We publish here a translation of part two of a four-part article on the history of the Parti Québécois (PQ) written by Julien Arseneau, member of the editorial board of the Quebec Marxist journal and website, La Riposte socialiste.

< Part one | Part three >

1976: ‘Separatists win in Quebec’

Thus was the headline of the New York Post the day after the PQ victory on Nov. 15, 1976. In spite of its character as a moderate reformist party, the PQ was seen as a threat by the capitalist class, especially in English Canada. The rise of the PQ and their coming to power in 1976 was seen by a large part of the population as a great victory over the status quo.

During the 1970 provincial elections, in an editorial, the Montreal Star claimed that René Lévesque was “the Kerensky of the Quebec revolution (in reference to the last prime minister of Russia before the 1917 October revolution) and would give way to the inevitable victory of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin!” René Lévesque earned the nickname of the “Fidel Castro of Quebec” given to him by Rémi Paul, the Union Nationale justice minister from 1969-70.

The analogy with Kerensky is actually more correct than it may seem at first glance. Following the February Revolution of 1917 which overthrew the tsarist monarchy, the movement in Russia was in a situation where the workers were looking to push the revolution forward, while the capitalists and landlords were looking to put an end to the movement. The workers were organized through the soviets, i.e. workers’ councils which had spontaneously appeared during the revolution, while the ruling classes were represented by the Provisional Government and ultimately wanted to eliminate the soviets. Over the next several months, these two camps would fight each other over the direction of the revolution. Revolution and counter-revolution were fighting each other, with neither being able to land the decisive blow until October. In this situation, a mediating figure was pushed into power. This is what happened in the summer of 1917: Kerensky, a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, became president of the Provisional Government. Kerensky was pushed forward by the working class in its fight against the capitalists. He was seen by the masses as a “socialist” representing the workers in the government. He claimed to speak in the name of the revolution, in the name of the masses. However, he did so in order to lead the revolution along a path that would be safe for the capitalists.

In 1917, the Bolsheviks saw through Kerensky’s role, patiently explaining to the masses the need for the working class to take power through the soviets. They eventually succeeded in mobilizing the masses to brush Kerensky aside and establish the power of the soviets. If they had not done this, Kerensky would probably be considered by the left as a supporter of the Russian revolution to this day.

René Lévesque’s Parti Québécois played a similar role to that of Kerensky. In the 1970s, the workers’ movement in Quebec was constantly in struggle, and they won many concessions from the capitalists. However, the workers were not able to carry the fight for socialism through to the end, while at the same time the bourgeoisie was too weak to simply crush the movement. The PQ and Lévesque surfed on the wave and rose to power to play the role of conciliators. Lévesque attempted to speak in the name of the “Québécois,” and even the workers at times, while ultimately steering the movement down channels safe for the nascent Québécois capitalists. However, in Quebec, there was no Bolshevik Party able to explain the role of Lévesque. The leaders of the workers’ movement instead capitulated to the Québécois Kerensky.

The English media reflected the fear that the the Canadian ruling class had for revolution in Quebec. The ruling class was seriously concerned that the PQ would lose control of the situation to the benefit of the revolutionary elements, just like what had happened to Kerensky in 1917. The difference is that the leaders of the workers’ movement in Quebec did not offer an alternative to Lévesque and the PQ, contrary to the Bolsheviks with Kerensky.

The Liberal regime of Robert Bourassa, in power since 1970, had tried to crush the workers’ movement. Once again, when the election was called Bourassa immediately attacked the unions. On Oct. 19, 1976, in his election announcement, he spoke of “reevaluating the balance of social groups in our society,” and “certain trade union leaders who do not want to respect the social contract established in 1964 (referring to the labour code),” as well as “unacceptable abuses of the right to strike, abuses that at times amounted to acts of cruelty towards innocent and poor people.” He went as far as stating on Nov. 2 that “they will see that the population is going to decide who governs, the unions or the government.”

