By Erik Meijer
The small but densely crowded European states of Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxemburg have a long common history, in which they were sometimes united and later separated again. Linguistically, they are divided: 23 million of their inhabitants in the Netherlands and in the northern Belgian sub-state of Flanders use the Dutch language, five million in the south-eastern Belgian sub-state of Wallonia speak French, and half a million in Luxemburg and eastern Belgium have a German dialect. Their inhabitants live under the economic and cultural influences of two big neighbours, Germany to the east and France to the south. Within the wider European Union, those three countries participate in a narrow co-operation called Benelux.
Unlike in Germany, France, and many other European states, social democracy was almost never in a dominant position at the state level in Benelux. Even when they were the biggest party, social democrats could only govern in coalition governments with right-wing parties.1 This situation enforces many painful compromises that, in the long term, result in a general lack of mass participation. It prevented a strong polarization between a Labour bloc and a conservative bloc like what exists in most European states, especially in Great Britain and Scandinavia. Especially in the Netherlands and Wallonia, the compromising posture of the social democrat leadership created space for a radical leftist opposition within the party, inspired by Trotsky’s idea of world revolution, Tito’s worker-self-management, and Gandhi’s nonviolent mass struggle. The big difference of opinion inside those social democratic parties was that the right wing was proud of the results earned by participation in government, and the left wing was continuing to fight for those parts of the original political program that remained outside those governmental compromises. This ‘Left Labour’ tendency, however, was expelled from the main left parties and therefore had to create its own political organizations, namely, the Pacifist Socialist Party (Pacifistisch Socialistische Partij, PSP) in the Netherlands and the Socialist Workers’ Party (Socialistische Arbeiders Partij, POS/SAP) in Belgium.2 Although the electoral challenge from this left compelled the social democrat leadership to support a more activist agenda,3 it did not change the party’s main line. A long tradition of class compromises prevented any offensive struggle from gaining a majority position for the left.
The main reason for this permanent minority position and a general lack of polarization was the central position of Christian democrat parties. During a long period, those parties were supported by very well organized parts of civil society like Christian trade unions: in the Netherlands, the still existing Protestant National Christian Trade Union (Christelijk Nationaal Vakverbond, CNV) and the former Roman-Catholic Dutch Catholic Trade Union (Nederlands Katholiek Vakverbond, NKV), which merged with the original socialist Dutch Association of Trade Unions (Nederlands Verbond van Vakverenigingen, NVV) to form the broad Dutch Federation of Trade Unions (Federatie Nederlandse Vakbeweging, FNV); in Belgium – especially for Flanders – the General Christian Trade Union (Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond, ACV). The same kind of relation exists with farmers’ unions of Christian origin, the Federation of Agriculture and Horticulture (Land- en Tuinbouw Organisatie, LTO) in the Netherlands and the ‘Boerenbond-Union Paysanne’ in Belgium. Christian trade unions contributed to this powerful position by resisting class struggle and far-reaching socialization of the means of production. Those historically dominant ruling parties4 were the deciding force behind the choice to create majority coalitions alternately with liberals or with social democrats.
As a result of secularization, the Christian democrat electorate has been greatly reduced during the last decade.5 However, the left, which expected to become the big winner of this process, failed to take over the ruling positions. Currently, each of the three countries has a prime minister from the right, belonging to its liberal party. They lead different types of coalitions, in the Netherlands together with the heavily weakened PvdA, in Luxemburg with the LSAP and greens, and in federalized Belgium not only with the Flemish section of Christian democrats but also with the rising party of Flemish separatists New Flemish Alliance (Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie, N-VA), which has already become dominant in Flanders, where a majority of the Belgian population lives.
Although the left never got a majority position at the three national levels, social democracy had enduring strongholds in some regions: in the industrial west and the rural north of the Netherlands, in the steel-regions of Wallonia, and at the southern edge of Luxemburg. Those are the same regions where official communist parties and Trotskyist-influenced Left Labour groups had relatively strong positions. However, in the 80s and 90s, those radical left parties collapsed, each in its own particular way. Probably, the collapse of the Soviet Union and Tito’s socialist Yugoslavia in the same period played an external role in this. But it also had to do with a changed economy at home as coalmines closed down and many factories moved to low-wage countries. Traditional occupations of industrial and agrarian workers were replaced by expanding services, especially financial services. The ideas of class struggle and socialist revolution lost their popularity. They were replaced by new issues like the environment, human rights, feminism, gay rights, and immigration. The electoral basis for Left Labour and communists was sharply reduced.6 They totally lost their representation in the three national parliaments. This mainly benefited the social democrats who had expelled them before, but also brought gains for the newly rising greens, for leftist tendencies among the liberals (in the Netherlands, the Democrats 66 [Democraten 66, D66], a separate party since 1966), and for far-right, xenophobic forces.
