What makes the Workers’ Party of Belgium tick?

Bert De Belder of the Workers’ Party of Belgium reflects on the transitions that enabled his organization to emerge as a powerful force throughout the country at a time of increasing fracturing of the polity

December 21, 2019 by Muhammed Shabeer
Workers' Party of Belgium
The Workers' Party of Belgium has gained a pan-Belgian appeal.

As the far-right continues to make advances in country after country in Europe and the flags of fascism re-emerge from their hiding spots, in Belgium, the organized working class continues to make a determined stand under the leadership of the Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB/PVDA). The party has emerged as one of the major opposition forces in the country, with significant representation in the federal and regional parliaments. Peoples Dispatch (PD) talks to Bert De Belder from the PTB/PVDA regarding the role of the party in contemporary Belgian politics, and the tactics used by them for deepening and strengthening working-class politics in the country.

In the first part of this interview, Bert De Belder talks about the rise of the party, its involvement with trade unions and its engagement with youth and other sections of society.

Peoples Dispatch (PD): In a multilingual and ethnically diverse country, how has the Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB-PVDA) managed to establish itself as a successful ‘Belgian Party’, unlike all the other major political forces which are either Flemish, Francophone or local?

Bert De Belder (BB): This is a very important question at a time when the Flemish right-wing nationalist forces in the northern part of Belgium are ever more openly pushing for a de facto division of our country. Six months after the May 26 elections for the federal and regional parliaments, we still don’t have a new federal government in place, while regional governments have been formed in Wallonia (the French-speaking south of Belgium), the Brussels Capital Region and Flanders (the Dutch-speaking north). Flanders is ruled by a right-wing coalition government, with the right-nationalist New Flemish Alliance party (N-VA) taking the lead. Together with a strong fascist party (the Flemish Interest party or Vlaams Belang) in the opposition, they are maneuvering towards a confederalist model for Belgium, to finally split up the country to create an independent Flanders – not coincidentally, Belgium’s richest region, with the port of Antwerp. As a reaction, a regionalist tendency is growing in Wallonia.

Belgium is currently already suffering from a complex and unworkable institutional division. Since the 1970s, Belgium has undergone a series of six reforms of the state – from a unitary national state to ever more division and decentralization of the state structure and institutions. For barely 11 million inhabitants and 30,000 km², Belgium counts six parliaments and governments (Flanders, Wallonia, Brussels, the Wallonia-Brussels Federation, the German-speaking community, and the federal level), with constituencies on the basis of language and region. This often has the most absurd and damaging consequences, like having four different climate ministers who can’t agree on a much-needed climate action plan to comply with the Paris Agreement. 

But more fundamental than the practical difficulties of division, it is the two opposing visions of society that are at stake. There is the vision that defines and divides people on the basis of ethnic, historical, cultural, religious and other supposedly ‘national’ characteristics while glossing over class differences. And there is the vision of a society with equal rights for all, with solidarity and cooperation, a society that is multinational and multicultural. Having various communities and languages in one and the same country, as is our case, is not a historical anomaly, but is in line with the course of history, with the natural and logical development of modern society, in Belgium, in Europe and beyond. The interests of the workers, of the youth, of the common people, are best served by this unity and solidarity, while fragmentation and division sow discord among people and weaken the labor movement. 

Opinion polls indicate that only 6% of the people in Flanders want a new (seventh!) reform of the State. The number is as less as 5% among the French-speaking Belgians. A recent survey showed that people in Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels share the same priorities: a fair tax on large fortunes, a minimum pension of 1,500 euro and the preservation of wage indexation. The divide-and-rule of separatism is a direct attack on the social achievements of workers in our country, through the splitting and dismantling of social security, of collective bargaining, of other social policies. It is a solidarity that is being broken. Not only between workers in different regions of the country, but also between weak and strong sectors, between people in good health and the chronically ill, etc.

Unfortunately, since the 1970s, all political parties have followed the trend of splitting up according to language and region. As a result, Belgium now has two social-democratic parties, two neoliberal parties, two Christian-democratic parties, etc. The PTB-PVDA is the only remaining unitary, national and bilingual party, much to the advantage of the working people and their struggle against austerity and against the establishment. We often compare ourselves with the Red Devils, the successful Belgian soccer team, which is bilingual and multicultural. How would a “Flemish”, “Walloon” or “Brussels” soccer team fare at the World Cup? It wouldn’t even ever get that far, to start with. 

