May 19, 2009

Abraham Kupyer and the transformation of Dutch Politics

As this previous post has shown Dutch Politics in the 1870's was loosely divided between the "throne and altar" classic 19th century conservatives (though given they Calvinists it might be better called throne and pulpit) based on traditional protestant elites and the dominant secularizing and reforming liberals based on secularizing and Catholic elites. This changed out of all recognition in the late 19th and early 20th century-and the path that as followed was very sharply different from the extremely similar society of Germany. I submit that Abraham Kuyper played a key and unequalled role in shaping this transformation.

Firstly he created a modern mass party. The Anti-Revolutionary Party (ARP) founded by him in 1879 became essentially the first proper mass party in Holland. Candidates were mostly decided centrally it had a mass membership and organized support on a mass scale with a centrally decided programme and ideology. The infrastructure and approach was increasingly populist- rather than based on the support and local networks of traditionalist aristocrats and clergyman (in sharp contrast to the Conservatives) to us this sounds obvious but in the Dutch Politics of the era it was a revolution. There is a decent case the first non Catholic non Social Democratic party in Germany (ie the first to appeal to a near majority of the pop ululation) to do this was the Nazis. To the party that would pioneer this approach enormous electoral strength was on offer to take another example arguably the early success of the US democrats owed something to such innovation. At the same time the increasing centralization and populism of -the ARP were behind in part nearly all the numerous breakaways form the ARP in its early period. Many leading ARP's rejected the notion of a central party -a clash that looms large in the politics of many states in the period. Thus paradoxically Creeper’s ARP served both to mobilize and unite traditionalist Protestants-and to split them

Secondly he reshaped the religious cleavages of Dutch Politics an effort over decades before even the formation of the ARP. While previous conservative politicians had sought to appeal to relatively sympathetic Protestant liberals he sought to realign the whole political spectrum by forming an alliance with Catholics who also opposed late 19th century secularization particularly but by no means exclusively in the schools. This meant a willingness to reverse a previous insistence on education in the state church and to at least downplay the previous hostility to legalization of Catholic bishoprics. The rewards were immense a new Catholic party could be formed which rapidly became one of the largest part. In the era before World War 1 (when Holland had a First Past the Post election system) this also meant in the religiously mixed cities catholic votes could be available to the ARP. A silent religious minority in cities. This alliance has to represent one of the most extraordinarily successful in western history. Marginalized at first by the early 20th century this alliance was alternating in power with the liberals. In the interwar period it had a permant parliamentary majority and was the governing force-only divisions within it temporarily cracked it and the oppostion only mattere for policy insofar as they could exploit . They had some sucess with anti-Catholicism in the 1920's and deficit spending and a reflationary currency in the late 1930's ( in the latter case it was of course onl the Social Democrats-by that point by far the largest of the secular parties.But It was not till post war that the coalition ceased and not till the 1960's that the votes for religious parties fell below half the vote (withal consequent)

Thirdly and in part in order to justify this new alliance Kuyper helped develop a new ideology of "spheres" in place of the old idea of a Confessional State in every walk of life it was now to be accepted that every religious and philosophical tradition had a right to organize itself-including in accessing the state such as educational funds. To this day this guarantee remains in the Dutch Constriction and means the supposedly arch secular Netherlands has the largest percentage of Children at religious schools in Protestant Europe. The sphere concept perhaps even more than his party innovations coalesced a group of more conservative dissenters who ultimately united in the Christian Historical party.

Fourthly partly motivated by a belief in the Piety of the electorate and partly by principle (ideally Kuyper believed in householder franch8ise) Kuyper pushed for extensions of the franchise culminating in the extension to universal adult suffrage immediately after World War 1. Indeed a party broke away from the ARP in protest at the extension to women-this party still opposes female suffrage and exists in the Dutch parliament to this day.

Now obviously just about all these developments had roots in what had already happened - the coalition of secularists and Catholics was an inherently unstable one for example and the franchise was being extended across Europe in this period particularly in the wake of World War 1. But I submit Kuyper was crucial in shaping the result. Christian parties pioneered populist policies. The result was that by the interwar period the drift to secularization had ended and the Netherlands was a fairly stable though deeply divided liberal democracy. It had universal suffrage and a government whose governing ideology put huge limits on the role of the state in the economy and Society. The example of Germany shows that this was not some inevitable result of history but owed a lot to human agency. And the most important agent here was Kuyper. His example also is a warning about certian assumptons historians of the last 200 years are vulnerable to. In particular the notion of increasing secularisation, or the more generally telogical that trends will continue. In the Netherlands by contrast so powerfull was the religous revivial that in the post war era both the Social Democrats (by no coincidance now reborn as Labour instead despite being the result of a merger wtih two very small parties) and even more the libeals did their best to distance themsleves from their secular roots-reluctantly coming to terms with Kryper and the ARP's enormous legacy.

The picture above shows the ARP (n a poster of 1946) as it saw itself fighting the principles of the French Revolution (whether in liberal or Socialist guise) on behalf of Protestantism and Christianity.