Belgium at this time was suffering the results of having been part of the battlefield in the First World War, with its industry and agriculture in ruins and heavy unemployment. Spaak joined in the work of his party with enthusiasm, addressing meetings and touring the country lecturing to workers’ political education classes. As in his choice of political party, so in his preparation as a political tutor of workers, much was left to be desired:
. . . Paul Henri spent more of his leisure playing very good tennis and equally good bridge than reading Karl Marx. In fact he has never read more than a vulgarization of the master’s works. Spaak spent many years campaigning
against the leadership of his party for their willingness to join in coalitions with the Catholic and Liberal parties. He founded a fortnightly journal called Bataille Socialste using it against the party leaders. Huizinga quotes snatches of it:
‘The socialist revolution is our ideal . . . we are revolutionaries’, he wrote in 1927, ‘because we want a radical, total transformation of existing society . . . We accept neither the principle of private properly, the cornerstone of modem society . . . nor that of a wage-earning class, the foundation of capitalism, nor that of the bourgeois family which finds it raison d’etre in the passing of wealth, nor that of the Fatherland . . . These principles we will not have at any price. Our Socialism aims to destroy and extirpate them’. ‘I believe more than ever’, he writes in 1933, ‘in the reality of the class struggle, in the necessity of preparing the proletariat for direct action, in the revolutionary possibilities of our epoch and in the necessity that will confront us, once we get into power by whatever method, to maintain ourselves in power by dictatorial methods; only revolutionaries are realists’.
These quotations are evidence of confused thinking not only by Spaak but also by today’s left-wingers. Professing socialist aims whilst giving active support to a reformist party; advocating direct action yet eagerly canvassing votes at election times.
By now the world slump was in progress and Belgium’s workers suffered like the rest. Spaak had built up quite a following and was causing the leadership a headache. In fact an attempt to have him expelled was defeated at the 1934 party conference.
His attitude to the development of fascism is worth noting. He saw the solution in demonstrations and acts of violence. The Rexist party, led by Leon Degrelle, a party of militant catholics who saw as their task the extermination of communism (that is, Russian state capitalism), was the Belgian equivalent of fascism. They burst on the political scene in spectacular fashion and within a short time had twenty-one members of Parliament. Their leader saw his chance of staking a claim to power. In 1937 one of his Brussels MP’s resigned thereby causing a by election. Degrelle was put up as candidate challenging all comers, hoping for an overwhelming victory so as to cause a new election with the chance of coming to power on the wave of popular support. The challenge was taken up by Van Zeeland the Prime Minister and member of the Catholic party. The result was a 4—1 victory for Van Zeeland and at the next general election the number of Rexist MP’s was reduced to four.
It is not for socialists to advocate the lesser of two evils. The lesson lies not in the choice made by the electorate but that it was the electorate, the majority of them workers, who decided the political fate of the Rexists.
Within a few days of being involved in an unsuccessful attempt to organise a mass march on Brussels by the workers of Belgium, Spaak accepted a post of junior minister and his days of misguided rebellion were at an end. He joined a coalition of Catholics and so-called socialists doing precisely the thing which he had denounced his leaders for doing earlier. This was in 1935. From then on his rise was rapid. Within a few months he was Foreign Minister and by 1938, at the age of 38, he became Belgium’s youngest Prime Minister and the [first] member of his party to have the job.
Disillusion had set in after years of confused struggle. Spaak’s muddled ideas of revolution gave way to half-baked ones of turning capitalism “from a system of exploitation of the working class into a horn of plenty for all”. His party had produced a plan of action advocating replacing deflationary policies by Keynesian ideas of combatting the slump. It was this that Spaak now fought for.