Belgian socialists strike for universal male suffrage, 1893

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Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
On April 18, the Parliament and the Socialist leaders had reached an agreement, but action on the part of workers did not calm for a few days.
11 April
18 April
Location and Goals
Location City/State/Province: 
Brussels and other major Belgian cities (Mons, Ghent, Charleroi, Borinage, Antwerp, Liege)
Location Description: 
Belgium had been rapidly industrializing; most of the strike actions took place in industrialized cities and mines.
To achieve universal male suffrage rights.

Prior to the 1893 Belgian general strike, some miners and other workers had gone on strike sporadically, first in 1890 and most notably in 1891 in Liege, Charleroi and Borinage. Most of these labor skirmishes lacked the strength and the impact to really challenge the Belgian parliamentary system. In 1890, leaders of the Belgian Worker’s Party did issue a call to spread the strike and then quickly called it off when the parliament agreed to consider a proposal to constitutionally enact suffrage reform. At this point, and ever since 1830, standing suffrage laws limited voting rights to male property owners, who had continually prevented change.

In the interim 18 months, neither Parliament nor the Socialist Worker's Party took action. However, when the Parliament formally refused to enact universal (male) suffrage on April 11, 1893, not only did Socialists react against them, but they also challenged the leadership of their own organization, in particular Jean Volders, who was widely considered to be moderate and conciliatory when the workers were calling for action. This paved the way for Emile Vandervelde to emerge as a leader of the strike and the Party. On April 12, Jean Volders accepted the calls from the angered Socialists and declared/endorsed the general strike for which the workers had been agitating. Later that day, he was arrested, along with Vandervelde. The strike quickly spread. It was the first to reach a significant scale in what would become a series of three general strikes to challenge Belgium’s suffrage policies, beginning here in 1893 and then in 1902 and 1913. In the course of the strike, the Party came under younger, more radical leadership.

The Otago Witness, a New Zealand newspaper, printed daily summaries of the strike, which lasted for days. By April 14, 15,000 miners were on strike near Mons and 65 factories in Verviers had stopped work. Strikers marched throughout Belgium, while some workers also destroyed property. Police charged at demonstrators with sabers in retaliation. On April 15, strikers organized street blockades; many more were wounded as police brutality continued and escalated. Negotiations began on April 17, when Paul Jansen, a ‘radical’ member of parliament, looking to quell the strike, invited Vandervelde, Volders, and Louis Bertrand to negotiate in the Parliament building. During this meeting, the Socialist leaders agreed to call off the strike if the Parliament would abolish “suffrage censitaire” (a system of voting related to taxation). The next day, the Parliament instituted a system of plural suffrage.

Unaware of the progress in negotiation, a group of workers assaulted the mayor of Brussels with bludgeons on April 17. Later that day, both civic guards and workers were killed and wounded, while work continued to be at a standstill in Charleroi and while scuffles continued between strikers and police in Mons and Antwerp. The negotiations concluded with a compromise: plural suffrage which expanded voting rights to include the workers, along with extra protections and votes for some elite members of society, particularly ruling Catholics. Workers reacted with anger and property destruction, as they still felt that this was an unequal solution. Nonetheless, they did return to work, mostly in mines and factories, within a few days. Following the strike, a battery of 28 Socialists were elected into the Parliament and proceeded with a series of social and political reforms. On April 18, workers set out to avenge the deaths of their comrades in Mons the previous day, but at this point, the strike was coming to a close.

While there were instances of campaigner violence in this strike, it ultimately did not sway the Parliament the way the work stoppages and mass demonstrations did. Before the next strike in 1902, Vandervelde delivered a speech affirming non-violent principles, arguing that, “only a disciplined, organized resistance – inside parliament and outside on the streets – would persuade the government to make reforms. Disorder produced bloodshed, not change” (Polasky 456). Universal manhood suffrage did not become a Belgian reality until after the First World War, but the movement continued to draw a lot of its strength from the workers and the success of actions like this one.

Research Notes

(1) The writings of Marx and Engels influenced the leaders of this strike. (2) This strike influenced future strikes in Belgium and throughout industrialized Europe, specifically two noteworthy Belgian general strikes in 1902 and 1913 (see, Belgian workers general strike to end plurality voting system, 1902 and Belgian socialists general strike for universal suffrage, 1913).

Lakey, George. Powerful Peacemaking: A Strategy for a Living Revolution. Philadelphia: New Society, 1987. Print.

Polosky, J. L. "A Revolution for Socialist Reforms: The Belgian General Strike for Universal Suffrage." Journal of Contemporary History 27.3 (1992): 449-466.

"STRIKES IN BELGIUM." Otago Witness , Issue 2043, 20 April 1893, Page 17. <>

Additional Notes: 
George Lakey discusses the finer points of the three-strike-wave, and its impact in terms of strategy and history in his book, Strategy for a Living Revolution.  Certainly, the strikes increased in effectiveness and international support as the Worker's Party developed the necessary internal infrastructure to execute such large-scale actions.
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Samantha Shain, 23/09/2012