The traditionalist René Lévesque

René Lévesque as Traditionalist

Mathieu Bock-Côté

René Lévesque. Mythes et réalités. Edited by Alexandre Stefanescu. VLB éditeur, 2008.

This collection edited by Alexandre Stefanescu stems from a conference held in the fall of 2007 at the Grande Bibliothèque du Québec, under the auspices of the René Lévesque Foundation, on the current state of knowledge and opinion regarding René Lévesque. A national myth during his own lifetime, confirmed in that status in the aftermath of his death, René Lévesque could, all by himself, fill up the pantheon of modern Quebec heroes, like the founding father of a long-imagined and always imaginary country. Except for the monumental biography written by Pierre Godin, the recent essay by Martine Tremblay titled Derrière les portes closes (Behind Closed Doors), a collection that appeared in the early 1990s dealing with his impact on Quebec society, and a few critical essays published during his political career, there are few reliable sources on Lévesque, and fewer still on his accomplishments. This book is therefore more than welcome: it will contribute to a renewal of scholarship on the work of a man who, as the saying goes, left a defining imprint on the national conscience.

The book includes several contributions and, as might be expected, some are of great value and others hardly worth reading. But the former provide new historical insights toward an eventual history of sovereigntism, and not only from the perspective of the history of Quebec modernity, but also of what has come to be known as la question nationale. Those essays which are of value examine the relationship of Lévesque to Quebec conservatism and to French-Canadian traditionalism. To the extent that they undermine the absolute dominance of the received grand narrative of Quebec modernity based on the rejection and abolition of the French-Canadian historical experience, they are essential. We have all heard of the golden legend of the Quiet Revolution — that of a society that mounted a revolution against itself and liberated itself from everything in its history that prevented it from becoming modern. The best Quebec researchers are now challenging that grand narrative, whose adherents keep on celebrating the success of a society that is, in reality, falling apart.

We owe it to Xavier Gélinas for first raising the question of the relationship between Lionel Groulx and René Lévesque. As we all know, the conventional view is that the great historian and the founding father of modern Quebec had nothing in common. The two are seen as radically contradictory. It is hard to imagine a contemporary sovereigntist leader claiming to be an admirer of Lionel Groulx; the best one could say is that today’s Quebec has little to do with that of Groulx. Xavier Gélinas, who has already made a massive contribution to the renewal of Quebec’s intellectual history thanks to his study of the intellectual right during the Quiet Revolution,1 shows that this is not at all the case. His claim is that there is no lack of continuity between the nationalism of Groulx and Lévesque. As regards the political status of Quebec, the definition of “nation,” the role of the state, education, and culture, the two men, separated by one generation, were implicitly responding to each other. Gélinas even suggests that the relationship of Lévesque to Groulx should be thought of in light of the relationship of the latter to Henri Bourassa who, in his own time, also provided a strong definition of the French-Canadian nation so as to establish a strategic framework for its promotion. Gélinas of course acknowledges that Lévesque’s successors retrospectively shaped the image of Lévesque as a founding father of modern sovereigntism that was designed to “liberate” Quebec from its past. He nevertheless invites historians not to fall under the spell of this narrative, in order to understand better the nature of the metamorphosis of Quebec’s nationalism as it became more modern. One might even go so far as to conclude that Gélinas thinks Quebec nationalists should adopt another narrative about Quebec’s origins — one that would enable them to free themselves from the dead-end manner in which the Quiet Revolution is remembered.

In the same vein, Éric Bédard focuses on Lévesque’s alliance with les bleus — those more conservative nationalists attached to traditional Quebec, whom Lévesque admired much more than the socialist separatists of the Rassemblement pour l’indépendance nationale (RIN). Far from demonizing the conventional conservatism of these “notables de province” who endorsed the concept of sovereignty, Lévesque thought it necessary to form an alliance with such conservatives in order to de-radicalize the ideal of independence and to hold on to those who were not overly enthusiastic about Quebec’s new techno-modernity. Through the Parti Québécois, a new synthesis of nationalism was being developed which made room for traditional Quebec, not only with respect to political objectives, but also through the reshaping of historical consciousness. This was meant to avoid Quebec’s identity becoming fully associated with the radical break-up model implicit in the decolonization theories put forth by RIN militants. In this chapter, Bédard, who does not hide his conservatism, seems to be trying to rehabilitate the nationalist synthesis worked out by Lévesque, who was not simply a man of the left. This rehabilitation would enable sovereigntism to rebuild itself on the basis of a matrix other than the leftist one we have witnessed in recent years.

These two contributions, certainly the best in this collection, are indirectly echoed in several other chapters, in particular those of Alain Noël, Marc Comby and Serge Denis, who all inversely question the relationship of Lévesque with the left — a questioning which is surely symptomatic of a baby-boom intellectual generation disappointed that sovereigntism failed to be the vehicle for a Quebec form of socialism. There is something strange in this disappointment, since the Parti Québecois’ failure to achieve independence certainly did not prevent it from completing the progressivist reprogramming of Quebec society.

Was Lévesque truly a leftist? From their perspective, was he in the camp of the good? Alain Noël seems to be asking himself how he could admire a man who did not definitively throw in his lot with the left. But despite Noël’s efforts, it seems that Lévesque, who loathed ideological radicalism more than anything else, remains problematic from the point of view of the socialism of the intelligentsia. Unlike people of the left, Lévesque never spent much time asking, “what is the Left” and “what should it become.” He spent even less time asking what the Left “really” was, in the postmodern manner. Nor did he associate himself with the theoretical enterprises, so frequent in the 1970s, aimed at redefining society on the basis of some ideal model of socialism. It is probably Jean-Jacques Simard who, in a rather dense and half-baked contribution, gives the best definition of Lévesque, whom he describes as an old American-style liberal and populist technocrat, attentive to the modern science of government but opposed to the bureaucrats’ inclination to view society as something to be entirely planned. 

As impressive as they are, Lévesque’s achievements tend to hide his undeniable failure to implement the political project with which the collective mind associates him. Daniel Jacques reminds us of this in his chapter. René Lévesque drew Quebec into a regressive spiral, first by losing the referendum, then by not knowing how to manage the consequences of that failure. One could frame the problem in another way: for  those who want to believe that the great historical task of Quebec has been completed, the constant reference to Lévesque implies that Quebec is henceforth a normal society dedicated to the ordinary management of public affairs. All parties have a claim on the Lévesque myth and use it most of the time to neutralize the national movement by playing down the consequences of the two referenda. Daniel Jacques thus invites Quebecers to free themselves from the sovereigntist myth that is at the core of Quebec’s political fatigue and to imagine a future that is not dependent on the promise of “next time” evoked by Lévesque in 1980.

It should also be mentioned that the book includes chapters from Louis Balthazar, who reminds us of Lévesque’s well-known ­pro-­American sympathies; from Guy Lachapelle, who not surprisingly pulls out all the stops to convince us of the modernity of Lévesque’s nationalism; from Philip Resnick on Lévesque’s relationship with English Canada; from Pierre Anctil on his relationship with the “cultural communities;” and from Pierre Nepveu on literature and Lévesque — an esoteric text which really does not belong in this collection, where solid contributions are generally the norm.

In short, one finds here a convincing invitation to open a new chapter in Quebec’s political history, to abandon the golden legend of the Quiet Revolution, and to revisit certain connections that have so far remained unacknowledged in Quebec’s national conscience and in our political traditions. Above all this fine book reveals the progressive elements of modern nationalism that have been overlooked, and invites researchers to write a history of Quebec which treats the standardized modernism of the collective mind as a “problem” to be questioned rather than taken for granted. Which leads us to one conclusion that happens to be the most important: we must interrogate Quebec’s nationalism and its foundational controversies and, to an even greater extent, the complex origins of sovereigntism and of the Parti Québécois.


Mathieu Bock-Côté has doctorate in ­sociology from the University of Quebec in Montreal, UQAM, and is a frequent commentator on current affairs in Quebec media. This article was translated with permission from the Spring 2010 issue of Revue Mens and printed in Vol. 1 No. 1 of THE DORCHESTER REVIEW, Spring/Summer 2011, pp. 51-53.

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