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International Socialism, Spring 1961


Xavier Mourre

1. Success Beyond Our Grasp

(2 February 1961)


From International Socialism (1st series), No.4, Spring 1961, p.30.
Translated by Rad Eastwood.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Xavier Mourre is 22. He first beco politically me active with the youth group of the French Independent Socialist Party (Parti Socialiste Autonome) in 1959. He works on Correspondences Socialistes, a journal founded in 1960 to regroup the socialist elements of the United Socialist Party (Parti Socialiste Unifié) around a class program. At the moment he is studying economics in Belgium where he has come into close contact with the labour movement, and particularly with the socialist youth movement, Jeunes Gardes Socialistes.

From Tuesday 20 December 1960 until Monday 23 January 1961 the Belgian working class waged a heroic and massive offensive against the forces of reaction now ruling the country. In order to understand this movement and the vast process which it shows to be maturing within Belgian society, the origins of the struggle and the context within which it took place need be examined in addition to its actual development and conclusion.

The immediate cause of the great revolutionary strike was the plan for financial reorganization conceived by the coalition government of the two Right wing parties: the Christian Social party and the Liberal party. This plan, known as the Loi Unique aims at making the workers and the petty-bourgeoisie foot the bill for the readjustment of the Belgian economy, necessitated by the loss of the Congo and new conditions of European competition. This implies that the measures taken by Belgian imperialism to face up to its new obligations interest us not only from the point of view of Belgian social development but also because they are one aspect of the contradictions of European capitalism, as it measures up to a growing continental market and the new difficulties it is meeting in the colonial sphere: it is no accident that French capital which is at present going through a historic crisis of the same type, has had to take similar measures, known by the name of the Rueff Plan. One should thus not consider the Loi Unique a simple act of reactionary provocation, nor even a series of emergency measures taken in order to face the financial repercussions of the Congo crisis, but rather as the specifically Belgian form of the current capitalist offensive in Europe. Viewed in this light, the struggle of the Belgian proletariat takes on a particular interest.

The Belgian proletariat is not, as some people try to make out, a 19th century proletariat, using obsolete methods of struggle. With a very sure political instinct the Belgian working class has thrown all its forces into battle at the moment when Belgian capital is in the grip of one of the most violent convulsions in its history. And if victory has not been achieved, it is the workers’ leaders who carry the responsibility, and not the working class, whose methods of struggle could not have been better adapted to their goal. In comparable circumstances, faced with a similar historic crisis, the French working class was beaten without putting up a struggle. In this respect the Belgian workers give a magnificent lesson in tenacity and political foresight. That Belgian capital was able to conceive a collection of measures such as the Loi Unique, was because this economic operation was indispensable for it to preserve the strong position which it occupies in the country. The Belgian state apparatus, to a far greater extent than in France, is permeated with the members and the interests of the big commercial banks and holding societies, which have succeeded in preserving a system of production operating on the lines of the most antiquated liberal capitalism. An archaic fiscal system, favouring the liberal professions and recipients of non-PAYE incomes (in which category as estimated 30-66 percent tax-evasion takes place), puts me state apparatus at the mercy of the large financial houses from whom it must constantly request loans and advances. Belgium possesses no planning authority, nor even a department to make economic forecasts. Besides. Belgian capitalism is notoriously incapable of resolving the chronic disequilibria in its economy: the Flanders-Wallonia regional disequilibrium; in the productive structure; the crisis in coal mining (100,000 unemployed in normal times): and finally a disequilibrium in the structure of the working population: a plethora of petty traders, the proliferation of small unproductive enterprises, weakness of consumer industry in relation to heavy industry. Clearly the economic consequences of such a situation are alarming, and indeed the rate of growth of the Belgian economy is one of the lowest in Continental Europe. It is also clear that the opening of the European Common Market imposes harsh measures of adjustment on Belgian capitalism. This then is the meaning of the Loi Unique: a forced introduction into the European mechanism of an archaic productive apparatus at the hands of a powerful, militant bourgeoisie. It is pointless to go into the details of the measures envisaged in the Loi Unique. The general idea is to put into practice a policy of deflation in order to produce a budgetary surplus. This surplus would serve both to regain balance-of-payments equilibrium and to finance a policy of aid to private investment. Of course this surplus was to be raised by additional taxes, savings on public investment and other measures which are directly (e.g. through freezing municipal employees’ wages) or indirectly (eg through the imposition of a sales tax. that is to say the raising of prices), a widespread attack on the standard of living of the workers and the petty bourgeoisie.

Faced with this situation, the policy of the workers’ bureaucracy – that of the Belgian Socialist Party (SPB), and that of the Belgian General Federation of Labour, the Socialist trade union organization (FGTB) – can be summed up in a sentence: to lead a campaign of agitation against the Loi Unique, then to exploit the discontent caused by the application of the law to improve the electoral position of the party with a view to the general elections in 1962, without considering the concrete relation of class forces in the country. Without bothering to give correct expression to the militancy of the working class, the Social Democratic leaders hoped to confine the general opposition to the law within purely parliamentary channels and thus to keep things going until the elections.

Thus it was that on 16 December the enlarged National Committee of the FGTB resolved by a very small majority of some 5 per cent of the votes, not to consider a motion proposed by Andre Renard and his friends, to prepare for a general strike at the end of January, and to stand fast by the proposed ‘national day of opposition’ to be organized that month. Two days later, the Belgian Socialist Party Congress heard with indifference two speakers, one representing the left wing tendency, and the other the youth organization The Young Socialist Guards’, who moved that Congress support the municipal employees due to strike in two days’ time. The working class erupted into this pas de deux, in which Social Democracy represented Capital, threatened to upset the situation and so obliged their leaders to look to their responsibilities. On 14 December in Liege, on the eve of the royal wedding.

50,000 workers held a formidable demonstration of protest against the proposed law. On 20 December the municipal workers stopped work throughout the country as planned, blocking the port of Antwerp and cutting off the electricity in Ghent. On the same day. at noon, the workers at the Charleroi Electrical Construction works, the second largest enterprise in the country, decided to go on strike and sent a column several thousand strong to the three largest plants in the district to have them stop work. Three days later half a million workers, office staff and officials were on strike. By then the strike had spread spontaneously at fantastic speed until the whole country was very nearly paralysed by 25 and 26 December. During the three days that followed, the movement gained strength on an organizational level, both at the base, where the strike committee developed their action and co-ordinated it in each locality at an inter-industry level, and at the top, where the trade union organization put itself at the head of the movement in order to try and regain control. On 27 December, after Cardinal van Roey, the Belgian Primate had intervened to condemn the strike, the Central Christian trade union organization (CSC, numbering 700,000 members, that is to say as many as the Socialist trade union organization) decided not to associate itself with the movement. Nevertheless, the strikes still spread with a very high participation of Christian workers until 28-29 December, the date on which the movement attained its maximum size and power. That was when the first big demonstration took place in Brussels and Liege. That was also when the first acts of violence took place, carried out haphazardly and without any co-ordinated plan by the strikers, who thus spontaneously took up the offensive – tired of being left without instructions by those who were supposed to be directing the movement. And finally it was then that one felt the governmental majority, in spite of its grandiose declarations, becoming more and more divided and the government ready to size on a pretext to get out of the awkward position... The left wing of the PSB organized around La Gauche then raised the slogan ‘March on Brussels’. The second phase of the movement goes from 30 December to about 10 January. It featured a deterioration of the situation for the working class forces and the deployment by the government of a powerful apparatus of repression, composed of the police and the Gendarmerie, and also part of the Belgian troops stationed in Germany under NATO command and repatriated for the occasion. The timidity of the workers’ leaders, their inability or unwillingness to organize an offensive of national dimensions, the absence of a workers’ avant-garde, resolute and ready to take on its responsibilities – all this gave confidence to the bourgeoisie and decided its different fractions to support the government which, from now on, was bent on resistance. The re-opening of Parliament on 3 January allowed the PSB leadership to fragment the movement even more by its repeated attempts to arrive at a compromise with the government. Ex-Prime Minister, van Acker, speaking in the name of the Socialist parliamentary group disavowed the strikers in effect and justified the repression. ‘I too’, he declared, ‘have found myself faced with a grave social conflict.’ (He was referring to the big metal workers’ strike of July. 1957.) ‘I therefore understand that the government must maintain order.’ The PSB leadership and that of the Communist Party, condemned the violence for which they, through their own negligence, were chiefly responsible, and declared it to be the act of provocateurs. The tone of the slogans and directives was ‘calm, dignity and discipline’. Day after day the position of the strikers deteriorated and the possibilities for action narrowed. La Gauche, too. which had first raised the slogan ‘March on Brussels’, now turned its back on it in the name of so-called ‘party discipline’ – in reality, the discipline of the strike breakers. The Flemish working class cities. Ghent, and above all, Antwerp, still held out strongly, but in general the strike petered out in the north of the country. It is at this point that the first federalist and separatist demands appeared, made by the Walloon trade union leaders, led by Andre’ Renard. These demands arose, of course, from a genuine feeling in the south of the country, but it should be observed that they never appeared during the first phase of the strike, when it spontaneously got under way. It is natural that at the start of the strike workers should tend towards general political demands on a national scale, resignation of the Byskens government, dissolution of Parliament, etc. and not towards particular or particularise demands which, even if justified, can only divide the movement. And the remarkable thing about the first days of the strike is precisely the fervour with which the Flemish workers, the majority of them Christian trade unionists, threw themselves into the struggle in spite of a past of traditional passiveness. in spite of the weakness of the Flemish cadres, and in spite of the difficulty of organizing a strike outside the big towns. The spirit at the beginning of the strike was one of enthusiasm for the unity in combat of all workers in Belgium. Why then the slogan: ‘Walloon federalism?’ Ihe federal demand first of all denoted that the strike-front was retreating, tending each day to become more and more confused with the language frontier. But it is clear that the federalist demand was also a means for the Walloon leadership of the trade union movement, and notably for André Renard and his friends, to trick the struggling proletariat, to shunt them onto the track towards Walloon autonomy, after this very leadership has done its utmost to prevent the movement taking its natural path: the one which leads to socialist revolution. The Walloon federalist demand was thus a means for the left wing in the trade union movement to camouflage a feint, but it is also part of the whole of left-socialist strategy, which prefers to practice a policy of blackmail and pressure on the government, rather than face it openly on its own pound, that of power, with its own arms, the mobilized working class. And this has proved so true that already now there is no question of the boasts and grandiloquence on the Walloon theme which were current within the trade union and socialist left during the strike. The strike is over and the ‘revolutionaries’ are more prudent. The government has not yielded, and blackmailing the unity of the country was a failure. Now the question of splitting the trade union movement no longer arises; only of proposing at a future FGTB conference some ultimate structural modifications on a federal basis. What lies behind this change of attitude amongst the people who, during the strike, tried (without success) to gain a reputation for intransigence and maximalism? It is because the federal demand had. from then on, lost to a large extent its purpose, which was, on the one hand, to act on the situation created by Andre Renard and his friends during the strike by their retreating before the slogans for a national offensive (remember that Renard personally intervened against the plan for the ‘March on Brussels’), and on the other hand to use the threat of Walloon separatism to put pressure on the party apparatus and on the government.

Thus it was with the left pulling towards division and the bureaucracy towards compromise that the third stage of the strike movement began, the stage of decline, around 11 January, when the move towards a return to work heightened in Flanders and the west of Wallonia. After 16 January, only the heavy metal industry and the mining industries of the Liége and Charleroi basins were still on strike. During this period the tendency to negotiation and compromise dominated, while the proletariat on strike held out, hopelessly. Indeed, it seemed that negotiation was from now on, the only way of escaping a situation which allowed the leaders of the movement less and less liberty. But the government was from then on sure of its strength. And although it conceded to the Socialist parliamentary opposition, its faithful ally in the preceding stage of the battle, a few formal alterations in the Law, it nevertheless profited from the growing disarray in the workers’ ranks by accentuating the repression in order to obtain their final capitulation on the real field of battle, that of the street, factory and workshop, into which the working class had thrown all its resources. It was now, if ever, evident that the freedom to manoeuvre of the FGTB and the PSB bureaucracies, their chances of obtaining a compromise, of avoiding complete involvement in the conflict, their attempts to withdraw their hand after the game had started in earnest, did not depend and had never depended on the will of the bureaucracy, nor on its greater or lesser ability at negotiation. Once a period of sharp social crisis had begun, once the class struggle had taken the extreme form which it did in Belgium these last few weeks, the issue could only depend on the balance of forces between the proletariat and the ruling class. Once the battle had begun, it had to be carried to the end, until a new equilibrium could be found between the two forces. In these conditions it was too ridiculous to watch the desperate efforts of social democracy to put its finger between the hammer and the anvil. The possibilities for them to compromise greatly reduced as they were in the first stage of the strike because of the extraordinary militancy of the working class, were even further reduced towards the end of the strike when the government was able to profit completely from the victory which it felt to be at hand. Van Ackers’ proposals of 10 January were denounced simultaneously by the workers and received very oddly by the government. Naturally, this does not mean to say that the socialist machine played no role, nor that it did not weigh in the issue of the battle. It is clear that during the Belgian strikes, the embattled proletariat dragged the socialist bureaucracy at its feet like a ball and chain. The indecision of the apparatus at the beginning of the strike and later its perpetual hesitations, like the rumours of compromise and negotiations which circulated throughout the struggle, acted as an objective factor in weakening the workers’ movement. But at no point could the PSB bureau or the FGTB leadership propose in the name of the strikers a cessation of the conflict in exchange for a ‘just’, ‘equitable’, middle of the way solution, ‘in the interests of the country’ with any hope of agreement. It is precisely the sure knowledge of this fact which should have carried the working class avant-garde, supposing such a thing had existed or suposing that an organization such as La Gauche or the Renard movement could be considered as such, to form a resolute leadership of the movement. Considerations of discipline, like those which motivated La Gauche to rally to the apparatus and to abandon its own slogan – the ‘March on Brussels – stem from completely false reasoning. It is not true to say, as subsequent events have so rudely proved, that the furtherance of the movement and the victory which was still expected required that the left submit in the name of unity for it is quite clear that the so called ‘unity’ was nothing more than the unity of the bureaucrats and that it meant on the contrary a dispersion of forces that were left with no other prospect than a war of attrition against the government, i.e. a war lost in advance. The experience of the past few days proves yet again, if indeed proof were needed, that rallying to the bureaucracy meant nothing more than the alignment of the most advanced wing of the movement with the most backward. In battle a natural distinction arises between the institutional leadership – i.e. the apparatus, the permanent officials – and the real leadership constituted by the group of organized avant-garde militants who gather about themselves all the potential power of the movement. The alignment of the latter with the former is nothing more than abdication and capitulation. The so-called ‘unity of command’ was in fact no command at all.

But one may well ask how La Gauche alone was to launch slogans and carry along with it 700,000 strikers? Of course if by some miracle those responsible for the organization had decided, given the historic character of the movement, to face up to their responsibilities, their action would have been gravely hampered by the material weaknesses of their organization, i.e. by narrowness of its working-class base, by mistakes made in the past, by the absence of a network of stable militants scattered throughout the country who would have been able to permeate the rank and file organizations and to see their slogans implemented on a national scale. The absence of such a network is the vice of an organization not adapted to revolutionary circumstances. However those same people who plead the impossibility for La Gauche to take on the entire responsibility for the ‘March on Brussels’ are the very people who claim that the organization grew in strength during the strikes and that its authority increased. Well, La Gauche whose organization is certainly not without resources had already united around itself more than 25 percent of the votes at the PSB Congress in December on the question of leaving the Atlantic Alliance. It is certainly true that La Gauche gained strength during the strikes, and it is to be expected that the workers would gather around those whom rightly or wrongly they believe capable of leading them into combat. So then what was there to wait for before passing on to action? That the organization obtain a majority at a regular party congress, as E. Mandel, key figure in La Gauche, demanded? In such a case, we believe, the Left would scuttle itself and condemn itself to non-existence. If, in fact, the organization was able to gain strength during the strikes it is infinitely more probable that the defeat of the Belgian workers should cause it to lose far more since the end of the strike than it could have gained beforehand. We must await the heart-searchings in the party before finding full confirmation of this fact, but there can be little doubt of it. One can under? stand all the absurdity and tragedy of the situation when one knows that Mandel who himself believed in the last days of December, that the Belgian proletariat was about to accomplish a second ‘June 36’, now accuses those militants who reproached La Gauche for its passivity of adventurism and irresponsibility. When one compares what was possible with what has been attained, the hope with the deception, one is justified in wondering where the adventurism was. and if perhaps the worst adventurers were not those who, in order to save their bacon, did not even attempt to save their honour.

Of course one cannot swear that a march on Brussels would have definitely succeeded. What one can, however, say without fear of contradiction, is that no success was possible unless the mighty energy of the movement was capitalized by means of a central national demonstration which by its size and by the enormous danger it would have presented to the bourgeoisie could have guaranteed the overthrow of the government and the withdrawal of the Loi Unique. Success was not certain; just as it was not certain that La Gauche alone could have found the means to organize the march. But, leaving aside the probability that the Renard wing of the FGTB would have had no alternative but to support this slogan had La Gauche launched it, and despite the uncertainty, the circumstances warranted some risks. The more so since from 27 December to the first days of January the chances of success were so great: we now know that the Cabinet would probably have resigned had the march been agreed to even in principal only – even before its actual realization. This information simply confirms the analysis – available at the time – of the Governments’ position and of its possible line of retreat. The very severity of the Loi Unique shows to what extremes Capital had been reduced. It was not mere bravado which made the Government wager its existence on the issue. It is simply that the Loi Unique or some such collection of measures was, and is, a necessary condition for the survival of the economic interests which that government represents. In such conditions no policy of pressure and blackmail as practised by the so-called Left organizations could have made the government yield. Nor was it reasonable to believe, for example, that the government would yield before the threat to ‘abandon the plants’ made by André Renard at the beginning of January, decided on 10 January by the regional committee of the Liége FGTB – and, in the end, never carried out. Such a slogan difficult to implement and, moreover, unpopular, could not but have a demoralizing and paralysing effect especially insofar as it was more of a threat to the government than an actual directive to the strikers. Only a policy of open attack on Capital and therewith the perspective which this would have opened up could have achieved victory.

To concentrate the energy of the strikers on a central demonstration, to concentrate the forces, this was one aspect of what should have been the strategy of the workers’ organizations. The other was the necessity to give the movement expression on the organizational level; in other words to gather together a leadership emanating from the rank and file and capable of freeing the strike movement from the weight of the workers’ bureaucracy. Such an organization could have been an ‘Extraordinary Congress of Strike Committees’ which would have constituted a sovereign organ for the direction of the movement. If such a body were constituted – although it is clear that the absence of a national network of militants which we mentioned above made this task more difficult – if it were in being and had taken upon itself the organization of the March in Brussels, the most glorious prospects might have opened up for the Belgian proletariat. No other formula would have worked, and above all not the one proposed by La Gauche which consisted of conferring the decision for the return to work or the continuance of the strike movement onto an extraordinary congress of the FGTB, a bureaucratic and unrealisable solution which yet again provided no answer. We must devote a brief word to the attitude of the Communist Party in this matter. During the whole first stage of the strike the CP had not only not envisaged the March on Brussels but on the contrary had shouted about recalling Parliament which was in recess from 22 December to the 3 January. In the second stage the CP devoted itself to denouncing provocations, i.e. the attitude of the young militants who had tried to march on parliament and on the banking district in Brussels – all this in the name of ‘calm and discipline’. In the third stage around 15 January the CP launched the slogan ‘For Workers Assemblies’ with power to decide whether to go back to work, a justified slogan but one that came eight or ten days too late as the CP leadership well knew. It is difficult to imagine such a mixture of cynicism and the art of sabotage.

Reading the foreign press, and even certain Belgian newspapers, one could think that the strike was able to last so long and to so thoroughly frighten European reaction now in power in France. Germany. Italy and other places, because the Belgian working class movement had suddenly fallen into the hands of a handful of dangerous agitators, who succeeded not only in stirring up the working masses but also in shaking the security barrier of the Social Democratic leadership, a leadership which had gained a reputation for moderation and ‘consciousness of the overriding interests ... of the country.’ This is not true. It is precisely during periods of sharp crisis that the solidarity and complicity of the workers’ Right Wing with the so-called Left is most sensitive and most fulfils its function. Left and Right in the PSB are equally bureaucratized, equally inert; equally cut off from the masses. During the crisis the Left acts as a safety valve and prevents the disintegration, of a Party subjected to too strong a pressure from its rank and file. During a period of stability there is a certain amount of political differentiation between the Left and the Right but as soon as crisis returns and real problems must be faced, the Party immediately finds its organic unity, with the Left taking on again its role of Left balance in the Party apparatus, indispensable to its equilibrium. Those last few weeks, the Left of the movement acted as the best ally of the Right in letting the strike wear itself out with no results, and thus, for a long time, neutralizing the militant potential of the Belgian working class. The Left’s attitude to Van Acker’s attempt at compromise on 10 January is very significant. It is indeed too easy to make Van Acker a scapegoat and thus make the Right Wing responsible for the strike’s failure. The pseudo-revolutionaries who cover up their inability to take the leadership of the movement with a more or less Left Wing vocabulary are the truly guilty ones in effect. The everlasting accusations of ‘treason’ levelled at the reformist leaders of the Social Democratic parties, retains less and less sense as historical experience demonstrates that the bureaucratization of the controlling apparatus in all big mass organizations is a. general and inevitable phenomenon and that it is no less inevitable that the constitution of a bureaucratic caste implies that its altitude is coloured more by its caste interest than by those of its followers. From now on in all periods of social crisis the conciliatory and timorous attitude of the leaders must be reckoned with as a fact, one of the data in the situation, but certainly not used as an excuse, or a satisfactory explanation for failure.

The strike is now over and despite the fanfares and communiques of victory from the Socialist organizations it must be stressed that the Belgian workers have undergone a severe defeat, at least if one measures the defeat against the perspectives victory would have opened. This victory would not of course have meant the dawn of a Soviet Belgium, but it is conceivable that a period of transition would have begun in the course of which a Popular Front type government would have carried out the PSB’s program of ‘structural reform’ under the control of a mobilized proletariat, which by reason of its rapid victory would have preserved intact its militant potential and would, thus, have held itself ready for the following stage of the struggle. It is moreover here that the historic analogy between the strikes of 1960-1961 and those of June 1936 takes on its full meaning. Naturally, the program of ‘structural reform’ is only one of modernizing the productive apparatus on étatist lines and in no sense does it compromise Socialist demands. It relates to the nationalization of energy, a National Health service, economic planning with a view to full employment, the creation of a National Investment Fund, the control of holdings and, finally vast reduction in military expenditure as well as the collection of tax arrears and evasions. The realization of these reforms under mass pressure and as a result of a victorious general strike would have had incalculable consequences not only in Belgium but in the whole of Europe. However, even without this, the Coalition Government came out of the crisis weakened – witness the relative mildness of the repressive measures adopted since the end of the strike. It will have to take advantage of the dissolution of Parliament in order to carry out, with the aid of the Social Democratic bureaucracy the general governmental post which seems necessary. In order to participate in this operation and to a certain extent to recover from the fright given it by the working class, the PSB machine is appealing for aid to P.H. Spaak, the Westerner, the strong man of NATO. It is difficult to imagine a more disgusting association.

2 February 1961

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