Henriette Roland Holst (I)

HRH, c. 1920

And now a very long post about the most famous woman you have never heard of.  At least, I think most of my American readers won’t know her.  In her native Holland, Henriette Roland Holst (1869–­1952) is “world famous”, or perhaps I should say she was famous, especially to an older generation now almost gone.  Back in the 1970s, in my school days in Flemish Belgium, we were taught that she was “Holland’s greatest poet” and read some of her work, which unfortunately struck me as hopelessly archaic.  We learned nothing whatsoever about her extraordinary life.  Although Holland and Flanders share of course the Dutch language, history classes in Flanders tended to ignore Dutch history after the Revolt in the sixteenth century, when the northern and southern Netherlands parted ways politically and to a certain extent also culturally.  After that, nothing much happened up there apparently, in that barren land of Calvinists, endless polders, and bad food.  And in any case, Roland Holst was a woman, which made her life by definition of no significance.

I was drawn to her again after writing on Gustav Landauer and learning that Henriette Roland Holst knew him.  It turns out she knew–knew very well—lots of people, and who! She sparred with Lenin, possibly had an affair with Trotsky (“He was imposing and magnetic”, “a luminous figure”, “a giant of intellect and will power,” she wrote), shared the stage with Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, and much later became one of the first Westerners to support Mahatma Gandhi and the Indonesian nationalist leader Mohammed Hatta.

This and much more I learned belatedly from a wonderful biography by Elsbeth Etty, Henriette Roland Holst 1869–1952.  Liefde is heel het leven niet (Amsterdam: Contact, 1996), whose more than 700 pages I devoured in a few evenings.  Great stuff, unputdownable, but of course in Dutch, and since there is no sign of an English translation in the foreseeable future and precious little information about her exists in English, these notes will be more extensive than usual. She deserves to be better known because of her own accomplishments and the unusual cast of characters in her life (many of whom were assassinated, it now occurs to me) but also because so much of her life reflects the tragic history of what I will call the “old radical Left” in Europe, divided and burdened by heartbreaking failures; and the difficult relationship between that old left and the alternative forces of progress informed by pacifism, the liberation movements of the non-western world, and feminism.  And as a bonus: what an impossibly complex soul she was: talented and driven, of course, but also stubborn, intolerant, unbearably bossy; and then again, brave, unselfish, heroic, generous; an enigma throughout her long, rich life.

My first post will treat her life and work until her break with communism in the 1920s; a second post will touch on the later years but also make an attempt at understanding her intellectual trajectory, her relationships with feminism and religion, and her curious marriage—the latter topic being of more than personal importance.

“I’ll Be a Poet Anyway.”

HRH, aged 15

Like many militant socialists of the time, Henriette Goverdine Anna Roland Holst–van der Schalk (“Jet” for her friends, I’ll call her HRH) came from a privileged background.  The van der Schalk family belonged to the upper echelons of the Dutch bourgeoisie: enormously wealthy, conventional, and “liberal” in the European sense, i.e. pro-business and the entrepreneurial class.  As was customary in her milieu, HRH was brought up by servants and tutors in a stifling, authoritarian atmosphere.  Her father typically ignored the exceptionally gifted but headstrong girl, while her mother, more sympathetic, suffered from poor health.  Not surprisingly, HRH rebelled while seeking refuge in poetry.  When a concerned uncle warned her at the age of twelve that at some point, she’d need to comply with her parents’ wishes and be a lady, she shrugged it off: ”I’ll be a poet anyway.”  Her father’s accidental death when she was 23 liberated her from all kinds of constraints–her ailing mother never was a match for her will power.  She immediately befriended the writer Albert Verwey and his very unconventional wife Kitty van Vloten, and the successful avant-garde poet Herman Gorter.  A year later, through the Verweys, she met the artist Richard (“Rik”) Roland Holst and fell in love.

People wrote letters in those days, and kept them.  What makes this biography so thrilling is Etty’s skilful use of hundreds of letters to evoke the sentiments and perceptions of all protagonists as if we were witnessing the events in real time.  Here is HRH, duly chaperoned of course, visiting Rik Roland Holst in his workshop in February 1893: we follow her eyes as she takes in the interior, with the flowers, the books, the Van Gogh on the wall, the smell of paint and oil thick in the air.  There they are a month later, scribbling away, implicitly sealing their engagement by dropping the formal “U” for the informal “je” when addressing each other: not done between the sexes, if you wanted to be respectable.  We even learn what the local tax official thought of the daring colors with which Roland Holst decorated their new home near Hilversum: “The memory alone makes me shudder, your honor,” the man told the mayor.  They marry in 1896.

In Search of the Blissful Life

Poster for the Workers Insurance and Deposit Bank, by Richard Roland Holst, 1912

Change was definitely in the air.  Inspired by the older Gorter, HRH and to a lesser extent Rik (who had met the aging William Morris in London) decide they have finally found the long awaited truth, that firm grounding they and others of their generation aspired to, having forsaken conventional religion as well as the sensual individualism fashionable until then: here comes socialism!  It lands with a loud thump in HRH’s poems in 1897 and pretty much stays there for more than half a century:

Fight with us, dear comrades, for the coming of the age

When no man or woman will part from life

Without having enjoyed the laughter of victory.

From the will we spawn, deeds will grow—

Our work and our feelings form the seeds,

From which will flower: the Blissful Life.

(From a Labor Day Song, composed by HRH that same year; my translation)

True, her poetry has much more to offer than this sample may suggest, but I confess that it rarely works for me.   Never mind though: from now on, she’s also a journalist, a public speaker, an activist of tremendous energy, first in the Netherlands and soon on the international scene.   She joins the SDAP (Sociaal Democratische Arbeiders Partij or Social Democratic Workers Party) and the editorial board of De Nieuwe Tijd (The New Age), the movement’s magazine that lent Dutch socialism its peculiar literary flavor, while deepening her knowledge of Marx and Engels.  Gifted with an easy pen and a clear mind that sketches issues concretely and engagingly for a variety of audiences,

HRH, 1906

she quickly becomes a leading voice in Dutch Marxism.  She’s a formidable speaker, too, a tall, imposing figure at meetings and demonstrations throughout the Netherlands.  Since she’s fluent in German, French, and English (and soon would read Russian with ease), she represents the Dutch socialists at the Paris conference of the Second International in 1900, and hosts the 1904 Conference in Amsterdam.  At the time of the failed 1905 Russian revolution, she’s become a friend of Rosa Luxemburg (who calls her “my blonde Madonna”) and Karl Kautsky, and through her German-language publications on the strategy of the general strike (notably Generalstreik und Sozialdemokratie, also translated into Russian) she catches the attention of Lenin.  She joins August Bebel,

HRH on the podium at the Stuttgart meeting, 1907, seated on the right. Rosa Luxemburg is on her left, Bebel is speaking

Angelica Balabanova, Lenin, Trotsky, and the Belgian Hendrik De Man (uncle of the well-known deconstructionist and Yale professor, Paul De Man) to hear Karl Liebknecht deliver his speech Militarismus und Anti-Militarismus at the Stuttgart conference of 1907, which landed him in prison for 18 months; with Lenin and Luxemburg, HRH supports the resolution, adopted by the conference, calling for revolution if other means to stop the coming war failed.  She later recalled Trotsky’s “dreamy, almost shy countenance” at their first meeting. (Please note: Trotsky, shy!) She asks him what he’s thinking, and he tells her, in German: “Ach, man wird verwirrt” (“Oh dear, it’s all confusing”).

Leon Trotsky, after his first arrest, 1898

Confusing, indeed.  Socialism found itself increasingly divided, right at a time when the stakes were higher than ever.  The interminable debates between revolutionaries and revisionists were splitting up the left in many countries into various parties or factions, who fought each other (at least rhetorically) with utmost ferocity, but at international gatherings the concept of unity had remained more or less intact.  It proved impossible to maintain in the face of the catastrophe of 1914.  “Our minds are bewildered, our hearts appalled,” wrote HRH in the Nieuwe Tijd of November 1914.  The Netherlands remained neutral in the conflict, but she could only helplessly watch how all around her the Great War engulfed the continent and soon the world.  There was of course first of all dismay over the horrendous violence, which eventually would kill more than fifteen million people and leave about twenty million wounded.  For anti-militarist socialists like HRH, however, there was also the shocking realizing that the dream they had nurtured for so long to halt a war, driven by a capitalist and imperialist machine, through the concerted action of workers of all nations, was not shared by all socialists.  In reality, nationalism, militarism, and, in some cases, cynical political calculation proved to be the stronger forces as socialist parliamentarians of quite a few belligerent nations voted in favor of funding the war.

Judging by the materials collected by Etty, however, HRH’s spirits may not have sunk quite as low as Rosa Luxemburg’s, who in November 1914 wrote to a friend that “there is no doubt that the Party and the International are kaput, completely kaput” (see Elzbietta Ettinger, Rosa Luxemburg: A Life [Boston: Beacon Press, 1986], p. 194).  HRH seems to have reacted with determination and, if that were still possible, radicalization.  She opened the estate she had inherited in Brabant to Flemish refugees from war-torn Belgium. A contemporary describes her arriving at her estate:

At the end of the column strode Tall Jet, guiding her silent herd of refugees ahead as in an Old Testament scene. On each side of her she held a woman pressed hard against her body with her bony arms.

(I was not surprised and thus not offended to read that she complained about the “awful, vulgar Flemish idiom” of her wards, whom she barely understood.)  Following in the footsteps of Liebknecht and Luxemburg in Germany, she set up her own Marxist-revolutionary journal in Holland, De Internationale.  Her anti-militarism brought her closer to radical anarchists and pacifists; her renewed drive for action by the masses—against the SDAP’s call to suspend class struggle for the duration of the war—naturally aligned her with Luxemburg.  But by stepping up efforts among socialists to strengthen international action for peace, she also embraced Trotsky’s position, against Lenin.

The Zimmerwald Manifesto

In September 1915 she traveled to Switzerland for the famous international-socialist meeting at Zimmerwald, where she worked closely with Trotsky to draw up the final Zimmerwald peace manifesto.  This is the occasion that launched the story of a romance between her and Trotsky, which she rather cultivated in her later reflections and which Lenin believed.  From her side, she was distressed by Lenin’s machinations against Trotsky at Zimmerwald and agreed with Menshevik Paul Axelrod’s judgment of Lenin as a “barbarian.”  As late as 1927, she thought of herself and Trotsky as “two comrades of one spirit.” This did not preclude her, however, from accepting in October 1915 Lenin’s proposal to lead a new international Marxist journal, Vorbote, for which she also provided the start-up funds –probably the main reason why Lenin asked her, of course, although he also viewed it as a means to drive a wedge between her and the peripatetic Trotsky, often out of reach.  In this, he succeeded momentarily.  Trotsky felt betrayed and in an undated letter (February 1916?), he warned HRH, in Russian:

Trotsky, 1915

“You are handing the journal over to the Leninists, who are using you, with characteristic brutality, to reel in other contributors.”  Reminding her of their closeness at Zimmerwald, he assured her that “he would gladly contribute to any journal, as long as you are the true editor”.  Exasperated by the rivalry between the two Russians, HRH stopped publication of the journal after its second issue, determined to use the money more effectively.  From her correspondence in these hectic months, Etty draws the startling conclusion that HRH began to view herself as the authentic voice of international revolution, above the bickering men. Lenin, she said, was “a Blanquist manqué rather than a revolutionary Marxist” (incidentally: an old, but devastating critique of Lenin, possibly made first by Rosa Luxemburg), and “pedestrian, without ideas.”  Granted, he could be useful as counterweight “against cowardliness, weakness and half measures … but with such leaders alone we won’t get anywhere.  We need Danton-types, like Trotski [sic] in the revolution, just as much as we need the Marats.”


Still, events had their own momentum.  To the great horror of relatives and friends of her prominent family, HRH now took to the streets.  When she was charged, like Luxemburg, with inciting public disobedience in June 1916 for having urged conscientious objection to military service, she defended herself by citing from her published work, which, she argued, was far more incendiary.  She then went on to recite large chunks from her popular play De Opstandelingen about the first Russian revolution of 1905, extending proceedings a great deal.  (One sympathizes with the judges; once again, this was not her best work).  The court wisely decided that sending her to prison would only strengthen her case and fined her a mere one hundred guilders, an insignificant amount for someone of her wealth.

Then, in November 1917, came the news from Russia.  “Something immensely great and wonderful has happened”, she wrote when a Council of People’s Commissars, with three of her old comrades (Trotsky, Lenin, and Alexandra Kollontai) replaced Kerensky’s government.  She had just completed her comprehensive work on Revolutionary Mass Action (De revolutionaire massa-aktie, published in Rotterdam in 1918), underscoring her reputation as a leading theoretician of Marxism; now, she would be unstoppable on the streets as well.  On November 7, 1918, a few days after German workers seized control of the ports of Hamburg and Kiel, she led Dutch men and women in a demonstration in Amsterdam that met with brute police force.  On the day of the armistice, she visited several army barracks to call for revolution, and on 13 November, she set up an army “soviet”.  At the head of some 400 men from the Dutch army and navy, and several thousands of workers, she then marched on to the barracks.  A paramilitary security force opened fire, killing four and wounding sixteen men and women.  HRH remained standing, addressing the policemen lined up some thirty feet away from her, ready to fire again.  They did not, and allowed the demonstration to proceed along a different route.  The next day, a massive police presence in the city suppressed further unrest.  The Dutch “revolution” was over, soon followed by a vicious counter-offensive from the right.

Evidently, Holland was a hopeless case, she thought.  She applied for a visa to Germany as soon as she heard of the Spartacist uprising in Berlin, but Liebknecht and Luxemburg were murdered before she could travel.  Neither was she able to answer Lenin’s invitation to the first Comintern meeting in Moscow in March 1919, but she did become a member of the Comintern’s bureau in Amsterdam.  The Dutch press now routinely called her a “Bolshevik agent;” the Dutch secret service had her shadowed.

Trotsky Again, then the Break

In May 1921 she crossed illegally into Germany and then traveled on to Moscow for the Third Conference of the Comintern.  In later years, she would always argue that the trip marked the beginning of her gradual disillusionment with the Bolshevik revolution and the subsequent regime, and she recalled that Alexandra Kollontai, her old friend, presently an open critic of the Bolshevik leadership, was an important source for her. (In a later poem dedicated to Alexandra, HRH wrote: “O comrade, your words dulled the image that sparkled so brightly in me”).  Etty shows that this was not quite true: as early as September 1918, HRH must have been aware of the brutal treatment of political opponents, and she had some knowledge of the merciless repression, on Trotsky’s orders, of the Kronstadt rebellion (March 1921) before her trip.  Her unpublished notes on Trotsky indicate that he used all his powers of persuasion and heaps of his charm to keep HRH in line at the 1921 conference, but when Radek and Zinovyev asked her to disavow Dutch Marxist critics of the regime, she refused to do so, defending instead their right to disagree with Moscow.  After her return to Holland, she published a fascinating memoir of her experiences in Russia and her talks there with Maxim Gorky and with several “women of the revolution”, including Kollontai (the Dutch original is available here).  She continued for a while to support the Bolshevik regime in public, but she clearly had great doubts.  Not only did she disapprove, as was her custom, of infractions against Marxist doctrine, like the “concessions” and “compromises” that were made with market economies or the growing gap between a small elite and the actual proletariat.  More importantly, her deep sense of justice and ethic idealism made it no longer possible to tolerate the excesses committed in the name of the revolution.  She resigned from the Dutch Communist party in 1927, after Stalin’s ouster of Trotsky, but already in 1926 she had warned in her publications that Soviet communism risked drifting into “fascism”, and began to support dissidents. The formal break with Moscow came hard because it presented in many ways also a break with herself, or the final admission of her own divided self.

(But as promised, more on that subject in a later post.)

1 thought on “Henriette Roland Holst (I)

  1. Pingback: Lettres de Rosa Luxemburg à Henriette Roland-Horst van der Schalk (en majorité inédits en français) | Comprendre avec Rosa Luxemburg 2

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