Remembering Gagnon


Gore Vidal has said “history is Tuesday.” His acerbic witticism was directed at the infamously blank historical consciousness of the people of his country, which he dubbed the “United States of Amnesia.” Still it is so much easier to recognize than to remedy an absence of historical consciousness. The transmission from past to present of the experiences of peoples’ struggles for a different world – in ways that are of practical use – is no simple task. Charles Gagnon undertook that task, and in this article we act simply as facilitators.

Charles Gagnon was the fourteenth child in a poor, farming family living in Bic, a small village on the Gaspe peninsula of Quebec. He was born March 21st, 1939. In the subsequent decades, he became an important contributor to the revolutionary struggle for a different Quebec and a different Canada. Charles Gagnon died November 17, 2005. On March 25, 2006 over 300 people gathered in Montreal to pay homage to his contributions. The evening was an harmonious blend of readings, poems, film clips, photo-montage, live music and personal reminiscence. One reading was by Charles Gagnon himself, excerpts from an early book, in the form of a public letter to his father, recorded on film. Another reading was from Charles Gagnon’s last published essay, addressed to Quebec youth. Most readings were excerpts from interviews with Charles in the last weeks of his life, where he reflected on his political journey.


Personal Memories

There is an unusual experience, startling and yet strangely comforting. It’s when a dear friend who has died appears before you, not in a dream but in daylight, not imagined but real.

I was at a recent film festival, one featuring documentaries of struggles in the global south, watching a film about the Mexican teachers. Suddenly in a scene of teachers meeting together I saw Charles in the face of one of the Mexicans. Exuding warmth, gentleness, attentively listening, not speaking except with the twinkle in his eyes. It was mere seconds, and Charles disappeared never to return in the remainder of the film.

I knew of Charles before I ever saw him. He was an “image” in those days when so many of us drew our optimism from the rising wave of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles around the globe. In remote Vancouver I situated Charles in that context of heroic liberation struggles. I initiated a Vallieres-Gagnon political prisoner committee working to gain popular support for their freedom.

On a few trips to Montreal, where Lise Waltzer was as caring a host as anyone could want, I saw Charles in the court room many months before I ever met him. It was in that brief interlude between his FLQ imprisonment and his War Measures Act imprisonment that we first spent time together. Charles came to speak in Vancouver, and stayed with my wife and I and our two very young children, whose well being he always asked after even in his last days, 35 years later. Beginning in 1970 and through all the subsequent years of friendship and joint endeavors, Charles provided me with a deeper understanding of courage and character than I had drawn from the heroic “image” that first drew me to him.

An English playwright and radical activist, Harold Pinter, was awarded the 2005 Nobel Prize for literature. In his acceptance speech Pinter spoke of the pursuit of truth through dramatic art, which remains “forever elusive,” indeed creating multiple and contradictory truths. Pinter contrasted this with the necessity for a citizen to define the “real truth of our lives and our societies.” He argued, if a “fierce intellectual determination” to identify this real truth “is not embodied in our political vision we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us: the dignity of man.” In support of Pinter’s view, I would add: without such political vision our voices are muffled – when they need to be heard clearly; our passions are stilled – when they need to be vibrant; our motion is frozen – when it needs to be focused; and our capacities to change the world are crippled – when they need to be enhanced. For me the courage of Charles was just that: his fierce determination to embody in a political vision the truth of our lives and our societies, for the purpose of securing the human dignity of people everywhere. And his courage, that neither needed nor wanted any bravado, encompassed the willingness to evaluate his own political vision no less critically than the political vision of others.

In one of my last conversations with Charles, here in Montreal at Notre Dame hospital, he commented with surprise at the warmth of some comrades who had been visiting with him, warmth he had not noticed in them earlier. Perhaps it was Charles who had missed observing these qualities before. Perhaps… but maybe it was the activism, the certainties that had suppressed those qualities in bygone years. Yet, and this speaks to Charles’ character, who could have failed to recognize his gentleness, his warmth, as much in his days of intense political activism as in his days of dying!

So listening, as we are this evening, to words that embody the courageous, fierce determination of Charles’ pursuit of political vision, let us simultaneously enhance our own humanity by remembering Charles’ kindness, his attentiveness to and caring for others, and the simple naturalness with which he conveyed respect to those who were fortunate enough to have encountered him. And remember too that bright twinkle of laughter in his eyes.

 

The Political Journey: Raymond Legault interviewed by Mordecai Briemberg

 

Raymond Legault, a comrade and long-time friend of Charles Gagnon, was one of the co-chairs of the memorial evening. He joined me on the phone from Montreal to discuss the political journey and legacy of Charles Gagnon.

 

 

In 1964 Charles was one of the founders of a new journal called “Quebec Revolution” and a short time later became a member of the F-L-Q, the Quebec Liberation Front. Could you sketch the character of the F-L-Q and Charles involvement with it?

 

The FLQ was a nationalist and revolutionary organization, a Quebec-based organization of the mid- and late-1960s. I guess you could say it was our small, local component of a much broader national liberation movement around the world in the 50s and 60s.

 

It basically advocated Quebec independence from what could be summarized as British-Anglo colonialism. It also advocated on behalf of workers’ rights against big capital, but this aspect was less prominent than independence. The FLQ was known for some writing and also a few bombings, but most notoriously for two kidnappings, that of Richard Cross, a British diplomat, and of Pierre Laporte, who was then Quebec Minister of Labour. Charles was a leader of the FLQ and was identified with Pierre Vallieres as one of the two main ideologues of the movement.

 

 

He was imprisoned, was he not, for his involvement with the FLQ?

 

He was actually imprisoned a few times. He was imprisoned in New York when he and Vallieres protested at the UN calling for political prisoner status for FLQ detainees in Quebec. But he was jailed in Quebec for over two and one-half years in two segments for his FLQ activity and also after the October crisis in 1970.

 

 

What led Charles to turn away from the FLQ and propose instead the formation of a revolutionary workers’ party?

 

I guess it was the main contradiction within the FLQ: on the one hand, some people stressed much more the national liberation aspects and some people, including Charles, put much more emphasis on the social and economic contradictions, the fundamental opposition to capitalism and imperialism, and denouncing both foreign and home-grown capital. This group of people also a definite interest in organizing a structured movement, a structured party, to overthrow our capitalist system, as opposed to relying on the spontaneity of loosely connected cells. You could also say they were gradually moving from a Quebec-centered approach to a more Canadian framework for the overall struggle to overthrow Canadian capitalism.

 

In Struggle, however, was never a party. It always considered itself as an organization that was struggling to bring about the conditions for a party that would have broad-based, working class support.

 

 

So within that organization that you mentioned, In Struggle, (which in French was known as En Lutte, and which went by both names because it was an organization across Canada) Charles was important both in founding and leading it through the 70s and into the early 80s. In 1982 that organization dissolved itself. Looking back retrospectively, how did Charles understand the failings of that endeavor to form a revolutionary workers party?

 

There were many contradictions at play within the organization, which was recognized by Charles. One of the contradictions was the little recruitment that the organization had managed to operate within the working class. Other contradictions included the connection between capitalism and patriarchy as major dominant systems of oppression, including contradictions with women’s situation within the organization. However he was, I would say, deeply preoccupied with other short-comings of the organization which many activists did not necessarily see as he did. One of them is actually the fact that our own activism had prevented us from serious reflection on the question of revisionism. He was struck by and indeed waged a struggle within the organization on the blatant contradiction in our own ways of looking at the world: when it came to analyzing capitalism, looking at it fundamentally through its economic basis, and when it came to the short comings of the struggle for socialism in the USSR and other countries, looking at it only at the level of ideas and the abandonment of certain ideas and certain principles – as opposed to trying to understand the fundamental forces that were at play in the changes in those societies. So that was one of his major concerns. The other was humanism – the relation between Marxism and humanism – and an assessment of all the developments in science and in capitalism itself and how humanism could be updated through all of this and become a fundamental aspect of charting a course to advance the people’s interest.

 

 

After 1982 with the dissolution of the project of In Struggle where did Charles focus his intellectual energies?

 

Just before answering your question on this, it’s quite important to note that these were extremely difficult times for Charles Gagnon. After some decades of charting the course and leading two very different revolutionary organizations, the FLQ and then In Struggle, a deep sense of being abandoned, and possibly of personal failure to some extent, was quite present in his life. However, he did remain very active intellectually. He lived for two and a half years in Mexico and did some investigation into the Asian production mode in pre-capitalist societies. Then he came back to Quebec and wrote a doctorate thesis on the American new left. Then he started a major investigation which continued through to the end of his life, which he titled the “Crisis in Humanism”, on which he was still working when he died. Actually a number of those later writings will soon be published as part of an anthology of his work.

 

 

We have focused a bit on the changes in Charles thinking. What would you identify as continuities in his perspective?

 

Well, a very persistent, constant search for a deep understanding of our world, of the lives that we’re living in this world, and what is the fundamental course of human society presently. And a commitment to find through this analysis a way forward in the interest of people, of their well-being, of opposing the destruction and despair and the dehumanizing character of capitalism and eventually defeating it. I’d say that’s the theme contribution that he’s steadily working at, and making important contributions to, I’d say.

 

 

There certainly was a mood of warm affection for Charles, as a person, at the memorial evening, which I was very glad to have been a part of. What were his individual qualities that you think elicited this emotion?

 

To most activists Charles was not someone that they would be in contact with daily because of the way In Struggle, our organization, was shaped and set. So most people saw him as the leader of In Struggle, someone who definitely provided inspiration and orientation for their daily activist activities. But many people also had the chance of knowing Charles and testified as to his very noticeable warmth and kindness as a human being, his modesty – which was extremely striking – and the fact that he was really not judgmental: he saw all his comrades as human beings, as struggling in the context of this capitalist society, and was very, very open to discussion about everything. One comrade who had the chance to live with Charles for a couple of years, who was a rank and file member of In Struggle and had no particular leadership role in the organization, told me at the commemoration that whenever he spoke with Charles, he had the sense that he was the only person in the world and that all Charles’ attention was focused on him. And whenever people had differences of opinion with Charles, political opinions, he was always extremely open to hear their opinions, to think about them. And you could actually sense that. There weren’t instant replies to whatever someone would tell him. He was thinking about what he had heard and was making his responses – I would say – in a measured way, always very respectfully.

 

 

His last published essay was addressed to youth. And one of the co-chairs of the memorial evening, along with you, was a young, anarchist-activist woman who only came to know Charles in the last five years. Why do you think Charles political journey ends with an address to youth?

 

I think he wanted very much to maintain a continuity between the past revolutionary struggles within Quebec and Canada, and what is going on presently. This ‘Tale for the youth of my country’, which is sort of a sub-title, is trying to present the FLQ and In Struggle, in a way, as youth movements, that these were young people, that they were like young people today. They were rebellious, they were energetic, wanted to challenge many things in the world, and that they did try to do this in persistent ways. It sort of depersonalizes that experience quite a lot and brings it to its general character. Charles also was of the opinion that changing the world was something that was predominantly resting on young peoples shoulders. And he ends his essay with that, saying that he has much more confidence in their ability to understand the world and challenge it than in some university intellectuals’ convoluted ways of trying to present the complexity of our world.

 

 

Raymond Legault currently is active in the anti-war coalition in Montreal, Echec a la Guerre, and in Iraq solidarity work with Voices of Conscience/ Objection de conscience

 

Mordecai Briemberg is active in the Stopwar.ca coalition in Vancouver and in Palestine solidarity work and in radio programming.

 

The entire tribute to Charles Gagnon can be found here: http://www.socialistproject.ca/relay/relay14.pdf

 

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