History: 50 years since “strike of the century” in Belgium

New book on 1960/61 general strike published by CWI in Belgium

Below we publish an article by Nicolas Croes, based on the new book “La grève générale insurrectionnelle et révolutionnaire de l’hiver 1960/61” by Gustave Dache. See also an announcement of the books release, below the article


During five cold winter weeks 50 years ago, Belgium was paralysed by the “strike of the century”. The strike against the “Unity Law”, a package of cuts, became one of the most important movements in the history of the Belgian workers’ movement. The capitalist system was trembling. The direct reason for the strikes was the package proposed by the Christian Peoples’ Party Prime Minister, Gaston Eyskens. At a moment where savage cuts are again at the top of governments’ agendas throughout Europe, it is useful to look at the lessons of the strike of 1960-61 in Belgium.

The context

At the end of the Second World War, the means of production of the Belgian bourgeoisie were almost intact. In the early stages of post war economic development, this was an advantage compared with the competing economies of the other countries in the region. The Belgian economic machine could be turned on at full speed, while reconstruction in neighbouring countries took some more time. This reconstruction however, led to the development of new industries and a bigger role for new technologies. Soon, the old industrial structure in Belgium became a disadvantage.

The Belgian bourgeoisie did not invest in new industrial sectors, such as the chemical industry or electronics. Instead, the old industrial structure was kept, with a dominance of heavy industry (steal, coal etc.). The Belgian capitalists did not invest their profits in new production, but rather used it to develop the financial sector. Belgium had a strong finance-capital sector and was called the “Banker of Europe”. However, this role was then undermined by the crisis in the industry. And this crisis was deepened by the loss of the Congo, the former Belgian colony that became independent on 30 June 1960.

To restore their profits, the capitalists wanted radical measures. As always, it was the workers and their families who were asked to pay for the crisis. This happened with the austerity package of the so called “Unity Law”. The bourgeoisie knew they had to be careful. The 1950s were a decade of struggle in Belgium. In July 1950, hundreds of thousands of workers went on strike against the return of King Leopold III, who since 1945 had been in exile in Switzerland after collaborating with German occupiers. Sabotage actions began and a national workers’ “March on Brussels” to confront all the bourgeois institutions was only prevented by Leopold’s abdication in favour of his son, who became king the following year. In the 1950s, several movements of struggle developed. This background made the government decide to start the parliamentary debates on the Unity Law on 20 December. They hoped that the preparations for Christmas and New Year celebrations would cut across the workers’ resistance.

The leaderships of the social democracy, the Belgian Socialist Party (PSB/BSP), and the FGTB/ABVV trade union federation were also hoping for the same effect, to make sure that they would not have to take any serious initiative. The leaderships of the “Socialist” Party and the trade unions were in a difficult position. A defeat of the workers would lead to new offensive measures by the government, undermining the privileges of the leadership as well. A victory however, would threaten their position as well, because it would unmask the failed politics of the existing leadership. The social democratic leadership had shown its “statecraft” in the years before. Under the previous ‘socialist’ Prime Minister, Achille Van Acker, a strike of metal workers was brutally repressed in 1957. But the presence of a large and active rank and file forced the party to take into account the more radical ideas that were present amongst workers.

This led to the PSB/BSP starting a campaign against the Unity Law in October 1960. This campaign was called “Operation Truth”. The aim of the campaign was to make electoral gains based on the discontent and the anger, but not to stop this law, as elections were not due to be held before the law was meant to be passed. The support for the campaign was overwhelming. Many meeting halls were too small for the number of workers wanting to attend the meetings. This campaign played an important preparatory role for the struggle in the winter of 1960-61.

The trade union leaderships wanted to avoid a general strike and a real fight, because they were afraid of losing control over such a movement. The Christian trade union, CSC/ACV, was close to the catholic Christian Peoples Party, which was then the main government party. The CSC/ACV union leadership did all it could to avoid the movement. During the strike, the leadership condemned it over and over again. Yet many ordinary CSC/ACV members joined the strike, in both the French-speaking South and the Dutch-speaking North of the country.

In the “socialist” trade union federation, there were different wings. This was expressed at its enlarged National Committee of 16 December 1960. The trade union left, around André Renard, proposed a number of demonstrations in the run-up to a national 24-hour general strike on 15 January 1961, which would have been after the vote on the Unity Law. The trade union right-wing proposed only a national “day of action” in January 1961. The left obtained 475,823 votes, compared to 496,487 for the right. Only 4 days later, both proposals would be overtaken by the spontaneous strikes developing from the rank and file.

The fight begins – where is the trade union leadership?

The Unity Law meant a serious attack on public services. At a national meeting on 12 December, the socialist trade union in public services (CGSP/ACOD) announced an unlimited general strike starting on 20 December.

The strike in public services had a huge impact throughout the whole country. In Ghent, for example, electricity workers blocked energy supply to the industrial areas. Thousands of rank and file members of the Christian union joined the strike, against the directions of their leadership. Where the Christian union was forced to take a vote (in Antwerp for example) a majority voted to join the strike.

The movement did not remain limited to public services. In a number of big factories, workers joined the movement. This developed from the rank and file. In many cases, the workers had to pressurise their shop stewards because they were waiting for official appeals from the leadership. The spontaneous movement from below developed within a few hours and brought the economy to a complete standstill.

The leadership of the workers’ movement was totally surprised by this. The day after the start of the strike, the national General Secretary of the socialist union, FGTB/ABVV, and an MP for the social-democrats, Louis Major, declared in parliament, “Prime minister, we have tried with all the means we have, even with the support of the bosses, to keep this strike limited to one sector.”

While Major was saying this in parliament, the whole country was shut down because of the strike. The Catholic daily paper, La Cité, wrote on 21 December: “We hear that the FGTB/ABVV leaders themselves were very surprised in many places (…) It seems as if at least in a few places the leadership has lost control over the movement.” Because of the lack of leadership, workers started to organise themselves in strike committees. This was what the union leadership was afraid of: the development of an alternative leadership from below on the basis of collective struggle. The national leadership of the FGTB/ABVV opposed the general strike but avoided its responsibility by leaving the decision on whether to support the strike to the regional organisations.

It was only when the general strike was a fact in the whole country that the regional structures made an appeal for a general strike. This was combined by an attempt to disband the strike committees in order to get control over the movement. Around the city of Charleroi, about 40% of the region was fully controlled by the strike committees.

Unity of French-speaking and Flemish workers

The strike spread around the country. Metalworkers, glass workers, miners, rail workers, dockers … they all went on strike. The whole Walloon (French-speaking) region was shut down. In the Flemish area, the strike developed at a slower rhythm because it was more difficult. Yet also in Flanders, there were whole sectors and cities on strike, leading to demonstrations of tens of thousands in the big cities. The only factory that was occupied during the strike was the electricity company in Ghent, which was occupied from 20 to 30 December.

Banner reads "Ghent strikers salute their Walloon brothers"

Contrary to what some said after the strike, the Flemish workers were heavily involved in the struggle. The absence of large industrial zones such as those around Charleroi and Liège, the bigger impact of the Catholic church, the stronger position of the Christian union and a more right-wing leadership in the socialist union were all factors that made the development of the struggle more difficult in the Flemish area.

Against this background, it was a complete mistake to set up the Coordination Committee of the Walloon regional sections of the FGTB/ABVV on 23 December. This Coordination Committee was led by André Renard, the left-wing leader of the FGTB in Wallonia. It was a manoeuvre to respond to the development of the strike committees. Before those committees could organise their own coordination on a regional and national level, Renard intervened and imposed his own regional Coordination Committee. However, this effectively divided the working class on Walloon/Flemish lines against the government, repression and a nationally unified bourgeoisie. This policy of division was to go even further. Under the leadership of Renard, it led to the introduction of “regionalist” demands in a crucial phase of the struggle, saying, for example, “For a Walloon Wallonia: against the Loi Unique (Unity Law): against the “misery in Borinage” (a 1933 Belgian film on the Great Depression): against the oppression of unitary government: against the Flemish Government: against the murderers of the Walloon people.” (The Times, London, 10 January, 1961).

Danger of revolution

In the early stages of the movement, demands were limited to opposition to the Unity Law. The general strike however, quickly posed the question of power. It did not take long before the movement took up the slogan for a national March on Brussels. This was not seen as an ordinary demonstration, to walk around in Brussels, but as a massive gathering of workers in the capital to have an open confrontation with the regime. The March on Brussels foreseen in 1950 was a key element in king Leopold III resigning and avoiding a confrontation. Such a March on Brussels in 1950 would not only bring an end to the monarchy but also potentially to the capitalist regime itself. The trade union leadership realised the danger of this and did all it could to avoid such a revolutionary confrontation in 1960-61.

The government answered the massive strike movement by using intimidation and repression. Thousands of workers had been illegally taken into custody. The strike movement met with violent repression, which left four strikers dead. The government was afraid of a further development of the movement and used the army to occupy the arms factory of Fabrique Nationale in Herstal. The army emptied its stockpiles of weapons in different areas of the country. The troops that were stationed in Germany as part of NATO-operations were called back. The repressive forces had huge difficulties getting organised. Strikers put up blockades and in a number of areas, rank and file soldiers were effected by the propaganda of the strike committees. In some areas, the only decent food the soldiers got was the food provided by the strikers. The bourgeoisie was terrified of the possibility of a growing understanding between the strikers and the troops.

The workers wanted to develop their struggle, but the leadership did not offer any appeal or way forward. The workers kept demonstrating in the cold. In all big cities there were demonstrations of between 10,000 and 50,000, and in some cities there were daily demonstrations of this size. The leaders were booed at the meetings and demonstrations. They still limited themselves to explaining why the Unity Law would be a disaster for the working class. The workers knew all this; but they wanted a development of their struggle and shouted slogans, such as “To Brussels! March on Brussels!” The many acts of sabotage during the strike must be seen against this background. It was an expression of frustration, anger and impatience by the workers due to a lack of slogans and prospects for the movement.

As a leader of the trade union left, André Renard was asked to speak around the whole country. However. he did not speak in the Flemish area, where the right-wing trade union leaders did not want him, even when the rank and file workers on the demonstrations were demanding that he come. Where he did speak, he used a radical rhetoric. Renard thought it would be possible to get concessions from the bosses and the government to modernise industry. That was his real aim; not the overthrow of capitalism. Renard overestimated the ‘margin for manoeuvre’ of the capitalists and had to search for another “honourable” way out.

Regionalism: diverting the energy of the masses

The movement was confronted with a clear choice: a direct confrontation with the regime or letting the movement peter out with an excuse that could at least save the face of part of the trade union leadership. Renard’s introduction of regionalist demands into the struggle must be seen against this background, but this regionalist approach was to be fatal for the general strike. On 31 December 1960, the Coordination Committee of the Walloon FGTB/ABVV issued a statement in which it said that the strike was concentrated in the Walloon area, which was not correct. While workers were fighting all over the country, the Coordination Committee suggested that this was only the case in the Walloon area.

André Renard

On 3 January 1961, Renard openly spoke out against a March on Brussels. He declared the same day in a speech: “The Walloon people are ready for the struggle. We will not let the Flemish clergy tell us what to do. In the Walloon region, 60% of the voters support the socialists. By introducing a federal structure, we can obtain a government for and of the people.” (Le Soir, 4 January 1961). At the same time, Renard helped to launch a new weekly paper which appeared for the first time on 5 January 1961, with the front page slogan, “Wallonia has had enough of it.”

Without any involvement of the rank and file, the Walloon FGTB leadership launched this divisive slogan and tried to put it at the centre of the struggle. This served to break the workers’ unity on the ground. While thousands of Flemish workers were on strike in Gent and Antwerp, but also in smaller cities, the so called “left-wing” leaders in Wallonia betrayed their comrades in Flanders. This was to hide their lack of perspectives and proposals for the development of the movement. This caused its defeat. The strike ended on 23 January 1961. The defeat was not the result of the power of the capitalists and their government, but because of the betrayal of the leadership of the social-democracy and the FGTB/ABVV, both its right and its left wings. They preferred a defeat over a further development of the struggle against capitalism and for a different society.

Could a defeat have been avoided?

This historic struggle was marked by an enormous will to fight by the workers movement. The movement however, lacked an important element necessary to obtain a victory by overthrowing the capitalist regime. There was no revolutionary leadership for the mass movement. As Trotsky explained in his ‘History of the Russian Revolution’: “Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam in a piston-box. But nevertheless, what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.” This is what happened in 1960-61: the energy of the masses was dissipated.

A revolutionary organisation, even a small organisation, could have made a big difference if it had taken its responsibility. A revolutionary organisation would have fully supported the setting up of strike committees and would have played a role in launching an appeal for a national congress of strike committees. This could have been a first step in bringing together the forces that that could have formed the basis for a workers’ government based on the strike committees and armed with a socialist programme. A revolutionary organisation should have strongly opposed the introduction of regionalist demands in the movement. It would have supported the appeal for a March on Brussels, i.e. a challenge to the capitalist government, in a consistent way. Unfortunately, none of this happened.

The then still-influential Communist Party (PCB/KPB) followed the strategy of the social-democracy and the trade union leadership, even if a number of Communist militants played a key role in the development of the strike in the factories. Inside the social democracy there was a far left group around the weekly paper, La Gauche (The left). This group was largely led by militants claiming to be Trotskyist, the central leader of whom was Ernest Mandel. The claimed to support a revolutionary alternative, yet their leaders remained heavily influenced by the reformist leaders of the social democracy and the trade unions. In reality this group followed (and still today follows) the tendency of Renard. They did not oppose the Coordination Committee of the Walloon region; they did not launch an appeal for a national congress of strike committees; and their sole attempt to bring forward the March on Brussels remained vague and not realistic in its organisational form. La Gauche should have opposed the regionalist viewpoints of Renard. However, this did not happen. they maintained a complicit silence, and lost an opportunity to build wider support for the ideas of Marxism within the working class.

New book on the Belgian general strike of 1960-61

The Belgian CWI has published a new book on the general strike 50 years ago. This book is published both in French and Dutch. It was written by Gustave Dache, who was a young glass worker in Charleroi at the time of the strike. He started work at 13 and a half years old. Half a year later he was influenced by the strikes and the movement against the return of king Leopold III in 1950. In the 1950s, he took up activity in the FGTB/ABVV trade union and became politically involved in the work of the Belgian section of the then Fourth International.

The Trotskyist movement had a long tradition in the city of Charleroi. It was founded by leaders of the Communist Party, expelled in 1928 for opposing the rise of Stalinism in the then Soviet Union. A number of well respected leaders were active in this area and played a key role in the workers’ movement, with mass support. However, it was hit hard by Nazi repression, and many leaders, such as Léon Lesoil, did not survive the Second World War. Gustave Dache was introduced to the Fourth International by an old veteran of the movement. He became active in the youth wing of the social-democracy. In the strikes of 1960-61, Gustave and other young Trotskyist militants in Charleroi played an important role in developing the movement.

Gustave Dache

The publication of a book by Gustave Dache is very timely. It is an attempt to partially fill the gap that exists. Strangely, very few books in Belgium have been written about what was called the ‘strike of the century’. It seems as if the workers’ movement has not made many efforts to get its own history and experiences written down for future generations.

Gustave’s book does not give a “neutral” vision of the strike, it is a eye-witness account of the day to day development of the strikes by an active participant, combined with a criticism on the various positions taken by all significant forces involved in the movement. While Gustave is not a member of the CWI, we do agree with many of his criticisms and we encouraged him to write everything down in this book.

Gustave explains the economic and social background against which the strike broke out. He explains the mood at his workplace and gives a detailed account of the general strike in the whole country. This is probably the first time that such a detailed eye-witness has been written by a worker who participated in the strikes of 1960-61. The strike movement was an explosion of spontaneous anger and resistance. There was a remarkable rhythm of radicalisation amongst broad layers of the working class. What started as a resistance movement against austerity measures, quickly developed into a general strike in which the workers demanded a March to Brussels to confront all the institutions of the capitalist regime. Rank and file strikers kept on demonstrating, while demanding a March on Brussels. But nobody dared to take this slogan up, let alone to start the preparations for such a March on Brussels.

The far left did have an impact in the workers movement. The Communist Party followed the advice of the social-democracy, making appeals to the king or the right-wing politicians in parliament, while the real discussion was held on the streets. The group around ‘La Gauche’ did at one point raise the slogan for a March on Brussels, but only to send delegations that would infiltrate the capital. In the next issue of ‘La Gauche’, this idea was retracted after strong criticism by the left trade union leader, Renard.

