His Life and Work
(This essay is abridge from a study, written in French, by Andre Lorulot.)
I think I see them again at the far end of that smoky room in the Rue de Brelange. One, young and petulant, fiery and vehement, the glint of the southern sun on his black hair. The other, the old man of the North, whose blue eyes and smiling face, framed in long white hair, indicate an immense goodness. There they were, both stigmatizing the war. Almereyda, angrily, Domela with the softest of ironies and the calmest of conviction. Methinks I again see these two founders of the International anti-militarist Association of Workers.
Almereyda had renounced the pure ideas of his adolescence, because he knew not how to resist the attraction of gold, by which the bourgeoisie buy and corrupt so many consciences. He had abandoned——-if not entirely, at least in a great measure-—-the hard conflict against social iniquity, and like so many other lovers of Utopia had ranged himself alongside of the opportunists.
What a contrast with Domela Nieuwenhuis!
Domela recounted his evolution in an interesting auto- biography. From "Christian to Anarchist." He there explains how he, a Protestant clergyman, was led to separate himself from religion in order to embrace Freethought and Socialism. Religious convictions had not succeeded in obscuring this vast intelligence. Besides, it is certain, that, if Domela was a zealous pastor, it was not through love of dogma. He was ripe for that large and powerful idealism which characterized his whole life, for that love of the humble. For that faith in a better world--to he realized on this earth and not in a very hypothetical “Beyond.”
Domela understood Protestantism in the most human fashion. “Protestantism is in fact anarchistic." I will not discuss this point of view here. The reformation symbolizes the spirit of revolt in a very ephemeral manner only. Luther showed himself very authoritarian, and the exploits of the melancholy Calvin are not forgotten, no more than are the persecutions inflicted upon thinkers and philosophers--particularly on Jean Jacques- In reality the present day Huguenots have no cause to envy their ex-enemies the Roman Papists in relation to Sectarianism and narrowness of views—although their beliefs are, on the whole, less childish, less gross, and not so absurd as those of the Catholics.. Domela recognized this himself when he wrote his letter of resignation to the Church (Council, of which a short extract follows :—"l have always lived under the illusion that the Church- might be filled with a new life, that it might yet animate society. the world. But little by little, I perceive that the Church, as such, is not in a state to undertake this task, that it holds on to the sides of society, and will always do so, like a relic of the past, powerless and without energy, dragging out, through the force of routine, a languishing existence. Hence I am convinced it is no longer possible for me to work in the Church, for there is nothing more mortal for enthusiasm, no work more demoralizing than to set one's heart on a dead cause. One may, thanks to artificial processes, appear to prolong the life of such causes, but it is impossible to render them health and strength."
Thus we find Domela among the apostles of the Red Flag. He gives himself up to the work of social emancipation with his whole strength. He publishes several works, numerous pamphlets, a widely circulating bi-weekly newspaper. He attends many an international congress. For some time he was even deputy in the Nieuwenhuis Chamber.
But the great intelligence and profound sincerity of Nieuwenhuis did not permit him to be a vulgar politician, nor a dogmatic and narrow exponent of Socialism. In his eyes this doctrine represented all the hopes of liberation. It had to substitute itself for Christianity, whose failure was more manifest every day. Domela was not slow to observe that the spokesman of the new religion were, morally speaking, scarcely superior to the bad shepherds whom Jesus invoked. He closely followed the evolution of social democracy, and saw it become more and more authoritarian, reformist, and middle-class. In his remarkable work, Socialism in Danger, he is among the first to show the rocks upon which socialism would hurl itself. He foresaw the grave consequences of compromise and the inevitable results of electoral equivocation. In vain he denounced the peril. In vain, he strove to conserve for Socialism its indispensible characteristics of liberty, independence, and cleanness. The actions of the German Marxists especially aroused him. To authoritarian Socialism, born in Germany where it became all-powerful, he opposed libertarian Socialism. To numerous but inert organizations, to- uneducated and floating electoral masses, he preferred autonomous and combatative groups, conscious, proud and free individualities. Like Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Reclus he mistrusted parliaments, for “ the revolutionary idea is suppressed by confidence in parliamentarism.“ For him numbers had no significance. “When I wrote that the party had gained in quantity what it had lost in quality, I was treated as a calumniator of the German party." Politicians require large followings, and they are not fond of those who hamper the recruiting of such followings. Neither do they love those who would induce the workers to dispense with leaders, chiefs and place-seekers. Moreover, politicians fight treacherously, consciously calumniating their opponents. Domela found that out for himself. “As soon as one is not of the same opinion as he (the elder Liebknecht) one is dubbed ‘Anarchist,’ and there is only one step from that to being treated as a police spy."
“A movement is never purer, nor more idealistic than at its commencement," states Domela when studying the evolution of Socialism. The first few apostles of the collectivist religion had a more robust faith than the present prophets of Socialism, with the exception, of course, of a few rare cases. For example, the first members of the Confederation du Travail do not in the least resemble those of 1914-1918. Every doctrine, seeking before all and at any price, the assent of the masses must be toned down without delay. The pseudo conquest of political power, one knows well enough, had the most fatal of consequences upon the proletarian ideal. Domela saw this clearly and took up his stand. "I perceived gradually that my Socialist principles, modeled after Marx and the German party were in reality State Socialism, and far from being ashamed, I recognized it; I have disowned them because I have the conviction that they constituted a negation of the principle of liberty."
Domela evolved more and more towards libertarianism. Besides, he never ceased, even whilst figuring among the Marxists, to abhor tyranny in all its forms. He proclaimed more gladly the revolutionary Marx, the Marx who wrote: “The State, to abolish pauperism, must abolish itself, for the essence of the evil lies in the very existence of the State," than the Marx distorted by ambitions and pedantic disciples.
Domela turned his back on parliamentary Socialism, as he had done formerly upon the Church. He remained faithful to the doctrines of the Jurassienne Federation and of Bakunin.
The Church, the Army, Capitalism, are, for Domela, the three eternal and inseparable enemies. He has remained an active freethinker and has taken good care not to lend his ear to jesuitical voices which insinuate that “religion is a private concern." To achieve a world without exploitation and oppression, Domela thinks rightly that we must sap all institutions which render tyranny possible. Thus we must lead a triple combat: anti-religious, anti-militarist, anti-capitalist.
I imagine I hear him again declaring at the Paris Congress of 1905: "A century of Freethought will do more for civilization and progress than eighteen centuries of Christianity! "
But, at the side of clericalism he made haste to point out the other enemy! “When you give a finger-point to militarism, it takes the finger, the hand, the arm, the whole body! "
And has he not written elsewhere: “The State has always been the oppressor's instrument of force against the oppressed.“
“Property and authority are closely bound; they both rest on ignorance and brutality. It is necessary, then, to destroy these two evil powers."
Domela is the author of a very substantial study on Libertarian Education. Nothing short of a practical, scientific rational education and culture is of any use against the brutalizing effect of capitalist and religious teaching.
“It is not the despot who renders the people docile and submissive, but the absence of libertarian aspirations within the masses, which renders the tyrant possible . . . It is not the Jesuits who create the Tartuffes, but our social hypocrisy which proves a propitious field for the development of jesuitism."
Domela is a revolutionary. He thinks that the future society can only arise out of the ruins of capitalism overthrown. He foresees, now and then, details of the world of to-morrow, based on Federalism, mutual understanding, and free organization- His dream is not at all the disorder, the chaos that interested detractors of libertarian Communism obstinately pretend to believe it is. On the contrary he wishes order and this order will evolve out of reason, not tyranny. In the society of his imagination no one will sulk at his task, no one will rebel against the necessities of a harmonious social life, and the indispensible concessions and restrictions it imposes: “The pursuit of the abolition of ALL authority is not the characteristic of a superior mind, nor the consequence of the love of liberty but generally a proof of poverty of mind and of vanity," our Dutch comrade declares, not without reason.
I remember remarking to Gustave Herve, of noisy and burlesque memory, that the anti-patriotic theories whose fraternity he claimed were only a restatement of the ideas expounded by Domela Nieuwenhuis twenty years before him. “Not a man, not a centime for militarism.” That is what Domela has not tired of proclaiming for more than twenty years. More logical than Herve, Grave, Jouhaux, and many others, he has conserved his ideas intact, and, in November, 1914, he called a meeting of Dutch Anarchists and Freethinkers at Amsterdam which adopted the virile resolution read by Domela.
“All parties, beginning with the clericals and finishing with the social democrats, wanted the war, either consciously or unconsciously, and they are all guilty because they have voted the credits of the war without which the governments would not have had the means of declaring war . . ."
In making this statement Domela only confirmed the experience of his whole public life, of his forty years’ social activity. Yes, Clericalism and political parliamentary socialism have failed. And no one is better qualified to know it than the ex- pastor, ex-deputy and ex-social-democrat.
Domela's conclusion to the resolution is also peremptory. It states that “the insignificant material possessions, and the small amount of political liberty possessed by Dutch workers to not worth the sacrifice of a human life," and adds:
“This meeting protests energetically against this famous slaughter menacing civilization and humanity."
“Protests also with all its force against international Christianity and against international social-democracy, which have both abused their influence over the people in order to encourage an abominable national hatred."
Let us note that this proclamation was uttered at a time when Holland might have been drawn into the conflict. Domela did not permit the serenity of his mind to be disturbed. Maintaining all his coolness, he affirms that the existence of frontiers and the conservation of a dynasty or a political regime does not interest the workers, that they must participate only in the revolutionary struggle that will lead them to their own freedom.
“Down with frontiers anti national hatred! Down with the war! Long live the international fraternization of the workers."
Thus terminates Domela’s vigorous challenge to the criminal world. Alas! his cry of revolt, his appeal to reason was not to be heard.