Well, strangely enough—but this is probably part of a special mentality, not very close to the average—I have no bad memories at all of that period. On the contrary. I have rather a memory of tension, yes, excitement, yes, nervousness, but not at all of despair. Absolutely not. This has something to do with the fact that we were a highly politicized family.
At that time my father was not an activist. He had been an activist at the time of the German revolution. He had fled from Belgium to Holland in the First World War because he didn’t want to do his military service. He was already a very left-wing socialist and he had met Willem Pieck—who was later President of the German Democratic Republic—in Holland. When the German revolution broke out they went to Berlin together. He worked for some months in the first press agency of Soviet Russia in Berlin. He knew Radek personally and met a lot of other people. And so I found on our bookshelves a fantastic collection of old publications—books by Marx, books by Lenin, books by Trotsky, the International Correspondence Inprecor of that time, Russian literature and so on. He dropped out of politics around 1923. His life was very much attuned to the general ups and downs of world revolution. When Hitler came to power he got a shock. He was very conscious of what that would mean for the world. I remember—it’s perhaps my first political memory, I was nine years old in 1932—at the time of the so-called Papen putsch when the Social-Democratic government of Prussia was eliminated, and Severing the Minister of the Interior, together with the chief of the police, made this famous or infamous statement, Ich weiche vor dem Gewalt—‘I yield before violence’. A lieutenant and two solders had entered his office and he dropped all the power which they had accumulated in the fourteen years since 1918. He dropped it in just five minutes. This news appeared in the social-democratic daily paper of Antwerp, our home town. My father
Much earlier than that 1936 was a turning point for me, and for my father. Two things came together, the Spanish Civil War and the Moscow trials. These events had a major impact on us. The working-class movement in Antwerp and in Belgium played an important role. The Spanish Civil War evoked a tremendous wave of solidarity. I remember well the demonstration of May 1st, 1937. There were perhaps a hundred thousand people in the streets, and the people coming back from the International Brigades in Spain and people collecting money. They were received by an ovation which I will never forget. Prior to the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, it was the biggest international event which we had ever had in Belgium. Then there were the Moscow trials, which were a tremendous shock for my father. He had personally known several of the defendants of the first trial who were functionaries of the Comintern. Radek was one of the main defendants of the second trial. My father got angry beyond description, beyond description—and on the spot he organized a committee of solidarity with the Moscow trial defendants. He got in contact with a small Trotskyist group in Antwerp. They met at our place and I became, at the age of thirteen, a Trotsky sympathizer—not a member because the organization was not so stupid that it would let a child of thirteen into its ranks. But I was present at meetings, listening, and was considered a bright youngster so they didn’t oppose my listening. I was fifteen years old when I was formally admitted. And it was an interesting moment because this was a little after the founding conference of the Fourth International.
1938. The Young People’s Socialist League of the United States, the youth organization of the swp, sent a man called Nattie Gould to speak to us about the founding conference. I still see him before my eyes. He toured several western European countries to give a report on the founding conference and explain the work of the swp. He came to Antwerp and to our place where the Antwerp cell of the organization met. I think that it was after that meeting that I was formally admitted as a candidate member. Then there was a certain vacuum, the most difficult period probably in our country. In 1939 everybody was sure the war
It was against the war. It said the war is coming, but this is not our war and so on and so forth. It was not received very well and was written in a very abstract and propagandist way. I didn’t write it and don’t take any responsibility for it!
I distributed it, obviously.
I was nearer to sixteen. That was a very difficult time, probably the most difficult time we have had. Our organization comprised two sectors in Belgium. One was a little mass base we had in one of the coal-mining districts where there were around six hundred members who had come to us from social democracy. We had the absolute majority in one mining town and the response of the employers was to immediately close down the pit in that town and it never opened subsequently. All those miners who voted for the extreme Left were victimized for their political engagement. Before the war, during the war, after the war, they were never employed again. Comrade Scargill will recognize this. There’s nothing new under the sun.