Hendricus Josephus Franciscus Marie Sneevliet was born on 13 May 1883. His birth city was Rotterdam but he grew up in 's-Hertogenbosch. After school he went working for the Dutch railroads in 1900. Soon he joined the Social Democratic Workers Party ( SDAP ) and the rail trade union. In 1907 he was the first socialist elected into the city council of Zwolle.
A few years later Henk Sneevliet became chairman of the Rail Road Union. Unlike most social democrats, Henk Sneevliet was a revolutionary socialist and more radical. His first class with the moderate socialists was in 1911, when the radical trade unions supported a sailors strike. Yet the biggest trade union and the SDAP opposed the strike. This angered Sneevliet who left The Netherlands to work in the Dutch colony of Indonesia ( Dutch Indies ).
He lived in Indonesia from 1913 till 1918. His stay in the colony turned him into a anti-colonialist. Sneevliet hated the way the Dutch were ruling. He became a member of the Union of Rail and Tram Staff. This moderate trade union was unique because it had both Dutch and Indonesian workers. Because Henk Sneevliet was a good trade unionist he was able to turn this moderate union into a mighty voice for the working class in Indonesia!
The SDAP and the colonial rulers were hot happy with Henk Sneevliet. Social democratic leaders wanted to work with the ruling class and Sneevliet was opposed to that. By 1916 he left the moderate SDAP and joined the Social Democratic Party. This party was orthodox Marxist and opposed working with the parties of capitalism!
On 7 November 1917, the Russian working class took power. Soviet Russia became the first nation that expropriated the bourgeoisie. Revolutionaries around the world were fascinated by the Bolsheviks. Henk Sneevliet and the Social Democratic Party were among the first supporters of the new Soviet government. A year later the SDP renamed itself into the Communist Party Holland. It joined the Communist Internationale in 1919!
Because of his support to the Soviet Russians, Henk Sneevliet was forced to leave Indonesia. Back in the Netherlands he was partly marginalized by the CPH leadership. The party criticized his work in Indonesia and prevented him from becoming a party leader. Sneevliet went to work in the trade union movement again. Two years later he went to Moscow for the second congress of the Communist International. But not as a representative of the CPH. He went as a member of the Communist Party of Indonesia, a party founded by his supporters in Indonesia!
Vladimir Lenin liked the Dutch revolutionary. He was very impressed by Henk Sneevliet's way of speaking to workers. Lenin gave Sneevliet work for the Communist International. He send him to China to build the communist movement there. In July 1921, Sneevliet was in China as founding father of the Chinese Communist Party. But the young communist party was not very good in Sneevliet's eye's. He looked to the mighty Chinese Nationalist Party led by the left-wing nationalist Dr. Sun Yat-sen. Sneevliet wanted the CCP to work with the nationalists to fight the reactionary war lords.
The other founding fathers of the CCP opposed working with the nationalists. But with help from Moscow, Sneevliet got his way. Although reasonable at the time, this alliance between communists and nationalists would proof to be a disaster. After Sun Yat-sen's death in 1925, the Chinese Nationalist Party came under the control of Chiang-Kai-Shek. An anticommunist right-wing nationalist, who hated communism. Sneevliet's proposed alliance with the nationalists would lead to the killing of 50.000 communists in 1927 by nationalist forces!
After the death of Vladimir Lenin, Sneevliet became critical of the Soviet-Union. He opposed the growing bureaucracy led by Stalin and sided with Leon Trotsky. His opposition brought him again into conflict with the now Stalinist leadership of the Communist Party Holland. As members of the Left Opposition were expelled from the All Union Communist Party in the Soviet Union, Henk Sneevliet choose to leave the CPH. Two years after he left the communist party, Sneevliet founded the Revolutionary Socialist Party, that was in 1929!
In August of 1933, the RSP signed the declaration of the four. This document was signed by four anti-Stalin revolutionary socialist/communist parties, who wanted to build a new international of revolutionary parties. The moderate Second International and the Third Internationale now led by Stalin, were seen as corrupt and anti-Marxist!
Henk Sneevliet was a strong opponent of fascism. But the Dutch government did not supported his anti-fascism, they jailed him for insulting a friendly head of state. This friendly head of state was Adolf Hitler, who was elected leader of Germany in January 1933. Hitler was seen as a friend of the Netherlands and Sneevliet's criticism were not welcomed. So the leader of the RSP was jailed for insults he made towards the German dictator!
In 1935 the Revolutionary Socialist Party fused with the Independent Socialist Party ( OSP ). Out of this fusion came the Revolutionary Socialist Workers Party. Although called a trotskyist party by history, the RSAP never joined the Communist Fourth International in 1938. Henk Sneevliet and Leon Trotsky were both committed to their own believes and those believes did collide. A major disagreement was the support of Sneevliet to the Spanish POUM. The Workers Party of Marxist Unification was founded by a fusion between the Spanish trotskyists and supporters of Nicolai Bukharin, the right-wing group of the original Bolshevik Party!
Leon Trotsky was not in favor of the POUM, while Sneevliet supported it. Today we can say that Trotsky was right about his concerns, but his rejection of the POUM completely was wrong. Sneevliet knew that the POUM was the only genuine revolutionary socialist party in Spain during the Spanish civil war. His support to this party was no mistake as Trotsky claimed!
Sneevliet also refused to support the USSR, while Trotsky kept calling the Soviet-Union a bureaucratic degenerated workers state. But for Sneevliet the USSR had nothing to do with socialism or a workers state. That is why the RSAP did not called its members to support the USSR against foreign imperialists. Trotsky and his supporters remained committed to defend the USSR, while Sneevliet opposed any defense of the Soviet-Union!
After 1938, Sneevliet and Trotsky broke off contact. A mistake of both men. Their own dogmatism had splintered the anti-Stalinist communist movement even more. The split between Sneevliet and Trotsky, was the first in a line of many splitsts in the anti-Stalinist camp. The American; Socialist Workers Party would face many splits after the murder of Leon Trotsky and the second world war!
In the Netherlands, the RSAP remained opposed to colonialism and capitalism. They were hated by the Communist Party of the Netherlands, which was now led by pro-Stalin communists. Unfortunate the Dutch working class were loyal to either the social democratic SDAP, the Stalinist CPN or religious parties. At that time many workers voted on the party of their religion. You had a catholic party, a protestant party and hardcore anticommunist parties like the National Socialist Movement led by Anton Mussert, a fascist!
Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands on 10 May 1940. Henk Sneevliet and his RSAP knew that they would be banned soon. Unlike the CPN, SDAP and other parties, the RSAP disolved itself very fast. In her place a resistance movement was founded. The Marx, Lenin, Luxemburg Front ( MLLF ) became one of the first Dutch resistance movements. 500 people joined to fight the Germans!
Between May 1940 and April 1942, the MLLF was active in many ways of resistance. Their newspaper was very popular with 50.000 illegal copies made. Henk Sneevliet was the leader of the MLLF, but his own dogmatism and arrogance was sometimes the reason why he made mistakes. Take the German invasion of the USSR. Sneevliet did not believed that Hitler would invade the USSR. So the newspaper of the MLLF printed stories of the German-Soviet none aggression pact. When Hitler invaded the USSR, the newspaper of July 1941 could not be spread, because its headlines were about the neutrality between Nazi Germany and the USSR. But Sneevliet demanded that the paper was to be spread to workers. He even wanted to expel any member who would not spread the newspaper. His authoritarianism was also the reason why many independent socialists left the party before the war!
For two years, Sneevliet evaded the Germans. Finally they arrested him and the leadership of the MLLF in April 1942. For his resistance against the Germans he was sentenced to death. Since the Germans captured all leaders of the MLLF, the group dissolved after their execution. Some remaining revolutionary socialists abandoned the resistance or started to work with other groups. On 12 April 1942, Sneevliet and the MLLF leadership were executed. Just before the Germans shoot them, they sang the Internationale!
Today the Chinese Communist Party is the biggest party in the world. With 70 million members the CCP is huge. But the party had lost its original ideology. Chinese leaders are now state-capitalist and no longer care about workers and international socialism. The Communist Party of Indonesia was eliminated by the Indonesian dictator Suharto. This military general killed 500.000 communists and was supported by the USA and western Europe for his strong anticommunism!
The leadership of the Chinese Communist Party is aware that Henk Sneevliet was a founding father. But they know little of the man himself. The city of Shanghai has opened an exhibition about the life of Sneevliet. Yet even that will not do honor to the name Sneevliet. Only a genuine socialist China will do that. Had Sneevliet survived the second world war, he would have opposed Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party. Because Henk Sneevliet hated Stalin and all those who abused socialism and communism for totalitarian rule. A great revolutionary socialist and forgotten by many. But his legacy lives on in all revolutionary socialists who stood up to Stalin, Hitler and other dictators!