Recent independence movements, most notably those in Scotland and Catalonia, have caused many people to draw parallels between them and Quebec. This, combined with the identitarian turn that the mainstream Québécois nationalist parties have taken recently, forces us to return to the basics and re-evaluate the Marxist approach to this question.
The national question - more specifically the question of Quebec - has dominated Canadian politics since the 1970s. Without a doubt, this is the most essential question for Marxists to have a clear and correct understanding of if we ever hope to overthrow capitalism and the Canadian state.
Quebec is an oppressed nation within the Canadian state. While the national liberation struggle in the 1960s and 70s went a long way in liberating the Québécois from oppression, things like the so-called Clarity Act are the most clear example that this oppression still exists to this day. For Marxists, it is our duty to fight against all manifestations of oppression in order to unite the working class. Conversely, for the capitalists, the maintenance of their system, their wealth and their power and privilege is contingent on using all means possible to divide the working class.
Class struggle and nationalism in Quebec
Historically, the rise of the modern national consciousness of the Québécois coincided with the development of the working class in the 1940s and 1950s. As Anglo imperialism invested in Quebec to exploit cheap labour and abundant natural resources, this greatly increased the size of the working class. At the time the vast majority of workers, especially the poor workers, were Francophones, while the capitalists were predominantly Anglophones. In this period the interests of the Québécois workers and the petty bourgeoisie coincided with respect to their immediate aims. The working class, in fighting for its liberation, waged a struggle against national oppression and Anglo-American imperialism. The petit-bourgeois also strove to fight against national oppression, yet in a vacillating and incomplete fashion. Therefore, these two classes marched hand in hand and their struggle overlapped for period of time.
The oppression and exploitation of the Québécois working class has a connection with the development of national consciousness, as can be seen within popular Quebec culture, art, and poems, which have a strong proletarian strain. For example, one of the most celebrated poems of the Quiet Revolution period, Michèle Lalonde's 1968 poem “Speak White”, says, “Speak white! Raise your foremen voices. We are a bit hard of hearing. We live too close to the machines … Speak White! Talk to us about production, profits and percentages. Speak White! It's a rich language for buying. But also to sell yourself. To sell yourself at the loss of your soul … to talk to you about the eternity of a day on strike in order to recount to you the history of a servant people.”
Anglo imperialism, with the aid of local Québécois politicians and the Catholic elite, mercilessly exploited the Quebec working class. Despotic ruler Maurice Duplessis, allied with the Catholic Church, found a useful ideological tool in nationalism as it allowed them to preach unity of French Canadians and divert the class struggle onto national lines. But the flood could not be held back forever. The Québécois working class entered the political arena with a bang. In the 40s and 50s, the struggle against national oppression and exploitation was led by the working class. Not coincidentally, it was during this period that instead of simply referring to themselves as French-Canadians, Francophones in Quebec started to refer to themselves as Québécois. The militant strikes of Asbestos in 1949 and Murdochville in 1957 are the most glaring examples of this rising working class militancy. While both strikes eventually went down to defeat, they ended up polarizing the whole of society as all other layers were forced to pick which side they were on. Even the eventual Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, was arrested by the police when he went to Asbestos to support the strike!
The push towards class unity
The initial striving of the Québécois working class in the 1950-60s was to create a party, united with workers across the entire country. Speaking of this, Michel Chartrand of the PSD (Quebec section of the CCF) explained that, “We are objected to because we are forming a class party … but we neglect to remember that we currently have a ‘class government,’ an ‘economic dictatorship.’” In November 1960, the FTQ voted 507 in favour and 1 against the creation of a party of the workers. The CTCC (later to become the CSN), which was historically opposed to any involvement in politics, also felt this pressure and the leadership ended up deciding that they would participate in talks to form a new party. This movement caused panic among both the Anglo bourgeoisie and the Québécois petty-bourgeoisie.
This was part of a general mood among organized labour across the country that reflected itself in the creation of the New Democratic Party in the early 60s. At the founding convention of the NDP in 1961, Quebec sent a sizable delegation made up of over 190, mostly prominent union activists and leaders. FTQ president Roger Provost said in 1961, “It's a unique opportunity for the working classes to snatch power from a capitalist oligarchy which has given us nothing but unemployment, insecurity, corruption and war. It's an occasion which will not repeat itself in the next 25 or 50 years, and that is why I am convinced the workers of Quebec will give almost unanimous support to the NDP.”
Unfortunately, the anglo-chauvinism and reformist reverence for the federal state of the English-Canadian labour leaders inflamed and entrenched nationalist sentiment in the Quebec wing of the party. This ended in 1963 with the Quebec section splitting away to create the Socialist Party of Quebec. A historic opportunity was lost. The Anglo-chauvinist bureaucracy in the English Canadian labour movement were happy to be rid of the nationalists and the nationalists were more convinced than ever that a separate workers party that was both nationalist and socialist at the same time was the way to go. As NDP-Q activist, Pierre Vadeboncœur argued at the time: “an autonomous, nationalist and socialist party in Quebec would be the best guarantee of success for socialism in Canada, because only such a party would have any chance of effectively promoting socialism in the province.” However, this split did not aid the promotion of socialism in Canada or Quebec. The movement was split and the PSQ did not receive the support of the organized labor movement. It was quietly disbanded in 1968. This also crippled the NDP which was unable to get beyond third party status federally until the “Orange Wave” in 2011 which saw the party sweep Quebec and become the official opposition. Not coincidentally, this was only after the party had officially recognized the right of self-determination for Quebec in their 2005 Sherbrooke declaration.
The Quiet Revolution
Due to the lack of an independent political leadership of the working class, this movement ended up expressing itself through the Quebec Liberal Party of Jean Lesage in the early 1960s. This ushered in a period known as the Quiet Revolution which was a national liberation struggle led by the urban Québécois petty bourgeoisie and supported by the working class. The popular slogan “Masters of our own house” (Maitres chez nous) shows how the class question and the national question were united together. The question of which class would be the master had not yet been posed. Here we can also see how nationalism was once again used to serve what was ultimately bourgeois interests, but this time the interests of the rising Québécois bourgeoisie against the Anglo bourgeoisie. The CSN explained this in its 1971 manifesto when it described the rising urban petty bourgeois as, “a professional and technocratic petty bourgeoisie, whose ambition is to replace the Anglo-Canadian bourgeoisie in Québec (notably through state institutions).” In the early days of the Quiet Revolution, especially after the 1962 election campaign centered around the nationalization of hydroelectricity, the unions worked with the government in this national project as they saw the class interests of the workers being met through this movement.
This national unity only lasted so long. The class struggle once again burst this national unity asunder as it proved to be simply a bourgeois project that left the workers in the dust. The Liberals had implemented some major reforms, but in many cases only went half way. The workers had to fight the government in order to get a Labour Code and the right to strike for public sector employees in 1964. That same year, a bitter seven-month conflict erupted at the La Presse newspaper, where the government took the side of the bosses. Divisions in the national liberation movement started to emerge as the different classes entered into conflict. The upstart Québécois bourgeoisie, which had developed out of the policies of the Quiet Revolution, had essentially got what it wanted and abandoned any pretenses that they were defending the workers, instead, brutally repressing the unions and the left. They had used the state to push back the Anglo imperialists and create room for the development of a Québécois bourgeoisie, which had become very aware that its interests were threatened by a rising militant Québécois working class. The working class felt betrayed by the government and was moving in a revolutionary direction. As Quebec Labour Minister Jean Cournoyer said at the time, “It doesn’t shock me. This could have been predicted five years ago. That the nationalist movement was due to become class conscious.”
The rise of the independence movement
Today in Quebec, it is quite common for people on the left to make the argument that the movement for independence and the class struggle are not in conflict but go together and have always gone hand in hand. It is even generally assumed that the Parti Québécois was a left-wing party in the early days and that the PQ implemented many of the most progressive reforms in Quebec. While it would be completely mechanical to say that class struggle and a movement for independence are mutually exclusive, the history of Quebec clearly shows how the question of independence has again and again been used to divide the workers and divert the rising tide of class struggle into some sort of “national project.”
In the late 60s, the dead-end that the Quiet Revolution found itself in was not only felt by the working class. More and more, petty bourgeois and bourgeois elements in the old parties started to look for solutions to push the movement forward. Leading figures in both the Liberal Party and the Union Nationale started putting forward the idea of independence as a solution. The first leader of any major political party to do so in Quebec was actually from the right, with Union Nationale leader Daniel Johnson Sr. publishing a book in 1965 titled Égalité ou indépendance (Equality or Independence). This pressure also caused fissures within the Liberals. As their coalition fell apart, some petty-bourgeois elements around René Lévesque split from the Liberals, forming the MSA (Mouvement Souveraineté-Association) in 1967 and put forward sovereignty as the solution. This group eventually merged with the right-wing RN (Ralliement National), formed by Gilles Grégoire of the old conservative Social Credit party to form the Parti Québécois in October 1968. Daniel Johnson Sr.’s sudden death a couple of weeks before the creation of the PQ meant that many elements from the previous UN folded into the PQ after the UN chose a federalist leader, Jean-Jacques Bertrand.
With the working class moving in a revolutionary direction at the end of the 1960s, the question of independence proved to be a very useful tool for petty bourgeois and bourgeois elements who were worried about the increasingly confrontational stance of the unions. In general, the question of independence was more and more used to brow beat the left into abandoning the fight for socialism and to unite with bourgeois or petty bourgeois elements in the fight for independence. This even led to many people who called themselves Marxists putting forward a two-stage solution, arguing that the first stage must be to support the Québécois bourgeoisie in their struggle against the “puppet master” of colonial-imperialism.
For example, the popular journal during the Quiet Revolution, Parti Pris, in their 1964 manifesto argued that, “... we are, in spite of ourselves, the objective allies of the national bourgeoisie with regards to the first phase of the struggle; and we must support it and push it forward in its reformist venture."
