How Not To Understand 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 naïvely admitted 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 of theirs 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 back on their heads and turn out to be not very distinct from present history, from which they themselves were absolutely separated, all their efforts proving insufficient to prevent this “old mole” from making its way toward daylight. Châtelet’s article is full of unwitting confessions of the state of mind of all the shysters of his ilk. Recalling the incidents at Strasbourg, this splendid prophet, just five months before May 1968, took comfort in reassuring himself while as usual misleading his imbecilic readers: “For a brief moment there was panic; there was fear that the contagion would spread (...) but everything returned (...) to order.” He states that Debord and Vaneigem, presenting “a denunciation that can be accepted or rejected only as a whole,” have thereby disqualified themselves, and that they “discourage any criticism in advance” because “they consider it self-evident that any objection to their positions can only come from foolish thinkers who are lackeys of ‘power’ and of the ‘spectacle’.” Discouraging the criticisms made by the miserable generation of intellectuals who have prostituted themselves in Stalinism and Argumentism and in philosophizing for L’Express and Le Nouvel Observateur is indeed one of our goals. The act of criticizing us does not make someone a stupidly spectacular and craven toady for the powers that be; on the contrary, it is because Châtelet briefly rallied to Stalinism in 1956, and has since transformed himself into a valet of the spectacle in a few somewhat more profitable trades, that he criticizes us so stupidly. Châtelet finds that, because we limit ourselves to a radical but “abstract” negation, we remain “in the empirical” and even “without concepts.” Harsh words. But consider where they’re coming from. We know that when the wine of critique is sufficiently diluted with dirty water, a hundred mediocre books are quickly saluted as highly conceptual by Châtelet and all the other castratos of the concept, who would like the unfortunate readers of Le Nouvel Observateur to believe that they have plenty of “conceptual” knowledge. Moreover, this ex-Stalinist who would obviously have opposed the communism of 1848, gives a perfect expression of himself in what is perhaps the lamest remark that any cretin has ever applied to us. With the aim of disparaging us, but at the same time also, like the other Argumentists cuckolded by Stalinism, wishing to belittle the old demand for a proletarian revolution — which he believed had been exorcised forever, buried by Stalinism and by his Express — Châtelet states that, although one might consider these books and the existence of the SI as “symptoms,” as a “little glimmer flitting vaguely from Copenhagen to New York,” “situationism is no more the specter that haunts industrial society than was communism the specter that haunted Europe in 1848.” It is we who emphasize this completely unintentional praise. Everyone will easily understand that we find it already a gratifying accomplishment to be “mistaken” like Marx, rather than like Châtelet.

If the anger of these pretentious experts was already pretty strong, it became really extreme after the occupations movement arrived to contradict all their predictions. Pierre Vianson-Ponté (Le Monde, 25 January 1969) furiously dismisses Viénet’s book with a dishonesty remarkable even for the editors of that paper. He sees nothing in it but “a virtually unreadable prose, a boundless pretension, and an unquenchable craving for publicity. (...) They conclude quite simply that the May revolt (...) heralds nothing less than a global revolution.” Vianson-Ponté is nothing more than a moron. He begins his article with this pompous dictum: “Formerly, revolutionaries fell on the barricades or took power. They had no time to write their history, and they generally had no interest in doing so.” He could hardly be more mistaken. Revolutionaries, among the best tendencies as among the worst, have always written a lot, for reasons that have been obvious to everyone except Vianson-Ponté, who is apparently not even aware that they have done so. To give just one example, in the single year 1871 a dozen important books written by survivors of the Paris Commune were published in Geneva and Brussels (Gustave Lefrançais’s Étude sur le mouvement communaliste à Paris, Benoît Malon’s La troisième défaite du prolétariat français, Lissagaray’s Les huit journées de mai derrière les barricades, Georges Janneret’s Paris pendant la commune révolutionnaire, etc., to say nothing of Marx’s La guerre civile en France). But Vianson-Ponté wants blood. Unquestioningly accepting the official police line that there were very few deaths in May, he reproaches us for this paltry result: “The revolutionaries of May 1968, thank God, are still alive. (...) Now they write. A lot. The hands that only yesterday were throwing paving stones have now taken up the pen.” We take pride in this passage from pen to paving stone and vice versa, considering it a preliminary step in the abolition of the division between manual and intellectual work. But doesn’t this thoughtless necrophage realize that his ill-advised irony could be interpreted as an appeal for a bloodier police and military repression next time? And if such a repression happens, isn’t it obvious that some of those who tried to deny the seriousness of the 1968 movement on the grounds that it didn’t cause enough deaths run the risk of themselves being among the first victims of the inevitable spontaneous reprisals? In 1962 we wrote: “What is astonishing is rather that all the specialists of public-opinion polls remain so unaware of how close this public anger is to bursting forth, this anger that is arising for so many good reasons. One of these days they will be really astonished — at seeing the architects rounded up and hung in the streets of Sarcelles” (Internationale Situationniste #7, p. 19). Precisely because of its strength, which was due to the partial but nevertheless overwhelming participation of the proletarian masses, the May movement was lenient. But if, one of these days, we come to bloodier confrontations, the urbanists and the journalists (who are already denouncing the few blows recently given to the Stalinist Badia at Vincennes as “red fascism”) will indeed be in great peril.

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. A general contradiction hangs over them all. Some of these authors, though believing they have discovered some striking insights in our writings, lack the most elementary political and theoretical knowledge that would enable them to really understand what our books are about, which requires considering each of them as a whole, within its entire context. A good example is the critic Henri-Charles Tauxe, in the Swiss newspaper La Gazette Littéraire (13 January 1968), who concludes his analysis (which at least has the merit of honestly trying to set out the content of the book he is reviewing) with this rumination: “One could certainly ask oneself a number of questions about the perspectives opened up by Debord, and in particular whether the very concept of revolution still has any meaning today.” On the other hand, those of our critics who are well aware of the problems addressed in these books are led to falsify them, with a bad faith that is closely related to their particular positions and even to the particular platforms from which they speak. In order to avoid tedious repetition, we will limit ourselves to examining three typical attitudes, each manifesting itself in reaction to one of our books, attitudes represented respectively by an academic Marxist, a psychoanalyst, and an ultraleftist militant. In the process, we will note their primary motivations.

* * *

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).(1) 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 pedantic reminders of things that are obvious. He solemnly announces that Debord has changed “the commodity into the spectacle,” a transformation that 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. Lefort can thus arrive at the absurd conclusion that “according to Debord, all history is futile”! He also refers to Debord as “a strange offspring of Marx, intoxicated by the famous analysis of the fetishism of the commodity.” We won’t go into a debate about the best ways to become intoxicated — a matter that academics know little about — but we will note that Lefort was more surprised than we were when history suddenly returned in May 1968, that “bacchanalia of truth where no one remains sober” (Hegel)(2) in which one could already see crowds of people intoxicated by the discovery of the possibility of destroying the commodity and the spectacle at the heart of pseudolife. And Lefort, in Le Monde of 5 April 1969 — still behind the times regarding what is happening, and even regarding what he knows, but less so nevertheless than he was in February 1968 — goes so far as to write that it isn’t necessary to obsess, like “the bourgeois observers,” about the reappearance of Trotskyist relics at the left of the Stalinist machine, because “the conditions are now present to permit a critique of the whole bureaucratic world and to base an analysis in new terms of the modern mechanisms of exploitation and oppression. (...) With the May movement, and with the initiatives that it has inspired among the young workers, something new is taking shape that owes nothing to the intervention of heroes: an opposition that does not yet know what to name itself, but that defies all the established authorities in such a way that it cannot be confused with the movements of the past.” Better late than never! Only, as we have seen, in February 1968 the “conditions” were already present, although Lefort wanted to ignore them, and he himself, today, does “not yet” know what this opposition names itself.

* * *

We sink lower still with André Stéphane’s Univers contestationnaire (Payot, 1969), the thirteenth chapter of which is a critique of Raoul Vaneigem’s book [The Revolution of Everyday Life]. The publisher announces that “Stéphane” is the pseudonym of “two psychoanalysts.” Judging from their stratospheric level of ineptitude and their ponderous parody of “orthodox Freudianism,” there could just as well have been twenty-two of them, or the work could have been churned out by a computer programmed for psychoanalysis. Since the authors are psychoanalysts, Vaneigem is naturally insane. He is paranoid, which is why he has so perfectly expressed in advance the May movement and other distressing tendencies of modern society, all of which are nothing but fantasies, deliriums, a rejection of the object world and of the Oedipal problem, fusional narcissism, exhibitionism, sadistic impulses, etc. They crown their monument of hogwash by professing to “admire the book as a work of art.” But unfortunately this book has fallen into bad hands: the May movement horrified our psychiatrists by its blind violence, its inhuman terrorism, its nihilistic 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 we 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 provoking laughter. Even the people who were foolish enough to be the customers of this Laurel and Hardy of mental medicine told them that after May they felt less depressed and less dissociated. Fearing that this might result in a reduction of their income (after having been terrified at the thought of losing everything in May, when our ethereal absolutism threatened the very existence of money and the commodity system), our socially integrated lunatics write: “This was very clear in the case of certain patients, who seemed to consider that if Revolution (an infantile desire that they had abandoned) was possible, then everything would become possible; that it would no longer be necessary to abstain from anything . . .” These people would be an embarrassment to psychoanalysis if any dignity remained in that lamentable profession, that is, if the work of Freud had not already been torn to shreds by its cooption into bourgeois society over thirty years ago. But when these mental retards, driven by hate, fear, and the desire to maintain their profitable little prestige, venture to deal with an issue whose basis is obviously political, how do they manage? Here our mature and sensible defenders of “real” society, and of the principle that all is for the best in this best of all possible societies, reveal the full extent of their stupidity. For these psychoanalysts there is no question 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 of 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 experienced in its purest state by all the May rebels, has revealed the inner, existential misery of people whose “infantile desire” has led them to a craving for the absolute, people whose immaturity makes them incapable of taking advantage of the “benefits” of modern society, thus demonstrating “an incapacity for libidinal expression in the external world due to internal conflicts. The most marvelous festivals cannot entertain someone who bears within himself boredom, that deficiency in the libidinal economy.”

Reading these Stéphanes, one has to bear in mind that when they refer to “the most marvelous festivals,” they are thinking of things like the “Sound and Light Show” at the Giza Pyramid. Their judgment of the automobile suffices to reveal the properly sublimated infantilism of these monogamous and responsibly voting “real adults”: this splendid toy has provided a suitable replacement for the little electric train of their earlier years when they were resolving their Oedipus complexes, to the general satisfaction of their respectable families. Quoting (p. 215) a few ironic passages from Vaneigem on the current pseudosatisfaction of social needs (“The Communards fought to the death so that you, too, could buy a Philips hi-fi stereo system”), they reject his paranoiac point of view with indignation and frankly declare that the Communards would have been thrilled to know that their sacrifice would assure for their descendants the right to live at Sarcelles and watch the television shows of Guy Lux. They conclude that Vaneigem “must truly have counterinvested materiality not to understand that buying a car may, at least provisionally, constitute a valid goal in itself, and that this acquisition may produce a great joy.” They themselves must truly have counterinvested the slightest trace of rational thought to have made themselves the unconditional eulogists of this “great joy” at a time when the specialists of scientific examination, fragmented and socially disarmed though they be, are denouncing the dangers in all domains posed by the proliferation of this star-commodity (destruction of the urban environment, etc.); and when even those who are most alienated by the “possession” of a car never cease complaining about the specific conditions that are continually spoiling the “great joy” that this purchase supposedly guarantees them, according to the ads (to be sure, this discontent does not yet go so far as to grasp the fact that this spoiling is not caused by the inadequacies of this or that governmental administration, but simply by the obligatory multiplication of this pseudo-good to the point of total congestion). Finally, our two psychiatrists are precise, sincere, and realistic only on a single point. In a note on page 99 they denounce certain persons “claiming to be psychoanalysts and Freudians” who, after a debate at the College of Medicine on the question of payment of psychoanalysts, wished to call in question the very necessity for such payment. “Now to anyone who is familiar with the effects of transference, it is clear that the money paid by the analysand guarantees him what we can schematically term ‘autonomy’ (once he pays the psychoanalyst, ‘he no longer owes him anything’).” Psychoanalysis has obviously never had any trouble articulating splendid psychoanalytic justifications of the necessity of paying. But if those who profit from it so as to consume more and live less are so comfortable psychoanalyzing Marxists, they don’t make us forget that the most elementary Marxist critique reveals, with greater precision, their own depth psychology (to adopt their verbal style of analysis, it is no accident if the people say “he slipped the dough into his deep” [‘profonde (‘deep) is French slang for pocket’], their economy, and their investments. Here, then, is the origin of the book by these Stéphanes: their money was threatened. What worse delirium have they ever had to deal with? The psychiatrists have never seen a mode of production die! They are nevertheless beginning to feel some uneasiness.

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” at Strasbourg and Nantes, and eighteen months later the collapse of his whole fine university world along with a great number of his hierarchical superiors. Finally, though a bit belatedly, the psychiatrists with which we were threatened have arrived, and have 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 striving to reconstitute 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 to be worth discussing here. Since we are dealing with people who have revolutionary intentions, we will merely point out a few of their specific falsifications. Such falsifications are 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 indefensible.

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 footnotes (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 ellipsis? 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 take up. 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 thus 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.

September 1969



1. The article referred to is “Socialisme ou Planète” (Internationale Situationniste #10, pp. 77-79).

2. The quotation is from the Preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. The “famous analysis of the fetishism of the commodity” is in Marx’s Capital (chapter 1, section 4).

“Comment on ne comprend pas des livres situationnistes” originally appeared in Internationale Situationniste #12 (Paris, September 1969). This translation by Ken Knabb is from the Situationist International Anthology (Revised and Expanded Edition, 2006). No copyright.

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