Uniting a motley band
Andries Stroper reports on the first conference of a new socialist ‘party-in-formation’ and its prospects
September 25 marked a historic day for the socialist movement in the Netherlands. It was the date of the Socialistenconferentie (socialist conference) - the first national meeting of various far-left groups in the Netherlands that came out of the inner-party struggle in the Socialist Party.
Although the lead-up to the conference was marked by scepticism and low expectations, the outcome emboldened the well over 150 participants with a feeling of optimism. It can rightfully be called the most important and influential meeting for the Dutch socialist left of 2022, and the second Socialistenconferentie that will take place in the summer of 2023 is set to be even more significant. In this article, I will attempt to summarise what is going on.
Before the conference, De Socialisten (The Socialists) was a loose network of nine far-left organisations, united by the inner party struggle in the SP, and in addition formed a motley band of leftists of all sorts.
The Marxist group, Communist Platform (CP), was the motor behind the birth of this network and still forms the most organised faction. But there are other organisations that have started to work within De Socialisten - most significantly SAP-Grenzeloos (SAP), which is the Netherlands section of the Fourth International, as well as members of the International Marxist Tendency (IMT), some of which have since left the IMT after the scandal earlier in 2022. Apart from these groups, there are approximately 300 individuals involved in some way or the other, ranging from ‘leftwing social democrats’ to anarchists and communists.
Although organisations and parties that formed De Socialisten functioned autonomously, we did elect an ‘organising committee’ at the start of the project, in February 2022. This committee was tasked with preparing a national conference, where we would attempt to find common ground to build a unitary socialist organisation. Where some wanted this organisation to remain a loose network that would operate within existing leftwing parties (Momentum in Britain and the Democratic Socialists of America were hailed as examples we should model ourselves on), others wanted to found a new party that would participate in elections straightaway. What would become of our project would be decided at the conference by coming up with the answers to three questions:
- What are the goals of the project?
- How do we build a democratic organisational structure?
- Having created De Socialisten as a national organisation, what to do about local groups, networks and affiliates?
While building towards the Socialistenconferentie, the organising committee ran into some issues, ranging from interpersonal conflicts to disappointing turnouts at pre-conference meetings that were intended to facilitate discussion between the various organisations. This, combined with a general lack of substantial debate, theoretical insights and cooperation between the various local groups, fuelled scepticism towards the potential of the conference.
As September 25 approached, the outlook did not improve. A committee was elected to draft a perspectives document that was to be discussed at the conference, but the team was immediately thrown into chaos when a conflict arose between those who wanted the document to reflect ideological unity, and those who wanted it to reflect the diversity of opinions within De Socialisten. Luckily, the issue was resolved after a short time, and the preparations continued.
A draft version of the perspectives document was published in early August, taking into consideration the suggestions of various organisations and individuals. Two rounds of written discussion followed in August and September in the form of internal bulletins. It became clear that there now was a strong division within the project between those who wanted to found a party immediately and those who thought the time was not yet ripe. The former view, represented by SAP and individuals such as former SP representative in the European parliament Erik Meijer, was based on the idea that we should work to preserve our momentum - not proclaiming a party would demoralise those involved in the project. Marxists aligned with the CP, on the other hand, argued that a party has to mean something - it has to have a full programme, it has to have the numbers and influence to make an impact on the workers’ movement. To call any ragtag mob a party would just lead to founding the umpteenth far-left sect that would implode under the first bit of stress. What was really required, according to CP, was a strategy of revolutionary patience.
As this heated discussion came to dominate the lead-up, tensions were high and expectations low when the day of the Socialistenconferentie arrived.
The discussion on the conference was divided into two rounds of four workgroups, each lasting one hour and focusing on submitted amendments and motions for a specific aspect of the perspectives document. At the start of the conference, attendees had to sign-up to two of the four workgroups, which took place in separate rooms in the conference centre. The objective then was to find compromises between the various currents within De Socialisten. These compromises (where possible) were then presented in the plenary session after the workgroups as substitutes for certain amendments, and voted on by all participants.
finally, there was a vote on the leadership of the organisation and on the amended document as a whole.
