Belgium After the White March

The dismissal of judge Connerotte in October 1996 sparked a mass movement which shocked the whole society in Belgium. Ordinary people were no longer afraid of challenging the state institutions: the police, the judges, the government, even the King. A Marxist analysis on the causes and effects of such a movement. The dismissal of judge Connerotte in October 1996 sparked a mass movement which shocked the whole society in Belgium. Ordinary people were no longer afraid of challenging the state institutions: the police, the judges, the government, even the King. A Marxist analysis on the causes and effects of such a movement.

The dramatic events in Belgium represent a radical change in the situation. This is an important symptom of a profound transformation on a world scale, which at the present stage assumes its clearest form in Western Europe.

The scandal of the murdered children served to expose the complete rottenness and degeneracy of the state and bourgeois society. This in turn has had a profound effect on the consciousness of the masses in Belgium. Wide layers of the population understand that there is something rotten at the core of the regime.

One of the striking features of these events has been the lighting speed with which consciousness has been changed. The whole situation was transformed in 24 hours after the sacking of the investigating judge Connerotte.

There are important lessons here for the Marxists. We have repeated many times that it is necessary to go beyond the appearance of stability, and to understand that there is an enormous accumulation of discontent, frustration, suppressed rage, which has built up over decades. This can break out over any issue. We must be prepared for sudden and sharp changes in the situation. Belgium is a classic example of this.

The mood of subterranean fury is not necessarily obvious on the surface. Nor does it necessarily manifest itself immediately in strikes. But it is present nonetheless. It sometimes requires events to shake the masses out of their torpor and apparent apathy, which results from the lack of a perspective, and the absence of a believable alternative.

The scandal of the murdered children in Belgium was just such an event. It did not cause, but only triggered off a movement which had already been prepared by the experience of the masses over a long period.

We must not be mechanical in relation to processes which take place in society. A profound social crisis can be triggered off by all sorts of accidents. But the underlying cause remains the same—the impasse of capitalism and the deep malaise in society which results from it.

On 1 October, the government announced a severe austerity programme. But there was no immediate reaction from the working class. It was possible to draw pessimistic conclusions from this fact. But it is necessary to take the movement as a whole. The fact that the big strike movement of Autumn 1993 had failed to halt the austerity programme led to a sense of impotence for a time. But this did not mean that the workers were reconciled to the situation, or that they would not move. The answer was provided one week later when the dismissal of Connerotte was announced. The workers saw this as an opening, and pushed through. Blocked on the "official" trade union level, the accumulated anger of the class found a way out by a different route, just as flood waters seek out a small crack in a dam. Thus, by the most tortuous routes, the movement in the end finds a way forward, overcoming all obstacles.

As the article by comrade JL correctly points out, necessity expresses itself through accidents. This abominable crime served as a spark which ignited the biggest mass movement in modern Belgian history. But the conditions for such a movement were already in existence. There was no shortage of inflammable material in Belgian society.

In a very short space of time we have seen the awakening of the masses. With no lead from the top, layer after layer was swept into struggle - not just workers, but middle class people, students, house wives. The overwhelming majority of those who participated in the mass demonstration of Sunday 20th of October had never participated in a demonstration in their lives. Housewives who belong to no organisation went spontaneously to the Palace of Justice and stayed there all night, and so on. This shows a complete change in the attitude of the masses.

Trotsky pointed out that a revolution is a situation where the masses enter the arena of politics. This is the situation in Belgium. One French radio station stated that Belgium was in an "pre insurrectionary state." That was not strictly the case. But undoubtedly the idea of revolution was present in the situation. It was a crisis of the regime. If there had been a revolutionary party with serious roots in the masses, these events could have led immediately to a socialist revolution.

The Dreyfuss affair

The parallel with the Dreyfuss affair in France 100 years ago, is striking. A scandal in the French Army at that time, when the top layers of the Army were involved in the frame up of a Jewish officer, laid bare the rottenness, corruption and antisemitism of the military caste. According to Lenin, this "accident" could have sparked off a revolution in France, which was on the brink of civil war.

In the same way, these crimes exposed the frightful corruption at the top of society. The attempt to cover up the involvement of the rich and powerful, the revolting depravity of "respectable" citizens - businessmen, politicians, judges, and police chiefs - provoked a wave of anger throughout society.

The only thing which prevented this deep crisis of the regime from spilling over into revolution immediately was the degenerate role of the SPs, and trade union leaders. None of these have any perspective of changing society. None of them even understands the real meaning of the present crisis. The movement has come entirely from below. This constitutes its principal strength but also its main weakness.

The very sweep of the movement meant that it did not have a homogeneous character. Together with the working class, all kinds of middle class and other layers were drawn into action. As in every revolutionary movement of the masses, certain confused an reactionary features were present. How could it be otherwise? When the formerly inert and politically untutored masses enter into action, they do not emerge fully armed and equipped, like Minerva from the head of Jupiter. They bring their prejudices with them. The nature of the issue which triggered off the movement clearly lent itself to misuse by reactionaries and backward elements. Such confusion was present, particularly at the beginning. This undoubtedly caused some disorientation among left wing activists. But these moods were rapidly swept aside once the class moved into action.

The disgraceful conduct of the trade union leaders, who gave no lead, meant that the whole movement came from below. Even many of the old trade union shop stewards showed themselves to be completely out of touch. New leaders were thrown up. Rank and file committees took over the movement. There was an outburst of spontaneous strikes and stoppages - one hour, two hours, 24 hours - all over Belgium - in Wallonia, Flanders, Brussels.

This magnificent movement retied the knot of history, recalling the general strike of 1960, the movement against the monarchy in 1950, and even the revolutionary movements of the last century.

The corruption of Parliament and the state machine is intimately connected with the corruption of the "official" organisations of the working class. To a large extent, the two overlap. Decades of opportunist, class collaborationist politics have led to an unparalleled degeneration of the labour leaders.

But the crisis of capitalism also means the crisis of reformism. All over Europe, there is a savage attack against living standards and workers rights. This fact is a reflection of the impasse of capitalism. The bourgeois are no longer able to develop the productive forces as they did in the past. Although, as is always the case under capitalism, the economy will still experience booms and slumps, we are entering an entirely new situation.

There is an accumulative effect, in which at a certain point quantity becomes transformed into quality. The attacks on living standards, jobs, rights and conditions, both in Europe and on a world scale, are beginning to transform radically the outlook of the working class, and even the middle class. They no longer have the belief that living standards will automatically improve - "today better than yesterday, tomorrow better than today."

Stress and overwork

The constant tendency to increase the working day, long hours, less holidays, weekend work, plus an enormous increase in the intensity of work with all the attendant stress and illness has become an important factor in the situation in the EU, Japan and the USA.

The level of stress and overwork is such that, in the last period, people did not participate in politics, or even in trade union activity. This was one of the factors which gave the opportunity to the bureaucratic apparatus of the trade unions and the socialist parties to raise themselves above the rank and file and acquire increasing independence. The leaders of these organisations in all countries have fallen under the pressures of capitalism to an unprecedented degree.

In Belgium, the cosy relationship between bourgeois and socialist politicians in coalition governments provided a hot house atmosphere in which corruption flourished, especially over the past ten years. The leaders really believed—and still believe—that this situation could continue indefinitely. But the present crisis has exploded this myth. At a certain stage, there will be a massive opposition in both the trade unions and the socialist parties. Even before the present events there were already symptoms of a developing opposition. This will grow in the next period, reflecting the growing discontent in society.

Society finds itself in a blind alley. At one end of the scale, immense wealth is the cause of massive swindling and corruption. At the other, there is an agony of toil and exploitation; the conditions of the masses are worsening; at the lower end, there is even elements of lumpenisation and demoralisation - crime, senseless violence, murder, drugs, vandalism, the break up of the bourgeois family. All these are symptoms of social crisis.

The euphoria of the bourgeois after the fall of the Berlin Wall has turned into its opposite. They actually attempt to conceal the crisis in Belgium which terrified them. They cannot reconcile themselves to the crisis of their system. Neither can their echoes at the tops of the Socialist parties and the unions, who everywhere collaborate with big business. This will inevitably break down in the next period, as the crisis intensifies.

The French and German ruling classes are desperately attempting to get so-called "convergence." In reality, this masks a savage attack on the gains of the working class over a hundred years. The aims of European Monetary Union are two-fold: 1) to establish a powerful trading block directed against Japan and the US, and 2) to attack living standards through what is virtually a policy of permanent deflation and austerity.

Belgium is at the centre of this. Its bankers and industrialists are more heavily dependent on the European market than anyone else. They are determined to push through the Maastricht criteria, with an austerity policy which has aroused the fury of the working class. But from their class point of view, the Belgian capitalists have no alternative. In common with the other advanced capitalist countries in the period of upswing, they have gone far beyond the limits of capitalism, a fact reflected in Belgium's debt which amounts to more than 130% of GDP. Actually, without interest repayments, Belgium would have a big surplus. The full weight of this debt has to be placed on the shoulders of the masses.

Up to the recent events, the Belgian ruling class was quite complacent about this situation, especially since they had enmeshed the Socialist Parties (and indirectly the trade unions) in the coalition. But the present crisis has shaken them from top to bottom. And this is just the start. There will be many such movements in the future.

This situation is not peculiar to Belgium. At the same time that these events were unfolding, we saw the public sector workers strike in France involving 4 million workers which could end up in a movement similar to the mass strikes and demonstrations of last year.

Public sector workers in Spain and Portugal are also organising protests against cuts in the budget and wage freezes. In Spain on the 15th of October 650,000 public sector workers participated in evening demonstrations and in Portugal the unions have called a national demonstration of public sector workers on the 30th of October.

In Germany, the attempt of Kohl to reduce sick pay from 100% to 80% of the normal wage, has provoked a wave of protests, including a national day of demonstrations involving 250,000 workers and a walkout of 100,000 metalworkers. In Italy the unions representing 1 million metal workers plan to strike on 15 November over wages.

The weakness of the subjective factor means that the crisis will necessarily have a long drawn out character, and will be reflected at a later stage in the trade unions and Socialist Parties, for the simple reason that there is no other outlet. The sects are organically incapable of linking to the masses. The lunacy of the Maoists on the demonstration of the 20th of October showed how out of touch they are. They succeeded in getting themselves kicked off the demonstration.

However, the labour leaders are equally out of touch with the real feelings and aspirations of the masses, who are demanding fundamental changes. The present crisis is not of a routine parliamentary character. On the contrary, the masses have shown their absolute mistrust in all the "democratic" institutions.

A spontaneous movement of this kind, without a clear programme and perspective, cannot normally succeed in overthrowing the capitalist state. Terrified by the extent of the movement and the depth of the feelings aroused in the population, the King and the Prime Minister desperately manoeuvred and exerted pressure on the parents of the victims. In the absence of a revolutionary leadership, the parents appeared as the "natural leaders" of the movement. By offering to change the Constitution, it is possible that they might have succeeded in partially defusing the situation.

For a temporary period, the movement may subside. Lacking a real perspective, the masses may then go back to the old habits of acceptance. The trade union and SP leaders will see this as an opportunity to return to "business as usual," of collaborating with the bourgeoisie. They will assume that the old trick of calling a mass demonstration as a safety valve has worked.

But even if this is the case, it will not last for long. These events mark a decisive turning point. The entire psychology of Belgian society has been transformed. New layers of the working class have been aroused to action for the first time. Above all, the youth has been affected. This will be decisive for the future.

What was striking about the events was precisely the massive participation of formally inert and "non-political" layers. In effect, this means that the Belgian revolution has begun.

Belgian society will never be the same again. As we predicted, once the class moves, the process completely cuts across the petty chauvinism of the Walloons and Flemish. The Belgian workers were united in common struggle against the common enemy. These events are a striking confirmation of the perspectives of the Marxists.

Socialist Appeal Editorial Board
London 22 October 1996

Addendum. The analysis contained in the above lines has been confirmed far more quickly than could have been anticipated. On the same day that we finished the statement, we learned that the socialist trade unions had called a general strike for Monday 28 of October for the 32 hour week. The movement still continues, although not on the same scale as last week. An opinion poll conducted after the White March showed that 65% of the population have no confidence in the government. The mood of the class is revealed by all kinds of incidents. The day after the White March, there was a traffic accident in Brussels involving a tram and a car driven by a judge. The police immediately intervened to arrest the tram driver. Leaving the tram in the middle of the street, the driver was taken to the police station, where he suffered ill treatment at the hands of the police. When this became known in the depot, the reaction of the workers was to call an immediate strike. Typical comments were: "Two days ago Dehaene said that the situation would change. But everything remains the same!"

London 23 October 1996

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