"The left must want to fight to win"
On 3 November 2023 Peter Mertens had the privilege of giving the keynote speech at the launch of Jacobin Nederland at the Pakhuis De Zwijger in Amsterdam. Here is the full text of his speech.
Jacobin was born as an unabashedly socialist magazine. And it comes at just the right time. The world today is a seething powder keg, and it needs unabashed socialism more than ever. Socialism, not capitalism.
Last month, I was invited in Johannesburg, South Africa, to discuss my new book at the 'Dilemmas of Humanity' conference.
This conference primarily had organizations from the Global South in attendance, including the landless farmers' movement from Brazil (MST), the metalworkers' union from South Africa (NUMSA), women's movements from India, and many others. All of them were movements and organizations with a wealth of experience, including significant experience with repression and persecution
I was one of the few European guest speakers, and what struck me time and again was empathy. 'From Europe? Really? Wow, that must be tough!' And when I looked inquisitive, they would tell me, 'With the resurgence of the far right.'
People who had been persecuted by the government of Modi in India, by Bolsonaro in Brazil, or by the current regime in Tunisia, they would say this to me. 'I think the problem in Europe is not primarily the far right,' I replied. 'I believe the main issue is the lack of self-confidence on the left.'
I believe that in Europe, there are too many gatherings on the left that organize collective depression. How bad things are. How weak the forces of the left are. How strong the opposition is. How little agreement there is among us.
I'm not a fan of such myself, never been. I think there's an incredible amount of movement and potential in Europe, and there are tremendous possibilities. I believe we're on a continent that's bubbling with potential. With the option to develop in various directions, including the right one.
I believe that the forces of labor and the forces of the left should simply have more confidence in themselves. They shouldn't be afraid that they are still small and growing. So what? Small can become big, and what is big now can become small again.
I come from a party that spent a long time wandering in the wilderness. That's an advantage, at least if you know where you want to go. It's very easy to embrace the grand, to hop on the train of success. It's much more difficult to understand the small, and to see the seeds of what has potential. It's about recognizing the potential. It's about seeing the beauty of what lies hidden beneath the surface. This applies to people, to organizations and to movements in society.
There's ‘a world to win', as it is proudly declared here on the inaugural issue of Jacobin. That's wonderful. It's about ambition, and it's about self-confidence. Both are essential for the left: ambition and self-confidence. No one wants to join losers. People want to be part of the wave of history. Moreover, people want and can make those waves themselves. Not just to change a comma in a text but to change the world. It's about radiating that. The left must dare to fight and win, and truly want to win. People can sense it when you hesitate, doubt, or downplay everything. It's about wanting to fight to win. Small victories in the neighborhood, at work, with the union, and bigger victories on a larger scale.
Of course, as Bertolt Brecht once said, 'those who fight can lose.' But, he added, 'those who do not fight have already lost.' Every situation is different, and you can't simply copy and paste experiences.
I can only speak from our experience over the past few years. And to do that, I've brought four words with me for you: principled, flexible, class, internationalism. I wish they rhymed or formed a cool acronym, but no, just four words: principled, flexible, class, internationalism.
Our party, the Workers' Party of Belgium (PVDA-PTB), has seen significant growth over the past ten years. Since the Renewal Congress in 2008, the party has grown from 2,800 members to 25,000 members. With 8 percent of the votes nationwide, we have 12 seats in the federal parliament and 1 seat in the European parliament. According to the polls, we could double our number of seats next year. Of course, those are just polls.
Principled consistency is our first cornerstone. Some forces would have liked to see us behave nicely within the boundaries of capitalism and the permitted debate. We’ve never done that, and we won't.
A body needs flexible arms and legs, but also a strong backbone. Without that backbone, flexibility becomes the flexibility of a ragdoll.
We have an emancipatory view of humanity, a Marxist analytical framework, and a socialist worldview. That's our backbone. We are not for capitalism. Capitalism has historically brought progress but has reached its own limits and is a hindrance to any fundamental social, democratic and ecological progress. We stand for socialism, a society that protects both sources of wealth - labor and nature - instead of exploiting and plundering them.
t's important to start from the strength of your own convictions. Climate change, the food crisis, suffocating debt crises, economic and military wars, exploitation, and global imbalances are shaking our planet. Capitalism cannot provide a way out for the significant challenges that await us.
