“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”Karl Marx
The reign of François Legault is beginning to resemble that of Maurice Duplessis, the premier who ruled Quebec with an iron fist in the 1940s and 1950s. He has made no secret of his admiration for Maurice Duplessis, recently saying in the National Assembly that “[Duplessis] had many faults, but at least he defended his nation.”
He also came to the defense of the “Cheuf” [A Quebecois insult for an authoritarian leader] on a Facebook post earlier this year, saying, “When we think of Duplessis, we think of the Great Darkness, buying votes by building roads, the close proximity to the Church, but we also think of a great nationalist.”
Of course, the analogy is far from perfect. But the similarities add up.
Speaking of “buying votes by building roads,” Legault is doing the same thing now with his Third Link. With this huge, expensive, and environmentally damaging underground highway, Legault is practicing the same transparent clientelism as Duplessis in seeking to satisfy his electoral base in the Quebec City area.
Legault has also enjoyed stratospheric support rates since the beginning of the pandemic, reminiscent of the landslide victories of Duplessis (which, it must be said, concealed unbridled electoral fraud). The CAQ completely dominates the other parties in voting intentions, at 47 per cent, far ahead of the Liberal Party, which would garner a meager 20 per cent if an election were held today.
Legault’s achievement is that he succeeded in giving a second wind to the national question, despite the unpopularity of the independence project after the failure of the second referendum. As the political dynamic shifted back to class questions, this posed a threat to the Quebec ruling class. The danger became concrete with the great student and union movements of the years 2000 to 2015 against austerity. The gigantic student strike of 2012 certainly gave the Quebec ruling class cold sweats.
By reviving a nationalism based on identity, but not independence, Legault killed two birds with one stone. On the one hand, he has succeeded in bringing the national question to the forefront and, on the other, in stealing the nationalist electorate that previously supported the Parti Québécois. He is clearly inspired by Duplessis, who was the embodiment of the kind of nationalism that focused on Quebec’s identity and the protection of Quebec’s jurisdiction within the Canadian federation. During the last federal election campaign, Legault’s public charges against parties that wish to “encroach on Quebec’s jurisdictions” had strong overtones of Duplessisism.
Like Duplessis, Legault claims to be “standing up for” the Quebec nation. But since the Quiet Revolution solved most of the problems of national oppression which afflicted French Canadians in the Duplessis era, Legault was often forced to invent threats. The result is a paranoid, xenophobic and reactionary nationalism that fears everything that is not Quebecois and francophone.
The identarian nationalism of the CAQ is therefore that of a Don Quixote who fights against the Islamic, multicultural “wokes”, who enter through immigration and English Canada, and are apparently the greatest threat to our identity, our culture and our language.
First it was the religious threat, and more specifically the Islamic threat, which Legault fought with the law on “secularism”. Then this fall, with Bill 96, an update to Bill 101, the CAQ claims to be defending francophones against the (completely exaggerated) decline of French. There is also Legault’s obsession with “wokism”, which he says leads to attacks on academic freedom and freedom of expression.
This fear of “wokes” resembles the spectre of communism which kept Duplessis awake at night. And for him too, immigration was the source of these dangerous and alien ideas. He denounced the “undesirable people” who bring “communist newspapers” to our beautiful province.
Legault and Duplessis’ definitions of the two concepts are equally blurred. For Duplessis, communism “is the synthesis of disloyalty, atheism, and scoundrels. […] Communism is the synthesis of treason. Communism is the negation of everything we hold dear and the moral principles we hold dearest.” For Legault, a “woke” is “someone who wants to make us feel guilty for defending the Quebec nation.”
It’s an old principle in politics that the best way to make people forget their domestic political troubles is to start a good old-fashioned war. And Legault has a lot to make people forget, from his disastrous handling of the pandemic, which led to the deaths of more than 10,000 people, to the complete collapse of social services including the health care system, subsidized child care and public schools. But since Quebec has no army, General Legault must wage an ideological war. There is no better way to rally the nation behind you than to make it look like you are under attack.
Recently, he spoke at a convention of young CAQ-ists. He was quite transparent about his strategy. “We, in the CAQ, are people who are like a bulwark against the radicals. We are a bulwark for our national cohesion,” he said. He said he wants to campaign in the next provincial election in 2022 as “the party in Quebec that stands up for our nation.”
But Legault’s CAQ only seems to be standing because the workers are lying down. In reality, the CAQ is on its knees before the bosses, both in Quebec, in Canada and the United States. The CAQ’s project is essentially the same as that of Duplessis’ Union Nationale: to instrumentalize the national question in order to cut across the class struggle and thus better offer Quebec’s labour and resources to the capitalists.
The leader of the Union Nationale claimed to be the champion of French Canadians, but sold our resources at a discount to big American companies. He crushed the unions to keep wages down and workers easy to exploit for the typically English-speaking capitalists.
Legault did the same thing when he asked the federal government to impose back-to-work legislation on dock workers on behalf of Canadian and American bosses at the Port of Montreal. Or when he took the side of the American bosses during the lockout at the Bécancour aluminum smelter.
More recently, the CAQ government announced that it would raise the limit on nickel pollution in the air by five times. The government believes that the profits of the Swiss multinational Glencore, which lobbied the Quebec government for this change, are more important than the health of Quebecers, which it claims to defend.
In the last round of public sector collective bargaining, the government forced through agreements that will keep public services in a state of disrepair. The division and lack of combativeness of the union leaders have prevented the labour movement from standing up to him.
Duplessis’ reign lasted 15 years, a period known as the Great Darkness. If the polls are to be believed, one might fear that the same thing will happen with Legault. But there is nothing inevitable about it.
Duplessis had the good fortune to lead Quebec in the early post-war boom, during a period of prosperity unequalled in the history of capitalism. Legault will not be so lucky.
Quebec’s current high growth rates mask an economy dependent on government subsidies and cheap credit. Moreover, with inflation at over four per cent, workers’ purchasing power is declining. When the federal government shuts off subsidies and raises interest rates to combat runaway inflation, the economy may be in for a rough ride. Governments will have to tighten their belts and introduce austerity.
If we want to prevent Legault from dragging us into a little darkness, the labour movement must wake up. While the Duplessis regime ended with the death of the “Cheuf” in 1959, it was the labour movement which had already begun to break through its armour, most notably with the Asbestos strike of 1949 and the Murdochville strike of 1956. Only the labour movement has the strength to stop Legault’s neo-Duplessist project.
To do this, we must revive the fighting traditions born during the Quiet Revolution, which culminated in the magnificent Common Front of 1972. The movement must be prepared to stand up to the CAQ government. If Legault needs “national cohesion”, it’s because he is preparing attacks, just like Duplessis did. In fact, Minister Christian Dubé has announced a “mammoth bill” in healthcare this fall, which can only mean a major counter-reform of the healthcare system. The labour movement must be prepared to fight back against these attacks through mass demonstrations, strikes and occupations, and must be prepared to defy anti-democratic laws such as back-to-work legislation if necessary.
Moreover, the labour movement should not let identity nationalists decree the terms of the debate. Too often, the left and the unions have fallen into the trap of agreeing to focus on the sterile debates around so-called secularism and language that the identity nationalists want to suck us into. This is what allows Legault to pose as a champion of the nation and build “national cohesion” behind him.
Now, more than ever, the thousands of problems afflicting workers and youth demand radical, socialist solutions. The deep rot of the capitalist system is at the root of the ecological, health and economic crisis we are experiencing. We need nothing less than a revolution, led by the workers against the capitalist exploiters who are destroying the planet and ruining our health.
The national cohesion Legault seeks to create on issues of language, identity and culture is intended to serve as a “bulwark against the radicals,” as he puts it. Legault’s nationalism, by uniting workers and capitalists in the same nation, mitigates class conflict. It makes Quebec workers forget that the bosses, whether they are Quebecers or not, are their worst enemy. It allows them to divert the debate away from bread and butter issues, where Legault has a shameful record.
On the contrary, the labour movement must break the national cohesion that Legault wants to create. The francophone Quebecois working class has nothing to gain by siding with a party that wants to “protect the language and let those who speak it die,” as Michel Chartrand once said.
The left and the unions of Québec must fight against their own homegrown bosses, on class lines. To do this, the labour movement must develop a socialist program capable of uniting the Quebec working class to dispel the nationalist smokescreen of the CAQ.
Just as the Great Darkness gave way to the Quiet Revolution, we must ensure that the Little Darkness is overthrown by another revolution, this time leading to the true emancipation of Quebec workers.