Faced with these open provocations, and the absence of a genuine workers’ party, the anger against the status quo was channeled into the PQ which succeeded in capitalizing on the reactionary positions of Bourassa. Lévesque during this period stated that his party had a “favourable prejudice towards the workers.” By presenting a program of progressive reforms, he succeeded in winning the support of the union leaders and a good section of the working class. As we have said, all of the union federations called for a PQ vote, or a vote against the Liberals which amounted to the same thing.

The trade union leaders welcomed the first PQ government with joy. Normand Rodrigue, president of the CSN, called it a “victory of ordinary people over the dark forces of Anglo-Saxon capitalism.” Fernand Daoust from the FTQ stated that “we have the feeling tonight that an extraordinary wind of change is sweeping over Quebec, and we think that with so many elected representatives sensitive to the problems of the poor, the climate of working relationships will change profoundly.”

The CEQ, the most radical of the three union federations, was more cautious. Union president Yvon Charbonneau declared that “Even if there isn’t much that is very clear for the workers in the PQ’s program, it is at least clear that this government will start big debates, most notably on the question of independence. But they will have to say in whose interest they will make this independence.”

The PQ’s program contained a number of commitments to improve the situation of the working class, such as full employment and public auto insurance. Lévesque’s speech at the unveiling of his cabinet spoke of a “dream of reuniting all Quebecers, no matter their language, class, origin, a dream of a new nation, born without conflict.” The history of the PQ is summed up in this attempt to walk the tightrope and reconcile different class interests.

The first PQ budget in April 1977, presented by the finance minister, Jacques Parizeau, was an austerity budget. As Graham Fraser explained in his book on the history of the PQ in power, “the costly promises were postponed, borrowing was reduced, and taxpayers were hit with higher licence fees, increased sales taxes on restaurant meals, and […] an 8 per cent sales tax on children’s shoes and clothes.”

Fraser follows: “His real audience (Parizeau) was on Wall Street, and he got applause where he needed it most. Calling it ‘restrained’ and ‘disciplined,’ traders were satisfied … five months later, Parizeau could see the results: Quebec kept its AA credit rating on Wall Street.”

In spite of these beginnings aimed primarily at calming the capitalists, the PQ would realize certain reforms in order to win support from the workers before the eventual referendum. In January 1977 the party raised the minimum wage to $3/hour, which was tied for the highest in the country with British Columbia. The PQ withdrew all of the court cases linked to the Common Front strike of 1975-76. In 1977 the party adopted an anti-scab law, and the following year public auto insurance was implemented. This was the “favourable prejudice towards the workers” of René Lévesque.

It is important to understand that the PQ’s reforms followed the biggest wave of class struggle in the history of Quebec. Between 1971 and 1975, more than 2 million work days were lost in Quebec compared to 1.4 million from 1966-1970. This number increased to 3 million from 1975-1980. This wave of strikes gave quite the scare to the bourgeoisie in 1972 during the Common Front struggle. The mobilizations continued during the 1970s even though the height of the struggle, the spontaneous general strike of May 1972, had passed. The combativity of the working class affected the PQ, which under pressure adopted pro-worker concessions in its program.

In spite of these significant concessions, the PQ was always keen to keep its image moderate and pragmatic. In 1977, Lévesque invited the “revolutionaries” to leave the party, and during an economic summit in May the same year, he labeled the left-wing union leaders as “professional Cassandras who are killing themselves trying to predict that the apocalypse is coming tomorrow morning if the entire economic system is not immediately abolished.” While granting concessions, the PQ kept its distance from the unions and particularly the most radical leaders.

The 1980 referendum: buying class peace

With the decision to hold a referendum on sovereignty association in 1980, it became necessary for the PQ to win the support of the labour movement. This is what the PQ attempted to do during the public sector negotiations of 1979.

The PQ granted generous concessions to the workers during this round of negotiations. Political science academic Andrew Brian Tanguay explained in Social Democracy on Trial that Parizeau “effectively purchased social peace by granting the unions a number of generous concessions, especially with respect to maternity leave and job security.” Similarly, the PQ budget of 1978, contrary to that of 1977, was a deficit budget increasing taxes on those making more than $30,000 (around $110,000 in today’s dollars).

The objective of the PQ was clear: to win the masses to the idea of sovereignty-association. Fraser adds that, “As a negotiator, Parizeau was motivated by both idealism and cynicism: idealism in his hopes for the Common Front, and cynicism in his desire to hold on t

Lévesque recounts this period in his memoirs, commenting on the fact that the unions demanded 30-per-cent wage increases: “But we hadn’t reached the worst of the crisis yet and appetites remained limitless, as did the cynicism of those who became used to holding the public as hostages. Here and there hospitals were closed. Public transport was paralyzed in Montreal. Once again peace had to be purchased at a high price, though less ruinous than during the previous round of negotiations.” (Lévesque, pp. 297, my italics)o union support for the referendum. The result, in 1979, was a costly mistake: an extravagant pre-referendum Common Front settlement.”

The concessions granted by the PQ at the end of the 1970s had their effects. The FTQ supported the YES during the referendum and even the CSN offered a “critical yes.”

With the CEQ, which was always more reticent towards the PQ, there was more resistance to the rise of the sovereignty-association project. In 1978 at their congress, the CEQ rejected the PQ’s project “proposed by the petty bourgeois class” and concluded that independence needed to be linked with a change of the system. However, the following year, the idea of linking the struggle for independence to a societal project “built in the interests of workers” was rejected. In the end, the CEQ took a position of abstention during the referendum while reaffirming their support for the right of self-determination.

What did the 1980 referendum represent?

For Marxists, there is no predetermined answer as to the concrete way in which a people or a nation should exercise their right to self-determination. . As Lenin explained :

“The demand for a “yes” or “no” reply to the question of secession in the case of every nation may seem a very “practical” one. In reality it is absurd (…) while in practice it leads to subordinating the proletariat to the bourgeoisie’s policy. The bourgeoisie always places its national demands in the forefront, and does so in categorical fashion. With the proletariat, however, these demands are subordinated to the interests of the class struggle.”

What this means is that above all, we need to support that which advances the class struggle. We will fight on all and any grounds. The struggle of the Québécois and Canadian working class could develop in a single state, or it might have to pass through the independence of Quebec in order to advance. Lenin explained that the working class confines itself “to the negative demand for recognition of the right to self-determination, without giving any guarantees to any nation, and without undertaking to give anything at the expense of another nation.” That which promotes the development of the class struggle is progressive and must be supported. That which promotes class collaborationism or foments divisions amongst the workers is reactionary. It is with this perspective that we must analyze each national movement and take a stand when the question of self-determination, i.e. national sovereignty or independence, is on the order of the day.

The great Québécois union leader Michel Chartrand explained that there was an “enormous difference between nationalism and genuine national liberation”. We need to understand that the 1980 referendum on sovereignty-association was a radically different project than the fight that the unions led in the 1970s against capitalism and Anglo-imperialism. The former attempted to achieve sovereignty within the acceptable limits of capitalism, while the second attempted to achieve genuine national liberation by attacking the capitalist system itself. Besides, Lévesque himself spoke of his project as achieving “a quiet independence” (McRoberts et Posgate, p. 228). He gave this speech addressing the Economic Club of New York, a discussion club for the big bourgeoisie of America. Throughout its first term, we see that the PQ was reassuring, most notably, American investors and insisting on the fact that independence would not be a “rupture.” The PQ was attempting to channel the national liberation struggle through channels that would be safe for the ruling class. As we have already explained, this was a setback compared to the intense class struggle of the early 1970s, where socialism was on the agenda.

The workers, after years of strikes and demonstrations, were more and more demoralized by the fact that the class struggle for socialism had not succeeded. After these failures, the union leadership was also demoralized and, without any perspective on the way forward, began to moderate and support the PQ, either openly or covertly. Without having built their own party, the labour movement backed the nationalist project of the PQ, which meant being forced into an alliance with bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalists.

The formulation of the question that was posed in the 1980 referendum clearly shows the danger that this national coalition posed for the workers’ movement. It deserves to be quoted in full:

The Government of Quebec has made public its proposal to negotiate a new agreement with the rest of Canada, based on the equality of nations; this agreement would enable Quebec to acquire the exclusive power to make its laws, levy its taxes and establish relations abroad – in other words, sovereignty – and at the same time to maintain with Canada an economic association including a common currency; any change in political status resulting from these negotiations will only be implemented with popular approval through another referendum; on these terms, do you give the Government of Quebec the mandate to negotiate the proposed agreement between Quebec and Canada?

This question shows that it was not even about the independence of Quebec, let alone genuine national liberation. If we look at this question, we realize that what was being asked was to put faith in the PQ government to negotiate with the Canadian capitalists to establish a new relationship without causing them harm. What we see is a manoeuvre to carry out the national liberation of Quebec from above by discussions between bourgeois and petty-bourgeois politicians. The labour movement could not support such a project which meant that the working class would tail-end the PQ and place confidence in the party. The working class was being asked to sacrifice its own interests for the interests of the petty bourgeoisie and its “national project”.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened. As the labour leaders didn’t have a solution to offer in the place of the PQ’s project, the fate of the labour movement was left in the hands of Lévesque, Parizeau and co. The workers thus found themselves at the mercy of a party who, ever since its foundation, sought to conciliate between the workers and capitalists, instead of fighting for working class interests. The consequences of the union leaders’ attitude towards the PQ became clear in the 1980s when the party turned against the working class.

René Lévesque, ‘the butcher of New Carlisle’

Immediately after the referendum of May 1980, where the NO side won with around 60 per cent of the vote, the PQ began its decisive turn to the right which has continued to this day. With the economic crisis at the start of the 1980s, the ruling class demanded an end to deficit budgets and demanded austerity budgets to “fix” the crisis. The PQ let its left mask drop to reveal its true face.

As Tanguay explains, after the 1980 referendum, “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”.

The union leaders, by refusing to build an alternative to the PQ, left the field open for the shift to the right. Fraser said that “the government was safe from challenges from the left – thus, it could move to the centre-right and be as reassuring and conservative as it wished.”

There were always veteran Union Nationale politicians in the PQ, but now they began to take more of a central role. In 1981, Rodrigue Biron, ex-leader of the Union Nationale, was elected on the PQ banner and became minister of industry and trade! Raynald Fréchette, another veteran of Duplessis’ party, became labour minister in 1982.

The turn to the right in the PQ corresponded to the economic crisis in Canada. Two months after his reelection, Lévesque stated in a speech that “…and not only for the present year, that the time of widespread growth is past. (…) Like all societies without exception, Quebec from now on will be confronted with limits… that will be absolutely impossible to ignore.”

The country entered into recession in 1981-82. Quebec was particularly hit hard and made up 44 per cent of all jobs lost in Canada. In 1981, unemployment rose to 15.5 percent and the economy shrunk by 6.3 per cent, while 32,000 businesses went bankrupt in 1981-82. The deficits accumulated by the PQ in the 1970s and at the beginning of the 1980s weighed down on the public finances.

During an economic summit in April 1982, Lévesque stated that there was a $700 million hole in the government’s finances. Creditors demanded that the budgetary deficit not grow any bigger than $3 billion. But without any cuts, the budget deficit was going to amount to $3.7 billion. Lévesque, who no longer needed to buy the unions’ support for the referendum, chose to pass on the bill to the workers.

In an attempt to divide the workers, Lévesque stated that it was no longer possible for the “unorganized and less powerful sectors of society” to pay for the privileges of the public sector workers! He maintained that job security, the high cost of public healthcare, and costly pensions are not sustainable in times of economic contraction.

At the end of 1982, the PQ put forward Bill 70, which imposed a wage cut of 20 per cent for three months on all state employees from January to March 1983. Following the failure to negotiate these drastic cuts with the unions, the PQ adopted Bill 105, which imposed collective agreements on all of the employees of the public sector and at the same time revoked their right to strike. On Jan. 29, 1983, a demonstration of 30,000 trade unionists took place in Quebec City against the law, one of the biggest demonstrations in the history of the city. For the first time, a demonstration was directed against Lévesque himself and against the PQ rather than against the federal government and Pierre Elliot Trudeau. During the demonstration a speaker stated “Finally René, we see your real face.” Lise Bissonnette, a journalist for Le Devoir, described Bill 105 as “the most odious back-to-work legislation ever adopted by the National Assembly.” But this was nothing compared to what came next.

Teachers decided to defy the law and began an illegal strike. After a few weeks, on Feb. 17, 1983, Lévesque presented Bill 111. The law decreed that if the strike continued, the strikers would face dismissal without recourse or appeal, as well as loss of wages and seniority. It also contained a clause that suspended the application of the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms of Quebec and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This law was nicknamed the “baton law.”

Robert Bisaillon of the CEQ said that this law demonstrated to their members that they “were dealing with a bunch of maniacs with chainsaws.” Louis Laberge, president of the FTQ, who had been in favor of supporting the PQ in the past, said that “the PQ’s strategy is worthy of the worst years of Duplessism”. The unions then gave Lévesque the nickname of “the butcher of New Carlisle”.

In his memoirs, Lévesque described the situation that the PQ found itself in, in 1981-1983: “Unless I am mistaken, our government was the first to take the bull by its horns. Not that we were more farsighted than others – we simply had no choice.” (My italics)

Here we can agree with Lévesque on one thing. Reformists usually attempt to redistribute wealth while respecting the private property of the big businesses and the banks. But when the government’s finances aren’t looking good, someone must inevitably pay. The question is: who will pay, the workers or the bosses? The PQ never had any intention of making the bosses pay for the “hole” in the public finances. Creditors demanded cuts. And if the party had decided to tax the rich and big business? This would have encouraged the latter to pull out their investments or invest less in Quebec. The PQ therefore had “no choice” but to force the working class to carry the burden of the crisis. Betrayal of the working class is inherent in reformism. Within the framework of capitalism, when the system inevitably enters into crisis, this leaves no room for reforms. From a Marxist point of view, the solution is to nationalize the banks and  big businesses and place them under democratic workers’ control to begin the transition to socialism. But this was not the perspective of the PQ at all. They had “no choice” but to bend to the pressure of the capitalist class and attack the workers.

The “loi matraque” (baton law) marked the end of the period during which the PQ pretended to have some sort of “prejudice in favour of the workers.” A PQ minister even said on the topic of the law: “I feel the serenity of the beaver who gnaws off his paw to free himself from a trap” The PQ was effectively “free” from its proximity to the labour movement. They chose their camp, that of the bourgeoisie.

While the FTQ had given its support to the PQ during the 1976 and 1981 elections and during the referendum, the members met at a special congress and refused to support (at 58 per cent) the PQ for the 1985 election—against the recommendation of the FTQ leadership. The party membership fell from 200,000 members in February 1982 to 80,000 in February 1985. Lévesque stated in his memoirs: “Many of the union members had formerly been among our best militants. Full of bitterness, all they could think of now was to make us pay dearly for this, their first big defeat in twenty years. “ During the 1985 elections, the PQ was crushed by the Liberals.

The PQ used nationalist sentiments stemming from the historic oppression of French-Canadian workers in order to unite the Québécois working class with the Québécois bourgeoisie around the political project of sovereignty. Having more or less succeeded, they turned against the workers at the beginning of the 1980s. Sovereignty-association was a useful tool to divert the workers from the class struggle and towards nationalism. In the end, the PQ in the 1980s succeeded in putting an end to the upswing of the workers movement—a period in which the creation of a workers’ party and the struggle for socialism were on the order of the day.

The Quiet Revolution allowed the Québécois bourgeoisie, supported by the provincial state, to carve out their niche in the world market—but this process was more or less completed in the 1980s. The process of social reform ushered in by the Quiet Revolution started to unravel. This is what Pierre-Marc Johnson, the PQ leader who succeeded Lévesque in 1985, said during an interview with Le Devoir in November 1985: “We take note, that the Quiet Revolution is, for once and for all, over.”

In part three, we will provide a Marxist analysis of the language question and the question of the education system.