2000s >> 2008 >> no-1249-september-2008

Will Belgium survive?

 No permanent government has emerged from the elections held in June last year.

 Does this matter to the working class there?


Belgium is a patently artificial state inhabited by people speaking two different languages. It survived for many years with one of them (French) as the dominant language because it was the language of the ruling class. Now that this has ceased to be the case, and Dutch (Flemish) has also become a language of a part of the capitalist class as well as of the state, Belgium is beginning to show signs of coming apart at the seams. Revision of the constitution — How much autonomy should the regions be given? Should or should not Belgium become a federal state? How far out should the limits of Brussels (basically a French-speaking city surrounded by Dutch-speaking communes) go? — has become an issue preventing other issues being dealt with.


Belgium is a state which the then Great Powers allowed to be set up in 1830. Before that the territory that is now Belgium had formed part, first, of the territories of the King of Spain, then of those of the Emperor of Austria. After the French Revolution Belgium became, in 1792, part of France and remained so until after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. While part of France the Napoleonic code of law, which swept away feudal remnants, was introduced and manufacturing industry began to develop in the South. This, together with strategic considerations, was one of the main reasons why in 1815 Belgium was detached from France: not only were the frontiers of France to be moved further back from the Rhine, but France was also to be deprived of a nascent industrial base. Belgium became part of a kind of Belgian-Dutch federation under King William of Holland.


In 1830, in what Belgian history books refer to as a “national revolution”, the wealthy classes of Belgium broke away from those of Holland and set up an independent State. Though Holland protested, the Great Powers let this change happen as it still left the territory of Belgium detached from France.



The circumstances which led to the establishment of Belgium are worth recalling in that they have shaped the Belgian political scene to this day. Holland was essentially a trading and agricultural country and as such its ruling groups tended to favour free trade. The nascent industrial capitalist class in the south of Belgium, however, wanted tariff walls as a protection against British competition. The Dutch government did make some moves to accommodate them but not enough. In the end the Belgian capitalists decided to break away. This was not too difficult in view of the loose, almost federal character of the Belgian-Dutch State; in addition, the population of Belgium was greater than that of Holland. But the nascent Belgian capitalist class in the South needed support in the Dutch-speaking Northern part of the territory. This they managed to do, despite being French-speaking and anti-clerical in the tradition of the French Revolution, by an opportunist alliance with the Catholic Church over the schools issue. The Dutch government wanted to introduce a system of universal state education. The Catholic Church, (the majority religion in Belgium, unlike Holland which was a Protestant State),vehemently opposed this, insisting on its exclusive right to “educate” Catholic children.


The capitalists got their state. The Belgian constitution of 1831 was a model of bourgeois-liberal government. Power was in the hands of a parliament elected only by wealthy property-owners; the king (a minor German princeling imported specially to fill the post) was a mere figurehead. Their language, French, became the official language of the new State, despite the fact that a majority of people in its territory spoke Dutch.


But there was a price to pay: the power of the Catholic Church, and its control of its own schools, had to be respected. From a short-term point of view, the lack of a modern education system had certain advantages for the Belgian capitalists: they were able to extract very long hours of work for very low rates of pay, to such an extent that Marx once described Belgium as “a capitalists’ paradise”.


The industrialisation of Belgium, apart from Antwerp and Ghent in the Dutch-speaking North, almost exclusively in Wallonia, the French-speaking Southern part, brought into existence an industrial working class and, inevitably, working class attempts at political and industrial organisation. A Belgian Labour Party (Parti Ouvrier Belge) was set up in 1885, along the same lines as was later the British Labour Party except that the co-operatives rather than the trade unions provided the bulk of the members and funds. A deliberate decision was taken not to call it the “Belgian Socialist Party” on the grounds that the word “socialist” was unacceptable to many workers. With a start like this, the POB was destined for a pitiful career of gradualism and reformism. The POB was never really even a social-democratic party in the sense that the German SPD was; it never accepted Marxism as its ideology; in fact it had a contempt for theory altogether, concentrating on trying to get piecemeal social reforms for the working class; it was in short a simple “Labour” party.


In its early years the POB was at least militant on one issue of importance to the working class: the right to vote. The general strike of l893, which forced the Belgian parliament to extend a vote to adult males, was a magnificent episode in the history of the Belgian working class. The strike did not achieve “one man, one vote”, since the rich and educated were given more than one vote, but it did force the members of the Belgian parliament, in which there was not a single POB representative, to do what most of them were opposed to: grant a vote to adult (male) workers. Later strikes to try to get plural voting abolished were less successful, but by then the POB had its own members of parliament and had begun to get involved in parliamentary manoeuvres with its new-found allies, the radical bourgeois Liberals.

