A Party Fighting for Socialism Has to Put Workers Front and Center - An interview with Raoul Hedebouw
Set to win 18 seats in parliament, the Workers’ Party of Belgium is the fastest-growing force on the European left. Newly elected leader Raoul Hedebouw tells Jacobin how his comrades built an explicitly Marxist party with mass appeal.
In 1869 Karl Marx called Belgium ‘the snug, well-hedged, little paradise of the landlord, the capitalist, and the priest.’ In 2021 Belgium offers the EU’s best hope for the ideology that bears his name.” So claimed the Economist last month, as the free-marketeer weekly identified the Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB) as one of the most dynamic actors of the European left. While in its first forty years of existence the PTB was a small Marxist-Leninist party whose membership numbered in the hundreds, over the last decade it experienced rapid growth, becoming a real force in national politics. Today it is polling third place nationally (expected to win eighteen seats in the next general election) and boasting twenty-four thousand members in a country with a population smaller than Ohio’s.
Much of the change owes to the events of 2008 — the year of the economic crisis, but also a time of important reorientation of the PTB itself. That year’s Renewal Congress, which saw Peter Mertens become party president, declared the need to reject past sectarianism and bring the party’s activity into closer contact with the needs of working-class Belgians. The effects were soon visible in the rapid growth of the PTB, including the election of its first MPs and the expansion of party-led initiatives like Medicine for the People, whose 250 staff provide primary health care at a dozen local action centers.
Raoul Hedebouw has been one of the PTB’s rising stars in this period. One of the first two PTB MPs elected in 2014, he soon became famous for his robust questioning of establishment politicians and direct assertion of working-class interests — and after 2019’s general election, he returned to parliament at the head of a now twelve-strong PTB cohort. With Mertens announcing last month that he will step down as party president, last Sunday the PTB’s Congrès de l’Unité elected Hedebouw to succeed him.
Following the congress, Hedebouw spoke to Jacobin’s David Broder about the PTB’s advance, how it has bucked the trend of other radical-left parties, and how it seeks to root a Marxist perspective of social change in everyday working-class life.
DB. The PTB has grown both organizationally and electorally in recent years. In your closing speech at this weekend’s congress, you quoted the Economist saying Belgium is the European country where Marx’s ideas have the best prospects. What explains that strength — and how can you add to it?
RH. I think the good health of the Marxist left in Belgium has an objective and a subjective basis, as they say. The objective factor is the economic crisis in Europe since 2008, opening up people’s awareness that the world of finance, of capitalism, is a problem. Then on top of that is the COVID crisis in which the working classes were the first victims, both economically and from a health point of view. So there is an acceleration, an objective bedrock favorable to the Marxist left’s advance.
But then there is obviously the subjective question of how a political party can channel people’s anger in a Marxist direction. There I think that the Renewal Congress of the PTB [in 2008], with a struggle against our past dogmatism — but, at the same time, holding firm to our Marxist principles — also made it possible to build this concrete alternative.
DB. Viral videos of your parliamentary interventions have made Raoul Hedebouw a well-known name in Belgium. But, in your speech, you emphasized the strength in depth of the party’s internal life, with four hundred grassroots groups preparing this weekend’s congress. It seems that, while many on the European radical left talk about popular mistrust of political parties and the need to do without such structures, the PTB takes the opposite approach . . .
RH. I think the question of organization is a bit too underestimated within the Marxist left. It’s truly a strategic focus of revolutionary thought — there have been myriad debates on it. The form and content of political discourse is also important, but not enough by itself.
The question of how to organize workers in a Marxist party isn’t easy to answer. [Over the last decade] we have gone from being a party of some eight hundred supermilitants to twenty-four thousand members. So we have to give structure to these sections of the party while also respecting our grassroots members’ different levels of commitment. There are advisory members who pay €20 a year and maybe come to party activities, demonstrations, and events once or twice a year. Then we have an organized core of three thousand members who attend meetings every month and are building political consciousness and militant organization. We’ve sought to maintain the strong points of both forms of organization, which coexist in our party.
I don’t agree with movementism or saying we don’t need political parties anymore. OK, movements are broad and horizontal; but then who makes the decisions? It’s the same old debate about anarchism, but now with either a little core group or a parliamentary faction or a few leaders in a room somewhere deciding.
In all organizations, certainly under capitalism, there are powerful selection mechanisms which discourage working-class people from really being involved in democratic debates.
I believe in democratic centralism with real collective debate. To prepare the congress over the last year, we had almost nine hundred delegates participating in eighty-three commissions. Commission reports and additional amendments amounted to almost two thousand pages. Imagine having to digest all that! But it was a very rich debate. And once we’ve discussed among ourselves, there is centralization and unity in action.
The final important element in all this is working-class participation in the democratic process. In all organizations, certainly under capitalism, there are powerful selection mechanisms that discourage working-class people from really being involved in democratic debates; for instance, the domination of the written form of discussion. Yes, us Marxists like to write. But in an internal debate, oral communication is also very important, and provides a much easier way for people to express themselves.
So, in the congress preparations, we also attributed a lot of importance to in-person commissions with spoken contributions, allowing working-class members to participate fully. Under a capitalist system, workers have a hard time rising through economic, political, and trade union structures, so we devote a lot of attention to this problem.
DB. Concretely, what can you do to put workers at the center of the PTB’s life and avoid it being taken over by professional politicians?
RH. We have truly democratic organizational mechanisms, such as the quota of worker-members of our party’s National Council, or the fact we have six worker-MPs, because we put worker-candidates at the head of our electoral lists.
So there are these organizational measures, but then there’s also our political discourse, seeing workers in the big private and public companies, on the railways, and health care workers, engineering workers, and workers in public transport as the engines of the class struggle. That doesn’t stop other classes from fighting in the anti-monopoly-capitalist front. But the question is, where does the resistance start that acts as the locomotive? From this strategic choice flow organizational consequences. If you have movements saying that the people in general lead the way, then inevitably you derive an organizational form no longer based in the working class.
For sure, the working class today has diversified — but then again, the makeup of the class has always been evolving. When Karl Marx was writing, the working-class vanguard was artisans, because big workplaces hardly existed. There was also terrible repression, so we shouldn’t idealize the past organizing context. It’s normal that, as the productive forces evolve, a new working class is born — in the call centers, in Uber, Deliveroo, etc. — with new forms of exploitation. So rather than lament that the Left is lagging behind in these areas, we should get on with building the party and union organization there.
DB. To link that to the wider political picture: during the pandemic we’ve seen a certain talk of the return of the state, even the end of neoliberalism, and forces on the Left calling for a rebuilding or strengthening of the welfare state. But you speak bluntly of socialism, and how the working class that “keeps society running” should be in power. What exactly do you mean by socialism, more than strengthening social democracy?
RH. I think this is the whole crucial question of whether a market economy — Adam Smith’s famous invisible hand and the law of supply and demand — can meet the health, social, and ecological challenges facing the world today. Our position is clear: the answer is no. This “correction” of capitalism will not work.
The question of welfare can be linked to this question of competition between imperialist blocs and China’s rise. Part of the European bourgeoisie realizes that if it doesn’t invest a bit in infrastructure, it will definitely be overtaken by China, so it wants to do something about that. But this enlightened bourgeoisie’s position is the opposite of anti-capitalism.
This is an interesting period in the sense that it opens a lot of people’s eyes to neoliberalism. It’s up to us to go further in the explanation. There are people like Thomas Piketty, who are not Marxists, who show that the problem is the dead mass of wealth and that this even becomes a problem for the development of capitalism. That is to say, in the end, imperialism destroys even the free market. This is also what Vladimir Lenin taught us.
Part of the economic establishment is tempted to play the far-right card in order to divide and conquer the working class.
I think we have to be firm in our principles and enthusiastically defend our socialism while at the same time being able to reach out to intellectuals and other components of society that are opening up to anti-capitalism. I’ll take the example of independent traders. In Belgium at least, the pandemic has created a spontaneous organization of the self-employed like I’ve never seen — of hairdressers, of stallholders, of café owners. Why? Because they were hit by the full force of the lockdowns. The state basically helped the big firms and let the smaller ones go to the wall. Our ruling politicians are clearly saying that today we have to decide and help the viable companies, which, under capitalism, can eat up the others. So we [in the PTB] are working a lot currently to create a class front between the working class and struggling independent traders.
At the same time, we have to resist the illusion that the European Commission’s investments — which are, as it happens, already being cut back — will resolve our economic problems. This is public money being given, and it’s clear into whose pockets it’s going. In these public-private partnerships, it’s multinationals who benefit.
DB. The PTB is growing, and you talk about creating a front of resistance. But you don’t control any major cities yet, and in national terms you remain an opposition party. In your speech you referred to dangerous processes in national politics, especially the risk of the country splitting up along communal lines, perhaps after the 2024 elections. If the PTB wants to stop this, what can it do? And on what conditions would you yourselves go into government?
RH. First, I’ll take the national question. Generally, we can see that part of the economic establishment is tempted to play the far-right card in order to divide and conquer the working class. This is a classic move in times of economic crisis, especially dividing immigrant and nonimmigrant workers.
To remind our Jacobin-reading comrades who don’t follow the Belgian news: there are essentially two different communities here, the Flemish-speaking (Flanders region) and French-speaking (Wallonia), plus a third region, Brussels. All the traditional parties are divided into autonomous parties along communal lines, but not the PTB, which rallies Flemish, Brussels, and Walloon comrades in a single party.
So 2024 obviously presents an important problem. There’s a risk that if the nationalist far right grows in Flanders, it could lead to a split in our country. This would be a step backward in forming a united working-class consciousness. It’s not always easy to organize across different regional realities. But we want socialism across the whole of Belgium and the whole of Europe.
Wallonia has a working-class, rather socialist history. Flanders’ history was initially rather agricultural. I say initially because today the biggest part of the working class is in Flanders. But we aren’t mechanical Marxists, and we know consciousness doesn’t always automatically spring from the economic base; sometimes it takes a little political work first.
In terms of allies for maintaining the unity of the country, there is the trade union movement, and then also other parties like the Greens that are also sensitive to this problem and with whom we can find points of convergence in seeking to avoid the division of the country.
The second question — maybe related, but not exactly the same — is the strategic question of the radical left’s participation in national government. We have two experiences of local government participation in the municipality of Zelzate (with social democrats) and in the Borgerhout district of Antwerp (with Greens and social democrats), from which we draw a positive assessment of our capacity to win town halls and implement left-wing policies at that level. And we learn a lot from the Marxist left in Europe both historically and today on that. The problem is that in Belgium you have to form coalitions, and that often involves the traditional parties thwarting the policy you’d want to implement.
I’ve been in parliament for eight years now and I’ve seen a lot of things there. But one thing I haven’t found in parliament is power.
As for the national level, I think this poses a real strategic question: Where does macroeconomic power lie in the European capitalist nation-states? I’ve been in parliament for eight years now and I’ve seen a lot of things there. But one thing I haven’t found in parliament is power. I’ve looked under the tables, behind the statues, but I still haven’t found it! It’s not even in the government or the cabinet, which are subject to powerful lobbies and the multinationals.
The question, then, is how to conquer power when it isn’t in the so-called democratic institutions. Syriza had a living practical experience of this: it was in government but didn’t necessarily have power. The European Commission shut down the Greek banking system and they had to accept austerity, like it or not.
DB. Indeed, the fact the PTB is doing better than other European radical-left parties isn’t just cause for celebration but a real strategic problem. How can we create an alternative in Europe — even if not necessarily in all twenty-seven EU states, at least across a whole series of countries — that could push back against the direction the EU is headed?
RH. That’s a real strategic debate on which we are still running behind. I think that the debate between radical-left forces, in the plural sense of the term, is long overdue. For a long time, we have been inward-looking, believing that we could do our own thing in Belgium, and so on. So it’s really through the renewal of the PTB that we’ve linked up with a whole array of parties, whether it’s Die Linke, Podemos, or France Insoumise and the French Communist Party, and so on.
We have started to talk to each other since we [since 2019] have a member of parliament in the European United Left [or GUE, the left-wing grouping in the European Parliament in Brussels]. This obviously facilitates discussion between parliamentary groupings. But alliances on the Left are lagging behind the unification of the European monopoly capitalist bloc, which is taking place right in front of our eyes.
So it’s in our interest to intensify contacts. But this also poses the strategic question of the balance of power necessary to break the European imperialist chain. I have no problem admitting that the polling scores and even the votes cast for the PTB are not an automatic index of the level of anti-capitalist consciousness of the Belgian working class. Election results don’t tell the whole story, and there is a lot of work to be done.
We have lost a lot of class consciousness since the 1970s, as in all the European countries — unlike Latin America, where it’s been on the rise these last ten or fifteen years. In Europe, we have taken a step backward: on the one hand, because of the old social democratic parties aligning themselves with capitalism and completely absorbing neoliberal discourse, and also, obviously, with the weakening of the communist camp with the fall of the Berlin Wall and all that followed.
So I don’t want to be naive. There’s still a lot of work to be done to increase working-class consciousness and identity. It is an important objective for the next five years — and thus also for the question of participation in power — to find other parties that want this rupture. But I have to say, I don’t feel that Greens and social democrats are posing that question, never mind the Right, which openly defends the rich.
DB. To take an example from my own country, Jeremy Corbyn suddenly surged to the forefront of British politics, but the Labour left struggled to impose its own political dividing lines, and there was a lot of backsliding in the face of both media attack lines (antisemitism, Stalinism, etc.) and liberals imposing their own agenda. So despite the promise, after the 2019 electoral defeat, even the legacy left behind was quite limited. How does the PTB resist these kinds of attacks — and what can you do to build a base of militants who stand more firmly on their own political ground?
RH. The big problem for Jeremy Corbyn was that the heaviest attacks came from within his own party. So for us, party unity is important.
We stand on a nondogmatic Marxism: we can say that many mistakes happened under the Soviet Union and that we want to build a socialism 2.0 that learns from this first attempt. Capitalism needed five hundred years to impose its domination, whereas socialism is much younger, so it’s normal that mistakes are made, and conclusions need to be drawn from that.
There’s a strong unity in the PTB, starting in its leadership. Yet while leaders and spokespeople are important — and certainly twenty-first-century media has intensified the personalization of political debate — we’re nothing without the collective behind us. It’s not the great men that make history but the class struggle.
If it hadn’t been for the great struggles against education reforms in Belgium in the 1990s, where I learned how to use a megaphone, I wouldn’t be where I am today. The class struggle creates leaders and then the party: we, too, are the emanation of a historical process, and as a leader you have to drop the idea that you are individually great. The party has to be there, rallying around its leaders, so that they can fully express themselves. That’s what can be done with me, too. But it’s important to have that humility there.