Contribution to a history of the revolutionary movement: Introduction to the Dutch-German Left

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The history of the international communist left since the beginning of the century, such as we've begun to relate in our pamphlets on the ‘Communist Left of Italy' isn't simply for historians. It's only from a militant standpoint, the standpoint of those who are committed to the workers' struggle for emancipation, that the history of the workers' movement can be approached. And for the working class, this history isn't just a question of knowing things, but first and foremost a weapon in its present and future struggles, because of the lessons from the past that it contains. It's from this militant point of view that we are publishing as a contribution to the history of the revolutionary movement a pamphlet on the German-Dutch communist left which will appear in French later this year. The introduction to this pamphlet, published below, goes into the question of how to approach the history of this current.


Franz Mehring, the renowned author of a biography of Marx and of a history of German social democracy, comrade in arms to Rosa Luxemburg, emphasized in 1896 - in the Neue Zeit - how important it was for the workers' movement to be able to reappropriate its own past:

"The proletariat has the advantage over all the other parties of being able to constantly draw new strength from the history of its own past, the better to wage its present-day struggles and to attain the new world of the future."

The existence of a real ‘workers' memory is the expression of a constant effort by the workers' movement, in its revolutionary aspect, to reappropriate its own past. This reappropriation is inseparably linked to the self-development of class consciousness, which is manifested most fully in the mass struggles of the proletariat. And Mehring noted in the same article that "to understand is to go beyond" (aufheben), in the sense of conserving and assimilating those elements of the past which contain the seeds of the future of a historic class, the only historic class today, the bearer of the "new world of the future". Thus, for example, it is impossible to understand the emergence of the Russian revolution of October 1917 without relating it to the experiences of the Paris Commune and of 1905.

Since we consider that the history of the workers' movement can't be reduced to a series of bucolic images, painting a bye-gone epoch in ­rosy hues, and still less to academic studies in which "the past of the movement is so miniturised into the pedantic study of minutiae, so deprived of any general perspective and so isolated from its context that it can only be of the most limited interest" (G Haupt, L'Historien et le mouvement social), we have chosen to approach our work on the history of the Dutch-German revolutionary workers' movement as a form of praxis. We define this in the same way as G Haupt: considered as the expression of a "militant materialism" (Plekhanov), this praxis is defined as "a laboratory of experiences, failures and successes, a field for theoretical and strategic elaboration, demanding a spirit of rigor and critical examination in order to grasp historical reality, and thus discover its hidden elements, to invent and innorate on the basis of a historic moment seen as experience." (Haupt, ibid).

For the revolutionary workers' movement, the history of its own past is not ‘neutral'. It implies a constant questioning and thus a critical examination of its past experience.

The revolutionary transformations in the praxis of the proletariat are always underpinned by profound transformations in class consciousness. Only the critical examination of the past, free of dogmas and taboos can restore to the revolutionary workers' movement this historical dimension which is characteristic of a class which has a final goal: its own liberation and the liberation of humanity. Rosa Luxemburg defined the method used by the workers' movement to investigate its own past in the following way:

"No firmly fixed plan, no orthodox ritual that holds good for all times, shows him the path that he must travel. Historical experience is his only teacher, his Via Dolorosa to freedom is cov­ered not only with unspeakable suffering, but with countless mistakes. The goal of his jour­ney, his final liberation, depends entirely on the proletariat, on whether it understands to learn from its own mistakes." (Rosa Luxemburg, The Crisis of Social Democracy, cited by Haupt, op cit).

Whereas the history of the workers' movement, as praxis, involves a theoretical and practical discontinuity, brought about by con­tact with new historical experience, it also presents itself as a tradition that plays a mobilizing role in workers' consciousness and that feeds the collective memory. While this tradition has often played a conservative role in the history of the proletariat, it also expresses all that is stable in the theoretical and organizational acquisitions of the workers' movement. Thus, discontinuity and continuity are the two inseparable dimensions of the political and social history of this movement.

The left communist currents which emerged from the IIIrd International, like the ‘Bordigist' Italian Left on the one hand, and the Dutch Left of Gorter and Pannekoek on the other, have not escaped the temptation of situating themselves unilaterally within either the continuity or the discontinuity of the workers' movement. The Bordigist current has resolutely chosen to af­firm the ‘invariance' of marxism and of the workers' movement since 1848, the ‘invariance' of communist theory since Lenin. The ‘councilist' current that goes back to the 1930s in Holland has, on the other hand, opted for denying all continuity in the workers' and revolutionary movement. Its theory of a New Workers' Movement has meant throwing the ‘old' workers' movement into the dustbin, its whole experience having been judged negative for the future. Between these two extreme attitudes we can sit­uate the KAPD of Berlin, and above all Bilan, the review of the Italian Fraction in exile in France and Belgium during the 30s. The two currents, German and Italian, while both were theoretical innovators who marked the discontinuity be­tween the new revolutionary movement of the 20s and 30s and the one which preceded it in­side social democracy and during the war of 1914-18, also affirmed their continuity with the original marxist movement. All these hesitations show the difficulty in grasping the continuity and the discontinuity of the left communist cur­rents - ie, in conserving and going beyond their heritage.


The difficulties of writing a history of the left communist and council communist movement aren't limited to this problem of assimilating and going beyond their acquisitions. They are above all the product of a tragic history which for nearly sixty years has seen the disappearance of the revolutionary traditions of the workers' movement, traditions that culminated in the rev­olutions in Russia and Germany, A sort of col­lective amnesia seemed to descend on the work­ing class under the blows of successive and re­peated defeats that culminated in the second world war, that destroyed for a whole genera­tion the experience of having lived through a revolutionary struggle and that wiped out the fruits of decades of socialist education. But it is above all Stalinism, the most profound counter­revolution the workers' movement has ever known, which, following the defeat of the Russian revolution, has done the most to rubout this collective memory , which is an indissol­uble part of class consciousness. The history of the workers' movement, and above all of the revolutionary left current in the IIIrd International, became a gigantic enterprise of ideological falsification in the service of Russian state capitalism, then of the states built on the same model after 1945. This history became the cynical glorification of the party in power and its police state apparatus. Under the cover of ‘internationalism', official history, ‘revised' con­tinuously to take in the latest ‘turn' or settling of scores, became a form of nationalist, statist sermonizing, a justification for imperialist war and terror, for the lowest, most morbid in­stincts, cultivated on the rotten soil of counter­revolution and war.

On this point it's worth again citing the historian Georges Haupt, who died in 1980, and was known for the seriousness of his works on the IInd and IIIrd Internationals:

"With the aid of unprecedented falsifications, treating the most elementary historical realities with contempt, Stalinism has methodically rubbed out, mutilated, remodeled the field of the past in order to replace it with its own representations, its own myths, its own self-glorification. The history of the international workers' movement gets frozen into a series of dead images, images that have been tampered with and emptied of any substance, trumped-up copies in which the real past can hardly be recognized. The func­tion which Stalinism assigns to what it considers and declares to be history, the validity of which is imposed without any regard to credibility, expresses a profound fear of historical reality, which it tries systematically to mask, truncate, and deform in order to turn it into something as conformist and as docile as possible. With the aid of an imaginary and fetishised past that has been deprived of any elements that might bring reality to mind, the power structure aims not only to obstruct any view of reality but to in­fest the faculty of perception itself. Thus the permanent necessity to anaesthetize and pervert the collective memory, the control of which be­comes total the minute the past is treated as a state secret and access to documents is forbid­den".

At last the period of May 1968 came along. This was the upsurge of a social movement on such a scale that it swept through the world from France to Britain, from Belgium to Sweden, from Italy to Argentina, from Poland to Germany. There is no doubt that the period of workers' struggles from 68-74 facilitated historical re­search into the revolutionary movement. A num­ber of books appeared on the history of the revolutionary movements of the 20th century in Germany, Italy, France and Britain. The red thread of historical continuity between the distant past of the 20s and the period of May 68 seemed obvious to those who were not taken in by the spectacular appearance of the student revolt. However, rare were those who saw a workers' movement arising from its ashes, the reawakening of a collective historical memory that had been anaesthetized and asleep for nearly 40 years. Nevertheless, in all their con­fused enthusiasm, revolutionary historical refer­ences emerged spontaneously, and with joyful profusion, from the mouths of the workers who were out on the streets and who frequented the anti-union Action Committees. And these refer­ences weren't the result of leftist students, historians or sociologists whispering in their ears. The collective memory of the working class was evoking - often in a confused way, and in the confusion of the events - the whole history of the workers' movement, and all its main stages: 1848, the Paris Commune, 1905, 1917, but also 1936, which, with the constitution of the Popular Front, was the antithesis of the other dates. The decisive experience of the German revolution (1918-23) was not referred to a great deal, but still the idea of workers' councils, preferred to that of the soviets which with their mass of soldiers and peasants were less purely proletarian, appeared more and more in the discussions in the streets and in the action committees born out of the generalized strike wave.

The resurgence of the proletariat onto the scene of history, a class which certain sociolo­gists had declared ‘integrated' or ‘ernbourgeoisiefied', broadly created favorable conditions for research into the history of the revolutionary movements of the 20s and 30s. Even though they were still all too rare, studies were made of the lefts in the IInd and IIIrd Internationals. The names of Gorter and Pannekoek, the initials KAPD and GIC, alongside the names of Bordiga and Damen, became more familiar to the elements who called themselves ‘ultra-left' or ‘internationalist communists'. The dead weight of Stalinism was being lifted. But other, more insidious forms of truncating and distorting the history of the workers' movement appeared as Stalinism declined. According to the climate of the day, a social democratic, Trotskyist, or purely academic historiography came forward, their effects being just as perni­cious as those of Stalinism. Social democratic historiography, like the Stalinist version, tried to anaesthetize and rub out the whole revolu­tionary significance of the left communist move­ment by turning it into a dead thing from the past. Very often the communist left's criticisms of social democracy were carefully erased so as to make its history as inoffensive as possible. Leftist historiography, in particular that of the Trotskyists, did its bit by lying through omis­sion, carefully avoiding saying too much about the revolutionary currents to the left of Trotskyism. When they couldn't avoid mentioning them, most simply dealt with them in passing by sticking the label ‘ultra-left' or ‘sectarian' on them, and by referring to Lenin's critique of ‘left wing childishness'. A method, what's more, that had already been practiced for a long time by Stalinist historiography. History became the history of their own self-justification, an in­strument of legitimization. Let's again cite what was written by Georges Haupt, who was far from being a revolutionary, about the historiography of this ‘new left':

"Less than a decade ago, the anti-reformist and anti-Stalinist ‘new left', a severe critic of university history which it rejects as bourgeois, took up a ‘traditional' attitude to history and got into the same rut as the Stalinists and so­cial democrats by forcing the past into the same mould. Thus the ideologues of the extra-parlia­mentary opposition (which it hasn't been for a long time, author's note) in the sixties in Germany themselves tried to find their legitimacy in the past. They treated history like a big cake from which everyone could take a slice according to appetite and taste. Erected into a source of legitimacy and used as an instrument of legitimization, working class history became a sort of depot of accessories and disguises in which each fraction, each grouplet could find its justifying reference, useable for the needs of the moment" (Haupt, op cit. p 32).

Revolutionary currents like Bordigism or councilism, because they were unable to escape the danger of sectarianism, also made the his­tory of the revolutionary movement an instru­ment for legitimizing their conceptions. At the cost of deforming real history, they cut things to shape, eliminating all the components of the revolutionary movement which went in a differ­ent direction to them. The history of the com­munist left was no longer that of the unity and heterogeneity of its constituent parts, a complex history that had to be seen in its globality, in its international dimension, in order to show its unity. It became a history of rival, antagonistic currents. The Bordigists superbly ignored the history of the Dutch and German communists. When they did speak about them, it was always with a lofty disdain, and like the Trotskyists they referred to Lenin's ‘definitive' critique of left wing childishness. They carefully covered up the fact that in 1920 Bordiga, just like Gorter and Pannekoek, was condemned by Lenin for being ‘infantile' because of the same rejec­tion of parliamentarism and of the British CP's entry into the Labor Party.

Councilist historiography has had a similar attitude. Glorifying the history of the KAPD and the ‘Unionen' - which most often they reduce to their ‘anti-authoritarian', anarchistic currents, like Ruhle's - and above all of the GIC, they ig­nore no less superbly the existence of Bordiga's current and of the Italian Fraction around Bilan in the 30s. This current is thrown into the same sack as ‘Leninism'. With no less a zeal than the Bordigists, they also erase the enormous differ­ences between the Dutch Left of 1907 to 1927, which affirmed the need for a political organization, and the councilism of the 1930s. Pannekoek's itinerary before 1921 and after 1927 becomes a straight line for the councilists. The left communist Pannekoek of pre-1921 is ‘revised' in the light of his later councilist evolution.

Apart from the sectarianism of these Bordigist and councilist historiographies, which aim to be ‘revolutionary' when only the truth is truly revolutionary, one has to point out the narrowly national vision held by these currents. By reducing the history of a revolutionary cur­rent to one national component, chosen in rela­tion to their ‘territory' of origin, these currents have shown a restricted national narrow-mind­edness and a strong inward-looking spirit. The result is that the international dimension of the communist left has been rubbed out. The sec­tarianism of these currents is inseparable from their localism, reflecting an unconscious submis­sion to national characteristics, which today is quite obsolete for a real international revolu­tionary movement.

Twenty years after 1968, the greatest danger faced by attempts to write a history of the rev­olutionary movement is less deformation or ‘disinformation' than the enormous ideological pressure which has been exerted in recent years. This pressure has translated itself into a notable diminution of academic studies and re­search in the history of the workers' movement. To get some idea of this, it's enough to cite the conclusions of Le Mouvement Social (no. 142. January-March 1988), a French journal known for its researches into the history of the work­ers' movement. One historian notes a tangible drop, in this journal, of articles devoted to the workers' movement and the parties and organizations that claim adherence to it. He notes a "tendencial drop in ‘pure' political history: 60% of the articles at the beginning, 10-15% today", and above all a "tendency towards a decline in the study of the workers' movement": 80% of the articles 20 years ago, 20% today. Since 1981, no doubt because of the erosion of "lyrical illu­sions" about the left in power, we've seen a definite drop in studies of communism in gen­eral. This ‘dislocation' has been even more bru­tal since 1985-6. A disquieting sign of this ide­ological pressure, which comes from the bour­geoisie in response to a growing uncertainty about the security of its economic foundations. The author notes that "a working class prepon­derance (in this journal) has been slowly eaten away by the rise of the bourgeoisie." And he concludes by showing that there has been an increase in studies devoted to the bourgeoisie and non-proletarian strata. The history of the workers' movement is more and more giving way to the history of the bourgeoisie and to plain economic history.

Thus, after a whole period in which studies of the workers' and revolutionary movement were being written, albeit in an academic con­text in which semi-truths and semi-lies were the limits of their achievement, and in which the revolutionary dimension of the movement's his­tory was obscured, we are now seeing a period of reaction. Even when its ‘neutral', even when it's adapted to the tastes of the day and sanitized , the history of the workers' movement, above all when it's revolutionary, appears ‘dangerous' for the dominant ideology. The political and ideological history of the revolution­ary movement is explosive. Because it is a praxis, it is heavy with revolutionary lessons for the future. It calls into question all the ide­ologies of the official left. As a critical lesson about the past, it is heavy with a critique of the present. It is a "weapon of criticism" which as Marx affirmed  can be turned into "criticism by weapons". Once again we can cite G Haupt:

" ... history is an explosive terrain to the ex­tent that the reality of the facts or the experi­ences of a past which has often been glossed over are liable to call into question any pre­tence to being the sole representative of the working class. Because the history of the work­ers' world touches the ideological foundations upon which all the parties who want to be in the vanguard base their hegemonic claims." (p 38, ibid)


This history of the German-Dutch communist left goes against the stream of present-day histori­ography. It does not aim to be a purely social history of this current. It aims to be a political history, restoring life and relevance to all the political and theoretical debates which developed within it. It aims to place this left in its inter­national context, because otherwise its existence becomes incomprehensible. It aims above all to be a critical history, to show, without a priori assumptions or anathemas, its strengths and its weaknesses. It is neither an apology for nor a rejection of the German-Dutch communist cur­rent. It aims to show the roots of the councilist current, the better to underline its intrinsic weaknesses and explain the reasons for its dis­appearance. It also aims to show that the ideol­ogy of councilism expresses a movement away from the conceptions of revolutionary marxism, which were expressed in the 1930s by the Italian Left and the KAPD. And as such this ide­ology, close to anarchism, can be particularly pernicious for the future revolutionary move­ment, because of its rejection of the revolution­ary organization and of the Russian revolution, and finally because of its rejection of the whole experience acquired by the past workers' and revolutionary movement. It is an ideology which disarms the revolutionary class and its organizations.

Although written in a university context this history is thus a weapon of struggle. To take up Mehring's expression, it is a history-praxis, a history "to wage the present-day struggle and to attain the new world of the future."

This history is thus not an ‘impartial' one. It is a committed work. Because historical truth, when it is the history of the revolutionary movement, demands a revolutionary commitment. The truth of the facts, their interpretation from a proletarian standpoint, can only lead to revo­lutionary conclusions.

In this work, we have taken as our own Trotsky's reflections about the objectivity of the work of revolutionary history, from the preface to his History of the Russian Revolution:

"The reader, of course, is not obliged to share the political views of the author, which the latter on his side has no reason to conceal. But the reader does have the right to demand that a historical work should not be the defense of a political position, but an internally well­-founded portrayal of the actual process of the revolution. A historical work only then com­pletely fulfils its mission when events unfold upon its pages in their full natural necessity ...

The serious and critical reader will not want a treacherous impartiality, which offers him a cup of conciliation with a well-settled poison of reactionary hate at the bottom, but a scientific conscientiousness, which for its sympathies and antipathies open and undisguised seeks support in an honest study of the facts, a de­termination of their real connections, an expo­sure of the causal laws of their movement. That is the only possible historic objectivism, and moreover it is amply sufficient, for it is verified and attested not by the good intentions of the historian, for which only he himself can vouch, but by the natural laws revealed by him of the historic process itself."

The reader can judge, through the abun­dance of the material used, that we have aimed at this scientific good faith, without hiding our sympathies and antipathies.

Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: