Henk Sneevliet was a founder-activist of three Communist movements—the Dutch, Indonesian and Chinese—and played a prominent role in the early years of the Communist International. Arguably no other socialist of the period had such a creative and active internationalist career. His profound understanding and sympathy for Asian nationalism and his direct experience in the Communist movements in China and Indonesia made Sneevliet an unparalleled figure in the early Comintern. Founder of the first Marxist party in colonial Asia, the Indonesian Social Democratic Association (isdv), Secretary of the Commission on National and Colonial Questions at the Second Congress of the Comintern, and representative of the International in China in the early twenties, Sneevliet was the architect of the ‘bloc within’ strategy for Communist parties in colonial countries. After the death of Lenin in 1924 and the increasing subjection of the Comintern to Russian national and state interests, Sneevliet broke decisively with Moscow, and founded one of the few independent Marxist parties with popular support outside the Third International in the thirties: the Dutch Revolutionary Socialist Party. It has been remarked that ‘Sneevliet’s life history, like that of Ho Chi Minh, must surely be one of the great unwritten Odysseys of our time.’footnote1 But his achievements as a revolutionary remain largely unrecognized, in part due to the absence of any written legacy by Sneevliet, but also due to his break with the Comintern. Two books on his life have appeared in Dutch in recent years, Fritjof Tichelman, Henk Sneevliet: Een Politieke Biografie and Max Perthus, Henk Sneevliet: Revolutionair—Socialist in Europa en Azie.footnote2 Rather than compare the respective merits of these two works, this article will try to provide a brief outline of Sneevliet’s remarkable career for the English-speaking reader.

Henk Sneevliet was born in Rotterdam in 1883. From an early age he became involved in the Dutch socialist movement and in 1902 he joined the Dutch Social Democratic Workers’ Party (sdap).footnote3 Through his close relationship with Henriette Roland-Holst, Sneevliet became attracted to the left-wing opposition group within the sdap associated with the journal, De Nieuwe Tijd. This group, later known as the Tribunists, took a position similar to that adopted by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht within the German Social Democratic Party. However, unlike their German comrades, the Dutch revolutionary socialist split from the mainstream Social Democrats before the First World War.footnote4

Sneevliet did not join the new party at first, but continued to work within the Railway and Tramworkers Union, of which he became chairman in 1910 at the age of 27. His initial hesitation in joining the new revolutionary Social Democratic Party (spd) largely stemmed from a concern that the organisation did not have sufficient roots in the Dutch working class. The outbreak of an international seamen’s strike in 1911 and the lack of support given to it by the orthodox sdap, led Sneevliet to leave the party and join the revolutionary spd.footnote5 Continuing unease with the sectarian policies of the spd, however, prompted him in 1913 to leave Holland for Indonesia, then the Dutch East Indies. This was not so unusual a choice as it might at first seem. Unlike British colonies in Asia, the Dutch East Indies had a sizeable settler community. Moreover, at least until 1920 the political regime in the colony was relatively liberal and revolutionary socialists did not find it difficult to find work there whilst at the same time remaining politically active.

Sneevliet’s work in just over four years in Indonesia is unique in the history of the international socialist movement.footnote6 Within weeks of his arrival in the colony, he threw himself energetically into the work of organizing the Railway and Tramworkers’ Union (vstp—Vereeniging voor Spoor en Tramweg Personeel) and editing its journal, De Volharding. Under Sneevliet’s influence and direction, the vstp developed into a modern well-organized trade union. From 1915 on its membership was composed largely of Indonesians and it was to exercise a profound influence on the later development of the Indonesian labour movement. When, in 1920, the Perserikatan Kommunist Indonesia—the Indonesian Communist Party—was formed, the vstp provided the proletarian core around which the party was built. In May 1914 Sneevliet had founded the pki’s forerunner and the first Marxist party in colonial Asia, the Indies Social Democratic Association (isdv—Indische Sociaal Democratische Vereeniging). Sneevliet was determined from the beginning that the isdv should not be an adjunct of Dutch Social Democracy, despite the opposition of other Dutch socialists who saw little hope of Marxism finding fertile soil in a colonial and peasant society, and embarked on the task of building an independent Indonesian socialist movement. Although the original membership of less than one hundred were nearly all Dutch teachers or railway workers, Sneevliet was acutely conscious of the urgent need to attract Indonesians if the party was to become a viable and potent force. Within a few years it had done this and a number of young Indonesians became prominent in the isdv, among them Semaun, Darsono and Tan Malaka. Of these Tan Malaka was by far the most able and original leader and in his way a genuine successor to Sneevliet, achieving the rare reversal of Sneevliet’s international trajectory by winning a seat in the Dutch Parliament for the Communist Party of the Netherlands (cpn).footnote7

Although Sneevliet was successful in winning a steady number of Indonesian recruits to the position of revolutionary Marxism adopted by the isdv, he also saw the need for the party to make a wider intervention in Indonesian society. The Indonesian working class was very small at this time and concentrated in the two Dutch colonial commercial centres of Semarang and Surabaya. Sneevliet realized that if Marxism was to make an impact on Indonesian, or any Asian, society it was of vital importance that propaganda work be conducted amongst the masses as a whole, including the peasantry. He believed that the objective conditions for this work were ripe, particularly as much of Java’s peasantry in the late nineteenth century had been transformed from subsistence rice farmers to sugar plantation workers.footnote8 Politically too the awakening of the Indonesian peasantry had been signalled by the formation of the first nationalist party with mass backing, the Sarekat Islam (Islamic Association) in 1911. Like Lenin, Sneevliet was deeply aware that if the rising nationalist tide in Asia could be linked to or harnessed by the socialist movement, its political repercussions would be revolutionary.

The Sarekat Islam had been established originally by Indonesian cloth manufacturers and traders as an association to protect their interests against the encroachment of Chinese merchants. It was an indication of the weakness of the Indonesian bourgeoisie, however, that this class was unable to retain effective hold of the organisation and the Sarekat Islam rapidly assumed the character of a mass albeit amorphous party with considerable peasant support. The Dutch East Indies colonial government tolerated the existence of the organization, some of its more liberal members welcoming it as a sign of ‘native awakening’ and progress. For Sneevliet the Sarekat Islam presented the ideal vehicle through which to advance a program of revolutionary socialism in the colony. This strategy, the first concrete example of a Marxist party attempting to infiltrate another party and form cells within it as a means of developing its own propaganda and contacts amongst the masses, was to pay large dividends for the isdv in the following years.

The pursuit of a ‘bloc within’ strategy by the isdv within the Sarekat Islam was aided by the extremely decentralized character of the nationalist organization, which Sneevliet saw as the Indonesian equivalent of the nineteenth century British Chartist movement.footnote9 While the Sarekat Islam was tolerated and sanctioned by the colonial authorities at a local branch level, no national organization as such was allowed, only an extremely loose federation. Clearly this made the isdv’s task of infiltrating the Sarekat Islam easier and it was several years before a coherent right-wing opposition to the Marxist group was to emerge in the nationalist organization.