The victory of the CAQ (Coalition Avenir Québec, or Coalition for the Future of Quebec) in the Oct. 1 elections in Quebec marked the end of an epoch in the province. The Liberal Party and the Parti Québécois (PQ) who had held power interchangeably for nearly half a century were pummeled at the polls, receiving their worst electoral results in history. The political landscape in Quebec is increasingly polarized on the left with Québec solidaire and on the right with the CAQ, while the establishment parties in the “centre” have been punished.
The CAQ is the most right-wing party to take power in 50 years. While this is shocking for many, this is just the logical conclusion of a process that has been unfolding for decades.
Quebec at an impasse
The Quebec state as we know it was the product of the national liberation movement in the 1960s and ’70s. During this period, Quebec went from being one of the most backwards provinces to one of the most advanced, in terms of the size of the welfare state. The creation of the CEGEPs (public colleges) and the public university network, the labour code, and the nationalization of hydroelectricity and other public enterprises form the basis of the modern state in Quebec. This is what is know as the “Quebec model,” embodied by a high level of spending on social programs, a large public sector, and relatively high levels of corporate taxation.
The gains of the past were in no small part due to the combativity of the working class which led many militant strikes in the ’60s and 70s. The Quebec working class to this day maintains the highest unionization rate of any jurisdiction in North America at nearly 40 per cent. Due to many militant struggles, workers have won concession in labour law with anti-scab legislation and laws making it less difficult for workers to unionize. Until recently, construction unions controlled firing and hiring. Strikes are more common as more workers have a vehicle to fight back against the attacks of the bosses.
This situation has become untenable for the capitalists who are not eager to invest in the province. Between 2000 and 2009, Quebec had the lowest business creation rate among the provinces. In the manufacturing sector, retail, transportation, and finance, more companies left than were created during the same period. This tendency continued between 2011 and 2015 with a business start-up rate of 10.4 per cent, the lowest in Canada.
In the last 10 years, only about 10 to 12 per cent of Canadian non-residential capital expenditure (machines, factories, etc.) occurred in Quebec, in spite of the fact that the province represents 23 per cent of the Canadian population. There has been a downward trend in private investments in Quebec since 2012, going from $22 billion to approximately $18 billion in 2017.
This low level of investment is reflected in a low productivity of labour relative to other provinces. From 1997 to 2016, Quebec’s productivity of labour increased by 19 per cent while it increased by 23.8 per cent in Ontario and 24.9 per cent in Canada as a whole. In 2016 the productivity of labour was at $46.65/hour in Quebec, while in Canada and Ontario it was at $53.43/hour and $51.76/hour respectively. In 2015, Quebec found itself at the end of the list of Canadian provinces in terms of labour productivity, ahead of only New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island.
The fact that the Quebec economy lags behind relative to other provinces is something specifically targeted by the new premier, François Legault, as a problem he will attempt to tackle. In a recent visit to Toronto, Legault mentioned the fact that in terms of GDP per capita, Quebec is 20 per cent behind the rest of the country. This is of course not new and has been the case for decades. This has led to a situation where 11 per cent of Quebec’s budgetary revenue comes from equalization payments from the federal government.
In order to deal with this discrepancy, Legault said that he would make attracting private investment an “obsession.” To this end, he has promised to match Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s recent cut to the provincial corporate taxation rate.
But this isn’t a newfound obsession for the Quebec bourgeoisie. The weakness of the Quebec economy was already underlined in 2005 when a group of politicians and business people led by former PQ premier Lucien Bouchard published the manifesto Pour un Québec lucide (For a clear-eyed vision of Quebec).
This 10-page document essentially represented the program of the Quebec bourgeoisie. It contained “solutions” to the lag of the Quebec economy such as a larger place for the private sector, increasing hydro rates, “cooperation” from the unions instead of confrontation, etc. This manifesto delighted then-Liberal premier Jean Charest who stated that it was “music to (his) ears.”
