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Workers' Party of Belgium supporters rally in solidarity with the people of Greece
February 18, 2016 - Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal - On October 15 last year, Liam Flenady interviewed David Pestieau, Vice-President of the Workers' Party of Belgium (PTB) at their headquarters in Brussels. Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstance, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewalis only publishing this interview now but we believe it will be of great interest to our readers.
Since the interview was conducted, a number of significant events have taken place in France and Belgium, including the Paris attacks on November 13 and the ensuing lock-down of the city of Brussels, as well as the banning of the Paris Climate March planned for November 29. These events have had a significant impact on the political situation in Belgium and Europe, and the Worker's Party has playing an important role in responding to them.
While not covering this new situation, this interview still represents an important introduction to the politics of the PTB and their orientation towards significant issues in Belgian and European politics.
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Over 100,000 people demonstrated as part of the union-led national day of action on October 7 in opposition to the austerity measures of the government of Prime Minister Charles Michel. What are the key issues facing the people of Belgium, and what’s next for the struggle?
The situation in Belgium since one year ago is that there is a new, right-wing government. For the previous 25 years, we had a very special kind of government, with the so-called Social Democrats and right-wing parties in coalition, what in Germany they call the "grand coalition". And for the first time in 25 years we now have a totally right-wing government, inspired by British Prime Minister David Cameron for example, or[former French President] Nicolas Sarkozy.
And for 25 years, the establishment had tried to impose the changes that we see in the rest of Europe – austerity – in an alliance with the Social Democrats. For the establishment, the advantage of this is that you can try to control the reaction of the trade unions. We have very strong trade unions here in Belgium: over three million people are unionised out of a population of only eleven million. So if you can control this movement, if you can keep it in check, and you can say “Don’t go on strike,” “Don’t demonstrate” because we can sort things out for you, then you can maintain what is called "social peace", and you can implement a lot of austerity policies.
And effectively, like many other countries in the European Union, in Belgium a lot of austerity measures were implemented. But at a certain point, the establishment thought “we are not achieving what we want, we have to move to another strategy, a more confrontational policy, faster, stronger, more direct”, like [former Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher had done in the '80s in Britain. And one of this right-wing government's goals is austerity measures, but it also aims to weaken the trade unions and the social movements.
But this also means that there is a working class reaction. A broad alliance has emerged of people who are in movement, including intellectuals, artists, youth, even farmers. So there is a relatively large polarisation in society, with an alliance of people who are absolutely against the austerity measures and against the attacks on the trade unions. But of course there are people who want to go back to the previous situation, who say like the social democrats “It was better before when we could negotiate. We have to accept some austerity to avoid more of it.”
So you have this situation where on October 7, 100,000 people came out onto the streets, in the second biggest demonstration in the last 30 years in Belgium - the biggest being the one from a year ago, with involved 120,000 participants. Of the three largest demonstrations in the last 30 years, two of them took place in the last two years. And there was also a general strike last year in December.
What is bringing people into the streets? Firstly, it is social unrest about everything that the government is doing. Because they know that every new policy contains an attack on social rights. There is generalised social unrest and a real battle of ideas about whether we’re going in a total neoliberal anti-welfare-state direction or instead towards a different paradigm.
Second, there are a number of significant new measures, such as the reform of the retirement and pensions system that mean people will have to work longer. The retirement age used to be 65 and now it will be 67, starting in 2030. At the same time, conditions for pre-retirement are being restricted. For instance, the possibility of retiring at 58 or 60 because you’re working in construction or steelworks, will disappear. A lot of people employed in jobs involving hard labour will soon have to work until 67. And while life expectancy is 78 (men) or 83 (women) years in Belgium, life expectancy in good health is but 65. And it’s not just the age of retirement, but also the amount of the pension, which is getting lower and lower.
There is also the wage issue. We have a special system in Belgium where wages are automatically indexed to inflation. A first attack on the index happened early this year, when the government decided to skip one indexation of salaries, thus diminishing people's purchasing power. If you compare us with other European countries, the advantage of this system that was what we call the "weak sectors" – I mean the restaurant or hotel workers, workers in small companies, in industries where trade unions are not strong – also benefit from this indexation. This is different from Germany, for example, where in certain sectors, such as car manufacturing or the chemical industry, you have big and strong trade unions and you have rather good wages, and they can increase the wages because they struggle. But the weak sectors don’t have this. So it’s very important for us to defend this indexation.