Socialism means that we can finally overcome the persistent ills of capitalism, such as hunger, illiteracy, homelessness, racism and war. Socialism is about achieving basic things for the majority of humanity: a roof over one's head, a nutritious meal, access to education and healthcare, a well-paying job. Today, all of this clashes with the ownership relations and the power of capitalism. To realize socialism, it is necessary to build a counterforce, reshape the collective narrative, and develop a new culture of struggle.
Principled consistency is a matter of compass: where do you want to go? You need measures to protect your organization because anyone who threatens the prevailing 'good old boy' culture quickly faces both the carrot and the stick of the establishment.
The carrot, with numerous mechanisms to domesticate rebellious parties. Parliamentarians are paid excessively, with the understanding that those who become dependent on the power structures will be less inclined to challenge and change them. The pressure is great to stay within the small parliamentary bubble, among the academically educated, all well-dressed, all basking in their own righteousness, far from the real world.
How do we deal with that? We start from the principle that you can only change the balance of power on the ground through a process of social action, organization, and awareness-raising. All of our leaders and parliamentarians must spend at least half of their time in the field, in the real world. Parliamentary work is in service of the social struggle, not the other way around. Our leaders and parliamentarians also live on a median worker's wage. The rest of their income is contributed to the party. Because as we say, 'He who does not live as he thinks, will soon come to think the way he lives.'
Then I'll get straight to our second principle: being flexible. Because, even though being principled is crucial, it's not sufficient. Someone who is solely principled becomes rigid. Having the right ideas isn't enough; it's essential to also win the argument and effect change. That's a significant difference.
We've experienced how very left-wing currents – they used to simply call it 'ultra-leftism' – like to hunker down in their own bubble, with no political sense of the situation, and comfortably provide a set of free slogans from behind their desks. According to these people, it can never be left enough. They say, 'We must do this, and we must do that.'
But you don't respond to right-wing pressure with extremely left-wing slogans. You respond by engaging in the debate, providing arguments, through education, persuasion, receptiveness and patience, based on a solid class standpoint of your own.
There is a distinction between strategy and tactics. We contemplate strategy to understand where we want to go, what our long-term objectives are, how we want to achieve them, who the allies and opponents are.
We contemplate tactics to find the most suitable path and methods to make progress in that direction. We don't move forward by overwhelming people with our 'entire program.' The path to the top of the mountain is not a straight road upward. The way up often winds, with hairpin turns, and sometimes you may even need to go back down a bit to continue climbing. This zigzag is part of the tactics, provided that you never lose sight of the compass.
We believe that the left must master the art of moving both minds and hearts, the mind and the soul. This happens when people gain experiences, when they rally behind a cause, get into action, organize themselves, and social action or struggle emerges. That's why it's essential to take into account the existing power dynamics and the level of consciousness.
A third word that I've brought is 'class.'
Nowadays you increasingly see movements that no longer conduct economic analysis. They no longer speak of the 'working class' but only of the 'center' and the so-called 'middle class.' Class analysis is gone, production is gone, the shop floor is gone, and the heroes of the pandemic are gone.
Once all class divisions are brushed aside, various identity debates take over the dominant discourse. All kinds of genuine and spurious divides are stoked, and before you know it, ordinary people are shouting at each other.
We believe it's time to reassert a class standpoint. It would be absurd to abandon the working class to the Trumpists, Bolsonarists, Vox supporters or other far-right pied pipers.
Yes, we combat racism, yes, we combat sexism, yes, we address any form of exclusion. But we always do it from the perspective of strengthening and solidifying the power and unity of the working class. A divided working class cannot win. Not in the past, and not today either.
The fact is that we live in a class society. Capitalism creates division based on your role in production, whether you have to sell your labor or can live off the fruits of other people's work.
What are your chances of affording higher education for your children if you come from a working-class family?
What are your options for a healthy living environment if you work in 10- or 12-hour shifts, day and night?
In Belgium, workers live more than 8 years less in good health than highly educated individuals. More than an 8-year difference. If you're the son of a banker or a judge, there's a much higher chance that you won't end up in prison than if you grow up in a working-class family.
