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Gareth Jenkins


The workers’ friend

(May 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 175, May 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Dir: Stijn Coninx

One image dominates the opening of the film. We are in a textile factory in the Flemish town of Aalst. As the mechanical loom is pushed forward, small children advance on their knees, picking up bits of cotton. They have to be alert, for the loom is pulled back and any child caught unawares risks being crushed.

This is late 19th century Belgian capitalism, red in tooth and claw. Recession grips the country. The French speaking bourgeoisie argue among themselves about whether they can cut wages any further. They also attempt to keep socialist agitation to a minimum – through control of the non-socialist press, religion and by recruiting thugs to keep order. The workers themselves are cowed into sullen anger.

Into this grim world comes a priest, Father Daens. Appalled by the poverty he encounters, he denounces the bourgeoisie from the pulpit. Fighting every obstacle they put in his way, he eventually gets elected to parliament to give the textile workers a voice. This rebel against the Catholic hierarchy takes seriously what Pope Leo XIII says in his encyclical, that the workers have rights which must be respected. He soon discovers that the Church does not.

This film is not just about what happens to religious rebels who sympathise with the appalling suffering of the working class from the outside. It focuses on how workers themselves, through their own experience, begin to abandon religious illusions.

At the centre of the film is a young woman textile worker from a Catholic family. Her elder brother is a member of the bosses’ band of thugs. She resents but puts up with the attentions of the foreman. But she is no socialist. She mocks the young socialist attempting to sell his socialist papers.

Daens, on the other hand, does command her respect. She begins to have hope when Daens forces the government to send a commission of inquiry to inspect the horrible conditions of the factory she works in. It is a naive hope that the great and the good will listen once the truth is known. Though warned by the foreman not to step out of line, she attempts to speak directly to one of the commissioners – only to find that he speaks no Flemish and she no French.

When one of the children picking up cotton is killed she leads a march of fellow workers to the commission. This time she hopes that the mangled child in her arms will be tangible proof that transcends the divisions of language. The march has religious overtones. It is like a procession with the dead child as a Christ figure. Her illusions are shattered when the mounted gendarmerie cut down the procession.

It is impossible not to be reminded of the procession led by Father Gapon in the 1905 Russian Revolution. Workers whose consciousness was totally shaped by religion also had illusions that the Tsar, their little father, would understand their plight.

The Flemish society depicted in the film is not as steeped in religion as Russia was. Nevertheless it is a society in which religion plays a major role in dividing the working class. Under pressure of class conflict the religion of the poor becomes a weapon against the ruling class. In the process both dissident priest and radicalised religious workers move beyond religion, even if they retain its forms.

Indeed, the film is about the shedding of other illusions besides religion. When Father Daens eventually gets into parliament, he soon discovers that his splendid denunciation of the factory owners is insufficient. Parliament is not the friend of the workers any more than the Pope is.

The film ends on a sober note. Daens has been expelled from the church. The young woman has been raped by the foreman. The workers appear no further forward than they were at the beginning, despite the demonstrations and the fights to get Daens elected. But something crucial has been learnt. As Daens himself puts it, the workers have no friends above them and only themselves to rely on. It is a hard lesson – but not a pessimistic one.

It is impossible to leave the cinema without being deeply moved but at the same time utterly optimistic about the future for the workers’ struggles. This is a brilliant film which no socialist should miss.

On very limited release – so watch out for it!

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Last updated: 15 April 2017