Raoul Hedebouw: "Let's strengthen the unity and the fight of the working class against those who want to divide us"

Raoul Hedebouw

On Sunday 5 December, Raoul Hedebouw was elected president of the PTB-PVDA at the closing session of our Unity Congress. Here is his speech at the closing session.

Dear friends, dear comrades,

First of all, a big thank you for the confidence you have expressed in the newly elected team. This result is a testimony to the great unity within our party and our desire to achieve our goal of bringing about radical social change. As the new president, I will above all be the face of a strong and united team. One finger of a hand is nothing, a closed fist is everything. With us, there is no struggle for positions, only class struggle.

I wouldn't have wanted to start my first speech as president without paying a warm tribute to our outgoing president, Peter Mertens. Thank you for helping to give our party a new direction. Thank you for putting your talent at the service of the Belgian working class. And, above all, thank you for continuing to be part of our great team as general secretary.

A rich democratic process

Our congress is the culmination of a great democratic process lasting more than a year. Eight hundred and eighty-three delegates were elected in 400 grassroot groups. Eighty-three commissions were held across the country, giving rise to 564 pages of reports, plus, 1,368 pages of suggestions, criticisms and amendments. An incredibly rich process.

Which other Belgian party can boast such broad participation of its membership base in the formulation of its fundamental guidelines? Elsewhere, delegates receive a 400-page document written by a research department, to be approved within a few hours. We are building a real democracy, an active democracy in which each delegate is involved. On behalf of the party leadership, I would like to thank all the delegates, to thank all of you for your commitment to this congress.

Covid: a fourth wave of mismanagement

Comrades, this fourth wave of the Covid 19-pandemic is once again highlighting all the shortcomings of the capitalist system's management of the pandemic, both here and elsewhere in the world.

The race for short-term profit and the so-called cost-effectiveness of public services has left us without any culture of prevention in our country. Our government is doing nothing but flip-flop: on-off measures, lockdown-no lockdown... All the preventative structures designed to manage this epidemic are systematically dismantled as soon as there's another fall in the curves. Contact follow-up, testing and first-line medical care are the poor cousins of the epidemic's management.

Vaccination and the Covid Safe Ticket was going to solve everything, they said. We were promised "the kingdom of freedom", but that was a lie. And yet the experts had warned that the vaccine was not a miracle solution. With our Medicine for the People health centres, we have an on-the-ground insight into the importance of first-line prevention. But our government has done as it pleases and put all its bets on vaccination. The result is: we're in a crisis once again.

What has, above all, been clear from the start is that the fate of humanity as a whole is tied together in this crisis. Until the entire planet is protected, no one is safe. That's why the Big Pharma companies' decision not to share the patents with the people of the world is criminal. Only profit matters. The greatest irony: the discovery of the latest variant has given another big boost to Pfizer's stock price, up 6.1%, that is, an additional $17.5 billion. Misery and disease for the many, stock market euphoria for a privileged few. That's capitalism.

Last week, a World Trade Organization meeting was scheduled to discuss the lifting of patents. But the European Union, and our government in particular, is slamming on the brakes. And so, the meeting was simply cancelled. This is unacceptable. We are calling for the immediate lifting of patents.

Comrades, this calamitous management of the pandemic is giving rise to increased polarisation among the people. Vaccinated versus unvaccinated. Pro CST, anti CST [Covid Safe Ticket]. Young versus old. The Flemish versus the Walloons. Health workers versus workers in other professions. Immigrants versus non-immigrants... By putting the blame on citizens, governments hide their own responsibility. They divide and rule. We must respond with unity. Unity and dialogue within our class, that of working men and women, to give us more strength to point to those truly responsible for this crisis.

We are one, wij zijn één, nous sommes un

The goal of some parties is to divide and rule. The separatists are preparing to divide the country in 2024. There is the prospect of the [Flemish nationalist] N-VA concluding an agreement with the [French speaking social-democratic] PS to deepen the division of powers and completely empty the country of any unity. Under this scenario, the N-VA and [the Flemish socialist party] Vooruit will also come together to form a Flemish government.

At the same time, the fascists of Vlaams Belang are also on the warpath. Using Trump as a model, they are already talking about "stolen elections" if they do not make it into government, and are calling for revolt, including in the streets.

The separatists' project is the project of big business. It is an agenda being pushed by VOKA, the Flemish employers' lobby, which wants to carve up social security, divide the trade unions, attack pensions, sickness benefits, etc. Already now, they're trying to organise a witch hunt against sick workers by getting rid of the  mutual health insurance funds and the counter-power they represent. Their dream is a pro-business, authoritarian Flanders with fewer social rights for workers.

But we are not going to let it happen, comrades. It is not without reason that we have called this congress the Unity Congress and we have launched the We Are One campaign. And the good news is that there is hope. The majority of the people, in the north, the centre and the south of the country, are in favour of the unity of Belgium. In Flanders too. Despite more than 30 years of nationalist propaganda, the majority in Flanders still want "more Belgium", not more division. We have seen it with the tremendous show of solidarity with the [flood] victims in Vesdre Valley. People have no difficulty seeing the absurdity of having nine health ministers or four climate ministers in a small country like ours. What we need is to re-federalise. If there is any divide in Belgium today, it is between people and politicians.

