The Belgian (Walloon) general strikes

20 August, 2010

The Belgian general strikes  were a peculiar phenomenon of the social, economical and political life in Belgium due to huge concentrations of workers in the Belgian Cities as Ghent, Antwerp, mainly in Wallonia, in Charleroi and Liège but also in other places in the Walloon Sillon industriel e.g. the  Centre  and the Borinage etc. On 4 May 1869, Karl Marx thought that « In some great military states of ontinental Europe, the era of strikes may  be dated from  the end  of American Civil War »1 And according some authors, Belgium is likely  the first industrial country  - or at least one of the first one -   a General strikesucceeded, the Belgian general strike of 1893 2 Marcel Liebman quoted  César de Paepe who - in 1890 - was writing : «  The general strike who seemed  formerly an utopia, will be possible in Belgium... » 3. Carl Strikwerda wrote the Belgian general strike of 1893 was the first general strike in Europe 4

Myth or reality

The Chartism regarded the general strike as the mean to squeeze a general suffrage out of bourgeoisie and as the way to socialism. The First International proclaimed the strike of people against the war. The Congress of Peace in Geneva of the International Alliance of Bakuninists stated  the general strike was the main weapon of the proletariat, as well as the French syndicalists. But Paul Frölich  wrote that in the same time there were actually general strikes in Begium and for instance   the Belgian general strike of 1893 for Universal suffrage which succeeded and opened the door of Parliament to reprensentatives of the Belgian working class 5. This successful general strike was likely due to the Belgian Socialists , « one of the most successful Socialists movements in the world » 6 This general strike for Carl Strikwerda was the first general strike in Europe, or, more accurately in a whole country in Europe even if it was as small country but the second industrial power of the world  in proportions to its population and its territory.

Karl Marx was severe about the suppression of he strikes in Belgium, of course, before the Belgian general strike of 1893]:  « There exists but one country in the civilised world where every strike is eagerly and joyously turned into a pretext for the official massacre of the working class. That country of single blessed-mess is Belgium! the model state of continental constitutionnalism, the snug, well-hedged, little paradise of the landlord, the capitalist, and the priest. The earth perfoms not more surely its yearly revolution than the Belgian Government its yearly men's massacre. The massacre of this year does not differ from last year's massacre, but by the ghastlier number of its victims, the more hideous ferocity of an otherwise ridiculous army, the noisier jubilation of the clerical and capitalist press, and the intensified frivolity of the pretexts put forward by the Governmenta butchers. » (Letter to Friedrich Engels, 4 May 1869) 7

Which kind of general strike?

Gerhart Niemeyer distinguished five end-means configurations in the debates of the [[Second International]]: general strike about constitutional changes; anarcho-syndicalist strike against the existing order in order to dissolve it ; the general strike as a preparation to the revolution; the one-day strike on 1 May; the general strike against an international war. 8 He summarized himself these different kinds of general strike: « (1) the action of a newly rising social group in making its way to political power and a position of influence; (2)  the total rejection of the existing society and the breakthrough to a new life; and (3) the gestation and mobilization of a new suprantaional force capable of arresting the evils of the contemporary society without total revolution » 9 He quoted the general strike in Belgium of 1893 as successful but wrote the general strikes in Holland collapsed « with disastrous consequences », in Sweden « did not attain the desired results », in Italy « was politically unproductive »(but not socially), in Russia the experience  « underscored the suitability of the general strike as a decisive revolutionnary action. » Gerhart Niemeyer, The Second Internantional p.100. It seems that the Belgian general strike's kind of 1893, 1902, 1913 was the (1). Even if it is possible the Walloon Jacquerie of 1886 was the (2).  And a renardist foreshadowing?

Friedrich Engels the disciple of Marx  was absolutely not in favour of this kind of general strike. He wrote to Léo Frankel on 24 April 1891 he was hoping that the second congress of the Second International is in jeopardy because of the absurd Belgian official line on the general strike10

Table of general strikes and other strikes in Belgium (1893-1961)

Carl Strikwerda wrote : ''I believe that Belgian strikes until the 1960s took an almost unique force. They were, at least partially, political strikes which were, however, rather unlike those of France and Italy. In their form Belgian strikes most resembled general strikes: very large, moderately long, and relatively infrequent.This distinctive strike form lasted only until the 1960s, when a peaceful labor relations system replaced it.'' 11

[Of course this table doesn't include the Walloon Jacquerie of 1886.] 12

Date Demands Industry (ies) Strikers Years's Total Duration Location Estimated Days Lost
1893 Universal suffrage

Belgian general strike of 1893

200,000 ? 7 days general 1,200,000
1897 Change of work rules coal 18,945 35,948 24 days Hainaut, Liège 450.000
1899 Wage increase coal 12,842 57, 931 43 days Hainaut, Liège, 450,000
1901 end to wage cuts dock workers 15,000 43, 814 19 days Antwerp 285,000
1902 end to plural vote Belgian general strike of 1902 250,000 260,000 7 days general + 1,500.000
1905 wage increase coal 51,789 75, 672 47 days Hainaut Liège 3,500,000
1910 wage increase coal 13, 700 26, 289 35 days Hainaut, Liège 480,000
1911 change work rules coal 23,000 55,316 + 30 days Liège +800,000
1912 wage increase coal 25,800 61,654 + 30 days Hainaut + 800,000
1913 end to plural vote Belgian general strike of 1913 375,000] 391,000 10 days general + 3,500,000
1920 wages & solidarity coal & metals 66,500 289,190 c. 10 days Namur & Liège 6,650,000
1923 Wages coal and iron 44,477 104,980 c.18 days Hainaut & Liège 1,890,000
1925 wages metals 58,104 81,422 c.35 days Namur & Liège 2,000,000
1932 Wages & coll. barg. coal, then Belgian general strike of 1932 140,000  to 166,000 160,000 to 190,000 30 days Hainaut/ general 4,100,000

wages Trade Union's

recognition & 40 hr. wk.

dockers, mining, Belgian general strike of 1936 520,000 560.000 20–30 days Antwerp, Hainaut,General strike 11,300,000
1950 Royal question General strike against Leopold III of Belgium 500,000 650,000 6 days general 3,000,000
1957 end to wage restraints metals 183,000 339,055 9–12 days general 2,350,000
1957 ? construction 72.000 339,055 c. 10 days general 795,000
1959 protest coal & general 76,176 140,000 123,473 Hainaut, Liège 514,000 (Hainaut), 1,050, 000 (Liège)
1960–1961 Protest "Loi unique" 1960-1961 Winter general strike 340,000 360,000 34 days general 5,150,000

Consequences of the strong general strikes in Belgium


Some general strikes failed: there were not any actual and immediate results of these movements as for instance after the Walloon Jacquerie of 1886, the general strikes of 1902 and 1913 which were demanding the end of the plural vote (in the framework of the  Universal suffrage obtained in 1893) and an actual one man, one vote universal suffrage. On the contrary, the General strike against Leopold III of Belgium forced this king to  abdicate. The 1960-1961 Winter General Strike regarding  the main motivation of the strike the « Loi unique » (a programm of austerity), failed, but was the beginning of a strong [regionalist movement in Wallonia and of the renardism.

List of the Belgian general strikes

* Walloon Jacquerie of 1886 (many reasons and among them universal suffrage)

* Belgian general strike of 1893 (universal suffrage) Successful but a « toned down universal suffrage » (plural votes given to some voters) was only instituted 13

* Belgian general strike of 1902 (end of plural vote).  Failed.

* Belgian general strike of 1913 (end of plural vote).  Failed.

* Belgian general strike of 1932 (wages and collective bargaining).Successful.

* Belgian general strike of 1936 (wages, 40 hours week, trade union'recognition). Successful.

* General strike against Leopold III of Belgium Successful: Leopold III's abdication.

* 1960-1961 Winter General Strike, against  « Loi unique » failed but the strike reinforced Walloon regionalism and Walloon claim for federalism.

  1. 1. Marx and Engels on the Trade Unions Edited with an introduction and notes, by Kenneth Lapides, Originally published, Praeger, New York, 1987, p. 69 ISBN 0-7178-0676-6
  2. 2. Serge Deruette, L'organisation ouvrière en Belgique, in Critique politique, nummer 6, September 1980, pp. 67-85 :   « C'est en Belgique que se produisirent les premières grèves de masses avec des buts politiques » in Cahiers marxistes, nummer 2, June 1969, p. 47.
  3. 3. César de Paepe,  Le suffrage universel et la capacité politique de la Classe ouvrière, Gand, 1890, p. 9. quoted by Marcel Liebman  Les socialistes belges (1885-1914), Editions Vie Ouvrière, Bruxelles, 1979, p. 83. ISBN 2-87003-135-1
  4. 4. « In 1893 they [the Socialists] led a general strike of more than 200,000 strikers - the first general strike in Europe ... » in A house divided: Catholics, Socialists, and Flemish nationalists in nineteenth-century Belgium, Rowman & Littlefield, Laham, Oxford, 1997, p. 109, ISBN 0-8476-8526-8
  5. 5. Paul Frölich Rosa Luxemburg, ideas in action, Pluto Press, London, 1994 (last translation in 1972, first published in Paris, 1939), p.139. ISBN 0-902818-19-8
  6. 6. Carl Strikwerda, A house divided: Catholics, Socialists, and Flemish nationalists in nineteenth-century Belgium, p. 109.
  7. 7. Marx and Engels on the Trade Unions. Edited with an introduction and notes, by Kenneth Lapides, Originally published, Praeger, New York, 1987, p. 69 ISBN 0-7178-0676-6
  8. 8. Gerhart Niemeyer, The Second Internantional in (editor) Milorad  Drachkovitch, The revolutionnary internationals, 1864-1943, Stanford University Press, 1966, pp. 95 and the followings.
  9. 9. Gerhart Niemeyer, The Second International, p.100.
  10. 10. Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, La Belgique Etat constitutionnel modèle, Le Fil du temps, Paris, 19??, p. 326.
  11. 11.  Carl Strikverda General Strikes and social Change in Belgium,  University of Michigan, April 1980, Appendix 1.
  12. 12.  Carl Strikwerda, General Strikes and social Change in Belgium, Appendix.
  13. 13. Only « A toned down version of universal suffrage, which gave plural votes based on wealth, education and age (ensuring the bourgeoisie of a safe majority), was approved. » in Els Witte,Jan Craeybeckx,Alain Meynen Political History of Belgium: From 1830 Onwards,  Academic and Scentific Publishers, Brussels, 2009, p. 278. ISBN 978-90-5487-517-8