3 - From the RSAP to the ‘Marx-Lenin-Luxembourg Front’: The Sneevliet Tendency

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The current which gave rise to the council communist organisation ‘Spartacus’ emerged from Sneevliet’s RSAP. This political transformation during the war is one of the most astonishing ever.

The RSAP (Workers’ Socialist Revolutionary Party)39 represents the sole case of an electoralist party to the right of the Trotskyist movement, evolving during a world war towards revolutionary positions. Coming out of the Dutch Communist Party in 1927, the Sneevliet fraction was at the head of a small union, the NAS (Nationaal Arbeids Secretariaat) which refused to dissolve itself into the social democratic NVV union. Constituted in part in 1929 (RSP, Revolutionary Socialist Party), this tendency was closer to the Brandlerian right-wing tendencies in the CI than the lefts (Korsch, Schwartz, Bordiga), which quit in 1926. The policy of Maring-Sneevliet on China in the 1920s had been vigorously criticised by Trotsky for having contributed to the defeat of the revolution in 1926-27. The fusion in 1935 with a left socialist organisation, the OSP (Independent Socialist Party), itself coming out of Dutch social democracy in 1932, gave birth to the RSAP, the constant target of the council communists.40

This small party of 3,600 members at the beginning, which still had 2,500 adherents in 193941 was based on the NAS union led by Sneevliet. The NAS was the union base of the RSAP, with 22,500 members in 1933; by 1939, after state employees had been forbidden to join the NAS, the figure had fallen to 10,500. Born in 1893, the NAS maintained a revolutionary-syndicalist orientation; it joined the Red Union International in 1925, but left in 1927 when the CI gave the order to dissolve itself into the official social democratic union, NVV, in 1927. All those members of the Dutch CP who had joined the NAS followed Sneevliet in the split.

Politically, the RSAP oscillated between left socialism and Trotskyism. Before 1935, the two organisations RSP and OSP pronounced themselves - with Willy Brandt’s SAP and the Trotskyist LCI - for the formation of new parties and the creation of a new International (Declaration of the Four, August 1933). In 1935 the RSAP, together with other organisations,42 declared itself for the rapid construction of the fourth International. This position, with others such as the union question, led some militants to leave the RSAP and form the BRS (Socialist Revolutionary League) linked to the SAP. The break with the SAP was complete, but not the break with left socialism. In fact, in 1936, Sneevliet gave his support to the POUM in Spain which had just entered the Catalan government. The same year, he took position against Trotsky’s policy of ‘entrism’ into the socialist parties.

In 1937, progressively, the split between the RSAP and Trotsky was completed. As much as for his attitude towards the POUM, Trotsky reproached Sneevliet for keeping the NAS alive. Trotsky insisted that the NAS be dissolved into the socialist union, the NVV. Accusing the NAS of receiving financial support from the Dutch government43 and Sneevliet of being irresponsible,44 Trotsky concluded:

 

... if you continue to adopt the same  totally ambiguous position -  with the 4th International in words, against it in fact - then an open and honest split would be better. In this case you will remain with the NAS and we with the 4th International. We are creating a section in Holland and will try to build through open struggle what we have been unable to create through patient collaboration and discussion between comrades.45

 

This ultimatum led to a total break in 1938. Soon a Dutch Trotskyist group was created - the BLG or Bolshevik-Leninist Group composed in part of ex-members of the RSAP.

Until the war, the RSAP barely differentiated itself from the left socialist parties. The party took part in parliamentary elections. In 1935, Sneevliet and Schmidt - the latter being the leader of the old OSP and the vice-president of the RSAP - were elected deputies at the same time as two other leaders of their organisation. In the same year, the RSAP won 23 seats in the municipal elections. Although it lost its parliamentary seats in the general election of 1937, the RSAP had more success in 1939; in the municipal and general elections, where Sneevliet was elected council member for Amsterdam and for the provincial states in the north of Holland.46

This electoral activity attracted the sarcasm of Trotsky – even though Trotskyist organisations adopted an identical policy. It was combined with a political united front with left socialism. In September 1938, the RSAP took the initiative of forming with the PSOP (Socialist Workers’ and Peasants’ Party) of Marceau Pivert an International Workers’ Front against the war - Internationaal Arbeiders Front or IAF - that soon brought 15 organisations together, including that of Brandler and of Vereeken.47 The Front’s Manifesto called on workers to struggle against the war; and if the war broke out to finish with capitalism by revolution.

It was in fact the question of war, and consequently the attitude of the RSAP towards Russia, which profoundly transformed the RSAP, at the price of a radical change of programme, then of orientation on all its programmatic positions. Sneevliet’s change of position on the Russian question was to be decisive, through the fact that he dominated the RSAP and the NAS with his powerful personality and all his authority.48

In 1935 the Party programme took position for the defence of the USSR in the case of war. The crushing of the Barcelona workers by the Communist Party in May 1937, followed by the Moscow Trials, increased Sneevliet’s doubts on the validity of this point in the programme.

In December 1939, the RSAP held its last conference. Due to the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the point on the defence of the USSR was scratched from the Party’s programme: “...the alliance between Germany and Russia has practically rendered useless the paragraph concerning the duty to defend the Soviet Union”. “No-one now claims that if Russia finds itself engaged in war, the duty of the international working class is to unconditionally support the USSR”.49

The resolution which removed this point from the programme was adopted by 806 mandates against 18. In fact, it was more by anti-fascism than by internationalism that the non-defence of the USSR was proclaimed. This was an ambiguity that had to be settled.

Among the leaders of the organisation, only Willem Doleman disagreed.50 With others he went on to represent the Trotskyist vision after 22nd June 1941 in the MLL Front.

The Russo-Finnish War again posed the question of the defence of the USSR and that of the ‘right of peoples to self-determination’. Some militants, such as van Driesten, proposed forming a front of the world proletariat against Russian intervention without allying with the Finnish bourgeoisie. Others criticised this position which could appear as supporting the Finnish bourgeoisie and denounced as opportunist Lenin’s slogan of ‘self-determination’”. Implicitly these latter denounced any slogan of struggle for ‘national determination’”.51

Without engaging in a theoretical debate on the nature of the USSR, which would have led to the formation of antagonistic tendencies, the RSAP prepared for illegality in 1938 convinced that the war would not spare the neutrality of Holland and that it was necessary to “strengthening the struggle against imperialist war”.52

On 10th May 1940, the German army invaded Holland, which capitulated after 6 days of fighting. Sneevliet, who was in Belgium, returned in order to continue the struggle underground. The RSAP ceased to exist. In its place an illegal organisation was constructed: the Marx-Lenin-Luxemburg Front. At first, it comprised 4-600 members, as against 2,500 in the RSAP. Clandestinity demanded a rigorous selection of reliable militants. In order to confront repression the MLL Front was built on a system of cells of 5 members, partitioned up and led by men of confidence who linked up vertically and horizontally with the illegal leadership and other cells. The double organisation disappeared: the NAS was liquidated in September. The RSAP became the second largest illegal political organisation in Holland, and even the first if one took into account the fact that the Dutch CP kept a semi-legal status for several months due to the Germano-Soviet Pact.53

A Central Committee of 9 members was set up. It included Sneevliet, Menist, Doleman, Gerritsen, de Haan-Zwagerman, Jan Koeslag, Piet van t’Hart - known as Max Perthus - Jan Schriefer, and Stan Poppe (pseudonym: T. Woudstra); the latter went on to play a decisive role in the creation of the Spartacusbond. Sneevliet was the uncontested leader, writing almost all the political positions of the Front. At his side, Ab Menist - of Jewish origin - was a born organiser; Doleman was the treasurer and responsible for publications.

Under the management of this Central Committee an external bulletin was regularly published (Het MLL Bulletin) as well as an internal organ (Richtlijnen, ie, Directives). For a while, the MLL Front propagandised militants of the socialist SDAP and published ‘Letters to the social-democrats’ (Brieven ann Sociaal-Democraten). The latter were denounced as the “Judas of the workers’ movement”54 after they took part in a Dutch union that brought together liberals, religious parties and social-democrats in July 1940. This union proclaimed its allegiance to the bourgeois monarchy of the House of Orange and hoped that German domination in Europe would allow Holland to keep Indonesia as a colony. The SDAP was not banned by the new Nazi regime for several months. Many of the SDAP opposition who criticised their party chose another camp: the British.

This policy of forcing the SDAP rank-and-file to confront the consequences of their party’s positions brought a certain number of them into the MLL Front. The Front did not adopt the same policy towards the CP. “Stalinism is fascism under its worst form”, it wrote.55

It should to be noted that in its Bulletins, the MLL Front did not pronounce on the class nature of the socialist or communist parties. Its propaganda towards these parties, towards the SDAP in particular, showed that it still considered them as a part of the ‘workers’ movement’. In this sense the Front remained the continuation of the pre-war RSAP. But it was already differentiating itself both from the Trotskyist parties and from the left socialists by its refusal to support either the ‘democratic’ camp or that of the USSR. Its action was oriented as much against the Dutch bourgeoisie as the German.

To the two imperialist fronts, the MLL Front opposed the Third Front (Derde Front), that of the proletariat: “The MLL Front want the insurrection of the proletariat in the warring countries and the fraternisation of soldiers and workers through the struggle against the imperialist powers which has led them into this war. Such is the ‘Third Front’ which is propagated in the writings of the MLL-Front”.56

This policy of the Front led the MLL to link up - at the end of 1940 - with the Vonkgroep (Spark group) formed by left socialists, including many artists and intellectuals. It was led by Eddy Wijnkop, a member of the MLL Front, with the agreement of Sneevliet and the Central Committee. Publishing the illegal monthly De Vonk it defended the same point of view as the Marx-Lenin-Luxemburg Front.

This ‘broad’ policy towards other organisations underlined the ambiguity of the organisation’s orientation, and its difficulty in appearing as an autonomous internationalist current. The fact that, during the same period, the left socialists of the BRS and the Trotskyists of the BLG asked to merge with it – a request which was rejected in both cases - only confirmed this.57

Two events precipitated the political evolution of the MLL-Front: the strike of February 1941 and the German attack on Russia on 22nd June 1941.

