The former premier of Quebec and Parti Québécois leader Jacques Parizeau passed away on June 1, 2015. People across the political spectrum have spent considerable efforts waxing political and nostalgic about the last “great statesman”. All sides of the political divide praise the man for his steadfast nationalism and position on sovereignty and his tireless work in that regard. However, there is a divergent view of the man and his politics.
From the right wing we learn that Parizeau was a great politician and leader for Quebec because of his sound financial policies and fiscal responsibility, and from the left wing we learn that he was equally great because of his “social democratic” principles and Keynesianist economic policies. Each side only focuses on the period in Parizeau’s political career that conveniently fits into their own arguments, and their own political vision. Friend and foe alike are taking the opportunity to use Parizeau and claim his heritage to further their own agenda. We believe that the passing of Parizeau provides workers, students, and activists an opportunity to assess his actual politics, ideas, and the party he spearheaded for decades.
From the bosom of the bourgeois to arch-bureaucrat
Parizeau was certainly one of the more colourful figures in Canadian politics. He was born in Montreal in 1930 into a family of wealth and privilege. He often proudly boasted that he was a member of the “international bourgeoisie” and never shied away from his class background. Even René Lévesque once said “Most of us are one or two generations from the farm. Parizeau has been in Outremont for seven generations and is proud of it.” (René Lévesque and the Parti Québécois in Power, by Graham Fraser, p. 159)
Parizeau was the first Quebecer to earn a PhD from the London School of Economics, where he studied in the 1950s. It was here that he truly learned what it meant to be bourgeois. The manner in which he came to carry himself was a caricature of the bourgeoisie and was the source of plenty of ridicule from friends and foes alike, not to mention plenty of ammunition for political cartoonists. He dressed like a London City banker, complete with pinstriped suits and a bowler hat. During his time in London he picked up a posh, upper-class accent and often exclaimed oddities and archaic phrases such as “I haven’t the foggiest…” and “By Jove!” An intellectual, economist, and bureaucrat by trade and nature, to many he seemed the least likely person to eventually lead the PQ.
While one’s attire and accent are not always good indicators of one’s politics, in the case of Parizeau, the class nature of his politics was glaringly obvious. Despite the fact that he also called himself a “social democrat” and that he espoused “economic interventionism”, his outlook and politics were undoubtedly bourgeois.
Many in Quebec are mourning the passing of Parizeau as the loss of an “authentic social democrat”. It could certainly be argued that Parizeau was a social democrat, although the problem is that, like the rest of the social democrats internationally, Parizeau and the PQ would seem to have dropped all the socialist aspects from their “social democracy”. Parizeau described himself as “centre-left” and specified clearly that he was not a socialist, but rather “progressive” (Fraser, p. 157 - 158).
In fact, under cover of the “social democratic” face of the PQ, Jacques Parizeau and the PQ leadership were able to turn the Parti Québécois away from its so-called “progressive” and “social democratic” policies of the 1970s towards the naked class policies of austerity over the course of the 1980s and 1990s - a process that has arrived at its logical conclusion with the victory of Pierre Karl Péladeau as the current head of the PQ.
Péladeau is now even trying to play the “progressive” and “anti-austerity” card in an attempt to secure support on his left flank, and has received support from leading labour elements in the PQ. This follows a long established historical pattern - an historical pattern one sees repeated often in the history of the social democracy and specifically in the history of the PQ. When in opposition the PQ has shuffled to the left as a means of getting electoral support and then once in power it compromises on these policies and shifts back to the right.
