Surrealism: an irrational revolution

fig. 1. Preparing to attack.

A PDF of this document can be found here. Note that there are some differences between the version presented below and pdf (most notably, the complete bibliography is only available in the pdf version).

This has also been posted on the sinister science.

Surrealism: an irrational revolution

by Guy Debord

Translator’s Introduction

In September 1968 a brochure entitled Le Surrealisme: une revolution irrationnel (Surrealism: An irrational revolution) was published under the Encyclopédie du monde actuel (EMDA) imprint—one of its monthly Cahiers de l’encyclopédie du monde actuel (Notebooks from the Encyclopedia of the Contemporary World). The author of this booklet was Guy Debord, despite no author being attributed on the brochure.

Considering the distinctly non-situationist nature of its publication (more on this below) Debord’s essay on surrealism is, perhaps, not one of his major works, despite being his longest published piece upon the subject. Nonetheless, it demonstrates two things very clearly: first, his familiarity with the surrealists; and secondly, the importance of the surrealist project, as it was originally conceived, for the situationists. And, despite the situationists never been named throughout the essay, Debord cunningly inserts them implicitly into the last line when he quotes André Breton as seer: “It will fall to the innocence and to the anger of some future men to extract from Surrealism what cannot fail to be still alive, and to restore, at the cost of a beautiful ransacking, Surrealism to its proper goal.”[1] By Debord’s reckoning the situationists simply were those other horrible workers Rimbaud had anticipated, who would come this time to begin again from the horizons where the Surrealists fell.[2]

Particularly striking, in the introductory section of the essay, is Debord’s synthetic account of the “self-annihilation”, “dissolution” and “destruction” that appeared in poetry and painting in the century before the surrealists. Debord had been refining his critique of what he also called the “decomposition of culture” since the 1950s. Scattered over various, mostly brief articles, one can find the elaboration of the situationist critique of “decomposition”, as well as elements of an historical account of its development across the arts, culminating in the “active decomposition” of Dada and Surrealism.[3] Certainly, a more theoretically nuanced elaboration of the self-abolition of culture and the decomposition of modern art can be found in chapter 8 of The Society of the Spectacle. But it is only here, in Debord’s essay on surrealism, that one can find in such succinct detail an account of the “self-annihilation” that appeared in the poetry and painting of the European avant-gardes. Debord’s essay is thus both accomplice and extension of his more explicitly situationist writing on the question.

Debord situates the Surrealists at the confluence of the revolutions of the early twentieth century. Not only the growing self-consciousness of the dissolution and destructive elements of Modern Art, but also in the phantastic eruption of psychoanalysis and, most importantly of all, “the last great offensive of the revolutionary proletarian movement” between 1917 and 1937.[4] There is no doubt that the fortunes of Surrealism and Dada are bound up with the insurrections and social dislocations of their time, a fact that the Surrealists became fitfully aware of and anxiously engaged with almost from the moment they marked out their anti-empire of dreams. Debord, though, is clear: the fortunes of revolutionary Surrealism faded with the defeat of the proletarian revolutionary movement. Which is not to say that he agreed with Surrealism’s chief failing in the face of the French Communist Party’s attempts to make them submit to their diktat (or better, disappear). As Debord wrote, regarding the pivotal importance of the poetic in the situationist conception of revolution,

[t]he point is not to put poetry at the service of revolution, but to put revolution at the service of poetry. We do not intend to repeat the mistake of the surrealists, who put themselves at the service of the revolution right when it had ceased to exist.[5]

Organised Surrealism eventually overcame its dalliance with and subjection to Stalinism, and this is to its credit. However, it was arguably too late to matter. Despite their efforts to constitute a revolutionary pole outside and against the French Communist Party—for instance in the anti-fascist Appel à la lutte, and the short lived Contre Attaque group—the results were ambiguous to say the least. After the Second World War, notwithstanding the ongoing activity of organised Surrealism and the obvious influence it exerted upon the post-war avant-gardes, the height of Surrealism’s revolutionary moment lay firmly in the past.


The imprint under which Debord’s essay appeared, Encyclopédie du monde actuel (EMDA), was a commercial project and resembles, in its aims, the various collectible encyclopedias I recall occasionally buying from newsagents in my youth and adolescence in Australia in the late 1970s and 80s. See here for a detailed account, in French, of EDMA and its various offshoots.[6]

The ex-Situationist, Donald Nicholson-Smith, has said,

The participation of the “situationist group” in […] [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.)[7] 

Debord’s booklet on Surrealism was one of many monthly booklets published under EDMA between November 1965 and November 1975. For instance, Mustapha Khayati wrote booklets on Marxism (translated and available here) and the Persian Gulf, and Raoul Vaneigem wrote a booklet on post-Second World War French poetry. Another booklet on Modern Painting, though written by a situationist, remains unattributed.[8]

Nicholson-Smith has recounted how he and his wife, Cathy Pozzo di Borgo, led their comrades into this publishing project, though he notes that it was hardly treated seriously by them, either as work or as an expression of situationist activity:

These editorial activities certainly couldn’t be described as “situationist.” Nevertheless, specific points of view are sometimes discernible in them. […] We were grosso modo [roughly] compensated per piece and individually by Editions Rencontre. This activity was, for all of us, as tedious as it was pleasant. Each person tried, in a general manner, to bypass or slyly parody the official constraints of “objectivity.”[9]

In the example of essay on Surrealism, the gist of Debord’s irony is surely contained in the subtitle.


All footnotes are mine. I have attempted to find, where available, English translations of all the works Debord cites in his article on Surrealism. In those cases in which I have been unable to find an extent translation, I have left the cited title in the original French. Further, in order to not overburden the translation with more footnotes than I have already provided, I have only footnoted references to works in those cases where Debord has quoted from them. Otherwise, information on available translations of other titles cited by Debord can be found in the Bibliography at the end.

Thanks to Peter Dunn and Alastair Hemmens for comments and help with the translation. Needless to say, all errors of meaning and style are attributable solely to me.

Anthony Hayes
Canberra, June 2021

Surrealism: an irrational revolution

by Guy Debord

First published in Notebooks from the Encyclopedia of the Contemporary World (Cahiers de l’encyclopédie du monde actuel), Number 35, September 1968

There is hardly an aspect of modern life that is not more or less profoundly marked by surrealism—whether the arts, literature, advertising, or even politics. The modes of thought and creation elaborated by André Breton and his disciples have exploded everywhere—even still, when its subversive intent disappeared. Where did surrealism come from? Who were its adepts? And how has it evolved?

I. Origins

The crisis of poetry

1. Passionately partisan toward all the irrational aspects of human existence, the Surrealist movement is nonetheless the product of rationally understood historical conditions. It can seem that all modern culture was kept waiting over the last century for this ultimate moment. Such a process was first recorded in the history of French poetry. For instance, the founders of surrealism in Paris in 1924, all originally poets, acted on the basis of this primal experience.

2. Heralded by long-neglected tendencies in Romanticism—e.g., the extremist “Bouzingos”,[10] and the dream-work of Gérard de Nerval—the current which asserted itself around Charles Baudelaire in 1860 can be defined as that of the autonomy of poetic language. Henceforth, poetry—which is to say the people who wanted a poetic use of language—rejected all reasoning beyond itself and gave itself the goal of contemplating its own power. While undertaking the demolition of all conventional forms of expression, this poetry simultaneously set itself against the society whose values it denied and proclaimed itself in revolt against “bourgeois” order. Such poetry rejected everything in the world that was not poetry, while progressing toward its self-annihilation as poetry.[11]

3. This dissolution—manifest in the Symbolist era to the highest degree by Mallarmé, whose work was a progression to silence (“Verse has been tampered with”[12])—had arrived with the irruption of Rimbaud, with its new free language and surprisingly dense imagery. The Surrealists are the descendants of Rimbaud. Having wanted “the systematic derangement of all the senses,”[13] Rimbaud was finished with poetry by the age of 20, signifying the insufficiency of writing by fleeing to the antipodes after 1873.

4. More than in Rimbaud, the Surrealist subversion of language found its consummate model in the writings of the “Comte de Lautréamont”, aka Isidore Ducasse: Maldoror and the Preface to a then unknown work entitled Poésies. Lautréamont introduced into poetry a principle of destruction that did not come into more general use until later, and which was more radical than the Rimbaldian shock that dominated the years immediately after Lautréamont’s death at twenty-four in 1870. Unnoticed at the time, and still barely registered by the Symbolist critique twenty years later, Lautréamont’s œuvre would be rediscovered and promoted by the Surrealists. Lautréamont combined to an extreme a mastery of the powers of language and their self-critical negation. He reversed all the givens of culture and bequeathed to surrealism its definition of beauty: “beautiful […] as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing machine and an umbrella”.[14]

5. Before 1914 the consummation of the process of the internal destruction of the old poetic forms was pursued by: Alfred Jarry (principally in the theatrical “Ubu” cycle); in some aspects of the work of Apollinaire—“Oh mouths men are looking for a new language”[15]—the theoretician of The New Spirit in art and poetry (e.g., the suppression of punctuation in his collection Alcools and his later “conversation poems” [16]); the Futurist poetry initiated by the Italian Marinetti, which had Russian partisans—notably the young Mayakovski; and the pre-Dadaism of the poet-boxer Arthur Cravan, who become in the Great War “a deserter from seventeen countries”.[17] In Zurich in 1916 the Dada Movement was founded, in which the poem was reduced to the juxtaposition of independent words by Tristan Tzara (“thought is made in the mouth”[18]); and ultimately to onomatopoeia by Raoul Hausmann and Kurt Schwitters.

Destruction in Modern Art

1. In the other principal field of what would become the artistic expression of surrealism—painting—an analogous movement of liberation and negation was produced in parallel with that determining the stages of innovation in modern poetry. Impressionism, inaugurated in the works of Edouard Manet and Claude Monet, broke with academic representation and submission to the anecdotal subject from around 1860. The autonomous assertion of painting was founded on colour and moved toward an always more radical challenge to the accepted norms of figuration.[19]

2. Toward the end of the century, Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin pursued this research. Of these painters, Gauguin formulated the best program by writing that he “wanted to establish the right to dare everything”.[20] The Fauvism of their successors would, in turn, be surpassed around 1907 by the Cubism of Braque and Picasso. In the Cubist painting the represented object itself was disintegrated, beyond the perspective constructed amidst the Italian Renaissance.

3. Around 1910, an extreme tendency in Expressionism—a current principally from Germany and Northern Europe, whose content was explicitly linked to a social critique—constituted the “The Blue Rider” [Der Blaue Reiter] group in Munich, whose experiments in pure form led to abstraction: Paul Klee remaining on the frontier with Kandinsky the first to fully establish himself there. A little bit later Malevich’s “suprematism” consciously attained the supreme stage of the destruction of painting. Having exhibited a simple black square painted on a white background in 1915, Malevich painted a white square on a white background in 1918 during the Russian Revolution.

4. The anti-painting of the Dadaist movement more immediately determined the Surrealist explosion: collage, mixing image and writing, the correction of famous paintings (the Mona Lisa adorned with a moustache), and directly provocative objects like the mirror in which art lovers see only their own faces exhibited under the title of Portrait of an Imbecile (Portrait d’un Imbécile). Above all this absolute extremism was embodied in the work of Francis Picabia. Additionally, Giorgio de Chirico’s anxious portrayal of constructed landscapes in his “metaphysical phase” (before 1917) constituted one of the sources of Surrealist sensibility in painting and elsewhere.

5. Another decisive experiment for Surrealist painting was conducted by Marcel Duchamp. From 1912 he restricted himself to signing “readymade” objects, while composing a painting on glass which he left unfinished after many years of work: The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even(La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même). Echoing the disdainful refusal which Rimbaud was the model for, Duchamp abandoned art from around the First World War, and for the last fifty years has been principally interested in the game of chess. His prestige has always been great among the Surrealists, none of whom have pushed contempt for artistic activity as far as he.

Freud and the exploration of the unconscious

1. The thought and affectivity that would define the Surrealist movement was influenced by the many challenges that exploded amidst the different disciplines of knowledge at the turn of the century. All these disputes converged on the refusal of Cartesian rationalism, which had reigned universally for a time in the history of European society. The old image of the world was shattered by anthropological ethnology, the appreciation of non-European and primitive art, Einstein’s theories of space-time relativity, and Planck’s discoveries of the structure of matter. Meanwhile, society itself was being called into question in certain respects through the dialectical thought originating with Hegel. However, at surrealism’s birth nothing produced an impact as decisive as that of the Freud’s psychoanalysis.

2. Freud’s discoveries of the role of the unconscious, repression, the interpretation of dreams, “Freudian slips”, and the aetiology and repression of neuroses, appeared in the last years of the 19th century. By 1910, Freudianism had become an international movement developing a theory and therapeutic. But in France, as in countries more generally submitted to the influence of Catholicism, psychoanalytical thought remained almost unknown and derided—even after the First World War. Psychoanalysis would find itself received in the poetic avant-garde in advance of its appearance in the medical milieu.

3. André Breton, who studied medicine, was one of the first defenders of Freud in France. Breton would derive a new form of poetry—automatic writing—from the Freudian technique of spontaneous association, and unveil it in his 1921 book, The Magnetic Fields, written in collaboration with Phillipe Soupault.[21] For surrealism, automatism—by which the creativity of the unconscious is recorded—represented the same method, now rationally understood, that accounted for the poetic language of Lautréamont and Rimbaud, and even the entire share of actual poetic creation evident in the bulk of poetry from previous times.

4. Surrealism considered that the possible uses for Freud’s discoveries went far beyond the foundation of a new poetry. They were also a perfect weapon for the liberation of human desire. Although such an interpretation did justice to the more revolutionary side of Freud’s work, it could not fail to oppose the conformist tendencies that remained in his social thought. The Surrealist position was comparable rather to Wilhelm Reich’s or the interpretations that have been presented in the wake of Herbert Marcuse’s. But a more fundamental misunderstanding arose from the unilateral Surrealist choice in favour of irrationalism, taken so far as a belief in occultism. Freud, on the contrary, always scientifically pursued an enlargement of the rational.

The malaise in civilisation

1. In the Surrealist revolt, what unified both the refusal of the old poetic conditions and the refusal of all moral and social values, was the experience of the First World War—into which the future Surrealists had for the most part been thrown. From the brutality of the conflict and the absurdity of the social order which imperturbably reconstituted itself upon its ruins, Dada drew its absolute and collective violence—which, in the troubled Germany of 1919, mingled with the attempted worker revolution of the Spartakists.[22] Surrealism did not retreat from the perspective inherited from Dada. In a social milieu less extensive but longer lived, it would incarnate a total critique of dominant values.

2. The Surrealist movement declared itself the radical enemy of religion, nationalism, the family and morality. It took up, with a vigour accentuated by the surprising forms of its language, all the positions of extremist anarchism (adding to it both a negation of science and common sense). It saluted in the work of the Marquis de Sade an exemplary manifestation of revolutionary thought.

3. Dostoyevsky stated that “without God […] everything is permitted”.[23] The Surrealists came to think this exactly—that everything is possible—and this euphoric confidence strongly coloured the first years of the movement. To their social critique (the first issue of the journal The Surrealist Revolution announced, “it is necessary to formulate a new declaration of the rights of man”[24]), they joined a firm belief in the magically efficacious value of poetry pushed to the absolute extreme. “In solving the main problems of life”,[25] the dictates of the unconscious would substitute itself for other psychic mechanisms.

4. From its first appearance, Surrealism was thus a report on the historic bankruptcy of bourgeois society—though only grasping the latter on the spiritual plane. It perceived and denounced the crisis of the bourgeoisie as being essentially a crisis of its psychic mechanisms, from which the Surrealists expected a concrete liberation resulting from the discovery of other psychic mechanisms. The disillusionment of the Surrealists regarding these soon led them to face the alternative of either acknowledging the need for a revolutionary struggle within present-day society, or simply accepting their self-imprisonment in the artistic representations they wanted to surpass—the latter being the sole area of the real world that their surrender to the dictates of the unconscious could effectively transform.

