The birth of a revolutionary current: The Dutch Left (1900-1914)
This article is the first part of' a chapter dealing with the Dutch Tribunist current up to the First World War. The chapter in question is part of a critical study of the whole current of the German-Dutch Communist Left.
The Dutch Left is not at all well known. Described as anarchist by the avowed defenders of Russian or Chinese state capitalism, or as ‘illuminist' and ‘idealist' by the Bordigists who are more ‘Leninist' than the king, it has been no better treated by its councilist admirers. The latter have ‘forgotten' that it waged its fight inside the 2nd and the 3rd International that it was a marxist current and not an anarchist sect; that it was for organization and not anti-organization; that it was part of an international current and that it refused to be a local ouvrierist sect or a kind of club for propaganda and study.
Certainly there are historical reasons for the Dutch Left remaining less well-known than the Italian Left. Unlike the Italian Fraction of the ‘30s it didn't go through a phase of emigration enabling it to spread out into several countries. Despite its close links to the German Left in the ‘20s and ‘30s, it tended to wilt in the atrophied framework of little Holland. The majority of its contributions, often written in Dutch, didn't have such a large audience as those of the Italian and German Left. Only the texts of Pannekoek, written in German and thus more easily translated into French, English, Spanish and Italian, can give an idea of the theoretical contribution of this fraction of the international communist left.
The first part proposes to show the difficulties in the development of a marxist current in a country which still remained dominated by commercial capital, in a parasitic capitalism relying on the exploitation of its colonies. The growth of the proletariat was a long process, which didn't become marked until after the Second World War and decolonization. For a very long time the proletariat lived in an artisans environment and was fairly isolated in a still agricultural population. Hence the strength of anarchist ideas and currents over a long period. This historical backwardness is however in contrast to the development of a vigorous marxist current represented by the Left and which - like the Bolsheviks in peasant Russia - made clear theoretical advances within the International, being a direct influence on the KAPD in Germany, which always considered Pannekoek and Gorter as its theoreticians. The Dutch Left, despite its weakness on the numerical level, after the 1909 split, had an enormous international weight on the theoretical level (the question of the state, of class consciousness, of the mass strike). Alongside Luxemburg and the Bolsheviks it was in the front line of the struggle against revisionism. It would be one of the essential foundation stones of the future international communist left.
To make a balance sheet of the strengths and weaknesses of the Dutch Left is to contribute to the development of proletarian class consciousness, which is inseparably linked to a critical memory of its entire revolutionary past.
The backwardness of Dutch capitalism
The political weight of Holland in the international workers' movement before and after the First World War seems out of proportion to the industrial under-development of the country and the crushing domination of agriculture. A classic country of the bourgeois revolution in the 17th century, the Kingdom of Holland had its greatest expansion in the form of commercial capital based on the colonies. The golden age of the East Indies Company (Ost-Indische Kompagnie), which saw to the exploitation of Indonesia, corresponded to the grip of the state (1800) over its fruitful commerce, with the king obtaining for the state the commercial monopoly for the exploitation of this colony.
Pushed away from the profits from the colonies by the king, who didn't invest in the industrial sector but in speculation, the Dutch bourgeoisie, despite its long history, was still playing a secondary role up to the end of the 19th century, both on the economic and political levels. This is what explains its verbal ‘radicalism' during this period when it was vegetating under the shadows of the state, the enthusiasm among some of its number for marxism. This enthusiasm quickly disappeared with the first class confrontations at the beginning of the century. As in Russia, where the liberal bourgeoisie was still weak, the Netherlands produced its local versions of people like Struve, liberals disguised as ‘legal' marxists. But unlike Russia, the Dutch Struves ended up inside the social-democratic workers' party.
The decline of the commercial bourgeoisie from the end of the 17th century, its inability to develop an industrial capital, its search for speculative investments in the soil, all these factors explain the economic backwardness of the Netherlands in the middle of the 19th century. Thus in 1849, 90%, of the Dutch national product came from agriculture. While 75%, of the population lived in towns, the majority vegetated in a state of permanent unemployment and lived off the alms provided by the wealthy and the churches. In 1840, in Haarlem, a town of 20,000 inhabitants, 8,000 ‘poor' were registered, a figure well below the real situation. The physical degeneration of this sub-proletariat was such that, in order to build the first railways, the Dutch capitalists had to call upon the English workforce. In her study Kapitaal en Arbeid in Nederland, the socialist theoretician Roland-Holst noted that:
"Since the second half of the 18th century our country has been in a state of decline, then of stagnation and abnormally slow, defective development. In the space of a few generations, our proletariat has degenerated physically and spiritually."
And Engels analyzed the Holland of the 19th century as: "a country in which the bourgeoisie feeds off its past grandeur and in which the proletariat has dried up."
These historical characteristics explain the slow development of the workers and revolutionary movement in Holland. The workers' movement was at the beginning a movement of artisans and of workers from small, artisan-type enterprises, with an important role being played by cigar workers and diamond workers (who formed a Jewish proletariat in Amsterdam). The ‘Dutch' working class properly speaking - ie those coming from rural origins - was still extremely small in the mid-19th century. The proletariat was to a large extent either of Jewish or German origin. This particularly explains its great openness to marxism. But the tardy character of its industrial development, which kept alive the archaic traits of artisan labor, at the same time made Holland for several decades a chosen land for anarchism.
Up until 1848, the social movements remained very limited, taking the form of explosions of revolt which could not in themselves take up a conscious goal. The demonstrations of the unemployed in Amsterdam and the hunger march in the Hague, in 1847, were not yet clear expressions of a working class consciousness, owing to the absence of a developed and concentrated proletariat. During the 1848 revolution, the demonstrations and looting which took place in Amsterdam were the expression of a true lumpen-proletariat, whose desperate actions were foreign to a proletariat which has become conscious and thus organized.
The first forms of proletarian organization in Holland immediately expressed the international nature of the emerging workers' movement. In 1847, German workers created a communist club which carried out its activities in the Dutch-speaking proletariat. One year later, the Communist League, which had several sections in Holland, illegally introduced copies of the first edition of the Communist Manifesto, which had just come back from the printers. But for 20 years, these first steps of the marxist movement weren't followed up, since there was no real industrial development until the 1870s. The section of the International Workingmen's Association remained under the influence of anarchist and trade unionist ideas (the Workers' League of Holland was formed in 1871). In 1872, at the Hague Congress, the Dutch delegates rallied to the positions of Bakunin.
It was the growing industrialization facilitated by an influx of German capital after Prussia's victory over France which finally allowed the Dutch socialist movement to develop. In 1878 the Social Democratic Association was formed in Amsterdam (Sociaal-Democratische Vereeniging) which soon led to the local appearance of groups (The Hague, Rotterdam, Haarlem) who saw their task as leading the class struggle. The regroupment of these workers' associations took the name Social Democratic Union (Sociaal-Democatische Verbond). The term ‘Union' already displayed all the ambiguity of an organization which would oscillate between marxism and anarchist anti-centralism.
The ‘Sociaal Democratische Bond'
The personality which was to make its mark on the Dutch workers' movement from the beginning was that of Domela Nieuwenhuis, a former pastor converted to socialism. At the time Nieuwenhuis wasn't yet an anarchist and led big campaigns for universal suffrage. The activity of his movement consisted of leading economic strikes and helping to set up trade unions. The foundation in 1879 of the review Recht voor Alle - organ of the Sociaal-Democratische Bond - gave rise to a considerable ferment amongst groups of workers. Its activities were multifarious: distribution of leaflets in the factories and barracks, the education of the proletariat through courses on marxism, demonstrations and meetings against the army, the churches, the monarchy, alcoholism and class justice.
Very soon, repression descended on the young workers' movement. Not only was Nieuwenhuis arrested and condemned to a year of prison; for the first time in its history, the police began to arm, and would be helped by the intervention of the army ‘in case of a conflict'. The police had the right to be present in public meetings, to dissolve them and arrest socialist speakers.
Considering himself to be a disciple of Marx and Engels, Nieuwenhuis for a long time kept up a written correspondence with the theoreticians of scientific socialism. The latter, though following sympathetically the development of the socialist movement in Holland, had many reservations about the immediately ‘revolutionist' conceptions of Domela Nieuwenhuis. Marx warned against doctrinaire views which sought to draw up plans for "a program of action for the first day after the revolution". The overturning of society could not be a "dream about the world to come." On the contrary,
"The scientific notion of the inevitable and constant decomposition of the existing order, the increasing exasperation of the masses with governments which embody the specter of the past, and on the other hand the positive development of the means of production, all this guarantees that at the moment when the true proletarian revolution breaks out modus operandi all the conditions ,for its immediate progress. (not in an idyllic way, of course), will have been created."
