An interview with Raoul Hedebouw

A Party Fighting for Socialism

[Set to win 18 seats in parliament, the Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB) is the fastest-growing force on the European left. David Broder of JCOBIN spoke with newly elected leader Raoul Hedebouw to know how his workers built an explicitly Marxist party with mass appeal. Excerpts:]

DB : The PTB has grown both organisationally 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 favuorable 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 emphasised 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 organisation 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 organise 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 super militants 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 organisation. We’ve sought to maintain the strong points of both forms of organisation, 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 organisations, 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 centralisation and unity in action.

The final important element in all this is working-class participation in the democratic process. In all organisations, 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, we 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 centre of the PTB’s life and avoid it being taken over by professional politicians?

RH : We have truly democratic organisational 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 organisational 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 organisational consequences. If you have movements saying that the people in general lead the way, then inevitably you derive an organisational 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 idealise the past organising context. It’s normal that, as the productive forces evolve, a new working class is born—in the call centres, 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 organisation 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 realises 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 organisation 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 people 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 activists 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 organise 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 Antwerp district of Borgerhout (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.

[Courtesy: Jacobin]

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Vol 54, No. 28, Jan 9 - 15, 2022