Notes on the history of the Dutch Left part 1

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We want to present in this article some notes on the history of the Dutch Left in order to demonstrate the Marxist nature of this fraction of the Communist Left which detached itself from the degenerating IIIrd International. Today the Bordigists especially still make the same old accus­ation against the Dutch Left -- that it was part of the anarchist current. But, alas, they are not the only ones who, through ignorance or a lack of translated texts by the Dutch Left and a lack of analysis of its development from a communist point of view, accuse the Communist Left of an old anti-Marxist ‘idealism’1. There are also the councilists who claim to be the continuators of the Dutch Left and implic­itly support this falsification of the fundamentally Marxist nature of ‘their origins’. With them the falsification is more subtle: first of all there is a falsification of Marxism itself in order to give it an anarchist content, and then the texts of the Dutch Left are cleverly mis­represented by twisting them to make them agree with this ‘reconstituted’ Marxism.

Was Marx an anarchist?

Cajo Brendel, a member of the Dutch coun­cilist group Daad en Gedachte and known internationally as a theoretician of coun­cilism and a ‘specialist’ of the history of the Dutch Left2, has expended great efforts to find anarchist quotes ... in Marx and Engels. In order to prove his thesis that “the proletarian revolution hasn’t a political character but a social character3, he quotes Engels who said: “The social revolution ... is completely different from the political revolutions that we’ve seen up till now”. (our emphasis). Regarding what Brendel calls “the differences between the bourgeois political revolution and the proletarian social revolution” he refers to Marx’s texts: Critical Notes on ‘The King of Prussia and Social Reform By a Prussian’4. In fact when Cajo Brendel quotes from this it is interesting to “take account of this literary quackery” which Marx mentions in the article. What exactly did Marx say?

A ‘social’ revolution with a political soul is either a composite piece of nonsense, if by ‘social’ revolution the ‘Prussian’ (or our heir of the Dutch Left Cajo Brendel - FK) understands a ‘social’ revolution as opposed to a political one ... Every revolution dissolves the old order of society; to that extent it is social. Every revol­ution brings down the old ruling power; to that extent it is political.

All revolution -- the overthrow of the existing ruling power and the dissolution of the old order -- is a political act. But without revolution socialism cannot be made possible. It stands in need of this political act just as it stands in need of destruction and dissolution. But as soon as its organizing functions begin and its goal, its soul, emerges, socialism throws its political mask aside”.

Paraphrasing Marx, we will conclude by asking our ‘Dutchman’ if he does not feel an obligation towards his readership to abstain provisionally from any historical journalism on Marxism and the Dutch Left, so that he can start to reflect on his own anarchist positions?

Luckily we don’t need to write as many pages to demystify the errors of our ‘Dutchman’ as Marx had to write for the article on the ‘Prussian’. Throughout his life Marx and Marxists after him have def­ended the political nature of the prolet­arian revolution, not as an end in itself, nor to talk again about “the revolutions we’ve seen up till now”, but because:

... it follows that every class which is struggling for mastery, even when its domination, as in the case of the prol­etariat, postulates the abolition of the old form of society in its entirety and of domination itself, must first conquer for itself political power in order to represent its interests in turn as the general interests, which in the first moment it is forced to do”. (Marx, The German Ideology)

The program of the proletarian revolution was clearly defined in the ideological struggle against ‘German ideologues’ and anarchism (see the conclusions of the Poverty of Philosophy) as being a political program. The attempt of Brendel to contribute anarchist theses to Marxism is obviously ridiculous.

Was Dutch Left anarchist?

But perhaps the Dutch Left had some anarch­ist positions? It is clear that certain councilist positions contain anarchist elements. But that isn’t true for the Dutch Left when it existed as part of the International Communist Left until after the Second World War.

The Dutch Left was formed as a left wing of the young Social Democracy of the Nether­lands which firmly combated the remnants of anarchism in Domela Nieuwenhuis5. However, let’s be clear: although Domela Nieuwenhuis left Marxism to defend an idealistic anti-parliamentarism he never left the camp of the working class, as his inter­nationalist positions against World War I and for the October Revolution demonstrate. But contrary to Domela Nieuwenhuis, the Dutch Left based its proletarian internationalism on a Marxist analysis. That is why its con­tributions are still today acquisitions for the working class, for the communist program of the future world proletarian party. But Gorter, Pannekoek, Canne Meyer and all the other representatives of the Dutch Left were not disciples of Domela Nieuwenhuis as one might imagine if one did not know the history of the workers’ movement in the Netherlands. It is quite a different matter when a Daad en Gedachte member who does come from anarchism reproaches the Dutch anarchist Anton Constandse for having betrayed internationalism in World War II6. Such behavior will not surprise Marxists: you only reproach anarchism if you still have illusions in it.

If one studies the positions of Gorter and Pannekoek within Dutch Social Democracy, it is clear that, against Troelstra’s leader­ship, they defended a revolutionary parl­iamentarism on the agrarian question (1901) and on the question of support for confess­ional education (1909). During the mass strikes in 1903 the Left accused the lead­ership of Social Democracy of breaking the combativity and will of the Dutch workers by their hesitant attitude. The Dutch Left didn’t at the time pose this as a false choice between anarchism and reformism but correctly as a choice between reform or revolution. In 1909 Pannekoek understood that “the highly contradictory nature of the modern workers’ movement”, being at the same time reformist and revolutionary, was due to the fact that capitalism, of which the proletariat is a product, was simult­aneously expansive and destructive, just as the Communist Manifesto had asserted when it defined capitalism as a system in constant expansion, developing the product­ive forces more and more7. Pannekoek clearly condemned both reformism, which “ruins class consciousness so painfully acquired”, and anarchism, which “rejects slow and painstaking work and isn’t capable of applying a revolutionary spirit to the developing combativity of the class8. Thus the anti-parliamentarism defend­ed by the Dutch Left in the decadent period of capitalism after 1914 had nothing to do with the prior anti-parliamentarism of Domela Nieuwenhuis, who completely ignored the ascendant period of capitalism and the reforms which the working class could obtain in that period.

It wasn’t the Dutch Left which denied the socialist nature of Social Democracy; it is Daad en Gedachte, a councilist group par excellence, which defends this anarchist position in its pamphlet breaking with the Spartakusbond (Was de Sociaal Demokratie ooit Socialistisch?, Amsterdam, 1965). You can look in vain in this pamphlet for a reference to the left opposition in Social Democracy.

In 1909 the left opposition could no longer remain within the party because the supp­ression of its organ Tribune had been called for. It therefore left the SDAP (see the table at the end of the article for abbreviations) and formed a Marxist party, characteristically called the ‘Sociaal Demokratische Partij’. The SDP, through the intermediary of Lenin in the International Socialist Bureau, asked to be accepted into the IInd International; and at the Congress of Copenhagen of 1910, the International accepted it. Clearly the SDP wasn’t anarchist! You could even say that the SDP was closer to the positions of the Kautskyite ‘center’ than Rosa Luxemburg, who was openly fighting against the revis­ionism of the SDAP. But after the 1910 debate in Social Democracy on the mass strike, Herman Gorter defended the same positions as Karl Liebnicht, Franz Mehring, Karl Radek, Rosa Luxemburg and ... Anton Pannekoek, who was active in Germany at that time.

Proletarian internationalism

Before World War I Pannekoek, through his intense involvement in the debates going on in the German Social Democratic Party, was the most prolific representative of the Dutch Left. His polemic against Kautsky is well known and was taken up by Lenin in State and Revolution. Gorter, too, was involved in the international debate during World War I with his pamphlet Imperialism, Would War and Social Democracy.

Against imperialism, against the polic­ies of every state: the new International Party. Against both the action of the masses. Such is the period we are living in today. The reflection of this thought, its materialization into acts that must be the new International”.

