Rexroth’s San Francisco
September 1966-June 1967

The Provos of Amsterdam

AMSTERDAM — This is the first column about the famous Provos of Amsterdam. The New Youth and their capers have achieved their greatest world press coverage in, first, Berkeley, second, Haight-Ashbury, third, Amsterdam.

The Provos of Amsterdam have replaced windmills, tulips and wooden shoes as the leading tourist stereotype of Dutch life.

Outside the San Francisco Bay Area there is certainly no organized movement of youth as significant. The Provos are most significant for precisely their organization — which, in comparison with the snake-dancing Left Social Democratic youth organization of Japan [the Zengakuren], much less with any neo-Bolshevik group, is no organization at all, but a self-controlled spontaneous continuous eruption. [...]

The first thing to understand about the Provos is that they are not political at all in the sense that term is used by the American left.

Like their San Francisco counterparts, they are anti-political. They are opposed to the Vietnam war, but they are also opposed to the Cominform and the Chinintern, to Ho as well as LBJ, and they have developed a remarkable immunity to Maoist infiltration.

Most of the objectives of Bolshevik and neo-Bolshevik action and propaganda are simply the objectives of the Foreign Office, the Narkomindel, of Russia or the Chinese Foreign Ministry. If actions cannot be tied to these objectives they are suppressed.

Like most of the youth of the world (outside China) the Provos couldn’t care less.

They are interested in humane immediate demands, not in geopolitics. They are interested in changing the quality of life, not in the power of far-off bureaucrats nor even in economic, wages and hours, or political objectives in the Netherlands. [...]

What are the principal demands of the Provos? Control all automobile traffic and get the autos out of the old city altogether. Restore all the canals as traffic ways. Stop the pollution of both air and water now, by immediately effective drastic measures. Make birth control information and devices freely available to everybody.

What’s wrong with this? I’m for it all in San Francisco. The remarkable thing is that so is almost everybody in Amsterdam, including the Dutch Catholic leaders.

The Provos have become not just the voice of youth, but the irrepressible spokesmen for everybody — everybody with any sort of social conscience or sense of what makes for a decent humane community life. [...]

As the first generation to grow up in a world of nuclear reactors, computers and automation, the Provos are concerned with harnessing this new technology and preventing it from dehumanizing the environment and destroying the great virtues inherent or potential in the community of Amsterdam. After all — they are the people who will be operating the technological society for the rest of the century, and as they enter upon adulthood, their first demand is that this technology be harnessed so they can ride it. At present it has yet to be broken to bit and saddle.

In their relations with one another, in their lives as Provos together, what are they like?

They are very like the permanent residents of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury community. Like that community, they have their bums and lunatic fringe, but though they are most conspicuous they are least important.

What long ago I called the movement to optional dress has spread far beyond the Provos to most Dutch youth and people go about in flowered trousers, long hair or shaved heads, 19th-century army dress tunics, everything except togas.

The actual Provos, perhaps to distinguish themselves, tend to be more conservatively dressed — in white jeans and white T-shirts or other simple and usually very clean garb. Although like the rebel youth of most of the world, the Provos have discarded alcohol for marijuana as a mild social intoxicant, they aren’t very obsessive about it, and still less are they hung up on pills and acid. They are militantly anti-cigarettes. They may use LSD betimes, but unlike the American psychedellies, they don’t bore you to death talking about it. However, they do share with the LSD cult and with Allen Ginsberg a vociferous “I love everybody” approach to, well, everybody. That includes “support your friendly Amsterdam police” — with a relentless campaign of nonviolent teasing which seems to have the fuzz beside itself.

Every Saturday night there is a “happening” — they use the English word, as they use English and American songs and often speak English among themselves. These happenings are a kind of dadaist mass demonstration against, each time, some patent community evil.

The fuzz go on filling the paddy wagons with kids who have just laid 100 fried eggs and 100 rotten oranges on the steps of the Royal Palace, and the Amsterdamers stand around and cheer. They want the Royal House of Orange to give up the Palace and turn it into a cultural center.

Personal — or interpersonal — intimate life among the Provos is remarkably free — free of tensions, obsessions, guilt and emotional exploitation. Their ethic of philosophical anarchism obviously works.

Just as Quakers seem to have less trouble practicing the “impossibilist ethic” of Christianity, so the Provos practice mutual aid, mutual respect, total freedom, inviolable integrity, just by doing what comes naturally.

What is this new society in the shell of the old they have created? It is the society of the technological age — when naked exploitation of labor power is no longer the necessary basis of the economy and when man needs no longer be wolf to man. They have simply walked into it without asking permission. In 2000 AD we’ll all be in it or we’ll all be dead.

[13, 15, 20 December 1966]

NOTE: For a more critical view of the Provos, see the second chapter of the situationists’ On the Poverty of Student Life.


Rexroth’s San Francisco (columns from the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Magazine). Copyright 1960-1975 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.



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