In order to attract business, the Charest Liberals, in power from 2003 to 2012, gave gifts to big business such as the abolition of the capital gains tax. Pauline Marois’s PQ government of 2012-2014 continued this work, imposing back-to-work legislation against the construction workers, implementing a 10-year tax holiday for investments over $300 million, and passing similar austerity budgets. The Liberal government of Philippe Couillard continued this trend of giving gifts to the capitalists, decreasing the corporate tax rate and bailing out aeronautics manufacturer Bombardier to the tune of $1 billion US in 2015.
The constant gifts given to corporations, the low productivity, and the higher-than-average public expenditure has made Quebec one of the most heavily indebted jurisdictions in North America. The incessant calls from the bourgeoisie for the government to tackle the debt has resulted in some of the most drastic austerity measures in Quebec history. This was clearly seen under the government of Jean Charest who became known as the premier who took on the combative student movement with a 75 per cent increase in tuition fees. This resulted in the magnificent 2012 Québécois Spring movement which ended with the defeat of the Charest government in the election that year. The subsequent PQ government faithfully followed the diktats of the capitalists by imposing similar austerity measures.
The attacks against workers and youth reached their peak under the Liberal government of Philippe Couillard which took power in 2014. Everything was on the chopping block in this period: health care, education, daycare, social assistance, public sector salaries, etc.
But the politicians are not simply bad people who wish to slash services. Under capitalism, maintaining the welfare state has a cost and the money must come from somewhere. The question is this: Is it the capitalists or the workers who will pay? When the system enters into crisis, the capitalists urgently require the government to pass the bill onto the workers in the form of cuts to public services or attacks on public sector unions.
Given that Canada has not seen a major economic crisis since 2008-2009, these austerity measures resulted in a reduction of the debt-to-GDP ratio, which has been falling since 2015. The Liberals were thanked for their dirty work with an increase in the credit rating of the province which is now higher than Ontario’s.
However, in spite of the fact that the economy is not in immediate crisis, years of austerity, cuts, and corruption have left their mark. Workers and youth can see that it was they who had to make sacrifices while the rich remain untouched. Most notably, the corporate handouts given to Bombardier have fueled the anger of the workers towards the establishment especially because they ended up laying off thousands of workers anyway. Why have the Bombardier bosses seen massive salary increases in this period of austerity?
Quebec is at an impasse. The global crisis of the capitalist system is putting immense pressure on each and every state. Governments need to eliminate all barriers to private investment. A sizeable welfare state in an economy like Quebec’s is no longer sustainable under capitalism and this is the reason for the incessant calls from the bourgeoisie for “fiscal responsibility.” The CAQ is the newfound vehicle to carry out the measures demanded by the capitalists.
The class struggle and the rejection of the establishment
Workers are not keen on submitting to the agenda of the capitalists without a fight. The numerous attacks on the workers and youth have led to intense class struggles over the past years. The 2012 student strike, the 2015 public sector Common Front, as well as the construction strikes of 2013 and 2017 are prime examples. During the 2012-2015 period, protests of 100,000 or more were a regular occurance.
Even in 2018 we have seen a resurgence in the class struggle. Strike votes of 90 per cent, 95 per cent and even 99 per cent are commonplace. A strike broke out in Montreal and Laval daycare centres this past summer, and SAQ (Société des alcools du Québec, the publicly owned liquor company) workers went on strike for multiple days over the past few months. Nurses last spring, exhausted from overwork, organized spontaneous sit-ins all over the province. The most clear example of this boiling working class rage expressed itself in the wildcat strike staged by crane operators in the summer. This was an illegal strike that was only brought to heel after the government threatened them with fines and prison sentences and the leadership of the FTQ (Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec or Quebec Federation of Labour, the largest union federation in the province) called the workers back to work. All of these movements express the working class’s growing anger as well as the desire to fight to regain what was lost due to years of austerity.
This was clearly demonstrated by a number of polls taken in the last few years. According to a May 2018 poll, confidence in politicians is at 18 per cent. In another poll from November 2017, 69 per cent of Québécois agree that “things are not going well and that big changes are necessary,” while 78 per cent agree that “over the course of the last 10 years things have remained the same or have gotten worse.”
