In the second part of an interview with Peoples Dispatch, Bert De Belder of the Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB/PVDA) talks about the rise of the far-right and fascists in the country and Europe. He also talks about the party’s perspective on internationalism and its vision for struggles on climate change. You can read the first part of the interview here.
PD: What is your take on the rise of ultra-right politics across Europe? What is the current status of such forces in Belgium?
BB: In the elections of 26 May last year, the PTB was not the only party to achieve a victory: the fascist party Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) obtained 18.5% of the votes in Flanders, thus becoming Belgium’s second-largest party. Vlaams Belang is an extreme right-wing, racist and fascist party, no matter how much they may currently try to hide behind nice suits, more conciliatory language, and social demagoguery. Indeed, they try to pose as a party defending the jobs, pensions and other social rights of Flemish workers – but they do, of course, abhor trade unions and adore big capitalists. And they ‘defend’ only Flemish workers, not Walloon workers and even less, migrant workers. For Vlaams Belang aspires for a white, ethnically homogeneous Europe. They use terms such as “Islamization” and “de-Westernization” which are borrowed from the conspiracy and supremacy theories of the “Great Replacement”. They find gender equality stupid and call its promoters “gender fundamentalists and extremists”.
A right-wing wind is blowing all over Europe, nourished by Steve Bannon’s international Alt-Right movement, which advised Trump but also assisted Le Pen, Salvini and others, with tactical and financial support. The populist and fascist right is becoming more and more successful worldwide, in the United States with Trump, in Brazil with Bolsonaro, and elsewhere.
Their results are partly explained by a protest vote of the working class. People are fed up with the self-serving acts and the austerity policies of the ruling class. Instead of blaming the people for their more-than-justified anger, our task is to help point their rage at those who are responsible for the economic and social crisis: not the immigrants, not people of color, not women, but capitalism with its exploitation, its austerity packages, its cut-throat competition for maximum profit.
The main cause of the rise of reactionary and fascist parties is to be found with the establishment, with the traditional parties and their neo-liberal austerity policies. They have been abetting the extreme right by normalizing them, by accepting them as just another party in the game. What this leads to is already apparent today: since the recent elections, dozens of testimonies report racist and even openly fascist acts and statements.
But there is no point in castigating the voters of Vlaams Belang, let alone marginalizing them. We must fight racism with a strong social agenda, with concrete actions and campaigns aimed at and involving the working class, responding to their immediate social needs. And with a real presence and activity in the country’s working-class neighborhoods and industrial corridors, where the rise of the far-right can be stopped and reversed.
PD: What is PTB’s perspective on the European Union and NATO, and what is your evaluation of Belgium’s involvement in these bodies?
BB: Belgium hosts both NATO’s headquarters and most of the European Union’s institutions. It also has the dubious honor of having had two NATO secretary-generals (Paul-Henri Spaak and Willy Claes, both social-democrats, by the way) and now for the second time a president of the European Council (after Herman Van Rompuy, now Charles Michel).
On NATO we can be very clear: we want Belgium out of NATO, and NATO out of Belgium. It is an aggressive military alliance to protect and promote the interests of Western multinationals. For that purpose, NATO wages wars outside of its borders and even risks large-scale catastrophe with its nuclear first-use strategy. We oppose NATO, its wars and its growing pressure for increased military budgets – which has recently become worse under Donald Trump. The fight against NATO is also a fight against the increase in military budgets (with the requirement of spending 2% of every member state’s GDP on defense expenditure) at the expense of social budgets.
As for the European Union, in our opinion this is increasingly taking the form of a supranational State under construction, a State of and for the European ruling class. From its very inception, the EU was not meant to be a democratic, social and peaceful project. Or what would you expect from a construction that is in the first place one huge market with the free movement of goods, capital, services, and labor (the ‘four freedoms‘)? The European Commission and the European treaties almost copy/paste the austerity measures and the pathway to an ever more intense political and monetary union from the reports of the European Round Table of Industrialists and BusinessEurope – powerful lobby groups that bring together the CEOs of Europe’s major transnational corporations. With the economic and financial crisis and the more intense international competition, the anti-democratic, antisocial and militarist characteristics of the European Union are becoming even more apparent.
The new European Commission and other European top jobs the leading traditional parties have distributed among themselves, do not augur well for the future of Europe. Marc Botenga, our member of the European Parliament (MEP), voted against the new European Commission, as did the entire Group of the European United Left (GUE/NGL), of which the PTB-PVDA is a member. With the European United Left, we want to engage not only in firm opposition to the EU’s policy of austerity and liberalization but also in the continuing efforts to constitute a counter-power for a fundamentally different Europe. The European Union is stuck in a logic of competition and austerity, and the European treaties lead to more inequality, liberalization, and privatization. Meeting today’s major societal challenges in a structural way requires a totally different Europe, with massive investments for social services and the much-needed ecological transition. That is why we want to break with the European treaties, the only way to build a Europe of solidarity and cooperation, a Europe of the workers and the people.
PD: How are the party’s relations with the communist and leftist parties across the world?
BB: Internationalism is in our DNA. The PTB-PVDA is part of the international communist and workers movement, of the broad leftist and progressive movement. In our international contacts, we defend our own creative and contemporary interpretation of socialism and our strategy of change. We want to help gather from everywhere the best experiences of class struggle in Europe and in the world. We want to help create a real counter-power to the domination of the multinationals, to capitalism, to imperialism. We want to learn and contribute by exchanging and collaborating with other parties and organizations on the left at the European and the global level. This is with long-standing partners, but also with an eye for innovation and broadening and with a diversity of Marxist parties, popular movements, trade unions, left-wing alliances and movements.
The PTB-PVDA participates in a wide range of international festivals, congresses, forums, conferences, and seminars on a whole range of topics. We are also with the broad-left group in the European Parliament, the GUE/NGL. There is also the exchange of concrete experiences of struggles and campaigns in our neighboring countries and beyond, as in the recent European Forum of Brussels. We participate in congresses and conferences of parties and movements on all continents, and in broader international events such as the Forum of São Paulo in Latin America, the International Meeting of Communist and Workers’ Parties, the seminar held on the occasion of Marx’ 200th birth anniversary in China, and the recent Anti-Imperialist Solidarity Conference, for Democracy and against Neoliberalism in Havana, Cuba.
In a spirit of openness, modesty and mutual respect, we want to learn from what other delegations at international meetings present and explain, from their experiences and from their practices. With more shared insights, greater effectiveness and broader mobilization, both European and global, we hope to be better able to meet the many challenges of today and tomorrow with greater success.
By the way, it is with this internationalist spirit that we have recently launched an international web page in English, Spanish, French, and German: http://international.ptb-pvda.be/.
PD: In this period of climate emergency, characterized by the frequent climate disasters and global actions demanding policy changes to address it, what is the significance of the PTB’s slogan: Red is the New Green?
BB: This slogan encapsulates the idea that in order to save the climate, we will have to fundamentally challenge capitalism and go for an alternative model of society. And that is precisely what the climate movement, or at least its most consistent components, are telling us by challenging the way our economy is being run, the way our political system works.
But the climate debate is flawed by forces who don’t want to blame the (capitalist) system and instead focus on individual responsibility and green taxes. Working people, therefore, get the impression that they will have to pay for the climate crisis, as they have paid for the economic crisis of 2008 and those before. That is why the cooperation between the climate movement and the trade unions is so important. Together, they can urge an ambitious and socially just ecological transition. But that is also why it is so important that the forces of the left embrace the climate issue, because the climate matters and climate change needs to be halted. More importantly, it is our duty to orient the movement in the direction of social justice, to link it with the working people and to explain that in order to save the climate, we have to change the system.
For this is not about CO2. This is all about capitalism, an economic system that is at war with the climate. This is about clearly defining the people who are responsible for the climate crisis: those owning the means of production and deciding the direction of our economy. And on the receiving end, there are the people who suffer the consequences of the climate crisis: the working people who don’t have the means to adapt. As they say in the unions: there are no jobs on a dead planet. That is why the PTB and its youth and students’ movements, Comac and RedFox, have embraced the struggle against climate change, with the slogan Red is the New Green.
Of course, we need to concretize this orientation and come up with alternative plans and measures to save the climate. In our opinion, instead of the market, we need ecological planning. It is the free market that brought us here. How could it ever solve this problem? The Emission Trading System (ETS) currently in place in the European Union leaves 50% of CO2 emission to the chaos and arbitrariness of the market. Instead of emission trade, we urge regulation, public initiatives, and planning based on the amount of CO2 we can still emit, and for binding, sanctionable emission standards per sector and per company.
We want the multinationals who are responsible for global warming to pay in order to save the planet, and not the workers and small consumers. We are strongly opposed to green taxes and kilometer charges, and want instead better and free public transport, and third-party payer systems for home insulation and solar panels. Another case in point is the energy market. Its liberalization, imposed by the European Union, has not led to the lowering of prices. Four groups currently control the electricity sector in Europe. It is time to take our energy into our own hands, to bring ‘power to the people’, with a public energy sector, in the hands of society and under democratic control (also involving urban public energy companies and local cooperatives). Then we will be able to invest heavily in solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy, at affordable prices.