On Self-Determination

By Diemer, Ulli | Canadian Dimension, December-January 1994 | Go to article overview

On Self-Determination


Diemer, Ulli, Canadian Dimension


CD was absolutely right, in its October/November editorial, to say that the Left needs to do some hard thinking about self-determination.

A good place to start would be to ask whether that familiar canon of the Left, 'the right to self-determination,' actually means anythin, or whether it is another empty slogan whose main utility is that the Left can repeat it like a mantra and so save itself the trouble of thinking critically.

The traditional Leftist position was well represented by Leo Panitch's response to CD's editorial. Panitch's position boils down to three points: that we should suport Quebec's right to self-determination; that the only acceptable way for Quebec to exercise its right to self-determination is to secede and set up an independent nation-state; and that the role of the English-Canadian Left is to support Quebec independence and not ask embarrassing questions.

Panitch's position, broadly held on the Left, will appeal to those who like simple answers to complicated questions. What he is really saying is that the Left has nothing to contribute to the debate.

Where's the analysis?

There isn't the faintest trace of a socialist analysis here, nothing with which purveyors of the neoconservative corporate agenda like the union-busting Jacques Parizeau or former Mulroney hatchet-man Lucien Bouchard would disagree. 'Self-determination' is apparently exempt from class analysis, and evidently has nothing to do with changing who wields economic and political power, nothing to do with democratization, nothing to do with the struggle for socialism.

What Panitch and his co-thinkers mean by self-determination is one thing only: secession. What they are saying to Quebec is: "You have the right to leave. Hurry up and go."

Is it not conceivable that if "the right to self-determination gets exercised through a referendum," Quebecers might very well vote to remain in Canada? Does Quebec maybe have the right not to secede? Apparently not. Panitch insists that English Canadian Leftists must unequivocally advocate an independent Quebec, even though he must be well aware that a majority of Quebecers don't want an independent Quebec.

The fact that opinion polls in Quebec show 30 per cent support for independence is as irrelevant to these defenders of self-determination as the inconvenient fact that Quebecers already exercised their right to self-determination in the 1980 referendum.

If self-determination for Quebec means secession from Canada even if a majority of Quebecers oppose it, for Native peoples, secession from Quebec is deemed unacceptable regardless of what Native peoples themselves may want. Denying that the Cree of Northern Quebec have a right to choose to remain part of Canada in the event that Quebec secedes, Panitch dismisses the wishes of Native peoples by portraying them as dupes of federalists. For good measure, he wants us to keep quiet about the fact that some Quebec nationalists are racist in their attitudes to Native people, though he undoubtedly expects us to denounce racism anywhere else in Canada and indeed anywhere else in the world.

mindless cheerleading

The right to self-determination as promulgated by Panitch and much of the Left is in fact nothing more than mindless cheerleading for bourgeois nationalism. By contrast, socialists like Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg argued that it was necessary to analyze the political, economic, and class content of nationalist movements on their individual merits, and support them only if they were progressive.

The kind of serious political analysis advocated by Marx and Luxemburg -- perhaps because it requires intellectual effort -- has become decidedly unpopular on the Left, to be replaced by an uncritical acceptance of bourgeois concepts of nationality and the nation-state, devoid of class or socialist content.

The accepted dogma now seems to be that each nationality and each ethnic and language group needs, and is entitled to, its own nation-state. …

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