by André Parizeau
Samuel J. Walsh, leader of the Quebec Communist Party (PCQ) from 1962 to 1990, died on March 18 at the age of 91. Although he is much less known than many other individuals who shaped the history of the Quebec Communist Party, such as Norman Bethune, Fred Rose, Henri Gagnon, Léa Roback, etc., we owe an equal debt to Samuel J. Walsh.
In more than one respect, he was a pioneer. It was thanks to him that the PCQ achieved full autonomy from the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) pertaining to all matters in relation to Quebec politics.
That in itself was a real achievement since the CPC, with which the PCQ was then associated, was always characterized by a strong tendency toward centralization in terms of its internal life — even if the CPC was the first pan-Canadian party to recognize the right of self-determination for the Quebec nation. This achievement was all the greater in that consciousness on the Quebec question was still very underdeveloped in the rest of English Canada at that time. After all, that was more than 40 years ago.
We should note in passing that the PCQ is no longer linked in any way with the CPC as a result of a series of conflicts that ultimately ended, in the middle of this decade, with a major crisis in the course of which the CPC leadership made a complete mockery of that much talked-about autonomy for which Walsh had fought so strongly.
Samuel J. Walsh was also one of those primarily responsible for the fact that the PCQ ultimately threw its support to the YES campaign in the very first referendum on Quebec sovereignty in 1980. That was not an easy thing to do, judging by the testimony of those who lived through the debates preceding that decision. It was at the same time the first major test of compliance with the principles of autonomy that the PCQ had recently obtained for itself.
In English Canada, the CPC was inclined to oppose the idea of supporting the YES. Its argument — one frequently used in the years afterwards — was that the proposed sovereignty of Quebec would undermine the unity of the workers across Canada and that this would ultimately undermine as well the struggle for socialism both in Quebec and elsewhere in the country.
Complicating things with the fact that the then Canadian prime minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, was seen by the Soviet big brother as a leader who was more openly receptive to the principles of international détente and therefore less inclined to engage in escalation of the Cold War.
Walsh, for his part, was categorically opposed to the idea of supporting the NO and thought as well that the annulment slogan (advanced by most of the Maoist organizations at that time) was not acceptable, either.
Walsh, and the PCQ under his leadership, were also at the heart of a very important debate in the late 60s and early 70s. It involved the issue of whether or not all the left-wing political forces in Quebec should be united so as to create a new mass party. This proposal was based on two observations.
On the one hand, the dispersion and sectarianism of the various left-wing forces, a situation that characterized many of those forces at the time, was leading nowhere. On the other hand, and as a consequence of the ferment then existing within the trade unions, there was at the same time a very clear openness within these organizations to themselves making the leap into the political arena. In the CSN, there was talk of the need to open a second front, while in the FTQ they were talking openly of the opportunity to create a workers party instead of focusing on support to the Parti québécois.
Once again, Walsh was a precursor. The PCQ’s (and Walsh’s) idea of a “federated mass party of the workers” was never to be achieved. No doubt the conditions to achieve such unity had not yet been assembled. Many people, especially in the unions, ultimately decided instead to join the Parti québécois. It must be said that in the early 70s the PQ had the wind in its sails and had not yet been tested. On the far left, most militants tended instead to steer clear of the PQ project, calling it opportunistic and a dead-end solution.
Another major reason why the PCQ proposal could not succeed lay in the fact that the party insisted on making the official support of the unions an essential condition to its realization although the unions were not really ready — and are still not — to associate formally and organically in a political party. This raised the barrier too high.
Forty years later, when the left unity process is now going very well, especially with the presence of Québec solidaire, we can only pay homage all those such as Samuel J. Walsh who fought against all odds and in often difficult circumstances, but always to the best of their capabilities, to make such a project a reality.
Samuel J. Walsh was born of Jewish parents in 1916 in Montréal. For some years he had no longer been politically active owing to major health problems. Those who participated in the 13th convention of the PCQ in 1999, which in some ways marked a renaissance for us, will remember his presence; although already in shaky health, he gladly accepted our invitation to participate in a short homage in his honor.
His journey is and shall remain like that taken by thousands of other militants, men and women whose lives, and their own desire to become involved and to fight for change, remain intimately linked to our own history.
The author is leader of the Parti communiste du Québec (PCQ), a recognized collective within Québec solidaire.
Source: This article was translated from the original French, at http://www.pcq.qc.ca/Dossiers/PCQ/Histoire/SamuelWalsh.htm
For a different view of Sam Walsh’s approach to the Quebec national question, in 1972, see http://www.socialisthistory.ca/Docs/1961-/Quebec/CP-Debate-1972.htm
Sam Walsh was also the brother of Bill Walsh (1910-2004), a former activist in the Canadian CP and long-time trade-union leader and union consultant, and the subject of a fine biography by Cy Gonick: A Very Red Life: The Story of Bill Walsh (St. John’s: Canadian Committee on Labour History, 2001).