Notes

39. For the history of the RSAP: besides the book by Perthus, already quoted, see G. H. Pieterson; Het revolutionaire socialisme in de jaren dertig (‘Revolutionary Socialism in the 1930s’: unpublished doctoral thesis presented to the Economisch-historisch Seminarium, Universiteit van Amsterdam, 1977).

40. See the pamphlet by the GIC: Klassenstrijd in oorlogstijd (‘Class struggle in time of war’), Amsterdam, 1935. The Unification Congress took place in Rotterdam, and not Amsterdam, as F. Tichelmen says incorrectly in Henk Sneevliet, een politede biografie, Amsterdam, 1974. This is shown by Poppe’s interesting testimony in Spartacus no.2, 1975.

41. Cf. Perthus, op.cit., pp370-71. Perthus gives the figure of 3,000 militants for the left socialists of the OSP in 1935, and 1,000 for Sneevliet’s RSP. The RSP was thus a minority in the RSAP; it is true that a pro-SAP split in November 35 led to the departure of 1,000 militants, mostly ex-OSP. Sneevliet was secretary of the RSAP and P. J. Schmidt - ex-leader of the OSP - president. The latter abandoned his position and left the party in August 1936, during the Moscow Trials. A year later, he returned to the SDAP. Henceforth, the weight of the OSP was felt less.

42. Cf. Works of Leon Trotsky; Volume 5, EDI, 1979. The ‘Open letter to organisations and groups of the revolutionary proletariat’ (June 1935) appealed to “all the parties, organisations, fractions in the old parties and in the unions, all the associations and revolutionary workers’ groups in agreement with the principle of preparation and of the construction of a 4th International to put their signature to this letter”. Apart from the RSAP, it was signed by the Workers’ Party of the USA, the International Secretariat of Trotsky’s LCI, the Bolshevik-Leninist group of the SFIO and the Workers’ Party of Canada.

43. Trotsky claimed, without any proof, that “The NAS only exists because it is tolerated and financially supported by the bourgeois government”. In this letter addressed to Sneevliet, he added: “This financial support depends on your political attitude” (Letter of Trotsky, 2.12.37, in Works, Volume 16, ILT, 1983). Sneevliet was one of the rare militants with whom Trotsky was friendly. Vereeken thought that the lies against Sneevliet were the work of Klement and the Belgian Trotskyists. For his point of view, see Le Guépéou dans le mouvement Trotskyste (‘The GPU in the Trotskyist Movement’), La Pensée Universelle, 1975.

44. Trotsky accused Sneevliet of sabotaging the ‘Amsterdam Bureau’ of the 4th International, and of contributing, through lack of caution, to the death of Ignace Reiss, an official high up in the GPU who had gone over to Trotskyist positions, and was in consequence assassinated in September 1937 by the Stalinists. Suspicious of the people around Trotsky’s son Sedov, Victor Serge and Sneevliet had sought a meeting with Reiss. Unbeknownst to him, Sedov’s entourage did indeed include GPU agents who caused his death, and who were only unmasked after the war.

45. Letter of 2.12.1937, Trotsky to Sneevliet, in Works of Leon Trotsky, Volume 15, p. 343.

46. Note that Sneevliet’s candidature was supported by a Revoutionair-Anti-Oorlogs Commite (anti-war revolutionary committee). Among them was Abraham Korper, who had been one of the founders of the KAPN and a leader of the councilist group ‘De Arbeidersraad’ in the 30s.

47. Vereeken led the group ‘Contre le Courant’ in Belgium, which refused to link up with the official Trotskyist current. He was the personal friend of Sneevliet and had ties with the Frank-Molinier group.

48. Sneevliet had the reputation of being very authoritarian in the RSAP. His written contributions, and in particular his theses on organisation were innumerable.

49. Quoted by Wim Bot, Tegen facisme, Kapitalisme, en oorlog - Het Marx Lenin Luxemburg Front, July 1940 - April 1942, Uitgeverij Syndikaat, Amsterdam, 1983. The paragraph mentioned and the result of the vote can be found in De Nieuwe Fakkel, 22.12.1939.

50. Most of Trotsky’s supporters left the RSAP in 1938. The remainder left the following year.

51. The Belgian Trotskyists who published Correspondance internationale asserted, without any proof, in their issue 14 of 15.12.39: “the RSAP has pushed equivocation to the limit,  in organising collections for the Finnish people whereas these collections are sent to Finnish class organisations!”.

52. Wim Bot, op. cit, p.11.

53. Outlawed by the Dutch government, the CP published its periodicals, Volksdagblad and Politik en Cultuur, legally up to the end of June 1940 under German occupation.

54. Wim Bot, op. cit., p. 25. A part of the SDAP supported the German camp and collaborated with it, for example the ‘Troelstrabeweging’ (Troelstra Movement - named after an old leader of the SDAP).

55. Wim Bot, op. cit., p. 31.

56. Cf. Perthus, op. cit., p. 430-431.

57. Cf. Wim Bot, Op. cit., p.28.