Following a recent documentary on a Flemish language TV station in Belgium, widespread disgust and anger roared through society. The documentary exposed the fact that some students were organising a group along the lines of a private and fascist militia, and that their spokesperson and leader, Dries Van Langenhove, was a student representative on the Board of Management of Ghent University.
Other members of this group, called ‘Schild & Vrienden’ (Shield and Friends’), were members of other official institutions. Some were candidates on the electoral lists of the N-VA, the right-wing Flemish populist party. Currently, the N-VA is the largest party in both the national and Flemish parliaments, leads the Flemish regional government, and is part of the national government.
For most anti-racists, as for Blokbuster (the anti-racist campaign of the CWI in Belgium), the character of the group was no surprise. We wrote articles about their 2017 summer camp, where 50 their members came together and organised combat training. We have come across these people on picket lines, as they tried to intimidate workers on strike.
The television documentary was nonetheless important to tear down the image they tried to paint of themselves: as a peaceful but daring conservative Flemish nationalist group based on family and Western values, with imagery and rhetoric clearly inspired by the alt-right. What was shown in the report was blatant racism, sexism, homophobia and calls for violence. Behind their suits and ties, they turned out to be ordinary fascists. In one of the posts on their internal website, Dries Van Langenhove said: “Memes are only a method” and “The day of violence will come”.
The presence and confidence of this group was boosted by two main factors. On the one hand, the existence of the right-wing populist and neo-liberal government in Belgium and, on the other hand, the rise of the alt-right in the wake of the Trump presidency.
Boosted by right-wing populist government
The first appearance of a group of men, originating from different right-wing, nationalistic, conservative student groups that would later form Schild & Vrienden, was during the wave of strikes in autumn 2014. At that time, the newly elected government faced a powerful trade-union movement that shook the government. The trade unions dominated the agenda of the day, and the reactionary student groups tried to test, albeit modestly, if they could enforce the government’s anti-strikers rhetoric. In Ghent, those students and some politicians from the governing N-VA (neo-liberal, right-wing populists), organised a scab-bus travelling from picket line to picket line, intimidating the workers on strike. These actions illustrated very clearly the reactionary character of their aims. At that moment, however, they were not in line with much of society, which was involved in struggle.
In early 2015 the trade union leadership buried the potential to topple the government by calling for negotiations. The government was able to gain the upper-hand. In combination with the terror attacks on 22 March, 2015, in Brussels, the government was able to use its racist rhetoric to divert attention from social issues, to security, terror and immigration.
The government, spear-headed by the N-VA, and its secretary of state for immigration and asylum, Theo Francken, notched up racist and dividing rhetoric and policy. All of that was spiced up with rhetoric of security or Western values and the notion of a choice between a secure society and open borders.
This did not happen without the reaction of youth, and many people became involved in solidarity actions. Protests took place in where Theo Francken came to speak at university meetings. Some events, such as police house raids in Brussels looking for refugees who were sheltering for the night (more than 3,000 families in Brussels have been involved in an active housing network for several months) provoked anger that led to new demonstrations. The rounding-up of the improvised refugee camp around Brussels’ north rail station, was replied to by the creation of a human chain to protect the refugees. Over a few hours, 3,000 people were mobilised. These were only a few important indications of the potential of the solidarity movement and to organise a response against the right-wing policies. Despite this potential, however, the demands of the anti-racist movement were pushed in a defensive position and not able to broaden the movement.
In this context of polarisation, with the government labelling active solidarity and aid to refugees as a criminal activity, those on the right who looked at more far-reaching methods got confident and organised themselves. They saw how right-wing populism also provoked a reaction of the youth and anti-racists. Schild & Vrienden, was officially formed when these far right figures mobilised as a “defence force” at public meetings where Theo Francken came to speak. From that point on, they received much media coverage on national television and in newspapers. They were presented as a new phenomenon, who defied “political correctness”. Dries Van Langenhove was allowed speaking time to spout misogyny and transphobia on prime-time television.
On the image of the Alt-Right
Following the election of Trump in 2016, alt-right figures, such as Richard Spencer and Steve Bannon, felt strengthened to talk openly about “cultural” (read: racial) separate nations. The alt-right movement is a rebranding of the French Nouvelle Droite, which got its inspiration from fascism and Nazism. Boosted by the election of Trump, a like-minded president of the USA, they came out more offensively and reaffirmed their far right ideas, based on ethnic purity and moral superiority and openly racist, sexist and homophobic ideas.
This is what Schild & Vrienden tried to do in Flanders. Their image was polished by suits and so-called conservative European family values, with a Flemish nationalistic touch. The packaging is different, but the message remains. That is what was revealed once journalists uncovered their secret internal communications.
The methods of the alt-right to cleverly use the internet and social media to spread racism also show their weakness. In most cases, they have no support for building a large, active movement. They still have to act according to the relation of forces in society, so they conceal their real message, and their actions are mostly symbolic.
This, by no means, should lead to an underestimation of the far right. On the basis of deep social crisis and the absence of a genuine working class response, their internet activism and symbolic actions can be transformed in real action. That is why we have to organise our response when they try to impose their hatred. It is no wonder that the reaction in Belgium to the alt right was this strong after what happened in Chemnitz, Germany. More and more youth and workers saw what happens when far right groups are able to mobilise.
Lessons of the nineties: mobilisations on a social programme
Organised responses through mobilisations show that fascists are the weaker force in society. But this is not enough. The anti-racist movement has been in a defensive position for some years. Disgust and anger over racist policies and towards the climate being created are combined with a lack of confidence to mobilise in protest. This may motivate the far right to systematically push further, but not boundlessly, as was illustrated after Charlottesville in the US, and Chemnitz, in Germany, and now after the exposure of Schild & Vrienden. When new lines are crossed, youth come to the fore of the struggle. But the lessons of the anti-racist movement show that this is not enough.
Mobilisation requires a political response that responds to the social breeding ground of racism and discrimination. It must link the struggle against racism and the far right, with the struggle of the whole of the working class through a programme of socialist change. An antiracist programme is a programme that argues for a unified struggle for a massive investment in social housing, jobs, and services in order to unify the working class, immigrant workers and Belgian-born workers alike. Such a movement could unmask the right-wing populist and their divide and rule.
This is one of the lessons from the antiracist movement in the 1990s. Racism thrives on social misery. Because of the rightward shift of social-democracy and the union leadership in the 1990s, neo-liberalism was able to start dismantling the social welfare system. This created a huge feeling of insecurity and abandonment, particularly strong among the working class. The crumbling of the social network in the poorest neighbourhoods made some people susceptible to the distributing propaganda from the extreme right.
Blokbuster responded and became, in the 1990s in Belgium, the primary and most important instrument for mainly young people to discuss and fight racism in their schools, neighbourhoods and youth centres. This slowed down the advance of the far right Flemish nationalist, Vlaams Blok.
Unfortunately, because of the ideological counter-offensive since, the anti-racist movement, as a whole, centred on a defensive and humanitarian approach and never adopted socialist demands. Of course, we do not dismiss a more humanitarian approach towards refugees and asylum-seekers, but the workers’ movement needs to expand that humanitarian approach to take up the social and economic issues that the racists and far right exploit.
The social roots of division and racism were never ripped out. This has now led to a situation where demonising refugees and immigrants by governing parties reached levels of acceptance that were unthinkable decades ago. We anticipated this weakness of the anti-racist movement and always argued that anti-racism needs to be linked to a programme against social demolition and for investment in decent jobs, housing and healthcare. It is still as valid as it was back then.
Building the anti-racist movement
As said before, the need for mobilisation against the far right was sparked by, amongst other events, by what happened in Chemnitz. Less than twenty four hours after the TV documentary was aired, the pressure on the Ghent university chancellor was such that Dries Van Langenhove was suspended from university. Over 1,000 anti-racists gathered in Ghent city centre. There was an atmosphere of disgust and anger but also surprise that what was revealed in the documentary was still possible. Because of the documentary’s widespread publicity, it may be the spark that the anti-racist movement needed to reignite.
Active Left Students and ROSA took the floor during the ‘open mic’ session and responded positively to the appeal that was made by student representatives to organise an action on the 25 September, at the chancellor's office. We argued that this date should be used for mass mobilisation among university students, high school students and personnel.
To enforce our proposition, the Active Left Students and Rosa launched a student walkout to join the protest. An active campaign amongst the secondary schools for this walk-out resulted in the forming of mobilisation committees in six different schools. This put pressure on other organisations to start mobilising more concretely. The same effect was obtained on the basis of our proposals for a real mobilisation of the university staff, through the trade union movement.
Furthermore, we explained that a legal or a moral approach would not suffice. It is through pressure from below, with mobilisations of students and staff, that racism and sexism can be combated. This was illustrated by the fact that the chancellor did not want to revoke the replacement position for of Dries Van Langenhove on the Board of Management, despite the fact that his replacement proudly posted photographs of himself posing as Hitler.
The result on the 25th was very important. Around 1,300 students and personnel marched through the streets of Ghent on a dynamic demonstration. ROSA and Active Left Students organised a lively high school contingent. The union delegation was able to mobilise an important group of workers.
Afterwards, at a meeting, a new date for action was put forward, for 10th October. We put forward the need for anti-racism committees in the schools and in the faculties, to maintain the energy and enthusiasm of the demonstration. Action committees ensure involvement and offer an opportunity to discuss how and with which programme we try to fight against the far right and its breeding ground.