How Not to Read Situationist Books
If the SI’s activity had not recently led to some publicly scandalous and threatening consequences it is certain that no French publication would have reviewed our recent books. François Châtelet ingenuously admits as much in the Nouvel Observateur (3 January 1968): “One’s first impulse when confronted with such works is purely and simply to exclude them, to leave this absolutist point of view in the realm of the absolute — the realm of the nonrelative and unmentioned.” But having left us in the realm of the unmentioned, the organizers of this conspiracy of silence have within a few years seen this strange “absolute” fall on their heads and turn out to be not very distinct from present history, from which they themselves were absolutely separated. All their efforts were unable to prevent this “old mole” from making his way toward daylight. [...]
So it is that publications in France have felt obliged to devote several dozen articles to discussing our books. Nearly as many have appeared in the foreign press, the latter being somewhat more honest and informed. Some have even contained praises, which there is no point going into here. [...] In order to avoid tedious repetition, we will limit ourselves to examining (and incidentally noting the main motivations of) three typical attitudes, each one manifesting itself in relation to one of our books: the attitudes of an academic Marxist, a psychoanalyst, and an ultraleftist militant.
During the early 1950s Claude Lefort was a revolutionary and one of the main theorists of the journal Socialisme ou Barbarie — regarding which we stated in Internationale Situationniste #10 that it had sunk to run-of-the-mill academic speculation on the level of Arguments and that it was bound to disappear (which it confirmed by folding a month or two later). By that time Lefort had already been separated from it for years, having been in the forefront of the opposition to any form of revolutionary organization, which he denounced as inevitably doomed to bureaucratization. Since this distressing discovery he has consoled himself by taking up an ordinary academic career and writing in La Quinzaine Littéraire. In the 1 February 1968 issue of that periodical this very knowledgeable but domesticated man makes a critique of The Society of the Spectacle. He begins by acknowledging that the book has some merits. Its use of Marxian methodology, and even of détournement, has not escaped him, though he fails to notice its debt to Hegel. But the book nevertheless seems academically unacceptable to him for the following reason: “Debord adds thesis upon thesis, but he does not advance; he endlessly repeats the same idea: that the real is inverted in ideology, that ideology, changed in its essence in the spectacle, passes itself off for the real, and that it is necessary to overthrow ideology in order to bring the real back into its own. It makes little difference what particular topic he treats, this idea is reflected in all the others. It is only due to his exhaustion that he has stopped at the 221st thesis.” Debord readily admits that he found, at the 221st thesis, that he had said quite enough, and had accomplished exactly what he had set out to do: make an “endless” description of what the spectacle is and how it can be overthrown. The fact that “this idea is reflected in all the others” is precisely what we consider the characteristic of a dialectical book. Such a book does not have to “advance,” like some doctoral dissertation on Machiavelli, toward the approval of a board of examiners and the attainment of a diploma. (And as Marx put it in the Afterword to the second German edition of Capital, regarding the way the dialectical “method of presentation” may he viewed, “This reflecting may make it seem as if we had before us a mere a priori construction.”) The Society of the Spectacle does not hide its a priori engagement, nor does it attempt to derive its conclusions from academic argumentation. It is written only to show the concrete coherent field of application of a thesis that already exists at the outset, a thesis deriving from the investigations that revolutionary criticism has made of modern capitalism. In our opinion, it is basically a book that lacked nothing but one or more revolutions. Which were not long in coming. But Lefort, having lost all interest in this kind of theory and practice, finds that the book is an ivory tower world closed in on itself: “One would have expected this book to be a violent attack against its adversaries, but in fact this ostentatious discourse has no other aim than showing off. Admittedly it has a certain beauty. The style is flawless. Since any question that does not have an automatic response has been banished from the very first lines, one would search in vain for any fault.” The misinterpretation is total: Lefort sees a sort of Mallarméan purity in a book which, as a negative of spectacular society (in which also, but in an inverse manner, any question that does not have an automatic response is banished at every moment), ultimately seeks nothing other than to overthrow the existing relation of forces in the factories and the streets.
After this general rejection of the book, Lefort still wants to play the Marxist regarding a few details in order to remind us that this is his specialty, the reason he gets assignments from intellectual periodicals. Here he begins to falsify in order to give himself the opportunity of introducing a pedantic reminder of what is well known. He solemnly announces that Debord has changed “the commodity into the spectacle,” which transformation is “full of consequences.” He ponderously summarizes what Marx says on the commodity, then falsely charges Debord with having said that “the production of the phantasmagoria governs that of commodities,” whereas in fact the exact opposite is clearly stated in The Society of the Spectacle, notably in the second chapter where the spectacle is defined as simply a moment of the development of commodity production. [...]
We sink lower still with André Stéphane’s Univers contestationnaire (Payot, 1969), the thirteenth chapter of which is a critique of Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life. The publisher announces that “Stéphane” is the pseudonym of “two psychoanalysts.” Judging by their colossal ineptitude and parody of “orthodox Freudianism,” they could just as well have been twenty-two, or the work could have been done by a computer programmed for psychoanalysis. Since the authors are psychoanalysts, Vaneigem is naturally insane. He is paranoid, this is why he has so perfectly expressed in advance the May movement and various distressing tendencies of the entire society. It’s really only a matter of fantasies, delirium, rejection of the objective world and of the oedipal problem, fusional narcissism, exhibitionism, sadistic impulses, etc. They crown their monument of imbecilities by professing to admire the book “as a work of art.” Unfortunately this book has fallen into bad hands: the May movement horrified our psychiatrists by its blind violence, its inhuman terrorism, its nihilist cruelty and its explicit goal of destroying civilization and perhaps even the planet. When they hear the word “festival” they reach for their electrodes; they insist that one get back to the serious, never doubting for a moment that they themselves are excellent representatives of the seriousness of psychoanalysis and of social life and that they can write about all that without making people laugh. Even the people who had the foolishness to be the customers of this Laurel and Hardy of mental medicine told them that after May they felt less depressed and dissociated. [...] For these psychoanalysts there is no doubt that this May movement, which they analyze with such brilliant penetration, consisted exclusively of students (these police dogs of the detection of the irrational have not for one moment found it abnormal and unexplainable that a mere outburst of student vandalism was able to paralyze the economy and the state in a large industrial country). Moreover, according to them all students are rich, living in comfort and abundance, without any discernable rational reason for discontent: they enjoy all the benefits and virtually none of the drawbacks of a happy society that has never been less repressive. Our psychoanalysts thus conclude that this socioeconomic happiness, evidently enjoyed by all the May rebels, has revealed the inner, existential misery of people who had an “infantile desire” for the absolute, people whose immaturity makes them incapable of profiting from the “benefits” of modern society, thus demonstrating “an incapacity of libidinal expression in the external world due to internal conflicts.” [...]
At the end of 1966 Rector Bayen of Strasbourg declared to the press that we should be dealt with by psychiatrists. In the following year he saw the abolition of the “University Psychological Aid Centers” of Strasbourg and Nantes, and eighteen months later the crumbling of his whole fine university world along with a great number of his hierarchical superiors. Finally, though a bit late, the psychiatrists with which we were threatened have arrived, and made this critique of Vaneigem. They have probably disappointed those who were hoping for a final solution of the situationist problem.
René Viénet’s book [Enragés and Situationists in the Occupations Movement] has not had the honors of psychiatry, but has been criticized in an article in issue #2 of Révolution Internationale, the journal of an ultraleftist group that is anti-Trotskyist and non-Bordigist, but scarcely disengaged from Leninism: it is still aiming at reconstituting the wise leadership of a true “party of the proletariat” which this time, however, promises to remain democratic once it manages to come into existence. This group’s ideas are a bit too musty for it to be of interest to discuss them here. Since we are dealing with people who have revolutionary intentions, we will merely point out a few of their specific falsifications. Such falsification is in our opinion much more inconsistent with the activity of a revolutionary organization than the mere assertion of erroneous theories, which can always be discussed and corrected. Moreover, those who think they have to falsify texts in order to defend their theses thereby implicitly admit that their theses are otherwise undefensible.
Our critic says he is disappointed with the book, “especially since the several months’ period of writing time should have made possible something better.” In fact, although the book only appeared at the end of October 1968, it is clearly indicated in the introduction (p. 8) that it was completed July 26. It was then immediately sent to the publisher, after which no alterations were made apart from the addition of two short notes (pp. 20 and 209) explicitly dated October, concerning post-July developments in Czechoslovakia and Mexico.
Our critic then reproaches the book for “yielding to current fashion” — that is, in fact, to our own style, since it adopts the same sort of presentation as the previous issues of Internationale Situationniste — because it includes photos and comics; and he reproaches the situationists for being contemptuous of “the great infantile mass of workers” by aiming to divert them as do the capitalist press and cinema. He sternly notes that “it is above all the action of the Enragés and situationists that is described,” only to add immediately: “which, moreover, is stated in the title.” Viénet proposed to draw up an immediate report on our activities in the May period, accompanied with our analyses and some documents, considering that this would constitute a valuable documentation for understanding May, particularly for those who will have to act in future crises of the same type (it is with the same purpose that we have further taken up these questions in this issue). This experience may seem useful to some and negligible to others, depending on how they think and what they really are. But what is certain is that without Viénet’s book this precise documentation would have been unknown (or known only fragmentarily and falsely) by many people. The title says clearly enough what it’s about.