II. Aims and themes

The dictatorship of the dream

1. André Breton’s first Manifesto of Surrealism (1924) opens with a contemptuous critique of real life. “Man, that inveterate dreamer” is satisfied by nothing, except the memories of childhood.[26] The imagination alone gives access to “the true life” that Rimbaud said was absent.[27] The dream and poetry freed of all conscious control are indiscriminately translations of this. One moves toward “the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality”.[28]

2. In the idealism of its first phase, surrealism defined itself as an insurrection of the spirit. In the third issue of The Surrealist Revolution, the insulting ‘Address to the Pope’ declared “no words can stop the spirit,” and the eulogistic ‘Letter to the Buddhist schools’ said that “logical Europe crushes the spirit endlessly […].”[29] At the same time the movement reproduced, somewhat abusively, a phrase of Hegel’s on a card:[30] “One cannot expect too much from the strength and power of the spirit”.[31]

3. To say everything is to completely reject the tyranny of social and mental rationality.[32] Surrealism was defined by Breton as, “pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express—verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner—the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern”.[33]

4. Surrealist poetry, “ultimately, can do without poems”.[34] However, inseparable from the possibility of saying everything must also be the possibility of doing everything. Although the desire to carry out revolutionary action in the real world quickly led Surrealism to various tactical considerations, the Second Manifesto of 1930 would still evoke, to the end of expressing its revolt, “the simplest Surrealist act,” which would consist of “shooting at random, for as long as you can, into the crowd”.[35] The Surrealists would take up the defence of some contemporary criminal actions: the Papon sisters who slaughtered their employers,[36] and Violette Nozières who killed her father.[37]

“Change Life”

1. In seeking to apply Rimbaud’s watchword, (“change life”), by identifying it with one of Marx’s, (“transform the world”), the Surrealists in practice relied upon collective experimentation with specific processes.[38] Automatic writing was initially expanded upon during the “time of trances”—in which speech was given in a hypnotic state, notably by Robert Desnos.[39]

2. The founders of the Surrealist movement, individually and as a group, practiced a systematic wandering in everyday life (this was foreshadowed, in a derisory fashion, towards the end of their participation in the French Dadaist movement with the organised visit to the Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre church[40]). A group would randomly walk along roads, departing from a town arbitrarily chosen on a map. Breton would write, in Nadja, that his steps carried him “almost invariably without specific purpose” toward the Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle; or that every time he found himself at the Place Dauphin, he felt “the desire to go somewhere else gradually ebbing”.[41] Aragon, in Paris Peasant, would evoke the passages of the 9th arrondissement and the nocturnal exploration of Buttes-Chaumont.[42]

3. Without doubt, the most immediately effective technique by which the Surrealists modified their conditions of existence, and the reactions of their entourage, was the deliberate recourse to collective scandal. For example, the sabotage of conferences and theatrical performances;[43] the insults and violence at the banquet given in honour of the poet Saint-Pol-Roux;[44] and the insulting pamphlets against Paul Claudel, or when Anatole France died (A Corpse).

4. But the quest for the marvellous—of encounters expected from “objective chance”, which is the very response that desire called for, when passing by bizarre objects whose meaning is unknown, such as those discovered in the flea markets of Saint-Ouen[45]—would finally play out around encounters with other people: friendship and love. On the Rue de Grenelle, the Surrealists opened a “Centre” in which any who could respond to aspects of their research were invited to present themselves. A text of Breton’s, entitled ‘The New Spirit’ and collected in The Lost Steps, related the attempt, inexplicably impassioned, of finding an unknown person that Aragon and himself had successively seen some moments before in the street.

5. The most famous of these meetings was with the young woman, Nadja, reported by Breton in the book which bears her name. Nadja was spontaneously Surrealist. Dream and life were mixed-up for her. Freudian slips and coincidences directed her behaviour. In the end, she was committed to an insane asylum. With regards to this, Breton’s comment, “all confinements are arbitrary,” reminds us that surrealism, though often attracted to explore the boundaries of madness, denied that we could precisely define its frontier.[46]

Surrealist values

1. “The word ‘freedom’ alone is all that still excites me”, wrote Breton in the first Manifesto.[47] The entirety of the Surrealist movement can be defined as the expression and defence of this central value. They identified it with the revolt against all constraints which oppressed the individual—first by affirming an absolute atheism. The cause of freedom drove surrealism to rally around the perspective of social revolution, and then to denounce its authoritarian falsification.

2. For Surrealism, passionate love is the moment of true life (even in realist poetry). A life which deploys itself in the dimension of the marvellous, which abolishes the repressive logic that is inseparable from the dominant productive activity. Even though Surrealism declared itself in favour of the general liberation from morality, as well as saluting the emancipatory value of the “utopian” critique of Fourier, more restrictively its own conception of love was in principle monogamous (above all through the impact of Breton’s personal influence).[48] The Surrealists would chiefly exalt “mad love, unique love”.[49]

3. The reign of poetry as a unitary reality—well beyond poems or fugitive poetic moments that dispense “at well-spaced out intervals” a grace which opposes itself “in all respects to divine grace”[50]—depends upon the hypothesis that “there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions”.[51] The “determination of this point” has been the essential motive of Surrealist activity (Second Surrealist Manifesto).[52] In its research, Surrealism wanted to mix the most modern and diverse experimental means with the occultist tradition.

4. Although they wanted to guard against defining an aesthetic or even attaching any importance to artistic activity as such, Surrealism traced a distinct definition of beauty, certainly applicable beyond the artistic universe, but in actuality rendered in the determinate artistic creations the Surrealists nonetheless furnished: for instance, the “convulsive beauty” that Breton announced at the end of Nadja.[53] Envisaged solely for “passionate ends”, it is the beauty born from the “puzzling” encounter with new relations emerging between objects and existing facts.[54]

The means of communication

1. Above all, surrealism found expression in painting and poetry. In these it obtained the most remarkable results. Automatic writing—of which Breton would say that its history is that of a continuous misfortune[55]—was quickly abandoned to the profit of a partially worked-up poetry.[56] Painting followed two principal directions: the exact reproduction of elements whose coexistence appeared contradictory (e.g., Magritte); and a formal freedom which constituted an enigmatic ensemble (e.g., Max Ernst).

2. Surrealism produced films within the narrow limits imposed upon it by the problems of economics and censorship. It sought a fusion of poetry and plastic expression in the poem-object. The dream accounts and various formulas for irrational collective play were also the “fixed forms” created by its activities.[57] Except in the case of the Belgian Surrealist André Souris, surrealism was not preoccupied with music, in which the contemporaneous experiments of Edgar Varese (after the semi-Dadaism of Erik Satie) pushed toward the general course of artistic dissolution. In principle Surrealism was contemptuous toward the novel, ignoring James Joyce, whose work marked the complete destruction of this genre by way of a liberation of language the counterpart of that which had ruined the old poetry. In contrast, surrealism did not intervene in architecture due to its lack of material means. Nonetheless, the Surrealists paid the utmost attention to some of the free creations and dreamlike currents in this domain: that of Postman Cheval[58] and Gaudi in Barcelona.

3. The critical activity of surrealism was considerable. This was primarily the case in the accounts of its own research into the dream and life (e.g., Nadja, Communicating Vessels). Increasingly, and in parallel, there was also the rediscovery and re-evaluation of past cultural works, both in painting—from Bosch to Arcimboldo—and among writers. The Anthology of Black Humour presented by Breton constituted the most famous monument of this latter aspect of the Surrealist oeuvre.

4. The theoretical and programmatic work which accompanied all the stages of the movement was principally carried out by André Breton. In Surrealism’s first phase, one must add to Breton’s Manifestoes, the writing—in different ways—of Pierre Naville, Antoine Artaud, Louis Aragon and Paul Nougé.[59] Later, Pierre Mabille (Egregores) and Nicolas Calas (Hearths of Arson) attempted a deepening of theory.[60] At the end of the Second World War, Benjamin Péret in The Dishonour of the Poets would defend the Surrealist positions on poetry and revolution, against the formal and political reaction of patriotic poetry.[61]

III. The men and their work

André Breton

1. The principal works by which André Breton asserted himself as the leading theoretician of surrealism were: The Lost Steps (1924), Manifesto of Surrealism (1924), Introduction to the Discourse on the Paucity of Reality (1927), Nadja (1928), The Second Surrealist Manifesto (1930), Communicating Vessels (1932), Mad Love (1937), and Anthology of Black Humour (1940).

2. Though his theoretical activity has long inclined cultivated opinion to underestimate Breton’s poetic work—to the advantage of those Surrealists considered more specifically poets (notably Paul Éluard)—today it is difficult not to recognise the highest poetic accomplishment of the movement in André Breton’s oeuvre. His principal publications are: Earthlight (1923), Free Union (1931), The Revolver with the White Hair (1932), Fata Morgana (1940), and Ode to Charles Fourier (1945).

3. André Breton’s activity as a critic, often mixed in with those of his books that should rather be designated theoretical works (in particular, The Lost Steps and Anthology of Black Humour), was also deployed, throughout his life, in a great number of articles and prefaces that considered all those old and contemporary works—from Maturin to Lautréamont, and from Germain Nouveau to Maurice Fourré—that could be related to the Surrealist spirit. In 1949, he unmasked—upon a first reading—a supposed unpublished work of Rimbaud’s, which had been authenticated by experts (documents pertaining to this collected in Flagrant délit).

4. One must reserve a special place for his critical and theoretical work on painting. It is expressed in books (from Surrealism and Painting in 1928 up until L’Art magique in 1957, the latter work in collaboration with Gérard Legrand), and in the numerous prefaces for exhibitions, which toward the end of his life became his principal work.

5. Finally, the most irreplaceable part of Andre Breton’s activity was his role as instigator and ringleader of the Surrealist movement, which, since its origin, has been identified with his life. Breton was the strategist of the entire struggle.

The Surrealist poets

1. Of all the early Surrealists, Benjamin Péret (1899-1959) remained ever faithful to the initial project—just as nothing corrupted the friendship that bound him to Breton. As well as fighting for the Spanish Revolution in the POUM militia, all his life Péret chose subversion, which he expressed in the supremely free form and content of his poetry: Dormir, dormir dans les Pierres (1925), From the Hidden Storehouse (1934), and I Won’t Stoop to That (1936).[62] His entry of the poem ‘Epitaph for a monument to the war dead’ into an Académie Française competition has been noted as the greatest scandal a Surrealist poem ever provoked.[63]

2. Paul Éluard (1895-1952) was the first Surrealist to be recognised as possessing the qualities of an authentic poet—despite belonging to the movement. After Capital of Pain (1926), he would publish several collections which benefited from a certain notoriety: Love, Poetry (1929), La Vie immédiate (1932), La Rose publique (1934), and Cours naturel (1938). Abandoning surrealism in 1939 to rally to the French Communist Party, Éluard was the author who maintained the most personal tone during the Resistance.

3. In contrast to his poetic collections—Le Mouvement perpétuel (1925), Persécuté, Persécuteur (1930)—Louis Aragon contributed, above all, to Surrealist expression in his prose works: Paris Peasant (1926) and Treatise on Style (1928), after producing one of the major works of the pre-Surrealist period: Anicent or the Panorama (1921). However, it was the polemics and prosecutions set in train by his political poem ‘Red Front’ in 1931 that produced his rupture with his Surrealist friends. Aragon joined with the Comintern line, and from then on dedicated himself to a militant and didactic poetry (e.g. Hourra l’Oural!, 1936), consisting of a return to traditional versification, which was to blossom in his neo-classical poems of the Resistance (‘Le Crève-Cœur’, 1940—‘La Diane française, 1945).

4. A little earlier, in 1930, Robert Desnos (1900-1945) renounced the “essential, unforgettable role”—as Breton emphasised in the Second Manifesto of Surrealism[64]—which he had played from the beginning of surrealism (Mourning for Mourning, 1924, Liberty or Love, 1927), to dedicate himself to a restoration of regular verse. He remained faithful to a political engagement which led him to the Resistance and then to his death in a Nazi concentration camp.

5. Many other poets embellished surrealism: Raymond Queneau,  René Char, Tristan Tzara (for a brief time after Dadaism and before he joined the French Communist Party), Jacques Prévert (almost all of his work would only be published 15 years later), and in his youth, Aimé Césaire. The Belgian, Henri Michaux, should be mentioned separately, because he never belonged to the movement, but drew close to it through an undeniably similar inspiration.

The painters and other artists

1. Undoubtedly Max Ernst is the greatest of Surrealist painters. Consistently exemplifying the Surrealist sensibility, Ernst experimented with all the possibilities taken up by subsequent painting: from his work Friends Reunion (Rendez-vous des Amis) (1922), constructed according to the aesthetic of the collage and heralding “pop-art”, to the lyrical abstraction of Europe After the Rain (L’Europe apres la Pluie) (1940-42), which, at the time of the Second World War marked out the path for “action painting”.

2. The Belgian René Magritte (1898-1967), upon discovering his own expressive form at the beginning of surrealism, e.g. The Lost Jockey (Le Jockey perdu), for ever after remained faithful to such precise figurative representations of impossible meetings—of which The Empire of Lights (L’Empire des Lumières), painted after the last war, is perhaps the most striking realisation.

3. Many other painters, originally from various other countries, participated in the Surrealist movement (Hans Arp, Yves Tanguy, André Masson, Victor Brauner, Salvador Dali, Oscar Dominguez, Wolfgang Paalen, Roberto Matta, Toyen, Arshile Gorki), or were to some degree influenced by its results and momentarily fell under its sign.

4. Furthermore, surrealism has defined the work of many other creators operating in other arts. For instance, the American photographer Man Ray, and the Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti (the latter for a brief time until the early nineteen thirties). Undoubtedly, the most celebrated example is that of the cineaste Luis Buñuel. In 1929 he realised, in collaboration with Salvador Dali, the short film The Andalusian Dog (Un Chien andalou), and in 1931, the longer film The Golden Age (L’Age d’Or), which was almost immediately sabotaged by activists of the extreme right and then banned by the police. In both films lies the essential expression of cinematic surrealism.

The lost poets

1. If many of the original and later participants abandoned the Surrealist revolt after a time to settle down under various artistic styles, some, on the contrary, disappeared by living this revolt to the absolute extreme—and the refusal it proclaimed. They were swept away by the madness and despair that constituted the other face of the Surrealist demand for total liberation.

2. The most well-known case is that of the poet Antonin Artaud (Umbilical Limbo, 1924[65]). An actor as well, Artaud conceived a “theatre of cruelty” (i.e. direct aggression aimed at modifying the existence of the spectator), which is today at the centre of the most advanced theatrical research. Entirely devoted to an all-consuming metaphysical revolt, and quickly proving incapable of following the attempts at political revolution which preoccupied his comrades, Artaud was soon alone, and then found himself locked away for many years in an asylum where he wrote the astonishing Letters from Rodez. He would die soon after the Second World War, released but by no means pacified (e.g., To Have Done with the Judgement of God).

3. Leaving no other work apart from the texts collected in 1934 under the title Papiers Posthumes,[66] Jacques Rigaut openly displayed his passion for suicide, comparable to that which would later rule over the Italian writer Cesare Pavese. But what was an “absurd vice” to the latter, appeared a logical necessity to Rigaut the Surrealist. He played a part in that borderline tendency of surrealism that was always inclined to contemptuously judge the acceptance of the existing conditions that evidently included Surrealist activity—despite its extreme declarations. Some years before his death, at the beginning of the movement, Rigaut would address this critique: “You are poets, whereas I am on the side of death”.[67]

4. A similar desire for self-destruction possessed René Crevel, author of the story Difficult Death (1926), and the violent pamphlet Le Clavecin de Diderot (1932). In 1925, in the second issue of The Surrealist Revolution, Crevel responded quite positively to an enquiry entitled Is suicide a solution?: “Human success is fake money, lubricant for wooden horses. […] The life that I accept is the most terrible argument against myself”.[68] In 1935 he would commit suicide according to a procedure he described exactly in his 1924 book, Détours.

5. It is necessary to place Jacques Vaché here too, who killed himself some weeks after the 1918 armistice. He had written that “I object to being killed in wartime”.[69] Met by the young André Breton in 1916 in a military hospital in Nantes, Vaché certainly exercised the stronger influence. He diverted [détourné] Breton from what still attracted him to the vocation of poet.[70] Vaché lived and affirmed a “theatrical and joyless futility of everything”.[71] Nothing of modern culture—Alfred Jarry excepted—could resist his systematic disdain. Though dead before knowing of Dada, Vaché prefigured its general attitude. As in the case of Rigaut, the sole book of Vaché’s that exists, War Letters (1919), is a posthumous collection, only containing the rare letters that he wrote, almost all of which are addressed to Breton.

IV. The history of the movement

The revolt of the spirit

1. Napoleon’s celebrated remark to Goethe, “Destiny is politics”, can be applied more absolutely to the destiny of surrealism than all other modern adventures. Surrealism quickly found itself desiring to surpass its pure voluntarism of the spirit in order to meet political reality—first as progress, then defeat. Surrealism never went beyond this defeat, and all the parallel attempts that wanted to repeat the “automatic” innocence of its beginnings were simply disgraceful repetitions.[72]

2. The idealism of surrealism’s first phase was expressed in its most extreme form by Louis Aragon. Having evoked “senile Moscow” in his contribution to A Corpse (devoted to the death of Anatole France), he found himself entangled in a polemic with Jean Bernier, editor of the communist review Clarté.[73] In the second number of The Surrealist Revolution Aragon responded: “You have chosen to isolate as a prank a phrase which testifies to my lack of appetite for the Bolshevik government, and with it all of communism. […] I place the spirit of revolt well beyond all politics. […] The Russian Revolution? forgive me for shrugging my shoulders. On the level of ideas, it is, at best, a vague ministerial crisis. It would really be prudent of you to treat a little less casually those who have sacrificed their existence to the things of the spirit.”[74]

3. Above all under the influence of Antonin Artaud, the third number of The Surrealist Revolution (April 1925) was almost entirely dedicated to a hymn for the East—in which its thinking, pessimism, and even mysticism, is clearly preferred in its entirety to the technical logic of the West.[75] Asia is the “citadel of all hopes”.[76] But it is always a question of its thought. Nevertheless, for Artaud this coexistence of purely metaphysical demands and theatrical preoccupations would lead to his expulsion the following year.

