pre-situationist archive

situationist international archive

post-situationist archive

situationist chronology




news & updates

site search

notes & sources


text archives > situationist international texts > enragés and situationists >

1. Return of the Social Revolution

Of course, Situationism isn't the spectre haunting industrial civilization, any more than communism was the specter haunting Europe in 1848.
— François Chatelet, Nouvel Observatuer, January 3, 1968

HISTORY OFFERS FEW EXAMPLES of a social movement with such depth of struggle as that which erupted in France in the spring of 1968. It offers none which so many commentators said was unforeseeable. Yet this explosion was one the most foreseeable of all. The simple fact was that never had the knowledge and historical consciousness of a society been so mystified.

The situationists, for example, who had denounced and fought the "organization of appearances" of the spectacular stage of commodity society, had for years very precisely foreseen the explosion and its consequences. The critical theory elaborated and publicized by the Situationist International (SI) readily affirmed, as the precondition of any revolutionary program, that the proletariat had not been abolished; that capitalism was continuing to develop its own alienations; and that this antagonism existed over the entire surface of the planet, along with the social question posed for over a century. The SI explained the deepening and concentration of alienations by the delay of the revolution. That delay obviously flowed from the international defeat of the proletariat since the Russian counter-revolution, and from the complementary extension of capitalist economic development. The SI knew perfectly well, as did so many workers with no means of expressing it, that the emancipation of workers still clashed everywhere with the bureaucratic organizations which are the workers' autonomized representations. The bureaucracy was constituted as a class in Russia and subsequently in other countries, by the seizure of totalitarian state power. Elsewhere a stratum of privileged managers, trade unionists and party leaders in the service of the modern bourgeoisie, whose courtiers they had become, worked to integrate the work force into a rational management of the economy. The situationists asserted that the permanent falsification necessary to the survival of those bureaucratic machines, a falsification directed first and foremost against all revolutionary acts and theories, was the master-key to the general falsification of modern society. They had also recognized and set out to unify the new forms of subversion whose first signs were becoming visible, and which were beginning confusedly to draw the perspective of a total critique from the unified oppressive conditions. Thus the situationists demonstrated the imminence of a new revolutionary departure. For many people these perspectives seemed paradoxical, even demented. Now things have been clarified!

In the present return of the revolution, history itself is the unexpected factor for the philosophers of the state (which is only natural), and the rabble of the pseudo-critique. It's obvious that analysis attains reality only by taking part in the real movement that suppresses existing conditions. The vacuum organized on this account makes everybody's way of life one which not everyone can decipher. It is in this sense that the familiar in alienated life and in the refusal of that life is not necessarily known. But for the revolutionary critique nothing was more clear and foreseen than the new era of class struggles ushered in by the occupation movement.1 The revolutionary critique brings its own theory to the practical movement, is deduced from it and is brought to the coherence which it seeks.

The Stalinists, ideologues of the bureaucratic totalitarian form of exploitation, were reduced in France, as elsewhere, to a purely conservative role. For a long time it had been impossible for them to take power, and the international dislocation of the bureaucratic monolith, which is necessarily their frame of reference, had closed this road to them forever. At the same time, that frame of reference, and the practice it entails, made their return to a purely bourgeois reformist apparatus equally impossible. The Maoist variation, reproducing as illusion the ascendant period of Stalinism by the religious contemplation of a revolutionary orient of fantasy, parroted their translations in a perfect vacuum. The three or four Trotskyite sects fought bitterly amongst themselves for the glory of beginning the revolution of 1917 again, as soon as they had succeeded in reconstituting the appropriate party. These "resuscitated Bolsheviks" were too fanatical about the revolutionary past and its worst errors even to look at modern conditions. Some of them mixed this historical exoticism with the geographic exoticism of a more or less Guevarist revolution of underdevelopment. If any of them picked up a militant from time to time this was in no way the result of the truth of their analyses or actions, but simply of the decomposition of the so-called communist bureaucracies.

As for the modernist pseudo-thinkers of the critique of details, these leftovers of militancy who had established themselves in the so-called Humanities Departments and who were thinking for all the weekly magazines, it's obvious they were incapable of understanding — let alone foreseeing — anything whatsoever, eclectically weighed down as they were with almost every aspect of the old world's camouflages. They found themselves too attached to the bourgeois state, to an exhausted Stalinism, to a revitalized Castro-Bolshevism, to psycho-sociology, and even to their own miserable lives. They respected everything. They lied about everything. And we find them around today, still ready to explain everything to us!

The great majority of the masses mobilized by the revolutionary crisis of May began to understand what they were living, and therefore understood what they had previously been living. And those who were able to develop the clearest consciousness recognized the total theory of the revolution as their own. On the other hand, all the specialists of ideology and of so-called agitational and subversive activism foresaw nothing and understood nothing. In such conditions, what could they arouse but pity? They serenely replayed their usual music amid the ruins of that dead time during which they had been able to think of themselves as the future elite of the revolution. The melody, so long expected to be their baptism, proved only to be their funeral knell.

In fact the reappearance of critical theory and critical action historically constituted an objective unity. The era's new needs created their own theory and theoreticians. The dialogue which began in this way, however limited and alienated by conditions of separation, moved towards its conscious subjective organization. And, by the same movement, each one of its critiques began to discover all its tasks. Both of them erupted first as a struggle against the new aspects of exploitation in class society. On the one hand the wildcat strikes of the West and the working-class insurrections of the East inaugurated in practice the struggle against the various bureaucracies.

On the other hand, present revolutionary theory began a critique of the conditions of existence inherent in overdeveloped capitalism: the pseudo-abundance of commodities and the reduction of life to a spectacle, repressive urbanism and ideology; always in the service of specialists of domination. When the Situationist International formulated a coherent theory of this reality, it also showed the negation of this reality in the combined realization of art and philosophy in the liberation of everyday life.2 Thus the theory was both radically new and took up all the old truth of the provisionally repressed proletarian movement. The new program rediscovered at a higher level the project of the abolition of class society, of the accession at last to conscious history and free construction of life, as well as rediscovering the form of workers' councils as its means.

The new revolutionary development in industrialized countries, which is at the center of all modern history, can be dated from the workers' uprising in East Berlin in 1953, opposing the bureaucratic imposture in power with the demand for a "government of steel workers." The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 began the realization of the power of the councils, though the country was not sufficiently industrialized and the specific conditions were a national uprising against impoverishment, a foreign oppressor, and general terror.

The beginning of the student agitation in Berkeley, in the autumn of 1964, questioned the organization of life in the most developed capitalist country, beginning with the nature of education, and signaled a revolt which has since extended to almost all European countries.3 Nevertheless, this revolt, however advanced in certain of its main themes, remained partial insofar as it was limited to the "student scene" (itself the object of rapid transformation related to the needs of modern capital), in as much as its recent political consciousness remained very fragmented and weighted down with various neo-Leninist illusions, often including an imbecilic respect for the Maoist farce of "cultural revolution." The question of the blacks, the Vietnamese War, and Cuba occupied a disproportionate and mystifying position in the American students' struggle, which was, for all this, nonetheless real. This "anti-imperialism," reduced to a merely contemplative applause, almost always dominated the student movements in Europe. Since the summer of 1967 the West Berlin student movement has taken a violent turn — demonstrations spread throughout Germany in response to the attempt on Dutschke's life. The Italians went further, after December 1967, particularly in Turin, occupying the factories and forcing the closure of the major universities of the country at the beginning of 1968.

The current crisis of bureaucratic power in Czechoslovakia, the only advanced industrial country ever conquered by Stalinism, is essentially a question of a hazardous attempt by the ruling class to correct on its own initiative the functioning of its seriously failing economy. It was the pressure of agitation by the students and intelligentsia at the end of 1967 that made the bureaucracy decide to run the risk. The workers' strikes and the first rumblings of demands for direct factory control will henceforth pose the chief danger to a bureaucratic power obliged to feign liberalization.

The bureaucratic appropriation of society is inseparable from a totalitarian possession of the state and the absolute reign of its ideology. The absence of censorship, the guarantee of free expression, and the right of association, pose in the very near future the following alternatives for Czechoslovakia: either a repression revealing the pure sham of these concessions, or else a proletarian assault against the bureaucratic property of the state and the economy, which could be unmasked as soon as the dominant ideology was deprived for any length of time of its ever-present police. The outcome of such a conflict will be of the greatest interest to the Russian bureaucracy, whose survival would be endangered by the victory of the Czech workers.4

In March the important movement of Polish students also shook Gomulka's regime — the result of a successful bureaucratic reform after the crisis of 1956 and the crushing of the Hungarian workers. The reprieve won in that earlier period is coming to an end, but on this occasion the workers did not join the students, who were crushed in isolation. Only the pseudoworkers, party activists, and police from the militias intervened in the moment of crisis.

In France a decisive threshold has been crossed, in which the movement has rediscovered its deepest goals. The workers of a modern capitalist country returned en masse to radical struggle. Everything is again put in question. The lies of an epoch crumble. Nothing can remain as before. Europe can only leap for joy and cry out: "Well dug, old mole!"

The situationist scandal in Strasbourg in December 1966 had sounded the death knell for student-unionism in France. The local bureau of the UNEF (Union National des Étudiantes Français) had suddenly declared itself in favor of the theses of the SI, publishing Mustapha Khayati's pamphlet On The Poverty of Student Life... The method used, the ensuing trials, and the implacable coherence of the analysis all contributed to the great success of this lampoon. We can speak here of the first successful attempt to communicate revolutionary theory to the currents which justify it. Approximately ten translations extended the audience of this text, notably in the USA and in Italy. If its immediate practical impact in France was less strongly felt, this was because the country was not yet involved in the struggles already in motion elsewhere. Nonetheless its arguments were not entirely foreign to the contempt which a faction of French "students" was to express later on, much more accurately than in any other country, for the whole of the student milieu, its rules and shibboleths. The richness of the revolutionary situation in France, which dealt Stalinism the hardest blow it ever sustained in the West, was expressed in the spontaneous takeover by the workers, in their own right, of a large part of a movement explicitly criticizing hierarchy, commodities, ideology, survival, and spectacle. It is also significant to note that the positions or the phrases of the two books of situationist theory which appeared in the last weeks of 19675 were written on the walls of Paris and several provincial cities by the most advanced elements of the May uprising. The greater part of these theses took up the greater part of these walls. As was to be expected, situationist theory has become a practical force taking hold of the masses.

1. Philippe Labro, describing the French atmosphere before the crisis in his book Ce N'est Qu'un Debut (EPP Denoel), ventures to remark that the situationists thought they were speaking in a vacuum. A brave inversion of the truth. It was, of course, Labro, along with so many others, who thought the situationists were speaking in a vacuum.
2. The term "situationism," never used by the SI, which is radically opposed to any doctrinal establishment of an ideology, has been abundantly thrown about by the press, lumped in with the most fantastic definitions: "vanguard of the student movement" (20 Ans, June 1968), "technique of intellectual terrorism" (Journal de Dimanche, May 19, 1968), and so on. Despite the SI's obvious development of the historical thought issuing from the method of Marx and Hegel, the press insists on lumping the situationists with anarchism." The definition by Carrefour, May 8, 1968: "more anarchist than the anarchists, who they find too bureaucratic" is the model of the genre.
3. It is nevertheless necessary to note the persistence of street struggles by radical Japanese students of the Zengakuren since 1960. Their example has been increasingly cited in France in recent years. The political position of their Revolutionary Communist League, to the left of Trotskyism, and simultaneously opposed to imperialism and bureaucracy, was less well-known than their streetfighting techniques.
4. Three weeks after this book was turned over to the publisher, the intervention of the Russian army in Czechoslovakia on August 21, demonstrated perfectly that the bureaucracy had to break the movement at any price. All the western "fellow-travelers" of the bureaucracy, with their displays of astonishment and regret, are naturally less lucid than their masters concerning the vital interests of those masters.
5. La Société du Spectacle by Guy Debord (1971 reprint by Éditions Champ Libre, Paris). English translation (first published by Black and Red, Detroit, and revised in 1977) now available as Society of the Spectacle (Rebel Press/AIM Publications, London, 1987) [and The Society of the Spectacle, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Zone Books, New York, 1994)]. Traité de savoir-vivre à l'usage des jeunes générations by Raoul Vaneigem (Gallimard). Retranslated by Donald Nicholson-Smith in 1983 as The Revolution of Everyday Life (Rebel Press/Left Bank Books, London and Seattle, latest reprint 1995) [earlier translation by John Fullerton and Paul Sieveking in 1972 (Practical Paradise Publications, London)]. On the Poverty of Student Life Considered in its Economic, Political, Psychological, Sexual, and particularly Intellectual Aspects, and a Modest Proposal for its Remedy, by members of the Intemationale Situationniste and students of Strasbourg, has been freely translated since 1966. (The current edition by Rebel Press/Dark Star Press, London 1985, includes a postscript added later, taken from the English language edition of Champ Libre, Paris 1972.) See also The Situationist International Anthology, edited and translated by Ken Knabb (Bureau of Public Secrets, Berkeley, reprinted 1995 [revised and expanded online 1998-2001]).

Origins of the Agitation in France