In fact the Belgian Labourites tended to be, at this time the tail-end or left-wing of the Liberal party. After more than twenty years of Catholic party rule, the Belgian Liberals were feeling left out in the cold, but they realised they were unlikely to get power again without support from the POB. Accordingly, in preparation for the 1910 election they launched a great anti-clerical campaign and attempted to get the leaders of the POB involved. This was easy, as the POB leaders were anticlerical themselves (and indeed many were freemasons). It is quite clear that had the occasion arose (which it didn’t, because the Catholic party won the election) the POB would have supported a Liberal administration and would probably have gone so far as to have formed an anti-clerical coalition with them. This no doubt would have caused a stir in the Second International, to which the POB was affiliated along with other Labour and Social-Democratic parties. After the First World War, of course, all the Social-Democratic parties were prepared to take power within capitalism and accept responsibility for running it, but it is a measure of the depth of the reformism of the POB that they would have been prepared to do this in 1910 when their fellow reformists still had some doubts.


The Belgian Liberals were, by and large, French-speaking and anticlerical. As in practice their leftwing, the POB shared these characteristics, with unfortunate results for the development of the Belgian trade union movement, which took place mainly after the founding of the POB and partly under its auspices. As the industrial centre of Belgium was in the French-speaking South it was natural that the trade union movement should be strongest there, but it was by no means inevitable that this movement should have been dominated by an anti-clerical political party, thus cutting itself off from workers of catholic origin.


It would be wrong to put the entire blame on the POB for the present split in the Belgian trade union movement into two main groups, each with about a million members: the Labourite Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique and the self-explanatory Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens (which is in fact the larger). The Catholic Church shares an equal blame; they combatted the POB before the first world war by organising rival co-operatives, sick clubs — and trade unions. Their trade unions didn’t have much success before the first world war, but grew rapidly between the wars as industrialization spread to the Northern part of Belgium. Employers preferred to deal with the less militant Catholic unions than with the “socialist” unions and their talk of the class struggle. But the Catholic unions also took up a very real grievance which the Labourite unions tended to neglect: the position of the Dutch language, spoken by workers in the North of Belgium.


French was the official language of Belgium after 1830. It was the language of the State and, even in the Dutch-speaking area, the language of the bourgeoisie. Thus in Northern Belgium a Dutch-speaking working class faced a French-speaking capitalist class. The Labourite unions, perhaps for the very good reason of not wishing to split the working class on linguistic lines, did not chose to exploit this situation, but it was taken up to some extent by the Catholic unions.


Today there is virtually no difference except in ideology — the FGTB is, on paper, committed to “the disappearance of the wages system”, while the CSC denounces the class struggle— between the two rival trade union groups. In practice both act as pure-and-simple, bread-and-butter unions negotiating over wages and conditions of work; on the political field their leaders are reformists, being supporters either of the Belgian Socialist Party (as, unfortunately for us genuine socialists, the POB has been called since 1945) or of the catholic political party.


The other great division in the Belgian working class besides the catholic/anti-clerical one is of course language. As stated, despite being the minority language, French was made the official language of the Belgian State set up in 1830. Dutch in fact has only been given completely equal status with French since 1932. Since the last world war the centre of economic gravity in Belgium has tended to shift from Wallonia, the French-speaking South, to Flanders, the Dutch-speaking North, and the numerical superiority of Dutch-speakers has began to make itself felt on the political scene.


The man who must share a great responsibility for side-tracking the French-speaking part of the Belgian working class on the language issue was a militant trade union leader in the Liège engineering industry, André Renard, who died in 1962 and who is still something of a myth for many militant trade unionists in Belgium, Towards the end of the grande grève, the general strike of 1960-1 over the government’s attempt to cut workers’ living standards, Renard suddenly introduced the quite unrelated political issue of “federalism”. Claiming that the workers in the French-speaking south, where the strike was virtually solid, had been betrayed by the Dutch-speakers in the North (where the Catholic unions, following a lead given by Cardinal Van Roey in his Christmas message, urged their members to stay at work), Renard argued that if Wallonia had the power to pass its own laws on economic matters it would be able to carry out various “anti-capitalist structural reforms”. He called for Belgium to be converted into a loose federation which would give Wallonia this power, virtually a demand for independence of course. This demand, and the reformist strategy behind it was supported by both the so-called Communist Party (which, under proportional representation, had a handful of members of parliament) and the Trotskyists (including, conspicuously, their international leader, Ernest Mandel, who was from Belgium).


The effect of this appeal was to heighten language-consciousness amongst French-speakers. In the years that followed French-speaking federalist groups increased their representation in parliament. So, on the other side, did the Dutch-speaking federalists, organised in a series far right parties. Today, it is the Flemish federalists and separatists who have been making the running, reflecting the fact that Flemish capitalists don’ t want to continue to pay for the state benefits received by workers in Wallonia where heavy industry (coal, steel, engineering) has been considerably run down since Renard’s day.


That the working class in Belgium should be divided on linguistic lines is, from a socialist point of view a matter for regret, but it also confirms the correctness of our opposition to ”leftwing” groups in that they should be partly responsible for it.


Whether Belgium will eventually split up, or at least become a federal State of some sort, remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: this constitutional issue is of no consequence whatsoever for the working class of the area. Whatever the constitution it will be that of a capitalist State and the working class will remain propertyless sellers of labour-power to the minority who own and control the means of production.


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