Interview with Michel (Anarchistische Groep Amsterdam) about Anarchism in the Netherlands
The interview was conducted in 2010 for the German book »Von Jakarta bis Johannesburg: Anarchismus weltweit«. This is the original English version.
Can you tell us about the history of anarchism in the Netherlands?
I will try, because I'm not aware that there is an article about the history of Dutch anarchism in a different language than Dutch. I hope it will be done in the future. Anarchism in Holland more or less started around 1890. In that year the first Dutch anarchist newspaper appeared, it was called "Anarchist". It was made by small groups in the cities of Amsterdam, The Hague and Rotterdam.
In 1894 a famous Dutch socialist, Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis, who used to be a referent and parliamentarian, came to the conclusion that social change wouldn't happen the parliamentary way. He published an anarchist newspaper called "Justice for all" that was published as a daily. Because he was already a very important figure in the revolutionary movement, lots of people joined him in his anarchist direction, especially in the north of the country, in the provinces of Groningen, Drenthe, and Friesland.
The working class was so extremely poor in those areas that they where very eager to inform themselves in a class-free society. Also in the city of Amsterdam there was a lot of support for the anarchist movement. A very weak point of the Dutch anarchists was that they where very opposed to organizations, one of the reasons the last general strike in 1903 completely failed.
After World War I, a lot of working-class militants joined the communist party or the social democrat party (Sociaal Democratische Arbeiders Partij, SDAP). Also important to note is that Dutch anarchism had a strong ethical world-view. Key themes and topics where: pacifism, anti-militarism, vegetarianism, Tolstoyism, temperance – a typical Dutch Calvinist anarchism.
There were different religious anarchist groups and newspapers, mostly very marginal groups though. You still find a bit of this tendency in the anarchist movement nowadays.
During WW I the main issue was anti-militarism and a big movement of young men refused military service; almost all got sentenced to prison. They got a lot of support by the anarchist movement, since most of these men where anarchists.
In the 1920s there where also militant youth groups, more or less based around magazines, like "Alarm" and "De Moker". They where individualist and not non-violent, some where involved in bombings and other more militant actions. They were very loosely organized and had a kind of Hobo lifestyle. I think you can compare them with the Vagabond movement in Germany. Also there was a revolutionary syndicalist federation of unions called the National Labor Secretary, NAS (Nationale Arbeiders Secretariaat) which was dominated by socialists. There, the more pro-organization anarcho-syndicalists found their place. They where involved in big strikes like the garment workers' strikes in the east of the country, around Enschede, where there were a lot of mills.
Also from 1923 to 1940 an anarcho-syndicalist union existed, called Dutch Syndicalist Union, NSV (Nederlandsch Syndicalistisch Vakverbond), but I was very small and had no big influence.
The revolution in Spain 1936 caused a big split in the anarchist movement, the main argument was the use of arms and violence, and of course the CNT joining the republican government. This is a good example of the ethical tendency in the Dutch anarchist movement, having a utopian world-view that contrasted with the reality of the situation.
With the occupation of Holland by the Nazis, the anarchist movement was completely finished. The role of the anarchists in the resistance against fascism was zero. There were only a few exceptions like the anarcho-syndicalists that already had experiences with the rise of fascism in Spain. They also helped a lot of German anarcho-syndicalists from the FAUD that had fled in the 1930s to Holland move to England and the USA. Also some anarcho-pacifists helped hiding people and distributed clandestine publications and even did small acts of sabotage. Most of them got caught and got executed or died in the concentration camps. The few that survived the death-camps where mentally completely broken and couldn't believe in the good nature of humans anymore.
It took until the mid-1960s before anarchism was reinvented again by a new generation that was born after World War II.
The Netherlands are considered a prime example of historical liberalism. Do you see this in any way connected to the country's anarchist tradition?
This is a pretty difficult question, Holland has got a double history in this. They also conquered the world as colonizers and killed millions of people in Indonesia, South America, North America and Africa. The beautiful canal houses in the center of Amsterdam are build with blood money from the slave trade to the Americas. Also the first multinational happened to be Dutch, V.O.C. (Verenigd Oost-Indische Compagnie, or Dutch East India Company).
Holland did more or less everything to make money, and you can count on it: it's still the very same way nowadays. They were diplomatic and in favor of negotiating, even eager to learn about different cultures and languages, but only to shake a buck out of the last person. There where a lot of different religious refugees, for example Portuguese and Spanish Jews after the Inquisition, or protestants from France and Germany that would get killed by the Catholic church. Because of all this mingling of people from all over, there were all kinds of different opinions how the state should function, if and how church and state should be separated, whether there should be a monarchy or a republic etc. In these debates was more freedom of speech compared to other countries, since there was actually freedom of speech and printing. For instance the printing and book industry in Holland was very strong in all big cities. The ruling class understood pretty early that they could not simply brutally repress all the time. This had caused big social uprisings several times before. So to keep the masses quiet there was freedom up to some degree. I would call it repressive tolerance, and it's still the case today. For example in 1907 there was the International Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam. In Paris and London these congresses failed dramatically, do to brutal police repression; in Amsterdam it was no problem. There was even a debate to promote the propaganda by the deed with pro's and con's, and this would get reported in the general Dutch newspapers. No intervening by the government or police happened. Holland was then, and still is, a monarchy!
Important to note is the Dutch freethinkers/freethought tradition that had a big influence on the Dutch political landscape. A very wide range of people involved in the freethinkers movement were also anarchists. Maybe it's because of this tradition of reason and debate, of listening to the arguments of the elite (political, intellectual and financial), that the anarchist movement would get sort of incorporated in the political arena. Maybe because of the history in Holland that, from let's say 1800, there have not been mass murders or brutal repression by political opposites, the radical movements in Holland where never very radical; there is always some kind of escape in the debate.
Were the Provos and Kabouters anarchists in your perception? What is the legacy that they have left in the radical Dutch left?
First of all, the Kabouters, as I see them, were not anarchist because they ran in local elections. Some will disagree with me about that, but I don't care.
The Kabouters are a follow-up or spin-off of the Provo movement. The Provos were absolutely anarchist. It was because of the parliamentary discourse by some in the Provo movement that the Provos dissolved themselves. The problem with history is that the intelligentsia of a movement writes the history of a movement. And in the case of the Provos it is important to know that there were hundreds of working-class youth in it. They where in favor of direct action, they fought with the police, printed and pasted propaganda in the streets, squatted houses and made and threw smoke bombs to the royal family...etc., etc.
It is because of oral history I know this. Most of the working-class Provos vanished from the history pages of Dutch radicalism. I hope I can contribute a bit to correct this lack of history.
The Provos had and have such a big impact on Dutch history that a lot of Dutch radicals don't know about it. They were the first to talk and act about/around the destruction of nature, consumerism, free love, feminism, abortion, free housing. The Provos laid the foundation for the squatters movement, the movement for nuclear disarming, anti-militarism, environment, etc. This is forgotten by most Dutch radicals nowadays or they make jokes about it/the Provos.
The Netherlands are legendary among radical folks worldwide for its strong squatters movement. Are all squatters anarchists or are things more complicated than that?
Indeed the squatters movement was very big and unbelievably powerful, but that is the past, people must see this in a bigger picture. The beginning of the 1980's were unique, there was mass unemployment, a demographic peek of young people and there was (and still is) an enormous housing shortage. In Amsterdam for example, 20% of real estate was empty. Pour over the new dynamics of social movements worldwide (that the Provos already gave direction to fifteen years before) and you have the perfect mix for enormous social upheavals in Dutch history.
Then there were anarchists involved, and still today in the squatters movement they are. It's maybe because of the big social movements that the anarchist movement in Holland was and still is very weak. When there is big social unrest you are crazy if you don't full-on participate in it. What's the sense talking about anarchism when around the corner it is put into practice. But that is the beauty and the downfall of squatting, to this day there is no political claim on squatting, because there are so many people squatting, with such different backgrounds; so, in the end it is impossible to say that squatters are anarchist.
On the contrary even, there are squatters that are talking with political parties, making deals, selling out, gentrifying complete neighborhoods. I think it is fair to say that most of the squatters are some kind of social democrats, left orientated. The group of squatters that call themselves anarchist is small, but they do a lot because they believe in an anarchism of practice, mutual aid. Squatting is an act of attacking property putting profit before the people. But because the squatters movement is so mingled, it is difficult to find an anarchist discourse. It's also because of the power of the squatters movement that there is no "general" political philosophy. Never in its history there was a political tendency that could dominate the movement. It had been tried by some Stalinist tendencies in the last part of the 1980's – they almost succeeded and the movement was in ruins. It's a history that repeats itself worldwide in social movements, so it's not uncommon, but it never succeeds when some tendencies try to co-opt it. Mostly it is left in ruins or finds new dynamics and gets over it; or, in better words, rises above it.
What is the current state of the squatters movement? We understand that there have been some legal changes recently with a strong impact.
Bad, that above all. Especially in Amsterdam. On the one hand because of a serious incident at an important social center in September 2008 that caused a big split in the squatters movement in Amsterdam. Secondly, since 2001 there has been a very conservative, right-wing, xenophobic wind blowing over Holland. The government has been talking about a ban for squatting since 2002, and at the end of 2009 a new law got accepted in parliament to make squatting completely forbidden, like in Germany. It's a matter of months and the law will be taken into practice. What will happen after that is very unclear, but it looks bad. For me it's not a surprise, years ago with the forming of the European Union I already realized that squatting in its current form would end. In almost every EU country squatting is banned by criminal law, but in most European countries there are squats, so there is still hope.
The impact of a squatting ban in Holland will be big; hundreds of anarchists, activists, etc., will lose their houses and have to rent. This will mean everybody will have to work a lot more to pay the rent, and the rent in Holland is very high, because there is still a big housing shortage (just like in the 1970/80s). It is very unclear what will happen, but a lot of people will have less time to do stuff; we have to be as busy with the daily practice of squatting.
It seems that the political squatting scene in the Netherlands strongly resembles the German Autonomen. Do you see any historical and/or present connections between the two movements? Is the term "autonomous" used in the Netherlands as well? And, if so, as a synonym to "anarchist", or does it mean something different?
Indeed it looks very similar, but when you look beyond the black, it's a world of difference. In the 1980s there was a lot of exchange between Holland and Germany, concepts got copied and discussed. The anti-imperialist scene in Holland brought a lot of German ideas and practices to Holland. From Holland there went squatters to a lot of cities in Germany. And of course the whole idea of Anti-Fascist Action (AFA) was copied in Holland in the early 1990's.
But in Holland the concept of the Autonomen has always been a kind of poor copy of the German Autonomen. Most of the Autonomen in Germany were (and maybe still are, but I don't know) outspoken communists/Marxists. In Holland, this has never been so strong, save a few exceptions, like prison support groups that mirrored the Rote Hilfe.
The radical left in Holland is still looking often to Germany. There are still people going to antifa actions in Germany or to the May 1 demonstration in Berlin. But that is more because of actions that happen in Germany and because there are more people. In the last fifteen years there were never big demonstrations of the radical left, autonomous or anarchist in Holland. When 500 people come to a demonstration in Holland, everybody is very surprised; for Dutch standards it means enormous participation.
Also in Holland there is never a very profound debate in radical circles about tactics, politics, analysis. There are almost no radical papers being published that appear every month to be a platform of debate. Most people do actions, and politics comes later.
Here now, and in the past, only a few people will call themselves "autonomous" and can explain it. Most people nowadays who call themselves autonomous do it because they ain't got a clear political idea or feel uncomfortable with labeling themselves as anarchist.
When I was younger and more active with squatting and anti-fascism, I had strong sympathies for anarchism, but when I met anarchists I had nothing in common with them. Most of them were non-violent, vegan and had a very strong ethical world-view. I felt very uncomfortable in anarchist circles, that if I would say something I'd be accused of sexism or something else. It took years before I could call myself an anarchist. It's because I met younger anarchist people who I could identify with, with working-class backgrounds, listening to metal, drinking beer and not being non-violent and in favour of actions.
Have there ever been conflicts between "lifestylists" and "class-struggle anarchists" in the Netherlands?
Haha! That would be a joke, the "movement" is so small in Holland that it would be suicide to make big conflicts in the anarchist circles. The main international (especially on the Internet forums, etc.) anarchist activity is slandering each other, accusing each other of being reformist, middle-class, criminal, bourgeois, lifestylist or legalist – it's very depressing to be honest.
I don't care what people do. If they do Food Not Bombs or bomb a bank, I think both is fine. Who am I to say what practices and politics are good or bad? Everybody has a different motivation to be active as an anarchist. The most important question is: How did they got connected with anarchism? Through punk, because of a big conflict with rioting anarchists on national TV or because they where involved in a strike and met anarcho-syndicalists? Of course there must a never-ending discussion running in your own national and international anarchist movement. It is very important, but it has to be a constructive discourse, not a sectarian, elitist or vanguardist one.
I come from a working-class family, have low education, and have worked in factories for years. And I don't like it at all, I hate work. I will never idealize the working class as the only revolutionary force. I have got my own personal opinion and experiences, and they have shaped my ideas about anarchism. It is more because of actions and social relations that I am committed to the anarchist idea than because of all the books and magazines that I have read.
Apart from squatting, what have been main issues for Dutch anarchists in the last years?
Of course there is a fair number of people involved with anti-fascism and racism. There are a few anti-militarist and some green anarchists who do Earth First! kind of work. Also important to mention is the animal rights/liberation movement in Holland. It is very active and the best-organized groups and individuals are anarchist.
On the issue of labor/unemployment/workers' rights Holland is a desert. Almost nothing is happening, except a few small actions done by the Anarchistische Groep Amsterdam. The main topic where anarchists meet is the imprisonment of refugees. Holland has got a very repressive policy towards so-called "illegals". All over Holland there are huge prisons, mostly in remote, isolated industrial areas. There are quite some actions at these prisons, like noise demos. Some of the companies that facilitate these prisons, like Group 4 Securicor, get targeted by anarchists. Mostly in the form of picket lines, sometimes fire arsons happen or the tires of a dozen company cars get slashed. Also direct aid to people without papers is done by anarchists, like housing, medical care, juridical paperwork, helping with finding work, etc. In the city of Utrecht there is a group called Anarchistische Anti-deportatie Groep Utrecht (AAGU, Anarchist Anti deportation Group Utrecht) which is very active.
Related to this, an anti-prison tendency has grown stronger in in the anarchist scene in the last five years. Which is very positive because before that the anarchist scene never had a clear idea about prisons. When you would say all prisons have to be destroyed, people would look at you as if you were a complete nutcase.
Finally, de Vrije Bond (the Free Union) should be mentioned, a loose anarchist network with eighty members all over Holland that is in the moment in the process of making new position papers. It looks like it's gonna be some kind of anarchist federation concept.
How do you see the current state of the anarchist movement, as well as its future potential?
I hope I give the readers an accurate view about this. First of all, this whole interview is not fully 100% fact-based. I'm not a "specialist" or "anarchist historian" of the Dutch anarchist movement. I have a personal view on the things here in Holland, and I have my preferences towards specific tendencies in the anarchist milieu. But I'm trying to give a neutral overview of what's going on.
So back to the question: The current state of the anarchist movement in Holland is that at this moment it's very weak, but much better than it was ten years ago. At the end of the 1990's there was almost no exciting anarchist movement, now there are outspoken anarchist groups in four cities, five anarchist libraries and four anarchist magazines. These initiatives are all run by a small group of people, and they all are all very busy. Some magazines or made by only two people, so nationwide we are talking about maybe sixty people.
The yearly anarchist meeting in the north of Holland in the town of Apelscha (three days of lectures, workshops, discussions, etc.) attracts about 400 people, but I don't consider everybody an anarchist (and so don't a lot themselves either). Not all anarchists come to this meeting but it gives you an idea of numbers. Then the question is, can you mirror a movement by numbers? I say yes you can, because a lot of things don't get picked up by anarchists, simply because we are too few. It would be suicide for the movement to run from topic to topic (but of course it happens and I am stupid enough to also do so). The movement has to make more propaganda with posters, magazines/papers, stickers, wallpapers, do small actions with a clear anarchist message attached to them, go leafleting at schools and popular markets with flyers about current topics that are important for people, racism, mass layoffs, banks that rob people, rent increase, or for example the war in Afghanistan. Dutch troops are in a war and bomb villages, but nobody gives a fuck. We as anarchists in Holland have to oppose this daily atrocity. But nothing happens, nobody moves. So that's the current-day situation of the anarchist movement.
I am very curious about the future, about what's going to happen. We are going be faced with more and more right-wing politics and a crisis that is going to hurt a lot of people. The enemy to blame is already there, it's the immigrant/Muslim. So it is going to be a very difficult situation, but we have got to confront it in every form. Also the squatting ban I mentioned before will have a big influence. This is bad on the one hand, but maybe good for the anarchist movement on the other. People that oppose the daily reality of consumerism and are being ruled by lunatics have to search for alternatives, and if they oppose this consumerism, they will find comrades that will go along in the struggle. And these comrades have to be anarchists, us, we have to be the alternative, we have to be in the middle of the conflict. Not as a guide or a vanguard, but based on a social relation of solidarity, mutual aid and militancy that will oppose all kinds and forms of repression.
This is the lack often seen in anarchist history: when there was a big conflict, the anarchists were often absent. Then, years later, some anarchists try to write history and say they were in the middle of it. That is really, really bad, we have to make history now! It is important to know your history and get "inspired" by 1936, but we live now, and so we have to do things now or never.
The Anarchistische Groep Amsterdam was founded in 2001 and is involved in numerous anarchist projects in the Netherlands. Michel has been a mamber since 2002. For many years, he was mainly active in the squatters movement; today, he focuses on labor issues and anti-repression initiatives.