The Communist Party of Belgium, from revolution to counter-revolution

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"Just one hundred years ago, on 4 September 1921, the Parti Communiste Belge was founded" announced CARCOB/Communist Archives in an e-mail in September. Why revisit this anniversary, this milestone in the history of the workers' movement in Belgium? Marxism is not a dead, unchanging theory. It is a living method, a way of confronting reality from the point of view of the working class. In this framework, a continuous struggle must be waged to defend marxist theory against the slide towards bourgeois positions, to deepen it, to analyse correctly the new experiences of the class struggle. It is in the light of this fact that we must learn from the struggle for the foundation of the PCB and its subsequent degeneration, that we must defend the marxist approach against bourgeois lies, such as the idea that the party was founded on September 4, 1921, when in reality it was constituted as early as November 1920.

We republish here an article from the ICC’s publication in Belgium, Internationalisme, (no. 188, 1993) which traces the general framework of the history of the PCB. We will return in later articles in more detail to the different phases of its existence: the struggle for the foundation of the PCB after the betrayal of social democracy, the struggle against the growing opportunism within it and its definitive passage into the bourgeois camp at the beginning of the Second World War.

By voting for the war credits, the opportunist wing of the social democratic parties passed into the bourgeois camp in 1914. It chose the national defence of the bourgeois state and betrayed proletarian internationalism. It signed the death warrant of the Second International. But the currents of the marxist left continued for some years to fight against the degeneration of these parties. They tried to uphold marxist positions and to regroup as many healthy elements as possible, first within and then next to the old party, to form new parties, the Communist parties, and a new International, the Third.

It was a hard blow to see that social democracy, which in some countries like Germany had become a powerful proletarian organisation, was slipping from the hands of the workers as a weapon of struggle. It was also difficult to make a complete and conclusive analysis of all that had changed since the beginning of the 20th century in the conditions of the class struggle. In her Accumulation of Capital, Rosa Luxemburg had set out the general framework of analysis: capitalism had entered its phase of decadence. But it was the Bolsheviks and the abstentionist (anti-parliamentarian) fraction of the Italian PSI who went furthest in terms of political consequences. The Bolsheviks were the clearest on the most burning issue of the moment, the world war. While everyone, from pacifists to "minority socialists", called for peace, they instead called for "the transformation of the imperialist war into a civil war". Out of the war was to come the revolution. And this was not only confirmed in Russia in 1917, but in a revolutionary wave that swept across the world until 1927 (China).

The consequences of the entry into the period of "wars and revolutions" were synthesised in the positions on which the Communist International was founded in 1919: reforms are no longer possible, proletarian revolution is the order of the day everywhere. Parliamentarianism, trade unionism, fronts with bourgeois fractions, all this was valid in the previous period, that of the ascendancy of capitalism, but was now outdated. A mass party, such as social democracy, was no longer adapted to the new period in which the conviction and political clarity of a small vanguard is decisive.

Foundation of the PCB: defence of marxism against the opportunism of social democracy

The Parti Ouvrier Belge (POB), a section of the Second International, had always been very conciliatory towards the bourgeoisie, despite the fact that it was precisely in Belgium that, at the beginning of the 20th century, the first radical mass strikes had taken place, heralding the new type of struggles that would later be developed in Russia in 1905 and 1917. Nevertheless, during the First World War, from 1916 onwards, groups to the left of the POB also arose in Belgium. In the Young Socialist Guards in Ghent, Antwerp, Brussels, Liège, Charleroi, resistance to the war was the first motive, but very quickly the Russian revolution became for them the beacon towards which they oriented themselves. Gradually, they arrived at marxist positions and tried to regroup. In 1920, the PCB was founded. It defended the positions of the second congress of the CI, except at the level of parliamentarism, where the CI, despite the resistance of the West European parties, had already taken a step backwards. The PCB remained fervently anti-parliamentary.

There was also a minority of hesitating elements within the POB, the "minority socialists" grouped in the "Friends of the Exploited". During the war, they had only insisted on holding a "peace conference" with the German social democrats in Stockholm (i.e. trying to revive the corpse of the Second International). They were not very enthusiastic about the Russian revolution. Their criticism of the social democratic leaders was radical in tone, but in practice they proposed nothing in their place. They actually wanted to return to the pre-war programme of the POB, the Quaregnon programme (15 July 1894). They were typical centrists: radical criticism of the leaders coupled with plugging the gaps in social democracy, always under the pretext of "not losing contact with the masses". In 1921, they finally agreed to break with the POB. But because they considered the existing PCB to be sectarian, not a party for mass action but a grouping of 4 or 5 propaganda groups, more anarchist than communist, they founded a second Communist Party.

As the revolution was still awaited in countries outside Russia and, after the defeats in Germany, Italy and Hungary, the CI increasingly questioned the 'radical' positions of its first congress. It advocated fusion with the left of social democracy. In Belgium, too, the merger of the two parties took place in 1921, in which the radical, marxist positions of the first PCB were swept under the carpet. As the CI deviated towards opportunist positions and the Russian revolution became mired in its own isolation, the old "Friends of the Exploited" became more and more enthusiastic, while the marxists became more and more critical about the evolution of the Russian situation.

The fractions of the communist left: making a marxist assessment of the degeneration of the Russian revolution

Devastating choices had to be made because the world revolution was overdue: peace with Germany at Brest-Litovsk, war communism, the "New Economic Policy". In the context of the isolation of the revolution, the Bolshevik party more and more substituted itself for the class and merged with the state, a process that led to the crushing of the Kronstadt uprising in 1921. The CI also began to play an increasingly dubious role in workers' uprisings in other countries (putschist actions of the KPD in Germany resulting in bloodshed, alliances with the bourgeoisie of the "oppressed peoples"). These developments gave rise to a continuous discussion, both among the RCP itself and in the other parties of the Comintern. Opposition groups were formed against the positions and decisions which the RCP, as a "state party", was forced to take and which would lead to its Stalinisation. In 1921, opposition groups in Russia were banned. The Dutch and German left-wing communists (KAPD) were excluded from the CI. They laid the blame for all the mistakes made in Russia at the feet of the Bolshevik party. The most extreme expressions of the German left (precursors of the "councilist" current) would reject the party as a useless evil (which was certainly not the position of the KAPD at the first congress of the CI). They went so far in their criticism that they rejected the Russian revolution as non-proletarian. In 1922, Gorter and co. founded the stillborn Communist Workers' International (KAI).

Just as in the other communist parties, Russia was at the centre of discussions in the PCB. The marxist current in the PCB respected party discipline and even disapproved of the publication of "unofficial" texts of the Russian Opposition (around Trotsky, and his "Lessons of October"). The PCB limited itself to asking for "more information" from Moscow.

It was only at the beginning of 1928, when Trotsky and his friends had already been excluded from the Russian party and the Comintern had definitively abandoned proletarian internationalism with the theory of "socialism in one country", that the debate on Russia was opened in the Belgian party. In the name of the marxist minority, War van Overstraeten demonstrated the rightward shift of the Russian party: in the Chinese revolution (where the communists and revolutionary workers of the Shanghai Commune in 1927 had been handed over by the CI to the bloody repression of the nationalist Kuomintang), in the struggle against the kulaks or rich peasants in Russia, but above all in the idea of "socialism in one country". He called for the reintegration of oppositionists into the Russian party, but continued to oppose fractional activity. His report was rejected and, one after the other, the leaders of the minority were expelled from the party.

The opposition regrouped outside the PCB and wondered what to do: form a second party (which implied that the old party was no longer working class and that Russia was no longer under proletarian rule), work for the recovery of the PCB by asking to be reinstated, or form a fraction of the party? The Belgian opposition was much less clear on this question than the Italian Fraction which published Bilan from 1933. Unlike the groups which founded a new party or even a new International in a hurry, the Italian left always proceeded methodically. While the International was not dead, and there was still a breath of life in it, it continued to work towards it. Its conception of organisation was a unitary one; for it, a split was an evil that must be avoided, so as not to disperse the forces that tend towards a centralised international organisation. Only when the death of the International was assured did it envisage constituting itself as an autonomous body. The constitution of the party is achieved first by founding the fraction of the old party which maintains its old revolutionary programme, and only in revolutionary upheavals does it proclaim itself a party. It is the task of the fraction to draw up a balance sheet of the revolutionary experiences of the post-war period without prejudice in order to prepare the class for new confrontations.

In 1935, Bilan came to the conclusion "That in 1933, with the death of the Third International, the phase in which the possibility of the regeneration of the CI was posed thanks to the victory of the proletarian revolution in a sector of capitalism (...) was definitively closed.  That the centrist parties, still organically linked to the corpse of the Third International, are already operating in the concert of the counter-revolution" and that “the Left Fraction affirms closed the phase envisaged in 1928, as regards a possible regeneration of the parties and the CI (...). "(Report no. 18, April-May 1935)

Trotsky's International Left Opposition lost interest in the objective which the Italian Fraction gave itself, to make a thorough assessment of the failure of the revolutionary wave. Deep divergences soon appeared in the opposition: on the question of the party (regeneration or new party), on the characterisation of the regime in Russia (proletarian or state capitalist), on the attitude towards the rise of fascism in Germany. Both the Belgian and the Italian left were confronted with Trotsky's refusal to discuss with them. The Charleroi federation (with Lesoil) left the Belgian opposition before the conclusion of the debate on the imperialist nature (or otherwise) of the Russian policy towards China (the attack by the Red Army which wanted to seize the Manchurian railway in 1929), and it joined Trotsky's International Left Opposition. Those who remained (with Hennaut) formed in 1932 the Ligue des Communistes Internationalistes which formed a working community with the Bilan group in Belgium.

The main divergence between the two organisations was on the question of fascism. For Bilan, there was no fundamental opposition between bourgeois democracy and fascism. On the contrary: the worst product of fascism is precisely anti-fascism, an analysis confirmed in 1936 by the period of the Popular Front in France: "Under the sign of the Popular Front, 'democracy' has achieved the same result as 'fascism': the crushing of the proletariat (...) to prepare a second world war” (Bilan no. 29, March-April 36).

The dramatic events of the war in Spain led to a split in the two organisations. The majority of Bilan considered that Spain was the prelude to a second world war and called for revolutionary defeatism. The majority of the LCI called on the workers to fight against Franco and then to sweep away the remains of the Republican government and take power themselves. Patiently, Bilan criticised the LCI for claiming to be able to "go beyond the anti-fascist phase to the stage of socialism", while Bilan wrote: "for us it is a question of negating the programme of anti-fascism, because without this negation the struggle for socialism becomes impossible" (Bilan no. 39, Jan-Feb 1939). The minority of the LCI (with Mitchell) founded in April 1937 the Belgian Fraction of the International Communist Left, on the same positions as the Italian Fraction.

The PCB becomes a party of national capital

From 1933 onwards, anti-fascism was the central mystification of the PCB, with which it made a significant contribution to the mobilisation of the workers for the Second World War and to the dampening down of workers' struggles "so as not to play the fascist card". Unlike the POB, the PCB managed to keep the insurrectional struggles of 1935 and 1936 under control on behalf of the bourgeoisie. For a short time, during the German-Russian non-aggression pact, the PCB advocated Belgian neutrality, but otherwise it was, before and during the war (in the resistance), a fierce defender of national capital. After the war, it was repaid with a few ministerial posts.

Since then, in the few places where it could still exert an influence on the workers (port of Antwerp, Walloon mines and steel industry), it continued, in the trade unions and on the left of the PSB (Belgian Socialist Party), to be the faithful defender of the interests of the Belgian bourgeoisie by maintaining control over strike actions. In countries like France or Italy, where social democracy is weaker, the Communist Party had the opportunity to show clearly that it is not only the "fifth column" of Moscow imperialism, but in the first place a reliable faction of the national bourgeoisie (as the "historical compromise" in Italy or the "Common Front" in France have shown).

Since 1933 at the latest, the PCB has been the party of the Stalinist counter-revolution. Although it had a majority in 1928 in Belgium, the opposition could not conquer the party. The torch of the "October 17 party" passed into the hands of the International Communist Left. And its successors will create the party of the revolution again tomorrow.



History of the workers' movement