Gore Vidal has said â€œhistory is Tuesday.â€ His acerbic witticism was directed at the infamously blank historical consciousness of the people of his country, which he dubbed the â€œUnited States of Amnesia.â€ 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 peoplesâ€™ struggles for a different world â€“ in ways that are of practical use â€“ 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
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
On a few trips to
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
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
In 1964 Charles was one of the founders of a new journal called â€œ
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
He was imprisoned, was he not, for his involvement with the FLQ?
He was actually imprisoned a few times. He was imprisoned in
What led Charles to turn away from the FLQ and propose instead the formation of a revolutionary workersâ€™ 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
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 womenâ€™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 â€“ 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 â€“ the relation between Marxism and humanism â€“ 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 peopleâ€™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, itâ€™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
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 weâ€™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. Iâ€™d say thatâ€™s the theme contribution that heâ€™s steadily working at, and making important contributions to, Iâ€™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 â€“ which was extremely striking â€“ 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 Charlesâ€™ 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 werenâ€™t instant replies to whatever someone would tell him. He was thinking about what he had heard and was making his responses â€“ I would say â€“ 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
Raymond Legault currently is active in the anti-war coalition in
Mordecai Briemberg is active in the Stopwar.ca coalition in
The entire tribute to Charles Gagnon can be found here: http://www.socialistproject.ca/relay/relay14.pdf