A survey from May 27, 2018 also revealed that 47 per cent of Québécois claim that their income has not increased for many years. Among those who identify as workers, this ratio jumps to 61 per cent. The Couillard Liberals had a disapproval rating of 64 per cent this summer, an increase of nine per cent compared to the summer of 2017.
The deterioration of services, meagre wages imposed on the public sector workers, burnout among teachers and nurses, cuts to social assistance and services for seniors—all of these factors have made the status quo more and more untenable.
This anger toward the establishment manifested itself during the Oct. 1 election. The Liberals were “thanked” for their fifteen years of austerity, cuts, and corruption with the worst defeat in their history.
The PQ: the beginning of the end?
Interesting enough, it was Jean-François Lisée’s Parti Québécois that was the biggest loser in the elections. The party suffered its worst defeat in history with a measly 17.06 per cent of the vote. Lisée himself suffered a humiliating defeat in his own riding.
This was in spite of the fact that the PQ has only been in power once since 2003, for just 18 months in 2012-2014 as a minority government. How do we explain that this party which has mainly been in opposition was equally punished?
There has been an ongoing crisis in the PQ for several years. This humiliating electoral result was entirely predictable, and was in fact the logical outcome of the party’s trajectory.
The PQ initially was a “national coalition,” formed to fight for sovereignty. But this coalition inevitably had dynamite built into its foundations, as binding different classes together with fundamentally opposed interests could not last forever.
Over time the PQ showed its true colours. They viciously attacked the public sector workers in 1982-83 with wage cuts and back-to-work legislation. At the end of the ’90s with Lucien Bouchard at the helm, the party continued to serve more openly bourgeois interests with zero-deficit budgets which necessitated austerity measures. The last PQ government was Pauline Marois’s 2012-2014 minority government which offered tax breaks to big businesses, job cuts at Hydro-Québec, tuition increases, and back-to-work legislation against construction workers in the summer of 2013.
The pressures of capitalism forced the PQ to attack the workers. This is why the PQ is less and less seen as a “social-democratic” party and is perceived to be one of the two parties of the establishment by most people.
The second reason for the decline of the PQ is the loss of interest in sovereignty. A recent poll found that 74 per cent of Québécois think independence ought not to be an electoral issue and consider it outdated. During the electoral campaign a poll showed that only 19 per cent of Québécois between the ages of 18-25 considered themselves sovereigntist. These numbers are not surprising: since the 1995 referendum, mass struggles have increasingly centered on class issues rather than on issues surrounding the national question. The majority of workers and youth see their main enemy not in Ottawa, but rather in the provincial government which imposes austerity regardless of what party is at the helm. In the 2018 election, for the first time in 40 years, the question of independence was not a major electoral issue.
When Jean-François Lisée became leader of the PQ in 2016, he promised not to hold a referendum before a second term in 2022. The fact that the leadership of the party chose to delay its entire raison d’être reflects the broader disinterest in the traditional federalist-sovereigntist debate.
That being said, it would be false to assume that the question of independence is buried for good. For the time being, however, the class struggle is at the forefront of the political agenda and has been cutting across the national question.
In this situation, the PQ has been losing support to its left and to its right. The nationalist movement, represented almost exclusively by the PQ for decades, has broke down on class lines with the left coalescing around Québec solidaire while conservative nationalists are increasingly grouped around the CAQ.
With the polarization of Quebec society, the PQ has had the ground cut away from under its feet. The PQ tries to present a left face at times in order to not lose votes to QS, while at other times it plays the identitarian card in order to stem the rise of the CAQ. By trying to please everyone, they have ended up pleasing no one.
In an act of desperation during the election, the PQ launched a red scare campaign against Québec solidaire. Lisée stated that QS was “anchored in Marxism,” “anti-capitalist,” and that its program would be an economic disaster. This failed attack shows that a growing portion of the Québécois population are no longer frightened by the “radical” ideas of QS and are not attracted by the image of moderation and respectability that the PQ was presenting.
Although the PQ was having difficulty well before the elections, the electoral result has plunged the party into a deep existential crisis. It is entirely possible that the party has begun an irreversible decline. The party could even suffer the same fate as the Bloc Québécois which has become an insignificant force at the federal level.
Already, Jean-Martin Aussant, one of the PQ’s defeated candidates, stated that the party should consider a complete overhaul, even changing its name to start anew.
Aussant himself is a fairly popular figure among left-wing nationalists. QS spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau Dubois even attempted to convince Aussant to run for QS. If Aussant became the leader of the PQ (or whatever emerges from the ashes of the PQ), which is possible, the nationalists would put pressure on QS to ally itself with this formation in order to “unite the sovereigntist and progressive forces.”
Already since the election, articles calling for a new alliance between QS and the PQ were published in the mainstream media. Let us not forget that Nadeau-Dubois was himself in favour of strategic alliances with the PQ at the QS Congress in May 2017. A former PQ minister, Réjean Hébert, even recently called for a fusion of the two parties. This is the road to disaster.
Even if the PQ attempts to rebrand itself as more left-wing with Aussant or a similar figure, unity with such a formation would be a poison pill. Any alliance or fusion would inevitably involve QS compromising its more radical propositions. In order to channel the anger of the masses against the establishment, the party must refuse all collaboration with the PQ and present a bold alternative to the capitalist status quo and the parties who defend it.
The fight against racism and xenophobia
Although the interest in the question of independence is at a low point, the national question is alive and well. But the nationalist movement has now taken a hideous turn towards racism and xenophobia embodied in the CAQ.
Legault defends a nationalism similar to that of Maurice Duplessis, the former leader of the Union Nationale, fighting for more power for Quebec while remaining within Canada. Legault even admitted there were similarities in 2014 when he stated: “There are similarities [with the Union Nationale], but we aren’t going back to the Great Darkness.”
While Legault has promised never to hold another referendum on sovereignty, he is the most virulent defender of the famous and mysterious “Québécois identity” which is supposedly threatened. Before the elections, Legault promised to reduce immigration by 20 per cent and make immigrants pass a “values test.” He also stated that he would expel immigrants who don’t speak French within three years of being in Quebec. “There is no requirement for learning French, no requirement to respect our values. I think the Québécois, as a nation, have the right to control immigration a little better,” he said.
In addition, the CAQ has put itself at the head of the never-ending debate on religious symbols. The day after the election, Legault stated that he would ban public employees in positions of authority, including teachers, from wearing religious symbols. Simon Jolin-Barrette, the minister responsible for secularism, stated that the party would also be banning the wearing of the chador for all state employees.
This is supposedly being done to protect the secularism of the state, but in reality this is simply a smokescreen for an endless Islamophobic and xenophobic tirade. If Legault was honestly concerned about secularism, he would be ending the the state financing of religious schools and taking down the crucifix in the National Assembly. But incredibly, Legault has recently said that the crucifix is not a religious symbol! Such hypocrisy shows that this so-called debate is more about racism than anything else. The CAQ are using the honest secular sentiments of the Québécois population, which arose from the struggle against the domination of the Catholic church during the Quiet Revolution, in order to divide the population and attack Muslim women in particular. With the widespread working class discontent developing over the past decade or more, the question of religious symbols has been the distraction of choice for the capitalist parties.
Unsurprisingly, in spite of his quick declarations following his election, Legault pushed back the adoption of a secularism bill to the spring of 2019. Why not divide and distract the population for as long as possible?
Unfortunately, the QS leadership has repeatedly fallen into the trap and has been proposing a “compromise” in the National Assembly with the aim of “settling” this question. This compromise proposed by QS hinges on the recommendations of the Bouchard-Taylor report, which suggested banning religious symbols for state employees in positions of authority (judges, police, prison guards).
One of the main arguments in favour of this measure is a poll that showed that 76 per cent of Québécois are in agreement with this ban. But it is very easy for the leaders of Québec solidaire to fall back on polls that favour discrimination when almost nothing has been done to unmask these xenophobic distractions.
For a decade, we explained in all of our articles that this debate is nothing but a diversion used to divide the working class. But it is up to the mass organizations of the working class and Québec solidaire to fight against discrimination and unite the workers against the common enemy. The unions in Quebec and QS must have a principled position on this question: defending religious minorities against attempts to take their rights away. We should not accept the terms of this debate which has nothing to do with secularism. We must unmask the CAQ and the other capitalist parties and expose their attempts to divide and weaken us. Unions who have members affected by these reactionary measures must organize mass actions to protect their members who are under threat of losing their jobs. The Marxists of La Riposte socialiste will be on the front lines in this struggle against all attempts to divide and distract us with these racist measures.
The future of Québec solidaire
The highlight of the election campaign was the campaign of QS. The party doubled its number of votes and more than tripled its number of seats. In addition to this, QS finally succeeded in breaking out of the island of Montreal, electing four deputies outside of the city. QS can no longer be considered a “Montreal-centric” party.
Many people talk about the “rise of the right” in Quebec and point to the CAQ victory as proof. But this is only one side of the coin. What we are seeing is a polarization to the left and to the right. The rise of QS shows that a growing part of the population is looking for radical left-wing solutions.
Up until recently, in spite of the wave of working class and youth mobilization in Quebec, QS wasn’t increasing much in the polls. We had previously explained that this was due to the fact that during this period, the leadership of QS had been consistently moderating its discourse to appear more moderate and reasonable. While technically the party believes in going beyond capitalism, in the recent period this is almost never mentioned by the leadership. Additionally, more radical positions that were voted on by the membership such as nationalizing financial institutions and mines are absent from the party’s declarations.
Another factor has been the focus on the question of independence when the majority of people have been moving away from this debate and looking for class-based solutions. This has made QS often seem not all that different from the PQ. We explained repeatedly that the party must focus its agitation on bold class-based demands to demonstrate a clear difference between QS and the capitalist parties and incite the necessary enthusiasm among workers and youth in struggle.
In the end, this is what happened during the election campaign. By boldly focusing on free education, free dental insurance, halving public transportation fees, establishing a publically owned fibre optic network, and the nationalization of rural transportation, QS managed to enthuze large layers of the electorate. The party’s concrete and bold propositions set the agenda for the campaign and forced the other parties to tailend QS, releasing watered-down versions of QS proposals. Pro-worker proposals like the immediate implementation of a $15/minimum wage, more paid time off and sick leave, an anti-burnout law, etc. made QS stand out from the other parties.
With the decline of the PQ and the rise of QS, the relationship between the unions and the two parties is also likely to change. Historically, the union bureaucracy has maintained cordial relations with the PQ and given the party support in election after election. But the turn to the right of the PQ has damaged these relations. For example, the FTQ, which has always been the union closest to the PQ, hasn’t openly supported the party since 2008. Instead, most unions have been calling for a strategic vote “against the Liberals and the CAQ” which in essence has still meant tacit support for the PQ. But the logic of the situation will push the unions and QS closer together, especially considering that QS holds positions closer to those of the trade union movement.
The lessons of Greece
There is a striking similarity between the rise of the QS and the rise of Syriza in Greece a few years ago. Syriza, a party originating from the Greek communist movement, went from being an insignificant coalition at the beginning of the 2000s to the main opposition party in 2012. Greece was going through a disastrous economic crisis and the masses were radicalized by this situation and searching for a way out. The PASOK (Greek social-democratic party) became completely discredited after implementing austerity when in government, and this allowed Syriza to position itself as the main anti-austerity party. The party took power in January 2015, promising to put an end to the dictates of the IMF and the ECB which were forcing a program of brutal cuts on Greece in exchange for financial bailouts.
