Here we publish the fifth and final part of our series on the Rebellions of 1837-1838. This section explains the failure of the movement and places it in its historical context as a part of the revolutionary history of North America.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 

Lack of leadership

The Patriots and the reformers had enormous support among the population of the two provinces, particularly in Lower Canada. So how was it that they were unable to carry out their program, as well as the revolution?

It is clear that the balance of forces was unfavorable in the Canadian provinces. The movements in Upper and Lower Canada were faced with a Great Britain that was armed to the teeth, at its height as a world power and therefore capable of concentrating its forces of repression against the provinces. Also, in contrast to the American revolution, which was able to count on aid from France, the Canadian provinces were left completely on their own. But these exterior factors alone cannot explain the defeat.

There is no doubt that the leadership of the movement in the two provinces was severely lacking. In a revolution, good leadership is necessary and quite often can make the difference between victory and defeat. At crucial moments in history, the victory or defeat of a movement can rest on the shoulders of a few, or even one individual.

In Upper Canada, the betrayal of the leadership destroyed the revolution. The fact that Rolph prematurely began the insurrection only to meet the reformers as a representative of Bond Head and then flee is the most fatal example of this. MacKenzie himself stated:

Influential people who promised to join our ranks and even the members of our executive committee who our premature and unfortunate action did not come to meet us and did not even communicate with us. I was incapable of of explaining their conduct which discouraged many and emptied our ranks.

In Lower Canada, the leadership of the Patriots was radicalized over the years, but they never prepared their supporters for an armed conflict with the colonial authority and even when this happened, the Patriot troops were on the defensive, without any preparation. Papineau himself stated two years later that: “I challenge the British government to contradict me when I say that none of us had prepared, intended or planned for an armed resistance.” The battle at Saint-Denis proved that the Patriots could defeat the British forces. If they had been prepared in advance by a leadership that understood the necessity of an armed uprising, the Patriots could have, without a doubt, installed a new republican government in Lower Canada, like that of their neighbours to the south. The impact on Upper Canada would have been immense: the entire situation would have been completely transformed.

Lord Durham, the man in charge of investigating the events of 1837-1838 in Lower Canada, said himself of the Rebellions that “The movement could have succeeded, even without the help of the United States, if the French-Canadians had been better prepared and if they had better leaders.” It must be underlined that the right-wing of the movement contributed to the Patriots being paralyzed.

The British troops, on the other hand, were duly prepared to crush the uprising. Having learned from its defeat at the hands of the Americans 60 years earlier, the Crown knew that it must nip the rebellion in the bud, before the Patriots had time to realize the necessity of an organized revolutionary uprising. Lord Durham himself confirms that the rebellion in Lower Canada had been “precipitated by the British, who had an instinctive sense of the danger of allowing more time for Canadians to prepare.” Thus, without political and military preparation and faced with a more powerful enemy, the Patriot troops were doomed  to defeat. However, it could have been otherwise, had the leadership prepared its innumerable supporters for a real insurrection.

Therefore, the petty-bourgeois leadership of the movement led the movement to defeat. The liberal petty bourgeoisie, ardently sympathetic with the inhabitants and the proletariat, but confused as to the political program and the methods of struggle, rendered the revolutionary movement powerless due to their hesitations. The confusion was evident, particularly in Lower Canada, on the question of the abolition of seigniorial rights, which was not even included in the Patriots’ program. It was not until the Declaration of Independence in February 1838 that the question would be dealt with adequately, by demanding the abolition of these rights. Until then, the Patriots had an ambiguous position on the issue, which showed that the leadership had a quite narrow vision of the struggle that was taking shape, and basically, that the latter did not wish to profoundly change society.

The “weak repercussion” of the American revolution

There is no doubt that political leadership was lacking in the Canadian bourgeois revolution, but this explanation of the defeat is insufficient. We must be able to understand why the Canadian revolution was left with a reactionary bourgeoisie and such a frightened petty bourgeoisie, which was unable, or even unwilling, to rouse the people against the Crown. The analysis of European bourgeois revolutions before and after the rebellions will allow us to have a better understanding of the revolutionary process on the continent.

The bourgeois revolutions in England and France, especially the latter, are two classic bourgeois revolutions. As Marx explained in his articles on the Revolution of March 1848 in Prussia:

The revolutions of 1648 and 1789 were not English and French revolutions, they were revolutions in the European fashion. They did not represent the victory of a particular social class over the old political system; they proclaimed the political system of the new European society. The bourgeoisie was victorious in these revolutions, but the victory of the bourgeoisie was at that time the victory of a new social order, the victory of bourgeois ownership over feudal ownership, of nationality over provincialism, of competition over the guild, of partitioning [of the land] over primogeniture, of the rule of the landowner over the domination of the owner by the land, of enlightenment over superstition, of the family over the family name, of industry over heroic idleness, of bourgeois law over medieval privileges. The revolution of 1648 was the victory of the seventeenth century over the sixteenth century; the revolution of 1789 was the victory of the eighteenth century over the seventeenth. These revolutions reflected the needs of the world at that time rather than the needs of those parts of the world where they occurred, that is, England and France.

On the great French Revolution, Trotsky wrote:

In the heroic period of French history we saw a bourgeoisie, enlightened, active, as yet not aware of the contradictions of its own position, upon whom history had imposed the task of leadership in the struggle for a new order, not only against the outworn institutions of France but also against the reactionary forces of the whole of Europe.

What enabled the bourgeoisie to be victorious in the French Revolution? It was precisely the fact that the bourgeoisie was not conscious of the contradictions implied by their position, or rather that the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat and other oppressed strata of the nation had not developed. Marx says, on the subject of the English and French bourgeois revolutions:

In both revolutions the bourgeoisie was the class that really headed the movement. The proletariat and the non-bourgeois strata of the middle class had either not yet evolved interests which were different from those of the bourgeoisie or they did not yet constitute independent classes or class divisions.

Trotsky elaborated:

The bourgeoisie, consistently, in all its factions, regarded itself as the leader of the nation, rallied the masses to the struggle, gave them slogans and dictated their fighting tactics. Democracy bound the nation together with a political ideology. The people – urban petty-bourgeois, peasants and workers – elected bourgeois as their deputies, and the instructions given these deputies by their constituents were written in the language of a bourgeoisie coming to awareness of its messianic mission.

However, analyzing the revolutions of 1848, Trotsky stated that “The year 1848 already differs tremendously from 1789. In comparison with the Great Revolution, the Prussian and Austrian Revolutions surprise one with their insignificant sweep. In one way they took place too early and in another too late.” What does this mean?

History shows us that when bourgeois revolutions arise, the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat has already reached a certain degree of development and the bourgeoisie become frightened, see democratic concessions as a threat to its power and therefore goes over to the side of the reaction. It is sometimes hostile to monarchies and other remnants of the past, but is even more hostile to the proletariat, which is beginning to establish itself as a class with independent interests.

This is why we see the alliances in several countries between the capitalists and the remnants of feudal, monarchical, colonial or semi-colonial regimes, etc., alliances designed to subdue the bourgeois revolution. In some cases, the interpenetration of capitalist and feudal interests renders the bourgeois and the feudalists almost inseparable. The bourgeoisie therefore becomes reactionary even before having  secured the conditions for its own political domination. That is why we say that they arrived too late on the scene of history.

Thus the revolution of 1848 came too late in the sense that the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat had already developed sufficiently to throw the bourgeoisie into the camp of reaction. In its “own” revolution, in 1848, the bourgeoisie preferred to maintain the monarchy rather than overthrow it. It preferred to share power with the supporters of the monarchy rather than risk rousing the proletariat and a movement that could go beyond the strictly bourgeois objectives (Republicanism, agrarian reform, etc.).

The bourgeoisie was no longer “the leader of the nation”, but turned against the nation. The revolution of 1848, on the scale of history, arrived too late to succeed in the manner of 1789.

In this context, the tasks of the bourgeois revolution, namely agrarian reform, the establishment of bourgeois democracy and the creation of a unified nation free from national oppression, are the tasks of the proletariat, which has become the only progressive class under capitalism.

But in this sense, the revolutions of 1848 arrived too early, for the proletariat had not yet had time to form its own organizations, to separate itself completely from the bourgeoisie, and to gain the experience of struggle and cohesion necessary for the overthrow of the established order.

What does this tell us about the revolutionary process in North America?
The “classical” bourgeois revolution on the continent was the American Revolution of 1776. For the first time in the history of the Americas, a colony liberated itself from its colonial oppressor. The American Revolution changed the course of human history.
The nascent American bourgeoisie was able to unite the nation behind it in order to overthrow the regime of colonial oppression. Like the French Revolution, the American Revolution succeeded because the antagonism was not sufficiently developed between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat and other oppressed layers. Unsurprisingly, the class contradictions in American society quickly surfaced, notably with Shay’s Rebellion in 1787 which was brutally crushed by the new regime.
What about 1837-1838? Stanley B. Ryerson, a well-known Canadian Marxist historian, said that the failure of the bourgeois-democratic revolution of 1837-1838 “resides in the insufficient development of industrial capitalism in the colony … and consequently the absence of an organized working class … Thus, the situation was not yet ripe for a democratic bourgeois revolution.”

This analysis is fundamentally flawed. In reality, the conditions described by Ryerson were not present at the time of the English Revolution of 1648, nor the American Revolution of 1776, nor the French Revolution of 1789. The bourgeoisie was able to carry out these revolutions precisely because the development of capitalism was in its early stages and the working class constituted a small minority, a simple embryo without independent class interests. This enabled the bourgeoisie to speak “in the name of the nation.”
Rather than creating conditions for a victorious bourgeois revolution, the development of an organized working class, as Ryerson described it, is the prelude to a victorious proletarian revolution. The more the working class develops, the more reactionary the bourgeoisie becomes, particularly in colonial and semi colonial countries. Therefore, the role of the proletariat becomes more important.
The American Revolution of 1776 was not able to spread to what Canada was at the time. As the Canadian provinces remained under British colonial domination, the contradictions of the colonial regime, as explained above, began to develop and create the conditions for a revolutionary regime change during the 1830s.
But in 1837-1838 the Canadian bourgeoisie was already reactionary. The part of the bourgeoisie that supported the demands of the movements quickly disassociated itself from them when it became clear that a mass movement was needed for the overthrow of the established order. The bourgeoisie already had a greater fear of the revolution than it had contempt for colonial oppression. It preferred to ally with the Crown and share power, rather than overthrow it.
The class contradictions between the bourgeoisie and the small Canadian proletariat and other oppressed strata, farmers, habitants and others, were sufficiently developed for the bourgeoisie to stand on the side of reaction. However, the proletariat was not sufficiently developed, not organized or sufficiently conscious, to take the lead. Thus the petty bourgeoisie took the lead role.
But the petty bourgeoisie of Canada, due to its intermediary position, vacillated. This behavior is characteristic of this class. The petty-bourgeois revolutionaries in Canada wanted a republic, modeled on America, but were hesitant about the idea of a real revolution. They wanted the result of the class struggle, without the struggle itself. They wanted a baby without going through the painful process of childbirth.

Marx, speaking about the Prussian Revolution of 1848, said that “Far from being a European revolution it was merely a weak repercussion of a European revolution in a backward country. Instead of being ahead of its century, it was over half a century behind its time.” In Canada, the rebellions were only a “weak repercussion,” sixty years after the American Revolution. Compared with 1776, the rebellions too, are “surprising in their insignificance.” The class contradictions of society have developed to the point where the bourgeoisie is comfortable enough in an alliance with the British colonial authorities to turn against the revolution. The Canadian petty bourgeoisie for its part, no longer wanted the colonial system and denounced its “abuses,” but did not want to carry the revolution to its conclusion.

It can therefore be said that 1848 is to 1789 in Europe, as 1837-1838 is to 1776 in America: the echo of a previous revolution in a country where the bourgeoisie has become reactionary, in a country where “national unity” has been made impossible due to the development of class contradictions. This is the historical significance of 1837-1838.

The general character of the revolution was that of a late, provincial revolution, led by a petty bourgeoisie, which in general wished nothing more than a place in the sun. This expressed itself in all aspects of the movement. The issue of women is a good example.

It was mentioned earlier that the “Declaration of Independence” of February 1838 guaranteed the right to vote only to men. This is just one example of latent sexism in Canadian society in general at the time. In 1834, the right to vote had been withdrawn from the women of Lower Canada by the Patriot members the assembly, which was met with general indifference. The strict distinction between male and female roles served as an almost universal principle.

Marx explained that “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Indeed, in Canada the tradition of oppression and exclusion of women from all political activity did weigh heavily on society.

However that cannot explain everything, because tradition has not prevented women from playing a huge role in most of the great revolutions in history. The French Revolution resulted in the exclusion of women from the political process. Despite this, it was the “sans-culottes” women who played a leading role, pushing the revolution to go all the way, as opposed to the Girondists who wished to reach a compromise with the monarchy. Similarly, it was the workers in Petrograd who triggered the February Revolution, which put an end to the tsarist regime in Russia in 1917. Women, as an an oppressed group, have more to gain from the victory of a revolution, and are therefore doubly inclined to get involved to fight for the victory of the revolution.

What about the Rebellions of 1837-1838, the aborted Canadian bourgeois revolution?

The idea that the revolution in Canada was only the weak echo of the American Revolution also applies here. The leaders of the Patriot and reform movements, incapable of rousing the people with a view to real revolution and probably unwilling to do so, were even less able to mobilize the particularly oppressed strata of society (the Patriots would make a very late appeal to women). All this was the result of the backwardness of the Canadian revolution and the resulting poor leadership.

The American bourgeoisie, after having led the people – including women – into the revolutionary war, had time to turn into a reactionary force, crushing the left wing of the revolution and institutionalizing the oppression of women and blacks, among others. Canada has to a certain extent absorbed the manners of the descending phase of the American Revolution, without having had time to absorb the American revolutionary energy of the past in order to make its own bourgeois revolution. So it should be no surprise that women were not very enthusiastic about the Patriots’ call, as it was hesitating between reformism and revolution, and insistent that women remain contained in the “private” sphere.

It was a similar case with indigenous peoples. Unable to rally them in a meaningful way to the struggle, the Patriots faced the mistrust from the Kahnawake Iroquois in November 1837, who refused to help the Patriots, in an atmosphere of confusion and rumors of attack by the Patriots on Kahnawake. A detailed analysis of the relationship between Aboriginals and settlers is beyond the scope of this article, but it seems clear once again that the Patriots made little effort to seek solidarity with Aboriginal peoples’ in the struggle against the yoke of the British Empire.

A new revolution must take place

The attempted bourgeois democratic revolution in Upper and Lower Canada failed, but the Rebellions paved the way for changes in the colonies. The first reform, that of the Act of Union of 1841, institutionalized the oppression of the French Canadians. The merger of Lower and Upper Canada and the formation of the United Province of Canada gave as many MPs to Canada West (predominantly English) as to Canada East (mostly French), even though Canada East had a much larger population. The stated goal was the assimilation of French Canadians, another classic example of the “divide and rule” strategy. Rather than letting the two colonies have their respective governments, which would favour a united struggle for democratic demands, the Crown preferred to unite them on the backs of the French Canadians, which would pit them against each other and make it easier to rule over the two peoples.

Although Canada is no longer a British colony today, the reforms of the second half of the nineteenth century remained incomplete, so that Canada never became a true democratic republic, and still has the British Queen on its currency today. Like everywhere else in the former colonial or semi-colonial countries, the bourgeoisie “solved” the democratic questions in a partial, incomplete, truncated way.

Canada has moved from a collection of British colonies, to an imperialist country that is actively involved in the plundering of the world and the defence of the capitalist system in the face of emerging social movements. Today, the task of getting rid of the last rotten relics of the monarchy, both for Quebecers and Canadians, is incumbent upon the working class of the whole country in its wider struggle to overthrow imperialism and the capitalist system it protects.
If the proletariat in 1837-1838, due to its embryonic state and the equally embryonic state of its organizations, was still lagging behind the petty bourgeoisie, the modern proletariat is now certainly in a position to play a dominant, independent political role. The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, the Asbestos Strike of 1949, and the quasi-insurrectional general strike of 1972 in Quebec demonstrated the revolutionary potential of the working class.

The banner of the Patriots must now make way for the banner of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg: the banner of communism.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5