The Québec election in April saw a dramatic about-face in government leadership. From the Parti Quebecois, advocates of separatism, control of the state was given to the Charest Liberals, the party most closely linked with the Canadian government and federalism.
As Marxists, we understand that events in the political sphere are not isolated, but reflect real social and economic conditions. Elections, while significant, are merely a snapshot of the situation at a particular point in time, and do not necessarily directly reflect the processes at work. While shallow bourgeois commentary sees the election result as simply a change
in people’s attitudes about separation, the reality goes much deeper. The current crisis of capitalism, (the worst since the end of the Second World War) has put a strain on Quebec families, and the PQ has offered no way out. It was clear going to the polls, that the problems of everyday life could not be solved by the PQ nationalists.
Lenin described the question of national self-determination as, in the last analysis, a question of bread. By this he meant that support for nationalism arises when the people of a nation are convinced that they would live a more prosperous life, better able to provide for their needs, in an independent state. While Lenin had in mind the impoverished nations of the Soviet Union, the same principle applies in Quebec. Support for nationalism comes from the perception that there is something to be gained (in terms of standard of living) from going it alone. This perspective enables us to understand separatism in Quebec, and also explains why the party of separatism was renounced in the last election.
The class that the PQ has traditionally leaned on for electoral support is Quebec’s petit-bourgeoisie – intellectuals, small business owners, and other groups who have supported Quebec nationalism on the grounds of cultural preservation and economic independence. (It is this sector of society which sees itself as being able to lead a more prosperous existence from a strong, independent Quebec, and thus nationalism has long been a part of this class’ interests.) Once in power, the PQ also extended a hand of friendship to the Quebec bourgeoisie, large business owners who control key sectors of the economy, through corporate subsidies and other “economic incentives.” At the same time, it also tried to bill itself as a “social democratic” workers’ party, gaining much support for itself by its protection of student tuition, a comprehensive health care program, and other social benefits. Thus, the PQ government tried to unite all classes in society under its umbrella and promised to deliver to each of these classes after separation.
The tide of nationalist sentiment in Quebec reinforces Lenin’s description of nationalism as a question of bread. The world economy is in crisis and profits are down. Capitalism has forced its ruling class to cut costs, and it is always the working class who feel the brunt of these cuts. Layoffs, shop closings, cuts to social programs, and the gutting of union contracts are first on the present-day capitalist’s agenda. Québecois families, like all Canadian families, are feeling the strain, working longer hours for less return. The day-to-day struggle to pay the bills and put food on the table is becoming more and more apparent. For decades, the Parti Québecois has talked about separation, but offered no solutions to the problems faced by ordinary Québecois.
The April 14th victory of the Liberals in no way means that the people of Quebec like Charest or the Liberals. They are simply looking for something different. They are sick of the status-quo, which has offered no results. The sudden rise in popularity of the ultra right-wing ADQ is evidence not that the people of Quebec are looking to the right, but that they are looking for something new. The ADQ’s popularity was based solely on being “something new”, and dissipated rapidly once their political agenda was exposed. (They would have been wise perhaps not to release their platform until the evening before the election!) The people of Québec are more than ready for the formation of a legitimate left labour party.
It is an absolute crime on the part of the labour leaders any time that working people are allowed to be led down the blind alley of nationalism. While genuine socialists fully support the right of nations to self-determination, we call not for separation but for voluntary unity of the working class of all nations. Dividing the working class along national lines can benefit only the bourgeoisie, who are all too happy to divide and conquer. The Charest Liberals have already met to discuss strategy with the infamous BC Liberals and the near future will be full of attacks on the poor and on organized labour. There will be incredible volatility and it will need its political expression. Things will continue to get worse for Québecois families and the answer to their need MUST come from socialists, from labour. If this answer is not provided, in the next economic crisis, the absence of a working class leadership will lead to increased nationalism and working people will again be distracted from the only real solution to their problems – the emancipation of their class. A legitimate left labour party in Québec would draw in the best layers of the separatist movement. They would dump the capitalist separatists and unite under a labour banner, fighting first and foremost for working class emancipation – the only solution to the problems of working people in Quebec, Canada, and worldwide.?