When Only the Best Will Do
Internazionale Situazionista #1 (July 1969)
Translated from the French by Reuben Keehan
We owe our mandate as representatives of the proletarian party to nobody but ourselves, but this is endorsed by the exclusive and general hatred accorded us by every party and faction of the old world.
MARX, letter to Engels, 18 May 1959
THE FIRST ACT in the new revolutionary drama on the European continent has begun, and with it begins the old counter-revolutionary melodrama. In France, the proletariat has already achieved a victorious defeat and the dominant power a miserable victory; the revolution is entering everyday life and the reaction is preparing its faithful guard dogs. Frustrated in the first half of the century by the Russian counter-revolution, and the consequent social democratic regression and bourgeois fascist reaction in the West, the proletarian revolutionary movement is making its return in the second half of the century and asserting itself all over the world.
The reconstructive process of the modern revolutionary movement cannot succeed unless it emerges from the total dissolution of the separated image that perpetuates the international communist movement, to a point beyond the false oppositions between the defenders of bureaucracy in Moscow and the worshippers of bureaucracy in Beijing. In the first stages of its second assault, the revolutionary movement must settle the score with its earlier false consciousness, and an absolutely necessary task remains to be accomplished: the criticism of the ideological debris of the great rotting corpse of the international revolutionary party, a critique that allows itself to consider without any illusions the secret history of the present. The criticism of ideology is the prerequisite of all criticism; its conclusion cannot be found in itself, but in the only possible project of our time, whose realization is in the streets.
The decompositional process of "Marxism" (workerism and bureaucratism; theoretical underdevelopment and the ideology of under-development) must be accelerated to a point where it can no longer postpone the reappearance of a conscious revolutionary practice. It is the task of the new theorists of the proletariat to not only ridicule the pretensions of those who form the nucleus of the "modern ideology" of the Young Marxists and who are currently, in Italy, greeted by the public with a respect tempered with fear; but also to reveal the circumstances that allow hilariously second-rate people to act like heroes. The first task will be to unmask the pathetic ideas of the false contestation that is the most advanced expression of the stagnant Italian movement, and which not only leaves it incapable of creating situations, but also of any producing any thought beyond a sudden and partial awareness.
There are times when the dull scraping of class against class grows louder, but revolution moves no closer; times when the impotence of the past cannot be more obvious, but its power to prevent the appearance of anything new remains intact. Yet no other period would reveal such an indiscriminate hodgepodge of false revolutionary professions and such indecision and passivity; such illusory declarations of renewal and such assured domination by routine; such spectacular struggles between interdependent elements of the existing world and such profound antagonisms on every level of society. In these struggles, the resurrection of the dead serves to parody old revolutions instead of conceiving new ones; to shun their realization instead of resuming the tasks that they set themselves; to conjure up ghosts instead of rediscovering their spirit. The revolutionaries of 1789 draped themselves in Roman costume; the neo-Bolshevik militants of 1969 drape themselves in that of Russia, China or Cuba. As in the bourgeois revolutions, evocations of history prefer illusion to the reality of the modern project. Just as "the nascent Russian bourgeoisie enlisted Marxism as ideological support in its struggle against federalism and autocracy" (E. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution), the Western bourgeoisie continues to enlist Marxism as ideological support in its ultimate attempt to preserve its own revolution. History only carries out the sentence of preserving its revolution. History only carries out the sentence that the bourgeoisie imposes on itself by pretending to use Marxism differently.
But even in this era of sententious experience, time does not pass in vain. To gain consciousness of its content, the social conflict against modern conditions of survival brings to the surface, in one and the same current, all the decaying carcasses of the past that it must use to liberate the terrain. The accelerated change of illusion, which seems to preside over every attempt by individuals to head down the path that makes any return to the past impossible, gradually dissolves the illusion of change, bringing to the surface the straightforward question of actual change, the historical question for itself.
Unmasking the ideological character of a revolutionary movement remaining absent from modern countries for far too long, and the pseudo-revolutionary forms that this era has produced, is today the most essential act for the new movement announcing itself everywhere. Everything else is just the derisory recuperation of the past by a generation of "Marxists" trying to sell off the latest edition of absent revolution disguised as modern revolt the first chance they get: Tronti, Bellochio, Masi, Viali, Rieser, Cazzaniga, Piperno, Pasolini, Meldolesi, Rostagno, Sofri, Della Mea. The ideological murmurs of the last fifty years are no more than sleight of hand; but the masterpieces of second order intelligence dominating this end of an embarrassing era are even well-worn to students, to whom they seem destined. For these illusionists, lived conditions must remain beyond discussion; on the contrary, the consumption of ideology must support the ideology of consumption once more. If today, after the failure of classical workers' movement strategies, Leftist impotence laments becoming witness to one of its confused and degenerate modernizations, it is because it sounds the death knell of the very revolutionary ideology that carries out its deceitful premises to their ultimate practical consequences. New solutions are always the least modern. But that which is radically modern rediscovers before anything else the truth of the temporarily repressed proletarian movement of old. "The new program rediscovers at a higher level the project of the abolition of class society, of the access to conscious history, of the free construction of life; and it rediscovers the form of the workers' councils as its means" (Viénet, Enragés and Situationists in the Occupation Movement). We have no doubt in our minds that this will be the first basic truth of the liberation movement possible in our time.
The revolution of our era is the next link in the chain of past revolutions. Today, we are taking up the indestructible thread of the impersonal dialectic interrupted after the first premature and aborted experiences of revolutions defeated from within. Revolutionary ideology has merely changed hands; the point is to dissolve it into its enemy, revolutionary theory.
Our ideas are already in everyone's heads, suspended in the prehistory of humanity. For ten years, the situationists wrote books. In the space of a month, almost all of their phrases covered nearly every wall in Paris. No matter how intelligent an individual may be, the discoveries of thought are equal for all. "Theory becomes practice when it enters the masses." The appearance of an objective truth in theory is not a theoretical question but a practical one. It is only in its revolutionary realization in the practical critique of all existing conditions that it may be rationally understood and become real. From ideas to facts there is but one step. Actions make them better. At the very least, people can take into account the truth of what they see; but in doing so they discover that in order to create practical conditions, they must overturn existing conditions. The power of thought is its truth, but its truth is its own existence in acts.
When critical theory is able to make its reappearance in our era, and can only rely on itself for its diffusion in a new practice and the conditions for taking a shot at this are present right now in Italy some people still believe that we oppose the demands of practice, when those who are speaking, at a methodologically delirious level, are in any case abundantly revealed to be incapable of succeeding in any practical action whatsoever. As for us, we are inclined toward anger and revolt. But if the SI is first and foremost a group of theorists, it is because we consider it completely impractical to let repetitive representations passed off by skillful charlatans as new discoveries maintain a situation of general falsification. A theorist can give words a useful significance. This is no longer a simple theorist. An ideologue gives any old word its usefulness. And an ideologue always supplies useful ideas to the masters. Theory is only the practical concentration of the revolutionary project, just as practice is only theory to such a degree of concentration that it achieves its realization. Phony theorists have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it. Practice has only reinforced the existing world; the point is to overturn it.
Up to now, therefore, a sufficiently radical stance on revolution has not been taken. The old world writhes in fits of rage to discover that the theoretical ideas of the situationists are destined to take on a use value, that they are appearing in the street, that the lived dimension of the conflict announced by them is worldwide, its irreducible challenge, the scandal of its irrecuperable existence. Wherever such traditional thinking appears, it can only make democratic litanies which, interpreting the thought of the "nation," deplore irresponsibility and disorder, as well as the new habits inaugurating the beginning of an era; the same goes for the Stalinists, assembled in their popular party, who, "interpreting the thought of the working class," deplore the same thing with all the vanity and moderation of their sterile profession. While they confess their terror in this Holy Alliance, it is not just at our becoming a revolutionary publication that knows the reasons of revolutionary proletarians, but also at our contributing to giving them their reasons, to theoretically enrich the truth whose practical action expresses their research. "Our task consists of a merciless critique, directed more against our so-called friends than our declared enemies; and, in order carry out this task, we gladly reject cheap democratic popularity."
Our project is the simplest and most radical possible; it is, with the proletariat's appropriation of its own life, as well as the private property of the State in the absolute power of the Councils, the very project of conscious history and of humans becoming its absolute protagonists. In this insurrectional era, our program as an organization is to reject none of what serves to unify and radicalize scattered struggles, to federate autonomous groups, communities of individuals in open revolt who express the forms of proletarian revolutionary organization practically. We make no assumptions in advancing this program, because the conditions of its realization already exist. We are so free of assumption that we want proletarians of all countries, rendered useless by the contemplation of their action, to be aware of us. And we are so free of conceit that the trust and allegiance of ten or eleven decided revolutionaries is a delight and an honors for us. If we have made a modest contribution to the revolutionary project, we don't expect to be paid. Those whose writings provide the revolution with a project want to make the revolution in order to realize what they project in these writings. Those who want to take part in a meaningful dialogue must understand that they cannot have an innocuous relationship with us. For whoever wants to be coherently revolutionary, the bare minimum is to know how to be radically separate from the world of separation, to know how to show by exemplary action that one distinguishes oneself from all those who take part in the spectacular disorder of the established order, and not in its negation. And all the more so when the present situation naturally tends to produce the movement of its own negation by the single fact of depriving every false alternative presenting itself as the latest miracle cure of the least scrap of justification. This, reproducing and supporting every hierarchy, reproduces and supports the conditions of their perpetuation. It is therefore necessary to annihilate once and for all what could one day destroy our work.
The revolution is radical and goes straight to the root of things; it dissolves "all that exists independently of individuals," outside as much as inside itself. The revolt of American blacks, the street fighting of Japanese students, the anti-union struggles of Western workers, and the movements of opposition and resistance to the bureaucratic regimes of the East are the signs of the third revolution against class society, of which we ourselves are also an omen. These facts, electrifying capital like a negative current, show that the revolution defeated all over the world is reappearing all over the world. Indeed, in this movement, the SI must also disappear, transcended and dissolved into the revolutionary richness that realizes itself in the generalized self-management of society and life. The SI is not the best, because our historical project was formed at the same time as the modern conditions of alienation. Obviously, if the SI's relationship to such conditions is reduced to a strictly direct opposition and by consequence to an air of resemblance, it is only because we are truly contemporary. But at the same time, in the movement of the present the SI prefigures the future of the movement. When all the internal conditions are fulfilled, when the proletariat has accumulated the necessary energy to realize the appropriation, to suppress class divisions and classes themselves, the division of labor and labor itself, and to abolish art and philosophy while realizing them in the free creativity of life without dead time; when only the best will do, the world will be governed by the greatest aristocracy in history, a single social class and the only class in history of masters without slaves. This possibility returns today, perhaps for the first time. But it returns.