Tony Cliff

Belgium: Strike to Revolution?

(Spring 1961)

First published in International Socialism (1st series), No.4, Spring 1961, pp.10-7.
Reprinted in Tony Cliff, International Struggle and the Marxist Tradition, Selected Writings, Vol.1, pp.143-57.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Since 1886 the Belgian working class has been involved in eight general strikes. We should be hard put to find a better laboratory to study the place of the general strike in the proletarian class struggle, its potentialities and limitations, and. the. effect of other social and political factors on its development and outcome. The present article tries to help this study.

It will deal, even if sketchily, with three problems:

  1. The economic background to the recent general strike,
  2. The historic roots of Belgium’s tradition of general strikes,
  3. The relation between the general strike and the socialist revolution.


I. The economic background of the recent general strike

The Liége Socialist Party paper, Le Monde du Travail, published an article called Belgium, the “Sick Member” of the Common Market. [1] 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: industrial production rose at an average of 2.94 percent per year between 1953 and 1959 as against 5.64 percent in the Netherlands, 7.23 percent in France, 7.92 percent in Italy, and 8.37 percent in Germany. (In 1953 Belgium was producing only 11 percent more than in 1929, twenty-four years earlier; while the average figure for the other OEEC countries in Europe was some 70 percent.)

Belgian industry is facing severe competition. Approximately 40 percent of its output is exported, mainly in the form of steel products and textiles. [2] And it is precisely these products that have suffered from the change in the structure of world demand over recent decades: from commodities needing relatively unskilled labour towards capital equipment and a wide range of new industries, based on highly-skilled labour.

In Belgium adjustment has proceed much more slowly than in the other countries of the Common Market. There are a number of reasons for this. First, Belgian industries suffered much less destruction during the war than those of some other countries, notably Germany, which were compelled to re-equip with the most modern machinery. Secondly, the acute demand for basic products immediately after the war and during the Korean boom hid the necessity for developing new types of production. And lastly, Belgian capital found it more profitable to invest abroad than at home.

To add to its troubles, Belgium’s main raw material, coal, is produced under extremely bad conditions, so that the effect of the general coal crisis in the industrial countries is felt more acutely than elsewhere. The result: closure of pits on a mass scale over the past few years. The number of underground workers declined by 33 percent between 1 January 1958 and 4 September 1960, and the reduction will no doubt reach 50 percent by the end of 1961. [3]

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

One result of the stagnation of the Belgian economy and the decline of its traditional industries is the large pool of permanent unemployment. Since 1949 the rate of unemployment has kept between 8 and 12 percent of all wage earners. [4]


The Congo debacle

On top of all this came the Congo debacle.

One should not overstate the Congo’s importance to the Belgian economy. In 1959 exports to Congo were only 2.7 percent of total exports, and imports 5.8 percent of total imports. The National Bank calculated that a complete rupture of all economic and financial arrangements with Congo might cause a reduction of, initially, 6 percent in the gross national product and 5 percent in the tax revenue. Nevertheless Congo was quite important in Belgium’s balance of payments. She ran an export surplus – $1,660 million between 1953 and 1959, or nearly 3 percent of the gross national product of Belgium – which went largely to helping the “mother country”. She 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 percent a year – the loss of the Congo could have been absorbed, but with a rate of growth of only 2 percent ...

Above all “the Congo debacle ... served, it was thought, to put the country in the right mood to accept drastic action”. [5] Actually, when Eyskens came to powers in June 1958, he had already in his pocket a plan similar to that of the loi unique, but “nothing substantial was done” about it. [6]

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 139 percent 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 percent below market rates. [7]

The result is that:

the American industrialist 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. [8]

To get these larger capital funds or at least part of them, a cut in the workers’ standards was necessary.


