OBITUARY: Ludo Martens (1946-2011)
On the afternoon of Sunday 5 June 2011, Comrade Ludo Martens, the founding president of the Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB) passed away. He is survived by two children – his daughter Amada and son Yakobu. We send our heartfelt condolences to his children, to his family, and to the PTB for this irreparable loss.
Born in 1946, Ludo was the eldest son of a furniture manufacturer; he grew up in the small town of Wingene, West Flanders, Belgium. At school he showed great flair for languages and became editor of a newspaper. He had a keen interest in music and poetry. These skills, acquired in early years, were to stay with him and serve him well.
In 1965 he entered Louvain University to study medicine, which promised him the career of an excellent doctor. His heart, however, was in struggle, the cause of liberation. So he became active in KVHV, the Catholic Union of Flemish Students in Higher Education. Along with Paul Goossens, Walter De Bock and Herwig Lerouge, he began to mobilise fellow students along progressive and internationalist lines. Under his inspiring leadership, the Students’ Union movement (SVB) rejected the narrow nationalist slogan “Walloons out” and instead unfurled the banner of struggle against the Catholic establishment, the Flemish bourgeoisie and the elitism of the Flemish university.
For this, Ludo was hated by the clergy, the academic establishment and the Flemish nationalists, all of whom made every effort to malign him and turn him into a nonentity. In ‘Our Life’, the magazine he ran at the University, Ludo exposed and denounced paedophilia within the church – an explosive issue on which he was a full four decades ahead of his time. With this, the authorities could no longer bear Ludo’s presence at the university and went on to expel him, thus depriving working people of the services of a Belgian Norman Bethune.
From the time of his expulsion, the fight against nationalism and the steadfast defence of proletarian internationalism were to run like a red thread in all of Ludo’s political activities over a period of four decades. While all other parties, one after the other, succumbing to narrow nationalism, split along language and national lines, the Workers’ Party of Belgium, Ludo’s most important legacy to the Belgian working class, remained, and continues to remain, a party of all Belgian workers, Flemish and Walloons, united in the struggle for socialism through the overthrow of Belgian imperialism.
Ludo was greatly influenced by the student movement of May 1968 across many European capitals. Having visited Berlin, where he came into contact with German students under the deep sway of Marxism-Leninism, he introduced the thought of Marxism into the Belgian student movement and impressed on it the necessity of creating a workers’ and students’ front. It was, he insisted, the job of the revolutionary intelligentsia to understand and pass on to the working class the laws of motion of history, the sources of all injustice, and the way forward. It was thus that, when the workers at a factory in Louvain went on strike, the SVB students pledged complete solidarity with the strikers. This was a truly revolutionary change, considering that a decade earlier the members of the KHVH had acted as the shock troops of the bourgeoisie against the pickets during the strikes of 1960-61. This new trend of student-worker solidarity was to spread further afield in the struggles of the Belgian working class.
Having had the benefit of experiencing strike actions by the working class, and the solidarity extended by students to these actions, Ludo and his comrades were faced with the question: what next? Naturally, he turned to Lenin’s epoch-making work, ‘What is to be Done?’ He and his close comrades made a serious and collective study of this book and came to the conclusion that it was not enough to have strikes, strike committees, solidarity actions with the strikers, or even a militant trade union. Instead what was needed was a political party of the working class with its own national newspaper, produced as frequently as the Party was able. Thus was born Alle macht aan de arbeiders (AMADA), which in 1979 renamed itself the PTB.
With ‘Serve the People’ as his guiding principle, Ludo encouraged Kris Merckx to set up a primary care medical centre to provide free medical care to working class people in the vicinity of Hoboken. Both the party and the medical services initiated by it have grown enormously since those early days. Presently the PTB has a membership of 4500, with branches in 30 cities and 120 workplaces, while the number of free medical centres has risen to 11, which dispense free health care to over 25,000 people.
From very early on in his political journey, Ludo realised the importance of revolutionary theory, as well as the significance of revolutionary organisation in the struggle of the proletariat for its social emancipation. Hence his constant emphasis on the need for his party comrades to master the revolutionary theory of Marxism-Leninism and to strengthen the PTB and purge it of opportunist elements. He studied and worked hard; and he expected his comrades to do the same.
Always modest, he was willing to acknowledge his own mistakes in the light of deeper study and historical experience. This he did on questions ranging from the role of the trade union movement to the Three World Theory. He had a great facility for working with people whose views were opposed to his. While standing firmly by his principles, he showed great patience in listening to he arguments of his opponents, and never shying away from debate, for science, he believed, had nothing to fear from debate. These characteristics of modesty, hard work, patience, ability to work with opponents, combined with his firm adherence to the ideals of communism, helped him to lead a united PTB, while many other organisations and parties which emerged in Belgium as well as abroad became highly factionalised and eventually ceased to exist.
Ludo was a thoroughgoing internationalist. He led his party to give unstinting support to the struggle of the oppressed people against imperialism, firmly guided by the principle that “the revolutionary movement in the advanced countries would actually be a sheer fraud if, in their struggle against capital, the workers of Europe and America were not closely and completely united with hundreds upon hundreds of millions of ‘colonial’ slaves who are oppressed by capital” (Lenin, ‘The second Congress of the Communist International’, 1920).
The support given by the PTB to the national liberation struggles of the Indochinese people against US imperialism; the Palestinian people against Zionism and its imperialist patrons, especially US imperialism; the struggle of the Cuban people against the US blockade, threats and aggression; the struggle of the DPRK to maintain its independence, sovereignty and socialist system – are just a few of the examples of the PTB’s adherence, under Ludo’s leadership, to the principles of proletarian internationalism. Nowhere were these principles put into practice by the PTB more thoroughly than on the question of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country where Belgian imperialism had committed the most unspeakable crimes, resulting in the deaths of millions for Congolese for the enrichment of the Belgian monarchy and the Belgian bourgeoisie.
It is far easier to vociferate against the crimes of the imperialist bourgeoisie of another country than against that of one’s ‘own’. But, under Ludo’s leadership, the PTB stood this test honourably by supporting in every possible way – ideologically, politically and materially – the revolutionary movement of the Congolese people against Belgian imperialism as well as all other imperialist powers.
Ludo devoted the last ten years of his active political life almost entirely to the support of the Congolese people. In addition to his earlier books on Pierre Mulele and Léonie Abo, Ludo wrote his masterpiece ‘Laurent Kabila and the Congolese Revolution’ during this period. Alas, illness prevented him from completing this work.
Ludo was able to stand firm on this anti-imperialist ground, for he fully understood the meaning of Lenin’s dictum that the “…fight against imperialism is a sham and a fraud unless it is inseparably bound up with the fight against opportunism” (Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism). Following in Lenin’s footsteps, Ludo well understood, and repeatedly emphasised, that opportunism in the working-class movement of the imperialist countries was not an accidental phenomenon; that, on the contrary, it had deep economic roots, namely, in the superprofits received by the bourgeoisie of the imperialist countries from the plunder of the whole world, a part of which plunder could be, and is, used to bribe the upper stratum of the workers – the labour aristocracy – and thus engender a split in the working class; that this stratum of “bourgeoisified workers” serves as the “principal SOCIAL … support of the bourgeoisie … the real AGENTS OF THE BOURGEOISIE IN THE LABOUR MOVEMENT” (ibid.). Hence the need for a ruthless exposure of, and struggle against, opportunism.
At a time when so many parties, nominally communist, found it convenient to swim with the imperialist tide, the PTB, under Ludo’s leadership, gave firm support to the resistance of the oppressed people against imperialism – from Yugoslavia to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Fight against racism
Ludo fully understood that racism was a tool in the hands of the exploiting class to weaken and divide the working class. As such, it had to be fiercely combated and defeated.
Thus, when in 1991, the Vlaams Blok (VB) achieved its first major electoral breakthrough by winning 479,917 votes, the PTB, under Ludo’s leadership, launched the Objective 479,917 Campaign, which aimed at collecting as many signatures as the number of votes cast for the VB in favouring granting Belgian nationality to all those immigrants who had resided in Belgium for five years. Against all expectations, the activists of the PTB succeeded in overfulfilling this objective by collecting more than a million signatures.
That the fight for equal rights, for equality of treatment, irrespective of race, religion, gender or national origin continues to be one of the abiding principles of the PTB, is in no small measure due to Ludo’s penetrating understanding of this question and his firm and inspiring leadership against this pernicious disease.
Defence of Stalin and the USSR
Ludo was fearless in his defence of the leadership of Joseph Stalin during the USSR’s three decades of particular difficulty and exceptional achievement, decades of socialist industrialisation, successful collectivisation, which brought into being a modern, cultured society, resulting in the crowning victory of the Soviet people and progressive humanity over Hitlerite Germany. His book Another view of Stalin, while nailing the bourgeois, professorial and Khrushchevite revisionist lies about Stalin, brought to the fore the brilliance of Stalin’s stewardship of the CPSU(B) and the USSR, which made such a monumental contribution to the march forward of the Soviet people and humanity at large.
He correctly attributed the subsequent degeneration and collapse of the Soviet Union to the triumph of Khrushchevite revisionism – to the capture of the Soviet fortress from within by the opportunist enemies. He ended his book on Stalin with these words:
“In the years to come, as the criminal, barbaric and inhuman character of imperialism shows itself more and more clearly, new generations who never knew Stalin will pay homage to him. They will follow the words of Mao Zedong who, on December 21, 1939, in the distant caves of China … toasted Stalin’s sixtieth birthday:
“’Congratulating Stalin means supporting him and his cause, supporting the victory of socialism, and the way forward for mankind which he points out, it means supporting a dear friend. For the great majority of mankind today are suffering, and mankind can free itself from suffering only by the road pointed out by Stalin and with his help’.” (Another view of Stalin, p.295).
Let it be said in passing that Ludo was the last significant working-class leader to have met Comrade Kim Il Sung just two weeks before the latter’s death. President Kim Il Sung’s Collected Works carry his talk to Ludo, during which he said “I think it is very good that you have written a book about Stalin. I intend to read it”. Coming from such a serious and erudite revolutionary as Kim Il Sung, this is praise indeed.
The wave of counter-revolution that swept across the European socialist countries, and eventually overwhelmed the Soviet Union, provided Ludo with an opportunity to correct somewhat his earlier views and present a more nuanced analysis of the developments in these countries.
This balanced approach became the basis for the establishment of the annual International Communist Seminar, which has been held each May since 1992 to facilitate dialogue and exchange of views between communist parties in the aftermath of the collapse of the CPSU(B) and the demise of the Soviet Union.
Focus on Congo
In 1999, Ludo requested the PTB to relieve him of the post of party president, a position he had held since the founding of the PTB, as he wished to pursue his passion for work in the Congo. This request was reluctantly granted by the PTB. In nearly a decade, following 1999, Ludo wrote his authoritative book on Kabila and the Congolese revolution, while at the same time helping to lay the foundations of a communist party in the DRC.
On the afternoon of 5 June, following a long illness, Ludo breathed his last. With this, the heart of one of the boldest defenders of communism, one of the most implacable enemies of imperialism in the present-day international working-class movement, ceased to beat. His death has brought great loss to the anti-revisionist movement and the gap left by his departure will be felt in the coming days.
In his article ‘Serve the People’, Cde Mao Zedong wrote: “A man must die, but death can vary in significance. The ancient Chinese writer Szuma Chien said: ‘Though death befalls all men alike, it may be weightier than Mount Tai or lighter than a feather’. To die for the people is weightier than Mount Tai, but to work for the fascists and die for the exploiters and oppressors is lighter than a feather.” (September 1944, Selected Works, Vol 4, p.228). In view of Ludo’s dedicated service to the working-class movement, his death weighs heavier than Mount Tai.
When he was admitted as a youngster to read medicine at the university, a career of comfort and opulence beckoned him. However, he spurned all that in order to put himself at the service of the proletariat and the oppressed peoples.
In his world-famous and inspirational novel, ‘How the Steel was Tempered’, Nikolai Ostrovsky wrote:
“Man’s dearest possession is life, and it is given to him to live but once, he must so live it as to feel no torturing regrets for years without purpose; so live as not to be seared with the shame of a cowardly and trivial past; so live, that dying he can say: ‘All my life and all my strength were given to the finest cause in the world – the liberation of mankind’”.
Comrade Ludo can never have had torturing regrets for a purposeless and wasted life, for all his life and strength were truly devoted to the finest cause in the world – the liberation of mankind.
Farewell, Cde Ludo Martens! You have died, but never surrendered the banner of the liberation of humanity from the clutches of oppression and exploitation of one human being by another and of one nation by another – the banner of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin.
NOTE  AMADA: All power to the workers