That's true in every class society. You all know that.
But I'm repeating it here because they keep claiming that we don't live in a class society and that we're in some kind of post-industrial blah-blah time, because they themselves live in a blah-blah time.
Who builds the ships, houses and everything in this room, from chairs to microphones? Who assembles mobile phones, electric cars and semiconductors? Who mines lithium?
In reality, our society has never been as industrialized as it is today. When Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto, the working class was a small minority, even in Europe.
In 1848, less than 1 percent of the world's population were industrial workers. By 1950, that figure had grown to 15 percent, and today it's about 33 percent. One in three people in the world works in the industry or related sectors.
The world is more industrialized than ever, and production chains are organized globally. How many people in how many countries have worked on this computer? It's enormous. The socialization of labor has never been higher.
Do you remember the incident with the Ever Given, the large ship that got stuck in the Suez Canal? It was carrying 224,000 tons of goods from India to Amsterdam. Within a few days, 400 container ships filled with electronics, cement, water and oil got stuck in the largest maritime traffic jam ever. Factories had to be temporarily shut down because parts were stuck in the Suez Canal. It's all interconnected; global production is the reality.
Today, there is a larger working class than ever before, and production is more internationally organized than ever. And there is a global class struggle.
I spoke to Kath, a nurse in London, last year. She had never gone on strike in her entire life because, as she put it, 'it's just not in my nature.' But last year, she and thousands of her colleagues in hospitals across the United Kingdom went on strike for the first time. They did this because they couldn't make ends meet; some nurses couldn't even afford a bus ticket at the end of the month to get to work.
This is the reality in Europe today. Nurses, railway workers, teachers and bus drivers have gone on strike, leading to a summer of discontent in the United Kingdom that continued into a winter of discontent and another summer of unrest. In the past two years, there have been more social and industrial actions in the UK than in the vibrant 1970s with the miners. Back then, there was a left-wing narrative about the fighting and proud miners. Now, we need that narrative again, instead of the endless lament about the power of capital.
The same goes for France. In March 2023, over 3.4 million people took to the streets to demand fair pensions and the retention of the retirement age at 62. This movement lasted for half a year, with 14 national protest days. What was striking was the participation of many young people, students and pupils. Since 1968, there have never been so many people on the streets in France. But where is the narrative of this class struggle?
So, don't say that the working class in Europe is asleep. Instead, ask yourself why we don't hear about this struggle more often. We must not only wage the struggle but also tell the struggle and support it with culture. We must share stories of metalworkers in South Africa, farmers in India, and the peasant and people's movements in Brazil. I think that's what Jacobin does as well.
We are all fighting against the same enemies, the same multinational corporations operating internationally and dividing workers. We are dealing with the same Cargills, responsible for deforestation in the Amazon and the use of child labor in American meat factories. The enemies are the same, the capitalist system is the same, and our struggle for socialism is the same.
So I come to my last word, and that is 'internationalism.' It is impossible to speak here today without talking about Palestine.
Today, the whole world is watching Israel's insane war against Palestine. The way the world looks at it will also change the coming decades.
I have just written a new book. The title is 'Mutiny: How Our World Is Tilting.' It is about the changes in the world, about how the world is changing rapidly. I talk about the pivotal moments that have occurred since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. That's when the era of U.S. hegemony began. The 'unipolar era,' as it is sometimes called. Washington was supposed to ensure stability and peace from then on. But it didn't happen.
With the ethnic cleansing that Israel is currently orchestrating against the Palestinians, right before the world's eyes, we are facing a pivotal moment. Another pivotal moment.
The first pivotal moment came with the illegal war on Iraq in 2003. That illegal war definitively undermined the credibility of the United States as the so-called leader of the world. That was the first pivotal moment, followed by the illegal interventions in Libya and Afghanistan. The total destabilization of the Middle East has made the world more unsafe than ever and created the breeding ground in which the extremist jihadism of the Islamic State could emerge.