4. In the same year, 1925, the Rif rebellion in Morocco—repressed with difficulty by the united action of the French and Spanish armies—gave the Surrealists the opportunity to intervene on the political terrain. In common with the editors of the journals Clarte and Philosophies (Norbert Guterman, Henri Lefebvre, Georges Politzer), they signed the manifesto The Revolution First and Always (October 1925) which declared, “We are not utopians: we conceive this Revolution only in its social form.”[77]

5. In 1926, Pierre Naville would go even further, in his essay La Révolution et les Intellectuels—Que pensent faire les surréalistes ?[78] He would rally entirely to Marxism, presenting the proletarian struggle as the sole concrete perspective and would thus quit the Surrealist movement.

In the service of the revolution

1. Under the pressure of these experiences, the Surrealists became close to the French Communist Party. Breton, who declared himself a partisan of all revolutionary action in July 1925, “even if it takes as its starting point the class struggle, and only provided that it leads far enough,”[79] joined the Communist Party a year later, at the same time as his friends Aragon, Éluard, Péret and Unik. They presented their position in the brochure Au Grand Jour (1927).[80]

2. The disillusion was rapid. The communists showed a keen distrust of all those who adhered to strange, independent preoccupations. Breton could not bear the trivial militantism that they wanted to impose upon him.[81] At the same time they deplored the respect that the communists showed for those that the Surrealists had condemned as bourgeois cultural trash (e.g., Romain Rolland, Henri Barbusse). The Surrealists’ opposition did not extend to an analyse of the evolution of either the Russian regime or the Communist International in the previous decade. So recently born from the desire “to have an end to the ancient regime of the spirit”,[82] the Surrealists would attribute the weakness of the Party at this moment strictly to its “materialist” and political functions, founded uniquely on its defence of “material advantage” (Breton, Legitimate Defence).[83]

3. Additionally, another tendency was constituted from Surrealism. Rejecting its politicisation, this tendency would evolve into a revival of literary activity by rejecting the group discipline that established Surrealism. The essence of this current’s common expression was the revolt against Breton, who was identified—not without cause—with such discipline. Breton was the target of the virulent A Corpse of 1930, written by Raymond Queneau, Jacques Prévert, Robert Desnos, Michel Leiris, and Georges Bataille.[84] Though never a member of the Surrealist group, Bataille gathered for a time the dissidents around his journal Documents.

4. From 1930 the journal of the movement (which would cease to appear in 1933) changed its title, becoming Surrealism in the Service of the Revolution. Breton’s circle was dissatisfied with the Communist Party but declared that they would place themselves at the command of the Third International. Contrary to their opponent, Pierre Naville, who had become a partisan of Trotsky’s and his International Left Opposition, the Surrealists remained oriented toward the orthodox Communist organisation while claiming to keep their distance.

5. This ambiguous position would lead to a new crisis for Surrealism. In 1931 Aragon and Georges Sadoul rallied completely to the Communist line and renounced their Surrealist friends.[85] In 1933, Breton, Éluard and Crevel were formally excluded from the Party, because of an article in the Surrealist journal written by Ferdinand Alquié, which denounced “the wind of cretinization blowing from the USSR”.[86]

Surrealism alone

1. In France, after the fascist coup attempt of 6 February 1934, the Surrealists took the initiative of issuing a Appel à la lutte [Call to Fight],[87] which would become the first platform of the future Vigilance Committee of Intellectuals.[88] This committee, which demanded that worker organisations realise “unity of proletarian action”, would play a role in the origins of the Popular Front of 1936 in France.[89] But while the formation of the Popular Front would result in the dissipation of the contempt nourished among the left against the Communist Party—even silencing those critiques considered detrimental to common action (the intellectual milieu notably would orient itself toward a sympathetic position with the Communist Party)—the Surrealists would always find yet more adversaries in the Party, and so become more isolated. In 1933, in the brochure On the Time When the Surrealists Were Right, they denounced Soviet Russia and its “all-powerful leader under whom this regime is turning into the very negation of what it should be and what it has been”.[90]

2. The Surrealist declaration, The Truth About the Moscow Trials, read by Breton at a meeting on 3 September 1936, asserted: “we consider the verdict of Moscow, and its execution, to be abominable and unpardonable. […] We believe such undertakings dishonour a regime for ever.”[91] Stalin was denounced as “the great negator and principle enemy of the proletarian revolution.”[92] Further, “Defence of the USSR” must be replaced with the slogan “Defence of Revolutionary Spain”.[93] The same declaration saluted the revolutionary forces of the CNT-FAI and the POUM, and announced that the Stalinists “who have entered into a pact with the capitalist states, are doing everything in their power to fragment these elements [i.e. the CNT-FAI and the POUM].”[94] In 1937 the Surrealists were among those who attempted to mobilize international opinion by revealing the persecutions against the POUM and the sabotage of the Spanish Revolution. But alas, already in vain.

3. The final political foray by surrealism was made in 1938 in accord with Trotsky, exiled in Mexico. It was based upon an “International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Art”, through which they wanted to associate independent artistic creation with authentic revolutionary struggle.[95] The manifesto, written by Breton and Trotsky, but signed in place of the latter by the painter Diego Rivera, declared: “If, for the development of the material forces of production, the revolution must build a socialist regime with centralized control, then to develop intellectual creation, an anarchist regime of individual freedom must be established and assured from the very beginning.”[96]

4. The Second World War scattered the Surrealists. Breton, Péret, Tanguy, and Calas would go to the Americas,[97] whereas Éluard remained in France and definitively rallied behind the French Communist Party. It marked the end of Surrealism’s political action, and, at the same time, the termination of the truly creative phase of the movement: almost all the most important books of Surrealism had been published before 1939. The most notable artists had already appeared and had produced the essentials of their œuvre, on which they would continue to work thereafter.

5. The nineteen thirties, in which the “Surrealist revolution” met with total defeat, linked to the collapse of revolutionary perspectives across the world and the concomitant rise of fascism and the march to the Second World War, was also the time in which Surrealism became better known in many European countries, the United States, and Japan—and in which different affiliated groups were established. Several “International Expositions of Surrealism”—the first in London in 1936, the second in Paris in 1938—have demonstrated the artistic richness of the movement.


1. In France, after the war, the importance of surrealism was admitted, though initially in a paradoxical fashion. Many former Surrealists were recognised as having major artistic or literary value, but for personal works after their passage through the movement. For instance, Raymond Queneau for his novels (Pierrot mon ami, 1943, The Skin of Dreams, 1945), and his poems; Michel Leiris for his autobiography Manhood (1939); Jacques Prévert, who, with Paroles (1946) was the most popular poet of the time. Aragon and Éluard were recognised as masters of the poetry of the Resistance. Similarly, Tzara, who was also a poet of the Communist Party, though less representative. René Char, former Maquis leader, attained a certain notoriety with his Leaves of Hypnos. Henri Michaux was also discovered. Likewise, among the painters, it is Dali—having become Catholic and Francoist, and a methodical self-publicist—who offered the public a somewhat altered vision of Surrealism. In contrast, the movement was almost unknown in its real history, and figured no more in the actual avant-garde of the development of ideas. This role was now taken up by Existentialist thought and the literary productions of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Maurice Mereau-Ponty.

2. Nonetheless, as the fashions and enthusiasms of the post-war dissipated, Surrealism took its place as the principal current in modern art. A number of books contributed to illuminating this role: Maurice Nadeau’s History of Surrealism, Ferdinand Alquié’s Philosophy of Surrealism, Victor Crastre’s André Breton and Ado Kyrou’s Le Surrealisme au Cinema.[98] At the same time, the resumption of diverse cultural experimentation necessarily led to the acknowledgment of Surrealism’s contribution, insofar as it embodied almost the totality of “avant-garde” results which had to be surpassed.[99] Many foundational Surrealist books were republished in the years immediately prior to this.

3. During the entirety of this time a Surrealist group continued to exist around André Breton. The group expressed itself in a succession of journals: Medium, Le surréalisme, même, and La Brèche. The latest to date is Archibras.[100] This group, composed chiefly of young adherents faithful to Surrealist orthodoxy, preserved a formal functional likeness with surrealism before the war. For instance, it decided upon several exclusions (notably that of Max Ernst, who accepted a Prize from the Venice Biennale).[101] It cannot be said that these epigones produced any striking work whatsoever. The main change in the thought of the group was constituted by an always more distinct recourse to occult interpretations, i.e., from the “Great Initiates” to Gnosis.[102]

4. Without doubt the central contradiction of surrealism was to produce a new artistic era based on the radical refusal of art. Surrealism has always been, nonetheless, conscious of this difficulty. Knowing well that it must reach beyond the artistic world, it attempted to finally break through this frontier—along which it still meanders—by way of revolutionary practice and its expectation of finding a sort of magical path. This paramount incompatibility was aggravated by circumstance: Surrealism found its time dominated by the contradiction of the revolutionary process itself. It did not clearly recognise this contradiction and reacted to the collapse of revolutionary perspectives by reinforcing its tendency to believe in traditional magic.

5. It is in such an art wrapped in magic (an art moreover that should comment upon itself rather than produce more in order to be finished with art) that Surrealism placed its last hope. It is permissible to think that the results of such a great human project are a little paltry, and that so many of its novelties have fallen into a well-worn conformism. Nonetheless, there remains the example of a demand that bears upon the entirety of life, and the fact that this protest found its own language. Perhaps the last word on the irreducibly successful part of the Surrealist adventure can be found in this prognostication from Breton’s Second Manifesto of Surrealism: “It will fall to the innocence and to the anger of some future men to extract from Surrealism what cannot fail to be still alive, and to restore, at the cost of a beautiful ransacking, Surrealism to its proper goal.”?[103]


[1] André Breton, ‘Second Surrealist Manifesto [1930]’, in Manifestoes of Surrealism, ed. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1998, p. 164. Translation modified. No doubt Debord considered the Situationist International precisely as these future men beautifully ransacking the Surrealist project.

[2] Indeed, in the early days of the Situationist International, Debord presented the group as precisely the “movement Breton promised to rally to if it were to appear”—a promise that he never kept (at least by situationist reckoning). See, Situationist International, ‘The Sound and the Fury [1958]’, in Situationist International Anthology: Revised and Expanded Edition, ed. Ken Knabb, Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006.

[3] The classic early iteration of Debord’s critique of decomposition can be found in Report on the Construction of Situations (1957). However, its successive elaboration and transformation, particularly as it pertains to both the critique of Dada and Surrealism, and the emergence of the later critique of “recuperation”, can be traced through the following articles: One More Try if you Want to be Situationists (1957), The Sound and the Fury (1958), The Meaning of Decay in Art (1959), All the King’s Men (1963), The Situationists and the New Forms of Action in Politics and Art (1963), Captive Words (1966) and On the Poverty of Student Life (1966).

[4] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Ken Knabb, Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, [1967] 2014, thesis 191.

[5] Guy Debord, ‘All the King’s Men [1963]’, in Situationist International Anthology, ed. Ken Knabb, Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006.

[6] André Decollogny, Portrait d’une encyclopédie de l’actualité : Encyclopédie du monde actuel EDMA (Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Bibliothécaire, 1977).

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

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Jean-Francois Martos calls the Bozingos (Fr.: “les Bousingots”), an “extremist fringe” of Romanticism, “who appeared in France after the revolution of 1830, and who the Dadaists recognised as their forebears”. See, Jean-François Martos, Histoire de l’internationale situationniste, Paris: Éditions Ivrea, [1989] 1995, p. 83. Bohemian poets and artists, their members included Petrus Borel, Gérard de Nerval, Théophile Gautier, Philothée O’Neddy, Xavier Forneret and Aloysius Bertrand. For a brief account of the Bouzingos, see, Enid Starkie, ‘Bouzingos and Jeunes-France’, in On Bohemia: The Code of the Self-Exiled, ed. Cesar Graña and Marigay Graña, London: Routledge, 2017.

[11] In sum, Debord’s perspective on the movement of decomposition in poetry—and by extension all of the arts.

[12]On a touché au vers ” Literally, “we have touched upon the verse” or more colloquially, “we meddled with the verse”, or even “we have struck a blow against verse”. See, Stéphane Mallarmé, ‘Music and Letters [1895]’, in Divagations, ed. Barbara Johnson, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press, 2007, p. 183.

[13] Debord misquotes Rimbaud: “le dérèglement systématique de tous le sens”. The reference is to Rimbaud’s letter to Paul Demeny, 15 May 1871: “The poet makes himself a seer by a long, gigantic and rational derangement [dérèglement raisonné] of all the senses.”. See, Arthur Rimbaud, Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters: A Bilingual Edition, trans. Wallace Fowlie ; updated and revised by Seth Whidden, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005, pp. 306, 307.

[14] Comte de Lautréamont, ‘Maldoror [1869]’, in Maldoror & the Complete Works of the Comte de Lautréamont, Cambridge, MA: Exact Change, 2011, p. 193 (sixth canto). Translation modified. For more on the surrealist definition of beauty see section II below, ‘Surrealist values’, point 4.

[15] Guillaume Apollinaire, ‘Victory (La Victoire)’, in Calligrammes: Poems of Peace and War (1913-1916), ed. Anne Hyde Greet, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980, p. 336, 337.

[16] The term “conversation poems” [“poèmes-conversations”] was used by Apollinaire to describe his use of snippets of overheard conversations in some of his poetry. See, for instance, the poems ‘Les Fenêtres’ (Windows) and ‘Lundi Rue Christine’ (Monday in Christine Street) in Guillaume Apollinaire, Calligrammes: Poems of Peace and War (1913-1916), trans. Anne Hyde Greet, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

[17] André Breton, Anthology of Black Humor, trans. Mark Polizzotti, San Francisco: City Lights Books, [1940/5] 1997, p. 255 (‘Arthur Cravan’).

[18] Tristan Tzara, ‘[Dada] manifesto on feeble love and bitter love [1920/21]’, in The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology, ed. Robert Motherwell, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press, 1981, p. 87.

[19] For an account of Impressionism and its milieu, somewhat influenced by Debord’s critique, see T. J. Clark, The Paiting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his followers, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.

[20] See, Paul Gauguin, The Writings of a Savage, trans. Eleanor Levieux, New York: De Capo Press, 1996, p. 214 (Letter to Monfreid, October 1902, Marquesas Islands). Translation modified.

[21] The Magnetic Fields [Les Champs magnétiques] was first published in 1920.

[22] For more on the Spartakist Bund and the German Revolution of 1919, see, Gilles Dauvé and Denis Authier, The Communist Left in Germany 1918-1921, trans. M. DeSocio[1976] 2006; Pierre Broué, The German Revolution 1917-1923, trans. John Archer, Leiden: Brill, [1971] 2005.

[23] See, Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, New York: Everyman’s Library, [1881] 1992, p. 499 (part III, book 9, chapter 7, ‘Mitya’s Great Secret. Met with Hisses’). The argument regarding “everything is permitted” is first presented in part II, book 5, chapter 5, ‘The Grand Inquisitor’.

[24] This demand was inscribed on the front cover of the first issue of The Surrealist Revolution. I suspect its origin was as a sign at the Central Bureau of Surrealist Research, 15 Rue de Grenelle—cf. Louis Aragon, ‘A Wave of Dreams (Une vague de rêves) [1924]’.

[25] The citation is in fact a détournement of a negative assessment of Surrealism that the surrealists published alongside other such examples in the first issue of The Surrealist Revolution (p. 25), under the title of ‘Extracts from the Press’. The entire citation, from L’Echo d’Alger, reads: ‘Surrealism appears to be synonymous with dementia. If it succeeds in replacing other psychic mechanisms in solving the main problems of life, we can abandon all hope of solving the problem of dear life.’

[26] André Breton, ‘Manifesto of Surrealism (1924)’, in Manifestoes of Surrealism, ed. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1998, p. 3.

[27] “La vraie vie est absente.” Wallace Fowlie translated this as “real life is absent”. See, Arthur Rimbaud, ‘A Season in Hell (Une saison en enfer) [1873]’, in Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters: A Bilingual Edition, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005, pp. 280, 281 (Delirium I: The Foolish Virgin, The Infernal Bridgroom).

[28] Breton, ‘Manifesto of Surrealism (1924)’, p. 14.

[29] Antonin Artaud, ‘Address to the Pope [1925]’, in Surrealism Against the Current: Tracts and Declarations, ed. Michael Richardson and Krzysztof Fijalkowski, London: Pluto Press, 2001, p. 142; Antonin Artaud, ‘Letter to the Buddhist Schools [1925]’, in Selected Writings, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, p. 105. Translation modified.

[30] In 1924 and 1925 the Surrealist group made a series of small cards to publicise their existence, particularly that of the Central Bureau of Surrealist Research at 15 Rue de Grenelle, Paris. Some of the cards reproduced quotes from favoured writers; others had slogans that would in their turn became famously associated with the group—for instance: “Parents! Tell your children your dreams”, or “If you love, you’ll love Surrealism”.