PD: After almost three decades of existence as a minor political party since its inception in 1979, how has the Workers’ Party shot into prominence from the first decade of the 21st century?

BB: The Workers’ Party of Belgium was founded in 1979, but this was preceded by a decade of preparation, based on the students’ movement of May 68 and the choice of a group of students to link up with the working class and actively participate in various important strike movements. They also started the now-famous network of people’s clinics, Medicine for the People. But when in 1999, after thirty years of activism and hard work, the PTB-PVDA recorded a meager 0.6% at the parliamentary elections, the party was on the verge of an internal crisis and decided to engage in some serious soul-searching. A broad survey among party sympathizers helped the party leadership to pinpoint important flaws and weaknesses in our approach: sectarianism, rigid thinking, sloganeering, a radical confrontation strategy, too high demands on party members, a too restricted action terrain. The party decided to change, but realizing and implementing this took some time – a time of intense debate and practice. The first public sign of the party renewal was a broad mass campaign in favor of inexpensive prescription drugs, dubbed the ‘kiwi campaign’ (inspired by New Zealand’s system of public tendering for drug purchasing, thus cutting the profit margins of Big Pharma). This campaign also ushered in a new, fresh communication style of the party, with the kiwi fruit as a ‘fresh’ symbol.

The change in the party was also very necessary in view of social-democratic parties having gradually drifted toward the center, up to becoming part of the new neoliberal offensive – with Tony Blair in the United Kingdom, Gerhard Schröder in Germany, and social-democratic ministers implementing privatization, deregulation and liberalization policies in Belgium. During the 2005 protest movement against the government’s pension reform, the PTB was very active at picket lines and in protest rallies, regaining credit for the trade unions. Membership conditions were eased and hundreds of trade unionists became members of a PTB in full revival mode. The party further transformed from a cadre party into a members’ party. And in the 2006 municipal elections, the party’s change of direction resulted in the election of 15 local representatives in six towns. 

In 2008, the party held its 8th Congress, the Renewal Congress. There, we confirmed our identity as a party of the working class in the broad sense, a party of the 21st century,  a party that remains firm on its Marxist principles and that aims for socialism, a party that applies adequate tactics in order to better conscientize, organize and mobilize ever-broader layers of the population. In 2010, we set up an annual solidarity festival on the Belgian seaside, called ManiFiesta. We supported new initiatives of the cultural sector and of the broader civil society against budget cuts and nationalist division. And we were active in each and every strike and protest movement, be it against the austerity policies imposed by the federal government – on the prodding of the European Commission – or in sectoral struggles of railway workers, bus drivers, cleaning personnel, health care workers and others. 

Our renewed approach also bore fruits in elections. In the 2012 municipal elections, the PTB made its first breakthrough in two major cities: Antwerp and Liège, and in the 2014 parliamentary elections, the PTB obtained two representatives in the federal parliament, as well as two in the Walloon and four in the Brussels parliaments. They were the first Marxists in parliament in 30 years.

The party’s Solidarity Congress, in 2015, affirmed the orientation the PTB had taken and deepened the party’s analysis and orientations on socialism (‘Socialism 2.0’) and on the struggle for a cultural counter-hegemony, based on the working class but including broad layers of society. Meanwhile, the party had grown to 8,500 members and had significantly increased the number of its grassroots branches, both in municipalities and in factories. 

The 2018 local elections and the 2019 regional, federal and European elections reflected the further growth and impact of the party. The number of PTB voters more than doubled compared to 2014, with the party now representing 8.6% of all voters in Belgium. In Wallonia, we obtained 13,8%, in Brussels 13.5% and in Flanders, moving against the tide of the extreme right, 5.6%. These are scores for communists not seen since 1946, when, just after the Second World War, the Communist Party won 12.7% of the vote. The PTB now has 39 representatives in the various parliaments, including in the European Parliaments (with one MEP). Concomitantly, party membership has peaked at over 19,000. 

PD: Nowadays, with significant representation in the parliament and consistent struggles on the streets, PTB is said to be displaying a unique way of doing politics. What makes it an effective way of advancing workers’ rights and the common good of the people? If possible, could you explain this with the party’s interventions on the subject of minimum wage, pension and emergency funds to the health sector?

BB: Our approach to conscientize, organize and mobilize the workers and the people for their immediate demands, linked to our longer-term strategy of change and our final goal of building an alternative, socialist society, was already defined and put into practice since the time of the ‘kiwi campaign’ and our Renewal Congress. But we further developed and refined this in the recent election campaigns, and are currently applying the same principles in our campaign for a minimum pension of 1,500 euro net. 

The first pillar of this approach is political: listen to the people and find out which social problems concern them most, and put them on the agenda. These are the issues of pensions, unaffordable electricity bills, high prices for medicines and health care, tax justice and free public transport, among others. And contrast these with the exorbitant profits of transnational corporations and the shameful schemes for tax exemptions, tax havens, and tax fraud provided to them. There is also a strong anti-establishment side to our political positioning, which is responding to the people’s justified outrage about the many privileges the political, banking and business elites allot themselves. Finally, we make it a point to offer positive and realistic solutions for every major issue, as opposed to the empty promises of the traditional parties.

The second pillar is organizational: a party of active members, with a strong grassroots campaign, involving thousands of volunteers. This involves a pyramidal system of contacting and involving party militants and members, collaborators, activists and sympathizers, layer by layer. This also involves simple campaign tools, a practice-oriented and brief political education. And above all, there is the clear call to mobilize, to take to the streets and to take action for change.

The third pillar is communication on social media, a pillar we have yet to develop to its fullest potential. In the last weeks of the election campaign, we reached 500,000 people per day on social media, and we began to produce more video clips and motion stories that often became very popular. 

On these three components (politics, organizing, and communication), our municipal councilors and members of parliaments play a supportive role, with a working principle which is “street-council-street”: from the street to the council or parliament, and back to the street. Their speeches, resolutions and legislative work in the municipal council and parliament serve and reinforce the social struggle. But the latter will always remain the decisive factor – as it was historically in the fights to end child labor, install the eight-hour working week or obtain equal voting rights.

Let me give recent examples of how we go about it by highlighting our current campaign for minimum pensions of 1,500 euro net. With average pensions ranging from 1,244 euros for men to 989 euros for women, retired workers cannot even afford a retirement home, let alone enjoy their retirement. This is why, in accordance with a new citizens’ initiative act, the PTB is going to table a bill for a minimum retirement pension of 1,500 euro net. The law stipulates that the House must hear those tabling the bill, provided it collects 25,000 signatures. But our target is 100,000 signatures at least, both on paper and online. We are linking the campaign on the ground to the work carried out by our parliamentarians. The 1,500 euro net minimum retirement pension will not materialize automatically. Attaining it is going to require a struggle. We will have to develop our struggle into a mass movement: the 100,000 signatories (and more) behind the citizens’ initiative bill, the unions, civil society (social organizations, local organizations, etc.), all together. We are determined to win a victory, just as when we won the campaign against the “Turtel tax” in Flanders (additional taxation on every consumer’s energy bill), or like in the US campaign for a minimum wage of $15 was won. 

PD: Could you briefly explain the PTB-PVDA’s involvement in the trade union movement and the activities of the party’s fronts like COMAC, RedFox, Pioneers, Marianne, Medicine for the People, ManiFiesta, etc.

BB: Workers in Belgium are fortunate to be able to count on quite large and strong trade unions (the major Christian-democratic and social-democratic federations, and the smaller liberal trade union), with a long history and an impressive track record. Blue-collar and white-collar workers are unionized in large proportions. The PTB cooperates with the trade unions in a constructive way, at all levels. We encourage our members to be active trade-unionists. We support the trade unions, regardless of their ‘color’, inasmuch they defend and promote the workers’ rights and demands. And we take to the streets with them in every major social fight.

Over the years, the PTB has set up and developed a whole range of movements, organizations, and initiatives that are active on a particular terrain, for a particular target population, and on specific issues. This is the case of our three youth organizations: the Pioneers for the children, RedFox for the youth and Comac for high school and university students. Marianne is the party’s women’s movement that carries out the fight against sexism, for gender equality and against violence against women, among other issues. Medicine for the People now counts eleven community health centers, employing doctors, nurses, social assistants, psychologists, physical therapists and dieticians as well as volunteers. They provide free quality healthcare, accessible to all. And ManiFiesta is the biggest solidarity festival in Belgium, organized by the PTB’s magazine Solidaire and by Medicine for the People. The event celebrated its tenth anniversary this year, and brings together thousands of workers, trade-unionists, progressive people of Belgium and elsewhere to discover a world as it should be. Over the years, ManiFiesta has had Aleida Guevara, Nawal el-Saadawi, Angela Davis and Dilma Rousseff among its guests.