The following letter was written to a group in Argentina which is based on the conceptions of the Situationist International. In criticizing some of the articles and documents sent to us by this group from the first issue of their forthcoming magazine, Diversion, we have been led to deal with what has been called ‘Situationism’.
Situationism was the most radical expression of the student movement which shook the main western countries at the end of the sixties as a reaction to the first signs of the world economic crisis.
By calling for the “end of the university”, the radical destruction of the bourgeois state with its unions, Stalinist, Trotskyist and other such ‘workers’ parties’, by calling for the “international power of the workers’ councils”, situationism marked a break with university leftism which wanted the ‘modernization’ of the university, a ‘democratic government’ formed by the ‘workers’ parties’ of capital and a ‘revolution’ which to them meant a state capitalist regime.
But the Situationist International did not live beyond the moment which brought it to the heights of glory. With the end of ‘student protest’, the Situationist International dissolved into a series of splits and mutual exclusions over the issues which defined their specific tendency: the problems of petty bourgeois intellectual who is sincerely against capitalist society but incapable of seeing humanity’s problems except through the problems of his own isolated individual-ness…….the problems of the ‘misery of everyday life’. Like the utopian socialists of the 19th century with whom they were so anxious to claim a link, the situationists were unable to recognize the working class as the only revolutionary force in society; they ended up burning themselves out in the petty, self-centred dead-end of the search for self ‘disalienation’.
However, because of their positions against the unions, parliamentarism, frontism, nationalism and state capitalism presented as socialism, situationism is still capable of sowing illusions among certain small groups who are trying to become an active factor in the communist revolution. But situationism, this theory of the rebellious petty bourgeoisie, because of its lack of' understanding of the basis of Marxism – economic determinism and the rejection of any possibility of revolutionary activity except through the historical struggle of the working class -- is today, just as it was seven years ago, a reactionary impasse for any effort towards revolutionary activity.
This is what we wanted to make clear in this letter to Diversion.
Maria Teresa’s and Daniel’s letter starts by saying: “the struggle that we have begun against the old world, making moments which aren’t dead, enters a new phase. The spectacular commodity society fragments itself and loses strength in this historic period. Diversion appears and becomes stronger all the time.”
Gradually, your reader realizes that he doesn’t actually understand what is being said. Therefore he carefully continues to read the rest, to the end, looking for some clues. But on reaching the last paragraph the only conclusion that he can arrive at is, that if he doesn’t get the point, it’s a result of the incoherence and lack of clarity of the ideas themselves.
Let’s look at the letter section by section.The subject of history
In the last paragraph we read about “the consistent pursuit of the realization of the international power of the workers’ councils.” And, in the first line you mention: “the struggle that we have begun against the old world” (our emphasis). Who is “we”? If you think that “the international power of the workers’ councils” is a present historic goal, a moment in the struggle against the old world, you would logically think that the real subject of this struggle can only be the working class. (Unless, as for Leninists of all descriptions, what is meant is that such international power will be given to the working class by another class or by a group of individuals. We assume this is not what you mean.)
But then, it would be reasonable to ask why is it that the working class is not mention in the rest of the text? Why is there no mention of the past century and a half of workers’ struggles? Why is there no mention, not even the slightest hint, of all the experiences acquired at such cost by the working class throughout its struggle against the old world, the capitalist world?
If you’re really convinced that the working class is the subject of history in present-day society, the phrase “the struggle that we have begun against the old world” can only be understood as: “the struggle that the working class has begun against the old world for more than a century and a half”.
Reading on, however, we can’t understand the following phrase: “the making of moments which aren’t dead.” Do you believe that the struggle waged by the working class since its birth as a class constitutes a “making of moments which aren't dead”? Perhaps what you mean by “moments which aren’t dead” are 'moments of “real life”; in other words, moments in which human beings, or for us, workers, can develop their capacities in a harmonious and infinite way.
But, only hopeless reformists can believe that this is possible “momentarily” and within this society. First, to think that you can “make” or construct anything worthwhile within this society is the basic lie of all reformists. The reality defended by revolutionaries is that the working class must begin by destroying this society so that humanity can begin to construct something human. The proletarian revolution has the specificity of being the first revolution in history that is the task of an exploited class. In other words, contrary to what happened in the past, there’s no possibility for the development of the new society from within the old one (as was the case for feudalism developing within slave society or for the bourgeoisie from within the feudal realm). In capitalism there’s no possibility of a political or economic compromise between the ruling class and the revolutionary class, since the revolution is not a confrontation between two exploiting classes, but one between an exploiting class and an exploited class.
Thus, you are defending a perfectly reformist and unfortunately banal conception when you assert: “The falsity of separating manual and mental labour must be exposed within ourselves. Our experience has shown us that on the way to our becoming human we must develop ALL our abilities; we must be equally able to solder a pipe or fix a kitchen as we are able to master other languages or cure with traditional medicines (Indian massage, herbs, acupuncture, etc).”
The division between manual and mental labour is neither right nor wrong. It’s a necessity in present society, just as its dissolution will be in the future society. The elimination of such a division isn’t an individual problem because its existence isn’t either, and never was. When we eliminate this problem, we will do it on a global scale because that’s the only way to do it. It’s elimination corresponds to an objective need and hence is possible. It’s a sad and barren illusion to believe that by “soldering pipes” in between reading philosophy books we will have eliminated the division between manual and mental labour! The proletariat doesn’t struggle to create illusory individual moments during which this division may disappear. On the contrary it struggles for the creation of the real and concrete material conditions (its political dictatorship exercised through the international workers’ councils), which will allow it to begin to lay the foundations of a new society in which this division could and should disappear; not momentarily, but definitely.
Secondly, what constitutes the motor force of class action and therefore of the working class, is not specifically a “critique of everyday life”, or the search for “undead moments”. In present society, as well as in all previous societies, everyday life always has been inhuman, not only for the exploited classes but for all men. It’s true that all men look, in the final analysis, for ways of bettering and rendering human their everyday life; it’s also true that the proletarian revolution will bring the greatest change to everyday life in human history, to the bourgeoisie as much as to the workers. (Individuals who today are bourgeois will become much more human and happier in the future society.) But, why does the bourgeoisie struggle for the preservation of present society, and the proletariat for its destruction? From the standpoint of “everyday life” this reality is totally incomprehensible. Furthermore, if the fight against the alienation of everyday life is logically taken to be the motor force of revolutionary struggle, we would have to reach these conclusions:
1. Revolution is not an activity of classes of people defined by their economic situation in the process of production, but rather it is a question which more or less alienated individuals pose for themselves. (It’s not an accident that in your texts, as in those of the International Situationists, “classes” are almost never mentioned.)
2. The most revolutionary individuals would be the petty-bourgeois intellectuals because their lives are most “unreal” and their personal worries are most closely concerned with ideas of boredom and meaninglessness. (Being a social group without a real position in the productive process, they are the most prone to existential anxieties characteristic of a class wit neither a historic future nor past.)
It is also not a coincidence that you write that “the possibility of realizing humanity’s history resides in the insoluble link of the struggles of those groups which want to be revolutionary and the unending movement (in present-day prehistory) of the wrathful declassed: it resides in the sum total of their talents and wills combatting the dominant spectacle.”
If you want to believe, as anarchists do, that human history is the result of the “sum total of the talents and wills” of individuals who “want” this or that, and of the “declassed”, that’s up to you. But then why do you speak of the “international power of the workers’ councils”? The power of workers’ councils presupposes the workers organized as a class. To say that this power is the path towards a society without classes means that the achievement of human history resides in the struggle of the working class.
The framework provided by a critique of “everyday life” may appear seductive insofar as it seems to offer a global critique of all existing states (Russia, China, or the US) without necessitating the dry task of demonstrating economically and scientifically that they are all forms of capitalism in greater or lesser evolution towards the most decadent form of the system: state capitalism. But in reality the critique of everyday life finally engulfs everything (all classes, all historic epochs) and in so doing it ends up in engulfing nothing, since it is an empty phrase merely hiding the essential (the class struggle), and must lead its proponents to waste their time in writing treatises about the “perfectly, self-made, free man”.
Thirdly, “the path to becoming human” that you talk about, and that all individuals (regardless of their class origins) should search for, cannot be an individual path of “self-purification” or “individual self-unalienation”. To be human is to consider oneself human, that is as an integral part of humanity and therefore it consists, above all, in considering human history as your own, in integrating yourself as a conscious and active factor in the historic march of humanity.
In this moment, in this last stage of “humanity’s prehistory”, “the kingdom and dominion of necessity”, the “history of humanity continues to be the history of class struggle” and thus, to be human means to be an active factor in the struggle of a class the revolutionary class: the struggle of the working class for the defence of its specific interests which today become one with the interests of humanity as a whole.
Ideas aren’t the product of other ideas - they stem from men’s social practice. In a class society revolutionary ideas are and can only be the product of the historical practice of the revolutionary class.
When you speak in your text about what a revolutionary organization should be (almost the whole text is dedicated to this problem), and what convictions revolutionaries should uphold, there’s no mention of the historical practice of the revolutionary class. Therefore the text is purely ideological (in the worst sense of the word). Instead of starting with the historical practice of the class prior to discussing the revolutionary organization, which is one of its instruments, so that you can understand what revolutionaries should be and how they should act in accordance with their organization’s real and global function; you do the exact opposite. Instead of following a really materialist analytic sequence you approach the question in an idealist fashion. (What Marx criticized in his Theses on Feuerbach, calling it “intuitive” or “vulgar” materialism.) Such a standpoint solely begins with the individual, considered separately from social practice, that is, outside classes.
Thus, while the world working class is awakening after fifty years of triumphant counter-revolution, stronger than ever throughout the four corners of the planet, but hampered nonetheless by half a century of Stalinist, Social Democratic, and trade union inspired confusion, along with nationalism and all the other poisonous lies distilled by capital; as the class confronts the arduous task of re-appropriating its historical revolutionary experience, you waste three-quarters of your first publication and your own time on recipes for “self-unalienation” - pipe welding, Indian herbs, and other “diversions” of your everyday triviality.
It is especially important to denounce all those who attempt to identify state capitalism with socialism, all those for whom “the revolution” does not imply a radical change in all human relations. However, to base our critique of them on the latter aspect is of secondary importance and introduces confusion since it deviates attention from the essential thing, the class struggle. The European Social Democrats, especially the French, understand this: their favourite slogans over the past few years have been: “Transform life” and “Self-managed Socialism”. This is not just pure demagogy. The first slogan dilutes the proletariat in an indistinguishable soup - the “people”. In other words, the proletariat is submerged among all other classes because ‘life-style’ politics pose problems and their solutions at an individual level. The second slogan seeks to lock up the working class within its factories, urging it to play at “managing its own exploitation”, its own misery, as capital continues to hold the reigns of central power before a self-divided, self-castrated class. The experience of 1920 in Italy where the working class allowed itself to be imprisoned within the factories playing at self-exploitation, while Giolitti (who didn’t even interrupt his holidays) and his government with the support of the trade unions and the assistance of the police, peacefully took over whole cities, is a clear example of the meaning and danger of the entire self-management critique, and with it the critique of everyday life.
The only subject of history in the present epoch is the proletariat, the working class. Therefore, every ideology and every conception that does not adopt as its central axis the revolutionary struggle of the working class places itself outside history, beyond the real terrain of revolution. It is on account of this that these ideologies can so easily become counterrevolutionary instruments.The present historical period
Let us return to your first paragraph since the essential weaknesses of the text can be found condensed there. You assert that “The struggle ... against the old world ... enters a new phase. The spectacular commodity society fragments and weakens itself in this historical period .... DIVERSION appears and becomes stronger all the time.”
