Temporary blog of the CWI

From discontent to victories – going onto the offensive in Belgium.

PTB chairman Peter Mertens. Picture: socialisme.be

Endless austerity measures have affected the majority of the population. Shortages in the care sector, a lack of affordable housing, declining public services, failing infrastructure, low pensions, salaries that do not keep up with the cost of living and impossible workloads are all causing protests by bus drivers, workers in the cultural sector, health care personnel and municipal staff in Brussels. The question is how can discontent and protests be turned into victories. The organisation of our struggle is essential, but on its own is not enough. It has to be supported by a programme of social change, sharpened through struggle and popularised amongst a growing layer in society. As the balance of forces in the workplaces improves, it is necessary to transform the demands of the workers’ movement into a political programme, and each of these processes reinforces each another.

By Geert Cool, first published in ‘De Linkse Socialist’ – monthly paper of LSP/PSL the CWI in Belgium

Left voices now heard in parliament

The election of 43 members of the left “Workers’ Party of Belgium” (PTB/PVDA) to the various parliaments in the 26th May elections is a huge step forward for working class political representation. Since May, the problems of workers and their families have been raised more widely. For some politicians, this is frightening. For example, former minister Kris Peeters admitted in the daily paper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’ that as a ‘simple’ Member of the European Parliament, he had to adjust to no longer having a car with a driver, no-one to arrange his lunch and to using Google Maps himself to find his hotel.  Members of Parliament who live on an average worker’s salary, as do those of the PTB/PVDA, live in a different world. They talk about shortages in health care, public transport and so on without being outsiders. They speak of their own experiences. 

In the federal parliament the PTB/PVDA has gained an important victory by winning an emergency fund of 67 million euros per month for the healthcare sector. The party used the absence of a federal government since December 2018, which meant that the annual budget for 2019 was divided into ‘provisional twelfths’: each month just one twelfth of the annual budget for 2018 could be used. In today’s world, a government without a majority is not a strong government. This leaves room for initiatives such as the amendment on healthcare spending and also allowed pressure to be put on other parties, who had expressed their support for more resources for health care during the election campaign. The PTB/PVDA correctly pointed to the wave of health care protests on the streets, which increased the pressure.

A break with the budgetary straitjacket is needed

The right’s main criticism of this move is that providing additional resources for health care leads to an imbalance in the budget. In other words, there is no money for it. They ignore the billions in tax reductions and other gifts made to large companies. On national radio, Peter Mertens, president of the PTB/PVDA, was asked if similar proposals would follow for other sectors with major needs. This was an excellent opportunity to talk about the needs of society. Unfortunately, Mertens reacted by referring to budgetary restrictions: “No, this is a sector in acute need… we are not going to apply this everywhere”. He added that 67 million out of a provisional twelfth of 16 billion remains very limited. “Don’t panic about it”, said Mertens. 

After years of decline, additional resources for health care are a welcome break with the trend. But the question remains as to how we can implement the demands of the care workers and other ailing sectors. How do we prepare for the next federal government which, if it remains within the budgetary straitjacket, will continue to economise on health care and social security? And what about the regional austerity projects that are already very concrete in Flanders and Brussels and which will inevitably spread to Wallonia and the Wallonia-Brussels Federation in the forthcoming budget rounds?

A break with the budgetary straitjacket is necessary and must be prepared. This can best be done by mobilising and involving as many workers and their families as possible. During the negotiations for the French-speaking and Brussels governments, the PTB/PVDA would have been in a stronger position if it had held regional rallies, public debates and activities in support of the main demands of the FGTB/ABVV trade union. If this had been done, it would have become clear that the failure to achieve left-wing governments was not due to the refusal by the PTB/PVDA to participate, but a result of the unwillingness of the social democratic PS and the green party Ecolo to break with the budgetary restrictions.

Change requires mass struggle

It is clear that we need to strengthen our forces. Victories such as that over the emergency fund for health care are boosting self-confidence. Petitions, smaller activities, leaflets and so on can all play a role in popularizing our demands and in building towards more decisive actions, such as strikes that directly challenge the economic power because they deprive  capital of its profits. All major social achievements have been the result of mass movements: the 8-hour day, universal suffrage, paid holiday leave, social security and so on were not brought about by sudden parliamentary initiatives, but by mass movements that threatened the entire system.

In order to bring about change, a mass movement is needed that uses the economic power of the working class. The youth climate movement adopted the idea of strikes. ‘Climate strike’ has been declared ‘Word of the year’ by the British Collins Dictionary. Mass movements are on the global agenda and are contagious – as the popular saying goes: “the appetite grows with eating”. However, we need to understand that we will not strengthen our forces by focusing only on an active minority, but by turning the minority out to wider layers of the working class.

Programme of social change

The model of social compromise that was possible in the period of post-war economic growth by buying social peace in exchange for concessions to the working class cannot be maintained in the current period of crisis and imminent new recession. Waiting for a new federal government to implement our demands based on trade union activity is a tactic that does not take into account the end of this period of social compromise. 

Whilst a stronger presence of the PTB/PVDA in parliament can be used to stimulate and organise resistance in the streets, it is an illusion to think that perfectly logical measures such as a higher minimum pension of 1,500 euros per month will be easily obtained that just needs a strong political will. It will take a hard fight on the streets. The PTB/PVDA, however, is turning this approach on its head in its mass leaflets: “We are ready to create fireworks in parliament. But we need your support for that.”

The presence of PTB/PVDA in all the parliaments is important and a step forward, but the driving force of change lies in street activities and mass movements. In the past, the social democratic POB and PSB, the forerunners of the current Francophone Parti Socialiste and Flemish Socialistische Partij Anders, thought that all changes could be implemented through parliament. Strikes were used to let off steam so that a compromise could be sought in Parliament, this undermined the fight for universal suffrage. When the miners started to strike at the beginning of the 1930s, the social democracy tried to control the movement by repeatedly submitting the same bill for the nationalisation of the sector, although this was not enough to prevent the rebellious 1932 strike movement. In this way, even highly progressive proposals and actions can be counterproductive if they are not aimed at organising and strengthening the struggle from below.

This can only be done by linking a programme of socialist change to every concrete demand and direct measure. As Rosa Luxemburg pointed out in her criticism of the POB: “Even if a particular political situation may temporarily lead the workers’ party of each country to mobilize more for some objectives of its program than for others, it is indeed the entirety of our program that remains the permanent basis of our political struggle.” (A tactical question, 1902). 

If in our proposals we always point out the need for socialist society change, it is not out of habit. It is an objective observation that the consolidation of social achievements and the enforcement of new ones fundamentally clashes with capitalism. Throughout the struggle for reform, in which we participate enthusiastically, we are building support for a break with capitalism. For example, we have been stressing for years that a massive plan of public investment in public services and infrastructure requires a break with the budgetary straitjacket.

All economists today point to the threat of a new recession. The spokespersons of capitalism have to admit that their system is in a dead-end. The workers’ movement and the left have gone through a difficult period of neo-liberal triumphalism over the past 30 years, but this is coming to an end. There has been no triumphalism among the spokespersons of capitalism for some time now. It is time for our side, the workers’ movement, to move from a defensive position to an offensive struggle for socialist change.