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Proletarian Competition. The Amsterdam Bureau and its German Counterpart, 1919–1920

JHK 2007 | Jahrbuch für Historische Kommunismusforschung | Seite 201-220 | Aufbau Verlag

Autor/in: Gerrit Voerman

Shortly after the Bolshevist takeover in October 1917 and the establishment of Soviet Russia, it seemed that a communist revolution in Western Europe was just around the corner. Worker attempts to seize power in Germany and Hungary were eventually to come to nothing, however. Instead of the working class of Europe coming to the aid of the young proletarian state, several capitalist countries threatened the existence of Soviet Russia, which became isolated as a consequence of the Allied encirclement and the civil war. In order nevertheless to maintain contacts with its sympathisers during this critical period, the Communist International (Comintern), established in 1919, began opening outposts outside Russia. The Southeastern Bureau, which maintained relations with the communist parties in Austria, Czechoslovakia and the Balkans, was set up in Vienna in March 1919, with another bureau being established in Stockholm.[1] In September 1919, the Executive Committee of the Comintern (ECCI) decided to establish branches in Berlin and in Amsterdam. A fierce demarcation dispute soon flared up between these two sub-bureaus. The ECCI decided to close down the Amsterdam Bureau after just six months, partly through the actions of the German communists. Thanks to its good relations with Moscow, Berlin had come out on top organisationally, financially and politically.

This article will deals with the Amsterdam Bureau. After discussing the historiography of the Bureau, the leading Dutch communists at that time will be introduced. Subsequently, the foundation, development and dissolution of the Amsterdam Bureau and its troublesome relationship with the German communists will be described.

Historiography of the Amsterdam Bureau

The historiography of the Amsterdam Bureau can be divided into three separate phases. The first period comprises the accounts of eye-witnesses. The Comintern-branch is mentioned in the autobiographies of four of the six Dutch communists appointed members of the Bureau in 1919 by Moscow. Three of them broke their ties with communism during the course of the 1920s. The first autobiography, written by Van Ravesteyn who was one of the first party leaders, was published in 1948. In his account of Dutch communism, he places the exploits of the Amsterdam Bureau in the broader context of the struggle taking place between Moscow, which was striving for dominance, and the »independent ›communist‹ party, or in other words the party as founded in the Netherlands and shaped to suit Dutch requirements.«[2] One year later, Roland Holst’s autobiography appeared. Roland Holst and Van Ravesteyn left the Dutch Communist Party at around the same time, but for different reasons. Just like Van Ravesteyn, she only refers to the Bureau in passing.[3] The third committee member of the Amsterdam Bureau to commit his memoirs to paper was Pannekoek. After breaking with the Comintern in 1921, he became a leading theoretician on council communism. During the Second World War, Pannekoek recorded his memories by candlelight. They were published in 1960, twenty-two years after his death. In much the same way as Van Ravesteyn, he reviews the demise of the Bureau in the light of Moscow’s fight for dominance within the international communist movement.[4] The fourth member of the Amsterdam Bureau with an autobiographical account to his name is Rutgers, the person who set up the Bureau (as will be explained below). This book does not really constitute an autobiography as it was written by his daughter and his son-in-law. However, as it was almost entirely based on conversations with Rutgers and sizeable unpublished autobiographical texts, as well as articles he had written and had published mainly in the 1930s, the biography can certainly be termed an ego-document.[5] Rutgers was the only one of the four committee members referred to in this article to remain faithful to Moscow, a fact that is reflected in the description of the political positioning of the Amsterdam Bureau which, in line with Lenin’s opinion, he describes as »sectarian« and showing »a deviance to the left«. One English communist who attended the conference in Amsterdam also paid attention to the Bureau: Murphy lively describes in his memoirs how the Dutch police disturbed the communist meeting.[6] 

After these subjective, politically-tinted memoirs, the second phase features the work of historians examining the Amsterdam Bureau within the context of a broader-based study of international communism. Although these historians obviously could not base their studies on the archives of the Comintern, they did make use of mainly public sources such as the Bulletin of the Sub-Bureau in Amsterdam of the Communist International and articles in contemporary newspapers and communist party journals. International communism in around 1920 was not the rigid, centralized, secretive and inward-looking movement that it would later become, and publications from this quarter sometimes contain information that sheds light on the functioning of the Dutch branch of the Comintern. The first publication in this respect was compiled by the American journalist and historian Draper. His study of the emergence of American communism, which was published in 1957, focused on the international congress organized by the Amsterdam Bureau in February 1920. He focused particularly on the presence of a number of Americans at this congress, including the international secretary Farina of the Communist Party of America, and Nosovitsky, an infiltrator working for the American authorities.[7] In 1964, the American historian Hulse published his history of the founding of the Comintern, which contained an extensive and wellinformed depiction of the Amsterdam Bureau. Hulse’s description was largely based on the Dutch communist journal De Tribune and Pankhurst’s The Workers’ Dreadnough.[8] Another book to be published in 1964 was the standard work written by the former French communist Kriegel, on the emergence of communism in France. Several prominent French communists corresponded with the Bureau in Amsterdam, and her description is partly based on documents filed in French judicial archives.[9] The study carried out by Lazitch and Drachkovitch in 1972 uses the same tradition of research. These two historians also scoured official documents published by the German Communist Party and the Comintern, as well as autobiographical studies by Van Ravesteyn and Rutgers.[10] The authors of the biographies of Pannekoek, Roland Holst and Gorter, which were published in the period 1989–1996, deployed much the same methods.[11]

The third and final phase in the historiography of the Amsterdam Bureau began after the downfall of the Soviet Union in 1991, when the Comintern records in the Russian State Archive of Social Political History (RGASPI) in Moscow were made public. For the first time, it became possible to study the Amsterdam Bureau on the basis of primary sources. By 1993, the journalist Olink had already published a somewhat romanticized collective biography of Rutgers and two other Dutch communists who had spent much time living in the Soviet Union. This biography makes mention of the Amsterdam Bureau. Olink carried out his research soon after the archives were opened to the public in 1991, when he was able to access documents of which many were subsequently locked away again afterwards.[12] Unfortunately, the academic value of his research is undermined by a lack of references to the archive material he studied. In 2001, the Japanese historian Yamanouchi produced a study of original source material, in which he published copies of documents originating from archives in countries including the Netherlands, Great Britain and the United States.[13] Most of these were police reports relating to the international congress organized by the Amsterdam Bureau. It also comprised an inventory of decisions, resolutions and appeals published by the Bureau. Remarkably, there are very few archive records relating to the Amsterdam Bureau in the RGASPI, and those which do exist are mainly examples of correspondence from Rutgers. This is the material on which the author of this article based his study of the relationship between Dutch communists and the Comintern in the period 1919 to 1930, in which the Amsterdam Bureau occupies a prominent position.[14] 

The »Tribunists«

The Communist Party in the Netherlands (Communistische Partij in Nederland, CPN) did not originate in the wake of the Russian Revolution – as nearly all the other Communist parties did – but was founded in 1909, albeit under another name.[15] During the first decades of the twentieth century, European social democratic parties were the scene of collisions between reformist groups and radical marxists. Generally, the Russian October Revolution of 1917 gave the impetus to a rupture between both factions. In a few countries the split had come along earlier. In 1903 the Russian social democratic party fell apart in Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. Six years later, in the Netherlands a group of orthodox Marxists – who were called »Tribunists« after their oppositional paper De Tribune – broke with the reformist social democrats and founded a party of their own: the SocialDemocratic Party (Sociaal-Democratische Partij, SDP). 

The SDP was led by David Wijnkoop (1876–1941). He was an assertive, fanatic politician, who remained devoted to the communist ideals till his death. Wijnkoop was an intimate of the other SDP-leader – the narrow-minded, complacent and conceited historian Willem van Ravesteyn (1876–1970). It came to a rupture between these two friends in the late 1920s, when Van Ravesteyn was no longer willing to follow the directives from Moscow, as already mentioned. Also prominent within the SDP were the astronomer Anton Pannekoek (1873–1960) and the poets Herman Gorter (1864–1927) and Henriette Roland Holst (1869–1952). This threesome was not so much practical politicians, but more theoreticians: together they formed the so-called »Dutch School« within international Marxism. They were appreciated by Lenin for their contributions against social democratic thinkers as Kautsky. In the course of the 1920s, however, they all broke with Moscow – as already mentioned. 

Yet before and during the First World War, the Dutch Tribunists maintained close contacts with the Russian Bolsheviks. The latter were rather isolated within the international Socialist movement and were glad to welcome kindred spirits. To a certain extent Lenin was in need of his Dutch comrades, and at that time he treated them like equals. In his struggle against the »social chauvinists«, he tried to establish closer links between the Bolsheviks and left-wing internationalist groups as the SDP. In the summer of 1915, Wijnkoop and Lenin discussed the possibility of a joint declaration aimed against the imperialist war, which should be presented at the imminent Conference of Zimmerwald. These plans, however, came to nothing. Wijnkoop and Van Ravesteyn had no confidence in the political outcomes of the conference and decided not to participate, despite Lenin’s insistence.

After the Russian October Revolution in 1917, Wijnkoop and Van Ravesteyn again clashed with the Bolsheviks, because they advocated a continuation of the Russian warfare against Germany. Subsequently, both Dutch party leaders condemned the separate peace treaty of the Russians with Germany in Brest-Litovsk, after the Communist takeover. Yet these differences of opinion with the Bolsheviks, however, did not weaken at all the admiration of the leaders of the SDP for the October Revolution. The change of name of the Dutch party was an expression of this. In March 1918 the Russian Bolsheviks decided to call themselves Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks). The SDP followed this example a few months later and renamed itself Communist Party in the Netherlands. The CPN was invited to attend the foundation of the Comintern in March 1919, but was not able to send a representative because of the international blockade of Russia. Therefore Rutgers, a Dutch communist living in Moscow at that time, represented the CPN at the constituent congress.

Setting up the Amsterdam Bureau

On 28 September 1919, the ECCI decided to set up a bureau in Amsterdam, which was to establish communications with other countries, publish a propaganda paper, collect material on the workers’ movement in Western Europe and convene an international conference.[16] Moscow also decided to found a bureau in Berlin, called the »West-Europäische Sekretariat« (WES). The principal task of the Berlin branch of the Comintern – which was partly controlled by the Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands, KPD) – was to maintain communications between Soviet Russia and Western Europe. It also channelled funds from Moscow to the various communist parties.[17] 

The Comintern leadership charged the Dutch engineer Sebald Rutgers (1879– 1961) with setting up the Bureau in Amsterdam. In 1911 Rutgers and his family had embarked on a world tour, which took him first to Sumatra and four years later to New York. After the October Revolution, Rutgers and his wife left for Russia, travelling to Vladivostok via Japan. After a long and terrible journey through Siberia, with the civil war raging between the Red Army and the Whites, they reached Moscow. Rutgers was summoned almost immediately to the Kremlin by Lenin, and he subsequently attended the founding congress of the Comintern. As secretary of the Amsterdam Bureau, he was to sign his letters G.L. Trotter (derived from »globetrotter«), a code name he retained from his wanderings about the globe.

The fact that Amsterdam – in addition to Berlin – was chosen as the second Comintern branch in Western Europe is not as strange as it might first appear. Leading Tribunists like Gorter, Pannekoek and Wijnkoop were in touch with Lenin, as stated above. Some members of the ECCI also knew leading Dutch communists: Zinoviev and Balabanova had met Roland Holst in Zimmerwald (where the Dutch poet also came across Trotsky), and Bukharin and Berzin knew Rutgers from their time in the United States. Lenin had even considered holding the founding congress of the Comintern in Amsterdam.[18] The Dutch capital therefore seemed the obvious choice, as Rutgers wrote later in his autobiography for the cadre department of the Comintern. »Man meinte, daß Holland einerseits am meisten legale Bewegungsfreiheit ermöglichte und andererseits durch die Gruppe der Tribunists mit Gorter, Pannekoek, Wijnkoop, Roland Holst u. a., die Gewähr für eine richtige Marxistische Linie geben würde.«[19] Moscow would later be disappointed on both counts. 

The ECCI appointed Rutgers, Roland Holst, Pannekoek, Gorter and the party leaders Wijnkoop and Van Ravesteyn to the Bureau in Amsterdam, and placed the sum of twenty million roubles at their disposal. Rutgers received the bulk of the amount in the form of precious stones.[20] The ECCI also reached into its pockets for the CPN, allocating half a million roubles’ worth of valuables for party activities in the Netherlands. For his »official trip« to the Netherlands, Rutgers received 40 000 roubles in travel money.[21]

Financial difficulties

En route from Moscow to Amsterdam, Rutgers made a stop-over in Berlin, where – at Lenin’s request – he visited Bronski, the Comintern representative in Germany, and the German party leaders Levi and Fuchs. His discussions with them took place over copious dinners in luxury villas and hotels. Although Rutgers understood that this life-style could be an effective cover for communists, he felt that the German comrades were living in a fine style, too.[22] They nevertheless succeeded in convincing Rutgers of the KPD’s dire financial straits, whereupon he decided to sell part of the valuables and to give 400 000 marks to his impecunious German comrades. Because he felt it was too risky to take the remaining capital – in ingots and in kind – back to the Netherlands at one time, Rutgers left it in Berlin with Fuchs. His intention was for the remainder to be delivered in instalments, by courier. Two precious stones were soon delivered to the Netherlands, but it quickly became apparent that this first consignment from Berlin was also to be the last – the KPD had pocketed the capital that Rutgers had left behind.[23] Rutgers complained to Berzin about this ›dirty trick‹ of the German comrades, suggesting that communications with Russia should no longer go via Berlin but via Riga instead. »Solange die Kuriere mit Geld über Berlin gehen wird man sie da schon ausplündern. «[24] 

Having been fleeced by the Germans, the Amsterdam Bureau ran into severe financial difficulties even before it had started its activities – to the satisfaction no doubt of the KPD, which wanted the WES to have Western Europe all to itself. In the expectation that the money was coming, Rutgers – as Bureau secretary – had already begun setting up office. He had rented premises, appointed staff and began issuing a bulletin. An international courier service was set up. All these activities, including supporting the CPN’s newspaper, consumed money at a fast rate. The Bureau’s activities cost a total of about 10 000 guilders a month. By the end of 1919, however, only 31 000 guilders remained, enough for a few months at the most. Due to the dire financial situation, Rutgers felt compelled in March 1920 to dismiss the Bureau staff and to terminate the tenancy. 

Organisational inadequacies

In early 1920, the Amsterdam Bureau as well as the WES made preparations for an international conference. The one organized by Rutgers took place in Amsterdam at the beginning of February. Dutch communists made up the great majority of those present, with attendance from abroad being very disappointing. Monatte and Loriot, the leaders of the French Comité de la 3e Internationale, failed to turn up. In fact, only the Anglo-Saxon world was represented. Fraina, the international secretary of the American Communist Party, came from the United States, accompanied by the courier Nosovitsky, of whom it later emerged that he was working as an undercover agent for American judicial authorities, as already mentioned. Hodgson, Murphy, Pankhurst and Willis represented small parties that would later be absorbed into the Communist Party of Great Britain. Also present were the Belgian Van Overstraeten and representatives of the opposition in the KPD. The Swiss communist Herzog and the Russian Borodin put in an appearance later. Rutgers had unsuccessfully asked the ECCI to send a special Comintern envoy, and the guidelines that he requested »about action we might be able to prepare in Western Europe in line with the policy over there« also failed to eventuate, with the result that Amsterdam was left in the dark about the current political position in Moscow.[25] 

Not only was the conference barely representative, it also ended in a terrible fiasco. The police had managed to monitor the discussions and to arrest several participants. Due to the Dutch communists’ lack of conspiratorial experience, the Amsterdam Bureau’s first trial of strength was a complete failure, and Amsterdam suffered a loss of face.

Tense relations between Amsterdam and Berlin

After the conference was abandoned, a KPD delegation made up of Frölich, Zetkin, Münzenberg and Bronski arrived in the Netherlands. In talks with Rutgers, they declared themselves to be absolutely opposed to the leading role the conference had assigned to the Amsterdam Bureau. The WES had been downgraded to a sub-bureau, which had to deal with Central and Southeast Europe; Amsterdam was in charge of Western Europe and America. Moreover, Berlin had to consult with Amsterdam before it could draft manifestos or convene international conferences.[26] Although only provisional, this allocation of tasks was unacceptable to the German delegation. It is not too difficult to understand why: the KPD, which had over 100 000 members in autumn 1919, had little desire to be politically subordinate to the CPN, with 2 400 members at most. The Germans stated in no uncertain terms that they wanted to reverse roles: the WES in Berlin should assume the central leadership role.[27] This in turn was unacceptable to the Dutch. It was eventually agreed that for the time being both the WES and the Amsterdam Bureau would continue their activities.[28]

Despite the truce, the German delegation went on to the offensive against Amsterdam upon its return. Given that the KPD was at that time banned in Germany and that the Dutch had greater freedom of movement, Amsterdam seemed the obvious choice, according to a letter that Rutgers received from Berlin. Yet – the letter went on to say – this was not saying very much: after all, the police action during the conference had demonstrated that the Dutch authorities were also prepared to act decisively against the communist threat. Moreover, there was a downside to the relative peace in the Netherlands: it reflected the fact that the Comintern bureau was located in a country which was something of a revolutionary backwater. As a result »wird es den Genossen schwer werden, die taktischen und politischen Probleme der einzelnen Parteien scharf und richtig zu erfassen und ihnen entsprechenden politischen Ausdruck zu geben«.[29] It was of course a completely different matter in Germany, the revolutionary epicentre.

