Henriette Roland Holst (II)

(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

HRH in 1921, drawing by Richard Roland Holst

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).

Revolutionaries on a Sunday, 1903. From left to right: Herman Gorter, his wife Wies Gorter, Rik, HRH, and her mother Anna van der Schalk

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 Continue reading