A political History of the German-Dutch communist Left (Preface)

The Author’s Introduction to the new Edition (Prepublication)

Despite the theoretical and political renown of Gorter and Pannekoek in the international labor movement, the Communist Left in the Nether­lands is the least known of the left currents that emerged within the II. International, and later joined the Communist International. Their exclu­sion in 1921 from the Komintern wrapped the names that had symbolized the most intransigent internationalism in a veil of oblivion.

But this ignorance is also due to the geographical framework in which this Communist Left devel­oped – “little Holland” – and to the weak influence of the Dutch language, which was never a lan­guage of international communication even at the time of its ‘Golden Age’ (the “Gouden Eeuw”).

This Left, which was called the “Dutch School of Marxism”, had its hour of glory before the First World War. The “Tribunist” SDP – named after its organ De Tribune – was one of the few cur­rents which, like the Russian Bolsheviks or the Bulgarian Tesniki, went as far as secession in or­der to constitute a party free of reformist and re­visionist elements. As a minuscule party isolated from the mass of Dutch workers, the Tribunist SDP nevertheless formed a revolutionary tendency within the Second International that was particu­larly influential, especially on the theoretical level. Gorter, who was less a theoretician than an excel­lent popularizer, was one of the most translated Marxist authors in different languages. Theoreti­cally more profound, Anton Pannekoek could eas­ily measure himself with Karl Kautsky in the de­bate on the “mass strike” following the Russian experience of 1905. He also made a comparison with Rosa Luxemburg, for the boldness of his theo­retical thinking, and notably influenced Lenin in the writing of his major book: The State and Revolution. Pannekoek, linked to the Bremen Left (“Bremer Linke”), exerted a profound influ­ence on German “left radicalism” (“Linksradikalismus), as strong as that of Rosa Luxemburg.

But it was especially from 1919, within the III. In­ternational, that the Dutch current asserted itself as an international current of left communism. At the head of the Amsterdam Bureau of the III. In­ternational, oriented to the left in tactical mat­ters, it completely linked himself to the left of the KPD from which the KAPD was to emerge, the most radical party that emerged from the German working masses. To such a degree that, for almost 15 years, the history of the German Left (KAPD and Unionen) merged with that of the Dutch Communist Left. Until 1927, date of Gorter’s dis­appearance, the German-Dutch Communist Left seemed to embody itself in the name of Herman Gorter who had “dared” in 1920 to respond to Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder.

The German-Dutch Left, under the theoretical leadership of Gorter and Pannekoek, was the first left-wing current within the Komintern to lead the opposition against the trade unionist (“conquest of the trade unions”) and parliamentarist theories adopted by the leadership of the International. More than the Italian current of Amadeo Bor­diga, whose opposition to the Komintern in 1919-1920 was episodic and limited to the sole question of anti-parliamentarism, the German-Dutch cur­rent was the only one that criticized in-depth the Russian Bolshevik orientation. In 1921 this even­tually resulted in the expulsion of Gorter’s ten­dency from the Dutch Communist Party, as well as that of the KAPD and other groups defending the same orientation – in Britain and Bulgaria – from the Komintern.

The German-Dutch Communist Left, born in the wake of a declining German Revolution, disinte­grated. The totally artificial attempt by Gorter and a part of the KAPD to found a ‘Fourth Inter­national’, the Workers’ Communist International (KAI), failed miserably. The German-Dutch cur­rent, and in the first place its most important or­ganization, the KAPD, broke down in 1922 in confusion. Pannekoek, an astronomer of interna­tional reputation, retired from political activity to devote himself to his scholarly work. Herman Gorter, who had been the most dynamic political element of this current, suffered isolation until his death in 1927.

The early exit of the Third International and the disaster of the KAI left a bitter taste of demoral­ization. The German-Dutch current found itself not only isolated internationally, but crumbled into rival “chapels” and plunged into tedious frac­tional struggles. When, from 1924 until 1927-1928, other oppositions arose in the Komintern – the “ultra-left” fractions of the KPD and the “Bor­digist” fraction of the Italian CP – the German-Dutch current was politically and organizationally unable to regroup them behind its own flag. The “ultra-left” fractions of the KPD broke down as quickly as they had appeared.

The Bordigist current expelled from the CP and the Komintern from 1926 on followed its own path, formed its own international tendency in emigration, around the revues Bilan and Prome­teo. As for the Trotskyist current, which formed only around 1928-1930, as a simple opposition and not as a fraction, it was too alien to left-wing communism through its political positions (trade unionism, parliamentarism, politics of alliances against nature under the name of “united front”, defense of the USSR as a “socialist state”) to be more or less influenced by it.

From 1927 on, what remained of the German-Dutch current had little to do with the KAPD and the Gorter current, which embodied Western Linkskommunismus. While the KAPD in Berlin and the Dutch KAPN of Gorter gradually died out, council communist groups subsisted, both in Germany and in the Netherlands, increasingly in­fluenced by Otto Rühle’s anti-party theories within the AAUE.

One group played a crucial role in the evolution of the council communist movement: the Group of Internationalist Communists (Holland) or GIC. It was formed in 1927, mainly around Henk Canne Meijer and Jan Appel, Theo Maassen and Piet Coerman, but also with the discreet support of Pannekoek. The GIC asserted itself as the main pole of the international “councilist” movement.

The GIC best embodied the council communist movement in the Netherlands from 1933 onward. First attached to the movement of the German Unionen – AAU and AAUE, then the KAU (Communist Workers’ Union) regrouping the lat­ter two in 1931 – the GIC found itself before the heavy responsibility – with the triumph of the Nazi counterrevolution in 1933 – to assume the practical and theoretical tasks of the German council communist movement, plunged into the most total clandestineness. Paul Mattick’s group in the USA, also council communist, was too far away to work for a regrouping of dispersed forces.

However, the GIC’s action was not always up to the task. Its negation of the political orientation function of the revolutionary organization, its re­jection of centralism for a vague federalism in its functioning as ‘working groups’, its rejection of a centralized international organization, all contrib­uted to the relaxation and subsequent dislocation of the international movement of the Rätekom­munisten. The opposition of the GIC to the basic positions of the German Left, in favor of the for­mation of a “class party”, which subsisted in the clandestine groups in Germany, created a rift be­tween these groups and the GIC.

From 1935 on, after the failure of the joint Copen­hagen conference – officially called the “Brussels Conference” to thwart Nazi surveillance – it is hardly possible to speak of a German-Dutch coun­cil communist movement. The Dutch Left, now embodied by the GIC, withdrew to its place of birth. It only came out of its isolation on the oc­casion of revolutionary events and the war in Spain. In 1937, after the Stalinist crushing of the May insurrection in Barcelona, it was able to es­tablish links with groups in Belgium and France, which had emerged from Trotskyism, but had moved closer to council communism. But this was without a following-up.

Despite obvious organizational weaknesses and po­litical evasions – such as the rejection of the revo­lutionary experience of October 1917 – which brought it closer to an anarchist current that it otherwise rejected, the GIC remained a Marxist and revolutionary group, in other words uncom­promisingly internationalist. It was therefore not a simple study group or an expert group in “Marx­ology”. To adhere to internationalism meant for this small organization: to remain faithful to the cause of the world proletariat, to work for the resurgence of the world revolution, in a future that it hoped would be near.

In a period historically unfavorable to a new revo­lutionary course, when “it was midnight in the century”, the GIC is one of the very few organiza­tions that resolutely chose to go against the cur­rent, even at the cost of an increasingly harsh iso­lation, while the proletariat marched through the streets under the national banners singing patri­otic songs. The GIC always refused to support “democracy” against “fascism” and/or Stalinism. It therefore rejected the slogan of “defense of the USSR”. Convinced that the “national liberation struggles” were part of the confrontation between the imperialisms for the re-division of the world, it always put forward the international emancipa­tion of the workers.

In the dark and tragic period of the 1930s, in which society as a whole was turned towards the “inevitable war,” the GIC tirelessly asserted that the “main enemy” of the proletariat was in every country of any belligerent bloc. It tirelessly de­fended the need for a worldwide proletarian revo­lution as the only solution for a world that was sinking into barbarism, where daily life was one of economic misery, endless war, bloody terror. Dur­ing the Spanish Civil War, the GIC was one of the very few groups – along with the Italian Commu­nist Left – that called on Spanish workers not to rush to military fronts, but to first form a revolu­tionary “class front”, seizing power from the Spanish republican bourgeoisie.

The internationalist positions of the GIC were in direct continuity with those of the German Com­munist Left organized in the KAPD. What was proper to the Dutch Left in the 1930s – “anti-Bol­shevism” and its “working group” theory – cer­tainly prevented it from drawing a deepened bal­ance sheet of the revolutionary period of the 1920s. Poorly prepared for clandestineness and the struggle against war, for lack of a solid and thus centralized organizational framework, the Dutch communist Left volatilized in 1940, at the first cannon shots in the Netherlands.

In the end, it was not the GIC, but the Commu­nistenbond Spartacus – born from Henk Sneevliet’s large clandestine group, the Marx-Lenin-Luxemburg Front – which in 1942 as­sumed political continuity with the Dutch Left, pushing former GIC members to merge with it. The “Spartacus” group was the only Dutch inter­nationalist group that from 1942 to 1945 carried out a continuous and organized activity against the World War, against the two military camps present, against both the collaborating parties and the royalist party that had fled to London.

Although the Communistenbond had taken up the tradition of the KAPD, it soon adopted the most “councilist” positions from the former GIC and organized itself into federalist and autonomous working groups. After the hopes placed in the emergence of a “new party” after the armistice of May 1945, the Spartacusbond had to face the facts: there was no revolutionary perspective. It lost all the weak influence it had acquired in a small part of the Dutch proletariat. As the numeri­cally most important internationalist group in May 1945, the Communistenbond underwent a sectarian process, withdrawing itself in the Netherlands. May 1968 in Europe did not allow it to recruit new forces. The Dutch “councilist” movement had lost its very relative roots in the proletariat and could find none in a student mi­lieu marked by contesting and aspiring only to bourgeois “good reputation”.

As a current, the German-Dutch council commu­nism has thus ceased to exist. There is no longer a historical council communist current. The “coun­cilist” groups that emerged in the 1970s, almost everywhere, as in Scandinavia or in other coun­tries, have disappeared as quickly as they had emerged. The councilist groups that could survive were much closer to “libertarian communism”, in its revolutionary syndicalist form, than to the au­thentic tradition of council communism.

* * *

The current lack of knowledge of the German-Dutch Left is not only due to the geographical framework in which it had developed. For nearly 50 years, the movement that Lenin and his ideo­logical successors marked with the seal of infamy, describing it as “leftist”, fell into oblivion.

Few historians of the worker’s movement ventured to recall that German-Dutch left-wing commu­nism had had the “honor” – with Amadeo Bor­diga’s Left – of wiping out the fires of Lenin’s 1920 polemic against it as an infantile disor­der” of communism. The once famous names of Gorter and Pannekoek were only whispered by rare specialists in the history of the Komintern. Sometimes mentioned in the notes of Lenin’s Col­lected – often incomplete – Works, these names were subjected to the vengeance of writers who carefully remained silent on the internationalism of the theorists of the German-Dutch Left after 1921. Even in the country of his birth, Gorter’s name evoked only the great poet he had been at the end of the 19th Century in the Tachtigers lit­erary movement. (1) Pannekoek was only men­tioned in specialized astronomical journals and books. During this silence on his revolutionary ac­tivity, [Anton] Pannekoek became the baptismal name of a crater on the Moon, where he could hardly make disciples.

It was especially the post-May 1968 period which, despite its ideological confusion, allowed the redis­covery of entire panels of the communist Left in both Germany and the Netherlands. In several countries, in the USA and Mexico, in Argentina and Germany, in France and Italy, in Scandinavia, the republications of Gorter and Pannekoek’s main texts multiplied until the end of the 1970s.

References to workers’ councils before and after 1968 – both in the group “Socialism or Barbar­ity” and in the Situationist International – mul­tiplied. Some groups, often born from student protests, showed a renewed interest in the left-wing Communism of the 1920s. The emergence of vast social movements in most European countries prompted many post-1968 militants – but also some rare historians of the labor movement – to study this too little-known history. The growing rejection of parliamentarianism, trade union appa­ratuses, Stalinism and its substitutes has led many young militants to reconnect the red thread of history. Radical criticism of left-wing parties, especially the Stalinist communist parties, could be all the more effective since the myth of the ex­istence of “socialist” states, as in Russia, China, Vietnam, Cuba, etc., was losing strength, except in the Trotskyist movement. The insurrectional social movements in the countries of state capital­ism – like Poland in 1970, 1976 and 1980 – the ideological and theoretical critique of state capi­talism in all these countries, all this constituted a favorable climate for the rediscovery of German and Dutch left communism (communist workers’ party or KAPD) of the years 1920-1933. However, the history of the GIC and the Dutch Spartacus­bond was rarely mentioned.

However, some pioneering studies have outlined a history of the Gorter and Pannekoek current, es­pecially for the period of the 1920s, and in the framework of a history of the KAPD and the Unionen movement in Germany. The books of Hans-Manfred Bock and Frits Kool were pio­neers. (2)

In the Netherlands itself, Herman de Liagre Böhl’s essential book on Herman Gorter has shown that one could not simply assimilate the Dutch left communist current with Tribunism. Gorter’s ten­dency in the SDP, then in the CPH in 1919, de­veloped in opposition to the majority of these par­ties, from 1916 until the split in 1921. The study of the Dutch historian hardly goes beyond 1921 and is limited to Gorter’s political personality. The latter’s influence on the German unionist movement and the KAPD is just scratched. More political and much more informed, the book by the council communist Cajo Brendel on Pan­nekoek as a theorist has focused on the political and theoretical problems addressed throughout his life by the most profound theorist of the Dutch Left. But the somewhat “councilist” vision of the author, member of the group “Daad en Gedachte”, sometimes leads to a distortion of the history of the Dutch current. (3) The discontinuity between the left communist Pannekoek in the 1920s and the Pannekoek of the GIC in the 1930s is hidden. The political positions of the Dutch communist Left are considered as a finished, al­most invariant, corpus.

Because of the fragmented nature of these studies – too limited to the national framework (that of Germany or that of the Netherlands) – a work of synthesis was necessary, a work that cannot be limited to the personalities of Gorter and Pan­nekoek. When this imposed itself for the period of the Twenties, the Dutch Left had to be studied as part of the Linkskommunismus, whose center of gravity was Germany. Finally, the mass of docu­ments accumulated in libraries in several lan­guages, the rapid obsolescence of detailed studies carried out at the level of several countries, more than 10 years ago – if not 20, necessitated a reso­lute effort of historical reflection.

The difficulties encountered in our research have been considerable. The study of the bibliographic apparatus gives a broad overview hereof:

  • an abundance of sources scattered over several libraries in Europe, some of which remained unexploited or closed (as in the countries of “popular democracy”). The mass of archives, newspapers, internal bulletins, pamphlets is considerable;

  • the necessity to search thousands of pages written in different languages: Dutch, German, English, Danish, Bulgarian, Russian, etc. The poverty of French translations is a major ob­stacle;

  • the relative scarcity of overall works, despite the studies mentioned above. Partial informa­tion must be extracted from a considerable mass of books, pamphlets, journals, often in­accessible in France;

  • the progressive disappearance of the actors and witnesses of the revolutionary period of the 1920s. The final death of the German-Dutch communist Left current has erased a whole part, the most vivid one, of the histori­cal memory of that current born in the very action of the masses.

On this last point, we will not <hide> all that the testimonies of revolutionary militants have brought us, such as Jan Appel (former leader of the KAPD, then militant of the GIC), an authen­tic revolutionary proletarian; B. A. Sijes (former member of the GIC), both disappeared [in the course of the 1980s], but also Cajo Brendel, for­mer militant of the GIC and founding member of the Dutch council communist group “Daad en Gedachte” [who deceased in 2007].

We have deliberately chosen to emphasize in par­ticular the political and theoretical positions of the German-Dutch Left, subsequently those of the GIC and the Communistenbond Spartacus, highlighting its evolution and even its progressive regression. Without neglecting the social history of the different groups, the organizational history and the historical framework, we felt it was more important to explain their positions. They are in effect the reflection of a whole period rich in de­bates and confrontations of ideas, in the wake of the Russian and German revolutions, debates that have not been concluded with Lenin’s pamphlet Left-wing communism: an Infantile Disorder’.

We are convinced that this history of the German-Dutch communist current is not a simple archae­ology of a bygone past. Despite its weaknesses, but also because of its theoretical and political contributions, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, the so-called “leftist” or “ultra-left” current con­tains elements of a political response that cannot be neglected. (4)

We take care to explain the meaning of the con­cepts of “left-wing communism” and “council communism”. In effect, the German-Dutch left-wing communism of the 1920s was situated on the terrain of the Russian revolution and recognized the existence and the need for a revolutionary party. The term “councilist” can be used to define Otto Rühle’s current, condemning the very exis­tence of a revolutionary party in the proletariat and advocating libertarian federalism as a princi­ple. From this point of view, both left-wing com­munism of the 1920s and council communism in the 1930s are part of 20th-century Marxism, while “libertarian councilism” moves away from it to gain the shore of anarchism.

We believe – despite its frequent use – that the designation of the German-Dutch left-wing cur­rent as “leftist” or “ultra-left” is confusing and of­ten bears witness of malicious aprioris. The term “leftism” has come to refer today to Trotskyist, Maoist, and even anarchist organizations, which were born in the period of May 1968 and who have proven to be mere opposition currents of left-wing parties. By their anti-parliamentary and anti-syndicalist political positions, of incessant de­nunciation of state capitalism in Russia, neither left communism nor council communism were in ‘critical’ opposition to, but in open war against the official “Left” (social democracy and Stalin­ism).

The term “ultra-left” (“Ultralinke”), used abu­sively to condemn everything to the left of the communist parties, or “leftist” groups, today can only refer to the currents that emerged from the KPD between 1925 and 1927.

The post-1968 period saw the development of all kinds of police and/or journalistic fantasies about an alleged “ultra-left” that would only aspire to the “propaganda by the act”. Qualified as ultra-left or “autonomous rioters”, a whole police mythology has been built up: the “Bolshevik with a knife between his teeth” has been replaced by the “ultra-left”, all the more dangerous as it is “invisible” and uses the literary stereotypes of Surrealism and Situationism.

Left-wing communism, like council communism, never responded to the desire to position itself as far to the left as possible, in order to become a “vanguard”, be it a truly revolutionary or a politi­cal-literary one.

It was the sole movement of the great revolution­ary masses of the period 1917-1921 that gave them life. It is the praxis of the revolutionary pro­letariat, and this alone, that determined their po­litical orientations and actions.

Philippe Bourrinet, June 2018

Source: Ph. Bourrinet, La Gauche Communiste Germano-Holland­aise des Origines à 1968. 3e édition entièrement révisée et augmentée, juin 2018.

Translation & annotations: H.C., August 5, 2018

Final version: August 13, 2018

1 For basic references on the Dutch “literary movement of 1880” see for instance: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/19th-century_Dutch_literature .[Editor’s note]

2 A basic shortlist of source references can be found on page 17.

3 The complete collection of all revues and pamphlets by ‘Daad en Gedachte’ (1965 – 1997) is available at http://daadengedachte.nl (searchable pdf, Dutch language)

4 The downfall of the Stalinist regimes in 1989 – 1991 (of so-called “real existing socialism”) has enabled historians to consult the secret archives of the Komintern and its parties, both in Moscow and in Berlin. This has permitted to obtain a more precise idea about the weight of “leftist” tendencies in the revolutionary movement at the beginning of the 1920s. [Ph.B.]