Domela Nieuwenhuis, Ferdinand Jacobus (1846-1919)

Domela Nieuwenhuis

A short biography of Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis, a highly importance figure of Dutch socialism and anarchism

Domela Nieuwenhuis, Ferdinand Jacobus (1846-1919)
“The old man of the North, whose blue eyes and smiling face, framed by long white hair, indicate immense goodness”. Andre Lorulot.

Ferdinand Nieuwenhuis was born in Amsterdam on 31st December 1846, the son of a Lutheran pastor. The family added the second surname Domela later in 1859. He undertook theological studies and afterwards became an Evangelical Lutheran pastor in Harlingen, Beverwijk and the Hague. He became increasingly in conflict with both officials and members of the Lutheran church as he moved towards an atheistic position, triggered by the deaths of two consecutive wives. No longer believing in Heaven, he refused to preach on Ascension Day. On September 1st 1879 he resigned as pastor and published My Goodbye To the Church. He became active in the freethought movement Vrijdagkerkvereniging De Dageraad . Before his resignation he had already been active in the Peace Union, and the Social Affairs Committee and had come in contact with socialist workers like H. Gerhard. He attended the International Federation of Freethought Congresses in Brussels (1880) and Amsterdam (1883).

On April 1st 1879, the weekly magazine Recht voor Allen (Justice For All) appeared for the first time, with Domela Nieuwenhuis as its editor. This was the first socialist periodical that appeared in the Netherlands. He became a leading light within the Social Democratic League (SDB) which emerged from the merger of various socialist groups in 1881. The SDB carried out intense propaganda throughout Holland, distributing leaflets in factories, barracks and in the countryside. As well as being a propagandist for atheism and freethought, he was a vegetarian and non-smoker.

In the 1880s the SDB became a mass movement , partly due to Domela Nieuwenhuis’s efforts in the northern provinces. THE SDB supported the call for universal suffrage, and Domela Nieuwenhuis had a leading role in this campaign. Domela Nieuwenhuis and the SDB also supported strikes and the unemployed committees. He served eight months in the Utrecht prison before being pardoned. The SDB was threatened by pro-royalist reactions, Domela Nieuwenhuis being personally threatened several times.
From 1888 to 1891 Domela Niewenhuis was the first and only socialist MP representing the Frisian peasants of Schoterland. He was completely ignored in parliament . He was not re-elected in 1891, with no consensus in the SDB that he should continue.

Domela Nieuwenhuis was initially influenced by Marx and corresponded with him, bringing out a Dutch abridgement of Capital in 1881. However, he did not regard himself as a doctrinal Marxist, and also had contact with the non-Marxist socialist movements in France.

After 1890 there was a crisis in the SDB with members exasperated with no results after 10 years of struggle. The option posed was between revolution or parliament. On this question Domela Nieuwenhuis wavered for a while. But in 1893 at the Groningen Congress Domela Nieuwenhuis put forward a motion unconditionally rejecting electoral activity. This motion was passed by a small majority. In 1894 the Federal Social Democratic Labour Party (SDAP) was set up by PJ Troelstra and others, who broke away from the SDB. The SDAP modelled itself on German Social-Democracy and numbered fewer than a hundred in that year, mostly intellectuals, with no base among industrial workers. Domela Nieuwenhuis was increasingly critical of the German approach, especially at the international socialist congresses , where he advocated strikes against war (1891 and 1893) and solidarized with the anarchists at the 1893 and 1896 congresses. He was the only leader within the Second International who opposed electoral activity. As he was to say: “The revolutionary idea is suppressed by confidence in parliamentarism”.

The SDB was outlawed for its advocacy of direct action and the use of arms in 1894, subsequently changing its name to the Socialist Union (Socialistenbond-SB). However the premature split from the SDB by the SDAP meant there were still a large number within the SDB in favour of electoral activity. Eventually, in 1897, these mostly moved over to the SDAP whilst others moved over to the anarchists , leaving a rump of 200 members. The SDB then dissolved and its members joined the SDAP.

Nieuwenhuis for his part left the SDB in 1897 and he closed down Recht voor Allen in 1898 producing a new magazine, De Vrije Socialist ( The Free Socialist) which was explicitly anarchist. The newspaper was co-edited by the syndicalist Christian Cornelissen. The Federatie van Vrije Socialisten (Federation of Libertarian Socialists) was also set up. In that year he also published the book Socialism in Danger (which only appeared in French) where he harshly criticised social-democracy and its accommodation to the State and capitalism and highlighted what he saw as the differences between authoritarian and libertarian socialism.

Now he supported industrial struggles as well as continuing his campaigns to disseminate anarchist ideas, against militarism and for libertarian education- within the International Anti-Militarist Association (IAMV) set up in 1904, and at Freethought Congresses in Rome (1904) Paris (1905) Brussels (1910 and Munich (1912). Domela Nieuwenhuis saw the struggle against militarism as intrinsically linked to the struggle against capitalism.

He was appalled when war broke out in 1914 and equally appalled by Kropotkin, Jean Grave and co’s support for the Allies. In fact the betrayal of Kropotkin hit him very hard, as he had felt particularly close to him politically. He accused the ‘governmental anarchists’ of capitulating to anarchism. He was enthused when he heard of Malatesta’s positions and signed his anti-war manifesto of 1915. He organised and participated in anti-war demonstrations in Amsterdam. On one occasion the police attacked a demonstration and he was protected by a group of women. He quite correctly saw the war as one that the working class could not support and should not take sides on. He saw no difference between the imperialism of Britain, France, Germany, Austria or Russia.

He began writing anti-war articles in the Swiss multilingual anarchist paper Le Reveil and in Nikolai Rogdaev’s Russian paper Nabat. Viewing the Second International as a dead organisation, he made efforts to set up a new anarchist international, supported by Nabat but regarded sceptically by Le Reveil, who thought it premature.

From mid-1916 Domela Nieuwenhuis’s health began to deteriorate. Earlier in that year he had become convinced that revolution would soon break out in response to the war. However he was sceptical about the German Revolution, being suspicious of the role of German social-democracy, which proved to be a well-founded fear. At first he was supportive of the Bolsheviks, but soon realised their counter-revolutionary nature when he began to receive news of their repression of anarchists and SRs.

He died on the 19th November 1919 at Hilversum. His funeral procession was attended by 12,000 workers.

Nick Heath


Aldred, Guy A. Domela Nieuwenhuis. His Life and Work in Pioneers of Anti-Parliamentarism (1940) Glasgow.
Adams, Matthew S., Kinna, Ruth eds.(Anarchism, 1914-18: Internationalism, anti-militarism and war

Bourrinet, Philippe. The Dutch and German Communist Left (2001)

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Jun 16 2017 11:41


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