Tony Cliff

The Belgian General Strike

(February 1961)

First published in Socialist Review, 11th Year No. 2, February 1961.
Re-published in A Socialist Review, London 1965, pp. 316–26.
Transcribed and marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Thanks to Ted Crawford.

The little country of Belgium with its nine million people has witnessed one of the mightiest battles of the international working class. Whatever the outcome of the strike, and at the time of writing – things do not look too bright, this chapter of working class history will live on.

The present article will try to pinpoint some main outlines of the strike and draw some lessons from it applicable to Socialists everywhere.

The Economic Background

The Liege Socialist Party paper. Le Monde du Travail (December 22, 1960), published an article called Belgium, the Sick Member of the Common Market. It referred to the fact that the rate of economic growth in Belgium was lagging far behind that of other members of the Common Market. Thus the rate of growth of industrial production between 1953 and 1959 avenged annually 2.94 per cent in Belgium as against 5.64 per cent in the Netherlands, 7.23 per cent in France, 7.92 per cent in Italy, and 8.37 per cent in Germany. (In 1953 Belgium was producing only 11 per cent more than in 1929, twenty-four years earlier; while the figures for other countries of Western Europe in OEEC was some 70 per cent.)

Belgian industry is facing severe competition. Approximately 40 per cent of the output of its industries is exported (OEEC, Belgium-Luxemburg Economic Union, Paris 1960, p. 32). These exports depend largely on foreign demand for its steel products and textiles. The nature of total world demand for industrial exports has changed radically over recent decades: a shift of emphasis has taken place in Europe from products needing relatively unskilled labour-such as textiles and steel-towards highly finished capital equipment and a wide range of new industries.

In Belgium the necessary change has proceeded much more slowly than in the other countries of the Common Market for a number of reasons. First, Belgian industries suffered much less destruction during the war than those of some other countries. notably Germany, which were by this fact compelled to re-equip with the most modern machinery. Secondly, the acute demand for primary products immediately after the war and during the Korean boom blurred the necessity for developing new types of production. And lastly, Belgian capital found it more profitable to divert its capital to foreign fields than to invest at borne.

To add to its troubles, Belgium’s main raw material, coal, is produced under extremely bad conditions. It is true that in all capitalist countries the consumption of coal has declined in recent years. In Belgium the effect of the general coal crisis was even more acute than elsewhere, as Belgian coal deposits are thin and irregular and the pit cquipmcnt extremely backward. Coal mining is some 50 per cent more productive in the Common Market countries as a whole than in Belgium. The result: closure of pits on a mass scale over the past few years. “The number of underground workers declined by 33 per cent between January 1, 1958 and September 4. 1960 (according to official notes of the High Authority of the Coal and Steel European Community) and the reduction will no doubt reach 50 per cent at the end of 1961.” (La Gauche, 26 November 1960).

In an effort to soften the blow, the sacked Belgian miners were given a subsidy by the European Community for Coal and Steel. was planned to terminate in October 1959, but was extended to September 30, 1960, when it ceased.

One result of the stagnation of the Belgian economy and the decline of certain traditional industries is a large pool of permanent and structural unemployment. Since 1949 the rate of unemployment has been a constant 8–12 per cent of all wage earners. (Le Monde du Travail, December 22, 1960). (This compares with 2 per cent in Britain at present.)

The Congo Debacle

To add to the difficulties of Belgian capitalism came the Congo debacle.

One should not overestimate the weight of the Congo in the balance of Belgian economy. In 1959 Belgian exports to Congo were only 2.7 per cent of her total exports, and imports 5.8 per cent of total imports The National Bank of Belgium calculated that a complete rupture of all economic and financial arrangements with Congo might initially cause a reduction of 6 per cent in the gross national product of Belgium and in her tax revenue 5 per cent. Congo was quite important for balancing Belgium’s balance of payments, however. Exports from Congo were much larger than her imports, the difference largely helping Belgium. The aggregate surplus on current transactions in the 7-year period 1953–1960 amounted to 1,660 million dollars, or nearly 3 per cent of the gross product of Belgium. Congo also helped to cover up the actual deficit in the Belgian budgets.

