General strikes in Belgium

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Depiction of striking Belgian workers in 1893 by the painter Eugène Laermans.

The Belgian general strikes were a peculiar phenomenon of the social, economical and political life in Belgium due to huge concentrations of workers in such Belgian cities as Ghent and Antwerp, and particularly in Wallonia, namely Charleroi and Liège but also in other places of 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 continental Europe, the era of strikes may be dated from the end of American Civil War[1] And according to some authors, Belgium was likely the first industrial country - or at least one of the first ones - where a general strike succeeded, the Belgian general strike of 1893.[2][3] Marcel Liebman quoted César de Paepe who wrote in 1890: The general strike that formerly seemed a utopia, will be possible in Belgium....[4] Carl Strikwerda wrote that the Belgian general strike of 1893 was the first general strike in Europe [5]

Myth or reality[edit]

The English Chartists 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 Geneva Congress 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 Belgium and for instance the Belgian general strike of 1893 for Universal suffrage which succeeded and opened the door of Parliament to representatives of the Belgian working class.[6] This successful general strike was likely due to the Belgian Socialists, one of the most successful Socialists movements in the world '[7] 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 in proportions to its population and its territory.

Karl Marx was severe about the suppression of the strikes in Belgium, of course, before the Belgian general strike of 1893 :

Which kind of general strike?[edit]

Riot of Mons on 17 April 1893 in Le Petit Journal, Paris, May 1893

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.[9] 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 supranational force capable of arresting the evils of the contemporary society without total revolution [10] He quoted the general strike in Belgium of 1893 as successful but wrote the general strikes in the Netherlands 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 revolutionary action. [11] 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 strike.[12]

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

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. [13]

The Walloon Jacquerie of 1886 is not included in the table.

Date [14] 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
1936 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 strikel 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[edit]

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[edit]

See also[edit]


  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. ^ Serge Deruette, L'organisation ouvrière en Belgique, in Critique politique, nummer 6, September 1980, pp. 67-85
  3. ^ French 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.
  4. ^ 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
  5. ^ 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
  6. ^ 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
  7. ^ Carl Strikwerda, A house divided: Catholics, Socialists, and Flemish nationalists in nineteenth-century Belgium, p. 109
  8. ^ 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
  9. ^ Gerhart Niemeyer, The Second International in (editor) Milorad Drachkovitch,The revolutionary internationals, 1864-1943, Stanford University Press, 1966, pp. 95 and the followings.
  10. ^ Gerhart Niemeyer, The Second International, p.100.
  11. ^ Gerhart Niemeyer, The Second International p.100.
  12. ^ Marx, Karl; Engels, Friedrich (1977). La Belgique Etat constitutionnel modèle. Paris: Le Fil du temps. p. 326. 
  13. ^ Carl Strikverda, General Strikes and social Change in Belgium, University of Michigan, April 1980, p. 1.
  14. ^ Carl Strikwerda, General Strikes and social Change in Belgium, Appendix.
  15. ^ 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 Scientific Publishers, Brussels, 2009, p. 278. ISBN 978-90-5487-517-8