[31] The phrase of Hegel referred to, appeared in his inaugural address at the University of Berlin in 1818: “One cannot overestimate the greatness and power of the spirit” (translation modified). In the context of his address, in particular the recent Napoleonic period, Hegel emphasised this “strength and power” not only as a moment of the struggle for independence from the recent French “tyranny”, but also its significance for “spiritual life in general”, and the pursuits of philosophy in particular. No doubt the surrealists “abuse” of this phrase was doubly ironic for Debord. It suggests both the weakness of the “strength and power of the spirit/mind [l’esprit]”, as well as precisely drawing attention to the chief contradiction of the surrealist project: that their revolution of the mind was never able to adequately address the historical materiality of the spirit. Indeed, the young International Letterist Debord attempted to address this question when he and his comrades détourned this abused phrase while addressing a question asked by the Belgian surrealist group in 1954: “Does thought enlighten both us and our actions with the same indifference as the sun, or what is our hope, and what is its value?” To which Debord and his comrades replied, in part: “This world was born of indifference, but indifference has no place in it. Thought is valuable only to the extent that it awakens demands and compels their realization. […] One cannot expect too much from the strength and power of the spirit.”

[32] The Situationist International considered “the insubordination of words” and “the assertion of the right to say everything” the radical pivot upon which the Dada and surrealist movements turned. See, Guy Debord, ‘All the King’s Men [1963],’ and Mustapha Khayati, ‘Captive Words: Preface to a Situationist Dictionary [1966]’, in Situationist International Anthology, ed. Ken Knabb, Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006.

[33] Breton, ‘Manifesto of Surrealism (1924)’, p. 26. Translation modified.

[34] André Breton, ‘The Disdainful Confession’, in The Lost Steps [Les Pas Perdus], p. 7. Debord took up this claim of Breton’s in order to argue for its supersession: “it is now a matter of a poetry necessarily without poems”. See, Debord, ‘All the King’s Men [1963]’.

[35] Breton, ‘Second Surrealist Manifesto [1930]’, p. 125. Translation modified.

[36] In his A Cavalier History of Surrealism, the situationist Raoul Vaneigem writes that “it is hard, though, to explain the failure of the [Surrealist] group to raise a similar cry in support of the Papin sisters [as they did for Violette Noziere]” (p. 26). As far as I can tell, the Surrealist group did not release a dedicated pamphlet in support of the Papin sisters, as they did for Violette Nozière (see next footnote). They did, however, register their approval of the sisters’ murder of their bosses, in the fifth issue of Surrealism at the Service of the Revolution (1933).

[37] Note that Debord reproduces the Surrealist misspelling of the surname Nozière (i.e., by adding an “s”). For more on the Surrealist support for Violette Nozière, see the poem that Breton contributed to the pamphlet the group issued in support of her: André Breton, ‘All the curtains in the world… [1923]’, in Earthlight, ed. Bill Zavatsky and Zack Rogow, Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2004.

[38] At the end of his 1935 Speech to the Congress of Writers (a speech moreover that Breton had been prevented from giving in person due to his confrontation with one of the Russian Stalinist dignitaries attending), Breton had pointedly written: “Transform the world,” Marx said; “change life,” Rimbaud said. These two watchwords are one for us. See, Breton, ‘Speech to the Congress of Writers [1935]’, p. 241. We have seen above that the quote, “change life”, was taken from Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell. The Marx quote is adapted from the final thesis of his Theses on Feuerbach. In English this is rendered as “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” In French, “change” is rendered “transformer”—i.e., to transform of change.

[39] “L’époque des sommeils”—literally “the time of sleeps” or “period of sleeps”. I have used the same term—“the time of trances”—Richard Howard used to translate this phrase in his rendering of Maurice Nadeau’s The History of Surrealism (1965). Howard had previously rendered it both hilariously and inadequately as “Nap Period” in his 1960 translation of Breton’s Nadja (p. 31). For more on the “time of trances/period of sleeps”, see, André Breton, ‘The Mediums Enter [1922]’, in The Lost Steps [Les Pas Perdus], ed. Mark Polizzotti, [1969] 1996; René Crevel, ‘The Period of Sleeping Fits [1932]’, in Radical America: Surrealism in the Service of the Revolution, ed. Franklin Rosemont, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), 1970.

[40] For a detailed account of the Dadaist visit to the church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, see, Michel Sanouillet and Anne Sanouillet, Dada in Paris, trans. Sharmilia Ganguly, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, [2005] 2012, pp. 177-180 (chapter 12, The “Great Dada Season”).

[41] André Breton, Nadja, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Grove Press, [1928] 1960, pp. 32, 80.

[42] See, in particular, the sections, ‘The Passage de l’Opera’ & ‘A Feeling for Nature at the Buttes-Chaumont’, passim., in Louis Aragon, Paris Peasant [Le Paysan de Paris], trans. Simon Watson Taylor, London: Picador Classics, [1926] 1987, pp. 27-123, 125-202.

[43] For example, the disruption of the Polti banquet. See, Maurice Nadeau, The History of Surrealism, trans. Richard Howard, Harmondsworth: Pelican Books, [1944/1964] 1978, p. 103 (chapter 6).

[44] See, ibid., pp. 122-124 (chapter 7).

[45] See, Breton, Nadja, p. 52.

[46] Ibid., p. 141.

[47] Breton, ‘Manifesto of Surrealism (1924)’, p. 4. Translation modified.

[48] For more details regarding their paradoxical positions on sexual morality, see Vaneigem’s A Cavalier History of Surrealism, pp. 49-51.

[49] See, in particular, André Breton, Mad Love [L’Amour fou], trans. Mary Ann Caws, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, [1937] 1987.

[50] Breton, ‘Preface for a Reprint of the [First] Manifesto (1929)’, p. xi. Translation modified. Note that the most commonly available translation, that by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, the translators have rendered Breton’s “une grâce que je persiste en tout point à opposer à la grâce divine” as “a grace I persist in comparing in all respects to divine grace”. A more faithful rendition would draw out Breton’s intent of confronting or opposing his conception of the grace of surrealist activity to that of the divine.

[51] Breton, ‘Second Surrealist Manifesto [1930]’, p. 123.

[52] Ibid., p. 124. Translation modified.

[53] The final sentence of Nadja reads: “La beauté sera CONVULSIVE OU ne sera pas.” “Beauty will be CONVULSIVE OR it will not be.” Breton, Nadja, p. 160. Translation modified.

[54] Ibid., pp. 159, 50. Translation modified. Note that Richard Howard renders “des fins passionnelles” as “for emotional purposes”, rather than the more appropriately surrealist, “for passionate ends”. Regarding “puzzling encounters” being the very stuff of “convulsive beauty”, recall how Debord (in section I above, ‘The crisis of poetry’, point 4), spoke of how Lautréamont “bequeathed to Surrealism its definition of beauty: ‘beautiful […] as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing machine and an umbrella’.”

[55] “I will not hesitate to say that the history of automatic writing in Surrealism has been one of continuing misfortune [une infortune continue].” André Breton, ‘The Automatic Message [1933]’, in What is Surrealism? Selected Writings, ed. Franklin Rosemont, London: Pluto Press, 1989, pp. 100-101.

[56] I translate ‘une poésie semi-élaborée’ as ‘a partially worked-up poetry’. Debord’s intent is to show how far Surrealism had moved from its founding principles, i.e., ‘pure psychic automatism’ which was consciously opposed to the productions of art.

[57] For instance, perhaps the most famous of its games, ‘Exquisite Corpse’ (cadavre exquis), was in essence a word-game that can also be considered a collective engine for the production of surrealist poems.

[58] Consider Breton’s poem, ‘Cheval the Postman (Facteur Cheval) [1932]’, in Earthlight, ed. Bill Zavatsky and Zack Rogow, Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2004.

[59] There is next to nothing of Naville’s work available in English translation, at least from his period of membership of the Surrealist group, and in particular his important Marxist critique of Surrealism which marked the beginning of the end of his membership: La Révolution et les Intellectuels (1926).Artaud’s work has long been available in a variety of accessible translations—for more on Artaud see the section ‘The lost poets’, paragraph 2, below. Aragon until recently suffered a similar fate to many surrealists, but much of his work during his membership of the group (up until his departure for Stalinist climes) has now been translated. Unfortunately, more needs to be done on translating Paul Nougé’s work, some of which has now appeared in English, but so much more remains to be seen.

[60] Similarly, much of Pierre Mabille’s and Nicolas Calas’ most important Surrealist work has not seen translation into English. For the former, see Mirror of the Marvelous ( 1998).

[61] Péret targeted his former comrades Louis Aragon and Paul Éluard, who had adopted uncritically the French nationalism espoused by the Communist Party during the war and occupation of France.

[62] Unfortunately, Péret’s literary work has received less attention from English translators and academics—perhaps due to his uncompromising radicality both artistically and politically. Selections from two of the listed works—From the Hidden Storehouse (De Derrière les Fagots), and I Won’t Stoop to That (Je ne mange pas de ce Pain-là)—are available in translation in Benjamin Péret, From the Hidden Storehouse: Selected Poems, trans. Keith HollamanField Translation Series 6, 1981; Benjamin Péret, Death to the Pigs: Selected Writings, London: Atlas Press, 1988.

[63] My translation of ‘Epitaphe pour un Monument aux Mort de la Guerre’ is available here:

[64] Breton, ‘Second Surrealist Manifesto [1930]’, p. 165. Translation modified.

[65] Published July 1925 by Editions de la Nouvelle Revue Française.

[66] Papiers Posthumes [Posthumous Papers] has not been translated in full into English. For selections, see both references to Rigaut’s works in the Bibliography below.

[67] See, Jacques Rigaut, ‘Pensées: Thoughts, Maxims, Jottings (A Selection)’, in Atlas Anthology III, ed. Alastair Brotchie & Malcolm Green, London: Atlas Press, p. 178 (no. 157). Translation modified.

[68] René Crevel and others, ‘Enquête : Le suicide est-il une solution ?’, La Révolution surréaliste, no. 2 (15 Janvier 1925), p. 13.

[69] See, Jacques Vaché, ‘War Letters [Lettres de Guerre]’, in 4 Dada Suicides, London: Atlas Press, 1995, p. 230, Vaché to Breton, 9. 5. 18 (Letter Eleven to André Breton).

[70] See, André Breton, ‘The Disdainful Confession [1923]’, in The Lost Steps [Les Pas perdu], Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996, p. 2.

[71] See, Vaché, ‘War Letters [Lettres de Guerre]’, p. 216, Vaché to Breton, X. 29-4-17 (Letter Four to André Breton).

[72] In this brief phrase we find the essence of Debord’s critique of the failings of the post-surrealist avant-gardes.

[73] For more on Aragon’s argument with Bernier, see, Nadeau, The History of Surrealism, pp. 109-110 (chapter 7).

[74] Louis Aragon, ‘Communisme et Révolution’, La Révolution surréaliste, no. 2 (15 Janvier 1925), p. 32. What is most striking regarding the claim of Aragon’s “idealism”, is that he infamously joined up with the Stalinist inheritors of the Russian Revolution some six years after writing this. The insinuation here is that his “idealism” remained constant—both in terms of his unthinking criticism of the Russian Revolution, and his later embrace of the idealism of those Western leftists who excused the totalitarian horror of Stalinism in defence of its impossible ideal.

[75] For more on this, see, Nadeau, The History of Surrealism, pp. 115-117 (chapter 7).

[76] Robert Desnos, ‘Pamphlet against Jerusalem [1925]’, in The Surrealism Reader: An Anthology of Ideas, ed. Dawn Ades, Michael Richardson, and Krzysztof Fijalkowski, London: Tate Publishing, 2015, p. 103.

[77] Parisian surrealist group, ‘The Revolution First and Always! [La Révolution d’abord et toujours!] (1925)’, in Surrealism Against the Current: Tracts and Declarations, ed. Michael Richardson and Krzysztof Fijalkowski, London: Pluto Press, 2001, p. 96. Translation modified. For more on the relationship between the surrealists and the editors of Clarte and Philosophies, see, Nadeau, The History of Surrealism, chapter 8, ‘The Moroccan War’, passim.

[78] ‘The Revolution and the Intellectuals: What do the surrealists think?’ Unfortunately, this important work has yet to be translated into English. For excerpts, and a discussion of its impact upon the surrealist group, see, Nadeau, The History of Surrealism, chapter 9, ‘The Naville Crisis’, passim.

[79] André Breton, ‘Pourquoi je prends la direction de la révolution surréaliste’, La Révolution surréaliste, no. 4 (15 Juillet 1925), p. 3.

[80] Au Grand Jour (In Broad Daylight). I have not been able to find a complete English translation of this text. For discussion of its content and context, see, Nadeau, The History of Surrealism, chapter 10, ‘Au Grand Jour’, passim.

[81] Debord would later develop a critique of such “militantism” as he saw it in the para-Trotskyist group Socialisme ou Barbarie during his brief membership, 1960-61. See, Guy Debord, ‘To the participants in the national conference of “Pouvoir Ouvrier”, 5 May 1961,’.

[82] Breton, ‘Pourquoi je prends la direction de la révolution surréaliste’, p. 2.

[83] Breton, ‘Legitimate Defence [1926]’, p. 33. The idea that the French Communist Party—and Marxism more generally—expressed a “vulgar” materialism, insofar as it was concerned with the material conditions of the proletariat’s life more than this life itself, would be taken up by Debord and the situationists as a part of their critique of the post-war “bourgeois idea of happiness” that permeated the revolutionary and non-revolutionary left. See, Situationist International, ‘Collapse of the Revolutionary Intellectuals (1958)’, Situationist International Online. For more discussion of the latter, with an eye to the context of the debate, see, Anthony Hayes, ‘The Situationist International and the Rediscovery of the Revolutionary Workers’ Movement’, in The Situationist International: A Critical Handbook, ed. Alastair Hemmens and Gabriel Zacarias, London: Pluto Press, 2020.

[84] Jacques Prévert, ‘A Corpse – excerpt (Une Cadavre) [1930]’, in The History of Surrealism, ed. Maurice Nadeau, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978. For more on the context of the writing of the 1930 A Corpse, see, Nadeau, The History of Surrealism, chapter 12, ‘The Crisis of 1929’, & chapter 13, ‘In the Service of the Revolution’, passim. For Bataille’s illuminating account of A Corpse, written some years later, see, Georges Bataille, ‘Notes on the Publication of “Un Cadavre” ‘, in The Absence of Myth: Writings on Surrealism, London: Verso, 1994.

[85] For more on this, see, Nadeau, The History of Surrealism, chapter 14, ‘The Aragon Affair’, passim.

[86] Ferdinand Alquié, ‘Lettre à André Breton, 7 mars 1933’, Le Surréalisme au service du Révolution no. 5 (1933). For more on this text and its context, see, Nadeau, The History of Surrealism, chapter 16, ‘Surrealist Politics’, passim.

[87] Dated 10 February 1934.

[88] The Vigilance Committee of Antifascist Intellectuals (Comité de vigilance des intellectuels antifascists) was founded in March 1934.

[89] See, Various, ‘Comité de vigilance des intellectuels antifascistes’ (accessed 9 April 2021).

[90] André Breton and others, ‘On the Time When the Surrealists Were Right (Du temps que les surréalistes avaient raison) [1935]’, in Manifestoes of Surrealism, ed. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1998, p. 253. Translation modified; André Breton and others, ‘When the Surrealists Were Right (excerpts)’, in Surrealism Against the Current: Tracts and Declarations, ed. Michael Richardson and Krzysztof Fijalkowski, London: Pluto Press, 2001, p. 111.

[91] Breton and others, ‘Declaration: “The Truth About the Moscow Trials” (1936)’, pp. 117, 118.

[92] Ibid., p. 118.

[93] Ibid.

[94] Ibid.

[95] Fédération internationale de l’art révolutionnaire independent, aka FIARI.

[96] André Breton, Diego Rivera, and [Leon Trotsky], ‘Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art [1938]’, in What is Surrealism? Selected Writings, ed. Franklin Rosemont, London: Pluto Press, 1989, p. 185. Translation modified.

[97] Breton, Tanguy and Calas would go to New York. Péret went to Mexico.

[98] Neither Crastre’s nor Kyrou’s books have been translated into English.

[99] Here, Debord is gesturing at the post-war avant-garde currents in Europe who were all consciously engaged with the legacy, and supersession of Surrealism and Dada: for instance, Revolutionary Surrealism, COBRA (aka The International of Experimental Artists), the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus, Letterism, the Letterist International, and ultimately the Situationist International.

[100] Medium (1953-55), Le surréalisme, même (1956-59), La Brèche 1961-65) and Archibras (1967-69). All of these journals existed in the period after Debord’s own appearance in the milieus of post-war avant-gardism, i.e., in 1951. Perhaps this is why he failed to mention one other post-war surrealist journal, Néon (1948-49).

[101] In 1954—and consequently was expelled from the group.

[102] Breton would come to speak, in 1953, of the “poetic intuition […] finally unleashed by Surrealism” as “the thread that can put us back on the road of Gnosis as knowledge of suprasensible Reality, ‘invisibly visible in an eternal mystery’.” (Breton, ‘On Surrealism in Its Living Works [1953]’, p. 304). Earlier, in the 1940s he had spoken of the beings that may even inhabit such rarefied realms—the “Great Invisibles” (Breton, ‘Prolegomena to a Third Surrealist Manifesto or Not [1942]’, pp. 293-94). However, correspondences between the Surrealist project, and older hermetic and magical traditions were not limited to the group’s late existence—see, Breton, ‘The Mediums Enter [1922]’. As Debord notes, such tendencies became more distinct after the Second World War. For instance, Sarane Alexandrine, a member of the Surrealist group after the Second World War, even believed that the surrealist Pierre Mabille “initiated” Breton “into the secrets of geomancy and prophetical astrology” sometime in the 1930s or 40s (Alexandrine cited in, Tessel M. Bauduin, Surrealism and the Occult: Occultism and Western Esotericism in the Work and Movement of André Breton, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2014, p. 24). Debord’s reference to “Great Initiates” is perhaps related to such initiations; it is also the title of Édouard Schuré’s 1889 book, Les Grands Initiés, on the subject of the ancient arts of “initiation” into the ways of esoteric and magical knowledge. Nonetheless, Breton considered such investigations as an expression of a materialist conception of the fundamental identity of thinking and the phenomena of the world. See, for instance, the late discussion of his friendship with Pierre Mabille in ‘Drawbridges [1962]’—Breton’s preface to a new edition of Mabille’s Mirror of the Marvelous (1940).

[103] Breton, ‘Second Surrealist Manifesto [1930]’, p. 164. No doubt Debord considered the Situationist International precisely as these future men beautifully ransacking the Surrealist project.

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To experiment with the creation of everyday life

situ related shenanigans over at the sinister science…

the sinister science

fig. 1. Who are the enemies of poetry? All those who use poetry as an end in-itself, not as a means for life and liberation. Which is to say all those who fetishize the poem over poetry itself. Graphic detourned from Frank Hampson’s Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, Rogue Planet, April 1956.

I wrote the following essay for the collection Suddenly Curving Space Time: Australian Experimental Poetry 1995-2015 (Brisbane: non-Euclidean Press, 2016). In the essay I perhaps too briefly and bluntly attempted to outline the radical trajectory of avant-garde and experimental art in the 20th century against what now passes for “avant-garde” and “experimental” in the cynical art markets and cafeterias. If I were to write it today, I would be more forgiving of the original surrealists. Whereas I agree with Guy Debord’s critique of the surrealists, notably that André Breton in effect fetishized the irrationality…

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Telekinetic Art Manifesto

portrait of a young pro-situ at anti-work…

the sinister science

Fig. 1. Ceci n’est pas une cuillère pliée.

Below is the veritable blast from the past–from 1997, in Canberra, when Gerald Keaney and I toyed around on the edges of surrealism, situationist inspiration and telekentic art. At the time our main enemies were the organised left and the miserable art ghetto that imagined itself avant-garde. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose...

And so the leaflet “Telekinetic Art Manifesto” was written and distributed. I presume that the telephone number at the bottom of the “leaflet” is no longer functioning.

As Gerald points out below, we are far more skeptical of the possibilities of telekinesis these days. Nonetheless, our sometime Hegelian ramblings still inspire: “It is because possibility is inexorable that rebellion is inevitable. There is no such thing as the sublime, only the possibility of liberation.” All else is BOREDOM.

Originally blogged at Gerald Keaney’s Interventions.

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Hateful anti-christams

dada-merz-situationist connection.

the sinister science

fig. 1. Raoul Hausmann, Kurt Schwitters, El Lissitzky.

“Language is only a means of understanding and of not understanding”

Back in May 2016 I translated ‘Pin’, a collaborative Dada-Merz poem by Raoul Hausmann and Kurt Schwitters first published in 1962. The poem, however, is dated 1946. PIN was a projected magazine that Raoul Hausmann and Kurt Schwitters worked on before the latter’s death in 1948. I translated the poem almost certainly because May 2016 was around the 100th anniversary of Dada. 11 years before 1957 the poem can be considered a bridge between the respective practices of Dada and Merz, and the soon to be instituted experimental practice of the situationist international. An anticipative plagiarism:

“You prefer to use language in order to understand platitudes that everyone already knowns by heart. We prefer language that will procure for you a new feeling for these new times”.

CHRISTAMS time has…

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meanwhile, over at the sinister science…

the sinister science

fig 1. Monday, 11 September 2000, outside the Crown Casino in Melbourne. Much like Where’s Wally I am somewhere in this photo. The logo in the upper left is unknown to me, but I assume is related to the source of this photo.

S12 by way of S11

On September the 11th, 12th and 13th, in the year 2000, exactly a year before the more famous 911, there was S11. ‘S11’ was the campaign we protestors organised to blockade the World Economic Forum (WEF) round held in Melbourne at the Crown Casino. Looking backward on the year 2000, from the year 2020, I recall things of little consequence, the stuff of idle chatter and gossip from that time. We wondered—inevitably—what we should be calling the days after September 11. Was S11 the entire protest, or just the first day? And if S11, why not S12…

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SF in the SI: science fiction, ideology and recuperation

Over at my other blog I’m looking at the relationship between the SI and science fiction.

the sinister science

fig. 1. “Apart from us, have any piloted ships come here?” “No one has ever come. We are extremely far from other routes. That’s why I want to keep it secret. Even my men are ignorant of the coordinates of our position.” Comic détournement in Internationale situationniste, no. 7, p. 46. Source: not known.

SF in the SI: science fiction, ideology and recuperation

About 3,500 words

1. Introduction

It is almost impossible to speak of ‘science fiction’ in relationship to the Situationist International without also speaking of what they meant by ‘utopia’. However, I plan on doing just this—at least to begin with. In this post I will briefly look at the role of science fiction (SF) in the Situationist International (SI). In a future post I will expand on this by looking at the role the terms ‘utopia’ and ‘utopian’ played in the SI (though I will touch on…

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The Sinister Science


I have started a new blog over at the sinister science. There I will continue to write about situationists and critical theory and practice, but with the added focus of science fiction. Yep, that’s right, the barely repressed science fictional nature of Notes from the Sinister Quarter in full flower.

Since I finished my PhD in 2017 I have been somewhat adrift–and not always in the dialectically positive situationist sense. When I was considering dropping out of my PhD program many years ago I toyed with the idea of turning my thesis from a critique of the situationists to a critique of written science fiction–in particular, the transformations and even avant-garde posturings of sf during the twenty years after the end of the Second World War. Now, on the back of a more comprehensive, though far from exhaustive exposure to the published sf of this period, I am keen to explore the intersections of science fiction with the critical and revolutionary theory and practice that emerged during the same time. And so, the sinister science

I will still update Notes from the Sinister Quarter from time to time, particularly if I ever finish the various–and far from finished–translations I have underway. But mostly I will be posting to the sinister science.

So see you there.

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Spectacle in Space


the spectacle in space…

Doing our bit for 50 years of cold war shenanigans and the alienation of technique and knowledge in the service of spectacular power. The text on the poster is adapted from Eduardo Rothe’s text The Conquest of Space in the Time of Power, first published in Internationale Situationniste no. 12, September 1969. The image is the justly famous photo Armstrong snapped of Aldrin at Tranquility base. A pdf of the poster is available here.

In Promethean mode, Rothe continues:

The “Conquest of the Cosmos” is the greatest spectacular expression of scientific oppression. […] The conquest of space is part of the planetary hope of an economic system which, saturated with commodities, spectacles and power, ejaculates into space when it arrives at the end of the noose of its terrestrial contradictions. Functioning as a new “America,” space must serve the states as a new territory for wars and colonies — a new territory to which to send producer-consumers and thus enable the system to break out of the planet’s limitations. […] But the revolutionary old mole, which is now gnawing at the foundations of the system, will destroy the barriers that separate science from the general knowledge that will be accessible to everyone when people finally begin making their own history. No more ideas of separate power, no more power of separate ideas. Generalized self-management of the permanent transformation of the world by the masses will make science a basic banality, and no longer a truth of state. […] Humanity will enter into space to make the universe the playground of the last revolt: the revolt that will go against the limitations imposed by nature. Once the walls have been smashed that now separate people from science, the conquest of space will no longer be an economic or military “promotional” gimmick, but the blossoming of human freedoms and fulfillments, attained by a race of gods. We will not enter into space as employees of an astronautic administration or as “volunteers” of a state project, but as masters without slaves reviewing their domains: the entire universe pillaged for the workers councils.

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The new politics?



I designed this image for an imaginary zine called ANTIANTIPOETRYPOETRY dated 1 March 2016. That means it’s been sitting in my dropbox since at least then, maybe a bit before. I called it “the new politics”.

There is little new in Trump’s playbook. Sure the details have changed. Technology has rolled on, capitalism has developed across the globe. If Trump is not a fascist, in the classical sense, then maybe he is a new type of fascist? Or emblematic of a softening of “mainstream” politics for fascism?

Fascism is a form of capital’s rule, one exception in what is already a too long exception.

Is this a new politics? Hardly. A (new) anti-politics? But politics has always been anti. It is the reduction of something to something, the rendering identical of an abstract capacity, whether as a citizen or refugee, worker or consumer.

The politics of the nation state is the work of capital, the figure of the wage-slave become the wooden puzzle and product, the dream of the utterly equivalent. The perfect subject to be organised, catalogued, integrated, empowered, and turned against one another, all under the sign of the free individual–surely a less interesting mythos than that of Cthulhu.

Be careful you masks of capital. To unleash the rule of the universal so violently and restrictively raises the question, why this measure and this life?

The shuddering wonder of it.

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On Gilles Dauvé and the Situationist International


ghosts of the future ruin

This article is available as a pdf here. I hope to publish a follow up in the near future in which I will critically examine Gilles Dauvé’s and Bruno Astarian’s critique of Marx’s value theory.

Minor update, 15 December 2018

Critical notes on Gilles Dauvé
& the Situationist International

Anthony Hayes

1. If we have learnt one thing about past struggles it is about how we are more or less consciously caught up in their betrayal. The return of the repressed gives way to the return of repression—more and less refined sublimations to which we submit or are submitted. May 1968 is fifty years in the past this year, as far away from us as the October Revolution was from those that made it up. And yet the questions they faced are both less aged and longer lived than those of us born at that time. The task is to do away with this old world of alienations, of its despair as well as its prayers of salvation. The past is littered with our glorious failures, the petrol fumes of barricades, the sweat of collectives, the corpses of public works and pollution, the rigorous abstractions and tocsin for practice and theory. The present world is a sketch for the barbarism by which capitalism falls. Between here and the future we can still dream of supersession, of the how-to of revolutionary negation that remains both the most pressing, and the furthest from our experience. Into this present falls the question of what replaces this epochal unity of design and entropy, what is the form and content of this new world espied, drowsily.

2. Were the International Situationists right to call for workers councils amidst the struggles against work that erupted in the late 1960s? Is this a dead argument, mere historiography? Or do we misapprehend its ongoing significance? The Situationists, more than their contemporaries, forcefully updated Marx’s notion of alienation. Their early suggestion was that urban games and play offered a better insight into life after the revolution. Their suggestion soon became a pointed rejection of wage labour as work under modern, spectacular conditions. Like Marx, they posed that the road of dis-alienation must follow that of alienation. In the experiences of revolutionary councils of the previous half century the Situationists found a world beyond work. But even though the councils were the most conscious expression of the proletarian revolt against capitalism, by no means did they consider them to exhaust the question of what constituted a new world. For the SI the festivities of rebellion in their manifold expressions were surer guides to a life beyond than the alien mundane of wages and conditions.

3. “I must confess that things continue as ever.” (Hegel).[1] The refusal of life as it is presently organised, characterises, to different degrees, black Africans, young rebels “without a cause” in Scandinavia, the Asturian miners who have effectively been on strike almost continuously for two years, and Czechoslovakian workers.[2] The “festive atmosphere” of the strike in Lagos [in June 1964] was also evident in Wallonia in January 1961 and in Budapest [in 1956].[3]Everywhere the question of a new revolutionary organisation is obscurely posed—an organisation that will have a good enough understanding of the dominant society so as to function effectively at all levels against this society in order to détourn it entirely, without reproducing it in any way, and “in a flash and at a single stroke sketching the form of the new world”.[4]

4. Gilles Dauvé has said that the Situationist International (hereafter ‘SI’) overestimated the role of organisation in mediating the process of communist revolution. Taking the last three years of the SI, and beyond, as an indication, perhaps we are inclined to agree with him. What seems to be clear from the dying days of the SI, was that the organisation was not just overwhelmed by its spectacular success (thus the less than useful theory of the pro-situ as an instance of the mass recuperation of the SI), but even more so the group was confused by the sketch of proletarian insurrection made in France and Italy in 1968 and 1969.

5. Guy Debord argued that ‘the central question of organisation’ became the weakest, most ‘inconsistent’ aspect of 19th century radical theory. One consequence was that both anarchists and Marxists tended to revive the ‘hierarchical and statist tactics borrowed from the bourgeois revolutions’.[5] What distinguished the Situationist conception of revolutionary organisation was that they identified it with a principle immanent to forms of struggle against capitalism and work. However, this “immanence” is necessarily contradictory. If the path of dis-alienation necessarily followed the path of alienation, then the cure to capitalism, would simply be present in the struggles against capitalism. The festivity the SI so often drew attention to among rioting youth as much as striking workers, was important. The new world was already beginning to take shape beyond the drudgery of work and the play of commodities. Similarly, workers councils would prove central to the SI conception of revolution. Unlike the hierarchical organisations that had dominated working class struggle so far, the councils were, and would be simultaneously organs of anti-capitalist struggle and a rough sketch of the coming society. There is more to dis-alienation than destroying capital, and the revolution is a festival or it is nothing.

6. Dauvé has written that the SI stood at the crux of a ‘contradiction’: the ‘historically insurmountable incompatibility between “Down with Work!” and “Power to the Workers!”.’[6] However, why this contradiction is ‘historically insurmountable’ is never clearly explained by Dauvé. Worse, if opposing capitalism by capitalist means invites insurmountable contradiction, then we get the false idea that an anti-capitalist revolution cannot be carried out by those under capitalism. The living contradiction that is the proletariat is precisely the contradiction between being reduced to mere labour-power for sale and the need and desire to be more than this. The Situationists, who demanded self-managing workers councils, made such a demand from the perspective of the abolition of alienated labour. In doing so, they faced a problem that seems intractable—at least theoretically. What constitutes a revolutionary class? Can the lived experience of proletarian negativity (the reduction of the human to labouring capacity) be the foundation for its positive negation? What is the nature of revolutionary self-organisation? Is such self-organisation the creation of the new world or just a vehicle for the destruction of the old?

7. More recently Dauvé has abandoned core aspects of his early criticism of the SI. He has tempered his criticism of the Situationist call for ‘generalised self-management’ and workers’ councils. Dauvé writes, ‘the situationist vision [of self-management] differed greatly from the usual councilist approach. If daily life is given its real broad sense, extending worker management to generalised self-management of daily life meant a qualitative leap which exploded the concept of work and managing . . . and therefore of workers’ councils: if you modify the whole of life, then production, workplace, work, and the economy cannot exist as separate domains anymore’.[7] Dauvé otherwise maintains his criticism of councilism.[8]

8. Though Dauvé accepts that the SI criticised and rejected what they also called ‘councilism’ (i.e. the ideology of councilism), he believes that they ‘owed a lot more to councilism than they ever realised’.[9] Dauvé thinks that the SI, despite their critique and rejection of ‘councilism’, bear some responsibility for the influence this ideology has exerted on the ultra-left in the wake of 1968.[10] However, why they bear this responsibility is largely left unexplained.

9. Because Dauvé’s repudiation of his earlier critique of the SI remains partial, I propose that we should revisit the Situationist demand for workers councils and ‘generalised self-management’. This allows us to better understand how the SI’s critical appropriation of the experience of workers’ councils and ‘self-management’ should not be reduced to the mere elaboration and extension of ‘councilism’. However, and perhaps most importantly, we can begin to understand that Dauvé’s own critical appropriation of the Situationist demand for the ‘abolition of work’ is flawed.

10. Dauvé has argued that the SI’s conception of the abolition of work is undermined by their demand for workers’ councils. In its stead he offers what he considers a more radical conception: the complete abolition of labour, all labour, even those forms that do not immediately appear to be labour in the present sense of the term. However, here Dauvé’s radicality is deceptive, because he depends upon an ahistorical conception of labour. His error is based upon a flawed critique of Marx’s conception of the substance of value.[11]

11. In what follows I will first examine Dauvé’s critique of the SI before turning to an examination of the Situationist conception of ‘generalised self-management’. It is my belief that such ‘self-management’ cannot be merely reduced to the ideology of self-management that Dauvé and others have criticised. Indeed, Dauvé’s partial repudiation of his earlier criticism, at least pertaining to the SI, confirms my perspective. We must remain aware that the SI, while using the idea of ‘self-management’ (autogestion) explicitly criticised its reduction to the self-management of alienated labour—thus they proposed ‘generalised self-management’.[12] Dauvé’s failure to properly account for this contributes to his erroneous ideas on labour and value.

Gilles Dauvé, critic of the Situationist International

12. Over the last forty years and more, Gilles Dauvé, in cooperation with others and alone, has attempted to critically appropriate the work of the SI into his “communisation” perspective. The way Dauvé has attempted this is by highlighting what he has called the central contradiction of the SI: that between their advocacy of the ‘abolition of work’ alongside of their call for ‘workers councils’.