Shortly afterwards, Zetkin presented a full report to Moscow. In her opinion, the Amsterdam conference had demonstrated that the Dutch communists could lay neither theoretical nor practical claim to leadership in Western Europe. They were simply trying to acquire within the Comintern the prestige and influence that they lacked at home. »Ihr einziger Rechtstitel auf die Leitung der Internationale in Westeuropa ist das Geld. Die K.P.D. kann diesen Unfug nicht mitmachen.«[30] At the KPD party congress in late February 1920, Zetkin publicly denounced the amateur conduct of the Dutch, and demanded that the Comintern headquarters be established in Germany: »Der Sitz der westeuropäischen Vertretung der III. Internationale gehört dorthin, wo die Revolution handelt, kämpft, lebt.«[31]

Rutgers in turn advised the KPD leaders that the Amsterdam Bureau had no intention of recognising the political leadership of the WES. He demanded the immediate transfer of part of the funds intended for the Amsterdam Bureau. It was a legitimate claim: »die Beiträge können wir nicht akzeptieren als eine Art monatliche Unterstützung aus Berlin«.[32] Rutgers estimated that the precious stones still in Berlin had a value of at least five million marks.[33] 

Radek and political conflict within the KPD

Independently of the financial and organisational conflicts, the Amsterdam Bureau was also on a political collision course with Berlin. The differences concerned parliamentarism and the attitude to trade unions – two matters at the heart of conflict within the German party at that time. Almost from its very beginnings, the KPD had been torn by strife. The party leadership, headed by Levi, actively supported communist participation in elections. The leftist opposition on the other hand declared itself in favour of a system of workers’ councils and against parliament. They also had strong reservations about the preference shown by the KPD leadership for working in traditional »reactionary« unions, which opposition groupings wanted to replace with revolutionary works councils, the socalled Arbeiter-Unionen. In addition to these strategic questions, the structure of the party was a hot issue. The KPD leadership wanted a Leninist, centralised party structure, while the left wing aimed at a more democratic, federal model.

With the help of the Pole Radek, Levi managed to marginalise the leftist opposition. Radek, Moscow’s representative in Germany, had been arrested in Berlin in early 1919, but could still advise Levi from behind bars. Both believed that the revolutionary tide was on the wane in Germany and that the changed situation meant that communist influence had to be increased through parliament and the unions.[34] When, in the autumn of 1919, Levi won a narrow majority for this position at the KPD congress, the opposition left the KPD, setting up the Communist Labour Party of Germany (Kommunistische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands, KAPD) in April 1920. Unhappy with the German internecine conflict, in December 1919 the Comintern leadership in Moscow asked Rutgers to act as official Comintern mediator to try and prevent a definitive split. Because of health problems, he did not take up the task.[35] In any case, Rutgers was not neutral: he informed Moscow that the KPD leadership was abusing its position of power and was not interested in compromise. He also rejected the KPD’s new course, writing to Moscow that he was curious to know Bukharin’s opinion of this »new opportunism«.[36]

The fact that the Amsterdam Bureau supported the opposition in the conflict within the KPD created bad blood with the KPD leadership. After its establishment, the KAPD had requested admission to the Comintern. When the WES declared itself against this, the Amsterdam Bureau pointed out that the WES was made up mainly of members of the KPD, so that it was acting as judge in its own case. Moreover, Amsterdam felt that the KPD leadership had »systematically« driven the opposition out of the party. The Amsterdam Bureau was of the view that the KAPD should simply be regarded as a member of the Comintern until the next congress could decide the matter.[37]

Political stance of the Amsterdam Bureau

In its statement about the KAPD, the Amsterdam Bureau once again openly affirmed its leftist position. By virtue of its mandate from Moscow, it wanted to »ensure that leftist minorities were not hampered in their development.« This tolerant attitude was not completely devoid of self-interest since »Amsterdam« – with its two »leftist« theoreticians Gorter and Pannekoek – was closer politically to the KAPD than to the KPD. The two resolutions that Pannekoek drafted for the Amsterdam conference about parliamentarism and the unions made that abundantly clear.[38] 

At its founding congress in March 1919, the Comintern had been dismissive of participation in elections. After this initial anti-parliamentary rhetoric, Moscow softened its stance. Chairman Zinoviev declared in September 1919 that although under the dictatorship of the proletariat parliament would make way for the soviets, under capitalism it might be desirable for popular representation to further the revolution. »Whether at any given moment to take part in elections, in the electoral campaign, depends on a number of concrete circumstances which must be very carefully considered in the given country at the given time.«[39] Pannekoek’s resolution on parliamentarism was largely based on Zinoviev’s circular letter, although Pannekoek emphasised more strongly than the Comintern chairman the possibility of boycott at times of revolutionary turmoil. Nevertheless, his conclusion was almost literally identical to that of Zinoviev, namely that any decision on whether or not to take part in the elections should be left to the working class of the country in question.

Although this resolution could not be discussed at the Amsterdam conference because of the police intervention, the position on parliament was touched on in the resolution on unions. The delegates declared unanimously that the aim of the revolutionary proletariat was to seize state power. »Neither parliaments nor the trade unions are the appropriate means to that end, but mass action and workers« councils, mass action to bring together all workers, organised and not organised, and to unite them in an open and direct struggle for power, and the councils as the organs of the revolutionary workers’ state, of the proletarian dictatorship.«[40] With this categorical rejection of parliament, the conference went a step further than Zinoviev and Pannekoek.

Amsterdam also adopted a rather radical stance on unions, as is shown in the resolution quoted above. They expressed a deep suspicion of traditional unions, believing that the reformist trade union movement had become subservient to capitalism and was no longer in a position to take decisive action against it. Therefore, the existing unions had either to be ‘revolutionised’ from within, or else replaced by completely new, powerful, anti-capitalist works councils.

As was to be expected, the KPD and the WES that it dominated, completely rejected this position.[41] The Amsterdam Bureau stuck to its guns, however. Rutgers wrote to Berzin that under all circumstances a course of action should be adopted that was based on principle, which meant: »keine entgegenkommende Haltung gegen Zentrumsgruppen, scharfer Kampf innerhalb oder außerhalb aber jedenfalls gegen reaktionäre Gewerkschaften [und gegen] alle Formen der bürgerlichen Demokratie […]. Dagegen alle Energie gerichtet auf Massenaktionen auch wo diese mit syndikalistischen Tendenzen behaftet sind, großer Wert auf Hebung der revolutionären Energie […] Wer das jetzt für verfehlt hält, soll nicht Amsterdam als Zentralstelle befürworten«.[42]

The ECCI closes down the Amsterdam Bureau 

Rutgers was doubtless unaware that with these words he was in fact sounding the death knell for the Amsterdam Bureau. Radek, who had returned to Moscow after his release in January 1920, managed to convince the leading Bolsheviks that their expectations of the revolution in Europe were much too high.[43] On his arrival, he became the second man in the Comintern after Zinoviev. The Amsterdam Bureau was the first victim of the new direction. In early February, the ECCI members – including Radek, Zinoviev and Berzin – roundly criticised the policies of the Amsterdam Bureau.[44] At the end of April, the ECCI decided to deprive Amsterdam of its mandate because of its »sectarian politics«. »Das holländische Bureau hat in einer Anzahl wichtiger Fragen eine Stellung eingenommen (Gewerkschaftsfrage, Parlamentarismus), die gegen die Stellung der Exekutive der 3. Komm. Intern. ausläuft« according to the resolution signed by Radek. The Dutch communists suffered a humiliating defeat in the battle of prestige with Berlin, as the ECCI decreed that the tasks of the Bureau were to be transferred to the WES.[45]

The report on the closure, which Amsterdam received in early May, came like a bolt out of the blue. Rutgers was dumbfounded. He at once suspected the sinister hand of Radek, and could not comprehend why Moscow had changed tack in this way toward the Pole’s ‘opportunism’. Rutgers wrote to Bukharin: »Wir hatten nimmer geglaubt, daß die Politik Karls von allen, auch von Sie [Ihnen], gebilligt wurde.« Pannekoek responded rather laconically as he had already seen the writing on the wall. He believed that it wasn’t just Radek’s doing, but reflected a change of heart in Moscow, which meant that the ideas of the Amsterdam Bureau were now behind the times.[46] Rutgers attempted to refute at length the accusations of the ECCI. With regard to anti-parliamentarism, he argued that the Bureau had based itself entirely on Zinoviev’s circular. To demonstrate that Amsterdam was not opposed on principle to parliamentary activities, he pointed to the fact that Wijnkoop and Van Ravesteyn were members of the Lower House. And as for the unions, Rutgers declared that under certain circumstances the Bureau was not opposed to revolutionary struggle inside reactionary unions, but pointed out that in the meantime revolutionary unions had also emerged. Surely, argued Rutgers, Moscow’s line was to give them preference, as demonstrated once again by the Russian unions’ call in April 1920 to form a revolutionary, »red« international trade union. [47]

Rutgers discussed at some length the ECCI’s accusation that the Amsterdam Bureau had taken the KAPD under its wing. He repeated that the Bureau had found it necessary to support the left wing of the communist movement, which was guided by principles, rather than the rightist, opportunistic wing of the party. »Die Opposition ist das Gewissen der Partei, eine Garantie gegen die Versteinerung und das Versprechen für die Partei« according to Rutgers. He regarded the centralisation and discipline that Moscow wanted to carry through in the communist parties as disastrous for attempts to win the syndicalists and socialanarchists to the communist cause. The Amsterdam Bureau declared that, as was also the case with the ECCI’s preference for the WES, it showed that Moscow was not fully au fait with the situation in Western Europe.

Poor communications

In criticising the Amsterdam Bureau’s »leftist« line, the ECCI was in fact distancing itself from its own 1919 position. Not incorrectly, Rutgers referred several times to the fact that Amsterdam had in reality done nothing other than reflect the ideas held at the time of his departure from Russia in the autumn of 1919: he believed that he had been acting in the spirit of the first Comintern congress. Because of the failure to establish a reliable, direct line of communications with Russia, Amsterdam was unaware that a new course had been set after Radek’s return to Moscow in early 1920. The Dutch were now required to work through the WES, but Rutgers received no replies to the letters he sent to Moscow via Berlin. 

In February 1920, Rutgers managed to find another channel of communication with Moscow, with Ström, who ran the Scandinavian Bureau of the Comintern in Stockholm, acting as intermediary.[48] Ström promised Rutgers that he could arrange for messages to be delivered to Moscow within nine days. Afraid that his letters would be opened, Rutgers used a cipher code (see appendix 1 for the decoding table) to convey key information.[49] Rutgers was very pleased with his Swedish connection, all the more so because Ström was able to provide some financial assistance to the destitute Amsterdam Bureau.[50] The Soviet consulate in Stockholm had control over substantial funds, which it used to supply Western European groups with much-needed money. Litvinov, the representative in Denmark of the People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs of Soviet Russia, had to authorise such grants, possibly after first consulting with Moscow. At the end of February, Ström reported to Litvinov that the Amsterdam Bureau had asked for 150 000 guilders, an exorbitant amount, the Swede thought. It seems that 20 000 guilders were sent to Amsterdam several weeks later.[51] Rutgers immediately asked for more money. After consulting Litvinov, Ström wrote: »Wir senden Ihnen die erste Sendung von Kostbarkeiten im Werte von fünfzigtausend Kronen […] Neue Sendungen folgen mit erster Gelegenheit, sofort? Nachricht über die glückliche Ankunft der ersten eingelaufen ist.« [52] In early May Rutgers received four precious stones, which disappointed him greatly. He informed Stockholm that the estimated value of the stones was only 3 000 to 4 000 guilders. »Das würde kaum unsere Schulden decken, und wir müßten dringend um eine größere Sendung bitten.« [53] 

However, the Amsterdam Bureau was closed down before more money could be sent. It came as a particularly unpleasant surprise for Rutgers that one of the first official ECCI reports received via the much-coveted communications channel with Moscow, circumventing Berlin, was the decision to close the Bureau.[54] In the report, cited above, ECCI secretary Radek instructed the Amsterdam Bureau to transfer the remaining funds and valuables to the Scandinavian Bureau. Rutgers informed Berzin, however, that not only were they broke, but they were also 4 000 guilders in debt at the beginning of May.[55] He omitted to mention the financial assistance recently provided by Ström.

Lenin’s Infantile disorder

In addition to being condemned by the ECCI, the Amsterdam Bureau was also roasted by Lenin, whose Left-wing« communism, an infantile disorder appeared shortly before the second Comintern congress in July 1920. The Soviet leader insisted that communists should be active among the masses, which meant taking part in parliamentary elections and working within »reactionary« unions. He called the leftist communists »sectarian« because they were turning their backs on the masses. Lenin lashed out strongly at the Amsterdam Bureau and the »Dutch leftists«, who thought like »doctrinaires of the revolution, who never have taken part in a real revolution«. He also sharply criticised the leftist aversion to a disciplined vanguard party led from above. »Certain members of the Communist Party of Holland, who were unlucky enough to be born in a small country with traditions and conditions of highly privileged and highly stable legality, and who had never seen a transition from legality and illegality, probably fell into confusion, lost their heads, and helped create these absurd inventions.« Lenin appears to have had a personal hand in reversing the decision – in part his own – to set up the Amsterdam Bureau. He insisted that the ECCI and the forthcoming world congress of the Comintern roundly condemn the leftist deviations and »in particular, the line of conduct of some members of the Communist Party of Holland, who – whether directly or indirectly, overtly or covertly, wholly or partly, it does not matter – have supported this erroneous policy.« [56]

Rutgers throws in the towel

Of all people, it was Rutgers himself, the initiator of the Amsterdam Bureau, who was the first to buckle under in the face of this intervention from Moscow. Initially, he thought that by establishing a bureau in Amsterdam, the Comintern had sought to shift the centre of gravity westwards, a move which he applauded.[57] After the Bureau was closed, Rutgers continued to strongly oppose the Comintern’s tendency towards centralisation. »Eine einheitliche, straff disziplinierte internationale Organisation herbeizuführen ist heute noch unmöglich«, he informed the ECCI.[58] Once Lenin – and in his footsteps the second Comintern congress, which Rutgers could not attend due to poor health – condemned leftist communist views, Rutgers adopted the new line without protest. He was suddenly praising the benefits of »strict discipline« and »as great as possible a subjection of national organs to international leadership from Moscow«. Nothing more was said about the Bolsheviks’ supposed lack of knowledge of Western Europe.[59] The fact that he switched so readily may, amongst other things, have been attributable to his fervent wish to continue working as an engineer for the development of Soviet Russia. Later Rutgers was to ascribe his turn-around to Lenin. »Lenin’s brochure on the leftist movement was a good lesson for me, which I took completely to heart.«[60] Another reason would have been Rutgers’ membership of the Russian Communist Party, a party to which he continued to be loyal, including during the Stalinist era. He distanced himself completely from his »Amsterdam« past. In the already quoted autobiography that he wrote in 1933 for the cadre department of the Comintern, Rutgers dismissed as »sectarian« the Amsterdam Bureau and his »leftist deviations«.[61] By that time he was living in the Soviet Union. He returned to the Netherlands in 1938 – things had become too hot for him as the terror unleashed by Stalin was now turning against foreigners. His admiration for the Russian dictator was not in any way diminished by this.

Conclusion: increasing centralisation in the Comintern

The establishment of a Comintern Bureau in Amsterdam was a sign of Lenin’s confidence in the Dutch Tribunists. Some of them will perhaps also have interpreted it as a Bolshevist tribute, as recognition and reward for years of proven commitment in the front lines of the revolution since 1909 – even though their party had not always been keen on international cooperation.[62] This period of supposed close harmony was short-lived. Within a very short time, the Bureau changed from a token of Bolshevist appreciation to a symbol of Tribunist failings. The Amsterdam conference had ended in disaster and the Bureau was almost from the outset ideologically out of step with the ECCI. Cut off from the Comintern, it became a political fossil in which the radical stance fervently promoted by Moscow in 1919 had become set. The fact that this was not their fault hardly mattered. Once the ECCI had radically changed course, this breeding ground for »old«, radical ideas had to be eliminated, and the German congenial spirits were very eager to render assistance. The prestige of the Tribunists was dealt a savage blow.

In retrospect, the closure of the Bureau marked the first step in the process of centralisation that began in the Comintern in 1920. »The hasty suffocation of the Amsterdam effort provided at the very start a flash of insight into the future mechanism of the Russian monopoly of wisdom and power in the Comintern«[63], according to the American historian Draper. After Amsterdam, it was soon the turn of other outposts. The Scandinavian Bureau was closed after marked improvements in communications between Russia and Europe in the course of 1920. In early 1922, the Comintern liquidated its Vienna Bureau for reasons of ideological dissension. Although the WES in Berlin was also nominated for closure, it survived until the mid-1920s. With the end of the Allied siege of Russia, a key raison d’être for the network of foreign Comintern bureaus no longer applied. More important perhaps was the fact that, operating far from the centre, these – and several other – posts were politically and ideologically difficult to control. Within the increasingly centralised Comintern machine, there was simply no longer a place for them 

Appendix 1

It was possible to decode the coded fragments in Rutgers’ letters to Ström by analogy with the key discovered by the Swede Sven Wäsström for the letter code that Ström used in his letters (and to which the present writer had access thanks to the Swedish historian Alexander Kan). The principle behind this code is that a letter combination (e. g. cd or qh) refers to a single letter in a matrix made up of a number of horizontal rows of letters, arranged in alphabetical order. Each row begins at a different place in the alphabet. The initial letter is determined by a vertical word, placed in the first column.

How the code worked is explained here using the secret code that Rutgers used. His code was based on the same principle, except that he used numbers instead of letters. The right-hand number in the number combination reflects the position of a letter in the alphabetical row of letters, and the left-hand number indicates the row in question. The code »2/21 1/12 3/16 1/18 5/23 1/20 6/15 2/19 3/14« thus stands for G. L. Trotter. This word appeared at the bottom of a letter to Fritz [Ström], which was quite clearly sent by Rutgers [that is, G. L. Trotter]. The number of combinations corresponded to the number of letters in the sender’s code name and could be decoded in this way. The letters that were identified were placed in a matrix (see the underlined letters in the decoding table), after which the preceding and following alphabetical rows were filled in (in the same way as had been done in Wäsström’s table). Rows 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6 were identified in this way. It soon emerged that the initial letters of these rows placed in the first column formed the word »Amersfoort«, the city where Rutgers lived (see the first column in the decoding table; the decisive initial word in Ström’s letter code deciphered by Wäsström was »Stockholm«, where Ström lived). In this way the initial letter of the missing rows was discovered and the table could be filled in further, with the key then being used to decipher the letters. See chart (1) next page.

 

Chart (1):  Sebald Rutgers, one of the co-founders of the Comintern, set up the Amsterdam Buero of the Comintern in 1919. He used the  following cipher code to convery key informat ion he wrote to the head of the Scandinavi an Bureau of the Comintern, Fritz Ström.

 

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[1]  Moritz, Verena/Leidinger, Hannes: Wien als Standort der Kommunistischen Internationale bis

Mitte der Zwanzigerjahre, in: Jahrbuch für Historische Kommunismusforschung 2004, pp. 32– 63; Kan, Alexander: Der bolschewistische »Revolutionsexport« im Jahre 1920 und die schwedischen Linkssozialisten, in: Jahrbuch für historische Kommunismusforschung 1994, pp. 88– 103; Idem: Die Skandinavische Kommission der Komintern 1919–1921, in: Jahrbuch für Forschungen zur Geschichte der Arbeiterbewegung 3 (2004), pp. 51–69.  

[2]  Ravesteyn, Willem van: De wording van het communisme in Nederland 1907–1925, Amsterdam 1948, pp. 206–211.

[3]  Roland Holst-Van der Schalk, Henriette.: Het vuur brandde voort. Levensherinneringen, Amsterdam/Antwerpen 1949, pp. 190–192.

[4]  Pannekoek, Anton: Herinneringen uit de arbeidersbeweging, in: Idem: Herinneringen. Herinneringen uit de arbeidersbeweging, sterrenkundige herinneringen, Amsterdam 1982, pp. 71– 218 and 196–200.

[5]  Trincher, Rutgers G. C./Trincher, K. Rutgers: Zijn leven en streven in Holland, Indonesië, Amerika en Rusland, Moscow 1974, pp. 85–88. See also Rutgers, S. J.: Mijn ontmoeting met Lenin’, in: Communisme 1 (1935), no 11, pp. 390–397; Idem: Mijn ontmoetingen met Lenin’, in: Communisme 2 (1936), no 6, pp. 241–245; Idem: Mijn ontmoetingen met Lenin III, in: Politiek en Cultuur 2 (1936), no 7, pp. 296–303. These articles were also published in Russian, see Rutgers, S.: Vstrechi s Leninym [Meetings with Lenin], in: Istorik Marksist 1935, no 2/3 pp. 85–98. See also Rutgers, S. J.: Herinneringen aan de Oktober-revolutie, in: Politiek en Cultuur 17 (1957), no 11, pp. 518–523 and Rutgers, S.: Reisverhaal van Sebald Rutgers, in: Baruch, F. et al.: Aan de grenzen voorbij. Over de betrekkingen tussen Nederland en de USSR (1917–1987), Amsterdam 1987, pp. 63–76.

[6]  Murphy, J. T.: New Horizons, London 1941, pp. 84–91.

[7]  Draper, Theodore: The Roots of American Communism, New York 1957, pp. 232–236.

[8]  Hulse, James W.: The Forming of the Communist International, Stanford 1964, pp. 152–160.

[9]  Kriegel, Annie: Aux origines du communisme français 1914–1920. 2 Vols., Paris 1964, pp. 618–620.

[10]  Lazitch, Branko/Drachkovitch, Milorad M.: Lenin and the Comintern, Stanford 1972, pp. 182–193.

[11]  Gerber, John: Anton Pannekoek and the Socialism of Workers’ Self-Emancipation, 1873– 1960, Dordrecht/Amsterdam 1989, pp. 132–135; Liagre Böhl, Herman de: Met al mijn bloed heb ik voor U geleefd. Herman Gorter 1864–1927, Amsterdam 1996, pp. 413–416; Etty, Elsbeth: Liefde is heel het leven niet. Henriette Roland Holst 1869–1952, Amsterdam 1996, pp. 385–393.

[12]  Olink, Hans: De vermoorde droom. Drie Nederlandse idealisten in Sovjet-Rusland, Amsterdam 1993, pp. 51–56.

[13]  Yamanouchi, Akito: Basic research on the Amsterdam Sub-Bureau of the Comintern, Japan 2001. The same author has also written a biography on Rutgers in Japanese over de periode till 1918; see Yamanouchi: Rutgers and a Case Study of the International History of Socialism: Association with Sen Katayama, the Bolsheviks and the American Left Wing, Kyoto 1996.

[14]  Voerman, Gerrit: De meridiaan van Moskou. De CPN en de Communistische Internationale 1919–1930, Amsterdam/Antwerp 2001, pp. 73–97; Idem: Bolsjewieken, tribunisten en het Amsterdams Bureau van de Komintern (1919–1920), in: Jaarboek 1996 Documentatiecentrum Nederlandse Politieke Partijen, Groningen 1997, pp. 129–155; see also Idem: Communistisch cijferschrift. De Comintern en het Amsterdams Bureau, 1919–1920, in: Spiegel Historiael 37 (2002), no 9, pp. 386–391.

 

[15]  See Voerman, Gerrit: From Lenin’s comrades in arms to ›Dutch donkeys‹: the Communist Party in the Netherlands and the Comintern in the 1920s’, in: Rees, Timm/Thorpe,Anderw (eds.): International communism and the Communist International 1919–1943, Manchester 1998, pp. 127–142.

[16]  ECCI sessions, 28. September and 14. October 1919, in: Rossiiski gosudarstvennyi arkhiv sotsial’no-politicheskoi istorii/Russian State Archives of Social-Political History (hereafter: RGASPI), f. 495, o. 1, d. 1. 

[17]  Wehner, Markus/Vatlin, Alexander: »Genosse Thomas« und die Geheimtätigkeit der Komintern in Deutschland 1919–1925, in: Internationale wissenschaftliche Korrespondenz zur Geschichte der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung 29 (1993), no 1, pp. 1–19.

[18]  W. I. Lenin to G. V. Tshitsherin, 27th or 28th December 1918, in: Lenin, W. I.: Ergänzungsband Oktober 1917–März 1923, Berlin 1971, pp. 100–102.

[19]  Rutgers’ autobiography, 6th November 1933, in: RGASPI, f. 495, o. 244, d. 618.

[20]  G. L. Trotter [Rutgers] to Winter [J. K. Berzin], 9th March 1920, in: RGASPI, f. 497, o. 2, d. 8.

[21]  ECCI session, 16th September 1919, in: RGASPI, f. 495, o. 1, d. 1. 

[22]  Rutgers to his daughter Gertrud, 4th April 1961, in: RGASPI, f. 626, o. 1. 

[23]  Trotter [Rutgers] to Winter [Berzin], 9th March 1920, in: RGASPI, f. 497, o. 2, d. 8.

[24]  Trotter [Rutgers] to Winter [Berzin], 20th December 1919, in: RGASPI, f. 495, o. 18, d. 3.

[25]   Trotter [Rutgers] aan »L.« [most likely M. M. Litvinov], 18th January 1920, in: RGASPI, f. 497, o. 2, d. 4.

[26]   De Tribune, 20th March 1920. See also Bulletin no 2, March 1920, p. 8. 

[27]  Trotter [Rutgers] to Winter [Berzin], 15th February 1920, in: RGASPI, f. 497, o. 2, d. 4.

[28]  KPD to the Amsterdam Bureau, 4th April 1920, in: RGASPI, f. 495, o. 172, d. 60.

[29]  M. Bronski, P. Frölich and W. Münzenberg to the Amsterdam Bureau, 14th February 1920, in: RGASPI, f. 497, o. 1, d. 1..

[30]  Bericht über die Konferenz in Amsterdam, drafted by C. Zetkin, 20th February 1920, in: RGASPI, f. 495, o. 18, d. 28.

[31]  Bericht über den 3. Parteitag der Kommunistischen Partei Deutschlands (Spartakusbund) am 25. und 26. Februar 1920, Berlin 1920, p. 83.

[32]  Trotter [Rutgers] to A. Braun [Bronski], 20th February 1920, in: RGASPI, f. 497, o. 2, d. 4. 

[33]  Trotter [Rutgers] to »Doctor« [probably Bronski], 14th February 1920, in: RGASPI, f. 497, o. 2, d. 4. 

[34]  Goldbach, M. L.: Karl Radek und die deutsch-sowjetischen Beziehungen 1918–1923, Bonn/Bad Godesberg 1973, pp. 53.

[35]  Trotter [Rutgers] to Winter [Berzin], 20th December 1919, in: RGASPI, f. 495, o. 18, d. 3.  

[36]  Trotter [Rutgers] to Winter [Berzin], 15th February 1920, in: RGASPI, f. 497, o. 2, d. 4.

[37]  Statement from the Amsterdam Bureau, late April 1920, in: RGASPI, f. 581, o. 1, d. 95. 

[38]  See Propositions and theses for an International Conference, in: Bulletin, no 1, February 1920, pp. 1–4; appearing in German as Vorschläge aus Holland, in: Die Kommunistische Internationale, 1 (1919), no 4/5, pp. 13–19.

[39]  Degras, J.: The Communist International 1919–1943. Documents. Vol. I, London 1971, p. 69.

[40]  De Tribune, 20th March 1920. 

[41]  Bronski, Frölich and Münzenberg to the Amsterdam Bureau, 14th February 1920, in: RGASPI, f. 497, o. 1, d. 1.

[42]  Trotter [Rutgers] to Winter [Berzin], 9th March 1920, in: RGASPI, f. 497, o. 2, d. 8. 

[43]  Lazitch/Drachkovitch: Lenin and the Comintern (footnote 10), pp. 126–128; Goldbach: Karl Radek (footnote 34), pp. 59 f.

[44]  ECCI session, 2nd February 1920, in: RGASPI, f. 495, o. 1, d. 2.

[45]  ECCI decision dated 25th April 1920, sent to Trotter [Rutgers] by Fritz [F. Ström], 12th May 1920, in: RGASPI, f. 497, o. 1, d. 9. 

[46]  A. Pannekoek to Rutgers, 31st January 1920, in: RGASPI, f. 495, o. 172, d. 5.

[47] »Erklärung«, signed by H. Roland Holst, D. Wijnkoop and Rutgers, 10th May 1920; Trotter [Rutgers] to ECCI, 14th May 1920, in: RGASPI, f. 497, o. 1, d. 9. 

[48]  See Kan: Der bolschewistische »Revolutionsexport« (footnote 1).

[49]  Ström used a letter code himself, but the letters to Rutgers which are kept in the Cominternarchives had already been decoded.

[50]  Voerman, Gerrit: Communistisch cijferschrift (footnote 14), pp. 386–391.

[51]  Partly decoded letter from Ström to Litvinov, 25th February 1920, in: GUB, Ström archive, 46B, box II.

[52]  N. N. [Ström] to Trotter [Rutgers], 6th April 1920, in: RGASPI, f. 581, o. 1, d. 95; Litvinov to Ström, 13th March 1920, and Ström to Litvinov, 4th April 1920, in: GUB, Ström archive, 46B, box II. 

[53]  Trotter [Rutgers] to Fritz [Ström], 14th May 1920, in: RGASPI, f. 497, o. 2, d. 5. 

[54]  Fritz [Ström] to Trotter [Rutgers], 9th and 12th May 1920, in: RGASPI, f. 581, o. 1, d. 95 and f. 497, o. 1, d. 9 respectively.

[55]  Trotter [Rutgers] to Winter [Berzin], 12th May 1920, in: RGASPI, f. 497, o. 2, d. 8.

[56]  Lenin, V. I.: »Left-wing« communism, an infantile disorder, Moscow 1970 (originally 1920), pp. 34, 51 and 59.

[57]  Rutgers to L. K. Martens, 16th January 1920, in: RGASPI, f. 497, o. 2, d. 4.

[58]  See »Erklärung«, signed by H. Roland Holst, D. Wijnkoop and Rutgers, 10th May 1920; Trotter [Rutgers] to ECCI, 14th May 1920, in: RGASPI, f. 497, o. 1, d. 9.

[59]  Rutgers, S. J.: Het congres te Moscow, in: De Nieuwe Tijd (1920), no 25, pp. 577–582.

[60]  Rutgers: Mijn ontmoetingen met Lenin (footnote 5), pp. 241–245.

[61]  Rutgers’ autobiography, 6th November 1933, in: RGASPI, f. 495, o. 244, d. 618. He also distanced himself publicly. See: Rutgers: Mijn ontmoetingen met Lenin (footnote 5).

[62]  Voerman: De meridiaan van Moskou (footnote 14), pp. 23–47.  

[63]  Draper: The Roots, (footnote 7), pp. 235.

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