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.”
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.” 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. 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.” 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.”
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.” 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.’
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…”
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. 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.”
 Situationist International Anthology, Ed. Ken Knabb (Berkeley: 1981), pp. 319-36.
 Debord, Society of the Spectacle, ¶112. http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/debord/society.htm
 Knabb, p. 334.
 Len Bracken, Guy Debord – Revolutionary (Venice, California: 1997), p.171.
 Debord, Society of the Spectacle ¶123.
 CLR James, The Future in the Present (London: 1980).
 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.
Anselm Jappe, Guy Debord, (University of California Press: 1999), p. 37-8.
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.
 Marx, Capital III, Fernbach trans., p. 959, trans. slightly altered.