They even went so far as to argue that the movement should not fight against the Liberal government, “Fighting against the Liberal government can only strengthen the position of the traditional bourgeoisie and as we are not powerful enough alone to defeat one of the bourgeois factions, let alone both at once … We must support the neo-bourgeoisie against his opponent to cleanse Quebec of all feudal vestiges."
The main left-wing sovereigntist political organization at the time, was the RIN (Rassemblement pour l'Indépendance Nationale) which René Lévesque explicitly rejected uniting with because they were too radical. Under pressure, the RIN liquidated itself into the PQ, joining ranks with right-wing elements to fight for independence. Fortunately, the best union leaders in the late 60s were generally not fooled by this, as is shown by the following quote from now CSN-Montreal president Michel Chartrand, who denounced Lévesque and the PQ, “These are the guys who want an institutionalized union movement, integrated into the capitalist system. We don’t need bums like that to tell us what to do.” (Quebec: A Chronicle 1968-1972, page 134).
René Lévesque later said that he would, “rather live in a South American banana republic than in a Quebec dominated by the ranting and raving of labour leaders.” (Quebec: A Chronicle 1968-1972, page 110). The late 1960s and the early 1970s in particular clearly show the conflict between the classes; between the petty bourgeois politicians who were trying to bring the workers to heel and the working class who were starting to take a revolutionary road.
This process led to a revolutionary conflagration in the 1972 Common Front general strike. The union leaders had moved beyond the two-stage theory and now put the class struggle front and centre, at times even linking it with the question of the socialist transformation of society. The general strike shut down the province for a few weeks and was equally opposed by the Anglo imperialists and the Québécois bourgeoisie. The proletariat in Quebec during this period was striving to liberate itself using its own class methods, which meant fighting for both socialist tasks, including the expropriation of the capitalists and the establishment of workers’ democracy, and democratic tasks, such as the right of self-determination, which was implicit in the situation. As the working class strove in this direction, it necessarily broke from the political subordination of the Québécois bourgeois and the petty bourgeois nationalists.
Unfortunately, due to reasons explained in our previous article on the general strike, the movement went down in defeat. The traditions of working class militancy and the fight for socialism from this period have all but been forgotten by the left and the labour movement in Quebec. We, the IMT, are fighting to revive them!
The situation in the 1970s worried not just the Québécois bourgeoisie, but also Anglo imperialism. The provincial government proved insufficient to hold the workers in check. This is the context in which the federal Liberals implemented the War Measures Act in 1970. This mobilized the Canadian army onto the streets of Montreal, to repress trade union and left-nationalist activists in the province, using the FLQ’s terrorist activities as an excuse. Operation Neat Pitch was put into place to prepare for military occupation in the event of insurrection in Quebec, with high-ranking military staff meeting in Montreal during April 1972 in the midst of the militant strike movement.
The Anglo imperialists had a deep worry that not only would this movement overthrow capitalism in Quebec, but that it would spread to English Canada. The Anglo-Canadian bourgeoisie whipped up Anglo-chauvinist hysteria throughout English Canada in order to divide the workers and provide potential support if military intervention was needed. They found a useful ally in the bureaucracy of the Canadian labour movement, which had played such a key role in torpedoing class unity in the early 60s. During the 1972 strike, CLC president, Donald McDonald, in a disgusting justification for not supporting the strike, said that, “General strikes are not strikes, they’re revolutions.” The Anglo-Canadian labour leaders bought into the Anglo-chauvinist hysteria and argued against the strike, resurrecting the same old arguments against greater autonomy for Quebec, claiming that the strike was an attempt to break up the country.
With the movement of the heroic Québécois working class at its height, the English Canadian labour leaders were loyally defending law and order, opposing the strike, and using their authority in the workers’ movement to isolate the revolution so that it would not spread. This was perceived as a betrayal of class solidarity by the workers in Quebec, and rightly so. This contributed to the desire for separation. All throughout the following years of referendums and sharp constitutional debates, the NDP and the CLC leaders were staunch defenders of the Canadian federation and did not even recognize the right to self-determination of Quebec until 2005. This disgusting Anglo-chauvinist attitude of the English Canadian labour leaders was the biggest barrier to working class unity in Canada.
Quebec, Scotland and Catalonia
On the surface, there are many similarities between the PQ in the early days, the 1980 Referendum on sovereignty in Quebec, and the 2014 Referendum on independence in Scotland and the 2017 referendum in Catalonia.
Like the SNP today, the PQ in the 1970s was viewed as a “social-democratic” party and had become a voice against austerity, against national oppression, against poverty and unemployment, and against imperialism. In a distorted way, a vote for the PQ at this time reflected a desire to fight against the capitalist status quo, and the rotten imperialism of the Canadian confederation. As part of its electoral campaign in 1976, the PQ had proclaimed a, “favourable prejudice towards the workers.” Similar to the SNP, its electoral platform was a soft left program of modernizing reforms.
While there are similarities, we must understand the key differences between the situations in Scotland, Catalonia and Quebec. The similarities only hold true if we view these referendums in isolation, i.e. divorced from the social processes unfolding at the time and isolated from the concrete conditions of the class struggle.
