Beyond salvage: Andrea Gibbons on the Situationists



In late 2015 Andrea Gibbons published an article entitled, Salvaging Situationism: Race and Space. If we leave aside for the moment her maladroit use of the term ‘situationism’, what we find is an argument charging the predominantly white, male membership of the Situationist International circa 1958 to 1960 with the neglect and racist ‘betrayal’ of an Algerian member of the group, namely Abdelhafid Khatib. Gibbons charge is a serious one, and if correct calls into question the Situationist critique of race and racism.

The Situationist International (hereafter SI) is certainly not beyond the scope of criticism. Despite many commentators drawing attention to the so-called “purity” of the group, the SI never claimed to have extinguished all traces and lived reality of modern alienation within their ranks. This is not to justify obvious failings of the SI, but only to point out that the survival of hierarchical and ideological forms within the group was acknowledged and often contested. Thus the question, to what extent race, racism, sexism, and other ideologies of capitalism played a role in the Situationist group, is an important one. However Gibbons method of attack muddies the water by way of shoddy scholarship and a dogged attachment to a single line of speculation.

In what follows I will concentrate on Gibbons questionable use of sources to construct her argument. Indeed I will demonstrate that her argument against the SI is based almost entirely upon (1) claims about source material which do not stand up under examination, and (2) the sloppy use of both textual and historical evidence which ultimately undermines her argument. Without doubt Gibbons makes more general claims about the way race and racism (and to a lesser extent gender and sexism) should be contested as a part of radical, anti-capitalistic critique. However a criticism of her argument in this regard is beyond the scope of this essay. Luckily Gerald Keaney has taken on this aspect of Gibbons argument in his article Andrea Gibbons’ Situationism.

Gibbons begins her argument against the SI with the ‘Editorial Note’ attached to the publication of Abdelhafid Khatib’s ‘incomplete’ psychogeographical study of Les Halles (an area in central Paris). So should we. Note that I have retranslated it from the French:

EDITORIAL NOTE: This study is incomplete on several fundamental points, principally those concerning the ambient characteristics of certain crudely defined areas. This is because our collaborator, since September, has been the victim of police regulations [règlements de police] banning North Africans from the streets after 21:30 hours. The core of A[bdelhafid]. Khatib’s work concerned the ambiance of [Les] Halles at night. After two arrests and two stays [deux séjours] in a holding cell [“Centres de Triage”] he gave up. Therefore the present cannot be abstracted from considerations bearing upon psychogeography itselfno more than a future politics can.

Gibbons makes two core arguments on the basis of this Editorial Note. First she claims that the editorial committee of the SI did not make good their ‘promise to consider psychogeography in light of these targeted arrests carried out against colonial subjects’.

Secondly, and on the basis of the claim about their ‘promise’, Gibbons claims that Khatib and other Algerian members of the SI (for instance Mahomed Dahou) were betrayed by the other predominantly white, male members of the SI, who failed to demonstrate ‘material solidarity and theoretical rigour’ in the face of Khatib’s racist harassment by French cops. Indeed she goes further and poses the possibility that Khatib and Dahou’s resignation from the SI in, respectively, 1960 and 1959, was largely the result of this lack of solidarity and insight into the peculiar positions of Algerians in the French metropole.

Considering the first claim, the SI as a group made no ‘promise to consider psychogeography in light of these targeted arrests carried out against colonial subjects’. Certainly no promise was made in the Editorial Note. The psychogeographical study of Les Halles was given up after Khatib was harassed and arrested by cops on more than one occasion. Indeed one can conceive that the calling off of the study — whether made by Khatib alone or by the group in collaboration — was an act of ‘material solidarity’, rather than perversely as its absence by Gibbons.

It is clear from Khatib’s write-up of the psychogeographical study that the study was not made by him alone, even if he was solely responsible for the write up. For instance he speaks of collective actions regarding the study of Les Halles: ‘We have chosen…’; ‘First of all we defined the boundaries of the quartier as we conceived it…’; ‘…we arrive at the most extensive and above all most-celebrated of this vast urban complex…’; etc. One member of a collaborative study writing up the results was a common practice among the International Letterists and Situationists. The point of emphasising this — something Gibbons does not do — is to demonstrate that Khatib was almost certainly not alone in this study. However, that it was Khatib alone who called off continuing the study (as indicated in the Editorial Note) is testament to his central, decision making role in the study. A role, moreover, that was supported by his comrade-collaborators. Again this could be interpreted as a sign of solidarity rather than its absence. What is clear from Gibbons article is that apart from her invention of a non-existent ‘promise’ she provides no clear evidence of a lack of solidarity on the part of the editorial committee.


Indeed one of the more peculiar lapses on Gibbons is that she was unaware that another Algerian member of the SI, namely Mohamed Dahou, was a member of the editorial committee which was responsible for the Editorial Note quoted above. Dahou, alongside fellow Situationists Asger Jorn, Maurice Wyckaert and Guy Debord, constituted the editorial committee for Internationale Situationniste no. 2 (in which both Khatib’s article and the Editorial Note appeared). Unfortunately Dahou’s role in the SI is reduced by Gibbons to that of suffering victim, who ‘stuck it out in these circles for some time’ (as though being a member of the SI was merely a misfortune for non-Europeans).

I would contest that on the basis of the foregoing Gibbons’ claim then that Khatib and Dahou left the group because of the implicit racism is at the very least questionable. More research is certainly needed before one could justify Gibbons speculation. For instance, if Gibbons had bothered to read Guy Debord’s letters she would have discovered that Khatib, after the foundation of the SI in 1957, was relatively inactive (having been more active in the previous Letterist International). Further, it appears that he became more active in the group during 1958, particularly with regard the attempted coup and accession of de Gaulle to the presidency in May 1958 (for instance see the letter Debord to Pinot Gallizio, 16 June 1958, in Correspondence, semiotext(e): 2009, pp. 119-20). Unfortunately for us, even though Debord’s letters are available to researchers (though not all of them), so far few if any letters or other forms of private correspondence of members of the SI are available. But even when it comes to what is available in the public record Gibbons casual approach is less than illuminating.

Gibbons does make the interesting observation that the writing up of psychogeographical studies ended around the same time as Khatib left the SI. However, she inexplicably concludes on this basis that Khatib’s ‘comrades summarily renounce[ed] psychogeography’ in the wake of the incomplete report on Les Halles. ‘Psychogeography’, or at least the practice of writing up psychogeographical studies, does appear to disappear from the publications of the SI from around 1959. However the disappearance of such reports does not constitute the end of psychogeography as such. Indeed it is important to take note of the changing emphasises and the sometime acrimonious debates within the SI regarding its direction during this period — something Gibbons does not do. More importantly psychogeography continued to play an implicit, albeit largely unwritten role in the ongoing urban ‘drifts’ (dérives) and Unitary Urbanist criticism of capitalist “urbanism” carried out by the SI after 1959. Thus even though such reports stopped figuring in the publications of the SI there is no indication that the group ever renounced the theory of psychogeography.

Gibbons’ belief that the supposed renunciation of psychogeography was necessarily related to questions of race and racism betrays her too narrow focus. In the period under consideration — 1958 to 1960 — the arguments over art and the lingering artistic influences in the SI were beginning to move to centre stage. To reduce the move away from psychogeography to Khatib’s membership and departure from the SI is to lose the bigger picture. Other members of the group resigned or were expelled over such questions in this period. Indeed Gibbons’ focus on Khatib (and to a much lesser extent Dahou) also loses sight of other non-European members of the group, notably Mustapha Khayati, originally from Tunisia. After Debord and Vaneigem, Khayati produced some of the most important work of the SI. In particular he was largely responsible for the infamous Situationist pamphlet, On the Poverty of Student Life. I raise Khayati here not in order to deflect Gibbons’ charges, but rather to draw attention to the fact that the question of non-European participation and criticism of racism in the SI did not end with Khatib and Dahou — a conclusion one could too easily draw from her article.

The destruction of the pavilions at Les Halles, 1971

The destruction of the pavilions at Les Halles, 1971

It is possible that Gibbons claims are related to the English translation she used, namely the one available on the situationist international online website. Apart from the last sentence the two translations are effectively the same. However the situationist international online translation has the following as the last sentence:

Therefore the present the political future, no less may be abstracted due to considerations carried out on psychogeography itself.

As we can see the meaning of the sentence is far from clear, and hopefully my new translation has rectified this. However it is hard to see how either translation can be interpreted as a ‘promise to consider psychogeography in light of these targeted arrests carried out against colonial subjects’.

Indeed Gibbons’ use of the materials at hand defies reason. Not only does she draw a dubious conclusion from the above Editorial Note, she also compounds her errors with numerous additional mistakes. For example, despite her claim to have ‘struggled’ through the work of the Situationists, she appears to have gone no further than the English translations available on the situationist international online website. Thus she reproduces an unfortunate typo on the part of one of the translations available on the site: i.e. that Raoul Vaneigem wrote the article ‘A Civil War in France’ in Internationale Situationniste no. 1 (June 1958). Of course Vaneigem did not join the SI until 1961 and did not make contact with a member of the group until 1960 (namely Attila Kotányi). But in the scheme of things this is a minor mistake on Gibbons part, though redolent of a more general sloppiness with regard to her “scholarship”.

Thus we have a far more egregious mistake on her part when she accuses Guy Debord and Michèle Bernstein of having signed the Declaration on the Right to Insubordination in the Algerian War in 1962, and further that ‘[t]his was their only public intervention’ regarding the massacre of French-Algerians demonstrating in Paris the previous October, 1961. Unfortunately Gibbons is wrong, and on both counts.

First, the Declaration on the Right to Insubordination in the Algerian War (also known as the Manifesto of the 121) was published on 6 September 1960 (not 1962). Secondly, the Declaration was not issued as a ‘public intervention’ with regard to the Paris massacre of 1961 (how could it be!) but rather as a defence and declaration of the ‘right to insubordination’, in particular in defence of any French recruits and conscripts refusal to fight, and in direct support of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) and the cause of independence from France. From the Declaration:

  • We respect and judge justified the refusal to take up arms against the Algerian people.
  • We respect and judge justified the conduct of those French men and women who consider it their obligation to give aid and protection to the Algerians, oppressed in the name of the French people.
  • The cause of the Algerian people, which contributes decisively to the ruin of the colonial system, is the cause of all free men and women.

— from an English translation of the Declaration

To sign this Declaration was to publically declare oneself in solidarity with the armed struggle of Algerians against the French occupation. At the time the Declaration was extremely controversial in French public life. The Declaration was made by those supporters of Algerian independence who had become frustrated with the timid and opportunistic politics of the “official” left — predominantly the large, Stalinist French Communist Party (PCF), whose effectively non-existent opposition to the war amounted to a call for peace (as opposed to supporting independence, which the PCF did not). To be publically associated with the Declaration was to risk arrest, state harassment and the loss of employment — a fate that befell many of the signatories. Unfortunately by getting the date of the Declaration wrong no less than twice (and so presumably not the work of a tired or slack editor) Gibbons not only misunderstands the real object of the Declaration, she also unwittingly maligns the role of the Declaration in the attempt to constitute a real opposition to the French war in Algeria.

Recall that Gibbons believed that Debord and Bernstein’s signing of the 1960 Declaration was ‘their only public intervention’ regarding the massacre of French-Algerians demonstrating in Paris in October, 1961. But even if we take into consideration her faulty dating, this was still not the case. The SI as an organisation did comment on the Paris massacre of 1961, a massacre which — as Gibbons points out — was covered up by the French state until the 1990s. What she does not mention, however, is that the “official” left, and in particular the large Stalinist PCF, also effectively colluded in this cover-up. Indeed the SI’s commentary on this massacre, one of the few made on the periphery of the official left, was directed precisely at this collusion. Thus in the seventh issue of their journal, the SI noted that:

The complete separation of workers from France and Algeria — which should be understood as not principally spatial, but temporal — has led to a delirium of information, even from “the Left”, who’s newspapers, on the morning after the killing of eight French protesters by the police on February 8th [1962], spoke of it as the bloodiest clash on record in Paris since 1934, without mentioning that less than four months previously, on October 18th [1961], Algerian demonstrators had been massacred in their dozens.

—from ‘Priority Communication’, Internationale Situationniste no. 7, April 1962 (translation modified)

No doubt the police responsibility for the 8 dead at the Charonne railway station in Paris in February 1962 was an outrage. However as the SI pointed out, the greater outrage was the effective effacement of the October 1961 massacre of French Algerians in Paris by the newspapers of “the Left”. Here the SI demonstrated both ‘material solidarity’ and ‘theoretical rigour’ by drawing attention to not only the role of the French state, but the duplicity of the “official” communist party. That Gibbons is unaware of this comment by the SI is testament to her slack research. That she confuses dates and makes false claims on this basis suggests outright mendacity.

(NB. For more details on the October 1961 massacre and the collusion of the “official” left in the cover up check out Kirstin Ross’s book May ’68 and Its Afterlives).

So, what are we left with after considering Gibbons’ argument? Let us recall how she ended her article:

I tried to summarize the point of this article for him […]. An Algerian tried to study Paris, I said, an Algerian named Abdelhafid Khatib, and because he was an Arab he was harassed and imprisoned. Because he was an Arab, he could not freely move through the city, he could not observe, he could not carry out a dérive the way his comrades could.

And none of them cared.

How fucked up it was that white intellectuals did not have the back of their Arab brother. […]

What arrogance. […]

This is where Gibbons ill-founded argument ends, her vituperative accusation that Khatib’s comrades, in their supposed privileged ‘arrogance’, simply did not care. But in fact she provides no evidence that this was the case. And the “evidence” she does provide, as we have seen, bears little relationship to the conclusion which she extracts. Surely the only carelessness and arrogance in this regard is to be found in her sloppy research and hasty conclusions.

Ironically Gibbons entitled her article ‘Salvaging Situationism’. As anyone who has more than a passing acquaintance with the Situationists knows, ‘situationism’ was a term of derision and scorn used by the Situationists. For them it signified the recuperation and disarming of their living criticism — i.e. their practice — and its transformation into an intellectual doctrine that was so much grist for the mills of academic dissection. Through her misrepresentation, half-truths, skewed history and outright lies Andrea Gibbons has, indeed, contributed to ‘situationism’. In doing so she has proved herself, at least in this case, beyond salvage.

Anthony Hayes
Canberra, October 2016



Posted in Critique, Research Notes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Letter to ‘Rojavist’ Friends

YPG cooperating with their comrades in the US Special Forces

US Special Forces cooperating with the YPG-YPJ

The French language version of this letter is available here. For more information see the Class War Group’s website. A PDF of the English language version available here.

For more critical information of Rojava see the article ‘Kurdistan?’(+ enlarged version of this article here), and LibCom’s Rojava page.

A Letter to ‘Rojavist’ Friends,
Friday, May 13, 2016

“Yet even then, during those early years of my apprenticeship in life and revolt, the rare news that reached us [from Russia] sometimes contained disturbing news.”
Ngo Van

This letter is not addressed to those militants who surf the net from one movement or struggle to the next, according to the direction of the media, with the goal of constructing a party or an organisation. It is addressed to you, friends and comrades of different cities, with whom we often share positions, and whose critical sense and reflexion we appreciate, but nevertheless with whom we are sometime in disagreement[3].

In particular it is the case of Rojava to which we want to address ourselves. Unlike you, for the past year and a half we have had more than simple doubts about the use of the word ‘revolution’ to describe the situation that is happening in this region. Our doubts are concerned equally with the way in which this ‘process’ is presented and supported in the West.

The goal of this letter is not to be exhaustive on this question. Neither is it to ‘shut-down’ your positions or to try to convince you of the contrary — especially not by stringing together into a different reading sources and references you already have access to, nor by using examples of Russia 1917 and Spain 1936. Our goal here is to lay the foundation for a debate, and to avoid some readers enlisting in and enclosing themselves in a war of positions, which would be regrettable.

For us what seems to be in question is the way we perceive a particular movement or situation, and the manner in which we judge and treat them across differences in analysis and geographical distance — differences between discourse and concrete situations. Just as with our engagement in our immediate struggles (which are always partial and often reformist or defensive), our positions on struggles taking place thousands of kilometres away depend neither on a particular norm or of a sense of revolutionary ‘purity’, nor upon the application of pre-established models[4]. Our goal is not to reject this or that movement because they do not appear radical enough, but rather to examine the contents, above all from the perspective of class relations.

The experience in Rojava should not be treated differently. Like all social situations in the capitalist world, this experience is also entangled in class contradictions. Although such situations may be difficult to measure, to know exactly who is involved and what the dynamics are, certain questions must be proposed: What are the transformations which are taking place? Where are the main contractions crystallising, and who are the main figures involved? What relations of power have been established? What contrast is there between discourses and genuine interests? Between our desire for revolution and the limits which they encounter? What about the proletariat? What is our vision of revolution? And etc.

Alone against everyone?

The ‘revolutionary experience’ of Rojava is often presented as being confronted by general hostility and threats from ‘fascist’ and imperialist armies of the region, if not from the entire planet.

Let’s remember first of all the agreement of non-aggression in 2012 which confirmed that the armed forces of Rojava and those of Damascus cohabited peacefully (except a few rare clashes) and even sometimes tactically collaborated (battle of Al-Hasakah in 2015, Aleppo and the Azaz corridor in 2016), in addition to the quasi co-administration of certain areas (Al-Hasakah or Al-Qamishli). An agreement which fed many debates and polemics.

In 2014, some militant revolutionaries protested in France so that Western military forces would provide air-force support and the supply of arms to the YPG[5]. At this time they proposed to collect a few thousand euros in support of the YPG, notably for the purchasing of arms. Since then the United-States, followed by other states, has delivered them tonnes of arms and ammunition. The militant revolutionaries are aware of it, but reproach the West for not providing the YPG with heavy arms[6].

On the ground, the military campaign forming a territorial continuity between the cantons of Kobane and Jazira (October 2014 to June 2015) has demonstrated the close collaboration between the YPG and Western air forces (and inevitably also with US Special Forces on the ground). Thus in a political and military alliance (known as the SDF[7]) the YPG has surrounded themselves with several groups of armed Arabs whose libertarian character we can doubt.

The battles from February to March 2016 around the Afrin canton have demonstrated that there exists at the very least an operational coordination between the YPG, the Syrian Loyalist Army and the Russian air force. That being said, some rebel groups up until then allied with Al-Nusra (the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda) have on this occasion decided to join the SDF as well.

Given such alliances, a much larger territory has been taken under control in addition to greater population diversity. The ‘pragmatism’ of the Kurdish command is in no danger of being dropped.

With regards to their diplomatic agenda, the representatives (sic) of the YPG are regularly sent to Western countries with the goal of establishing new contacts. The days in which they were represented as totally isolated, as victims of their revolutionary position (despite their commander being received at the Élysée Palace) have passed. Their presence at the negotiations in Geneva was prevented by the efforts of Turkey, whilst Russia’s presence there was favourable. Since then the government of Rojava opened a diplomatic representation in Moscow in February [2016], which was the occasion of a lovely little celebration (ditto in Prague in April).

From a political, diplomatic and military point of view the leadership of the PYD[8]/YPG (wooed as much by the United-States as by Russia) has known how to opportunistically play its cards right, that is to say, reinforce its political weight by obtaining military support and quasi-international recognition.

With respect to media support, it is very widespread and particularly positive. In France, the combatants of the YPG (and above all those of the YPJ[9]) are presented as models of courage, of feminism, and of democracy and tolerance. Such is the case with ‘Arte’ to ‘France 2’, passing by ‘LCP’. Likewise with the Radio, where from ‘Radio Libertaire’ to ‘Radio Courtoisie’ and ‘France Culture’ one hears the praises of the combatants of freedom.

It is logical that the PYD looks for support and that it takes advantage of communication services and efficient propaganda, but this nevertheless raises questions. Indeed the PYD presents itself to the world as the stronghold of democracy, a responsible collaborator, and a champion of the struggle against terrorism and Islamism. Is this a camouflage? Have the diplomats and soldiers of the imperialist countries been consciously swindled the whole way over these years? Has imperialism so little awareness of its interests that it tolerates, even supports in Kobane a ‘revolutionary process’ in the making, with direct democracy, ‘equality of the sexes’, ‘self-management’ of resources, etc. — all the things that they evidently forbid in London, Paris or Chicago? Is there no other choice for the West?

What about the War?

The resistance of the Kurds in the ruins of Kobane has touched the planet and brought about a wave of international support. As a result, the YPG has achieved – thanks to the US and Russian air forces – a long series of victorious offensives, permitting Kurdish control over a vast territory.

Enthusiastic fighting or political will? The YPG cannot escape the general criticism that one can make of any army on a campaign: villages raised to the ground, populations displaced, Arab homes torched, unpopular police, conscription, youth without legal identity papers forcibly sent to the barracks for military service, etc. The Syrian organizations opposed to the PYD (sometimes Kurds themselves, and generally members of the SNC[10]) regularly denounce these abuses and errors. Indeed international human rights organizations have confirmed some of these abuses but recognize that amongst the belligerents of the region it is the Kurdish militants least of all that we can reproach for these kinds of actions. With respect to the authorities of Rojava, they recognize a part of these ‘abuses’ or ‘flaws’ and have promised or put in to place inquiries and corrections (for example, on the enrolment of child soldiers) with the goal of responding to Western standards of democracy, human rights and the conduct of war. Incidentally, the creation of a ‘genuine’ army has recently been announced (the Autonomous Protection Forces, APF).

It is difficult for us to see in these ‘misbehaviours’ the work of proletarians confronting the difficulties of concrete struggle… it is rather the necessities of war which explain the ‘errors’ of the YPG combatants.


The present situation in Syrian Kurdistan finds its origins in the defeat of the Syrian revolts in 2011, in the evolution of a regional situation marked by military chaos, and in the dynamics of the Kurdish Nationalist Parties (both in their specific interests and in contradictory alliances). The PYD, a Kurdish organization, is the political force which has imposed itself in this zone. Its discourse is not that of the nationalism of former times, that of the PKK[11]. In reality the vocabulary has changed. The cadres and militants of the PYD-PYG do not seem to be very aware because their remarks are still tinged with Kurdish patriotism, boasting about the special qualities of their ‘people’ to the ‘millennial’ culture — rebellious ‘by nature’, etc.[12]

The fact is that the question of the people and of Kurdish identity (their language, culture, history, customs etc.) remains inseparable from the political project of Rojava. Much like its territory, Kurdistan — that is, the zones defined as having been at some stage populated by a majority of Kurds. And even if the Kurdish leaders are very insistent about the protection of ethnic and religious minorities (in speech and in their Social Contract[13]), they do this as representatives of the majority.

The project of the PYD is thus presented on the one hand as not specifically Kurdish and on the other as being applicable to both Syria or to the Middle East together. Incidentally the YPG has conquered zones around the cantons of Kobane and Jazira, where Kurds are the minority. Nevertheless tensions between the Arab population and militant Kurds still remain.

This territorial expansion, in addition to the necessity of recruitment, of war and of propaganda, explains why the YPG has integrated Arabs into their ranks, fostered the creation of ethnic unities or specific religious groups (Syriac speaking, Yazidis) and why they have allied themselves since October 2015 with Arab militia (in the heart of the SDF).

Authority and Democracy

We will note in passing that the PYD (the Syrian branch of the PKK) was once known for its authoritarian character, but this has apparently changed. For the moment let’s accept this. However it should be noted that this type of organization, which would normally suffer the attacks of anti-authoritarians, has in fact benefited from a strange goodwill. Perhaps it is because the PYD has announced its desire to challenge the power of the state and to assist in a sort of modernization of the old theory of the ‘withering away of the state’ [dépérissement de l’État[14]], of its police[15] and its army.

As the PYD itself argues, the organization is in the process of constructing in Rojava a political and administrative autonomous region whose philosophical inspiration is derived from the works of Murray Bookchin, and whose juridical inspiration is found in the international treaties of civil and political rights. This structure would ultimately aim to overlap with the Syrian state, which would recognise the legitimacy and integrity of its borders.

In fact this is what is proclaimed in the Social Contract and by the leaders of Rojava, that which the major powers are discussing, and which seems to be concretely taking shape. Since 2012-2013 the Rojava administration has been strengthening and normalizing itself, its justice system and police, and perfecting its training and army (notably in the most protected cantons up till now, Jazira and Afrin), thus assuming a number of responsibilities which up till now were reserved for the Syrian state.

Nevertheless, one should note that in the case of a definitive rupture with Syria or the declaration of independence, the administrative structure put in place in Rojava would be almost completely that of a state (what would be missing of course is monetary sovereignty).

Evidently, Rojava is not simply just that. The word ‘revolution’ or at least the adjective ‘revolutionary’ has often been uttered and tapped out on keyboards in order to describe what is currently unfolding, and whose basis is twofold:

  • On the one hand what we are dealing with is a popular movement of revolt, of resistance, of self-defence and of survival in a situation of war.
  • On the other hand there is the implementation of the project of the PYD, which in theory combines centralized power (based on Western democratic models) with local self-organization of daily affairs.
  • The question remains as to how these two projects link together, and what this corresponds to — concretely on the ground[16].

There has been no shortage of Western visitors with lively testimonies later appearing in militant newspapers and blogs. One can see generally described there:

  • A friendly and warm atmosphere with lots of details, and spontaneous discussions in full freedom (rare things in this world).
  • Little about the economy, other than that the disruption of capitalist social relations has been postponed, and that private property has been sanctified by the Social Contract. At best, a handful of agricultural cooperatives are alluded to[17].
  • The information on the democratic functioning of Rojava, such as it can be read on Wikipedia: almost nothing, just one or two modest examples of the actual functioning of hundreds or thousands of popular assemblies supposedly covering the country (in the villages and the suburbs). But let’s put it simply: if in a given district the inhabitants meet up each week to discuss and decide to create a collective vegetable garden, or to repair a street or construct a meeting space, and can find the financial support within a comprehensive municipal administration, this is very great thing for them. Let us note however that it is not in this manner that political, diplomatic and military decisions are made.
  • The inauguration of a formal equality between men and women. The fact that women participate in discussion and in combat would be a shock and would lead to inevitable modifications in the social relations between sexes. Here as well we can ask ourselves what the real scope of this phenomenon is beyond the propaganda (particularly strong on this question), from which large sections of society seem to escape. Ditto on the perhaps caricatured vision of the situation of Kurdish women in Syria before 2012.

It would be particularly surprising if the PYD or the administrative organization of Rojava were to organize their own disappearance in favour of an assembly of popular assemblies, considering that the dynamic of an organization is above all to insure its own survival, role and power.

If in the end a democratic regime is in place in this region, drawing its inspiration from Western models but with a dose of local consultative assemblies, it would be a great innovation for the region, and a much lesser evil for its inhabitants. The PYD would be without doubt hegemonic for a long time in the region, but in time things could change. Is this a pessimistic or and optimistic vision?


We hear of a popular dynamic, admittedly paralyzed by war, but nevertheless one that could reappear again, later. We are told that it is necessary to remain hopeful and above all to believe that humanity (or the proletariat) will emancipate itself by making war first and only afterwards the revolution. This seems crazy to us. This is the choice allegedly made by the PYD, and which corresponds to the old ‘revolutionary’ schema (the classical transition phase that is limited to a ‘political revolution’).

We do not believe that the revolution (this great upheaval that will abolish class society) can follow from a list of strategic choices to be made in the correct order. We don’t know what the revolution will be like, but without denying its likely violent character, permit us an affirmation: the revolution will not be a military confrontation, a series of victories of the proletarian army (postponing till tomorrow the radical transformations of society) over those of the capitalists. Revolution is not war. And if occasionally periods of war can lead to political destabilization — generating tensions and social decomposition — it is on the contrary no longer the case here.

It does not seem to us suitable to use the word ‘revolution’ to describe the situation in Rojava, unless you use the fashionable and accepted sense of the word, emptied of meaning and rendered innocuous. Not ‘revolutionary process’ either, even if it is only ‘potential’… because why would there be more potential here than in China or Algeria? In Rojava it is war that dominates — a popular war if you want — but war all the same.

We are thus faced with the question of support[18]. Who are we to support? (Beyond  a supposed millennial ‘people’, exempt from class division and by its very nature revolutionary?).

Are we to support the ‘movement’? The ‘struggle’? The ‘proletariat? How does this translate itself concretely? The most pertinent thing would be, as in most cases, to struggle locally against our own bourgeoisie — but we already know what this is all about. Thus, beyond the symbolic, what solidarity is possible from 4,000 km away?

So far the most involved and enthusiastic revolutionary militants have above all praised the merits and actions of the YPG-YPJ[19], the armed branch of the PYD (even occasionally omitting the acronyms). If there has been support, hardly critical and above all financial, it is to this organization that it has gone (or eventually to the structures which it controls). And it is here that we believe there is a major concern[20].

This party which dominates the political scene of the region and pretends to represent the interests of the Kurdish ‘people’ is the force which is currently structuring the society. Thus it would be completely illusory to hope to support one radical tendency against another moderate one in the heart of the PYD. It would be equally illusory to support a regime in the hope that autonomous proletarian action would overwhelm it.

As you know, or as you have understood — and to say it bluntly: we think that the administration which is being put in place today in northern Syria guarantees in this zone the tasks of a failing state, preserving from chaos the foundations of capitalist society (value, wage labour, classes, private property, production). And tomorrow, from the bases negotiated between Rojava and the United-States, this society will assure order, and will manage the population and classes. As progressive as such a society may be, it is surely this administration which will thus be confronting Kurdish and Arab[21] proletarians. The forces which will repress them will be the Asayish[22], and if necessary the YPG.

On this perhaps abrupt ending, but in expectation of your responses, we send our kind regards.


Translated by Pete Dunn with help from Anthony Hayes, Canberra, August 2016


[1] [Translator’s note] Unless otherwise noted all footnotes are by the original authors.

[2] [Translator’s note] Ngo Van, Preface to In the Crossfire: Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary. Quote taken from the Preface of Ken Knabb’s translation. Translation modified.

[3] “We” and “you” refers also to an ensemble of loosely associated, more or less formal groups and organisations of individual anarchists, libertarians, Marxists (non-Bolshevik), autonomists etc. who form the so called ‘radical’ or ‘revolutionary’ milieu in which we are more or less taking part.

[4] We do not possess the blueprints for a ‘pure’ revolutionary process, and believe neither in the existence nor the possibility of such a blueprint.

[5] [Translators note] YPG – Yekîneyên Parastina Gel or Peoples Protection Units.

[6] The United-States opposes this, arguing that they could be used by the PKK against the Turkish army.

[7] [Translators note] SDF – Syrian Democratic Forces.

[8] [Translator’s note] PYD – Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat‎ – Democratic Union Party

[9] [Translators note] YPJ – Yekîneyên Parastina Jin – Women’s Protection Units

[10] Syrian National Council, notably supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

[11] [Translators note] PKK – Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê‎ – Kurdistan Workers Party.

[12] One could be tempted to say that these words perhaps don’t have the same meaning everywhere. In France, this type of discourse would at least be qualified as ‘reactionary’.

[13] The Social Contract is the constitution of Rojava, adopted the 29th January 2014.

[14] [Translator’s note] The French here, ‘dépérissement de l’État’ is literally ‘supersession of the State’. ‘Dépérissement’ is the French word used to translate Hegel and Marx’s ‘aufhebung’.

[15] David Graber reports the testimony of the director of the Police Academy of Rojava, the Asayish:  “their ultimate aim was to give everyone in the country six weeks of police training, so that ultimately, they could eliminate police”.  [TN: David Graeber and Pinar Öğünç, ‘No. This is a Genuine Revolution’ (2014)].

[16] Another crucial question is this: this process, does it follow on from the protests of the Arab Spring in 2011, or on the contrary has it in fact put an end to them, by substituting for them the political project of the PYD which descended from the mountains after the departure of Assad’s troops?

[17] The self-management of one single factory in Rojava has already been the object of a dozen articles and the cover page of several militant papers.

[18] But there is not just revolution in life. Admittedly our point of view leads us to see in each struggle the concerns of class struggle. But if it is theoretically always possible, is it always necessary? There are causes which have nothing revolutionary about them, which are humanitarian and humanist and which can be supported; ecological or reformist struggles in which we should be able to participate without shame; immediate necessities which occasionally can find responses which are not Marxist or Anarchist. And this is no big deal.

[19] [Translators note] That is, the combined Peoples Protection Units and Women’s Protection Units.

[20] Incidentally, we think that if such an organisation made its appearance tomorrow in France, with the same program, we would be (you and ourselves) amongst the first to denounce its danger — and to suffer its repression.

[21] And what about the deserters, those dodging military service in Rojava? In fact we find some of them amongst the migrants who today are seeking refuge in Europe. It is unlikely that they will demand support from those who help the army that they have fled! A place of Syrian opposition, equally opposed to the PYD, signalling in autumn of 2015 the first protest against conscription in a city of Rojava.

[22] [Translator’s note] The ‘Asayish’ are the police force of Rojava.

Posted in Critique, Translation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Smashing the fash with ideas

Mick Armstrong demonstrates, despite himself, that ideas and rational argument are central to the creation of a mass movement against creeping fascism and capitalism. However his argument tends to err on the side of a false dilemma: either rational argument or building a mass movement. In doing so Armstrong unwittingly catches himself in an unfruitful, non-dialectical paradox: he resorts to a rational argument in order to assert the non-efficacy of rational argument. He leaves it up to the rest of us to point out his error and show how we must construct a thinking opposition to the irrationalism and unreasonable activity of racism and capitalism.

fig. 1

fig. 1

Smashing the fash with ideas:

Or, Hanson cannot be defeated by rational argument alone

Mick Armstrong has recently written an article called ‘Hanson cannot be defeated by rational argument’. It would have been better to say: ‘Hanson cannot be defeated by rational argument alone’.  Just as rational argument alone won’t defeat fascism, neither will it be defeated without rational argument.

Implicit in Armstrong’s article is a rational argument against the emptiness of much of what passes for reasoned argument in the mass media spectacle; and against the false ideas and solutions of fascism and nationalism and racism. However he presents the role of rational argument in a confused and often one-sided fashion. For instance, when right wingers like Pauline Hanson, Andrew Bolt and Sonia Kruger put forward racist ideas on television and the internet there is little reasoning or rational argumentation in the presentation of their opinions. Certainly sometimes they ape rationality and even try and convince us that their views are justified and rational.  More usually they are selective in their evidence base and often disregard the existing wealth of scientific knowledge against the false concepts of race and racism. In a word, they are irrational.

Nonetheless we need to rationally demonstrate their irrationality. We need to spell this out and argumentatively demonstrate the falsehoods in their claims. Such practical, rational argument is not opposed to mobilising a mass movement against fascism and capitalism. Indeed it a necessary part of such a movement.

Today, the more “clever” modern racists re-cast their racism as a sort of ‘culturalism’ shorn of some of the more egregious falsehoods of the old race theory promulgated by Hitler and others. But in order to make the claim that such culturalism is no improvement, we need to establish the irrationality of race theory and racism, argumentatively outline its long and intimate connection with capitalist societies, and critically demonstrate that the “new” racism is a variant of the “old”. That is we need to show culture provides no firmer grounds for bigotry than skin colour, genes, cranial measurement or comparison of facial structures, and that those who pretend it does have other, exploitative and divisive agendas. We do this with recourse to building a movement that will not only rationally oppose modern racism but also turn to a unified communist project of rationally understanding the world and transforming it.

At worst Armstrong’s argument tends to reinforce the one-sided, mechanical materialism common to “classical” Social-Democrats and Marxist-Leninists. Such materialism, trading under the name “dialectical”, imagines that ideas are secondary and subordinate to material reality. In truth ideas are a part of material reality, a real product and premise of the social intellect of human societies. For Marx the question of the centrality of materialism was never about the fictional “priority” of matter over ideas, but rather the real objectivity of human practices. Human practice is really objectified in ideas and other things. When we understand either ideas or things as exhausting the nature of material reality, we mistake for all of material reality a part of material reality.

In his early work Marx spoke of the ‘sensuous’ nature of human practices, and considered consciousness an indistinguishable part of such sensuous practise. He posed his materialism ‘in contradistinction to [previous] materialism’ which preferred the object to the subject.

The chief defect of all previous materialism (that of Feuerbach included) is that things, reality, sensuousness are conceived only in the form of the object, or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively.[1]

Marx was not, however, opposed to objective activity or reality. Rather he argued that objects posed or perceived by humans — even the human object itself — were inextricably bound up with subjective practices. According to Marx the human subject was bound up in the use and transformation of the objects of nature — both human and non-human nature. Thus objects like ‘religion’, ‘society’, ‘class’ and ‘racism’ could not be understood separate from the practices in which they were bound, resulted from and implied.  In a way such objects simply are these activities, like much religious activity, the objectified results and premise of further, potentially transformative activity. Religion is doubly relevant as a target since without ground religions claim to access the truth of human life outside of human activity. By abstracting from human activity religions are severely impoverished as explanations of society and the world.

In opposition to the earlier forms of mechanical materialism Marx noted that it was idealist philosophers who developed the ‘active side’— the subjective side of criticism. For instance the various subjective philosophies of Kant, the post-Kantians and Hegel in particular. In the case of Hegel he recognised ‘man’ as both the subject and object of a historical process, even if he imagined this historical process in an ‘inverted’ fashion, positing as first and final cause a supernatural spirit in place of  both exploited and free human agents. Rather than being motivated by a disembodied spirit Marx believed that history was the product of human practice, albeit largely mystified and alienated up until and including capitalist societies.

fig. 2

fig. 2

Marx described ‘human activity itself as objective activity.’[2] In the social bond as much as the individual roles and agency of human societies past and present, human subjectivity itself became a manifest object of practice. That is to say humans posed themselves and each other as transformed and transformative objective powers. The real problem then, for Marx, is the nature of this objectification and whether or not humans are alienated in the process of their objectification.

Humans are alienated from their own powers only to the extent that they pose their own powers mystically and in opposition to themselves. The worlds’ religions are the classic examples. They have imagined the powers of human creativity as the work of gods and other spirits, even reducing the spark of thought into a different substance — sometimes above, sometimes below, always apart from reality. But this is an ideological vision of reality, itself a product of the contradictions of social reality and the subordination of thought to the ruling ideas of the epoch.

Marx dismissed the problem of whether or not ‘objective truth can be attributed to human thinking’ as a merely ‘scholastic problem’ in isolation from practice.[3] Instead of pondering its existence separate from our understanding and transformation of everyday life, men and women ‘must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of [their] thinking in practice’.[4] The question of consciousness then becomes this: to what extent do people become aware of the alienated objectifications of capitalist society and transform them?

The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.[5]

Importantly for our age of extreme environmental damage, it is not hard to understand how Marx also avoids posing ‘truth’ as simply a description of action within human society. The activity that allows society to continue perforce must be recognised as embedded in a larger cosmos. While human activity is a vanishingly small part of that cosmos, no activity can be understood without reference to it.

In The German Ideology Marx and Engels considered the division of mental and manual labour as a foundational division of labour in ancient class societies, a division more over that has been developed and “perfected” by capitalism. The development of religion and philosophy can be seen in relation to such a division; ideally projecting the hierarchy into a mystical heaven of the gods in the case of religion. But of course such ‘emancipation’ and ‘autonomy’ is mostly illusory; consciousness is always the ‘consciousness of existing practice’.[6]

Before returning to Armstrong it is important to note that in the case of capitalism, existing practices are contradictory in the sense we can discern and describe a universal tendency to a proper opposition. On the one hand there are those who believe in the further exploitation of human activity via divisions like bigotry, and mystified and mystifying explanations like religion. And on the other hand there are those people who seek a rational basis for the unity of human activity beyond the mutilating exclusivity of private property as communism does.

Scientific ideas, both rationally sought and experimentally verified, have revealed the nature of physical reality, and have helped to develop the needs and nature of the human species alongside the contradictions of our social and economic organisation. New potentialities and possibility slumber in the midst of capitalist alienation. Unfortunately such possibilities are denied and subordinated to irrational ideas such as religion, private property, profit and the capitalist state. Revolutionaries are not immune to irrationality, as Armstrong demonstrates. Consider the example of the undoubtedly revolutionary surrealists of the 1920s and 30s. Against their ultimate idolisation of the unconscious mind and cult of the irrational, Guy Debord argued we need to make reality more not less rational.

Armstrong demonstrates, despite himself, that ideas and rational argument are central to the creation of a mass movement against creeping fascism and capitalism. However his argument tends to err on the side of a false dilemma: either rational argument or building a mass movement. In doing so Armstrong unwittingly catches himself in an unfruitful, non-dialectical paradox: he resorts to a rational argument in order to assert the non-efficacy of rational argument. He leaves it up to the rest of us to point out his error and show how we must construct a thinking opposition to the irrationalism and unreasonable activity of racism and capitalism.

Anthony Hayes

For more on the importance of rational argument for revolutionaries see Gerald Keaney’s article Argument is Required.


[1] Karl Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach [1845],’ in Karl Marx & Frederich Engels Collected Works, Vol.5, New York: International Publishers, 1976.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Karl Marx & Frederich Engels, ‘The German Ideology [1845],’ in Karl Marx & Frederich Engels Collected Works, Vol.5 New York: International Publishers, 1976.

Posted in Critique | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Once more on Dada


“Can we deny that there was a project conceived, a society formed in order to support materialism, to destroy religion, and to inspire independence and nurture the corruption of morals?”

100 years ago the word “Dada” was coined to name the riot of destructive possibility unfurling at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. The “discovery” of the term is disputed by interested parties (now dead). 

One of the participants in the Parisian Dada group, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, wrote that Dada’s “general tendency” was “destructive, but with a view to a superior reality”. In his History of Dada (1931) he also noted that Dada’s anti-art quickly ran up against the impasse of mere scandal: “the crowd is willing to accept anything in an art which is translated into works. But it does not tolerate attacks on reasons for living.” Ribemont-Dessaignes detected that the initial,  largely “spontaneous” Dada demonstration in Paris, in March 1920 had already begun to give way by May to something that smacked of art, which involved too much deliberation and “effort”. By his reckoning the Dadaists were faced with the dilemma of either crystallizing a “Dadaist art, a Dadaist form of expression”, or the “tragic fate” of self-destruction. Ribemont-Dessaignes saw the latter as the “natural” choice of Dada, pushing its own destructive tendency in the correct direction: “the better to negate, it would have to negate Dada; the better to destroy, it would have to destroy itself”. 

Despite Dada coming to an organised end in the early 1920s many ex-Dadaists, and indeed the Dada “tendency” Ribemont-Dessaignes identified, played an important role in the avant-garde art and anti-art which followed it – particularly among the Surrealist and para-Surrealist groups of the 1920s and 30s.

