The Dutch Left (1914-16): From Tribunism to Communism

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The Dutch Left (1914-16)

From Tribunism to Communism

Against World War I and the Collapse of Social-Democracy


We are publishing here the latest chapters in our series on the Dutch Left, which has already appeared in previous issues of the International Review. The period dealt with in this new series of articles goes from 1914 to the early 1920's: the outbreak of World War I, the Russian revolution, and the revolutionary wave in Western Europe. This first part concerns the attitude of the "Tribunist" current during the First World War.

Although the Netherlands remained neutral during World War I, and so were spared its terrible bloodshed and material destruction, the war remained a constant nightmare for the population. The invasion of Belgium brought the fighting right up to the Butch border. As the war dragged on, the Dutch bourgeoisie's involvement in the war appeared inevitable, either on Germany's side or the Allies'. As in other countries, the socialist movement thus had to determine clearly either its support for, or its struggle against its own government.

In reality, the ‘neutrality' of countries like Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, or Norway was often no more than a facade: they remained discreetly pro-German. But this orientation was all the more discreet in that they made money trading with both sides. More important, the bourgeoisie was deeply divided into two, often equally matched, factions: one pro-German (the Triple Alliance), the other pro-Entente.

In Holland, mobilization was ordered very early, in preparation for entry into the war. For the bourgeoisie, this was above all a means to test both the workers' readiness for an eventual war, and the Social-Democracy's degree of integration into the national state.

As in most of the belligerent countries, the official Social-Democracy joined the nationalist camp. The SDAP crossed the Rubicon by disowning the internationalism still proclaimed in its program. At the very outset of war, Troelstra declared himself "by principal on the side of the government". On 3rd August 1914, even before the German Social-Democracy, the SDAP voted for war credits. It announced clearly its readiness for the "Sacred Union" with the Dutch bourgeoisie: "the national idea is superior to national differences", Troelstra declared in Parliament.

However, although engaged in a "Sacred Union" alongside the government, the SDAP's international policy made it appear "neutral". The SDAP did not declare openly for the German camp, although the majority of the party, and Troelstra in particular, inclined towards the Triple Alliance. It is true that a significant minority around Vliegen and Van der Goes was openly pro-Entente....

The SDAP's tactic consisted in giving new life to the 2nd International, an International broken up into national parties, after falling apart in August 1914 when its major member parties voted for war credits. Troelstra managed to have the international Socialist Bureau, which the French socialist refuse to join, removed to The Hague where it fell under control of the SDAP and .... German Social-Democracy. As for calling a conference of parties from the neutral countries, Troelstra's party would have nothing to do with it.

Nonetheless, the SDAP's pseudo-neutrality in international politics allowed it to avoid the shock of multiple splits. The Dutch proletariat remained resolutely anti-war throughout its duration. Although it never crossed the border, the war meant a drastic drop in Dutch workers' living conditions: the suffocation of the national economy rapidly caused a considerable rise in unemployment. By the end of 1914, there were 40,000 unemployed in Amsterdam. Staple products were rationed very early on. For most workers, the reality of the World War was ever greater misery and unemployment. The massacre's extension to Holland was an ever-present danger: by ordering a general mobilization in August 1914, the government enrolled thousands of workers in the army, with the constant threat of participation in the World War hanging over them. To make this possible, a permanent barrage of propaganda was kept up in favor of the "Sacred Union", and for an end to strikes.

Threatened with the horrors of the battlefield and subjected to deepening poverty, the Dutch proletariat proved its combativity. Strikes such as that of 10,000 Amsterdam diamond workers broke out. Already in 1915, and throughout the duration of the war, demonstrations took to the streets in protest at the cost of living. The audience for meetings against the war and its effects was increasingly attentive and combative.