In Scotland, the tradition had always been one of class unity with workers in the rest of the UK through the Labour Party. However, starting in the 1990s, Labour moved to the right for a whole generation with the Blairite degeneration. This, combined with the election of the Tories in 2010, led to fertile conditions for the question of independence to have a strong class content. Especially due to the fact that independence did not have strong traditions in Scotland, this led to it being seen as an anti-establishment struggle. The SNP had abandoned their tartan tory image and now presented a social democratic face. Of prime importance is the fact that, today, we are moving from a period of reaction and lull in the class struggle into a period of heightened class struggle. Therefore the independence movement in Scotland was a progressive movement which pushed the class struggle forward.
In Catalonia, support for independence began to have a resurgence as a response to the election of the right-wing PP government of Rajoy to the central government in Madrid in 2011. With the rise of Podemos in 2014, it seemed as though this process was being cut across with a united left-wing alternative. However, Podemos moderated its message which ultimately made the party unable to make sufficient gains in the 2016 elections, thus allowing Rajoy to remain in power. This allowed for a resurgence in the nationalist movement in Catalonia as people turned back to independence as a solution to the reactionary government in Madrid. In response to the repression of the Spanish state against the independence referendum we saw an eruption of the masses onto the scene, which acquired insurrectionary features. This led to the formation of the Committees for Defense of the Republic and a massive strike against repression on October 3. Sections of the workers (in education, health care, civil servants, the dockers, firefighters) mobilized either openly for independence or at least against state repression of the right to self-determination.
Therefore, in Scotland and Catalonia, because of the particular conditions pertaining to today, the movements around independence are progressive in the sense that they are an advance for the class struggle.
The situation in Quebec following 1972 was entirely different. Viewed from the Quiet Revolution period to the 1972 general strike, the nationalism expressed by the working class of Quebec was most definitely an “outer shell of an immature Bolshevism”, to paraphrase Trotsky. In 1972 it could be argued that the Québécois workers were attempting to shed this outer shell and find a revolutionary proletarian solution. However, following the defeat of the general strike of 1972, the period of heightened class struggle and acute revolutionary crisis abated, and the general tendency was towards reaction and a lull in the class struggle. The pendulum of society was swinging from the left to the right. While the PQ’s politics of sovereignty in the 1970s had a social democratic presentation, in reality this was directed against the class struggle and used to destroy the militant revolutionary traditions of the workers. This became more and more obvious over the course of the reactionary period of the 1980s and 1990s as Québécois nationalism began to develop ugly and reactionary features. We see this again in the early 90s with the creation of the Bloc Québécois by Lucien Bouchard, an ex-Minister in Brian Mulroney’s federal Conservative government.
The tops of the labour bureaucracy were attracted to the PQ precisely because they wanted to avoid class struggle. This is the period where the unions were increasingly transformed into exactly what Michel Chartrand warned of - corporatist unions co-opted by the state. Even though the PQ was promoting social democratic policies in the lead up to the 1980 Referendum, when viewed in the broader historical process this is revealed as a retreat from the tasks of 1972, i.e. the organization and political independence of the working class and socialist revolution. It must also be said that the results of this process were more than just a simple distraction, but had long-lasting effects on the class struggle. The vitally important task was the formation of an independent mass working class party based on the unions. The absence of such a party led to the labour movement moving into the orbit of the PQ which weakened the working class when the PQ betrayed the workers a few years later and launched an all out assault on the unions. This betrayal was not at all surprising as Lévesque himself had remarked in 1972 that, “Of course, if one is not to be narrow-minded, one must be sympathetic to the cause of the workers in our society, but…we must not forget that the PQ will perhaps find itself as the boss at the negotiating table…. We must strike a balance between the demands of the workers and the possibility that the PQ might be in power during the next negotiations.” There is actually a tradition of the PQ using the authority they build up during the referendum to launch vicious attacks on the working class afterwards. After the 1995 referendum, it was Lucien Bouchard who implemented a deficit-zero policy leading to austerity measures across the board.
As was previously explained, the PQ was able to merge the left and right wings of the nationalist movement under one roof, into one “national project”. But this alliance was always unstable and divided along class lines. Even René Lévesque believed that the PQ would split along class lines in the event independence or sovereignty had been achieved. What we have seen take place since the 1995 referendum is just such a split - however without independence.
Knowing that they had to unite the classes under one “national project” in order to achieve their aims, the PQ offered the unions sweetened deals in the lead up the 1980 referendum. In an effort to win over the working class to its program, the PQ raised the minimum wage, introduced the strongest anti-scab legislation in the country, negotiated deals that were favourable to the public sector workers with significant wage increases and benefits, and included the unions in limited roles in the management of healthcare and other state institutions. This was the PQ’s “favourable prejudice towards the workers”.
This, however didn’t last long. In Social Democracy on Trial: The Parti Québécois, the Ontario NDP, and the Search for a New Social Contract, Andrew Brian Tanguay relates the following,
“No longer was it necessary to perform the high-wire act required before 1980 to reconcile the mutually antagonistic interests of different classes in Quebec, which the PQ had done in the hopes of building a fragile independence coalition. Its primary objectives after the defeat of the referendum were to cling to power, to defend Quebec’s interests as jealously as possible within the Canadian federal system, and to foster the development of a francophone capitalist class, in part by cutting back the state and demonstrating fiscal responsibility”.
After the 1980 referendum, the PQ shifted far to the right and passed some of the most draconian legislation in the history of the country to attack mainly the public sector workers and claw back the concessions granted in the lead-up to the referendum. Following the recession of 1982, negotiated agreements were ripped up and imposed unilaterally by the PQ government. Various bills and laws withdrew benefits and froze wages. Across-the-board wage cuts were implemented, in some cases up to nearly 20 per cent. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms was suspended and the government gained the right to fire union activists without right of appeal, slash salaries, issue fines, and suspend negotiations. Nationalism once again proved to be a useful tool which allowed the PQ to use their authority as leaders of the nationalist movement to attack the workers. This blunted resistance to these attacks as it divided the workers.
The attacks provoked a spark in the class struggle, as various unions held massive demonstrations and launched illegal sector-wide strikes in protest during the 1982-83 negotiations. The PQ was splitting along class lines as the proletarian layers in the party left in droves, especially the unionized elements. For example, while the FTQ supported the PQ in the 1976 and 1980 elections, their members, against the recommendation of the union leadership, voted 58% against supporting the PQ in 1985. Unfortunately, the movement of the organized working class, unable to regain the momentum it had in the past, was finally defeated in the face of monstrous attacks by the PQ government and a sell out by the leadership.
Similar to Scotland and Catalonia, the developing world economic crisis is openly reflected in Quebec, although in profoundly different ways. This was clear with the massive student strike of 2012 and the mass public sector strike in 2015. However, in the current context of Quebec, this radicalization of the masses is not currently expressed through a resurgence in the independence movement. On the contrary. In spite of constant attempts by the PQ, Quebec solidaire and Option nationale to renew interest in independence, support for independence is at just 36 per cent. Support for independence is especially low among young Québécois. There was even an Angus Reid poll that showed that 73 per cent of Québécois think that Quebec should remain in Canada. One of the main reasons for this is that the class movement in Quebec is now primarily directed against the Québécois bourgeoisie and the provincial government. Québécois workers and youth increasingly see their main enemy as their own bourgeoisie. While the Parti Québécois was seen as an anti-establishment force in the 1970s, it has been one of the natural ruling parties in Quebec for 40 years and is now clearly part of the political establishment.
The fact that workers are seeing things more along class lines was even admitted by Bloc Québécois founder and ex-PQ leader Lucien Bouchard’s 2005 manifesto “For a Clear-Eyed Vision of Quebec” where he says, “For years, people deplored the fact that the Québec economy was run by English-speaking business people; today, French-speaking business people control our economy and they are roundly criticized, to the point where their motives are questioned if they contribute time and money to philanthropy.”
For 40 years now many people in Quebec have followed the PQ down its national-constitutional road as a means of changing society and solving the problems they face. After all this time they are no closer today to solving these problems than they were in the 1970s. Workers and youth have been unable to build a better society and have not achieved independence. In addition, more and more Québécois are aware that the principal force that has been attacking their living standards, arresting protesters, legislating them back to work etc… is the provincial government, whether it be Liberal or PQ - backed up by the Québécois bourgeoisie. For this reason, especially amongst the advanced layers of worker and youth, the class question is back on the agenda and the national struggle has been pushed into the background.
In this sense, we have seen almost an opposite process in Quebec compared to Catalonia or Scotland. In Scotland, with no mass political vent to express the discontent of the masses, the developing radicalization, which inevitably must be reflected somewhere, found expression through nationalism and the SNP, which had turned leftwards in the recent period with an anti-establishment profile. In Catalonia, in reaction to the brutal repressive right-wing PP government, the class struggle has expressed itself around the independence referendum. In Quebec, there is also no mass political avenue for the expression of the seething discontent amongst the workers and youth and their desire for revolutionary change in society. This has not been expressed via the PQ, a party firmly seen as part of the establishment. Interestingly enough, neither has this yet been expressed significantly through the new left party, Quebec solidaire. What we have seen is a continued decrease in support for the two main establishment parties with the PQ and the PLQ combined receiving less than 50 per cent support in a recent poll. For now, the main benefactor of this seems to be the right populist CAQ which has put aside the question of independence and is the main political force arguing for identitarian nationalism.
What a comparison of the movements in Scotland, Catalonia and Quebec shows us is that the national question cannot be approached in a generalized way, with the same approach in every country. Each specific question must be analyzed in its particular concrete circumstances, its history and its relationship to the class struggle. Only in this way can we determine if support for independence is progressive or not.