Third, there is the attack on the public sector, with redundancies and privatisations. People are angry because of budget cuts in the public sector, including education, the cultural sector, youth organisations.
Taken together, this means that there is an objective basis for a very broad alliance, comprising the most diverse kinds of people.
Trade unions clearly represent a crucial social force in Belgium, yet they are also constrained, as is common, by their conservative elements. What is the Workers' Party’s approach to working with the unions?
We have good relations with the trade unions, respecting the differences between a trade union and a political party. Our party is not primarily oriented to parliament; we believe that the way to change things is through the struggle of the working class. So a lot of our members are active in trade unions, where they have a certain influence, while of course respecting trade union democracy. There are many views in the trade unions, and there is a struggle about their orientation. There is the orientation that favours class struggle, with strikes and demonstrations and other types of action. But there is also another view that puts all hope on negotiations…
We aim to support trade unions, with our political activities, with our studies, with our ideas, with our political orientation. We also help through the mobilisation of our members, telling them to join the unions. More than one trade union leader has admitted that our members are some of the best trade unionists they know. We also politically defend the trade unions, since even if we sometimes disagree with the positions of the trade unions, we know that we don’t have any other possibilities to have a social struggle than through these large trade unions.
We are also a unifying factor, because we are a national party (while all other political parties in Belgium are split along language lines - Dutch and French), and we are working in the two big unions: the socialist-oriented trade union, FTGB, and the Christian democrat-oriented trade union, CSC. This means that we can bring the two together. In some cases the only time members from the different unions really meet each other is at our own ManiFiesta solidarity festival, for example.
There has been a significant rise in right-wing Flemish nationalism over the past few years. What is the character of this movement, and how is the Workers’ Party responding to it?
The first thing that readers have to understand is that Belgium is effectively a multinational country. I mean, there are three different official languages. Around 60% of the population speak Dutch, 39% speak French and 1% speaks German. And there are regions where we speak only French or only Dutch, and Brussels is bilingual, but primarily French. In Europe there is only Switzerland that has a similar situation. Most of the European countries have built a nation-state around one language.
We have to understand that the rise of Flemish nationalism is linked to the history of Belgium. Belgium was founded in 1830 and at that time, from 1830 to 1870 it was the second most industrialised country in the world. In this situation, the Belgian establishment was French-speaking, and French was the official language, but more than half the population did not speak French. And the establishment had, first of all, the tactic of imposing the French language. But it didn’t work. So this led to a democratic movement, where the people demanded to speak their own language and that it be official. And this genuine democratic struggle was parallel to a social movement against capitalism.
An important point about Belgium is that the south part of the country is French-speaking, and it was also the most economically developed at that time. This meant that the working class and socialist movement were very strong in the south part of Belgium, and weaker in the north Dutch-speaking part. So you had an uneven development. The working-class movement in the south had a clear goal, to struggle “against the bosses,” whereas in the north it was more complicated. The north at the time was more peasant-based, and often they would travel to the south as immigrants, and would come into contact with the French-speaking people but not know their language.
In this situation a reactionary current could capture the Flemish movement and bring in a narrow view, while the socialist movement didn’t understand enough the importance of this democratic Flemish struggle. In the north part of Belgium there was a nationalist movement that became more and more reactionary, with the idea that the enemy wasn’t the establishment in and of itself but instead because it was imposing the French language.
During the time of the First World War and the invasion by Germany, where German troops occupied most of the Belgian territory, Germany applied the old formula of "divide and rule". It supported the Flemish nationalists and created for the first time a separation on the administrative level between the French-speaking and Flemish regions.
During the '30s, and in particular with the second occupation by Germany in World War II, they applied the same approach of divide and rule but now with a fascist approach. This pushed the leadership of the Flemish movement even more to the right, towards fascism.
