The youth section of the Dutch Socialist Party has nearly been kicked out of the party. What happened, and what political lessons are there for us in the U.S.?
The Dutch Socialist Party was founded in 1971 as a Maoist split from the Communist Unity Movement (M-L), itself a split from the official Communist Party. Since then, however, the SP has gone from sect to something like a mass party. In 2006, After leading anti-Iraq war protests, the SP won 25 seats in the lower house, out of a total of 150. Since then, however, its number of representatives has decreased, as has its membership, from 50,000 to 30,000 (the population of the Netherlands is ~17.5 million).
The SP remains the only socialist party to hold national seats. But its declining influence has led its leadership and parliamentary section to soften their stances. Since 2014, a group of members has organized within the party to hold it to Marxist principles. Initially anonymous for fear of reprisals, last fall SP leadership expelled members associated with Communist Platform, because they successfully passed a resolution recommending against joining a government coalition, even with conservative parties. Then Communist Platform members won elections to the leadership of the party’s youth section, called ROOD, and in response, SP leadership cut off funds to the youth section. These internal struggles have received an unusual flurry of attention in the Dutch media, and you can read more about the specifics in the following English-language articles: “Bureaucratic control-freakery,” “Youth section will win,” and “Stay, fight and win.”
But why does this obscure party conflict matter to YDSA members? One author sums up the strategic stakes:
[T]he SP faces questions similar to those faced by other parties to the Left of social democracy, such as what alliances and compromises can benefit socialist politics in the long term — and in what conditions a socialist party can assume a role in government. In this case, the conflict between ROOD and the party leadership escalated when the youth organization published a statement declaring its opposition to the SP entering a governing coalition with the Right.
It is this interviewer’s opinion that the U.S. Left faces similar choices. As we continue to elect DSA members to office, should they be progressive-but-loyal Democrats, or should they clearly stand against the Biden presidency’s likely austerity and militarism? What follows is an interview with Gus Ootjers, the chair of Communist Platform. — Griffin Mahon
Q: What is Communist Platform? What does it stand for?
Communist Platform is a Marxist organization. I think most would describe it as “orthodox Marxist.” It’s very inspired by the Kautsky debates going on in Jacobin, for example.
We’re a small left-wing organization, but a relevant one, especially right now. We work within the Dutch Socialist Party.
We involve ourselves in the actually-existing Left instead of forming a new party. We direct our articles toward the Socialist Party and we also have polemics with other left-wing organizations and some stuff about the trade unions.
Our politics is basically: there is a political weakness today on the Left, a low level of knowledge, a low level of theory. Our vision is that the Left right now is in a deep crisis, and that’s a worldwide phenomenon, but it’s especially bad in the Netherlands. There’s a lot of desire to go directly “towards the workers” and then you get a lot of dreadful pamphlets and papers that are just calls to action. To solve that crisis, we can’t just “go to the workers” and think everything will be different. No, we have to win the actually-existing Left to principled politics. What we’re trying to do is bring back debate about foundational questions within the Left.
We see it a lot on the Left — the Socialist Party, which is bigger, but also all of the smaller groups — they are very undemocratic, founded on the ideas of the so-called “Leninist vanguard party.” Almost all of them have a ban on factions. We need a mass party standing on a Marxist program, a thoroughly democratic party. With that we stand for working-class political independence, so we reject going into coalitions with bourgeois political parties [GM: The Dutch system virtually requires multi-party coalitions.]
Q: What principles did the Socialist Party originally stand for, and what pressures have lead it to seek compromise?
The Socialist Party was never really a Marxist party with a Marxist program. The history is a split from the old Communist Party, called Communist Unity Movement (M-L) in the ’60s, which split and rebranded itself in the ’70s. Back then it was a very dogmatic sect, the party paper had the five faces, Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin-Mao. It was really just one of many sects.
It’s not exactly clear why the Socialist Party had a parliamentary breakthrough in the early ’90s. They broke through in ’93, gaining two seats. It was the first time they gained seats in the national parliament, but they had some local elected people. It’s not clear why. The Communist Party collapsed, but there’s no reason why they won out over any of the other left-wing groups. Some of the Trotskyist organizations were probably better organized than the Socialist Party was at that point. So I don’t have a clear answer on why they broke through, but they did, and that changed a lot.
In the early 2000s, they started gaining some steam. They were always a very small party, but with the anti-cuts movement [GM: against welfare state austerity] and against the war in Iraq, which was pretty big here, it helped to cement the party as a party of opposition. A lot of the votes came from the old Communist Party, but also from people who were disappointed with the neoliberal Blairite turn the Dutch Labour Party took in the ’90s. The SP slogan in the ’90s was “vote against.” So it always positioned itself as a party of opposition.
In the 2006 national elections, the SP got 25 seats out of 150. They were a bigger party than the VVD, which is the conservative-liberal party. So the leader at that point claimed, “This is the day the socialists surpassed the liberals.” That was a big moment in the party’s history. But it’s really been going downwards ever since.
At that point, there were some talks of joining a coalition government after the 2006 victory, but that never really happened. We can’t say that they didn’t try. On Wikileaks, there’s a document where a party leader goes to the American embassy to tell them, “Hey, we’re not that much against NATO anymore. Don’t be afraid of us.” But the Labour Party leader also went to the American embassy! “We will never go into a coalition with these communists.” Of course, it didn’t happen.
Since then, there was a lot of pressure from the bourgeois media, trying to dismiss the Socialist Party as a party that only wants to be in the opposition. The press really jumped on that, which is probably one of the bigger pressures that has lead to compromise. The pressure to be relevant.
Since 2006, we’ve had a period of long decline. In 2009, we lost a bunch. 2012, it seemed like we were going to win, and the bourgeois media was very afraid. When asked by the press, “What if the EU forces you to make cuts?” the party leader said, “Over my dead body.” Of course, that made him popular, but the press vilified him and put him on magazines covered in blood with a chainsaw. In the end they lost that election to Labour and the VVD and since then we’ve lost pretty much election.
The party leadership has basically drawn all the wrong lessons. In the early 2000s, the party opened up a bit. It was always a Stalinist organization structurally, but other left-wing groups started to join. It could have been a party for the united Left. But after 2006, they started a crackdown on the Left. In ’09 they expelled the Trotskyists [GM: associated with Socialist Alternative in the U.S.]. It’s become bureaucratized over the years.
Last elections, the party said we won’t go into government with the VVD. Our current leader said we are ready for government. There’s not a lot of discussion going on about the course of the party. But this has lead to a bit of debate.
Q: You said you anticipated gaining seats in 2012. Was there an Occupy-like movement in the Netherlands?
The debate at the time was around economic issues. That’s where the party was always at its best toward the public. It’s a very popular message to just say “no, we won’t bail out the banks.”
Since then, the political debates in the country have moved to identity and immigration — which we’ve seen everywhere, the “culture wars” — and the party struggles with these. It was always a chauvinist, nationalistic party in the sense that we should appeal to normal, working-class voters (white factory workers). This was a problem in the ’80s, when one of the party’s anti-immigration pamphlets got it banned from May Day demonstrations. Before this crisis within the party, there was a clash between the members and the leadership over immigration. About 40% of the members were for a more humane policy and the leadership was very conservative and didn’t want to speak out. We see this in a lot of debates about racism and discrimination.
There’s been a public debate about the racist caricature of Santa’s helper, Black Pete, which the SP was absent from — it’s not the issue for the Left today, but it shows that they’re afraid to engage in these discussions. They really wanted to appeal to the populist right-wing vote, which is an illusion, because there are already, 2 or 3 or 5 right-wing parties because they collapse and split. The Socialist Party will never gain from their vote because the real thing already exists.
Q: Why is debate within parties so important to Marxism? How does Communist Platform try to further debate?
It’s important because, going back to Marx, the emancipation of the working class has to be an act of the working class itself. I think that’s a fundamental principle that the Left has refused to learn time and time again, but we still stick by it.
If we say the current bourgeois state is undemocratic and has to be replaced, which we do, then we also have to engage in “how are we gonna replace it?” For me, that’s within the party, the party has to be an instrument of the working class that could replace the state. If we want working-class self-emancipation, then the working class has to be able to learn how to make decisions, how to make policy, engage in debate, become leaders within the party. So we have to practice what we preach.
Otherwise, if the Socialist Party came to power currently, it wouldn’t lead to any democratization of society. It would just lead to a bureaucratic instrument taking power. So we have to have the right to organize factions, which is not technically forbidden, but in reality, it is. Whenever there’s a faction, they claim it’s a separate party-within-a-party and try to expel them.
The level of membership discussion is pretty low. A lot of it is “myth-making.” Partly, they want to clean up their own history. We don’t want to think about our past as Maoists. Most of the education is very practical. A lot of it is how to go door-to-door, how to canvass, how to “speak to people.” It’s not so much about political ideas. The ideas we do get are, ironically, basically a watered-down version of dialectical materialism from Stalin.
So the general level of discussion is very low, especially about politics. It’s changing because of our efforts. And because the youth wing started educating themselves: “If you don’t do it, we’re gonna do it ourselves.”
We have reading groups, lectures, all those things. It’s forbidden to openly criticize the party, and we’ve always just done that. We polemicize with other groups in the party, in the spirit of friendly debate, but it can be sharp. We think it’s important that we openly criticize and debate each other.
A lot of party decisions have happened behind closed doors. The party leader in the early 2000s supposedly gave a speech to party leadership disavowing revolutionary struggle, and since then we’ve never talked about it again. In the program of the party, it still says we are against NATO, which we should leave and should be dismantled. But the leadership changed their mind on that. We have contacts at every level of the party, so we expose this decision-making and make clear what leadership factions there are.
Q: How did the Communist Platform members elected to the leadership of ROOD plan to grow and strengthen the youth section?
A year before we put forward youth candidates, we proposed better Marxist education for the membership, which we won. They weren’t happy about that but didn’t do anything. We pushed for a couple of things. One was the motion for ROOD to speak out against joining a government coalition, which the leadership was very unhappy about. We also weren’t happy with the youth candidates running, so we said we weren’t voting for either of them. Neither won a majority, which was incorrectly blamed on us, so there was a new election.
We put forward candidates, members and non-members of Communist Platform. A couple of people got expelled, including two of these candidates, one of whom was running for chairman.
We proposed a couple of things: better Marxist education, more organizational independence to speak out against the party line if necessary, open debates within the youth section, and more involvement within social movements and the union movement. The party has had a very sectarian line toward both of these, and we think we should be active within them and fight for socialist politics.
Q: Have you been expelled?
Q: Is there any hope of getting back in?
There’s always hope. We started a campaign against this witch hunt. A petition got a lot of signatures. 600 doesn’t sound like a lot, but out of 30,000 members, really only 2,000 or so are active. This lead to a media frenzy. They tried to demonize us and claimed we want to wage violent civil war.
It’s a difficult situation. I don’t think they will let us back in voluntarily. We have to fight for it. What’s important is there has been a big change. We’ve pushed proposals against the witch hunt that got support from about 35% of the national party congress. It’s a large minority for the Socialist Party. Proposals against the wishes of the leadership rarely get that much of a vote. There are national elections next year, so we have to make a list of candidates, and 40% voted against the party leader, which is unheard of. There wasn’t any other candidate. It will be a hard fight, but I have some perspective.
Q: You said the party has a sectarian orientation to unions. What sort of policy do you advocate?
The approach of the Socialist Party goes back to ’70s Maoism and advocating for red unions [GM: explicitly socialist unions, as opposed to politically-neutral unions]. Back then, they had their own union called Workers Power. It wasn’t very successful, but led some strikes.
We have national unions, unlike the U.S. where it’s organized by shop. The biggest, which is controlled by Labour but has a lot of Socialist Party sympathizers, has roughly 900,000 members (it used to be one million). Then there’s the Christian unions and some small yellow unions.
We advocate orienting toward the Federation of Dutch Trade Unions. The party has always had the line that this is controlled by Labour, so we shouldn’t focus too much on it. Some leaders have come out of the union, but never as cadre or a shop steward. It’s always been bureaucrats. So their mentality of how the union can improve is through better campaigns. We’ve been pushing the line that members should become active in the union and democratize the union. There’s a whole struggle going on in the union, which the party doesn’t want to get involved in.
We say the same thing about social movements. The environmental movement, anti-racism, a 14 euro minimum wage. The party should get involved in that, not just to copy the line of the movement. We don’t advocate movementism, or just following behind. But being active in it, winning people over to principled politics, so we can really become a party of the working class. I think that would help the party become more lively. But they choose a sectarian way and just want to maintain control.
This means that the party mostly has local actions. Going door-to-door and seeing if people have troubles with their social housing corporation, speed bumps in the road, etc. It’s very noble to have neighborhood campaigns. But that hasn’t led to the party being more rooted within the neighborhoods. They’ve never succeeded in making that connection. A lot of it is based on Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals [GM: a while ago the party paid an ACORN consultant to teach them about campaigning].
Q: What is a socialist party for, then, and how do we achieve socialism?
It’s a big question, I’m not sure I have all the answers.
The current state is undemocratic, that’s as true in the Netherlands as it is in the U.K. and France and the United States. If the program of your party is radical democracy and working-class power, transformative change, then to me it seems common-sense to not govern over that system unless you have a majority where you can dismantle the state.
A lot of the Left seems to mostly want to push for social reforms. It’s already dubious if you can win those by joining a coalition government. The other parties won’t even accept modest reforms. SYRIZA in Greece got smashed by the European Union. Corbyn was sabotaged from within his own party before he could come close to power. Relying on those structures that will try to push you out and their press — it’s a dead end.
We have to focus on principled opposition against the state. So we don’t make deals with bourgeois parties. We have to build up our party that can replace the state. Until we can replace the state with working-class power and a democratic republic, there’s no point in joining a government, being slandered in the press, and your party becoming weaker as a result. Which has happened pretty much everywhere coalitionism has been tried.
It’s a long-term strategy. I’m very aware that we’re not anywhere close to gaining power this way. On the other hand, trying time and time again, and being destroyed by the same tactic, will also not get us any further.