More than just fine dreams: the practical internationalism of the Dutch Socialist Party

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May 27, 2008 13:24 | by Ronald van Raak, Socialist Party Member of the Netherlands' National Parliament



On 22nd November, 2006, the Dutch Socialist Party, a radical party of the left, saw its representation in Parliament rise from 8 MPs to 25, one in six of the country's voters having opted to support its list of candidates. The result came in the wake of the SP's leadership of the successful campaign for a 'no' vote in the referendum on the European Constitution. The bulk of the new voters came from former Labour Party and Green Left supporters disillusioned by their parties' rightward stampede and Eurofanaticism. In the course of a single euphoric evening, the party led by Jan Marijnissen had become by far the most significant force on the European EU-critical left. Reactions were not long in coming. The SP's long history of internationalism - including, to declare an interest, generous financial support for this website - did not protect it from baseless accusations of nationalism, xenophobia and worse. Below, Ronald van Raak, one of the new intake of MPs after that extraordinary election, answers these charges and explains the SP's internationalism is one of the factors which has led it to reject the neoliberal club which is the European Union.


'The peasants have seized power',' wrote Ilja Pfeijffer in response to the election results of 22nd November 2006. According to the well-known poet, these elections, which saw the SP's parliamentary strength increase in one leap from nine seats to twenty-five, had brought to power narrow-minded provincials at the expense of the free-thinking and right-minded section of the nation. It was no coincidence that the victors had, a year earlier, made possible 'the ridiculous and xenophobic result of the referendum on Europe.' There is something exceptional in the air when such a renowned poet lowers himself to use such unpoetic language Or when friends from the left such as Green Left chair Femke Halsema or the progressive philosopher Dick Pels see a connection between the SP's electoral success and increasing racism. Just as remarkable is the taking up of cudgels by members of the present government against what they choose to call the 'anti-European and nationalist' opinions of the SP.

The stereotyping by some of the SP as a 'nationalist' party cannot be explained by differences in international ideals, which are visibly in keeping with those of other left parties. This image is also not explicable in terms of actual involvement in international institutions, for the SP is fully active in the World Social Forum (WSF), the European Social Forum (ESF), the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the European Parliament, as well as being present in the parliamentary assemblies of the OECD and NATO and in the United Nations. The SP maintains, moreover, friendly relations with political parties and other organisations throughout the world, and is the only political party in the Netherlands which runs an extensive and almost daily-updated English language webpage. The party is also always happy to participate in international peace missions.

The image that some people draw of the SP as a 'nationalist' party is probably explicable by reference to the various ways in which parties attempt to bring their international ideals nearer to fruition. The SP is not in favour of neoliberal internationalism. At the point where international developments threaten rights won on the national level, whether here in the Netherlands or elsewhere in the world, the party will take the side of maintaining these democratic and social rights, taking a position which opposes the playing off of different nations' citizens, one group against another. It was on this basis that in 2005 the SP constructed its campaign against the European Constitution, by which democratically legitimised competences were to be transferred to far less democratic EU bodies. With this practical position the SP stands in a long tradition.

Socialists and the nation state

Socialists seem by definition to be internationalists. This had its beginnings with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who wrote in 1848 The Communist Manifesto for the Federation of Communists, one of the first international political movements. In this manifesto Marx and Engels described how the free market economy made the production and consumption of all countries "cosmopolitan". This international economic order had as its consequence a sharpening of contradictions in every society. Globalisation of the economy would in this way lead to 'political centralisation'. Marx appeared to foresee the current process of European unification when he predicted that these economic developments would force independent countries into "one nation, one government, one law, one national class interest, one customs union."

Marx was also one of the founders of the Socialist International, viewed as necessary by him in order to present international capitalism with a balancing weight. The socialist parties which took their inspiration from him were nevertheless well aware that the concrete struggle would have to be fought on the national level, or sometimes even locally. It is for this reason that they created, on the national level, links between the socialist parties and left trade unions. This practical approach can also be seen in the work of Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis, who in1888 became the Netherlands' first socialist Member of Parliament. Domela Nieuwenhuis maintained close contacts with socialists in other countries, yet became known through his support for strikes and demonstrations on the local level aimed at better wages and improved working conditions.

Socialists not only drew attention to the wretched living and working conditions workers had to endure, but also demanded full national citizenship for these workers. They played a leading role in the international struggle for universal suffrage, which would give the workers a voice in national politics. Although socialism found inspiration on the international level, the nation state turned out to be by far the principle forum of struggle for the emancipation of those whom the Internationale referred to as 'the refuse of the earth'. Successful local trade unions, such as the General Federation of Dutch Diamond Workers (ANDB - 1894), laid the basis for national trade unions such as the National Federation of Unions (NVV - 1906), a forerunner of the present-day FNV, the Netherlands' major trade union federation.

International organisations led, on the other hand, a rather less flourishing existence. The first (1864) and second (1889) socialist Internationals represented, it is true, important platforms for international debate, but had only limited influence on the daily political struggle. During the First World War, millions of workers from different countries met each other in combat, thus unwittingly sending the message that international solidarity could not stand up to nationally-formulated interests. The third International (1919), established after the revolution in Russia, weighed, when it came to direct political work, most heavily in the scales. But it developed at the same time into an effective tool of intervention for the Soviet Union. Not only political parties in eastern Europe, but those in the west - such as the CPN in the Netherlands - were long influenced in their political opinions by the Communist Party in Moscow.

Think internationally, act locally

In 1972, during the sixties' last wave of international protest against the established order, the SP was born. The war in Vietnam, the exploitation of the Third World, the Cold War with its terrifying military alliances - these were the dominant issues in the kind of radical thinking that brought the SP into existence. The new party was, in keeping with the traditions of socialism, international, but from its first hour it was active primarily on the local level. While other left splinter-groups of the 1970s have since disappeared, the SP has grown to become of the country's biggest political parties. In an independent but sympathetic study of the party, Her geheim van Oss: Een geschiedenis van de SP (2001)("The secret of Oss: A History of the SP" - Oss being the small industrial town where the party was first established) Kees Slager looked for explanations as to why the SP had not only survived but grown so significantly. An important reason, the historian noted, is that its vaunted socialist ideals have always been coupled with a practical orientation. Dreams of a better world did not keep SP activists from giving their attention to questions such as leaky gutters, or from demonstrating against poor working conditions or mobilising tenants to combat the rundown of social housing.

The SP has always understood how to root itself in this combination of ideological internationalism and pragmatic activism. Conducting campaigns is a direct form of politics, which involves people in decision-making, brings problems to the general attention and puts those in a position to address them under pressure. Such activism is an important complement to the representational politics of council chamber and parliament. The local or national form of this activism has nothing to do with the issues addressed. Actions can be just as effective in drawing attention to local questions as they can for global problems. Examples of this are provided by campaigns initiated by the SP involving actions outside branches of ABN Amro and ING Postbank, after it was discovered that these branches were providing finance to firms involved in testing and maintaining cluster bombs. In connection with these actions, and in the wake of an initiative from Norway's left government to have cluster bombs banned internationally, the SP in Parliament put forward a proposal for a law forbidding their use. The party was then represented in May 2007 in Peru at an international conference to discuss such a ban. In the same year the SP was the most significant force behind the petition campaign 'Openness on Iraq', an action conducted in support of the demand for an independent enquiry into the Netherlands' support for the invasion of that country in 2003.

The SP's practical and local actions are linked to analyses and positions relating to international developments. In March 2005 the party organised a congress which focused entirely on international policy and which resulted in the adoption of a manifesto of principles entitled Heel de Wereld - 'The Whole of the World'. Three years on, following on this, a broad internal discussion continues. In addition, research reports have appeared on, amongst other issues, the future of the European Union, (A Better Europe Starts Now, 2006) the situation in Israel and Palestine (Het beloofde land, het beroofde land, ('The promised land, the stolen land', 2007), the decision-making process which led to the Netherlands' role in the war in Iraq (Onverantwoord goedgelovig, of welbewust misleidend?, 'Irresponsibly gullible, or consciously misleading?', 2007), internal EU migration of European workers (Open grenzen, eerlijk werk, 'Open borders, honest work', 2006), the international transport of waste (Waste has a future, 2007) and on the future of development cooperation (A better world begins now, 2007).

'Provincial' versus 'cosmopolitan'?

The battle of words within the left over the 'provincial' and the 'cosmopolitan' is not new. The current discussion revives memories of the 1980s, before the SP has made its breakthrough to become a national party. In 1983 the party published a leaflet, Gastarbeid en kapitaal ('Guestworkers and capital') in which it called for attention to be paid to the growing tensions in old neighbourhoods in which large numbers of immigrants had been housed in a very short period of time. Because of their local involvement, many active members were in these years confronted for the first time by the dark side of the multicultural society, because of which newcomers in our society were left to their fate. The SP was during this time accused by other left parties of nationalism and xenophobia. The proposals made by the party in the 1980s, such as voluntary desegregation in education and housing and the offering of language courses were, however, in the wake of the rise of Pim Fortuyn's right-wing populist movement and the spread of its ideas, quickly adopted as consensual, including amongst representatives of those same left parties.

A further reproach is that the SP's approach to discussion of values and standards is conservative. This relates to another issue which has long divided left parties. The SP, early on in the days of the government headed by Labour Prime Minister Wim Kok (1994-2002), called emphatically for attention to be paid to the consequences for public morale of a policy based on more market and less government. In his book Tegenstemmen (1996), translated into English under the title Enough! A Socialist Bites Back, SP leader Jan Marijnissen explained how in the 'Me-age' people's interdependence was being eroded. In 2001 this critique constituted an important part of what provoked the initiative 'Stop de uitverkoop van de beschaving' ('Stop the sell-off of civilisation'). Within the two other parties of the Dutch parliamentary left, the Green Left and the PvdA (Labour Party) there was and remains a current of criticism directed at the moral appeal of the SP, which is put down to a sort of cultural conservatism. There has for a long time within these parties also been much criticism of the SP as a sort of museum party, a means of making young people more conscious of our shared history and the vulnerability of our democracy.

A third charge levelled against the SP is that the party is opposed to European cooperation, the political course of European unification being a further sensitive point dividing the left parties. During the campaign around the European Constitution in 2005 supporters of the Treaty in the Labour Party (PvdA) and the Green Left stood in diametrical opposition to the SP, which opposed it. In addition, during the campaign the SP was beset with accusations regarding its lack of any international and European understanding. Following the 'no' vote of June, 2005, each of the three parties of the parliamentary left presented a memorandum on Europe's future. In October of that year appeared the PvdA's contribution, Europa: vertrouwen herwinnen ('Europe: recovering confidence'); in May 2006 came the Green Left's Vrij Europees ('Free European') and in November 2006 the SP's Een beter Europa begint nu ('A better Europe begins now'). The Green Left and the SP stuck in their contributions to the discussion largely to the principles to which they had adhered before the referendum. The PvdA, on the other hand, opted to distance itself from its support during the campaign for a federal 'superstate' and to go instead for a European redirection, on the basis of which the party now argued for more limits to be placed on the market economy, a clearer delineation of the competences of the European Union and greater involvement of citizens in European politics. This brought the PvdA further away, in this area, from the Green Left, and closer to the SP. Yet by making Frans Timmermans - one of the authors of the rejected Constitutional Treaty - its Secretary of State for European Affairs when it entered a coalition government with Christian Democrats following the election of November, 2006, Labour appeared rather to have returned to its old ways and its old thoughts. Discussion of the new European treaty, the Lisbon Treaty, will make it clear where precisely the PvdA now stands.

In the areas of immigration and integration, of values and standards, and of the future of Europe the PvdA and Green Left have in the past often taken their lead from the SP. This is especially true of the former, Labour having in recent years adjusted its position on many points to one closer to that of the SP. The accusation of provincialism remains, however. Politicians who write off people's concerns about their own lives and their own neighbourhoods as 'provincial' demonstrate just how far removed they are from the citizens whose interests they claim to want to serve. This is unconvincing, especially while it remains so unclear just what is implied by their own 'cosmopolitanism'.

It is certainly the case that ever more of the problems with which we are faced do not stop at our borders, that they demand international coordination and cooperation. But the arrogant disregard for national politics as, even now, the most effective means for the emancipation of men and women and the protection of democratic and social rights is not cosmopolitan so much as short-sighted. A truly cosmopolitan spirit is one which sees the connections between the local, national and international and seeks the most effective way to realise fine ideals in practical reality.

This article was translated from Jaarboek voor socialistische discussie en analyse, ('Critique, Yearbook of socialist discussion and analysis'), where it appeared on 14th May 2008.