Henriette Roland Holst Was a Poet and a Revolutionary

Dutch poet Henriette Roland Holst was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature — but also made her name theorizing the mass strike. Her life shows how a generation of militants linked revolution in the arts to the fight for a socialist future.

A bust of Henriette Roland Holst in Lindenplein, Noordwijk, the Netherlands. (Richardkw / Wikimedia Commons)

On November 11, 1918, hours after Germany’s capitulation in World War I and the flight of the kaiser, the leader of the Dutch Social Democratic Workers’ Party (Sociaal-Democratische Arbeiderspartij, SDAP) declared revolution in the Netherlands. It did not take him more than a few days to admit that this had been a mistake. The Netherlands had been neutral in the war, but the working class was hit hard by food shortages and lack of housing. This made for a grim and restless mood but not one in which the world revolution played any part — as shown by the lack of response to this declaration, outside of intellectual and activist circles.

Not everyone was ready to give up on the idea of a Dutch revolution. In the days following the armistice, a well-to-do middle-aged woman — an acclaimed poet by the name of Henriette Roland Holst — traveled from barracks to barracks trying to stir the soldiers up into rebellion. When a march to the seat of the national military in Amsterdam was quickly turning into a bloodbath, she kept on advancing. With her calm hoarse voice, she urged the soldiers — who held her at gunpoint — to switch sides. They did not, and neither did the Dutch proletariat rise up to seize the means of production. The next morning they went back to their jobs and their kitchens, trying to survive another cold day with too little food. “A bitter shame,” Henriette Roland Holst wrote from her comfortable country home.

The woman known as HRH led a remarkably interesting life, even by the standards of the remarkably interesting early twentieth century. Her contemporaries deemed her one of the greatest poets of all time. An influential player in international leftist politics and close friend of Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Kautsky, and Leon Trotsky, HRH was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Yet even just a decade after her death in 1952, she seemed all but forgotten — her poetry often dismissed as sloppy pamphleteering, her political career unremarked upon. Reading her life story makes you wonder why she hasn’t been part of the feminist effort to pull great historic women out of oblivion. For we can learn a lot from HRH’s triumphs and failures — in poetry as in politics.

“The Greatest Poet Currently Living”

Accounts of Henriette Roland Holst often like to note that, for all her talk of the workers of the world, she came from a very well-to-do bourgeois family — and had the aristocratic and authoritarian character that came with that background. Indeed, Henriette van der Schalk was born in 1869 in a stately home in the Dutch beach town of Noordwijk, the daughter of a successful notary and an heiress. But if she was meant to marry a wealthy man and develop the faculties that would make her a delightful presence at dinner parties, she did not follow the path set out for her.

Finding such prospects too limiting, the young Henriette instead dreamed of achieving artistic heroism. She idealized the bohemian artist’s lifestyle that was the fashion of the time, judging, perhaps not incorrectly, that genius was the only way out of the suffocating role patterns of bourgeois womanhood. And if she was convinced of her own genius, it didn’t take her long to convince others, too. After she submitted her poems to a literary magazine for the first time at age twenty-four, she received the following response: “I must excuse myself that I deign to speak to you. I should tell you forthwith that you are the greatest poet currently living.”

The 1880s saw the birth of modernism in the Low Countries, with a group of poets and writers that wanted to challenge bourgeois morality with deeply individualist aestheticism and bohemian decadence. Among this group was a young Herman Gorter, a poet of sensitivist verse that had caught the attention of critics and the public alike. The two soon became good friends, having become near-neighbors after Henriette moved to the same seaside town with her husband.

Gorter’s friendship was very influential on Henriette. He introduced her to Dante Alighieri and Percy Bysshe Shelley and insisted that she read Baruch Spinoza, whose philosophy of pantheistic naturalism formed the basis of his poetic worldview. Spinoza made a lasting impact on Henriette, and she shared with Gorter the desire for an all-encompassing framework for her life and writing. It was also on his recommendation that she started studying Marxism. Henriette had already been exposed to socialism through the work of William Morris. Her husband, Rik, a painter, was a great admirer of the arts and crafts movement, and this influenced her too.

Old Worlds That Fade

What initially attracted HRH to socialism was something similar to Morris’s position: the idea that realizing the otherwise untapped potential of the working classes would result in artistic innovation. The intellectual environment in which Henriette and Rik found themselves in the 1890s was preoccupied with the idea of communal art, perhaps as a reaction to (and, in Gorter’s case, a disillusionment with) the individualist current of the 1880s. Artists like Rik looked to the Middle Ages as a time where art had not yet lost its central place in the lives of common people. Socialism offered a way to heal the rift between artists and the masses and could simultaneously take the place of Christianity as an all-encompassing worldview. In 1898, Henriette, Rik, and Gorter joined the Social Democratic Workers’ Party.

The comparison with the Middle Ages is a relevant one, and not only because HRH drew inspiration from medieval mysticism in her early poems. From early on, she saw her devotion to socialism as a kind of religion, with herself as prophetess. During her membership of the SDAP, her political writing was pretty consistently materialist, but she had not internalized this materialism, it seems. In her poetry and literary biographies, Henriette was always talking about sacrifice, duty, and love.

There is an interesting relationship between HRH’s poetry and her actions as a party member. Her status as a poet, her devotion to the cause, and the sizable donations she and Rik made to the SDAP quickly led to a prominent place in the party. Henriette tirelessly produced articles for the party’s weekly magazine and familiarized herself with Marxist theory and international socialist politics at a dazzling tempo. She corresponded regularly with Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, and Leon Trotsky, whom she met at the congresses of the Second International.

Both HRH’s successes and her failures in politics were influenced by her close contacts with other prominent European socialists, especially Kautsky. There was little she did or wrote that she did not ask his advice on. After her leading role in the strike of 1903 — the largest the Netherlands had ever seen — Kautsky suggested that she write a book in German on the subject of the mass strike. Strikes had been a topic of heated debate among the Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, SPD) for years. If its critics called this weapon “a knife in the hands of children,” the Dutch example was an inspiration to Social Democrats in Germany who had seen no similar mass strike and who followed the events of 1903 with interest and even envy. Not that this strike was a particular success: it just wasn’t a spectacular failure. HRH was in the leadership of the SDAP at the time — and was actually opposed to a call to strike coming from the party; if the workers wanted to fight, the party should support them, she argued, but they and not the SDAP should take the initiative. The specific circumstances of 1903 notwithstanding, HRH believed that the general strike was the mode of socialist resistance par excellence. Her book Mass Strike and Social Democracy became very influential within the SPD, further solidifying her reputation as an international intellectual.

Her political choices weren’t always consistent — upon a split in the SDAP in 1909, when the revolutionary Tribune group including Gorter formed a separate party, she sided with the reformists after years of arguing against them. But her political choices were always characterized by conviction and a certain self-righteousness. In her poetry, there is a lot more room for self-doubt. Her first poetry collection as a socialist, The New Birth, can be read as an account of bourgeois guilt and radical joy and inspiration. But there is also a distinct grief over the loss of bourgeois life: Henriette writes about the loveliness that she leaves behind, both as bourgeois and as a woman, to embrace a life of necessary struggle.

Born at the turn of the times

In our eyes still the decline

Of old worlds that fade

Our lips furled for a new salute,

With a double ache our hearts pine

For bygone dreams that we have lost,

For the new ones whose blooms await —

So we must roam through bitter years

A struggle always and a want;

All moves within us like a flood

When it recedes sometimes we seem to die.

In the Woods

Socialism, it seems, had given HRH the kiss of life, but the life it promised was in a future that was not yet within reach. The melancholy and divided poet, however, is absent from her political life and her propaganda for the party. Henriette’s poetry functioned in part as a space for critical reflection, particularly after disappointments in politics, of which there would be many in her long life. After the split in the SDAP, which nearly cost her friendship with Gorter, Henriette could not stay with the reformists long. She was pulled in two directions: Luxemburg and Kautsky cautioned her against being a politician without a party, but the sectarian character of the new party that the split-off radical faction had formed was also unattractive to her. In 1911 she became partyless.

This drifting state made Henriette deeply unhappy, but it was also the inspiration for her most lauded works of poetry: The Woman in the Woods and Sunken Borders. Here she gives voice to the desperate loneliness she felt at the time. She had poured her heart and soul into the SDAP and worked herself half to death writing and editing leftist publications, going to meetings, and organizing actions. When all of this fell away, she was left with a husband she had barely seen for years and a lot of estranged friends. The woman in the woods is a mystic, a lover of all mankind who can’t manage to live among men but has boundless wisdom to offer them. She asks herself whether it was not unwise to bring her “fragile, feminine heart” into battle with her but concludes that it is precisely this softness of heart that will become the foundation of socialist society. “The softer powers will surely win in the end: this would become Henriette Roland Holst’s most famous line.

But before we get to that point, there is struggle, and in this case, more specifically, revolution. She might not have been the prophet of socialism she fancied herself, but HRH did have a knack for anticipating which way the wind blows. She had started learning Russian in the early 1900s, and, by the time the revolution came around, she had unique access to news and contacts in Soviet Russia, which she then visited in 1921. Later, when she had already “gone soft” according to some of her contemporaries, she was very quick to take action against fascism and colonialism, which she also saw as a form of fascism.

HRH’s friendship with Trotsky started at the Zimmerwald antiwar conference in 1915, a major step toward the later formation of the Communist International, which she attended as sole representative of the Netherlands. She was still without a party at this point, but during the first years of World War I, she used her still considerable influence and her talents as a political writer and public speaker to draw the discussion away from war-and-peace rhetoric and toward international class solidarity. The success of her efforts was a little underwhelming, but it did earn her an invitation to join the cream of the European leftist crop in Switzerland.

She and Trotsky stayed up late together to work on a draft for the Zimmerwald manifesto, which was to formulate the position of the European antiwar socialists. In her biography, Henriette suggestively quotes Trotsky concluding the collaboration with the words “And now, let us go to bed. . . .”. It is unlikely that the two became lovers, but Trotsky did make a great impression on HRH, and he and Alexandra Kollontai would become her window into the developments of the Russian Revolution, by which she became completely enthralled.

The revolution of 1917 was not the great triumph HRH had anticipated. First of all, the world war had not been a catalyst for the world revolution, as many intellectuals on the Left had hoped it would be. Henriette herself had led the failed attempt at a revolution in the Netherlands in 1918. But after the news of the brutal killing of Karl Liebknecht and Luxemburg to suppress the Spartacist uprising, it became clear that it wasn’t going to happen for Western Europe. But hope still dawned in the East. Henriette proudly called herself a communist, joined the Dutch Communist Party, and acted as a liaison between the USSR and different European branches of the Communist International.

However, by the time she undertook the illegal and dangerous journey to Moscow, now a middle-aged woman in questionable health, doubts about the methods of the party had already divided the new Dutch Communist Party, with Gorter once again in the opposition, arguing against repression, and Roland Holst on the side of the majority. She had not defended the massacre of revolutionary sailors at Kronstadt but cautioned the Left to not let this unfortunate mistake damage their solidarity with the Soviets. When Kollontai sought HRH’s support for the Workers’ Opposition at the Tenth Congress of the Russian Communist Party in Moscow in March 1921, she let her down in favor of closeness to Vladimir Lenin and Trotsky.

The “softer powers” must have been far from her mind: HRH became the official advocate of party discipline, one of the few Western Europeans trusted by Moscow. It would take Joseph Stalin’s purges of party ranks to convince her that the Soviet Union was not the socialist society she had envisaged. Slowly but surely, Henriette let the party go.

Moral Reeducation

Her heart was broken. And like any truly shattering heartbreak, it led her to examine who she was and what kind of foundation she had left for her politics and her poetry, for her entire life, in fact. In this moment, she started giving a political form to what had been alive in her poetry for years — a deeply moral, religious love for mankind. Her analysis of the failure, as she came to think of it, of the Russian Revolution was that the moral faculties of the proletariat were not developed toward love for the human race as a whole; that before there could be a revolution, there had to be a moral reeducation, encompassing all spheres of life. Henriette reinvented socialism for herself as a kind of communitarian anti-colonialist religion. This view is not so far removed from where she started, as a young poet seeking a place in the world for her art: a socialism that could take the place of Christianity.

To play the amateur psychohistorian, one could say that there were two competing tendencies in HRH’s politics, which proved at times mutually exclusive. The first was the deep desire to matter, to be close to the people she saw as heroes, perhaps to be such a hero herself. If there was ever a hero poet in the Netherlands, HRH was it: her poetry, and her persona as a rebel poet, were adored. It was predicted future readers would learn the Dutch language just to be able to read her work. One influential critic placed her on a par with Dante and Homer. And this was not just the Left, who were pretty sick of her half of the time — she had a wide and diverse audience. It was through the political quality of her poems and not in spite of it that she was so popular: she was one of the first poets in her literary landscape to forge the political into deeply lived, complete poetry, which even those who disagreed with her could identify with. Where Herman Gorter’s socialist poems were cosmic and theoretical, in her poetry HRH never lost sight of the human efforts to put theory into practice, and of the tremendous failures in doing so.

The other tendency is that of the preacher. Henriette had a true zeal, which made her both vulnerable to communist dogmatism but also, once disillusioned, one of its most formidable critics. The basis of her socialism was always morality, a dogma unto itself, not based on argument but on supposedly universal intuitions — not unlike religious revelations. A purely moral socialism will, in the end, become indistinguishable from religion. Yet her deep personal connection to socialism did lead her to work hard for the cause and produce the poetry that succeeded, at times, in what her politics so often failed at: inspiring and radicalizing the people.

The role of morality in socialism can be rhetorical and useful in propaganda but should not be foundational. An approach like HRH’s places all blame and all hope for salvation on people’s ability to change their consciousness. But different, materialist responses to the corruption of the 1917 revolution are possible, and more illuminating. Replacing reality with moral ideals will lead to disappointment or worse — now, as it did then.