The lack of perspectives for the movement to develop to its next logical step, a revolutionary confrontation with capitalism, led to frustration and created the possibility for the distraction of the movement. André Renard used this space to put his regional nationalist views to the forefront. His idea was that Walloon workers were more combative and that a socialist majority was possible in the Walloon region. Fifty years later and with the introduction of regional parliaments, there is no need for long explanations to show how wrong Renard was. Today, the regions have more power and the ‘socialist’ PS is stronger in the Walloon region. Yet still there is huge unemployment and poverty in this region. If the regionalist approach of Renard changed something, then it was the division of the strike movement itself. Despite his radical rhetoric, he tried to end the movement in a way that was safe for himself and for capitalism.

In his book, Gustave criticises these wrong proposals which distracted the movement. He explains the huge potential of the spontaneous explosion of workers’ resistance, and the creativity of the strikers in how they built their strike. This was not limited to the Walloon regions. The day-to-day account clearly demonstrates how the movement was national. The Flemish cities of Antwerp and Ghent were shut down by strikers, but also in smaller cities, there were big demonstrations and strikes.

The revolutionary and insurgent general strike also had an impact on the way Gustave looked at the left and his own organisation. He broke with the group led by Ernst Mandel and was searching for an alternative. With a group of veterans and young workers in Charleroi, he opposed the failure of Mandel to argue against Renard’s refusal to campaign for a national congress of strike committees to call for a March on Brussels. He also criticises the policy of Mandel’s group in large workers’ organisations. This was not the method or programme that our organisation stood for when we were still working inside the social-democracy. We always stressed our own political views and orientated our entrism to the large layers of rank-and-file workers attracted to social-democracy. Mandel however concentrated on searching for and maintaining links with partners in the leadership, mainly left reformists. This explains why this group published a broad weekly paper, La Gauche, but only started in 1962 to publish a more specifically Marxist journal, in the shape of a quarterly Belgian supplement to the international magazine ‘Quatrième Internationale’.

Gustave and his comrades broke with Mandel and searched for political answers to the course followed by the leadership of the then Fourth International. They thought they found these answers amongst the Latin American Bureau of the Fourth International under the leadership of Juan Posadas. Looking back, Gustave explains the political weaknesses of this group of which he attended a world congress in Argentina in 1962. But he quickly broke with the Posadists because of their position on the “partial regeneration of the Soviet Union and the communist parties” and because of the personality cult around Posadas himself. After this, Gustave remained active as a Trotskyist militant in the workers’ movement, but not a member of a political organisation. He was involved in many workers’ struggles, in many cases leading strikes. As a pensioner, he continued his involvement and also supported steps towards the setting up of political alternatives to stand in elections, being a candidate on several occasions on leftwing unity lists. In June last year, Gustave was an independent candidate, proposed by the PSL/LSP (CWI in Belgium) on the ‘Front des Gauches’ list.

This book on the strikes of 1960-61 brings an important analysis of the movement. It shows the huge potential of the general strike and the strength of the workers’ movement. It brings important lessons for the resistance movements that are developing today in Europe. While the background was different (with the existence of the Soviet Union and a broader socialist consciousness amongst the working class), the essential lessons remain valid today. In this sense, the strike of 1960-61 was not a “useless strike” as it was presented in the present media coverage. The strike movement did not defeat the Unity Law. In that sense, it was a defeat, but the movement also showed the strength and gave an important experience to the workers’ movement. We need books like this one to share these experiences with the new generation. This book is absolutely not a nostalgic view of struggles of the past, it shows optimism and some lessons for the struggles to come.

We are proud that we can publish this book by a veteran of the Belgian workers’ movement. It will strengthen us in our understanding of Belgian workers’ history and will be useful for all young activists looking for a way to fight capitalism. Those youths will find a comrade in Gustave. As he explains in an article in the daily paper ‘La Libre Belgique’: “I’m still angry!”

The books “La grève générale insurrectionnelle et révolutionnaire de l’hiver 1960/61" (in French) and “De opstandige en revolutionaire algemene staking van de winter van ‘60-‘61” (in Dutch) have 354 pages and cost 15 euros each (+ post). They are edited by Marxisme.be. For more information or to get a copy, please contact us at redaction@socialisme.be.

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December 2010