Ted Grant

Lessons of the Belgian strike

Source: Socialist Fight, Vol. 3 No. 1, Mid-February 1961
Transcription: Francesco 2009
Proofread: Fred 2009
Markup: Niklas 2009

Socialist Fight had an editorial last year entitled "The red sixties." This was greeted with smiles and scepticism by right-wingers and some quasi-Marxists who babbled about "high standards of living in the welfare state," "the terribly low level of consciousness" of the working class in Britain and Western Europe, who had been "corrupted" by capitalist prosperity.

The Gaitskellites gloomily forecast a decade of Tory gains... if Labour preserved its socialist aims. The organised British workers gave their answer in the overwhelming rejection of the attempt to revise clause 4. Now comes the mighty movement of the Belgian workers: 700,000 to 800,000 Belgian workers maintained a strike which paralysed the key areas of the country for a month or so! That was their reply to the government of the Belgian trusts and monopolies which tried to put on the shoulders of the working class the results of the policy of Belgian capital in the last years. They tried to introduce a law which would mean a cut in the standard of living, and in the social services of three to four percent.

Due to the combativity of the workers, and the favourable post-war economic situation, the capitalists in Britain, Belgium and other countries of Western Europe have conceded important reforms to the workers, on the basis of the increased profits they were making. In fact the share of the working class, in the total produce in these countries, has dropped. The attempt to take back these concessions in Belgium, the head-on attack against the entire working class, was bound to provoke a massive movement of protest.

Especially in the engineering, steel and mining areas, with their great traditions, the strike was completely successful. The strike demonstrated the magnificent capacity for struggle and sacrifice of the working class. It demonstrated that the very development of capitalist industry in the post-war period has increased the strength and fighting power of the workers.

Problem of power

In all the main centres of the struggle, Liege, Charleroi, Ghent, as in the British general strike, committees of action were immediately set up to lead and co-ordinate the struggle. The workers, as in parts of Britain in the general strike, had virtual control of the situation. A general strike by its very nature poses the problem of power. Two forces stand opposed to each other--the force of the workers and the force of the capitalists, in the shape of the army, and the police.

So hot was the feeling engendered in the main industrial areas, that the local police were sympathetic to the workers. The capitalists had to rely on their picked force of special police, the "gendarmes," who provoked bloody clashes with the workers. As the Guardian correspondent remarked of a big mass meeting in La Louviere:

"A few policemen stood at the edges [of the crowd], one of whom remarked that there would be no trouble unless the gendarmes showed up. A military aircraft circled overhead, and the gendarmes waited in their barracks near by... In Liege where there was an estimated demonstration of 50,000 workers... there were 400 gendarmes, eight armoured trucks, three trucks equipped with pressure hoses and a unit of infantry armed with machine guns only a few streets away..."

About Liege and Hainault province The Times, not given to exaggeration, could write in its issue of January 10th: "In other words, the two provinces in which the strikers are making their stand are now under an armed occupation."

Hundreds of workers were arrested in clashes; some workers were killed by attacks of the police and the army. In Mons the police regained control of the telephone exchange by using tear-gas and firing machine-guns in the air.

"Prosperity" of capitalism

What was lacking in this whole situation was clear and far-sighted leadership. It was apparent that the leaders of the socialist trade unions and of the Socialist Party of Belgium regarded the whole titanic struggle as a safety valve, as a means of allaying the indignation of the workers against the attacks of capital.

How can it be otherwise when there is parliamentary collaboration between the forces representing the workers and the forces of capital? It is "they" and not the workers who are corrupted by the temporary "prosperity" of capitalism. In Britain the tops of the Labour Party and the trade unions hob-nob in boardrooms and in the parliamentary smoking chambers with the Tory representatives of capital. This saps their will to struggle against capitalism, except for meagre reforms in order to keep their followers "quiet." As the Guardian cynically comments of the situation in Belgium, where the Socialist Party is perhaps the most "left" in Europe:

"The leaders of angrily hostile camps will drop in and out of each other's offices, always on the friendliest terms, and will even accept a function in each other's affairs. The employers pay a sizable contribution to the trade union strike funds while M. Andre Renard, the trade union leader whose utterances have recently taken on an almost revolutionary note, is a regent of the National Bank and a director of numerous companies. Divisions which are corroding the whole country will be treated in private as if they were minor chess problems--in a game in which both sides are deliberately playing for stalemate."

State repression

The "patriotic" Belgian capitalists have allowed the industrial structure of Belgian industry to remain outdated while they export £50,000,000 a year of capital, a colossal sum for such a small country as Belgium. It pays them more. That is the naked law of capital. Because of the strength of the working class movement, which again and again in the last decades has broken out in mass struggles in Western Europe, the capitalists have understood the necessity to exert pressure and corrupt the tops of the labour movement. When in spite of this the workers have moved into struggle they have used all the forces of the state to repress them. When this has not been sufficient they have taken to the road of financing criminal fascist bands to destroy the labour movement, in spite of all efforts of the leadership to arrive at an agreement with them. They have been unable to "control" the workers therefore they must go.

Lack of a perspective

The main lesson of the Belgian strike has been the incapacity of the leadership, even the most "left," such as Renard, to give a perspective and a goal to the struggle. Sacrifices... a month of tremendous struggles... and the original issue of the strike were submerged as in the British general strike by the confrontation of the classes... As late as January 10th at a meeting in Huy, Andre Renard, supposed to be the most left of the leaders of the strike, was declaring to a mass meeting of the strikers, according to the judgment of The Times correspondent, who has to estimate these events carefully from the viewpoint of the capitalist class:

"It was simply a matter of holding on, and not of precipitating violence. Other steps could be taken if necessary, such as a complete downing of tools, but he gave the impression that he intends to do everything possible to avoid such a drastic step..."

And again at another meeting on January 8th:

"We shall go on even beyond our financial resource. If necessary we will tighten our belts and make do with the minimum.

"We are fighting for ideals and to prove to this country that there is no power which can make us bow our heads..."

Empty words when considered on the background of the mighty movement involving nearly the whole of the working class, at least in the Walloon section of Belgium. And here for lack of a perspective... was raised the red herring of separatism, which will tend to divide the Belgian workers rather than unite them. The Socialist Party and the trade union leaders have showed themselves incapable of winning over the Christian workers, mainly Flemish, organised in the Christian trade unions. An opportunity was lost in the early days of the strike of drawing in the Christian workers by the proclamation of a general strike covering the whole of Belgium, and appealing to the class solidarity of the Christian workers.

Pickets attacked

Within a few days the Christian-Democratic party, through Prime Minister Eyskens, had given some secondary concessions on the "Loi Unique" which had precipitated the strike. This confused the Christian workers, many of whom had left their unions and joined the strike. Wavering layers, who would have joined the strike, remained at work. The only thing which would have brought them out would have been the posing of the problem as a clear clash of the working class with the capitalists and the need for the workers' committees to take control into their own hands. This was not a "minor chess problem" but the problem of power.

The capitalists of Belgium used every means in their power to break the strike. They savagely attacked the pickets and have threatened to introduce new laws to "curb" the rights of the workers in strikes. Unfortunately the leaders of the movement did not reveal a like determination. The last big movement of the Belgian workers saw the "march on Brussels" to force the abdication of King Leopold. It succeeded. This movement was even bigger and wider in scope. Yet no march on Brussels to force the repeal of the Loi Unique was organised. Why? Because of the inevitable revolutionary implications which would have been posed. Only those organised around La Gauche called for this action.

Under these conditions the struggle was doomed like the British general strike to defeat--the Loi Unique with minor modifications has been forced through Parliament. But this is only a partial, and temporary defeat.

The railwaymen of Liege marched back to work singing the Internationale. This is a reflection of the mood of the workers.

For a workers' government

The Belgian capitalists have decided that the best way to demoralise and confuse the workers is through drawing the Socialist Party leaders into a coalition with the Christian-Democratic Party. Hence the new elections. To have continued with the present government would mean that after a temporary period, in which to heal the wounds and recover from the stress of the struggle, the workers would move in an even more determined way to fight and struggle against the attacks of diseased Belgian capitalism on their standard of living. In this struggle they would have drawn in the Christian-Democratic workers, who would realise with embarrassment, and shame, their failure to support their brothers on the last occasion.

The Marxists in the Belgian Socialist Party are campaigning against the suggestion of a new coalition government with the representatives of Belgian capital, the so-called Christian-Social Party. They have called for a workers' government based upon the trade unions and for a programme of transitional demands for the nationalisation of the basic industries. From these great events a powerful left-wing will emerge which will fight for a programme of uncompromising socialisation as the only solution to the problems facing the Belgian people.