Without going so far as to insinuate that there is the slightest false detail in this report, our critic contends that Viénet has given too large a place to our action, that we have imagined it to have been “preponderant.” “Reduced to its correct proportions, the place occupied by the situationists was certainly inferior to that of numerous other groups, or in any case not superior.” We don’t really know where the “certainty” of his comparison comes from, as if it were a matter of weighing the total amount of paving stones that each group threw in the same direction at the same building. The CRS and even the Maoists certainly had a “greater place” in the crisis than we had, a greater weight. The question is in what direction the force of one or another grouping was exerted. If we restrict ourselves to the revolutionary current, a great number of unorganized workers obviously had a weight so determinative that no group can even be compared with them; but this tendency did not become the conscious master of its own action. If — since our critic seems more interested in a sort of race among the “groups” (and perhaps he is thinking of his?) — we restrict ourselves to groups holding clearly revolutionary positions, we know very well that they were not so “numerous”! And in this case one would have to specify which groups one is referring to and what they did, instead of leaving everything in a mysterious vagueness, merely deciding that the specific action of the SI, in relation to these unknown groups, was “certainly inferior,” and then — what is a bit different — “not superior.”
In reality, Révolution Internationale reproaches the situationists for having said, for years, that a new setting out of the revolutionary proletarian movement was to be expected from a modern critique of the new conditions of oppression and the new contradictions those conditions were bringing to light. For RI fundamentally there is nothing new in capitalism, nor therefore in the critique of it; the occupations movement presented nothing new; the concepts of “spectacle” or of “survival,” the critique of the commodity attaining a stage of abundant production, etc., are only empty words. It can be seen that these three series of postulates are all interlinked.
If the situationists were merely fanatics of intellectual innovation, Révolution Internationale, which knows everything about proletarian revolution since 1920 or 1930, would attach no importance to them. What our critic objects to is that we showed at the same time that these new developments in capitalism, and consequently the new developments in its negation, are also rediscovering their connections with the old truth of the previously vanquished proletarian revolution. This is very annoying to RI because it wants to possess this old truth without any newness mixed in, whether such newness arises within reality or in the theories of the SI or others. Here begins the falsification. RI excerpts a few sentences from pages 13 and 14 of Viénet’s book, where he recapitulates these basic banalities of the unaccomplished revolution, and adds a bunch of marginal notes like a professor’s red ink corrections: “It’s really wonderful that the SI ‘readily’ affirms what all workers and revolutionaries already knew”; “what a marvelous discovery!”; “obviously”; etc. But the excerpts from these two pages are, if we may say so, rather artfully selected. One of them, for example, is quoted exactly as follows: “The SI knew well (...) that the emancipation of the workers still clashed everywhere with bureaucratic organizations.” What are the words deleted by this opportune parenthesis? Here is the exact sentence: “The SI knew well, as did so many workers with no means of expressing it, that the emancipation of the workers still clashed everywhere with bureaucratic organizations.” RI’s method is as obvious as the existence of class struggle, which this group seems to imagine itself the exclusive owner of — the class struggle to which Viénet was explicitly referring in response to “so many commentators” having the means of expressing themselves in books and newspapers who “agreed that the movement was unforeseeable.”
And, always so as to deny that the SI has said in advance any truth on the nearness of a new period of the revolutionary movement, RI, which does not at all want this period to be new, asks ironically how the SI can claim to have foreseen this crisis; and why it didn’t appear until exactly fifty years after the defeat of the Russian revolution — “why not thirty or seventy?” The answer is very simple. Even leaving aside the fact that the SI followed rather closely the rise of certain elements of the crisis (in Strasbourg, Turin and Nanterre, for example), we predicted the content, not the date.
The Révolution Internationale group may very well be in total disagreement with us when it comes to judging the content of the occupations movement, as it is more generally at variance with the comprehension of its era and therefore with the forms of practical action that other revolutionaries have already begun to appropriate. But if we scorn the Révolution Internationale group and want no contact with it, it is not because of the content of its somewhat musty theoretical science, but because of the petty-bureaucratic style it is naturally led to adopt in order to defend that content. The form and content of its perspectives are in accord with each other, both dating from the same dismal years.
But modern history has also created the eyes that know how to read us.