Attack on workers’ standards

Belgian workers enjoy wages second only to those of the French in the Common Market area. They earn considerably more than workers in West Germany. some 40 percent more than the Dutch, and some 50 percent more than the Italians. [9]

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. Certain pension rights affecting public employees – railwaymen, postmen, teachers, local government workers – are to be abolished; the pensionable age is to be raised. Indirect taxation is to be raised sharply, the brunt of this falling on the broad masses. The Belgian Socialists estimate that these measures will rob the workers of some 300-400 Belgian francs (£21-28) a year in cash and, through the reduction of various benefits in kind, amount to a cut of some 10 percent in their standards. The workers answered with a mass strike.

This short economic background makes it clear that the situation in which the strike took place was far from a mature revolutionary one. Capitalism, including Belgian capitalism, is still expanding, even if in an uneven way. Society as a whole was not in an impasse, hence neither of the contending classes felt it necessary to change the balance of fordes fundamentally. The working class did not have a strong enough feeling of rebellion to make for a bitter final struggle. Otherwise the strike would not have remained limited mainly to the Walloon workers, the other half of the workers standing aside. Further evidence is the unpopularity of the “threat” to withdraw the maintenance men and thus flood the mines and cool the steel ovens during the strike. If this had been a life-and-death struggle the workers would not have rejected such desperate means. Yet, although the. situation was tar from a revolutionary one,. it gave us a glimpse of the revolutionary potentialities of the working class. In spite of reformists and revisionists 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 readiness to fight. “Apathy” is transitory at worst. If workers show such militancy and revolutionary fervour when faced with such a minor deterioration in their conditions, what heights of heroism and initiative will they scale when the contradictions in world capitalism reach really tremendous dimensions, as they are sure to do in the future.



II. Belgian traditions of general strikes

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 Liége 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 around a similar demand. The outcome was a universal, but unequal, franchise, the votes of the rich and “cultured” counting for two or three times those of workers. Dissatisfied, the workers called 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, which wrested a forty-hour week and paid holidays from the capitalists, took place in 1936. In 1950 a general strike led to the abdication of King Leopold.

In 1958e9 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 is, alas, another tradition in the Belgian labour movement, that of coalitions with conservative parties.

As early as 1902 the Socialist Party flitted with the conservative party, called Liberals in Belgium, in the midst of the general strike. Between 1919 and 1940 there were 19 Belgian cabinets in all, 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 Belgian Socialist Party right wing, Henri de Man, put forward views similar to those of Anthony Crosland some two decades later. In his Plan die Travail, adopted by the Party and trade unions, he put forward the idea of a mixed economy, with emphasis on control and not on ownership. He tried without success to attract the middle classes and the left wing of the. Catholic Party. Finally, in 1940, when the Germans overran Belgium, de Man dissolved the Socialist Party and remained in Belgium as the King’s “adviser”.

After the Second World War, the policy of coalition with the conservatives was continued.


Uncommon social-democratic party

Despite its right-wing leadership, the Belgian Socialist Party is unique among the parties of the Socialist International. Where else would one find Social-Democratic parties repeatedly launching general strikes? What would our Gaitskell or our Canon 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 a government’s hunger law (1961)?

Where else would one come across two such typical news items? Early in the strike the Minister of the Interior ordered all mayors to report local government employees who had absented themselves from work without leave, On 26 December, the 45 Socialist mayors in the Charleroi district met and unanimously decided “to refuse to obey the injunctions of the Minister of the Interior” ... [10] Socialist mayors in other districts followed suit.

A few. days later the papers announced that Socialist MPs, mayors, etc. in the Liége district had decided to donate their salaries to strike funds for the duration. [11]

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


Trade unions split on religious-national lines

A deep-going factor affecting the structure of the Belgian labour movement is the national-religious-political cleavage in the country.

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). Although the north has ceased to be purely agricultural over the last few decades and contains centres of new industries, the industrial workers in the Flemish areas are not entirely free of Catholic influence. So that in many cases the difference between Walloons and Flemish are differences between sections of the working class with different traditions and different levels of development. However, it is also a difference between militant industrial workers and conservative agricultural workers and farmers.

The Belgian Socialist Party is unlike the Social Democratic Party of Germany or the Socialist Party of France, in that it is made up not only of individual members but also of 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 whatever their 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 to unions independent of both. Their membership can be seen in the following table. [12]

Number of members of
Socialist trade unions

Number of members of
Catholic trade unions

















Similarly there are Socialist co-operatives and mutual-aid societies and Catholic ones. 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.

The roots of the religious-political cleavage are deep and reach far back. As one British observer remarked half a century ago:

There is extraordinarily little social intercourse between Catholics and Liberals, and practically none between Catholics and Socialists. Politics enter into almost every phase of social activity and philanthropic effort, and it is the exception rather than the rule for persons holding different political opinions to co-operate in any other matter. Thus in one town there will be a Catholic, a Liberal and a Socialist trade union, a Catholic, a Liberal and a Socialist thrift society, each catering for similar people, but each confining its attentions to members of its own political party. The separation extends to cafes, gymnasia, choral, temperance, and literary societies; indeed it cuts through life! [13]

This separation into distinct political groups makes for more intimate relations between the Socialist Party, the trade unions and other workers’ organisations. On the other band, the split in the trade union movement did untold harm., to the bargaining, power of the unions. Their longstanding weakness-their inability to satisfy the daily requiremehts’ of their members, is clear from the repeated defeat of workers on routine economic strikes, In the years 1896-1900, 63 percent of all strikes ended in defeat: in 1901-1905, 68 percent. and in 1906-1910, 60 percent. [14]

As against this, in Britain only 29 percent of strikes ended in defeat in 1911-14 and 26 percent in 1915-18. [15]


Role of co-operatives

The split in the trade union movement has made for greater dependence of all Socialist organisations – not only the Party but also the trade unions – on the co-operatives. The reasons are complex.

The division of workers into different camps under different flags does great harm in the trade union field for obvious reasons. But it cannot harm the co-operative movement to the same extent. A Socialist co-operative store with a few thousand members can flourish even where there is a Catholic one in the same street. So it is that the split in the Labour movement between Socialist and Catholic (plus Liberal) wings, vested the co-operative movement with relatively great importance compared to the trade unions.

In Belgium, the Socialist Party was not formed as the political arm of the trade unions as was the case in Britain. On the contrary, the trade unions were the industrial arm of the Party, and not a very strong arm at that. In the whole pre-1914 period the trade unions remained a secondary factor in the Belgian labour movement. [16]

For many decades the co-operatives formed the backbone of the Party. In 1911 de Man – at that time a Marxist – could write:

The co-operatives, especially the consumer co-operatives, constitute the material base of the Belgian Labour Party ... the co-operatives, with their people’s houses, are the organisational and financial backbone of the Party ... The political organisations proper, and even the trade unions, are decisively in the minority, in the labour movement. [17]

This situation persisted right up to the First World War. “Whenever a strike was about to break out the leaders counted much more on solidarity contributions and on the bread deliveries from the co-operatives than on cash from the union strike fund.” [18]


Backwardness of social legislation

The all-embracing nature of the Socialist organisations and the intimate relations between their different wings was a conservative Catholic control of the state and the inability of social legislation in Belgium, in spite of its being such a highly industrialised country. This was due largely to the conservative Catholic control of the state and the inability of the Socialist movement to bridge the gap between the Walloon and Flemish people.

Thus the truck system was abolished as late as 1887. Children below the age of 12 were entitled to work in factories until two years later. “An official inquiry in 1895 showed that 35 percent of the industrial workers were employed seven days per week; but it was not till 1905 that a law enjoined a six-day limit save where special exemptions were granted (as they since have too freely been).” [19]

As regards education Belgium lagged far behind. 21.4 percent of the working people (above the age of 10) could not read or write as late as 1910, the percentage being lower in the four great towns of Brussels, Antwerp, Liége and Ghent – 11.75 percent – and in the Walloon communes – 17.34 percent. [20] Compulsory education was not introduced till 1914!

Trade union weakness and conservative social legislation conspired to keep Belgian wages very low. As de Man put it in 1911: “Today Belgium is the country with the longest working time and the lowest wages amongst the industrial countries of the world.” [21]

Workers’ conditions were not only extremely harsh but also unstable, as was to be expected in a small, densely populated country highly dependent on exports and particularly exposed to competition from larger neighbouring industrial countries (Britain, Germany).

Paucity of social legislation coupled with low wages within an advanced industry led the workers to seek help not from the State, but from their movement, which appeared to be an all-embracing and integrated defence against excessive exploitation.


Autonomous trends

Dispersal amongst the small towns so characteristic of Belgium strengthened decentralisation in the trade union structure. Henri de Man wrote:

This parochialism is the worst characteristic of Belgian trade unionism. Our trade unions are still committed to the principle of federalism, i.e. of the autonomous branch. There is no industrial country in which the trade unions are more backward than in Belgium. [22]

It was strengthened by the intimate relations between the trade unions and other wings of the labour movement: where the trade union depends largely on the local co-operative centralisation is not encouraged.

Unlike the British movement, the Party and the unions are much more federative. The Belgian equivalent of the TUC – the Federation Generale do 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 its 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 the co-operatives, trade unions and Socialist Party, and also for cultural and recreational activities. Each Federation enjoys substantial autonomy in its own industrial affairs and allows a large measure of independence to the Socialist Party’s regional organisation. Thus Liége can pride itself on having a daily Socialist 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. Liége also publishes a trade union daily, La Wallonie, edited by André Rénard, joint Secretary General of the Belgian trade unions. And Liége has a smaller population than Nottingham!

This all-inclusiveness, together with its deep local roots, made for another specific feature of the labour movement: its composition is almost completely proletarian. As de Man put it: “Nowhere is a Socialist Party as exclusively composed of proletarian elements as in Belgium.” [23]


Stalemate of parliamentarism and syndicalism

Another reason for the Socialist Party’s greater responsiveness to workers’ wishes, and for its officials’ – especially the local and lower echelons – greater tractability, was the early and prolonged check to 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 majority in parliamentary elections looked most unlikely. Catholic governments ruled the country uninterruptedly between 1884 and 1914. The Socialist Party could thus not become a complete slave to parliamentarism: although one Walloon worker has equal power with one conservative Flemish farmer in elections, the former is incomparably stronger than the latter in the economic arena.

The national and religious split probably also aided the federalist or autonomic tendencies in the trade unions and the Socialist Party and so strengthened the non-parliamentary forces in the labour movement.

The result of all this was a militant, non-doctrinaire and purely empirical syndicalism, a mixture of anarchism (without its individualism and with a much greater emphasis on organisation) and trade unionism. It thrived on 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. And syndicalism identified the general strike with the socialist revolution rather than looking upon it as only one important element of modern revolution.

However, as much as the syndicalists or syndicalist-inclined people try to overlook politics, it catches up with them, especially during mass strikes. The political arm of the capitalist class – the state with its police and army – are most obvious during such struggles. It is then that syndicalism’s lack of political theory, or perspective, leads to empirical, ad hoc measures, indeed to reformist measures.

An extreme example of the syndicalist-nationalist mixture is shown by André Rénard, the dynamic and militant leader of the metal workers, joint General Secretary of the FGTB, and the most prominent leader of the Socialist Left, who advocated a federal structure for Belgium in the recent strike.

Disgusted with Van Acker and Co.’s right-wing reformism, Rénard looked for a different solution to that proposed by Van Acker (coalition), but nevertheless confined his perspective within the framework of capitalism. He wanted to transform Belgium into a federal state: “I am a Walloon”, he declared, “and I am a federalist, and I shall remain one. We do not want to submit to Flemish clericalism any longer.” And in a leaflet distributed at one of his meetings in the Walloon colours of yellow and red his point was expressed succinctly:” 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.” [24]

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 sang the Internationale, is not for us to deal with here. The basic criticism of Rénards’ federalism is that it is reformist: it calls for 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 which of course might or might not entail a change in the national form).

In sum, it was the comprehensiveness of the labour movement, its federative structure, its extra-parliamentary slant, that formed fertile ground for using the general strike us a recurrent weapon of class struggle. It well suited the requirements of a working class in a highly industrialised country, suffering from extremely harsh and unstable conditions and prevented from using purely trade union or parliamentary methods of struggle.

True, all these mass strikes were not general strikes. On the whole they embraced only the Walloon workers: in the 1902 general strike, for instance, the Walloons made up 90 percent of the strikers, and in 1913, 75 percent. [25] But in a country like Belgium where industry is highly concentrated in a few sectors and dependence on foreign trade great, a limited mass strike – a stoppage in coal mining and steel production – is much more effective than would be a similar strike in a few big industries in a large and economically more diversified country.

“Properly speaking,” wrote the great bourgeois historian, Pirenne, “this party is more than an ordinary party. It makes the observer think of a state and a church in which the class spirit takes the place of the national or the religious spirit.” [26]


In conclusion

The combination of factors behind the numerous general strikes in Belgium show both the weaknesses and strength of the labour movement in that country.

The fact that the trade unions exclude half the organised workers, is a weakness. But it is partially also a source of strength: those organised in the socialist trade unions are more militant.

The movement’s heavy dependence on the co-operatives is a weakness, but the help the co-operatives give can be a source of strength.

Backward social legislation can be a sign, a result and a source of weakness, but it can push the workers to greater self-reliance, to greater efforts and self-mobilisation.

Tendencies towards decentralisation and local autonomy can reflect a lack of unity and a narrow-minded parochialism but it can also mean that the central bureaucracy is relatively weaker and less of an impediment to rank-and-file activities.

The almost purely proletarian composition of the Socialist Party results in a narrow empiricism and a lack of the theoretical horizons which are indispensable for changing the working class into a revolutionary class, but it can also inhibit right-wing middle-class Party leaders from poisoning the movement.

Above all, the factor that made general strikes endemic to Belgium, as distinct from other labour movements, namely the split into more or less equal halves of the organised workers, also impeded the development of general strikes beyond themselves into workers’ power.



III. The general strike and the socialist revolution

Being the country that experienced many more general strikes than any other, Belgium is well placed to show the role of the mass strike in the class struggle, its potentialities as well as its limitations.

On the basis of the 1902 general strike, Rosa Luxemburg came to the conclusion that the mass strike was a specifically proletarian weapon, the central factor in the revolutionary struggle for workers’ power. [27] She developed the idea in the light of the 1905 revolution in Russia, when she wrote:

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. Simultaneously it is a method by means of which to undermine and overthrow the established state power as well as to curb capitalist exploitation... In order that the working class may participate en masse in any direct political action it must first organise itself, which above all means that it must obliterate the boundaries between factories and workshops, mines and foundries: it must overcome the split between workshops which the daily yoke of capitalism condemns it to. Therefore the mass strike is the first natural, spontaneous form of every great revolutionary proletarian action. The more industry becomes the prevalent form of the economy, the more prominent the role of the working class, and the more developed the conflict between labour and capital, the more powerful and decisive become mass strikes. The earlier main form of bourgeois revolutions, the battle of the barricades, the open encounter with the armed State power, is a peripheral aspect of the revolution today, only one moment in the whole process of the mass struggle of the proletariat. [28]

A general strike has a dual effect: it organises the working class and disorganises the authority of the capitalist state. The greater and the more general the anarchy produced, the greater the disarray of the state machine and the better consolidated, organised and enthused the proletariat, the nearer is the victory of the revolution.

Nevertheless, by itself, the mass strike cannot defeat the capitalist class. They have much greater resources than workers and can hold out much longer. If it is to end in complete, final victory over capitalism, the logical and necessary climax of the mass strike is armed insurrection. And this is what, tends to happen in. the surge of general strikes – they tend to transcend themselves. In the Russian revolution of 1917, for example, the most revolutionary sectors of the class, educated and forged in previous mass strikes, started rejecting this method of struggle as ineffective after a time.. Trotsky tells us that in the last few months before October, the more advanced workers did not on the whole take part in any more mass strikes.

The strikes were especially stormy among the more backward and exploited groups of workers I Laundry workers, dyers, coopers, trade and industrial clerks, structural workers, sausage makers, furniture workers, were striking, layer after layer, throughout the month of’ June: The metal-workers were beginning, on the contrary, to play a restraining role. To the advanced workers it was becoming more and more clear that individual economic strikes in the conditions of war, breakdown and inflation could not bring a serious improvement, that there must be some change in the very foundations. [29]

...the workers were striking, layer after layer ... Only those layers of the working class did not enter the strike conflict, which were already, consciously moving towards a revolution. [30]

It is clear that at a certain stage in its own development, the revolution – of which the mass strike is a central organising and educating element – transcends the mass strike. Under revolutionary conditions, the mass strike poses the question of power – which class is to dominate? – but in itself it does not solve it. A general strike may well grow into armed uprising, but it does not necessarily do so. Many a cocoon has died before becoming a butterfly.

How and why is shown quite clearly in this “laboratory” of general strikes – Belgium.


The general strike and parliamentarism

In the eyes of the anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists the general strike is a complete negation of day-to-day, parliamentary, political work. And, indeed, as an act of direct and complete involvement of masses outside the parliamentary perimeter, it is such a negation. But it is not a complete negation. After all, the 1886, 1891, 1893, 1902 and 1913 mass strikes in Belgium aimed at achieving universal suffrage.

As Rosa Luxemburg put it:

The attempt to find a contradiction between the day-to-day public activity and especially between parliamentarism on the one hand, and the general strike on the other, has no foundation in reality, as the general political strike does not aim to substitute for parliamentary activity or other small activities, but joins as a link in the chain of propaganda and struggle. Moreover, in itself it serves as a servant of parliamentarism. It is Worth pointing out, that all general strikes hitherto came out to defend parliamentary rights or to conquer them. [31]

To the extent that the struggle for broadening or defending workers’ electoral rights under capitalism is a progressive one, the general strike may well play a progressive role without overthrowing the capitalist state, but only shaking concessions out of it. In this way the mass strike, a revolutionary weapon par excellence, may well serve limited, reformist, aims.


The general strike: economics and politics.

For reformists there is a Chinese wall between political struggle for economic aims and political struggle for revolution. The mass strike shows it up for what it is – pure chimera. The police and army – the political weapons of the ruling class – are there for all to see as decisive factors in the struggle. As a demonstration for Lenin’s saying that politics is nothing but concentrated economics, there is nothing better than the mass strike.

If politics is concentrated economics, not every economic struggle, however wide, will necessarily lead to concentration in a political movement for the overthrow of the capitalist order. Whether or not it does so, depends on both objective factors – whether the immediate interests of the workers can be satisfied only by a complete overthrow of the system – and subjective ones – whether there is a mass revolutionary party which represents, as against national and local group interests the interests of the proletariat as a whole, and throughout the different stages of the class struggle, whether it represents the final aim of working class freedom.

By their very nature, and even if one overlooks the bureaucracy’s hold over them, the trade unions represent the workers’ current, day-to-day, partial interests, i.e. local and national, interests. A revolutionary party, in the words of The Communist Manifesto, would be the unifying element of the present with the future and as such is a necessary element for revolutionary trade unionism.

One can agree that in “every strike one can see the hydra-head of revolution” – and that this is certainly true of general strikes – without drawing the conclusion, as many a vulgar Marxist does, that every strike leads to revolution. After all, Belgium has witnessed mass political strikes, combined with economic struggles, trade unionism with parliamentarism, for over eighty years. And still no revolution. There is no talisman, no one weapon, for the liberation of the working class from capitalism.


The “disciplined” mass strike

The mass strike would seem to be the epitome of direct involvement and therefore of mass spontaneity. But not always are things so clear cut. In Belgium, there have been general strikes practically fully organised and disciplined by a bureaucratic leadership, such as, to take an extreme case, the strike of 1913. It is worth studying it for a moment, since, in every general strike, the bureaucracy has acted as straitjacket, even if somewhat less effectively than in 1913.

The 1913 one was prepared and organised for months in advance by the leadership of the Socialist Party and the trade unions. If they were pushed into the strike by the masses, they never lost their control, which was practically complete, over all the levers of the strike. They insisted on “the centralisation of the means of propaganda”. One bourgeois student of this strike showed the reason:

A moment’s thought will show the wisdom of this principle under the conditions of high emotional pressure among the masses. But for the strong central control of propaganda the militant wing, and especially the “young guard” of the Socialists might easily have run away with the movement and have ended in anything but a non-violent general strike. [32]

After the strike started, all speakers at strike meetings were definitely appointed by the federation whose members were holding the meeting, “lest tumult should arise from uncertified orators”:

In spite of all these precautions and propaganda, even to the end of the strike, the majority of the leaders secretly feared that the general strike might become violent. Hence it was rather natural that such bitter terms as “agents provocateurs”, “traitors”, “criminals”, were applied to any who sought to incite to violence. [33]

Special labour “strike police” were organised. These “police” were present at all trade union meetings, all fetes, games or conferences. The surroundings of factories t and- workshops were guarded by them. Each member of this force carried his identity card, to be shown wherever intervention became necessary. Any “incident” had to be promptly reported to the local committee, and in the meantime, to secure discipline, “no parades or processions were permitted save with the official sanction of the regular trade union committee”. [34]

In this way the mass strike, the “natural form of every great revolutionary proletarian action”, to use Rosa Luxemburg’s words, was tamed. In different forms, and in different degrees, this was repeated in later mass strikes in the country.


The mass strike and the revolutionary party

The mass strike is part of the general working class struggle. It accentuates all the strength of the class and all its weaknesses – the influence of bureaucracy, ideological immaturity.

To use Rosa Luxemburg’s words, the workers of Europe and the world should learn to “speak Belgian”. But they will also have to break with its dialect, its empiricism, narrow trade unionism, bureaucratic conservatism and nationalism.




1. Le Monde du Travail, 22 December 1960.

2. OEEC, Belgium-Luxemburg Economic Union, Paris 1960, p.32

3. La Gauche, 26 November 1960 quoting the High Authority of the European Coal and Steel Community.

4. Le Monde du Travail, 22 December 1960. This compares with 1.9 percent in Britain at present

5. Economist, 31 December 1960.

6. Ibid.

7. Statist, International Banking Supplement, 17 December 1960.

8. Ibid.

9. Economist Intelligence Unit, Britain and Europe, London 1957, p.31

10. La Wallonie, 27 December 1960.

11. Ibid., 31 December 1960.

12. D.S. Chlepner, Cent Ans, d’Histoire Sociale en Belgique, 1956, pp.115-6, 118, 272-3.

13. R.S. Rowntree, Land and Labour: Lessons from Belgium, London 1911, p.24

14. Chlepner, op. cit., p.122.

15. K.G.J.C. Knowles, Strikes: A Study In Industrial Conflict, Oxford 1954, p.243

16. B. Vandervelde, La Parti Ouvriere Belge, 1925, p.279.

17. H. de Man, Die Eigenart der Belgischen Arbeiterbewegung, Supplement to Die Neue Zeit, 10 March 1911, p.18.

18. Vandervelde, op. cit., p.279.

19. H. Pirenne, Histoire de Belgique, 1932, Vol.VII, p.343.

20. R.C.K. Ensor, Belgium, 1915

21. Rowntree, op. cit., p.264.

22. de Man. op. cit., p.6.

23. Ibid., p.26.

24. Ibid., p.3.

25. Times, 10 January 1961.

26. W.H. Crook, The General Strike, Chapel Hill 1931, p.101.

27. The Belgian Experiment, Die Neue Zeit, 26 April 1902; Yet a Third Time on the Belgian Experiment, Die Neue Zeit, 14 May 1902.

28. Ausgewählte Reden und Schriften, Berlin 1955, Vol.1, pp.227-8

29. Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, London, 1934, p.431.

30. Ibid., p.847.

31. Yet a Third Time on the Belgian Experiment, op. cit.

32. Crook, op. cit. p.74.

33. Ibid., p.80.

34. Ibid., p.95.

Last updated on 25 February 2010