Whether a social democrat or not, Parizeau was a Keynesianist. Upon his return to Quebec following his studies abroad, he would use the Keynesian economics he learned in London to full effect. He played a key role in Quebec’s Quiet Revolution as an advisor to the Lesage and Johnson Sr. governments. Parizeau was in fact a model arch-bureaucrat. His ideas and plans played no small part in the process of economic and political modernization Quebec underwent in the 1960s and 1970s. He played a key role in the nationalization of Hydro-Québec, forming the structure of Quebec’s provincial civil service, establishing the Quebec Stock Savings Plan as well as the Quebec Pension plan and also played a role in the centralization of public-sector collective bargaining that allowed for the development of the Common Front. He liked to joke that, “for all intents and purposes, the Quiet Revolution consisted of three or four ministers, twenty civil servants and consultants - and fifty chansonniers.” (Fraser, p. 161)
While the above “joke” betrays Parizeau’s bureaucratic conception of politics and his fundamentally undemocratic approach, in a certain sense the above statement accurately describes the process of the Quiet Revolution. However, it is only accurate from the bourgeois point of view and, perhaps most importantly, only if we choose to forget that none of it was possible without the broad support and militant action of the workers and students of Quebec.
It was during his days as an arch-bureaucrat that Parizeau came to see, as a result of his experiences in the government and the role it played in the Quiet Revolution, that the state could be a powerful tool in the hands of the rising petit bourgeoisie in the province. The PQ and other petit bourgeois nationalist forces believed that the state could be used to foster and protect a powerful francophone bourgeoisie that could thereby further the interests of the “nation” against the dominant (English) Canadian bourgeoisie and US imperialist forces and eventually provide the economic and political foundations for a sovereign state. The state became a vehicle for the aspirations of the petit bourgeoisie. Herein lies the true meaning of Parizeau’s politics.
Parizeau is best described as a Keynesianist. In reality, on the basis of the post-war boom, all the mainstream parties at the time were Keynesianist. The period from the late 1940s until the late 1970s was a time when the bourgeoisie could afford reforms and used Keynesian economics to buy class peace.
But more than that too, the ruling class at this time used the state in a series of state capitalist measures to foster, develop, and protect certain industries and markets and as a bailout measure in the face of minor slumps and “corrections”. In fact, while the PQ did introduce some “progressive” legislation in the 1970s that went further than anywhere else in North America at the time (such as anti-scab legislation for example), most of the policies of the Lesage and Lévesque governments were in reality very similar to the policies employed by the various Tory, Liberal, and NDP provincial and federal governments at the time.
The PQ was in the main implementing policies that helped to modernize Quebec’s political and state infrastructure in line with its industrial economic foundations. They hoped to use the state to build powerful economic concerns around which a strong francophone bourgeoisie could develop. This was the historic role of the Quiet Revolution.
While some of these policies were unique to Quebec, many of the policies of the PQ would not have been outside the realm of normal in the other provinces. There may have been this or that dispute over the depth and extent of Keynesianist measures in other provinces, but in the main these policies were accepted by the ruling class, in particular as a means of buying class peace.
The PQ’s policies certainly did not threaten property relations or capitalism in Quebec. So why the severe opposition from imperialism against these same measures in Quebec? There was a hostile response to these measures from U.S. imperialism and the (English) Canadian bourgeoisie because these measures could only be developed directly against their own particular and narrow class interests in Quebec. The PQ government signalled a loss of political power for the imperialists in the province and a challenge to the naked power of the (English) Canadian bourgeoisie - something they could not tolerate or forgive. The imperialists had long become accustomed to plundering Quebec and made fantastic riches off the brutal exploitation of the workers and farmers of Quebec, with little or no opposition, and they were not prepared to give these powers and privileges up without a major fight.
The question of class unity
Parizeau was a clever political tactician and strategist. As a key figure in the nationalist movement and a leader of the PQ, at times he was forced to be all things to all people - especially in the period just before Quebec’s two referendums. As a nationalist party, the PQ tried to unite the francophone bourgeoisie, petit bourgeoisie, and working class under one house into one national project.
René Lévesque himself didn’t think this unity could last. In his book on the first PQ governments in the 1970s and 1980s, Graham Fraser explained that “[Lévesque] assumed that after independence the Parti Québécois would split into two separate parties, one on the left and the other on the right” (Fraser, p. 335).
In 1976, the PQ ran on a broadly “social democratic” or left Keynesianist platform, including a commitment to full employment. The PQ leadership realized that it could win the election if it were able to harness the energy and desire for change of the working class and its organizations. The first PQ government introduced labour legislation that outlawed the use of scabs, guaranteed striking workers their jobs and imposed the Rand formula. Yet that same year Parizeau’s first budget as finance minister was referred to as the “banker’s budget”. Expenditure on the most expensive projects was postponed, borrowing reduced and higher fees were introduced with hikes in the sales tax on children’s shoes and clothing. Parizeau even explained that “when you don’t have money, you can’t do miracles” (Fraser, p. 117).
Fraser even explains that in relation to his first budget “[Parizeau’s] real audience was on Wall Street, and he got applause where he needed it most. Calling it ‘restrained’ and ‘disciplined’, traders were pleased… Five months later, Parizeau could see the results: Quebec kept its AA credit rating on Wall Street.” (Fraser, p. 117)
While not explicitly stated, the idea was presented that the PQ’s policies could only be achieved if Quebec were an independent or sovereign nation. In the early days of its first government, when the PQ needed the support of the unions to implement its program of modernization and democratic reform, Parizeau would play the social democrat card and offered enticing deals to the unions.
Yet this class unity the PQ managed to forge in the 1970s could not last. After the PQ had found an accommodation with the American and Canadian imperialists, when the party needed to reassure the bankers in Toronto, Montreal and New York, he became a champion of austerity and “zero public deficit” and was responsible for smashing the unions and bringing them to heel in the 1980s.
The role of imperialism and the nature of bourgeois democracy
Parizeau quickly learned where the true power is found in North America. In the early 1960s, the Lesage government could not find the money within Canada it needed to deliver on its promise to nationalize hydropower. The bankers in Montreal and Toronto refused. Parizeau led a contingent to New York City and easily obtained the loan they needed from Wall Street, claiming that, “it took half an hour” (“Jacques Parizeau was the kind of politician we dream about until we actually elect him”, by Lise Ravary, published in National Post on June 4, 2015).
Later on, when Parizeau was Finance Minister under the first PQ government, the PQ was completely locked out of North American financial markets. Investors and bankers in the U.S. were terrified of a separatist, “social democratic” government that had proclaimed a “favourable prejudice toward workers”. If it were to deliver on its campaign promises, the PQ needed to scratch and claw to find other sources of financial backing - from other imperialist powers and bankers. It managed to find this support in Japan and Switzerland, and paid its new lenders dearly. Parizeau and the PQ leadership learned a valuable lesson and would from then on prefer to rely on the power of Wall Street bankers than on the power of the people in Quebec.
In discussions about sovereignty in Quebec or politics in Canada in general, the power of U.S. imperialism cannot be underestimated or overstated. While more nakedly obvious in Quebec, this power dynamic plays out across the entire country. There is a direct relationship between austerity and the undemocratic power of unelected bankers.
This relationship between the capitalists, imperialism, and Wall Street bankers on the one side and elected governments on the other holds true throughout the world, and should be a clear indication of the limits of reformism (Keynesianism) as well as of bourgeois democracy. Social democratic and Keynesianist reforms are initiated within the capitalist system and are designed to work as part of that system, more often than not to save it and prop it up by attempting to go beyond the normal limitations of markets. The reformists and Keynesianists look first to the bankers, and not the workers. If the money for the reforms cannot be found with the bankers, the reformists recoil from taking actual socialist measures, such as nationalization under workers’ control. They follow the dictates of the bankers and initiate counter-reforms and austerity rather than mobilize the workers and pose a revolutionary challenge to the capitalist system.
Can we speak of genuine democracy in Quebec and Canada, or in Greece for example, when regardless of the democratic desires of the people, when regardless of the government elected by the people, policies are still ultimately decided by unelected bankers? Because of the organic crisis of capitalism, the ruling class has far less room for manoeuver than in the past. This partially explains why it is very difficult to distinguish the political programs of the different bourgeois political parties. One often hears that “all the political parties are the same”. This is because governments, no matter which party is in power, are bound hand and foot to the policies of the imperialist bankers, and from that perspective, the perspective of Wall Street and Bay Street, there is only a narrow range of policies that are possible.
Social democracy or austerity?
