Critique of the Situationist Dialectic in the Age of Occupy

David Black

This article was presented as part of a panel entitled “Alternatives to Capitalism: Theoretical, Practical, Visionary” hosted by the International Marxist-Humanist Organization and the Department of Sociology at Loyola University, July 13, 2012, Chicago — Editors


(Photo: Guy Debord, Michèle Bernstein, and Asger Jorn: founders of the Situationist International in 1957)

This week thousands of Spanish coalminers marched into Madrid, chanting” We are the 99 Per Cent” to a tumultuous reception. The young Spanish Indignados, as I understand, take a great interest in the history of the Spanish Left, going back to the Spanish Republic. The Left in France also take their history seriously. France today has a social democratic anti-austerity government. France also has a history concerned with occupations; and that is what I want to talk about.

The Situationist International was founded Guy Debord in 1957. In its fourteen-year existence – it dissolved itself in 1971 – it never had more than a few dozen members, which was maily due to splits and expulsions. And yet its role was quite historic. In this presentation I will concentrate on just a few aspects of that history with reference to a key influence on Guy Debord, Georg Lukacs’ masterpiece of 1923, History and Class Consciousness.

In 1966, at Strasbourg University, a group of student supporters of the Situationist International got themselves elected to the leadership of the student union and immediately spent a large part of the union budget on printing 10,000 copies of a pamphlet written by the Tunisian Situationist Omar Khayati, entitled On the Poverty of Student Life: considered in its economic, political, psychological, sexual, and particularly intellectual aspects, and a modest proposal for its remedy (I think it took the University about two weeks to get rid of them). The pamphlet said:

“…since the struggle between the system and the new proletariat can only be in terms of the totality, the future revolutionary movement must abolish anything within itself that tends to reproduce the alienation produced by the system dominated by the commodity labor. It must be the living critique of that system, the negation embodying all the elements necessary for its supersession. As Lukacs correctly showed, revolutionary organization is this necessary mediation between theory and practice, between man and history, between the mass of workers and the proletariat constituted as a class.”[1]

However, according to Debord in Society of the Spectacle, published in 1967, when Lukacs claimed that the Bolshevik form of organization “was the long sought mediation between theory and practice, in which proletarians are no longer spectators of the events which happen in their organization, but consciously choose and live these events,” the trouble was,  “he was actually describing as merits of the Bolshevik party everything that the Bolshevik party was not.”[2] The pamphlet On the Poverty of Student Life argues that everything would ultimately depend on how the revolutionary movement resolved the question of “the organizational forms.” In concrete terms, this meant projecting the “absolute power of workers councils as prefigured in the proletarian revolutions of this century.” This amounts to an attempt to reinvent council communism as a new “absolute” – but in a new form undisturbed by any vanguard party and (contrary to the old council communism) unrestricted by the factory gates.[3] They took from Lukacs the idea that only through an act of conscious will, involving a “violent” rupture with the system’s (unconscious) self-regulation, could the “realm of freedom” be made a possibility.

In 1968 Guy Debord decided that the time had come to widen the Situationist International’s circle of acquaintances, to include a group of students from Nanterre University, who called themselves the Enragé. On 22 March 1968, students occupied the administration block at Nanterre, leading to weeks of protests and the closure of the University for two days. The closure spread the protests to the Latin Quarter and the Sorbonne, which was also occupied. As confrontations with police soon developed into large-scale street-fighting, on 11 May the French trade unions, which were led by the Communist Party, called for a general strike on the 13 May. When, on May 14, workers at the Sud-Aviation plant in Nantes occupied the plant, supporters of the Enrages and the Situationists in Paris formed the Council for Maintaining the Occupations (CMDO). With its aim to promote autonomous “councilism,” the CDMO organized the printing of large numbers of pamphlets, such as For the Power of the Workers Councils and posters, many of which were printed by workers at occupied print shops. As one of Debord’s biographers, Len Bracken puts it, “The Situationists took great pride in the fact that nothing in these tracts glorified, or even mentioned the Situationist International – above all these tracts called for worker autonomy.”[4] In Society of the Spectacle Debord, in distancing the Situationists from both the vanguardist and spontaneist positions, said that the revolution “requires” workers to become dialecticians:

“Proletarian revolution depends entirely on the condition that, for the first time, theory as intelligence of human practice be recognized and lived by the masses. It requires workers to become dialecticians and to inscribe their thought into practice. Thus it demands of men without qualification more than the bourgeois revolution demanded of the qualified men which it delegated to carry out its tasks.. The very development of class society to the stage of spectacular organization of non-life thus leads the revolutionary project to become visibly what it already was essentially.”[5]

The idea that the organized working class would become “visibly what it already was essentially” bears a similarity to CLR James’ position on the British shop stewards organizations in the car factories in the nineteen-fifties as representing the “future in the present.”[6]  Debord had been indirectly associated with CLR James through his membership of Socialisme ou Barbarie, founded in France by Cornelius Castoriadis. Debord’s reflections about the importance of theory being lived by the masses and the workers becoming “dialecticians” bears more than a passing resemblance to (if not a subtle détournement of) Raya Dunayevskaya’s portrayal in Marxism and Freedom (1958) of Black civil rights activists, women, rank-and-file workers and youth as a movement from practice which was itself a form of theory, demanding the engagement from intellectuals:

“This new stage in the self-liberation of the intellectual from dogmatism can begin only when, as Hegel put it, the intellectual feels the ‘compulsion of thought to proceed to … concrete truths.’[7]

Despite the mobilizations of French students and workers in May 1968 the Revolution did not happen, in France or anywhere else.  In late-Debord thought – he died in 1996 — the early-Lukacs’ formulation of a structure of reified consciousness evolves into that of the “integrated spectacle.” Some of the surviving veterans of the Situationist International, notably TJ Clark, have embraced Moishe Postone’s theory of Capital-Logic, according to which the real “subject” is not the proletariat but capital. And in this version of the integrated spectacle, according to another Debord biographer, Anselm Jappe,

“the secret historic mission of the proletarian movement was to destroy remnants of pre-capitalism, to generalize abstract forms such as those of the law, money, value and commodities, and thus to impose the pure logic of capital… despite the resistance of the bourgeoisie itself…”[8]

Thus in Situationist thought, the call for the abolition of work, inasmuch as work as opposed to life-activity is inextricably linked to the abolition of the proletariat. This is an important point. For a modern class to be an historical subject (if in fact, any class in history has ever acted as a class-conscious subject in this sense) it must have economic power of some sort, political representation, intellectual leadership and a “program,” “historic mission” or raison d’etre. In the case of the bourgeoisie, the “program” can only amount to being, or aspiring to be, at home in the alienation of capitalism. If, as the young Marx said, the proletariat is nothing if it is not revolutionary, then the revolutionary being of the proletariat can only be constituted by its notbeing, and it can only fulfill its subjectivity by abolishing itself. In the case of the “subjectivity” of capital, for Jappe (following Sohn-Rethel as well as Postone) the logic of value produces an abstract form of consciousness autonomized from authentic human needs and material contingencies, which nevertheless, in turn, produces the real; and “value.” In reference to Marx’s Grundrisse and Capital, it is characterized as an “automatic subject.” In the chapter in Capital on “The General Formula of Capital” Marx does write of the appearance of capital as “an automatic subject” of value, and as “the dominant subject in the process.” This particular chapter however, is a discussion of of the process of circulation (M-C-M’ : money-commodity-more money). Marx makes it clear that the “occult ability” of Value to “add value to itself” is dispelled once the analysis shifts to the production process and the internal limits imposed by the relation of abstract to concrete labor.[9] The “real abstraction,” despite its invisible power, cannot exist in a vacuum, cut off from the objectively real, which it abstracts. The commodity labor-power, measured by time, is the  “property” of the laborer, but in the world governed by abstract labor there is no such person as an abstract laborer. The totalizing power of the integrated commodity-spectacle is one of disintegration within its absolute negativity. The power of capital as “automatic subject” is limited by the revolutionary potential of “human power as its own end.”[10]


[1]   Situationist International Anthology, Ed. Ken Knabb (Berkeley: 1981), pp. 319-36.

[2] Debord, Society of the Spectacle, ¶112.

[3] Knabb, p. 334.

[4] Len Bracken, Guy Debord – Revolutionary (Venice, California: 1997), p.171.

[5] Debord, Society of the Spectacle ¶123.

[6] CLR James, The Future in the Present (London: 1980).

[7] Dunayevskaya, “Marx’s Humanism Today,” in Socialist Humanism, ed.  Erich Fromm (New York: Doubleday1965).  It is noteworthy that Dunayevskaya’s Marxism and Freedom was translated into French in 1971 by Éditions Champ Libre, a publisher associated with Debord.

[8]Anselm Jappe, Guy Debord, (University of California Press: 1999), p. 37-8.

[9]Marx, Capital I, Fowkes trans., p. 255.  Peter Hudis, “The Death of the Death of the  Subject,” Historical Materialism 12.3 (London:2004) pp. 161-62.

[10] Marx, Capital III, Fernbach trans., p. 959, trans. slightly altered.


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  1. David Westling

    This amounts to saying that the proletariat is not the revolutionary class, a decidedly un-Marxist concept. You might as well maintain that there is nothing to the base-superstructure identity, that what people are depends on the material basis of their production. It is only an additional small step to the thesis that the concept of objective reality is a mere abstraction. The Sixth Thesis on Feuerbach begins to shimmer in a ghostly light. Reality as an “ensemble of social relations” can only be opposed by a concept of the individual as the ultimate reality, as the Sixth Thesis presupposes.

  2. David Black

    There is nothing in Marx’s work to suggest that the base-superstructure relation is constituted as an “identity.” If it was then *any* sort of political subjectivity would be superfluous – as indeed it has become for much of bourgeois politics in which the economy and commodified culture is seen as “everything.”

    Marx’s Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy is not so much a description of capitalism as a general statement of social development which includes pre-capitalist societies. Marx’s statement that “The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general” wasn’t particularly original; the point had already been conceded by Hegel, and you can even find in the 17th century texts of James Harrington.
    (See the article on this site ‘From Habakkuk to Locke’).

    Marx’s originality lies in his critique of a specifically capitalist mode of production, in which the commodity form is primary. In Marx’s world of commodity fetishism, the dualisms of base-superstructure don’t really explain very much. The ideology of capitalists isn’t just a reflection of production relations; in capitalism the capitalists *become* ”personifications” of the commodity relation.

    As I said in the talk, Debord’s point in 1967 was that a modern proletarian revolution actually demands that workers’ subjectivity, in grasping the need to abolish value-production – and themselves as a class in the process – becomes MORE developed than that of the capitalists. To repeat the quote, this time in full,

    “Proletarian revolution depends entirely on the condition that, for the first time, theory as intelligence of human practice be recognized and lived by the masses. It requires workers to become dialecticians and to inscribe their thought into practice. Thus it demands of men without quality more than the bourgeois revolution demanded of the qualified men which it delegated to carry out its tasks (since the partial ideological consciousness constructed by a part of the bourgeois class was based on the economy, this central part of social life in which this class was already in power).”

    Marx’s great insight in Capital that “fetishism of the world of commodities arises from the peculiar social character of the labor which produces them” suggests, as interpreted by Lukacs and Debord, that commodity production represents a structuring principle of consciousness: a form of both social subjectivity and objectivity. This insight is already present in Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, in which he says that “The worker produces capital, capital produces him-hence he produces himself, and man as worker, as a commodity, is the product of this entire cycle.”

  3. David Westling

    Marx did not use the term “identity” in his descriptions of the relations between the base and superstructure. One is therefore led to ponder just what “conditions” means in the phrase the base “conditions” the superstructure. No amount of weaselling concerning the nature of the “base” and “superstructure” absolves the Marxist from the model he advocates. (Marxism does have a penis.) What it all boils down to is which is prior–making the world better or making ourselves better? I agree that the economic base conditions the superstructure. But Marx also uses the word “determines” in this context. This is the distinction which to me is crucial. If the base “determines” the superstructure, this is tantamount to conceiving of it as an identity. Q. How do you pin down a Marxist? A. you don’t. I like to needle these guys. Q. Doesn’t the liberation of the individual depend on the prior liberation of society? This attitude was what sank the Surrealists. When the proletariat becomse the subject, the individual disappears. Marx of course didn’t want to admit to such a thing. One understands that economics functions to structure consciousness. But this is not the same as maintaining that the structures _constitute_ the consciousness a la Levi-Strauss. Until Marxism can absorb the ramifications of this distinction, its collectivist orientation will be its distinguishing feature, and those of us who think a person is not reducible to its economic lineaments will never call themselves Marxists.

  4. David Black

    “When the proletariat becomse the subject, the individual disappears. Marx of course didn’t want to admit to such a thing.”
    Well why would he? It’s more the case that for Marx’s humanist philosophy individuality for humans begins (appears) when the proletariat abolishes itself.
    If you really think that Marx argued that the proletariat is supposed to become the collectivised subject of value production you really ought to read ‘Capital’ (and I don’t think you’ll find much therein that has much in common with Levi-Strauss).
    I’ll pass regarding the comment on the surrealists, which would need to be backed with a bit of evidence to be seriously discussed.

  5. David Westling

    To fully articulate my thought, “Marx didn’t want to admit to such a thing” as being intrinsic to communism. The problem here is that there is a marked tension between what Marx purported communism to be about and what it is actually about. One can easily make statements such as “the free development of each is the precondition for the free development of all” but is this belief borne out in Marx’s philosophy? I believe it can be argued that “the free development of all is the precondition of the free development of each” as Marxism is practically applied. Isn’t this what “socialism” means? The emphasis here is on the social. Socialist theory as conventionally construed maintains that a concern for the social can be combined with individual prerogatives. But if the social logically precedes the individual, majoritarian concerns inevitably trump all others. The mental gymnastics employed by the Situationists to attempt to negate Marx’s core tenet of the dictatorship of the proletariat, _construed as being made up of workers_, bring us to a point where one is no longer speaking of Marx’s idea of revolution. The social exists before, in, and after the individual in Marx. To me this seems irreducible. Marx began as a disciple of Feuerbach and Wilhelm Weitling. After his encounter with Stirner he formulated his theory of historical materialism (1845). But this theory does no more than translate the normative stances he maintained before his encounter with Stirner into what he took to be laws of history, but are actually the old Utopian ideals shorn of their normative character. What had earlier been described as an ideal is latterly described as historical necessity, thus obviating the revolutionary vanguard as embodied in the intellectual elite.

    As far as the Surrealists are concerned, it’s well established that there was a fundamental tension between their original anarchist orientation and the move to embrace communism. They never resolved the question I posed in my earlier post. I take the form of the question from _Conversations: the Autobiography of Surrealism_ where Breton in 1953 interviews with Andre Parinaud gives a detailed summary of the surrealist project up to that time. It’s true, Breton does state at the time of their closest approach to the FCP in 1926 that “all of us seek to shift power from the hands of the bourgeiosie to those of the proletariat. Meanwhile, it is nonetheless necessary that the experiments of the inner life continue, and do so, of course, without external or even Marxist control.” Herein lies the conflict. The FCP never felt comfortable with the Surrealists’ “experiments of the inner life” and from their viewpoint, it is hard to understand why they should have. Marx would have concurred heartily, as indicated by his statement on the status of psychology: “a psychology for which this book, the book of industry, is closed, can never become a real science with a genuine content. What indeed should we think of a science which primly abstracts from this large area of human labor, and fails to sense its own inadequacy, even though such an extended wealth of human activity says nothing more to it perhaps than what can be said in one word–‘need’ ‘common need’?”

  6. David Black

    Surrealism, according to Walter Benjamin, was an expression of dialectical thought in the organic process of historical awakening:

    “Every epoch not only dreams the next, but while dreaming impels it towards wakefulness. It bears its end within itself, and reveals it – as Hegel had already recognized – by a ruse. With the upheaval of the market economy, we begin to recognise the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled.”

    André Breton saw in Hegel’s aesthetics a brilliant insight into the poetic personality’s overcoming, through “objective humor,” of romanticism’s “servile imitation of nature in its accidental forms.” Given the repeated efforts of modern art to escape from “servile imitation” in the movements of Naturalism, through to Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism and Dadaism, Hegel’s assertions had a “tremendous prophetic value.”

    Debord credited the Surrealists for having asserted the “sovereignty of desire and surprise” in their projection of a “new way of life.” But he found an “error at the root” in the surrealist idea of the “infinite richness of the unconscious imagination.” The “techniques” born of this idea, he argued, such as automatic writing, had tended towards tedium and occultism. Furthermore, Surrealism had mistakenly put itself “au service” of a revolution in Russia which had already been lost. Debord said that the defeat of the social revolutions had left the Surrealists and the Dadaists “imprisoned in the same artistic field whose decrepitude they had denounced.”

    Whereas “Dadaism had tried to repress art without realising it; Surrealism wanted to realise art without suppressing it.” What was necessary, in Debord’s view, was to project suppression and realization as “inseparable aspects of a single supersession of art.”

  7. David Westling

    For me the _The Society of the Spectacle_ reveals Debord’s limitation within a Feuerbachian-Marxist framework concerning the understanding of Young Hegelian sociopolitical dynamics. To be in thrall to some modified notion of the ‘Gattungswesen’ is surely no advance on the tedium and occultism which represented the less evolved side of Surrealism, a movement in its better moments which went far beyond Debord’s view of its being limited to realising art without suppressing it. I myself gravitate towards the “metasurrealist” idea of Robert Lebel’s Gratuitous Time, a zone in which one no longer experiences the “crude vibrations of social time”. It seems to me moreover that Marx, however elasticized, is incapable of addressing such concerns. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, now of course_persona non grata_ to the orthodox May ’68ers, made the observation that the May ’68 rebellion failed in large part because it gave short shrift to the individual in the individual/collective equation, and this is just to the point concerning the question of its adherence to Marxist patterns of thought and action. Lebel’s son was and is one of the luminaries of the May 68 rebellion, but by implication seems to have rejected the inner reality of the notion of Gratuitous Time, “a world in which identity cards do not circulate” to quote the Surrealist artist Toyen. I have to assert at this juncture that a society that retained anything of the important lineaments of Marxism would have to live by the clock, depite vehement protestation to the contrary by all who champion Marx. We, the critics of capitalism, all want to leave behind such notions as work and regimentation but how does one get there? I haven’t seen any convincing evidence from the Marxist quarter that any meaningful variant of Marxism can offer a way to gain access to the realm of gratuitious time, since the emphasis is always on what the society needs rather than what the individual needs. As I see it, Surrealism’s desire to put itself at the service of the revolution wasn’t aimed at merely butressing the revolution of the Soviet Union as such; the Soviet experiment was a reality and had value because of this fact and the corrupt edifice of the ancien regime, in their eyes, had to go at almost any cost but there would be other revolutions. I suggest a perusal of the _DaCosta Encyclopedia_, Fascicule VII,Volume II concerning the moving beyond Marxist modes of thought by the Surrealists. One might assert here that it is not the unregulated font of unconscious contents that one would want to lionize as one moves beyond classic Bretonian views of the Surrealist project but rather what one might term the “conquest” of the irrational, the taking of its inventory and subsequent evaluation of its multifarious levels as one integrates it into everyday experience without destroying oneself in the process.(“Monsters from the Id, John!”) My own opinion on these matters aligns me more with Otto Gross than with Jacques Lacan, whose positing of the primacy of the Symbolic Order dooms us to an eternal patriarchal hegemony in its identification of this Symbolic Order with the Law. I look instead to Julia Kristeva’s notion of a “Semiotic Chora” which undergirds the symbolic order, since consciousness was there before it was known.

  8. Paulo Morel

    “For me the _The Society of the Spectacle_ reveals Debord’s limitation within a Feuerbachian-Marxist framework concerning the understanding of Young Hegelian sociopolitical dynamics.”

    This is the kind of “history of ideas” statement that will more often miss the point of Debord’s interventions, his “method” and aims. The Society of the Spectacle, for instance, is, among many other things, a conscious “pastiche” of ideas, Marxist and otherwise, aiming at a certain “effect” within a conjuncture understood as cultural-political-artistic-social- “philosophical”, etc. etc. I am not saying anything new here; Debord said it himself for those who understand “where” he is coming from, the particular ground and forms of experience that his work elaborates and translates, so to speak. The genius of Debord was to portray the shifting territory of contemporary society and indicate its developments, that is, to bring to light as clearly as possible “the future in the present”, and to see it also for what it was – and is, a not very bright future… The core of Debord’s “theoretical practice” is “artistic”, and that, certainly, for those who believe that art has to do with “aesthetics” and with the Sunday afternoons of existence, it is something difficult to grasp. In its own way, with all the limitations he was very conscious of, the work of Debord not just sums up the ideas of the moment before, it points to what was /is coming “under everybody’s nose” and yet it was not perceived, or very vaguely so. “Polysemy” of a productive kind is what defines his “ideas”, the polysemy proper to the work of art. Which is also quite the contrary of “n’importe quoi” or “anything goes.”

  9. Dale Parsons

    As I understand it, base and superstructure are opposites and non identical.
    I suspect because of Westling’s inability to move beyond capitalism’s
    abstract definitions of individualism, he is either anarchist or sympathetic
    to them. Until we get beyond capitalist value production any discussion of
    “individualism that lets nothing interfere with its universalism” is “bs”.
    I believe Debord’s theory of the substitution of spectacles, images, etc.
    for real life experiences helps to flesh out Marx’s “fetishism of
    commodities”, Hegel’s “spirit in self estrangement”, etc. Debord can be
    critiqued, but he managed to demonstrate that the process of “overcoming”
    alienation proceeds “through” alienation. I find this a lot more spiritually
    concrete than “Semiotic Chora” or some abstract definition of individualism.

  10. David Westling

    The important thing is to avoid the pitfalls of May ’68 which turn around the idea of collectivism, something Debord failed to take into account. Feuerbach’s call to end illusion which inagurates Debord’s _Society_ is only half formed, leaving the sacred uncritiqued as such. The category of the sacred is problematic in itself; to imply that there is a valid way to think about the sacred as divested of its illusions preserves the grand illusion of God as idea, for the sacred is the ultimate illusion. In Marx, this idea manifests itself in the personage of the proletariat. This is the illusory ground of Gattungswesen. Debord is leaving this Feuerbachian supposition uncritiqued. This is why I say he is still mired in the Feuerbachian mindset. Pomo concepts of polysemy can only muddy the waters. Debord’s leaving behind of traditional aesthetics is only an aftershock of Surrealism where the real interest lies. For all its posturing in the direction of Marxism, Surrealism is fundamentally anarchist, where, in strains rejecting Kropotkin the individual is privileged over the collective, something Debord did not accept.

  11. David Westling

    To make things a bit clearer for any readers of these remarks, Dale Parsons’ comment, although dated one day before my latest post, appeared after I transmitted that post; I was not responding to Dale in my Dec 29th post. That post was a response to Paolo Morel’s post of Dec. 22. Parson’s post it seems to me is indicative of the extreme confusion surrounding the base-superstructure question from its introduction onward. I call it an “identity” in an attempt to undercut all the apologetics (Althusser, etc.) for such a hopelessly mechanistic account of history as issues from Ricardo’s basic conception. However one construes this difficult concept, which I grant has some merit if it could be divested of its crudely mechanistic elements, base and superstructure in Marx’s conception are certainly not opposites but complemetaries. My idea of “individualism” is one which emphatically rejects Benthamite and Lockean treatments which are deeply linked to the Lutheran/Calvinist underpinnings of capitalism and as such are, as Parsons rightly points out, mired in an arid idealism. My “individualism” is more akin to Blake’s notion of a spontaneous connection to the core elements of the self, what the Surrealists called making the unconscious conscious. This is done not on the social but on the individual plane and is therefore fundamentally anarchist. (Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious is tainted with spiritualism and as such is mired in a deeply religious attitude.) “I am the center of my own universe” (otherwise known as the ego-centric predicament)is the only adequate antidote to the sort of instrumentalism which induces the self to forego basic needs in favor of service to what I take to be the crippling abstractions of society, the proletariat, humanity, “species-being”, etc. “not I, but Christ lives in me” is forever being broadened to include all these grotesque hypostases of lived experience. There is no nobility inherent in the proletariat; the laws of the Spectacle as promulgated by Debord and others prove that beyond the slightest doubt. In constituting alliances the concordance must come at the level of the Critique which begins and ends with the critique of religion, the completion of which leaves us with the naked individual self in all its vulnerabilty and glory.