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Popular masses in the bourgeois revolution of the Southern Netherlands (1565-1585, 1789-1794, 1830)

19 September 2022
Belgian rebels at a barricade in Brussels, 1830

Naturally one cannot reduce the political struggles that characterized the three successive phases of the bourgeois, national-democratic revolutions in the Southern Netherlands (those of the 16th, 18th and 19th centuries) to purely or essentially religious and constitutional conflicts.i One must lay bare the socio-economic motivations and components of these struggles. This may sound banal. For some contemporary historians, however, it is far from self-evident. Authors such as Nève de Mevergnies and Floris Prims reduce the issue of the Calvinist seizures of power in Ghent and Antwerp almost entirely to religious fanaticism, if not to the personal ambitions and traits of ‘demagogues’ such as squire Jan van Hembyse.ii In his criticism of the licentiate thesis of André Despretziii (the best research so far on conditions under the Calvinist Republic in Ghent), Dr P. Rogghé directs his attention to the composition of the leading bodies that exercised power during the new regime, to their support for the Dutch House of Orange, and their orientation towards the restoration of the old city privileges.iv But he does not examine to what extent the families who led the coup d’état, who were indeed members of the traditional high bourgeoisie, were divided among themselves as a result of the growing pressure from different social classes and class fractions, including the poorest strata.

Authors who, following in the footsteps of Pirenne if not Marx,v do consider the role of class and class interests in these revolutions are in turn often prisoners of preconceived schemes. Since we are dealing with bourgeois revolutions, the ‘popular masses’ supposedly form a more or less undifferentiated whole under the leadership of enlightened political circles coming from the bourgeoisie. Pirenne’s thesisvi that, at least during the Liège revolution of 1789-1793, the bourgeoisie of Verviers – the most industrialized part of the principality of Liègevii – considered itself to represent the whole of the people it wished to emancipate, is also adopted without reservation by the former Marxist socialist turned supporter of Walloon autonomy, Maurice Bologne.viii

Contrary to this, Pierre Lebrun rightly states:


As for the bourgeoisie of Verviers, they cannot be considered as the “enemies” of the privileges or of the old social traditions [the formula is from Pirenne – E.M.] for the very good reason that by 1789 the only thing that remained of both was the bosses’ freedom to restrain the workers. Moreover, it will be precisely the latter class – the “Fourth Estate” in a certain sense – that will revolt with as its leaders, as in all revolutions, disgruntled elements coming from the higher classes... The manufacturers of Verviers did not “feel” themselves to be “the people” at all, and they had no desire to liberate “the people” [again, formulas of Pirenne – E.M.], nor to acquire for themselves a freedom that they already fully possessed. Even more so, at the beginning of the revolt they held the workers in contempt and mocked their indecision. Grég. Chapuis,ix a surgeon who was won over to the new ideas, wrote in 1789: “It is said in our circles that the most important cloth merchants allowed the people to agitate, but took pleasure in seeing whether the said people, who depended on the cloth industry, could coexist with M Fyon.”x


Fundamental class forces
 

A careful study, indeed even an overview, of the revolutionary events is sufficient to recognize that the bourgeois revolutions brought out five and not four fundamental class forces on the social stage:
1. the high nobility linked to the clergy, i.e. the feudal or semi-feudal privileged big landowners
2. the peasants;
3. the wealthy bourgeoisie, i.e., the owners of capital;
4. the urban petty bourgeoisie, the artisans;
5. and the emerging 'Fourth Estate', pre-proletariat, semi-proletariat, or those already fully proletarian.

The liberal professions (preachers, notaries, jurists, doctors, journalists), who played an important role in this revolution,xi are as such not representatives of the petty bourgeoisie. In general, they can act as mouthpieces of all five fundamental classes. They can be found in all political camps.

The independent action of the Fourth Estate in the three successive phases of the bourgeois revolution of the Southern Netherlands was the result of the growth of capitalism and of wage labour. An inevitable conflict of interests between capital and wage-labour therefore accompanied these revolutions.xii This was so regardless of the very low degree of class consciousness of the emerging Fourth Estate,xiii or of the low level of self-organisation of the working class – practically nonexistent throughout the period in question. It was an objective phenomenon, and therefore all the more impressive since the dramatis personae in question were in no way aware of who they actually represented, nor of what, historically in the long run, they wanted. But their immediate demands and aspirations were more clearly formulated than many historians claim.xiv They differed profoundly from those of the property-owning bourgeoisie.

It is characteristic for the lack of understanding of the class components of the turmoil of the 16th century, of 1789 or of 1830, that to this day the majority of Catholic and liberal historians – and of course also the Protestant ones in the Northern Netherlands – think it necessary to denounce the so-called ‘excesses’ of the Calvinist Republic of Ghent [1577 and 1584] or of the Liège Revolution [1789-1795], and to hold such excesses responsible for the defeat of the Revolution.xv Parallel to these accusations runs a debate about the ‘guilt’ of one or the other in ‘inciting’ or even ‘bribing’ the ‘rabble’. Depending on the religious or political conviction of the author in question, a ‘conspiracy’ against ‘order’ and ‘property’ will sometimes be attributed to demagogic Orangists [supporters of the Dutch House of Orange] or Patriots, and sometimes to the Catholic counter-revolution.

The facts of the matter are at once more simple and more complex. The ‘rabble’, i.e. the Fourth Estate, needed neither to be incited nor to be bribed to come out into the streets. For that, their impoverishment, if not their desperate misery and hunger, was sufficient.xvi And which political powers used and abused these outbursts depended on a complex socio-political context, which varied from event to event.xvii
 

An emerging proletariat
 

The Fourth Estate was not yet purely proletarian during the three phases of the bourgeois revolution in our regions. Of course, it was not so in the 16th century, nor in 1789-1794. It wasn’t yet fully so even in 1830 – although by that time in Belgium we were closer to pure capitalist relations of production than during any previous bourgeois revolution. It is precisely the heterogeneity of the Fourth Estate that made it much more difficult for it to play an independent political role and to formulate a distinct ideology. We have to wait until the years 1831-1840, which preceded the revolution of 1848, for this political and ideological independence to take shape. This happened first in Great Britain, France and Germany,xviii and then, during the days of June 1848 in Paris it lead, for the first time in the course of a modern revolution, to a conscious and bloody conflict with the bourgeoisie.

In the 16th century, cottage industries, the putting-out system (Verlagsystem) still dominated industrial production in our regions. Especially in the countryside and in small towns, most direct producers were therefore ‘unfree’ wage labourers.xix Most authors who deal specifically with the turmoil during the Spanish era underestimate the extent of the industrialization that characterized the Southern Netherlands in the middle of the 16th century. This is true even of the best work on the period so far, that of the Hungarian Marxist T. Wittman.xx Soly and Thys rightly state:
 

In a fascinating contribution, W. Brulez has recently attempted to evaluate approximately the production value of agriculture and industry in the Low Countries around 1560: 20 million guilders for the first sector, 18 to 27 million guilders for the second, or a ratio of one to one... The author estimates the share of townspeople ... at 25 per cent (of the population), i.e. 750,000, and assumes that half of them were involved in industry, i.e. 375,000. Then he assumes that the rural industrial army was about the same size, bringing the total to 750,000 (of which 80 per cent were in the South).xxi

 

In any case, one must include in the Fourth Estate many impoverished artisans, the unemployed, vagabonds, etc., in addition to the wage-labourers themselves, many of whom were not permanently employed. Soly and Thys estimate that only one fourth of the above-mentioned 750,000 wage earners continuously had work.

Towards the end of the 18th century, the manufacturing system was already dominant in Liège. But modern machine industry would only be introduced after 1880. Part of production still took place in the countryside. Cottage industry and the putting-out system had not yet disappeared. The composition of the Fourth Estate reflected these complex relations of production. We find people who consistently work as wage labourers, but also the unemployed, the poor and vagabonds. The extent of impoverishment was terrible. After the departure of the textile manufacturers, a significant part of Verviers’ population would literally die of hunger.xxii

Around 1830 the breakthrough of modern industry in Liège, Ghent and Hainaut was already well under way. The modern industrial proletariat thus already formed an important part of the Fourth Estate. But in Flanders, cottage industry was still very widespread. In Brussels, artisanal production was still dominant. And if the process of proletarianization had broken through in Antwerp (Lis states that around 1800 the ratio of employers to workers was 1: 101 in the cotton-weaving millsxxiii), the relative number of the poor, unemployed, beggars, and semi-proletarians was still considerable and influenced the character of the political turmoil. Many of them were employed by the city administration. Attempts at wage reductions or dismissals led to serious conflicts:
 

On March 30 (1831) crowds who had obstructed the counter-revolution celebrated exuberantly: the next day riots broke out all over the city. Hundreds of workers stormed and ransacked the houses of newspaper publishers, former officials, and merchants known for their Orangist sympathies. Undoubtedly, the disturbances were provoked by a small group of revolutionaries from Brussels who, as they had done in their own city and elsewhere, tried to lead the popular anger in Antwerp in the “right direction”... The looters, however, should not be seen as mere puppets of a handful of agitators. Police reports show that a growing part of the Antwerp proletariat was tired of being regarded as beggars, good enough only for alms that were not even sufficient to cover the most meagre necessities of life. The city council was well aware that many workers could just as easily turn against the pro-Belgians as against the Orangists. Therefore, not only was martial law declared, but they also began to rehire dismissed workers; in the first week of April their number increased to 1,710, some 500 more than on the eve of the unrest.xxiv

 

The evolution of the urban population in the Southern Netherlands between 1560 and 1830 was thus not such that a ‘purely’ industrial proletariat or even modern proletariat in the broadest sense of the word had appeared on the historical stage. It is still advisable to speak of a Fourth Estate. But the more pure wage labour expands and becomes generalized, the greater the weight of the proletariat within the Fourth Estate compared with that of the pre-proletarian and semi-proletarian strata. And the greater the weight of that ‘pure’ proletariat within the Fourth Estate, the stronger becomes the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the Fourth Estate, and with that the fear of the former for the latter during the revolution. This is the kernel of truth in the otherwise exaggerated formula of ‘proletarian revolt’, which Maurice Bologne applied to the Revolution of 1830.xxv
 

Social contradictions

Thus, it is not the ‘excesses’ or the ‘mistaken tactics’ of the radicals that lead to rifts within the revolutionary camp in the 1570s, in 1789-1793 and in 1830. At the root of these divisions was the rise of the Fourth Estate, in other words the objective contradiction of material interests between Labour and Capital. Those who assume that it was premature for the workers to stand up for their own interests as long as the Ancien Régime had not been eliminated do not understand that social classes cannot but defend their material interests, no matter under what ideological guise. To demand the opposite of the working class during a bourgeois upheaval is to demand of it that it behaves differently from any other social group. It means to demand of it to write on its banner not self-defence but self-denial. This is not only an immoral demand, for it asks the poor to be less assertive of their interests than the rich. Above all, it is unrealistic.

Sometimes this conflict of interests was expressed in a particularly urgent way. In February-March 1579, the ordinary people of Ghent took to the streets and plundered the houses of the rich, shouting: ‘Papenbloet, rijckemansgroet’ [loosely translated: ‘papist blood, signature of the rich’].xxvi Here, the religious form of the social conflict is unmistakable. Despretz rightly notes:

 

Many apprentices were favourable to the new [Calvinist – E.M.] administration for reasons other than religious ones. After all, their standard of living depended on the balance between supply and demand of labour. So they lived under the constant threat that new workers would emerge from the mass of unfree, unqualified workers and wages would no longer be adequate. The reintroduction of the corporative system eliminated the competition of unfree workers and consolidated the apprentices’ standard of living ... the group of unfree workers ... must have clung to the new regime more out of social rebellion than out of deeply held Calvinist conviction. At intervals they were reduced to unemployment and begging. Earlier, they had sought refuge in the first anarchist Anabaptist movement. Now, the revolutionary Calvinist regime gave them new hope for an improvement of their lot.xxvii
 

This example shows how the absence of a common political-ideological project of the Fourth Estate has socio-economic reasons, i.e. corresponds to conflicts of interest of the different components of this estate.

During the Beeldenstorm [destruction of Catholic religious images in 1566], the self-confidence of the Fourth Estate grew impressively. Kutner gives numerous examples. In Tournai (Doornik), popular anger was directed ‘above all’ against a certain Baudelet, a merchant who had come to Tournai only recently as a poor wretch, but who had become very rich through grain speculation: ‘He had himself built,’ says P. de la Barre,

 

a large and fancy brick house. The people called it “the castle dyed red by the blood of the poor”. By this they meant that Baudelet had built his house with the money he had earned from his usury with grain and that this money had been squeezed out of the sweat and blood of the poor.xxviii

 

The strong growth of political consciousness among some members (representatives) of the Fourth Estate is also indicated by a verse of the Campene brothers, in which the Beeldenstorm is acknowledged and regretted as a diversion; it would have been better to attack the property of the merchants rather than the churches:
 

Hadden wij begonnen an cooplieden goedt,
Ende der kercken beelden laeten met vreden,
Ons handen gewasschen in papens bloedt,
Zoo waern wij heeren van dorpen en steden.xxix


[If we had busied ourselves with the property of merchants
And left the church statues in peace,
Washed our hands in Papist blood,
We would have been lords over villages and cities.]
 

Similar movements took place during the Liège Revolution of 1789:
 

Since the people were becoming more demanding by the day, the Patriots proposed the idea of demanding the distribution of the capital bequeathed by Georges-Louis De Berghes [prince-bishop of Liège until 1743]. In their view, this was a way of calming this nuisance and at the same time to harass the parish clergy. The people began by demanding the accounts of the annual distribution of the revenus de menses [ecclesiastical income] of the poor. These accounts were regularly made available to the vast majority of parishioners by [the managers of the parish property and accounts] the mambours. They were presented by some and refused by others. People then demanded the distribution of the capital that had been put on interest. The parish priests and mambours refused to ask for the disbursement of the funds and distribution among the poor. This refusal was bound to lead to discontent and violence. On 5 October (1789), Henrard, parish priest of St Martinen-Isle, saw his house surrounded by a guard of the civil militia. This militia consisted only of lower people and was commanded by captains chosen by themselves. The patrician guard, on the other hand, consisted only of young people of high bourgeois descent and wore a splendid costume. Soon there was a real antipathy between these two corps and the slightest reason was enough to cause a serious conflict. During the night of 5 to 6 October, the patrician guard saw the house of the priest of St Martin being surrounded by soldiers of the civil militia ... these soldiers were immediately disarmed and brought to the large prison. The civil militia, or rather the rabble, took this as an insult. The next morning, after dinner, the lower people of the parishes of St Martin, St Christophe and St Gilles assembled, took up arms, and went to the town hall to demand from the magistrate the dissolving of the patrician guard and the distribution of the capital bequeathed by Louis de Berghes.xxx


Numerous similar events during the Revolution of 1830 can be cited. The day before the famous performance of Portici’s opera La muette in the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, there was already a tumultuous demonstration by workers of the Brussels printing works. Bologne, relying on White and Juste, describes it as follows:
 

At no time did one see a national or provincial symbol there. It was not at all a question of creating a Belgian fatherland, but rather of resistance to misery, to the high prices of bread, to exploitation and those responsible for this state of affairs: the government and the bourgeoisie.xxxi


Red flags in any case already appeared on 26 August 1830. The Brussels working class began to organize itself and to centralize its forces:
 

Around two o’clock, proletarians gathered in cafés in rue Haute and proposed to destroy, following the example of the English in Manchester, those factories that used machines. Three armed groups set off in three different directions. They consisted for the most part of spinners. By eight o’clock in the evening, the factories of MM Basse, Rey Wilson, Bosdevex and Bal had been destroyed, as well as more than twenty houses of pleasure and twenty- seven shops. The damage amounts to more than one million guilders.

Its property threatened, the Belgian bourgeoisie begs the Dutch generals to use force to restore order. They send patrols, some of whom provide assistance without actually intervening and others that are beaten back or disarmed. Nevertheless, there is talk of some twenty deathsxxxii and some fifty wounded.’xxxiii

... Faced with the choice between the Brussels proletariat and the Dutch government, the Brussels bourgeoisie did not hesitate: for the first time, it fired at the insurrectionary working class. Property proved more sacred than the “Fatherland”.xxxiv
 

The deep fear felt by the property-owning classes for the kind of rebellions that attack property-rights was visible both in the 16th century and during the Liège Revolution. The counter-revolution deliberately played on this fear. In April and May 1566, Granvelle wrote to several Dutchmen with whom he corresponded:
 

Truly, all those who have something to lose should now open their eyes. For with the unbridled freedom which is now being encouraged, those who have something will either be left to the will of the strongest, or they will become the spoils of the people, who will likely prepare to plunder and feast upon the property of others.xxxv
 

And the Spaniard Castillo, residing in Antwerp, gives an impressive description of revolutionary developments in the countryside:
 

The worst thing is that the indebted farmer or tenant refuses to pay. There is not a village that does not dig up its buried privileges and rights. Many landowners find themselves and their rights diminished: where hitherto they were lords, they now find themselves reduced to the ranks of servants.xxxvi
 

Concerning the ‘rabble of Liège’, the cleric Daris quotes with satisfaction a passage from the memoirs of the French Revolutionary General Dumouriez:

 

…the rabble of Outre-Meuse, perhaps the most dangerous in Europe after that of London and Paris, had not seized the government [in December 1792], for it no longer existed – rather it seized control of the armed forces. Those unfortunate people thought only of revenge and punishment. They led the French soldiers to their old personal [!] enemies, who were then treated like aristocrats, i.e. they were robbed and massacred.xxxvii

 

Disturbed by these ‘excesses’, and in class solidarity with the Liège bourgeoisie, General Dumouriez defected to the camp of the Austrian counter-revolution.

During the three phases of the bourgeois revolution in the Southern Netherlands, the political opposition between ‘moderates’ and ‘radicals’, i.e. between the revolutionaries of the ruling classes and the revolutionaries representing the Fourth Estate (whether or not associated with the petty bourgeoisie), centres on political contradictions that in concentrated form reflect material conflicts of interest. The following issues become central:

– General arming of the people. This is usually not so much demanded by the Fourth Estate as spontaneously realized. The property-owning classes try again and again to undo it. In almost all revolutions since the 15th century (the Hussite movement in Bohemia) the disarmament of the workers is the decisive turning point between revolution and counter-revolution.

– Fiscal measures at the expense of the rich and in favour of the poor. This is usually the central economic demand of the Fourth Estate, often accompanied by the demand for expropriation of at least some forms of property of the privileged estates.xxxviii In most bourgeois revolutions the bourgeoisie tries to direct this demand unilaterally and exclusively against the former ruling classes (nobility and high clergy). They usually succeed in this as far as direct attacks on property relations are concerned. However, its success in the fiscal field is much less in the three revolutions examined here.

– The form and composition of new organs of political power. During the great bourgeois revolutions of the 16th to the 19th centuries, we see the progressive emergence of new organs of power in the form of revolutionary committees.xxxix From 1850 on, Marx, drawing the lessons from the Revolt of 1848, will see in those new forms the essence of the revolution, including that of the proletarian revolution.xl

At the height of the turmoil of the Spanish Period, in all major Spanish-controlled cities, beginning with Brussels, ‘Committees of the XVIII’ are created. These committees become the terrain of an ongoing political conflict between moderates and radicals. The Committees were new organs of political power, and could in no way be considered to be just a restoration of the old organs of municipal self-government. The fact that the old patrician families (or at least some of them) also had a say in these bodies does not change the revolutionary character of these new organs of power. This is also evident in the public controversy that arises around them. Here, too, a de facto alliance of all the privileged and wealthy classes and layers gradually takes shape. This alliance wants to disband these committees as quickly as possible. However, the weight of revolutionary patricians within these committees – during the Liège Revolution the weight of revolutionary citizens – points to a central contradiction in these bourgeois revolutions. The political weakness – the as yet only embryonic proletarian character – of the Fourth Estate did not allow this social group to defend its own political position independently from other social classes, and even less to fight for the direct exercise of political power.xli This implied that, in function of the ‘immature’ capitalist relations, these revolutions, despite the growing contrast between rich and poor, could only end with the victory of the counter-revolution, of the moderate bourgeois fractions.xlii

The attitude of the rich bourgeoisie thus led to a real pendulum swing within the revolution. The provocations, stubbornness, stupidity, intolerance and dogmatism of representatives of the Ancien Régime drove the bourgeoisie to revolutionary acts. Turmoil, revolts, gathering of arms and economic demands by the Fourth Estate, on the other hand, drove the bourgeoisie to compromise with the counter-revolution, if not to openly betray the revolution. The more the Fourth Estate assumes a proletarian character, the more rapidly the bourgeoisie moves into the camp of the counter-revolution. Already during the French Revolution, the bourgeois objectives of the revolution could only be realized radically and in their entirety because the well-to-do bourgeoisie (of which the Girondins were the most consistent representatives) had to temporarily surrender power to the radicalized petty-bourgeois Jacobins. During the revolution of 1848, the rapid transition from the wealthy bourgeoisie to the camp of the counter-revolution took place in a classic manner.

Within the bourgeois revolutions of 1565-1585, 1789-1794, and 1830, we thus see a germinating process of permanent revolution unfolding in our regions,xliii germinating and embryonic only, given the weakness, heterogeneity and only semi-proletarian character of the Fourth Estate. But it is indeed such a process, because the conflict of interests between Capital and Labour, and the class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat that develops from it, are increasingly combined with the conflict of interests between bourgeoisie and nobility. It is this combination that will increasingly determine the political attitude of the bourgeoisie, and thus the political outcome of the revolution.

NOTES

i This essay first appeared under the title De opkomende “Vierde stand” in de burgerlijke omwenteling van de Zuidelijke Nederlanden (1565-1585, 1789-1794, 1830), in Arbeid in veelvoud: huldeboek J. Craeybeckx en E. Scholliers (Brussels, 1988), pp. 172-89. Translation and subheadings by Alex de Jong.

ii J.E. Nève de Mevergnies, Gand en Republique. (La Domination Calviniste à Gand 1577-1584) (Gent, 1940); F. Prims, De grote Cultuurstrijd (first volume 1578-1581; second volume 1581-1585).

iii A summary of this PhD, written under J. Craeybeckx, appeared in Handelingen van de Maatschappij voor Geschiedenis en Oudheidkunde te Gent, new series, XVII (1963), pp. 119-299 under the title De instauratie van de Gentse Calvinistische Republiek (1577-1579).

iv P. Rogghe, ‘De Orangistische Putsch van 28 oktober 1577 te Gent’, Appeltjes van het Meetjesland, Jaarboek van het heemkundig Genootschap van het Meetjesland, 18 (Maldegem, 1967).

v ‘Today, one can no longer imagine a historical study or political action that limits itself to the surface of things, that does not take into account what Marx called the underlying economic factor,’ wrote Emile Vandervelde on page 32 of his booklet Le Marxisme a-t-il fait faillite? Once again, we can say there is nothing new under the sun.

vi H. Pirenne, Geschiedenis van België, V (Gent, 1929), p. 508.

vii P. Lebrun mentions an average of 100 workers per manufacture in the urban textile production in Verviers in 1782 (L’industrie de laine à Verviers pendant le 18e et le début du 19e siècle (Luik, 1948), pp. 273, 281). We limit our discussion of the emerging ‘Fourth Estate’ to the Liège Revolution of 1798-1973, without discussing the Brabant Revolution of 1789-1790.

viii M. Bologne, La révolution en Wallonie (Gilly, 1964). Still, he writes; ‘On the eve of the revolution, as a result of population growth and protectionist policies of neighbouring states, there was unemployment and misery among the masses’ (p. 9). The same does not apply to the rich bourgeoisie, including the manufacturers.

ix Chapuis was the intellectually highest educated radical leader of the Liège Revolution. In 1793 the counter-revolution sentenced him to death and executed him.

x Lebrun, L’industrie de la laine à Verviers, p. 88. Fijon or Fyon was the moderate leader in Verviers during the Liège Revolution, a typical representative of the bourgeoisie.

xi In 1973, the counter-revolution in Liège dismissed 87 officials and seized their property. Among this group we find 16 jurists, 1 notary, 6 printers, 1 pharmacist, 2 doctors, 1 beer brewer, 1 architect, 2 merchants, 14 clergymen, including teachers, 1 industrialist, 1 colonel, 17 municipal workers (mayors, secretaries et cetera), 2 leaders of clubs, for the remained professions are not indicated (J. Daris, Histoire du Diocese et de la Principauté de Liège (1724-1852), vol. II: La révolution liégeoise (Luik, 1877), pp. 400-401).

xii In Antwerp, Mechelen and elsewhere numerous strikes took place during the 16th century. H. Soly and A.K.L. Thijs, ‘Nijverheid in de Zuidelijke Nederlanden’, AGN, 6 (Haarlem, 1979), p. 57; J. Mathieu, Histoire sociale de l’industrie textile de Verviers (1946), pp. 52-5, 69, describes numerous strikes and labour conflicts in the period 1759-1765.

xiii But still one can mention Cornelis Everaert, a rhetorician from Bruges who around 1520-1535 became the spokesperson of wage labourers. A. Despretz, De instauratie van de Gentse Calvinistische Republiek (1577-1579), p. 189, writes: ‘... the practitioners of rhetorical arts belonged to the petty-bourgeoisie and the wage workers.’ Also see the role of teacher-rhetorician Jan Onghena during the Beeldenstorm.

xiv The fullers and weavers of Mechelen went on strike in 1524-1525 for around four months. They demanded increased wages, a two-hour (instead of one hour) lunch break and, as far as the fullers were concerned, the closure of the first fulling mill. The workers of Verviers already in 1764 demanded the organization of a labour exchange to combat unemployment as well as the introduction of a labour inspection (Mathieu, Histoire sociale de l’industrie, p. 61).

xv See among others Schrevel, Recueil de documents relatifs aux troubles religieux en Flandre 1577-1584, II (Brugge, 1924), Introduction, followed by numerous authors.

xvi The classic book regarding the role of starving people in the upheavals of the Spanish period is E. Kuttner, Het Hongerjaar 1566 (Amsterdam, 1979 [1949]). Nevertheless, E. Scholiers points out that in the case of Antwerp, ‘the upheavals of 1566 ... were not ... the expression of a hungry proletariat that wants to end its misery, but rather of a more conscious working class who wants to maintain the awareness of the living standard that it had gained. The slow decline, during several years, from 60 per cent tot only 42 per cent of the wages for skilled workers in the lower paid ranks of builders … and the decline from around 80 per cent to only 30 per cent of the wage of skilled workers among textile workers clearly made them conscious of their social decline.’ (Scholiers, De levensstandaard in de 15e en de 16e eeuw te Antwerpen (Antwerpen, 1960), p. 137.

xvii Near the end of the revolution in the South, the popular masses were so enraged about the alliance of William of Orange with the duke of Anjou that a rapprochement with the Spanish governor Alexander Farnese seemed possible. One slogan went: ‘Better with the old father than with the traitor’. (T. Wittman, Les Gueux dans les bonnes villes de Flandre 1577-1584 (Budapest, 1969), p. 350).

xviii One of the mysteries in the history of the Belgian workers movement is the disappearance of the first organized workers nuclei in Ghent after the 1848 revolution.

xix Regarding this, see Scholiers, ‘Vrije en onvrije Arbeiders, voornamelijk te Antwerpen in de 16e eeuw’, BGN, XI (1956).

xx Wittman, Les gueux; Soly and Thijs, ‘Nijverheid in de Zuidelijke Nederlanden’, pp. 27-8.

xxi Soly and Thijs, ‘Nijverheid in de Zuidelijke Nederlanden’, pp. 27-8.

xxii Mathieu, Histoire sociale de l’industrie, p. 50, mentions that in 1793-1796 out of some 13,000 inhabitants of Verviers, 4,000 died of hunger.

xxiii C. Lis, Social Change and the Labouring Poor: Antwerp 1770-1860 (Yale, 1986), p. 9.

xxiv Ibid., p. 136.

xxv Bologne, L’insurrection prolétarienne de 1830 en Belgique (Brussels, L’Eglantine[, 1929]).

xxvi P. Kervyn de Lettenhove, Les Huguenots et les Gueux (1578-1580), V (Brugge, 1885), p. 337, quoted in A. Despretz, De instauratie van de Gentse Calvinistische Republiek, p. 149.

xxvii Despretz, ibid., pp. 192-3.

xxviii Kuttner, Het Hongerjaar 1566, p. 269.

xxix Ibid., p. 285.

xxx Daris, Histoire du Diocese, pp. 133-4.

xxxi Bologne, L’insurrection prolétarienne, p. 22.

xxxii In an article that attracted much attention, C. Huysmans pointed out that all the people killed in Brussels during August and September were workers.

xxxiii Bologne, L’insurrection prolétarienne, p. 26.

xxxiv Ibid., p. 29.

xxxv Kuttner, Het Hongerjaar 1566, p. 243.

xxxvi Ibid., p. 242.

xxxvii Daris, Histoire du Diocese, p. 376.

xxxviii On fiscal measures during the Calvinist Republic in Ghent, see Despretz, De instauratie van de Gentse Calvinistische Republiek, pp. 195-8.

xxxix Following up on H.G. Koeninsberger, ‘The Organisation of revolutionary parties in France and the Netherlands during the 16th century’, The Journal of Modern History, 4 (1955), who regards the organizations of Huguenots, Orangists and Calvinists as the first modern political parties, we can regard the revolutionary committees as the embryonic forms of the later workers’ councils (soviets).

xl K. Marx and F. Engels, ‘Ansprache van de Zentralbehorde an den Bund vom Marz 1850’, in MEW, volume 7, p. 244.

xli At best one can say that the ‘Fourth Estate’ was indirectly involved with the exercise of political power through its pressure on factions of the urban patriciate and on representatives of craftsmen. ‘During the revolutionary years, the crafts gained a say in political matters’ (J. Van Roelen, Het stadsbestuur in Antwerpen in de 16e eeuw (Antwerp, 1975). But of course that is not the same as direct involvement in political decision-making, or demanding to take that into their own hands.

xlii It is characteristic that the form of election of old or new organs of power – meaning the question of census or universal suffrage – begins to play a very important role in the course of the bourgeois revolution. See for the example of the Liège Revolution: Bologne, La Revolution de 1789, pp. 25, 39-40.

xliiiD. Guérin, with Class Struggle in the First French Republic: Bourgeois and Bras Nus 1793-1795, has done pioneering work in applying Marx and Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution to bourgeois revolutions of the past. But in order to avoid anachronisms this concept has to be used very carefully and non-dogmatically. The starting point must always be a careful study of the real relations of production and of the real social groups (classes, fractions) in any given epoch, in any specific social formation. A classic example of such a study is J. Craeybeckx, Handelaars en neringdoenden. De 16e eeuw, Flandria Nostra, I (Antwerp, 1957), pp. 409-64.

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