The leadership of Syriza, headed up by Alexis Tsipras, had the perspective of convincing the IMF and the ECB to let the party reverse the austerity measures and implement a program of progressive reforms. They believed that they could convince the bankers of their program, but the capitalists had no interest in negotiating. Then-Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis explained their response as: “You’re right in what you’re saying, but we’re going to crush you anyway.” The capitalists did everything in their power to prevent Syriza from being able to implement their program. Syriza was “forced” to continue to implement deep austerity measures and the party is still in power today, continuing to the dirty work for the European bankers.
What lessons can we learn from this in Quebec so that we don’t repeat the same mistakes?
As Syriza got closer to power, the party leadership fell under immense pressure from the Greek and European capitalists. Tsipras’s answer was to appease them by moderating the party program considerably. They abandoned the previous radical discourse, the critique of capitalism and the rigorous denunciation of the troika (the IMF, ECB, and the European Commission) which was forcing the Greek people to swallow drastic cuts to social services, wages, and pensions. The party abandoned their previous position of nationalizing the banks in favour of defending a more amorphous position of “control.” They also stopped demanding the cancellation of the bailout package (the memorandum) which enforced austerity on Greece, instead calling for negotiations.
Similarly, no longer a marginal party, there will be immense pressure on QS by the political establishment and petty-bourgeois public opinion for the party to be more “reasonable” and “realistic.” It is possible that the left turn seen during the election will once again be followed by moderation from the party leadership. With a chance that the party could be contending for government in 2022, the party leadership could bend to pressures and follow the same road of Tsipras towards moderation. But this will lead to a similar result.
Unfortunately, we have already seen this tendency from the party leadership. During the election, similarly to Tsipras, they repeatedly tried to calm the fears of the ruling class. Party leader Manon Massé spoke before the Montreal Chamber of Commerce explaining that QS was not a revolutionary socialist party. Questioned about their commitments to nationalize certain industries in the party program, Massé explained that there was a difference between what is in the party program and the things they have committed to do in their first mandate. The party spokespeople have also insisted on the fact that their program represents a lower level of social spending than the governments of René Lévesque and Robert Bourassa in the 1970s. The message sent by all of this is that QS is not really all that different.
In an interview at the beginning of the campaign, Massé was asked which left-wing governments inspired QS. She responded: “capitalism finds comfort in right-wing governments that always make decisions which accommodate the same privileged class, always ensuring that the rules of the game benefit a minority and not the majority. But I think that throughout history, in South America, we have seen it even in Greece with Syriza, which of course had to contend with enormous pressure from the central banks, etc. which did not like that they wanted to take care of their people.” Massé of course does not draw the logical conclusion from this experience.
The fundamental problem in Greece was that in spite of their past critiques of austerity and the capitalist system, the Syriza leadership had no perspective of linking the struggle against austerity and the diktats of the European bankers to a revolutionary struggle against the capitalist system. This was the only way forward in this situation. The leadership of Québec solidaire similarly also lacks this perspective, firmly committed to simply fighting for reforms in the National Assembly. Former QS deputy and party founder Amir Khadir clearly stated this in 2016 when he said, “We realize there are important hurdles in front of us, there was the perception [in the beginning] that we were radicals. In fact, we’re reformists. We are at the National Assembly because we accepted the principle of reform.”
Every QS activist must reflect on the experience of the Syriza government in Greece and draw the necessary conclusions. Once in power, a program of reforms in favour of the workers is not able to be implemented while remaining within the limits of the capitalist system. The capitalists organize capital strikes and threaten to move their businesses; reforms would be sabotaged and the mainstream media would demonize a QS government.
The solution to the blackmail and sabotage of the capitalists in Greece was to mobilize the masses in a revolutionary struggle to nationalize the banks and the big corporations and begin the transition to socialism. But Tsipras and the other leaders of the party never considered this. The leadership of Syriza, incapable of conceiving of a struggle against capitalism, was forced to manage the crisis of the system. This is the inevitable fate of left-reformist governments. They wish to manage capitalism and end up being managed by it.
Obviously, Quebec is not Greece. Quebec is not in the throes of a deep economic crisis at the present moment. But as we underlined above, the fundamentals of the Quebec economy are far from sound, and the turbulent global economic situation means that the bourgeoisie in Quebec and internationally will not play nice with a QS government.