The PQ, in claiming to be on the side of the workers, succeeded for a time in coopting the workers’ movement into a coalition for independence, and, in doing so, diverted it from the path of revolution. The formation of Quebec solidaire was the first split in this “national unity”, and a first step towards an alternative to the bourgeois parties in Quebec. In its early days, QS was far more radical than it is today, talking about “going beyond capitalism” in its 2009 manifesto and adding the nationalization of the banks and mines to its program in 2011. In the beginning, the party also placed more focus on the class question. This was an important step forward for the left in Quebec and opened the possibility for the formation of a genuine workers’ party in Quebec.
However, in recent years we have seen the party fall more and more into the trap of nationalism. The leadership of the party has continuously pushed for an alliance with the PQ, which had to be rejected by the rank-and-file of the party on more than one occasion. This would have had the party agree to not run against PQ candidates in some ridings, in spite of their austerity and racism, in order to unite for independence. The same problem was also seen clearly in the infamous debate around secularism. Instead of denouncing the PQ’s racist ‘Charter of Quebec Values’ in 2013 as a clear distraction which directly targeted religious minorities, the leadership of QS shamefully proposed its own charter with similar points. More recently, following the adoption of Bill 62 (that bans face coverings while using public services) by the provincial Liberals this past October, the leadership of QS was completely silent on the Bill’s islamophobic intentions. It appears that the leadership of the party refuses to clearly denounce these politics of division for fear of alienating the electoral base of nationalists in the province. Here we clearly see the danger of nationalism. The heroic struggle of the Québécois against the domination of the Catholic Church and for the separation of church and state is now being used to attack religious minorities in the province!
The more that independence has been pushed forward in QS, the more class politics has taken a back seat. This phenomenon has expressed itself through some absurd moments like the “rally for sovereignty” the party organized in August 2012 following the largest mass student movement in the history of the country! When the class struggle was at the forefront of people’s minds, the party leadership was prioritizing holding a rally on independence, which was out of step with the driving issues and struggles of the day, and made it so the party could not fully capitalize on this key moment.
The argument we often hear in QS that the party doesn’t prioritize any struggle over others. We think that the recent history of the party has shown that the leadership has increasingly given a preferential treatment to independence and that it has been done at the expense of class politics. Otherwise, why seek alliances with the PQ which has nothing in common with QS except its commitment to independence? The recent merger with the tiny sovereigntist party Option nationale is keeping with this trend.
Unfortunately, certain people on the left in QS have fallen into the trap and are giving left cover to this nationalist orientation by putting forward their support for the merger with ON in ways that appear progressive and radical. In particular, one of the main arguments by some of the left within QS in favour of independence and collaboration with Option nationale is the idea that QS’s program cannot be realized within the limits of the Canadian colonial imperialist federal state. While there is truth to this point, this is true for any capitalist state. We cannot determine, in advance, in which way this struggle against capitalism and the Canadian state will manifest itself. This could be either through a struggle for independence, or through a united class struggle in Quebec and Canada.
On this point we take Lenin’s position in that, "We are fighting on the ground of a definite state; we unite the workers of all nations living in this state; we cannot vouch for any particular path of national development, for we are marching to our class goal along all possible paths." We therefore are primarily fighting to unite the working class in the fight for socialism - whichever path it takes.
For decades, both sovereigntists and federalists have enforced austerity independently of Ottawa. Those primarily responsible for austerity are the Quebec bourgeois and their representatives in the big parties. Would that change under an independent Quebec? Is there any reason to believe that an independent Quebec would be more left-wing?
If QS comes to power, the first to oppose their reforms would be the bankers and other capitalists in the finance district in Montreal and in the Quebec Council of Employers. These are the same Québécois capitalists who violently crushed the 2012 student movement against tuition fee hikes. These are the same Québécois capitalists who used back to work legislation against construction workers. The same capitalists who are constantly attacking unions. These same powerful interests would also exist in an independent Quebec, and the capitalists would use all of the immense wealth and power at their disposal to block progressive reforms.
Workers and youth will remain oppressed whether under an economic system owned by Francophone billionaires or Anglophone billionaires. The austerity we have seen in recent years was not pushed by the federal state, but rather is due to the fact that under capitalism the government is nothing more than “a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”, to quote Marx - whether this government is Québécois or Canadian, in practice changes nothing.
So how can QS succeed in implementing reforms to benefit the workers? This cannot become a reality without the mobilization of the working class, Francophone, Allophone, and Anglophone, and by forging links with and fighting alongside the workers from the rest of Canada. Under capitalism in crisis, the implementation of pro-worker measures will be blocked at every turn by bankers, big business and the state, whether Québécois or Canadian.
As Marxists, we in no way defend the imperialist Canadian federal state or deny its reactionary nature. We need to get rid of the senate, the Canadian monarchical-colonial constitution, and the bourgeois state in general that serves to maintain the status quo of capitalism in Canada. But this task does not just fall on the workers of Quebec or the rest of Canada on their own and in isolation, but to the entire working class across Canada. This necessary task must be tied to a broader program of the socialist transformation of society.
Nationalism: progressive or reactionary?
The identitarian turn in the nationalist movement in Quebec has forced many people to wonder if there is a progressive content in Québécois nationalism. The CAQ, the PQ and the Bloc Québécois are all essentially arguing for measures against Muslims and immigrants. In addition, we have also seen the rise of sizable far-right nationalist groups germinating within this islamophobic and racist discourse, which has become normalized. As an example of how these far-right groups use nationalism, we can look to the banner that the fascist group Atalante held during the far-right rally held in Quebec City on November 25th which read “Quebec for the Québécois.” As an interesting aside, this was exactly, word for word, one of the main slogans of the PSQ at their founding congress in 1963 after they had split from the NDP. This one slogan, in one epoch was used against national oppression by the PSQ, but has now been reclaimed by the far-right and is used a slogan for the oppression of minorities and immigrants. The reactionary side of nationalism is clear. But is there a progressive Québécois nationalism?
The nationalism of an oppressed group can be very progressive. Trotsky said that in certain conditions the nationalism of the oppressed can express the outer shell of an immature Bolshevism. This was the case with the oppressed nationalities within the Russian empire in the early 20th century who were essential in overthrowing the Tsar and the provisional government, and massively supported the new Soviet government in 1917. In a similar sense, we can clearly see the reflection of the working class struggling against austerity and the central bourgeois state in the referendums in both Catalonia and Scotland.
Québécois nationalism, as explained above, had a strong progressive content to it before and during the Quiet Revolution period as it was an expression of the development of the class consciousness of the Québécois working class and it was directed against Anglo imperialism. Even during the rise of the PQ, this still largely represented a class instinct to fight against Anglo-imperialism and for better living conditions. This was mostly due to the absence of an independent workers’ party. However, as class divisions in the national liberation movement developed and the Québécois bourgeoisie became very aware of its class interests, nationalism was more and more used to divert the attention of the workers away from the class struggle. While in the past, a strike movement would invariably be Francophone workers striking against an Anglophone boss, this started to change as a larger and larger portion of the economy was owned by Québécois capitalists. From 1960 to 1990, Francophone ownership of the economy rose from 15 per cent to 65 per cent. This meant that while the Québécois petty bourgeoisie didn't mind, or even actively supported, movements like the 1949 Asbestos strike, now they were the ones who owned the businesses and therefore became viciously opposed to working class militancy.
Historically speaking, in the period of revolutionary struggle and the general strike of 1972, the class question was clearly in the foreground and the national question subordinate to it. In the later period of reaction and dominance of the PQ, nationalism and the question of independence was thrust into the foreground, cutting across the class struggle. Thus, the drive for independence led by the PQ had overall reactionary implications for the working class.
Whenever the workers started to strike for their class interests, a debate about how all Québécois have the same language, culture or same interests in general became extremely useful to protect capitalism in Quebec. This contributed to the co-optation of the workers movement and the conversion of the combative union traditions of the previous period into corporatist unions. This was precisely what René Lévesque's PQ did. They adopted a worker friendly discourse in order to rope in the union leaders and then used this authority to demobilize the workers and destroy their revolutionary traditions. The union leaders should have been building an independent working class party, rather than uniting with the petit bourgeois nationalists of the PQ.
What the PQ couldn’t co-opt, they would split and destroy. This is exactly what happened with the revolutionary traditions of the student movement which had valiantly led many militant student strikes throughout the 70s and 80s. During the 80s, ANEEQ (l'Association Nationale des Étudiants du Québec) was split by the moderates organized in the PQ youth who wanted to collaborate with the government after the radical left won the majority of the leadership in 1980. It was in fact André Boisclair (PQ leader from 2005-2007) who was elected general secretary of the conciliatory FAECQ in 1983. This played a disgusting role in paralyzing the student movement and was the principal reason that the movement ultimately failed to block tuition increases during the strike of 1990. This process played itself out ending in the eventual destruction of ANEEQ and the foundation of the conciliatory unions FEUQ and FECQ. It is not surprising that the final collapse of ANEEQ occured in 1994, during the PQ government and just before the 2nd referendum!
The re-establishment of the real traditions of the Québécois student movement were only truly revived with the creation of ASSE, the decline of the independence movement and the revival of class struggle in the early 2000s around the anti-globalization movement. ASSE has largely stayed away from the question of independence, denounced the Charter of Quebec Values as a distraction and has explicitly attacked the capitalists regardless of whether or not they were sovereigntists or federalists. A classic example of this was the campaign that ASSE ran in 2013 called “Traîtres chez nous” - explicitly targeting the newly elected Marois (PQ) government.
In order to determine if nationalism or an independence movement is playing a progressive or a reactionary role we need to ask ourselves a key question: Is this movement pushing forward the class struggle or is it to the detriment of the class struggle? In both Scotland and Catalonia, it is fairly clear that the movement around the recent referendums was pushing the class struggle forward. In Quebec, while it is safe to say that the nationalism of the workers had a progressive content in the desire to fight against Anglo-imperialism, when we look at the history of the independence movement, we are drawn to the inescapable conclusion that far from pushing the class struggle forward, the question of independence has very much been used to co-opt and destroy the revolutionary traditions of the workers and youth. Activists in the movement today should be keenly aware of the pernicious role that this question has played and should fight against any attempts to use this question to divide and distract the workers.
The class struggle and independence
Marxists are duty bound to fight against every form of oppression and put themselves at the forefront of these struggles. In the 60s and 70s the rising tide of nationalism among poor working class Québécois generally had a progressive content. It signified a desire to fight against Anglo-imperialism, against oppression and even against capitalism. However, there is always a progressive and a reactionary element to the nationalism of an oppressed group. The progressive element is the desire to fight against imperialism and oppression, while the reactionary side is seeing common cause in uniting with the bourgeoisie of your own nationality and oppressing other groups who are not part of your nationality. We have clearly seen these two trends play themselves out in Quebec, with the more and more reactionary elements coming to the fore recently.
A lot has changed in the past 40-50 years. The Québécois bourgeoisie rules the roost now in Quebec. The nationalist movement is at a low ebb and is now preoccupied with questions of Québécois identity - which has led to attacking immigrants and Muslims. This is why the position of Marxists has always been against national oppression but not for any one culture, language or nationality. Taking a position in favour of any one group is a slippery slope to very reactionary positions, as we have seen in Quebec. In this context, it is very easy for an oppressed group to be turned into the oppressor of another group.
This does not mean that Marxists are opposed to the independence of Quebec. Nothing could be further from the truth. As an oppressed nation within Canadian confederation, we stand firmly for Quebec’s right to self-determination. This means fighting against anglo-chauvinism, anglo-imperialism and forced assimilation. This also inherently means that we stand for Quebec’s right to separate and to independence.
We take the position of Lenin and the Bolsheviks,“The Social-Democratic Party’s recognition of the right of all nationalities to self-determination most certainly does not mean that Social-Democrats reject an independent appraisal of the advisability of the state secession of any nation in each separate case. Social-Democracy should, on the contrary, give its independent appraisal, taking into consideration the conditions of capitalist development and the oppression of the proletarians of various nations by the united bourgeoisie of all nationalities, as well as the general tasks of democracy, first of all and most of all the interests of the proletarian class struggle for socialism.” (Lenin, Collected Works Vol. 19, page 244, Theses on the National Question)
But does this mean that we should be in favour of independence as a principle? The left in Quebec has almost completely accepted independence as a good principle in and of itself. In Quebec solidaire, the party claims to “not place struggles on a hierarchy”; but we think a study of the history of Quebec shows that while the party may claim that independence and the “social question” are not in conflict - the national question has constantly been used to cut across the class struggle, to co-opt the unions and destroy the militant traditions in order to demobilize and paralyze the workers in the face of attacks from an increasingly belligerent Québécois bourgeoisie.
The current identitarian turn in Quebec politics is not at all surprising and is simply a continuation of the process of degeneration of the nationalist movement. The recent rise of the CAQ and their reactionary nationalism, far from being alien to the traditions of Québécois nationalism, harkens back to the days of the Union Nationale of Maurice Duplessis. It is not surprising that continual disgusting racist debates have been inflamed precisely at a time when the class struggle has been making a thunderous comeback in the province. Since the 1995 referendum, or at least since the anti-FTAA demonstration in Quebec city in 2001, all of the major movements have been class based movements. The peak development of this process was in the few years surrounding 2012-15 which saw the biggest mass movement in Canadian history in the Québécois spring/student strike movement, followed a couple of years later by the biggest public sector general strike in the history of Quebec. This terrifies the ruling class and they have been desperately scrambling to stop this process in its tracks.
It is within this context that we believe that focusing on independence is a negative thing for the movement. Ever since its foundations, QS has been constantly hammered in the media and by the PQ for not being “real independentists.” This is a continuation of the tradition of the national question being used to beat back the class question. Unfortunately, as mentioned above, the leaders of QS have bent to this pressure over the years, constantly trying to prove their sovereigntist credentials. And what has this led to? During the most turbulent period of class struggle in decades, where support for both the Liberals and the PQ is at an all time low, QS, the only left-wing party, has been incapable of capitalizing on this mood. Recently, the party was at its highest in the polls at around 17-18 per cent this summer. This was after the 2012 student strike leader, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois joined the party and the party rejected an alliance with the PQ at the congress in May. Following this, QS focused discussions on uniting with ON and now the party has dropped in the polls to 11-12 per cent. In this context, the focus on questions surrounding independence has been a distraction and has contributed to the perception of QS in the eyes of workers and youth to be not all that different from the PQ and therefore not a genuine option.
This is why, especially now, when it comes to the national question, it is the duty of the Quebec Marxists to always sharply raise the class question, expose nationalism (whether Canadian or Quebecois), defend the unity of the working class, and stand against the division of the working class on national, linguistic, cultural or ethnic lines. The key task of Marxists in Quebec and Canada is to unite all workers on a class basis in a struggle against capitalism, against national hatred and racism, while always defending the right of oppressed nationalities to self-determination. This is the most effective way that we can fight against the reactionary federal Canadian state as well as the capitalists of each nationality. We fight to establish a fully voluntary union of a socialist Quebec with a socialist Canada, as a step towards a socialist union of the Americas.