Nationalism, African-American and Quebecois

LeoCasey at LeoCasey at
Sat Oct 21 19:11:32 MDT 1995

Two different threads have raised the problematic of nationalism in different
ways, and I would like to respond to them in order.

There is a way in which Doug is absolutely correct that, in the abstract, the
notion that African-Americans constitute an opppressed nation is not a very
helpful analysis of their status, nor a very useful prescription for the
alleviation of their oppression. What Doug ignores, however, is the
historical context in which this nationalist analysis took root within the
Marxist tradition. Pre-World War II Marxism in general and Marxist-Leninism
in particular had an extremely limited repertoire of concepts for
understanding non-class contradictions, with the category of nation being the
primary, if not the sole, non-class analytical concept; moreover,
Marxism-Leninism has never been known for its theoretical innovations, so
virtually all social phenomena were squeezed, one way or another, into the
existing repertoire. Further, the struggle against the oppression of other
African peoples and peoples of African descent, in Africa and in the
Caribbean, was indeed an anti-imperialist struggle against national
oppression, and Pan-Africanism was influential in the Americas, adding to
tendency to see African-American oppression through a nationalist lens. Thus,
insofar as the oppression of African-Americans was to be understood as
something more than and different from a general class exploitation,  there
was little option but to conceptualize it as national oppression. The problem
was once this logic was carried through to its logical conclusion, you end up
with the lunancy of the 'black belt' nation thesis.

Now, while Doug and I would agree that nationalism is not a vey useful
analytical frame for understanding African-American oppression, I think we
would have significant differences on the conclusion we would draw from that
premise. If I do not read him incorrectly, I think that he would return to a
basically Debsian socialist view which subsumes African-American oppression
within a general class exploitation. By contrast, I would like to expand the
repertoire of analytical concepts so that we could understand race as a
distinct social form not reducible to class or to nationality. I believe that
the work of Omi and Winannt, Cornel West, Paul Gilroy and others, making use
of discourse theory, are significant contributions in this respect.

Although I find myself siding with Jerry more often than not, I think he is
historically dated and somewhat limited in his analysis of Quebecois
nationalism, and that Valerie, as a person on the scene is much closer to the
mark. I lived for close to six years in Toronto while in graduate school, and
one really has to live in Canada, I think, to obtain a good grasp of how the
American news media filters and restricts our knowledge of Canada's political
development. The 'quiet revolution' and then the late 1960s and early 1970s
did see the development of a modern, left-wing Quebecois nationalism,
distinct from the traditional, clerical and right wing nationalism of the
Union Nationale. (I think Valerie is mixing apples and oranges when she
paints an unbroken line of continuity from the traditional nationalism to its
contemporary forms). Even during the first 1980 referendum for sovereignty,
the Quebecois nationalism of the Parti Quebecois under Rene Levesque had a
soft social-democratic cast. But since the death of Levesque and the rise of
Parizeau, Quebecois nationalism has taken a decided turn to the right. Under
the PQ of Parizeau the rights of national and ethnic minorities, especially
the aboriginal peoples, are under serious attack, unparalleled throughout
Canada -- even in the Western provinces under the control of right wing
populist regimes. The PQ has continually fought enshrining minority rights
and women's rights in the Canadian constitution. There is little question but
that an independent Quebec under Parizeau would have an economic strategy of
rapid, complete integration into American capitalism. The Canadian left of
all stripes, once generally principled defenders of Quebec
self-determination, have thrown their hands up in disgust.

Quebec independence would also have two deleterious consequences. First,
there is little doubt that reaction in the rest of Canada would be end
bilingualism and to strip the Francophone Canadians, a substantial national
minority in the rest of the country, of their rights. Secondly, Canadian
disintegration (and possibly assimilation into the United States) would
almost certainly ensue, even if not in the short term. As a supporter of
Canadian national independence (and a critical supporter of Canadian
nationalism -- it can get silly at times), I do not see this as a positive
development. Given the relative size and power of the two countries, such a
development would mean the disappearance of a distinctive Canadian national
culture and of the social democratic tradition within Canada.

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