The Dutch Revolt: a social analysis

Issue: 116
Posted: 1 October 07

Pepijn Brandon

For those who have followed this journal over the years, it is hardly necessary to explain the importance to Marxism of the study of the phenomena called “bourgeois revolutions”.1 Among the contributors to the journal can be found some outstanding scholars, mainly in the field of the English Civil War. Foremost among them, of course, was the late Brian Manning. This journal has also defended the concept of bourgeois revolution both against the revisionist attack that seeks to relegate it to the dustbin of history altogether,2 and against those working in the school of Robert Brenner who want to radically dissociate bourgeois revolutions from the transition from feudalism to capitalism.3

The Dutch Revolt of the 16th century is probably the most neglected of the “classical” bourgeois revolutions. But this has not always been the case. In the years immediately preceding the French Revolution the Dutch Revolt even became something of a cause celebre. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a play called Egmont, about two of the principal characters involved in the independence struggle against the Spanish Habsburgs. Ludwig van Beethoven composed his Egmont Overture. And Friedrich Schiller even wrote a history of the Dutch Revolt.4

In this, as in so many other respects, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels followed their enlightenment predecessors. Although they only made a small number of scattered remarks on the Dutch Revolt and the Dutch Republic, it is clear they saw the revolt as one of the constitutive moments in the historic rise of the bourgeoisie. In 1848, Marx wrote, “The model for the revolution of 1789 was (at least in Europe) only the [English] revolution of 1648; that for the revolution of 1648 only the revolt of the Netherlands against Spain”.5 And in the first volume of Capital Marx famously described the Dutch Republic as “the model capitalist nation of the 16th century”.6

However, in 20th century socialist historiography, the dominant view saw the English Revolution as the first real bourgeois revolution, and the Dutch Revolt as at best a rather quaint prelude. Eric Hobsbawm influenced many with his argument that the Netherlands after the revolt remained “in many respects a ‘feudal business’ economy; a Florence, Antwerp or Augsburg on a semi-national scale”.7 More recently Ellen Meiksins Wood has developed a very similar argument, stating that “the Dutch Republic enjoyed its Golden Age not as a capitalist economy but as the last and most highly developed non-capitalist commercial society”.8 If the end result of the revolt was not a bourgeois society then talk of a Dutch bourgeois revolution becomes pointless.

Eastern European “Communist” historians did argue the Dutch Revolt was bourgeois, but developed a separate historical category for the upheavals of the 16th century, calling them “early bourgeois revolutions”.9 In a sense this was the Stalinist “stages theory” projected backwards, creating an artificial rift between rigidly separated phases of the development of the bourgeoisie. This approach measured every event against the French Revolution as the sacred model for all bourgeois revolutions before and after 1789.

Until now these arguments have not been systematically countered. A tiny body of literature from a Marxist point of view does exist, but it has left scarcely a mark on the huge output of historical work on the Dutch Revolt.10 The one notable exception is a book by a German social democrat exile, Erich Kuttner, which translates as “Hunger Year 1566”.11 His was not the first attempt to describe the activities and motives of the lower classes during the opening act of the revolution—the iconoclast fury of 1566—but it was the most serious one to date. Unfortunately, however great his contribution, it is marred by a crude materialism that has made it easy prey for critics. He often seems to treat the 1566 events as a semi_proletarian uprising sparked by a grain crisis and diverted by the bourgeoisie into an attack on the churches. Not only is this an anachronistic view of 16th century social relations, but it also does little justice to the profound ideological convulsions that helped shape events, not least among the lower classes.

Despite those shortcomings, few historians now deny Kuttner’s central argument that “the economy” was a factor in the development of the revolt. However, many have done so in the same way as Van Nierop, who relegates the economic background and social questions to secondary factors among a plurality of causes.12 Thus the study of the Dutch Revolt inside the Netherlands over the past decades has been characterised by a sort of “revisionism without much to revise”. The goal of this article is to give an overview of events that is critical of the prevailing “splintered image” and in the process suggest some directions for the development of an alternative view. 13

The Low Countries in the 16th century: winds of change

For the whole of Europe, the 16th century was an age of change and insecurity. The discovery and violent opening up of the Americas changed the face of the globe. At the same time European society itself underwent dramatic changes. Between 1500 and 1550 the population increased by almost 15 percent, from 61.6 to 70.2 million.14 Urbanisation was an important aspect of this growth. Between 1500 and 1550 the number of cities with more than 10,000 inhabitants grew from 154 to 173, and in the next 50 years to 220. The main centres of growth were the Low Countries, France, Italy and the Iberian peninsula. For a small number of metropolises, growth was spectacular. Antwerp doubled in size from 1500 to 1560, becoming a city of 100,000 inhabitants. In the course of the 16th century the population of Paris grew from 100,000 to 200,000 and that of London from 60,000 to 200,000.15

Figure 1: The Dutch Revolt c.1600
Figure 1

This growth meant social as well as geographical change. In a century when much of the European countryside was still in the tight grip of feudal bonds, the cities became laboratories for all sorts of political, religious, social and economic experimentation.16 But we should never forget that they were also, in the words of Andrew Pettegree, “great killing fields, particularly prone to epidemic disease and the illnesses caused by poor sanitation and dirty water”.17

The growth of the cities was very much connected to the economic changes of this period. At the end of the 15th and start of the 16th century, there arose what Immanuel Wallerstein has described as a “European world_economy”: a closely integrated system of states and city-states, tied together by the market.18 The “marketisation” of European society was not a new phenomenon, but the 16th century formed an important moment of transition, in which the market—at least in parts of western and northern Europe—began to become an inescapable regulating mechanism in the daily life of individuals and the economic life of states.

It is important to note here that commercialisation in itself was not the same as a transition to capitalism.19 But the rise of the market did play an important role as a transmission belt between the pockets of capitalist production that arose within the confines of feudal society. This was certainly true for the Low Countries, the region that roughly coincides with the current states of Belgium and the Netherlands. In the course of the 14th and 15th centuries this area had become one of the main commercial centres of Europe. The rise of capitalist relations in agriculture was an important factor in this. From very early on peasants were free of feudal bonds and owned a considerable portion of the land.20 Exceptional ecological circumstances, especially in the seaboard provinces, had forced peasants into an early adaptation to market oriented agriculture.

However, this early shift away from more traditional forms of sustenance based agriculture was only possible because it coincided with the rise of large urban centres of production and trade, primarily driven by the rise of the Flemish textile industry, which provided the necessary markets for the commercial products of the land—and the possibility of importing large quantities of grain.21

Subsequent developments resulted in an economy that was highly diversified, extremely commercialised and dependent on the growing European market. The level of urbanisation was higher than anywhere else in the world. By 1550 there were 23 cities with over 10,000 inhabitants, compared to four in Britain. By 1600 the number had grown to 30, of which 12 were located in the north western province of Holland. More than one in four Dutch lived in towns of over 10,000 inhabitants.22 Although most of those involved in urban production were independent or semi-dependent small producers rather than workers, their position had become highly dependent on capital and trade, both to provide them with the means of production and for their private consumption. Fluctuating grain prices became the means by which the world market brutally entered the lives of the lower classes.23

But the rise of the market also had a profound impact on the other side of the social scale. This was the age of feudal empires, of which Habsburg Spain was the first and foremost. The new monarchies balanced between the class interests of aristocratic landowners and the new power of commercial wealth. The banking capital of the Swiss Fugger family became the grease for a nearly endless bout of noble wars. The Spanish Habsburgs and the French Valois alone fought 11 wars from 1494 to 1559. Those wars were a powerful engine for the formation of centralised absolutist states. In order to increase their independence from local lords the kings at the top of the feudal hierarchy created enormous mercenary armies financed by the taxation of the urban capitalist elites.24 Meanwhile, as Perry Anderson has noted, “no other major absolutist state in Western Europe was to be so finally noble in character, or so inimical to bourgeois development” as the Spanish empire to which the Low Countries belonged.25

By the 1540s the Habsburg emperor Charles V had by marriage and conquest acquired all 17 Dutch provinces, thereby tying them together into one political unit for the first time. Their representatives—traditionally appointed from the three estates of nobles, clergymen and burghers— came together in Brussels, which became a huge administrative centre. Feudalism, which had very weak local roots outside the southern and eastern provinces, was present mainly as a Spanish import. And it was the integration into the Habsburg empire, more than anything else, that tied the Low Countries to the big economic, political, military and religious upheavals that shaped the major crises of European feudalism in the 16th century. It is fair to say that the 16th century, rather than the 17th, formed the high point in the Netherlands of the “feudal business economy”.

The crisis of the Habsburg regime

The Spanish Habsburg rulers and the highly commercialised elites of the Low Countries, then, found themselves on opposite sides of the same development. The former tried to adapt to the new conditions by building a mighty empire melding both the wealthy trading cities and the powerful lords ruling over their heartlands. This required an attempt to stop the cracks opening up in the texture of feudal Europe by the rise of rival economic and political forces. The result was a policy of permanent warfare, dramatically increasing the taxation pressure on urban populations. The second plank of this strategy was to prop up the main ideological institution of European feudalism, the Catholic church, against the rise of Protestantism.

But for the commercial elites of the Low Countries, the ability to exploit the cracks opening up was imperative to the continuing growth of their wealth. Dynastic conflict caused the sudden and radical disruption of trading routes, like the closing of the Sont in the early 1560s, which caused a major disturbance of the grain market. And the repression of heresy was a direct threat to the interests of cities like Antwerp and Amsterdam that harboured many agents from German Lutheran states. Repression also weighed heavily on the urban small producers, many of whom were infected by the new radical religious ideas of the time.

Throughout the first half of the century those conflicting pressures had produced isolated incidents of revolt. In 1534 Anabaptists led by Jan Beukelsz, a tailor from the Dutch city of Leyden, had taken over the German city of Munster in order to create a new Jerusalem and bring forward the second coming of Christ. In the wake of this event groups of Anabaptists ran naked through the streets of Amsterdam to emphasise the equality of all men and women in the eyes of God, and later attempted to capture the cities of Amsterdam and Leyden by armed revolt. In 1540 the Flemish textile city of Ghent revolted against Charles V in order to protect its privileges. In the 1550s economic crisis ushered in a wave of urban revolts in Dutch cities.

Philip II, who had succeeded his father Charles V in 1555, tried to quell this rising opposition by increasing centralisation. In the management of the state, he favoured the growth of a noblesse de robe—educated burghers appointed to the nobility who could form a professional bureaucracy that did not, like the old noblesse d$7_$épée_, see their functions in the state as a way to further their own private interests. A major reform of the bishoprics insulated the Catholic church from local pressures and blocked the appointment of the younger sons of the nobility to high clerical position, thus closing off a favourable career route.

These policies sparked the first centralised opposition, led by three members of the Dutch higher nobility—Orange, Egmont and Horne. All three held high positions in the Spanish administration of the Netherlands but feared that the rise of members of the noblesse de robe to leading functions in the state apparatus would seriously damage their own standing. In 1564 they gained a major victory, forcing Philip II to withdraw one of his leading officials, the hated Cardinal Granvelle.

The oppositional members of the high nobility had in mind nothing more than peaceful reform from above, driven by conservative self-interest. But, as so often in history, the attempt at reform from above opened the road to revolution from below. As one perceptive high official noted in his memoirs on the start of the revolt, “The goddess of rage herself could not have found a better means for developing among the crowd the spirit of sedition”.26 And the biographer of Oldenbarnevelt, one of the leading statesmen in the first decades of the Dutch Republic, tells of the circumstances in which he first formed oppositional ideas directed at the religious policies of Philip II: “The whole of The Hague was in a commotion at the audacious behaviour of the young stadtholder [Orange] towards Cardinal Granvelle, prime minister to the Brussels government, and its almost incredible success in the departure of the hated cardinal on 13 March”.27

Popular Reformation

The Reformation formed the ideological background to the rising opposition movements of the 1560s. The relative openness of Dutch society, its urbanisation and its strategic position at a nodal point in the European exchange of both material goods and ideas, made it exceptionally susceptible to the spread of Reformation ideologies. The spread of heterodoxy among intellectual elites has traditionally received much attention. It was the moderate views of the Rotterdam philosopher Erasmus, who wanted to reform the existing Catholic church, and of Luther, who wanted to create a new church without challenging worldly authorities, that naturally most appealed to them. But in recent decades there has been a shift towards the study of the “popular Reformation” that spread among urban artisans, small traders, fishermen and workers.28 The greater mobility of the “middle sort”, provided by growing commercial contacts between cities, allowed for the rapid dissemination of networks of religious dissenters. Interestingly, women played a very significant role in this process—so much so that some historians have argued that the history of the Reformation in the Netherlands is a history of women.29

By the mid-16th century this popular Reformation was in full swing. There was a broad consensus about which practices of the “old church” had to be criticised. Many abhorred its corruption, its addiction to material wealth and its strict hierarchy in which it was impossible for lay people to influence church affairs. Rejection of the worshipping of the saints and of the Holy Sacrament of the host was common. There were instances of Protestants defiantly tearing the host apart, calling it a “God of bread”, because according to established dogma the flesh of Christ was present within it.30 One contemporary pamphlet condemned the priests for turning ecclesiastical institutions into shops for selling grace. A popular song shows a social element to the rejection of image-worshipping: “You dress these wooden blocks in velvet suits…and let God’s children go naked”.31

On the other hand, it was still unclear what should replace Catholicism. A huge variety of Protestant or semi-Protestant beliefs developed, often shaped by the tastes of local preachers and their audiences. This “Reformation from below” opened the gates to many varieties of radicalism. Anabaptism was the most successful. It became “the vanguard of the Dutch Reformation during the long period of gestation between 1530 and the 1560s”.32

With the rise of Anabaptism in the 1530s the challenge to religious orthodoxy had for the first time taken the shape of a more or less organised mass movement. But the defeat at Munster led to a period of sharp repression that drove Anabaptism deeply underground. Between 1524 and 1566, 403 persons were executed for heresy in the province of Holland and 265 in Flanders.33 Anabaptists bore the brunt of this repression. For the Holland textile city of Leyden alone I found a total of 65 executions of Anabaptists.34 In Antwerp (in the province of Brabant) between 1550 and 1566, 117 Anabaptists were executed, as against 14 “heretics” of different persuasions.35

By the 1550s, as a result of persecution and defeat, the mainstream of Anabaptism had sunk into a form of spiritual quietism, seeking to escape the pressures of the world by forming their own closed communities, rejecting their revolutionary past and preaching pacifism. Although they retained a massive following, reflected in the high numbers of martyrs, their flight from the world made it impossible for them to give a lead when, in the late 1550s, dire economic conditions and political changes led to new outbursts of revolt. By the late 1560s Calvinism had replaced Anabaptism as the leading force—at least in the southern provinces. The Calvinists were more conservative than the Anabaptists in their visions of equality or relations between the sexes. But they were willing to make an appeal to the masses in order to enforce change and they were ready to take on the state. As Tawney wrote in his famous book on religion and the rise of capitalism, “Calvinism was an active and radical force. It was a creed which sought, not merely to purify the individual, but to reconstruct church and state, and to renew society by penetrating every department of life, public as well as private, with the influence of religion”.36

The religious radicalisms of the 16th century were, of course, in no sense “pure” expressions of class consciousness. For one thing, they preached class collaboration (between the “good believers”) rather than class struggle. But this does not mean that the radical, popular Reformation was a purely religious phenomenon, devoid of social meaning. Ivo Schöffer is one of the historians who has drawn attention to these social aspects of the attacks on the church in the Netherlands:

The official Roman Catholic church had become part and parcel of existing society, and as one of the intermediaries between authority and the common man its clergy were blamed for anything which went wrong in that society. Poverty, unemployment, inflation, taxes, corruption, all seemed to have something to do with clergy and church.37

Indeed, reformatory texts of the 1560s are full of attacks on the elevated social status of the priesthood based on robbery of “the people”.38 Criticisms of the mass, processions, the cult of images and of the sacraments (baptism, confession, etc) were often tightly bound to a rejection of the role of money in religious practices, and especially of the burden this put on the “working man”.39 And by defending the idea of the “priesthood of all believers”, they powerfully affirmed the right of ordinary people to have a say in religious matters. Petrus Bloccius, for example, protested that the “papists” treated the people as “horses and mules in which there is no sensibility”, because they “prohibited artisans, householders and schoolmasters, etc, from reading God’s word”.40 And when an Antwerp priest, during a discussion on communion, told the Anabaptist Hans Bret that he should make himself useful as a sugar baker or spice seller and leave theological questions to those who dedicated their life to studying scripture, Hans asked where the apostle Paul “had studied or gone to school”.41

Sometimes radicalism went further than just attacking the clergy and spilled over into attacks on the rich—although staying within the frame of religious criticism. So the Catholic observer Marcus van Vaernewyck quoted preachers in the environs of Antwerp as saying:

It would be of no use…to attack the papists if one could not at the same time defeat the bourgeoisie, which, because of personal interest, would always try to maintain the clerical regime. In practice, the convents are the galleys to which the rich and the bourgeois send some of their children for the purpose of freeing and enriching one, two or three of their other children.42

While those ideas did not amount to a programme for social revolution, they did embolden ordinary people to intervene in political and religious affairs in a sustained and radical way. Throughout the Dutch Revolt the conflict between the nobles and magistrates trying to give direction to the events and the social strata below them was framed in language derived from this popular Reformation. Religious mass movements and popular opposition to the Habsburg regime intertwined to give the first stages of the Dutch Revolt their extraordinary dynamism. Accounts that simply counterpose religious beliefs to social and economic motivations create a false juxtaposition.

The Dutch Revolt: main events

The aim of this article is not to give an overview of events during the Dutch Revolt, but to provide some alternative analyses.43 Any description of the main events can be but a summary. After all, the war that finally gained the seven northern provinces their independence took a complete epoch, ending only with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The period that I would describe as the “revolutionary phase” of this war, when mass involvement from below was still essential for success (at least in parts of the country), covers two decades, from 1566 to the end of the 1580s. Arguably, though, the party struggle during the 12 years’ truce from 1609 to 1621 contained a rerun of some elements of this revolutionary phase, though in completely altered circumstances and without the spontaneous and independent character of popular intervention. There is a huge difference in the course of the revolt across regions and even individual cities, and probably it would be fair to say the revolt was actually made up of a large number of local uprisings, all of which adds to the complexity of events. Furthermore, for a more or less comprehensive picture these local uprisings should be seen in the context of a highly volatile international situation, where military actions between the Spanish empire and the Turks, or diplomatic shifts between European rulers, could suddenly alter the balance of forces between different parties inside the Netherlands.44 In this article there is no room for more than a brief sketch of the main phases the revolt went through.

The wave of iconoclasm (literally the destruction of sacred images) and its aftermath in 1566-7, known in Dutch as the Beeldenstorm, formed the real opening act of the revolt. In April 1566, 200 members of the lesser nobility marched through Brussels to plead with the governess, Margaretha, to moderate the “-placards” (strict anti-heresy laws). It was at this point that one of Margaretha’s advisers condescendingly called the nobles “beggars” (gueux), giving them the title that they would bear throughout the revolt. Not knowing how to respond to their demands, Margaretha decided to temporarily suspend persecution. This opened the floodgates. Throughout the spring and summer thousands gathered outside city walls to listen to so called “hedge sermons”, mainly conducted by Calvinist preachers. Authorities tried to quell the tide, but the movement grew far beyond their control. One chronicler describes how in Antwerp town officials stood at the gates to make lists of those wanting to go to the sermon:

However, the crowd was so big, that it became impossible to complete the task. Everyone called out their names and surnames, saying: “Write me down! Write me down!”, in order to get through as quickly as possible. In the end…the officials, seeing the uselesness of their efforts, threw down their lists… Ten to twelve thousand went to the sermon.45

On 10 August 1566, after a hedge sermon outside Steenvoorde, the Flemish hat maker and preacher Sebastian Matte led the congregation into a chapel and sacked it. In the next few days bands of iconoclasts attacked other churches in the neighbourhood. Within two weeks the Beeldenstorm spread throughout the southern Netherlands. On 20 August, the magnificent cathedral of Antwerp was sacked. On 24 August, the Beeldenstorm reached Valenciennes, a textile town with a long history of Protestant militancy.46 The Beeldenstorm lost much of its spontaneous character while travelling north. In Holland iconoclasm only took a form similar to that in the south in the cities of Amsterdam, Delft, Leyden and Brill. In most other cities local magistrates or noblemen took a decision to empty the churches of images in order to prevent a recurrence of the Antwerp events.47

The massive upsurge from below took the authorities by surprise. Significantly, however, it was the Dutch nobility that suppressed the revolt. Faced with the spontaneous actions of the poor and the middle sort, a large majority of the former oppositionists went over to the side of the government. Egmont had a leading role in the siege of Valencienne, and the smashing of this last bulwark of resistance.48 Orange took a compromise position. Against the wish of Margaretha, he assisted town governments granting limited rights to reformed congregations, though never to Anabaptists. But during the counter-revolutionary campaign of 1567 this compromise position became untenable, and Orange actively prevented Antwerp Calvinists from coming to the aid of a Beggars force being slaughtered just outside the gates.49

The active intervention of the majority of the nobility on the side of the authorities ensured that the first revolt was suppressed six months before the arrival of the Duke of Alva, the feudal hardliner sent at the head of an army of 10,000 to punish the Low Countries. For Philip II of Spain mere suppression was not enough. In a letter written in January 1568 Alva described his mission in the Netherlands:

Everyone must be made to live in constant fear of the roof breaking down over his head. Thus will the towns comply with what will be ordained for them, private persons will offer high ransoms, and the states will not dare to refuse what is proposed to them in the king’s name.50

Among the first victims of his terror were Egmont and Horne. They were so certain that their role in 1566-7 had regained them the trust of the king that they rode out to welcome Alva to the Netherlands. Around 1,000 people were executed by Alva’s special court and 9,000 condemned to banishment and loss of property.51

Among those fleeing the Netherlands was William of Orange. In 1568 he made an unsuccessful attempt to defeat Alva by a military campaign conducted from the German castle of Dillenburg, where he had been born. Other bands of refugees, calling themselves Beggars, waged a guerrilla struggle from the woods and the sea. None of those attempts to liberate the Low Countries from outside or from above posed a serious threat to Alva’s regime. But they did keep alive a spirit of resistance. At the same time heightened oppression, religious persecution, Alva’s attempt to levy a 10 percent tax on trade and the dislocation of the Dutch economy, caused, among other factors, by the continuous military activities on the periphery of the Low Countries, created the conditions for a new uprising.

The second phase of the revolt started off with a chance accident. On 1 April 1572 “Sea Beggars” who had been driven from their English base by Queen Elizabeth I captured the small Holland town of Brill by surprise. This sparked uprisings in the fishing towns of Flushing in Zealand and Enkhuysen in the north of Holland. Within three months all the major towns in Holland and Zealand, with the important exceptions of Amsterdam and Middelburg, had been brought into the revolt by a combination of uprisings from below, and pressure from Beggar forces and oppositional members of the urban elite. In a truly revolutionary act the towns of Holland called a free meeting of the states, which reinstated William of Orange as stadtholder, “responsible for protecting the country from foreign tyrants and oppressors and restoring its ancient rights and privileges”.52

In the years that followed Alva and his successors tried to recapture the rebellious provinces. But their attempts were unsuccessful: the revolt had gained a firm military foothold in the cities of Holland and Zealand. The city of Haarlem was defended by its population for eight months before being captured by superior Spanish forces. Alkmaar and Leyden withstood the Spanish siege.53

The military activities in Holland and Zealand seriously depleted Spanish financial resources and in 1576 a mutiny started among underpaid Spanish soldiers in the southern Netherlands. After the sacking of Antwerp by Spanish troops the southern provinces agreed—against the wishes of the Spanish authorities—to the “Pacification of Ghent”, which reunited them with the rebellious provinces in the north. This act opened the third and decisive stage of the revolt.

The Pacification of Ghent consisted of a complex compromise, in which the provinces formally accepted Habsburg authority, but in practice steered an independent course. The compromise was symbolised by the policy of religious peace, which granted the Catholic church a privileged position in all provinces except Holland and Zealand. However, the compromise was undercut from two sides. On the one hand, the majority of the still influential southern nobles actively sought reconciliation with the Habsburg authorities. On the other hand, a strong “pro-war party” emerged within the major southern and eastern towns, consisting of Calvinists, the city militias and the artisan guilds.54

When Philip II’s new envoy, Don Juan, captured the city of Namur and tried to conquer Antwerp in the summer of 1577, this triggered a new wave of urban uprisings. Now the popular opposition started to take power in a series of southern towns in order to purge them of all potential traitors and waverers. In Brussels a “committee of 18” was elected from the guild corporations to oversee the preparations for the defence of the city. This committee proceeded to take control of the town council. In Antwerp, a month later, demonstrators demolished the city bastion.

In Ghent the revolution took its most radical course. Here a committee of 18 took power and established a truly popular dictatorship. Street gatherings formed the core of this “democratic” experiment. One of the principal spokespeople for the southern nobility, the Duke of Aarschot, was placed under arrest, together with two other nobles, two bishops and a number of city magistrates. Armed contingents were formed from the urban poor. New acts of iconoclasm were followed by a general ban on the Catholic church. Henceforth, Ghent became the centre of the revolt in Flanders. Groups of armed volunteers were sent from the city to purge the administration in all surrounding towns and villages. Similar events took place in many northern towns that had remained loyal to Spain. Most importantly, the Amsterdam magistracy was purged in 1578.

The compromise position, still defended by William of Orange, now broke down. Many nobles openly joined the Spanish side and open warfare resumed on a large scale. The southern provinces bore the brunt of the attacks. But, unlike Holland and Zealand in the previous period, they never managed to stage a united defence. The Holland and Zealand states had been firmly under the control of the city elites, who often wavered but, in an emergency, could be pressured into united and coordinated military action. The southern states, however, remained the battlegrounds for warring factions, and the militant revolutionary committees in the cities continued to compete for leadership even in the face of Spanish troops and their supporters among the nobility. The Protestant cities in the south were captured one by one. Individual cities were defended by their inhabitants, but there was no major attempt at a counter-offensive. In July 1583 Orange transferred his headquarters to Holland. A month later the States General transferred their gathering from Antwerp to Middelburg in Zealand, later moving to The Hague. In the summer of 1585 the fall of Antwerp concluded the successful counter-revolution in the south.55

The northern provinces survived the fall of Antwerp. In response to the defeats in the south they forged an even closer unity. In 1581, with the Act of Abjuration, they had formally rejected the overlordship of Philip II, thereby making a major gain for the idea of people’s sovereignty as opposed to the sacred rights of kings. The new regime survived the murder of the Prince of Orange in 1583 and fought off attempts by foreign nobles, such as the French Duke of Anjou and the Duke of Leicester, to bring the state under the dominance of a new royal. Throughout the 1580s the “States of Holland” also intervened to curb popular influence on city governments, starting with the declaration of 1581 that prohibited town magistrates from consulting city militias on political affairs.56

When, in 1588, the Dutch Republic was established in the seven northern provinces, Holland called the shots. During the 1590s the war gradually moved from a land war within the Dutch provinces to a sea war fought mainly in the colonies. By then the new Dutch rulers could use their economic and military strength to start to build their own colonial empire, directly rivalling and eventually surpassing the Spanish Empire.

Class struggle and the Dutch Revolt

Can the Dutch Revolt be described in terms of class struggle? Two objections have traditionally been raised against any attempt to do so. First, it has been argued that the role of the nobles in opposition to the Habsburg Empire precludes any talk of class. Second, it has been argued that class could not have been a determining factor because none of the contending forces within the revolt saw their role mainly in terms of class.

Let us start with the second objection. However true this point might be, the fact that people do not rationalise their position in society in terms of class does not mean they do not belong to one. Marx long ago argued there is a difference between a class in itself, objectively bound by a common relation to the process of production, and a class for itself, bound by a conscious recognition of its collective role in struggle. There are good reasons why, in particular, the suppressed classes in pre-modern society could not develop this kind of consciousness. Rural and urban small producers formed the backbone of the producing classes. Many of the wage earners below them were socially bound to those small producers by guild relations or other forms of bond service. The poor, forming the lowest 20 percent of city populations, were living as lumpen proletarians rather than modern workers. Although shared deprivation might from time to time drive those groups together and unify their aims, they could not overcome their individual positions in society. As small producers, they were strongly bound to “vertical” cross-class networks such as guilds or the (imaginary) “urban community”. Local divisions and sectional interests set different groups among the oppressed against each other. Leadership over this class was in a way “imputed” by the unifying force of religious dissent.57

Within those limitations, however, I have tried to show that the radical Reformation that played such a significant role during the most radical stages of the Dutch Revolt contained many implicit and explicit elements of social critique. The violent intervention of the “middle sort” in city government and religious affairs further emboldened them, as in the case of the skipper from Alkmaar, who declared that “in the breaking [of religious images] he had felt such a power as he had never had before”.58

Furthermore, the betrayal of large parts of the nobility in the course of the revolt created more secular expressions of social radicalism as well. For the first time people started to realise that government is not necessarily the domain of those from higher origin. One pamphlet argued that the virtues demanded of those in office did not depend on “long sleeves”. Other pamphlets attested that the nobility had to be driven out by force in order to achieve change.59 This suggests that, though a deeper understanding of the nature of social hierarchy did not emerge out of the revolt, elements of the realities of class relationships did make an impression on at least some of those involved.

This brings me to the other objection, regarding the mixed class composition of the opposition to Habsburg rule which arose in the 1560s. Again, to most Marxists, this would come as no surprise. Reflecting on the experience of the German Revolution of 1848, Frederick Engels wrote that most revolutions start by uniting people across classes. But, he continued, “it is the fate of all revolutions that this union of different classes, which in some degree is always the necessary condition of every revolution, cannot subsist long”.60 The rise of the opposition of the nobility certainly was one of the preconditions of the Dutch Revolt. To thousands of people it unmasked the image of power projected by the Habsburg rulers, and it created the political crisis in which the eventual outburst of 1566 could take place, just as the “aristocratic revolution” of the 1780s helped to create the political conditions for the storming of the Bastille.61

However, the outbreak of the revolt also meant the break up of the noble opposition. Faced with a revolution from below, the majority position of the nobility was not that of the Beggar captains or William of Orange, but that of Egmont, of Rennenberg (who in 1580 led the defection of the northern province of Groningen to the Spanish side) and of the southern nobles like Aarschot who led the counter-revolution in the southern Netherlands. Those who did join the side of the revolt remained in leading positions in the Dutch army and state. But in social terms, the revolution they led dethroned them. The case of William of Orange is highly illustrative. In 1568 he tried to invade the Netherlands as the leader of a princely revolt of the traditional kind, and failed. When he returned to the Netherlands victoriously in 1572 it was at the head of a revolt in which the social balance had shifted decisively towards urban elites. And any attempt of his to seek a compromise with foreign rulers on traditional feudal terms broke in the face of their opposition.

If we turn to the other end of the social spectrum, attempts to reduce the Dutch Revolt to an “inter-elite conflict” have rested on the systematic downplaying of the significance of popular revolts during the revolt. This downplaying is even visible in the choice of dates. Traditionally 1568 is seen as the start of the revolt, and the Beeldenstorm of 1566 merely as a “prelude”.62 Much emphasis is put on the role of Beggar militias and refugees from the urban elites in turning many of the cities around in the spring of 1572, but no comprehensive account of the popular revolts that accompanied this exists. The radical, popular regimes of Ghent and the other southern cities are often held responsible for the failure of the revolt in the south, while in fact they were probably instrumental in lengthening the survival of the revolt in the face of the betrayal of the southern nobility, and thereby provided a breathing space for the northern provinces that was crucial for their military victory.63

A bourgeois revolution

However important popular intervention was for the success of the revolt, it was not the “middle sort” who profited from it. A merchant oligarchy came to rule over the Netherlands, and one of the first things it did was to seal itself off even more firmly than its predecessors from any influence from below. Popular hatred of the merchant oligarchs became an important feature of Dutch political life, but most of the time this was mobilised by one section of the ruling class against another. The violent outbursts of popular support for the House of Orange against city regents, of which the political unrest during the 12 Year Truce in the early 17th century probably provides the first case, were a continuing reminder of the exclusion of the “middle sort” from any form of real and meaningful influence on political life.

One of the main misunderstandings about “bourgeois revolutions” is the notion that they are revolutions consciously made by, or at least led by, the bourgeoisie. Alex Callinicos, among others, has convincingly argued that we should approach the bourgeois nature of events like the English and French revolutions from the opposite angle:

Bourgeois revolutions are…political transformations which facilitate the dominance of the capitalist mode of production; it is in no sense a necessary condition of such revolutions that they are made by the bourgeoisie themselves.64

Merchant elites had been very influential—arguably dominant—in city governments before the revolt. But they had been subjected to the interests of Spanish feudalism, and to a lesser extent those of members of the nobility and clergy who still held great political influence. Unintentionally, the revolt freed them from both. In the States of Holland, the influence of the nobility became next to zero: it was the bourgeoisie that ruled. In turn, Holland came to dominate the newly founded republic.

Defeat of the revolution had grave consequences for the southern Low Countries. Those provinces, formerly the most developed part of the country commercially and industrially, were caught in a long term period of economic decline and in some areas even suffered a sharp fall in population.65 The north, meanwhile, profited from the influx of large numbers of southern merchants fleeing persecution, and from the defeat of a competitor. The fall of Antwerp meant the rise of Amsterdam and, for at least three quarters of a century, the northern Netherlands became the most advanced part of Europe.66

An analysis of Dutch capitalism in the 17th century falls outside the scope of this article. However, those like Ellen Meiksins Wood, who would like to suggest that the Dutch economy was essentially pre-capitalist, have a lot to explain: an investment-driven green revolution in agriculture;67 the close connection between trade and industry, overseen by the new “merchant-industrialists”, who became the backbone of the ruling class;68 a technological advantage that secured the Dutch primacy not only in trade but also in many areas of production, including the very important sectors of textiles and ship building;69 the first speculative bubble and real financial crisis in history;70 a commercialisation of almost every area of public life, including the arts;71 and a major role in the process of “primitive accumulation” (and all the plunder, rape and enslavement that went with it), to name a few aspects of economic development.

The fact that the Netherlands was overtaken by its competitors during the second half of the 17th century does not disprove the capitalist nature of its economy. The Dutch economy was not strong enough to escape the feudal trade crisis of the late 17th century in its own right. But its response was atypical. Decline did not lead to a “refeudalisation” of Dutch society, as had happened to Italy after the early flowering of the Renaissance, but first to attempts to cut production costs by introducing labour saving technologies and shifts towards more profitable sectors of industry, and then to the replacement of productive investment by speculation.72

Serious study of the Dutch Revolt can add much to our understanding both of the complex forms of class struggle contained in the bourgeois revolutions and of the relation between those revolutions and the long transition from feudalism to capitalism. In turn, Marxism has much to contribute to the analysis of the revolt. In no area is this so clear as in the study of the popular revolts, for the conservative orientation of most research programmes has meant that evidence about the activities, organisation and ideas of the lower classes has remained buried in archives. It seems that the defeat of the popular forces of the 1580s still casts its shadow forward.

Marxism might be rather late in “discovering the Dutch revolution”. But the importance of the Dutch Revolt did not escape those who faced the same historical task. In the midst of the English Civil War, Thomas Hobbes commented:

Oftentimes the example of different government in a neighbouring nation disposeth men to alteration of the form [of their own]. I doubt not, but many men have been contented to see the late troubles in England, out of an imitation of the Low Countries: supposing there needed no more to grow rich, than to change, as they had done, the form of their government.73

For those in the business of changing governments today, a proper knowledge of past examples still remains imperative.


1: Given the introductory nature of this article, I have tried to limit references as far as -possible to sources available in English. Occasionally, though, I had to acknowledge my use of material in other languages in order to be able to prove a point or do justice to the research or interpretation of others. Many comrades have encouraged me to study the Dutch Revolt and made valuable suggestions on where to start. Here I would like to mention Pete Gillard, John Molyneux and John Rees. I also benefited from the critical comments made by Neil Davidson, Marjolein ‘t Hart and Marcel van der Linden on an earlier draft. None of them, of course, bear any responsibility for the views expressed in this article.

2: Callinicos, 1989, pp113-172.

3: Harman and Brenner, 2006, pp127-162. For the argument that there is no real -connection between bourgeois revolutions and the breakthrough of capitalism, see Wood, 2002a, pp61-64; Teschke, 2005, pp3-26; and Teschke, 2003, pp165-167.

4: The preference of the romantic writers of the bourgeoisie for oppositional members of the nobility is an interesting phenomenon in its own right, and certainly not restricted to Orange or Egmont, as Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen illustrates.

5: Marx, 1973, p192.

6: Marx, 1976, p916.

7: Hobsbawm, 1954, p54.

8: Wood, 2002a, p94.

9: See Brendler, 1982, especially pp56-57. Much more sophisticated, though working within the same ideological framework, is Wittman, 1969.