While the atmosphere was tense in the lead-up to the conference, things were much more comradely when we met face to face on September 25. The turnout exceeded expectations and left the participants in a bright and cheerful mood. Dozens of comrades had to watch the proceedings on a screen in a separate hall, as there was not enough space for everyone in the main hall.
After a short plenary word of welcome by the organising committee, we separated to join our workgroups and ‘bash heads’ over what was to become of De Socialisten. I do not know whether it was because of the generally cheerful mood or because of the small size of the workgroups, where people discussed with other comrades face to face, but it turned out to be rather easy to find compromises on most of the more controversial amendments and motions.
Many of the amendments were corrections to the language that had been used in the perspectives document. Sections of it reflected the ideas of the aforementioned Erik Meijer, who was also on the drafting committee and seemed to broadly aim to turn De Socialisten into a leftwing, populist SP mark two. Thankfully, many proposals were put forth to replace terms like ‘the elite’ with Marxist concepts, such as ‘the capitalists’, ‘the bourgeoisie’ and ‘the ruling class’. These changes turned out to be popular and passed during the voting.
In line with his desire to have De Socialisten participate in elections sooner rather than later, comrade Meijer included some sort of improvisatory mini-programme into the perspectives document. This turned out to be an unpopular decision, as Marxists noted that it was premature to include an ill-prepared programme with a miscellaneous list of demands when we were still trying to find common ground and a goal for the project. An amendment from CP comrades calling for its deletion was passed.
Another significant amendment was to have De Socialisten work to financially support the independent socialist youth organisation, ROOD, Socialistische Jongeren (RED, Socialist Youth), which is the former youth organisation of the SP. After being cut off by their mother party during the inner-party struggle, ROOD adopted a Marxist programme and has been cooperating with De Socialisten ever since. This amendment was moved by the candidate chair, Michel Eggermont, and passed by a wide margin, thereby forming ever closer ties between ROOD and De Socialisten, which are likely to officially join together.
There were a number of additional discussions taking place at the conference, ranging from an emphasis on feminism and anti-racism, the work of elected councillors that comrades can turn to after having experienced harassment of any sort within the movement, to ‘looking into’ engaging with the European left and the rights of factions. One particular motion really stood out in terms of ingenuity. A certain comrade Bongers expressed his surprise that, although De Socialisten “agrees on leaving Nato”, hypocritically it does not want to leave ‘TikTok and Twitter’. Surely any sane socialist would shun social media, Bongers argued, and so De Socialisten should disengage with the online world and go offline completely. It is impossible to say whether this was a genuine contribution to the conference or a poor attempt at sabotage by sinister forces, but naturally the conference voted down the proposal of dear comrade Bongers.
The two most vital discussions were on the party question and imperialism. To start with the latter: the original perspectives document included a section on the ‘self-determination of nations’, supported by SAP. Although it did not carry any direct mention of Ukraine - this subject was not explicitly discussed at the conference - it certainly seemed to be a reference to the war, where SAP supports sending weapons to Ukraine. There was opposition amongst Marxists to the idea that socialists should arm bourgeois governments and support Nato policy. The CP successfully put forth an amendment to change “support for self-determination of nations” with the following paragraph:
As socialists, we fight for a worldwide democratic republic as a concrete expression of the political power of the working class, in which different nationalities are integrated on an equal basis. The first step towards this is that of a European democratic republic, where we strive for workers’ power at the EU level. In principle we reject reactionary separatist movements. We defend democratic rights when issues of oppression of nationalities and national self-determination arise. However, these tactical issues are of secondary importance to the goal of equality between nationalities and the democratic republic.
Finally, the party question.
Three motions had been put before the conference, each representing one of the main tendencies within De Socialisten. Firstly, that of comrade Cozijn (formerly affiliated with SAP), who called for the founding of a party right away. Secondly, the motion of the CP, which pointed out that there was insufficient unity within the project to formulate a complete programme without either alienating large sections of De Socialisten or omitting important political questions so to prevent said alienation. The CP argued that, while founding a party should still be the goal, we should first create a national organisation that can host the discussion and build the cadre necessary to found a party. Finally, there was a third current represented by comrade Marteau that attempted to find a middle way between these positions by calling for the creation of an “action committee for the foundation of a new socialist party”. As soon as certain conditions were met, such as a set amount of members and chapters, the party would be launched.
This question was viewed as forming a potential breaking point for the project. The sole candidate for the position of chair of De Socialisten was the aforementioned comrade Eggermont, an elected representative at the provincial level for Socialisten Utrecht, as well as a member of the CP. It would have been an undesirable, if not impossible, situation to have a party chair that does not support the idea that there should be a party at all. This might have left De Socialisten without a chair.
Thankfully, this situation was avoided. Comrade Marteau and comrade Cozijn seemed about to agree on forming a compromise between their positions on the quick formation of a party - a compromise that potentially could have won a majority at the conference. Luckily, a representative of the Communist Platform managed to reach a compromise with comrade Marteau instead. The tendencies agreed on striving towards a party based on a number of conditions. The following motion passed:
The conference of De Socialisten, meeting in Utrecht on September 25 2022, agrees:
1. To set up a national organisation.
2. To elect a board for this organisation.
3. That this organisation takes the first part of the perspectives document as a provisional ideological basis.
4. To work towards a party with socialist objectives on the basis of the following conditions:
(a) A programme based on the first part of the perspectives document and the local election programmes of De Socialisten;
(b) Statutes based on documents II and III of the third version of the perspectives document;
(c) A full board of nine people;
(d) Ten politically active chapters with full local boards.
We are working towards the conditions above through joint activities at the national and local levels in the labour and social movement. A following conference will decide whether these conditions are met before we found the party.
An amendment to the motion was successfully proposed by Werkgroep Socialisten (Workgroup Socialists) in West Brabant, officially naming our project a “party-in-formation”.
Lastly, it was time to elect the board. As mentioned earlier, there was a sole candidate for the position of chair, namely Michel Eggermont of the Communist Platform. A second member of the CP, comrade Krijnen, stood for the position of general member of the board. Besides these two candidates from the CP, there was comrade De Jong of SAP, the aforementioned comrades Meijer and Cozijn and comrade De Bokx from Socialisten 010, who all stood as candidates as general members of the board. The conference was unable to fill the position of treasurer and secretary, but all candidates were elected with overwhelming majorities.
Finally, it was time to vote on the amended perspectives document. Although that very morning people had feared that the whole project might fall apart at the conference, the afternoon saw the unanimous and enthusiastic acceptance of the foundation of a new party-in-formation. All the participants - euphoric because of the victory at this historic gathering - stood in unison to sing The Internationale as the final act of the conference.
We should bear in mind that the success of the first Socialistenconferentie does not guarantee that the project itself will be a success. True, the party-in-formation is off to a great start and there is a lot of enthusiasm amongst the comrades involved. However, the journey towards a new socialist party is long and has only just begun, and currently a large portion of the work rests on a mere handful of weary shoulders.
The second Socialistenconferentie, where we will decide whether we have met the conditions to launch the party, will take place somewhere in the summer of 2023. At this conference we will compose a programme. This might prove to be an obstacle even greater than the party question itself.
There are many ideological tendencies present within De Socialisten and divisions over questions such as the war in Ukraine have already proven to be extremely heated and controversial. We will have to build a transparent organisational culture, where factions can freely engage in a structured debate without resorting to sectarianism. However, if we retain our capability to reach compromises without surrendering our Marxist principles in the coming months, we might actually witness a new dawn for the socialist left in the Netherlands.