Anti-critique of a leftist book review of The Dutch and German Communist Left (1900-1968)
In Vol. 1#2 (Try-out issue, May 2017) of this Digest, we briefly presented this elaborate work of political history in its first English translation, that has appeared with Brill (Leiden/Boston) in 2016. This was followed by the introduction of a review on Libcom titled “Council communism or councilism? – The period of transition”.
Since, we have had occasion to present its 3rd, revised Edition in French (June 2018) in Vol. 2#4 (August- September 2018) and on pages of this blog, in a more extensive way.
Unfortunately, serious reviews of this important work, in either language, and notably by adherents of the communist Left, or of proletarian internationalism in a broad sense, are very rare. When we discovered a rather extensive review of the English edition in a bourgeois left-wing, Trotskyist, periodical appearing in the Netherlands, our curiosity was raised. What follows is the result of a considerate examination.
On 12 March 2019 an article was published on the Dutch website Grenzeloos, entitled “Questions without answers – the Dutch and German communist left” (1) in which Alex de Jong reviews the book “The Dutch and German Communist Left (1900-1968)” (2). According to International Viewpoint, Alex de Jong is a publisher of Grenzeloos, the magazine of the Dutch section of the Fourth International. This is unmistakably reflected in his review. It seems to be intended to deprive the own audience of Trotskyist readers of any interest in council-communism:
“(…) that the Communist Left, in its criticism of ‘leadership politics’, of bureaucrats and their stranglehold on the self-activity of workers, has raised essential questions that still haunt the revolutionary and radical Left. (…) But also (…) that the Communist Left could not answer these questions. Faced with the limits of the revolutionary process in Western Europe and the Soviet Union, they retreated into the (assumed) predetermined, inevitable activity of workers”.
Here De Jong refers to the period of counter-revolution that followed the Russian, Hungarian and German council movements of 1917-1923. The world revolution that could have brought the Soviet Union out of its isolation, did not continue. This also made an internal counter-revolution inevitable, which finally led to the victory of Stalinism under the slogan of “socialism in one country”. As Pannekoek remarked, the Bolsheviks had naturally taken government positions and identified themselves with the state and the economy they thought they were leading in the name of the workers. The German council communist Jan Appel pointed out in 1927 (3) that Lenin in his State and Revolution, following the example of Reformism in social democracy, understood socialization as bringing the means of production to the state instead of to the association of free and equal producers (Marx and Engels). By placing the management of the factories and the economy as a whole in the hands of red directors, respectively of a Supreme Economic Council, the Bolsheviks also took the political power away from the workers’ councils, and the dictatorship exercised by the proletarian masses turned into a dictatorship of a party over the same masses. It is this conception of a state capitalist counter-revolution in Russia itself, in addition to that on a global scale, that the communist Left has put forward as an answer to the question of the roots of Stalinism. An answer which De Jong wisely ignores.
Yes, Trotsky rejected the lie of socialism in one country. But in his actions Trotsky played an active role in counter-revolutionary development within the Soviet Union. From a kindred spirit of Rosa Luxemburg, who fiercely opposed Lenin’s militaristic party views in the nascent Russian social democracy, Trotsky, once in power, developed into a ‘failed Stalin’, as the council communist Willy Huhn has documented. (4) In addition to his defense of state capitalism as a step from private capitalism to socialism – ignoring that the workers remained separated from the means of production – Trotsky was a pioneer of the Red Terror, of the Cheka secret service, of the Red Army’s action against the peasants and the rebel sailors and workers of Kronstadt who wanted to restore the power of the councils. Everything that Stalin carried out was already conceived and developed by Trotsky.
But surely Trotsky was in favor of the world revolution? Here, too, his actions speak a different language. Trotsky played a prominent role in the Comintern in imposing ever changing tactics on the young Communist parties: participation in elections, working in trade unions, trade union opposition, then establishing alternative “red” unions, infiltration, opposition, takeover, merger with what were in fact former workers’ parties, formation of all kinds of fronts with parts of the bourgeoisie, national liberation. These changing tactics showed only one consistent goal: gaining control over broad masses in defense of Russia’s foreign policy interests. This focus on numbers and leadership continued with Trotsky and Trotskyism when the struggle for power with Stalin was lost: from entry politics into social democracy to the inevitable “critical” defense of the “degenerated workers’ state” of the Soviet Union in World War II, and with it the definitive abandonment of proletarian internationalism. Since the Soviet Union imploded, the now totally fragmented Trotskyism has been left with nothing but the toolbox of these ‘tactics’. Each splinter tries to ‘lead’ the ‘masses’ to persuade them to support one or the other imperialism in the war, as for instance during the massacres in Syria (5).
For the Trotskyist Alex de Jong, these changing tactics are necessary ‘compromises’, for leading the masses. By contrast, since the debate on the mass strike in the years before the First World War, Anton Pannekoek has pointed to the changes that imperialism brought to the ends and means of the workers’ struggle. In 1914, when the Second International collapsed due to the participation of almost all the affiliated social-democratic parties in the imperialist war, Pannekoek was able to predict that an end to the war and the establishment of the Third International could only be the result of new tactics in which the broad masses would lead their own struggles. (6) By contrast, the Bolsheviks and Trotsky, who joined them, in and after the defeat of the council movements in Central Europe, returned to the old social-democratic tactics of parliamentarianism, trade unionism and a leading party instead of the masses leading, partly due to a lack of understanding, partly because this came in handy in the ‘defense of the Soviet Union’, even though these tactics were outdated due to the development towards imperialism, and compromised the workers’ struggle in the rest of the world. Thus, Trotskyism also played an active role in the defeat of the world revolution, which it considered so important verbally.
The foregoing presentation of the answers of the communist Left is necessary because De Jong’s review largely consists of his own Trotskyist-inspired historiography of the Dutch and German Left. He sums up one contradiction after another of this political movement, ignoring the fact that in every process of analysis and discussion, differences emerge between individual participants and organizations. It was in this process that the KAPD tendencies of Berlin and Essen came into being, a division that also had repercussions on the Arbeiter-Unionen. Apart from this stood the anti-party tendency of Otto Rühle. In the course of time, naturally also differences between older and newer points of view arose, which De Jong particularly found in Anton Pannekoek, who was non-organized from around 1920 onward. Of course, De Jong avoids the points of agreement that arose over time with regard to the ends and means of the worker’ struggle during the period of imperialism. In particular, he carefully avoids the proletarian internationalism that the Left maintained during the Second World War. While the Trotskyists defended the Soviet Union as a “degenerate workers’ state”, the MLL-Front and the later Communist League “Spartacus”, just like the communists in World War I, took the position of the revolutionary workers’ struggle against all warring camps.
In part, the review consists of listing all kinds of real or alleged inaccuracies. This should show that Bourrinet “presents the revolutionary movement in the Netherlands, and the Communist Left in it, more strongly than it was. Because the book also pays little attention to the role of other socialist movements in the social struggle it discusses, the reader is left with a skewed picture of the relative importance of the Communist Left”.
Only in passing, in a footnote, De Jong shows that Bourrinet is working on a revised edition of The Dutch and German Communist Left in French, in which “some” of these inaccuracies are corrected. Fragments of this new version can be found on the French-language blog Pantopolis. (7) It is a pity that the editors of publisher Brill, including the Trotskyist Marcel van der Linden, did not protect the French author from the disturbing errors in Dutch history that De Jong mentions. Some of these errors are editorial errors, e.g. in the production of the register of persons (“Baars issue”) or are translation errors.
In other cases, De Jong seems biased. Obsessed by the issue of ‘leaders’, De Jong adopts the conclusion of Ben Aaron Sijes’ biographer Richter Roegholt that “neither Sijes’ memories of this period [of the February strike in 1941], nor in his scholarly work is there ‘any sign of a leading role’ that he would have played” (note 25). Bourrinet writes in his book, however, not of a leading role but of an important one (“played a major role in the strike” p. 447). Richter Roegholt does not justify where he found the claim of Sijes’ leading role, but perhaps the source is to be found in a fragment from the article that appeared at the death of Ben Sijes in the publication of the ICC in the Netherlands, Wereldrevolutie, Sept. 1st , 1981: “In the contacts he had with the ICC (….) Ben Sijes always emphasized this inseparable unity between theory and intervention, not in order to put himself forward as an exemplary militant (he was modesty himself) but because he knew the tendencies towards academism in today’s revolutionary milieu. After the Second World War, Ben Sijes became best known as a historian. Especially his book about the February Strike 1941 is famous. Less well known is the fact that Ben Sijes, at that time a worker in the shipbuilding industry in Amsterdam-North, played a role in the protest strikes against the sending of workers to Germany. In the canteen he spoke to his colleagues, surrounded by a crowd of workers to prevent his identification.” By the way, De Jong must also know the role of Sijes in the February strike from the work of Richter Roegholt: at the beginning of the strike Sijes, on his way from home to work, called workers at the stops waiting in vain for the tram (in strike) to go on strike, Sijes joined the strike at the shipyard and when he left the gate he broke the time clock. Sijes then wrote a pamphlet that was distributed with a stencil machine. (8) (all emphasizing in this paragraph by F.C.)
