Notes on the Dutch Left (part 2)

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In this part of the article, we will try to show that the Dutch Left was always preoccupied with the task of forming a proletarian vanguard based on communist positions and capable of actively defending these positions in the class struggle. We can only really understand the Dutch Left’s position on the party if we avoid playing word-games like today’s councilists and other history ‘experts’. We’ve got to make a real effort to understand the debate which took place among revolutionaries in the 1920s, 30s, 40s -- the long years of counter-revolution which followed the revolutionary wave of 1917-23.

The context of the debate on the Party

The revolutionary organizations which regrouped to form the Communist International, even though they may have had different approaches to the question, were all confronted with the problem of understanding how the consequences of the new period -- the “era of wars and revolutions”, the decadence of capitalism -- affected the question of the party.

In the ascendant period of capitalism, the party was a unitary organization of the class, which fought for parliamentary reforms and inside which revolutionaries could actively defend the pro­gram of the proletarian revolution. Alongside the political party, the trade unions were unitary organs at an economic level. These two types of unitary organization could exist in society in a permanent manner, because capitalism could still grant reforms to the working class; consequently, the class could struggle within capitalist society in a distinct and separate way, at the parlia­mentary-political and economic levels. But even before the First World War, Pannekoek, in agree­ment with Rosa Luxemburg, considered that the mass strike would involve political actions by the mass organs of the proletariat. In such action, the various goals of the political and trade union movements were mixed together and united into political goals. Mass strikes no longer simply demanded the expertise of represent­atives and spokesmen of the class, but the strength, discipline and class consciousness of the masses. Far from denying the necessity of the party, the Dutch Left shared the same concep­tion as the whole left-wing of the IInd Inter­national: the mass party (on the model of the German party) would be the instrument for the emancipation of the proletariat in the revolution. This idea was held by Lenin, Luxemburg, Gorter and Pannekoek. But the Dutch and German Lefts already differed with the Bolsheviks when they insisted on the need to develop the creative ‘spontaneous’ strength of the proletarian masses; without this the victory of the proletarian revolution would be impossible. The Bolsheviks’ main contribution was on another aspect of the question of the party. In the particular circumstances of Tsar­ist Russia, Lenin was forced to build an organi­zation of revolutionaries in order to prepare the way for a mass social democratic party. An organization like this, made up of the most conscious elements of the class, was much better equipped for the change in period which capitalism was going through. As the possibility of gaining reforms within the system came to an end, the unions and parliamentary parties were only able to maintain themselves as permanent organizations by leaving the camp of the working class and integrating themselves into the bourgeois state, a process culminating in 1914. On the other hand, revolutionary mass actions gave rise to new uni­tary organizations of the proletariat: general assemblies, strike committees, workers’ councils. As before 1914, revolutionaries were the most active elements inside these unitary organs. But these new organizations, by the very nature of the revolutionary goals they pursued, could only exist in periods of struggle. Revolutionaries could now only organize themselves as a minority whose task was to contribute to the clarification of the means and ends of the struggle. Such revolutionary organizations, while calling them­selves ‘parties’, were not the same as the par­ties of the ascendant period of capitalism, when the term ‘party’ was more or less identical to the working class, when it was firmly united on the basis of understanding the communist program.

It was above all the German and Dutch Lefts which understood the necessarily minoritarian character of the organization of revolutionaries, of the party, so that any identification between party and class could only lead to a form of substi­tutionism. It was their understanding of the necessity for mass spontaneity which allowed the German and Dutch Lefts to defend the idea of an organization of revolutionaries without falling into substitutionism. On the other hand, the German and Dutch Lefts also had weaknesses in their conception of the party. These resulted from a failure to understand that, in the new period of capitalist decadence, the unitary organs of the class could only exist in periods of struggle, and that the organization of revo­lutionaries could only have a real influence in the class -- could only be a party -- during a revolutionary wave. It was over this first problem that the KAPD split into various fractions as the revolutionary wave subsided. The Dutch Left made important contributions to this question and ultimately resolved it. On the second prob­lem (the party), although the Dutch Left didn’t reach the same clarity as the Italian Left in exile (Bilan and Internationalisme), it was able to take up the tasks which fall to revolutionaries in a period of reflux (the twenties and thirties): preparing for the future party in the perspective of a proletarian resurgence after World War II. On the question of the party, today’s councilists have regressed in comparison to the Dutch Left -- they defend the anti-party position of Ruhle, which was never shared by Gorter, Pannekoek, Hempel or Canne Meyer.

Although the Dutch KAP (Communist Workers’ Party) didn’t create an AAU (General Workers’ Union), it divided into two tendencies like the German party (the KAPD. Gorter represented the Essen tendency of the KAP; Pannekoek didn’t take a position but published texts on the debate. As we shall see, the positions of Pannekoek already contained the seeds of a solution to the problem, which was resolved after the death of Gorter in 1927.

The splits in the Dutch KAP on the question of the AAU

The debates which finally led to the break-up of the party were concerned mainly with the rela­tionship between the party and the AAU. The German AAU (AAUD) claimed to be the synthesis of the factory organizations born in the German revolution. The program of the KAPD saw the factory organizations as “purely proletarian organs of struggle” which had the dual task of contributing to the denunciation and destruction of the counter-revolutionary spirit of the trade unions, and of preparing the construction of the communist society. In the factory organizations, the masses would be able to unite, to develop their class consciousness and class solidarity. The AUUD defined this second task as follows:

In the phase of the seizure of political power, the factory organization must itself become part of the proletarian dictatorship, which is carried out in the factories by the factory councils structured on the basis of the factory organization. The factory organiza­tion is a guarantee that political power will remain in the hands of the executive committee of the councils.” (Program of the AAUD, December, 1920)

According to the KAPD, the factory organization as a unitary organ of struggle was a guarantee for the conquest of power by the proletariat and not by “a clique of party chiefs” (KAPD Program). The task of the Party, of the KAPD, wasn’t to take power but to “regroup the most conscious elements of the working class on the basis of the party program … The KAP must intervene in the factory organizations and conduct a tireless propaganda within them”, but what was expected didn’t take place. The tasks ascribed to the factory organizations, which were supposed to unite in the AAUD and quickly regroup the whole German proletariat, were not carried out. Even at this early period -- in a letter dated 5 July 1920 -- Pannekoek said that it was incorrect to envisage two organiza­tions of the most conscious workers, that both of them would end up as “minorities within the broad masses, who were still not active and still inside the trade unions”. In the long term, this dual form of organization would be useless because they would actually be regrouping the same people. Proletarian democracy had to be based on all those who worked in the enterprise and “who, through their representatives, the factory councils, would assume political and social leadership”. Accor­ding to Pannekoek, the communists were a more conscious minority whose task was to disseminate class positions and to give an orientation and a goal to the struggle. A second form of organiza­tion, the Unions, was of no use to the revolution. According to him, therefore, it was necessary to abandon the AAUD in favor of the party, although he did say that organizing in Unions was perhaps necessary in the specific situation in Germany.

Otto Ruhle and the AAU

Otto Ruhle and his group split on the basis of ideas that were the exact opposite of Pannekoek’s. Ruhle abandoned the party in favor of the Union, which he saw as the real unitary organization which did away with any need for a party. Ruhle saw the party as an enormous apparatus which sought to direct the struggle from above, down to its last details. This is the conception of the party that Rosa Luxemburg reproached Lenin for holding.

But the KAPD saw its task as contributing to the “development of the self-awareness of the German proletariat” (KAPD Program). In his splitting document with the KAPD (Grundfragen der Organisation), Ruhle ignored this task of clari­fication which the party had given itself. But even in the Program of the AAU(E) (E stands for ‘Einheit’s organization’, or ‘Unitary Organiza­tion’ to distinguish Ruhle’s AAU from the KAPD’s AAUD, we can find propagandistic tasks – although the federalist AAU(E) was unable to carry out these tasks because of the multifarious mish-mash of positions within it. Since all these positions existed within the AAU(E) without being discussed, it contributed practically nothing to the “development of the self-awareness of the working class” even though this was one of the points in its program. And despite Ruhle’s anti-party conceptions, he was unable to prevent a political group emerging out of the ‘Unitary Organization’ in 1921: a group calling itself ‘Gruppe des Ratekommunisten’ (Group of Council Communists).

The KAPD majority defended centralism from below, as opposed to Ruhle’s federalism. “Federalism is sheer nonsense if it means separating enterprises or districts when they actually represent a whole” (Karl Shroder: Vorn Werden Einer Neuen Gesellschaft). In the pamphlet Die Klassenkampf-Organisation des Proletariats (The Organization of the Proletariat’s Class Struggle), Gorter defended the idea of the distinct existence of the KAPD in relation to the ‘Union’.

It’s clear that you can’t identify Gorter and P annekoeks’ positions with those of Ruhle. At the beginning of the 1920s, Gorter and Ruhle opposed each other on the question of the party, although both of them believed that the Unions could grow into genuinely unitary organs. At this time Pannekoek was already stressing the minoritarian character of the Union and suggested the suppression of the AAU. The tragic end of the KAPD, a direct consequence of the defeat of the world revolution, meant that it wasn’t in the party, but in what remained of the Unions, that the need was felt for the regroupment of the rare elements who had remained faithful to the revolu­tion. This regroupment gave birth to the Kommunistische Arbeiter-Union (Communist Workers’ Union), a result of the fusion between the vest­iges of the AAU(E) and the Berlin fraction of the AAUD in 1931. In a text written at the end of the 1940s, Henk Canne Meyer recalled:

This new name (KAU) in fact expressed the awareness of a gradual evolution in the conceptions of the movement for factory organiza­tions. This evolution was particularly concerned with the concept of the ‘organized class’. Previously the AAU had thought that it would organize the working class and that millions of workers would all adhere to this organization. But over the years the AAU had always defended the idea that the workers themselves had to organize their own strikes and struggles by forming and linking up action committees. This is how they would act as an organized class even though they weren’t mem­bers of the AAU. In other words, the ‘organized’ class struggle was no longer to depend on an organization formed previously to the struggle ... The role of the AAU, and later the KAU, was to carry out communist propaganda inside the struggle of the masses, to contribute to the struggle by indicating the way forward and the goals to be pursued.” (Die Economische Grondslagen van de Radenmaatschappy)

From Party to Fraction: the GIC

Towards the end of the 1920s and the beginnings of the 1930s, it was clear that revolutionaries had lost any real influence on the class struggle. Consequently the party tended to divide into tendencies defending different positions on the defeat of the world revolution. Henk Canne Meyer, who had been a representative of the Berlin tendency in the Dutch KAP, left the party in 1924 with the following declaration:

The KAP (throughout most of its existence) was nothing but a swamp always producing new kinds of muck. You are well aware of all the noxious types who have developed inside it. It’s no longer possible to do anything inside it -- new, fresh forces will have to preserve themselves from this quagmire.”

In 1927 there was a series of discussion meetings between members and ex-members of the Dutch KAP and German revolutionaries on the problems of the period of transition. Hempel had begun work on a plan for a text based on his journeys to Soviet Russia as a delegate of the KAPD, on Capital and on the Critique of the Gotha Program. During the first of these discussions, Pannekoek was present and opposed the plan, basing himself on Lenin’s State and Revolution. On 15 September 1927 Gorter died, and with him went the last force capable of holding the Dutch KAP together. These discussion meetings on the period of transition gave birth to the Groep van Internationale Communisten (Group of Inter­national Communists, GIC), without doubt the most fruitful of the Dutch council communist groups. Many ex-members of the KAPD were then in exile in Holland, having fled the onward march of the counter-revolution. The GIC published Persmat­eriaal van de GIC (Dutch), Ratekorrespondenz (German) and Klasbatalo (Esperanto). It was in close contact with Council Correspondence, magazine of the German émigré Paul Mattick in the US, and with the remainder of the KAPD in Germany. Apart from its propaganda work towards workers and the unemployed, the GIC attempted to analyze the experiences of the past revolutionary period. In this context, the GIC developed Hempel’s planned text in a collective way and in 1930-1 published De Grundbegrinselen des Kommunistche Produktie en Distributie (Ground Principles of Communist Production and Distribution). This text is an interesting contribution to the economic ques­tions of the period of transition, although one can criticize its weaknesses and gaps on the political aspects of the period of transition to communism -- aspects which must be clarified before resolving any economic problems. H. Wagner, an ex-member of the Essen Tendency of the KAPD, was at this point writing Theses on Bolshevism1, which developed the erroneous idea that the revolution in Russia had been simultaneously bourgeois and proletarian, an idea which had already appeared in the program of the Kommunistische Arbeiter-Internationale2 in the early twenties. Pannekoek, after some years of almost total passivity, was in close contact with the GIC. In 1938, he published Lenin as Philosopher, a philosophical critique of Bolshe­vism based on Wagner’s Theses.

On the question of the party, which is what we’re mainly concerned with here, Canne Meyer’s text ‘Naar een Nieuwe Arbeidersbewegung’ (‘For a New Workers’ Movement’) is an interesting contribu­tion, published at the time in Dutch, German and English. Faced with the advancing counter­revolution and the powerlessness of the working class, the GIC proposed a new “organizational synthesis of those relatively few workers for whom the struggle for the autonomy of our class has become a reason for existence”. This synthe­sis was to be carried out by ‘work groups’. Canne Meyer believed that a regroupment of these ‘work groups’ was impossible for the moment be­cause “the collapse of the old movement has not yet allowed a sufficient convergence of positions” (‘Naar een Nieuwe Arbeidersbewegung’, 1935).

The GIC definitively finished off the KAP’s con­fusions about unitary organizations. Although the GIC was for the creation of ‘revolutionary factory nuclei’ with the same orientation as the ‘work groups’ -- they were to be propaganda organizations in the factories -- it made a clear distinction between general factory organizations and the organization of revolutionaries:

The factory organization, as the expression of the unity of the working class at a given moment, will always disappear before the revo­lution and will only be a permanent form of workers’ organization at decisive moments when the balance of class forces is being overturned.” (‘Nelbingen Omtrent Revolution­naire Bedrigjfshernen’, Amsterdam 1935)

Pannekoek’s position in the 30s and 40s

For the councilists of today, it is

obvious that Pannekoek didn’t just think that the Bolshevik Party was the opposite of a proletarian organization, but any kind of party. His critique of Lenin’s conception of the party was also a critique of the conception of the party in general ...” (Cajo Brendel, Anton Pannekoek, Theoretikus von Ret Socialisme pp. 99-100)

A few lines further down, Brendel shows what sort of party he’s referring to: the KAP. Brendel quite correctly shows that Pannekoek’s position in 1920 was that a proletarian party was neces­sary before and after the revolution. But Brendel goes wrong when he uses a whole series of quotes from Pannekoek in order to prove that:

“… the practice of this kind of party and above all of the workers’ struggle proved to Pannekoek not that each type of revolution has its own type of party, but that the party in any form was a phenomenon restricted to bour­geois revolutions and bourgeois society. The frontier wasn’t between the bourgeois party and the proletarian party, but between the bourgeois party and the organization of the proletarian struggle.” (Ibid, p.100)

But all the quotations from Pannekoek which Brendel uses -- from Lenin as Philosopher, Workers’ Councils (1945), Five Theses on the Class Struggle (1946) -- simply underline the critique of the substitutionist conception of the Bolsheviks and the necessity for the clarifica­tory activity of the revolutionary organization. Brendel has completely forgotten that it was only the Pannekoek of the late 1920s who used the term ‘party’ to cover the social democratic, Bolshevik and old bourgeois parties. This isn’t surprising since the KAP had disappeared as a proletarian party with a real influence. But Brendel is forced to admit that Pannekoek had “a slightly different tone” (Ibid, p.105) in the theses of 1946. But this wasn’t really a diffe­rent tone. The point is that Brendel is deaf to terms like ‘political clarification’. According to Brendel, this ‘slightly different tone’ of Pannekoek’s can be explained by the Spartacusbond text ‘Taak en Wezen van de Nieuwe Partij’ (Tasks and Nature of the New Party), which Brendel sees as an opportunist compromise between the posi­tions of the GIC and those of the Sneevliet group3, who regrouped together at the end of World War II. Although the text contains many confusions, it was one of the last signs of life of the Dutch Left, who, after the war, hoped for a resurgence of the working class and were prepa­ring for the formation of the class party as an indispensable instrument of the world revolution. Alas, the Dutch Left had been weakened during the war and didn’t survive the period of reconstruc­tion which allowed capitalism to continue the counter-revolution. In 1947, Canne Meyer left the Spartacusbond, which was dominated by an activist tendency which wanted to rebuild a sort of AAU. The text Economische Grondslagen van de Radenmaatschappy was published by Canne Meyer in Radencommunisme after he and other ex-members of the GIC had left the Spartacusbond. This didn’t stop today’s Spartacusbond, in its response to the criticisms of the ICC (International Review, no.12), from hiding behind this text in order to avoid any discussion with the existing revolutionary milieu, particularly those who identify with the KAPD tradition. Canne Meyer, Hempel and other old GIC members, on the other hand, never broke off contact with International­isme in the 1940s, the direct antecedent of the ICC.

But why does Brendel suggest in his book on Pannekoek that the regroupment between Sneevliet and the GIC was opportunist? Because he himself didn’t join the Spartacusbond until after 1947? What was his attitude towards the GIC’s positions? In the 1930s, Brendel was a member of a council communist tendency of which the GIC said that “it sees the road to mass movements lying through the simple provocation of class conflicts” (GIC, no.19, 1932). The GIC on the other hand thought that “the simple provocation of class conflicts leads to the most revolutionary sector of the proletariat wasting its energy, leads to defeat after defeat without contributing to the formation of a real class front” (Ibid). And the GIC quite correctly put forward the alternative of “direct propaganda for the class front” (Ibid).

Brendel’s group criticized the GIC’s text on the ‘new workers’ movement’ because “the working class will do its apprenticeship in practice, completely independently of study groups” (Brendel, Jahrbuch Arbeiterbewegung). Today he’s trying to devise theoretical formulae for a new workers’ movement and thinks that “the GIC largely marked itself off from the old workers’ movement but was not the new workers’ movement and couldn’t be, because the formation of this new movement can only be under­stood as a long process” (Ibid). Poor Brendel, falling once again into the same trap as in the 1930s: he sees the class as a whole on one side, and revolutionaries on the other, completely separated. For the GIC, the class as a whole constituted the movement of the workers and the organization of revolutionaries was the (new) workers’ movement4. Whereas the GIC was for a new workers’ movement, Brendel’s present group, Daad en Gedachte, not only doesn’t see the movement of the workers, but is opposed to any ‘workers’ movement’ -- the old one as well as the new one which is now developing in the process of discussion and regroupment among revolution­aries. Such is the tragic end of the Dutch Left. Yesterday’s activists survive only to distort all the positive contributions of the council communists and turn them into councilist absurdities.


1 These Theses are criticized in October ’17: Beginning of the World Revolution’ in IR, no. 12.

2 The KAI (Communist Workers’ International) was an attempt by the ‘Essen’ tendencies of the two KAPs to regroup the international communist left. Apart from the Dutch and German KAPs, it consisted mainly of the Bulgarian, English and Russian Lefts.

3 Sneevliet – A Dutch Trotskyist who broke with Trotskyism over its participation in World War II.

4 Daad en Gedachte was always confused in its definition of the movement of the workers and the workers’ movement. In Daad en Gedachte, no. 4, 1976, it says that Otto Ruhle was one of the pioneers of the new workers’ movement. In no. 10, 1978, it says that Marx and Gorter were members of the workers’ movement, which is distinct from the movement of the workers. It seems that in its sympathy for Ruhle’s AAU(E) Daad en Gendachte sometimes mixes up the new workers’ movement with the movement of the workers.