13 April 2022 marked 80 years since the Dutch revolutionary socialist Henk Sneevliet, along with six of his comrades, were executed by the Nazi German occupiers. Sneevliet devoted his whole life to fighting for the interests of the working class of the Netherlands, as well as the oppressed in Indonesia and China.
In this article, we examine his life and contributions to the workers’ movement in the Netherlands and abroad. We analyse his strengths and weaknesses in order to learn from his struggle and thereby prepare a new generation of Marxists for the coming class struggle.
Henk Sneevliet was born on 13 May 1883 to a poor family in Rotterdam, and grew up in the town of Den Bosch. He was only able to attend secondary school (Hogerburgerschool) with the help of external financial support. After completing his exams, he got a job on the state railways.
He became politically active in 1902, and joined the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDAP), the Dutch section of the Second (Socialist) International, which was Marxist at least in name. The following year, in 1903, there were two mass railway strikes, the first mass strikes of the Dutch working class. Although the first strike was won, the railway workers lost the second strike. The conservative Kuyper government passed an anti-strike law for state officials and railway employees, and 10 percent of the railway workers were fired. This anti-strike law was not abolished until 1979.
This defeat reverberated within the workers’ movement, but also resulted in the emergence of a new generation of young militants, including Sneevliet. He helped to organise an SDAP section in the town of Zwolle, of which he became the chairman in 1907. He was also elected to the city council and became the editor of the local SDAP newspaper De Sociaal-Democraat.
In addition to this, he was active in the Dutch Association for Rail and Tram Employees (the NV), becoming its paid chairman in 1911. He was a very passionate and talented editor, propagandist and organiser, which he would remain for the rest of his life.
His theoretical education initially came from the famous Dutch socialist poet Henriette Roland-Holst, who was affiliated with the Marxist monthly magazine De Nieuwe Tijd. Through this publication, he came into contact with the left-wing of Dutch social democracy, from which he learned a lot.
Conflicts inside the SDAP and the NVV
The SDAP was part of the Second International, the international organisation of socialist parties founded in 1889. Friedrich Engels was involved with its founding and the International officially based itself on Marxism.
In practice, however, a non-Marxist wing developed in the Second International, the so-called “revisionists”, who argued that the ideas of Marx were no longer correct and that capitalism had overcome its contradictions. They considered the central task of social democracy to be the implementation of reforms and the management of capitalism through participation in the government.
Alongside them, there existed a layer of social democratic leaders that called themselves Marxists and stood for socialist revolution, but in practice were busy with the everyday work in the party and trade unions, focusing on small reforms.
The rise of these currents reflected the rising bureaucracy in the socialist parties and trade unions, which in a period of relative economic growth could gain more concessions from the bosses. They rose above the average worker, and viewed the activity of the party and trade union organisations as a goal in itself, from which they also acquired their income.
This international phenomenon could also be seen in the Netherlands, when the SDAP leadership made opportunist concessions in order to get more votes in elections. For example, in 1901, the SDAP leader Pieter Jelles Troelstra argued that small plots of land should be given to agrarian workers in order to turn them into small farmers. This was supposed be a lot “easier” than the organisation of agrarian workers against capitalist farmers, but was a concession to the petty-bourgeoisie. Besides being unhelpful for increasing the class consciousness of agricultural workers, this was a reactionary utopia. The small farmers were gradually marginalised as a social group through competition from the more productive large-scale agriculture.
Another example was the educational struggle. With the idea in mind of winning over the Catholic and Protestant workers, Troelstra and the SDAP leadership wanted religious education to be financed by the state (a demand of the religious political parties). The party would later also make a deal with the Christian parties to support this. Far from winning the support of religious workers, this resulted in the division of children along religious lines, the financing of religious education and a strengthening of religious institutions.
The Marxists around De Nieuwe Tijd were highly critical of this and organised against the watering-down of the programme for electoral gains. When the old guard of the Marxists surrendered at the 1907 party congress in order to maintain party unity, a new group of Marxists (led by David Wijnkoop, Willem van Ravesteyn and Jan Ceton) set up the magazine De Tribune. They were more firm and determined in their resistance. In 1909, at a regular congress in Deventer, the editors of De Tribune were expelled because they refused to stop publishing their magazine. Along with some 400 other members, they created the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which formed the basis for the future Communist Party of Holland (CPH)
Henriette Roland-Holst did not yet become a member. She wanted to remain in the opposition of the SDAP. The same was true for Sneevliet, who was strongly influenced by her. At that moment, it was not yet clear to them how shamefully the Second International would collapse and how important it was to build a strong core of Marxists. In addition to this, the SDP also had ultra-left, sectarian traits, which did not attract the left-wing of the SDAP. Sneevliet would also come into conflict with the SDAP leadership, two years later.
The international sailors’ strike
In June of 1911, the international sailors’ strike began in Great Britain, which sought an international uniform wage-standard for all sailors. Unions in Germany, Norway and Sweden didn’t support them, but the British sailors received support from the Netherlands and Belgium.
In Rotterdam, De Volharding played an important role. This was a union of sailors that was affiliated with the social democratic trade union federation, the NVV. In Amsterdam, the General Dutch Sailors Union (ANZ) played an important role. It was not, however, affiliated with the NVV, but the older syndicalist union federation, the NAS (Dutch Labour Secretariat).
While De Volharding had arrived at an agreement with the shipowners after two weeks, the ANZ wanted to expand the strike and involve as many workers as possible. Sneevliet, who at that time was the chairman of the NVV-affiliated trade union NV, argued that the NVV and NAS unions should work together in the interests of the strike, which had expanded to the dockworkers of Amsterdam. This was the correct Marxist position, which puts the interests of the whole working class above those of the trade union apparatus. However, the leadership of the NVV was against this and did not want to support a NAS union. As a result, the strike in Amsterdam eventually ended in a defeat.
For Sneevliet, this was a sign of opportunism within the NVV leadership. He wanted the SDAP to take a definite stand against this, but in the end, Troelstra decided to support the politics of the NVV at the 1912 party congress. This was the final straw for Sneevliet and Roland-Holst, and they left the SDAP.
Sneevliet joined the SDP, which at that time was still a propaganda organisation. He was not a theorist though, but an organiser par excellence and did not have a good understanding of the role that the SDP could play in the Netherlands. Due to the close bond between the SDAP and NVV bureaucrats, he lost his function in the NVV as a result of his SDP membership.
Feeling like he was stuck, being unemployed, and looking for new opportunities, he moved in 1913 to what was then still the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia). Before leaving he resigned from the SDP, which he found to be sectarian. Consequently, he re-joined the SDAP shortly before his departure.
Work in Indonesia
Sneevliet arrived in the Dutch colony at a moment when both the national consciousness and the working class were just developing. The Sarekat Islam (SI), the Islamic Union, had been established a few years earlier as a merchants’ organisation, but was quickly transformed into a mass organisation with 100,000 members. This was a reflection of the desire for national and social emancipation.
In Indonesia, Sneevliet was able to work as an organiser alongside his job at the trade association in Semarang, Middle Java. He was active in the in multi-ethnic trade union, the Association for Rail and Tram Employees (VSTP), and used his experience from the Dutch railway union to expand the union to the poorest Indonesian workers on the basis of a radical and militant programme. The young rail worker Semaun, who joined in 1916, would become one of later leaders of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI).
In May of 1914, he and a couple of dozen socialists (both SDAP and SDP members) helped to found the Indies Social Democratic Association (ISDV). Although the first members were Dutch socialists, there was a special focus on recruiting Indonesian workers. In 1915, the ISDV had 103 members (of which only three were Indonesian), and in 1919, there were 330 (of which 300 were Indonesian). Sneevliet correctly saw the necessity of uniting the social with the national struggle, and oriented the ISDV towards the Sarekat Islam. Multiple sections of Sarekat were won over to the ISDV.
The openly anti-colonial programme of the organisation caused the revisionist minority to split from the ISDV in 1917. It also resulted in the party being opposed by the colonial government, which saw it as a threat. Despite its small size, the ISDV had a large influence in the trade unions of the Dutch East Indies. Its correct message – to link the anti-colonial struggle to the workers’ struggle in the Netherlands – was a threat to Dutch capital, the common enemy of the Indonesian masses and the Dutch workers.
The mass influence of the ISDV also had a weaker downside. Similar to people like Rosa Luxemburg and the Irish revolutionary James Connolly, Sneevliet had an incomplete understanding of the need to build a revolutionary party well-grounded in Marxist theory. He was mostly concerned with quickly building mass organisations led by a general Marxist view of class struggle. The Leninist approach, by contrast, emphasises a cadre organisation of professional revolutionaries with a thorough knowledge of Marxism. This is the condition for mass influence. Of course, there was Marxist education and political discussion in the ISDV and later the PKI. These however took place in a routinist manner. This weak side of Sneevliet would leave a permanent mark on the development of the young Communist Party. Read more about this subject in this article.
These were the years of the First World War. In August of 1914, the leadership of the Second International betrayed the working class by supporting their own ruling classes (with a few individual exceptions) in this imperialist conflict. In Germany and France, the socialist parties voted for the war credits. In “neutral” countries such as the Netherlands, social democracy and the trade unions reached an agreement to minimise the class struggle for the duration of the war, in order to keep “the peace of God”. Also, the SDAP voted for mobilisation credits. While the class struggle was contained, and the working class suffered from shortages and price increases, the Dutch capitalists made super-profits by exporting goods to both war parties.
This international barbarism came to an end as a result of a revolutionary wave. In November of 1917, the October Revolution, led by the Bolsheviks took place and transferred power to the Soviets. A year later, the November Revolution happened in Germany, which brought down the Kaiser. Both of these events sent huge shockwaves through Europe and Asia.
The war and revolutions clarified on which side Sneevliet stood. “I only became completely conscious in my Indonesian years that I shared the views of Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Franz Mehring, and others in Germany… Lenin, Trotsky and others in Russia…Gorter, Van Ravesteyn, Wijnkoop and others in Holland. I then definitively broke with the SDAP,” he declared in November 1917. He had re-joined the SDAP right before his departure to Indonesia, but in 1916 he definitively left the party and re-joined the SDP. Roland-Holst’s group in the Netherlands, the RSV, also fused with the SDP.
The colonial authorities wanted Sneevliet out of Indonesia. He had written a notorious article in which he praised the Russian February Revolution, calling it an example for the masses of the Dutch East Indies:
“Here lives a people that is blessed by nature as no other country.
“Here lives a people, poor and ignorant.
“Here lives a people that brings forth riches, which for centuries fly away to the safes of the rulers of Western Europe, especially to the small country that politically rules here.
“Here lives a people that tolerates and bears. Political organisations are banned…the right to assemble is promised but not implemented; criticism in the press severely threatened by a justice that must fear unilaterally and unjustly, because it is the justice of the ruler; attempted activities are fought with violence or imprisonment. Political activity is only allowed when it is the activity of the ruler, as contempt for the people…for example, activity for military resilience to defend the ‘fatherland’, which is what a foreign ruler has taken away from the community.
“Here millions of people have lived, tolerated and suffered for centuries….and since Dipo Negoro there have not been any leaders to bring the masses into action to take their fate into their own hands.
“People of Java, the Russian Revolution also contains lessons for you.”
This article (especially the last line) resulted in a political trial for incitement, but in the end, he was acquitted.
The following autumn, however, was too much for the colonial authorities. The German Revolution of November 1918 had caused a shockwave, which amongst other things led to tension within the Dutch military (resulting in the so-called 'Red Week'), which also affected the Dutch East Indies. A soldiers and sailors movement developed, which even started to set up soldiers and sailor councils. Leaders of the ISDV, such as Sneevliet and Brandsteder, had been holding meetings since the summer with soldiers and sailors about the Russian and German Revolution, and helped them to organise.
The German Revolution did not lead to the seizure of power by the working class, because of the treacherous role of German social democracy, which gave power back to the bourgeoisie. The First World War did end, giving some breathing room and encouraging a faster de-mobilisation in the Netherlands. This situation, combined with repression, resulted in the end of the soldiers' and sailors’ movement. On 20 December 1918, Sneevliet was expelled from Indonesia and returned to the Netherlands.
In the Netherlands, the situation had already changed. During the First World War, the SDP had grown and become popular among the most advanced workers. The Russian October Revolution was a turning point, whereby it became clear what the differences were between social democracy and the revolutionary Marxists, who from this point began calling themselves Communists. In 1918, the SDP changed its name to the Communist Party of Holland in order to join the Third International (the Comintern) the following year. The party had grown to about 2,000 members.
Although the leading triumvirate of the Party (David Wijnkoop, Willem van Ravesteyn and Jan Ceton) played an important role in the struggle against Troelstra's revisionism and the later building of the SDP-CPH, there were problems with them from the start. There were ultra-left political tendencies in the leadership, who, for example, rejected the negotiations between Soviet Russia and Germany and rejected the right to self-determination in principle. They also had a strong tendency to organise above their means and constantly sought financial support from the Russian Communist Party in order to fill financial gaps. In addition to this, there was an unhealthy culture around resolving internal disagreements, which were dealt with organisationally rather than politically. For example, the leadership of the Comintern had to intervene in 1923 to protect the oppositional minority around Willem van Reesema and Jacques de Kadt against the leading triumvirate, making calls for unity and political discussion. They demanded a more democratic culture, organisational professionalism, and more discussion about Comintern resolutions about the united front and trade union tactics, but were threatened with expulsions and suspensions.
Sneevliet was welcomed back by the CPH and joined the leadership of the party, but from the beginning expected to be distrusted by Wijnkoop. Because of his trade union experience, it was decided that Sneevliet would lead the work in the NAS.
Because of the class collaboration of the NVV leadership during the war, the NAS had grown into a militant alternative. In 1914, the NAS had a small membership of 10,000 members, but in 1920 had achieved its peak of 50,000 members. These were the most advanced, radical workers, who had significant sympathy for the Russian Revolution.
In that period, it was correct for the party to orient itself towards the NAS workers and to advocate for the NAS to become an affiliate of the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU, Profintern), which was established by the Comintern to unite all revolutionary trade unions and currents in the trade union movement in a single international. Nonetheless, it was also important in the long-term to win over the workers in the larger NVV to communism. Here, tactical flexibility was very important.
Sneevliet became active in the Dutch federation of transport workers and played an important role in the transport workers strike of February-April 1920, which took place in the harbours of Amsterdam and Rotterdam. In the summer, he soon had to leave the Netherlands again in order to attend the Second Congress of the Comintern.
Moscow and China
Sneevliet participated in the Second Congress in 1920 as a representative of the ISDV, which had recently changed its name to PKI–the Communist Party of Indonesia. He participated in the debates around the national and colonial question. His unique experiences among those present formed an important basis for the positions of the Comintern on this question.
While the communist parties had to retain their class independence and orient themselves towards the proletariat in these countries, it was necessary at the same time to support the national-democratic independence movements against colonialism and imperialism. A central point here was that these movements in oppressed nations had to be united with the workers’ struggle in the advanced capitalist countries.
As a result of his knowledge and experience, Sneevliet, as the representative of the Comintern in the Far East (using the name Maring), was sent on a mission to China to help the young communists to set up their organisation. He was present at the First Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in July of 1921.
At that time, it was a small organisation that had to operate underground, in a country that was torn apart by conflicts between different warlords. Basing himself on his experience with the ISDV and Sarekat Islam and the positions of the Congress of the Comintern, Sneevliet came to the conclusion that the CCP should orient itself to work inside the Chinese nationalist mass organisation, the Kuomintang (KMT).
In the early stages of the CCP, it was necessary to have an orientation towards the Kuomintang. There were still tasks of the national revolution that had to be carried out: driving the imperialist powers out of China, national unity (the defeat of the warlords) and land reforms. However, in order to build a revolutionary anti-imperialist united front, it was necessary not to liquidate the communist organisation, but rather have it maintain its own identity.
There was always a danger of illusions in the Kuomintang, which under Chiang Kai-shek's leadership in 1927 would eventually slaughter the workers and peasants. Sneevliet visited the former KMT-leader Sun Yat-sen multiple times and definitely held illusions in him. Sneevliet saw few options for the Chinese communists, while only a few years later the party could have taken power on the condition that it carried out its own independent politics. This was a clear error of judgement.