Before both the 1980 and 1995 referendums, Parizeau tried to buy the support of the unions by offering sweetened deals - deals which the government then broke and clawed back after the electioneering was done. In the late 1970s, in an effort to win over the working class, the PQ raised the minimum wage, introduced anti-scab legislation along with a new labour standards code and provided a spot for unions in the system alongside management for regulating healthcare and safety. It was hoped that the centralized bargaining for public-sector unions between the Common Front and the state would soften trade union demands and bring them to heel.
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:
“In the 1979 round of centralized public-sector bargaining, Finance Minister and Treasury Board president Jacques Parizeau effectively purchased social peace by granting the unions a number of generous concessions, especially with respect to maternity leave and job security.
“[Later] with the disintegration of its independence project, the Parti québécois was left adrift, without philosophical or ideological bearings. For not only did the May 20, 1980 referendum vote signal the demise of the party’s constitutional option, it also prefigured the collapse of many of the social and economic policies pursued by the PQ during the first few years of its mandate. 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”.
Even prior to the PQ’s shift to the policies of austerity, it was recognized that Parizeau’s nationalism could “swing just as well to the right as to the left” (Fraser, p. 162). It was acknowledged even then that, “the government was using the pension fund as a credit card when it tried to buy off the public-sector unions in the pre-referendum settlement” (Fraser, p. 163). Parizeau’s budgets for 1978 - 1980 were Keynesianist with expansions in funding for the purposes of stimulus. Though slowing, Parizeau believed that government stimulus would help the recovery, which he presumed would follow shortly thereafter. Parizeau’s assessment proved false and the recovery did not take place.
The surprise PQ victory in 1981 coincided with a deep recession. In fact, Parizeau correctly regarded it as the “deepest and most serious crisis in fifty years” (Fraser, p. 305) and had implemented ferocious cuts to education and deep cuts amounting to $1 billion dollars in social spending (Fraser, p. 262). Unemployment stood at over 15% and Quebec’s economic output contracted by 6.3%. Quebec was hit hard by the recession, hosting 44% of all jobs lost in Canada. The PQ government’s budget deficit ballooned. René Lévesque and Parizeau then launched an assault on the working class, primarily the public sector workers who had been a key part of the PQ’s grand coalition of nationalist forces. The PQ was splitting on class lines, as it now needed to show the ruling class and imperialists that it was “responsible”, and fit to govern.
“The government announced shortly after its re-election that the budget deficit for 1981-1982 could not exceed $3 billion, since foreign creditors would not be able to tolerate anything beyond that threshold. With no rollbacks of public-sector wages, the deficit for 1982 would be $3.7 billion; according to Parizeau and Yves Bérubé (President of the Treasury Board), therefore, there was a $700 million ‘budgetary hole’. Cost-of-living increases due to be paid out to public-sector employees as part of the generous 1979 settlements just happened to amount to $670 million, nearly enough to fill the hole, and the PQ essentially asked the unions to forego these increases.” (Tanguay)
When the unions refused this “request” on the part of the PQ government, the Lévesque government used draconian legislation to smash the public sector unions and bring them to heel. Parizeau froze some public-sector salaries and implemented wage rollbacks. Bill 70 extended public-sector contracts unilaterally and applied an across-the-board 18.85% wage cut. Quebec’s credit rating was downgraded after Bill 70 was introduced, putting even more pressure on the PQ government. The public-sector unions and PQ government were on a collision course.
The PQ, in order to crush the opposition of the trade unions, introduced Bill 105 that forced over 100 similar collective bargaining agreements on various public-sector unions. This Bill was described as “the most enormous and most odious special law that the National Assembly has ever adopted” (Fraser, p. 330). One PQ cabinet minister was to have said “I feel the serenity of the beaver who gnaws off his paw to free himself from a trap” (Fraser, p. 330). Thus, the PQ freed itself of the shackles of its relationship with the labour movement, which it had bought with generous contracts in the lead up to the referendum.
The teachers’ union launched a three-week general strike against these measures. Thirty thousand public-sector workers took to the streets in the capital in what was called at that time “the biggest demonstration ever held in Quebec City”.
In response to the disobedience of the workers, the Lévesque government introduced Bill 111, which was particularly draconian. Bill 111 called for firings with no right of appeal, loss of salary and seniority, and suspended both the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Bill actually reversed the burden of proof as provided for under common law. These are the defining measures of Parizeau “the Great Statesman” and the rest of the PQ leadership - buying class peace and the support of the workers when needed for the national project, and then removing democratic rights and ripping up collective agreements when convenient for the bourgeoisie and once again in the name of the national project.
On this basis, the PQ government was then able to impose harsh sanctions on the unions, their officials and members, smashing union resistance to their draconian policies. One union leader explained that “when [senior cabinet minister] Dr. Laurin, in his sinister way, lists off all the effects of the law, it makes our members realize they are dealing with a gang of chainsaw maniacs”. (Fraser, p. 333) As Tanguay explains “In the eyes of many of its erstwhile supporters, the PQ had ripped off its social democratic mask in order to expose its ‘néo-Duplessiste’ face”.
This right-wing and anti-democratic process continued throughout the 1980s. When Reagan and Mulroney launched negotiations for the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement (FTA), a signal from the bourgeoisie that the days of Keynesian economics and social reforms were over and that a new era of austerity would be opened, to the surprise of many they found some of their earliest, staunchest - and only - supporters in the PQ leadership.
Bernard Landry became a close ally of Mulroney’s and wrote a book called “Le commerce sans frontières, le sens du libre-échange” (Trade without borders: the meaning of free trade) where he argued that Quebec needed free trade in order to secure access to a large market in the United States and because in the event of a declaration of sovereignty, Quebec could use free trade with the U.S. to protect itself from economic reprisals from Canada. This again indicates that the PQ leadership is very aware of where the real power lies in Quebec. Over the course of the 1980s Parizeau was to come to believe that the prospects of sovereignty were only possible on the basis of free trade and the development of good relations with Wall Street bankers.
Parizeau himself also joined in the campaign for free trade and played a key role in procuring the PQ’s support for the FTA. In his “Pour un Québec souverain” (For a Sovereign Quebec) he declared that, “With the highly effective assistance of Bernard Landry, I managed to bring about a 180 degree turn in the Parti Québécois in favour of free trade” (Parizeau, p. 44). In fact, because Parizeau had been such a close ally in the cause of free trade, Mulroney offered to appoint Parizeau as an independent Senator to help secure the passage of the FTA, an offer Parizeau rejected.
As if the PQ hadn’t already jettisoned its “social democratic” face in crushing the public-sector unions, this support for NAFTA meant that the PQ supported the real “meaning of free trade” - the policies of Reagan, Bush, and Mulroney. Bringing their policies in line with those of the FTA and later NAFTA would be mean support for deregulation, privatization, and cutbacks - in a word, austerity.
The party continued its rightward shift throughout the 1990s up to this day. Bouchard, Landry, Boisclair, and Marois, ever eager to show the ruling class and imperialists that they indeed can be counted on as “fiscally responsible” defenders of capitalism, increasingly turned the PQ into the most ardent defenders of capitalist austerity. The PQ became the champions of “zero deficit”.
Despite Parizeau’s objections and his statements on how the PQ has become a “field of ruin” and has “lost its soul”, this entire process, in which he long played a part, was brought to its logical conclusion with the victory of Pierre Karl Péladeau in the PQ leadership contest. The Marxists, in essential agreement with what Lévesque believed at the time of the founding of the Parti Québécois, have long explained that the PQ would be unable to keep the various class forces inside it united on the basis of its nationalist project. No national movement can unite the classes with diametrically opposed interests indefinitely. We explained that on the basis of events, and under the increasing pressure of the economic crisis and the class struggle, that the PQ and the broader nationalist movement would split on class lines.
Following the PQ’s attacks on the public sector unions, it is difficult to understand how there can still be union support, even if weakened, for the PQ. This continued support is partially the result of the fact that there is as yet no party of labour in Quebec. This support from elements in the organized labour movement for the PQ is also rooted in the shift to the right in the union leadership and the fact that elements of the trade union leadership are prepared to abandon even the pretence of the class struggle and give precedence to the national struggle.
This was reflected in a statement by prominent labour leaders in the PQ leadership. They believed that Péladeau was in the best position to face the “staunchest federalists”. Yet, these labour leaders had to acknowledge that, “the relationship between Pierre Karl Péladeau and the unions has not always been harmonious” and explained that they now supported him because “it is not now a question of negotiating a collective agreement but one of Quebec’s accession to independence” (Le Devoir, 04/15/2015).
While the remaining labour elements in the PQ grovel before Péladeau, the unity of classes in the PQ is weakening. The PQ has certainly not been cleaved, but it has haemorrhaged significantly over the past few years from both its left and right flanks. The right wing and soft sovereigntist wing of the party has drifted towards firstly the ADQ and now the Coalition Avenir Québec. The left wing has drifted towards Québec solidaire and other grouplets, including the Option Nationale, the party Parizeau publicly supported in his final years.
Inside the PQ, the strongest remaining forces are the openly pro-bourgeois elements, not to mention the opportunist careerist elements that have carved a niche for themselves via the state over the years of the PQ in power and via its relationship with the province’s ruling elite. This partial clearing of the field paved the way for the victory of Péladeau. Like Parizeau, Péladeau is bourgeois through and through, and is his true inheritor. Péladeau will stamp the party firmly with his class outlook and the interests of his class, and the PQ will shift further to the right.
Parizeau was critical of the PQ from the left in the past period before his passing. When not in power it was easy enough for Parizeau to play the social democratic card, yet once in power it was always an entirely different question. This is an historical pattern for the PQ. The PQ plays to the left and becomes the champion of “progressive” policies in the lead up to an election in order to win support, but then once in power it shifts to the right and champions “zero deficit” and austerity.
By bringing a grand bourgeois into the fold, elements in the PQ hope that Péladeau can further reassure Wall Street by showing that powerful capitalist concerns are now behind the bourgeois sovereignty project. This process under the Péladeau leadership will accelerate the class divisions in the PQ, but also in the broader nationalist movement.
Sovereignty for whom?
Parizeau’s reactionary and racist bourgeois politics were best expressed in his speech following defeat in the 1995 referendum. He famously blamed the defeat on “money and the ethnic vote”. With his passing, many from across the political spectrum have come to the defence of the man and these comments. Either seen as an unfortunate slip of the tongue (for which he never apologized), the result of his emotional character and “thin skin”, or even the fault of inebriation, his famous speech after defeat in 1995 reveals as much as anything his reactionary bourgeois outlook. Thus the political career of this “great statesman” ended ignobly in the muck and mire of chauvinism.
The meaning of “money and the ethnic vote” still forms a part of the backbone of the PQ’s discourse and ideology. This chauvinism certainly animated Péladeau’s comments in March of this year when he stated that demographics and immigration were damaging the cause of sovereignty and it certainly animated the drive for the Charter of Values.
Memories in Quebec appear short. Despite his role in crushing the unions in the 1980s, Parizeau will be best remembered for his nationalist politics, rather than the class nature of his politics - and this despite the fact that the two are inseparably bound. Parizeau remained an ardent and active defender of Quebec sovereignty. But the question must be asked - what kind of sovereignty? Sovereignty for whom?
For Parizeau and the sovereigntist bourgeoisie and petit bourgeoisie, sovereignty is an end in and of itself. Sovereignty in Quebec for the bourgeoisie is a question primarily of political “liberation”. Once developed in the Marxist sense as a class for itself, elements of the petit bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie of Quebec are aware of their power and position in society, and wish to see this reflected in their “political independence”.
Having emerged from the Quiet Revolution with economic and state power, the ruling class and their hangers-on amongst the petit bourgeoisie now desire the prestige of their own state. They dream of their own seat at the table with Canadian and American imperialism. They want to be recognized as equals and join the imperialist club of North America as full and equal partners. They desire seats at the table of NAFTA, the United Nations, and NATO. For elements of the bourgeoisie of Quebec sovereignty means its own political liberation, its own state and the creation of its own country with itself at the head of the nation. Of course, from the point of view of the PQ leadership it also means, and in fact is dependent on, following closely the dictates of Wall Street bankers.
However, for the working class, the question of sovereignty has always been a question primarily of bread. The working class heroically launched a struggle in the 1950s through the 1970s for thorough social and political change. This struggle culminated in the revolutionary general strike of the Common Front in 1972. Betrayed and sold out by a vacillating leadership, for a time it appeared to the workers as if the avenue of militant class struggle as a means of changing society had been closed. For a time, particularly in the lead up to the 1980 referendum, it appeared that the PQ was a government that would side with the working class and trade unions.
Enticed by the promise of social change from the PQ in the 1970s, the workers looked to the question of sovereignty as a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. The workers of Quebec were first attracted to its social policies in the 1970s as the PQ argued that these policies could only be achieved with sovereignty, and likewise, that sovereignty could only be achieved on the basis of its social policies. Thus, sovereignty for the working class was viewed as the means to achieving the end goal of social change.
This was but a deception on the part of the PQ leadership, because in reality sovereignty would not have provided the Quebec state with the means of implementing these policies, as economically speaking all the power rested with bankers in Toronto, Montreal and New York. If the imperialists would not pay for reforms with Quebec part of Canadian Confederation, why would they pay for it if Quebec were independent or sovereign?
For a time the national question cut across the class struggle, but only as a result of the defeat of the workers’ movement and the opening of a period of reaction. The leadership of the PQ emphasized the question of sovereignty while the workers and rank-and-file members emphasized the social policies. With the crushing of the public-sector unions in the 1980s the workers and rank-and-file became demoralized, and left the party in droves. This cleared the way for the rightward virage of the PQ.
The leadership of the unions played no small role in this. The trade union leadership have shifted considerably to the right over the past 30 years, and have tied large sections of the working class to the bourgeois policies of the PQ leadership, such as they are doing to this day with the Péladeau leadership.
It was the failure of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords and the constitutional crisis of the 1980s and 1990s that led to a rise in nationalism and support for sovereignty in Quebec, still viewed as a social question, a question of bread, by ordinary Quebecers. The PQ leadership under Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard was able to capitalize on the growing discontent and anger and funnel the desires of the working class down a nationalist-constitutional road, culminating in the 1995 referendum.
As he explained to Chantal Hebert in her recent book “The Morning After: The 1995 Quebec Referendum and the Day that Almost Was”, should the Yes side have won in 1995, in the first hour after the victory - before any victory speeches, before any legislative or diplomatic measures - the first thing that Parizeau would have done was to send out officials from Quebec’s Ministry of Finance to the financial capitals of the world in an effort to ensure imperialist bankers that the province was “fiscally sound”. Assuring imperialist bankers and securing their support was the key to sovereignty for the PQ leadership.
Furthermore, in an age of austerity and budget cuts, the PQ had squirreled away a $17 billion reserve fund so that Quebec could “intervene in markets to blunt the initial aftershock of the Yes vote on the province’s bonds”. This is the meaning of Parizeau’s Keynesianism, of his “economic interventionism”, of his “social democratic” politics. Keynesianism was always intended as a means of bailing out the capitalists and their system, not to support the class interests of the working class. This $17 billion had been saved to secure the support of the imperialist bankers when in an age of austerity this money could have been used on social programs. The priorities of the PQ leadership were clear - it would be the policies of imperialism that would secure sovereignty, not “progressive” policies.
The PQ shifted further to the right with the defeat of the referendum and with Bouchard assuming the leadership. By the end of the 1990s people were turning away from the PQ in droves. In the late 1990s one poll indicated that half the youth in Quebec mistrusted or were hostile toward the monopoly of the Parti Québécois-Parti libéral du Québec in politics, reflecting the fact that the PQ was clearly seen as part of the capitalist establishment. Another poll from that period indicated that 73% of Quebecers, and an even higher percentage of young Quebecers, believed that there should be a “left-wing political party dedicated to the needs of workers and the underprivileged”. (Le Monde Diplomatique, December 1998)
This was an early indication that on the basis of economic crisis, as opposed to the process in the 1970s where the national question cut across the class struggle, the militant traditions of the working class were returning to the fore and that the class struggle would again come to cut across the national question.
It is no accident that the NDP has surged in recent years in Quebec, and continues to do so. Many right-wing pundits believed that support for the NDP would collapse following the last federal election. They believed that the NDP vote was simply a protest vote to punish the PQ and Bloc québécois for failing to deliver. This support has not dwindled, and in fact NDP support remains strong as Quebecers abandon the Bloc and its right-wing policies. This reflects the fact that Quebecers are now clearly seeking class solutions as opposed to constitutional solutions.
Parizeau and the PQ have always looked first to Wall Street and the imperialist bankers. The truth of the matter is that even if Parizeau had found himself in power now, he would be forced to do the same, as he did in the 1980s and 1990s when in power. The petit bourgeois and bourgeois nationalists have come to the belief that sovereignty is best ensured by good relations with U.S. imperialism and by following the dictates of Wall Street. The PQ and those on the right want political sovereignty for the ruling class, while the workers of Quebec are increasingly seeking militant class-based solutions to their problems. This puts the working class and the trade unions on a collision course with Péladeau and the PQ and with bourgeois nationalism in general.
In the 19th Century, the great Marxist and revolutionary James Connolly, in relation to the national question in Ireland wrote the following in “Socialism and Nationalism”:
“If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs. England would still rule you to your ruin, even while your lips offered hypocritical homage at the shrine of that Freedom whose cause you had betrayed.”
These words ring very true to this day. If we replace the words particular to England and Ireland with ones related to Canada (along with the United States) and Quebec, the above quote brilliantly explains the crux of the question of sovereignty in Quebec. There can be no true independence for Quebec on the basis of capitalism.
The people of Quebec will not find the solutions they seek under the roof of bourgeois nationalism, a house that binds them hand and foot to the dictates of imperialist bankers and reactionary capitalists like Péladeau. There is no real sovereignty for ordinary Quebecers along the road of independence on a capitalist basis, as the imperialists would retain the ultimate power and determine policy. This would immediately rule out any Keynesianist reforms.
Many on the left yearn for the Keynesianist policies of Parizeau, policies that he only supported at certain times under certain conditions. They see these policies as the way forward, despite the failure and complete reversal of these policies in the past. Given the organic crisis of capitalism, the ruling class is no longer able to provide or tolerate any Keynesianist policies for any length of time. Any reforms in Quebec, whether independent or not, would still require the approval of the imperialist bankers of Wall Street and Bay Street. On this basis, the Keynesianist yearnings on the part of the nationalist left are simply not possible. Sovereignty, in the fullest sense, can never be truly realized under the framework of capitalism.
From this perspective, it can be seen that sovereignty on the basis of capitalism will not mean freedom for the workers of Quebec. The working class of Quebec and the labour movement must break cleanly with bourgeois nationalism, which only binds the working class to the policies of Wall Street. Given the support for the NDP federally there are mass reserves of support for a provincial party of labour, for a Quebec workers’ party. Only by basing itself on its own political and union organizations, its militant traditions, and by fighting for socialist policies will the working class of Quebec be able to fight back against the policies of austerity, find the solutions to its problems, and finally be free - free from the shackles of capitalism and imperialism and free from the burdens of poverty and exploitation.
Jacques Parizeau was undoubtedly a key figure in Quebec’s history, and with his passing there was a palpable sense of the passing of an era. As the economic crisis deepens and the class struggle everywhere intensifies, a new era of politics opens in Quebec and throughout Canada. Over the course of the coming struggles, the workers and youth of Quebec will be confronted with many of the same problems and issues as the previous generations of class fighters who fought against the bourgeois politics of Parizeau and the PQ. Pierre Karl Péladeau stated recently that, “it’s pretty good for the citizens to remember what [Parizeau’s] actions were”. We agree wholeheartedly with Péladeau in this regard and believe that it would be in the interests of the workers and youth of Quebec to study the actions of Parizeau and learn from the past in order to fight the battles of the future.