10: Marcel van der Linden wrote a critical bibliography on the available Marxist literature: Linden, 1995. Two other contributions from people working within the orbit of the Fourth International should be acknowledged here. Ernest Mandel wrote a very interesting article on “the rise of the fourth estate”, which unfortunately is only available in Dutch: Mandel, 1998. Robert Lochhead published a chapter on the Dutch Revolt in his “The Bourgeois Revolutions”: Lochhead, 1989. This provides a good overview and a lot of insights into the dynamics of the events but is hampered by a very limited use of sources.

11: Kuttner, 1949.

12: Nierop, 2001, pp32-33, 40-42.

13: The phrase “splintered image” was coined by the Dutch historian Jan Romein in a lecture in 1939.

14: Pettegree, 2002, p74.

15: Pettegree, 2002, p72.

16: Braudel, 1974, p399.

17: Pettegree, 2002, p5.

18: Wallerstein, 1974, p15.

19: This point was, of course, central to Marx’s argument in the third volume of Capital on the “historical role of merchant capital”-see, for example, Marx, 1991, pp442-443. It also played a huge role in both the original “transition debate” and the later “Brenner debate”. For an overview, see Harman, 1989, pp35-88.

20: Vries, 1974, p55.

21: Bieleman, 1993, p162. Interestingly, Brenner, 2001, himself draws similar conclusions, without giving much consideration to the consequences for his overall thesis. Ellen Meiksins Wood, in an attempt to be more Catholic than the pope, has argued that a capitalist agriculture in the Netherlands did not develop at all-see Wood, 2002b.

22: Israel, 1998, p115.

23: Braudel, 1981, p133.

24: Anderson, 1979, p41.

25: Anderson, 1979, p61.

26: Viglius and d’Hopperus, 1858, p53. The original reads, “Mégère elle-même n’aurait pu trouver un meilleur moyen pour développer dans la multitude l’esprit de sédition.”

27: Tex, 1973, p5.

28: Duke, 2003.

29: Bergsma, 1997, p255. Given the male bias of much historical writing, Bergsma adds that this often turns out to be “a history of women with the women ‘left out’.”

30: Duke, 2003, pp77, 121.

31: Crew, 1978, p27.

32: Israel, 1998, p85.

33: Duke, 2003, p99.

34: This figure includes Leyden burghers executed elsewhere. The number is based on research of the Criminele Sententiënboeken in the Leyden Regional Archive and the available accounts of the history of Anabaptism in Leyden in Knappert, 1908, and Mellink, 1981.

35: Marnef, 1996, p84.

36: Tawney, 1961, p111.

37: Schöffer, 1964, p70.

38: See for instance Bloccius, 1567, pp44-45.

39: Bloccius, 1567, p88.

40: Bloccius, 1567, p209.

41: Marnef, 1996, p168.

42: Vaernewyck, 1905, p216.

43: Readers who are interested in the historical narrative could start with Geyl, 2001, Parker, 1979a, or the relevant chapters in Israel, 1998.

44: On the international dimension of the Dutch Revolt, see the relevant essays collected in Parker, 1979b.

45: Vaernewyck, 1905, p34.

46: A good short explanation of events during the Beeldenstorm is given in Marnef, 1999.

47: Duke, 2003, p132.

48: Motley, 1889, p49.

49: Harrison, 1897, p69 and onwards. Harrison’s account is fairly apologetic towards the conduct of William of Orange on this occasion, but so are most of the Dutch accounts.

50: Geyl, 2001, pp102-103.

51: Parker, 1979a, p108.

52: Rowen, 1972, p43.

53: Descriptions of the military campaigns from the point of view of British soldiers -participating in them are given in Caldecott-Baird, 1976, and Evans, 1972.

54: Good overviews can be found in the general histories I quoted earlier, but I should acknowledge here the important study by H A Enno van Gelder, 1943, which is the best account of the revolutionary dynamic during the late 1570s and early 1580s.

55: A classical account of those event is provided by the influential Belgian historian Henri Pirenne in the fourth volume of his Histoire de Belgique, 1927, but I am not aware of an English translation of this magisterial work.

56: Grayson, 1980, p62.

57: There is a progressive development of lower class consciousness in the course of the classical bourgeois revolutions, with the development of the egalitarian left in the English Civil War in the 17th century and even more strongly with the radical fractions in the Paris -sections during the French Revolution, but to none of those ideas can be ascribed a form of “class -consciousness” in the modern sense. See, for example, Manning, 1999, and Rudé, 1964.

58: Duke, 1996, p30.

59: Geurts, 1956, pp195, 198.

60: Engels, 1852.

61: Lefebvre, 1967, p20.

62: As in the title of Robert Fruin’s classic account of the 1560s-”Prelude to the 80 Years War” (Fruin, 1939).

63: This point was made by André Despretz in his study of the revolt in Ghent-Despretz, 1963, p111.

64: Callinicos, 1989, p127.

65: Parker, 1981, p136.

66: See for example Wallerstein, 1982.

67: For example, Vries, 1974, p141 and onwards.

68: Wilson, 1968, pp30-31.

69: Wallerstein, 1980, pp42-43, where he also states, “The United Provinces not only was the leading agricultural producer of this time; it was also, and at the same time, the leading producer of industrial products.”

70: Dash, 1999.

71: Molyneux, 2001, p47 onwards, and Schama, 1991, p289 and onwards.

72: Vries and Woude, 1997, p676.

73: Dunthorne, 1993, p236.


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