Nationalism or Socialism?

A Look at the Problems in Québec

The recent election in Québec has once again brought to the fore the question of Québec separation. The Parti Québecois and the Liberals espouse their opinions on separation and federalism. Both clearly represent the bourgeois perspective and interests. But who talks about issues facing workers and youth? What are the socialist alternatives to the problems in Québec?

The central question in Québec is the national question - should Québec separate or should Québecers vote to stay a part of Canada? The PQ (Parti Québecois) stands on one side and says that the only solution is to separate and become a sovereign state. The Liberals, on the other hand, say that the only solution is to remain a part of Canada within a federalist union. But both parties are parties of capital, representing the interests of the bourgeois class. There is essentially a struggle within the capitalist class in Québec (and Canada), with one side firmly behind the Liberals who they believe can best defend private property and profit within Canada, and one side behind the PQ who they think can best ensure bourgeois property in a separate Québec. Both parties hand down bourgeois interests to the workers as the interests of all Québecers in the abstract language and phraseology of "nation", "cultural identity", and "sovereignty".

The Parti Québecois

The PQ presents itself as the party of all Québecois, and maintains high electoral support under the veil of social democracy. The PQ has had the support of the two-thirds of Québec Labour organized in "National" unions, and has followed some reformist policies. From this they can boast a publicly funded unemployment insurance, welfare, health care, low cost services from "publicly" owned utilities, and low university tuition fees. All of these gains are now coming under attack.

The PQ is fundamentally the party of the francophone bourgeoisie. The party was formed from splits in the Liberal and Tory parties (who are the parties of capital) to defend Québec capital who feared the francophone workers would rise up against both the English and the French bosses. Intellectuals, who were frustrated with the problems in Canada and the absence of any clear and viable class alternative, also joined in the "national" struggle. The wooing of the trade unions in Québec by the PQ has more to do with the bankruptcy of the old labour organizations then any progressiveness on behalf of the PQ.

The PQ distorts the class struggle with the "national" struggle. The trade union bureaucrats, who were completely unable to offer a real class alternative to the problems facing workers, were easily convinced by the power and prestige offered by the PQ and the promise of an independent Québec. During the election a number of major unions, most notably the teachers, came out against the PQ government due to pressure from below. The firefighters have also engaged in militant industrial action. The reactionary anti-trade union laws have forced the firefighters into illegal action - this is a herald for the future.

The PQ can offer nothing to workers and youth on the basis of an independent capitalist Québec. Some on the left support a "yes" vote for capitalist independence in the belief that, upon separation, the PQ would split and "normal" class politics would ensue, or that the result of independence would be an economic collapse which would incite the working class to revolution. Both of these ideas are merely variants of the discredited Stalinist two-stage theory - first capitalist independence, then socialism in the dim and distant future. Poverty does not necessarily equal revolutionary movements of the workers - if that were true, then Africa would be in a state of continuous revolution. In reality, an independent capitalist Québec would be disastrous for workers in English and French Canada. It would not help francophone workers that suffer discrimination, but it would weaken the links of working class solidarity, such as shown by the striking Abitibi paper mill workers in Quebec, Ontario and the Maritimes. An independent Québec would be even more dependent upon American and Canadian imperialism, which would undermine culture and push down wages and conditions. Some Bloc Québecois MP's have even proposed the adoption of the $US upon separation. An economic crisis would be taken out on workers and minorities in the name of defending the "French nation". This is not a recipe for revolution, but for increased division on sectarian lines exploited by PQ demagogues. A danger in such a situation could be that the PQ leaders, and the bosses who back them, would suspend "democracy" and rule by decree to defend the "nation". This would be disastrous for trade unions and all Québecois workers.

Nationalism or Socialism?

In the last analysis the national question is a question of bread. In times of hardship the ruling class always use divide and rule tactics to take the heat off themselves. The only way to dissolve the national divide and solve the problems of society is socialist policies for homes, jobs, decent wages and education for all. Neither anglophone nor francophone workers can succeed in isolation or along national lines. Canadian workers, both French and English, must struggle in unity. The different peoples are not the cause of the problem - the capitalist system of exploitation is.

The labour movement lacks a voice in Québec. Unions are tied to the ruling class and the NDP is nearly non-existent. The National unions need to break with the PQ and Liberals, unite with the Canadian Labour Congress unions, and create an independent party of Labour with a socialist program. Such an event would shake society to its foundations, challenging the dominion of the bourgeois parties and their class.

The present round of elections solve nothing. Québec workers have a burning passion to control their own destiny, and must be given full rights to self-determination. Separation under Capitalism would be a set-back, but in a Socialist society all nations will be free to decide their own fate, including separation. As a free participant in a socialist federation of Canada and the Americas, Québec could ensure the flowering of its culture, while ending the system that measures humanity in dollars and cents.

By Rob Lyon
February 1999

(Note: the author would be very interested in receiving your views comments and criticisms on this article. Send them to

[Back to In Defence of Marxism] [Back to US/Canada]