However, after this defeat, the radical left succeeded in recovering. The process and results of this recovery vary significantly in the three countries. Nevertheless, radical left parties returned to parliament in new forms. In the Netherlands, this happened earliest and most successfully; in Belgium, late and only partially; in Luxemburg, only slightly and with interruptions.
In the Netherlands, the situation changed dramatically in 1989. After gaining many radical leftist voters during a period of opposition, the PvdA, entered a coalition government aiming to cut rising social expenses. At the same time, four small parties to their left7 went along with this move, for fear of not surviving further electoral defeats. Their long-term project to merge was rapidly finalized, but its aims changed significantly. The new combination Green Left (GroenLinks) claimed not to be a ‘traditional’ party of radical socialist unity but something totally new. It preferred to be like the newly arising German Greens (Die Grüne), always somewhat different from social democracy in choosing priorities but not consequently to the left of it and never related to the working class or to a future socialist society. It meant a rapid departure from the existing identification with the more successful parties of ‘Left Labour’, like SF in Denmark and SV in Norway, which tried to create a strong, integrated socialist and green alternative to the moderate social democracy.
Those changes created new opportunities for the small but always very active Socialist Party (Socialistische Partij, SP). SP was already created in 1972 as an initiative of Maoist-inspired former members of the CPN and the PSP. Originally, it defended the sectarian idea that only a pure new party, accompanied by new trade unions and new organizations defending people’s health and housing, could create a ‘mass line’ and ‘serve the people’. Local grassroots campaigns, mainly in the Roman Catholic southern regions, where the left had been always very weak, were its main activities. So, it got 55 local councillors and became well known at the regional level, but it failed five times to get any representation in national parliament (1977, 1981, 1982, 1986, 1989).
However, after 1989, the SP suddenly became the only force of the left interested in defending low-educated, low-waged, jobless, and disabled people – those most severely victimized by capitalism. It had the capacity to use its new political monopoly position very creatively and to overcome its traditional sectarianism and admiration for Mao. In each social conflict with enterprises, local authorities, housing corporations, schools, or hospitals, the SP was visibly present on the streets with its new symbol, the red tomato. It succeeded in mobilizing a growing sector of disillusioned left-wing voters and non-voters. It attracted new adherents in the western and northern regions, the traditional strongholds of the Pacifist Socialist Party (PSP) and the Communist Party (CPN). In 1994, the voters gave the SP its first two members in national parliament, in 1998 five, in 2002 nine, and in 2006 twenty-five (16.6%). The SP was the main force behind the defeat of a proposed neoliberal and NATO-linked EU constitution. In a 2005 national referendum, 62% of the voters rejected it.8
The SP’s combination of optimism and experiments, without any clear strategy for transition from capitalism to socialism, was doomed to fail in the coming years. Big campaigns, especially in 2009 against raising the retirement age to over 65, got broad support but failed to be decisive. A better result was achieved in downsizing newly introduced legal obligations to tender tax-financed public services on the private market, for urban transport in 2007 and housekeeping support in favour of the elders and disabled people in 2009. But those less spectacular victories did not attract big masses. In 2010 and 2012, the SP’s support dropped almost to 10%, fifteen seats in parliament. Its membership declined from 50,740 at its peak in 2007, to 46,507 in 2010, and 44,186 in 2012.9 However, external developments are again working in favour of the SP. Its influence inside the main trade union federation FNV has grown strongly as a result of young people taking the lead. The co-governing PvdA, once at a level of 35% in the 70s and 80s, lost most of its voters in different directions. Although the SP gets only a part of this constituency, in recent nationwide elections (2014 European and 2015 provinces/senate), it is even the biggest remaining force of the left, albeit with only 11.6%.
After the collapse of the PvdA in 2014-15,10 the question is whether and how the SP will be able to take the leading role in the left and restore its national impact. Till now, the SP has not presented any attractive strategy for the future. It lacks any notion of a ‘United Front’ (as advocated by the former PSP) or ‘Popular Front’ (as advocated by the former CPN), in the international Marxist tradition, seen as the roads to create both electoral and non-parliamentary majorities for changing the society. The current biggest party, the Conservative-liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie, VVD), often invites one of the three leftist parties to participate in its national, provincial, or local coalitions, aiming to keep the left divided by condemning the two other parties to remain as the opposition. A lack of remaining local and regional left-wing majorities forced the SP to coalesce at local and regional levels with right-wing partners,11 as the PvdA had done. In general, the broad left is weaker today than at any moment since the introduction of universal suffrage, nearly a century ago.
In Belgium, for a short period of time, the communists were a significant force. In the first post-WWII elections, they got 23 seats in the parliament, participated in the government, and dominated the socialist trade union federation General Federation of Belgian Labour (Algemeen Belgisch Vakverbond, ABVV/FGTB).12 During the cold war, their parliamentary strength declined to five seats, with support remaining only in the Walloon coal and steel-regions Borinage and Liège, and to some extent in the bilingual capital Brussels and the Flemish harbour-city Antwerp. However, they lost all of that in the 90s. The main reason was the relatively left-wing position of the Walloon Parti Socialiste (social democracy) even after they expelled their strong Trotskyist tendency in 1964. To this day, they dominate the southeastern sub-state Wallonia inside right-wing dominated Belgium.
The collapse of communist positions gave space to the Workers’ Party of Belgium (Partij van de Arbeid van België, PTB/PVDA). Its origins half a century ago are exactly like those of the Netherlands SP, and it is involved in the same types of bottom-up struggle. However, the further development of the two parties between 1990 and 2010 was very different. The PTB/PVDA was not only a militant trade unionist party, with strongholds among public transport workers, but was also always seeking heroes and models abroad. It adored Mao’s China and even North Korea. As a result of its sectarian positions, it made itself hated not only by social democrats and greens, but also by the once-strong Trotskyist movement (POS/SAP) and the remnants of the former communist party, PCB/KPB. Its isolated positions guaranteed a regular maximum electoral support of only 1%. A brief electoral alignment with the Arab-European Ligue, temporarily a remarkable movement of self-conscious Moroccan migrant-children, led by Dyab Abou Jahjah, did not change this hopeless situation.13
After those failures, the PTB/PVDA changed its traditional attitude in favour of more practical positions. In a ‘people first, not profits’ campaign, held mainly in 2014, it attracted support from the remaining forces of the radical left (e.g. the ‘PvdA-plus’ in Flanders). It intervenes in clashes between the right-wing government and the trade unions. Its members are considered the new communists. It draws support mainly in the same regions as the old communist party. In the 2014 elections, this resulted in 4 representatives in the Walloon parliament, 4 in the Brussels agglomeration parliament, and even 2 French-speaking men in the federal parliament. In the Dutch-speaking part of the country, its support remains mainly restricted to Antwerp, where it got 4 town-councillors in 2012. A special impediment is that the PTB/PVDA, from the viewpoint of class-unity against nationalism, resists the ever growing political separation between Flanders and Wallonia. Contrary to the prevailing Flemish public opinion, it is the only political party still operating in both parts of Belgium. The fact that at the party in Flanders is as active as in Wallonia and that Flemish people play a big role in its leadership is not enough to be an attractive choice for broader groups of Flemish voters. Unlike the Netherlands SP in the nearby regions, it did not succeed in attracting formerly Catholic-organized workers. Those circumstances make the PTB the most traditional, the most combative, and the smallest of the three radical leftist parties in the Benelux.
In Luxemburg, the communists regularly got five representatives in the parliament, but lost all of them after the steelworks industry around their stronghold Esch-sur-Alzette ceased to exist. A new combination Déi Lénk (The Left) started as an electoral alliance between communists and a range of other left-wing groups and individuals. Together, they succeeded in entering parliament in 1999, but lost their only seat after the communist minority decided to continue separately. In 2013, Déi Lénk re-entered the parliament, winning two seats. It fights for the environment as well as on trade union issues. Its current focus is a campaign to get a referendum on their proposal for an alternative national constitution, oriented toward social justice, more democracy, and a transition of the small ‘grand-duchy’14 into a republic.
Benelux radical left in the European Union
Since its entrance into the European Parliament in 1999, the SP has been represented in the GUE/NGL. Déi Lénk was always a privileged partner of the GUE/NGL, but is too small to get one of the six seats for the Luxemburg constituency in the European Parliament. The PTB/PVDA is also too small to be represented in the European Parliament, but if represented, it would most likely belong to the GUE/NGL as this unites different Marxist traditions. However, it has no tradition of maintaining special relations with the GUE/NGL. The SP, the PTB/PVDA, and Déi Lénk together criticize neoliberal and pro-NATO positions of the European Union. Only the SP has used a moderate kind of ‘euroscepticism’, especially as an instrument in its electoral campaigns for 2009 and 2014. It accepts Netherlands’ EU membership but regrets the early and imprudent introduction of the Euro single currency, wishes for ‘less Brussels’, and claims to resist ‘this Europe’. Contrary to expectations, this more critical position did not produce real electoral gains in comparison with 2004. The SP got two seats in 2004, 2009, and 2014. In practice, voters’ disgust with the EU does not result in voting for the SP but in abstention or voting in favour of the far-right Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid, PVV), which, together with France’s Front National, is against EU membership and the Euro single currency.
Prospects of the Benelux radical left
Overall, the SP, the PTB/PVDA, and Déi Lénk are not operating within a climate of mass indignation like that which prompted the rapid growth of SYRIZA in Greece or Podemos in Spain. Especially the SP and Déi Lénk are better compared with the Socialistisk Folkeparti and the Red-Green Alliance (Enhedslisten de Rød-Grønne) in Denmark, or the Sosialistisk Venstreparti in Norway, although they differ from these in not having the opportunity to participate in a left-wing majority government. Among the three parties in Benelux, only the SP has a somewhat broader potential and is already in a stronger position. However, after its highest vote in 2006, it dropped its claim to fight for a socialist future. Even more importantly, like the PvdA it accepts the permanent minority position of the left in its coalition policy. A potential consequence of these positions for the SP is that it could fill the gap created by the decline of the PvdA at the electoral and (later) governmental levels. Such a development might push the SP to adopt a more moderate left position (as happened with the Italian Communist Party [PCI] after the fall of the Italian Socialist Party [PSI]), and eventually provoke the founding of a more radical party to its left.
Déi Lénk, for the time being, is still far away from this kind of dilemma. It mainly functions as a pressure group. As a small radical electoral front to the left of the governing LSAP (social democrats) and greens, it does not have wider potential in the short run. The PTB/PVDA is more exclusively dependent on the development of class struggle than are its counterparts in the Netherlands and Luxemburg. Its expansion is limited by the relatively left-wing positions of the greens in Flanders and the large and powerful Parti Socialiste in Wallonia. Its broader potential could materialize only in the event of big social clashes in the combative communist tradition of Wallonia, France, and Italy – a position defended today only by the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), which differs significantly from SYRIZA.
1. Thus, the Dutch 1972-77 government of Joop den Uyl in a bloc of the Labour Party (Partij van de Arbeid,PvdA) together with left-wing Christian Political Party of Radicals (Politieke Partij Radikalen ,PPR) and the left-wing liberal D66, in order to get a parliamentary majority had to co-operate with the conservative Catholic People’s Party (Katholieke Volkspartij, KVP) and the protestant Anti-Revolutionary Party (Anti-Revolutionaire Partij, ARP). Similarly, Belgium between 1944 and 1947 had five short-lived governments of the social democrat prime ministers Achille van Acker and Kamiel Huysmans with participation of communists and liberals. Luxemburg’s current government is somewhat to the left of its Christian-democrat predecessors, but contains the liberal centrist Democratic Party (Demokratesch Partei, DP) together with the social democratic Luxemburg Socialist Workers’ Party (Lëtzebuerger Sozialistesch Aarbechterpartei, LSAP) and green Déi Gréng.
2. The left wing of Netherlands PvdA left the party in different stages: the Socialist Union (SU) was a minority which did not accept the merger in 1946 between the large social democrat Social Democratic Workers’ Party (Sociaal Democratische Arbeiders Partij, SDAP) and the smaller left-wing liberal Free-thinking Democratic League (Vrijzinnig Democratische Bond, VDB); a big group of members left in 1947 as a result of the co-responsibility of social democrat leadership for the colonial war against the liberation of Indonesia; an organized left-wing opposition, the Social Democratic Center (SDC), was expelled at the 1959 PvdA congress. In Belgium, an organized left wing and a Walloon separatist tendency were expelled at the December 1964 PSB/BSP congress.
3. For example, in the Netherland in the 1970s, social democrats got active in rent subsidies for low-income individuals, investment in railways and tramways, widening public health insurance, and introduction of a state bank.
4. In the Netherlands, the KVP, the ARP, and the Christian Historical Union (Christelijk-Historische Unie, CHU) which, in 70s, merged into Christian Democratic Appeal (Christen-Democratisch Appèl, CDA); in Belgium, Christian People’s Party (Christelijke Volkspartij, CVP/PSC), nowadays the Christian Democratic and Flemish (Christen-Democratisch & Vlaams, CD&V) and the Walloon Humanist Democratic Centre (Centre démocrate humaniste, cdH); in Luxemburg, Christian Social People’s Party (Chrëschtlech Sozial Vollekspartei, CSV).
5. In the Netherlands national elections, Christian-based parties got 53% in 1956, 37% in 1986, and 14% in 2012. In Flanders, the CVP was the dominant party till 1999. In Luxemburg, the CSV, by far the biggest party, was always in power until it was defeated at the end of 2013.
6. In the Netherlands, parties to the left of the PvdA got 16 seats in 1972, 6 seats in 1977, 3 seats in 1986. In Belgium and Luxemburg, the decline started earlier but the 70s was still a period of stability.
7. The Communist Party of the Netherlands (Communistische Partij Nederland, CPN) (1909) and the PSP (1957), which both had their origin in social democracy; the PPR (1968), which was separated from the KVP; and the Evangelical Peoples Party (Evangelische Volks Partij, EVP) (1981), which was separated from the Protestant-Christian Party (ARP).
9. For electoral results in the Netherlands, see www.verkiezingsuitslagen.nl/na1918. For membership figures of all political parties in the Netherlands on January 1 of each year, see www.politiekcompendium.nl/ledentallenvanaf1946.
10. In the 19 March 2015 elections, the SP rose from 8 to 9 members in the Senate, while the PvdA, which had once had 28 seats, fell back from 14 to 8. In national opinion polls taken in June 2015 (https://www.noties.nl/peil.nl), the left fared as follows: SP 15%, GreenLeft 9%, PvdA 6%, and the more radical green-left variant Animal Welfare Party (Partij voor de Dieren, PvdD) 3%.
11. Beginning in 2011, the SP was co-governing in 2 of the 12 provinces, in coalition with the right-wing parties the VVD and CDA, with the PvdA as the official opposition. Since 2015, it has been co-governing in 6 provinces in different combinations: in 3 with the VVD and CDA, in 2 with also the PvdA in the coalition, and in the north-eastern province of Groningen, where the SP now is the biggest party it leads a front that includes the Green Left, D66, CDA and the smaller orthodox-religious Christian Union (ChristenUnie), keeping both national government parties in the opposition. Since 2014, the cities of Amsterdam and Utrecht have been co-governed by the SP in coalitions with the VVD and the D66 without the PvdA.
12. In the first post-war national elections on February 17, 1946, the Communist Party of Belgium (Parti Communiste de Belgique, PCB/KPB) got 12.7% of the votes, most of them in French-speaking Wallonia and for a lesser extent in Brussels. Only 3 of their 23 deputies were from Flanders constituencies.
13. For an interview with Dyab Abou Jahjah see https://www.opendemocracy.net/faith-europe_islam/article_1908.jsp
14. International agreements, starting at the 1815 Congress of Vienna, which, after the chaos of the Napoleonic era, decided on future European states, their borders, and their dynasties, stipulated that this newly created state should be headed by a hereditary Grand Duke, understood as a monarch of lower status. From 1815 to 1890, those Grand Dukes were always the same persons as the kings of the Netherlands, but those functions were separated as the Vienna Congress determined that the Luxemburg constitution did not allow succession in the female line.