Cajo Brendel (1915-2007)
Cajo Brendel died at the age of 91 years on the 25th of June, 2007. He was the last of the Dutch "council communists". Cajo was a dear friend and a companion in struggle, who defended his positions fiercely but who was at the same time jovial, warm and cordial in companionship. On the occasion of his 90th birthday we published last year an article in Wereldrevolutie, nr. 107. Here we want to enter at some more length into his life and our ties with him.
Cajo looked upon the ICC as a current referring to "backward positions", such those of the KAPD (Communist Workers' Party of Germany) from the beginning of the 1920's, which, according to him, were surpassed by the Groep van Internationale Communisten (Group of Internationalist Communists, GIC), and he qualified our position on the decadence of capitalism in 1981 in a debate in Amsterdam as "humbug". But Cajo was first of all a consistent and convinced internationalist: that is what we had in common with him and which has always compelled our admiration and respect. We had divergences, among other things, on the unions, which according to Cajo would have been "capitalist" from the outset, and on the national question: according to him "bourgeois revolutions" would still take place, and he classified both the civil war in Spain in 1936 and the changes in China under Mao Tse-tung as such - just like, for that matter, the proletarian October revolution in Russia in 1917-1923.
Whereas for his friend Jaap Meulenkamp political activity was a "socially motivated hobby", for Cajo it was just a little bit more: a conviction for life to which he dedicated himself indefatigably and which he tried to transfer to others with the force of arguments. When with Otto Ruhle he held that "the revolution is not a party affair", this did not stop him from making propaganda for the positions of the Communist Left, nor to make these positions known on several continents. At numerous occasions we have often heartily debated and polemicised with him, to begin with in May 1968 in Paris, and it must be said that emotions could get hot-tempered. But while other members of Daad en Gedachte (Act and Thought), like Jaap, refused ‘out of principle' to debate with organisations or groups which considered themselves to be ‘political vanguards' of the proletariat, Cajo participated in 1973 in several conferences in Dendermonde and Langdorp in Belgium, where the Communistenbond Spartacus (Communist Leage Spartacus) was also represented, as were the groups which would form the section in Belgium of the ICC a year later and of which the repercussions can be found in Daad en Gedachte of 1973-1975.
Cajo was born in The Hague on 2 October 1915. Originating from, in his own words, a "petty bourgeois family" which got into serious financial problems after the bourse crash of 1929, he began to be absorbed in social questions. Initially sympathising with Trotskyism, in 1934, after a debate with David Wijnkoop who had turned Stalinist, he got into contact with two workers in The Hague, Arie and Gees, and then with Stientje. They turned out to be former members of the Kommunistische Arbeiderspartij van Nederland (Communist Workers' Party of the Netherlands) and formed the Hague section of Groep van Internationale Communisten. In 1933 they publish the paper De Radencommunist (The Council Communist). For months Cajo debated every evening with them until he, 19 years old, gave in in September. Much later he told that it was "as if he went from nursery garden straight to university". Through them he comes into contact with the Amsterdam section of the Groep van Internationale Communisten, in which Henk Canne Meijer and Jan Appel played such an important role, and with whom Anton Pannekoek kept in contact. He was also strongly influenced by Paul Mattick and Karl Korsch. Young and with no money Cajo, in the crisis period in The Hague, led, as it is called, a colourful existence. In 1935, after the groups in Leiden, The Hague and Groningen split from the GIC, considering them to be too "theoretical", he published with the group in The Hague first the review Proletariër and then in 1937-1938 Proletarische Beschouwingen (Proletarian Considerations). In 1938-1939 he writes weekly articles for the anarchist review De Vrije Socialist (The Free Socialist) of Gerhard Rijnders, who apparently had no problems with Cajo's Marxism. Mobilised in 1940, Cajo distributes an internationalist leaflet among the soldiers, but without finding any response. After having been transported to Berlin as a prisoner of war, at his return to the Netherlands he got into hiding at a newspaper. After the war he works as a journalist in Utrecht; on the personal level calmer and happier days dawned.
In 1952 Cajo joins the Communistenbond Spartacus, where he is part of the editorial board. In that year he also gets to know Anton Pannekoek. In the twelve following years he writes a great number of articles, and also pamphlets like De opstand der arbeiders in Oost-Duitsland (The Uprising of the Workers in East Germany) and Lessen uit de Parijse Commune (Lessons from the Paris Commune), both in 1953. During the crisis in 1964 when a number of members were excluded from the Communistenbond, particularly Theo Maassen who previously was also excluded from the GIC, Cajo initially takes a conciliating attitude, but finally he rejoins the group that from January 1965 would start the publication of Daad en Gedachte, "dedicated to the problems of autonomous workers' struggle".
But Cajo became really important with the publication of Anton Pannekoek, theoreticus van het socialisme in 1970, a book which in the Netherlands had a great influence on a whole generation of people looking for Marxist positions, and which was also published in German in 2001 as Pannekoek, Denker der Revolution. In 1970 there is internationally a renewed interest in the Communist Left. In 1974, the year when Theo Maassen dies, his Stellingen over de Chinese revolutie (Theses on the Chinese Revolution) is published and in the same year also the German language pamphlet Autonome Klassenkämpfe in England 1945-1972 (Autonomous Class Struggle in England 1945-1970), of which also a French translation has been published, and for the writing of which in 1971 he spent a considerable time among the miners in Wales. Of great importance is also his substantial book Revolutie en contrarevolutie in Spanje of 1977, which unfortunately remained untranslated. Cajo knew his languages, and although most of his writings were published in Dutch, he also published in German, English and French; his writings were translated into even more languages. His influence therefore also grew internationally, also because of his contributions to the magazine Echanges et Mouvement, published in English and French, and his regular participation in international conferences, like in Paris in 1978.
When in 1981 in Amsterdam a conference of internationalist groups is organised, Daad en Gedachte chooses not to participate, but one member of the group is present in a personal capacity and both Cajo and Jaap send in important contributions to the discussion thus assuring the presence of their positions. Also in 1981, during the mass strike in Poland, Cajo, in a well filled hall in Amsterdam, defends that the dividing line "was not between on the one hand the Polish state, and the workers and Solidarnosc on the other, but between on the one hand the Polish state and the union Solidarnosc, and the workers on the other", something we could wholeheartedly agree with. At the presentation in 1983 in Antwerps of the book Blaffende bonden bijten niet (Barking Unions Don't Bite), full of citations from the press of the ICC, Cajo defends in front of a hostile audience of leftists with fervour that the reproach that this book "plays into the cards of the political right wing" is completely unjustified: the right wing employers' parties were conscious as none other of the importance the unions had for them; as much as possible we supported him.
That Cajo was first of all a convinced internationalist emerged again in 1987 when, more or less by mistake, the ICC and a number of its members and sympathisers were invited to participate in a conference of the group Daad en Gedachte. Some of us were actually present, and on our insistence proletarian internationalism was tabled. To our great surprise we stood there together with Cajo and Jaap facing just about all of the ‘younger' of the group who were rather ‘anti-fascist' and inclined to take the defence of bourgeois democracy. We reported on it in our press. It became clear that when this most important of all political point was accorded a second-rate place, the group was drifting away in journalistic academism and couldn't last much longer. Cajo and Jaap were internationalists who all their lives equally denounced without distinction the fascist, Stalinist and democratic camps; but they turned out not to have been capable, at least within their own group, to pass that over to the next generation. The younger elements began to leave the group, which accelerated with the collapse of the Eastern Bloc when everything looking like Marxism began to have a bad odour.
On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the group in 1990 a "retrospect" is published in which the background and positions of Daad en Gedachte are reviewed. But contrary to the intention it doesn't attract any new readers anymore, and even less new collaborators. What we saw happening within the Communistenbond Spartacus in 1981, that is to say that the ‘young' pulled out while the elderly wanted to continue, repeats itself ten years later within the group Daad en Gedachte. In 1991, after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, we visited Cajo to discuss with him the Manifesto of the 9th Congress of the ICC on the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and Stalinism. We also tried to move him to make a presentation on the subject for a public meeting of the ICC. He was very touched and excited: "I disagree completely with you, but I find it terribly important that such a document is distributed internationally." He took the same attitude in 1992 when he made efforts to have our book on the Dutch Left published in Dutch, "the only study which deals with the subject in its entirety", and for which he himself had provided much information and many documents, despite disagreeing in many respects with the book, which proved to be far less than anticipated. The publication of the magazine Daad en Gedachte would continue until 1997, but with ever less collaborators. The organisational structure of the group, one of an informal circle of friends, made it ever harder to maintain coherence. After the illness and death of Jaap in that year Cajo was almost alone to do the work. An appeal from us in our press not to give up the publication of the magazine because it would represent an incredible impoverishment in the distribution of the internationalist positions of the Dutch Left remained without consequences. We wrote: "Whatever the positions and analyses might be which separate us, we consider this political current as a fundamental branch of the historical heritage of the workers' movement and it has also contributed considerably to its theoretical and practical progress" (Wereldrevolutie, no 85, December 1998).
In November 1998 Cajo, 83 years old, holds a series of lectures in Germany, where we were present, and about which we reported extensively in our press (for instance Weltrevolution, no 92, Wereldrevolutie, no 92, Internationalisme, no 255, World Revolution, no 228 ). It attracted halls of a hundred listeners and participants in the debate. Our comrades in Germany were impressed by Cajo's sharp analyses and his great human qualities. His whole life he has been giving lectures, always with debate and not just a question time, not only in the Netherlands but in a whole series of European countries like Germany, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the Scandinavian countries, but even in the United States, Russia and Australia. In the year 2000 we invited Cajo to a public meeting in Amsterdam, where the subject consisted of the question "Council communism, a bridge between Marxism and anarchism?" Cajo did not come, but confronted with attempts to incorporate the Dutch Left into anarchism, he wrote to us, and we saluted it in our press that, "I am by no means an anarchist", and, "Of the method of Marx which he applies in his analyses, of any dialectics or real understanding of what Marxism is all about, the anarchists haven't the least clue." (Wereldrevolutie, no 91).
We visited Cajo for the last time in 2005, once in his house, a couple of months later in the nursing home where in the mean time he was admitted. He didn't recognise us any more, but at the first visit the still talked a lot about his activities, although names and places had slipped from his mind. Contrary to the reports in the anarchist press, he did not live in "distressed circumstances"; in the nursing home he was cared for very well and his children saw to it. Nevertheless, he did not receive many visits from comrades any longer.
Cajo's archive, a goldmine almost six metres long, rests in the International Institute for Social History in Amsterdam. But it is in particular the more than seventy years in which Cajo with his many gifts and forces - generally "against the current" - upheld proletarian internationalism that made him so exceptional in the history of the Dutch Left, of which he was the last representative.
ICC, 29th July 2007.
A short collection of articles relating to Council Communism can be found here: