Title: Middenstandsbeweging en beleid in België (1918-1940). Tussen vrijheid en regulering
Authors: Heyrman, Peter
Issue Date: 1998
Publisher: Universitaire Pers Leuven
Series Title: KADOC-Studies vol:22
Abstract: This study examines the evolving socio-political status of organised independent retailers and craftsmen in Belgium during the inter-war years, and the response of government and other social groupings to the problems and programmes formulated by the petit bourgeois movement (middenstandsbeweging). Like recent studies on petit bourgeois history in other countries, the autor abandons the old - often Marxist-inspired- dualistic explanatory models. Social movements are approached in a minimalistic way. The petit bourgeois movement in Belgium and its struggle for representation is compared with developments in the rest of Europe, notably in neighbouring countries. The socio-psychological characteristics of independent retailers and craftsmen are explicitly examined, e.g. in the form of their culture of individual merit and responsibility, their localism and introspective mentality. The term 'petit bourgeois' in this study denotes a population group consisting largely of non-agrarian independent entrepreneurs: independent retailers, craftsmen, publicians and artisans. During the inter-war years, these individuals were also referred to as 'crafts and trades'.

The embryonic organisations that were established in Belgium by and for the petite bourgeoisie before the First World War largely collapsed during the German Occupation. After the liberation, there were hopes that governement would would quickly compensate the damage suffered by small businesses during the war. However, no political priority was given to the problems of independent businesses. There were more pressing social needs to attend to, and the profiteering engaged in by some small traders during the Occupation had turned public opinion against them. The provisioning policy of Minister Wauters and the Vandervelde Act (regulation of the sale of strong drinks for public use) were both strongly contested by the petit bourgeois movement, which also felt itself threatened by the rise of socialism. It was unable to win adequate representation among the bourgeois parties and therefore sought the support of other pressure groups that wanted to see the restoration of the relative socio-political ascendancy the middle class had enjoyed during the pre-war period. However, the first post-war attempt to win independent parliamentary representation through a petit bourgeois party was a complete failure. During the 1920s, the movement had to come to terms with its own impotence. It realised that it represented an inadequately organised minority group and therefore tried during successive years to close the gap with other social interest groupings. This was a laborious process, largely because two strategies were being followed. The professional associations and the various petit bourgeois unions (mainly in Wallonia and the large cities) followed the so-called “impartial” or “neutral” line. In their eyes, an effective socio-political representation of independent traders would only be possible if the ideological rift within Belgian society were to be bridged. In the meantime, there were attempts - mainly in Flanders - to form an explicitly Christian petit bourgeois organisation under the political aegis of the Catholic Party. This was also a difficult and laborious process. Clerical support was far weaker than in the Christian workers and farmers' movement. The split in the party between conservatives and democrats left its mark on the Christian petit bourgeois movement. In 1927, divergent views on the formation of political alliances finally led to a breach. One faction, the Christelijke Landsbond van de Belgische Middenstand, had a clerical profile, a mainly rural grass roots membership, adhered to a more or less exclusively political alliance with the Christian Democrats yet exhibited little internal cohesion, was hampered by ongoing financial scandals and was politically ineffectual. The other group, which centred round the catholic Ghent parliamentarian Fernand Van Ackere (1878-1958), eschewed too specific an ideological profile since it believed this would needlessly divide the interests of the petit bourgeois movement and weaken its political scope. It tried to win over the “impartial” (professional and interprofessional) groups in the cities and sought tactical alliances with the liberals. In 1928-1929 Van Ackere managed to force a number of political results, notably a semi-governmental or “para-statal” Central Professional Creditbank (1929) and regional consultative bodies, the Chambers of Trade and Commerce (1928). During the 1920s, the Liberal Party obtained considerable support from independent urban tradesmen who were dismayed by the Belgian government's post-war measures to regulate the market. In 1927-1929, one or two liberal parliamentarians led a remarkable campaign to protest against the heavy tax burden and the alcohol law.

During the early 1930s, it appeared that the non-aligned/Catholic unity of which Van Ackere had dreamed would be established soon and under his leadership. However, the rift within the petit bourgeois movement in 1933-1934 put paid to these plans for a definitive political framework. New interprofessional interest groups for independent retailers and artisans sprang up like mushrooms. Older committee members were set aside; new leaders appeared. The rough "street corner syndicalism" manifested itself like never before. The reasons for the sudden organisational acceleration and ideological radicalisation within the petit bourgeois movement are unclear. The socio-economic crisis context (f.e. the growing pressure from large-scale distribution on the small indepent retail) should certainly be taken into account. Yet there was certainly no question of a 'Panik im Mittelstand'. A deliberate campaign of agitation was launched in emulation of examples abroad. This campaign was set in motion by figures from outside the movement and gradually taken up by a few dissatisfied petit bourgeois trade unionists from the “impartial”, liberal and Christian camps. This new guard managed to take over the Union Nationale des Classes Moyennes that had been launched by Van Ackere and his friends.

The radicalisation of the petit bourgeois movement did not escape the notice of those in power. In 1934-1935 a number of important political concessions were made. However, the government of national unity under the leadership of Paul Van Zeeland (1893-1973) accomplished little of substance for the petite bourgeoisie. In the run-up to the parliamentary elections of 1936, the radicalised “impartial” wing of the petit bourgeois movement went in search of political running mates. Some groupings joined forces with Léon Degrelle's Rexist movement. The success of Degrelle's party and the unrest that occurred during the summer of 1936 brought the problems of the petit bourgeois movement to the forefront of the political arena. As a result, Minister Philip Van Isacker (1884-1951) and his successors tried to formulate a policy-based answer to their demands. Yet because the political threat posed by Rexism had largely been overcome within a year and because the petit bourgeois movement continued to hold firmly to its desire for a corporatist total solution to its members' problems, despite evident opposition from the Socialists, Christian Democrats and Liberals, only a few vaguely coherent measures were implemented during the final years before the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1940, the problems of the petit bourgeois movement were one of the many socio-economic and political issues for which the Belgian government had been unable to find a solution, despite the countless promises and declarations of intent it had made. Even so, the voice of protest from the petit bourgeois movement waned after 1937 and the traditional parties again tried - this time successfully - to bring them into the fold.

The petit bourgeois movement's syndical programme during the inter-war years had two separate roots. Firstly, it grew spontaneously out of a sort of “street corner syndicalism” which defended the absolute autonomy and commercial freedom of small businesses. This argued that the tax burden and social and administrative obligations must be kept to a minimum. Direct competition to retailers and craftsmen had to be restricted. These demands went against prevailing socio-economic tendencies. Many had an overwhelmingly defensive and negative character, which sometimes gave the movement the reputation of reactionary 'anti-toutism'. Before the First World War, however, Catholic socio-political thinkers had developed a programmatic alternative to what were seen as the 'unreasonable' and paradoxical protests of retailers. This Catholic programme for the middle classes was based on a state-subsidised and organisationally supported self-sufficiency among small businesses, e.g. with specially adapted education and loan provisions. Altough the freedom of trade had to be guaranteed, government was asked to supervise and support firms in their continuing process of adaptation within the rapidly evolving capitalistic economy. The state had to alleviate the handicaps confronting small businesses on the open market. In order to obtain more representative and consentient organisations and a more efficient concentration of interests in and amongst the unions an extensive framework of regional and national consultative bodies should be established, governed by public law.

The demands of the Belgian petit bourgeois movement not only had two separate roots but also had strikingly different characteristics. This was reflected primarily in the demands put forward by the impartial retailers' unions, who continually asked for government intervention in the socio-economic sphere to remain as limited as possible. However, at the same time they also expected the government to institute protectionist measures in order to safeguard the existence of small businesses and to protect them from competitors large and small. During periods of economic growth, arguments tended to become more liberal, whereas during recessions they swung back towards the protectionist line. The Catholic (corporatist) petit bourgeois doctrine tried to bridge over these internal conflicts. Even before the war, the confrontation between Catholic theoreticians and non-aligned petit bourgeois radicalism had already made it clear that the government could no longer act purely as a subsidising and supplementary body. The war, the difficulties of post-war revitalisation and the 1925-1926 monetary crisis brought this new pattern of expectations vis-à-vis the state even more emphatically to the fore. There was a growing need for further regulation of commercial practices, a relevant legal framework for tenant-traders, a suitable administrative application of the fiscal and social legislation, and so on. In order to preserve the relevance, effectiveness and flexibility of government intervention in the socio-economic sphere the regional consultative bodies had to be given self-regulatory powers. The regulatory framework intended to help resolve the problems of small businesses had to be developed and applied in consultation with the organisations.

The socio-political programme of the petit bourgeois movement during the inter-war period was vague and incoherent. Moreover, it exhibited various contrasting facets: corporatist versus tentative, inadequately articulated and often anti-egalitarian democratic aspirations, anti-modernism versus a tempered belief in progress, etc. This ideological eclecticism is however hardly surprising. In a minimalist approach, the joint political efforts of these organisations can even be distilled into a single aim, namely the recognition of the right of existence of small businesses and of their representative organisations as full members of the socio-political dialogue. If it is defined more broadly, the social ideal of the Belgian petit bourgeois movement during the inter-war period can even be described as neo-Malthusian. While technical progress and the dynamism of major industries were not rejected, it was felt that their consequences must remain transparent. Modernity was judged in function of its contribution to the preservation of small enterprises. Existing businesses had to be given the chance to absorb technological, organisational, commercial and managerial innovations. The stability of the economic process had to be safeguarded, overproduction or 'overdistribution' avoided at all costs.

However, this idealised picture of a “moral economy” did not provide a fundamental solution to the deep crisis confronting independent retailers and craftsmen during the 1930s. Furthermore, this vision did not appear to be able to be translated into a concrete political project. Corporatist approaches such as those anchored in the Catholic petit bourgeois doctrine propagated around the turn of the century perhaps came closest. They at least appeared to offer an answer to the continued division in the movement and guaranteed small enterprises a say in the socio-political debate. The duality embodied in the movement's syndical programme (less government intervention versus more regulation) could be bridged by awarding the various organisations guaranteed consultation rights and self-regulatory powers. Freedom of association would thus be somewhat restricted in order to promote the effectiveness of concerted interests. This corporatistic project urgently needed to be pushed through, given that during the 1930s the government was intensifying its socio-economic interventionism and was increasingly entering into negotiation with interest groups representing heavy industry, farmers and wage-earners. The persistent dream of a single unified organisation makes it clear that middle class corporatism should not be viewed purely as an answer to the political democratisation after the First World War. Nevertheless it was easy to exploit by those who wanted to reduce the political clout of the workers' movement.

There were of course various strategies for expressing the demands of the petit bourgeois movement. To begin with, it was possible to opt for straightforward syndical representation (1). Most professional associations in fact never took things beyond this point. They besieged the government, the relevant ministers and sympathetic parliamentarians with their demands and programmes, but did not seek direct political representation, or else were reluctant to express their explicit support for specific parties or candidates. Other groups, especially the inter-professional unions, did enter the political arena. They repeatedly tried to set up their own political groupings (2) but did not achieve much beyond the local level. The formation of cartels with other pressure groups or small political (protest) parties (3) fared little better. Finally, collaboration with the established political parties (4) was extremely laborious. The petit bourgeois unions were extremely attached to their independence, were often unreliable partners and made sweeping demands, certainly whenever voting lists were being compiled. The political strategies cited above were often tried out either in succession or simultaneously. This gave the movement the reputation of being politically highly volatile. The attempts by the petit bourgeois movement to form political alliances during the inter-war period were caught in a vicious circle. The movement was not taken seriously because it was unrepresentative and was unwilling to divide itself to conform to existing ideological patterns. Even so, it only to some extent withstood the pressure of pillarisation, as a result of which the option of autonomous political representation became unfeasible.

Social opinion of independent entrepreneurs during the inter-war years reflected a striking duality. While some (notably Catholic and Liberals) constantly sang the praises of the 'social middle classes' and congratulated independent businesses as the leading exponents of this grouping (the most popular metaphors - buffer, ladder, etc - are still applied today), the petit bourgeois movement was also vilified as a group of profit-driven parasites completely lacking in compassion or sense of public duty. Public opinion frequently saw the petit bourgeois issue simply in terms of the problems experienced by small retailers. It was felt that there were too many of them and that they were unskilled and charged excessive prices. Although retailers may have been the trade union backbone of the movement, they were also its Achilles heel. No doubt much of this public feeling in Belgium was due to the shortage of food and the disgust at black marketeers during the First World War. However, it is odd that it was mainly small retailers who were stigmatised and not farmers. Perhaps the positive images of idyllic rural life and hardworking farmers were too strong to be undermined by the experience of war. Or possibly the farmers' lobbies were better at massaging public opinion. If the First World War was a major catalyst in the formation of public opinion about independent businesses, the duality described above has its roots in the dualistic way in which the whole of modernity was viewed during these decades. Small independent businesses were thus either praised as a valuable pillar of the social middle classes or vilified as an undesirable relic from a pre-industrialised age - one, moreover, that should be condemned to extinction. Given these completely divergent viewpoints, the polemical arguments deriving from the modernist or anti-modernist views of the petite bourgeoisie were totally incompatible.

Did the Belgian government during the inter-war years formulate a coherent and specific policy answer to the demands of the petit bourgeois movement? Clearly, the answer to this is 'no'. For many years, the demands voiced by the movement were ignored, misunderstood, repudiated or given low priority. Those responsible for formulating policy were also faced with the incoherence and duality of the programme drawn up by the movement. They were quite rightly confused about what exactly the petit bourgeois movement wanted: freedom or regulation? Partly for this reason, the measures introduced before 1936 did not reflect a cohesive approach to the problems of small enterprises. Instead, they were generally designed as a response to the syndical protests staged by the impartial wing of the movement and to give party-affiliated organisations a boost. The government thus allowed itself to be guided by Catholic pre-war doctrine and looked to neighbouring countries for answers. During the 1920s, France was the leading example, as clearly reflected in tax legislation or the way the commercial register was drawn up. During the following decade and through to the 1940s and 1950s, the Netherlands took over as the main model.

When the crisis broke, the Belgian government for many years refused to go any further then a few a few symbolic and purely suppletive measures. It refused to restrict commercial freedoms, to favour or protect certain types of business or to introduce - as the movement increasingly insistently demanded- regulatory measures, thereby creating a balance in the economic fabric between large and small enterprise. The search for a compromise 'between freedom and regulation' with regard to the problems of the petit bourgeois movement was after all extremely difficult to achieve. Where should the dividing line be drawn? Where should the balance lie? Presumably this balance had to be continuously renegotiated. In that case, who should be involved in these negotiations (the large enterprises and consumers were also interested parties)? What instruments should be applied? These were all difficult questions wich (in the unstable political climate of the 1930s) proved easier to ignore than to address.

The electoral success of the Rexists in 1936 and the supposed contribution in this by the protest vote of small businesses caused a shock, prompted public debate about the problems of small enterprises and resulted in the first attempts to devise a consistent policy-based solution. The 1936 padlock-law against the department stores was introduced as a way of calming emotions. However, the subsequent political debate was bogged down by political instability and the uncompromising refusal by the movement to relinquish its demand for a corporatist authority for the professional and interprofessional organisations. During the final year before the outbreak of war, the debate appeared about to revive, but the German invasion abruptly put paid to this. It was resumed after the war, and led in the 1950s to a series of policy-based solutions to various problems experienced by small businesses (e.g. regulation of trade, business licensing problems, Sunday opening hours). Moreover, the petit bourgeois movement would be closely involved in these developments thanks to its renewed statutory representation.
The petit bourgeois movement in Belgium during the inter-war years was caught in a three-way tension: organisational, political and programmatic. This three-way tension prevented the movement from properly consolidating and representing its interests, as a result of which policy-based solutions could not be applied.
The heterogeneous and unstable world of small independent retailers and craftsmen was not conducive to formal political organisation. However, the headstrong members of this target group did gradually come to realise that in a modern socio-political dialogue, only mature organisational forms could wrest meaningful political concessions from governments. Even so, the - at best - fluctuating interest of grass roots members and the resulting flaws within the organisational field constantly undermined protracted attempts to establish a political federation.
Organised independent retailers and craftsmen felt that the best chance of preserving their tactical freedoms lay in creating their own political movement with no links to existing ideological pillars. These efforts also repeatedly ended in failure, while pressure to join existing political groupings continued to strengthen. The two options continually stood in each other's way.
The movement also upheld opposing political programmes. While most of the unions continually defended the inviolability of entrepreneurial freedom, they also demanded governmental regulations to reverse growing external pressure on small businesses and to transcend internal flaws within the movement.
ISBN: 90 6186 900 5
Publication status: published
KU Leuven publication type: ABa
Appears in Collections:KADOC - Documentation and Research Centre for Religion, Culture and Society - miscellaneous
KADOC Research

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