A second major pivotal moment came with the financial crisis of 2008. The Wall Street crisis undermined the credibility of Western financial institutions, and rightly so. That was a second pivotal moment. In response to the banking crisis, on the other side of the world, the BRICS was formed, which is the cooperation between Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Earlier this year, the economies of these five countries became larger than the economies of the world's seven wealthiest countries, the G7, for the first time in history. So, something profound is changing, and the seeds of that change are rooted, among other things, in the financial crisis of 2008.
A third major pivotal moment came with the war in Ukraine. And I'm not talking about the condemnation of the invasion by Russia, a violation of international law, a violation of Ukraine's sovereignty. In the Global South, they know very well how important sovereignty is.
I'm talking about sanctions, which is a third pivotal moment. Economic sanctions, embargoes, cutting off the SWIFT interbank system and freezing the reserves of the central bank. Everyone knows that all these sanctions could be used against other countries tomorrow, and in fact have been used against various countries for years, such as the criminal embargo and blockade against Cuba.
With these pivotal moments, the war against Iraq in 2003, the financial crisis in 2008, the pandemic in 2020, and the war in Ukraine in 2022, our world has changed profoundly.
Today, we find ourselves in the midst of the dust of a new pivotal moment. There is an ethnic cleansing taking place against the Palestinian people, and the displacement of millions of Palestinians from Gaza, a second Nakba.
And the whole world is watching to see who is truly on the side of life, dignity, and hope.
The whole world is watching to see who is doing everything to stop the bombs, prevent ethnic cleansing and lift the blockade of Gaza.
Everyone saw how Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, and Roberta Metsola, President of the European Parliament, traveled to Israel. Their trip was a scandal in every sense. They arrived in Israel at the moment when Netanyahu ordered the illegal displacement of over a million Palestinians. Neither von der Leyen nor Metsola said anything about it. This means that they de facto gave Israel a green light to continue committing war crimes.
This cannot go on. If the European Union and European countries do not want to disappear into the black hole of history, they must now take responsibility. European countries must call for an immediate ceasefire and ensure the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians comes to an end. The whole world is watching.
It's time for action, not just words. Israeli President Netanyahu should be brought before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. States can support this call. It is entirely possible to investigate the war crimes in Palestine. Since 2015, Palestine has been a part of the treaty supporting the International Criminal Court. If it could happen against Putin yesterday, why can't it happen against Netanyahu today?
We are now at the 11th sanctions package against Russia. Despite 104 United Nations resolutions, no sanctions have been imposed on Israel. This is unbelievable. Furthermore, the European Union still provides economic benefits to Israel. For instance, Israel pays no taxes on the products it exports to Europe. Israel also enjoys full access to technology, research, and development within the Union. All of this is outlined in the European Union's Association Agreement with Israel, which should be immediately suspended. Europe must and can suspend this association agreement without delay.
An immediate military embargo against Israel must also be imposed. According to European rules, European countries may not export weapons if there is a clear risk that the technology or military equipment will be used to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law. This is clearly the case today. So, enforce that embargo. What's more, start it now, as requested by Palestinian labor unions.
And as the transport unions in Belgium have also decided in the meantime. They have decided that no more weapons intended for Israel will be loaded or unloaded. No more military equipment is being shipped to Israel. Follow that example.
In the meantime, 10,000 people have been killed in Gaza, including 4,000 children. Europe must abandon its double standard on international law, defending the sovereignty of Ukraine but not that of Palestine, punishing Russian war crimes but accepting that Israel is engaged in ethnic cleansing. We can and must demand that the Belgian, Dutch, French and German governments recall their ambassadors from Israel, as the Colombian and Bolivian governments have decided.
It is time for Europe to take responsibility and stand on the side of ceasefire, peace and international law.
This is crucial, not only for the countries in the Global South but also for Europe itself. What place will Europe occupy in the 21st century? That is the question.
Europe is facing a choice, and the stance it adopts will define its role in history.
We have a responsibility and power in this regard. The power of the grassroots movement, whether it's the half a million demonstrators in London last week or the call for an arms boycott by Belgian trade unions. We can and must exert pressure from the grassroots. This is what we did back in the days to bring down the apartheid regime in South Africa.
The movement in solidarity with the Palestinian people is part of a global world movement, a movement in the Global South and in the Global North. If these movements can join hands, we can tilt the world in the democratic, ecological, and social direction that the planet so desperately needs. The direction of socialism.