For decades politics in Quebec has been dominated by the national question. Ever since the failed Common Front general strike of 1972, the formerly petty bourgeois, and now bourgeois, Parti Quebecois has claimed leadership of the struggle against national oppression. The PQ channeled the discontent of Quebeckers down the nationalist struggle for “sovereignty”. They used this struggle to blur over the class differences within Quebec society, and unite the proletariat with the bourgeoisie in order further the interests of the Quebec bosses. It is indicative of what the PQ really is when we observe how they banned union contributions to political parties and crushed many strikes when they first got elected in 1976. The bourgeoisie in Quebec wanted to ensure that it was “their” national movement. This cut across the class question for a whole historical period, dividing workers and saving capitalism in Quebec.
It is with this in mind that, as Marxists, we were excited with the formation of Quebec solidaire. The manifesto that led to the formation of QS, “Pour un Quebec solidaire,” was issued to counter the bourgeois manifesto, “Pour une Quebec lucide,” which suggested “solutions” to the problems Quebec faced. We were glad to see that the left in Quebec was moving in opposition to the Quebec capitalists, and therefore moving towards the creation of a real party of the Quebec working class for the first time in history. The endorsement of notable trade unions such as the Central Council of the Montreal CSN, which represents 145,000 workers, was definitely the first major step towards QS achieving affiliations from trade unions throughout the province. This would organizationally tie the party to the workers of Quebec.
On the weekend of 20th-22nd November, Quebec solidaire held its annual congress in Laval. Approximately 300 delegates and guests attended the two days of discussion and debate about the direction of the party. The International Marxist Tendency, a collective within the party, had members present for the congress, distributing the new edition of La Riposte and putting forward the ideas of international socialism as the only way forward.
The position of the IMT has always been that if Quebec solidaire wants to become a real force in Quebec society, then it must win over the trade unions and become a genuine labour party. In order to split the trade union movement away from the bourgeois nationalist Parti Quebecois, a strong socialist program that addresses the needs of the workers of Quebec is required. This is especially needed now, in the midst of the economic crisis, to reply to the massive attacks being launched by the bosses and their representatives in government.
Sovereignty and Independence?
The debates held at this congress were the culmination of months of discussions surrounding finalizing the party’s political platform. The fundamental political debate revolved around whether the social (class) question or the national question should be the main focus of the party. There were four main positions that were put forward and debated at the congress. The first three discussed whether the party should stand for sovereignty, independence, or both. Although these three positions may appear to be the same thing, there is an important difference. Quebec solidaire has always had a sort of ambiguous position on sovereignty. QS leader Amir Khadir has always played up the class question in relation to sovereignty in order to distance QS from the PQ. The election signs in the latest election stated, “Pour une souveraineté solidaire.” On the other hand, adopting clear “independence” means dumping the class content of the more ambiguous term, “sovereignty.” The final position adopted by the congress was the third one, which argued that the party stands for independence and sovereignty.
The fourth and final position at the congress argued that independence or sovereignty should not be the final goal of Quebec solidaire. It argued that the final goal of QS must be the implementation of the party’s social program and that if this couldn’t be achieved from within the Canadian federal state, then the party should fight for independence. While this is not exactly our position, we believe that it is 100 times more correct than any of the other three positions. This was also the position that was supported by Arthur Sandborn, the former president of the Central Council of the Montreal CSN. Sandborn also headed the main opposition to the party’s new stance on the national question.
Sandborn was very critical of what he saw as a completely wrong focus for the party. We agree. We are in the middle of the biggest crisis of capitalism since the Great Depression, and it threatens all of the social gains that have been won in the past. To put the main focus of the party on the struggle for independence at this time is a crime. What is even more upsetting about this is that after the vote went through, Sandborn asked for his dissent to be noted, tore up his party card, and stormed out of the congress. Many of the right-wing nationalists within the party rejoiced at the fact that the thorn of the Quebec workers had been pulled from their side. We don’t think it is a coincidence that the main trade union element (responsible for having a union with 145,000 workers endorse the party in the last two elections) stood for clear class solutions, while the more petty bourgeois elements within the party united against his proposal.
The real tragedy of this all is that much of the left-wing of the party, including many so-called socialists and communists, ended up siding with the right wing. On paper and in words, many of these people agree, in principle, that the party needs to gain affiliations from the Quebec trade unions and become a party of the workers. But in practice, they side with the right against the main trade union element in the party! This is the logical conclusion of capitulating to petty-bourgeois nationalism. This is a major blow to the left-wing of the party and a major set back for the push to turn Quebec solidaire into a real party of the working class.
If we take the position adopted by QS to its logical conclusion, it means turning the party into the left-wing rump of the PQ and ultimately dissolving the party into the PQ. Conversely, Sandborn’s position was in the trajectory of using class issues to expose the PQ for what they truly are: representatives of the Quebec capitalists who want nothing more than to cut down all the social gains that the Quebec workers have made over the decades in order to further their profits. Adopting this latter course of action would lead to splitting the working class voter base from the PQ and making QS into a real force in Quebec society.
For Working Class Unity!
Marx didn’t say “Workers of the world unite!” for nothing. The fundamental question in Quebec politics is, and will continue to be for some time, the class question. Especially in the current epoch of capitalist crisis, vicious attacks against the social wage are on the table. To raise the question of independence as the fundamental question in the midst of this crisis is a crime. The party has been distracted with this question and comparatively little has been put forward about solutions to the capitalist crisis.
In speaking about the turbulent 1930s, Trotsky once explained that the crisis of humanity was characterized by the crisis of the leadership of the working class. With this in mind, and with a view to the present world capitalist crisis, we can see that the current leadership of the working class leaves much to be desired. With very few exceptions around the world, the leaderships of the trade unions and of the Labour, Socialist, and Communist Parties, have responded to crisis with bewilderment, and in many cases, class collaboration. What this shows us, and this should come as no surprise, is that the present leadership of the working class is not up to the tasks posed by history.
With this in mind we can see that Quebec solidaire, once poised to take on these tasks, is heading down the wrong path. In the context of the present economic crisis, and in the context of the coming attacks on the working class, Quebec solidaire has a singular opportunity to accomplish at least one of these tasks–that of establishing a party of labour, a party of the working class in Quebec. Given this context, the present discussion in Quebec solidaire on the future of the party, which can essentially be reduced to a discussion of semantics (that is, on the merits of the use of the word “sovereignty” or “independence”), would be rather comical if it weren’t so tragic. As Marx once commented, history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as a farce. In fact, we have seen this before. These discussions raged throughout the 1960s and 1970s, coinciding with the rise of the working class in Quebec. We also know the results of these discussions–the splitting of the workers’ movement with the formation of the PQ, the betrayal of the general strike movement in the 1970s, and the betrayals by the PQ and the nationalists since then, which have only served to weaken the working class before its enemies.
The leadership of the working class, more so than the working class itself, is woefully unprepared for the coming attacks. While Quebec solidaire should be debating and discussing the fundamental class questions, they debate semantics. Nationalization, workers’ control, an end to imperialist war, free education, a new Front Commun, and a possible general strike are the real issues of the day. At this time, Quebec solidaire should be discussing and deepening its social program and its analysis of capitalist society and the crisis. It should be debating the response and actions of the working class in the context of the capitalist crisis. In sum, it should be preparing the working class for the class struggle and the tasks posed before it by history. Instead, Quebec solidaire debates the national question and questions of semantics, thus fulfilling the historic role of nationalism in the working class movement (above all in Quebec)—distracting attention away from the fundamental class questions, dividing the working class movement, and leaving the proletariat weak and unprepared in the face of the real enemy, capitalism (be it of the “Canadian” or “Quebecois” type).
To win over honest Quebecois workers who look to the Parti Quebecois to fulfill their aspirations, no opportunism towards nationalism is needed. To accomplish this, it is necessary to split the PQ along class lines. Quebec solidaire needs to show what the Parti Quebecois really is–a party of the Quebec capitalist class, whose interests are in direct opposition to those of the Quebec working class. The PQ are sell-outs; they have historically used Quebec workers’ desire for national liberation as playing chips in order to gain themselves a bigger piece of the capitalist pie.
Only the Francophone working class, allied with Anglophone and Allophone workers, can effectively defend itself against the coming attacks, end the national oppression of Quebec, and guarantee that all democratic rights–up to and including the right of separation–are ensured within a voluntary socialist union. Together, we can wrest control of the main levers of the economy from the hands of the corporations who are constantly seeking to extract greater profit out of us, and establish a democratically planned economy to end hunger, war, poverty, exploitation, and environmental degradation.