We must resolutely put the "we" first. The "we" of the working class. Today, in Europe, we are seeing the extreme right raising its head to sow greater division between workers. [The fascist party] Vlaams Belang and [fascist fringe groups like] Schild en Vrienden in Belgium. Zemmour, Le Pen, Baudet, Salvini, Vox or AfD in other parts of Europe. As in the 1930s, part of the economic establishment is being seduced by the fascistic approach to dividing and oppressing the people.

The fight against rising fascistisation is one of the priorities identified by our congress. Racism, sexism, nationalism, anti-communism or the rejection of science are all gateways to this fascistisation. We counter it with the unity and the fights of the working class. We counter it with the dynamism of young people and their thirst for change. Because above and beyond all our differences, what we all have in common is that we are shaping our society on a day-to-day basis. We are building it in our workplaces and we are writing its social history through our struggles. We belong to the same class: the working class.

The pride of a class that is the wheels of society

Trade unions call on workers to mobilise for purchasing power and trade union freedoms. Comrades, purchasing power and trade union freedom are two sides of the same coin, that of the class struggle. This year, it took on the face of the pay struggle. Working men and women were demanding their share of the pie and said: "We are the essential workers, we have kept the economy going, but it is the shareholders who benefit. It's not acceptable. This profiteering from our labour must stop."

In this fight, the state, supposedly the guardian of the general interest, acts as the faithful servant of the interests of capital. It imposes a maximum wage increase of 0.4%. The trade unions are right to challenge the 1996 law that freezes our salaries. The working class was right to escape the straitjacket of the law, wherever the balance of power allowed it, in order to wrest increases higher than the miserable 0.4%.

The organised working class is the driving force of social resistance. It is the pride of this class that sets the tone in the resistance to capitalism. The pride of a class that is aware that, without it, society would not function. The pride of Rachel and Sylvie, the pride of Mike and Amke, the pride of Jamila and Régine or the pride of Guy, who we heard earlier.

Because it is not the shareholders who run the factories or the trains, who clean the hotel rooms or care for people. It is the labourers, the workers, the public service employees. That's why, as our comrade Nadia explained earlier, we want to give workers a central place in our party. To put it another way: we want to go from being the party of labour to being the party of working people. Including in our leadership structures. As Marx said, "The emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself."

In our society, there are many obstacles to workers' access to leadership. Just ask our working class MPs how they feel about the class contempt within parliaments on a daily basis. Because we talk about realities that traditional politicians don't want to hear about or don't understand. Because we use plain and simple language, the language used at work and in bars. We do not adapt our language to that of the elite. They have robbed us of our words. And we are reclaiming them with pride.

Today, gas and electricity prices are sky-rocketing and have become unaffordable for many workers. And what is our government doing? Next to nothing. Why is that? With incomes like theirs, they probably don't feel the increases that much. But also - and above all - because the real power is not held by the government but the board of Electrabel and a few other energy giants. The ministers put themselves at their service.

For months now, we've had to listen to the to-ing and fro-ing on the issue of whether or not we should withdraw from nuclear power. Do we need gas power plants or not? But, be it nuclear or gas, who wins the jackpot either way? Guess who. Engie Electrabel, of course. At a time when we should be investing in green and safe energy, it is Electrabel's shareholders who are pocketing the money.

And so, dear politicians, it is not the supplier that we need to change, but the economic system.

Make way for young people

Change the system. This is the rallying cry we are hearing more and more from the young. We saw it during the latest climate summit in Glasgow, where young people mobilised in massive numbers.

What are these young people saying today? They are saying they no longer want the current system that only values profit, and that destroys the two sources of wealth that are human work and nature. The layer of green varnish that our ministers tried to apply to their policies in Glasgow is no longer enough to fool people.

And rightly so. The fight for the climate is a key battle of the 21st century. We will not be able to win it if we do not call into question green capitalism. But let's be clear, dear friends and comrades, it is also essential that we fight against climate elitism, punitive ecology, carried out thanks to carbon taxes and accompanied by a moralising finger pointed at the working class and the peoples of the South.

It is only with the youth that we can win this fight. Young people have incredible potential in terms of revolutionary energy, as we saw earlier on this podium. It is they who will build the world of tomorrow.

With this congress, we want to give them a central place. To win over the young working class, the students, the young people who are mobilising for the climate, against racism, sexism, and the extreme right. All those who want to build another world. We want them to find their place in our party and in our youth organisations RedFox, Comac and the Pioneers.

Another world to build, socialism 2.0

We, Marxists, we want another world. With socialism 2.0, we will apply a different logic to the current capitalist one. The economy will operate based on the needs of the people, not on profit.

Under socialism 2.0, our scientists will be able to undertake research that serves the people rather than the boards of a few multinationals. Under socialism 2.0, workers will be able to steer society by taking hold of the reins themselves. Real ecological planning will be possible, based on the needs of people and the limits of nature. At international level, we will reach out to the peoples of the world. We will share the formula for the vaccine. We will end all military interventions and interference in internal affairs.

Dear friends, dear comrades,

In these times of pandemic and economic crisis, a heavy responsibility rests on our shoulders. A new world has to be built. Many progressives in Belgium and around the world are looking to this small country of Belgium with its Marxist party that is more alive than ever.

The Economist - which cannot be suspected of having communist sympathies - recently wrote: "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."

Let us live up to the challenges and the expectations. Let us strengthen the party, let us strengthen the working class and let us strengthen our unity, in Belgium and in the world.

We don’t give up!


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