Had the Belgian economy been growing at the same rate as the French, Italian, or West German – 7–8 per cent a year – the loss of the Congo could have been absorbed, but with a rate of growth of only 2 per cent ...

Above all “the Congo debacle ... served, it was thought. to put the country in the right mood to accept drastic action.” (The Economist, December 31, 1960). Actually, when Eyskens came to power in June 1958, he already had in his pocket a plan similar to that of the loi unique, but “nothing substantial was done” about it. (Ibid.)

To drag Belgian capitalism out of the rut two complementary measures were proposed by the Government: (1) plums for the capitalists; (2) a cut in workers’ standards.

Plums for the capitalists

These are given to Belgian and foreign – mainly American – capitalists to persuade them to invest in industry: “The Belgian technique of attracting them is to offer a number of temporary fiscal exemptions, including what amounts to 130 per cent depreciation allowances for new machinery and plant installed during the development period. In addition to this, there are capital subsidies in certain cases, and finance is made available on very advantageous terms by loans which may be as much as 4 per cent below market rates.” (The Statist, International Banking Supplement, December 17, 1960).

The result is that “the American industrialists who builds a factory in Belgium will, in fact, be bringing to the country only a comparatively small contribution to her foreign exchange reserves. He will be borrowing a large part of the money locally, and using the cheap interest rates provided by Belgian Government subsidy which have been offered to him as part of the inducement. This of course, presupposes that Belgium will be able, at all times, to provide the capital funds required.” “The effect of this is that the Belgian system will have to find a great deal of the new capital funds, financing the new American and other investments on her territory.” (ibid.)

Above all, as a source of larger capital funds a cut in the workers’ standards was sought.

Attack on Workers’ Standards

In the Common Market area, Belgian workers enjoy wages second only to those of the French, being considerably above the West Germans, some 40 per cent above the Dutch. and some 50 per cent above the Italians. (The Economist Intelligence Unit, Britain and Europe, London 1957, p. 31)

The aim of the loi unique is to cut these standards. The law provides for the introduction of a harsh means test which deprives the unemployed of benefit after a certain number of months. Secondly certain pension rights are to be abolished, affecting public employees-railwaymen, postmen, teachers, local government workers. The pensionable age is also to be raised. Thirdly, there is to be a sharp rise in indirect taxation, the brunt of this falling on the broad masses.

The Belgian Socialists estimate that the workers will thus be robbed of some 3,000–4,000 Belgian francs (£21–£28) a year in cash and suffer a reduction of various benefits in kind together amounting to a cut of some 10 per cent in their standards. The workers answered with a mass strike.

On December 14th a half-day demonstration strike was called by the Socialist Party and the trade unions. This was a resounding success. On December 20. the day on which the debate on the loi unique began in Parliament, a nationwide general strike of municipal workers was officially launched. Next day the whole of the Black Country came out on strike, the day after the Liege region, and within the next day or two the whole of Southern Belgium and beyond.

Tradition of General Strike

Belgium has a long tradition of mass industrial strikes. In 1886 a great series of strikes broke out, first in the neighbourhood of Charleroi, then in Liege and over a large part of the Walloon provinces. The main demand was universal suffrage; but there were economic demands as well in some places. Then in May, 1891, a mass strike of some 125,000 workers put forward a demand for changes in the electoral system. In April, 1893, another strike, embracing about a quarter of a million workers, broke out for a similar demand. The outcome was universal, but unequal, franchise, the votes of the rich and “cultured” counting for two or three times those of workers and peasants. The workers, dissatisfied, carried out another mass strike nine years later, demanding a complete revision of the Constitution.

An even bigger strike – in which 450,000 workers took part – was called by the Socialist Party and trade unions to achieve electoral reform in 1902, and again in 1913.

Another general strike took place in 1936 which wrested from the capitalists a forty-hour week and paid holidays. In 1950 a general strike led to the abdication of King Leopold.

In 1958-9 the coal-miners of the Borinage spontaneously began a general strike not merely for wage demands but for the nationalisation of the mining industry.


Belgian Tradition of “Socialist”-Conservative Coalition Governments

There are, alas, other traditions in the Belgian labour movement – coalitions with conservative parties.

As early as 1902 the Socialist Party, in the midst of the general strikes, flirted with the conservative party, in Belgium called Liberals.

In all, there were between 1919 and 1940 19 Belgian cabinets, in 11 of which the Socialist Party partnered a coalition.

To give theoretical justification to this mania for compromise with capitalism, the theoretician of the right wing of the Belgian Socialist Party, Henri de Man put forward ideas similar to those of Anthony Crosland some two decades later. In his Plan du Travail, adopted by the Socialist Party and trade unions, he proposed the revision of the Socialist programme by putting forward the idea of a mixed economy, with emphasis on control and not on ownership. He tried to attract the middle classes and the left wing of, the Catholic Party or its trade unions. (By the way, in 1940. when the Germans overran Belgium, de Man dissolved the Socialist Party and remained in Belgium as the King’s “adviser” under the Nazis.)

After the Second World War, the policy of coalition with the conservatives was tried again and again.

In the very midst of the present mass strike, the same compromising policies were put forward. On 29 December, Leo Collard, President of the Socialist Party, declared: “The Ioi unique cannot be the basis of a solution. The Government has conceived of this law as an organic whole ... we cannot see how a compromise could be reached by amending its details. We are struggling quite simply for its withdrawal.” (La Wallonie, 30 December, 1960) However, a few days later, Achille van Acker, (“Socialist” Prime Minister during 1954–8) approved in Parliament the Government effort “to maintain order” and appealed for negotiations to revise the law, instead of rejecting it in toto.

Uncommon Social Democrat Party

With all this right-wing leadership, the Belgian Socialist Party is quite unique among the parties of the Socialist International Where else would one find Social-Democratic parties again and again launching general strikes? What would our Gaitskell or our Carron say to the use of industrial action for political aims-for electoral reforms (as in 1886, 1891, 1893, 1902, 1913), or against the King (1950), or against the government’s hunger law (1961)?

Again, two short items from the strike: the Minister of the Interior early in the strike issued an order to all mayors to report local government employees absent from work. On December 26 the 45 Socialist mayors of Charleroi district met and unanimously decided “to refuse to obey the injunctions of the Minister of the Interior”. (La Wallonie, December 27, 1960) Socialist mayors in other districts followed suit.

A few days later the papers announced that Socialist MPs, mayors, etc. in Liege district decided to hand their salaries during the strike period over to strike funds. (Ibid., December 31, 1960)

Above all, who in this country would dream that Labour Party rooms and the rooms of the Young Socialists would serve as local headquarters of strike committees all over the country?

Structure of the Belgian Socialist Party

One reason for the militancy of the Belgian Socialist Party compared to its sister parties is its unique structure.

Unlike the Social Democratic Party of Germany or the Socialist Party of France, the Belgian Socialist Party is made up not only of individual members but also affiliated trade unions, co-operatives and mutual aid societies. In this respect it is similar to the British Labour Party. But there are also basic differences. The British trade unions include all eligible wage and salary earners without difference of politics. In Belgium workers who oppose the Socialist Party from the right belong to unions affiliated to another party – the Catholic party called Christian Social Party – or unions independent of both. (At present the Socialist trade unions have 692,000 members, the Catholic 742,000). Similarly there are cooperatives and mutual aid societies who reject any connection with the Socialist Party and are connected with the Catholic party or remain independent of both. Indeed the entire pattern of working class organisation in Belgium arose largely from the struggle between Socialists, mainly Walloons. and conservatives, mainly Flemish, aided and guided by the Catholic Church.