13. Dauvé’s criticism of the SI resolves into two basic claims. First, he has criticised the SI for not penetrating beyond the apparent realm of the circulation of commodities, what they called ‘the society of the spectacle’, in their criticism of capitalism. Secondly, and as a consequence of the latter, the Situationists ‘exaggerated the mediation of the organisation’.[13] For Dauvé, it is this ‘exaggeration’ that led to the central contradiction of the SI’s practice—in particular after their adoption of the perspective of ‘workers councils’ in 1961. However, for the SI it was the movement of revolutionary organisation from isolated and marginal ‘micro-societies’ (like themselves) to mass movements of proletarians that held the key to resolving the contradictions of the self-organisation of workers against work.

14. Dauvé considers that what he calls ‘councilism’ and the ‘councilist ideology’ is a special case of this contradiction. Here, ‘ideology’ is used by Dauvé in Marx’s sense of the term, to refer to a body of ideas that becomes opposed to, or distorts, the social reality it purports to describe and act within.

15. Dauvé tells us how ‘councilism’ is an ideology and why it leads to the work/non-work contradiction. It begins by illegitimately abstracting from the specific, historical experience to a general principle of revolutionary proletarian self-activity—notably the experience of ‘workers councils’ in the first quarter of the twentieth century. This error enables councilism to conflate the council form of self-organisation with the goal of communist revolution.

16. For Dauvé, the SI’s ‘councilism’ is a special case because they carried out what he considers a limited criticism of councilism. The SI spoke of ‘generalised self-management’ (l’autogestion généralisée). They posed this both as an extension of, and critique of, the conception of ‘self-management’ (l’autogestion) elaborated by the ultra-left group Socialisme ou Barbarie (‘Socialism or Barbarism’, hereafter ‘SB’). Later, the SI criticised ‘councilism’ and ‘councilist ideology’ in the last issue of their journal (1969). We will consider the SI’s critique of ‘councilism’ in detail below.

17. Though Dauvé criticises what he considers the councilism of the SI, he nonetheless draws attention to what he also considers their singular achievement: the forceful rediscovery of the negative content of communist revolution. Against the positive conception of labour, and the liberation of labour via its ‘self-management’ that the SI found in SB, the Situationists reaffirmed the self-destruction of the proletariat by way of the abolition of labour. However, Dauvé believes the SI’s critique of the other aspect of ‘councilism’, namely the self-management of labour, remained incomplete.

The Situationist International: for workers councils and generalised self-management

18. The chief inspiration for the SI’s turn to the question of workers councils and self-management was Guy Debord’s brief encounter with SB in 1960 and 1961. At first this was by way of Debord’s collaboration with Daniel Blanchard (aka ‘Pierre Canjuers’), and soon after this his brief membership in the SB associated group, Pouvoir Ouvrier (‘Workers Power’, hereafter ‘PO’). As Dauvé notes, Debord and Raoul Vaneigem then sketched a criticism of SB’s and Cornelius Castoriadis’ conception of the ‘self-management of production’. However, Dauvé was initially quick to dismiss this criticism, likening it to a quantitative rather than a qualitative difference between differing conceptions of self-management: ‘Chaulieu [aka Castoriadis] confined himself to the factory, [whereas] Debord wanted to self-manage life’.[14]

19. Dauvé believes that the source of the alignment between the SI and the councilism of the SB group is to be found in the former’s conception of the ‘spectacle’ of ‘non-intervention’. Dauvé draws an analogy between the SI’s conception of ‘spectacle’—i.e. of the division between ‘actors’ and ‘spectators’ as it was initially conceived by Debord in 1957—and the SB group’s conception of ‘order-givers’ (dirigeants) and ‘order-takers’ (executants).[15] Indeed, Debord and the ‘Social Barbarian’ Daniel Blanchard made such a correspondence explicit at the outset of the encounter: ‘The relation between authors and spectators is only a transposition of the fundamental relation between order-givers and order-takers’.[16] For SB, the ‘classical’ division of capitalists and workers had given way, under the modern conditions of ‘bureaucratic state capitalism’, to the division of managerial ‘order-givers’ and managed ‘order-takers’.

20. The question for SB, then, was one of the proletarians—i.e. the ‘order-takers’—taking over the role of separated management and self-managing production.[17] Similarly, for the SI, the problem of the alienated, spectacular passivity of capitalism was to be resolved by way of the participation of all in the construction of the ‘situations’ of life—hence ‘situationists’. For Dauvé, it is precisely this correspondence between the SI and SB that drove the SI into the impasse of ‘councilism’: ‘Like Socialism or Barbarism, it saw in capital a form of management depriving proletarians of any power over their lives, and concluded that it was necessary to find a mechanism permitting the involvement of all’.[18]

21. The encounter between the SI and SB was initially the tale of a passing friendship and collaboration, ‘during long talks in bistros, and endless roamings through the city streets’, of the ‘Social Barbarian’ Daniel Blanchard and the Situationist Guy Debord.[19] The literary result of this encounter, Preliminaries toward defining a unified revolutionary program, brought key aspects of their respective projects into dialogue. However, even though the authors noted an intimacy in their respective theories (authors & spectators/order-givers & order-takers), the document is marked by a certain theoretical distance.

22. Debord’s conception of the ‘spectacle’, later elaborated into a critique of the spectacles nested within and across the circuits of capitalist production and consumption, here begins and ends at the factory gates. ‘Outside of work’ the spectacle dominates the culture of ‘leisure’ and the capitalist representations of space and time.[20] On this basis, Blanchard and Debord write that the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, as production and spectacle, begins with ‘the management of production and work by the workers themselves’, which ‘would immediately imply a radical transformation of the nature of work’.[21]

23. In the early phase of the encounter between the SI and SB, the commonality of their criticism was emphasised. In particular, both groups had come to believe against the Marxist orthodoxy of the time that the ‘problem’ of work was not to be solved by leaving ‘more and more “free” time to individuals […]. The problem is to make all time a time of liberty and to allow concrete freedom to embody itself in creative activity.’[22] Where they differed was over how such a ‘problem’ would be solved. For SB it was a question of how ‘to put poetry into work’.[23] Whereas increasingly for the SI, partly as a result of the encounter with SB, it was a question of overcoming the reciprocal alienations of work-time and leisure-time. Work, as much as leisure as it presently existed, could never figure as the basis for a new type of free activity.

24. In a 2014 interview, Raoul Vaneigem speaking of the encounter with SB, said that ‘we had to revalorise the artist past of the SI’.[24] Despite finding discussion and advocacy of ‘workers councils’ and ‘self-management’ [autogestion], Vaneigem believes that SB were unable to fully exploit such ideas beyond their single-minded focus on the critique of bureaucracy. ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie […] lacked what we had: poetry, that is to say, self-management, which was the poetry of the proletariat rediscovering its everyday life, rediscovering the veritable substance of class struggle: the self-management of everyday life’.[25]

25. Every revolution has been born in poetry, has first of all been made with the force of poetry. This phenomenon has escaped and continues to escape theorists of revolution—in fact, it cannot be understood if one still clings to the old conceptions of revolution or poetry—but it has generally been sensed by counterrevolutionaries. Poetry terrifies them. Wherever it exists they do their best to get rid of it by every kind of exorcism, from auto-da-fé to pure stylistic research. Those times of real poetry, which have “uncounted aeons of eternity before” them, seeks each moment to reorient the entire world and the entire future to its own ends. As long as poetry lasts, its demands admit of no compromise. It brings back into play all the unsettled debts of history. Fourier and Pancho Villa, Lautréamont and the dinamiteros of the Asturias (whose successors are now inventing new forms of strikes), the sailors of Kronstadt and Kiel, and all those around the world who, with or without us, are preparing to fight for the long revolution are also the emissaries of the new poetry.[26]

26. At the beginning of the Situationist project, Debord argued that the group should stake its ground on a new terrain: the battleground of leisure. It was here, where the alienations of labour-power and capital were being rapidly extended throughout the social field, reconfiguring the time away from work in the image of wage-slavery, there appeared the new labours of leisure and mass consumption. Debord argued that this extension of ‘the alienation of the old world’ was by no means its amelioration, but rather the more extensive development of alienation, and so too the extension of the terrain of contestation.[27] In opposition to capitalist leisure-time, Debord and the early SI proposed the ‘hypothesis of the construction of situations’.

27. From the start, the Situationist project, as found in the ‘hypothesis of the constructed situations’ and the conception of the ‘battle of leisure’, contained an implicit critique of alienated labour, and the idea that such labour could be either a model for, or a positive point of departure for a dis-alienated life. It was the encounter with SB that allowed the SI to transform the hypothesis from a critique of leisure time to a more full-bloodied critique of the reciprocal and entailed alienations of work and non-work. As Debord said of SB’s conception of political and critical practice, ‘revolution is not “showing” life to people but making them live’.[28]

28. Dauvé has argued that the construction of situations ‘founds what is only a materialist theory of personal relationships […]. [T]he notion of the “construction of situations” isolates the relation between subjects from the totality of relations’.[29] In the founding document of the SI, Debord argued the experimental use of the city that he and his comrades had charted in the 1950s—through their ‘dérives’ and ‘psychogeographical studies’—had led them to pose the ‘hypothesis of the construction of situations’.[30] Much like the Situationist concept of ‘détournement’, the ‘hypothesis of the construction of situations’ was not conceived as a theory—of personal relations, as Dauvé puts it—but rather as a ‘working hypothesis’ liable to correction or abandonment depending upon further research.[31]

29. Despite the importance the SI placed upon the cultivation of friendship against and beyond the reduction of human relations to economic relations, the critical perspective of this hypothesis was never one of merely the construction of personal relationships. Rather, the SI hypothesised the construction of situations on the basis of the already present possibilities under capitalism i.e. for the transformation of ‘decors’, ‘environments’, ‘behaviours’ and the totality of social and natural relations. As Debord would later remark, ‘the next rise of the revolutionary movement […] will invent and propose another use of everyday life’.[32]

30. We can best understand the continuing importance of the SI’s hypothesis as a contribution to this project in the present. To be fair to Dauvé, we could read the Situationist hypothesis as a theory of personal relations that are yet to come. But even here, the Situationist perspective always remained that of the social-natural totality, of the conditions that enabled personal relations, and most importantly of all, the transformation of both such personal relations and the social-natural conditions that enabled them. As a preliminary conclusion we therefore must note that Dauvé fails to appreciate how the SI integrated the entire materiality of capital into their critique of capitalist leisure.

31. In PO (Pouvoir Ouvrier) and SB, the SI found an analogue of the factory. A spectacular order of “actors” —the teachers, intellectuals and old-timers of the group—and an order of “spectators” —the usually younger militants, university students, apprentice intellectuals, etc. However, in his critique of PO, Debord attempted to do more than understand how the spectacular organisation of labour in capitalist society had penetrated the revolutionary organisation—not a surprising result given the omnipresence of capitalist social relations. Debord also asked why such a state of affairs remained uncriticised, and fatalistically accepted as inescapable short of a “revolutionary” transformation.

32. Without any real attempt to understand the shortcomings of this particularly revolutionary organisation, such an imagined transformation was of a magical order. Of course, we must understand these shortcomings as flowing from the limitations of human activity under hierarchical relations of production. In Debord’s resignation letter we can recognise the critique of organisational forms and behaviours familiar to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the far-left. ‘PO, founded on the contestation of all aspects of current society, is not particularly favourable to the contestation of the least of its own habits’.[33]

33. In 1961, shortly after Debord’s resignation from PO, the SI—while noting the important work of SB, particularly with regards to their critique of ‘bureaucratic state capitalism’—also offered the following criticism: ‘those who put all the stress on the necessity of changing work itself, of rationalising it and of interesting people in it, neglect the idea of the free content of life (i.e. of a materially equipped creative power that that would be developed beyond the “classic” conception of labour-time—already modified—as well as beyond rest-and-recreation time), and so run the risk of providing an ideological cover for a harmonisation of the present production system in the direction of greater efficiency and profitability without at all having called into question the experience of this production or the necessity of this kind of life’.[34] Here, the SI’s forceful repudiation of taking over or self-managing ‘the present production system’ was accompanied by a poetic vision that owed more to their conception of the construction of situations than Castoriadis’ dry, economistic elaboration of the content of socialism: ‘The free construction of the entire space-time of individual life is a demand that will have to be defended against all sorts of dreams of harmony [in the minds] of the aspiring managers of the coming social reorganisation’.[35] Less than two years later the SI even more forcefully argued that SB’s project to self-manage production (‘a sort of nostalgia for earlier forms of work’) in effect ‘abandoned the very core of the revolutionary project, which is nothing less than the suppression of work in the current sense (as well as the suppression of the proletariat) and of all the justifications for older forms of work’.[36] In short, SB’s perspective ‘neglects the possibility […] of replacing work with a new type of free activity’.[37] Such demands—for ‘a new type of free activity’, and ‘the free construction of the entire space-time of individual life’—would remain at the centre of what the SI would later call ‘generalised self-management’.

34. A Situationist, Isidore Ducasse, or maybe someone else once wrote that, ideas improve. The meaning of words plays a role in that improvement. Plagiarism is necessary; progress implies it. It closely grasps an author’s sentence, uses his expressions, deletes a false idea, replaces it with the right one.[38] The Situationist conception of ‘generalised self-management’ is a case of détournement, i.e. plagiarism consciously aimed at the supersession of the original. Not just imitation of expression, but its correction by way of development; its improvement via deletion and replacement. The SI détourned self-management (autogestion) from SB—not to mention further afield, in the works of Anton Pannekoek for instance. Per Vaneigem’s recent comments, SB were not able to develop the immanent radicality of self-management, as demonstrated by its reduction to the self-management of production. The social barbarians possessed a model of revolution in which poetry would be applied post-festum to the existing forms of production, and so work would become both the ‘font of life’ and mark the limits of human freedom.[39] As Debord would later say about the enigmatic Hamburg Theses, the breaks he, Vaneigem and other members made in 1961 and 1962 ‘meant that we should no longer pay the least importance to any of the conceptions of revolutionary groups that still survived as heirs of the old social emancipation movement destroyed in the first half of our century’.[40] Now, the SI spoke about work like they had once spoke of being with and against art and culture. This position is undoubtedly paradoxical, and ‘risky’ as the group later acknowledged.[41] Nonetheless, even amidst the use of artistic means against art, such as the elaboration of the hypothesis of the constructed situation, Debord was clear regarding the negativity of their détournements: ‘We wish to transform these times (to which everything we love, beginning with our experimental attitude, also belongs) and not to “write for it” as self-satisfied vulgarity intends’.[42] The Situationists hailed the negative dialectic by proclaiming themselves ‘artists only insofar as we are no longer artists’, inscribing a ‘poetry necessarily without poems’.[43]

35. One of the first attempts at theoretical détournement was the brief assessment of the Paris Commune by Debord, Vaneigem and Attila Kotányi. Written immediately after the resignation and expulsion of artist members of the SI, the Commune was reimagined in its strengths and weakness—its chief strength being its ‘existence in acts’ (Marx). The SI proposed that we have more to learn from the ‘failures’ of the revolutionary workers movement than the ‘apparent successes’ (like “really existing socialism” in 1962). Reconceived for the present, as a sketch of possibilities and freedom rather than as the doom of structural fate, the poetry of the commune was primarily negative: the destruction of the old world, and the opening abyss of the new.

The story of the arsonists, who in the last days of the Commune came to destroy Notre-Dame, and clashed there with an armed battalion of artists, is rich in meaning. It is a good example of direct democracy. Furthermore, from the perspective of the power of the councils, it also shows problems yet to be solved. Were these artists right to unanimously defend a cathedral in the name of eternal aesthetic values, and so ultimately also in the name of the museum? Meanwhile other men justly wanted to grasp the expression of their day, and through the demolition inscribe their total opposition to a society—which at its moment of victory over them, consigned their lives to nothingness and silence.[44]

The commune as festival was by no means the invention of the SI. But the recognition that its lasting significance was to be found in what some communards proposed to destroy—a condition that requires illusions—would prove crucial to the elaboration of generalised self-management.