Learning the lessons of the Greek experience is all the more important considering that QS could quite likely be contending for power in 2022. The parties of the establishment are already discredited, while the CAQ could quickly become one of the most unpopular governments in recent history. The door would be open for QS to put itself forward as the only solution in the eyes of workers and youth.
QS taking power would open up a new period in the class struggle in Quebec. A QS government would be forced to make the same decision forced on Syriza: submit to the will of the big capitalists, or nationalize the banks and big companies and mobilize the masses to support these socialist measures. Only in this way would the party be able to implement its program. This would be a period in which workers and youth would have to fight against the sabotage of capitalists and any attempts of the QS leadership to capitulate.
Class struggle on the agenda
We cannot predict when the attacks will resume from the government and we cannot predict exactly where the movement will come from. There have been rumblings in the student movement with 58,000 students striking in the 2018 fall semester against unpaid internships, and mobilizations are currently underway for an unlimited general student strike in the winter 2019 semester. It is not clear whether or not this will be the spark for a more generalized movement against the government and the system, as was the case with the heroic Québécois spring of 2012.
Contract negotiations for more than half a million public sector workers will take place in 2020. The public sector unions will find a most steadfast opposition in the CAQ government, and this could be the focal point of a big struggle. During the last round of public sector negotiations in 2015, the workers mobilized the biggest one-day general strike in the history of the province but the leadership ended up capitulating, accepting wage increases which were lower than those imposed on the public sector in 2005 by Jean Charest. They also accepted an increase in the retirement age. It is imperative that we draw the lessons from this struggle. Faced with a hostile government hell-bent on reducing the size of the public sector, the unions will have no choice but to return to the heroic traditions of the past: occupations, the general strike, mass demonstrations, and mass solidarity actions with other sectors of the working class in struggle.
Unfortunately, union leaders generally have their heads in the past, believing that it is possible to win concessions by negotiating in “good faith” with the employer or the state. This conciliatory approach has led to defeat after defeat for decades.
But this conservative union bureaucracy is not stronger than the laws of history. Sooner or later the radicalization of the workers will enter into conflict with the conservatism of their leadership. Leaders will either be forced to the left, or they will be forced out and the best militants from the ranks will be thrown forward.
We need to return to the rich traditions of militant class struggle which were so magnificently on display during the numerous struggles in the ’60s and ’70s. Workers should read and reread Ne comptons que sur nos propres moyens (Only count on our own), an excellent document published by the CSN in 1971 calling for the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by socialism.
In many respects, the period opening up in Quebec resembles the turbulent period of the ’60s and ’70s. This period was marked by working class radicalization, militant strikes, and the rise and fall of political parties. We need to be prepare ourselves for similar sudden changes in the situation today. It is the job of Marxists to be on the front lines of these struggles, providing workers with the ideological weapons necessary to understand what is happening, and to fight and win.
Political turbulence and the role of Marxists
Without a doubt, the period that opens up before us will be an exciting one for those looking to fight against capitalism. The golden age of capitalism, which corresponds to the period of the 30 years of almost uninterrupted economic boom that followed the Second World War, gave space for the capitalists in the West to make concessions to buy class peace for a whole period. But this period is well behind us and governments in Quebec and Canada, just like capitalist governments all over the world, are now attempting to claw back all of the gains made in the past period that make our lives semi-bearable. The crisis of capitalism is already radicalizing thousands of people, most notably the youth who are the first generation since World War II to have lower living standards than their parents.
Marxists are still a small minority. Most people still see our ideas as too extreme. But over time, more and more people will come to Marxist conclusions through the material experience of living through capitalism in crisis. The slow erosion of living conditions is the strongest, most persistent argument against the system.
Big class battles are on the horizon against the CAQ government. This could manifest itself on the trade union front or through a militant student movement, or spontaneously through a movement like the yellow vests in France. Quebec has great traditions of struggle and the coming years are set to add to this rich history.