This intimate relation between the trade unions and the Party makes for less of a barrier between politics and economics in the movement, especially as those more right-wing workers who do not approve of the close bond between the two wings incline to belong to another trade union organisation under the auspices of another party.

Again, unlike the British movement, the Party and the unions are much less centralised, much more federative. The Belgian equivalent of the TUC – the Federation Generale de Travailleurs Belges (FGTB) – is made up of over a score of semi-autonomous regional organisations, each comprising the representatives of various trades and occupations in a given area. Each regional federation has its centre in a co-operative society building or Maison du Peuple, which serves as a general meeting place for all sections of the labour movement. Each Federation enjoys substantial autonomy too in its own industrial affairs and allows a large measure of autonomy to the regional organisations of the Socialist Party. Thus Liege can pride itself on having a daily Socialist Party paper, Le Monde du Travail, with quite a militant line, very different to the national daily, Le Peuple, issued in Brussels by the central leadership. Liege also publishes a trade union daily, La Wallonie, edited by Andre Renard, the joint Secretary General of the Belgian trade unions. And Liege has a smaller population than Nottingham!

Another reason for the Socialist Party being more amenable to workers’ wishes, and for its officials, especially the local and lower echelons being more tractable – like the proverbial wheelbarrow going as far as it is pushed – was the early and prolonged stalemate of Parliamentary reformism.

Stalemate of Parliamentary Reformism

The strength of Catholicism in the Flemish half of the country confronted the Socialist Party with a situation in which the winning of a Socialist majority in parliamentary elections looked most unlikely.

Traditionally Belgium has been divided into two halves, the Flemish-speaking, conservative, Catholic, agricultural North and the French-speaking, anti-Catholic, Socialist, industrial South, or Walloon area. (Actually the Flemish make up a little over half the population). It is true that over the last few decades the north has ceased to be purely agricultural, but contains centres of new industries. However, even the industrial workers in the Flemish areas are not free of Catholic influence, the bulk of the working class in these areas belonging to the Catholic Trade Union Federation.

(It is true that in some cases, in the industrial field only, the Catholic trade unions have been quite militant. This showed itself clearly during the 1954–8 Van Acker Government, when the Socialist trade unions played the role of direct agents of the Government in trying to avoid “labour conflicts that embarrass the Government.”)

Thus in many cases the differences between Walloons and Flemish are differences between sections of the working class with different traditions and different levels of development. But largely it is also a difference between militant industrial workers and conservative agricultural workers.

The immediate effect of the national and religious split was to prevent the Socialist Party from being a complete slave of parliamentarism. Whereas in elections one Walloon worker has equal power to one conservative Flemish farmer, in the economic area, the former is incomparably stronger than the latter.

This national and religious split probably also aided the federalist, or autonomic tendencies in the trade unions and the Socialist Party. And this strengthens the non-parliamentary forces in the labour movement.

The Influence of Syndicalism

An influential factor in the labour movement of France and also Belgium has been Syndicalism, a mixture of anarchism (without its individualism and with a much exaggerated emphasis on organisation) with the trade unions. It spread its roots in the soil of industrial backwardness and lack of concentration. It gained strength from every betrayal by the right-wing Socialist parliamentarians, which developed among workers a natural suspicion of all political activities. Syndicalism identifies the general strike with the Socialist revolution rather than looking upon it as only one important element of modern revolution.

However much the Syndicalists or syndicalist-inclined people try to overlook politics, politics catches up with them, and this especially during mass strikes. The political arm of the capitalist class – the state with its police and army – are most blatantly present during such struggles. Therefore, without any political theory, with no political perspective, syndicalism leads to empirical, ad hoc measures; hence it is basically reformist.

André Renard

An extreme example of the mixture of Syndicalism with nationalism is shown by André Renard, the dynamic and militant leader of the metal workers, the joint General Secretary of the FGTB, and the most prominent leader of the Socialist Left.

Disgusted with the right-wing reformism of Van Acker and Co., Renard, who lacks a scientific-socialist, unified world outlook, seeks a different solution to that proposed by Van Acker (coalition), but nevertheless confines his perspective within the framework of capitalism. Renard wants to transform Belgium into a federal state. “I am a Walloon, and I am a federalist, and I shall remain one. We do not want to submit to Flemish clericalism any longer.” And as a leaflet distributed in one of his meetings in the walloon colours of yellow and red said: “For a Walloon Wallonia: against the Loi Unique: against the misery in the Borinage: against the oppression of unitary government: against the Flemish Government: against the murderers of the Walloon people.” (Times, January 10, 1961).

Whether this slogan of federalism squares with the general trend towards increasing economic and political integration, and above all whether it squares with the spirit dominating the fighting, marching workers who again and again sing the Internationale, is not for us to deal with here.

The basic criticism of Renard’s “Federalism” is that it is reformist: it assumes changes in the structure of the state on national lines instead of the social revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist state and the establishment of workers’ power (although a change in the national form is of course not necessarily excluded by the socialist revolution).

The Role of the Communist Party

In all the present struggles the Communist Party is playing a very small role, and a damaging one to Socialism at that.

The Communist Party, that had a very small influence in the 1920s and 1930s, was able to gain a fairly massive influence during the war and the “Resistance” to the Nazi occupation. This influence was shown clearly in the parliamentary elections of 1946, when the Communist Party representation reached 23.

Straight after the war, they took part in a coalition government with conservatives and right-wing Socialists and helped to preserve order during the great social crisis of the aftermath of the war. Then under the conditions of the “Cold War”, the Communist Party took to extreme sectarianism. Following the “thaw,” it moved to servile opportunism, lining up with the bureaucracies of the trade unions and Socialist Party. The net result was that the Communist Party’s influence dwindled – a decline that is reflected in the fact that they have only 2 MP’s today (the same number they had in 1929).

An editorial in the Communist Party daily, Le Drapeau Rouge, of December 29, 1960, entitled Two Communist Proposals for a Total and Rapid Victory gives the following lead: First, let the strike be as wide and general as possible (this is just repeating what all other labour papers said); secondly “let the Social-Christian and Liberal MP’s be visited by strike pickets and workers’ deputations to explain to them that they should conform to the aspirations of the electors rather than the ukases of the bankers and the government.” This idea of lobbying rings a bell! And this in the middle of the most relentless class battle!

No wonder the Communist Party’s role in the strike was so small. Its voice was not distinguishable from that of the central leadership of the Socialist Party and the FGTB.

La Gauche

From a distance it is very difficult to judge the correctness or otherwise of different slogans put forward by the Left in the midst of the battle in Belgium. But to the present writer it seems that the only revolutionary and realistic lead was given by one national paper – La Gauche. This is a weekly of the extreme Left of the Socialist Party including a number of Trotskyists which has quite considerable influence, especially among the young Socialists.

In its issue of December 24, one of its editors, Ernest Mandel, explains that the only consistent solution to the crisis could be a worker’s government based on the trade unions.

However, Mandel argues, if the workers did not reach the level of consciousness needed for the establishment of such a government, there is a danger that the right-wing leaders will bring forth a coalition government and a “rotten compromise” that will open the door to the extreme right. The minimum below which the overwhelming majority of the workers on strike should not be ready to go, is the complete abolition of the loi unique and the implementation of a transitional programme (including a drastic cut in military expenditure, radical fiscal reform, control of the big holding companies, free national health service, nationalization of the power industries, the planning of the economy to guarantee full employment, the establishment of a large National Investment Fund toward the same aim).

Above all, Mandel argues, one should not forget that parliament is not the be all and end all. Without Socialist participation in government, mass pressure can bring important results. In 1893, he reminds his readers, the electoral reform was achieved by extra-parliamentary measures without the Socialist Party taking part in the government. The conservative MP’s simply “changed their minds.” Conservative MP’s could “change their minds” about the loi unique too if enough pressure were brought to bear on them. The main thing is that the strike must be continued to a victorious end.

Economics and Politics

All reformists see a Chinese wall between political struggle for economic reforms and the political struggle for revolution. The mass strike exposes the hollowness of reformism. The police and army – the political weapons of the ruling class – are there for all to see as decisive factors in the struggle. The mass strike is the best demonstration for Lenin’s saying that politics is nothing but concentrated economics.

The Question of Workers’ Control

The mass strike, by raising the question of who is the supreme sovereign in society – the capitalists or the workers – raises at least embryonic forms of dual power.

When, in the Belgian strike, coal merchants go to the strike committee to get a permit to take a certain amount of coal from stock and deliver it to authorised persons – old people, hospitals, etc. who is the master in the country?

When workers, coming to repair a damaged sewer, carry placards “We are on strike; we work by permission of the strike committee and for humanitarian reasons,” who is the sovereign power?

Organiser of the Class

One cannot improve on Rosa Luxemburg’s description of the central role of the mass strike in organising the workers into a revolutionary army “In former bourgeois revolutions where, on the one hand, the political education and leadership of the revolutionary masses was undertaken by the bourgeois parties, and on the other hand the revolutionary task was limited to the overthrow of the government, the short battle on the barricades was the appropriate form of revolutionary struggle. Today, at a time that the working class must educate, organise and lead itself in the course of the revolutionary struggle, when the revolution itself is directed not only against the established state power but also against capitalist exploitation, mass strikes appear as the natural method to mobilise the broadest proletarian layers into action, to revolutionise and organise them.”

Insurrection Inherent in the Mass Strike

However, the mass strike by itself cannot overthrow the capitalist class: the capitalists have much greater financial resources than the workers and therefore they can hold much longer than the workers. The logical and necessary climax of the mass strike, if it is to end in complete, final victory over capitalism, is the armed insurrection.

Here it was quite symptomatic that already at the beginning of the Belgian strike efforts were made to draw the soldiers to the side of the workers. The Strike Committee on 24 December issued the following call: “Soldiers, the Belgian working class is engaged in a decisive struggle for its right to life. The Government wishes to use the Army and the Gendarmerie to try and break the strike and to repress the social struggle now taking place. We ask you to understand and to do your duty. If asked to replace workers in enterprises or services immobilised by the strike, just cross your arms. If brought face to face with strikers or demonstrators remember that they are your parents, your brothers, friends. Fraternise with them. You were called up to defend the country not to strangle it. Have no fears. The whole socialist workers movement is there to defend you. Soldiers. Don’t be traitors to your class. We count on you.” (La Wallonie, 24 December 960. Reproduced from Agitator–New Generation’s pamphlet, Belgium, The General Strike, London, January 1961.)

In Conclusion

Whatever the immediate result of the Belgian strike, its main lessons will continue to help the international labour movement. The class struggle goes on. Years of full employment and “affluence” may put a gloss of conformism on the working class, but they also strengthen its self-confidence and combativeness. The “apathy” is transitory at worst. If workers who face deterioration on the present scale in their conditions show such militancy and revolutionary fervour, what heights of heroism and initiative will workers scale when the contradictions in world capitalism reach really tremendous dimensions, as they are sure to in the future.

The class struggle is in the last analysis a political struggle. The struggle for reforms is not inherently and entirely separated from the struggle for revolution. The need for a unifying, consistent scientific socialism, for Marxism and Marxist leadership is vital for the success of the class struggle.

The workers of Europe and the world, to use Rosa Luxemburg’s words, should learn to “speak Belgian.”

Last updated on 16 February 2017