The Dutch Left, 1919-1920, 2nd Part

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The Dutch Left, 1919-1920, 2nd Part

The Third International


The German question

It was by way of a maneuver that the leadership of the KPD brought about the expulsion of the left majority from the party in September 1919. Since the Congress of 18 December this majority had had as its watchword "leave the unions" (Heraus aus den Gewerkschaften). The Communist militants, especially in Bremen and Hamburg, attacked the social democratic union offices in Legien, taking the cash boxes and distributing the content to the unemployed workers. When the first Unions (Unionen) were formed the leadership of Levi and Brandler had at first supported them: they called for the formation of Unionen in the railways and amongst the agricultural workers. The factory organizations (Betriebsorganisationen) made up of workers and revolutionary delegates were centralized to form the Unionen. The latter organs, with the decline of the revolution, appeared as organs of political struggle, a heritage from the factory councils. Throughout 1919 these became generalized in the main sectors of the working class: miners, naval shipyard workers, sailors, metal workers.

From the summer of 1919, the position of the leadership of Levi and Brandler changed entirely, not without some political reservations. They moved closer to the Independents of the USPD, who controlled the opposition in the official unions. They set about attacking the left as a 'syndicalist' tendency. But in reality, this tendency was represented only by a minority: in Wasserkannte (Bremen and Hamburg) around Laufenberg and Wolffheim, who dreamed of a German IWW, and in Saxe around Ruhle. These two tendencies underestimated the existence of a political party of the proletariat, which they tended to reduce to a propaganda circle for the Unions. This wasn't the case for the great majority who would form the KAPD in April 1920: they were strongly hostile to anti-political revolutionary anarcho-syndicalism. They conceived the Unions only as organisms of struggle applying the directives of the party. They were therefore not 'syndicalist' but anti-syndicalist[1].

In August 1919 Levi, at the time of the Frankfurt national conference, pronounced himself in favor of work both in the trade unions as well as in Parliament. Then at the Congress in October, the so-called Congress of Heidelberg, Levi presented - without it having been possible to discuss it in the sections of the party before the Congress - a resolution excluding elements who refused to do work in the trade unions and in Parliament. In contradiction with any principle of workers' democracy in the party, each district disposed of one vote whatever its size, and voting rights - in violation of the decision of the Frankfurt Conference - were accorded to the central organ, which agreed to the expulsion of the left. Thus the left, despite being the majority of the KPD, was expelled. It is noteworthy that the opposition outside the party refused to follow Laufenberg, Wolffheim and Ruhle who immediately wanted to form a new party. This attitude of fighting to the bitter end for the reconquest of the party was a constant in the communist left of the time, and in this they were very like Bordiga's Fraction.

The Dutch Left solidarised with the German Left. Pannekoek particularly attacked Radek, who had theoretically supported Levi[2] in his fight against the German Left. He denounced the rapprochement of the KPD with the Independents, as a sliding towards opportunism.[3] These politics expressed a petty bourgeois 'Blanquist' approach to the conception of the party. By defending the non-marxist theory that a 都mall revolutionary minority could conquer political power and keep it, Radek was only justifying Levi's dictatorship of the Centrale inside the party. His position was in fact foreign to Bolshevism. In October 1917, the Bolsheviks didn't want a dictatorship of the party but of the councils:

"You find the truth of the Russian example in the days preceding November 1917. There the communist party never declared or believed that it must take power and that its dictatorship should be the dictatorship of the working masses. It always declared: the soviets, the representatives of the masses must take hold of power; its own task was to establish the program, fight for it, and when finally the majority of the soviets recognized the justice of the program they had to take power into their own hands...."[4]

The Pannekoek of 1919 wasn't yet the 'councilist' Pannekoek of the thirties and forties. He recognized, like the rest of the communist left in the twenties, the irreplaceable role of the partyty. Contrary to what the Bordigist current reproached him with much later, Pannekoek and the Dutch Left had nothing to do with the anti-party and democratist positions of Ruhle, with his cult of spontaneous democracy and his suivism of the masses.

"We are not fanatics for democracy, we have no superstitious respect for majority decisions and we do not subscribe to the belief that everything that the majority wants is good and should happen."

What in fact the Dutch Left was underlining was the great difficulties facing a revolution in Western Europe whose course is "slower and more difficult". Radek's recipes for accelerating events at the price of a dictatorship of the minority in the party were a sure road to defeat.

In the countries dominated by an 'old bourgeois culture', where there was an individualistic spirit and a respect for bourgeois ethics, Blanquist tactics were impossible. Not only did they deny the role of the masses as a revolutionary subject, but they underestimated the strength of the enemy and the propaganda work needed to prepare the revolution.

It was the difficult process of the development of class consciousness which would make the triumph of the revolution possible. To this end, and for the first time in an explicit way, Pannekoek rejected the union tactic. He fully supported the German Left which was calling for the formation of factory organizations[5]. The position of the Dutch communists on the parliamentary question remained much less clear. Pannekoek had published a series of articles in Der Kommunist, organ of the Bremen opposition, which on most question showed an attitude of centrist oscillation between right and left. While showing the impossibility of using parliamentarism as a "method of the proletarian revolution" in "the imperialist and revolutionary period"[6], Pannekoek seemed to envisaged the utilization of the parliamentary tribune in the less developed countries; according to him, using parliament depended on "the strength, the stage of development of capitalism in each country". This theory of 'particular cases' led to the implicit rejection of anti-parliamentarism as a new principle of the revolutionary movement in the era of imperialist decadence - "a period of crisis and chaos" - a principle valid worldwide, in all countries. Parliamentarism was thus seen as no more than a tactical question, to be determined according to the level of the productive forces in a given country. This idea was only implicit, but would to a large extent be taken up by the degenerating Bordigist current[7].    

The theoretical conceptions of the Dutch left developed slowly; they were enriched by polemical confrontation and by the experience of the Ger­man revolution. In reality, it learned as much from the German left as the latter learned from the Dutch. There was an interpenetration of the various lefts, including the Italian Left, at an international level. The crystallization of the positions of the communist left into a body of doctrine was to a large extent facilit­ated by the creation of the Amsterdam Bureau of the Communist International. This was to be the high point of the Dutch left's audience in the world revolutionary movement.

The Amsterdam Bureau (1919-1920)

Throughout 1919 the isolation of the centre of the IIIrd International - being established in a country plunged into civil war and surrounded by the cordon sanitaire of the allied armies - led the executive committee to decide on installing bureaux of the International in Western Europe. These bureaux had responsibility both for propa­ganda and for the organization of the different parties dependent on them. The executive of the Communist International therefore created bureaux in Scandinavia, in the Balkans, in the South of Russia and in Central Europe in Vienna; simultaneously the ‘Latin American' bureau of Mexico was set up, at the instigation of Borodine. All these badly co-ordinated organ­isms led to still greater confusion in the centralization of the international work. But it was still clear for the CI that, with the develop­ment of the revolution, in the near future the centre of the International must be transported into Western Europe. The bureaux in question were the rough beginnings.

But in the Autumn of 1919, the CI simultan­eously put in place a provisional secretariat for Europe, sited in Germany, and a provisional bureau sited in Holland, keeping in permanent contact with the former. The secretariat was under the control of the right wing tendency of Levi and Clara Zetkin, who were tending towards the Independents; the Amsterdam bureau regrouped the left communists hostile to the KPD right wing.

The CI accorded a particular place to the Dutch comrades in the Amsterdam bureau in carry­ing out propaganda and the establishment of links between the European communist parties and North America. The Dutch communists were to direct this work. Through a decision on 28 September, the executive of the CI nominated Gorter, Pannekoek and Roland-Holst - all on the left of the KPN - Rutgers, Van Ravesteyn and Wijnkoop - who represented the right. Rutgers arrived at the beginning of November to set up the ‘sub-bureau' and organize an international communist conference. Despite divergences with the Dutch comrades, the Bolsheviks had great confidence in them, particularly in Pannekoek. He was expressly invited to go to Russia to help with the theoretical work and serve as an expert. Pannekoek refused in order to remain materially independent of the Russian government.

From the beginning, Wijnkoop, through a series of maneuvers, got Pannekoek and Gorter eliminated from the leadership of the Bureau - in particular he spread rumors that Gorter was a psychopath[8]. This only left Rutgers, Roland-Holst and Wijnkoop, in contravention to the CI's decisions. It is true that Wijnkoop, during his brief existence in the Bureau gave the appearance of radicalism, appearing to situate himself to the ‘left' of the CI. He took a position against the rapprochement of the KPD with the USPD, and against the entry of the English CP into the Labor Party. In spite of this radicalism he took a middle position on such questions as the parliamentary question - seeing as he was a deputy. In reality, he refused to take a position explicitly for the communist left: so that in Germany, on the struggle between the German opposition and Levi's right wing, he came out saying this was a "struggle between the two old doddering leaderships of the party". But this apparent radicalism of Wijnkoop lasted for only a short time, just in time to demand the exclu­sion of the Independents and Cachin and Fross­ard[9] at the Second Congress of the CI. The only exclusion he achieved was finally that of the left in the KPN in 1921 (cf below).

In preparation for the international confer­ence which was to be held in February 1920, a set of Theses was produced and Pannekoek and Roland-Holst[10] participated in writing it. It was preceded by an appeal for the unity of communists who should form themselves into one party, conforming to the decision of the Executive of the CI. But these Theses were mov­ing away from the CI's line. The Theses on parliamentarism - probably written by Rutgers - were a compromise between the positions of the communist left and those of the International. They affirmed that "parliamentarism can never be an organ of the victorious proletariat", this being one of the lessons of the October revolution. The theory of revolutionary parlia­mentarism was strongly defended:

" ... parliamentary action comprises the most energetic forms of protest against imperialist brutalities, and this in combination with out­side action, will show itself as an effective means to arouse the masses and sustain their resistance."

It is true that this assertion was accompan­ied with reservations: on the one hand, there was the affirmation that parliaments had "deg­enerated into fair ground parades where crooks abuse the masses", which demonstrated the emptiness of ‘revolutionary' parliamentarism; and on the other hand there was support for electoralism when it was simply a question of determining local and not world matters: " ... the question of knowing when and how parliamentarism should be used in the class struggle must be regulated by the working class of each country"[11]

These Theses were only an outline; they were to be rewritten and modified (by Pannekoek probably). The rejection of revolutionary parl­iamentarism appeared more explicitly, but was still conditional, linked to the emergence of workers' councils:

" ... when parliament becomes the centre and organ of the counter-revolution, and when on the other hand the working class builds its own in­struments of power under the form of soviets, then it is indispensable that it repudiates any participation, of whatever kind, in parlia­mentary action."

On the union question, the Theses also held a compromise position. It recommended that revol­utionary workers form a "revolutionary opposit­ion inside the unions", which was the position of the CI who sought to ‘revolutionize' the counter-revolutionary unions, under the pretext that that was where the broad masses were gath­ered together. On the other hand, the Amsterdam Bureau envisaged the possibility of forming ‘new organizations'. These organizations would be industry-wide unions and not corporatist unions based on trade. These unions, inspired by the revolution, would be based on the IWW and the English shop stewards. In the last analysis, the Bureau demarcated itself expressly from the CI when it came to the question of the role of unions after the taking of power by the proleta­riat: contrary to the Russians - like Trotsky[12] - who saw the councils as no more than "shapeless parliaments of labor", the Dutch communists vigorously rejected the idea that the unions could "build a new proletarian society". This role fell to the soviets, unitary, politi­cal organs of the proletariat. The influence of the German revolution, but also that of Pank­hurst and Fraina, led the Bureau to take far more clear-cut positions, better grounded theor­etically and closer to those of the German opp­osition. The Bureau was to become the centre of regroupment for the whole of the internatio­nal communist left, opposed to the orientations of the CI on the union and parliamentary quest­ions. This is what the work of the internatio­nal communist conference held on 3-8 February 1920 in Amsterdam showed.

The conference was very representative of the left communist forces in the developed coun­tries. Those present from this tendency were: Fraina from the USA; Sylvia Pankhurst from Great Britain; Van Overstraeten from Belgium; Panne­koek and Roland-Hoist from Holland; Carl Stucke[13] from the Bremen left. The other delegates were situated either at the centre, like Wijn­koop, Rutgers and Mannoury, or squarely on the right, like the members of the BSP, a ‘left' socialist party, Willis and Hodgson. Also pre­sent were an Indonesian and Maring-Sneevliet, delegate for Indonesia[14]. Having undoubtedly been informed too late, the delegates of Levi's KPD - Zetkin, Frolich, Posener and Munzenberg - arrived at the end of the conference, as did the Swiss anti-parliamentarian, Herzog, and the secretary of the Latin-American bureau, F K Puerto[15]. The delegates from Finland and Spain also arrived too late ...

This conference had the appearance of an international congress by its length, the breadth of its work and the important participa­tion of delegates from countries of three con­tinents. It was more representative than the preceding conferences of Imola and Frankfurt.[16] However, it should be noted that the Dutch in particular were far from being in top of clandestine work. The whole conference took place under the surveillance of spies and the Dutch police, who made a note of all the dis­cussions and all the decisions. Clara Zetkin[17] was arrested on her arrival in Amsterdam and was only freed by the intervention of the right social democrat Wibaut, who had made a sad name for himself in 1917 in the repression of workers. Was this a homage rendered to the leadership of the KPD for its lack of ‘extremism'?

Described by Clara Zetkin as a ‘rump-confer­ence', the international conference represented left communism on two essential questions: trade unionism and the refusal of any entrism into the organizations linked to the Second International, such as the Labor Party.

Fraina's Theses on trade unionism, voted for unanimously, went much further than the provis­ional Theses mentioned before. They excluded any work in the trade unions, which were "defin­itively integrated into capitalism", and connec­ted to ‘Laborism', whose "governmental form of expression is state capitalism". They were not in favor of revolutionary industrial unionism after the taking of power, and by assimilating these organs with the factory councils, the Theses were an implicit rejection of the apoliti­cism of the IWW. By recommending industrial unionism, the Left Communist bureau was much closer, apparently, to the KAPD. But this was in appearance only, for much later the KAPD, like the minority of the KPN, went, on to reject the union form, even its ‘revolutionary' or ‘industrial' varieties.

But in the Bureau confusion still remained over the question of political party and revolu­tionary union. In spite of very strong opposit­ion by Fraina and Pankhurst, the conference acc­epted the representation of economic organizations of the shop steward type in the Bureau. This was also the decision of the CI up until the Second congress.

The most important decision of the conference concerned Great Britain. Here there was a very strong Labor Party, linked to the IInd Interna­tional, and left socialist parties - BSF, ILP[18] - comparable to the USPD in Germany. Lenin and the CI wanted the communist groups to join the LP in order to win over the ‘masses'. This was in contradiction with the watchword that revolutionaries should break with the IInd International, as it was considered a dead body, whose member parties were considered not as the right wing of the workers' movement but as the left wing of the bourgeoisie. Parties where the ‘left' predominated were called ‘centrist' currents. In the beginning of the 1920s, the politics of the CI charged, calling for the for­mation of mass parties: either by the fusion of communist groups with the majority centrist cur­rents, such as the Independents in Germany; or by the entrism of small communist groups into a party of the IInd International, in the ‘parti­cular case' of Great Britain. But a policy of ‘particular cases' always ends up in opportunist practices.

The resolution adopted by the conference was Fraina's. It replaced Wijnkoop's, which was a too vague and eluded question about the unity of communists and splits. Fraina put forward the necessity of not only separating from the social patriots from the ‘opportunists' that is the current navigating between the IInd and IIIrd Internationals. A position which was identical to Bordiga[19]. It was symptomatic that the resolution for a split in order to form a communist party and against the "so-called possibility that a new British communist party could be linked to the Labor Party" - according to Pankhurst's term - was rejected by the BSP delegates and a Dutch delegate (Van Leuven). As such the resolution appeared to be a decision applied both to the Labor Party and to the USPD.

In fact, the Amsterdam Bureau, whose work Fraina's had became the center of the left opposition in the IIIrd International, with executive power, since it demanded that the Secretariat of Berlin, which was in the hands of the right, take up positions on Western European matters. The American sub-bureau[20], whose work Fraina's CP had been mandated to carry out, could well have become a centre of propaganda for the left in             whole American continent. Faced with this danger, and at the very moment when the Bureau was saluting the formation of the KAPD in Germany, the CI decided to dissolve it - through a sim­ple radio message from Moscow on the 4 May 1920. From now on the centre of opposition was trans­ferred to Germany, putting an end to even the slightest opposition on the part of Wijnkoop's leadership and by the majority of the KPN.


[1]The KAPD was very hostile to anarcho-syndicalism, represented by FAUD, created in 1919, which in March 1920 took a pacifist position at the time of the Kapp putsch, while the communist left participated in the armed struggles in the Ruhr. For its part, the KPD didn't disdain the syndicalism of the FAU of Gelsenkirchen, which in 1920-21 passed under its control.

[2]Nevertheless Radek tried from his prison to oppose Levi's attempt at a split. Once this had happened, Lenin, having acquainted himself with the situation, pronounced himself for the unity of the party, seeing in the opposition a sign of youthful and inexperience.

[3]A. Pannekoek, under the pseudonym K. Horner, 'Die Gewerkschaften', in Der Komunist, 28 January 1920, and also cf 'Der Wag nach rechts', in Der Komunist, 24 January 1920

[4]This quote and the following one are extracts from the article by Karl Horner: 'Der Neue Balnquismis' in Der Komunist, 1920, no. 27.

[5]K. Horner, in Der Komunist, no. 22, 1920.

[6]K. Horner, 'Taktische und organisatorische Streitfragen' in Der Komunist 13 December 1919.

[7]Before its shattering into pieces in 1982, the Bordigist current envisaged participating in elections in certain 'geographical areas' of the 'third world', where the 'bourgeois revolution' would still be on the agenda.

[8] This what Wijnkoop declared at the KPN Congress of Gronigue in June 1919. Gorter broke all personal relations with him.

[9] On the other question - parliamentarism, trade unionism - Wijnkoop remained silent. On his return to Holland, he was supposed to get the line of the CI applied in the KPN.

[10] It is difficult to know if Rutgers or Pannekoek, or the two together, wrote these theses on parliamentarism.

[11] The Theses of the Amsterdam Bureau were published as propositions in the organ of the CI (January 1920): ‘Vorschlage aus Holland', in Die Komunistische Internationale, nos 4-5. Translated in Broue, opcit. P. 364.

[12] Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism ed Promethee, 1980, p. 119:

"... the dictatorship of the soviets became possible only by means of the dictatorship of the party. It is thanks to the clarity of its theoretical vision and its strong revolutionary organization that the party has afforded to the soviets the possibility of becoming transformed from shapeless parliaments of labor into the apparatus of the supremacy of labor."

[13] Carl Stucke was one of the leaders of the Bremen tendency. At the time of the Amsterdam conference, he was first of all anti-parliamentarian, but some months later he defended the participation in elections in April 1920.

[14] Sneevliet said not a word during conference. He was accompanied by the Sino-Indonesian Tjun Sju Kwa, correspondent of the KPN in Indonesia, who was introduced as a "Chinese comrade" (sic).

[15] Undoubtedly, this is a pseudonym of the Russian, Borodine, responsible for the secretariat of the Latin-American bureau and much later an agent of Comintern in China, where he played not a negligible role in the defeat of the Chinese proletariat, with the political adhesion of the Chinese CP to the Kuomintang.

[16] The Imola conference of 10 October 1919 was an international ‘informational' meeting of some West European delegates, under the leadership of the PSI. apart from Pankhurst, the delegates were far from being the left. The Frankfurt conference on 19 December was of an informal character. The secretariat emerging out of it, comprised Radek, Levi. Thalheimer, Bronski, Munzenberg and Fuchs, who represented the right tendency in the CI.

[17] Fraina's courier, a man named Nosovitsky, who participated at the conference, was a police agent. The Dutch police recorded all the debates from a room adjoining the conference room; and they communicated the content to the bourgeois press. Several delegates were arrested by the police.

[18] BSP: British Socialist Party, created in 1911, it was the main force constituting the CPGB in July 1920. ILP: Independent Labor Party, created in the 1890s on the basis of the Fabian society. Non-marxist, it denounced the war in 1914.

[19] In Italy, the ‘centrist' tendency was represented by the Serrati ‘maximalist' current.

[20] The sub-bureau became after the IInd Congress of the CI, the Pan American bureau of the Komintern. Installed in Mexico, it was composed of the Japanese Katamaya, Fraina and a North American who used various Spanish sounding pseudonyms.

History of the workers' movement: 

Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: