The Second Death of the Situationist International

Printer-friendly version

Guy Debord committed suicide on 30th November, 1994. All the press in France, where he lived, has written about his death, for despite his limited public appearances, Debord was a well-known personality. His fame was due, not to the "works" produced in what the media called his profession - film producer - whose audience was always a small one, but to his writing (The Society of the Spectacle, 1967), and above all to his activity as founding member and one of the main inspirations behind the Situationist International. As a revolutionary organization, it is this last aspect of Debord's life that interests us, for although it dissolved more than 20 years ago, in its time the Situationist International had a certain influence on the groups and elements that were moving towards class positions.

We do not propose here to produce a history of the SI, nor an exegesis of the 12 issues of its review published between 1958 and 1969. Suffice it to say that the SI was born, not as a political movement properly speaking, but as a cultural movement that brought together a number of artists (painters, architects, etc) from various tendencies (the Lettrist International, the Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus, the London Psycho geographical Committee, etc) , which proposed to make a "revolutionary" critique of art as it exists in society today. Thus the first issue of the SI's review (June 1958) published an address distributed to a meeting of international art critics, which said: "Scatter, pieces of art criticism, criticism of artistic fragments. Today, the unitary artistic activity of the future is being organized in the Situationist International. You have nothing more to say. The Situationist International will leave you no room. We will reduce you to famine".

It should be noted that although the SI called for a radical revolution, it still considered that it was possible to organize "the unitary artistic activity of the future" within capitalist society. Moreover, this activity was seen as a sort of stepping-stone to revolution, since "The elements of a new life must already be forming among us - in the field of culture - and it is up to us to bring passion to the debate" (SI no 1, page 23, "Les situationnistes et I'automation", by Asger Jorn). The author of these lines was a fairly well-known Danish painter.

The kind of concerns that interested the SI's founders showed that this was not an organization expressing an effort by the working class to develop its consciousness, but an expression of the radicalized intellectual petty bourgeoisie. This is why the SI's political positions, while they claimed to be based on Marxism, against stalinism and trotskyism, were extremely confused. An appendix to the first issue of the review took position on the coup d'état of 13th May 1958, when the army based in Algeria rebelled against the power of the French government: it speaks of the "French people", and of the trades unions and left-wing parties as "workers' organizations", etc. Two years later, we can still find "Third-Worldist" overtones in the fourth issue: "In the emancipation of the colonized and under-developed peoples, carried out by themselves, we salute the possibility of skipping the intermediate stages that others passed through, both in industrialization and in culture and the use of a life liberated from all constraint" ("La chute de Paris", SI no 4, page 9). A few months later, Debord was one of the 121 signatories (mostly artists and intellectuals) of the "Declaration on the right to desertion in the Algerian war", which includes the following: "The cause of the Algerian people, which is contributing decisively to the ruin of the colonial system, is the cause of all free men". SI no 5 takes up this gesture collectively, without the slightest criticism of the concessions to democratic ideology contained in the "Declaration".

Our aim here is not to heap denunciations on the SI. But it is important, especially for those who may have been influenced by this organization's positions, that the reputation for "radicalism" that surrounded it, its intransigence and its refusal to compromise, has been much exaggerated. The SI had great difficulty in disengaging itself from the political aberrations of its origins, especially its concessions to leftist or anarchist ideas. Only gradually did the SI approach the positions of the left communists - in fact of the councilisrs - just as the pages of its review gave an increasing space to political questions rather than artistic vagaries. For a while, Debord was closely linked with the group that published Socialisme ou Barbarie, and it was he who instigated the SI's evolution. In July 1960, he published a document titled "Preliminaries for a definition of a united revolutionary program" with P. Canjuers, a member of SouB. However, although for a time Socialisme ou Barbarie inspired the SI's political evolution, it was itself an extremely confused group. It came from a late split (1949) within the trotskyist "4th International", but was never able to break the umbilical cord tying it to trotskyism in order to join the positions of the communist left. After a number of splits, which produced the GLAT (Groupe de Liaison pour l' Action des Travailleurs), ICO (Information et Correspondance Ouvrieres) and the Pouvoir Ouvrier group, SouB ended its career under the aegis of Cornelius Castoriadis (who was to give his support, at the beginning of the 1980s, to Reagan's campaigns on the supposed military superiority of the USSR) as a coterie of intellectuals who explicitly rejected marxism.

