(this is the second of two posts; for the first one, see here)
Life After Marx
After her formal break with communism in 1927, HRH found herself politically “homeless”. That didn’t stop her from being politically active, however. From now on, she worked for specific goals, again in an international perspective: anti-colonialism and the fight against fascism. The two were related, she argued:
Whereas imperialism is primarily the desire of an insatiable predator, i.e. the desire to acquire new colonies, fascism aims at arousing that desire among the general populace, so that a war for conquest becomes psychologically unavoidable.
She wrote those words in late 1927 with Mussolini in mind, but soon Nazism posed the greatest threat, which she identified as the power to mobilize vital urges and primal emotions in order to undermine rational belief systems. It abused the human longing for release and absorption into a greater whole by the “hocus-pocus” of race and blood:
Look at Hitler’s SA-gangs, and you’ll understand where the glorification of irrational drives and power in politics will lead to: to bestial degradation, pogroms, extreme sadism
she wrote prophetically in 1933.
Evidently, her rhetorical talents were still vibrant. In 1927, at an international conference
in Geneva where she met Nehru, Albert Schweitzer, and the young Mohammed Hatta, she shocked the staid representatives of the League of Nations and the international press by claiming that Dutch authorities dispensed medical aid in Indonesia only because “a dead coolie cannot work.” During the German occupation of the Netherlands in World War II, when she was in her seventies, she published anti-Nazi poetry in underground magazines while giving shelter to Jewish and resistance refugees.
But even though she lost none of her combativeness as she grew older, decades of frantic activity, of crisscrossing the country by train, always in third class, for speeches and demonstrations, writing at night against deadlines, took a lasting toll on her body. Photographs of her in the late 1920s and 1930s chronicle an alarming physical decline. There is some indication that after periods of intense work, mental exhaustion became a serious problem for her. Although Etty is careful not to indulge in armchair psychiatry, she does record long periods of time, sometimes up to a year, in which HRH retreated to her estate in Brabant or foreign health resorts to recover from depression. The desire to deny herself the benefits of her wealth became more and more outlandish. Friends shook their head over her shabby clothes and ascetic vegetarianism; by 1935, “Tall Jet’s” weight was down to 110 pounds. In more ways than one, Gandhi had become a role model. Non-violent resistance against all forms of oppression and injustice directed her activism in those last decades. Her thinking evolved toward a religious socialism akin to the teachings of Leonhard Ragaz, whom she came to know well in the 1920s, and in 1939 she left all she owned, quite a fortune, to the Woodbrookers, a Dutch leftist-protestant organization inspired by Quaker principles.
To Think and To Act
HRH’s itinerary from doctrinaire Marxist to religious socialist is not extraordinary, in se. We don’t have to look very far to find fellow travelers who changed their mind—many of them much later than she did and ending up in much weirder places. Nor was it simply a matter of dour reality breaking through and ultimately shattering youthful idealism. Biographies like this one remind us that intellectual history is more than a succession of –isms, which are of course convenient abstractions rarely experienced in pure form on the individual level. HRH’s story allows us to trace the internal struggles, the hidden questions and doubts that broke into the open between 1917 and 1927, gave a new orientation to her life in the 1930s, but were never entirely resolved.
If I have one, mild criticism of Etty’s analysis, it is that she devotes relatively little space to the origins of HRH’s socialism, probably because she assumed them well known to her Dutch audience. Readers familiar with the literary movement of the Tachtigers (“the 1880-ers”) will have no trouble understanding their impact on the young poet, determined to leave a mark on the world through the passionate expression of the most individual experience in the most sensual language (yes, only superlatives will do here).
In the socially-conscious 1890s, people like Gorter and HRH naturally abandoned the original estheticism of the movement to serve social needs, especially since Marxism so nicely filled the void left by Protestantism. But there is a little more going on here. Etty mentions in passing that at a very young age HRH would regularly visit her uncle Mart, who owned a large distillery in Schiedam and ran the local orphanage. Young Jet spent time with the orphans and in her later memoirs recalled how shocked she was by the appearance of the distillery’s laborers, their faces ravaged by alcohol. The memoirs also note the deep impression left by Max Havelaar, Multatuli’s 1860 account of Dutch colonial exploitation, which she read at age 13, against her father’s wishes:
My romantic impulses, my instinctive urge for social justice, my fanatical admiration for those fighting to protect the poor and liberate the oppressed—all of this was amply confirmed to me … by this marvelous book, the origins of which I knew virtually nothing about.
We may wonder if, late in life, HRH was not projecting back onto her earliest days the most admirable traits she recognized in herself, but we cannot discount altogether the likelihood that these were indeed primal needs for her, which socialism (and poetry) seemed to fulfill but, as she argues here, which it did not initiate or shape—particularly because her course of action later in life fits with this hypothesis.
Love is Not the Whole of Life
Etty offers startling revelations about HRH’s problematic marriage to Rik Roland Holst. Immediately after their wedding—most probably during their honeymoon—she realized that Rik could not have sexual relations. Etty is a little reticent to spell out exactly why this was the case. She considers, then rejects the possibility that Rik was gay.
There is evidence that he frequented (female) prostitutes—for purposes other than sex, one assumes, which was not unheard of in the fin de siècle—and he was a compulsive womanizer throughout his life, while his relationships with men held nothing out of the ordinary. Unless I am very much mistaken, HRH openly identified the cause of Rik’s impotence as a medical problem in her De Vrouw in het Woud (The Woman in the Woods, 1912), which Etty analyzes for her emerging feminist consciousness and interprets as an attempt to objectify her personal problems through the lens of broader tensions between men and women (Etty, Henriette, p. 288). In any case, the news came as a tremendous shock to HRH. In later years, as Etty shows, she always sublimated chastity into a force of spiritual power but there is no doubt that, in accordance with contemporary concepts of femininity, her lack of motherhood hurt her deeply. She often described socialism quite literally as the child otherwise denied to her. What is more, Rik’s impotence must have affected their relationship. And while he first supported her work and sympathized with the socialist cause, he grew increasingly distant as HRH’s star on the international scene rose. A second shock came in 1907, when Rik fell in love with another woman, Ina van Eibergen Santhagens-Waller, ten years younger, whom HRH reluctantly accepted in a bizarre, chaste ménage-à-trois that lasted more than thirty years, until Rik’s death in 1938. In her collection Opwaartsche Wegen (Rising Roads) of that same year, a poem on a waning love concludes with the lines Waarheid is overwinnaar gebleven: liefde is heel het leven niet (Truth was the final victor: Love is not the whole of life), the subtitle of Etty’s biography.
But how many roles can ideology perform in a life? Along with serving as her passion, the fulfillment of her deepest urges, and as her adopted child, socialism by default now also became, in her own words, “her lover” (Etty, Henriette, p. 243). Who can be surprised by the fierceness with which she devoted herself to this cause or her anger at anyone who dared stand in her way? In this light, the language of sacrifice and martyrdom in which she often couched her opinions does not so much testify to the widely accepted notion of Marxism as a secular faith as to her personal and peculiar conception of it. Etty has some great pages on this aspect of HRH’s socialism, which drove Lenin up the wall whenever he had to deal with it, apparently. But contradictions of course abounded: compromises or tactical maneuvers were anathema to her, unless she had full control over them, in which case they became mandatory. Fellow socialists who dissented came under brutal attack and might be skewered mercilessly for taking positions she had defended with equal vehemence a year or two before. The events of 1917–19 pushed these tendencies to an extreme, which may explain why, unlike Rosa Luxemburg, she temporarily abandoned her reservations on the use of violence. There was a dialectical relationship between means and goals, HRH argued: recourse to violence for the right goal (justice and peace) was inevitable but would be short, since success would lead to the cessation of all violence (this is of course an old argument: the medievalist in me recognizes it as part of medieval crusader propaganda). More characteristically, she considered such violence a “sacrifice” for which the perpetrators actually deserved our sympathy since in committing those acts, the heroic revolutionaries had “sacrificed their own pacifist inclinations.”
Marxism and Ethics
To her credit, she soon realized that this kind of tortured logic was untenable. Etty astutely points out that in the late 1920s, during and after her break with communism, HRH transformed her own cathartic struggles into a platform for a more fundamental critique of Marxism, which she now viewed as too mechanical and utilitarian, ignoring human psychology at all levels of society and neglecting ethical issues. The obvious parallel is with her Belgian colleague, Hendrik De Man, who published his Psychology of Socialism in 1926, a year after HRH formulated her critique in Communisme en moraal (Communism and Morality, 1925). Like De Man, HRH emphasized the need to prepare for change through education and internal, mental transformation. But unlike De Man, whose beliefs had been tested in a very different way by his fighting in World War I and thereafter advocated greater pragmatism (all the way to his actual collaboration with Nazi rule in WW II), HRH chose the opposite direction: strict adherence to the highest ethical values, including pacifism, justice, and respect for human rights. Thus, after WWII, when she was fêted by the entire Netherlands as a national hero for her exemplary conduct under German occupation, she demanded clemency for those convicted of collaboration and strenuously argued against the use of capital punishment—just as she had fought hard to grant Trotsky asylum in Holland after 1927 even though she no longer agreed with his politics. Still, as she came to learn in the 1930s, reducing one’s goals to a small number of high principles did not always make consistency easier. As a socialist and anti-fascist, she naturally supported the Republic in the Spanish Civil War, but as a pacifist, she could hardly ignore the violence perpetrated by both sides in that struggle. And then there remained the old tension between perfection and the nitty-gritty of daily activism, for she continued to contribute to multiple causes, great and small, until her last day.
The Religious Dimension
The extent to which her new socialism was rooted in faith is debatable. Etty successfully demolishes the myth, created by her former communist friends after her break with the party, of HRH as a pious devotee or a closet Catholic, which in respectable Calvinist circles was arguably worse than being a communist. That image is utter nonsense. HRH disliked confessional religion, and I find little particularly Christian in her religious views after 1927, although some of her key principles have of course much in common with Christian ideas of social justice. She herself emphasized the important distinction between the two Dutch terms used for “religion”: godsdienst (literally: “service of God” or worship), the most commonly used term, refers to a system of faith and its practice, whereas religie denotes respect for being and awareness of belonging to a higher, cosmic whole, sometimes with pantheist overtones. It’s the latter understanding of religion that was a source of inspiration to her from the 1920s onwards, and it may not have been all that different from that which shaped her earliest conception of herself as a poet, since the Tachtigers often imagined their art as a medium to lose oneself in a higher entity.
She alludes to these ideas in one of her last poems, written a year before her death, when her creative powers were waning but could still shine. Lof der duisternis (Praise of Darkness, not discussed by Etty) may also be read as a partial self portrait and is thus worth quoting in full, although my translation cannot do justice to the cadences of the original Dutch:
I have passed this day
As it can be for an old woman:
I did a little work, went for a walk, read,
And thought about many things.
And then also I recognized with shame
That I took up the pen too fast:
If only I had honed my judgment a little more,
I would not have hurt my fellow beings.
Now night has followed evening,
I am lying in darkness, in a warm bed;
As a flower, planted in a patch of earth,
I feel taken up into the silence,
Surprisingly satisfied, gloriously free.
Life, I left it behind;
The day, the journey through its streets, it’s over –
The life of human beings passed me by.
Outside, millions of stars are celebrating,
Their immense glitter shining through the entire night;
But inside the blessed darkness reigns,
The darkness that heals the wounds of the heart.
Much more should be said about this amazing life, and I noticed I have hardly broached the thorny subject of HRH’s feminism (in classic Marxist fashion, she first rejected it as a bourgeois distraction, though she ended up defending some of its values in practice), but my post is already too long. Well, if you ever needed a reason to learn Dutch, here is one:
Elsbeth Etty, Henriette Roland Holst 1869–1952. Liefde is heel het leven niet (Amsterdam: Contact, 1996); 743 pp., about $12 to $50 used.