“It’s boring but necessary”: An Interview with Jos Alembic (aka “Q”) on Changing Dutch Political Discourse

Is there a way to reorient Dutch politics?I recently had a discussion with Q, a member and founder of Marxist Center and the Communist Platform, a political lobbying organization in the Netherlands that seeks to inject a more traditional class-oriented slant into the national political discourse, with particular emphasis on agitation within the Dutch Socialist Party, the third largest constellation inside the Dutch Parliament. We discussed his work trying to change the terms of discourse within the SP and the Dutch left in general. A transcript is available below.

Spirit: Why dont you explain, what is the Communist Platform?

Q: The Communist Platform is a project that aims to bring Marxism back into the Dutch workers’ movement, given our size and given how the Dutch workers movement is laid out, we are focusing on the Dutch Socialist Party (SP), and the FNV, which is the largest trade union federation. It’s actually transforming into more of an IWW style union, but that’s another question. What we are aiming to do is raise the programmatic question which is certainly a live issue inside the Dutch SP, which originally came from a Maoist background, but which since developed into a broad leftist organisation, sort of like Die Linke in Germany and SYRIZA and other “New Left” parties in Europe. It is very focused on Parliament, and given the Dutch way of doing politics that would mean that in order to be in a position of power, coalitions are inevitable. There’s alot of pressure on the leadership of the organisation to develop into more of a “Realpolitik” kind of way. That’s the problem with the SP. At the base of the organsiation there’s still alot of activism, community activism, but also workplace activism. It is part of the party identity. It’s not a Marxist party anymore, but it’s still proletarian because of that character. There’s a contradiciton inside the party where the basis membership is asking itself, “okay we’re now this large organisation that has about 45,000 members” — the third party in parliament also — “but what is the future? What are we going to develop into? Are we going to just become a coalition partner, or what?” Because the SP hasn’t been in a government coalition yet. Also, what is the impact that is going to have on the party itself? Is it going to develop into a Labor Party 2.0?

Spirit: New Labour.

Q: Exactly. So that’s the core question, the core project that we are aiming for with the CP, that we bring the Marxist question, the Marxist equation back into the whole picture and raise the whole programmatical issue.

Spirit: I want to get back to that in a minute, but first this 45,000 member number. How big is that in comparison? How many members do the other big parties have?

Q: I believe that the CDA (Christian Democrats) is still the largest party. It’s about 56,000 members as of July 2014, and the labor party has 52,000 members, and then you have the SP with 44,000.

Spirit: That’s pretty a pretty even split there.

Q: Yeah. And then you have the liberals who have 33,000 members.

Spirit: Well, one liberal is worth three of the normal people, so it doesn’t really count.

Q: It doesn’t really mean much in Dutch culture. Mostly it’s only the SP that has an active party life. The other parties just have Congresses, national meetings, etc., but there’s no branch life so to speak, or there’s no membership cadre at the base level, so to speak. Because it’s just an election machine, basically.

Spirit: They probably invite Morgan Freeman to read out of the New Testament and pray and then go home.

Q: Yeah, exactly.

Spirit: How active is this “Maoist core”?

Q: It’s no longer a daily part of the organisation. Programmatically it has moved away from that in the late 70s, and moved away from Marxism-Leninism. It had officially broken with that in 1991. Which is a strange coincidence that the whole Eastern Bloc fell just then.

Spirit: Oh, 1991? I don’t know if anything interesting happened in that year.

Q: (laugh) Yeah, I have no idea.. Alot of the old membership is still from that era. The chariman of the party, Jan Marijnissen is still very much from that era. He’s been the chair since 1985, if I’m not mistaken.

Spirit: Wow, my God, that’s longer than the lives of many of the people that we talk with on a regular basis!

Q: [laugh] Yeah, exactly! So, programmatically, it’s [the party] away from it [Maoism], but still very much from that era.

Spirit: So, does that have anything to do with the Eurosceptic position of the party? “Socialism in One Country” or whatever?

Q: That also goes way back to the old style SP. For example, in the early 80s they released a pamphlet called Gastarbeid en Kapitaal, which in English you would translate to “Immigrant Labor and Capital”. Basically, they were proposing that if migrant workers don’t want to integrate into Dutch society, if they don’t want to speak the Dutch language, then they should just leave the country. “Here, have a few thousand Guilders (at that time), but just leave the country, just leave us alone”. That kind of isolationist view on the world is still very much at the core of the party, yes.

Spirit: Wow.

Q: And today you will see some informal links with, for example, Die Linke in Germany. They recently invited the chairperson of SYRIZA…

Spirit: Alex Tsipras?
Q: Exactly, he spoke at a national meeting of the party a few months ago. The Belgian Workers’ Party, the PVdA also has links with the SP, because it’s also a role model for them. But these are all informal links, but there is nothing formal of any kind. There is no international cooperation, there’s no “view” [vision] on Europe, so to speak.