We find another example of the extreme confusion of the SI's positions in 1966, when it tried to take position on Boumedienne's military coup d'état in Algeria, and could find nothing better than to make a "radical" defense of self-management (in other words, the old anarchist recipe, derived from Proudhon, which leads workers to take part in their own exploitation):

"The only program of Algerian socialist elements is the defense of the self-managed sector, not only as it is, but as it must become ... Only a maintained and radicalized self-management can be the starting-point for a revolutionary assault on the existing regime ... Self-management must become the sole solution to the mysteries of power in Algeria, and must know that it is this solution" (SI no 10, page 21, March 1966). Even in 1967, the issue no 11 of the SI's review, which contains its clearest political positions, continues to cultivate a certain ambiguity on a number of points, especially on the so-called "national liberation struggles". Alongside a vigorous denunciation of the "Third-Worldism" promoted by the leftist groups, the SI ends up making concessions to "Third-Worldism" itself:

"It is obviously impossible, today, to hope for a revolutionary solution to the Vietnamese war. Above all, we must put an end to American aggression, to allow the real social struggle develop naturally in Vietnam, on other words to allow the Vietnamese workers to rediscover their internal enemies: the Northern bureaucracy and all the possessing and ruling strata in the South (...) Only a resolutely anti-state and internationalist revolutionary Arab movement can both dissolve the Israeli state and gain the support of the mass of the exploited. By the same process, it alone will be able to dissolve all the Arab states and create Arab unification by the power of the Workers' Councils" (SI no 11, "Deux Guerres Locales", pp21-22).

In fact these ambiguities, which the SI never got rid of, explain in part its success at a time when "Third-Worldist" illusions were particularly strong within the working class, and above all in the student and intellectual milieu. This is not to say that the SI recruited on the basis of its concessions to "Third- Worldism", but rather that had the SI been perfectly clear on the question of the so-called "national liberation struggles", it is likely that many of its supporters at the time would have turned away from it[1].

Another reason for the SI's success in the student and intellectual milieu obviously lies in the priority it gave to its critique of capitalism's ideological and cultural aspects. For the SI, we are living today in the "society of the spectacle" (which was a new term for state capitalism), in other words within a phenomenon already analyzed by revolutionaries as specific to capitalism's decadent phase: the omnipresence of the capitalist state throughout society, including in the cultural sphere. Similarly, while the SI was very clear in declaring that the proletariat is the only revolutionary force in this society, its definition of the proletariat allowed the intellectual petty bourgeoisie to include itself within the working class, and so to consider itself as a "subversive force":

"Given the reality which is emerging today, we may consider as proletarians people who have no possibility of modifying the social space-time which society allocates for their consumption ... " (SI no 8, ‘Domination de la nature, ideologie et classes'). And the SI's typically petty-bourgeois vision of this question is confirmed by its analysis, similar to Bakunin's, of the lumpen-proletariat, which would be called to constitute a revolutionary force since "... the new proletariat tends to be defined negatively as a "Front against forced labor" which unites all those who resist recuperation by the state" ("Banalites de Base" in SI no 8, page 42).

The elements in revolt of the intelligentsia particularly liked the SI's propaganda methods: the spectacular sabotage of cultural and artistic events or the "subversion" of comic strips and photo-novels (for example, the nude pin-up shown speaking the famous slogan of the workers' movement: "The emancipation of the workers will be the task of the workers themselves "). Similarly, situationist slogans encountered a great success in this social stratum: "Live without dead time. Pleasure unrestrained", "Demand the impossible", "Take your desires for reality". The idea of immediately putting into practice the situationist ideas of the "critique of daily life", in fact only expresses the immediatism of the petty bourgeoisie, a social class without any future. Finally, a pamphlet written by a situationist in 1967 (De la misere en milieu etudiant) presenting students as the most contemptible creatures in the world, alongside priests and the military, contributed to the SI's notoriety within a stratum of the population whose masochism is a measure of its lack of any role on the social and historical scene.

France was the country where the SI encountered the greatest echo, and the events of May 68 marked its apogee. Situationist slogans were on every wall, for the media the word" situationist" was synonymous with" radical revolutionary". The first Sorbonne Occupation Committee was composed largely of SI members and sympathizers. There is nothing surprising about this. The events of 68 marked at one and the same time the last gasp of the student revolts which began in California in 1964, and the historic recovery of the proletariat after four decades of counter-revolution. The simultaneity of these two phenomena, and the fact that state repression of the student revolt was the trigger for the massive strike movement which had been ripening with the first effects of the economic crisis, allowed the situationists to express the most radical aspects of this revolt, while still having a certain impact on certain sectors of the working class which were beginning to reject the bourgeois structures of control
constituted by the unions and the left parties.

However, the recovery in the class struggle, which caused the appearance and flourishing of a whole series of revolutionary groups including our own organization, was the death knell for the Situationist International. It proved incapable of understanding the real significance of the struggles of 1968. In particular, because it was convinced that the workers had risen against the "spectacle", not against the first effects of an insurmountable economic crisis the SI wrote idiotically: "The revolutionary eruption did not come from an economic crisis ... the frontal attack of May was on a capitalist economy working well" (Enrages et Situationnistes dans Ie mouvement des occupations, a book written by the Situationist Rene Viennet, page 209)[2]. With this view of things as their point of departure, it is hardly surprising that the SI succumbed to complete megalomania: "The agitation begun in January 68 at Nanterre by the four or five revolutionaries who were to form the "enrages" group [influenced by the Situationists' ideas] was to lead, only five months later, to the quasi-liquidation of the state" (ibid, page 25). From then on, the SI entered into a crisis which was to end in its dissolution in 1972.

In fact, it was only "by default" that the SI had an impact, before and during the events of 1968, on elements coming towards class positions, as a result of the disappearance or sclerosis in the period of counter-revolution of the communist currents of the past. Once the student revolt died, and organizations were formed in the wake of the 68 events that took up the experience of those currents, there was no longer any room for the SI. Its self-dissolution was the logical conclusion of its bankruptcy, of the trajectory of a movement which could have no future, because it refused to attach itself firmly to the communist fractions of the past. Guy Debord's suicide[3] probably followed the same logic.


[1] The best proof of the Sl's lack of rigor (to say the least) on this question is its designation of Mustapha Khayati to set out its theses on the subject (see "Contributions servant a rectifier I'opinion du public sur la revolution dans les pays sous-developpes", in SI no 11, pp38-40). Shortly afterwards, Khayati joined the Democratic Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, without this causing his immediate exclusion from the SI; in the end, it was Khayati who resigned. At its Venice conference in 1969, the SI simply accepted the resignation with the argument that it did not accept "dual memberships". In short, whether Khayati joined a group like ICO, or enrolled in a bourgeois army (why not the police, it all comes to the same thing?) made no difference to the SI.

[2] In a polemic against our French press, the SI wrote: "As for the debris of the old non-trotskyist ultra-leftism, they needed at least a major economic crisis. They subordinated any revolutionary movement to its return, and so saw nothing coming. Now that they have recognized a revolutionary crisis in May, they have to prove that this "invisible" economic crisis was there in the spring of 68. Without any fear of being ridiculed, they are working at it now, producing schemas on the rise in unemployment and inflation. So for them, the economic crisis is no longer that terribly visible objective reality that was lived so hardly in 1929, but a son of eucharistic presence that supports their religion" (SI no 12, page 6). This crisis may have been "invisible" for the SI, but not for our current since our press in Venezuela (the only one in existence at the time) devoted an article to it in January 1968.  

[3] Always assuming that he did commit suicide ... Another hypothesis is always possible: Debord's friend Gerard Lebovici was murdered in 1984.


Recent and ongoing: