada was unwilling to partake, they promised to seek other remedies:

“As the last recourse, we propose to take whatever other measures are necessary to separate Indian Nations permanently from the jurisdiction and control of the Government of Canada, if its intentions remain hostile to our peoples, while insisting the fulfillment of the obligations owed to us by Her Majesty the Queen.”

Predictably, Canada declined the invitation.

Over the next eighteen months, what began as a train ride grew to be a broad political movement with both local and international inflections. In fact, as this issue of BC Studies demonstrates, these facets were entirely intertwined. Court cases were launched in both Canadian and British courts. A smaller delegation went on from Ottawa to New York, where the movement’s proposals were put before the United Nations. A submission was made before the Fourth Russell Tribunal on the Rights of the Indians of the Americas, held in Rotterdam, Netherlands. A series of at least eight “Constitution Express Potlaches” was held in communities across British Columbia. And a second journey, dubbed the “Constitution Express II,” was made through Western Europe, where it initiated a massive popular education campaign on Indigenous self-determination in the heartland of former empires. Finally, the movement ended up in London, joining a major Indigenous political and legal lobby already under way.

By the time the Canada Bill came before British Parliament, Indigenous Peoples’ concerns dominated the debate, with new clauses being proposed by British MPs that reflected the kind of consent and self-government for which they had been lobbying. But ultimately, when the bill finally passed, what they got was section 35, a concession by the Canadian government that “recognized and affirmed” the “existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada.” What this section meant, and what it would do for Indigenous Peoples, was shrouded in mystery, yet to be defined.

Over the four decades since, the mystery of section 35 has taken on a kind of life of its own, evolving incrementally in law and policy in Canada (an evolution Kent McNeil expounds beautifully in his contribution to this issue). Yet the movements that brought it about – and that aimed for much more – seem to have receded from view, at least in scholarship, where they’ve received stunningly little academic attention.

The thinking behind this special issue on the Constitution Express was to create a kind of retrospective of the movement, and one that would look at two things simultaneously: what the movement did then and its significance now, forty years on. To achieve this, we set out to bring Indigenous scholars and community organizers who were directly involved in the movement together with other prominent and emerging scholars who might bring a unique perspective to it. In the end, through a combination of five academic articles and two personal reflection pieces, both of which foreground the voices of those who were there, we came away with a powerful collection – one that moves through the movement’s varied aims, the methods and theories it deployed to achieve them, and its resonant effect today, including its political, legal, intellectual, and inter-generational legacy. […]

Indigenous Internationalism and the BC Land Question

One of the things so keenly interesting about the Constitution Express – and something this issue tries explicitly to represent – was its interplay between national and international action. It was a movement grounded in the resurgence of Indigenous legal and political authority in Indigenous lands. It was a movement committed to upholding the kinds of international relationships, particularly jurisdictional relationships, that Indigenous Peoples had historically sought to establish with colonial polities through treaty and other political arrangements. And it was also a movement informed by anticolonial thought exchanged between the postcolonial “Third” and Indigenous “Fourth” Worlds on what decolonization – and constitution making – might look like. In this, it built upon a resurgent Indigenous internationalism that had been accelerating throughout the 1960s and 1970s, in which Secwépemc leader George Manuel was at the forefront. But Indigenous nations in what is now known as British Columbia have a rich history of international activism and diplomacy stretching back much longer than this. While it is beyond the scope of this introduction to delve into this history of Indigenous internationalism in detail, we felt it might be useful to hit on few of its touchpoints, grounding the movement in what came before it as a way to provide context for and intellectual continuity with the articles to come.

It is important to note that one of the core determinants of this activism was always the refusal of the BC government to satisfactorily resolve the “Indian land question” in the province. Unlike many other regions in Canada, very few historic treaties were signed between Indigenous Peoples and the Crown in British Columbia (save the Douglas Treaties on Vancouver Island and Treaty 8 in the northeastern corner of the province). From the perspective of the federal government, the purpose of signing historic treaties with Indigenous nations was to secure state sovereignty over what were previously the self-governed territories of Indigenous nations through a process called “extinguishment” – thought to be the most expedient way to eliminate Indigenous Land Title for the twin purposes of colonial settlement and capitalist development on Indigenous land. In most of British Columbia and many places across northern Canada, these mechanisms of legalized land theft were not historically implemented, thus leaving a black hole of legal and economic uncertainty over the unceded territories in question. Who owns the land in such circumstances? What are the rules that guide settlement and economic development in these places? Developers tend to like answers to these questions before they invest too heavily in infrastructure and extraction projects, especially in liberal democracies like Canada, so that Indigenous communities have no legal recourse when they disrupt profit margins by blocking flows of resource capital haemorrhaging from their traditional territories.

Treaties, of course, hold a radically different meaning for Indigenous Peoples – even for those communities that never entered into negotiations over them, such as many of those involved in the Constitution Express. Generally speaking, most of the historical treaties signed between Indigenous Peoples and the Crown describe exchanges whereby Indigenous Peoples agree to share some of their lands in exchange for payments and promises made by officials representing the Crown. They are often understood as sacred commitments to maintain a relationship of reciprocity that respects the way of life and relative autonomy of each partner over time, while sharing certain obligations to each other and to the land. As such, treaties are agreements that affirm Indigenous Rights and Title, not extinguish them. Seen in this light, treaties provide an international framework for ensuring “nation-to-nation” relations with Canada, and Indigenous Peoples have defended them as such. It seems to be this understanding that the movement deployed, for example, when it called for treaty, to “fulfill covenants and commitments made.”

Without an acceptable mechanism in place to secure their Rights and Title, the default position of Indigenous Peoples in the province and across Canada has been that the land remains theirs and, as such, still falls under their sovereign jurisdiction. Over the last century and a half, Indigenous Peoples in British Columbia have defended this stance, legally and politically, through numerous venues, including the sending of formal petitions and/or delegations to Victoria, Ottawa, and London to defend their case. […]

Though in each case they were turned away – with the British Crown insisting that their concerns regarding land title were a strictly domestic affair – these delegations demonstrate the persistence of Indigenous political organizing over the last century and also hint at the international character of such efforts. However, the federal government would soon make sure that these types of claims against the state would not happen without punitive consequence. To this end, in 1927, the government made it illegal, via amendments to its already racist and sexist Indian Act, 1876, to formally organize for political purposes or to solicit legal representation (or raise money to do so) to pursue claims against the state, thus undermining to a significant degree the foundation of Indigenous organizing during this period.

While the 1927 amendment to the Indian Act outlawing Indigenous legal and political activism had the expected consequence of significantly curtailing this work – it effectively destroyed the Allied Tribes of British Columbia, for instance – it did not stamp it out entirely. Indigenous Peoples continued to press their concerns through the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, although often concealed or under different guises, via organizations like the Native Brotherhood of British Columbia (a First Nations fishing organization established in 1931), the Nisga’a Land Committee (which managed to carry on with its work in a truncated manner), and a variety of BC Native women’s “Homemaker Clubs” (which would eventually amalgamate in the formation of the British Columbia Indian Homemakers Society and the BC Native Women’s Society in 1968). In terms of the latter organizations, Indigenous women were able to effectively use openly patriarchal assumptions of the day regarding the domestic and apolitical nature of women’s labour in the home to discuss, formulate, and pursue their individual and collective political interests under the radar of an increasingly repressive settler-state surveillance apparatus. This latter point is beautifully expounded upon in Sarah Nickel’s contribution to this special issue.

For similar reasons, the politics of Indigenous labour organizing in early-twentieth-century British Columbia is also worth briefly noting here. As the work of labour historian Andy Parnaby demonstrates, this history has a long lineage of Native radicalism, especially on the shores of Burrard Inlet in North Vancouver, where Squamish longshore workers not only dominated lumber-related work on the docks but were also “pioneers of industrial unionism.” Essentially, the seasonal wage labour offered by “working the lumber” on the waterfront served as a temporary buffer for the Squamish as two distinct and asymmetrical modes of production were starting to come into violent conflict with each other: industrial capitalism, on the one hand, and the subsistence economy of the Squamish/Coast Salish, on the other. “Squamish men and women were important, if unequal, actors in this new industrial context,” writes Parnaby. “That all the occupational pursuits undertaken by Aboriginal workers were seasonal is important,” he continues, as it “hint[s] at the ways in which the temporal and spatial rhythms of a customary, kin-ordered way of life articulated with the logic of a burgeoning capitalist labour market.” At a time when it was becoming increasingly difficult to organize as Indigenous people, doing so as workers allowed Squamish men and women to selectively deploy their labour power through the seasonal wage to protect that which was most important to them: access to a life on the land and waters determined by customary law and tradition, not to a life dictated solely by the demands of colonial capital.

Protecting the fragile articulation of these modes of production by defending seasonal wage work became the focus of early Indigenous union activity on the coast. By our estimation, the most fascinating union to do so at the time was Local 526 of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), established in 1906 by primarily Squamish and Tsleil-Watuth log handlers. The local, formed a year after the Wobblies formed in Chicago in 1905, became known fondly by its approximately fifty to sixty Indigenous members as the “Bows and Arrows” chapter. As far as defending the type of people and labour in question, the IWW was a natural choice, given its progressive racial politics for the time as well as its reputation for serving “workers who did not fit well into the established craft union structures: the unskilled, the migratory, and the marginal.” While the local only lasted for two years, many of the Squamish workers involved in the Bows and Arrows went on to form the – again, largely Indigenous – Local 38-57 of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA). ILA 38-57, it turned out, would emerge as a launching pad for the next generation of Indigenous Rights advocates in the province, of which the most prominent was Squamish Chief Andrew (Andy) Paull.

Paull emerged out of his union days as a tireless Native Rights activist, fighting for the betterment of Indigenous people, land, and communities in British Columbia, Canada, and the United States through organizations like the previously mentioned Allied Tribes of British Columbia (he was a founding member) and then, after the latter’s demise, the North American Indian Brotherhood (NIAB), which he co-founded in 1944. During his tenure as president of the NIAB, Paull would serve as a friend and mentor to George Manuel, another emerging Indigenous political force in the province. Manuel would take over the presidency of the NAIB following the death of his mentor in 1959 and serve in this capacity until 1963, after which he moved on to serve in numerous other critically important provincial, national, and international political organizations, including as Chief of the National Indian Brotherhood between 1971 and 1976 (now the Assembly of First Nations), the founder and chair of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples (WCIP) from 1975 to 1981, and as president of UBCIC between 1979 and 1981, during which time he led the Constitution Express.

Manuel’s foundational 1974 book, The Fourth World: An Indian Reality (cowritten with Michael Posluns), details his life of Indigenous activism and leadership during this period. Republished in 2019 for the first time since 1974, The Fourth World is unquestionably one the core texts in the wave of Native literature that emerged out of the tumultuous politics of the global 1960s and 1970s. The text lays out the political and cultural foundation of Indigenous resistance to colonial domination over the last four centuries. He argues that colonization set in motion a Manichean struggle between the colonizer and Indigenous Peoples propelled by two fundamentally incommensurable “ideas of land”: land as a commodity – as something that can be “speculated, bought, sold, mortgaged, claimed by one state, surrendered or counter-claimed by another” – and land as a relationship, “The land as our Mother Earth.” Indigenous Peoples’ struggle to defend the latter against the violent globalization of the former is at its core the struggle of what Manuel calls the “Fourth World.” […]

Manuel’s international travels would eventually culminate in the historic October 1975 founding of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples in Port Alberni, British Columbia, which hosted Indigenous participants from nineteen different countries across four continents. The WCIP would go on to champion the Rights of Indigenous Peoples across the planet, with its advocacy work being instrumental to the eventual development of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations in 1982 and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. Meanwhile, through the very same period Indigenous nations in British Columbia were fighting for their Title and self-determination at the local and regional levels. Though in 1951 the federal government repealed many of the most repressive legislative features of the Indian Act, decriminalizing Native People’s legal advocacy and political work, by 1969 it would launch another major assimilative offensive in the form of the White Paper. But instead of serving as a mechanism for accelerated assimilation and land theft, as intended, the failed 1969 White Paper helped to spawn a renewed national unity among Indigenous Peoples from coast to coast to coast. […]

While the 1970s were a hotbed for political action, influenced, of course, by Red Power and the American Indian Movement (AIM), the resurgence of jurisdiction at the community level in British Columbia is a lesser-known part of the story. For example, there was a string of road-blocks in the summer of 1975, including the six-week St’uxwtews blockade in Cache Creek, armed and backed by AIM. Fishing then became a “lightning rod,” spurring more blockades as well as an astounding legal winning streak as UBCIC lawyer Louise Mandell won sixty-four fishing rights cases in 1977 alone. But, as George Manuel reflected, “the real signs of the renaissance” could also be seen “in the resurgence of our languages, in the growth of political institutions both old and new … in the growing number of young people seeking out the wisdom of the grandfathers and finding ways to apply it in their own lives.” Against this backdrop, Trudeau initiated the patriation process, thus beginning his “constitutional offensive” against Indigenous Peoples.

This is all to say that, by the time of the Constitution Express, Indigenous people in British Columbia had already established themselves as skilled organizers, having defended their land and sovereignty in both national and international forums for decades. As Louise Mandell would later write for Socialist Studies, by the time the movement landed in London, and submitted a reference to the Privy Council, it “continued a process for the BC Chiefs which had begun in 1906,” referring, of course, to those early delegations. Indeed, it was this long history of expansive pan-Indigenous activism in British Columbia and beyond that ultimately contributed to the power and momentum of the movement, felt strongly across the set of articles and reflections contained here. What this collection shows is that, more than solely a movement for domestic constitutional recognition, it was also a movement for Fourth World self-determination and decolonization. By the same token, it might be said that the creation of section 35 was not entirely successful in domesticating its aims. The BC “land question” is still very much an active one – and one that Constitution Express participants, and the next generation of Indigenous activists, have continued to pursue from the local to the international level.

Outline of the special issue

With all of these preliminary remarks made, we now provide a breakdown of the structure and contributions to this special issue. Here we draw together five academic articles with two firsthand reflections, both of which feature the voices of those directly involved in the movement. The articles and reflections are more thematic than chronological, approaching the story of the movement from different angles and perspectives: its gendered dynamics, its internationalism, its legal arguments and implications, and so on. Some look at one facet of the movement. For example, the article by Emma Feltes and Sharon Venne homes in on its submissions to the Fourth Russell Tribunal on the Rights of the Indians of the Americas, while others, like those by Kent McNeil and Louise Mandell, take a more retrospective look at developments within policy, law, and political organizing. Meanwhile, the personal reflections link these together, providing small yet powerful vignettes inviting readers to imagine what it was like to be there and to be in on the action.

We begin with a powerful reflection by Mildred Poplar, a Vuntut Gwitchin Elder and central protagonist of the Constitution Express. Recounting her experience of the Express as one if its main organizers, she drives home not only the profound feeling of accomplishment – organizing, as they did, at breakneck speed – but also the stakes involved: this was a struggle for nationhood and self-determination, not for the inclusion of a truncated set of rights in a colonially imposed constitution. The history that Poplar retells also sheds important light on the character of the labour that went into the material and intellectual life of the movement, most notably that of Indigenous women.

The question of whose labour was central, yet too often buried or overlooked, is taken up explicitly in the contribution by Tk’emlúpsemc historian Sarah A. Nickel. Although Indigenous women were deeply committed to the struggle represented by the Constitution Express, their work also departed from its efforts through the creation of the Concerned Aboriginal Women splinter group (or CAW). According to Nickel, the “CAW used its own brand of grassroots and kinship-based activism to critique not only the relentless barrage of colonial violence Indigenous Peoples faced daily but also, at times, the patriarchal underpinnings and practices of Indigenous leadership and the settler state.” Nickel’s piece is crucial to understanding the gendered dynamics of settler-colonial violence and dispossession, which place Indigenous women on a necessarily dual-track struggle: that against the externally created structure of colonial rule and that against the nefarious ways in which the character of this structure can and has influenced Indigenous communities.

The next two articles and one reflection move from Canada into the various international venues, where the movement carried on its fight against patriation. First, a co-authored article by legal anthropologist Emma Feltes and Cree legal expert Sharon Venne (masko nohcikwesiw manitokan) delves into UBCIC’s submission to the Fourth Russell Tribunal on the Rights of the Indians of the Americas. Venne, a young articling student at the time of the Constitution Express, presented this submission at the tribunal, having produced the novel legal analysis upon which it relied. Recontextualizing the British Crown’s historic legal obligation to obtain and uphold Indigenous consent within international and Indigenous law, Venne argued before the tribunal that Indigenous Peoples should have access to the United Nations’ decolonization mechanisms – mechanisms normally held out to overseas or “Third World” colonies alone. Featuring Venne’s voice in a dynamic and layered analysis that transpires between the two authors, the article looks back at the Constitution Express’s deeply decolonial aspirations and, in particular, at the influence of Third World anti-colonialism on the movement.

Rudolph Rÿser’s article does an excellent job of unpacking the longer historical arch within which the Constitution Express formed, from the perspective of a key strategist in the movement. Here we see the patriation process as merely one attempt among three centuries of attempts at Indigenous dispossession and genocide. It then follows closely the movement’s multi-pronged political strategy directed simultaneously at the Government of Canada, the governor general, and the Queen, before picking up where Feltes and Venne left off: at the United Nations. Here the article elaborates on the movement’s diplomatic actions at the UN, drawing the under-secretary general for political affairs, trusteeship and decolonization; the under-secretary general for human rights; and twelve UN member state missions “into the political confrontation.” Ultimately, Rÿser’s piece offers a novel firsthand account of the movement’s local and international politics.

The reflection to follow, by Lorna Wanosts’a7 Williams, also speaks of local and international politics. But it speaks intimately, as the story of “establishing the protest and assertion of Indigenous Rights in one community”: Mount Currie of the Lil’wat/St’at’yem’c Nation. Having sent a great number of people on both the original Constitution Express to Ottawa, and the second Constitution Express to Europe, Mount Currie was a hub of action, and Williams weaves beautifully between these international and community-based contexts as she remembers the movement with the help of other family and community members. With a feeling of being almost transported back to 1981, recollections about the importance of ceremony and song, about the teaching and learning that took place, and about relationships forged with media and other allies in Europe unfold.

The next two articles move the issue from its more historical and retrospective points of view up to the present moment. First, Kent McNeil’s article leads the reader through four decades of jurisprudence, asking, point-blank, from the legal perspective: “Has constitutionalizing Aboriginal and Treaty Rights made a difference?” With his trademark clarity and in succinct prose, McNeil compares Indigenous Peoples’ pre-section 35 treatment in the eyes of the law to post-1982 developments and the presumed “gains” since. McNeil casts his careful eye over almost the entire body of Aboriginal law in Canada, reflecting on what it does and doesn’t do for Indigenous Rights, Title, and Treaties. The result is one of the most lucid and methodical narratives of this body of law we have seen to date, concluding with some thoughts about the confounding contradiction between a rights clause that clearly falls short of what the Constitution Express lobbied for yet, at the same time, is an undeniable victory against unilateral extinguishment.

Finally, the issue comes to a close with an article by Louise Mandell, an in-house lawyer for the Union of BC Indian Chiefs at the time of the Constitution Express, and one of the movement’s key legal strategists. This piece draws on a previous chapter, written by Mandell alongside Mandell’s long-time legal partner, Leslie Pinder, another of the movement’s original legal team, who sadly died this spring. In her updated contribution here, Mandell delves deeply into her memories of the movement – from navigating the British legal and political system for the first time, and the intricacies of Imperial legal history, to her simultaneous introduction to Indigenous law over the course of the movement. But this article does more than detail these intersections of law: it is a profoundly personal story too, and one that moves back and forth to the present day. Mandell finds threads of hope in and among her many experiences in the field since – something that speaks both subtly and directly to the movement’s achievements and ongoing relevance.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Pierre Beaudet’s literary legacy

Pierre Beaudet, who died a week ago, left a rich legacy of published works, both books and articles, that will remain a valuable resource for present and future generations of socialists in Quebec, Canada and internationally. I cannot inventory all of them, but I do wish to draw attention to some materials of particular importance to today’s activists.

Unfortunately, few of Pierre’s writings are available in English. However, I will start with those that are readily available online. Most are translations from Pierre’s original texts in French, although he drafted a few in English, which he spoke fluently. An example: “In Search of the ‘Modern Prince’: The New Québec Rebellion,” in Socialist Register, 2017.[1]

His articles on issues of the day appeared extensively in a number of English Canadian online publications. Some examples:

Socialist Project:

Canadian Dimension:

Life on the Left:

He published prolifically in French. The online Quebec journal Presse-toi à gauche reports that Pierre, who in recent years provided a weekly column, authored 579 of its articles.

One of Pierre’s major projects was Nouveaux Cahiers du socialisme (NCS). Some years ago I translated (but apparently never published) an excerpt from an essay by Pierre Beaudet and others explaining its origins and how they saw the role of NCS. It is appended below. Pierre was without question the guiding spirit and foremost editor of NCS, although he relied on an editorial board representative of Quebec’s varied left tendencies and trajectories.Les socialistes et la question nationale (cover)

Pierre Beaudet wrote and edited many books, some of them voluminous collections of texts related to his academic disciplines, progressive economic and social development studies. He authored two books of an autobiographical nature: On a raison de se révolter: Chronique des années 70 (écosociété, 2008); and Un Jour à Luanda: Une histoire de mouvements de liberation et de solidarités internationales (Varia, 2018). He introduced and edited a collection of documents and articles by leading protagonists analyzing the rise and decline of the Quebec left in the 1970s and 1980s: Quel Socialisme? Quelle Démocratie? La gauche Québécoise au tournant des années 1970-1980 (Varia, 2016). And he co-edited a volume on the international workers’ and national liberation movements of the 19th and 20th centuries which, strangely, largely omits the experience of the Communist International: L’Internationale sera le genre humain! De l’Association internationale des travailleurs à aujourd’hui (M Éditeur, 2015).

Three texts authored or edited by Pierre are devoted to the national question and its importance in Quebec left politics. All three are available online:

Les socialistes et la question nationale: Pourquoi le détour irlandais? Kindle Edition

La question nationale Québécoise à l’ombre du capitalisme: Textes choisis des Cahiers du socialisme (1978-1982), Introduction et édition Pierre Beaudet. Full text online:

Le Parti socialiste du Québec et la question nationale (1963-1967). Pierre’s introductory essay is online here:

* * *

The Collectif d’analyse politique and Nouveaux Cahiers du socialisme: an initial balance-sheet (2009)

by Pierre Beaudet, Philippe Boudreau and Richard Poulin[2]

In 2007, the Collectif d’analyse politique (CAP) launched simultaneously a number of projects (workshops, documents, activities). We had an ambitious program that sought to “develop original research on the structural dimension of contemporary capitalism, work out some concrete and practical anti- and post-capitalist perspectives, and participate in the development of new alternatives to help energize the social movements and the political left.”

We also noted the paucity of left-wing journals in Quebec. The publications that were common in previous decades—Parti pris, Socialisme québécois, Cahiers du socialisme, Interventions économiques, Critiques socialistes, etc.—had, for all intents and purposes, disappeared. In fact, there were no longer any intellectual left journals in Quebec although there are a magazine, À bâbord !, and a web site, Presse-toi a gauche, which play an important and complementary role. One of our explanatory hypotheses was that the “scientistic” turn taken by the university-based social sciences periodicals, itself linked to changes in the conditions of production of “knowledge”, had worked to the detriment of their mission of stimulating intellectual thinking around the dynamics of social transformation. Nouveaux Cahiers du socialisme (NCS) specifically responds to this need: to partially overcome the vacuum engendered by the disappearance of a certain tradition of progressive thinking in Quebec, that of the left-wing journals.

Nouveaux Cahiers du socialisme

In January 2009, therefore, the CAP launched the first issue of NCS, on the topic of social classes. Four issues later, NCS seems to be off to a good start, with a readership of around one thousand per issue and an increasingly solid reputation among intellectuals and activists in the social movements. Each issue is prepared by a working group that includes some members of the CAP along with researchers and activists concerned by the featured topic. In addition to this bi-annual publication, there is a website updated daily with other articles and documents. In the coming months, NCS plans to deepen its thinking about ecosocialism, the work environment, health, education, the social movements and collective action, the unions and community movements, Marxism, the left in Quebec and North America, and many other topics.

Popular education

We initially explained that our perspective was a long-term one, and that we wanted to reconcile the need to participate in existing struggles with the necessity for critical thinking through some rigorous intellectual and political work. This is what we tried to do through some interventions, notably during the Quebec Social Forum where, in both 2007 and 2009, we hosted many workshops. The participation in these activities was excellent, validating our intuition about the need for deeper involvement within the social movements. This work was continued in the summer Université populaire, which we organized in August 2010: three days of intense discussions, hosted by more than 20 resource people, in which 150 people participated. In the fall of 2010, we also organized other events: a symposium on “40 years after October 1970” and a roundtable on “les rapports sociaux de sexe” [gender-based social relations].

A duty of diligence

From the outset we chose to identify ourselves with socialism, a banner (it must be said) that by the early years of this millennium was not unsullied. Beyond this proclamation, it seemed important to us to indicate that we were not reinventing the wheel, that we were part of a tradition of struggles and intellectual and theoretical work that had taken on many meanings and gone in many directions but that belonged to a “family of thought” inaugurated by Karl Marx and the communards, and which was developed subsequently by the great social movements of the 20th century. For historical reasons (to be explored and analyzed), a large part of this “family of thought” was subjected to a series of dogmas that later led many of the movements—identified with a certain “socialism”—to their downfall through some “adventures” and disastrous practical and intellectual authoritarianisms. There remain today innumerable lessons, insights, perspectives, that ought to be developed and modified, while creating some new ones. Nevertheless, these new perspectives require some intense work based on detailed empirical and theoretical studies, enquiries and explorations. In initiating the vast project of analyzing capitalism and post-capitalism, our “ancestors” gave us but few clues. Our program of work starts with these, but in the process it will open new trails not previously imagined.

At present the CAP has 30 members who come from the social movements, unions and the college and university teaching milieu. Not only is it inter-generational (which must still be improved) but it is also more multi-ethnic (to be improved) and it is trying to achieve parity between women and men. Above all, it is pluralist, bringing together individuals from the political and social left with a very great variety of nuances and currents, whether organized or not.

[1] Full text:

[2] “Le Collectif d’analyse politique et les Nouveaux Cahiers du socialisme : premier bilan,” Nouveaux Cahiers du socialisme, no. 1, Printemps 2009, pp. 11-13.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Pierre Beaudet, Presente!

Pierre Beaudet

Pierre Beaudet, a Quebec leader in international solidarity and progressive scholarship, died in Montréal on the night of March 7-8. Pierre was for decades a central organizer, author and editor in a range of grassroots movements and left publications. His presence and inspiration will be sorely missed by many, both young and old, as Judy Rebick indicates in this tribute she published in, an online magazine she cofounded two decades ago.

I follow it with an article by Pierre, written less than a week before he died, that addresses the very issue Judy cited as one that she would look to him to explain. Bear in mind that this was written very early in the war before many implications were clear. Pierre wrote it in his capacity as director of Alternatives, the international solidarity organization he founded and to which he had recently returned. My translation. And I conclude by briefly recalling some of my own memories of Pierre as a friend and comrade. – Richard Fidler

* * *

Friends and colleagues remember Pierre Beaudet

by Judy Rebick, March 11, 2022

“Pierre was a great leader, an extraordinary thinker and had a big heart. The world will miss Pierre greatly.”

Just when we needed him most to explain how the global political reality will change with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Pierre Beaudet, one of Canada’s most brilliant progressive thinkers and activists has died.

I met Pierre about twenty years ago when he invited me to sit on the board of Alternatives, a progressive international development NGO that Pierre helped found in Montréal in 1995. He introduced me to international solidarity work through Alternatives and the World Social Forum. In fact, he was part of the group that helped establish and grow the WSF, an extraordinary effort to build an alternative to corporate globalization.

He encouraged me to write about the struggle in Latin America and to go on a mission to Palestine. Pierre was a great leader, an extraordinary thinker and had a big heart. The world will miss Pierre greatly.

I went to several World Social Forums with Pierre in Brazil, Venezuela, and Kenya. Pierre was also central in bringing the WSF to Montréal and organizing a Quebec/Canada/Indigenous social forum in Ottawa. I’ll let him explain the importance of the World Social Forum, writing in Canadian Dimension:

“The WSF process was original because it was an open space where participants themselves were to define the agenda through self-organized political and cultural activities. Much of the work involved drafting an alternative economic program… At the same time, there was much discussion of how to ‘democratize democracy,’ for meaningful citizen participation within the framework of liberal democracy. These immense brainstorming sessions were carried out by many social movements that also took advantage of the WSF to create new international and action-oriented networks, such as Via Campesina and the World March of Women. The WSF methodology was also adopted by hundreds of national and municipal forums in which citizens had a chance to act, play, speak out and express their hopes. It thus helped to bring movements together, create new dynamics and give rise to new projects. One such successful forum was organized in Ottawa in 2012. The Peoples’ Social Forum brought together a critical mass of movements from Canada, Quebec and Indigenous communities for the first time in Canadian history.”

To pay tribute to someone I consider to be one of the most important thinkers and organizers of my generation, I spent the last couple of days interviewing a few of his closest comrades.

Monique Simard, a well-known Quebec feminist who went to university with Pierre and has been friends with him ever since told me, “His vision of international solidarity was unparalleled. He had a global vision of politics. Pierre knew everything about everywhere not only about the big picture, but he could tell you about the details in each country. The spectrum of his knowledge was so wide. It was amazing.”

Pierre’s international solidarity work started in South Africa where he got so involved in the anti-apartheid struggle, he moved there but had to return to Montreal because of his mother’s ill health. He put his expertise on Africa together with comrades who were involved with struggles in South Asia and the Arab world to found Alternatives in 1995, just as the anti-globalization movement was beginning. Not unlike the period we are in today, this was a moment where the global social and economic order was changing from the Cold War to neo-liberalism.

Robert David, who helped to found Alternatives and remained there in leadership positions until 2007, told me, “Every time you had a meal with Pierre, you’d get a lesson. He had a remarkable combination of political and strategic analysis and the ability to organize people around it and do it. A very rare quality.” Robert explained how Alternatives had a different approach to international work than most NGOs, with Pierre leading.

“He would tell the groups we worked with to write the proposal that would be accepted and then do what you really needed to do with it and explain later.” Rather than act as an enforcer of government funding rules, Alternatives would be a co-conspirator with local groups: solidarity not charity.

“The peak of our work at Alternatives,” said Robert, “was perhaps in 2001 in Quebec City where we organized, on behalf of a coalition of groups, the People’s Summit of the Americas, in protest of the government-held Summit of the Americas. It was an international gathering of some 5,000 activists and politicians to discuss our response to neo-liberalism in the Americas.” Hugo Chávez, then President of Venezuela, attended the People’s Summit and later, along with a three-day demonstration of thousands, helped to stop the Summit of the America’s plan to create a free-trade zone across all of the Americas.

Pierre was also one of the people in Quebec who worked hard to build solidarity between Quebec and English Canada. André Frappier, a long-time trade union activist and leader of Québec Solidaire, a left-wing political party in Quebec, worked with Pierre on many projects and wrote me about his fondest memories.

“Pierre was a theoretician who contributed greatly to political discussion and debate, but above all he was an organizer, a builder of networks and places of activism. A committed activist against the power of the oligarchy, he kept an indelible memory of a 1968 demonstration in support of taxi drivers striking against the airport monopoly of taxis and buses by the Murray-Hill company. He was proud of the embedded projectiles from riot police fire on his lower back that remained there all his life.”

André also noted that Pierre, while a supporter of the national liberation struggle in Québec, was no less an internationalist. Initiator of the Alternatives summer university, he participated in creating spaces for discussion about international politics and the links between the left in Canada and Quebec.

Pierre’s writing was featured in and Canadian Dimension over the years. In 2017, Pierre wrote in The Bullet a response to the Leap Manifesto. While supportive of the general idea, he pointed to a major weakness:

“However, there is a blind spot. Much like in the tradition of the Canadian left, the Leapists have ignored the fact that the Canadian state, from its creation till now, is not and cannot be the terrain of emancipation. This state is illegitimate. Its foundations are rotten, since it was erected on class and national oppression, whereas the First Nations on the one side, and the Québécois on the other side, have been dispossessed. To put it bluntly, this state has to be broken and eventually reinvented. Speaking about reforming Canada on the left does not make sense [unless], from the onset, there is clear and explicit commitment to work with the First Nations and the Québécois by recognizing their right to self-determination and their nationhood.”

Talking to Pierre’s old friends and comrades, one of my favourite stories came from André Frappier: “Pierre was a passionate being and a walking, talking political school. Two years ago, I worked for two weeks building a new fence in his back yard. Carpentry was not his strength, but while he held the boards I needed, he told me about his understanding of Lenin’s writings and the history of communism, as if he had a book in his hand.

“Pierre was a unique being, a builder, a weaver of networks, a hard worker who understood the importance of passing the torch. He continued the work of organizing World Social Forums in recent years with activists from the younger generation.”

And he also reached younger generations through his teaching at University of Ottawa and Université du Québec en Outaouais, his mentoring and his extensive writings.

Even though he received a PhD in 1990, he refused the comfort of an academic job until he decided to leave Alternatives in 2005. On Facebook, many of his students both in formal and informal settings talked about how much they learned from him.

Pierre is survived by his two sons Victor and Alexandre. His former partner, Anne Latendresse, wrote on Facebook:

“Pierre, the father of my son, my accomplice of more than 30 years, left us on the night of March 7-8. Death came to get him at home, without even waving at us. We weren’t prepared…

“His heart was so big, that he carried the whole planet and hugged these suffering men and women and fought to transform the world. With clarity, he was desperate for our inability to get there. But from Gramsci, he had learned to practice ‘the pessimism of the intelligence and the optimism of the will’.”

Thank you, Anne, and know that we share your mourning for this wonderful man.

The war in Ukraine

By Pierre Beaudet, March 2, 2022

This text is intended to introduce a debate within Alternatives. It argues that this conflict will change everything, including in our area of solidarity and international cooperation. As in any important debate, there are theories, strategic issues, choices to make in our practice. This text does not answer everything. It expresses a view that is not the only approach now being expressed. It will therefore be necessary to have a lengthy and in-depth discussion in the coming period, and this contribution will have achieved its objectives if it can simply break the ice. – PB

Ukraine, with a population of 43 million, is foundering in the war unleashed by Russia’s invasion. There are thousands of victims. A large part of the country’s infrastructure, including energy and communications facilities, has been destroyed. In the streets of Kyiv and the other major cities, the Ukrainian people are engaged in street battles with the powerful Russian army. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have fled into exile.

Meanwhile, the United States and its allies are imposing severe sanctions against Russia while organizing major military assistance but without willing to become involved on the terrain. There does not appear to be any possibility of negotiation, at least in the short term. The conflicts will likely increase, with further destruction.

The aggression

Russia prepared its attack over a long period. It was launched last week with the hawkish speech by President Vladimir Putin, who denied the very reality of Ukraine as the sovereign state and territory of a people with the right of self-determination. In the initial days, the Russian army destroyed with its short and long range missiles a major part of the military infrastructure as well as crucial energy and communications systems. Russia claimed it would spare civilians, which would exclude massive indiscriminate bombing. The Russian advances have continued, encountering as they reached the cities a strong Ukrainian resistance. In military terms, this resistance relies on small decentralized contingents with very effective weapons such as mobile anti-air and anti-tank missiles. It is also getting unlimited support in weapons and money from the United States and its allies.

If the war becomes bogged down in the cities, it will result in destructive combat in the midst of highly-populated regions. The collateral costs will be huge, and this may lead the United States and NATO to become more involved. That is what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is hoping, and in this he no doubt reflects the majority opinion that resistance to the aggression is the only outcome on offer. Russia, however, cannot easily back down, as this would be a terrible defeat for Vladimir Putin. So there is a great risk that the war will go on.

How did we get to this point?

The implosion of the Soviet Union in 1989 profoundly destabilized what was then the second biggest power in the world. The vast majority of the republics that were part of the USSR broke free, including Ukraine which became independent in 1991.

Coming into office in the early 2000s, Vladimir Putin promised to be the “strong man” who would re-establish that power. First he focused on annihilating the Chechen rebellion. He turned then to what he defined as the “near exterior” including Georgia, Belarus and some republics in central Asia, combining threats and interventions with cooptation of local elites. This was relatively effective, and gave Putin the idea that he could expand his interventions, for example by supporting the regime of Bashar El-Assad in Syria, where he gambled on the weakening and failure of the US strategy. The “strong man” then followed this up with various measures to paralyze the opposition in Russia. Putin’s approach borrowed from the tradition of the USSR under Stalin in imposing a centralizing and repressive state along with attempts to carve out a place in the global arena.

Role of the United States

Since the demise of the Soviet Union thirty years ago, Russia has continued to be confronted by Washington, beginning with the latter’s reneging on the promise made to Gorbachev, the last Soviet president, that it would not incorporate the former components and allies of the USSR into NATO. Instead, the US has built a veritable iron circle with several of these territories, threatening Russia indirectly. There were some limits to this strategy, so the United States launched the terrible “endless war” in the Middle East and Central Asia, as well as its incursion in the Balkans. But its failure after some years resulted in opening up areas of conflict in which Moscow was able to insert itself, in Syria, as mentioned, and with Iran and other countries anxious to avoid the destruction experienced by Iraq. Little by little, Russia could see its horizon broaden by looking to China and other “emerging” countries aspiring to greater autonomy within the global system. The Russia-China convergence is of course a product of the explicit US strategy that seeks to prevent China from moving into the lead in capitalist globalization.

A fight to the finish

This gave Putin the impression that he could strike a major blow in Ukraine. When a staunchly anti-Russia government was imposed in 2014, Russia reacted by annexing the Sebastopol region and supporting the pro-Russia territories in eastern Ukraine. A “mini war” (with 14,000 victims, nonetheless) prepared the way for the present conflict. Demanding that the United States exclude any possibility of Ukraine membership in NATO, Putin was well aware that this issue was non-negotiable. Some European states (including Germany and France) had a more accommodating position, but lacked the ability to say explicitly what could have been an alternative project: acceptance of a sovereign Ukraine with neutral status (as were Finland and Austria in the past), establishing of a new European agreement involving disarmament of borders, Russia’s integration in the agreements, intra-European economies, etc. In the end, as Putin had expected, the US view prevailed.

Leap into the unknown

Now that Russia has attacked, there is no turning back. Either Putin wins his bet by the subjugation of Ukraine, which would allow him to “entrust” to a new government the job of “re-establishing order.” Or the situation will drag on into an endless conflict – unless Russia decides to wage war in the cities even if it means destroying them, with their people, as was done in Syria. In either case, the conditions will have been created to revive a new kind of cold war, fueled by fierce attacks on the Russian economy, increasing militarization of central Europe, the Baltic states and Poland, support to the Ukrainian resistance, etc.

This new Cold War 2.0 will represent an immense realignment of priorities and strategies. NATO, its relevance diminished in recent years, will return in force. The member states will be required to increase substantially their military spending and become directly involved in the strategy of counter-attacking and weakening Russia: harsh economic sanctions, military and political support of states and movements confronting Russia, a major “battle of ideas” to reinvent the monster that had created such fear in Western opinion for more than 30 years. And so on.

Consequences for Canada

No doubt the Canadian government will follow the US line, as it has done since the beginning of the conflict. With the immense polar frontier between Canada and Russia, this could have major consequences. Canadians’ reluctance to invest the billions needed for purchasing weapons of mass destruction will be seriously weakened, with a resulting surge in the military budget financed by severe cutbacks in other budget allocations. And Canada, eager to increase its oil and gas exports via huge pipeline projects to the Pacific and Atlantic, will be able to relaunch these projects on the pretext that they are part of the “war effort” against Russia. We will have to pay close attention to what is going to happen with the proposed LNG project designed to bring Alberta’s gas through Quebec.

This Canadian shift will of course be strongly encouraged by pursuit of the war, which, we repeat, was initiated by Russia. Public opinion in Canada, and not only among Canadians of Ukrainian descent (1.8 million persons) has understandably mobilized against Russia.

On solidarity and international cooperation

The area in which we are involved will be strongly affected. It is certain that humanitarian aid is going to be oriented towards the millions of Ukrainians who are in or on the way to exile. That is necessary, from a humanitarian standpoint. What is not is its discriminatory nature. There are at this point at least 10 million Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans (to mention only those) languishing in detention camps administered by states in the pay of NATO member countries. The great majority of these wretched of the earth know already that they will never be accepted as refugees. Meanwhile, some disregarded conflicts are breaking out in the Horn of Africa while the international (dis)order prevents the UN from seriously intervening.

No one should be surprised, therefore, if the humanitarian aid (administered by Foreign Affairs Canada) is not sharply reorganized to assist Ukraine – which is not dishonorable but will become so if the already very modest resources offered to other countries and peoples in crisis are reduced.

In the coming period, the new board of directors of Alternatives, with other NGOs and international solidarity movements, will have to look at how we can promote our views and act responsibly in the eyes of a population that is currently distressed by the conflict and its possible consequences.

Among the options now being discussed in our circles, we will have to develop ourselves our basis of action taking into account past experience and the uncertainties in the present context.

· Peace must be re-established as soon as possible, if only in the form of a ceasefire that gives those responsible some time in which to extricate themselves from the present impasse.

· This peace process should include the United Nations. While the European Union and NATO are major protagonists, they cannot be left to tackle this.

· We act in solidarity with the Ukrainian resistance that aims to re-establish an inclusive and peaceful sovereignty without abuses of national minorities. Our solidarity can be exercised in the area of humanitarian assistance wherever in the country people are suffering the impact of the war.

· Humanitarian aid, and development assistance to poor countries (especially in Africa) must not be reduced to meet Ukraine’s needs.

· Canada must not align its policies with those of the United States, via NATO or otherwise. It should promote disarmament and the peaceful resolution of conflicts while defending human rights without discrimination.

Russia invaded Ukraine four days ago in blatant violation of the UN Charter and international law. The United States and their NATO allies, including Canada, have plunged us as well increasingly into this war by a flurry of sanctions and outrageous statements.

[The text ends by announcing a demonstration in Montréal on March 6 in solidarity with an international day of action to protest both Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the expansion of NATO.]

* * *

A true friend and comrade…

Although I was long acquainted with his work I did not meet Pierre Beaudet until the World Social Forum in Caracas in 2006. We soon became good friends. Soon afterwards, Pierre found employment at the University of Ottawa, where he was instrumental in establishing the School of International Development and Global Studies. He invited me to participate in his efforts to establish an Ottawa section of the Collectif d’analyse politique (CAP), publishers of the Nouveaux Cahiers du socialisme, a semiannual review Pierre had cofounded in 2009. On three occasions he included me as a guest lecturer in his course on Latin American social movements and politics.

When teaching at UOttawa, and later the Université du Québec campus across the river in Gatineau, Pierre, who commuted from his home in Montréal, usually stayed overnight for a day or two per week at my home. He always brought with him books and magazines – Le Monde Diplomatique and the New York Review of Books were among his favourites – to leave with me and we often exchanged Marxist books we both found useful. Conversations with Pierre were a delight; he was knowledgeable and insightful on a vast range of subjects, and I enjoyed his ironic sense of humour.

My niece Nancy Burrows, who has known Pierre longer than I through her active leadership in the Quebec women’s movement (she coauthored a chapter in one of his books on L’Altermondialisme), mentioned to Pierre in an email exchange that she had heard he knew her uncle. His response captured our friendship rather nicely, I think:

“I spend two nights a week with your uncle, with whom I very much enjoy discussing late into the night why the Indonesian Communist party screwed up in 1966, or if Lenin had listened to the mutineers at Kronstadt, and other similar stories that have remained in the head of the unrepentant Marxist oldtimers like us. It has helped me endure Ottawa more easily…. We also discuss intersectionality in the Dogon country in Mali, the place of LGBTQs in the present Chilean movement, peaceful insurrections that get things moving more than petitions. What would have happened if Rosa Luxemburg had not been assassinated, etc., etc., it never ends between us.”[1]

- Richard Fidler

[1] “Je passe deux soirées par semaine avec ton oncle avec qui j’ai bien du plaisir à discuter tard dans la nuit sur pourquoi le Parti communiste indonésien s’est planté en 1966, ou encore si Lénine avait écouté les mutins de Kronstad, et d’autres histoires du genre qui sont restés dans la tête des pépés marxistes non repentis dans notre genre. Cela me fait endurer plus facilement Ottawa… Nous discutons aussi de l’intersectionnalité dans le pays dogon du Mali, de la place des LBGTQ dans le mouvement chilien actuel, des insurrections pacifiques qui font bouger les choses plus que les pétitions. Sur ce qui serait arrivé si Rosa Luxemburg n’avait pas été assassinée, etc. etc. ça n’arrête jamais entre nous…”.

Friday, March 11, 2022

What does Russia’s invasion of Ukraine tell us about 21st century imperialism?

“The immediate effect of Putin’s incursion has been to consolidate the Atlantic bloc under the command of Washington.”

Russia’s war on Ukraine has opened up debates regarding the nature of the invasion and what position anti-imperialists should take in the conflict. To discuss these issues and the state of 21st century imperialism, Green Left’s Federico Fuentes spoke with Argentine Marxist economist Claudio Katz, author of Under the Empire of Capital.

I follow the interview with a brief comment of my own. – Richard Fidler

* * *

There are various positions within the left regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. How would you characterise Russia’s actions?

I think we have to look at this on two planes. The first is to register that the invasion of Ukraine was a response to United States imperialism’s belligerence. The Pentagon has sought on countless occasions to incorporate Kyiv into NATO’s missile network. The Kremlin tried to halt this potential aggression by proposing negotiations, but never got a response.

It proposed a status of neutrality for Ukraine, similar to that of Finland and Austria during the Cold War. Russia also called for a resumption of the treaty regulating the deactivation of certain atomic weapons. These are legitimate demands, given Russia’s long and terrible history of suffering at the hands of foreign invasions and its population’s heightened sensitivity to any such threat.

On the other hand, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin exaggerates when he denounces a “genocide” is taking place in the Donbass [in eastern Ukraine], a reference to the violence carried out by reactionary militias. These are the sectors he is referring to when he demands “denazification”. Since 2014, these ultra-right gangs have blocked any attempt at a negotiated solution. They reject the re-integration of the east as autonomous regions with recognised rights for the Russian-speaking population.

But with Russia’s invasion, it is Putin who has buried the accords he was promoting seeking neutrality for Ukraine. This is where we move onto the second plane. Putin opted for an invasion, assigning to the Kremlin the right to overthrow an adversarial government. This decision is unjustifiable and functional to the interests of Western imperialism

It is true that the US had advanced in negotiations to incorporate Ukraine into NATO. But Ukraine has not taken this step, it has not installed missiles and fascist militias have not carried out large-scale acts of aggression. The decision to invade a country, surround its principal cities and change its government cannot be justification as a defensive action by Russia.

Putin has shown complete contempt for Ukrainians. Even if [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky heads a “government of drug addicts,” as Putin claims, it is up to the Ukrainian people to decide who should replace him. This is not a decision for the Kremlin. Russia’s attack has stirred panic and hatred towards the occupying force. This same opposition can be seen across the world.

Putin has ignored the main aspiration of all those involved in the conflict: a peaceful solution. He went even further and signalled that Ukraine did not have the right to exist as a nation. This characterisation is even more unacceptable. It is a direct challenge to the right of a people to decide their fate.

This outlook carries with it an implicit vindication of the old Tsarist oppressive model and indicates that the incursion was not driven solely by defensive or geopolitical motivations. It also derives from a despotic outlook, which Moscow assigns to itself, alleging that Ukraine belongs within Russia’s borders.

For these reasons, criticizing Putin’s actions is essential in any left statement. But this stance should be preceded by a firm denunciation of US imperialism, which carries the main responsibility for this bellicose escalation.

Putin’s actions are extremely counterproductive for emancipatory projects and have provided an unimaginable external impulse to Ukrainian nationalism. Whatever the final result of the war, the impact of the invasion will be terribly negative for popular struggles and consciousness.

Ukrainians have the same right as any other people to decide their fate. But self-determination will remain an empty phrase so long as forces associated with NATO or Russian troops maintain their presence in the country.

The first condition for advancing towards sovereignty is resuming the peace negotiations, withdrawal of foreign soldiers and the subsequent demilitarisation of the country with the granting of international status of neutrality. This is a dual battle against NATO and the Russian invasion.

What do the events surrounding the invasion tell us about imperialism today and the role played by different power blocs?

Ukraine offers us a panorama of the current geopolitical scene. It confirms, above all, that the US heads up the main imperialist bloc. It has been the instigator of the conflict through the expansion of NATO, which in 30 years went from 16 to 30 members. The encircling of Russia began by violating commitments to restrict US military presence to the German border. That line has been pushed forward time and time again.

Washington has also fanned talk of war to reinforce Europe’s subordination. In ambushing Russia, it has achieved the mobilisation of troops by Spain, Denmark, Italy and France. The Ukrainian crisis has reinforced Britain’s post-Brexit pro-US alignment and demonstrated France’s impotence, which attempted its own negotiations [between Russia and Ukraine], and in the end remained faithful to the White House.

Germany has been greatly affected given its industries need access to Russia’s energy supplies. Due to this, Berlin tried to de-escalate the situation. But at no point did it weaken its alignment with Washington, and ultimately chose to suspend the inauguration of the Nord Stream II gas pipeline [that would allow for a further increase of gas imports from Russia].

The immediate effect of Putin’s incursion has been to consolidate the Atlantic bloc under the command of Washington. Throughout the Ukrainian crisis, NATO’s imperialist profile has been reconfirmed.

Attempting to characterise Russia is more complex and any attempt can only be provisional. It is probable that the final result of the invasion of Ukraine will define the status of this country.

Russia is not part of the dominant Western imperialist bloc (headed by the US), nor is it an alter-imperial partner (such as Europe) or a co-imperial piece (such as Israel) within this broader framework. But it enacts policies of domination via intense military activities and various modes of internal colonisation.

On the one hand, Russia is harassed by the US, while on the other hand it carries out oppressive actions against its neighbours. Within this framework, it de facto operates as a non-hegemonic imperial power in embryonic form. It is located in a position that is counterposed to the centres of imperial power and, at the same time, due to its capitalist nature and its dominant position in the region, tends towards resuming its old traditional role of oppressive power.

These imperial tendencies, which until now appeared as embryonic possibilities, have deepened with the invasion of Ukraine. This episode marks a qualitative shift in Russia’s international status.

But we also need to underline the limits of this foreign intervention. Moscow’s military power is sweeping, but its effective capacity to sustain operations is minimal. Russia is an intermediate economy in global terms. Its GDP is not significantly different to that of Spain or Canada. Its level of capital exports is barely higher than that of Finland and lower than Norway.

The economic recuperation that Putin has achieved is significant when compared to the desert left behind by [former president Boris] Yeltsin, but it has not been enough to position the country among the club of great economic powers.

Finally, China is once again acting with great caution towards the war in Ukraine. Putin has negotiated various economic agreements with [Chinese President] Xi Jinping to counteract the West’s boycott, but no one knows how much effective convergence exists between the two giants challenging the US. It was very striking that China abstained on the United Nations resolution condemning Russia’s invasion.

China’s careful conduct — which seeks to avoid involving itself in military-geopolitical conflicts outside its borders — confirms that the Asian giant, up to now, does not act as an imperial power.

China is already a key economy — ranked second in the world — but imperialist positioning is not defined by economic criteria. It is determined by observing foreign policy, interventions abroad and military deployments. On these grounds, the qualitative differences with Russia are enormous.

Some look to Russia and China as allies in the struggle against imperialism and for a “multi-polar world.” Should leftists support such an outlook?

Effectively, there exists an important tendency towards a multi-polar configuration, that is, towards a greater dispersion of global power, as a result of the crisis of US supremacy.

This scenario has been ratified in Ukraine by [US President Joe] Biden’s pathetic disorientation. He knew of Russia’s plan, but prepared no response. He discarded the idea of military escalation as well as Putin’s proposals for negotiations, without considering any other alternatives.

This disorder confirms the impact of the recent defeat in Afghanistan on Washington’s actions. The US State Department faces serious limitations when it comes to involving marines in new operations. The same resistance to committing troops can be seen in Europe. That is why NATO has restricted itself to emitting vague declarations.

Putin has promoted multi-polarity as a geopolitical alternative to US preeminence. But the outcome of the war in Ukraine could lead to a new situation, especially if the invasion stalls and Moscow digs its own grave like the USSR did in Afghanistan.

In the immediate term, the invasion perpetrated by the Kremlin has fuelled a resurgence of all the myths perpetuated by Western democracies that had fallen into disgrace due to the Pentagon’s accumulated failures. Putin has given Washington what it needed to reconstruct ideological fallacies that had lost appeal due to the devastation wrought in Afghanistan and Iraq. Its adventure has revived the counterposition between Western democracy and Russian autocracy.

We do not know how the war will modify this framework of incipient multi-polarity. This framework opened up a more favourable situation for popular projects compared with the previous period of US unilateral domination. But we should not idealise multi-polarity, which contains within it a heterogeneous variety of regimes lacking any real progressive characteristics. Multi-polarity, moreover, does not imply resistance to imperialism nor actions that impede the suffering generated by capitalism.

I believe we should distance ourselves from outlooks that exclusively focus on observing geopolitical events from above. We need to focus our attention on popular movements and struggles against the dominant classes in each country.

One consequence of substituting political analysis with its geopolitical equivalent is the casting aside of social and democratic struggles. While the former emphasises the role of social forces in conflict, the latter outlook only ratchets up the dispute between powers for global supremacy.

March 9, 2022

My Comment:

“Ukrainians have the same right as any other people to decide their fate. But self-determination will remain an empty phrase so long as forces associated with NATO or Russian troops maintain their presence in the country.

“The first condition for advancing towards sovereignty is resuming the peace negotiations, withdrawal of foreign soldiers and the subsequent demilitarisation of the country with the granting of international status of neutrality. This is a dual battle against NATO and the Russian invasion.”

As the interview headline indicates, Claudio Katz is discussing primarily the profile of global imperialism today as revealed by the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine. Pointing to the sequence of events, he concludes that the Left’s opposition to Putin’s actions must be “preceded by a firm denunciation of US imperialism, which carries the main responsibility for this bellicose escalation.” He calls this “a dual battle against NATO and the Russian invasion.”

I agree. However, that dual battle, in my view, must be focused on support of Ukraine. Putin has made this a brutal war of invasion and conquest, to overthrow the government in Kyiv and to subject Ukraine to the Kremlin’s diktat. As Katz says, it is not a defensive action by Russia. Ukraine resistance is a fight to defend the country’s sovereignty, its action is defensive. Ukraine has not joined NATO, “it has not installed missiles, and fascist militias have not carried out large-scale acts of aggression.” The people of Ukraine need our fullest solidarity in their fight for physical and national survival.

This war is not an inter-imperialist war like World War I, for example. As Gilbert Achcar reminds us, an inter-imperialist war is direct war, not by proxy, between two or more powers each seeking to invade the territorial and (neo)colonial domain of the other(s), a “war of pillage” on both sides, as Lenin said when he urged the Left to refuse support of any of the warring powers but to strive instead to turn the imperialist war into a class war, for proletarian power – which is what the Russian workers did, successfully, in 1917.

Ukraine, unlike Russia, has no ambition or intention of taking over its adversary’s territory. The fact that it is supported by Russia’s imperialist rivals the US and NATO does not in itself make this an inter-imperialist war, one in which we would withhold support for either side. Despite their sweeping sanctions and provision of weapons and military equipment to Ukraine, the NATO powers have refused to deploy their own troops to confront Russia’s or to establish a “no-fly zone” as demanded by the Ukrainian president. They take seriously Putin’s threat of nuclear retaliation.

Ukraine’s cause is just, and it is just to help it defend itself against an enemy that is far superior in numbers and weaponry. The Left can therefore, in my opinion, support the delivery to Ukraine of defensive arms, such as anti-tank or anti-aircraft rockets, as well as other necessary provisions – while of course continuing to call for dissolution of the NATO alliance, campaigning to cancel Ukraine’s debts, and calling on our governments to open the doors to all refugees from the war (and not just Ukrainians), etc.

Sanctions, on the other hand, are not to be supported, for all the reasons outlined here. They simply do nothing to help Ukrainians, nor do they help to catalyze effective political opposition in Russia to Putin’s regime. The poor always pay the highest price for economic sanctions, as they invariably lead to hyperinflation and shortages of key imports needed for food and fibre.

And we should be alert to the many ways that Putin’s aggression, as Claudio Katz observes, serves the interests of Western imperialism. Capitalist governments have taken advantage of massive public outrage at the war to promote their own agenda of austerity and environmental devastation through boosting military budgets and building new pipelines, etc. They cannot be relied on to help Ukraine.

Richard Fidler

Sunday, March 6, 2022

How Ukraine won its independence, in Soviet times, and the lessons for today


Two weeks after Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, events are not turning out as he planned. He had not anticipated the heroic resistance of the Ukrainian people, the already high number of Russian casualties, or the massive support the Ukrainians have won from public opinion throughout Europe, and elsewhere. The UN General Assembly voted by a huge majority to demand that Russia stop its offensive and immediately withdraw all troops, only five states voting against.

Meanwhile, in Russia itself, thousands of citizens have rallied to protest the war, braving mass arrests and repression. Independent and critical media have been shut down. It is illegal now even to use words such as “war” or “invasion” to describe Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.

Contrary to his expectations, Putin’s war has been met in Europe and abroad with heavy sanctions against Russian banks and businesses. Most surprisingly, perhaps, Germany, although very dependent on imports of gas, oil and coal from Russia, has veered sharply in its foreign policy, suspending possibly forever Russia’s Nord Stream II gas pipeline, agreeing to open two terminals for U.S. LNG imports, sending lethal weapons to Ukraine and boosting its own military budget by an unprecedented amount.

Finland and Sweden are now indicating they may join NATO, adding to the encirclement of Russia on its western flank that this military alliance has been building since the demise of the Soviet Union. Neutral Switzerland has joined the European Union in imposing sanctions.

In Canada, the corporate media and politicians were quick to take advantage of public outrage at the war, responding cynically with calls to renew previously cancelled plans for new LNG terminals and pipelines, to boost the military budget, and to increase the shipments of weapons and other military assistance it was already supplying to Ukraine to prepare it for future NATO membership.

The Washington Post exults, perhaps prematurely: “In one week of war, life within the boundaries of Ukraine has been upended, but the brutal assault Russian President Vladimir Putin launched last Thursday has also reverberated around the globe, steering history in a new direction and switching up 75 years of relations among some of the world’s most powerful and wealthy countries.”

Putin has been explicit: his goal is to conquer Ukraine and change its regime. But he has also indicated that his ultimate goal may be to deprive Ukraine of its statehood, to incorporate Ukraine into greater Russia.

On the eve of his invasion of Ukraine he argued that its creation was illegitimate as a product of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. “As a result of Bolshevik policy, Soviet Ukraine arose, which even today can with good reason be called ‘Vladimir Lenin’s Ukraine’. He is its author and architect.”

“I will start with the fact that modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia. This process started practically right after the 1917 revolution, and Lenin and his associates did it in a way that was extremely harsh on Russia – by separating, severing what is historically Russian land. Nobody asked the millions of people living there what they thought. […]

“Lenin’s ideas of what amounted in essence to a confederative state arrangement and a slogan about the right of nations to self-determination, up to secession, were laid in the foundation of Soviet statehood. Initially they were confirmed in the Declaration on the Formation of the USSR in 1922, and later on, after Lenin’s death, were enshrined in the 1924 Soviet Constitution.

“This immediately raises many questions. The first is really the main one: why was it necessary to appease the nationalists, to satisfy the ceaselessly growing nationalist ambitions on the outskirts of the former empire? What was the point of transferring to the newly, often arbitrarily formed administrative units – the union republics – vast territories that had nothing to do with them? Let me repeat that these territories were transferred along with the population of what was historically Russia.

“Moreover, these administrative units were de facto given the status and form of national state entities. That raises another question: why was it necessary to make such generous gifts, beyond the wildest dreams of the most zealous nationalists and, on top of all that, give the republics the right to secede from the unified state without any conditions?”

Putin’s account, while coloured with Great Russian chauvinism, is partly true. But the real story of how Ukraine won its independence is much richer, more instructive than the Russian autocrat would have us believe. And it contains many lessons for today’s socialists attempting to integrate national independence movements within their strategy for state power.

This history is best described in the following article by a leading Marxist authority on the Ukrainian national question. Zbigniew Marcin Kowalewski is a former leader of Solidarnosc in Lodz, and an editor of Inprekor, a Fourth International magazine published clandestinely in Poland from 1981 to 1990. Among his published works is the book Give Us Back Our Factories.

“For the Independence of Soviet Ukraine” was originally published in the International Marxist Review, in 1989, while Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union. It seemed appropriate, amidst Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika, to revive Trotsky’s call in 1939 for the independence of soviet Ukraine, oppressed by the Stalinist counter-revolution. The text explains the reasoning behind the demand as it was developed in the complex experience of the early Soviet government grappling with the Great Russian prejudices and practices inherited from the Tsarist regime – a regime now often cited by Putin as his own inspiration.

The text was later scanned by Andrew Pollack and published by the late Louis Proyect on his website, but without the footnotes. I have added these and revised the text to correspond with the version published by Marilyn Vogt-Downey in her book The USSR 1987-1991: Marxist Perspectives (Humanities Press, 1993).

In a message to me this week, Zbigniew said “The resistance [in Ukraine] is extraordinary,” and he praised “the solidarity in Poland with the Ukrainian people, the complete opening of the Polish frontier for all Ukrainian refugees, including foreign (Afghan, etc.) refugees living in Ukraine.”

- Richard Fidler

* * *

For the Independence of Soviet Ukraine

By Zbigniew Marcin Kowalewski

Despite the giant step forward taken by the October Revolution in the domain of national relations, the isolated proletarian revolution in a backward country proved incapable of solving the national question, especially the Ukrainian question which is, in its very essence, international in character. The Thermidorean reaction, crowned by Bonapartist bureaucracy, has thrown the toiling masses far back in the national sphere as well. The great masses of the Ukrainian people are dissatisfied with their national fate and wish to change it drastically. It is this fact that the revolutionary politician must, in contrast to the bureaucrat and the sectarian, take as his point of departure.

If our critic were capable of thinking politically, he would have surmised without much difficulty the arguments of the Stalinists against the slogan of an independent Ukraine: “It negates the position of the defense of the Soviet Union”; “disrupts the unity of the revolutionary masses”; “serves not the interests of revolution but those of imperialism.” In other words, the Stalinists would repeat all the three arguments of our author. They will unfailingly do so on the morrow….

The sectarian, as so often happens, finds himself siding with the police, covering up the status quo, that is, police violence, by sterile speculation on the superiority of the socialist unification of nations as against their remaining divided. Assuredly, the separation of the Ukraine is a liability as compared with a voluntary and equalitarian socialist federation: but it will be an unquestionable asset as compared with the bureaucratic strangulation of the Ukrainian people. In order to draw together more closely and honestly, it is sometimes necessary first to separate.[1]

The article quoted from above, Trotsky’s “The Independence of the Ukraine and Sectarian Muddleheads” (July 1939), is, in a number of ways, much more important than his article of April the same year, “The Ukrainian Question.” First of all, it unmasks and disarms the pseudo-Marxist sectarians who, in the name of defending proletarian internationalism, transform it into a sterile abstraction, and reject the slogan of national independence of a people oppressed by the Kremlin bureaucracy. In this article Trotsky places himself in the continuity of the ideological struggle waged by Lenin against the “tendency to imperialist economism,” a tendency which was active in the ranks of Bolshevik party as well as in the far left of international social democracy. It should be clear that the adjective “imperialist” that Lenin attributes to this form of economism in the revolutionary movement in relation to the national question is justified by the theoretical reasons evoked by the author of the term. A sociological examination would show that this tendency is mainly based among revolutionary socialists belonging to the dominant and imperialist nations. The sectarians denounced by Trotsky are only a new version of the same tendency that Lenin fought against at the time of the discussion on the right of nations to self-determination in the context of an anti-capitalist revolution.

Second, Trotsky’s article contains theoretical and political considerations which are indispensable for understanding the correctness and the need for a slogan such as that of independence for Soviet Ukraine as well as for a national revolution of an oppressed people as a factor and component of the anti-bureaucratic revolution in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. To fully appreciate the richness of this contribution, readers are invited to study the article themselves.

Third, Trotsky explains that in a case like that of Ukraine, real internationalism and a real search for the international unity of the working class are impossible without clear and resolute support for national “separatism.”

To make possible a genuine brotherhood of the peoples in the future, the advanced workers of Great Russia must even now understand the causes of Ukrainian separatism as well as the latent power and historical lawfulness behind it, and they must without any reservation declare to the Ukrainian people that they are ready to support with all their might the slogan of an independent Soviet Ukraine in a joint struggle against the autocratic bureaucracy and against imperialism.[2]

It goes without saying that this task is the responsibility of the vanguard of the international workers’ movement even before being that of the Russian proletariat. The defence of the slogan of Ukrainian independence adopted by the World Congresses of the Fourth International in 1957 and 1979 is a task of enormous political importance today. The rise of national mass movements of the oppressed peoples of the USSR demands that the slogan of national independence should be a part of our general propaganda and agitation. If this is not done, the socialist opposition in the USSR will leave the field open to the bureaucracy, which hopes to isolate the anti-bureaucratic struggles waged in the non-Russian republics from the fight of the workers in Great Russia. They thus omit one of the basic transitional tasks of the anti-bureaucratic struggle.

Fourth, Trotsky contributes an essential clarification to the historical discussion on the right of nations to self-determination while eliminating from this Leninist slogan its abstract and politically redundant features. Trotsky explains that, if the oppression of a people is an objective fact, we do not need this people to be in struggle and to demand independence in order to advance the slogan of independence. At the time when Trotsky raised this slogan, nobody in the Soviet Ukraine could demand such a thing without having to face execution or becoming a prisoner in the Gulag. A wait-and-see policy would only lead to the political and programmatic disarming of revolutionaries. An oppressed people needs independence because it is oppressed. Independence, states Trotsky, is the indispensable democratic framework in which an oppressed people becomes free to determine itself. In other words, there is no self-determination outside the context of national independence.

In order to freely determine her relations with other Soviet republics, in order to possess the right to say yes or no, Ukraine must return to herself complete freedom of action, at least for the duration of this constituent period. There is no other name for this than state independence.

In order to exercise self-determination — and every oppressed people needs and must have the greatest freedom of action in this field — there has to be a constituent congress of the nation.

But a “constituent” congress signifies nothing else but the congress of an independent state which prepares anew to determine its own domestic regime as well as its international position.[3]

Faced with the implacable rigour of this explanation, any other discourse on the right of oppressed nations to self-determination can only be sustained by sleight-of-hand. This right cannot be defended without fighting for the oppressed people to have the means of exercising it; that is to say without demanding the state independence necessary for the convocation of a free constituent assembly or congress.

Finally, and this is a question of signal importance, Trotsky recognized that the October Revolution did not resolve the national question inherited from the Russian Empire. Isolated in a backward country, it could only bring it to resolution with great difficulty. But was it equipped for that? In the perspective of a new, anti-bureaucratic revolution we have to decide whether the same means can be reused or if a totally new approach is necessary. I think that Trotsky was convinced that the second option was correct. This is a question of the first importance that seems never to have been taken up by the Trotskyist movement, although it is a necessary starting point for any discussion on the relevance of Trotsky’s slogan of 1939.

The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic — formally (and fictively like Byelorussia) a member of the United Nations — is the most important of the non-Russian republics of the Soviet Union. It is also the biggest country in Europe after Russia in surface (603,700 square kilometres), and one of the biggest in population (more than 50 million, 74 percent of whom are Ukrainian). The Ukrainian people form the largest oppressed nation in the USSR and Europe. The urban working class constitutes more than 50 percent of the total population and more than 75 percent of the Ukrainian population of the republic. The liberation of the enormous potential that this class represents from the dual burden of bureaucratic dictatorship and national oppression is a fundamental task and a condition for the development of the anti-bureaucratic revolution in the USSR and Eastern Europe, as well as for the social revolution on the entire continent. It is impossible to imagine any advance in building socialism in the USSR and in Europe without the victory of the Ukrainian national revolution which has, as Trotsky explained, an international strategic dimension. What the sectarians ignore in taking up this question is the fact that the national revolution, one of the most important and most complex forms of the class struggle, cannot be avoided by simple references to the anti-bureaucratic revolution in the USSR as a whole or the future European and world revolution.[4]

Bolshevism faced with an unexpected national revolution

Considered by many — including Marx and Engels at one time — as a “people without history,”[5] the Ukrainian people constituted themselves as a nation in a “historical” manner par excellence, that is, heroically. In 1648, the community of freemen and of military democracy, known as the cossacks, formed a people’s liberation army, and launched a huge peasant uprising against the Polish state, its ruling class, and its church. The nation-state established during this rising did not manage to stabilize but the cossack and peasant revolution crystallized a historical nation even before the shaping of the modern nations through the expansion of capitalism.[6] Since the end of the eighteenth century, the bulk of Ukrainian territory had been transformed into a province of the tsarist empire, known as “Little Russia.” On the eve of the Russian Revolution, it was a “European”-type colony.[7] Compared to the general level of socio-economic development in this empire, this region was one of the most industrialized and was characterized by a strong penetration of capitalism in agriculture. “Ukrainian” was synonymous with “peasant” because around 90 percent of the population lived in the countryside. Among the 3.6 million proletarians (12 percent of the population), 0.9 million worked in industry and 1.2 million in agriculture. As a product of a very uneven development of capitalism, half of the industrial proletariat was concentrated in the mining and steel enclave of the Donbass. Because of the colonial development and the tsarist “solution” to the Jewish question, only 43 percent of the proletariat was of Ukrainian nationality, the rest being Russian, Russified, and Jewish. The Ukrainians constituted less than a third of the urban population.[8] The western part of Ukraine, Galicia, belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The two central demands of the renascent national movement were the independence and unity (samostiinist i sobornist) of Ukraine.

The 1917 Revolution opened the road to the Ukrainian national revolution. It was the most powerful, the most massive, and the most violent of all the revolutions of the oppressed nations of the empire. The masses demanded a radical agrarian reform, the constitution of a Ukrainian government, and independence. The opportunist petty-bourgeois and workers’ parties of the Central Rada (council) which led the national movement opposed the demand for independence. They only proclaimed it after the October Revolution to which they were hostile. By authorizing the passage of counter-revolutionary military units, the Central Rada provoked a declaration of war by Soviet Russia against the Ukrainian People’s Republic. The Bolsheviks were very badly prepared to deal with the Ukrainian national revolution.

The right to national self-determination put forward by Lenin was a slogan that had not been very well assimilated by the Party. It was even challenged by a sizeable current, characterized by Lenin as “imperialist economism.” This challenge was particularly dangerous as it appeared within a proletarian party of a nation that was traditionally an oppressor and had become imperialist, in an empire characterized by Lenin as an enormous prison of peoples. Apart from Lenin’s writings, the only overall work on the national question at the disposal of the Bolshevik Party was the confused, indeed largely wrong, study by Stalin. Written in 1913, it did not even take up the national question in the framework of imperialism.[9] Lenin himself expressed confused and ill-thought-out positions such as the excessive inspiration that he drew from the example of the American melting-pot and a categorical rejection of a federalist solution. He condemned this as contradicting his idea of a centralized state and demanded that each nationality choose between complete separation and national-territorial autonomy within a centralized multinational state, He educated the Party in this spirit for more than ten years. After the revolution, and without giving any explanation for his turnaround, he proclaimed the federation of nations as the correct solution and compatible with state centralism — a shift that many Bolshevik leaders did not take seriously. Over and above the democratic slogan of the right to self-determination, Bolshevism had neither a program nor a strategy of national and social permanent revolution for the oppressed peoples of the empire.

In Ukraine, apart from a few exceptions, the Bolshevik party (like the Menshevik party) was only active within the most concentrated and modern section of the proletariat, which was not of Ukrainian nationality. The spread of communism within the proletariat followed the dynamic of the development of a colonial industrial capitalism. Political action within the national proletariat was the domain of Ukrainian social democracy which placed itself outside the Bolshevik/Menshevik split and was accused by the former of capitulating to Ukrainian “bourgeois nationalism.” The “national” bourgeoisie hardly existed. At this period, the distinction between the nationalism of the oppressors and that of the oppressed was already present in Lenin’s writings but both were considered bourgeois. The notion of revolutionary nationalism had not yet appeared. Social Revolutionary populism, which was becoming national and autonomous from its Russian equivalent, represented another active political force within the Ukrainian masses. The Bolshevik Party in Ukraine used only Russian in its press and propaganda. It ignored the national question and did not even have a leadership centre in the territory. It is not surprising that when the national revolution broke out it was caught unarmed.

In Ukraine, the Bolshevik Party only tried to organize as a separate entity after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, that is, during the first Bolshevik retreat and at the beginning of the occupation of the country by the imperialist German army. At the ad hoc conference in Tahanrih in April 1918, there were several tendencies present. On the right, the “Katerynoslavians” with Emmanuil Kviring. On the left, the “Kievans” with Yuri Pyatakov, but also the “Poltavans” or “nationals” with Mykola Skrypnyk and Vasyl Shakhrai, strengthened by the support of a group from the extreme left of Ukrainian social-democracy. The right, basing itself on the Russian industrial proletariat, proposed to form the Russian CP(B) [Communist party (Bolshevik)] in Ukraine. The “Poltavans” and the “Kievans” wanted an entirely independent Bolshevik party. A section of the “Poltavans” wanted to settle the national question in a radical way through the foundation of an independent Soviet Ukraine. Shakhrai, the most radical, even wanted the party to be called the Ukrainian CP(B). The “Kievans” were for an independent party (and perhaps a state) while denying the existence of the national question and considering the right to national self-determination an opportunist slogan. With Pyatakov they represented the most extreme proponents of “imperialist economism.” However, at the same time, they identified with Bukharinist “left communism” and were hostile to the Brest-Litovsk peace and to Leninist centralism. In order to assert themselves in opposition to Lenin they needed an independent Bolshevik party in Ukraine. Moreover, they considered that a particular strategy was necessary in Ukraine directed toward the peasant masses and based on their insurrectional potential. It was for this reason that the “Kievans” allied with the “Poltavans.” And it was Skrypnyk’s position that won out. Rejecting Kviring’s approach on the one hand and Shakhrai’s on the other, the conference proclaimed the CP(B) in Ukraine as the Ukrainian section, independent of the Russian CP(B), of the Communist International.[10]

Skrypnyk, a personal friend of Lenin, and a realist always studying the relationship of forces, was seeking a minimum of Ukrainian federation with Russia and a maximum of national independence. In his opinion, it was the international extension of the Revolution which would make it possible to resist in the most effective fashion the centralizing Greater Russian pressure. At the head of the first Bolshevik government in Ukraine he had had some very bitter experiences: the chauvinist behaviour of Muraviev, the commander of the Red Army who took Kiev; and the refusal to recognize his government and the sabotage of his work by another commander, Antonov-Ovseyenko, for whom the existence of such a government was the product of fantasies about a Ukrainian nationality. In addition, Skrypnyk was obliged to fight bitterly for Ukrainian unity against the Russian Bolsheviks who, in several regions, proclaimed Soviet republics, fragmenting the country. The integration of Galicia into Ukraine did not interest them either. The national aspiration to sobornist, the unity of the country, was thus openly flouted. It was with the “Katerynoslavian” right wing of the party that there was the most serious confrontation.[11] It formed a Soviet republic in the mining and industrial region of Donetsk-Kryvyi Rih, including the Donbass, with the aim of incorporating it into Russia. This republic, its leaders proclaimed, was that of a Russian proletariat “which does not want to hear anything about some so-called Ukraine and has nothing in common with it.”[12] This attempted secession could count on some support in Moscow. The Skrypnyk government had to fight against these tendencies of its Russian comrades, for the sobornist of Soviet Ukraine within the national borders set, through the Central Rada, by the national movement of the masses.

The first congress of the CP(B) of Ukraine took place in Moscow. For Lenin and the leadership of the Russian CP(B) the decision of Tahanrih had the flavour of a nationalist deviation. They were not ready to accept an independent Bolshevik party in Ukraine or a Ukrainian section of the Comintern. The CP(B) of Ukraine could only be a regional organization of the pan-Russian CP(B), according to the thesis “one country, one party.” Is Ukraine not a country?

Skrypnyk, considered responsible for the deviation, was eliminated from the Party leadership. In this situation, Shakhrai, the most intransigent of the “Poltavans,” went over to open dissidence. In two books of inflammatory content, written with his Ukrainian Jewish comrade Serhii Mazlakh, they laid the foundations of a pro-independence Ukrainian communism. For them, the Ukrainian national revolution was an act of enormous importance for the world revolution. The natural and legitimate tendency of this revolution and its growing over into a social revolution could only lead to the formation of a workers’ and peasants’ Soviet Ukraine as an independent state. The slogan of independence was thus crucial to ensure this growing over, for forming the workers’-peasants’ alliance, to make it possible for the revolutionary proletariat to take power and to establish a real and sincere unity with the Russian proletariat. It was only in this way that Ukraine could become a stronghold of the international proletarian revolution. The contrary policy would lead to disaster. This was the message of the Shakhrai current.[13]

And it was indeed a disaster.

The reasons for the failure of the second Bolshevik government

In November 1918, under the impact of the collapse of the central powers in the imperialist war and the outbreak of revolution in Germany, a generalized national insurrection overthrew the Hetmanate, a fake state established in Ukraine by German imperialism. The opportunist leaders of the former Central Rada of the Ukrainian People’s Republic who, a short while before, had made a compromise with German imperialism, took the head of the insurrection to restore the Republic and its government, this time called the Directory. Symon Petlyura, a former Social Democrat who had become a rightwinger swearing ferocious hatred of Bolshevism, became the de facto military dictator. But this unprecedented rise of a national revolution of the masses was also the rise of a social revolution. Just as they had previously done, faced with the Central Rada, the masses rapidly lost their illusions in Petlyura’s Directory, and turned again to the social program of the Bolsheviks. The far left of the Ukrainian Social Revolutionary party, called the Borotbists, which was increasingly pro-Communist, affirmed its ideological influence among the masses.[14]

In a situation favourable to the possibility of a convergence between the Russian Revolution and the Ukrainian Revolution, the Red Army again entered the country, chased out the Directory, and established the second Bolshevik government. Pyatakov was at the head of this government before being rapidly recalled to Moscow.

Although continuing to ignore the national question — for him the Ukrainian Revolution was not a national but a peasant revolution — the Pyatokov government, sensitive to the social reality of Ukraine, wanted to be an independent state power. It considered such power indispensable in order to ensure the growing over of the peasant revolution into the proletarian revolution and to give proletarian leadership to the people’s revolutionary war. Moscow appointed Christian Rakovsky to take Pyatakov’s place. Recently arrived from the Balkans, where the national question was particularly complicated and acute, he declared himself a specialist on the Ukrainian question and was recognized as such in Moscow, including by Lenin. In reality, although he was a very talented militant and completely devoted to the cause of the world revolution, he was completely ignorant and dangerous in his so-called speciality. In lzvestiya, the Soviet government newspaper, he announced the following theses: the ethnic differences between Ukrainians and Russians are insignificant; the Ukrainian peasants do not have a national consciousness; they even send petitions to the Bolsheviks to demand to be Russian subjects; they refuse to read revolutionary proclamations in Ukrainian while devouring the same thing in Russian. The national consciousness of the masses has been submerged by their social class consciousness. The word “Ukrainian” is practically an insult for them. The working class is purely of Russian origin. The industrial bourgeoisie and the majority of the big landowners are Russian, Polish or Jewish. In conclusion Rakovsky did not even recognize a national entity in Ukraine and for him the Ukrainian national movement was simply the invention of the intelligentsia that supported Petlyura, who were using it in order to hoist themselves into power.[15]

Rakovsky understood perfectly that the Bolshevik revolution in Ukraine was the “strategic knot” and the “decisive factor” in the extension of the socialist revolution in Europe.[16] However, unable to place his vision within the context of the Ukrainian national revolution or to recognize that this latter was an unavoidable and indispensable active force, Rakovsky condemned his own strategy to shipwreck on the rocks of the Ukrainian question. A tragic but relative error if compared with that of Lenin eighteen months later, which plunged the European revolution into the quagmire of the Polish national question by giving orders to invade Poland.

In opposition to the demands of Pyatakov, Rakovsky’s government — which was on paper that of an “independent republic” — considered itself a simple regional delegation of power from the Russian workers’ state. But objective reality is implacable. Faced with Rakovsky’s attempt to impose a Greater Russian communist centralism, the national reality, already explained by Bolsheviks like Shakhrai, and also in their own way by Bolsheviks like Pyatakov, made itself felt. This centralism unleashed powerful centrifugal forces. The proletarian revolution did not lead the national revolution, nor did a proletarian military leadership impose itself at the head of the armed national and social insurrection of the masses. In order to achieve class consciousness, the masses of an oppressed people have first to pass through the stage of achieving a national consciousness. Having alienated and even repressed the bearers of this consciousness, recruitment to the administration was restricted to the often reactionary Russian petty bourgeoisie, who were accustomed to serving under whomever was in power in Moscow. Things were the same for the army: recruitment took place amongst people with a very low level of consciousness, not to say lumpen elements. The result was a conglomerate of disparate armed forces, with commanders ranging from Nestor Makhno (presented by the central press in glowing terms as a natural revolutionary leader of the poor peasants in revolt, overlooking entirely his anarcho-communist beliefs, totally at odds with Bolshevism) to straightforward adventurers such as Matvii Hryhoryiv. This latter was promoted to the rank of plenipotentiary Red commander of a vast region by Antonov-Ovseyenko.[17]

The leftist agrarian policy, that of the commune, transplanted into Ukraine from Russia on the principle of a single country and a single agrarian policy, inevitably alienated the middle peasants. It drove them into the arms of the rich peasants and ensured their hostility to the Rakovsky government while isolating and dividing the poor peasants. Power was exercised by the Bolshevik party, the revolutionary committees, and the poor peasants’ committees, imposed from above by the Party. Soviets were only permitted in some of the large towns and even then had only an advisory role. The most widely-supported popular demand was that of all power to democratically-elected Soviets — a demand of Bolshevik origin that now struck at the present Bolshevik policy. On the national issue, the policy was one of linguistic Russification, the “dictatorship of Russian culture” proclaimed by Rakovsky and the repression of the militants of the national renaissance. The Great Russian philistine was able to wrap himself in the red flag in order to repress everything that smacked of Ukrainian nationalism and defend the historical “one and indivisible” Russia. Afterwards, Skrypnyk drew up a list of some 200 decrees “forbidding the use of the Ukrainian language” drawn up under Rakovsky’s rule by “a variety of pseudo-specialists, Soviet bureaucrats and pseudo-communists.”[18] In a letter to Lenin, the Borotbists were to describe the policy of this government as that of “the expansion of a ‘red’ imperialism (Russian nationalism),” giving the impression that “Soviet power in the Ukraine had fallen into the hands of hardened Black Hundreds preparing a counter-revolution.”[19]

In the course of a military escapade, the rebel army of Hryhoryiv captured Odessa and proclaimed that they had thrown the Entente expeditionary corps (in fact in the process of evacuating the town) into the sea. This fictional exploit was backed up by Bolshevik propaganda. Sensing a shift in the wind, the “victor over the Entente,” Hryhoryiv, rebelled against the power of “the commune, the Cheka and the commissars” sent from Moscow and from the land “where they have crucified Jesus Christ.” He gave the signal for a wave of insurrections to throw out the Rakovsky government. Aware of the mood of the masses, he called on them to establish soviets from below everywhere, and for their delegates to come together to elect a new government. Some months later, Hryhoryiv was shot by Makhno in the presence of their respective armies, accused of responsibility for anti-Semitic pogroms. Even the pro-communist extreme left of the social democracy took up arms against the “Russian government of occupation.” Whole chunks of the Red Army deserted and joined the insurrection. The elite troops of “Red Cossacks” disintegrated politically, tempted by banditry, plunder and pogroms.[20]

These uprisings opened the way for Denikin and isolated the Hungarian Revolution. From Budapest, a desperate Bela Kun demanded a radical change in Bolshevik policy in Ukraine. The commander of the Red Army’s Ukrainian front, Antonov-Ovseyenko, did the same. Among the Ukrainian Bolsheviks, the “federalist” current, in effective agreement with the ideas of Shakhrai and Borotbism, started factional activity. The Borotbists, protective of their autonomy, although still in alliance with the Bolsheviks, formed the Ukrainian Communist Party (Borotbist) and demanded recognition as a national section of the Comintern. With large influence amongst the poor peasantry and the Ukrainian working class in the countryside and the towns, this party looked toward an independent Soviet Ukraine. They even envisaged armed confrontation with the fraternal Bolshevik party on this question, but only after victory over Denikin and on the other fronts of the civil war, and imperialist intervention.

Both the Hungarian and Bavarian revolutions, deprived of Bolshevik military support, were crushed. The Russian Revolution itself was in mortal danger from Denikin’s offensive.

“One and indivisible” Russia or independence of Ukraine?

It was under these conditions that Trotsky, in the course of a new and decisive turn in the Civil War — as the Red Army went over to the offensive against Denikin — took a political initiative of fundamental importance. On November 30, 1919, in his order to the Red troops as they entered Ukraine, he stated:

The Ukraine is the land of the Ukrainian workers and working peasants. They alone have the right to rule in the Ukraine, to govern it and to build a new life in it…. Keep this firmly in mind: your task is not to conquer the Ukraine but to liberate it. When Denikin’s bands have finally been smashed, the working people of the liberated Ukraine will themselves decide on what terms they are to live with Soviet Russia. We are all sure, and we know, that the working people of the Ukraine will declare for the closest fraternal union with us…. Long live the free and independent Soviet Ukraine![21]

After two years of civil war in Ukraine, this was the first initiative by the Bolshevik regime aimed at drawing the social and political forces of the Ukrainian national revolution — that is, the Ukrainian workers and peasants — into the ranks of the proletarian revolution. Trotsky was also concerned to counteract the increasingly centrifugal dynamic of Ukrainian communism whether inside or outside the Bolshevik party.

Trotsky’s search for a political solution to the Ukrainian national question was supported by Rakovsky, who had become aware of his errors, and closely coordinated with Lenin, who was also now conscious of the disastrous consequences of policies that he had himself often supported, or even promoted. At the Bolshevik Central Committee Lenin called for a vote for a resolution that made it

incumbent on all party members to use every means to help remove all barriers in the way of the free development of the Ukrainian language and culture… suppressed for centuries by Russian Tsarism and the exploiting classes.[22]

The resolution announced that in the future all employees of Soviet institutions in Ukraine would have to be able to express themselves in the national language. But Lenin went much further. In a letter-manifesto addressed to the workers and peasants of Ukraine, he recognized for the first time some basic facts:

We Great Russian Communists [have] differences with the Ukrainian Bolshevik Communists and Borotbists and these differences concern the state independence of the Ukraine, the forms of her alliance with Russia and the national question in general.… There must be no differences over these questions. They will be decided by the All-Ukraine Congress of Soviets.

In the same open letter, Lenin stated for the first time that it was possible to be both a militant of the Bolshevik party and a partisan of complete independence for Ukraine. This was a reply to one of the key questions posed a year earlier by Shakhrai, who was expelled from the party before his assassination by the Whites. Lenin furthermore affirmed:

One of the things distinguishing the Borotbists from the Bolsheviks is that they insist upon the unconditional independence of the Ukraine. The Bolsheviks will not... regard this as an obstacle to concerted proletarian effort.[23]

The effect was spectacular and had a strategic significance. The insurrections of the Ukrainian masses contributed to the defeat of Denikin. In March 1920 the Borotbist Congress decided on the dissolution of the organization and the entry of its militants into the Bolshevik party. The Borotbist leadership took the following position: they would unite with the Bolsheviks to contribute to the international extension of the proletarian revolution. The prospects for an independent Soviet Ukraine would be a lot more promising in the framework of the world revolution than on a pan-Russian level. With great relief Lenin declared:

Instead of a revolt of the Borotbists, which seemed inevitable, we find that, thanks to the correct policy of the Central Committee, which was carried out so splendidly by comrade Rakovsky, all the best elements among the Borotbists have joined our party under our control…. This victory was worth a couple of good tussles.[24]

In 1923 a Communist historian remarked that it was largely under the influence of the Borotbists that Bolshevism underwent the evolution from being “the Russian Communist Party in the Ukraine” to becoming the “Communist Party of the Ukraine.”[25] Even so, it remained a regional organization of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) and did not have the right to be a section of the Comintern.

The fusion of the Borotbists with the Bolsheviks took place just before a new political crisis — the invasion of Ukraine by the Polish bourgeois army accompanied by Ukrainian troops under the command of Petlyura, and the resulting Soviet-Polish war. This time the Great Russian chauvinism of the masses was unleashed on a scale and with an aggression that escaped all restraint by the Bolsheviks.

To the conservative elements in Russia this was a war against a hereditary enemy, with whose re-emergence as an independent nation they could not reconcile themselves — a truly Russian war, although waged by Bolshevik internationalists. To the Greek Orthodox this was a fight against the people incorrigible in its loyalty to Roman Catholicism, a Christian crusade even though led by godless communists.[26]

The masses were moved by the defence of the “one and indivisible” Russia, a mood fanned by propaganda. Izvestia published an almost unbelievably reactionary poem glorifying the Russian state. Its message was that “just as long ago, the Tsar Ivan Kalita gathered in all the lands of Russia, one by one… now all the dialects, and all the lands, all the multinational world will be reunited in a new faith in order to ‘bring their power and their riches to the palaces of the Kremlin’.”[27]

Ukraine was the first victim of the chauvinist explosion. A Ukrainian left Social Democrat, Volodymyr Vynnychenko, who had been the leader of the Central Rada and who had broken with Petlyura’s Directory to negotiate alongside Bela Kun a change in Bolshevik policy in Ukraine, found himself in Moscow at the invitation of the Soviet government at the time when many White officers were responding to the appeal of the former commander in chief of the tsarist army to “defend the Russian motherland” and were joining the Red Army. Georgy Chicherin, at that time commissar of foreign affairs, explained to Vynnychenko that his government could not go to Canossa over the Ukrainian question. In his journal, Vynnychenko writes: “The orientation towards Russian patriotism of the ‘one and indivisible’ variety excludes any concession to the Ukrainians… federation, self-determination or anything else that might upset ‘one and indivisible’ Russia.” Furthermore, under the influence of the Great Russian chauvinist tide that was flowing through the corridors of Soviet power, Chicherin resuscitated the idea that Russia could directly annex the Donbass region of Ukraine.[28] In the Ukrainian countryside, Soviet officials asked the peasants: “Do you want to learn Russian or Petliurist at school? What kind of internationalists are you, if you don’t speak Russian?”

In the face of this Great Russian chauvinist regression, those Borotbists who had become Bolsheviks continued the fight. One of their main leaders, Vasyl Ellan-Blakytny, wrote at the time:

Basing themselves on the ethnic links of the majority of the Ukrainian proletariat with the proletariat, semi-proletariat and petty bourgeoisie of Russia and using the argument of the weakness of the industrial proletariat of Ukraine, a tendency that we describe as colonialist is calling for the construction of an economic system in the framework of the Russian Republic, which is that of the old Empire to which Ukraine belonged. This tendency wants the total subordination of the Communist Party (Bolshevik) of Ukraine to the Russian party and in general envisages the dissolution of all the young proletarian forces of the “nations without history” into the Russian section of the Comintern…. In Ukraine, the natural leading force of such a tendency is a section of the urban and industrial proletariat that has not come to terms with the Ukrainian reality. But beyond that, and above all, it is the Russified urban petty bourgeoisie that was always the principal support for the domination of the Russian bourgeoisie in Ukraine.

And the Bolsheviks of Borotbist origin concluded:

The great power colonialist project that is prevailing today in the Ukraine is profoundly harmful to the communist revolution. In ignoring the natural and legitimate national aspirations of the previously oppressed Ukrainian toiling masses, it is wholly reactionary and counter-revolutionary and is the expression of an old, but still living Great Russian imperialist chauvinism.[29]

Meanwhile the far left of the Social Democrats formed a new party, called the Ukapist party, in order to continue to demand national independence and to take in those elements of the Borotbists who had not joined the Bolsheviks. Coming out of the theoretical tradition of German social democracy, this new party was far stronger at the theoretical level than Borotbism, which had populist origins and where the art of poetry was better understood than the science of political economy. But its links with the masses were weaker.[30] The masses were, in any case, growing increasingly weary of this revolution that was permanent in both a mundane and theoretical sense. Trotsky’s theoretical conception of permanent revolution was not, however, matched in reality by a growing over, but by a permanent split between a national revolution and a social revolution. One of the worst results of this was the inability to achieve a united Ukraine (the demand for sobornist). Lenin’s fatal error in invading Poland exacerbated the Polish national question in an anti-Bolshevik direction and blocked the extension of the revolution. It resulted in a defeat for the Red Army and the cession to the Polish state of more than a fifth of national Ukrainian territory on top of the areas absorbed by Romania and Czechoslovakia.

Every honest historian, and all the more every revolutionary Marxist, must recognize that the promise made by the Bolsheviks during the offensive against Denikin — to convoke a constituent congress of soviets in Ukraine able to take a position on the three options (complete independence, more or less close federal ties with Russia, or complete fusion with the latter) put forward by Lenin in his letter of December 1919, was not kept. According to Trotsky, during the Civil War the Bolshevik leadership considered putting forward a bold project for workers’ democracy to resolve the anarchist question in the region under the control of Makhno’s insurrectional army. Trotsky himself discussed with Lenin more than once the possibility of allotting to the anarchists certain territories where, with the consent of the local population, they would carry out their stateless experiment.[31]

But there is no record of any similar discussions on the vastly more important question of Ukrainian independence.

It was only after bitter struggles led at the end of his life by Lenin himself, as well as by Bolsheviks like Skrypnyk and Rakovsky, by former Borotbists such as Blakytny and Oleksandr Shumsky, and by many of the leading Communists from the various oppressed nationalities of the old Russian empire, that the Twelfth Congress of the Bolshevik party in 1923 formally recognized the existence in the Party and in the Soviet regime of a very dangerous “tendency towards Great Russian imperialist chauvinism.” Although this victory was very partial and fragile, it offered the Ukrainian masses the possibility of accomplishing certain tasks of the national revolution and experiencing an unprecedented national renaissance in the 1920s. But this victory did not prevent the degeneration of the Russian Revolution and a chauvinist and bureaucratic counter-revolution that, in the 1930s, was marked by a national holocaust in Ukraine. Millions of peasants died during a famine provoked by the Stalinist policy of pillaging the country, the national intelligentsia was almost completely physically wiped put, while the Party and state apparatuses of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic were destroyed by police terror. The suicide of Mykola Skrypnyk in 1933, an old Bolshevik who tried to reconcile the national revolution with allegiance to Stalinism, sounded the death knell for that revolution for a whole historical period.

Tragic errors that should not be repeated

The Russian revolution had two contradictory effects on the Ukrainian national revolution. On the one side the Russian Revolution was an essential factor for the overthrow of bourgeois power in Ukraine. On the other, it held back the process of class differentiation amongst the social and political forces of the national revolution. The reason for this was the lack of understanding of the national question. The experience of the 1917-1920 Revolution posed in a dramatic fashion the question of the relations between the social revolution of the proletariat of a dominant nation and a national revolution of the toiling masses of the oppressed nation. As Skrypnyk wrote in July 1920:

Our tragedy in Ukraine is that in order to win the peasantry and the rural proletariat, a population of Ukrainian nationality, we have to rely on the support and on the forces of a Russian or Russified working class that was antagonist towards even the smallest expression of Ukrainian language and culture.[32]

In the same period, the Ukrainian Communist Party (Ukapist) tried to explain to the leadership of the Comintern:

The fact that the leaders of the proletarian revolution in Ukraine draw their support from the Russian and Russified upper layers of the proletariat and know nothing of the dynamic of the Ukrainian revolution, means that they are not obliged to rid themselves of the prejudice of the “one and indivisible” Russia that pervades the whole of Soviet Russia. This attitude has led to the crisis of the Ukrainian revolution, cuts Soviet power off from the masses, aggravates the national struggle, pushes a large section of the workers into the arms of the Ukrainian petty bourgeois nationalists and holds back the differentiation of the proletariat from the petty-bourgeoisie.[33]

Could this tragedy have been prevented? The answer is yes — if the Bolsheviks had had at their disposal an adequate strategy before the outbreak of the revolution. In the first place, if, instead of being a Russian party in Ukraine, they had resolved the question of the construction of a revolutionary party of the proletariat of the oppressed nation. Secondly, if they had integrated the struggle for national liberation of Ukraine into their program. Thirdly, if they had recognized the political necessity and historical legitimacy of the national revolution in Ukraine and of the slogan of Ukrainian independence. Fourthly, if they had educated the Russian proletariat (in Russia and in Ukraine) and the ranks of their own party in the spirit of total support for this slogan, and thereby fought against the chauvinism of the dominant nation and the reactionary ideal of the “gathering together of the Russian lands.” Nothing here would have stood in the way of the Bolsheviks conducting propaganda amongst the Ukraine workers in favour of the closest unity with the Russian proletariat and, during the Revolution, between Soviet Ukraine and Soviet Russia. On the contrary, only under these conditions could such propaganda be politically coherent and effective.

There had been an occasion when Lenin tried to develop such a strategy. This is revealed by his “separatist speech” delivered in October 1914 in Zurich. Then he said:

What Ireland was for England, Ukraine has become for Russia: exploited in the extreme, and getting nothing in return. Thus the interests of the world proletariat in general and the Russian proletariat in particular require that Ukraine regains its state independence, since only this will permit the development of the cultural level that the proletariat needs. Unfortunately some of our comrades have become imperial Russian patriots. We Muscovites are enslaved not only because we allow ourselves to be oppressed, but because our passivity allows others to be oppressed, which is not in our interests.[34]

Later, however, Lenin did not stick to these radical theses. They reappear, however, in the political thinking of pro-independence Ukrainian communism, in Shakhrai, the Bolshevik “federalists,” the Borotbists and the Ukapists.

We should not, however, be surprised that the Bolsheviks had no strategy for the national revolutions of the oppressed peoples of the Russian Empire. The strategic questions of the Revolution were in general the Achilles’ heel of Lenin himself, as is shown by his theory of revolution by stages. As for Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, implicitly adopted by Lenin after the February Revolution, it was only worked out in relation to Russia, an underdeveloped capitalist country and not for the proletariat of the peoples oppressed by Russia, which was also an imperialist state and a prison house of nations. The theoretical bases of the strategy of permanent revolution for the proletariat of an oppressed nation appeared during the revolutionary years amongst the pro-independence currents of Ukrainian communism. The Ukapists were probably the only Communist party — even if they were never recognized as a section by the Comintern — that openly made reference to the theory of permanent revolution.

The basic idea, first outlined by Shakhrai and Mazlakh, then taken up by the Borotbists before being elaborated by the Ukapists, was simple. In the imperialist epoch, capitalism is, of course, marked by the process of the internationalization of the productive forces, but this is only one side of the coin. Torn by its contradictions, the imperialist epoch does not produce one tendency without also producing a counter-tendency. The opposite tendency in this case is that of the nationalization of the productive forces manifested in particular by the formation of new economic organisms, those of the colonial and dependent countries, a tendency which leads to movements of national liberation.

The world proletarian revolution is the effect of only one of the contradictory tendencies of modern capitalism, imperialism, even if it is the dominant effect. The other, inseparable from the first, are the national revolutions of the oppressed peoples. This is why the international revolution is inseparable from a wave of national revolutions and must base itself on these revolutions if it is to spread. The task of the national revolutions of the oppressed peoples is to liberate the development of the productive forces constricted and deformed by imperialism. Such liberation is impossible without the establishment of independent national states ruled by the proletariat. The national workers’ states of the oppressed peoples are an essential resource for the international working class if it is to resolve the contradictions of capitalism and establish workers’ management of the world economy. If the proletariat attempts to build its power on the basis of only one of these two contradictory tendencies in the development of the productive forces, it will be divided against itself.

In a memorandum to the Second Congress of the Communist International in the summer of 1920, the Ukapists summed up their approach in the following terms:

The task of the international proletariat is to draw toward the communist revolution and the construction of a new society not only the advanced capitalist countries but also the backward peoples of the colonies, taking advantage of their national revolutions. To fulfill this task, it must take part in these revolutions and play the leading role in the perspective of the permanent revolution. It is necessary to prevent the national bourgeoisie from limiting the national revolutions at the level of national liberation. It is necessary to continue the straggle through to the seizure of power and the installation of the dictatorship of the proletariat and to lead the bourgeois democratic revolution to the end through the establishment of national states destined to join the international network of the emerging union of Soviet republics.

These states must rest on:

the forces of the national proletariat and toiling masses as well as on the mutual aid of all the detachments of the world revolution.[35]

In the light of the experience of the first proletarian revolution, it is precisely this strategy of permanent revolution that needs to be adopted, to resolve the question of the oppressed nations in the framework of the anti-bureaucratic political revolution in the USSR.

As Mykola Khvylovy, Ukrainian Communist militant and great writer, put it in 1926, Ukraine must be independent

because the iron and irresistible will of the laws of history demands it, because only in this way shall we hasten class differentiation in Ukraine. If any nation (as has already been stated a long time ago and repeated on more than one occasion) over the centuries demonstrates the will to manifest itself, its organism, as a state entity, then all attempts in one way or another to hold back such a natural process block the formation of class forces on the one hand and, on the other, introduce an element of chaos into the general historical process at work in the world.[36]

Further reading: The Historical Background to Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine, by Rohini Hensman.

[1] Writings of Leon Trotsky (1939-40) (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1977), pp. 47-48.

[2] Ibid., p. 53.

[3] Ibid., p. 52.

[4] Ibid., p. 50.

[5] See one of the most important works on the national question, that of the Ukrainian Marxist R. Rosdolsky, Engels and the Nonhistoric Peoples: The National Question in the Revolution of 1848 (Glasgow: Critique Books, 1987).

[6] See two Marxist interpretations of this revolution, both still banned in the USSR because of their radical incompatibility with the Stalinist Great Russian interpretation of history: M. Iavorsky, Narys istorii Ukrainy, vol.2, (Kiev), Derzhavne Vydavnytstvo Ukrainy (1924); and M. I. Braichevsky, Priiednannia chy vozzyednannia? (Toronto: Novi Dni,1972). The latter can be considered as complementary to I. Dzyuba’s famous book Internationalism or Russification? (New York: Monad Press, 1974).

[7] See the study by M. Volobuyev, which appeared in 1928 and was viciously attacked by the Stalinists: “Do problemy Ukrainskoi ekonomiky,” in Dokumenty ukrainskoho komunizmu (New York: Prolog, 1962).

[8] See J. M. Bojcun, The Working Class and the National Question in Ukraine, 1880-1920, Graduate Program in Political Science (Toronto: York University, 1985), pp. 95-118; B. Krawchenko, Social Change and National Consciousness in Twentieth Century Ukraine (London: Macmillan, 1985), pp. 1-45.

[9] On the Marxist debates at the time on the national question, see C. Weil, L’Internationale et l’autre (Paris: L’Arcantere, 1987).

[10] The classic study — although marked by anti-Communist bias — on the establishment of Bolshevik power in the Ukraine is that of J. Borys, The Sovietization of Ukraine, 1917-1923: The Communist Doctrine and Practice of National Self-Determination (Edmonton: CIUS, 1980). See also T. Hunczak, ed., The Ukraine 1917-1921: A Study in Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977). The classic studies on the history of the CP(B) of Ukraine are M. Ravich-Cherkassky, Istoriya kommunisticheskoi party (boov); Ukrainy (Kharkiv: Gosizdat Ukrainy, 1923), and that of M. M. Popov, Narys issorii komunistychnoi partii (Bilshovy-kiv) (Kharkhiv: Proletarii, 1929).

[11] V. Holubnychny, “Mykola Skrypnyk i sprava sobornosty Ukrainy,Vpered, nos. 5-6 (1952): pp. 25-26.

[12] M. M. Popov, op. cit., pp. 139-140, 143-144. The level of tension between the Ukrainian Bolsheviks and the Soviet Russian government can be seen by the following exchange of telegrams from the beginning of April 1918. Stalin, the People’s Commissar for Nationalities to the Skrypnyk government: “Enough playing at a government and a republic. It’s time to drop that game; enough is enough.” Skrypnyk to Moscow: our government “bases its actions, not on the attitude of any commissar of the Russian Federation, but on the will of the toiling masses of the Ukraine.... Declarations like that of Comrade Stalin would destroy the Soviet regime in the Ukraine…. they are direct assistance to the enemies of the Ukrainian toiling masses” (R. A. Medvedev, Let History Judge. The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972], p.16).

[13] V. Skorovstansky (V. Shakhrai), Revolutsiya na Ukraine, (Saratov: Borba, 1919); S. Mazlakh, V. Shakhrai, Do khvyli (New York: Prolog, 1967). For a (not wholly accurate) English translation of the second book, see S. Mazlakh and V. Shakhrai, On the Current Situation in the Ukraine (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1970). Here are some of the questions that these two militants put to Lenin: “Prove to us the necessity of uniting the Ukraine and Russia, but do not use the Katerynoslav arguments: show us where we are mistaken, in what way our analysis of the real conditions of life and development of the Ukrainian movement is incorrect; show us on the basis of this concrete example, how paragraph five of the 1913 resolution, that is, paragraph nine of the Communist Program, should be applied — and we will openly and publicly renounce the independence of the Ukraine and become the sincerest supporters of unification. Using the examples of the Ukraine, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Byelorussia and Estonia, show us how this principle of proletarian policy — the right of nations to self-determination — has been implemented. Because we do not understand your present policy, and examining it, are apt to seize our heads and exclaim: why did we offer our silly Cossack heads?... Now only two answers are possible: either (1) an independent Ukraine (with our own government and our own party), or (2) the Ukraine as Southern Russia.... Can one remain a member of the Russian Communist Party and defend the independence of the Ukraine? If it is not possible, why not? It is because one is not supposed to defend Ukrainian independence, or because the way we do it is not permitted. If the way we defend Ukrainian independence is not permitted, how may one defend Ukrainian independence and be allowed to remain in the Russian Communist Party. Comrade Lenin, we await your answer! Facts have to be reckoned with. And your answers, just as your silence, will be facts of great import.”

[14] See L Majstrenko, Borot’bism: A Chapter in the History of Ukrainian Communism (New York: Research Program on the USSR, 1954).

[15] Ch. Rakovsky, “Beznadezhnoe delo: 0 petliurovskoi avantyure,” Izvestiya, no. 2 (554) (1919). See also F. Conte, Christian Rakovski (1873-1941): Essai de biographie politique, vol. 1 (Lille: Université Lille III, 1975), pp. 287-292.

[16] “Tov. Rakovsky o programme vremennogo ukrainskogo pravitelstva”, Izvestiya, no. 18 (570) (1919).

[17] See A. Sergeev, “Makhno,” Izvestiya, no. 76 (627) (1919).

[18] M. Skrypnyk, Statti i promovy z natsionalnoho pytannia (Munich, Suchasnist, 1974), p. 17.

[19] F. Silnycky, “Lenin i borotbisty”, Novy zhurnal no. 118 (1975) pp. 230-231. Unfortunately the disastrous policy of the Rakovsky government of 1919 is passed over in silence by P. Broué: “Rako,” Cahiers Léon Trotsky, nos. 17 and 18 (1984), and is hardly touched on by G. Fagan in his introduction to Ch. Rakovsky, Selected Writings on Opposition in the USSR, 1923-1930 (London-New York: Allison and Busby, 1980).

[20] See A. E. Adams, Bolsheviks in the Ukraine: The Second Campaign 1918-1919 (New Haven-London: Yale University Press, 1963), and J.M. Bojcun, op. cit., pp. 438-472.

[21] L. Trotsky, How the Revolution Armed, vol. 2 (London: New Park Publications, 1979), p. 439.

[22] V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 30 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), p. 163.

[23] Ibid., pp. 294-296.

[24] Ibid., p. 471.

[25] M. Ravich-Cherkassky, op. cit., p. 148.

[26] I. Deutscher, Trotsky: The Prophet Armed (New York: Vintage Books, 1965), pp. 459-460.

[27] M. Kozyrev, “Bylina o derzhavnoi Moskve,” lzvestiya, no. 185 (1032) (1920).

[28] V. Vynnychenko, Shchodennyk 1911-1920 (Edmonton-New York: CIUS, 1980), pp. 431-432.

[29] Quoted by M. M. Popov, op. cit., pp. 243-245.

[30] On the history of Ukapism and on pro-independence Ukrainian communism in general, the best work is that of J. E. Mace, Communism and the Dilemmas of National Liberation: National Communism in Soviet Ukraine 1918-1933 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983).

[31] Writings of Leon Trotsky (1936-1937) (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1978), pp. 426-427. In the period of Gorbachev’s glasnost, it has been stated that this was not only a subject for discussion but also a formal promise — made in bad faith from the start — by the Bolshevik leadership to Makhno. See the article “rehabilitating” the Makhnovist movement by V. Golovanov: “Batka Makhno ili ‘oboroten’ grazhdanskoi voiny”, Literaturnaya gazeta, no. 6 (1989).

[32] M. Skrypnyk, op. cit., p.11.

[33] Memorandum of the Ukrainian CP in Ukrainska suspilno-politychna dumka v 20 stolitti, vol.1 (New York, Suchasnist, 1983), p. 456.

[34] This speech is not in the Complete Works of Lenin. It was reported by the press at the time. See R. Serbyn, “Lénine et la question ukrainienne en 1914: Le discours ‘séparatiste’ de Zurich,” Pluriel-débat, no. 25 (1981).

[35] Memorandum of the Ukrainian CP, op. cit., pp. 449-450.

[36] M. Khvylovy, The Cultural Renaissance in Ukraine: Polemical Pamphlets, 1925-1926 (Edmonton: CIUS, 1986), p. 227.