Spirit: Interesting. What other left of center parties are there in the constellation in the Netherlands? You mentioned this Workers’ Party.

Q: That’s a good question. The traditional Workers’ Party in the Netherlands would be the PVdA, the Labor Party. They are actually the second biggest organisation in the Parliament.

Spirit: They’re in government right now, aren’t they?

Q: They are. They are in the government, exactly. They have about 60,000 members, if I would put a number on it. It’s a large organisation. The SP is actually the third in membership.

Spirit: What about them? They’re neoliberal in outlook, aren’t they?

Q: Yes, they are neoliberal. They went completely over to the neoliberal logic. Actually, every party in the Dutch parliament besides the SP has embraced the neoliberal logic to some extent. The third left party — traditional left party — would be the “GreenLeft”, so the Greens, basically. They are a smaller organisation memberwise, but they still have something like 10 seats in Parliament or so. They also haven’t been in a coalition yet either, but they very much embrace the neoliberal logic, but from a “leftist” more humane perspective. Actually, to give some background on the Greens: they are actually an amalgamation of five parties that merged in the late 1980s, one of which was the Communist Party of the Netherlands. So, the communists went into the Greens. If you look at membership numbers, most of the Communists moved to the SP. In some cases whole branches went over the the SP when their party dissolved into the “GreenLeft”.

Spirit: I saw a campaign video where, I don’t know if you know him, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a famous figure in the ‘68 movement in Paris. Anyway, he’s sort of “softened up” in recent years, and he did a campaign event for this GreenLeft party, and it was not very appealing, basically what you were saying, “humanitarian” rhetoric. Switching gears, I want to get to the real meat of the issue. How many people do you have working with you, and what are — and be particular, and give examples and details — your tactics?

Q: We are a very small organisation, I’m talking about 10 people-ish, that’s the direct membership. We’re not aiming to be a direct membership organisation, so that’s not the direct concern either. What we are aiming for is to spread out the ideas, to intenrvene in discussions in the SP. For example, last year, the SP had this discussion about “well, how are we going to deal with the economy? what is our view of the economy?”. The discussion was actually called “Democratization of the Economy”. It’s those types of debates that we are intervening in, giving our position. Also, we are aiming to connect the disparate membership. Inside the SP, you have to understand, it’s quite different from Die Linke, because Die Linke has official factions, they have these “Platforms”. The SP doesn’t have anything like that. It’s still very much a Marxist-Leninist organisation in a very hierarchical way. It’s very centrally organized. Basically, what one branch is doing is not known at another branch. That’s not precise, but it’s approximately how it works. So it’s very hard to organize and have opposition in that context. So what we are attempting to do in the short term is have disparate parts of the SP, and bring them together and build networks, build a peer network, to to speak; and not per se of everyone that agrees with us, but at least some kind of common platform that we can actually develop the ideas inside the SP. Most critical notions inside the party is not very much developed because of the people that are so spread out and not talking to each other. Its very nondeveloped, and that is the first priority for this kind of project if it wants to succeed

Spirit: Sounds like they didn’t learn any lessons from the USSR.

Q: Well, the party leadership did very much.

Spirit: Did what?
Q: The party leadership did very much.

Spirit: Well, apply it then!

Q: Well, they did in a negative sense. There is very bureaucratic, centralized control, etc.

Spirit: Ah, so they were anti-Perestroika.

Q: Im not entirely sure about that because the party didn’t have any official links with the USSR. AFter they broke with China in the late 70s they no longer had any official links with official communism. So I’m not sure about that.

Spirit: It’s not important. Have you had any successes? You had mentioned before that you were trying to do something a little bit similar in the CWI — I think you were a member there. You were dissatisfied with some of the organisational structures there, and you were trying to organize this sort of dissident movement. You mentioned that you didn’t have that much success. Have you had any successes on this front?

Q: Well, small successes. Were still developing at the most basic level of getting to know people or getting people to know about us. That’s the first priority. Stuff like social networks helps, but there are very [few] national meetings, these kinds of thingSpirit: “get-togethers”. So we’re growing very slowly, it’s a slow process. But things are developing. Currently we are actually speaking with a group of young members [of the SP] around the center of the country that are actually wanting to develop the kind of platform I was just talking about on the national, at least a regional level, and get people together. And they are also very interested in our ideas. So, it’s getting together right now, but it’s not very interesting in a spectacular kind of way. It’s very boring work actually!

Spirit: Well, it has to be done. Somebody has to do it.

Q: Yeah.

Spirit: Going from press conference to press conference alone doesn’t get anything done.

Q: Exactly. It’s much more of the minor [greens?].

Spirit: It’s why I can’t stand our Chancellor. She’s constantly going on about how great she is, and how great everything is. Going to press conferences and galas and fireworks and champagne and it’s all wonderful..

Q: Just to highlight my experiences in the CWI. That organisation has been active inside the SP since 1998, so that’s 17 years now. And they haven’t achieved anything. I mean —

Spirit: (laugh)

Q: Well, basically because they didn’t do any of this work at all. They just organized national meetings, and if people want to come there they come there, and if they don’t they don’t, but they dont have any instruments…

Spirit: Outreach?


Spirit: They don’t have any outreach.

Q: No. And the outreach they do have they are focusing on increasing their own membership. It’s a very sectarian kind of approach: “Please join the real socialists” kind of thing. It’s not attractive at all. And especially not so, since the CWI; at least on the surface of it, doesnt really appear that much different from what the SP is offering. SO most SP members are saying, “well what are you offering that’s so different, what are you bringing in that [makes] you so unique? Why should I join your small, tiny group?” So, and they don’t. So basically, thats the failure of the CWI project in a nutshell. SO, we are doing the first kind of approach, we are not focusing on membership. We are explicitly saying that we are not a party, but thag we should have a party, that we should have a party movement of 100,000s of people. That we should have a movement that is more than just an electoral machine, but is working actively to building a different kind of society. And to begin that kind of struggle you have to start with vision. Therefore we are bringing up the programmatical question in the first place.

Spirit: Thats something that’s really — personally I find really — inspiring, like in Spain with this Podemos movement, building a movement from the ground up and not just touting electoral slogans and getting people to the electoral boxes and that’s that. But before getting to that I wanted to get ask about young people. You mentioned that you were gearing towards young people. How do they stand? The youth unemployment rate in the Netherlands, I was reading, is about 10%…

Q: That sounds correct.

Spirit: That’s not horrible, it’s probably not as good as it could be. But it’s not interwar Europe, Great Depression numbers. I also just read that Geert Wilders became one of the longest serving Parlamentarians in all of Dutch history. I would assume that means that young people are filling the ranks as old members age out. So this Freedom Party (VVD) — are young people gearing more toward the left or the right, or is it an even split? What’s going on?

Q: That’s an interesting dynamic, because on the one level it’s so obvious why people should be anti-capitalist. It’s failing young people especially. For example, currently the government has implemented a compeletely debt-based education financing system.
Spirit: Oh, wonderful!

Q: So if you’re going to University, you’re going to be in debt. So that has changed from the previous system.

Spirit: That’s progress!

Q: Yeah. It’s (laugh) Exactly. Strangely, it’s not making the impact that you’d expect. And the reason for that, I think, is the SP is failing in that regard, because the SP is focusing very much just on Parliament, and the party leadership is focusing very much on being part of the next coalition. And it’s moving more towards the right, towards “Realpolitik”. So it’s not appealing to young people directly to join the SP en masse. So, you have this strange situation where Geert Wilders is actually making a strong appeal to a latrge number of people, because the Dutch SP is simply not taking away all that potential. It’s not harvesting, so to speak. So we are under this weird Twilight Zone of nothing happening right now. And what is also not helping is the trade unions organization, the FNV mainly, is very much inert as well. If you look at Belgium, for instance, there is a strike wave going on there right now. But in the Netherlands, the last demonstration we had was 11 years ago, in 2004, where 300,000 people [came] to Amsterdam. And that was it, basically. There’s no stategy, no real idea, no vision, to not alone get [alot?] from this government, but also what kind of society do we want?

Spirit: Maybe they were hypnotized by Wilders’ hair.

Q: (laugh) Blinded by it.

Spirit: I always expect it to fly off or something. It must be alive.

Q: Exactly. Well, Geert Wilders, a few years ago. At one point he [would have had] something like 35 or 40 seats in Parliament according to polls. But that romance, I suppose, that yelling and blaming the Moroccans and Turkish migrant people, it’s wearing off, it’s wearing thin. People are seeing that it’s not going to do anything.

Spirit: “They’re taking our jobs!”

Q: Yeah, that’s what WIlders keeps repeating. Fortunately, many people are seeing that’s not an answer as well. Wilders does have a spot in the Dutch constellation. He has something like 20 or 25 seats of the 150, I should add, but he’s not taken very seriously. But also not by other parties. He’s the gimmick, so to speak, of Dutch politics. It’s not as serious, I think, as many people on the left would think.

Spirit: Interesting. What is the future of your organization, in closing, and do you draw inspiration from groups like SYRIZA or this Podemos movement in Spain?

Q: That is actually one of our goals, this educational experience. Because the SP [does not have] many links to SYRIZA or to Podemos or whatever itself. So then by bringing these experiences inside the SP, broadening the horizons of the membership. So, how do I see us developing? Thats hard to say. But how I hope to see us developing in the next five years and over the somewhat longer term is to build that network, and to wage an effective opposition, and by having national meetings, national conferences, council conferences, by intervening in Congress motions, by having a real impact in the organizational structure, by having members elected in the party leadership. It’s very easy, and I think it’s one of the mistakes of the CWI, is that they never took leadership seriously. If you want to change an organization, that should be your aim. You should be responsible enough to be serious about it. You should aim for leadership of an organization and have an impact, and not just be on the sidelines and just yell at what you like or dislike about an organization. So what I would like to see happen is that I would like to see the SP adopt a Marxist program. But that is not the end, that is just the beginning, because with that kind of change, a whole kind of cultural change would have to happen, away from Parliamentarism, and toward the kind of party movement that we need. And we need the broader movement as well. We need the trade unions organizations. We need to basically invent the cooperative, because the cooperative movement in the Netherlands is basically nonexistent. Implement this whole idea of not only a workers organization, because workers do organize themselves. But at this time, they organize themselves on an extremely local level. There is organization today, but it is very unorganized, it is very disparate, within the system. And by implanting this vision, by having a different kind of society, you have the potential to amalgamate all of that power, all of that steam and to have the steam machine going on, to actually build an organization that has an impact on society.

Spirit: That sounds like a very ambitious goal.

Q: Yes! But we need to be ambitious to change society!

Spirit: Yeah, just the cultural change you mentioned: it’s funny when people hear the term Marx or Marxism the automatic reaction is “isn’t that the leftist version of Hitler?”

Q: I don’t have that kind of experience. What people do ask is “oh, you’re a communist, what about Russia?” So that is a very recognizable response, actually within the SP itself. Most people who say “I am not a communist” what they mean is “I don’t want anything to do with Stalinism”. So there’s a very low level of political awareness even of what communism is. And that’s basically step 1 for us, we need to start at that very low level to even make an impact at all. And that is groundwork that is going to take a long time, it’s very boring, but it’s necessary.

What we could still mention… I’ve only mentioned the Communist Platform, which is basically the Dutch specific implementation of what the Marxist Center was trying to do.

Spirit: Sure, what is that?

Q: The Marxist Center was — you can view it at marxistcenter.com — originally started as a project to reinvent the left. As you know, [the left] is very disparate, very sectarian, it’s not very successful, at least the far left is.

Spirit: What are you talking about? You’re just a Trotskyist Hoxhaist class traitor!

Q: Well, (laugh) maybe. But, it’s strange that now 7 years after the crisis, everyone on the left was saying “now is our time”. 7 years later we still don’t have a revival of the far left. Its a strange ting to see on the left. THat’s basically the first observation we made, was the spur for what ultimately became the Marxist Center. It started out as an attempt to be a platform, much like SoC is. So, be a platform on the left, rethinking stuff. It was an international cooperation of several members from the Netherlands, Canada, to the United States, to other countries. The Dutch part has focused more on being a practical implementation, to look more for being a practical implementation. That became the Communist Platform.

Spirit: Have the other organizations taken similar paths, or have they been differently focused?

Q: There have been attempts, like I know in the US threre has been an attempt. I dont know how that went. I think right now it is sleeping. I should check on it.

Spirit: Who is in these organizations? Anyone we know?

Q: As you can probably tell from my somewhat careful formulations, Marxist Center is more of a sleeper cell, you could say. Because most of our attention in the Netherlands is focused on the Communist Platform doesn’t mean the Marxist Center has died, it’s sleeping, slumbering but it’s still on a path to come back, to revive. It should revive, because we’re not going to be unique in this kind of attempt. Other groups in other countries have similar kinds of groups: rethinking Marxist politics, rethinking the left. A wellknown example that we feel affiliated with is the CPGB, which publishes The Weekly Worker in the UK. They’re a bit of an older organization, but they’re in the same kind of political spectrum: rethinking the left, putting the program first, etc. So Marxist Center is basically meant as a platform to bring those kinds of projects together under one banner. To have a ground, to have a platform to talk to each other. To exchange experiences, offer theoretical insights, and so on. It’s now slumbering, but it should be revived. So, I’m just plugging that. If people want to contribute to that from an international perspective they are more than welcome to.

Spirit: Well, we’ll link to the site.

About Jerome Nikolai Warren

I am a German-American who has ties to both countries. I speak fluent German and English, and passable Spanish and French. I can also mutter and curse in Turkish and Russian. I am at present a grad student of economics in Germany. In a prior life I studied dabbling, basically (religious studies, philosophy, political science) at the University of Alabama. My favorite piece of music is probably the Mass in B-minor by J.S. Bach, my favorite artwork is "The Blue Rider" by Kandinsky; my favorite building is New York's Pennsylvania Station, sadly demolished in 1963. I tweet (rarely) @dagmarholstadt, and also manage this site's Twitter account @OfContradiction.
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