The Hamburg Theses of September 1961
Translated by Reuben Keehan
Of all the documents to come out of the SI, the Hamburg Theses must surely be the most mysterious. While many of these texts received widespread distribution, it was not uncommon for others to be reserved for more discrete circulation.
The Hamburg Theses would be evoked many times in situationist publications in I.S. #7, pages 20, 31 and 47; indirectly on page 3 of I.S. #9 (with the title of the editorial Now, the SI); and in Attila Kotányi and Michèle Bernstein's still unpublished contributions to 1963 debate on Kotányi's programmatic propositions; they are also mentioned, without commentary, in the "list of cited works" on page 99 of Raspaud and Voyer's L'Internationale Situationniste (protagonistes, chronologie, bibliographie) but aside from these examples, no specific citation has been made.
It in fact involved the conclusions, intentionally kept secret, of a theoretical and strategic discussion concerning the whole of the SI's conduct. This discussion took place during the first two or three days of September 1961, in a series of Hamburg bars chosen at random, between G. Debord, A. Kotányi and R. Vaneigem on their way back to Paris from the Fifth SI conference held in Göteborg from 28 to 30 of August. Contributions to the Theses were later made by Alexander Trocchi, who was himself not present in Hamburg. Deliberately, with the intention of letting no trace that might give rise to an observation or exterior analysis filter outside the SI, nothing was ever put into writing concerning this discussion or what it concluded. It was then agreed that the most simple summary of these rich and complex conclusions could be reduced to a single phrase: "Now, the SI must realize its philosophy." This phrase itself was not written down. Thus, the conclusion was so well hidden that it has remained secret until now.
The "Hamburg Theses" were of considerable importance in at least two respects. Firstly because they marked the most important turning point in the very history of the SI. But equally as experimental practice: this last point of view this was a striking innovation in the succession of artistic avant-gardes, which until then had all preferred to give the impression of being eager to explain themselves.
The summarized conclusion evoked Marx's famous formula of 1844 (in his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right). At that point, it signified that we no longer had to lend the least importance to the conceptions of any of the revolutionary groups that might still exist as heirs to the ancient movement of social emancipation annihilated in the first half of our century; and that it was therefore no longer necessary to count on the SI alone to revive another era of contestation as soon as possible, to repeat all the points of departure of what was constituted in the 1840's. The establishment of this point did not particularly entail the rupture with the SI's artistic "Right" that was to follow (with its feeble insistence on continuing or simply repeating modern art), but it did make it extremely probable. For the SI, it can therefore be recognized that the Hamburg Theses marked the end of its first era of scouting out a truly new artistic terrain (1957-61); and also of fixing the point of departure for the operation which led to the movement of May 1968 and its continuation.
On the other hand, to only consider the experimental originality, that is to say the absence of any publication of the Theses, the later socio-historical application of this formal innovation is also entirely remarkable: afterwards, of course, it underwent a complete reversal. Indeed, a little over twenty years after, the process could be seen to meet with an unusual success for the higher authorities of numerous States. We now know that a number of truly vital conclusions, whose authors are reluctant to enter them into computer networks, tape or telex records, and who are even distrustful of word processors and photocopiers; after having been most often written in the form of manuscript notes, are simply committed to memory, the draft immediately destroyed.
This note was written especially for [name omitted from publication], who has gone so tirelessly around the world in search of the traces of the effaced art of the Situationist International and its various other historical forfeits.