The February 1941 strike in Holland: class solidarity against racist persecution

Printer-friendly version

In recent articles[1] we have argued that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests are situated on a completely bourgeois terrain, concretised in vague demands such as “equal rights” and “fair treatment”, or more specific ones like “defunding the police”. In no way was this protest able, or even aiming, to put into question capitalist relations of production, which ensure that the subordination and oppression of the “other” is one of the pillars of capitalist rule.

But does this mean that the working class can offer no alternative to the layers in capitalist society who are subjected to particularly violent forms of oppression? On the contrary, throughout its history, the working class, in the United States as well as in other parts of the world, has shown its ability to take significant steps to overcome the barrier of ethnic division on the condition that it fights on its class terrain and with its own proletarian perspectives.

One of the first moments of real workers’ solidarity with an ethnic minority took place in 1892 in New Orleans, where three unions demanded better working conditions. The “New Orleans Board of Trade” tried to divide the workers along racial lines, by inviting the two majority white workers’ unions for negotiations while dismissing the majority black workers’ union. In answer to this manoeuvre by the Board the three unions called for a joint strike that was followed unanimously.

Another important moment was the organised defence of the working class in Russia against anti-Semitic pogroms in October 1905, in the year of the first revolution in Russia. In that month the so-called Black Hundreds, organised gangs supported by the Czarist secret police, killed thousands of people and maimed as many as ten thousand in 100 towns throughout the entire country. In response to these brutal slaughters, the Soviet of Petrograd made an appeal to the workers in the country to take up arms and defend the workers’ districts from further pogromist assaults.  

Another heroic example of working class solidarity took place in February 1941 in the Netherlands, 80 years ago. The immediate cause was the kidnapping of 425 Jewish men in Amsterdam and their deportation to a concentration camp in Germany. This first raid in the Netherlands on a persecuted and terrorised part of the population provoked strong indignation among the workers in Amsterdam and in the surrounding cities. The attack on the Jews was felt as an attack on the whole proletarian population of Amsterdam. Indignation won out over fear. The response was: strike!

In the Netherlands the Jewish people were not seen as outsiders. Above all in Amsterdam, where the overwhelming majority of the Jewish people lived, they were considered as an integral part of the population. Moreover, Amsterdam had the largest Jewish proletariat on the Western European continent, only comparable to that in London after the Russian pogroms. The orientation of a significant part of this Jewish proletariat was towards the workers’ movement and around the turn of the century many of them turned to socialism. In the first half of the 20th century several of these proletarians would play an important role in the Dutch workers’ organisations.

As the article linked to below (an extract from our book The Dutch-German Communist Left[2]) shows, in the weeks before the strike, an internationalist group, the Marx-Lenin-Luxemburg Front (MLL Front) had already clearly expressed its position with regard to the atrocities of the fascist gangs and appealed to the workers to defend themselves. “In all working-class districts, defence troops will have to be formed. The defence against the brutal violence of the National Socialist bandits must be organised. But the workers will also have to use their economic power. The disgraceful acts of the fascists must be answered by mass strikes.” (Spartacus no. 2, mid February 1941; cited by Marx Perthus, Henk Sneevliet)

The strike that broke out on Tuesday 25 February was a unique demonstration of solidarity with the persecuted Jewish people. It was completely under control of the workers and the bourgeoisie had no chance to use it for its own warlike purposes, as it did with the railway strike in 1944. The strike was not aimed at the liberation of the Netherlands from the German occupation. The MLL Front did not hold the position that the strike was aimed at sabotaging the German war machine or aligning itself with the national Resistance. It was meant to be a statement of the working class, a demonstration of its force and therefore limited in duration. After two days the workers closed ranks and ended the strike.

In the middle of the barbarism of World War Two and in a context of historical defeat of the working class, this strike could not lead to a general mobilisation of the working class in Holland or to working class reactions in the rest of Europe, but it still had an international political significance, reaching far beyond the borders of the Netherlands. The workers’ resistance, in February 1941, against the deportation of Jews to concentration camps, shows us that the proletarian class is not in the least helpless or condemned to inaction when particular ethnic groups are scapegoated and subsequently become victims of pogroms or even genocide.

The MLL Front understood this very well. It thus wholeheartedly supported the strike as an expression of genuine proletarian indignation about the harassment of the Jewish people, men, women and children alike. For the MLL Front, the strike against anti-Jewish brutality was unconditionally linked to the general struggle against the entire capitalist system. The Dutch February strike of 1941 has shown that, in order to defend persecuted ethnics groups, the working class must remain on its own terrain and must not allow itself to be drawn onto the bourgeois terrain, as happened with the BLM protests for instance.

The working class terrain is where solidarity is not constrained by the divisions capitalism has imposed on society and where it becomes really universal. Proletarian solidarity is by definition the expression of a class whose autonomous struggle is destined to develop a fundamental alternative to capitalism. In as far as it announces the nature of the society it is fighting for, it is able to embrace and integrate the solidarity of the whole of humanity. This is what makes the proletarian solidarity and the 1941 February strike in the Netherlands so significant for us today.

The article can be found here: Dutch and German Communist Left, Chapter 10, 1939-1942, 4 - The strike of February 1941 and its political consequences  (

ICC, April 2021



History of the workers’ movement