Peter Mertens: “There is a counter-power that exists on the world scale as long as the Palestinian people will resist”
Peter Mertens. DR.
Mohsen Abdelmoumen: What do you think of the revival of populist and neo-Nazi movements in Europe in general and in Belgium in particular?
Peter Mertens: After the crisis of overproduction in 1973 and the financial bubble that erupted in 2008 by banks and speculators, we knew very well that the world could only take two directions, either the camp of the establishment itself and therefore of the elite who wanted to go even further and who wanted to install an unlimited capitalism, that is to say without counter-powers, without unions, without communist party, without alternatives, in eliminating the very idea of an alternative, unions and organized labor movements and install a kind of oligarchy, that is, an open dictatorship of capital. On the other hand, we can also see that the alternative movement, that is to say the workers’ movement and the communist forces, the Marxist forces, are seeking their way to remobilize themselves and remobilize the working class in the broad sense of the term. As Gramsci, the Italian Communist, had said, the old world is dying and the new world is not yet born, and it is in these moments that monsters arise. It is at this time, when the old world is dying and the new world is not yet born, that we are situated today. So there are Trumps who are supported at the grassroots by elitist nationalism and chauvinism but also addressed to the working people and who are supported by what is called in the United States the « Alt-right », the new right, that is to say, far-right fascist forces that have been renewed in their language and in their tactical strategy, but which have obviously not been renewed in their fundamental thinking and their goals. President Trump may not himself be part of the Alt-right but he is supported by it and Trump’s speech facilitates the organization of the Alt-right. We see the same thing here in Europe and Trump’s campaign director, Steve Bannon, is organizing the Alt-right in Europe. He came in Italy to support Salvini and came in France to ask Marine Le Pen to create the « National Gathering » movement. There is a strategy behind the far-right in Europe that particularly affects Belgium and especially Flanders because we see in the NVA, the largest Belgian party, elements of the new right from the strategy of Bannon infiltrating the current government. It is, as Gramsci said, the time of the monsters and it is the Marxist and Democratic forces but also revolutionary forces that have to set up a counter-strategy. It is not easy but we are rebuilding it.
So, you think we are heading towards a fascist international, even neo-Nazi led by Steve Bannon?
In any case, they are getting organized. Words are important, so I’m talking about the Alt-right, the new right. It is not exactly fascism like in the past; it is a new form of the extreme right that is being organized. They are not yet dominant but we can see that with names like Donald Trump, Salvini, the FPÖ in Austria, the AfD in Germany, etc., they have undeniable potential.
In your opinion, with an element like Macron, which is operating in France a real policy of social damage, is there not a risk of repercussions on the rest of Europe?
I do believe that the European elite, i.e. the industrial and financial elite, after the banking crisis of 2008, chose to remain silent for one or two years, but after the European crisis in 2011, it fled ahead and is following an economic war strategy, what it did in Greece, almost killing the Greek economy with huge consequences for suicides and economic collapse. This was an example to tell the whole Europe that there is no alternative possible. These circles, which follow a policy of economic aggression, are now dominant.
Do not you think we are living the consequences of the reign of social democracy in Europe?
Yes, indeed, and it’s dramatic. I also believe that after the crisis, we saw that there are a lot of people in the social democracy who are affected by this strategy of the so-called « third way » between capitalism and socialism, but in fact, the very name of « third way » serves to hide the total capitulation to neoliberalism. When Europe consisted of fifteen countries, eleven were led by social democrats, and it was at this point that there was the most privatization, where there was the most dismantling of the social gains of the labor movement. People who had confidence in social democracy after the Second World War feel very lonely and betrayed. And social democracy, as we saw in France, in the Netherlands, in Italy, collapsed and this anger was transformed, people then heading to the right because it was promoted by the media, by the dominant ideas, the Marxist left being not yet organized, having yet no strategy. This is the current situation but it will not last. Marxists and the consequent and serious left must organize themselves and have an intelligent strategy to answer all the challenges.
Exactly, speaking of resistance, why, in your opinion, at the moment when we are witnessing an unprecedented ultraliberal and imperialist offensive, we see the lack of effectiveness of the revolutionary framework? What is it all about, and how do you explain that the unions have lost their fighting power by framing the working class, for example?
We must be patient; there is a lot to rebuild. There are two dangers, in my opinion. On the one hand, there is a danger of defeatism, of not believing in an alternative, and it is the dominant language for a long time at the top of social democracy: “the right is in the offensive, all-powerful”, « we are nothing, we can not do anything, and we must stay on the defensive »… In my opinion, this is the main danger. On the other hand, there is also a kind of impatience on the part of comrades and people who have understood how the system works. But it is not because we have understood how the system works that the working class and people have understood. And so, we have to be a little impatient and patient at the same time, but impatience can also be a danger because if we scream in the desert and want to attack but nobody follows us, there will be a problem. We must not play the politics of the solitary hero. If we want to change the world, as Marx said, it is the working class itself that must become aware of its fate. We must also have the patience of reconstruction and it is not with nostalgia that we must do it. I know that in the ’50s,’ 60s, ’70s, the left was stronger, that there was still a counter-power against imperialism, and that the balance of power in the world was much more favorable for the revolution against neocolonialism. I know all this; I also know that the unions were much more fighting, that the education in the combat unionism was much stronger, but we must not be nostalgic, we are now in the reconstruction situation and it is a long-term job. It doesn’t matter. Capitalism began to break through in the mid-nineteenth century, and it took decades to build the labor movement, unions, to build a liberating, socialist, real emancipatory thought in the struggle with all other thoughts, anarchists and others. There are people who think that the social achievements are there forever. Not at all. The right, at the level of ideas, has also won minds. It is a pity but it is the reality. It is up to us to rebuild the movement and rebuild a counter-power at the level of the organization, at the level of unionism, but also at the level of ideas. I am not pessimistic about this. If we are too nostalgic, we will fall into defeatism and into the idea that it was better before. It cannot inspire anyone, we have to win the hearts of young people who are now struggling to find work or who have precarious jobs, etc.
Do not you think that there is a strategic necessity for a new breath of all anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist resistance fighters?
Yes, absolutely. That’s what I’m trying to say. I believe that all anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist forces must also reason strategically. This is not a game. The right wing and the imperialist forces are on the offensive. It is serious and the dangers of war, the dangers of nationalism, racism, etc., are very serious subjects that should not be taken lightly. If we must counter-organize ourselves, have a counter-movement, we must think strategically, we must reflect with the strategy of emancipation but also with tactics. We have to know when to attack and when to defend. There must be no blindness in the attack; there is a time to be quiet and a time to attack hard.
A revolutionary guerrilla, in short?
Yes, at the level of ideas in any case.
Do you not think that our comrades in the northern hemisphere must ally with our comrades from the southern hemisphere to create a global response, at the level of what imperialism and capitalism do? Do not we need global resistance to capitalism and imperialism? We see it for example with Cuba, Venezuela, even in some countries like Syria where there is a resistance against Daesh, or in other independent countries like Algeria that imperialism wants to break. Are the struggles of the North and the South not complementary? Should not we have an internationalist and universalist soul?
Absolutely, I think it is very important at the moment when nationalism resurfaces and is pushed by US, German, French imperialism. We see the thrust of these nationalist tendencies in the North in the working class and I totally agree with Marx who said that a people who oppress another people can not be free itself. So attacking imperialism and uniting in this struggle is very important. This does not mean, of course, that we should not fight in every country because there are people who advocate universalism to abandon the struggle in their own country. There is a rightization, a fascization, in Belgian, French, Italian society, etc., and we must also fight in the country where we live. We have to combine the two. On the one hand, there is the main danger of nationalism and chauvinism, and on the other hand, we must be aware that universalism does not mean giving up the struggle in our own country, because it seems too difficult to lead.
You talk about the specificity of the fight. This reminds me of an Algerian communist leader, Bachir Hadj Ali, who evoked this subject by talking about the specificity of the fight during the Algerian national liberation war.
We have just learned that the co-founder of the BDS, Omar Barghouti, was banned from leaving the territory by the Zionist entity of Israel and could not participate in the political festival ManiFiesta of your party. You have a party that supports the cause of the Palestinian people in its struggle. Do not you think that the struggle of the Palestinian people is a very important or even central cause?
This is a very important issue indeed. We had invited Barghouti and also Ahed Tamimi. They had their visas, air tickets and hotel rooms, but eventually the Israeli occupation army forbade them to leave the territory. This is the daily reality of Palestinian comrades. Even if they are in their right, they can not decide their own life and it is the Israeli administration that decides. For us, this is a very important issue because the Palestinian cause is symptomatic of imperialism. Israel’s Zionist aggression is supported by the United States, and even more so today with Trump’s policy. The Palestinian cause is important for the whole region of the Middle East, because of the colonization of Palestine by the imperialists, and because we talk about Palestine because there is resistance. We are not talking about peoples where there are no resisters. In Palestine, there is resistance against this aggression and against this colonization, we talk about it and it is important because it means that at the level of ideas, there is a counter-power that exists on the world scale as long as the Palestinian people will resist. It is also a sign of hope for other peoples. The South African people fought for many years against apartheid; it was obviously important in trying to liberate the South African people, but for other peoples as well.
A sort of catalyst of struggles for nations.
Yes, it was a very important struggle for other peoples too.
A question about the PTB-PVDA of which you are the chairman: if there was an eventuality of making an alliance with the Socialists (note: Social-Democrats), will the PTB make this alliance with a party that is not concerned of the class struggle? Do not you think that the PTB must guard against a right-wing and even social-democratic temptation? How do you intend to resist a social democracy that would capture the movement as an alliance with the socialists? Is it not dangerous?
Absolutely. It is a real danger. We live in a world that is going crazy, a very aggressive imperialist world; there is no definitive solution, so we have to look for a tactic. We are looking for this tactic, trying to find the one that is the most intelligent. That means we want to reach workers and people who are still under the influence of social democracy. For this reason, there are bridges that remain open and, of course, there are ideas that can go in one direction or the other. Our ideas can pass to them, but, indeed, their ideas can also pass to us. And that, it is a real danger. And so, we said that we do not want to enter a government at the supra-local level, that is to say a Walloon, Brussels, Flemish, or federal government, without having a policy of breaking with the guidelines of the European Commission and without having the will to compose a government that wants to mobilize the working class to lead this fight. For the moment, we do not see any other party ready for this. We are saying that we are open to creating a government that is able to face the dictates of the European Commission and wants to raise awareness and mobilize people, but for the moment, apart from us, there is no one.
Do you think that the PTB is able to impact in a revolutionary way the political life in Belgium?
Intelligent strategy is needed, there is no simple strategy. So we must have a strategy that tends to the top of the mountain, and this road is not easy. I believe that the greatest danger today, since we have favorable polls, since the party is growing, is to become like all the other parties.
A kind of trivialization.
Yes, and it’s a big danger because if we do the same thing as the other parties, we will really prepare the ground for the far right.
It would be a political suicide.
Effectively. On the other hand, I believe that our future is not in isolation, we are not interested in preaching in the desert…
You want to be pragmatic without losing the Marxist orientations of the party.
Absolutely. That’s why it’s said that the locomotive is not the biggest part of the train but it’s the most important part because it pulls the others. And we see that there are right-wing forces that are locomotives on the right and that make the racist and nationalist ideas change in the working class. So there are right-wing locomotives that are not the largest parties but whose influence is important, and we need left-wing locomotives for the moment, and we want to play the role of this locomotive on the left.
Do you think that it is simpler at this moment in Belgium and Europe to be reactionary, liberal, neo-Nazi rather to be communist?
It’s a matter of conviction. Either we are for the liberation of the whole of humanity, of the peoples and of the working class, or we are defending totally unequal system with levels of inequality that we have never seen besides in the world and in history. We, we are on the side of the oppressed and of the working class. We defend a human and correct system, the « socialism 2.0 » – whatever the name – but another system than capitalism and it is in this approach that we stand.
You are in a historical momentum towards a radical change?
What can you say to resistance movements against capitalism and imperialism and to anti-Zionists around the world, via our newspaper?
Time is ours. Perhaps this does not always seem to be the case because we are living in difficult times with the offensive of imperialism, but it is precisely in these moments that the anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist forces must be conscious and have the courage to resist. It’s difficult but it will pay off. We are sowing again and rebuilding, so do not lower our head. It’s difficult, we know, we’re going to receive blows, we know, but we’re rebuilding, and we must have prospects not of one or two years but of five, ten, fifteen years to be this locomotive of liberation everywhere in the world.
You think that their strategic mistakes will be the best allies of a communist movement?
We must have both. As Lenin said, it’s their fault, it’s cracking everywhere, the internal contradictions are numerous, etc. But it’s not enough either, it also needs the locomotive. We need consciousness, dynamics, and the struggle of ideas too.
Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen
Who is Peter Mertens?
Peter Mertens is the PTB-PVDA (Belgian Labor Party) chairman. He is a sociologist by training. Peter has been active in the student movement against racism and for solidarity with Boel-Thames shipyard workers. He then worked for a year and a half as a temporary worker in several factories in the Ghent canal area. In 1998, he became provincial manager of the PTB in Antwerp. Since 2006, he heads the PTB’s daily management. At the 8th Party Congress, he was elected chairman. Peter lives in Antwerp, Belgium.
He has written several books include: Priorité de gauche. Pistes rouges pour sortie de crise in 2009; Comment osent-ils ? : La crise, l’euro et le grand hold-up in 2012; and his latest book Au pays des profiteurs.
Published in American Herald Tribune, September 16, 2018: https://ahtribune.com/interview/2482-peter-mertens.html
In Palestine Solidarité: https://www.palestine-solidarite.org/analyses.mohsen_abdelmoumen.170918.htm