“Leading role”, “important role”, “a role”, as a council-communist Sijes never wanted to “lead” in the sense that this has in social-democracy, Leninism, Trotskyism or Stalinism. As a historian, Sijes for decades did not want to reveal in public his own role in the strike. In particular, the CPN, which had to see how Sijes’ study disproved its claim that it alone had led the February Strike, would use this to accuse Sijes of partiality. For instance, Sijes was denounced as an “English agent”.
I will dwell on an error in the book, which De Jong likes to point out due to the frustration of Dutch Trotskyists towards council communism: “Unfortunately Bourrinet repeats a member’s claim that Spartacus had about 100 members shortly after the Second World War and even published a daily newspaper. But the organization had several dozens of activists and was unable to produce a daily newspaper”. Indeed, the English text of the Brill edition speaks of a “daily journal” (“dagblad” in Dutch), while in previous French and English editions, and in an appendix to the Brill edition, it clearly says “weekblad” – weekly paper in English:
“Numerically, the ‘Bond’ was quite strong for a revolutionary organization, especially in a small country. In 1945, it had some one hundred militants; it possessed both a monthly theoretical review and a daily newspaper with a print-run of 6,000. It had a presence in most of the main towns, in particular in the working-class districts of Amsterdam and Rotterdam, which had a real council-communist tradition”. (Bourrinet, p. 466) In a footnote the author refers to the source: Letter from Canne-Meijer (27 June 1946) to the French ‘ultra-left’ magazine Le Prolétaire. And “By 1946 Spartacus’ print-run had been reduced to 4,000 copies”. On p. 567 under “Further reading” it says correctly “Spartacus, clandestine paper of Sneevliet’s Marx-Lenin-Luxemburg Front, printed. After the departure of the Trotskyists from the group in 1943 the orientation became more and more ‘councilist’. In 1945 it was reissued legally. Weekly magazine, organ of the Communistenbond Spartacus, which the GIC militants joined”.
The mention “daily paper” is clearly an editorial error, probably a translation error. This does not change the fact that the Communist League “Spartacus” published a weekly immediately after the ‘Liberation’ and managed to continue this for a few years, until the anti-communist influences of the period of reconstruction and the Cold War put an end to it. (9) There is no reason to doubt that the League had “100 members”, and not “a few dozen activists”. Bourrinet elaborates on the structure of the Communist League and also mentions the existence of the Friends of Spartacus Association (VSV), which had several local sections with regular meetings.
What hinders Trotskyists most is that the weekly magazine Spartacus was read during and after the war by many who had been members or sympathizers of the party RSAP and of the trade unions of the National Labor Secretariat (NAS) before the war, both led by Sneevliet (alias Maring). De Jong is therefore trying to play down circulation figures of Spartacus. As an example of an assertion that is contradicted by the cited sources, De Jong mentions Spartacus in note 26, that, according to Bourrinet on p. 450, in February 1941, when Spartacus was published by the MLL-Front, it had a circulation of 5,000, and thereby had “the largest circulation of any illegal paper”. De Jong twists this as follows “… Spartacus, the newspaper of the MLL-Front and later of the Spartacus group. This newspaper would have had the “largest” circulation of the illegal papers during the Nazi occupation”. A snapshot during the February strike is thus turned into a picture of the whole period of the Nazi occupation, shoving inaccuracies on Bourrinet. De Jong continues: “However, the given source only makes the claim that the print run was “very large” in the beginning. Other newspapers, such as those of the CPN, indeed had a larger circulation. See Max Perthus, “Henk Sneevliet. Revolutionair-socialist in Europa en Azië”, (Nijmegen, 1976) p. 432.” But, when we look in Perthus’ book about this, we read: “Spartacus was also the first regularly appearing illegal newspaper to be published in print (quoted sentence: L. de Jong, Het Koninkrijk der Nederlanden in de Tweede Wereldoorlog, part 4 (2nd half), p. 714). The print run was 5,000, in 1941 a very large print run for an illegal paper.” From Perthus writing “very large edition”, Bourrinet makes “the highest degree of distribution” (distribution can be larger than print-run when a publication goes from hand to hand) which is in a limited sense only correct for the printed edition which Perthus as well as L. de Jong brought forward against the stenciled editions of other groups, especially De Waarheid by the CPN (source L. Winkel, see further note). Alex de Jong generalizes this exaggeration of the February 1941 edition to the entire period of the occupation, a pertinent inaccuracy, which he then ascribes to Bourrinet in the best of Stalinist traditions. (i)
Spartacus was also involved in the foundation of the Unitary Trade Union Movement (EVB), later known as the Trade Union Confederation (EVC), in the years around the Liberation through the Sneevliet-influenced milieu of the former RSAP and NAS. Spartacus’ Rotterdam section, constituted around Toon van den Berg, was particularly active in the EVB. Before, during and in the first years after the Second World War, on the other hand, there was hardly any influence of Trotskyism in the Netherlands. This in itself is an indication that Sneevliet and the RSAP were not as close to Trotsky and the Fourth International as has been suggested by Trotskyists, but rather that the former have increasingly distanced themselves from the latter, as Spartacus argued in 1946 in its article Spartacus and Trotskyism. (10)
Fredo Corvo, December 2019.
Proofreading: H.C., February 4, 2020.
1 In Dutch: Alex de Jong, Vragen zonder antwoord – de Nederlandse en Duitse communistische linkerzijde. This text was published as well on the site SAP – Antikapitalisten.
2 Philippe Bourrinet, The Dutch and German Communist Left (1900-1968) ‘Neither Lenin nor Trotsky nor Stalin!’, ‘All workers must think for themselves!’, Leiden/Boston (Brill) ISBN 978-90-04-26977-4. For a critical review by Fredo Corvo see: Council communism or councilism? – The period of transition. See also in AFRD Issue #02, May 15, 2017.
3 Jan Appel, 1927 / G.I.C., 1932: Marxism and state communism. The withering away of the state ( G.I.C. 1932).
6 Anton Pannekoek, The downfall of the International (1914), in From the 2nd to the 3rd Internationale – Three articles by Anton Pannekoek, The New Review, New York, 1914-1916.
9 Spartacus, blad van de Communistenbond “Spartacus” 1945-1949. (Antonie Pannekoek Archives)
i When we enter deeper into the sources to find print-run figures, we see how Perthus bases himself on Lou de Jong’s “The Kingdom of the Netherlands in the Second World War”, part 4 (2nd half), p. 714): “Lydia Winkel, in her ’54 published work The underground press 1940-1945, carefully recorded the ‘individual’ history of the more than a thousand underground magazines that could be traced after the war. We have to summarize here and want to mention, as far as the period until the February strike is concerned, that at that time, apart from Bulletin and the communist magazine De Waarheid (which will be discussed later), (…) three magazines of revolutionary-socialist signature : the MLL (Marx-Lenin-Luxemburg)-Bulletin and Spartacus, both published by the Sneevliet-group (Spartacus was the first illegal magazine which was regularly printed), and, thirdly, De Vonk (…)”. Finally, Winkel mentions the following estimates of print-run figures:
- “Spartacus, Jan. ’41-feb. ’42. two-color. print., several times stenc. opinion-art., circulation. Interior. 3,000-5,000.
- Bulletin of the M.L.L.-Front; through class struggle and internationalism to socialism, Amsterdam. July ’40-febr. ’42. 2 times p.m. stenc. opinion-art. 400-800.
- De Waarheid (C.P.N.) According to our estimation, around the turn of the year 1940/1941 about 7,000 copies were produced in Amsterdam; in the rest of the country 3,000 to 4,000” (L. Winkel).