In the 1880s, Nieuwenhuis and the SDB did not spend time dreaming of the ‘Great Day' like the anarchists of that time, who completely ignored the real conditions for the maturation of the revolution. Like the other socialists of his time, Nieuwenhuis was convinced of the correctness of the parliamentary tactic, as a tribune for the emerging workers' movement. Very popular among the workers, but also among the small peasants in the north of Holland, he was elected deputy in 1889. For two years, he made proposals for reforms: social security, independence for the colonies, suppression of the wages in kind for workers. These reforms were part of the social democratic ‘minimum program'.
But quite soon Domela Nieuwenhuis began to reject parliamentarism and became the only antiparliamentary social-democratic leader within the newly-created 2nd International. This rejection of parliamentarism led him unknowingly towards anarchist positions. This evolution can be explained by the upsurge of class struggle during the ‘90s, both in Holland and other countries, leading to the numerical growth of the organized workers' movement. Under the pressure of a cyclical crisis, which manifested itself through the development of unemployment, troubles were breaking out. In Holland the workers confronted the police, who had been supporting the gangs of thugs attacking SDB locals. In this climate, which gave rise to hones that the ‘final struggle' was near, Nieuwenhuis and the militants of the SDB began to doubt the parliamentary tactic.
False responses to opportunism
This calling into question of parliamentarism wasn't restricted to the Dutch party. The ‘90s saw the development both of an anarcho-syndicalist opposition and of an opposition within international social-democracy which rejected any kind of parliamentary activity. The domination over the party by the parliamentary fraction, as in the German social-democracy, the growth of opportunist tendencies which this encouraged, explains the revolt against the party leadership by some of its new adherents. Those who called themselves the ‘Young' (Jungen) in Germany, and whose example was followed in other countries like Sweden and Denmark, were to be at the head of an often ambiguous kind of contestation which denounced the reformist tendencies gangrening the parliamentary leadership, but progressively made concessions to anarchistic, anti-organization tendencies.
In fact, the question was whether or not the period was a revolutionary one, or one of the growth of capitalism implying an immediate activity within the unions and parliament. On this question, Nieuwenhuis, the Jungen in Germany, and the anarchists crystallized a petty-bourgeois impatience, all the more vigorous because it was nourished by a healthy opposition to the reformist tendencies.
In Holland itself, the debate on the tactic to be used by the workers' movement was complicated by the fact that the opposition to Nieuwenhuis was taken up in the SDB not only by avowed reformists like Troelstra, but also by marxists like Van der Goes who remained firmly revolutionary.
In a resolution of 1892 the majority of the SDB decided not to participate in elections. A parliamentarist opposition was formed around the future revisionist leaders of social-democracy (Troelstra, Van Kool, Vliegen) and some young intellectuals who had just joined the party. With the sole aim of participating in the elections, which had been modified by a law abolishing the census system, and without trying to convince the majority, the minority split. Thus, in the worst of confusion, and with many electoralist prejudices, the Dutch social-democratic Party, the SDAP, was formed in 1894.
This split was not only confused but premature. In fact, the majority of the SDB gradually went over to the tactic of participation in elections it showed this in practice by presenting candidates to the 1897 elections. This new orientation rendered obsolete the separate existence of the SDB, whose 200 members decided in 1899 to fuse their party with Troelstra's. This fusion had the consequence that Nieuwenhuis and Cornelissen left the organization.
The latter, along with Nieuwenhuis, represented the anarchist tendency within the SDB. It was on his instigation that the NAS, whose orientation was more revolutionary syndicalist than anarchist was created in 1893. This small radical union was to play a great role in the workers' movement: not only did it represent a militant attitude in the class struggle, in contrast to the social-democratic union NVV created by the SDAP, which was to play a role of sabotaging strikes, but it would also constitute more and more the trade union organization of the Tribunists, then of the Communist Party.
The evolution of Nieuwenhuis towards anarchist positions does not alter the fact that he was a great figure of the international workers' movement. Though he became an anarchist, he didn't betray the working class, unlike anarchist leaders like Kropotkin who advocated participation in the imperialist war. He was one of the rare anarchists to remain an internationalist.
Even so, it's necessary to see all the limitations of the contribution of Nieuwenhuis, because for many he has become the symbol of the impossibility of staying inside the 2nd International, which is seen as bourgeois from the beginning. It's thus important to evaluate the criticisms that Nieuwenhuis made of German social-democracy. They were valid to the extent that they went along with what Engels said in the same period, and with what the left said later on. In his book Socialism in Danger published in 1897 at the time of his departure from the SDB, he correctly denounced a certain number of faults in the social-democratic leadership, which would be crystallized in Bernstein's revisionist theory:
-- the penetration of petty-bourgeois elements into the party, endangering its proletarian character, and manifesting itself in ideological concessions, particularly during elections;
-- the theory of state socialism, which saw the revolution as no more than the reformist takeover of the state by the workers' movement: "...the social-democrats are just reformers who want to transform today's society along the lines of state socialism.".
But the scope of Nieuwenhuis' critique remained limited. He represented a Tolstoyan, religious, anarchist tendency which was very marked in the Dutch workers' movement and which existed up until the First World War, when it formed the main body of the pacifist current. By denying; the necessity for class violence in the seizure of power by the proletariat, of a dictatorship of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie, Nieuwenhuis definitively broke.with the marxism which he had helped to introduce into Holland, and evolved towards Tolstoyan pacifism:
"...the anarchist communists call for the abolition of political authority, ie the state, since they deny the right of one class or one individual to rule over another class or individual. Tolstoy has expressed this perfectly and there's nothing to be added to his words."
Those who - like the anarchists and their present-day descendants - refer themselves to Nieuwenhuis in order to proclaim the 2nd International ‘bourgeois' from the beginning, deny some very obvious things:
-- the 2nd International was the place where the developed proletariat of the great industrial concentrations was educated and tempered, leaving behind the artisan characteristics which it still had at the time of the 1st International, and which explain the weight of individualist anarchism within it. It's through this International, which had not yet failed, that the socialist proletariat developed numerically but also qualitatively, both within Europe and outside it;
-- it was within the International that the resistance against revisionism and opportunism was developed. It was because the International - before 1914 - was still proletarian that the left was able to develop within it and combat the Right and the Centre. It was within the International that arxism was enriched by the contributions of Luxemburg, Pannekoek, etc. From a bourgeois body no proletarian organism can emerge;
-- it was federalism, not centralism which ended up undermining the International, to the point of transforming it into a simple addition of national sections. This was the basis on which developed the exorbitant power of the parliamentary cliques who finally came to dominate the party. In fact, from the beginning, in 1889, it was affirmed in a resolution that "in no case and under no pressure" could there be a question of "violating the autonomy of national groupings these being the best judges of the tactics to use in their own country."
It was thus that the left - in the countries where it arose - always fought for the strictest centralism and for the national parties to respect international discipline, against the tendency for the chiefs organized in parliamentary fractions to become autonomous from the organization. Like the Bolsheviks, like Bordiga later on, like the German and Polish Lefts, the Dutch Left waged this battle for respecting the principles of a centralized International.
The beginnings of the Dutch Left
That Dutch social-democracy was not ‘bourgeois' from the beginning is proved by the fact that after 1897 it was joined by a whole constellation of marxists whose contribution to the international revolutionary movement was to be considerable.
This marxist Left had the particularity of being composed of artists and scientists who were of no small importance in the history of Holland. Gorter, the most well-known, was certainly Holland's greatest poet. Born in 1864, the son of a pastor and writer, and after writing a thesis on Aeschylus, he became known as the poet of ‘May' - his most celebrated poem (1889). After a spiritual crisis which led him towards a kind of pantheism - inspired by Spinoza's Ethics, which he translated from Latin into Dutch - Gorter went on to study Marx, and joined the SDAP in 1897. Very dynamic and a remarkable orator, Gorter was above all a good popularizer of marxism, which he presented in a very lively manner that was comprehensible to the great majority of workers.
Less practically, but more theoretically, Pannekoek inscribed himself in the movement of the international marxist left, and was the least ‘Dutch' of all. An astronomer of some reputation, he joined the socialist movement in 1899. Born in 1873 the son of a director of an enterprise, "he was able to detach himself from his bourgeois surroundings and devote himself unreservedly to the proletarian cause. With his rigorous mind, his scientific and philosophical formation, Pannekoek was one of the main theoreticians of the Left; in many areas and theoretical debates - like the one on the meaning of the mass strike - he showed himself, by the depth of his thinking, to be the equal of Luxemburg, and he influenced Lenin in his book State and Revolution. He was one of the first marxists to wage the fight against the tide of revisionism. In his study Kant's Philosophy and Marxism, published in 1901, he attacked the neo-Kantian vision of the revisionists which made scientific socialism not a weapon of combat but a simple bourgeois ethic. However, since he was more of a theoretician than an organization man, his influence was exerted mainly at the level of ideas, without him being able to be an active force in the organizational battle against the opportunist majority of the SDAP.
Other, less well-known intellectuals of the Left still had an enormous weight, but often their confusions helped to distort the image of the Left. The poetess Roland-Holst, though making a strong contribution to marxist theory and the history of the workers' movement, symbolized both a certain religiosity that still clung to the emerging socialist movement, and also ‘centrist' hesitations at the time when important decisions had to be taken on the organizational level. Apart from her, militants like Wijnkoop and Van Ravesteyn stood out as real organizers of the Tribunist movement. Oscillating between a verbal radicalism and a practice which was in the long term to prove an opportunist one, they often held back the expansion of the Dutch Left, which gave the appearance of being more a sum of brilliant theoreticians than a real body.
The drama of the Dutch Left at its inception was that marxist theoreticians like Gorter and Pannekoek, who were recognized internationally and who displayed great strength and revolutionary conviction, were not deeply involved in the organizational life of their party. In this they differed from Luxemburg and Lenin who were both theoreticians and party organizers. Gorter was constantly torn between his activity as a poet - to which he sometimes devoted himself totally - and his militant activity as a party propagandist and orator. Thus his truncated, episodic activity which sometimes led him to disappear from party congresses. Pannekoek, dedicated both to his astronomical research and his activity as a marxist theoretician, never felt himself to be an organization man. He did not give himself fully to the socialist movement until 1909 when, until 1914, he worked as a paid teacher in the party school of German social-democracy. Thus he was absent from Holland at the most crucial moment, when things were heading towards a split in the SDAP.
In this period of the development of the workers' movement, the weight of personalities, of brilliant individuals, was still considerable. It was all the more negative in that the party chiefs were avowed revisionists who used their personality to crush the party's life. Such was Troelstra, a lawyer who had been a Frisian Poet in his spare time. Constantly elected not by workers' sectors, but by the backward peasants of Frisia, he had a tendency to identify himself with the interests of the petty-bourgeoisie. Close to Bernstein, he defined himself as a revisionist, even a bourgeois ‘liberal', to the point of declaring in 1912 that "social-democracy has the role today that the Liberal party played in 1848". But he was sufficiently skilful to situate himself close to Kautsky's Centre at the congresses of the International, in order to maintain a free hand in his own national territory. Very concerned to keep his post as an SDAP chief and parliamentarian, he was ready to use any maneuver to eliminate all criticism of his opportunist activities. From the standpoint of Troelstra and other revisionists like Vliegen and Van Kol, all such criticisms were just anarchism or purely ‘personal' attacks. The weight of these leaders in a new party which had come out of an ambiguous split was to be a major obstacle which the whole of the Left had to confront.
The struggle of the Left began as soon as new, young elements like Gorter, Pannekoek, Roland-Holst, Wijnkoop and Van Raveseyn joined the party. Grouped around the review Nieuwe Tijd (New Times), which sought to rival Kautsky's theoretical review Neue Zeit, they began to wage the fight for the defense of marxist principles, which were being stamped upon by a growing reformist practice. Their combat would be all the more intransigent for the fact that militants like Gorter and Pannekoek had had friendly relations with Kautsky and he had believed that they could count on his support in the struggle against revisionism within the Second International.
To be continued.
 Peter Struve was one of those Russian bourgeois liberals who at the end of the 19th century developed a ‘passion' for marxism, which they saw as no more than a theory about the peaceful transition from feudalism to industrial capitalism. Their brand of ‘marxism', known as ‘legal' because it was tolerated and even encouraged by the Tsarist censorship, was an apology for capitalism. Struve soon became one of the leaders of the Cadet liberal party and was soon in the front ranks of the bourgeois counter-revolution in 1917.
 This book was published in 1932. The quote is from MC Wiessing Die Hollandische Schule des Marxismus (The Dutch School of Marxism) VSA Verlag, Hamburg, 1980.
 Marx-Engels, Werke, Vol 23, pp 335-336.
 Cf Wiessing opcit.
Letter from Nieuwenhuis to Marx, 28 March 1882, cited by Wiessing, p. 19.
 Letter to Nieuwenhuis, 22 February, 1881, MEW, Vol 35, p. 159
 Engels' criticisms of the ‘Young' can be found in the collection of texts by Marx and Engels on German Social-Democracy, 10/18, Paris ‘75
 cf. R. de Jong, ‘Le Mouvement Libertaire aux Pays-Bas', Le Mouvement Sociale 83, April-June,1973.
 During the war, Nieuwenhuis distributed pamphlets by Gorter.
 The councilists of Daad en Gedacht (Thought and Action), in Holland, argued in their February ‘84 issue that "in reality social democracy didn't become a party of bourgeois reforms; it was that from the beginning..." A group with Bordigist inclinations like the Groupe Communiste Internationaliste (GCI) takes up the anarchist and councilist theses when it says exactly the same thing: "...it was these bourgeois tendencies denounced by Marx who entirely dominated social democracy and this from the very beginning of the International." Abundantly citing the author of the preface to the Payot re-edition of Nieuwenhuis - Beriou, one of the ‘theoreticians' of modernism which sees the proletariat as a ‘class for capital' - the GCI thus joins up with the political constellation of the modernists and councilists. See their article ‘Theories de la decadence, decadence de la theorie' in Le Communiste 23, November ‘85.
 All these quotes come from Nieuwenhuis' book.
 cf the book by G. Haupt: La Deuxieme Internationale, Etude Critique des Sources. Essai Bibliographique, Mouton, Paris-Hague, 1964. A great deal on the lack of centralization.
 cf. H De Liagre Bohl: Herman Gorter SUN, Nijmegen, 1973. The only existing biography of Gorter, written in Dutch.
 On Pannokoek, there's an introduction by the former council communist BA Sijes, who published the ‘memoires' of the theoretician of the workers councils, written in 1944: Herinnevingen, Van Gennep, Amsterdam, 1982.
 Roland-Holst's contributions on the mass strike are still waiting to be republished and translated into languages other than Dutch. cf De Revolutionaire Massa-aktie. Een Studie, Rotterdam, 1918.
 In 1903, Gorter published his Versen, which were individually inspired. After that he tried to write poems of a ‘socialist' inspiration, which were far from the poetical strength and value of his first inspiration. Een Klein Heldendicht - ‘A Little Epic' - told of the evolution of a young proletarian towards a conviction in socialism. Pan (1912), composed after the 1909 split, was a poem that was less ideological and more inspired by a poetical vision of the emancipation of men and women. Without ever losing his inspiration, Gorter was cut in half between his propagandist activity and his poetic creativity, oscillating between personal lyricism and didactic socialist epic.
 Pannekoek wrote to Kautsky that in general he prefered "only to bring theoretical clarification". He added: "You know that ...I only allow myself to get dragged into practical struggles when I am constrained and forced to do so." (cited by Sijes, op cit, p. 15). This is very far from the attitudes of the leaders of the current of the international left who - like Lenin and Luxemburg - didn't hesitate, even while carrying out their theoretical work, to ‘get dragged', to plunge themselves into daily struggles.
 Cited by Sam de Wolff - a Jewish social-democrat who ended up as a Zionist: Voor het Land van Belofk Een Terublik op mijn Leven (Before the Promised Land. A Backward Glance at My Life). SUN, Nijmegen, 1978.
 cf De Liagre Bohl, op cit, p 23-25. As with Rosa Luxemburg, Gorter and Pannekoek's friendship with Kautsky didn't stop them waging the theoretical battle against the ‘centrist' positions of the ‘Pope of Marxism'. The revolutionary truth, for them, came before personal feelings of friendship.