Part I: Building a Counterforce
Vijay Prashad: Peter, tell us a little bit about the origins of the Workers Party of Belgium, the PTB, of which you were the President from 2008 to 2021 and of which you are now the General Secretary.
Peter Mertens: There were three kinds of movements in Europe in the years before the PTB was founded in 1979. There was obviously the uprising of May 1968 and the student movement around that. There was the opposition to the American war in Vietnam. And there were these wildcat strikes, that is to say, strikes that were not covered by the trade unions in Belgium. So, you had the student movement, the movement against the American war, and the working-class struggles. The party was born out of these movements as a Marxist-Leninist formation, after ten years of preparation before the first Congress in 1979. From the beginning, there was a discussion about the road to socialism, and how to build that road. The first members of the party created Medicine for the People, together with the doctors amongst them. They organised local Health Centres in working-class areas in Belgium, so now we have eleven such centres. They work for free and are expanding. It is very important for our party that it is not an intellectual get-together, but that it merges with the common people in the working-class neighbourhoods. Other pioneers of our party went to work in factories and built working-class units of the PTB.
At the time, the party was rather influenced by the Maoist perspective, inspired by the positive things we learnt about the liberation of China and the construction of socialism there. We had our dogmatic side, but we grew, and we developed our thinking. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, there was a standstill. We had a lot of discussion about how we were going to orient the party. From that point on, there was a discussion for a renewal of the party, to remain a Marxist and a Communist Party with a broader sense of the new working-class and with new tactics. We grew at the grassroots level, which prepared us to expand in the 2000s. I became the party president in 2008.
VP: You emerged in the struggle to defend the shipyards in Belgium. Tell us a little about your own political formation.
PM: I became active in the party at a very particular momentum, with the Soviet Union in decline and everyone saying that communism was gone forever. At the same time, the extreme right was rising in Europe. As a student at the University of Antwerp, I helped to create Students against Racism in 1987. A few years later, we saw the terrible pogrom in Rostock, Germany, when right-wing extremists attacked refugees in the city. These were really Nazi, fascist parties with pogroms against migrants. It shocked me a lot. I was an anti-racist and will always be an anti-racist. My opposition to the US war on Iraq in 1991, revealing a new kind of aggressive US imperialism, was another motivation that convinced me to join the party. What definitively marked me during that period, was the struggle of the shipyards you mentioned. In the early 1990s, the government of Belgium planned to restructure the shipyards. I took the opportunity to go on-site and live with the trade union rank-and-file as well as leaders during their struggle. I really see it as a kind of second university. I thought I knew something about the working conditions and the working-class, but in fact I did not know much. The workers went on strike for seven weeks. They occupied the shipyards, where they built these huge mastodont ships. The workers taught me how they took these huge iron plates and built these large ships. I realised: who is constructing these ships? Who is creating the value by changing the metal plates into an ocean-going ship? It is the workers. An understanding, as simple as it is essential, of how our society works. I was also impressed to what point they were anti-racists. Turkish contract workers were being paid less for the same job. The whole shipyard went on strike for these contract workers, with no xenophobia. It was not like that everywhere, of course. But I learned a lot from those workers. The Party was involved in these struggles, and I watched how essential it was for a workers’ party to offer political direction to the movement.
VP: In many cases, when foreign workers are being used to undercut wages, it creates the material basis not for solidarity but for xenophobia and hatred. How do you account for the fact that these workers in that shipyard did not succumb to racism?
PM: It was the spirit of what we call the class consciousness of the trade union leaders. This was not the case in other places. It happened to be the case that these trade union leaders had already waged from anti-racist struggles, fairly small struggles, but experiences with a defining impact, nonetheless. They ended practices that made workers bring their bosses coffee and so on, things that did not uplift their dignity. They built a trade union force with equality. There was no racism tolerated, no place for racist remarks. It is true that no-one is born with racism. What do working-class families want? They want a good education for their children, good working conditions. If you can build a trade union movement that does not tolerate racism but that focuses on these common desires of the workers, then you can create the situation we saw in the shipyards.
VP: At that time, Peter, I travelled to Denmark, where there were large demonstrations against fascism. But the sincere people who organised them had a very limited analysis of racism. They took a position against the rise of fascism, but it did not have a class content. They were motivated by human feelings, anger for instance, but they did not have a public analysis of how racism is shaped in society and how it can be overturned. What you saw in the shipyards was a class-based assessment of racism.
PM: What the trade unions in the shipyards were doing was very convincing, both as a theory and as a practice. It was not textbook anti-racism, but concrete anti-racism for four thousand shipyard workers. The link to the PTB helped, of course. Later on, we saw a lot of anti-racist and anti-fascist groups organised around universities and in communities. These were very good struggles. At the same time, however, the fascist party continued to grow and grow, where our party didn’t. This was confusing, because we went from morning to night trying to fight fascism. But at the electoral level, we were nowhere. On the contrary, we remained below the 1% threshold, while the fascist party was growing to 20 and 25% of the vote in Flanders, the northern part of Belgium. We saw that large sections of the working-class that once voted for the social democrats, but now saw that it was dead, voted for the fascist party.
Some of those in the anti-racist and anti-fascist movements blamed these developments on the people, stupid people, they would say. We had to fight to say that we can’t just dismiss the people, denigrate them. Our adversary was those who believed in libertarian left theories who had no interest in mass struggle. We said that we must go and discuss the problems of the people and win them over. One at a time. The working-class struggled with poverty, with life in areas of rising crime, and with depoliticization of their lives. Look, we said, someone who votes for the fascists is not the real enemy. We are going to drink a beer with them, ok? We have to search the working-class cafes and bars and try to win people over, rather than sit in the intellectual cafes and discuss the nature of the working-class. You need intellectual discussions, of course, but you have to engage the working-class in a debate. We had to reflect on our political work and the reasons why the working-class chose for the fascists and not for us. We had to look in the mirror and cast out that little bit of sectarianism that might have divided us from the people.
VP: I want to ask you about a debate that is going on in the European Left about the working-class and neo-fascism. Some sections of that Left have made the argument that their parties need to take up the concerns of ‘native-born workers’ against migrants, in other words to cede some ground to the fascist argument. What do you make of this debate?
PM: Well, I do not think that the combination of nationalism and socialism will give birth to anything good for the world, as history teaches us. I don’t think that getting back to the national territory, to language, to tradition, will provide answers to our problems in Europe, largely because our working-class is diverse. The entire working-class, both in one workplace and along the chain of subcontractors, is fundamentally diverse, like the Irish subcontractors in England when Friedrich Engels wrote his study of Manchester, so too today with workers in Belgium from Bangladesh, Portugal, and Ukraine. The task is to unify the working-class, not divide it. Even in Belgium, we speak different languages in the north (Dutch) and in the south (French), and over the course of our history this language difference has been used to divide people. We believe we must work together. We talk to people every day, and they tell us that their worries are about wages, pensions, the state of the world for young people, climate – these are the problems that we must solve, not false problems of social divisions. In the mines in Belgium, the slogan was ‘everyone is black in the mine’, which referred to the coal dust that covered all the miners, including the miners of Turkish and Italian origin. What was interesting was that the miners who came from places such as Italy brought with them their own experience of the class struggle to Belgium.
There is a problem with the way we sometimes feel that you must produce leaflets of six to eight pages long, which tell the truth, and which will ‘allow the working-class to see the light’. Of course, texts and analyses play an important role, but they are not enough. The working-class and other strata have their own experiences, and by struggling, by their confrontation with the state apparatus, and experiencing the lies of social democracy, this process is what transforms their consciousness. Then you can advance the struggles. It is not enough to tell the truth; you need to be able to convince people. It is important to tell the truth, but you have to – at the same time – be inside struggles, go with the people. The consciousness of workers in different factories and in different regions must be taken into consideration.
VP: The context of these debates about organising the working-class was the new globalisation, the establishment of the World Trade Organisation in 1994, the closing down of industries in some parts of the world and the opening of them in others, the break-down of the factory form, the creation of commodity chains, and so on. This globalisation hit Belgium hard, since it meant the end of the shipyards at the scale with which they previously operated. That means that the reservoir of working-class strength was depleted, and the buoyancy of the trade union movement and the Party must have been impacted. How did the Party react to these changes?
PM: This process happened all across Europe. The coal mines closed. The shipyards closed. The industrialisation of Europe first took place in Belgium in the textile industry, which means that the European industrial working-class has its origins in Belgium. The trade union in this sector – the Union of Belgian Textile Workers – was about a hundred years old, and it remained strong into the 1990s. It takes a generation to construct the class struggle’s institutions, to build the trade unions. And then, with the closing down of the industry, the union – and their entire history – vanished. At that point, you can do two things. You can be nostalgic, and maybe some of us still are sometimes. Or, you can start from this concrete reality, go forward, try to understand the actual situation of the working-class and build new formations. I wrote my first book [The Working Class in the Era of Transnational Corporations, Marxist Studies, 2005] against the thesis put forward by Antonio Negri about post-industrialism and the end of the working-class, about the time of the service economy, and so on. Contrary to what Negri claimed, there remained a big working-class, not only in Belgium but across Europe. We said, ok, like the pioneers of the working-class movement, we have to support the unions and to learn how to unionise the new sectors. We had to learn how to organise the informal sector, the platform workers, and others. You have to construct the future. You cannot surrender.
VP: I agree with you that nostalgia is debilitating. We want to know the history, but we don’t want to wallow in nostalgia. We know that it takes a long time to build a union, but even longer to sharpen class consciousness. Twenty years to build a union, perhaps, but longer to build up class consciousness of the working-class and peasantry. But our generation had to face a serious problem. Earlier unions were built in places where there were thousands of workers, places where union density could be built. But in our time, workplaces were fragmented, with subcontracting and informalisation breaking down the density of workers. Of course, Negri and André Gorz (in Adieux au proletariat, Galilée, 1980) were wrong to say that the working-class had ended. They were not looking at the right places. The working-class was still there, but it was a deeply fragmented working-class. What did the Workers Party do to build working-class power? What were the institutions that you were able to build and utilise to build the clarity and confidence of the working-class out of its many social fragments?
I’m reflecting on the book you wrote during the pandemic, They Have Forgotten Us. It has an interesting title, at least the English edition that we did at LeftWord Books. It refers to the care workers and the working-class during the pandemic, but indeed it refers as well to the working-class in general in this period, say after 1994. All political formations of the Left in the 1990s were seized by this debate about organising in the workplace or in neighbourhoods. This raised questions of women workers and of household labour, opening avenues for debate and discussion. The point that emerged out of this debate was that the purpose of the Left is to build working-class power, not to build a trade union by itself, or indeed the trade union was an instrument to build working-class power.
PM: It is an old debate about organising on the factory floor or in the neighbourhoods. Earlier, the main energy was to organise on the factory floor. Now we do it both. It is not easy to organise the workers at their workplaces due to the scattered nature of production and the whole procedure of subcontracting. But it remains very important. To organise both in working-class areas and on the factory floor, in either way we are building working-class power. This is what we also do with Medicine for the People, to build local Health Centres to provide advice on health issues. We have lots of meetings, lots of spaghetti dinners, small gatherings to bring people together. We use social media, a weapon for us, and a place to hold our debates. We agree with Marx: use any technology, because technology is not the enemy, but the problem is how to use it and for what end. We have networks on WhatsApp, we tweet, we make short movies, we distribute them in different ways, to a wide range of workers. Take the case of the people who work at Brussels’ airport in Zaventem, which is not where they live. They come from all over the country, working in shifts that start and end at different times. It is difficult to reach these workers, so we build from the working-class neighbourhoods and then take that politicisation to the airport itself.
VP: You mentioned that during the early days of the party building one of the instruments was Medicine for the People, which set up Health Centres in neighbourhoods. I suspect that the success of Medicine for the People played a role in the debate over organising in neighbourhoods. In Recoleta, in Chile, the mayor, Daniel Jadue and the communists led a process to build popular clinics. This is a very good idea because it both addresses an important need of the people, and it also demonstrates the importance of reaching into people’s lives to build their confidence that better worlds can be built. This combination of serving the people and organising the people where they live is a very powerful one. Could you tell us a little about Medicine for the People?
PM: The idea came up during the May 1968 movement. It was inspired by Norman Bethune, the Canadian doctor who went to work against fascism in the Spanish Civil War and later on with the communists in China. It was the motto of the young doctors in Belgium to serve the people, to go into working-class areas and build free local health centres. That was in the years 1973 and 1974. At that time, the official corporate organisation of doctors was very business oriented. They did not recognise the first Medicine for the People health centres, thereby denying them accreditation. So, the party mobilised the people to demand the recognition of these health centres. We did not want to create charities but to create people’s health centres that would sustain themselves. We ensured that doctors would get paid a fair, but not high salary, and that they would provide the needs of working-class families. We expanded from medicine to giving Dutch lessons to migrant and refugee families and helping with schooling for young people. We created places for working-class people to gather and build projects. With the energy crisis, for instance, we work in these places to help people understand and contest their expensive energy bills, not with money but with information. We have lawyers that help us. Trust is built that way. It is important because in our time people simply do not trust institutions any longer, they don’t believe in the bourgeois political parties, or even the State. Building trust of the people is important to our work but building trust not by words alone but by acts, not on one day, but over a generation and more. We find more and more people trust us these days.
VP: I believe that there needs to be a great discussion about the concept of trust in the world of socialism. I know that socialists can build trust with people, but that trust does not necessarily convert into electoral gains. I remember campaigning for communist candidates in India and going into working-class areas, where one would see the red flag, the communist flag, flying high above peoples’ homes. And when we went to ask them for their votes, they would say, comrade, we love you, we agree that you are the best, most decent, and honest people, and we are with you in the factory, but here, in our neighbourhoods, we have to vote for them because they will get us electricity connections and water supply. In other words, we could not break the old patron-client relations that had been established. The workers also seemed to feel that we would not be able to provide these goods, that we would not be able to manage the State, that we were the party of protest and not the party of government. Well, the Workers Party in Belgium has built a significant electoral capacity with your members in the chamber of deputies, in the Senate, in the regional parliaments, and in the European parliament. What has been your experience with trust and confidence?
PM: We are in a process to build a counterforce. People want to know if you have immediate solutions to their problems. We do not make false promises or say it is enough to vote for us. We say that even if you need immediate solutions, there is no alternative than to build a counterforce and to use this counterforce to establish a new situation. We know that participation in government is not going to be sufficient if we are not able to break this neoliberal approach to capitalism that dominates us. We do not want to be the fifth wheel to the capitalist wagon. We are in the midst of a very difficult debate about these issues, because the question presents itself very concretely today. In the French-speaking region of Belgium, we got up to 20% of the vote, and we were asked to go into government in 2019. We said no. A lot of people said, oh, you don’t want the responsibility. We said that we did want to shoulder the responsibility, but we also want to have the power and the leverage to change something. We don’t want to be in the backseat of a car driven by a capitalist. We are not going to be able to build a counterforce with 20% of the vote. We are trying our best to build the counterforce. We are not just waiting around for socialism to happen and in the meantime doing nothing. We are campaigning against inflation, putting concrete demands such as the blocking of energy prices on the social and political agenda. We support trade-unionists who are organising strikes on these demands. You have to organise yourself, mobilise yourself. We are fighting against an ingrained attitude that if you elect someone, they will get things done for you. We are trying to build the attitude that you have to build organisations to fight for ourselves. Our message: take your fate into your own hands.
VP: There are some concrete barriers here. Workers are working very long hours, often more than one precarious job, and then with long commute times, they barely get time to spend with their families. Leisure time is absorbed by travel to and from work. People sometimes watch videos on their phones while they commute because they have no other free time. And when they get home, they have to take care of elders and children, and take care of themselves. This is even starker for women. Where is the time to build a more participatory democracy in this concrete situation? I agree with you that this debate about politics is a form of education. Demoralisation sets in for two reasons. First, if we enter government as a passenger, we can create disappointment if we cannot move an agenda, since we don’t have a counterforce. Second, if we do not enter government when the opportunity presents itself, we cannot reveal these ‘granite blocks’ as Fanon called them. So we are caught between two hard realities. What you are saying, when you talk about the counterforce, is that as people are agitated and as we build our organisations, we develop the political consciousness and power to contest the barriers set in place by the ruling class. We enter the terrain of contesting the grammar of what is considered to be politics, namely bourgeois democracy, which generates a cycle of expectation, disappointment, and then cynicism. Lenin said that politics is also art, which means you have to feel the wind and judge when to act, when to seize the day, building the counterforce with organisational work each day to change the political grammar.
Part 2: Europe at War
VP: Belgium is the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). You are a leader of an anti-imperialist, socialist party whose office is not that far from NATO’s headquarters! Tell us a little about this proximity.
PM: We have built large campaigns about energy prices, which are now sky-high, and we have set up a confrontation with the big energy monopolies in Europe. This is a real challenge to the neoliberal consensus in the country. When we mention NATO, however, that’s a magic set of letters, and everyone in the parliament remains silent. The pro-NATO consensus is even more sacrosanct than the neoliberal consensus. NATO was set up after World War II, and it was subsequently established in Belgium. The second Secretary General of NATO was Paul-Henri Spaak, a former prime minister of Belgium and leader of the Belgian social democratic party. Belgian social democracy was implicated in the NATO project, which was built on fear of the Russians. This pro-NATO sentiment is rooted in Belgian politics. Giorgia Meloni, the far-right Prime Minister of Italy since October 2022, campaigned against NATO in the Italian elections of 2022. She was challenging – from the right – the consensus that was set up during the US occupation of Italy during World War Two. But, when she became the Prime Minister, she changed her view in one week. Why did she change her view? Because you can’t be the prime minister of Italy if you are not pro-NATO. We are aware of this. We do challenge the consensus, but mainly by trying to explain to people what the pro-NATO position has brought for people’s lives. We know that over the past twenty years we have not done enough to hold this conversation with the masses. This is changing now due to the European sanctions on Russia, and the impact these sanctions are having on working-class people across Europe, hitting them more than it is hitting the elites in Russia. The pro-NATO consensus is a bit weakened. If we challenged NATO, we were falsely called pro-Putin. Now, the conservation is less hysterical. When people say, we don’t want to become a puppet of Putin, we add, we don’t want to be a puppet of Putin nor of the United States. What is the project of the European Union by itself, we ask? Inflation is high. Europe is importing gas and military equipment from the United States and is more and more dependent on the United States. That is the debate we are having, on inflation and on our dependency to the United States.
VP: Meloni’s rapid pro-NATO orientation after the election in Italy has to be part of the story, but even more so are the cost-of-living protests across Europe that are being joined by forces of the extreme right. The programme of the Left – for better living conditions for the people, for security for human life – is being used here and there by the forces of the right in an opportunistic way to attack the social democrats, who have totally capitulated to the United States. The US, meanwhile, is blocking any meaningful negotiations between Ukraine and Russia, wanting to prosecute this war to ‘weaken Russia’, as the US says. Could the European Left – led by forces such as the PTB – orient anti-militarism and a pro-people policy to side-line the extreme right in this context and drive a socialist agenda across the continent?
PM: It is painful to see the extreme right in these protests against the attack on people’s living standards. Of course, this is the contest on the streets, such as in Germany, where the extreme right is there, but so is Die Linke, and this is in France, and also in Belgium. There is a shadowy story that is not well-known that links NATO with the forces of the far-right, who collaborated together in Operation Gladio (1956) in the World Anti-Communist League (1966). The extreme right is shameless about the way it lies about its own history, denying its complicity with NATO and the CIA, and then NATO lies about its links to the extreme right.
We confront this reality in our own practice. It is mandatory for our elected officials to live on an average worker’s wage, not to fill up their own pockets and to allow themselves to be corrupted. We must be with the people. We are present in the popular neighbourhoods. From there on we deploy anti-establishment demands, to both critique the whole elite from an anti-capitalist standpoint, but also to instil optimistic language about the possibilities of the future. We are not going to leave the anti-establishment rhetoric to the extreme right. We want to make clear from a position of integrity that we stand against the establishment on principle. We are not going to line our pockets and lie. We have developed a language that clashes with the language of traditional politicians. We have to build the association of the Left with the working-class and not allow the Left to be seen as a middle-class concept about culture that is not associated with the working-class. The Left needs to be involved in both the economic debate, the class debate, and the identity debate, but not one opposed to the other. The political leaders of the PTB cannot look like the politicians of the bourgeoise, in their tight suits and white teeth. Now we hear from people, oh, that’s the PTB. We like them. They are willing to go against the prime minister at a difficult time. They are willing to say what no one else is saying. We have to respond to the votes we receive from the people with integrity so that we don’t just follow how the other politicians behave in parliament. It is dangerous to have flirtations with the establishment. You have to be alert to the need to be rooted in the mass struggles and in the mass sentiment.
VP: That’s the battle of emotions, alongside the battle of ideas. We are in a difficult period in places such as Europe. If you try to be nuanced about the war in Ukraine or about the role of NATO, you’ll be called an apologist for Putin. This war is part of an intensified conflict between the western states led by the United States against China and Russia. Discussing this conflict is near impossible. Are you finding this as a political party of the Left committed to advancing human goals, which of course means being against war? Is it difficult to open a discussion about the need to have a rational policy vis-à-vis China and Russia?
PM: Well, yes and no. On Russia, when the war started, we said that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is illegal. But we should equally be able to say that this conflict started at least a decade earlier, if not even earlier. It began with the NATO project of moving eastwards. Even raising these issues was sufficient to be called an ally of Putin. I was afraid that we were revisiting the early 20th century in Europe, when national chauvinism suffocated the socialists into world wars. With chauvinism and nationalism and militarism, you can make an entire nation, across class boundaries, completely in favour of war. Such confusion is sown in the country. But even with the anti-Russian feeling there is also a feeling of despair about the rising energy prices. A lot of people feel that something is wrong, that the support for a long war is not beneficial. There are also all kinds of inter-capitalist conflicts, with European businesses interested in opportunities in China and even in Russia. For geostrategic reasons, the German government – for example – is now obeying the United States. But the CEO of BASF – the German company that was part of the construction of NordStream 2 – has to swallow his dislike for the German policy regarding Russia. Germany has to cut its considerable interests in China because of the United States. These inter-capitalist conflicts open up areas of discussion that we need to have in a rational, normal way. To cut all ties with China, for instance, would be very, very bad for the European economy. To cut purchases of Russian energy has already created serious problems. What happened to independent Europe, people are asking?
VP: It is interesting to watch the dance being done by France’s Emmanuel Macron, who seems to have tried to revive in a small way the old Gaullist traditions in Europe. When NATO was formed, Charles de Gaulle called for an independent European foreign policy. That Gaullist strain has never died out, despite the dominance of NATO and the Atlantic Alliance. Both the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997) and the Treaty of Lisbon (2007) created offices for European foreign policy heads, but neither seems to have been able to establish an independent European foreign policy orientation. They seem to take orders from Washington. Is such an independent European orientation possible to imagine in this heightened context of war and the cost-of-living crisis?
PM: I do think so. The only bourgeois force that is still resisting the Americanisation of Europe is in France. Your reference is historically correct, since much of the suppression of European independence comes from the time of the US occupation and the Marshall Plan. The construction of the new Europe depended totally on the bond between Germany and France, the source of conflict from the 19th century. The whole project of the European Union – a capitalistic and imperialistic project – was built on the relation between France and Germany, but both having to be subordinate to the United States. During the Korean War, the West German Bundestag voted hastily in favour of that war and even voted for money to that war. The balance was constructed so that Germany was the economic powerhouse – with the European Central Bank in Frankfurt and the German monetary system underlying the European market – while France was the military power – since it was the only nuclear power, it had the main arms industry, etc. That was the sharing of power between Germany and France. Now, for the first time, Germany is not buying weapons primarily from France but from the United States. This crisis is dividing Europe. The unity between Germany and France has been weakened. The European Central Bank has raised interest rates, which is not going to help with the inflation. So that’s another source of tension and fracture, with the poorer countries in Europe greatly impacted by these moves. These fractures will shift the conversation, and that provides us with an opening.
We have to open the conversation to talk about the ideological, political, and economic domination of Europe by the United States. Even in Germany there is a lot of resistance to the pro-US turn of the government, a sentiment visible in the eastern part of the country and not led only by the extreme right. The anger of the people is real. The people are saying that this war is creating real pain. It is urgent for people on the Left to overcome some of its differences. We think it is necessary for our currents to drive a programme to unify all forces that aim at the emancipation of the working-class and for real international solidarity. We have to sit together and build common actions that are based on common ground. I don’t think it is correct for us to build only with those who agree totally with ourselves. It is cheaper to buy a mirror.