Interestingly Ribemont-Dessaignes identified another possible path for the Dada group. However he quickly dismissed this as inimitable to Dada’s nihilist heart: “To risk similar experiments [in what R-D called the “revolution of the mind”] Dada would have had to risk turning to propaganda and consequently becoming codified”. Ribemont-Dessaignes saw this as precisely the path of perilous repetition, “cheapening its merchandise” and leading straight to the dilemma of art or self-destruction. No doubt he was largely right, but later many of those who became Situationists believed that there was another way out. 

At this point in my account I am going to hand over to Mustapha Khayati. In the following excerpt from his article Les mots captif (Captive Words) from Internationale Situationniste no. 10 (March 1966), Khayati argued that the horns of Ribemont-Dessaignes’ dilemma is largely dissipated so long as we consider “the theoretical critique of the world of Power” (equivalent to R-D’s “revolution of the mind”) as being “inseparable from a practice which destroys it”. Indeed Ribemont-Dessaignes’ dilemma contiues to threaten us today so long as we do not accept that the “practice which destroys” the capitalist world is the only way out of art or its mere nihilistic rejection. Khayati ably demonstrates this by briefly criticising and rejecting the various artistic forms of recuperated Dada  which existed in the 1960s.

Khayati’s account was published in March 1966, 50 years after Dada. And here we are, another 50 years on. Happy anti-anniversary!

Originally from

Les mots captifs (Préface à un dictionnaire situationniste)

(Kenn Knabb’s complete translation available here)


The insubordination of words during the experimental phase from Arthur Rimbaud to the Surrealists, revealed that the theoretical critique of the world of Power is inseparable from a practice which destroys it.[1] The recuperation of Modern Art by Power, and it transformation into oppressive categories of the reigning commodity-spectacle, is a sad confirmation of this. “What does not kill Power, is killed by it.”[2]

The Dadaists were the first to signify that their defiance of words was inseparable from their desire to “change life”.[3] After the Marquis de Sade they affirmed the right to say everything, to emancipate words and “replace the alchemy of words with a real chemistry” (André Breton).[4] The innocence of words is from now on consciously denounced, and language is confirmed as the “worst of conventions” — to be destroyed, demystified and liberated.[5]  The contemporaries of Dada did not fail to underline its desire to destroy everything, and the danger it represented to dominant opinions (André Gide was worried that it was a “demolition job”).[6] With Dada it became an absurdity to believe that a word is forever shackled to an idea. Dada realised all the possibilities of what to say, and closed forever the door on art as a specialised practice. It definitively posed the question of the realisation of art. Surrealism was valuable only as the continuation of this demand — in its literary works it was reactionary. Because the realisation of art (which is to say poetry, in the Situationist sense of the term) signifies that one cannot realise oneself in a “work”, but on the contrary one realises oneself — full stop. De Sade’s inauguration of “saying everything” implied already the abolition of the separated domain of literature (in which only what is literary can be spoken of). This abolition — consciously affirmed by the Dadaists after Rimbaud and Lautréamont — is not alone transcendence. There is no transcendence without realisation, and we cannot transcend art without realising it. Practically there has not even been its abolition, since after Marcel Duchamp, Dada and James Joyce, a new “spectacular” literature continues to proliferate. This is because “saying everything” cannot really exist without the freedom to do everything. Dada had a chance of realisation with the Spartakusbund and the revolutionary practice of the German proletariat in 1919.[7] The failure of the German Revolution rendered Dada’s failure inevitable.[8] In the artistic schools which followed, Dada (including the majority of its original protagonists) became the literary expression of the emptiness of poetic practice, and the art of expressing the emptiness of freedom in everyday life. The ultimate expression of “saying everything” deprived of the capacity to act upon it is a blank page…

Modern poetry (Experimental, Computational, Concrete, Surrealist or neo-Dada) is the contrary of real poetry, it is the artistic project recuperated by Power.[9] It abolishes poetry without realising it. It feeds off of its continual destruction. “What’s the good in saving language,” Max Bense miserably admits, “when there is no longer anything to say?” — the confession of a specialist![10] Repetition or silence is the only alternative for the specialist of computation. Modern thought and art, protected by Power and guaranteeing it in turn, moves within what Hegel called “the language of flattery”.[11] They contribute to the eulogy of Power and its products, perfecting reification and banalisation. By affirming that “reality consists of language” or language “can only be considered in-itself and for-itself”, the specialists of language end up posing “language-objects” and “word-things”, and so delight in praising their own reification.[12] The thing has become the dominant model, and the commodity — yet again — has found its poets. The theories of the State, of the economy, of law, of philosophy, and of art — all now can be characterised as precautionary measures and apology.



[1] The Situationist International used the term ‘power’ (‘pouvoir’) in two ways. First they used it in the common fashion of the verb ‘pouvoir’, ‘to be able to’ or ‘to be capable of’. Thus they characterized both the capacity of the agents of capital (primarily owners and managers) to impose the conditions of commodity production and consumption, as well as the ability to refuse such, i.e. the capacity for revolutionary contestation. Such a conception of ‘power’ or ‘powers’ is also clearly related to Marx’s conception of human ‘powers’ and their alienation under conditions of commodity production. Secondly, and most distinctly, the SI used it as a noun — ‘le pouvoir’. It is in the latter sense that they used the term often to characterize the human agency associated with the defence and implementation of capitalist social relations; thus they would speak of the ‘hierarchical power’ of capitalist society. In this sense ‘power’ (‘le pouvoir’) is used as a synonym for the reified practitioners and process of capitalist rule, and the diffuse nature of its operations, i.e. proletarians take part in its propagation. Mustapha Khayati wrote of bureaucratic power that the ‘noun governs; each time it appears the other words automatically fall in around it in the correct order.’ This is contrasted with the capacity to resist or transform (‘pouvoir’) such power, which is often called ‘poetry’ in the ‘Situationist sense’ of the term. For more on the SI and ‘power’ see Debord’s and Vaneigem’s All the King’s Horses and Basic Banalities (II).

[2] The quote is from Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life (PM Press, 2012, p. 165). In 1966 Vaneigem’s manuscript was finished but not yet published. Nonetheless it was read by members of the SI. His phrase is almost certainly a détournement from Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols. In French Khayati quotes Vaneigem thus: “ce qui ne tue pas le pouvoir, le pouvoir le tue” (literally “what does not kill the power, the power kills it”), which is reminiscent of the phrase “Ce qui ne me tue pas me fortifie” (“What does not kill me, fortifies me”) to be found in the French translation of Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols (Le crépuscule des idoles translated by Patrick Wotling). Walter Kaufmann translates into English this well-known Nietzcshean phrase “What does not destroy me, makes me stronger” (Portable Nietzsche, p. 467). Thus Vaneigem pulls off an inversion the equal of any of Ducasse’s or Debord’s.

[3] From, Jean Arthur Rimbaud, A Season in Hell, ‘First Delirium: The crazy virgin, the infernal bridegroom’: “I realised — without being afraid for him — that he could be a serious danger to society. Perhaps he has secrets to change life.”

[4] André Breton, in the English translation of the Second Surrealist Manifesto (1930), says “Alchemy of the word: this expression which we go around repeating more or less at random today demands to be taken literally.” Cf. Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, translated from the French by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, Ann Arbor Paperbacks, p. 173.

[5] In French “la pire des conventions” (“the worst of conventions”), from a French translation of Sophocles, Antigone (ln. 295). In Antigone, Creon speaks of money — silver — being the worst of current customs. “Silver is the worst currency that ever grew among mankind.” What is most interesting is the way Khayati speaks of language as if it is money — or becomes money under the reign of the commodity-spectacle. The Situationist wager is that language is reduced to being an “abstract equivalent” under the rule of the commodity-spectacle. Dada was recuperated to the extent that it remained only a revolution in language or a revolution in the commodifiable signs of culture. Of course in 1966 Khayati was in advance of Jean Baudrillard and his reformist project of recuperating Situationist critique into a “political economy of the sign”.

[6] André Gide wrote a largely positive article on Dada in La Nouvelle Revue Française in 1919.

[7] The Spartakusbund (Spartacus League) was set up by Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin and others during the First World War. It emerged from the opposition currents within the German Social Democratic Party against the party’s support for the German war effort from 1914. The Spartakusbund upheld the revolutionary demands of Marx and Engels, in particular the centrality of proletarian “self-emancipation” as the agency which could end wars and the capitalist system, against the Marxist patriots.

[8] Between 1918 and 1921 proletarian revolution stalked Germany. In November 1918 the First World War came to an end thanks, in part, to the refusal of large sections of proletarian soldiers and sailors to continue fighting. This strike against the war spread, leading to the establishment of workers councils throughout Germany.

[9] In France in the 1960s “Computational poetry” and “Concrete poetry” were known respectively under the titles “Poésie permutationnelle” and “Spatialisme”.  “Spatialisme” was coined by Pierre Garnier in 1962 and further elaborated in his Manifeste pour une poésie nouvelle, visuelle et phonique (1963). Garnier’s “innovation” was to put a fashionable, space-age spin on a type of poetry already thoroughly mined out by Futurists, Dadaists and Letterists before him. From his manifesto: “Once we lived safely beneath our stratum of air. Now we are waves spouting in the cosmos. How can we expect our words to remain wrapped up in the atmosphere of the sentence?  Let them be reunited, like ourselves, to cosmic space — word constellations on the white page” (from here). Computational poetry, on the other hand, was chiefly the province of the Oulipo (short for ‘Ouvroir de littérature potentielle’ – Worksop for Potential Literature) founded in France in 1960. The foundational work of Oulipo was Raymond Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes (One hundred million million poems) published in 1961. Queneau’s ‘One hundred million million poems’ were ostensibly made up of ten sonnets. However, on the basis of making each line of each sonnet interchangeable with every other line, one hundred million million poems could potentially be computed. It has been said that it would take two hundred million years to read every potential permutation, even if reading 24 hours a day. Of course why would you? A labourious task fit only for an angel or a mechanical beast.

[10] Amongst other things Max Bense was a theorist of Concrete Poetry, and an advocate and practitioner of the structural analysis of language by way of semiotic theories and computer analysis. Asger Jorn derisively considered him a mere ‘filing cabinet’ of values, and a ‘gadget of the Household Arts of the mind’. See Jorn, ‘La création ouverte et ses ennemis’ in Internationale Situationniste no. 5. The German Spur group of artists, some months before they joined the SI, amusing scandalised Bense and the German arts community when they staged a fake Bense lecture delivered by tape recorder in Munich in January 1959. See Lauren A. Graber, ‘Gruppe Spur and Gruppe Geflecht: Art and dissent in West Germany, 1957 – 1968’.

[11] Hegel contrasted the “noble consciousness” positively disposed to power and wealth with the “base consciousness” of those who rebelled against rulers and wealth. In his schema a “noble consciousness” reconciled itself with Monarchical power via the “language of flattery”. See Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit.

[12] Khayati’s reference to the “specialists of language” here is relatively wide. He takes in the various “structuralist” theorists of language popular in France in the 1960s, from “Concrete” poets like Eugen Gomringer, who argued that a poem could be “a reality in itself”, all the way through to the strange Stalinist-Maoist-proto-poststructuralist amalgam over at the Tel Quel journal who believed in “nothing outside the text” amongst other things…

First published in Internationale Situationniste no. 10,  March 1966, pp. 50-55. Translated from the French by Anthony Hayes, April 2016. 

Posted in Critique, I.S. no. 10, Situationist International | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Marxisms: Ideologies and Revolution (Mustapha Khayati)

The Freudo Marxian distortion (a new dance move)

The Freudo Marxian distortion (a new dance move)

Note: a PDF of this document can be found here.

Note: Translation updated August 2016



Mustapha Khayati, then member of the Situationist International, wrote the booklet Les Marxismes : Idéologies et révolution for the Encyclopédie du monde actuel published in January 1970. It is my belief that Khayati’s concise presentation of Marx’s revolutionary criticism and the various mutant brands of Marxism is an excellent companion to Debord’s ‘The Proletariat as Subject and as Representation’ in his book, The Society of the Spectacle. It is certainly an antidote to the various ‘orthodox’ readings of Marx.

According to another ex-Situationist, Donald Nicholson-Smith,

The participation of the “situationist group” in the Encyclopédie du monde actuel [EDMA] wasn’t official. There were a few small-paying jobs to which some members of the SI devoted themselves. The work consisted in drafting “EDMA cards” and, eventually, monthly booklets. (Each perforated card included a 500- word-long text; each booklet contained around 30 illustrated pages.) At the start, in 1966, it was my wife, Cathy Pozzo di Borgo, and I who began to produce, on a freelance basis, this type of card under the direction of André Fougerousse – Cathy’s stepfather – for publication by Editions Rencontre in Lausanne. Along with Charles-Henri Favrod, Fougerousse had been (in 1962) one of the founders of this editorial project. […] [M]any of the booklets were written by situationists or ex-situs – even after the dissolution of the movement in 1972. Guy Debord drafted Le Surréalisme in September 1968. La Poésie française de 1945 à nos jours is attributed to Raoul Vaneigem.[1]

There were other articles written by situs for the Encyclopédie du monde actuel, including ‘La Peinture moderne, published in November 1968; Les Marxismes, published in January 1970; L’Affiche, in September 1974; [and] Le Golfe Persique, in October 1974’ (the latter being by Khayati as well).[2]

As far as I know Khayati’s Les Marxismes has not been translated into English before. In my translation I have adjusted many of the quotes from Marx and other Marxists to coincide with currently available English translations (for instance those available in the Marx Engels Collected Works and the Penguin Marx collection).

Note that in the original text there are two important letters of Marx’s facing Khayati’s text. The first letter faces a section in the first part, ‘Labour, “essence” of man’. It is Marx’s letter to Vera Zasulich, 8 March 1881 (two years before he died) in which Marx clearly states that his account of the ‘genesis of capitalist production’ is not a general theory of ‘historical inevitability’ (as many orthodox Marxists would have it) but rather a ‘process [that] is expressly limited to the countries of Western Europe.’ Thus Marx continued on to say that the Russian peasant commune, the mir, and its form of communal property was in fact the ‘fulcrum’ of the development of a communist revolution in Russia, rather than an impediment. In writing this Marx put himself against every current of Marxism that developed in the following 40 years.

The second letter appears between the end of the section on Marx and the second section on the ‘Ideologies of the Second International’. Indeed it is a sort of warning to the future from Marx. The letter is to Maurice Lachatre, 18 March 1872 (one year after the Paris Commune). In the letter Marx applauds the idea of dividing Capital into ‘periodic instalments […] more accessible to the working class’. However Marx also notes that his ‘method of analysis’ (the infamous dialectical, ‘materialist conception of history’) ‘makes for somewhat arduous reading in the early chapters’. He continues,

it is to be feared that the French public, ever impatient to arrive at conclusions and eager to know how the general principles relate to the immediate questions that excite them, may become discouraged because they will not have been able to carry straight on. That is a disadvantage about which I can do nothing other than constantly caution and forewarn those readers concerned with the truth. There is no royal road to learning and the only people with any chance of scaling its sunlit peaks are those who have no fear of weariness when ascending the precipitous paths that lead up to them.

Khayati’s  Les Marxismes should not be read as either an alternative to reading Marx or a substitute for the development of a radical criticism today. Rather it is a contribution to the criticism of Marx, in particular his continued relevance (and thus need to be read and used), and the troubling development of the Marxisms that have done so much to both advance and obscure the revolutionary project of surpassing capitalism. 

All of the footnotes are mine.

Thanks to Pete Dunn for proofing the article, and Mehdi for providing a pdf of the original French article.  

Anthony Hayes
Canberra, April 2016

[1] Donald Nicholson-Smith, ‘On the Encyclopédie du monde actuel. Remarks collected by Gérard Berréby’, translated by NOT BORED!, 2014

[2] Ibid.

Marxisms: Ideologies and Revolution

by Mustapha Khayati

(First published in Cahiers de l’encyclopédie du monde actuel, Numéro 51, Janvier 1970)

For more than a century after the publication of Capital Karl Marx has taken his place among the great classical authors. Marxism has acquired a rightful place in all the areas of thought, and rare are its adversaries who do not admit to agreeing with some of it. Is this success due to its ambiguities? Can Marxism triumph as the revolution fails? What are the relations established in recent history between Marxism and Karl Marx? And how do we organise the various Marxisms in relation to each other?

I. The founders and their theory

History of the concept

1. Karl Marx once assured us that “I am not a Marxist.”[1] To continue with the paradox of this epigraph, some maintain that “Marxism” and the thought of Karl Marx are far from coinciding. Employed by the political enemies of Marx in the International Workingmen’s Association [IWA, aka The First International], the epithet “Marxist” designated the partisans of “authoritarian” methods at the heart of the worker’s movement, in opposition to the “anti-authoritarian” anarchist adepts of Bakunin. The term first appeared in book form in 1882 when Paul Brousse[2] published his pamphlet entitled Le Marxisme dans l’Internationale [Marxism in the International].[3]

2. Brousse, like the majority of his Bakuninist companions, did not question Marx’s thought, but rather denounced him as the “party leader” at the head of a coterie of “agents” and “tacticians” in the IWA: “Marxism does not consist in being a partisan of the ideas of Marx. For instance many of his current opponents, and especially the author of these lines, would in this regard be Marxists… Marxism consists above all in a system which tends not to spread Marxist doctrine, but to impose it in all of its details.”

3. The friend and theoretician closest to Marx, Friedrich Engels, tried to make this pejorative reference into a weapon and a prestigious appellation — reluctantly, it is true. But for him as for all the disciples of Karl Marx at this time an unshakeable conviction was established. The anarchists “will bite their fingers for giving us this name,” declared Engels. From that moment Marxism was born.

The thought of Marx

1. Beyond the apparent diversity — which continues to feed the multitude of discoveries by different specialists — the profound unity of the theory developed by Karl Marx consists in its critical and revolutionary spirit. The radical critique of all that exists, the total critique “which has no fear of its own results”, is the constant and fundamental core of the work of Marx.[4] All attempts at subdividing this work into separate domains thus appear doomed in advance to failure (“Marx the philosopher”, “Marx the sociologist”, “Marx the economist” or “Political Marx”, etc.) because it is contrary to the very spirit of its author.

2. For Marx the “criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism”.[5] The suppression of religion became an essential requirement in order to attain the real world. It is man who makes religion and not the contrary. Man “is the world of man”, which is to say society and the State produce religion, “the inverted consciousness of the world” because they are themselves “an inverted world”.[6] Once the “opium of the people” [is] denounced and revealed in its true dimensions, “the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics”[7]

3. In order to realise the real criticism of religion, we must act practically to abolish the social conditions in which man is “a debased, enslaved, forsaken, despicable being”.[8] Once achieved the theoretical critique of religious alienation, i.e. the philosophy which has only interpreted the world (outlined by Hegel and formulated by Feuerbach) must from now on be “transcended” and “realised” at one and the same time, in the conscious transformation of all that exists — in short becoming the conscious “praxis” of its goal. The conscious agent responsible for this task is the oppressed class, those in which are concentrated all the alienations of this world, and whose abolition will set in train those of all the other classes.

4. In accomplishing the “critique of philosophy”, the critique of religion discovered that all spheres of human activity, material and spiritual, are in truth the diseased background [l’arrière-fond malade] of these morbid representations from the religious sphere. In this regard On the Jewish Question revealed a profound analogy between religious alienation and political alienation in bourgeois society and its formal democratic regime.[9] The citizen is a “profane form”, an estranged being, “different from the real man”.[10] The real truth of man is not “the mind” [or “spirit”] of the philosophers (those “abstract form of estranged man”), more so not even his religious essence, but fundamentally and above all labour and production.[11]

Labour, “essence” of man

1. “Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence,” said Marx in The German Ideology.[12] Labour is not a partial and separated economic activity, but literally the essence of man. All authentically human activity “hitherto has been labour — that is, industry” (The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844).[13] Thus all the history of man is nothing other than the process of his activity, conceived as an incessant struggle against nature, and repeated attempts to dominate his own nature. “We see how the history of industry and the established objective existence of industry are the open book of man’s essential powers, the perceptibly existing human psychology.” (ibid.) [14]

2. Is this what is sometimes called “economism”, or on the contrary a new conception of man and history — of man and nature?[15] Marx, in any case, defined a “new materialism” which was beyond the philosophical “old materialism” whose last representative was Feuerbach. Materialism can only be “historical”, by considering the sensible world as the product of “the total living sensuous activity of the individuals composing it.”[16]

3. From this moment is cast the theoretical bases of a real critique of the existing world, and the critique of the “ideological heaven” is transformed into the critique of the capitalist “earth” — i.e. of religion, philosophy, law, the political State, etc. If labour is the essence of man then private property, the foundation of bourgeois capitalism, condemns the producer to an existence contrary to his essence, since the worker is obliged to “make his life activity, his essential being, a mere means to his existence.”[17] All of capitalist “alienation” is found summarised in this formula. The critique of wage-labour, which is to say proletarian existence, is made therefore in the light of the revolutionary project of the realisation of the “total man” — alienation and its end [désaliénation] follow one and the same path.

4. This end of alienation [désaliénation] is nothing other than the object of the “communist project”. Communism, according to Marx, is the end of human prehistory and the beginning of man’s control of history. It brings to an end the conflict between man and nature, between man and man. It is “the positive transcendence of all estrangement — that is to say, the return of man from religion, family, state, etc., to his human, i.e., social,existence.”[18] Thus understood communism is the true solution of all antagonisms: “is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution.”[19]

Necessity of revolution

1. The masterwork of Marx, Capital, is not so much an economic treatise but “a critique of political economy”, as is indicated by the very subtitle of the work.[20] Despite references to scientific rigour, Marx did not seek to fashion an economic work, nor more so even to enrich economic science. The theory expounded in Capital aimed above all to dismantle the foundations of political economy, the bourgeois “science” par excellence. The critique of the commodity, of the commodity-form of production, is its core. And “fetishism” is the concept which summarises this critique.

2. Proletarian revolution becomes a necessity inherent in the very being of the proletariat. Thus it “is revolutionary or it is nothing.”[21] Its internationalism is not an “ideological” option but results from the very force of circumstance. The bourgeoisie and its commodity system have unified the world, and so the struggle against these can only be carried out globally. The last class revolution, the socialist revolution has for its aim the definitive abolition of classes and the establishment of a society in which nothing can anymore exist “independently of individuals.”[22] The abolition of the State is an indispensable condition of this. Given that “the emancipation of the working classes must be
conquered by the working classes themselves”, the liberation of the class can only be carried out collectively, without any representation (i.e. the bourgeois principle).[23] This “dictatorship of the proletariat” will abolish simultaneously private property, the hierarchical principle, classes and the State, the commodity and wage-labour.[24]

3. Such was the fundamental nub of Marx’s theory when it appeared. For more than a century it has rarely been accepted, in its totality, by all its disciples. Already when he was alive, against the deformation of his thought, Marx wrote in protest, “I am not a Marxist.” On one hand Marxism would become not only an ideology (in Marx’s sense of the term) but a justification for the politics of the reformist and Stalinist workers parties. On the other hand it never ceased to inspire, outside of political machines and workers struggles, a “critical and revolutionary” reflection faithful to its origins if not its aims.

4. The process of the “ideologisation” of the thought of Marx had commenced with Engels, his most faithful companion, toward the end of his life. The accord established between him and the leaders of the most powerful workers’ party of the time, German Social Democracy, helped to school and became the justification of numerous political compromises. By admitting parliamentarism as a possible means of reaching socialism, Engels — in what is known as his testament — seemed to approve the reformist politics of the leaders of the workers’ movement.[25] Though formerly he had insisted on the “scientific” character of socialism, he had opened the way for all the ideologues of the Second International (essentially Kautskyism) — in a word to Marxist ideology.

II. The ideologies of the Second International

Kautskyism — or, “orthodoxy”

1. In 1883, the very year of the death of Marx, Karl Kautsky (born 1855), founded a theoretical journal Die Neu Ziet [The New World] which, over the years, would be the international tribune of Marxist socialism. Becoming institutionalised, Marxism from now on is known as a “science”. Its “revolutionary spirit” declines to the profit of “rigour” and “objectivity”. It is no longer the “theory of the real movement”, the critical analysis of “all that unfolds before our eyes”, but the “science” that the workers’ movement must rigorously understand and apply to achieve its goal. The socialism baptised scientific is one thing and the workers’ movement is another; their coincidence will be the work of specialists of Social Democracy.

2. For Kautsky Marxism is less a revolutionary theory expressing the development of the proletarian struggle than a scientific method applied to all the domains of human activity. From which two directions of research or rather application: practically in the political world, [with] the workers’ party in the heart of bourgeois society; theoretically by filling in all the lacunae that the works of Marx and Engels were unable to tackle.

3. From 1891 the German Social Democratic Party adopted a Marxist program at the Erfurt Congress, essentially due to Kautsky.[26] But to the extent that it officially became Marxist the workers’ movement appeared to move away more and more from the revolutionary path to adopt a reformism at once syndicalist and parliamentary. The fidelity proclaimed to Marx did not exclude a practice often opposed to the thought of Marx. Kautskyism is the ideology of the management of the German workers’ party, the first ideology of the “workers’ bureaucracy”.

4. In the countries where this bureaucracy had yet to form and where the workers’ movement was still organically weak, “orthodoxy” remained much more faithful to the revolutionary intention of Marx. In Russia, Plekhanov (nicknamed the father of Russian Marxism) led the struggle against populism and taught a whole generation of young revolutionaries in his country. He founded the first Russian Social Democratic Party. In Italy it was above all Antonio Labriola who would introduce a Marxism cleared of all ideological traces (economism and scientism).

Bernstein — or, “revisionism”

1. Student of Engels (and also the beneficiary of his will), Edouard Bernstein was at the same time the teacher of Kautsky. Co-author of the socialist program of Erfurt, he had also written numerous historical works (notably on the origin of Christianity and the English Revolution). But the work which would be his most celebrated — either cursed or heaped with praises — was a collection of articles written between 1896 and 1899, and collected under the title Theoretical Socialism and Practical Social Democracy [aka Evolutionary Socialism], a work which would make him the leader of the “revisionist” school.

2. Bernstein had the ambition — the first — of drawing out the ultimate consequences of the practical and theoretical lessons of the experience of German Social Democracy. Basing his analysis on the English example and on the real situation of the German party, he set out to make a broad “revision” of Marxist thought in the light of the latest developments of capitalism. Denouncing the flagrant contradictions between the revolutionary ideology of his party and its resolutely reformist practice, Bernstein called on his comrades to have the courage “to emancipate itself from a phraseology which is actually outworn and if it would make up its mind to appear what it is in reality to-day: a democratic, socialistic party of reform.”[27]

3. Claiming the “testament” of Engels, Bernstein and later his German and Russian disciples, called into question the Marxist theory of value, the concentration of capital, surplus-value and pauperisation. On the political level they contested the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat and found that it was marred by “Blanquism.”

4. Despite the outcry against “Bernsteinian revisionism” throughout all of the Social-Democratic International, the workers’ parties did not however cease their reformist practice; on the contrary it became more and more likely. The “revolutionary orthodoxy” was reduced there to a mechanical repetition of formulas without content.

Sorel — or, revolutionary syndicalism

1. Many historians feel that the true introduction of Marxism into France was not made by either Paul Lafargue or Jules Guesde, founders of the first Marxist workers’ party (the POF in 1879[28]) and authors of some books of socialist propaganda and the vulgarisation of “historical materialism”, nor even by Gabriel Deville, author of a very clear and faithful summary of the first volume of Capital (so said Engels). The thought of Marx was known and utilised in France across two revues of short duration: L’Ere nouvelle [The New Era] (1893-94) and Le Devenir social ([The Future Society] (1895-98). A young philosopher was one of the principle animaters of these journals — Georges Sorel.

2. On the basis of a total rejection of the reformist politics of the social-democratic parties Sorel proposed to restore the fundamental idea of Marxism: the class struggle. Locked into parliamentarism and the illusion of one day conquering the State, he felt that the socialists had given up on the proletarian revolutionary path. Consequently parliamentarism was not only “utopian” but downright counter-revolutionary. [Thus] The heir of the Marxist politics of the class struggle can only be “revolutionary syndicalism”.