From then on, proletarian internationalism became the fundamental axis of the Dutch Left:

The most important change with the deepening and worsening of relations between capital and labor produced by imperialism ... is that the whole international proletariat, including the proletariat of Asia, Africa and the colonies, can now fight against the whole world bourgeoisie. And this struggle can only be led in a united way”.

At the end of World War I Gorter and Pann­ekoek began to intervene in the international debates on the tactics of the young communist parties. When the SDP was called the Communist Party of the Netherlands (the 2nd party to be called ‘Communist’) Gorter already had disagreements with the Wijnkoop/Van Ravesteyn leadership in the party because of its defense of the ‘democratic’ imperialism of the Entente9, its opportunist collabor­ation with the anarcho-syndicalists10 and its hesitation vis-a-vis the preparations for a new International11. Although Gorter had welcomed the October Revolution and the role played by the Bolshevik Party, he criticized their policy of land distrib­ution and the ‘right of nations to self-determination’. Throughout Gorter’s pamphlet on the world revolution there is a defense of the international character of the proletarian revolution.

The war can only happen and can only be pursued because the world proletariat is not united. The Russian Revolution, betrayed by the European and German proletariat, is proof that any revolution will only be a failure if the internat­ional proletariat does not revolt as one body, as an international unity against world imperialism.” (Gorter, The World Revolution)

Gorter and Pannekoek were particularly involved in the German communist movement. When the opposition in the KPD, the majority of the party, was expelled in keeping with the “most corrupt practices of the men of the old Social Democracy” (Pannekoek), they chose the opposition camp which formed the German Communist Workers’ Party (KAPD) in 1920. In September 1921 the Dutch KAP was formed.

By then the leadership of the IIIrd Inter­national and the Bolshevik Party was supp­orting the tactics of the Levi leadership in the KPD(S), and of Wijnkoop and Van Ravesteyn in the Dutch CP. The latter became Moscow’s most faithful followers. The Dutch Left, on the contrary, remaining faithful to the proletarian program of the world revolution, became one of the repres­entatives of what Lenin called the ‘ultra-left’ opposition to the leadership of the Comintern. Basing itself on an analysis of the decadence of capitalism, the German and Dutch Lefts defended an international revolutionary policy against the opportunist tactics of parliamentarism, frontism and syndicalism proposed by the Comintern. We are assuming that the positions of the German and Dutch communist Lefts on parl­iamentarism and unions are well-known in the international revolutionary milieu12, through the texts from the twenties republished in recent years. In the following section of this article we will limit ourselves therefore to the question of the party, in order to underline a part­icular characteristic of the Dutch Left: its understanding of historical materialism. We will look at the strong and weak aspects of this understanding and the theorization of the weak points by councilism.

The question of the Party

It is often said that the Dutch Left was an anti-party, anti-leaders, anti-politics current. Against the councilists’ fetishism about words and against the Bordigists’ scholastic apologetics about the party, we must underline that the Dutch Left defined the term party differently according to the period; and furthermore that Gorter, Pann­ekoek and the GIC (the Group of Internat­ional Communists in the thirties) had nothing to do with Ruhle and his anti-party position.

The Dutch Left didn’t become the subject of criticism and even of insults and ridicule by the leaders of the IIIrd International because Pannekoek and Gorter changed their position on the role of communist parties; but because the International changed its positions at its Second Congress with the ‘21 Conditions for Membership’, which stipulated that communists, among others, should militate inside the unions and use elections and parliament in order to conq­uer the broad masses. This was a manifest­ation of the decayed remnants of the past period, of reformism, the stamp of the leaders of the 2-1/2 International. In this period the CI and its parties were being transformed; from being instruments of communist propaganda and agitation they were being drilled into a strongly central­ized body which claimed that it could ‘lead’ the masses towards the revolution through opportunist tactics. The dissolut­ion of the Amsterdam Bureau marked an important moment in this evolution. The International was following the example of the Bolshevik party; not the Bolshevik party as it had been at the time of the October Revolution, but the Bolshevik party as it was by 1920 -- a state party which had already begun to subordinate the soviets. Pannekoek wrote:

The reference to Russia, where the communist government has not only not retreated when the broad masses have been diverted and demoralized, but has on the contrary firmly wielded the dictatorship and defended it with all its strength, cannot be applied here. Over there it wasn’t a question of conquering power: that situation had already been settled, the proletarian dictatorship had all the modalities of power at its disposal and could not abstain from using them. It is in the period before November 1917 that we can find the real lessons of the Russian example. Then, the communist party had never said or thought that it must take power and that its dictatorship would be identical to the dictatorship of the laboring masses. It declared time and time again that the soviets, represent­atives of the masses, would take power; the party must define the program, struggle for the program and when finally the majority of soviets recognize this program as theirs, only then would it take power. The executive organs of the communist party naturally gave a strong support to all this work.” (Pannekoek, Der Neue Blanquismus, 1920)

Faced with the stagnation in the world revolution, Pannekoek and Gorter thought that the road to victory could not be shortened by acting as a revolutionary minority in place of the whole class. The defeat of the power of capital in the industrial countries, the defeat of its ideological domination over the conscious­ness of the proletariat, could only come about through propagandizing the ends and means of the proletarian struggle in the period of decadence, and not by the opport­unist use of forms of struggle from the ascendant period, nor by putchism. Such was the content of the KAPD’s program13. This concern to form a vanguard of the proletariat based on clear communist positions, whose task was to actively defend and diffuse these positions in the struggle, was always the position of the Dutch Left.



SDAP : Sociaal-Democratische Arbeiderspartij (Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Holland).

SDP : Sociaal-Democratische Partij (Social Democratic Party of Holland).

KPD : Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (Communist Party of Germany)

KAPD : Kommunistische Arbeiter Partei Deutschlands (Communist Workers’ Party of Germany).

GIC : Groep van Internationale Communisten (Group of International Communists)

1 Leaflet by Programme Communiste

2 Nearly all studies of the Dutch Left are directly or indirectly based on information and interpretations given by C. Brendel

3 C. Brendel, Revolutie en Contrarevolutie in Spanje, Baarn 1977, p. 188

4 This article was written by Marx in 1844, appeared in Vorwarts in Paris.

5 Bricanier writes about Domela Nieuwenhuis in Pannekoek et les Conseils Ouvriers, EDI Paris, p. 42: “The socialist movement in Holland, at least at the beginning, had more of a ‘French’ character, ie more based on anarchism than on Marxism. Its inspiration was a man of great talents, the former pastor Domela Nieuwenhuis … he was elected as a deputy with the sole aim of using the parliamentary tribune for propaganda for the social democratic movement.”

6 Daad en Gedachte, April 1978, p. 10.

7 Pannekoek, ‘Die Taktischen differenzen in der Arbeiterbewegung’, Hamburg, 1909. In French ‘Les Divergences Tactiques au sein du Mouvement Ouvrier’, published in part in Bricanier, Pannekoek et les Conseils Ouvriers, p. 64.

8 Ibid. p. 66.

9 Like the PCI (Programme) today, Wijnkoop/Van Ravestteyn only attacked ‘their’ own imperialism – German imperialism, to which the majority of the Dutch bourgeoisie rallied (Holland wasn’t directly involved in First World War).

10 The anarcho-sysndicalist workers were anti-German and pacifist, which led the SDP to take up opportunist positions on proletarian violence.

11 The Wijnkoop/Van Ravesteyn leadership preferred to take up a sectarian attitude towards the Kienthal conference.

12 These texts aren’t available in Dutch.

13 Texts of KAPD have been published in French in the book La Gauche Allemande, La Vielle Taupe, Paris 1973. See also Revolutionary Perspectives 2 and 4 for KAPD texts in English.

Political currents and reference: 

Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: