International Workingmen’s Association 1869

The Belgian Massacres

Source: MECW Volume 21, p. 47;
Written: by Karl Marx;
Adopted: by the General Council on May 4, 1869;
First published: as a leaflet, The Belgian Massacres. To the Workmen of Europe and the United States, May 1869.

Marx wrote this address to the workers of Europe and the United States following the bloody events in Belgium in April 1869. On April 20, the General Council heard the report of Eugen Hins, of the Belgian Federal Council of the International, who had been sent to the spot to investigate the details of the massacre in Seraing and Frameries. Marx was commissioned to draw up an address on behalf of the General Council to denounce the atrocities committed by the Belgian authorities. He wrote it in English and French and read it out at the General Council meeting of May 4. The Council approved the address and decided to have it printed and distributed. In English it was published as a leaflet, “The Belgian Massacres. To the Workmen of Europe and the United States”, in London on May 12, 1869. A copy of the leaflet has been preserved in the Minute Book of the General Council. Part of the leaflet was reproduced in The Bee-Hive, May 8, 1869. The French text was published in the Belgian newspapers L'Internationale, May 15 and La Liberté, May 16, 1869. The German translation by Eccarius was printed in Der Social-Demokrat, May 21, in the Demokratisches Wochenblatt, May 22, 1869 and in other newspapers in Germany, Switzerland and France. The address found a broad response among the people. Read at a mass protest meeting in Brussels on May 16, it was met with tumultuous applause.

To the Workmen of Europe and the United States

There passes hardly a week in England without strikes — and strikes upon a grand scale. If, on such occasions, the Government was to let its soldiers loose upon the Working Class, this land of strikes would become a land of massacres, but not for many a week. After a few such physical force experiments, the powers that be would be nowhere. In the United States, too, the number and scale of strikes have continued to increase during the last few years, and even sometimes assumed a riotous character. But no blood was spilt. In some of the great military states of continental Europe, the era of strikes may be dated from the end of the American Civil War. But here again, no blood was spilt. There exists but one country in the civilised world where every strike is eagerly and joyously turned into a pretext for the official massacre of the Working Class. That country of single blessedness is Belgium! the model state of continental constitutionalism, the snug, well-hedged, little paradise of the landlord, the capitalist, and the priest. The earth performs not more surely its yearly revolution than the Belgian Government its yearly Working Men’s massacre. The massacre of this year does not differ from last year’s massacre [Charleroi, Belgium in March 1868], but by the ghastlier number of its victims, the more hideous ferocity of an otherwise ridiculous army, the noisier jubilation of the clerical and capitalist press, and the intensified frivolity of the pretexts put forward by the Governmental butchers.

It is now proved, even by the involuntary evidence of the capitalist press, that the quite legitimate strike of the puddlers in the Cockerill Ironworks, of Seraing, was only converted into a riot by a strong posse of cavalry and gendarmerie suddenly launched upon that place in order to provoke the people. From the 9th to the 12th of April these stout warriors not only recklessly charged with sabre and bayonet the unarmed workmen, they indiscriminately killed and wounded harmless passers-by, forcibly broke into private houses, and even amused themselves with repeated furious onslaughts on the travellers pent up in the Seraing Railway Station. When these days of horror had passed away, it became bruited about that Mr. Kamp, the mayor of Seraing, was an agent of the Cockerill Joint Stock Company, that the Belgian Home Minister, a certain Mr. Pirmez, was the largest shareholder in a neighbouring colliery also on strike, and that His Royal Highness the Prince of Flanders had invested 1,500,000 francs in the Cockerill concern.[68] Hence people jump to the truly strange conclusion that the Seraing massacre was a sort of joint stock company coup d'état, quietly plotted between the firm Cockerill and the Belgian Home Minister, for the simple purpose of striking terror unto their disaffected subjects. This calumny, however, was soon after victoriously refuted by the later events occurring in Le Borinage, a colliery district where the Belgian Home Minister, the said Mr. Pirmez, seems not to be a leading capitalist. An almost general strike having broken out amongst the miners of that district, numerous troops were concentrated, who opened their campaign at Frameries by a fusillade, which killed nine and grievously wounded twenty miners, after which little preliminary exploit the Riot Act, singulary enough styled in French “les sommations préalables”,[69] was read, and then the butchery proceeded with.

Some politicians trace these incredible deeds to motives of a sublime patriotism. While just negotiating on some ticklish points with their French neighbour, [70] the Belgian Government, they say, were bound in duty to show off the heroism of their army. Hence that scientific division of arms, displaying, first, the irresistible impetuosity of the Belgian cavalry at Seraing, and then the steady vigour of the Belgian infantry at Frameries. To frighten the foreigner, what means more infallible than such homely battles, which one does not know how to lose, and such domestic battlefields, where the hundreds of workmen killed, mutilated, and made prisoners, shed so glorious a lustre upon those invulnerable warriors, who, all of them, to a man, get off with their skins safe.

Other politicians, on the contrary, suspect the Belgian ministers to be sold to the Tuileries, and to periodically enact these horrible scenes of a mock civil war, with the deliberate aim of affording Louis Bonaparte a pretext for saving society in Belgium as he has saved it in France. But was Ex-Governor Eyre ever accused of having organised the Negro massacre at Jamaica in order to wrest that island from England and place it into the hands of the United States? [71] No doubt the Belgian ministers are excellent patriots of the Eyre pattern. As he was the unscrupulous tool of the West-Indian planter, they are the unscrupulous tools of the Belgian capitalist.

The Belgian capitalist has won fair fame in the world by his eccentric passion for, what he calls, the liberty of labour (la liberté du travail). So fond is he of the liberty of his hands to labour for him all the hours of their life, without exemption of age or sex, that he has always indignantly repulsed any factory law encroaching upon that liberty. He shudders at the very idea that a common workman should be wicked enough to claim any higher destiny than that of enriching his master and natural superior. He wants his workman not only to remain a miserable drudge, overworked and underpaid, but, like every other slave-holder, he wants him to be a cringing, servile, broken-hearted, morally prostrate, religiously humble drudge. Hence his frantic fury at strikes. With him, a strike is a blasphemy, a slave’s revolt, the signal of a social cataclysm. Put, now, into the hands of such men — cruel from sheer cowardice — the undivided, uncontrolled, absolute sway of the state power, as is actually the case in Belgium, and you will no longer wonder to find the sabre, the bayonet, and the musket working in that country as legitimate and normal instruments for keeping wages down and screwing profits up. But, in point of fact, what other earthly purpose could a Belgian army serve? When, by the dictation of official Europe, Belgium was declared a neutral country, [72] it ought, as a matter of course, have been forbidden the costly luxury of an army, save, perhaps, a handful of soldiers, just sufficient to mount the royal guard and parade at a royal puppet-show. Yet, within its 536 square leagues of territory Belgium harbours an army greater than that of the United Kingdom or the United States. The field service of this neutralised army is fatally computed by the number of its razzias upon the working class.

It will easily be understood that the International Working Men’s Association was no welcome guest in Belgium. Excommunicated by the priest, calumniated by the respectable press, it came soon to loggerheads with the Government. The latter tried hard to get rid of it by making it responsible for the Charleroi colliery strikes of 1867-68, strikes wound up, after the invariable Belgian rule, by official massacres, followed by the judicial prosecution of the victims. Not only was this cabal baffled, but the Association took active steps, resulting in a verdict of not guilty for the Charleroi miners, and, consequently, in a verdict of guilty against the Government itself?[73] Fretting at this defeat, the Belgian ministers gave vent to their spleen by fierce denunciations, from the tribune of the Chamber of Deputies, against the International Working Men’s Association, and pompously declared they should never allow its General Congress to meet at Brussels. In the teeth of their menaces the Congress met at Brussels. But now at last the International is to succumb before the 536 square leagues of Belgian omnipotence. Its culpable complicity during the recent events has been proved beyond the possibility of doubt. The emissaries of the Brussels Central Committee for Belgium and some of the Local Committees stand convicted of several flagrant crimes. In the first instance, they have tried hard to calm the excitement of the workmen on strike, and warn them off the Government traps. In some localities they have actually prevented the effusion of blood. And last, not least, these ill-boding emissaries observed on the spot, verified by witnesses, noted carefully down and publicly denounced the sanguinary vagaries of the defenders of order. By the simple process of imprisonment they were at once converted from the accusors into the accused. Then the domiciles of the members of the Brussels Committee were brutally invaded, all their papers seized, and some of them arrested on the charge of belonging to an association “founded for the purpose of attempting the lives and properties of individuals”. In other words, they were impeached of belonging to an Association of Thugs,[74] commonly styled the International Working Men’s Association. Hunted on by the raving capucinades of the clerical and the savage howls of the capitalist press, this swaggering pigmy government is decidedly. anxious to drown itself in a morass of ridicule, after having weltered in a sea of blood.

Already the Belgian Central Committee at Brussels has announced its intention to institute, and afterwards publish the results of, a full inquiry into the massacres of Seraing and Le Borinage. We will circulate their revelations all over the world, in order to open the eyes of the world on the pet funfaronade of the Belgian capitalist: La liberté, pour faire le tour du monde, na pas besoin de passer par ici (la Belgique). [Liberty in travelling round the world has no need of passing through Belgium.[75]]

Perhaps, the Belgian Government flatters itself that having, after the revolutions of 1848-49, gained a respite of life by becoming the police agent of all the reactionary governments of the Continent, it may now again avert imminent danger by conspicuously playing the gendarme of capital against labour. This, however, is a serious mistake. Instead of delaying, they will thus only hasten the catastrophe. By making Belgium a byword and a nickname with the popular masses all over the world, they will remove the last obstacle in the way of the despots bent upon wiping that country’s name off the map of Europe.

The General Council of the International Working Men’s Association hereby calls upon the workmen of Europe and the United States to open monetary subscriptions for alleviating the sufferings of the widows, wives, and children of the Belgian victims, and also for the expenses incident upon the legal defence of the arrested workmen, and the inquiry proposed by the Brussels Committee.

By order of the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association,

R. Applegarth, Chairman
R. Shaw, Secretary for America
Bernard, Secretary, for Belgium
Eugène Dupont, Secretary for France
Karl Marx, Secretary for Germany
Jules Johannard, Secretary for Italy,
A. Zabicki, Secretary for Poland
H. Jung, Secretary for Switzerland
Cowell Stepney, Treasurer
J. G. Eccarius, Secretary to the General Council

London, May 4th, 1869

All contributions for the victims of the Belgian massacre to be sent to the Office of the General Council, 256, High Holborn, London, W.C.

68 De Paepe wrote to Marx on May 31, 1869 that, for reasons of censorship, when the French text of the address was published in the Belgian newspapers, the names of Kamp, Pirmez and the Prince of Flanders were replaced with the words “persons occupying high posts in Belgium”. See “Moralites de l'affaire de Seraing” in L'Internationale, April 18, 1869.

69 Les sommations préalables (reading the riot act) — in a number of bourgeois countries, the triple demand of the authorities, covered by law, that the crowd should disperse, after which armed force may be used.

70 The reference is to the Franco-Belgian negotiations (between February and July 1869) on railway concessions in view of the fact that the Belgian Parliament had passed a law by which the transfer of concessionary rights could be done only by the authorities’ permission. The law, which was passed very quickly, was directed against the economic expansion of France which tried to seize the Belgian railways.

71 Eyre, the Governor of the British colony of Jamaica, organised the brutal suppression of a Negro uprising in October 1865. This massacre caused a public outrage in Britain, and the British Government was compelled to dismiss Eyre from his post.

72 Belgium was declared neutral by the protocol of the London conference of five countries (Britain, France, Russia, Austria and Prussia) in January 1831, soon after the Belgian bourgeois revolution of 1830 and Belgium’s separation from Holland. (See: Onzième protocole de la Conférence tenue 5 Londres, le 20 janvier 1831. In: Martens, G. F., Nouveau Recueil de Traités d'Alliance, de Paix, de Trêve, de Neutralité, de Commerce...

73 During a strike by Charleroi miners in Spring of 1868 against a four-day week imposed by the mine-owners, 22 miners were arrested and put on trial. The International hired lawyers to defend the miners and ran a campaign in their defence. The miners achieved wide public support and were ultimately acquitted.

74 Originally the name of a religions sect of cut-throats in India, the word “thug” came to be widely used in nineteenth-century European literature to denote professional ruffians and assassins.

75 These words were said by Delfosse, a deputy to the Belgian Parliament at a sitting of the Chamber of Representatives on March 1, 1848, in reply to a remark that the ideas of the French resolution of 1848 would travel round the world (see Les Annales Parlementaires 1847-1848. Chambre des Représentants. Séance du 1er Mars 1848, p. 950).