In leaving aside the question of diversion, which you define as “the transcendence of the separation between play and everyday life” since a critique of that concept has already been sketched earlier in this letter, we will also not deal with your calling capitalism “a spectacular commodity society”. We think that the concept of “spectacle”, as defined by the International Situationists, is confusing enough, and the concept of a “spectacular commodity society” rather than making more precise the historical specificity of present-day society (in other words what distinguishes it from all other social forms in history) doesn’t do anything but dilute it.
Ignoring these two points, we are in total agreement with the idea that the historical struggle of the working class today enters a “new phase” and that capitalist society “divides itself and weakens its forces”. However, this doesn’t go beyond, today, the banal confirmations that even appear on the front page of Time magazine. The important thing to know is first, why this is happening, and why today? And secondly what does this “new phase” of revolutionary struggle consist of? These questions are either not answered by your texts or they are answered incorrectly. Concerning the first question: “Why capitalist society fragments and weakens its forces?” - generally, the only answer that you provide is to be found in the comic strip title, “Dialectics of the state, dialectics of putrefaction”. The “superhero” of the comic says, “It is enough to have the least regression- a speck of sand in the system - for the crisis to explode, or better stated, for the immediate reality of the system to be unmasked. And on the slightest pretext: economic recession, police brutality, football hooliganism, settlement of debts - social violence will regain its course.”
What is “social violence”? Is it the exploitation and daily oppression of capitalism? The revolutionary struggle of the proletariat? Terrorism of desperate individuals or that of factions of the bourgeoisie struggling for power? Let’s suppose that you do mean the struggle of the revolutionary proletariat against the old order (so that the following phrase in the comic strip gains some sense): “The moment has not come ...to consciously enlist oneself in work favouring the evolution of the world revolution.”(?) Given that you are talking about the class struggle, the notion contained in the comic strip is historically false.
For many decades, the pretexts that you talk about have occurred either dozens of times (economic recessions), or thousands of times (football hooliganism), or millions of times (the settlement of debts); yet no revolutionary struggle has “regained its course”. Where do you get the idea that it is enough to have a slight relapse for the permanent crisis in which society finds itself to explode? What world are you talking about? the world of science fiction, the comic strip, or the one we’re living in today?
For one individual taken in isolation, an awareness of the crisis which society has endured for more than fifty years can be provoked by anything: rebellion against parents, love problems, religious crises, reading, etc…... But it is absurd to confuse such a personal world with the real, social world individual life is determined by social life, but the life of society is not, as idealism would have it, the product of the sum total of individual lives.
The proletarian revolution has already erupted more than once in history. And those who don’t have a total ignorance of it, know that what makes it erupt as a definite movement, is a sufficiently profound economic crisis, a necessary but not sufficient condition for revolution. Only the economic crisis forces all classes (groups of men defined not by their ideas, nor by their colour of skin, nor by their traditions, but above all by their position in the social process of production), and particularly the proletariat, to attempt to struggle according to their specific interests. The economic crisis is proof of the need for society to be reorganized differently, since the economy remains even today the skeleton of society.
Secondly, a sufficient condition for revolution is that the class struggle at the beginning of a period of crisis does not find itself in a situation of historical defeat, as happened between 1929 and 1946, when the world working class was under the heel of the triumphant counter-revolution, from Moscow to Madrid, Canton to Berlin and Turin. These are general conditions that can be deduced from a century and a half of the historical experience of workers’ struggles. These are the conditions for the open eruption of the proletarian revolution - but these are not conditions for victory in themselves. Victory depends on a thousand other factors that are part of the development of the balance of class forces between the proletariat and capital. However, this is not the subject under discussion at the moment.
One should, in any case, make clear that the conditions for the explosion which will allow the proletarian revolution “to regain its course” have nothing to do with the “slight pretexts” that you talk about. According to your conception of social revolution, the strength of revolution is always, eternally present, ready to demolish the old world in the name of the new - a conception not unlike that of the primitive Christians who longed so much for a communist world.
On what do you base your idea of the necessity for, and the possibility of, the world proletarian revolution? On the wide-scale existence of injustice? Too much alienation in everyday life? May 68 in France, the hot autumn of 69 in Italy, December 70 in Poland, the struggles at El Ferrol, Pamplona or Valladolid in Spain, the generalized wild cat strikes in England in 72, the struggles in Cordoba and Mendoza in Argentina, etc - do you honestly believe that they were produced by a sudden rebirth globally of the idea of “justice” in itself? Do you believe that it is a mere accident that workers’ struggles developed throughout the world just as the capitalist economy began to enter a new crisis (second half of the 60s)? The waning of prosperity produced by the reconstruction period following World War II was aggressively announced by the “reconstructed” countries, which had ceased to be markets for American commodities, and were beginning to demand export markets for their own.
Today, capitalism once more completes the cycle in which it has lived since World War I: crisis, war, reconstruction, crisis .... Faced with the crisis, decadent capitalism flounders and will increasingly flounder. Humanity today has only two ways out: the proletarian solution, a revolution which will destroy the capitalist system and establish socialism, thus bringing to an end the prehistory of humanity; or the capitalist solution, if the proletariat is defeated, consisting of a third world war which would give way again to the cycle of reconstruction containing a perspective of a new crisis posing once again the same problem.
If today, one can say that the alternative is once more “socialism or barbarism”, it is not because some eternal principle of “justice” guides the course of human progress and can be opposed to capitalism. History has not only taught us but confirms today that the economic crisis of the capitalist system imposes the barbarism of imperialist war and generalized destruction while at the same time bringing to the forefront the reaction of one of the exploited classes, the working class. Because the working class is exploited and is the collective producer class it carries within itself in its opposition and resistance to capitalist exploitation and oppression the socialist solution - the new society.
Only by beginning from this perspective can present world events be understood, and it is only from within this framework that one can seriously pose an international revolutionary perspective.
In fact, the point of this discussion with you is essentially to establish whether or not you are marxists. The Situationist International, which inherited to a great extent the traditions of Socialism or Barbarism, was not. However, it never dared to answer openly. More often it amused itself by replying with jokes, “pseudo-hoodwinkings for pseudo-initiates”, such as “Marx was the founder of the SI in 1864”, or “Just like Marx, we’re not marxists.”
Just like Socialism or Barbarism, the SI forms part of the payment that the revolutionary movement has had to make to the Stalinist counter-revolution and to the worst swindle in history, which claims that marxism is the theory of State capitalism.
Today we have to re-appropriate the experience of our class - and marxism forms an essential and integral part of that experience. But in order to do so, it is first necessary to abandon certain peurile attitudes, particularly the one that seeks to define what is revolutionary by symmetrically opposing it to that which is counter-revolutionary.
Proletarian theory, revolutionary conceptions, is not symmetrically opposed to the counter-revolution. Revolutionary conceptions are the result of the historical practice of the revolutionary class.
To break with the revolutionary tradition of militancy because Stalinism created a militancy that answered its counter-revolutionary needs; to break with the idea of the party because all present parties are bourgeois; to break with the experience of the Russian proletariat in 1917, and with the Bolshevik Party because the latter ended up in the counter-revolution in Russia - indeed, these attitudes are symmetrical to the counter-revolution.
The struggle of the working class is distinguished from that of other exploited classes because the proletariat is the only class that can affirm itself positively, in that it provides a solution, a real future in historical terms. Other strata in society (small petty traders, small peasants, etc) can only arrive at - in the best of cases - a purely negative rebellion; they are against the evolution of capitalism but cannot put forward an alternative social evolution. In this sense only the proletariat can generate a true conception of the world which is truly autonomous from the dominant ideology. Only the proletariat can truly negate capitalism, since it is the only class- which can transcend it.
We must place ourselves within this perspective and not within a simple one to one opposition to the counter-revolution.
As for the second question: the struggle of the proletariat is entering a new phase. What is the new phase? Your answer is once again to be found in the comic strip. Your superhero says, “If the proletariat doesn’t dissolve itself quickly, thereby ending class society, ending this society of survival, ending the system of the spectacular commodity, ending any sort of political domination; if the proletariat doesn’t create generalized self-management and social harmony by means of the inter-action of autonomous assemblies, we run the risk that the evil necessity of survival will bring back the conditioned reflex of death.”
“If the proletariat doesn’t dissolve itself quickly” - what are we to make of that? It is true that the disappearance of a society divided into classes would bring about the dissolution of the proletariat. But this is not the beginning of the revolutionary struggle. On the contrary, it is its final consequence. To eliminate classes implies not only the destruction of the power of the bourgeoisie but also the elimination of all that remains of the capitalist economy and in particular, commodity production, which in turn implies the elimination on a global scale, of all exchange. This particularly implies a society of abundance in all parts of the world, something which will only be possible after a certain period of time during which the producers themselves will control the means of production.
The period of transition between capitalism and communism is none other than that period during which the condition of the proletariat is extended to include the whole world population. This will not be accomplished by the self-dissolution of the proletariat into the other social strata, but on the contrary, by the integration of the latter into the ranks of the proletariat. The proletariat will cease to exist, not because the proletarians of today decide overnight not to be proletarians any more, but because the whole population is integrated into the working class. The process of proletarian dissolution is thus the same as the process of its generalization: when the whole world population is the proletariat, only then is the proletariat dissolved.
This process is a conscious political and economic process. And its goal is the end of all politics and economics.
In order to dissolve classes the proletariat must begin by creating the concrete means to do so, and the first of these means is nothing less than its taking political power and exercising its dictatorship. For this reason, in order to ultimately negate itse1f, the proletariat must begin by first affirming itself as a class, as an autonomous force with regard to the rest of the social strata in society, as it is the only truly revolutionary force. The phase which the proletarian struggle is entering today, is not, therefore, one consisting of “the rapid dissolution of the proletariat”, but rather one in which the proletariat is becoming conscious of its own class interests, of the need to act like a united world class, autonomous from the rest of society. Within the proletariat there is an increased consciousness of the fact that today it constitutes the class that carries on its shoulders the future of humanity.
From the standpoint of organization, the present phase of the proletarian movement consists in the workers learning to organize themselves in their own assemblies and co-ordinating them by means of councils of elected and revocable delegates (elected and revocable on the widest possible scale), outside of and against the trade unions. Concerning “generalized self-management”, we have already mentioned the dangers of this type of ideology. If there is any task for revolutionaries today, it is that of denouncing all the lies that the bourgeoisie, world-wide, is currently attempting to use against the proletariat. Lies used to make the proletariat accept the management of a bankrupt system, the better to divide the class by caging the workers in the factories. Lies, which above all deviate the consciousness of the proletariat from its political goal, the taking of power, and its historical struggle.
Every criticism carries within it the danger of caricaturing the idea that is being criticized. We hope that in this letter we have not done so. If we have, it results from the necessity to carefully scrutinize what is being analysed, not because we wished to raise red herrings in order to be rid of you. Naturally, like anybody else, we too dislike wasting our time.
Also, we hope that any polemical tone that may have inadvertently, but perhaps inevitably, entered this letter will not constitute an obstacle to further discussion. We await your answer - the sooner the better.
The years we are living in today are of the type Marx used to say encompass whole epochs - as you say in your letter, “to be revolutionary is to tread in the path of reality”.
R. Victor for the ICC
(This letter is translated from the Spanish.)