It should moreover be noted that, right from the start, anti-militarist and internationalist ideas gained a wide hearing within the working class. From the beginning of the century, a well organized anti-militarism had been developing in Holland, under the influence of Nieuwenhuis. The International Anti-Militarist Association (IAMV) had been founded in Amsterdam in 1904. Its Dutch section, which published the review De Wapens Neder (Down with weapons!) was the most active in the Association. Under the authority of Nieuwenhuis, it was never tainted with pacifism. Although remaining libertarian, it had links with the SDP, as well as with Nieuwenhuis' libertarian movement. For a country the size of Holland, the review had a wide circulation: more than 950,000 copies. Alongside the      anti‑militarist movement, the revolutionary syndicalist current also experienced a new upsurge: during the war, membership of the NAS grew from 10,000 to 30,000.

Nor did the SDP remain inactive. On 1st August 1914, De Tribune declared "war on war". A manifesto published in December 1914 calling for the    demobilization of the Dutch army demonstrated the party's intention to conduct a vigorous anti-war propaganda.

However, the SDP's policy was far from clear, and even revealed a movement away from intransigent marxist positions. In August 1914, the SDP had decided to take part, alongside other organizations -- the NAS and the IAMV -- in the formation of an alliance of organizations known as the "Workers' Action Unions' (SAV). This alliance, into which the SDP dissolved itself, appeared in the end less an organization for the revolutionary struggle against the war than an anti-militarist alliance with inevitably pacifist undertones, for lack of a clear
position on the struggle for revolution.

Within the SDP, moreover, a part of the leadership defended positions foreign to the original intransigence of Tribunism. Thus, Van Ravesteyn, amongst others, called for the ‘arming of the people' in the case of an invasion of the Netherlands. This position was already an old one within the 2nd International; it tried to reconcile the irreconcilable: internationalism and patriotism, which the arming of the "people" was to transform into "workers' patriotism". During the war, even revolutionaries as intransigent   as Rosa Luxemburg did not escape this conception inherited from the period of bourgeois revolutions, which led directly to support for one or other imperialist camp. But for Rosa Luxemburg, this passing ambiguity was rapidly overcome by an absolutely unambiguous rejection of all national wars in the imperialist epoch.

In reality, behind Van Ravesteyn's conception lay the idea of the national defense of little countries threatened by the "great" countries. This conception led inevitably to the defense of the imperialist camp that supported the little countries in question. It was this implicit idea of a "just" war that the Serbian socialists had rejected forcefully in August 1914 by refusing to vote war credits, and pronouncing themselves for internationalism and the international revolution.

Only after a bitter struggle on Gorter's part was the idea of a national defense of small countries plunged into a generalized conflict explicitly condemned. A resolution written by Gorter, known as the "Bussum Resolution", was proposed and adopted at the party's June 1915 Congress. It marked the rejection of Van Ravesteyn's position. In the same resolution, Gorter included the rejection of pacifism, which without ever becoming explicit had infiltrated the SDP under cover of an apparently radical, but in fact anarchist language. Gorter particularly attacked the Groningen section which, like the anarchists, declared that, as a matter of principle, it "fought against and rejected all military organization, and all military expenditure".

In reality, by its abstract purism, this kind of position simply evacuated the question of the proletarian revolution. With this vision, the revolution could only be a pacific one, without posing the question of the arming of the workers before the seizure of power, and therefore of the workers' military organization. Such a position, moreover, denied the need for arms production after the seizure of power in order to defend the new revolutionary power against the counter-revolution in case of civil war.

Lastly, the SDP's acceptance of the Groningen section's position would have meant a slide towards pacifism -- a danger all the greater in that the party was involved in an alliance with anarchist organizations, whose orientation was more pacifist than revolutionary. This is why Gorter's resolution, carried by 432 votes to 26, unambiguously condemned pacifist ideology, however anti-militarist, as leading to the abandon of the revolutionary struggle for the armed power of the proletariat: "If one day the workers hold power, they must defend it by force".

These political waverings within the SDP contrasted with its theoretical positions on the World War, whose orientation was the same that defended by the revolutionary left in Russia and Germany. But these were more Gorter's own work than that of the party as a whole. In the end, Gorter's influence, like Pannekoek's, was greater in the international revolutionary movement than in his own party.