Today, there are two Flemish nationalist parties in the northern part of Belgium. The Vlaams Belang or ‘Flemish Bloc’ is racist, fascist and really dangerous, but it is not in power. The “soft” version, the N-VA or New Flemish Alliance, is more subtle. They are very right-wing, using the nationalist flag to bring their reactionary politics to the people. It has become the largest party in the north (Flemish) part of Belgium, where they won around 35% of the vote. They are economically inspired by the Tories. Bart De Wever, the leader of the N-VA publicly stated that his favourite leader in Europe is David Cameron, that he likes the Tories, that his major references in philosophy are Edmund Burke and Anthony Dalrymple. He promotes Tory politics mixed with nationalist politics.
The N-VA, which is supported in reality by the Flemish establishment (like the VOKA, the association of Flemish bosses), can use certain anti-establishment demagogy, saying that they oppose the establishment, namely the Belgian establishment. This helps to understand the success of the party. For the moment, only 15% of the population in Flanders are in favour of the independence of Flanders. This means that even among the voters of the nationalist parties there is no majority for their primary official goal, which is Flemish independence. So they succeed in building support on a program that is very clever in the sense that it is a mix of Tory and nationalist and anti-establishment sentiments with a lot of inspiration from what they call in France the ‘New Right’, a kind of civilised fascism – people who understand that they need another way of presenting these ideas, through cultural racism, Samuel Huntington’s "Clash of Civilisations" idea, that sort of thing.
That means our struggle against this nationalist movement is very particular. The complication, compared with other countries in Europe, is that we do not just have the right versus left viewpoint. Whenever there is a problem in the country and the establishment is in danger, they will raise the nationalist flag and say that there is a problem between the north and south of the country. And they will try to use this to divide and rule. And what is new is that this nationalist party, the N-VA, has become bigger and more established.
At the same time, we are the only remaining national party, since all other parties - the Christian Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party, the right-wing Liberal party, the Green party - have each split in two: French-speaking and Dutch-speaking. And the two supposedly ideologically identical parties don’t necessarily defend the same positions.
We have a very good soccer team in Belgium, the Red Devils, which are a national team, we have trade unions that are national, and we have also a very good left party, the Workers' Party of Belgium, which is national [laughs].
What continues to link the people is social welfare, the welfare state. But on most of the political issues and institutions and debates, the establishment is divided in two. So it’s a special difficulty we have, and we have to bring both a struggle against the bourgeoisie and also for the unity of the working class, and for the unity of the country, to bring people together. And in that situation, the trade unions and social struggle and a national party like ours are very important.
Recent polls indicate a consistent growth in support for the Worker’s Party in Wallonia, Flanders and Brussels, meaning that if elections were held tomorrow your party would move from two to six representatives at the national level. Already your spokesperson and member of federal parliament Raoul Hedebouw, and the president of the Party, Peter Mertens, have gained a very real presence and notoriety in the Belgian media. What is the overall thinking behind your approach to electoral politics? And how have you managed to make such advances in this period?
Our main goal is not electoral. The main philosophy of our party is Marxism, and we’re a party that sees socialism as its goal – what we call Socialism 2.0, like an update of your software. That’s our goal. And our philosophy says that what Karl Marx called "class struggle" is the most important thing for bringing about change in society. Therefore we have to improve the strength of the party in society, in the trade unions, in the political debates not only in parliament but in the whole of society. Like Antonio Gramsci said, we aim to be bigger in society so that we can advance the battle of ideas and challenge the establishment. Electoral success is one of the things we can achieve, but it’s not our main goal. We know that we are in the struggle for the long-term.
Take for example the Chicago School, where the ideas of neoliberalism were developed, they were very, very minoritarian in the fifties. At that time, the welfare state and progressive views were dominant in society. These were social democratic views, but they at least believed that the state had to provide public services, that there was a social security, that we needed to have a pension at the right time, and so on. The Chicago School neoliberals saw that they had to build political influence, they had to build vehicles, think tanks, parties, to struggle and win the battle of ideas. Starting off as a very small minority, by the eighties they had won.
We say we have to do the same thing, in the totally opposite direction. You have to be confident that you have a long-term view, that you want to achieve a certain change in society, and that you have to build a political organisation, but also an influence in society, in a way that at a certain point you can win the battle of ideas. And that's quite different from focussing on the narrow aspect of electoral victories.
But to answer your question on how we have achieved it, let me say this. Like a lot of leftist parties, we were born after 1968 in the student movement, and we were influenced by the anti-Vietnam War movement and by China. Like other parties we were influenced by other Marxist currents. The Workers' Party of Belgium has a rich history of being deeply involved in class struggle in Belgium.
Early on we chose to no longer be a student movement, but to become a working class party, so we invested a lot of our members in the trade unions. So we built something, but small. Solid, but small. And after 30 years of working, we came to the conclusion that if we continued like that we would not grow, we would stagnate and not be able to influence a broader section of society, and we would not be capable of winning the battle of ideas. We may say that we are right, but the question is not to be right, but to win, and then you can say you’re right in the sense that you’ve achieved something.
So at that time we had a lot of debate in the party, a crisis even, and particularly surrounding electoral politics, where we thought we would make gains. In 1999 we had very important elections in Belgium, we were very embedded in the class struggle, we had a certain influence and contacts in the trade unions, and we thought that we would progress, but we just didn’t. The Green parties progressed. The space in opposition to the grand coalition was captured by an ecological party that was not really left wing but it represented something different. So the people preferred them over what they saw as a leftist party that was marginal and didn’t want to grow and always wanted to talk about the big issues but didn't want to get involved in the direct struggle, which wanted to jump straight to socialism, and so on. And we know this situation, in other countries there are parties that are really active in the class struggle, but are unable to have a significant influence.
Then we had a crisis and sometimes a crisis can be a very good thing, if you learn the right lessons. So when we had the discussion we said: “Look, what’s the problem? Is the problem our goal? Is the aim of socialism a problem? Or is it the way we go about the struggle, the way that we relate to people in the battle of ideas?”. And we decided that the second option was the correct one. So we decided to not go like the Communist Party of Italy for example in the 90s, or like the Social Democrats who are going further and further to the right. We concluded that our ideas are mostly correct, but that we have to change our manner of working.
Firstly we decided to put direct social issues as a main goal, and to aim for what we call small victories to raise the confidence of the people, to help people have confidence in their own strength, which is a very important thing. You have to convince people that they can win, that they are not condemned to be defeated and defeated and defeated. You have to put them in a situation where even though they are not able to struggle for socialism or even big change at the moment, they can change something in their local community or on a social issue or on a local environmental issue. You have to be very close to the struggle of the people if you want to gain their confidence. So we had to make a change on that front.
The next thing - and this is very important for us - was that we had to be more open. We had to cooperate more with other movements, trade unions, associations, people with whom we mightn’t agree on everything, but if we work more on specific local and social issues, then we will find that we can agree with a lot of people.
Also important is communication, to speak to the people in a language that is direct, that speaks not only to their minds, but also to their soul. Communicate in a way that people say that this party is defending their interests and they also speak their own language. One of the big problems of today is that the language of politics is the language of the establishment and people don’t understand it.
And then there is organisation. We had quite severe rules about the commitment from our militants. It is of course very important to have lots of militants in your party who devote almost all their time to party work. But there wasn’t any room in our party for those who want to help the party a bit but are also very busy with other things. So we changed our manner of organisation, and gave some possibilities for people to be members of the party with lower conditions. They have to pay a fee and come to just a few meetings or activities, making it easier for them. So we decided to be more open for people outside of our party, but also to people who wanted to join the party without the requirements for party militants.
That was a process, and there was a lot of discussion, and people asked: "Are we going to lose our main goal?" "Are we going to bring people in who fundamentally don’t agree with us?" These were totally justified questions. But practice has shown that we have been able to bring many more people into the party and then to have a process of discussion and education. We began this process in 2003, leading five years later to a new leadership and a renewal of the party in 2008 at our ‘Renewal Congress’. This was effectively the starting point for our growth. But it was not as though we went to a pop star TV program and we instantly became famous pop stars, like some other parties that think they can become large overnight.
We already had a party, with very good activists, with strong foundations. But the problem was how to build a house. Either you think you can build a house very quickly, without strong foundations, and then it will collapse with the first problem in the weather – an electoral defeat or an attack by the establishment, and so on – or you realise you need the foundations and you need to build patiently. Let’s say you’re a singer or a musician, you have to go to the villages first, and you have to improve and then go play in the small cities, and then eventually in the big cities. And in fact, if you see the development of the Workers' Party of Belgium, it is a bit like the grassroots singer who builds his career bit by bit. That’s not to say that everyone sings very well in our party – we still need to develop that… [laughs]
So, we had a strategy from 2003 and now it’s 2015, 12 years later. And we have been building something. And to do that, you have to have a combination of opening and maintaining your principles. You need both, and you have a dialectic and a tension between the two.
We began in local elections, aiming to have a representative elected in the municipal council of some localities and some rather small, working class cities, where we have our medical centres. We decided that in these places where we were strongest, we had to achieve something, concentrating our money, our cadres and our communications to achieve some success there.
And in 2006 we had a success in local elections. We got 15 elected local representatives in eight smaller municipalities. During the following years, and building on these successes, we wanted to advance and reinforce the class struggle and the local struggles. And in the next local elections – six years later – we wanted to try and succeed in bigger cities. Because if you don’t succeed in some more important cities, you cannot succeed in the provinces and the regions because in national elections you need to win seats at a provincial scale. So we needed to build from small cities to big cities and then the provinces.
And in that framework we participated in the national elections in 2009 and 2010. And at that time we knew that it was too high an objective to get into parliament, but we used these elections to build our profile in big cities.
So in the 2012 local elections, we succeeded in winning - for the first time - representatives on municipal councils in the big cities. We managed to have four members in the municipal council of Antwerp, the biggest working class city and the most industrialised city in Belgium, with the port of Antwerp – the fourth biggest in the world. We achieved 8% there, becoming the fourth largest party in Antwerp. That was a real breakthrough in a very important city. And at that time it was a national media event, you know: Marxists, for the first time in 40 years or so, represented in the biggest municipal council of the country.
In the same local elections we also managed to have some success in the region of Liège. Liège, in the south part of Belgium, is the third largest city in the country and one of Belgium's biggest industrial centres. We succeeded in the city itself in getting 8% of the vote, and in other municipalities around Liège in some cases up to 15 or 20%. By the end of the election night in October 2012, it appeared that we had grown from 15 councillors to 52 councillors on some 15 local councils. And that meant we were on a new scale, and everybody thought “Oh, something has happened there, this Marxist party is growing”. So we were more in the picture.
From this growth we went to the national elections of 2014, where we succeeded in winning two seats in the national parliament (both from the south part of the country) and we just missed out on having a third member of parliament elected in the province of Antwerp by just a few thousand votes. We needed 5% and we got 4.6%. So it wasn’t a totally happy ending, I would say. It’s still a struggle because the situation in the north is more right wing and more difficult, and the south has more of a socialist tradition. But we succeeded in having a breakthrough, after 30 years of having no party to the left of the Social Democrats in the national parliament.
Regarding our media strategy, we decided that we needed spokespersons. We came from a tradition where the people are engaged in collective leadership, and we don’t like to have one individual comrade out front. But at a certain point, we decided that in modern communication, whether you like it or not, people connect with people, with concrete people. And so we have invested people to become capable spokespersons. That means that every time the party has a position on an issue, we have a spokesperson who puts forward this position. Beside the president of the party, there are the party's spokespersons. Not 10 or 20 different people, not each time somebody else. No, to the media you are small, and so you need to have an identity and somebody who is clearly identifiable, somebody who concentrates the communication of the party in a certain way. He or she puts forward the positions, personalises them and allows people to identify with the party. A spokesperson who also has some humour, who can speak clearly and can bring a fresh manner of speaking.
So we invested some of our cadres in being spokesperson, and we also invested some time and cadres into the networking and media side of things. Before, we used to say: “The media are from the establishment, so we don’t care, they don’t want to communicate with us”. And this is partly true, much of the owners of the media are on the side of the establishment, we know that. But there’s also a class struggle in the newspapers, a discussion in the newspapers. So there are particular people and journalists who can get you in a position where you can have a wider audience. And after our electoral breakthrough, they are more interested in giving us space in the media.
Now of course, this is just Belgium and we don’t pretend that we have any solutions for any other country. But what I would like to stress is that you need foundations and you need to build something. You also need unity in your party, unity of vision. Because if different people are going to the media saying different things, you lose a lot of impact. So we need to have a principle of organisation, and a unity, and that your goal is clear for everyone in the party. So we invest a lot not only toward the outside world, but also inside our party. We have education teams and discussion in the party, and we try to develop democracy in the party, so that within the party, each member can put forward his or her political views independently.
At your recent Solidarity Congress the Workers' Party decided to take more seriously the question of the ecological struggle. This has already begun in the form of the "Red is the New Green" campaign, and your invitation of John Bellamy Foster and Vandana Shiva to the recent ManiFiesta festival. Can you explain a little the thinking behind this new approach? And what does this mean for how you relate to the Green parties in Belgium?
Early on our party was active with some environmental issues to do with pollution from factories and so on. And we also related it to capitalism. But at a certain point we stopped our theoretical reflections on the environment, and we said to ourselves that our most important core business is the issue of capital against the working class, and we were too busy with that. That meant that the ecological question was a minor issue for our party. Also we were still small and growing, we couldn’t do everything, and that was a legitimate explanation for the first 20 years of the party. But then there were bad arguments, for example that war was a more important issue because a possible nuclear war would destroy the planet before climate change would. These were false pretexts for not taking the environmental issue seriously.
And of course the defenders of the environmental issue - and you can make the parallel about what I said about the national question in Belgium – argued that if the Marxists are not active on this issue, then other currents would engage in these issues. We have to be involved in everything in society, for example even with how people deal with death and the question of euthanasia. We have to be involved in these debates. There’s no such thing as an insignificant debate. We have to be active on every issue, including the environment of course.
But more fundamentally, we had taken stock of the fact that the climate and the environment have become so heavily damaged, with so many and serious actual consequences and future threats for the people and the planet, that we had to put these issues at centre stage. We had a lot of debate in our party, because at the beginning of the 21st century, when Bush started his war on terror, we said war is the most important issue. This was one-sided and wrong, we have to be diverse. And we lost years not being involved in the issue of climate change. But then we came to the conclusion that climate change and the environment movement had to be one of the four main issues for the party. We have the social and economic issues, we have the peace and international issues, we have the issue of democracy and we have also the environmental issue. And we see that on this issue Marxism has an answer, and Marx said a lot of things about the environment. And through the issue of the environment you can show that socialism is a vital necessity.
We are going to use the COP21 summit in Paris to mobilise the party and to really take a position on these issues. We call our campaign "Red is the New Green". Firstly, to say in a certain provocative manner, that our Marxist view, the "Red", can bring something new into the green movement, that we are challenging the defenders of Green Capitalism. While in Belgium, the Green parties are progressive, they are also to a certain extent influenced by the concept of Green Capitalism, by proposing "solutions" to the climate crisis within the framework of the market, a point of view that we challenge. We want to bring a debate to the movement.
Secondly, we want to demonstrate that we really mobilise for the climate movement, that we try to develop the movement, through unity, but also through debate. We can have alliances on some of the viewpoints some of the time, and we can be together in the streets and in the debates.
Since the Troika crushed Syriza in Greece, which has returned to government but will now have to manage a new austerity package, there has been a lot of soul-searching on the left in Europe. Jean-Luc Mélenchon has launched a project, along with people like Yanis Varoufakis and Oskar Lafontaine, to come up with a ‘Plan B’ for the left. How does the PTB view these debates about the EU and Eurozone? What are the key tasks facing the left in Europe now?
Our party’s analysis has been for a long time that the European Union is a "supra-national state" or a "super-state", and that in the development of capitalism, the establishment in Europe – the European bourgeoisie, the corporations – has needed, in the context of globalisation, to unify in order to compete against the United States and China. And Angela Merkel, who is in fact the leader of the most aggressive and leading bourgeoisie in Europe, the German one, said on July 13, that if we don’t have the euro, then Europe will be marginal in the future of the world.
So that means that those people are really deeply involved in the construction of the European Union and integration on all levels, the economic level and the political level. And that’s what is happening now, with the crisis of the eurozone from 2008 and then 2011-12 and again with the crisis around Greece. As Marx said, a state reinforces itself through crises. And we see more and more authoritarianism and anti-democratic views to the benefit of the corporations.
So we as a party had a clear idea about that. There are other views on the left. There is the idea that this European state could be changed, could be reformed, that we could go from a neoliberal EU to a Keynesian economy, and that if you have good arguments, there would be change. And this was the naïveté of some of the left – I mean to the left of the Social Democrats, because the Social Democrats sold people the idea that Europe could be socially just, but they themselves supported a neoliberal Europe – who believed that they could reform Europe. They said that since the crisis is so deep in Greece, the institutions will see that things are not working. Of course it’s not working. It doesn’t work for the working class! You could say to Thatcher, “that doesn’t work for the working class,” and she would reply that she doesn’t care, that she’s interested only in the corporations. What happened in the Greek crisis, was that the naïve program of the left who were sincerely against austerity, collided with the authoritarianism of the European Union.
We said that this is part of a process. And it comes back to what I’ve said before: we can be right about Europe, but if the people don’t understand that we are right, who cares? What is interesting in what has happened over the last few months in Europe is that more and more people – I wouldn’t say tens of millions of people, but certainly millions of people in Europe – have seen that the European Union is not the future, that it’s a state in the interests of corporations, and that if we have to change something in Europe, we have to change not just a letter or a sentence in the European Union treaties, but that we have to change everything. We have to bring everything about the EU into question.
And in that sense there is now the debate on the left about what is to be done: are we aiming for a situation of leaving the European Union, or are we going to build a Europe-wide movement against the EU? Many more people have begun to understand that we have to fundamentally change the European Union. And if we want another kind of politics, then we’ll have to challenge the dominant one, and it will be a very big struggle. In our view, we cannot confront a super-state or a supra-national state with a national strategy. This is a very particular situation in the history of Europe and the world, where you have the coincidence of national states and a supra-national state, and we are moving towards a situation where nations have more and more supra-national structures. As such this is not a problem, we want to have a European union - not the current one, but a socialist union. We are not against European unity – on the contrary, we are in favour of it. We have to struggle to bring down this European Union and build something else. Another form of cooperation.
So there is a discussion on the left. Very good. In that sense, we are further ahead than we were six months ago. Obviously, at the same time the situation is also very bad, because for the Greek people austerity is still worsening. But in the battle of ideas, the establishment has lost something, and it’s something that the left could gain from. Our main lesson from the Greek defeat – of course we can debate Syriza’s strategy, which we think was naïve – is that there wasn’t a Europe-wide movement for Greece that was strong enough to avoid Greece being isolated and marginalised, to avoid Greece being crushed by the EU establishment. That’s the first thing we have to change in Europe. And then of course there’s the discussion about strategy, but it should be done with openness.
It’s not entirely accurate what I’m going to say now, because the situations are very different, but if you compare Europe with Latin America, then you can see that there was also neoliberalism in Latin America in the '80s and '90s. There were attempts at various times, in Venezuela, in Peru, in Ecuador, from presidents and governments to try to confront the IMF. But they didn’t succeed because they were not consistent, and ultimately they were crushed. But then there was another movement that came along, and finally there were some experiments that worked, first in Venezuela, and then in Ecuador, and even Bolivia and so on, and they succeeded in establishing a different current of left ideas, and they also succeeded in building a different type of international cooperation in the form of ALBA [the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas]. That means that it’s not impossible.
Of course the situations are totally different. Europe is itself an imperialist project unlike Latin America, but I mean that if the establishment builds a super-state we don’t have to merely engage with national struggles. We have to do both. Of course Marxists are internationalists, and today we are struggling against the same corporations around the world. But in the situation of Europe, we are confronting not only the same corporations but also the same super-state. And that means that the internationalism must be stronger.
The situation in Greece has influenced the political debate in Belgium directly. We didn’t simply organise a campaign of "solidarity with Greece", we said it is part of the same European struggle. That is the difference with our work around Palestine or Venezuela or Vietnam or South Africa or wherever, that is international solidarity. But in Europe there’s both the solidarity and the recognition that it’s part of the same struggle.
And to bring it back to the beginning of the interview and the 100,000 people on the streets of Brussels: We don’t consider this protest rally only as a Belgian demonstration, we consider it to be a demonstration in the struggle against the austerity of the European Union, just like the actions the day after on October 8 in France, or the recent demonstrations in Manchester against the Tories. We really need to bring that perspective.
And the problem with the Marxist movement – the genuine socialist or communist movement – is that in the time of Marx, at the international level of organisation, we were on the advance against the capitalist class, but now we have retreated, we are no longer in the vanguard. We clearly need more internationalism – including with Australia!