July 14, 2020

“Forward! Brave people! The goddess of liberty leads you on!” So declares Count Egmont, the protagonist in Goethe’s exquisite 1788 play, Egmont, a tragedy based on the Dutch revolt of the late 16th century. “And as the sea breaks through and destroys the barriers that would oppose its fury, so do ye overwhelm the bulwark of tyranny, and with your impetuous flood sweep it away from the land which it usurps.”

Egmont would become a martyr representing the aspirations of the Dutch people, persecuted and oppressed for their Protestantism by the corrupt and tyrannical Duke of Alba, an agent of Phillip II and his Catholic Spanish empire. This was the first great “bourgeois revolution”, a concept that will be familiar to those acquainted with the Marxist and socialist lexicon, denoting the events and processes that facilitated the development of modern bourgeois society on the basis of the capitalist mode of production. The classic example was the French Revolution of 1789, when monarchy and seigneurialism were overthrown, and the basis of the modern liberal-democratic capitalist nation established.

In recent years, however, bourgeois revolution has gone out of fashion and subjected to revisionist critique wishing to consign it to the dustbin of history. Part of what underlines this dismissiveness is a rather childish unwillingness to credit capitalism, and by extension, the bourgeoisie and liberalism, with any positive contribution to human development. The assumption is that because the bourgeoisie has been reactionary for so long, therefore it has never played a historically revolutionary role; because capitalism is now senile and decadent therefore it has never been historically progressive; because liberalism is now servile therefore it has never been emancipatory. None of which is true.

The Dutch Revolt that began in the late 16th century was the first such bourgeois revolution, but because it was the first, it is arguably the most ignored. Today its distance in time makes it seem remote, and it doesn’t bare a shadow over our current epoch in much the same way as the American and French revolutions do.

But for the figures of the Enlightenment and Romantic period the Dutch Revolt and its effects held huge resonance. Adam Smith saw the Dutch Republic as the prime exemplar of a commercial society, and in the Wealth of Nations, Smith lauded the commercial cosmopolitanism of the republic, and its emphasise on free trade as the basis of its immense wealth.

For the likes of Goethe it was the struggle for liberty that made the Dutch revolt a subject of fascination, and his play in turn inspired Beethoven to compose Egmont. Friedrich Schiller, in his history of the Dutch revolt, extolled the “spirit of independence” of the Dutch people in their liberation struggle against the Habsburg Empire.

Although he only referred to it briefly in scattered sentences across his works, Karl Marx also understood the significance of the Dutch revolt and the Dutch Republic as a key moment in the historic ascendancy of the bourgeoisie and the transition from feudalism to capitalism. He called it the “victory of the sixteenth century over the fifteenth century”. This was also recognised by other Marxists, among them Antonio Gramsci, who pointed out that “in the Netherlands and only in the Netherlands was there an organic passage from the commune or city-state to a regime that was no longer feudal”.

But the dominant view among socialist and Marxist historians since the mid-20th century, particularly promulgated by Eric Hobsbawm et al, has been to portray the English upheavels of the Stuart era as the first bourgeois revolution, of which the Dutch revolt was at best an appetiser.

Europe in the 16th century was a continent of strife and turbulence, a civilisation in the zygotic stages of a great transformation. The Renaissance had reacquainted European culture with the patrimony of classical Greece and Rome that helped spur great advances in art, astronomy, mathematics and philosophy, while science and technology had recently made great leaps,  most notably with the printing press. The Reformation had transformed how many European Christians related to God, while the violent and remorseless but nonetheless historic “discovery” and opening up of the Americas established new trading links, new forms of commerce and the rudimentary beginnings of the global market.

The Low Countries — the modern-day Netherlands and Belgium — were rather unique in this continent. Here the economy was diversified, highly commericialised and urbanised, and cities like Amsterdam, Antwerp and Rotterdam already hubs of commercial activity. But it also was under the control of Habsburg Spain, a feudal empire which heavily taxed the population, in particular urban merchant elites, to pay for the mercenary armies hired to fight their wars. Heavy taxation became a key burden retarding the development of further commercial expansion.

Moreover, the domination of the Catholic Church had become oppressive to the northern provinces, where Protestantism had become dominant. The spread of Calvinism among the merchant class was particularly significant, with its emphasis on self-government, self-reliance, thrift, discipline and work as noble in and of itself. While the Catholic Church forbid anyone to rebel against their ruler, Calvinist doctrine, at least in theory, supported the right to resistance, which would serve as an ideological justification for the Dutch revolt.

The revolt was about religion but it was also about money, and the right of the bourgeois to make it. As Pepijn Brandon has argued, the revolt unconsciously, yet effectively, facilitated capitalist development, with Church lands confiscated and turned into large-scale commercial exploitation, and the political influence of the nobility and Catholic clergyman diminished. On top of this, the merchant class had way more control over state power where commercial interests usurped dynastic warfare.

Ultimately, the Dutch revolt emancipated one of Europe’s most rapidly developing regions from an empire that fettered trade and industry according to the interests of the Spanish crown, the aristocracy and the Catholic Church, allowing it to become the first in which pre-industrial commercial capitalism developed on a vast, country-wide scale and a highly urbanised commercial power in its own right.

The birth of the Dutch Republic, emancipated from the Habsburg yoke, would lead to the “Dutch Golden Age” of the 17th century when Holland, an increasingly wealthy and relatively open and tolerant society with an increasingly educated and literate population, produced great flourishings in art, science, banking, optics, engineering, philosophy and culture.

It was unquestionably the most advanced society in Europe, economically and politically making it “the envy of some, the fear of others, and the wonder of all their neighbours” as, the English ambassador to the Dutch Republic, William Temple, once put it.

This economic growth, trade and innovation helped foster one of the greatest eras in the history of art, the age of Rembrandt, Vermeer and De Hooch. Art was mass produced with portraits, landscapes and still-lifes sold on the market to as mass audiences. The nouveau riche merchant class (with their increasingly large homes with many walls that needed decorating), shopkeepers, even the odd peasant were avid consumers of this art. In 2004’s Enchanting the Eye: Dutch Paintings of the Golden Age, Christopher Lloyd estimates that between 1580 and 1800, approximately 5,000 Dutch artists produced between nine and ten million paintings, of which less than 1% have survived.

Some of the art very much reflected the experiences and aspirations of middle-class urban elites and the new cornucopia of wealth and luxury that had become available. Once prohibitively-expensive goods from all over the world poured into Dutch ports: fruits from across the Mediterranean; tobacco from the New World; spices and precious gems from India; and silk and porcelain from China. Pieter Claesz and Willem Claesz Heda, both Haarlem-based painters, introduced banquet pieces into their still life inventory portraying lavish arrangements of food and drink.

Abraham van Beyeren in the 1650s produced a still-life showing a sumptuous table full of lobsters and bowls of exotic fruits, again a glimpse of the potential plenitude and gastronomic pleasure produced by the commercial society; this ironically contrasted with the dominant Calvinism and as it was feared that the Dutch people would be corrupted by their “embarrassment of riches”, so the art often came with proverbs warning against the dangers of excess.

Arguably, the greatest product of the Dutch Golden Age was Baruch Spinoza, the philosopher whose ideas were key to the development of liberalism. The son of Jewish merchants expelled from Portugal because of the Inquisition, he found refuge in the relatively tolerant and free Netherlands, a land where ideas could be debated and exchanged more freely than anywhere else.

Because of this he was a firm defender of confessional toleration, the idea that state had no business concerning itself with the private beliefs of citizens no matter how heretical, unorthodox, crazy or immoral they seemed. Unlike his English contemporary John Locke (they were born just three months apart), Spinoza made no “special exceptions” for who did not deserve tolerance: Catholics, Protestants, Jews and atheists were all to be tolerated alike.

Spinoza’s stance on freedom of religion was intimately linked with his broader views on freedom of thought and speech. In 1670 he wrote that “in a free state every man may think what he likes, and say what he thinks”. Even now, this is a remarkably radical statement, but in his own time it was positively dangerous, of the kind that would make Jewish community leaders excommunicate him for “heresy”. Spinoza’s philosophy was that of the free individual who is “guided by reason” as opposed to the “slave” who is “guided by emotion and belief”.

Spinoza wasn’t an atheist but a pantheist, holding that the divinity was “the sum of the natural and physical laws of the universe and certainly not an individual entity or creator”. But as Jonathan Israel has shown in his voluminous yet magisterial tour de force on the Enlightenment, Spinoza’s rationalist materialism was a key intellectual influence on the radical Enlightenment that unemphatically emphasised religious scepticism, individual freedom, anti-authoritarianism and republicanism against the moderate Enlightenment that took a more conciliatory attitude towards authority and the old institutions.

Because of the innovations in shipbuilding and navigation, the Dutch Republic was also able to develop into a formidable maritime empire, expanding into the West and East Indies (modern-day Indonesia), first via eponymous companies like the Dutch West India Company then later on directly by the Dutch state itself.

Moreover, as Pepijn Brandon has recently argued, 17th century Holland was a key player in the Atlantic slave trade that was vital to the breakthrough of European capitalism in the 18th century. Suriname, for instance, was founded in 1667 as a plantation colony dependent on African slaves for the purpose of producing sugar and other “exotic” goods that would be sold on the global market and exported back to Europe. Slavery and colonial plunder wasn’t the sole means of amassing wealth by the Dutch republic, but it was certainly a contributing factor that shouldn’t be omitted.

All of these trends made Holland the wealthiest and freest country in Europe at the time, a haven for political refugees like Spinoza and Locke, at the cutting edge of the latest developments in art, science and philosophy, the first consumer society gobbling up luxury goods from around the world. Bourgeois society found its first unencumbered infant expression in 17th century Holland.

Although it would eventually be supplanted by other European powers, mainly Britain, the Dutch Republic that emerged out of the revolt against the Habsburg Empire was nonetheless a key constitutive moment of our modern world. It was an exemplar in a popular revolt for liberty against a tyrannical empire; it progressed the development of liberalism and the idea of a society based on toleration and free and open intellectual exchange.

Furthermore, a new dynamic social form, what we now call capitalism, was consummated in the small country by the North Sea, breaking out of the fetters of feudalism. This system,  for all its well known iniquities and pathologies, would contain within it the basis for a global civilisation based on freedom and the rights of the individual, and producing material abundance that the Europeans of the Reformation era could only dream of.