- Interview by
- David Broder
Belgium doesn’t seem an obvious home of political radicalism. In public debate in other European countries, the word “Brussels” is synonymous with the institutions of a distant and bureaucratic EU. Yet the Belgian working class also has its own history of exploitation, and struggle, from the coal miners of the Borinage to the general strike of 1960. And today, as the political panorama is polarized between far-right Flemish nationalists and a withering center, the Left is also reemerging in new forms. A long-established Marxist-Leninist party, the Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB) has made a particularly notable breakthrough in recent years, hitting 12 percent of the vote in October’s local elections in the capital.
Jacobin’s David Broder spoke to the party’s leader Peter Mertens about recent changes in his party, the reasons for its advances, and how it envisions a wider transformation of the European order.
The Belgian Workers’ Party made breakthroughs in October’s local elections. In Brussels you scored almost 12 percent of the vote, and also had good numbers in the bigger cities in Flanders and even more so in Wallonia. What kind of appeal are you able to make, and what kind of voters’ concerns are you answering?
We start each campaign with a wide questionnaire among the public, to decide what are the main issues from our program we will campaign on. In Brussels, as in other cities, we began by issuing voters leaflets with twenty questions, asking them what their main concerns in their neighborhoods were. That first phase of research took place a year ago, and in a city like Antwerp, for example, we collected 9,000 people’s answers. This is intensive work — it means our militants having a twenty-minute discussion, door by door in each neighborhood in every city. In most cities the issues that came up were the housing question, then poverty and third, mobility — the lack of public transport, or its high cost.
Whoever decides the topic of the election has a large advantage over the other parties. We knew that the right-wing parties, including the biggest — the Flemish-nationalist N-VA — wanted to do like [Italian interior minister and Lega leader] Matteo Salvini and make refugees, migrants, and security — the fear of being “invaded” — the main topic. Even though these were local elections, the right-wing parties wanted to set that as the issue. Meanwhile, the middle-class local action groups wanted clean air — doubtless an important issue — to be at the center of the campaign, as did the Green parties. We instead wanted to put the social question centrally on the agenda, which almost always meant a central focus on housing. And for instance, in social housing where there had been no investment and nothing done in years on problems like damp on the walls, we ourselves took concrete action and put this also on the media agenda. Our strategy is to begin from the public’s concerns and hammer away at the same issues rather than adopt a merely general discourse.
There you’re talking about very concrete issues. But if many other rising forces such as Podemos or France Insoumise, pose themselves as something that goes beyond the Left, your party instead comes from a Marxist-Leninist background, making up part of the Meeting of Communist and Workers’ Parties. Nonetheless, over the last decade your party has changed its approach: how has this happened, and what drove this?
We saw how the right-wing parties succeed in storytelling; they take concrete stories and go from there to more general ideas or imperialist agendas. They start, though, from problems like people falsely receiving benefits for the disabled — the kind of story that can make front-page news, and everyone says they know someone that’s misusing social security. Then there is a kind of left — in Belgium, but I think it’s broader — that responds with statistics and charts of income distribution, which is all correct but very abstract and unemotive, engaging only the brain and not the heart. We as a left also have to find our own storytelling in real life, and then go to the abstract level.
We need our own stories, for instance pensioners who only receive €800 a month pension and have to spend €500 on rent, leaving them only €10 a day to live on. Then we say, it’s not only Mrs X who lives in this situation, but one million people, because of Belgian and indeed European politics. So we link emotive stories to the more abstract, political level. This was a change on which we embarked in 2008 [when Peter Mertens became leader]. The PTB has been active for decades, but was not growing, and the first generation of the party had difficulties in renewing itself. We risked getting smaller and smaller, going extinct. So we changed our approach to communications and organizing; we continue to have basic units in workplaces, which is the core work of our party, but so, too, with neighborhood groups and work in street councils.
We used to raise the bar high in terms of the criteria for becoming a member of the party. Now we have different levels of membership, including a circle of those around the party. They pay €20 a year online and are not fully organized (we call them “advice-giving members,” who according to our statutes cannot vote at our congresses). Introducing this was a big step for our party, taken in 2008; for whereas before you had to be a conscious Marxist to join the party, now we have this wider layer who we educate through their action alongside it.
The Belgian political system is highly fragmented, not least since most parties do not organize nationally, but only within either the Flemish- or French-speaking community. Does this fragmentation mean that voter allegiances are themselves liable to shift? And what kind of voters are coming to the PTB — former voters for the Parti Socialiste or the Socialistische Partij Anders?
I would characterize the PTB’s voters as diverse but mostly working class. In the [French-speaking] south of the country they come mostly from the Parti Socialiste, which compared to others around Europe is still a mighty social-democratic party in this Wallonia region. We have won a lot of voters from them, angered by its past record in government imposing measures such as time limits on the availability of unemployment benefits. Meanwhile in the north of the country we compete with right-wing and even extreme-right parties.
Middle-class journalists struggle to understand how voters could be in doubt between such forces and the PTB. But it’s very logical: a lot of people define their problems at a social level, saying “our pensions are too low” or “we now have to work till age sixty-seven before we retire, and pensions are falling,” or “my sister has to pay €2,300 a month to be in a public old people’s home, but her pension is only €1,100.” So the question is who they see as responsible: migrants and refugees supposedly taking everything and getting all the social housing, or — following our logic — calling for more public infrastructure and greater investment in it, making big capital pay for it rather than stashing its money away in the Bahamas and Panama. Do you take a racist solution and kick those down below, or an anticapitalist one that kicks those on top?
In Brussels, where we took almost 12 percent in last month’s election, a lot of youth are voting for the PTB. That’s the source of the little red wave in the capital. One thing that has worked particularly well has been our use of social media with videos of our MP Raoul Hedebouw, speaking a totally different language than the others in Parliament. The other parties call it “populism,” but these clips of his interventions are viewed 400,000 or 500,000 times, which is huge for a country the size of Belgium [i.e., because its population is 11 million]. This is very popular among young people who see a politician who speaks to them and has the balls to confront the others.
Speaking of the radical right: it is notable that the areas of northeastern France just to the south of your country are strongholds of Marine Le Pen’s Front National, whereas on the other side of the border, in Wallonia (French-speaking Belgium) it does not seem that the far right has taken off at all. Why do you think this is?
I think there are two reasons for this. In the north of the country, in the biggest industrial city — Antwerp — the social democracy used to have a working-class Red belt, but in the 1980s and 1990s it shifted toward the far-right Vlaams Blok. We told ourselves that even if social democracy was itself primarily responsible for this failure, we also had to take responsibility to deal with this problem. We saw that we were still seen as too sectarian, too dogmatic, and not in touch with the voters making that move. This was itself a reason for changing our approach, as I mentioned earlier. In Wallonia, we have been able to capture the disillusionment with traditional politics, and it was very important to take that place.
The second reason is that in Wallonia the far-right and fascist parties are poorly organized. There is a potential for a Front National in Wallonia and even if we, and also the Parti Socialiste, are increasingly strong, this is not to say that racism does not exist. But if in northern Belgium and in France the voters abandoning social democracy have turned to the far right, in Wallonia they are instead coming to us.
There was a huge scandal in Belgium last month when it was revealed that Belgian equivalent of the French fascist group Génération Identitaire, which popularizes itself through memes, was found to have infiltrated the youth wing of the NVA, the Flemish-nationalist party which is also the country’s biggest. We were active in the universities and the youth movement to mobilize against the fascists. But the big lesson we took from the 1980s and 1990s was that, as well as mobilizing against such groups, we also have to talk to the voters for far-right parties, who are expressing their own anger and disillusionment. We have to work to offer an alternative: for while we do have to combat fascism, we cannot define ourselves only in negative terms. In antifascist campaigns, voters would say “OK, fine, we won’t vote Vlaams Blok, but then what? Not for you, because you are tiny and not credible.” Combating the extreme right has to go hand-in-hand with a postcapitalist alternative which can tell its own story. You can’t win hearts and minds without building a socialist project.
Some European left parties responded to the debate on immigration by taking issues like “social dumping” or the EU Posted Workers’ Directive in order to talk about the effect that migration may have on wages and labor rights. What is your position on this?
Our slogan is “same work, same wage,” everywhere. We are in favor of European collaboration, and countries meeting together; there are, indeed, a lot of problems best resolved at the continental scale, and we are not in favor of the return of nationalism or independentism [from the European Union]. We think, however, that today’s EU is not the best structure for this cooperation, because it systematically favors big business and bankers, and organizes competition between the working classes of different countries. It does, indeed, organize social dumping, which is particularly a problem in the construction industry. We have a strong anti-racist line and do not have positions such as “Belgium for the Belgians.”
Recent examples of left-wing governments, from François Mitterrand’s French Socialist administration in the 1980s to Syriza in Greece since 2015, have shown the difficulty of building “social democracy in one country” but also the particular limits imposed by European structures on these experiences. If your party does not foresee an independent “Belgian road to socialism,” what mechanisms do you think could be used to reform Europe as a whole?
I don’t think history just moves in one direction. Crises are going to happen again, even in the next five to ten years. Today we can see that humanity faces a variety of issues, from the destabilization of the Middle East to the military tensions between the United States and China, the mounting climate disaster, the economic crisis which has been ongoing since 2008, and speculation in the real estate sector which is today creating a new bubble, which will eventually burst. The important thing is to be the forces best prepared for that moment, and — in the midst of that crisis — to be able to push it toward another kind of European collaboration, another European agreement. We have to prepare ourselves for this push, for we cannot allow the far right or the neoliberals alone to respond to the crisis.
It is impossible to say exactly how that crisis will emerge, but there are perhaps two, three, four, five countries that are seeking to go their own way and who will collaborate together in a different way. I do not think that every country in Europe will evolve in one direction, but there is the possibility that several populations will establish a new agreement, something that we might metaphorically call a European ALBA [akin to the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America created by left-wing governments in Latin America and the Caribbean]. That is a possible road but there is no blueprint for the future that is yet to come.
In the present European Union structures, it is not possible to push through such change: there needs to be a qualitative moment of rupture, to break with its treaties and the austerity measures, the privatization, the Semester process [European Commission checks on national budgets] they impose. I do think it possible, however, to work within the European political system and do not believe in abstention, but for the sake of advancing towards that rupture.
Belgium is a small country and we are modest about our size as a party. But the situation among the forces to the left of social democracy in Europe today is chaotic. We need to have a basic, broad common platform, akin to the First or Second International, for it is not yet clear which road is best. At the moment we believe in GUE/NGL [the most left-wing group in the European Parliament, bringing together parties from diverse Communist, Green-left and radical-left traditions] as a platform for all authentic left forces. There are of course many different points of view — we ourselves work closely with the Portuguese (PCP) and Cypriot (AKEL) Communist Parties, and France’s PCF, but also have contacts with Jean-Luc Mélenchon (France Insoumise), and both Die Linke and the Communist Party in Germany.
We are a Marxist party that believes in a socialist future and not the adaptation of capitalism. But we believe in the need for a discussion of all authentic left forces on the road to overcome capitalism and imperialism, and of our experiences in combating racism and organize working-class people. If each far-left party simply retreats into its own private part of the truth, that won’t lead us anywhere.