3. According to Georges Sorel the proletariat can in no way emancipate itself by constituting itself “on the model of the old social classes, by putting themselves in the school of the bourgeoisie.” If, as Marx had put it, the proletarians can only seize the productive forces by abolishing “the current mode of appropriation”, “how can we accept that they can preserve the quintessence of the bourgeois mode of appropriation, which is to say the forms of traditional governance?” The sole organised and developed forces, capable of preventing “the return of the past” are the unions. These purely working class organisations — that must “remain exclusively working class” — must wrest from the municipality and the State, one for one, all their attributes, in order to enrich the proletarian organisations in the process of formation.” The unions are already the kernel of the future socialist society in the heart of capitalist society.

4. “To summarise my thought in a formula, I say that the entire future of socialism resides in the autonomous development of the workers’ unions. “ Such is the leitmotif that we find throughout the work of Georges Sorel, from the Avenir socialiste des Syndicats [Socialist Future of the Unions], through to the Décomposition du Marxisme [Decomposition of Marxism] and Réflexions sur la Violence [Reflections on Violence].

German Revolutionary Marxism

1. Already, toward the end of the 19th century, a left current was developing within social-democracy. However its first theoretical statement was made in response to Bernstein. In 1899 Rosa Luxembourg published Reform or Revolution in which she advocated the violent fall of the capitalist system and refuted the “theory of the adaptation of capitalism”. For her it was solely the class struggle, together with the development of the internal contradictions of the system, which could lead to the “general crisis” and facilitate thus the “passage to socialism” by means of a revolution. Summarising her theory she took up Bernstein’s famous phrase and reversed it: “The movement is nothing, the end everything.”[29]

2. It is the “Luxembourgist” current which, on the day after the night of the 4th of August 1914 and after the adhesion of German Social Democracy to the war program of the Second Reich, raised the flag of “proletarian internationalism” and fought to rouse the working class. Rosa Luxembourg, Clara Zetkin, Karl Liebknecht and Franz Mehring created with some other German revolutionary groups the Spartakusbund [the Spartacus League] and called for the establishment of the power of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils, by proclaiming that proletarian revolution can only result from “the action of the great massive millions of the people, destined to fulfil a historic mission and to transform historical necessity into reality.”[30]

3. Faithful to her idea of the self-emancipation of workers, Rosa Luxembourg after having strongly criticised the “ultra-centralist” conception of the Leninist organisation saluted the Russian Revolution of 1917, but by submitting it to criticism (The Russian Revolution, 1918).[31] Some months later she would fall with Liebknecht , victim of the social democratic repression lead by Noske against the Spartakus insurgents in Berlin in January 1919. Despite this these tendencies in the heart of the German proletariat were not eliminated, and “German Revolutionary Marxism” would reappear in the 1920s.

Russian Revolutionary Marxism

1. In 1902 with his What is to be Done? Lenin opened an important debate in the heart of social-democracy, a debate which would conclude in the split of the RSDLP [Russian Social Democratic Labour Party] into two factions: the Bolsheviks (the majority) lead by Lenin, and the Mensheviks (the minority) lead by [Georgi] Plekhanov and [Julius] Martov. Although this split had taken place over the “question of organisation”, the two tendencies would diverge more and more over the very meaning of the revolution in Russia and the interpretation of Marxism. Their separation was definitive from the outbreak of the war of 1914.

2. Parallel to the left current in Germany a current developed in Russia hostile to reformism and compromise with the liberal bourgeoisie. Despite the hesitations of Lenin, Trotsky defended the theses of “permanent revolution”. For him, the workers alone could accomplish the revolutionary uprising in Russia. It would fall upon the proletariat to lead the movement against tsarist autocracy because the Russian bourgeoisie was too weak. “To imagine that the dictatorship of the proletariat is in some way automatically dependent on the technical development and resources of a country is a prejudice of ‘economic’ materialism simplified to absurdity. This point of view has nothing in common with Marxism” (Trotsky, Results and Prospects).[32]

3. Lenin only responded to these theses when, in April 1917 he proclaimed “All power to the Soviets.”[33] After calling for Marxist analyses on the key question of the State against what he called the opportunists deformation of the leaders of the Second International, the author of the State and Revolution abandoned his theory of the party and committed to the struggle for the conquest of power by the workers and peasants councils. But, from 1918, he returned to the primacy of the party over the class, and it fell to the opposition to defend the principle of workers’ autonomy (which would be at the centre of all the new currents of non-orthodox Marxism while Marxism-Leninism would blossom as the official ideology of Internationale Communism, now led by Stalin).

III. Marxism-Leninism

Before Stalinism

1. As the first proletarian revolution to triumph, the Russian Revolution produced an exceptional effect on the international workers’ movement. Saluted with enthusiasm by revolutionaries of the entire world, it became the example to follow for the entire proletariat, for which it constituted the “avant-garde”. From 1918 the Bolsheviks lived in anticipation of the revolution in the West; the signs of capitalist decomposition, entering into its final phase of “imperialist putrefaction”, were everywhere.

2. The Hungarian Soviet Revolution, led by Bela Kun (1918), found its best theoretician in the person of the young philosopher Georg Lukács (born 1885). Via a series of articles published between 1919 and 1923 Lukács became one of the principle representatives of revolutionary Marxism in the Third International. When in 1924 he published his work History and Class Consciousness, it had the effect of a bomb. Condemned by the new communist orthodoxy as revisionist, the author inaugurated his career as a “Marxist-Leninist” thinker — characterised by a series of auto-critiques — and disavowed his earlier work. The fundamental idea of this earlier work challenged on every point the mechanical materialism of Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Crticism (1908).

3. At the same time in North Italy the workers’ movement of occupations of the factories of Turin had as its principle theoretician Antonio Gramsci, founder of the Italian Communist Party. Passionate reader of Machiavelli, Gramsci discovered in the revolutionary party the “Prince” of modern times and in the workers’ councils the form adequate for realising proletarian power. The party is that by which the class accedes to the consciousness of its tasks, and Marxism rather than being a neutral science (to explain the economy and society) is rather the “philosophy of praxis” that must be realised. The revolutionary party can only speak the truth of the class, but this truth can only be practically affirmed in the councils, “where all become masters and disciples”.

4. For Gramsci, to prepare the working class to reach its historic goal effectively signified “organising the proletariat as the dominant class”.[34] The discovery of workers’ councils by the proletariat in revolution is the principle fact of revolutions of the 20th century. Worker councils are “the most suited organ […] which the proletariat has managed to develop from the living and fertile experience of the community of labour.”[35] It is the foundation of the “New Order”.[36]


1. The metamorphosis of the Russian Revolution and the development of the bureaucracy into a new ruling class transformed the revolutionary theory of Marx into an ideology which served to justify the political system installed in Russia. Orthodox and dogmatic Marxism-Leninism would have its priests and its faithful. [Andrei] Zhdanov, in the name of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, legislated for the entire international Communist movement in matters of doctrine — in art and in science and philosophy. “Diamat” (Dialectical materialism) and “social realism” constituted the “fabulous science” which reduced to nothing the “cosmopolitan and objectively bourgeois” discoveries (such as psychoanalysis, Einstein’s theory of relativity, impressionist painting, etc.).

2. Two French examples can illustrate this model of Marxist orthodoxy: Roger Garaudy and Louis Althusser. The first followed a political and ideological itinerary more or less faithful to the evolution of the PCF [Parti communiste français] while he had been one of the leading members between 1945 and 1969. The first philosophical work by which he distinguished himself was his doctoral thesis presented at the Sorbonne in 1953. The Théorie matérialiste de la connaissance [The Materialist theory of consciousness] was inscribed within a Zhdanovvist orthodoxy which defined Marxism as a “scientific” philosophy. Upholding an ideological dogmatism against the critical tendencies which developed after the death of Stalin, Garaudy only converted to liberalism several years later.[37] Author of Humanisme et Marxisme, Qu’est-ce que la morale marxiste? and Dieu est mort (an important work on Hegel),[38] he became the director of the “Centre for the Study and Research of Marxism” and the organiser of the “Weeks of Marxist Thought”.[39] In D’un réalisme sans ravage [For a realism without shores] he opened up to “bourgeois” art and defended Kafka, Saint John-Perse and Picasso. At the same time he engaged in a grand dialogue with Christians and participated in many debates with Catholic and protestant theologians searching for a convergence and entente. Champion of an “open and humanist socialism” Garuady rallied to the cause of the Dubcek experiment in Czechoslovakia and strongly condemned the Russian intervention which earned him the reprimand of his party.

3. Louis Althusser, without acceding to the party hierarchy, developed in relative independence a new interpretation of the work of Marx. Teacher at the Ecole normale supérieure where he gathered numerous disciples, he aligned himself with the great philosophical tradition of “scientific socialism”: “Marx – Engels – Lenin – Stalin – Mao Zedong”.[40] While remaining a member of the party Althusser was not afraid of proclaiming that “Stalin is one of the great philosophers of our time.” In his two works For Marx and Reading Capital (2 volumes), he proposed to found a “Marxist philosophy”, to complete the scientific theory of history discovered by the founders. In this project he borrowed from modern, generally structuralist philosophers (such as Claude Levi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan and even Gaston Bachelard) new concepts to the end of illustrating a new reading of Marx.

4. According to Althusser, all the work of the young Marx is not yet “Marxist”, and remains influenced by Hegel and Feuerbach — thus also the fundamental concept of “alienation”. The scientific and thus specifically “Marxist” work of Marx begins with Capital, which is to say after 1867. Denying all humanist aspects in the thought of Marx and insisting on its scientific character, Althusser undertook a return to an old orthodoxy, thoroughly loyal to Stalinism. His influence in the heart of the young student and left intellectual milieus, apparently earned him a certain tolerance from a section of the leadership of the PCF who fear the reinforcement of pro-Chinese currents within and without the party.[41]

Post-Stalinist revisionism

1. First the death of Stalin and then the “Khrushchev report” of the 20th Congress of Communist Party of the Soviet Union triggered an immense campaign of criticism across the entire international Communist movement. But it was above all the insurrection of Budapest which marked the era of the “thaw”. The intellectuals of the Eastern countries provide the best introduction to the fundamental themes of Marxist thought to traverse the vast critique which the “revisionists” of these countries authored during the course of the years 1956 and ’57. Through their critique of totalitarian Stalinism they prepared the weapons which armed the insurgents of Poland and Hungary against the bureaucratic dictatorship. According to this critique all the alienations analysed by Marx are detected in socialist society and denounced as such. The struggle for the total “dis-alienation” of humanity signifies the entry into a new historic phase.

2. The crushing of the Hungarian insurrection provoked a profound crisis of consciousness among European communist intellectuals. Many quit the party and discovered the “fresh air of criticism”. In France all of the participants in the Arguments journal had lived through the experience of Stalinism and the drama of de-Stalinisation. Arguments wanted to be the tribune of a “New Marxism”, open, humanist and anti-dogmatic. Putting everything into question, it specialised itself in “questioning”. Its principle editors: Kostas Axelos, Edgar Morin, Jean Duvignaud, [Pierre] Fougeyrollas, F[rançois] Châtelet, L[ucien] Goldmann, G[eorges] Lapassade and Henri Lefebvre, all contributed to the elaboration of this new Marxism, “de-dogmatised” and “revised”.

3. Henri Lefebvre, former member of the PCF, passes for what many specialists consider the most brilliant of this school. Operating a type of return to the sources from Problemes actuels du Marxisme (1958), he wrote a critical autobiography, La Somme et le Reste, in which he updated the themes sketched in his first works (La Conscience mystifiée, 1936, and Critique de la Vie quotidienne, 1947). Insisting on the importance of the concept of alienation in the thought of Marx and the critique of the modern world, Henri Lefebvre declared war on dogmatism and analysed the Stalinist phenomenon. All of this work made him worthy of being considered by the “orthodox” the “leader of international revisionism”. Though focused on the critique of modern society and the reestablishment of Marxist theory in its original truth, some of Lefebvre’s students reckon that his work suffers from concessions to fashionable thinkers, notably in the sociological and linguistic domains.[42]

IV. “German Marxism”

The “German Left”

1. The revolutionary wave which unfolded in Europe after the First World War began to ebb from 1921. This Western counter-revolution had repercussions upon the Russian Revolution, transformed in turn by the “restoration of capitalism” in a bureaucratic form. There were German revolutionaries, direct heirs of Rosa Luxembourg and Liebknecht who were the first to bitterly remark upon this new course of history. The split in the German Communist Party, some months after its creation into two factions, allowed the “left” to organise in a new party: the KAPD (Communist Workers’ Party of Germany). Its theoreticians and foreign partisans attempted to renovate revolutionary Marxism by reviving its “critical and revolutionary” core.

2. Starting from the slogan “all power to the workers’ councils” the left took Bolshevik Leninism for its essential target, considered as the heir of social-democratic orthodoxy and its reformism. It is this current that Lenin stigmatised in his Left Wing Communism: an infantile disorder, under the label “ultra-left”. The “council communists” thought that by subordinating the international Communist movement to the national requirements of Russia — that is to say the State — the Third International repeated the history of the Second. It sacrificed “proletarian internationalism to national imperialism”.

3. The theoretician who most marked the German school was Karl Korsch (1886-1961). When in 1923 he published his essay Marxism and Philosophy he collided head-on with Kautsky and his disciples as much as triumphant Bolshevism. The common disapproval raised against Korsch and his book was that it could lead one to believe that the Leninist movement was still an integral part of Kautsky’s orthodoxy. Denounced as a “revisionist” heresy, Marxism and Philosophy had the ambition of re-establishing the dialectical relation which exists between the revolutionary movement actually happening, and its theoretical expression beyond science and bourgeois philosophy. Elevating “dialectical materialism” into an invariable law of historical and cosmic processes — as in fact Engels and Lenin had done — is, according to Korsch, contrary to the thought of Marx. It is at the root of the transformation of the theory of proletarian revolution into a “worldview” [“Weltanschauung”], without a link to the class struggle.


1. Parallel to the development of the counter-revolution, a prodigious intellectual movement flourished in the Weimar Republic. From the confrontation of Marxism and psychoanalysis would be born a whole new thought known under the name of the Frankfurt School, whose progenitor was Wilhelm Reich.

2. Heretical psychoanalyst and non-orthodox member of the Communist Party, Reich saw his works burnt simultaneously in the USSR, Hitler’s Germany and in the United States. His work is considered by Herbert Marcuse as “[t]he most serious attempt to develop the critical social theory implicit in Freud”.[43] Reich was active for years in both the psychoanalytic circle of Vienna and among the young Communists in Berlin. He finished by being excluded from both. For the author of The Sexual Revolution only a radical transformation of society can end neuroses: the future of psychoanalysis is not in the clinic but in social revolution. Marxism and psychoanalysis have one and the same end, such is the conclusion of the writings of Reich between 1930 and 1933, notably in The Sexual Struggle of Youth.

3. It is these ideas that are taken up and developed in the light of German philosophy (principally Hegelian) and the burgeoning social sciences, by those promoting the social research at Frankfurt: Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse and Fromm. Authority and the Family furnished the themes of their first investigations, which would be continued in America through Studies on the Personality and Family. In 1947 Adorno and Horkheimer published Dialectic of Enlightenment, in essence dedicated to Hegel, philosopher of the bourgeois revolution. Denouncing the “philosophical mystification” of Heidegger, “heir of national-socialist decadence”, Adorno attacked all the forms of totalitarianism, among which he placed Stalinist Marxism.

4. Herbert Marcuse inaugurated his work with a reflection on Hegel. Publishing Hegel’s Ontology and the Theory of Historicity in 1932, he contributed with Adorno and Horkheimer to a deepening of the relation between Marx and Freud. In 1941 he published Reason and Revolution, a Marxist interpretation of Hegel. He settled accounts with official Marxism in Soviet Marxism, defined as the “ideological superstructure” of a repressive society dominated by the Stalinist bureaucracy. “If there is a fundamental difference between the Western and the Soviet societies, there is also a strong current toward assimilation” wrote Marcuse. But the work which made him most celebrated throughout the world is Eros and Civilisation, in which he criticised the pessimism of Freud on the future of culture and violently attacked the culturalism of Eric Fromm, accusing him of preaching adaptation to oppression. In One Dimensional Man he described in a desperate fashion the totalitarian structures in modern society, without opposition nor revolutionary perspective.

The Situationists

1. Created in 1957 by an international group of revolutionary artists, the Situationist International became from the beginning of the 1960s, after various exclusions, “an international group of theoreticians”, rooted in Dada and Surrealism, but above all the historical thought of Hegel and Marx. Taking up some fundamental themes from Marx, they developed a unitary critique of the contemporary world, at once geographic — by denouncing all of the powers which exist in the modern world as oppressive — and historic — by criticising all of the “alienations” developed by modern capitalism, whether in the bourgeois West or the bureaucratic East.

2. The central theme developed in Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle is the objective critique of the current capitalist world conceived as “spectacle”. The theory of the spectacle takes up the analysis of the commodity made in the first chapter of Capital. In the spectacle all is inverted, the real becomes ideology, and the latter is “materialised” becoming a type of reality to the extent that it invades all the domains of social and individual life. The absence of real life is the dominant mode of existence in modern society. The spectacle is only in reality a moment of the development of commodity production, in which “the true is a moment of the false”. Like religion the spectacle separates man from his being, and makes him move in the unreal world of the image.

3. After having made the critique of urbanism, culture and ideology, Debord evoked the perspective of liberation in the revolutionary movement of the proletariat returning to the assault on capitalist society. A proletarian revolution alone, conscious of its goals, can put an end to the alienations which dominate the life of all. Such a revolution must have for its program the realisation of the absolute power of the workers’ councils and the abolition of all separations: the State, classes, family, religion and ideology, etc.

4. Published at the end of 1967 Raoul Vaneigem’s book The Revolution of Everyday Life [Fr: Traité de Savoir-Vivre à l’Usage des Jeunes Générations] became one of the references of the rebellious youth of May 1968. Setting out from a total critique of the old world, Raoul Vaneigem attempted to draw out from the tradition of refusal and contemporary contestation the new lines of revolutionary force. Whereas Debord started from the dispassionate critique [la critique froide] of the spectacle, Vaneigem, from the perspective of “radical subjectivity”, denounced the survival which is opposed to true life, and is the lot of everyone in the world of oppression. But both converge in the radical refusal of all that exists independently of men, and in the deepening of the project of “total man”. “Generalised self-management” is the goal and the means for realising such a project, the proletariat (that is to say all those “who have no power over their lives and who know it”) will be the subject.


[1] The reference is to a comment of Karl Marx reported by his closest friend and co-worker, Friedrich Engels, in  a letter to Eduard Bernstein (coincidentally the future doyen of reformism), 2-3 November 1882 (Marx Engels Collected Works vol. 46, pp. 353-58): “Now what is known as ‘Marxism’ in France is, indeed, an altogether peculiar product — so much so that Marx once said to [Paul] Lafargue: ‘Ce qu’il y a de certain c’est que moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste.’ ” (p. 356). The letter dates from the same year as Paul Brousse’s work (see below and footnote 2).

[2] “Paul Brousse (French: January 23, 1844 – April 1, 1912) was a French socialist, leader of the possibilistes group. He was active in the Jura Federation, a section of the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA), from the northwestern part of Switzerland and the Alsace. He helped edit the Bulletin de la Fédération Jurassienne, along with anarchist Peter Kropotkin. He was in contact with Gustave Brocher between 1877 and 1880, who became anarchist under Brousse’s influence. Paul Brousse edited two newspapers, one in French and another in German. He helped James Guillaume publish its bulletin.” From wikipedia entry on Paul Brousse.

[3] Khayati is referring to the first use of ‘Marxist’ in French. It is possible that the German communist and future biographer of Marx, Franz Mehring, used the term ‘Marxism’ as early as 1879. Cf. Ingo Elbe. ‘Between Marx, Marxism, and Marxisms – Ways of Reading Marx’s Theory’.

[4] Letter of Marx to Ruge, Kreuznach, September 1843.

[5] Marx, Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Cf. Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843).

[9] Karl Marx. On The Jewish Question (1844).

[10] Ibid. Marx makes a case for the new universal “political” world of the “rights of man and the citizen” ushered in by the victorious bourgeois revolutions, as being a type of “secularisation”. Thus the “profane” man, the political ideal of the bourgeois state, is similarly “inverted” as the religious “spiritual” essence of man — bourgeois “man” is thus the secularised “religious” man. Here Marx extended Feuerbach’s critique of Hegel that the truth of the holy family can be found in the profane family, etc.

[11] Karl Marx, ‘Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy in General’ in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.

[12] Marx & Engels, The German Ideology  (Marx Engels Collected Works v. 5, p. 31)

[13] Cf. ‘Private Property and Communism’ in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.

[14] Ibid. Cf. ‘Private Property and Communism’ in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.

[15] This almost certainly refers to then current debates regarding Marx’s “economic reduction” and so-called “productivist” ideology. Cornelius Castoriadis was the champion of the former, Jean Baudrillard the latter. Castoriadis accused Marx of reducing all human activity to “economic motivations” (Marxism and Revolutionary Theory, 1964/5, aka The Imaginary Institution of Society – Part 1). Jean Baudrillard would later call this “productivism” (The Mirror of Production, 1973). Both confusingly collapsed Marx and the ‘Marxist orthodoxy’ established by the Second and Third Internationals. In related attacks Baudrillard and Castoriadis accused Marx and the SI of making labour the “essence” of the human. However both ignored how Marx differentiated between the abstract conception of “labour” and “production in general” and the specific forms such “purposeful” activity, which entailed the material reproduction of the conditions of existence, took under different forms of social organisation.

[16] Marx, The German Ideology, Part 1, section B, ‘The Illusion of the Epoch’ (Marx Engels Collected Works v. 5, p. 41)

[17] Trans. amended. Cf. the section ‘Estranged Labour’ in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (Marx Engels Collected Works v. 3, p. 276)

[18] Note the use of ‘transcendence’ in the English and ‘suppression’ in the French: “it is the positive suppression of all alienation, the departure of man from religion, family, the State, etc., and his return to human existence — that is to say social.” (my emphasis). Cf. ‘Private Property and Communism’ in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, by Karl Marx.

[21] Letter of Marx to Schweitzer, 13 February 1865. Among the subjects of this letter Marx wrote to Schweitzer about how working class ‘combinations’ and trade unions would help in freeing the working class from the ‘state tutelage’ of Prussia (in particular). Marx contrasted this with the support the German Lassallean’s gave to the legalisation of  worker’s cooperatives. Marx argued that state guaranteed cooperatives were ‘worthless as an economic measure and serv[ed], furthermore, to extend the system of state tutelage, to bribe a section of the working class and to emasculate the movement.’ Perhaps ironically, since Marx’s time the trade union movement has become precisely what he criticised the cooperative movement for (and sometimes even blended with the modern day banking-cooperative ‘movement’). Just as he pointed out to Schweitzer then, the ‘working class is revolutionary or it is nothing’, which is to say, there is no revolutionary working class apart from its own self-organisation against capital. As the Situationists full well knew in the 1960s the modern trade union movement is the working class organised for capital, as disposable, albeit ‘regulated’, wage-labour for sale.

[22] Marx, The German Ideology, Part 1, section D. ‘Proletarians and Communism’, subsection ‘Forms of Discourse’ (Marx Engels Collected Works v. 5, p. 81),

[23] Marx, The International Workingmen’s Association’s General Rules, 1864 (Note that in the original French text a part of the quote from Marx was left out of the printed version making the citation unintelligible — thanks to Marco Petamenti for pointing this out). Khayati, by calling ‘representation’ the ‘bourgeois principle’ draws parallels, after Marx, between the alienation of essential powers and the representational alienation of ‘political powers’ invested in politicians vis-à-vis the supposed ‘non-political’ bourgeois civil society. Cf. On The Jewish Question and below.

[24] ‘Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.’ Cf. Karl Marx. Critique of the Gotha Program, part 4.

[25] Khayati is not referring to Engels Will of 1893 or its Codicil of 1895 (neither of which make any mention of parliamentarism) but rather to Engels’ ‘Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850’ — his last substantial work before his death in 1895. In this text Engels referred approvingly to the ‘[s]low propaganda work and parliamentary activity’ necessary to ‘win over the great mass of people’. Indeed he painted a rosy picture, particularly in Germany, of the growing electoral power of the German Social Democratic Party and the need ‘to keep this growth going’ and ‘not fritter […] away this daily increasing shock force in vanguard skirmishes, but to keep it intact until the decisive day’. However from the foregoing we can see that Engels is ambivalent, both supporting electorialism and still envisaging a ‘decisive day’ requiring a ‘shock force’. However this very sentence was omitted from the first published version of this piece, in the German Social Democratic publication Die Neue Zeit. According to the editors of the Marx Engels Collected Works the Executive of the Social Democratic Party requested that Engels tone down his references to revolutionary overthrow, something that Engels apparently complained about but submitted to nonetheless. Cf. Marx Engels Collected Works v. 27, pp. 521-22, and fn. 449, pp. 632-33.

[26] Cf. Karl Kautsky. The Class Struggle (Erfurt Program).

[27] Eduard Bernstein. Evolutionary Socialism, from Chapter III: The Tasks and Possibilities of Social Democracy, Section (d) The Most Pressing Problems of Social Democracy.

[28] The Parti Ouvrier Français (POF, or French Workers’ Party) was founded in 1880 by Jules Guesde and Paul Lafargue. The party originated with in a split from Federation of the Socialist Workers of France, founded 1879.

[29] Bernstein had famously written in Evolutionary Socialism that “The Final goal, no matter what it is, is nothing; the movement is everything.” Cf. Luxembourg. Reform or Revolution. Introduction.

[30] Rosa Luxemburg. What Does the Spartacus League Want?

[31] Rosa Luxemburg. The Russian Revolution.

[32] Leon Trotsky. Results and Prospects. Chapter IV. Revolution and the Proletariat.

[33] Even though ‘All Power to the Soviets!’ is a slogan which Lenin used as the title of an agitational article in July 1917, and is an effective summary of the general thrust of his April Theses, the slogan itself does not appear in the latter.

[34] Antonio Gramsci. The development of the revolution.

[35] Antonio Gramsci. Unions and councils.

[36] L’Ordine Nuovo (The New Order) was the name of a communist-syndicalist paper broadly sympathetic with the Russian Revolution of October 1917 that Gramsci helped set up in May 1919.

[37] After Khrushchev revealed details of  the ‘Stalin cult’ at the 20th congress of the Communist Part of the Soviet Union in 1956 many members of the International Communist Parties turned away from Stalinism (for example the philosopher Henri Lefebvre and the founders of the Arguments journal in France). Garaudy initially stuck by Stalinism, though expressed a criticism of sorts via a turn to what was then a new, radical ‘humanistic’ interpretation of Marxism-Leninism based on reading the ‘young’ Marx. Garaudy’s fidelity to Stalinism was similar to another party philosopher, Louis Althusser. However unlike Althusser he finally criticised the party over the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968. Garaudy was expelled from the party in 1970 — presumably after the writing of this document. His future intellectual direction led him to embrace the Islamic religion some years after the publication of this document. I would say that this is not too dissimilar to either the Stalinism he previously shared with Althusser, or Althusser’s deistic conception of Marxism —complete with a social universe at the command of mysterious ‘structural’ forces.

[38] Respectively ‘Humanism and Marxism’, ‘What is a Marxist morality?’, and ‘God is dead’.

[39] The Centre d’Études et de Recherches Marxistes and Les semaines de la pensée marxiste were organised by the French Communist Party. The former was intended to organise ‘intellectual labour’ within the party, as well as publish Marxist-Leninist theoretical journals. The latter was the name given to public meetings, particularly debates with prominent non-party intellectuals (for e.g. J.-P. Sartre) through which the Communist Party would demonstrate its purported intellectual weight and power. The “Weeks of Marxist Thought” were under the direction of Roger Garaudy in the early 1960s.

[40] That is to say the “Maoist” schema of Marxism-Leninism (and thus Stalinism). Maoism is probably more accurately described as “Maoist-Stalinism”.

[41] “pro-Chinese currents” is what we would today name “pro-Maoist”.

[42] Khayati had been a student of Lefebvre’s at the University of Strasbourg in the first half of the 1960s.

[43] Herbert Marcuse. Eros and Civilisation: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. Boston: Beacon Press, 1966 [1955], p. 239.

Posted in Critique, Situationist Dictionary, Situationist International, Translation, Translation notes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Warhol’s fake boxes: It’s the economy, stupid

The following essay was first published on the now defunct blog on 9 January 2008. I wrote it in response to the “revelation” that the Warhol Brillo boxes then on display at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art were “fakes”. Of course the revelation was nothing of the sort. Warhol, like the detestable Avida Dollars, was never above faking his own work — not to mention working his own fakes. In the case of the Brillo Boxes, Warhol’s “creativity” amounting to reproducing what had already been mass reproduced in a factory. Which is to say, a slight variation on Duchamp’s readymade with none of the original’s verve or corrosive criticism.

One of the themes of this piece is the venality of self-professed “internationally renowned art experts” like Pontus Hulten. As wiser people have remarked about such shady characters, they’re only in it for the money.

There are a few things I would change if I was writing this article today. In particular I would flesh out the breathtakingly brief and inadequate summary of the development of the ‘market in mass produced things’ after the Second World War. But I thought it best to leave the article as is, with that musty aura of electro-authenticity that it so richly deserves.

And for those so inclined, a pdf of the article here.

Warhol’s fake boxes: It’s the economy, stupid

Relations appear to be between boxes, not people

Relations appear to be between boxes, not people

It appears that 100 Brillo boxes attributed to Andy Warhol were produced three years after his death. Short of commissions beyond the grave, what has happened?

Pontus Hulten, an ‘art expert’ and ex-head of the Pompidou centre in Paris, reportedly ordered more than 100 Warhol-brand Brillo boxes made up in 1990 for an exhibition in St Petersburg. Four years later he sold 40 of them to Ronny van de Velde complete with authentication certificates claiming ‘These “Brillo Boxes” were produced in Stockholm in 1968, according to Andy Warhol’s instructions. These “Brillo Boxes” were included in the exhibition “Andy Warhol” at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, February-March 1968.’ Hulten is accused of using his reputation in relation to Warhol—particularly his overseeing of the Warhol exhibition in Stockholm in 1968—to claim such authenticity for the boxes.

Warhol made Brillo boxes for a 1964 exhibition, ‘The American Supermarket.’ Along with other pop-artists, the exhibition aped the supermarket, offering gentle pastiche rather than criticism of the burgeoning market in consumer durables.

Warhol was a good salesman who refrained from any criticism of sales itself. In the 1950s he worked as an advertisement illustrator, using assistants to finish work in order to increase his productivity. In this he demonstrated that he was a man of his time. Later, reinvented as artist, Warhol used similar factory-like techniques, giving his various workshops the non-ironic name of ‘The Factory.’

Warhol's assembly line

Warhol’s assembly line

Warhol and other pop-artists’ fetish of the mass produced thing adapted Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made to commercial ends. Whereas Duchamp had used the everyday object such as a wine rack, hitherto not presented or seen as an object of art, the pop-artists copied the mass produced object in order to present their authentic copies as art objects.

After the Second World War and the development of the market in mass produced things for workers, Duchamp’s radical gesture had been reconciled with a new more expansive artistic aesthetic. Certainly the cavalcade of refrigerators, televisions, cars, stereos and other consumer durables were wrapped up in the rhetoric of artistic aesthetics—a smorgasbord of mass produced beauty sold to the working classes.

However the radical heart of Duchamp’s gesture thrown at the art establishment around the time of the First World War remained: If Duchamp can do it, then why not you or me?

Warhol, however, did not come to bury capitalism, he came to praise it. Certainly Warhol was not shy of pointing this out. In his 1975 Philosophy of Andy Warhol he bluntly states ‘Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.’

In the original ‘The American Supermarket’ exhibition, Warhol’s copies of Brillo boxes and Heinz boxes came complete with price tags—real prices indicating the works of art were for sale. At the exhibition he sold his famous painting of a Campbell’s soup can for USD $1000. The Brillo boxes went for the comparatively less expensive $350. It is worth noting that in 1968 the minimum wage in the United States for a forty hour week was $64. However why bother making these points considering that Warhol was a self-confessed devote of capitalism?

Art for sale

Art for sale

Some art critics claim that such exhibitions are pioneers of a postmodern sensibility, deploying irony in their representation of mass produced commodities as art. But in reality there is no irony in an exhibition that uncritically re-presents commodities as art, particularly when these art objects stacked in the aisles are also for sale.

Irony is the use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning. In order to qualify as ironic, an exhibition such as ‘The American Supermarket’ would have had to be more than simply a facsimile of an American supermarket. The artists involved would have been better off affixing tags that said ‘Free!’ or ‘Steal this!’ to achieve such an effect. The problem then would have been if people had taken them at their word, as indeed they did when purchasing the non-ironic $350 box sculptures. Capitalism already lays on the irony cost free—‘It’s a steal!’ has adorned many a product. The irony of capitalism is that objects for sale, alienating work conditions, and the rule of exclusive property rights are considered expressions of individual freedom—the freedom to buy, work and own.

If we examine Warhol’s 1968 exhibition in Stockholm, which is also a vector for the current brouhaha regarding so-called fake Brillo boxes, we can come to understand what exactly is going on. For this exhibition at the Modern Museum in Stockholm, overseen by Pontus Hulten, Warhol had boxes made up in Sweden by workers to his specifications. Certainly this is the logical conclusion of Warhol’s factory attitude to art—he issues the orders and others produce the work that he claims creative and proprietary rights over.

We have noted that Warhol had developed his factory style techniques in order to increase efficiency. Such notions of productive efficiency are conventionally seen as external to concerns over ownership, that is they are merely technical problems related to the process of production. But as Karl Marx pointed out over a century ago this is false. The ability to command other peoples’ labour is not separate from questions of ownership; rather it is an essential part of capitalism.

The capitalist mode of production

The capitalist mode of production

Warhol’s involvement in the art industry does not exempt him from the criticism that he is as exploitative as any business owner must be in order to compete in the market. It is a moot point that his individual talent lays at the heart of a process to which other people’s time and creativity can be harnessed, considering that his creative ability is both a product of and contributor to society. For Warhol to increase his ‘personal’ efficiency he needed to further socialise his immediate process of production; that is he needed to command others’ ability to labour to that end. And this isn’t even to broach the topic of the necessarily large-scale socialised processes of production that brought the raw material to Warhol and his minions in the first place.

Pontus Hulten’s commissioning of further Warhol boxes in 1990, and then his sale of some of these four years later to a hapless collector under the claim that they were ‘genuine’ Warhol boxes is the least of our worries. Hulten was just after a piece of the sizeable pecuniary action using the alienated production techniques of his dead friend. In his defence he could have paraphrased that arch defender of property and Catholicism, Salvador Dali, and said that ‘the only difference between Warhol and I is that I am not a Warhol.’ Just as Warhol is no different from any other capitalist and should not be mystified by the mantle of art, so to the waring brothers and sisters of the Warhol industry should be named as the exploitative capitalists that they are.

Sadly Warhol and many that have been inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades have adapted such techniques to the ignoble cause of exclusive ownership and profits. Far better guides to irony are the Italian workers and revolutionists of the 1970s who engaged in ‘political shopping.’ Developing from the strikes in factories and offices, workers logically extended their strikes against work to strikes against paying for the goods they also made, delivered, sold and consumed. By stealing Warhol’s name for profitable ends Hulten only demonstrated an understanding of the monetary value of the Warhol brand—something that doesn’t appear that far removed from Warhol’s own money-making schemes.

Artists represent the world in various ways. We must change it as well. Truthful representations in art may be possible, providing we dispense with the dissimulations of Warhol’s marketing. However, even if such representation is a good start, it is a poor end.

Thanks to Gerald Keaney and Miranda Lello.

Posted in Critique | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments




This post originally appeared over at comrade’s blog, totaltantrum.

Addressing the anti-fascists and their enemies in Canberra.

Firstly, a few notes:

Traditional fascism is unpopular. We see the far-right attempting to outmanoeuvre this unpopularity in various ways across the globe, so that we have nationalist-anarchists in Sydney, nationalist-autonomists in Dresden, Casa Pound nationalist-squats in Rome and popularised pro-nationalist street movements throughout much of the world. Reclaim Australia are only the most recent and most local innovation in this respect. As far as there are fascist elements within the movement, they deserve to be opposed with the traditional uncompromising vigour. However, it is important also to pay close attention to what is signalled by the popularity of these protests. In times of crisis and uncertainty, nationalism has always been an appealing force. Many of the people attending Reclaim rallies are not fascists, but are simply confused and proletarianised individuals who have been effectively mobilised by nationalist discourse. Obviously, we should oppose and attempt to block these demonstrations whenever they are called, but we should also be cautious about making easy generalisations out of our foes. How many of these people waver on an uncertain position, showing up because they’ve been efficiently chatted up? How many then become emboldened and convinced upon meeting a crowd of strangers intent on calling them nazis, without offering any alternatives? As we continue to fight bigotry on the streets, we should also sharpen and wield our arguments and analysis of the real problems that workers face. ‘No platform’ is often the easiest strategical agreement, but it is much harder to articulate ourselves in a way that is both convincing and uncompromised. This forces us to the uncomfortable task of self examination and clarification, which far from being inconvenient, is actually the only way we will ever win for realsies.

The following is an extended version of a speech delivered in Canberra on Sunday 19th July at the counter-rally to ‘Stand up for Australia’, a splinter group of the reactionary and pro-Nationalist ‘Reclaim Australia’ movement.

Why do we show up to these rallies? Well, we do so to oppose ‘Reclaim Australia’, the ‘United Patriots Front’, ‘Stand up for Australia’ or whatever else they want to call themselves. We do so to oppose racism generally. We do so to oppose fascism.

Is ‘Reclaim Australia’ fascist? Certainly, we have seen fascist symbols and rhetoric on display at their rallies. We know that people espousing fascist ideology are involved in organising their events, and that they are using the movement’s current momentum to attempt to win people over to more hardline fascist positions. We have seen fascists and Neo-nazis among the most militant and confrontational elements of these demonstrations. But if we look at the movement more generally, and the way it is presenting itself, the term fascist doesn’t always quite fit.

A lot of the people drawn in by ‘Reclaim’ are quite simply not fascists. They may have never even been political in this way before. Yes, they may be bigots. Yes, they hold racist ideas. But they are not necessarily ‘fascists’. They’re opposed to fascism, they’ll tell you. And they make up stories about the threat of Islamic fascism. They often see themselves as progressives. They go so far as proclaiming themselves against racism, and reports suggest they even began their most recent rally in Melbourne with a tokenistic acknowledgement of traditional owners. “We’re not fascists”, they say. “We’re patriots. We’re nationalists.” And they’re right.

More than anything else, Reclaim is a nationalist movement. We could use the term ‘ultra-nationalist’ or ‘right-wing nationalists’, but I would argue that this is unnecessary; that if we examine the ideology of nationalism we find that it is already extreme enough. Nationalism is predicated on a holy distinction between ‘us and them’. The elusive ‘us’ is supposedly defined by adherence to a common language, a common set of beliefs and values, etc etc. blah blah blah. This is what Reclaim are on about when they claim to be defending the mythical ‘Australian way of life’.

It’s easy to whip up hysteria these days. Vast sections of our global, class-based system are in the throes of profound social and economic crisis. The future is uncertain. Things are not looking good for the working-class. It’s difficult to even use that term (working-class) with much conviction now. Gone are the days when workers might identify positively with their role in the production of the world; when they could imagine organising together, taking over and running things for themselves. We don’t see the world as something we create together so much as we see a hostile place in which we must survive, isolated and alone. For many of us, work is just something that happens, that we have to put up with. At the same time work appears as scarce, precarious and meaningless; a dull figure set against the threatening background of possible unemployment. In this landscape of anxiety, nationalism offers a sense of hope and belonging.

The pro-nationalist solution is to close ranks, protect the border, protect the economy, rebuild and reclaim a national identity. At times, through their wild-eyed and euphoric promises, and through the optical illusion of commonalities, we catch a glimpse of what nationalism is really all about. Not the defence of language, religion or custom. But the development of the national economy, the transformation of people into workers and workers into soldiers, land into mines and factories. (Of course capitalism has proved itself to be adept at a certain internationalism when it comes to this imperative).

The past is the only way forward for these people. “Back to the Future”, they cry. And they long for a return to the golden days of apartheid, subjugation of women, segregation of people, patriotism and no brown immigrants. But the national solution is dead.

The forces of production and systems of human communication and collaboration are globalised and interconnected on an unprecedented level. And while this is currently driven by a capitalist imperative as we say, there is nothing that states this has to be the case. Why, then, does the Left repeatedly falter and fall back on an outmoded reliance on nationalist categories? We see this time and time again in leftist discourse: ‘Real Australians say welcome’, ‘Real Australians aren’t racist’, the ‘Real Australia’ is multicultural. Even when all the evidence suggests otherwise, we blush and excuse ourselves, point to the government and say “we’re not really like that”. Well what are we like? What does it mean to be a ‘Real Australian’? Why resort to a defence of national identity, or some earnest attempt to rescue the decaying form of the nation-state?

We can look at Australia and say that it is an advanced capitalist nation, which is not paying it any compliments. We can say that this nationhood was established through colonialism and primitive accumulation, vis-a-vis the brutal and murderous expropriation of land from indigenous people. We can say that this nationhood is kept afloat, not only with the exploitation of workers and the destruction of the environment, but with the incarceration and torture of anyone deemed unfit to be included in its constituency. Because an inside necessarily poses an outside.

And this logic of inside/outside, Us vs. Them, can be turned in on itself so that problematic sections of the population become ‘internal enemies’ – bludgers, ratbags, terrorists.

The pro-Nationalists say that we are un-Australian and anti-Australia. In response, sections of the Left fall for this when they try to beat the nationalists at their own game, and attempt to present an authentic Australian identity that is tolerant, accepting and progressive. But who wants to play the game of nationalisms? We face global problems, such as the threat of ecological collapse, for which there can be no national solutions. There are also global, human possibilities, and the potential for an emancipated human race that finally gets to create the kind of world it wants to live in. Waving a flag and demanding allegiance to a nation, in the face of all this, is nothing but ludicrous.

So let’s be un-Australian. Let’s be anti-Australia. Let’s be against nationalism. And not in an inter-nationalist sense where we have a collection of all the different nationalisms, but in an anti-Nationalist sense, that views the nation as a limitation and active stopper on real human potential. By all means, and by any means necessary, let’s fight against racism. Let’s fight against fascism. But let’s also fight against nationalism in all its forms, and for a world without nations.

Posted in Critique | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment