Ernest Mandel

The Belgian Elections

(April 1968)

Source: From World Outlook, 26 April, 1968, Vol. 6, No. 16, Paris and New York City.
Translated: by World Outlook from the April 6 issue of the Brussels weekly La Gauche.
Transcription & Marked-up: by David Walters for the Marxists’ Internet Archive, 2009.
Public Domain: Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

[The following article has been translated by World Outlook from the April 6 issue of the Brussels weekly La Gauche. The original title is les plus mauvaises Alections depuis l’instauration du suffrage universel (The worst election since the establishment of universal suffrage). The subtitles appear in the original.]

We entitled our analysis of the elections of May 23, 1965, The Most Serious Defeat in the History of Belgian Socialism. The outcome of the elections of March 31, 1968, was, in fact, still worse than that of May 23, 1965. The workers movement is continuing to lose both votes and seats in parliament. Indeed, the elections of March 31, 1968, were the worst for the workers movement since universal suffrage was established in Belgium.

The Continuing Decline in the Workers Movement

Without going back to the period before the war – in which the peak Socialist vote of 1925 was never equaled and the worst outcome was in the elections of 1939 – the regular decline in the percentage of the vote won by the workers movement after the “peak” in 1954 is apparent:












This result is obtained by adding to the 1965 vote of the CP [Communist Party] and the PSB [Parti Socialists Belge – Belgian Socialist Party], the vote of the blocs of the OF-UGS [Union de la Gauche Socialiste – Left Socialist Union] and the CP-PWT [Parti Wallon des Travailleurs – Walloon Workers Party], the Huysmans [1] slate in Anvers, the Grippists [2] and the FAT vote in Liege – which was cast for a slate grouped around the program of “federalism and anticapitalist structural reforms” which was clearly a part of the workers movement at the time.

Even if one wanted to deduct the PWT vote in Liège as a purely Perinist [3] vote – which it certainly was not in 1965 – the 1965 figure becomes 32.99% and the decline from 1965 to 1968, while a little less clear, remains pronounced.

In this regard, account must obviously be taken of the fact that the 1965 results already represented a historical low point, that they were the fruit of four years of disastrous collaboration in the government [of the PSB in a bourgeois government], and that they followed an almost complete break between an important part of the Walloon trade-union movement and the parties claiming to base themselves on the workers movement.

This time, the elections followed two years of conservative government and they were preceded by a spectacular reconciliation between the Walloon FGTB [Féderation Générale des Travailleurs de Belgique – General Workers Federation of Belgium] and the PSB. The results are all the worse because of this.

Is any reminder necessary that to hustle votes François Perin spectacularly:

  1. Abandoned the program of anticapitalist structural reforms.
  2. Put under wraps the demand for federalism (which was originally the raison d’être of his formation).
  3. Accepted the Atlantic alliance.
  4. Preferred linking up with clearly conservative bourgeois Catholics of the Duvieusart stripe instead of holding on to his trade-union base in Charleroi.

All of this fell clearly to the right of the PSB in this election campaign. Considering his election propaganda, which was centered on “an understanding among all Walloons of good will,” his slide from a class position toward a petty-bourgeois or even bourgeois nationalist position is evident.

I do not at all dispute the fact that many workers, and above all white-collar workers, let themselves be taken in by this demagogy; I simply note that in so doing they evolved toward the right. The future will bring us not a few surprises on this score, above all when the class struggle reasserts itself as it inevitably will in the Walloon area.

The Breakthrough of the “Language” Parties

The key fact in the 1968 elections was obviously the breakthrough of the so-called “language” parties in Flanders, the Walloon area, and Brussels. The FDF [Front Démocratique des Francophones – French Speakers’ Democratic Front] and Rassemblement Wallon [Walloon Rally] doubled their vote. Volksunie [the National Union (Flemish)] gained by 50%.

It can be considered that there is a fundamental difference between the first two formations and the third, the latter being much more clearly oriented toward the right by its origins and its social composition than the first two. However, this observation is not sufficient. It is one thing to note that the FDF and Rassemblement Wallon drew the major part of their vote from sectors which traditionally vote “left” (also including Christian Democratic sectors, however); but it is another matter to estimate the direction in which these voters are moving.

On this score no doubt is possible.

The Sociology of the Breakthrough

This said, it must be noted that the social base of Volksunie is fundamentally different from that of the FDF and Rassemblement Wallon. The self-employed are the backbone of Volksunie – above all the liberal professions (in some areas Volksunie is the “doctors’ party”) and sometimes the farmers. Its base is stronger among salaried workers than among wage workers, where it has not yet made a breakthrough.

The FDF’s base is essentially among public-service employees and salaried workers in the “tertiary” sector [commerce and services] who feel their livelihood threatened by Flemish pressure for reinstituting equality between French and Flemish in the Brussels public administration.

This fear of losing their livelihood obviously intertwines with manysided and often less “social” motives (notably, the desire to win the right to speculate freely in real estate in the extensive Brussels suburbs along with the “freedom of parents” [4]). The confusion which reigns in this milieu around the concept of “freedom” shows moreover that even when these voters voted socialist their socialism was of a very peculiar variety.

As for Rassemblement Wallon, there is little doubt that it cut into both the traditional “left” electorate (including even Communist voters, notably in Liege and into the Social-Christian vote. Let me illustrate this by a few examples:

The Evolution in Flanders and the Walloon Area

The absolute figures must obviously be mistrusted in judging the election results in Flanders and the Walloon area because these figures reflect, among other things, a divergent demographic movement in the two parts of the country: an increase in the number of Flemish voters and stagnation or even decline in the number of Walloon voters.

Thus in Flanders, the PSB gained 44,000 votes (to which were added 4,000 Communist votes and 2,000 votes for the SBV [Socialistische Beweging Vlaanderen – Socialist Movement of Flanders]). But deducting the 14,000 votes of the Buysmans slate in 1965 reduces these gains to 36,000 votes, or barely 1% of the electorate. That is very little and it does not seem to reflect the well-known “Evalenko law” of correspondence between the FGTB’s gains in the social elections and the gains of parties claiming to base themselves on the workers movement.

In the Walloon area, the FSB lost 23,000 votes, losses which are obviously less serious once the decrease in the number of voters is taken into account. The PSB’s big defeat came in Brussels with a loss of 40,000 votes on top of the very serious losses suffered in 1965. In seven years time, from 1961 to 1968, the PSB vote dropped from 336,667 to 173,096, that is the PSB lost half its vote.

These slight differences between the behavior of the Flemish and Walloon electorates obviously also apply to the FIJF. It is continuing its advance in the Walloon area, although at a slower pace (it gained a little less than 20,000 votes); it lost in Flanders, less in absolute votes (5,000 votes) than in percentage. Those much touted “moderate Flemings” whom it had hoped to rally around its standard did not exist outside its own followers.

It must also be remarked that in the Walloon area, the PSB is holding its own in the best way where it has best “made a left turn” in its style if not its program – above all in Liege and Charleroi, where it regained a little of the ground it lost in 1965.

What is serious is that in Flanders the Volksunie is continuing to nibble away at the PSB. Thus in Anvers, the three slates in 1965 – the PSB, the Buysmans slate, and the CF – exceeded the PSB-CP-SBV 1968 total by 6,500 votes. Since the PSB and the PLP both lost, it is logical to suppose that at least part of the 30,000 votes won by Volksunie were Socialist votes (even if there was a compensating movement between the PSB and the PLP, with the first recouping part of the votes it lost in 1965 at the expense of the second).

In Ghent, where the PSB conducted a campaign slightly more to the left, the situation was a little better: The PSB-CP vote in 1965 exceeded the 1968 PSB-CP-SBIT vote by only 2,000 votes. At Alost, where its campaign was still more dynamic, the PSB gained 4,000 votes. But, in general, its gains in Flanders were more substantial in semirural than in urban areas. It gained 6.7% in Torhout; 4% in Passendale, Wervicq, and Ypres; 4% in Haecht, Nederbrakel, and Horebeke-Sainte-Marie; 3% in Neerpelt, Landen, and Glabbek, etc. Here the effect of industrialization must be seen and of passage into opposition.

Finally, it must be noted that in the Brussels district the Socialists in the Flemish-speaking cantons resisted the “language’ lure much better than those in the French-speaking cantons. The PSB (the Flemish and Brussels units) even increased its percentage over 1965 in the cantons of Vilvorde and Asse.

A Searching of Conscience Is Required

What factors explain the slide of a not inconsiderable fraction of those traditionally voting for the workers parties toward the so-called “language” slates? Conscience searching is clearly demanded in this regard.

Two opposing theses exist. One group claims that the workers movement played the part of the apprentice sorcerer in “raising the Walloon question,” that it is its own child today that is turning against it. In campaigning on the Walloon question, labor is supposed essentially to have nourished an evil in its bosom which would devour it. The advocates of this thesis see a compelling parallel here with the relationship between the Christian workers movement and Flemish nationalism; and those who hold this view are found, moreover, among both the most moderate Flemish Social Democrats and the Walloon and Brussels “leftists.”

The other thesis asserts to the contrary that the workers movement did not go far enough in pushing the Walloon line. If it had more or less completely adopted Penn’s strategy, they say – that is, if it had centered on Walloon demands and sacrificed its class language and, if necessary, its class demands – it would have been able to avoid this breach; and it would instead have been able to achieve a breakthrough in still more substantial Christian Democratic sectors than Rassemblement Wallon did this time.

In my opinion, both these interpretations are too simplistic and extrapolate too much. They both try to comprehend a situation in movement by means of a fixed criterion. It is hard to dispute the fact, however, that the situation has changed considerably over the course of the last ten years. What must be explained is why it changed and why this change went in one direction and not in another.

Let me say at the outset that it is absurd to claim that the MPW [Mouvement Populaire Wallon – Walloon Peoples Movement], André Renard, or the Communist and Socialist left invented the Walloon malaise. This malaise exists; no “agitation” could have artificially provoked tremors as extensive as those we have experienced in the course of these last years.

The roots of this malaise moreover are well known. I will cite their three principal aspects simply by way of reminder: the economic decline (the coal crisis, the drop in employment, threats to the steel industry, etc.); political frustration (for forty years the Walloons cast a majority of their votes for the Communists and Socialists without being able to enforce their will in the Walloon area and still less in the framework of Belgium as a whole); the fear of becoming a minority (both in the state and in all “unitary” organizations).

Did the workers movement commit an error in picking up these demands and not leaving them from the beginning to some kind of bourgeois demagogy? I think not. I think that, instructed by the example of Flemish nationalism, the workers movement was one hundred percent right in understanding that there was a chance of a breakthrough on the basis of Walloon demands, if it integrated them into its general program. I think also that these demands were, in general, democratic and progressive, that one cannot at the sane time recognize the right of peoples to self-determination and condemn the Walloon peoples demands as “reactionary.”

Two conditions, however, were required for the success of this historic operation of integrating national demands into the program of the workers movement, which (let us recall) failed lamentably in Flanders. First it was necessary that there be real integration, that is that the socialist goal never drop to second place, neither with respect to its organizational form nor the demands. Hence our continual insistence on a combination of federalism and anticapitalist structural reforms. A program of national demands separated from socialist aims would threaten to degenerate into petty-bourgeois nationalism. Secondly, the workers movement and the working class had to remain on the offensive, the Walloon thrust had to appear clearly as the expression of a thrust by the workers it had to keep a very clear class meaning.

The decisive years were 1961–64. The PSB’s participation in the government, coming right after the general strike, profoundly shook the Walloon masses’ confidence in the workers movement. Added to lamentable tactical blunders like the Fouron affair, the PSB’s turn to the right forced it to put its Walloon demands under wraps at the precise time when these needs were beginning to become exacerbated.

Thus a double break occurred. The radical Walloon current began at once to break away from the organized workers movement and to pursue purely Walloon objectives apart from class objectives. Its basic aim became more and more to constitute an essentially anti-Flemish pressure group – the equivalent in the Walloon area of Volksunie; the Louvain affair showed this well.

The 1965 elections disclosed the beginning of this transformation. Then, however, it was still possible to reverse it, if the workers movement had reacted quickly in deeds Instead, the situation deteriorated both on the economic and political levels. But there was no convincing action by the workers which could have brought along the hesitant elements. The April 6 demonstration, the first attempt to turn to action, is set for – it is symbolic! – six days after the March 31 elections.

In these circumstances, the masses sensitized by the Walloon national question had a choice only among speeches and promises; they voted for those who went furthest in radical Walloon language. Thus they again moved away from the workers movement, weakened it, and set off a new deterioration in the class relationship of forces.

This brings me to those who censure us for not being “Walloon” enough and for having missed an opportunity for an electoral breakthrough as a result. To these I say that a revolutionary socialists goal in participating in elections is not to amass votes by any and all means but to amass those votes which bring him nearer the realization of his goal.

Prin quit the PSB as a left socialist; he collected votes as a pettybourgeois nationalist. Tomorrow he will become a strikebreaker when a strike threatens the “union of all the Walloons.” Such an example is scarcely tempting; it is only the repetition on a smaller scale of the Social Democracy’s electoral “successes.” Only contempt can be held for those who sacrifice their principles for hustling votes. As for those who have no principles at all and simply seek “power,” history has shown that they become the unconscious instruments of social forces hostile to the working people. We have nothing in common with adventurers of this type.

Our Own Results

The Confédération Socialiste des Travailleurs [Socialist Workers Confederation], which consists of the Parti Wallon des Travailleurs, the Socialistische Beweging Vlaanderen, and the Union de la Gauche Socialiste of Brussels, received 9,000 votes in the March 31 elections. These votes were distributed as follows:

2,698 votes in Brussels
1,825 in Liege
1,027 in Ghent
   895 in Anvers
   611 in Mouscron-Ath-Tournai
   484 in Soignies
   700 in Charleroi
   289 in Thuin
   289 in Nivelles

The least bad results by canton were in La Louvière, 1.03%; Nouscron, 0.74; Seraing, 0.55%; Grivignée, 0.51%; Uccle, 0.5%; Seneffe, 0.49%; Eecloo, 0.48%; Roeulx, 0.48%; Templeuve, 0.48%; Ledeberg, 0.44%.

We are not electoralists. We participate in elections to spread our program. We did this on a scale never equaled in the past (700,000 brochures were distributed throughout the country). We had slim hope of winning a seat in parliament. However, this very modest outcome was disappointing. We had expected about double the votes we received.

A number of factors must be taken into account to explain this very low vote. First of all, although we are hardly responsible for it, we suffered the effect of the decline in the workers movement (above all in Brussels). The vote of the far left in Brussels was cut about in half (from 41,000 votes to 24,000 votes). The loss from what we had hoped to get is partially explained by this general decline.

Secondly, a curtain of silence worked to our detriment. In 1965, as a result of the split in the PSB, the newspapers talked about us. This time, the first time we faced the voters alone in the main population centers of the country, no one mentioned us. What did us immense harm above all was the fact that we were denied access to TV as a result of the dishonest maneuver of which our readers are aware. Our organization is little known, above all in Flanders and certain areas of Hainaut. TV could have made us known but it was unjustly denied us.

Finally, there was the fact that we are a small party which is barely off the ground nationally (the Confédération Socialiste de Travailleurs has existed for only two years). Our significant trade-union base in certain regions (above all in Liège) and in certain branches of industry does not amount to a local political base, or only to a small extent. The workers can put their trust and confidence in union delegates without necessarily thereby voting for their party, if they are not yet familiar with it and if they have not yet been able to see it in action.

All this said, the crucial fact remains that sectors which clearly sympathize with us and which act shoulder to shoulder with the Confédération Socialiste des Travailleurs, both in union work and in action for the defense of the Vietnamese revolution, voted for the FDF in Brussels and the Rassemblement Wallon in the Walloon area. This means one thing: in the elections “linguistic” or “national” responses disoriented the class consciousness and reflexes of a part of the workers vanguard.

We regret this but we will not yield to this pressure any more than we yielded to the reformist pressure. Our duty is to offer the workers a class program; it is to tirelessly reiterate and prove to them that their problems cannot be solved without the overthrow of the capitalist system.

We held to this language during the election campaign. On this program we won a little more than 10,000 voters in the country (taking account of some districts like Nons, Huy-Waremme, Verviers, and Louvain, which we did not contest for technical reasons and where we would have gotten the same percentage of the vote as elsewhere. This is the base for beginning to build a revolutionary socialist party, one thoroughly convinced of the need for federalism, but revolutionary-socialist first of all.

This base is modest but it is real. Let us start from this sober estimate of our forces and organize ourselves, improve our base in the plants and locally, improve our press and propaganda. Above all, we will build a party which more and more will become the striking force of the workers vanguard in this country, which will play a growing role in working-class action; this alone is what counts in changing the destinies of Belgium in the direction of socialism.


1. A list headed by Camille Huysmans, the well-known, old-time Flemish left socialist.

2. The pro-Chinese Communist party led by Jacques Grippa.

3. François Perin, originally split from the PSB as a left socialist in 1965 and participated in the formation of the PWT. He split away from the PWT shortly thereafter to form the petty-bourgeois nationalist party, the Parti Wallon [Walloon party]. Excepting the former Christian Democrats who voted for Rassemblement Wallon – I will return to this later on – a former Socialist, Communist, or PWT voter who voted in 1968 for Rassemblement Wallon or the FDF, considering the program of these parties, is a voter moving away from the left toward the right.

4. Freedom of the parent to decide on the language instruction his child receives in the public schools.

Last updated on 11.5.2012