36. The term ‘generalised self-management’ (l’autogestion généralisée) first appears in the SI’s article, The class struggle in Algeria. The Situationist sense is that of its emergence from class struggle: ‘Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, a witness to the Paris Commune, noted, “For the first time one can hear the workers exchanging their opinions about problems that until now have been tackled only by philosophers.” The realisation of philosophy, the critique and free reconstruction of all the values and behaviours imposed by alienated life—this is precisely the maximum program of generalised self-management.’[45] Here, the SI attempted to understand and distinguish those tendencies of ‘self-management’ that had begun to emerge in proletarian class struggle from the official policy of ‘self-management’ promulgated by the state socialist regime of Ben Bella. Dauvé would later accuse the authors of ‘distort[ing] the facts concerning Algeria after Boumédiène’s coup d’etat’ by advocating workers self-management and its extension, ‘without the destruction of the State and key transformations in society’.[46] But here, selective quotation triumphs over a more considered reading.[47] As the SI had argued in the first of their two pamphlets which circulated clandestinely in Algeria in 1965, the only ‘alternative is now between the militarised bureaucratic dictatorship and the dictatorship of the “self-managed sector” extended to all production and all aspects of social life’.[48] The conception of the conditions of this ‘extension’ was never left in doubt by the authors: ‘not only the defence of self-management but its extension to the point of dissolving all specialised activity not under self-management’.[49] Certainly we can retrospectively charge the SI with misunderstanding the situation in the immediate wake of the 1965 coup. But such a charge cannot deny the context in which the SI intervened in the unfolding situation—i.e. on the basis of advocating the revolutionary overthrow of state power: ‘self-management, by the simple fact that it exists, threatens all of society’s hierarchical organisation. It must destroy all external control because all the external forces of control will never make peace with it as a living reality, but at most only with its label, with its embalmed corpse. Wherever there is self-management there cannot be an army, police or state’.[50] Indeed, in the reckoning of the SI it was this perceived threat that motivated not only Ben Bella’s attempts to corral proletarian self-organisation, but also the Boumédiène’s coup d’état that was in effect the militarised continuation of the Ben Bella regime’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt at legislative recuperation.

37. Perhaps the clearest elaboration of the difference between the SI’s conception of self-management, and that of councilist groups like PO and SB can be found in the Situationist’s most infamous publication, On the Poverty of Student Life, penned by Mustapha Khayati. Nonetheless, it is redolent of what Dauvé would typify as the incomplete or ambiguous nature of their critique of the ideology of self-management. The critique of the commodity and labour, and the necessity for the complete abolition of labour as it exists, jostles with the Situationist conception of proletarian self-activity as the emergent tasks of the workers councils:

The principle of commodity production is the loss of self in the chaotic and unconscious creation of a world that completely escapes its creators. In contrast, the radically revolutionary core of generalised self-management is everyone’s conscious control over the whole of life. The self-management of commodity alienation would only make everyone the programmers of their own survival: squaring the capitalist circle. The task of the workers councils will thus not be the self-management of the existing world, but its unceasing qualitative transformation: the concrete supersession of the commodity (that gigantic detour in the history of human self-production).

This supersession naturally implies the abolition of work and its replacement by a new type of free activity, thereby the abolition of one of the fundamental divisions of modern society: that between an increasingly reified labour and a passively consumed leisure. Presently decomposing groups like Socialisme ou Barbarie or Pouvoir Ouvrier, although rallying to the modern slogan of Workers’ Power, on this crucial point continue to follow the path of the old workers movement by envisioning a reformism of labour through its “humanisation.” But work itself must be attacked. Far from being “utopian,” this abolition in the everyday life of everyone is the first condition for the effective supersession of commodity society, and for the abolition of the separation between “free time” and “work time”—those complementary sectors of alienated life where the contradiction between use-value and exchange value are continually projected. It is only beyond this opposition that people will be able to make their vital activity an object of their will and consciousness and see themselves in a world that they themselves have created. The democracy of workers councils is the solution to the enigma of all the present separations. It renders “impossible everything that exists outside individuals”.[51]

38. In The Society of the Spectacle, Debord spoke of workers councils in an ambivalent fashion. On the one hand he hailed them, in the words of Marx on the Paris Commune, as ‘the political form at last discovered in which the economic emancipation of labour could be realised’.[52] On the other hand, he spoke of the actual history of councils in the 20th century as ‘no more than a brief sketch’ of a form that poses problems ‘rather than providing a solution’.[53] The council form for the SI, despite reservations, was a first stab at overcoming the fragmentations of capitalist social relations—of communication, hierarchy and the division of labour. Or, as Vaneigem put it in a more tragic register, ‘despite their mistakes and their poverty, I see in the historical experience of workers’ councils (1917, 1921, 1934, 1956), and in the pathetic search for friendship and love, a single and inspiring reason not to despair over present “reality”.’[54] What electrified the SI about the potential of the councils was what they posed by their very existence the possibility of the self-production of life as opposed to the production of an alien power that ruled over it: ‘With the power of the councils […] the proletarian movement becomes its own product, and this product is nothing other than the producers themselves’.[55] The councils which appeared ‘in the first quarter of the century’ were the ‘highest reality’ of this now vanished revolutionary movement—as opposed to the parodic horror of ‘really existing socialism’. In their present (1967) attempts to reconstitute a revolutionary movement, ‘this result returns as the only undefeated point of the defeated movement’.[56] However, the question is not one of restaging the past, but rather posing the project which emerged from the councils as ‘no longer at the periphery of what is ebbing, but at the centre of what is rising’.[57] Which is to say workers councils as the pivot of generalised self-management.

39. The greatest revolutionary idea concerning urbanism is not itself urbanistic, technological or aesthetic. It is the decision to reconstruct the entire environment in accordance with the needs of the power of workers councils, of the anti-state dictatorship of the proletariat, of a dialogue that can be carried out. Such councils, which can be effective only if they transform existing conditions in their entirety, cannot assign themselves a smaller task if they wish to be recognized as well as recognize themselves in a world of their own making. […] This “historical mission of establishing truth in the world” cannot be accomplished by either the isolated individual, or the atomized masses subjected to manipulation. Now, as ever, it is that class which is the dissolution of all classes that is capable of taking back power in the dis-alienated form of realised democracy, [which is to say] the councils, in which practical theory oversees and controls its own actions. This is possible only where individuals are “directly linked to universal history”, and only where dialogue arms itself to make its own conditions victorious.[58]

40. With the ‘lovely month of May’ of 1968, and its immediate aftermath, the SI came to see itself as engaged in the project of fashioning a ‘councilist organisation’ which advocated ‘workers councils’. However, and this point is crucial, the SI declared that ‘such an organisation sees the beginning and end of its program in the complete decolonization of everyday life. It thus does not aim for the self-management [autogestion] of the existing world by the masses, but at its uninterrupted transformation’.[59] In the wake of the May movement, Debord argued that one could not simply reduce their demand for workers councils ‘to some “workers’ power” limited to some sort of pseudo-control of the production of their own alienation’, but rather conceive of it in terms of the ‘total autonomous power’ of a self-organising, revolutionary proletariat.[60]. Or, as Vaneigem put it, ‘outside [of] generalized self-management’ the demand for ‘workers councils loses [its] meaning’—which is to say, the SI’s demand for ‘a new type of social organization through which the proletariat puts an end to the proletarianisation of everyone’.[61] For Situationist René Riesel the ‘victory of the councils is not the end of the revolution, but the beginning of it’.[62] No doubt we can take issue with the SI’s belief that workers councils could be instances of, or the basis for such ‘new type[s] of social organisation’. Indeed, considering the complete absence of workers councils in 1968, Dauvé and other critics of the SI are on firmer ground when they call into question the SI’s optimism[63]—for instance, when Debord infamously wrote ‘the occupations movement [of May] was objectively at several moments only an hour away’ from the constitution of workers councils’[64]).

41. After May 1968, and the blossoming of interest in the history of council communism (a fact, no doubt motivated in part by the role of the Stalinist French Communist Part in May 1968), the SI drew a distinction between their conception of workers councils as a departure and pivot of generalised self-management and those contemporaneous demands for the self-management of production. Thus, it is not surprising that they came to develop a criticism of what they called ‘councilism’ and the ‘councilist ideology’.[65] They defined ‘councilism’ as falling into two main types: First, ‘the social-democratic or Bolshevik ideologies about the councils’. Secondly, those ‘council communist’ conceptions with which they felt a closer affinity. Of the two main types, it was the latter that most interested them, as those that held to it put the council at the centre of their practice (as opposed to Bolshevik ‘councilism’, which conceived of the councils chiefly as a vehicle for the rise to dominance of a “revolutionary” workers’ party and so-called ‘workers state’). Against those communists who emphasised the workers council along the models of those that had emerged historically, the Situationist Riesel argued that in practice these councils had tended to reduce ‘the general assemblies of the rank and file’ to ‘mere assemblies of electors, so that the first level of the “council” is situated above them’.[66] Thus, they had reconstituted the ‘element of separation’ over and against the experience of the ‘highest moments of their practice’—i.e. ‘when all decisions were made by sovereign general assemblies’.[67] Here, the SI’s critique of the problem of representative democracy was given precedence. Nonetheless, and despite some fairly vague statements about the possibilities for the council form to exceed the self-management of production,[68] Reisel’s article on workers’ councils was by far the most councilist of all of the Situationist writings—i.e., councilist in Dauvé’s sense of the term.

42. By the time Debord and Gianfranco Sanguinetti wrote and published the final document of the SI in 1972, Dauvé argues that they proposed ‘nothing but councilism’ to the proletariat.[69] If one examines this document, it is hard to draw Dauvé’s absolute conviction.[70] Nonetheless, an argument was taking place within the SI and its immediate milieu. In a document written some months before his resignation, amidst the interminable ‘orientation debate’ within the SI, Raoul Vaneigem spoke of ‘implicit tendencies manifesting themselves among us (toward pure councilism, for example)’ against which he suggested ‘our specificity could be reinforced’.[71] Debord agreed with Vaneigem’s suggestion, writing ‘despite their great historical and programmatic interest, the Workers’ Councils of the past were obviously insufficient experiments, and actual councilist organisations are still far from existing. A vague councilist fashion has developed, even among idiots. We have no reason to take our place in it; but to disturb it, starting from today. In the sense of total content that the Councils must attain, in the sense of what the SI can and must do so that this power can exist in reality, I will summarize my thesis in a phrase: it is not so much that the situationists are councilists, it is the councils that will have to be situationist.’[72].


43. Dauvé has said that the SI ‘failed to see that autonomous self-management of factory struggles can only be a means, never a goal in itself nor a principle.’[73] However, it is clear that the SI never saw the self-management of workplaces as an end in-itself, but rather only as a means, i.e. an opening toward ‘generalised self-management’. For the group the principle of self-management was the important thing, and thus their détournement eschewed and criticised SB’s conception of the self-management of production. One could argue that such a position does not extend beyond the anodyne of calling for ‘self-organisation’. However, it is precisely the explicit critique and rejection of work by way of Marx and Dada, and its opposition to both orthodox Marxist and anarchist conceptions that marks out the SI’s conception of self-organisation.[74] Dauvé has argued that capitalist ideology has ‘blurred the difference’ between the real need for revolutionary self-organisation and the dead end of self-managing our own alienation.[75] To the extent that “critical” perspectives take up the capitalist notion of labour, including those that derive such a conception from Marx (particularly the Marx of the Critique of the Gotha Program), is the extent to which labour is conceived as not merely one premise of human life—which it is—but the essence of life itself. This is Cornelius Castoriadis’ belief, and by extension most of the SB group that the Situationists encountered from 1960 and on. ‘Self-management’ when it is appended to ‘work’ or ‘production’ in the sense of existing capitalist social relations of production is, without doubt, the becoming ideological of revolutionary self-organisation. However, it is hard to reconcile Dauvé’s critique of the SI with the SI’s attempt to détourn SB’s notion of self-management with and against work.

44. Vaneigem spoke of the SI as being ‘combatants between two worlds: one that we do not acknowledge, the other that does not yet exist’.[76] He evoked the apparent paradox of taking up a revolutionary perspective within capitalism—of being of and against this world. The problem of revolutionary self-organisation is of a similar order. On the one hand, self-organisation emerges on the basis of alienated labour; on the other hand, it is through such self-organisation that the beyond of wage-labour is charted. For the SI, workers councils constituted a potential break with capital to the extent that they posed the radical participation of all in the poetic reconstruction and festive reappropriation of life beyond wage slavery. Such organisation seems contradictory to the extent that it is of this world and yet against this world. Dis-alienation follows the path of alienation. This is not to argue that one can ‘combat alienation by alienated means’, but rather to note the emergence of dis-alienation from the experience of alienation.[77] Certainly, to the extent that such councils merely self-manage alienation, or fetishize capitalist forms of labour, they must be rejected. Vaneigem also spoke of the ‘positive pole of alienation’ constituting ‘the end of social alienation’.[78] It is this sense of the revolutionary solution to alienation—of alienation being the ground of the rupture with alienation—that Dauvé loses by focussing on the appearance of contradiction.

45. In the next part of this article I will turn to a more detailed examination of Dauvé’s critique of Marx, labour and value. It is here that we will find the philosophical error upon which he has built his critique of the Situationists, among others.

Argentina — Chile, 2018

Thanks to Alistair Hemmens, Peter Jovanovic and Gerald Keaney for editorial assistance and suggestions.


[1] Hegel, letter to F. Creuzer, October 30, 1819. Note that the last quote of this paragraph is also from Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, Preface, paragraph 11.

[2] Here, ‘black Africans’ refers to the Kwilu and Simba rebels in the Congo in 1964. For more on the Asturian miners’ strike in Spain, see Guy Debord. ‘The Asturian Strike [1963]’. For more information on the online availability for most citations check the Bibliography below.

[3] Here, ‘Wallonia’ refers to the general strike in Belgium over the summer of 1960-61. The strike in Lagos was part of a two week long general strike in Nigeria in June 1964.

[4] Internationale Situationniste. ‘Le monde dont nous parlons.’ International Situationniste, no. 9 (Août 1964), p. 20.

[5] Guy Debord. La Société du Spectacle. Third ed. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, [1967] 1992, thesis 90.

[6] Gilles Dauvé, ‘Back to the Situationist International (2000)’.

[7] This comment is to be found in a footnote appended to the new introductory remarks Dauvé wrote for chapter four of Eclipse and Re-emergence of the Communist Movement. These ‘new’ remarks are dated ‘1997-2013’. See, Gilles Dauvé and François Martin. Eclipse and Re-Emergence of the Communist Movement. Oakland: PM Press, [1972/1973/1974/1997] 2015, fn. 1, pp. 99/158, and p. 100.

[8] Similarly, he appears to have given up on his attack on the concept of spectacle: ‘today I would not write that the IS [i.e. Internationale Situationniste] had no “understanding of capital.” While its critique focused more on commodity than on capital, on alienation than on exploitation, it did not ignore the wage-labour/capital relation, hence class struggle, though Situationists approached it via an emphasis on commodity’.[8] I will return to the question of spectacle in a future article in which I will examine and criticise Dauvé’s concept of value.

[9] Ibid, p. 154.

[10] Ibid., p. 99.

[11] Briefly, Dauvé believes that Marx was wrong to associate communism with the idea of ‘saving time’ from ‘necessary’ labour. Here, Dauvé follows the Situationists, to an extent, insofar as he agrees with their criticism that ‘free time’ in capitalism is increasingly an expanded moment of the (re)production of the social relation. However, Dauvé extends this criticism in order to say that necessarily ‘labour’ which entails ‘time-counting’ and ‘time-saving’ is ‘value production’, or could form the basis for a return to capitalistic production. I will examine this belief of Dauvé’s in more detail in a following article.

[12] It is true that the SI’s conception of ‘self-management’ was often a democratic one; however, it is unclear that ‘democracy’ constituted a universal principle of self-management for Situationists (for instance, Debord’s playful and strategic approach to the creation of situations is difficult to reduce to a democratic process).

[13] Jean Barrot [Gilles Dauvé]. ‘Critique of the Situationist International [1979].’ In What is Situationism? A Reader, edited by Stewart Home. San Francisco: AK Press, 1996.

[14] Barrot [Dauvé]. ‘Critique of the Situationist International [1979].’

[15] Note I have used Maurice Brinton’s translation of ‘dirigeants’ and ‘executants’ as respectively ‘order-givers’ and ‘order-takers’, for the sake of clarity and consistency. See Maurice Brinton. For Workers’ Power: The Selected Writings of Maurice Brinton. Oakland: AK Press, 2004.

[16] P. Canjuers [D. Blanchard] & G.-E. Debord. ‘Preliminaires pour une definition de l’unite du programme revolutionnaire [20 juillet 1960].’ In Guy Debord Œuvres, pp. 511-18. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2006, part I, thesis 7.

[17] In some ways, SB’s sense of the immanence of self-management in the social relation—i.e. the idea that one only had to do away with the order-takers in order to unleash proletarian autonomy and so too communism—resonates with the later ideas of Toni Negri.

[18] Gilles Dauvé, Serge Quadruppani & J.-P. Carasso. ‘L’Internationale Situationniste’, in ‘Le roman de nos origines’, from La Banquise No. 2, 1983. Translation modified.

[19] Daniel Blanchard. Debord, in the Resounding Cataract of Time, 1995.

[20] Canjuers [Blanchard] & Debord. ‘Preliminaires pour une definition de l’unite du programme revolutionnaire [20 juillet 1960]’, part I, thesis 7.

[21] Ibid., part II, thesis 1.

[22] Cornelius Castoriadis. ‘On the Content of Socialism, II [1957].’ In Cornelius Castoriadis Political and Social Writings: Volume 2, 1955-1960, edited by David Ames Curtis. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988, p. 107.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Raoul Vaneigem. Raoul Vaneigem: Self-Portraits and Caricatures of the Situationist International [2014]. Translated & détourned by Not Bored from the French Rien n’est fini, tout commence [2014], 2015.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Internationale Situationniste [Guy Debord]. ‘All the King’s Men.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 8 (Janvier 1963), p. 32.

[27] G.-E. Debord. ‘Rapport sur la construction des situations et sur les conditions de l’organisation et de l’action de la tendance situationniste internationale [1957].’ In Guy Debord Œuvres. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2006.

[28] G.-E. Debord. ‘Pour un jugement révolutionnaire de l’art [février 1961].’ In Guy Debord Œuvres. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2006.

[29] Barrot [Dauvé]. ‘Critique of the Situationist International [1979].’

[30] Debord. ‘Rapport sur la construction des situations […] [1957].’

[31] Ibid.

[32] G.-E. Debord. ‘Perspectives de modification conscientes dans la vie quotidienne.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 6 (Août 1961).

[33] Guy Debord. ‘Aux participants à la conférence nationale de Pouvoir ouvrier (5 mai 1961).’ In Correspondance volume II septembre 1960 – décembre 1964, edited by Patrick Mosconi.

[34] Internationale Situationniste. ‘Instructions pour une prise d’armes.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 6 (Août 1961), p. 4.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Internationale Situationniste [Raoul Vaneigem]. ‘Domination de la nature, idéologies et classes.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 8 (Janvier 1963), p. 4.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Isidore Ducasse, ‘Poésies [1870]’.

[39] Indeed, Castoriadis would make this insight into the basis of his critique of Marx’s conceptions of the ‘realms’ of freedom and necessity throughout human history, and so too beyond capitalism. See, ‘On the content of Socialism, II (1957)’ and ‘Modern Capitalism and Revolution’ (1960-61).

[40] For more information on the Hamburg Theses, see, Guy Debord. ‘Les thèses de Hambourg en septembre 1961 (Note pour servir à l’histoire de l’Internationale Situationniste) [1989].’ In Internationale situationniste : Édition augmentée, 1997 and Anthony Hayes. ‘How the Situationist International became what it was.’ Australian National University, 2017.

[41] Internationale Situationniste. ‘L’Operation Contre-Situationniste Dans Divers Pays.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 8 (Janvier 1963).

[42] G.-E. Debord. ‘Encore un effort si vous voulez être situationnistes : L’I.S. dans et contre la décomposition [1957].’ In Guy Debord : Œuvres. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2006.

[43] See, Internationale Situationniste. ‘Le questionnaire.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 9 (Août 1964), and Internationale Situationniste [Guy Debord]. ‘All the King’s Men.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 8 (Janvier 1963).

[44] Guy Debord, Attila Kotányi and Raoul Vaneigem. ‘Sur la commune [1962].’ In Guy Debord Œuvres, pp. 628-633. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2006, thesis 10.

[45] Internationale Situationniste [Guy Debord & Mustapha Khayati]. ‘Les luttes de classes en Algérie [orig. décembre 1965].’ International Situationniste, no. 10 (Mars 1966), p. 19. Debord and Mustapha Khayati were the chief authors of this work. However, as it appeared under the collective editorial by-line of the group it is hard to say for sure that he was the originator of the term—a term, more often than not, associated with Vaneigem’s elaboration before and after his departure from the SI. For instance, Vaneigem contributed to an early draft of the pamphlet ‘Adresse aux révolutionnaires d’Algérie et de tous les pays’. See, Guy Debord letter to Mustapha Khayati, 7 June 1965. There is a case to be made for Khayati’s later, more ‘orthodox’ interpretation of Marx’s critique of labour. For instance, see a work published shortly after his resignation from the SI—though possibly written before he resigned: ‘Labour is not a partial and separated economic activity, but literally the essence of man. […] Is this what is sometimes called “economism”, or on the contrary a new conception of man and history—of man and nature?’ Mustapha Khayati. ‘Les Marxisms : Idéologies et révolution.’ Cahiers de l’encyclopédie du monde actuel no. 51 (Janvier 1970).

[46] Barrot [Dauvé]. ‘Critique of the Situationist International [1979].’

[47] As far as I can tell Dauvé never repeated this criticism of the SI with reference to Algeria in 1965.

[48] Internationale Situationniste. ‘Adresse aux révolutionnaires d’Algérie et de tous les pays [orig. juillet 1965].’ International Situationniste, no. 10 (Mars 1966), p. 49.

[49] I.S. ‘Les luttes de classes en Algérie [orig. décembre 1965]’, p. 21.

[50] Ibid, p. 20

[51] Internationale Situationniste [Mustapha Khayati]. ‘De la misère en milieu étudiant considérée sous ses aspects économique, politique, psychologique, sexuel et notamment intellectuel et de quelques moyens pour y remédier.’ U.N.E.F. Strasbourg, 1966.

[52] Guy Debord. La Société du Spectacle, thesis 116.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Raoul Vaneigem. The Revolution of Everyday Life (aka ‘Traité de savoir-vivre à l’usage des jeunes générations’). Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. London: Rebel Press, [1967] 2001, p. 31

[55] Guy Debord. La Société du Spectacle, thesis 117.

[56] Ibid., thesis 118.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Ibid., theses 179, 221.

[59] Internationale Situationniste. ‘Définitions minimum des organisations révolutionnaire.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 11 (Octobre 1967), p. 54.

[60] Internationale Situationniste [Guy Debord]. ‘Le commencement d’une époque.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 12 (Septembre 1969), p. 13.

[61] Raoul Vaneigem. ‘Avis aux civilisés relativement à l’autogestion généralisée.’ international situationniste, no. 12 (Septembre 1969), p. 75 (thesis 9).

[62] René Riesel. ‘Préliminaires sur les conseils et l’organisation conseilliste.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 12 (Septembre 1969), p. 73.

[63] For a critique of May 1968 as being on the cusp of a proletarian revolution see Michael Seidman. The Imaginary Revolution. New York: Berghahn Books, 2004, and Mouvement communiste. ‘May-June 1968: an occasion lacking in workers’ autonomy.’ Mouvement communiste, April 2008.

[64] I.S. [Debord]. ‘Le commencement d’une époque.’ IS, no. 12, p. 12.

[65] Partly, this was in response to being accused of being purveyors of ‘a councilist ideology’ by the ICO (Informations, Correspondance Ouvrières). The ICO was a group that had emerged from a split in the Socialism or Barbarism group (SB) in 1958. They rejected both revolutionary vanguardism, and the SI’s and SB’s conception of a revolutionary organisation. Against the SI, in particular its advocacy of the formation of workers councils in May 1968, the ICO had declared that ‘any other attempt […] to declare the necessity of creating workers councils’ apart from their organic emergence from ‘strike committees under the influence of the situation itself and in response to the very necessities of the struggle’ signified a councilist ideology. ICO no. 84, August 1969, cited in Riesel, ‘Préliminaires sur les conseils et l’organisation conseilliste.’ IS, no. 12. It is possible the SI détourned the sense of ‘councilist ideology’ from the ICO’s use of it against them.

[66] Ibid., p. 65.

[67] Ibid.

[68] ‘[T]he council as permanent basic unit […], as the assembly in which all the workers of an enterprise must participate […] and all the inhabitants of an urban district who have rallied to the revolution […]. This practical experience is the terrain where people learn how to become conscious of their own action, where they “realize philosophy”.’ Ibid, pp. 71, 72.

[69] Barrot [Dauvé]. ‘Critique of the Situationist International [1979]’.

[70] For instance, a common theme of late Situationist writing on councils is the idea that the immanent ‘logic of their own power’ pointed beyond their merely proletarian content to ‘the beginning of an era of great historical production; the indispensable and urgent renewal of the production of man by himself’. Guy Debord & Gianfranco Sanguinetti. ‘Thèses sur l’Internationale situationniste et son temps [1972].’ In Guy Debord : Œuvres. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2006.

[71] Raoul Vaneigem. ‘Notes on the SI’s Direction, March 1970’. Translated by Reuben Keehan.

[72] Guy Debord. ‘À toutes les sections de l’I.S [17 mars 1970]’, in Guy Debord, Correspondance, Volume 4, 1969-1972. Unfortunately for us, perhaps, the SI’s plan for a new manifesto in 1970, which would have, among other things, clarified their position on workers’ councils and ‘councilist’ organisations, never came to fruition. See, Guy Debord. ‘À toutes les sections de l’I.S [27 avril 1970], in Guy Debord, Correspondance, Volume 4, 1969-1972.

[73] Dauvé. ‘Back to the Situationist International (2000)’.

[74] For more on the SI’s critique of Marxist and anarchist orthodoxy, see Jean-Christophe Angaut. ‘Beyond Black and Red: The Situationists and the Legacy of the Workers Movement.’ In Libertarian Socialism: Politics in Black and Red, edited by Alex Prichard, Ruth Kinna, Saku Pinta and David Berry, pp. 232-250. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

[75] Dauvé. ‘The Bitter Victory of Councilism (2014)’.

[76] Vaneigem, cited in Internationale Situationniste. ‘La Cinquième Conférence de l’I.S. à Göteborg.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 7 (Avril 1962), p. 27.

[77] Debord. La Société du Spectacle, thesis 122.

[78] Raoul Vaneigem. ‘Banalités de base (I).’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 7 (Avril 1962), p. 32 (thesis 2).


Jean-Christophe Angaut. ‘Beyond Black and Red: The Situationists and the Legacy of the Workers Movement.’ In Libertarian Socialism: Politics in Black and Red, edited by Alex Prichard, Ruth Kinna, Saku Pinta and David Berry, pp. 232-250. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Daniel Blanchard. Debord, in the Resounding Cataract of Time,, 1995.

Maurice Brinton. For Workers’ Power: The Selected Writings of Maurice Brinton. Oakland: AK Press, 2004. Available online:

Cornelius Castoriadis. ‘On the Content of Socialism, II [1957].’ In Cornelius Castoriadis Political and Social Writings: Volume 2, 1955-1960, edited by David Ames Curtis, pp. 90-154. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988. Available online:

Cornelius Castoriadis. ‘Modern Capitalism and Revolution [1960-61].’ In Cornelius Castoriadis Political and Social Writings: Volume 2, 1955-1960, edited by David Ames Curtis, pp. 226-343. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988. Available online:

Mouvement communiste. ‘May-June 1968: an occasion lacking in workers’ autonomy.’ Mouvement communiste, April 2008. Available online:

[Gilles Dauvé] Jean Barrot. ‘Critique of the Situationist International [1979].’ In What is Situationism? A Reader, edited by Stewart Home, pp. 24-53. San Francisco: AK Press, 1996. Available online:

Gilles Dauvé, Serge Quadruppani & J.-P. Carasso. ‘L’Internationale Situationniste’, in ‘Le roman de nos origines’, from La Banquise No. 2, 1983. English translation available online:

Gilles Dauvé. ‘et L’I.S. ?’, from La Banquise No. 4, 1986. English translation available online:

Gilles Dauvé, ‘Back to the Situationist International (2000)’,

Gilles Dauvé. ‘The Bitter Victory of Councilism (2014)’. Available online:

Gilles Dauvé and François Martin. Eclipse and Re-Emergence of the Communist Movement. Oakland: PM Press, [1972/1973/1974/1997] 2015. Available online:

G.-E. Debord. ‘Rapport sur la construction des situations et sur les conditions de l’organisation et de l’action de la tendance situationniste internationale [1957].’ In Guy Debord Œuvres, pp. 308-328. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2006. English translation available online:

G.-E. Debord. ‘Encore un effort si vous voulez être situationnistes : L’I.S. dans et contre la décomposition [1957].’ In Guy Debord : Œuvres, pp. 345-350. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2006. English translation available online:

G.-E. Debord. ‘Pour un jugement révolutionnaire de l’art [février 1961].’ In Guy Debord Œuvres, pp. 558-563. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2006. English translation available online:

Guy Debord. ‘Aux participants à la conférence nationale de Pouvoir ouvrier (5 mai 1961).’ In Correspondance volume II septembre 1960 – décembre 1964, edited by Patrick Mosconi, pp. 82-88. Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2001. English translation online:

G.-E. Debord. ‘Perspectives de modification conscientes dans la vie quotidienne.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 6 (Août 1961), pp. 20-27. English translation available online:

Guy Debord. ‘The Asturian Strike [1963]’, translated by Not Bored,

Guy Debord. ‘Lettre à Mustapha Khayati, 7 juin 1965.’ In Correspondance volume III janvier 1965 – décembre 1968, edited by Patrick Mosconi. Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2003.

Guy Debord. La Société du Spectacle. Third ed. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, [1967] 1992. English translation available online:

Guy Debord. ‘À toutes les sections de l’I.S [17 mars 1970]’, in Guy Debord, Correspondance, Volume 4, 1969-1972 (e-book version). Translation available online:

Guy Debord. ‘À toutes les sections de l’I.S [27 avril 1970], in Guy Debord, Correspondance, Volume 4, 1969-1972 (e-book version). Translation available online:

Guy Debord. ‘Les thèses de Hambourg en septembre 1961 (Note pour servir à l’histoire de l’Internationale Situationniste) [1989].’ In Internationale situationniste : Édition augmentée, pp. 703-04. Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 1997. Translation available online: (in the appendices of Hayes’ thesis).

Canjuers [D. Blanchard] & G.-E. Debord. ‘Preliminaires pour une definition de l’unite du programme revolutionnaire [20 juillet 1960].’ In Guy Debord Œuvres, pp. 511-18. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2006, thesis 7. English translation online:

Guy Debord, Attila Kotányi and Raoul Vaneigem. ‘Sur la commune [1962].’ In Guy Debord Œuvres, pp. 628-633. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2006. English translation available online:

Guy Debord & Gianfranco Sanguinetti. ‘Thèses sur l’Internationale situationniste et son temps [1972].’ In Guy Debord : Œuvres, pp. 1088-1133. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2006. English translation available online:

Isidore Ducasse, ‘Poésies [1870],’ in Maldoror & the Complete Works of the Comte de Lautréamont, Cambridge, MA: Exact Change, 2011.

Mustapha Khayati. ‘Les Marxisms : Idéologies et révolution.’ Cahiers de l’encyclopédie du monde actuel no. 51 (Janvier 1970). English translation available online:

Anthony Hayes. ‘How the Situationist International became what it was.’ Australian National University, 2017. Available online:

Anthony Hayes. ‘Spectacle of what?’, 2018,

H.P. Lovecraft. Beyond the Wall of Sleep, 1919.

René Riesel. ‘Préliminaires sur les conseils et l’organisation conseilliste.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 12 (Septembre 1969). English translation available online:

Michael Seidman. The Imaginary Revolution. New York: Berghahn Books, 2004.

Internationale Situationniste. ‘Instructions pour une prise d’armes.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 6 (Août 1961), pp. 3-5. English translation available online:

Internationale Situationniste. ‘La Cinquième Conférence de l’I.S. à Göteborg.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 7 (Avril 1962), pp. 25-31. English translation available online:

Internationale Situationniste [Raoul Vaneigem]. ‘Domination de la nature, idéologies et classes.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 8 (Janvier 1963). English translation available online:

Internationale Situationniste. ‘L’Operation Contre-Situationniste Dans Divers Pays.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 8 (Janvier 1963), pp. 23-29. Partial english translation available online:

Internationale Situationniste [Guy Debord]. ‘All the King’s Men.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 8 (Janvier 1963), pp. 29-33. English translation available online:

Internationale Situationniste. ‘Le monde dont nous parlons.’ International Situationniste, no. 9 (Août 1964), pp. 6-23. English translation available online:

Internationale Situationniste. ‘Le questionnaire.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 9 (Août 1964), pp. 24-27. English translation available online:

Internationale Situationniste. ‘Adresse aux révolutionnaires d’Algérie et de tous les pays [orig. juillet 1965].’ International Situationniste, no. 10 (Mars 1966), pp. 43-49. English translation available online:

Internationale Situationniste [Guy Debord & Mustapha Khayati]. ‘Les luttes de classes en Algérie.’ International Situationniste, no. 10 (Mars 1966), pp. 12-21. English translation available online:

Internationale Situationniste [Mustapha Khayati]. ‘De la misère en milieu étudiant considérée sous ses aspects économique, politique, psychologique, sexuel et notamment intellectuel et de quelques moyens pour y remédier.’ U.N.E.F. Strasbourg, 1966. English translation available online:

Internationale Situationniste. ‘Définitions minimum des organisations révolutionnaire.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 11 (Octobre 1967), p. 54. English translation available online:

Internationale Situationniste [Guy Debord]. ‘Le commencement d’une époque.’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 12 (Septembre 1969), pp. 3-34. English translation available online: &

Raoul Vaneigem. ‘Banalités de base (I).’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 7 (Avril 1962). English translation available online:

Raoul Vaneigem. The Revolution of Everyday Life (aka ‘Traité de savoir-vivre à l’usage des jeunes générations’). Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. London: Rebel Press, [1967] 2001. English translation available online:

Raoul Vaneigem. ‘Avis aux civilisés relativement à l’autogestion généralisée.’ international situationniste, no. 12 (Septembre 1969). English translation available online:

Raoul Vaneigem. ‘Notes on the SI’s Direction, March 1970’. Translated by Reuben Keehan. Available online:

Raoul Vaneigem. Raoul Vaneigem: Self-Portraits and Caricatures of the Situationist International [2014]. Translated & détourned by Not Bored from the French Rien n’est fini, tout commence [2014], 2015.

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