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Interview with De Fabel van de illegaal

"Taking part in the historical struggle for a better world." (1)

jeudi 22 septembre 2005

This interview is part of a collection of interviews from militants of different countries (United States, Japan, Britain, Netherlands and France) which will be published in the quarterly journal Ni patrie ni frontières. The original idea was to explore various forms of activism, from the old-style Trotskyist organisations influenced by Leninist schemes to the new « anti-global movements », in order to better understand what is revolutionary activism today, and what useful lessons can be learned from different and contrasting experiences, to more efficiently fight capitalism. The purpose of these interviews was also to describe the concrete content of daily political activism ; I wanted to know what were the individual motives of the people interviewed, why did they dedicate so much time to an activity which put them on the margins of society and transformed them into ideal targets for State repression, specially in a period of general downturn of the class struggle. I had already had a brief and very nice encounter with Eric, one of the members of De Fabel, two years ago, for a few hours in Amsterdam, and I wanted to better know De Fabel politics and practice, so I came for four days to Leiden, a small town of Netherlands where the group is based. Obviously the following interview does not include all that was said during these 72 hours. We did not only talk about politics, we also shared meals and walks, good laughs and moments of silence. So you will probably miss something essential if you read the following pages : the atmosphere of tolerance, humour and warmth which prevailed during our exchanges. Revolutionary militants may have often very good ideas, they may denounce injustices and efficiently act against them, but they are often terribly boaring or difficult to (under)stand more than a few hours. Fortunately, that was not at all my impression after meeting Ellen, Harry, Eric and Jan during four days. Although we did not agree on everything (why should we ?), I had the very nice impression that we often came to the same conclusions without taking similar paths, and sometimes by magic without even mentioning why we adopted these common positions. In a way, that was much more encouraging for me than if I had met people of my generation who would have shared my same former political background. I don’t know if it’s linked to a special political microweather in Leyden, to the libertarian tendencies of the individuals I met, to the fact that they have a long experience of living in communities, to their own experience of debating in a non sectarian way, or to the fact that De Fabel is a small dedicated group which deals with racism and oppression on a daily basis, but the result was quite exhilarating for me. I can only hope this interview will fill you with the same enthusiasm as it did with me, even if the themes and perspectives debated are not always rosy.

Yves Coleman

Interview with De Fabel van de illegaal "Taking part in the historical struggle for a better world."

De Fabel van de illegaal (The myth of illegality) is a radical Left organization in Leyden in the Netherlands. It focuses mostly on racism and migration controls. We interviewed four members of this seven people group.

What was roughly the situation of the radical Left in the Netherlands when you became interested in politics ?

Eric Krebbers : "I became interested in politics in the eighties. Compared to nowadays, the radical Left was flourishing in those days. In the beginning of the eighties many young people had very positive feelings towards the squatters movement. Me and my friends back then weren’t really into squatting, but like so many others, we were all together listening to the radio during the enormous all day riots in Amsterdam on April 30, 1980. On that day Beatrix was installed as the new queen, but the squatters movement had said before : "no houses, no coronation". Amsterdam was turned into a battlefield, complete with barricades and tear gas, and the squatters almost managed to enter the church in which the coronation was going on. It wasn’t a happy day for the monarchy. In the following years many evictions of squats turned into giant street battles, with the government even throwing in tanks. I think the majority of young people in those days - I was 18 in 1980 - were fascinated by the squatters movement, its energy and its anti-authoritarian do it your self mentality. Also important was the fact that there was a right wing government for the first time since many years. It started to cut the wages of civil servants, social security, subsidies and so on. That led to many strikes. And the government also wanted to station American nuclear cruise missiles on military bases in the Netherlands. That led to the two largest demonstrations ever in the Netherlands. Amsterdam saw 400.000 demonstrators on November 21, 1981, and The Hague even 550.000 on October 29, 1983. I think this also had a large impact on our generation, even if I didn’t demonstrate myself. It was just as if everyone had gone off demonstrating. The squatters movement soon formed a radical wing to this giant movement. The same happened with the movement against apartheid in South Africa, which had become the most central issue for the Left and radical Left in the second half of the eighties. I think that had a lot to do with the fact that South Africa was a former Dutch colony. The radical Left movement soon adopted the campaign against the Anglo Dutch oil company Shell, and tried to force the company to stop doing business with the apartheid regime. Militant organization RARA (Radical Anti-Racist Action) burned down several warehouses of the Makro company, causing millions of euros damage and forcing that company to leave South Africa. All these issues and movements had a profound influence on almost all of us at De Fabel who were old enough to have witnessed them consciously."

And why, how and when did you join De Fabel ?

Harry Westerink : "De Fabel started at the beginning of the nineties. But, just like Eric, I also became interested in politics during the eighties, especially in campaigns against racism, apartheid, nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. In those days there were far more Left wing, extra parliamentary and revolutionary groups. The social movements were much larger and there were more far Left political parties. I started working for a Left wing bookshop in Leyden when I was 24 and no longer a law student. Later I also joined a so called Third World shop, which sold fair trade products. Both were unpaid jobs. In the bookshop I talked a lot with the customers, mostly activists who brought their own material. Later I joined several action groups, like a local anti-apartheid group. I also did some work for action groups against nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. I was like a freelancer and did it almost like a hobby. Of course I was serious about it, but it wasn’t a fulltime activity. You knew somebody, and this person asked you to help with something or invited you to a meeting or a demonstration. By the end of the eighties I longed for a more daily political life. I was 30 years old and wanted some structure in my activities. By then my ideas had become radical Left and I was looking for comrades. In the beginning of 1990 we started an information centre called De Invalshoek (Perspective) in an empty office floor right above the bookshop. It had a library, and was foremost a place for activists to gather and to hold meetings. Unfortunately, at the same moment the social movements were rapidly collapsing. The Berlin Wall had fallen and revolutionary movements all around the world lost their momentum. The belief that one could change society for the better was vanishing quickly. Most people started believing that social democracy was the only option. Soon the radical Left in the Netherlands was reduced to a maybe a few hundred people all together."

Eric Krebbers : "I became seriously interested in politics around 1984, mainly through reading a lot. I was not comfortable with my life so far. I had failed my study of physics and was waiting for the army to draft me. I joined the social democratic soldiers union. Afterwards I studied psychology and kept reading about sociology, socialism, humanism, anarchism, communism and so on. I didn’t fancy any political party. Then I found Harry’s bookshop and discovered all kinds of Left magazines in which my theoretical ideas were put into practice. I read for instance about the radical actions against Shell, about the cutting of hundreds of benzine hoses at gas stations all over the country. But because of the illegal nature of these actions, I did not know who these activists were and so I couldn’t join them. I did join the anti-psychiatry movement, which sheltered patients fleeing closed psychiatric institutions and organized actions against electro shocks, isolation chambers and forced medication. I wanted not just to help these people, but to fundamentally change the whole system. In the beginning of 1990, when I was 27 years old, I joined Harry and his plans for an information center."

Ellen de Waard : "Around 1987, during my study of psychology, I became interested in feminism. I began to understand political roots of things I saw and experienced in everyday life. I soon became very passionate about feminism and especially about violence against women. At this time I also joined my very first demonstration. It was against proposed cuts in students financial assistance. The demonstration really gave me a shot of adrenaline. There were thousands of students, and policemen on horses, and there was singing and shouting going on. My ideas gradually radicalized. I then joined a group of women operating a help line for victims of sexual violence. In 1990, when I was 28 years old, I joined a new women’s group called Sappho, which was meeting in De Invalshoek information center. We organized discussions and small actions. A year later I also started writing articles for our own local De Peueraar magazine, mainly about feminism and racism. At that time the feminist movement was in decline. A lot of people thought the job was done, now that women and gays were almost completely equal before the law. But to me feminism had a more revolutionary meaning. Society hasn’t fundamentally changed and domestic violence, for instance, is still a huge problem today. For a living, I work now at an organization against domestic violence paid by the council. But in my political life, at De Fabel van de illegaal, I’m not especially focused on feminism anymore."

Jan Tas : "My parents were a bit like hippies, not doing much. We lived in a small village. They had an anarchist friend, who showed me all kinds of books. Later I started visiting punk concerts, and developed some Leftist and animal rights ideas. I quit school in 1999 and followed some of my friends who went to study in Leyden. Just like them, I became active in the anarchist anti-EU group EuroDusnie (Europe ? No Way !). At first I was annoyed with De Fabel because Eric had written an article about the Right wing tendencies in the punk and animal rights scene. Many people at EuroDusnie also criticized De Fabel for quitting the anti-globalization movement and pointing out its nationalist and potential anti-Semite traits. But a few months later I decided to join De Fabel’s consultation hour for undocumented immigrants. When I was at EuroDusnie I often had to defend De Fabel. I liked the way De Fabel worked. They had a lot of serious discussions going on and tried to formulate shared political views. You could say that I really started my Left wing political career at De Fabel in the beginning of 2000, when I was 20 years old."

What was De Fabel about at the beginning ?

Eric : "With our information center called De Invalshoek (Perspective) we wanted to bring together people, groups, currents and ideas on a local level. With the crisis of the Left after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we wanted to revise the ideas and practice of the radical Left. We started with about 15 people and it all grew rapidly up to 60 people or more, divided over some 12 to 15 different groups. We also aided people in other Dutch cities who wanted to start similar initiatives. In 1992 there were about 7 such information centers the Netherlands and we were in contact with dozens of others in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France and Spain. Together with them, we tried to build a strong international network. That ultimately failed, and somewhat later the national info center structures also broke down."

What happened to the organization ?

Eric : "This central group of 15 people, including Harry and me, managed the info center on a daily basis. Our facilities were used by a gay group, a feminist group, an animal rights group, a vegetarian food coop, an environmental group, an unemployed organization, squatters, etc. We also planned our own discussions meetings, campaigns and actions on themes like anti-imperialism, racism, patriarchy, flexible work, immigration, European unification and so on. And we published our magazine De Peueraar (a centuries old name which was given to poor people fishing in the canals of Leyden). We wrote about the activities of all these groups and interviewed scores of active people all over the town. But after four years most other groups had stopped."

Ellen : "Two years earlier politicians had began to accuse immigrants of being criminals, and of abusing the welfare state and so on. Leading this attack was Frits Bolkestein, who later became EU commisioner. New harsh laws against immigration were being implemented. We then decided to make the issues of racism and immigration our main focus and changed our name into De Fabel van de illegaal. With this name we wanted to make clear that no one is illegal and that myths are being told about immigrants. Nowadays we still try to reorganize the radical Left and renew its ideas. But mostly we support immigrants and refugees now, on an individual as well as on a collective level. We also do a lot of anti-fascist work and we publish about all these things in our magazine."

How do you select, train and integrate new militants into De Fabel ?

Ellen : "We’re not really searching new people. Sometimes activists ask if they can join us after coming across our magazine or actions. And sometimes immigrants want to join us after visiting our consultation hour. Of course we do not allow everybody in. It is not enough for people to just want to help the undocumented. We don’t want social worker type of people. We are a political organization. And you can’t just join for a couple of months, because it takes a long time to get to know the ideas of the organization. Of course when you join, you do not have to think like us, but you do have to have an open mind about what we are standing for. For some new members it can be difficult to accept that we also criticize the Left, that we support the struggles of immigrants, but can also be critical of for instance Arab nationalism. New people are first invited for a talk about what they know about us, what they want to do and how many hours a week they can spend. Of course we tell them what we do, and what we ask of people. In our biweekly meeting we then decide if the person is welcome. Then one of us becomes the person’s mentor and shows him or her around for two months. It’s like a short course. After this period we decide together with the newcomer, whether he or she and De Fabel match politically and personally."

Harry : "At De Fabel you cannot be a passive member. We do not have a coordinator who tells you what to do. So we expect members to be active, to take initiatives and to contribute to the collective. In that sense we are completely different from large political parties. We are a small organization, but everybody is very active."

Eric : "It can often be difficult for new members to really grasp our way of being autonomous within the collective. It’s a political feeling very much connected to the earlier autonomous and squatters movements. Most people are not used to that. In school and at work they are always told to be obedient and they expect other people to tell them what to do. But after a few years at De Fabel most people do develop another, more autonomous mentality. And that is a very fundamental way in which members are educated at De Fabel. Often, after leaving De Fabel they have a hard time fitting in again in more traditional hierarchical structures."

Ellen : "We do not have a hierarchy. In practice that means that everybody has to take turns cleaning the toilet. We also expect each member to join our biweekly meeting and to be at the office at least one afternoon a week to open the door, answer the telephone and show visitors around in the library. Next to that you have got to join at least of our workgroups, like individual or collective support, anti-fascism, the magazine, finance, etc."

Jan : "Not everyone can immediately join the writers group. You need to be able to express the ideas we have developed in all these years. We can’t have someone new suddenly writing positive about capitalism, patriarchy or racism. When one of our members has written an article, we always discuss it collectively before it is published. That’s basic. Technically, I am a horrible writer myself. But Harry and Eric always correct the stuff I write, and by discussing the mistakes I have learned a lot. We educate each other."

Eric : "We stimulate new members to read certain books, and of course a lot of material we wrote ourselves. We have bundled the most important theoretical articles we wrote in the past 15 years in brochures. And the mentor and others discuss them with the new members. It’s a political training. Of course we also learn from the new members. New people can bring in new ideas. We also need to keep an open mind about what they think. We also try to learn from members leaving De Fabel by talking with them about what went wrong."

Ellen : "Members leave De Fabel, or the radical Left all together, because for instance they find it too political, too difficult, or too time consuming. We have to be realistic about that. Not everyone can be a hard-core political activist and ideologist."

What is the difference between De Fabel and a ngo ?

Jan : "Ngo’s criticize situations, but never in a fundamental way. They try to help people and they work on temporary solutions. We want a revolution. The whole society has to change. We try to fight with people who want the same, or who have demands that point to fundamental changes. So, when talking about the problems the undocumented face : a ngo would for instance maybe arrange doctors for them. We also do that, but we also struggle together with the undocumented and the radical Left against the governmental exclusion policy and immigration controls which have caused the problems of the immigrants in the first place. We also try to continually develop the radical Left analysis. Ngo’s wouldn’t do that.

Can you give an example ?

Eric : "The radical Left in the Netherlands is used to argue against the government keeping political refugees out and deporting the ones who managed to come in. Those arguments are good, but not enough. The radical Left needs to see that the government also allows people in, that it selects immigrants based on the needs of the labor market. So it makes more sense to the radical Left to think in terms of migration controls and population politics. Then it will automatically notice immigrants, as well as refugees. Furthermore, the concept of population politics opens up our eyes to wider controls. Not only does the state decide who is allowed in and who is not, all on the basis of economic calculations. It also influences who’s to live and who’s not. The elderly and the handicapped cannot be made productive, and that’s why euthanasia is so popular with the Dutch government. Recent debates in the government on forced integration or even assimilation of immigrants can also be seen in this light. Companies can make more money with carefully assimilated immigrants working for them. We also try to get the radical Left to focus more on patriarchy, on the position of migrant women and the jobs they often have to do. Fortunately, in the last five years quite a few radicals have abandoned the anti-globalization ideology and started looking in their own neighborhood at concrete repression and exploitation of workers, especially immigrants. I like to think that we have helped to push activists in that direction."

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