Yet, it is incorrect to blame the later failure of the Chinese Revolution in 1925-1927 on Sneevliet. The orientation of the KMT really only became a problem when the Comintern, under Stalin and Bukharin's leadership, advocated for a “two-class party of workers and peasants” and a two-stage theory of revolution, in which the CCP during the first stage had to entirely subordinate itself to the KMT leadership around Chiang Kai-Shek. This occurred in 1924-1925. In August of 1923, Sneevliet had already left China. After a few months in Moscow, he definitively returned to the Netherlands.
From the CPH to the RSP
In the spring of 1924, Sneevliet returned to the Netherlands, where he took up his work in the CPH. He was welcomed by the oppositionists within the party, who saw in him an alternative for the triumvirate around Wijnkoop.
Because of his work in Indonesia and China, and his earlier trade union work, Sneevliet was very popular among the advanced workers in the Netherlands. When he took up his work within the NAS, which had joined the Profintern in 1923, Sneevliet was elected its chairman within a short period of time.
In the year 1924, Lenin died. Because the Russian Revolution was isolated in a backward country, the Bolsheviks were forced to use elements of the old tsarist state bureaucracy to implement administrative and government tasks. This bureaucracy was extending its power, from the state apparatus towards the party and the Comintern. The democratic culture of discussion of the first four congresses of the Comintern, was being replaced by bureaucratic-centralist methods.
In the meantime, within the Russian party there was the rise of the Left Opposition, which struggled for a return to the democratic traditions of the Bolsheviks, for re-introducing workers’ democracy in the state, for industrialisation and voluntary collectivisation of agriculture. The Opposition turned against Stalin’s anti-Marxist theory of “socialism in one country”, which reflected the narrow interests of the bureaucracy. This proletarian opposition, of which Leon Trotsky was the figurehead, was repressed more and more, and in 1927 was expelled from the party.
Under the banner of the “Bolshevisation” of the national sections of the Comintern, the national leaderships started to be replaced from the top, to bring them into line with the International. Of course, in an international organisation, the international leadership stands above the national leaderships and has the right and duty to get involved with the national sections, especially in case of internal conflicts and problems. Its authority, however, should be political and moral, seeking to stimulate debate from which all can sides learn, to lift the political level of the organisation, so that the sections can turn outwards in a united way.
On the other hand, replacing national leaderships from the top leads to a lowering of the political level, and an organisational submission of the sections to the international leadership. It is a way of looking for administrative-organisational solutions to political problems. This practice was introduced in the Comintern by Zinoviev, and cleared the way for the much worse bureaucratic practices under Stalin.
In the Netherlands, the party was under the wayward leadership of the triumvirate around Wijnkoop, which was opposed by different oppositionist currents. On the one hand, there was a democratic opposition against the authoritarian tendencies of the triumvirate, on the other hand, there was a trade union opposition.
The trade union opposition fought against the proposal to liquidate a few smaller NAS unions in order to fuse them with the NVV. This opposition wanted the party to exclusively focus on the NAS for its trade union work. In principle, it was correct to have a perspective of work within the NVV, the trade union federation with a much higher membership. At the same time, the proposal of Wijnkoop was very forceful and without a sense of proportion. The NAS had tens of thousands of members. The CPH in these days had around 1,500 members, most of them active members of the NAS. Whatever trade union policy should be followed, it was first of all needed to explain this policy in a political way. The NAS was full of militants of a syndicalist background, that needed to be convinced of the Communist policies, but also the Communist members of the NAS had first to be properly convinced of the need to connect with the NVV workers, before the policy could be forced through from the top.
The Comintern and Profintern, however, started to push for a collaboration of the Profintern with the social-democratic International Federation of Trade Unions (the so-called Amsterdam International). This was part of an international tactic to win social-democratic and reformist trade union leaders as allies for the Soviet bureaucracy. Instead of winning the trade union militants by systematic Communists work from below, deals were made from the top-down.
In 1925, the first top-down intervention took place against the leadership of the CPH. Wijnkoop had to step down, forced by the Comintern leadership. He certainly was no supporter of Leon Trotsky, but he was seen as independent of Moscow. The oppositionist currents originally supported this move and were happy they got rid of the triumvirate, but all this was only the start of more problems. The party would fall apart soon, exactly because the new leadership was now blindly following Moscow.
The Comintern leadership did not want to directly get rid of Sneevliet, because of his leadership position in the NAS. They wanted to force through a fusion of the NAS and the NVV. Sneevliet and the NAS-communists disagreed, but it was forced through anyway in 1927 as the official line of the Profintern. This led to a rupture between the NAS and the Profintern.
The new CPH leadership in 1927 supported the attacks by Stalin on Trotsky and Zinoviev. In December that year, it condemned “the Trotskyists”. This led to Henriette Roland Holst and Sneevliet leaving the party. Both had known Trotsky personally and knew there was not a grain of truth in all the slanders against him and his supporters, that they would form a rightwing, counter-revolutionary faction that was undermining the Russian revolution. From his time in China, Sneevliet had also known Adolph Joffe. This Soviet diplomat had committed suicide in 1927, in protest against the treatment of the Left Opposition.
For Sneevliet this forced trade union policy, combined with the treatment of the Russian opposition, was the proof that the Comintern was lost. In 1929, he founded the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), an anti-Stalinist party strongly connected to the NAS, of which he became the chairman. When founded, it had about 350 members, mostly NAS-communists and some ex-members of a former libertarian socialist party. The RSP put almost all of its attention on the NAS, in order to give a political expression to this radical union. The CPH was now aimed at the NVV.
Sneevliet admired Trotsky a lot, but did not always understand his struggle completely. Trotsky was involved in building the Left Opposition, both in the Soviet Union and internationally, as a faction of the Comintern. Even if members or sections were expelled, they still considered themselves a faction. This had nothing to do any illusions by Trotsky in the Comintern. It was a struggle to win the majority of the Communists to a correct course, against the opportunist and ultra-left turns of the bureaucracy. For the RSP, however, the CPH was simply now a competitor and opponent.
That is why, in spite of Sneevliet’s sympathy for Trotsky, there was no direct attempt at political collaboration. Sneevliet and the RSP did ask for political asylum for Trotsky in the Netherlands, after he was expelled from the Soviet Union, a request the Dutch bourgeois state of course refused.
It was only a few years later that the two men would join hands, after Hitler came to power in Germany. The Communist Party of Germany (KPD) consistently refused a united front with the Social-Democratic Party to stop a fascist take-over. When this allowed Hitler to take power in 1933, the KPD and Comintern initially refused to recognise this as a defeat!
After this dramatic defeat, Trotsky and the International Left Opposition (ILO) started to advocate the building of a Fourth International, because they now saw the Comintern as completely lost. The first collaboration with other groups led to the Declaration of Four, which the ILO co-signed with the SAP in Germany, and the RSP and OSP in the Netherlands. The latter, the Independent Socialist Party, was a left-wing split from the SDAP.
Besides having contacts with the ILO, the RSP also was in contact with the London Bureau, an international association of “centrist” parties. These were floating between the ideas of revolution and reformism. Sneevliet chose close collaboration with the ILO, but kept his contacts with the London Bureau in reserve.
Mutiny at De Zeven Provinciën
While Sneevliet was fighting with the RSP and the NAS for the interests of the Dutch workers, he never forgot the colonial question. This was clear when a mutiny broke out at the warship De Zeven Provinciën. On 4 February 1933, a mutiny started, in solidarity with a movement of (both Dutch and Indonesian) sailors on Surabaya against wage cuts, which led to arrests there. Indonesian and Dutch sailors took over the ship and wanted to sail from Northeast Sumatra to Surabaya in order to liberate their jailed comrades. The Dutch state, however, decided to end this mutiny the hard way and on 10 February it dropped a bomb on the ship by plane, killing 23 sailors.
Sneevliet had written a supportive manifesto for the mutiny, which led to him being put in jail for 5 months. This happened when he was already on the electoral list of the RSP, for the parliamentary elections. Because of his actions, he was very popular among the most advanced layers, which led him to be elected into parliament from jail.
Fusion between RSP and OSP
The RSP fused in 1935 with the OSP, to create the Revolutionary Socialist Workers’ Party (RSAP). This fusion party had more than 3,000 members and brought together the vanguard of the most militant socialists in the Netherlands. The Stalinist CPN (the CPH had changed name) around that time had 5,000 members, and saw the RSAP as a serious competitor that had to be slandered.
Together with the NAS, the RSAP organised actions within factories and companies, and organised the unemployed. It also organised anti-fascist activities, support for German refugees fleeing fascism, and solidarity with the revolutionary struggle in Spain. The 1930s was a turbulent time, with a strong economic crisis, high unemployment, and the rise of fascist groups such as the NSB, which presented a threat to the working class.
The exclusive orientation towards the NAS meant that the party and trade union together formed a sort of small closed-off “pillar” with their own organisations, which made it difficult to win reformist and communist workers, who were mostly active in the NVV.
Differences between Sneevliet and the Fourth International
Although Sneevliet and Trotsky had come closer politically, as they both wanted to build a Fourth International, from the start there were political differences. These eventually led to a rupture of Sneevliet and the RSAP with the Fourth International.
It’s important to analyse these differences. Many Dutch socialists have a tendency of glossing over them, thinking they are “secondary”. Or they see in the split the proof that the Fourth International was “sectarian” and “purist”, doomed from the start. Often it is said that Trotsky’s approach was hard and dogmatic, and that his “tone” contributed to the split.
All this ignores the fact that there were a series of serious political differences from the beginning. The International Secretariat did not force its line in a bureaucratic way on the RSAP, but in fact, had a lot of patience. Sneevliet basically had a free hand in the Netherlands. It was taken into account that the RSAP and NAS came from a different tradition than the Left Opposition, so a process of clarification was inevitable. However, a process as such can have two outcomes. Either the parties grow closer, or they grow apart, which inevitably leads to a split.
The NAS question
Sneevliet since 1924 had been the chairman of the NAS, and the RSP was in fact completely connected to the NAS. The NAS membership figure in the meantime had shrunk a lot. In 1920 it had 50,000 members, while in 1935 it was only around 13,000. Meanwhile, the NVV had about 300,000 members.
Trotsky advocated gradually building up the work in the NVV, because the mass of the workers was situated there. This didn’t mean that all positions in the NAS had to be thrown away, but it was needed to have an orientation to the rest of the workers’ movement and to advocate a united front.
Another issue was that the NAS now was paying unemployment benefits that came from the Dutch government, similar to what the NVV and Christian unions were doing. Trotsky saw a risk in this, as it was a way through which the bourgeois state would integrate the trade unions into its apparatus, something which was (and is) an international trend.
Sneevliet made the NAS almost a fetish, as the best revolutionary elements of the working class were here. He wanted to keep these elements together. However, in practice, this meant the separation of these vanguard elements from the rest of the class, which meant that the reformist SDAP leadership could keep its grip over the NVV.
The NAS was a radical union in decline. After the Second World War, it would not be re-founded. The future was not for the small revolutionary unions, but for the mass unions. Trotsky and the International Secretariat were correct on this question.
The question of entryism
Trotsky advocated theoretical implacability, but at the same time tactical flexibility. The sections of the nascent Fourth International were, since their expulsion from the Comintern, mostly small propaganda groups. It was necessary for them to pursue active work within the broader labour movement. This meant, not only within the trade unions, but in some cases also within existing workers’ parties.
This was not Trotsky’s invention. In his book Leftwing Communism, Lenin advised the small British Communist Party to join the Labour Party. This formed the basis for the so-called “French turn”, Trotsky’s call in 1934 for the French section to join the French Socialist Party (SFIO). This was a period of international revolutionary ferment and a shift to the left among the rank-and-file of the social democratic parties, especially among the youth. By forming a revolutionary faction, the supporters of the Fourth International could win these people for their ideas. After France, this tactic was implemented in Britain (Independent Labour Party and later the Labour Party), Belgium (Socialist Party) and the USA (Socialist Party of America).
Sneevliet disagreed with these turns (known as “entryism”) and fought against this tactic. He saw them as a step away from the Fourth International, as concessions towards reformism and the Second International. When his son-in-law Sal Santen pointed out that Lenin also advocated flexible tactics, Sneevliet answered that he saw Leftwing Communism as Lenin’s worst book. The idea was that tactical flexibility would cause confusion amongst the most advanced revolutionary workers, and thus had to be avoided.
In reality, whatever the tactic, the point is always to explain to the membership what we are doing and why we are doing it. It is for that reason that Marxists want to build a cadre organisation: to build a membership with a high political level, that can understand our ideas and methods, and explain them, in order to win others over.
When these tactics were implemented correctly, like in the USA, where a large part of the Socialist Party youth was won to the Fourth International, it led to further growth of the organisation. Thus the American section, the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), attracted more support among the most advanced revolutionary workers.
The situation in the Netherlands was different than in other countries. The left wing of the SDAP (the OSP) had already split off and the best elements fused with the RSP, which was already collaborating in building the Fourth. However, even then, Trotsky advised the party to organise work within the social democratic youth organisation, the Arbeiders Jeugd Centrale. He advocated flexible tactics, with which their own youth organisation didn’t have to be liquidated. It was important to give attention to the socialist youth, because internationally they were radicalising as a result of the crisis. In countries where they did not got into contact with the ideas of the Fourth International, many of them were won to the Stalinists.
Sneevliet and the RSAP leadership refused to give attention to this, just as they refused work within the NVV. With regard to his work in Indonesia and China, Sneevliet had more attention for tactical turns towards the national-revolutionary movement, which led to work within respectively the Sarekat Islam and the Kuomintang. Within the European context, he refused tactical turns however. He preferred to shut off the revolutionaries from bad influences and only pursue independent work. The reformists had betrayed the labour movement, so that meant according to him that a complete break with their movement was a matter of principle. Sneevliet and the RSAP had revolutionary principles, but very rigid and sometimes conservative methods.
The question of the POUM and the Popular Front
On 17 July 1936, general Franco rose up against the Republican government of Spain, with the aim to crush the Spanish Republic and labour organisations with a fascist regime. This was the beginning of the Spanish civil war.
The Spanish republic was founded in April 1931, when the Spanish revolution deposed the monarchy. The masses of workers and peasants did not however only want a different form of government, they wanted land, bread, higher wages, etc. The difference with Russia in 1917, was that there now was no revolutionary party that could bring the working class to power. The reformist socialists and Stalinists advocated a “progressive” government with the bourgeois republicans, which however could offer no solution to the acute problems of the Spanish workers and peasants.
The only party that initially had potential was the POUM, a fusion of ex-Trotskyists and other oppositional communists. At its peak, the party had 60,000 members. This party, however, made the mistake in 1936, when the workers of Barcelona rose up and crushed the fascist revolt with their own hands, of joining a “popular front” government with socialists, Stalinists, anarchists and bourgeois republicans. They did not pursue an independent class policy, which in its turn strengthened the bourgeois state. The latter tried in May 1937 to disarm the anarchist and socialist workers’ militias. The workers of Barcelona rose up against this attempt and de facto held power for four days. The POUM leadership refused (like the anarchist leaders) to take power and told the workers to return to work. With the workers now powerless, the counterrevolution could attack. Within six weeks the POUM itself was declared illegal by the popular front government of Stalinists, right-wing socialists, and bourgeois republicans, for so-called “collaboration with Franco”.
While Trotsky and the International Secretariat criticised and rejected the popular front policy of the POUM, Sneevliet separately sought contact with the POUM. In October 1936 he visited Barcelona, where he spoke on the POUM radio channel and wrote for its papers. Later, back in the Netherlands, he set up solidarity actions with the POUM. He openly criticised the views of Trotsky and participated in a meeting of the London Bureau (of centrist organisations) to advocate his views.
This shows, next to the soft approach towards something fundamental as the class collaboration of the popular front, a deeper-lying problem. Sneevliet saw the Fourth International mainly as a loose association of national parties, on the basis of some shared basic principles, not as an international party with a strong international leadership and joint positions about different questions. As such, Sneevliet saw no problem with a Dutch line about Spain, separate from the international leadership.
In addition to that, he had difficulties with criticism coming from the international centre, which he saw as “meddling into Dutch affairs”. Meanwhile, he had no problem himself strongly criticising sections that pursued policies of entryism. This was problematic: in an International, it should be possible to discuss the internal questions of different sections also in other sections and within the international leadership, in a way which leads to a rise in the political level of all parties. This with the goal of being able to jointly turn outwards in a stronger way.
The question of Ignace Reiss
On 11 June, 1937, a meeting took place in Amsterdam between Henk Sneevliet and Ignace Reiss, an officer of the GPU, the Soviet secret services. They knew each other from a decade before, when Sneevliet had helped Reiss with setting up a cover for intelligence operations in Amsterdam.
In 1937, the Moscow Processes had begun, a series of show trials against the Old Bolsheviks on the basis of false accusations. Many of them were charged on the basis of confessions from torture, and sent to labour camps or executed. Ignace Reiss was done with the Stalinist counter-revolution and wanted to break with the regime, and join the Fourth International.
Sneevliet had to report this to the international centre in Paris. On 25 June he met Leon Sedov, Trotsky’s son who was part of the leadership, to discuss this, but he didn’t give much information to him. Reiss himself wanted to first report his defection to the Communist Party leadership in the USSR, while it would have been safer to bring the news out to the public in the biggest way possible.
Only after Reiss sent his letter on 17 July, a new attempt was made by Sneevliet to meet Reiss and Sedov in Reims, which was constantly postponed. While they finally were to meet on 5 September, this meeting was cancelled… because the day before Ignace Reiss was shot by a Stalinist agent in Lausanne. Normally it would take two weeks before a letter dropped at the Russian embassy would reach Moscow, but this time the GPU had been given a tip, so the letter was intercepted and the GPU started a hunt at Reiss.
Trotsky criticised Sneevliet in this case, because he acted on his own, although in name of the Fourth International. It would have been necessary to bring Reiss as soon as possible in contact with Sedov and make him give a public declaration to the world. This criticism was correct.
However, the story is not complete. The communication with Leon Sedov went through his secretary, Etienne (real name: Mark Zborovski), an agent of the GPU, who passed information to Stalin. He was responsible for setting up the meeting in Reims, so probably also for organising the ambush in which Reiss was killed.
In February 1938, Leon Sedov was poisoned, after recovering in a private clinic, which was a huge blow for the Fourth International. Several days after his death, Zborovski sent a letter to Trotsky, in which he alleged that Sneevliet and Vereeken (a leader of the Belgian group) would have said that Leon Sedov was responsible for Reiss’ death. This misinformation was one of the causes that Trotsky later was so critical in his appraisal of Sneevliet.
Trotsky was negative about Sneevliet, but at the same time asked for setting up a commission to investigate the Reiss case. In a letter to the Belgian section, Trotsky wrote: “It has been reported to me that comrade Vereeken attempted to make Sneevliet’s role in the Reiss case look better, by shifting the blame to Leon Sedov. I will withhold myself from giving this attempt a proper qualification. I just want to declare that I am in the possession of the whole correspondence, including Sneevliet’s letter, and this document in itself will be enough to form a judgement. I will hand over this documentation to the International Conference and will ask for a Special Commission to determine everyone’s responsibility in this very important and tragical case.” This commission however was never set up, probably because Etienne tried to obstruct this process in order to hide his own role.
Sneevliet himself already was correctly suspicious about Etienne and didn’t trust him, arriving at this view earlier than Trotsky. However, Trotsky still had his doubts and gave the task to another secretary, Rudolf Klement, to investigate the role of Etienne. Klement himself was then murdered in July, after which his decapitated body was found in the Seine. These were the circumstances in which the Fourth International had to do its work.
Only in 1955 did it become clear who Etienne really was, when Alexander Orlov, a GPU agent who defected to the USA, unmasked his role. Zborovski himself by then also lived in the USA, and was asked to testify to the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, where he spoke about his activities for the GPU in France, including sharing information with the GPU about the meeting in Reims.
Last period: resistance work in the occupied Netherlands
Because of these differences, and a few others, around new year 1937-38, the split between the RSAP and Fourth International took place. Trotsky’s complaints about Sneevliet in the Reiss case may have given the last push, but also even without this incident, the split could not have been prevented, as there were substantial differences about the NAS, entryism and the structure of the Fourth International.
The followers of the Fourth International started a new section, the Group of Bolshevik-Leninists (GBL), consisting of a few tens of activists. Some were still members of the RSAP and its youth organisation, but were quickly targeted by Sneevliet, who drove them out with organisational methods. Sneevliet’s son-in-law, Sal Santen, became a key figure in this group.
Cutting the ties meant that on the theoretical plane there was a quick regression, when the RSAP left the position that the USSR had to be defended in the coming world war. In spite of that, the party was well prepared for a war scenario and had an emergency plan to disband the party and start underground work.
On 14 May 1940, four days after Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands, the RSAP was disbanded. While the Stalinist CPN initially tried to keep a legal front, the RSAP started resistance work against the German occupation, under the name of the Marx-Lenin-Luxemburg Front (MLL-Front).
This resistance organisation published the paper Spartacus, in reference to the paper of Rosa Luxemburg and the Spartacists (German revolutionary Marxists) during the First World War. The MLL-Front was unique in the Dutch situation, as it applied a consistent internationalist class policy from the start, against both the German occupation and its Dutch bourgeois hangers-on. It did not have any illusions about the Allies and the Dutch government in exile (in London). While many resistance groups propagated hate against Germans in general, the MLL-Front had a clear message of class propaganda, where they rejected the idea that ordinary German workers and soldiers were responsible for the crimes of the fascist government, and they even spread propaganda in German among German soldiers in the Netherlands. The MLL-Front did not collaborate with bourgeois resistance organisations.
The Front did all kinds of propaganda work, assisted in hiding political activists and Jews, organised worker cells in companies, and partially helped in organising the February Strike of 1941, against the deportation of Jewish citizens. Its activities were strictly forbidden and the brave militants risked their lives many times.
Politically the MLL-Front was partially influenced by New International, the magazine of the supporters of Max Shachtman, who had broken from the American SWP. They refused to defend the Soviet Union against an imperialist attack, because of Stalin’s extreme opportunist policies of the Molotov-Ribbentrop-pact, the non-aggression treaty between Nazi Germany and the USSR. This was to be the proof that the USSR was not a workers’ state anymore and there was nothing left to defend.
In fact, there was still nationalised property and a planned economy to defend, something the masses of the USSR did after Hitler invaded the country in 1941. This new situation led to polemics, also within the MLL-Front. Sneevliet kept seeing the war between Russia and Germany as one between two imperialist blocs. Another leader of the Front, Willem Dolleman, advocated the defence of the last gains of the Russian Revolution, but was unclear about whether Russia was a workers’ state. Lastly, a third current within the Front arose, which advocated the same position as the Fourth International. This current after the war would form the Revolutionary Communist Party, the Dutch section of the Fourth International.
Sneevliet and his wife had to hide during the war, constantly moving from one hiding place to the other. In early 1942 a member of the Front was betrayed to the Nazis, who tortured him to extract information. In the following weeks, the leadership of the MLL-Front was arrested.
On 13 April 1942, 80 years ago, together with Ab Menist, Willem Dolleman, Jan Schriefer, Jan Koeslag, Jan Edel and Rein Witteveen, he was executed by the Nazi occupating forces. Their comrade Cor Gerritsen had already committed suicide in his prison cell. Later that year, on 16 October, their comrades Johan Roebers and Aalbert Ijmkers were executed as hostages. All these men died as martyrs of the working class.
As a prisoner in the cell opposite later recalled: “They were then all brought together in one small cell, just opposite mine, size 90 x 200 cm. And then the emotional moment; ‘Let’s all give each other a hand’, and then seven men sung out loud the Internationale, one hour before their death. What a melody and what words! I have been to concerts many times, but I never heard people sing with such feeling and conviction. I am not ashamed that I cried.”
Henk Sneevliet was a hero of the Dutch working class, who fought his whole life for the workers and oppressed in Europe and Asia. Until the bitter end, he continued fighting, despite all difficulties, for a socialist future. He was a genuine revolutionary and a great example for everyone who wants to fight for socialism today.
He lived according to his Malaysian motto, Berani Karena Benar, being brave because it’s good. He showed this bravery during the seafarers’ strike, during his “inciting” activities in Indonesia, during his break with the bureaucracies of the SDAP and Comintern, and of course during his resistance activities.
On the other hand, Sneevliet was no theoretician. He was a very capable organiser, propagandist, agitator and editor, but he always had a certain practical mindset. He did not grasp completely the essence of the many sharp polemics that Trotsky held against many different groups in the 1930s, in order to lay the theoretical basis for the Fourth International. The example of the POUM question shows this clearly. Instead, Sneevliet advocated a looser association of national groups, on the basis of a few common characteristics. In the RSAP itself, there were complaints from the youth (including his own son-in-law Sal Santen) that political issues were solved in an organisational way.
The isolation of revolutionary Marxists in the Dutch labour movement led to a certain revolutionary “conservatism”, which affected Sneevliet, with regard to the NAS. His fear of losing positions that were won led to a tendency of wanting to keep the CPH and later the RSAP strongly connected to the NAS. He was hesitant to use flexible tactics to win reformist and Stalinist workers, afraid of confusing the revolutionary workers in his party, while in all this, only the building of strong political cadres could have functioned as a strong cement keeping the organisation together.
Still, there was no careerism in Sneevliet’s stance towards the NAS, something which Trotsky insinuated after their breach. Sneevliet held on tight to the NAS, but the moment the German occupation began, he swiftly shifted to illegal work and new tactics.
Trotsky was murdered in August 1940 and Sneevliet in April 1942. They had grown apart because of clear political differences. We cannot know what would have happened if both men survived the war, if there would have been a new partial collaboration. After Trotsky was murdered by a Stalinist agent, Sneevliet described Trotsky, in spite of their differences, as “the largest living figure of the international socialist movement”. The Trotskyist press also published sympathetic articles about Sneevliet, after news of his death came out.
What we do know is that the Sneevliet movement came to an end in April 1942. From the remnants of the MLL-Front, eventually, the Fourth International in the Netherlands rose up. The NAS was not re-constituted.
Sneevliet was a hero of the working class. We can learn a lot from him, from his strong side and insights, as well as from his weak side and the mistakes he made. Only by learning the lessons of the past, we can prepare a new generation of class fighters for the big battles of the coming years and decades. So that finally our class can win and we can build the socialism which was fought for by Marx, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky and Sneevliet.