At the beginning of the war, Gorter, along with Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, was the marxist theoretician who explained most coherently the underlying causes of the international's death, and the nature of war in the imperialist epoch, so drawing out the practical implications for the revolutionary struggle to come.

In December 1914, the SDP's publishing house brought out Gorter's major theoretical and political contribution to the struggle against the war: "Imperialism, the World War, and the Social-Democracy". This pamphlet, which quickly went through several editions in Dutch, was immediately translated into German for the political combat against the Social-Democracy at an international level.

Gorter dealt with the most burning questions posed by the World War and the International's collapse:

a) the nature of the war

Like other revolutionaries at the time, Gorter placed the World War within the framework of the evolution of capitalism. This evolution is one of capital's worldwide expansion in search of new markets. Nonetheless, on the economic level Gorter's analysis remains very succinct, and is more a description of the stages of capitalist development towards the colonies and semi-colonies than a real theoretical explanation or the phenomenon of imperialism. In certain aspects, Gorter is closer to Lenin than to Rosa Luxemburg. It is on the political level that Gorter comes closer to Luxemburg, declaring forcefully that all states are imperialist, and that, contrary Lenin's position during the war, there could no longer exist wars of national liberation:

"All states have an imperialist policy, and aim at extending their territory".

As a result, the proletariat can no longer direct its combat against its "own" bourgeoisie. Unlike Liebknecht, who declared that the "main enemy is in our own country", Gorter insisted that there is no "main enemy" , no "enemy no. 1" and "enemy no. 2", but that on the contrary all imperialisms have to be fought, because the struggle is no longer placed on the national but on the international terrain:

"National imperialism threatens the proletariat quite as much as the imperialism of other nations. Consequently, the proletariat as a whole has to fight in the same way that is to say with the same energy, against all imperialism, its own as well as foreign imperialism".

b) the decline of the capitalist system

Gorter did not see the decadence of capitalism as a theoretician, basing himself on a study of history and economics. He grasped it through its social and cultural effects. The World War meant a direct threat to the very life of the world proletariat; the birth of a worldwide capitalism is the ultimate result of a historical evolution that leads to a fight to the death between the proletariat and world capital:

"Times have changed. Capitalism has developed to such a point that it can only continue to develop by massacring the proletariat of every country. World capitalism is born, and confronts the world working class ... World imperialism threatens the entire world proletariat".

It is no surprise that Gorter the poet was especially sensitive to the crisis of artistic values, an unmistakable sign of the decline of capitalist civilization. His judgment is doubtless a hasty one, since he ignores the new art forms that emerged in the wake of the war, strongly inspired by the revolutionary wave (expressionism, surrealism ...). But Gorter demonstrates above all the inability to recreate great art, in the image of a system in full expansion, as was the case during the 19th century:

"Today, great art is dead. In all countries, great poetry is dead. Great poetry is dead; impressionism, naturalism, bourgeois realism ... great architecture, is all dead. All that remains is heartless, loveless architecture. Music is shadow of its former self. Great painting is dead. Philosophy is dead; the very rise of the proletariat has killed it".

This vision of the decadence of the capitalist system in all its forms was not unique to Gorter. It was at the very foundation of the left communist currents after the war, and in particular of the German Left, influenced by Rosa Luxemburg, as well as by Gorter and Pannekoek.

c) the collapse of the Social-Democracy

The war had been made possible by the treachery of the parties which had "disowned socialist ideas". Like Pannekoek, Gorter showed that the process of the 2nd International's collapse had been prepared by successive defections from both the immediate struggle and the struggle against war. It was the subjective factor which had finally, in 1914, made it possible for the world bourgeoisie to unleash the war' The bourgeois class, condemned by history and living in the midst of its own decay, could grasp better than any - and with the intelligence of a class solely concerned with its own survival - the decay affecting its adversary, in the very heart of the proletariat:

"Thanks to its own rottenness, the bourgeoisie has a finely developed sense of smell for moral decay, and immediately sniffed out the war that this Congress of the International was going to go. It sensed that it had nothing to fear from such a Congress. It put Basle Cathedral at our disposal..."

Thus, for the Dutch Left, which had, moreover, been prevented from speaking during the Congress, Basle was only the end point in a long decline. Basle's mere religious incantation against war, in reality heralded August 14.

However, Gorter does not analyze the 2nd International's betrayal simply in terms of the treachery of its leaders. He digs deeper, by analyzing the organizational and tactical factors that led to this bankruptcy. All the possible causes lead to one burning question: what is the real state of the proletariat's consciousness, its degree of revolutionary maturity?

It is significant that Gorter hesitates explaining the bankruptcy of the International. He insists strongly on the fact that revisionists and Kautskyist centrists "are together responsible for the nationalism and chauvinism of the masses" on the other hand, there is also a hint of his later theory, set out in 1920 in his Reply to Lenin, on the opposition between "masses" and "leaders". It is the bureaucracy that has deprived the proletarian masses of their capacity for revolutionary action:

"The center of gravity shifted ... from the masses to the leaders. A working class bureaucracy was formed. However, the bureaucracy is conservative by nature".

But for Gorter's profoundly marxist vision was not content with a mere sociological analysis; the question of the organization of parties as emanations of the International is the decisive one. Like the Italian Left after him, Gorter sees the International preceding the parties, and not the parties preceding the International. The 2nd International's collapse is to be explained above all by its federalist characteristics:

"The 2nd International really went to disaster because it was not international. It was a conglomeration of national organizations, and not an international organism".

In the end, all these causes explain the retreat of proletarian consciousness in the war. The proletariat was "badly weakened" and "severely demoralized". But for Gorter, as other revolutionaries at the time, this was not a definitive retreat or defeat. From the must necessarily arise the revolution.

d) the future

The very conditions of capital's evolution create the objective conditions for the unification of the world proletariat. The question of revolution is posed on a world scale:

"... thanks to imperialism, and for the first time in world history, the whole international proletariat is now united, in peace as in war, as one body, in a struggle which cannot be fought without the common agreement of the international proletariat, against the international bourgeoisie".

However, Gorter insisted forcefully that the revolution is a long process, "stretching over decades and decades". The "spiritual factors" are decisive. In particular, the struggle involves a radical change in tactics: it no longer uses the union or parliament, but the mass strike. Although in embryonic form, this point heralds the left communist conception that was fully developed in 1919 - 1920.

Just as decisive was the proletariat's political struggle. It had to combat both revisionism and centrism. Furthermore, to take the road to revolution, the proletariat had to reject the struggle for peace, as it was developed by the pacifist currents. Pacifism remained the most dangerous enemy:

" ... as both hypocrisy and self-deception, and as a means to subject and exploit, the pacifist movement is the opposite side of the coin to imperialism ... the pacifist movement is the attempt of bourgeois  imperialism to counter proletarian socialism".

Finally, without the International created by the proletariat, there can be no real revolutionary movement. From the war must arise "a new International", both necessary and possible.

Gorter's pamphlet, which Lenin greeted as an example, thus expressed concretely the SDP's attitude in the renewal of international links with a view to laying the foundations for a new International.

The SDP and Zimmerwald

It is significant that Gorter's position in favor of energetic work for an international regroupment of socialist opposed to the war and aiming at the foundation of a new International remained isolated within the party. With Pannekoek's support, Gorter worked with all his strength for the SDP's participation in the debates and conferences at Zimmerwald in 1915.

In 1915, the opposition to the war was beginning to grow in strength. In the German SPD, the opposition of Rosa Luxemburg and elements in Berlin and Bremen was growing bolder and laying the basis for a reorganization of revolutionary forces. In both the belligerent and the neutral nations appeared an opposition to social-patriotism, which posed in practice the question of the reorganization of revolutionaries within the old parties, or outside them, even at the cost of a split.

In Holland, elements within the SDAP, but opposed to the nationalist policies officially adopted by the party's January 1915 Congress, constituted a "revolutionary socialist" club in Amsterdam. They decided to create a federation of clubs, which adopted the name of "Revolutionaire Socialistisch Verbond" (RSV), in order to develop an opposition to the war and to nationalism outside the SDAP. However, within the RSV's leadership were to be found elements who were not part of Troelstra's SDAP. Roland-Holst, not a member of any organization since leaving the SDAP in 1911, was recognized as the RSV's spokesman. Mostly made up of intellectuals, the RSV had little influence within the working class. Numerically very small, it was more akin to an alliance than a real organization. The organizational confusion of its members was considerable: many were still in the SDAP, and so belonged to two organizations. This situation lasted several months, until they were expelled from, or had definitively left, the SDAP. No less uncertain was the attitude of members of the SDP who, although already belonging to a revolutionary organization, nonetheless joined the RSV. Only at the SDP's Utrecht Congress (20 June 1915) was membership of two organizations formally forbidden. Those who had joined the RSV on 2 May thus had to leave it.

Politically, the RSV, like Roland-Holst, could be considered as a group of center, between the SDAP and the SDP. On the one hand, it declared itself for "national and international mass action"; on the other, it refused to condemn explicitly the SDAP's attitude towards the war, in the name of a unity that was to be concretized in the "concentration of all revolutionary workers". Nonetheless, this hesitant position did not prevent a more and more active collaboration between the RSV and the SDP.

In practice however, the SDP, although clearer politically and theoretically, was to find itself lagging behind the RSV when, in 1915 international relations between revolutionary groups were renewed with a view to a conference.

Lenin had been in contact with the Dutch since the beginning of the war. He quite naturally address himself to the SDP in order "to create a closer contact" between the Dutch and the Russians. He certainly did not think of associating himself with Roland-Holst, in whom - since her attitude towards the Tribunists in 1909 - he saw a Dutch version of Trotsky, or even Kautsky.

But the SDP remained too divided to conduct clearly a policy of tight collaboration with the German and Russian revolutionaries. A small minority of the party leadership around Gorter remained determined to work internationally against social-chauvinism and the Kautskyist center. In this sense, the 8th April 1915, Gorter proposed to Lenin the publication of a Marxist review, with Pannekoek as editor, to replace Kautsky's "Neue Zeit". Lenin agreed with this proposition. But in reality, the SDP's effort, before Zimmerwald, at regroupment with other revolutionary groups in Switzerland, was the work of Gorter and Luteraan, another member of the party's leadership. Luteraan was a delegate at the Bern International conference of young socialists in April 1915, not as an official representative of the SDP, but as a member of "De Zaaier" group of young socialists, independent of the party. This was where Luteraan made contact with Lenin.

It should be noted that, on the contrary, the position of Tribunism's historic leaders - Wijnkoop, Ravesteyn, and Ceton - was more than ambiguous. Lenin hoped to associate the Dutch closely to the preparation of the Zimmerwald conference. In a letter to Wijnkoop, written during the summer, Lenin declared forcefully: "But you and we are independent parties; we must do something: formulate a program of the revolution, unmask and denounce the stupid and hypocritical slogans of peace". And a telegram sent to Wijnkoop just before Zimmerwald urged: "Come at once!".

But the SDP did not send any delegate to the Zimmerwald conference, which took place between the 5th and 8th September 1915. Wijnkoop and his friends circulated within the party the - unconfirmed - information that the conference's organizer, the Swiss Robert Grimm, had, as a member of parliament, voted for mobilization credits at the beginning of the war. De Tribune left its readers in the dark as to the resolutions voted at the conference. Instead of seeing Zimmerwald as "a step forward in the ideological and practical break with opportunism and social-chauvinism", the SDP's leaders - with the exception of Gorter, Pannekoek, and Luteraan - saw in it nothing but pure opportunism, worse still, they completely missed the historic importance of the event as the first organized reaction to the war and as the first stage in the regroupment of internationalist revolutionaries; they saw nothing more than a "historic farce" in what was later become a symbol of the struggle against the war, nothing but "stupidity" in the fraternization across the trenches between French and German socialists:

"Clearly, we should thank God (sic!) ... for having preserved us from the stupidity of the Zimmerwald conference, or, more precisely, from the necessity of assuming the role of opposition on the spot ... We knew in advance what would come of it: nothing but opportunism, and no struggle of principal!".

This attitude of Wiinkoop's, confounding sectarianism and irresponsibility, was  not without consequences for the image of the Dutch Left. It left the stage free for Roland-Holst's current to represent -- through the SDP's default -- the revolutionary movement in the Netherlands. The RSV took its place in the "centrist" current at Zimmerwald, which only considered it possible to struggle for peace, and refused to associate itself with the Zimmerwald left, which took as its basis the revolutionary struggle, and the need for a 3rd International. Within the movement of the Zimmerwald left internationally with which the SDP associated itself, "Tribunism" appeared as a sectarian current.

In the case of Wijnkoop, Ravesteyn and Ceton, their sectarianism only concealed an opportunist policy which appeared in the full light of day from 1916-17. The "sectarianism" of which the Communist International accuses them in 1920 was not the responsibility of Gorter, Pannekoek, and their partisans, who worked determinedly for the international regroupment of revolutionaries.


Some lessons

The lessons for the revolutionary movement of this period of crisis in the workers' movement are not specific to Holland; they are general lessons:

1) The vote for war credits on 3rd August 1914 by Troelstra's SDAP meant that the whole party apparatus took its place in the ranks of the Dutch bourgeoisie. However, as in the other parties, the crisis that this provoked in the party was expressed in two splits on the left. In number, these were very limited: 200 militants for each, out of a party of 10,000 members. The SDAP, unlike the German SPD, was no longer capable of secreting within itself strong minorities, or even a majority, hostile to the war and standing firm on proletarian positions. The question of reconquering the party could no longer be posed. The process of regroupment during the war took place around the "Thibunist" SDP. The SDP's very existence since 1909 had already emptied the SDAP of most of its revolutionary minorities.

2) Antimilitarism and the "struggle for peace" in time of war are an enormous source of confusion. They push the class struggle and the struggle for the revolution, which alone are capable of putting an end to the war, into the background. These slogans, which were to be found within the SDP, express at best the penetration of the petty-bourgeois ideology purveyed in particular by the anarchist, revolutionary syndicalist and "centrist" currents. The SDP's alliance with these currents during the war only encouraged the infiltration of opportunism into the SDP as a revolutionary party.

3) A "narrow" and early split with the old party which has fallen into opportunism is not in itself a guarantee against the return of opportunism in the new revolutionary party. The left-wing split is not a miracle cure. No organization, however carefully selected, theoretically armed, and determined, is spared the constant penetration of bourgeois and/or petty-bourgeois ideology. The history of the SDP during the war is ample proof. Inevitably, minorities appear which tend to become a fraction within the party. Such was the opposition which developed from 1916 onwards around Gorter to the opportunist              danger represented by the Wijnkoop-Ravesteyn, the radical "successor" of Troelstra.

4) In a revolutionary party, opportunism does not always appear in broad daylight. Very often, it hides behind a verbal radicalism and "purity of principles". The Wijnkoop-Ravesteyn-Ceton leadership illustrated this in refusing to take part in Zimmerwald conference, on the pretext that it would be dominated by the opportunist currents. Here, sectarianism is often the other side of the coin to opportunism. It is often accompanied by a very "broad-minded" attitude towards confused, anarchist, or even frankly opportunist currents. The evolution of the SDP leadership, which took with it a large part of the organization, is typical. By giving in to the sirens of opportunism, making alliances with currents foreign to the workers movement -- like the Social-Cnristians - by adopting a pro-Entente attitude towards the end of the war, and by placing itself at beginning of the Russian revolution alongside Kautsky, this leadership went down the same road as Troelstra, but with a more "revolutionary" varnish. Crucial events -- war and revolution -- inevitabiy dissolve such varnish.

5) In the struggle against opportunism, the action of revolutionary minorities is decisive. There is no fatality. The fact that Gorter's and Pannekoek's reactions were dispersed, and at first no more than a simple opposition, weighed heavily on the later evolution of the SDP, when it was transformed into a Communist Party in November 1916.


History of the workers' movement: 

Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: