From Fourth International, Vol.11 No.2, March-April 1950, pp.45-46.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Editor’s Note: Eight years ago, in April 1942, a Nazi firing squad took the lives of Henry Sneevliet and seven of his co-workers in a concentration camp in Holland. Hitler and his Dutch Quislings had good reason to fear Sneevliet. The outstanding revolutionary socialist leader of the Netherlands working class, he was also the founder and builder of the first proletarian Marxist movement in the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia. Banished for his activities there, Sneevliet was later imprisoned for his solidarity with the Dutch and Indonesian sailors of the Dutch cruiser Zeven Provincien who in February 1933 had mutinied against a wage cut and in solidarity with strikes on the Indies mainland.
Sneevliet rallied to the Trotskyist movement in 1934. His party, the Revolutionary Socialist Workers Party (RSAP), became a constituent part of the independent world Trotskyist movement. A few years later, however, differences developed between Sneevliet and the leadership of the Fourth International. Sneevliet’s centrist position on the question of the International, on the Civil War in Spain and on tactics in Holland led to a struggle within his party and a break with the Fourth International forces.
Sal Santen, the author of the first article, was one of the leaders of the Trotskyist faction in the RSAP and is now a leader of the Trotskyist party in the Netherlands. His account of Sneevliet’s farewell message is a poignant confirmation that the Trotskyist movement is the continuator and inheritor of the best revolutionary traditions of the Dutch working class. The second article written by an eye-witness, without political affiliation, remains an imperishable record of the last hours of the martyred revolutionists.
* * *
“I hope to have the necessary strength to remain true to the last to the maxim of the Malays: Berani Karena Beniar – Be Courageous Because It Is Best That Way.”
Excerpt from Sneevliet’s last letter written the night before his execution.
History has already rendered its verdict on the differences which eventually led to the split between Leon Trotsky and Henry Sneevliet. The Fourth International, which the revolutionary Dutch leaders believed was constituted prematurely, has fully justified its right to existence.
More than that, it has become the only revolutionary center in the world. Sneevliet’s allies, at the time of the bitter faction struggles (1936-40), often represented parties which were far larger than the sections of the Fourth International. Today they and their parties or factions have completely disintegrated or have simply disappeared from the political scene. One has only to read the miserable “democratic socialist” verbiage of a Gorkin to understand that it is only through a sorry misunderstanding that such figures could ever have pretended to the name of revolutionists, let alone lead a revolutionary party in’ a revolutionary period.
A rapid survey of the fate of the ILP, the PSOP, the SAP, will suffice to show that Sneevliet was on the wrong side in the period of the constitution of our world party. History has already rendered its verdict, we said. But a number of years were necessary in order to accord to the leader of RSAP (Revolutionary Socialist Workers Party) and to his party the place which such genuine militants deserve. It is useful today to draw up a balance sheet of everything which has separated us over these long years. But side by side with this it is our duty to separate sharply, not Sneevliet from the International but from his former allies in the years 1936-40.
Those who knew of his activities from the outbreak of the Second World War until his death need no proofs to buttress the unshakeable conviction that an abyss separated him from all the centrists, whose break with the International was only a stage in their degeneration. What is there in common between a Shachtman who, during the test of the war, spent his time proclaiming “the death of the Fourth International,” and Sneevliet whose proud words spoken just before he died are immortal:
“Friends, we are proud to be the first in the Netherlands to be condemned before a tribunal for the cause of the International and who must therefore die for this cause.”
By a quirk of history which, however, is only apparently a quirk, the struggle between the Fourth International and centrism assumed a particularly aggravated expression in the clash between the leader of the October Revolution and a revolutionary party of a very small country which was characterized by the stability and prosperity, if not of the entire proletariat, at least of a considerable aristocracy of labor. Moreover, in this country, precisely because of the apparently impregnable positions of reformism and of the trade union bureaucracy, the revolutionary movement was always infected with sectarianism.
The whole life of Sneevliet proved that he knew how to raise himself above the political level of his country. But during the formative years of the International he was not able to free himself from the tradition of the Dutch labor movement, which had never succeeded in making the conquest of power a real political perspective. His attitude, beginning with the outbreak of the Second World War, demonstrates that he was able to adjust himself rapidly and completely to a drastically new situation forced upon imperialism as well as upon the proletariat of the Netherlands. Better than anyone, Sneevliet understood that the Netherlands had ceased to be an islet in Europe. And with that unconditional internationalism, for which he paid with his life, he indicated the place which the proletariat of this country will henceforth occupy as an inseparable part of the European proletariat.
In his speech at the 20th anniversary of the Trotskyist movement in the United States, Comrade Cannon pointed out the difference between the activity of Debs, one of the great pioneers of American Socialism, and that of the SWP. Debs was a consistent and implacable fighter against capitalism; but the question of how capitalism was to be overthrown was not a burning question for him. The SWP carries on the revolutionary traditions of Eugene Debs but at the same time it is faced with entirely new tasks.
The attitude of our Dutch section and of the whole International toward Sneevliet cannot be different than that of the SWP towards Debs. Whatever may be the international significance of our conflict with Sneevliet as an instance of the struggle against centrism, it reflects at the same time a fundamental aspect of the Netherland labor movement: the struggle between the tasks of yesterday and those of today. The RCP (Revolutionary Communist Parly), which has taken the place of the RSAP, considers it an honor to continue the pioneer work Sneevliet began in the Netherlands. His intimate bonds with the Indonesian masses, for which he paid first by deportation from Indonesia, and then during the mutiny of the Dutch warship, Zeven Provinzen, by a prison term; his attitude towards the Indonesian problem will stand as an example for the Dutch comrades, an example also of his courageous and irreproachable internationalism.
On April 13, seven years will have passed since the day when Henry Sneevliet and seven of his comrades were murdered by the Gestapo. If we do not deal in this article with Menist, Dolleman, Schiefer, Edel, Koeslag, Gerritsen and Witteveen, who fell with Sneevliet, it is not at all because we underestimate them. Menist was the leader who succeeded in smashing the influence of the Stalinists in Rotterdam so effectively that they never again succeeded in taking roots there (in the 1939 communal elections the RSAP received 19,000 votes in this city, far surpassing the Stalinist vote); Dolleman was a worker who became one of the best-educated Marxists in the Netherlands and who remained closely connected with the Fourth International during the faction struggle – these men, together with their other comrades, have won a permanent place in the hearts of the Dutch working class.
But one cannot deny that Sneevliet was their leader much longer than he was ours. In him we honor the devotion and the courage of all the militants in the Netherlands who gave their lives in the cause of the international proletariat. If we honor him first of all, it is also in order to discharge an obligation which has long been ours. We had the opportunity of transmitting our last greetings to Sneevliet in his cell several days before his execution. At that time, we made it known to him that, despite all differences and frictions on the question of the International, his life would remain for us a revolutionary example and that the Dutch proletariat would lose in him one of its best leaders. We hope that we spoke these words in the spirit of the whole International. In his farewell letter, Sneevliet wrote:
“The farewell visit of Bep and your little girl, so important to me, has already blotted out the memory of the old frictions which existed between S. and me. It is good to know that BOTH OF US had thought of eliminating them before the definitive separation which will soon occur.”
The “frictions” (a curse on the Nazi censor who kept Sneevliet from making his thoughts more precise!) were not of a personal character. They related to the policy of the Fourth International. That is the reason which makes us consider it our duty on this commemoration to see that these words of reconciliation of our fallen comrade become the common property of the whole International. It is furthest from our mind to interpret these words as Sneevhet’s “political testament” but it is good to know that we, in the name of the International, were able to grasp the hand of Henry Sneevliet and through him, of all those who fell with him, before the fatal salvos were fired.
And on this April 13th, we bow our heads before these comrades who did not fear to sacrifice their lives as their best contribution to the task before us all: the overthrow of capitalism.
Last updated on: 18 March 2009