and the S.I.?

[from La Banquise, no. 4, 1986]

and the S.I.?[1]

A critique of the S.I. [Situationist International] was announced in the first issue of La Banquise. A text remains to be written.[2] It should not resemble a record, still less a refutation, and pose in other ways the questions asked by the S.I. – to shift them if need be. It would be necessary to speak of crucial things, with the S.I. and against it, without imagining that there is a theoretical or practical “key” in the critique of the S.I. (Recall that one of the best texts on the S.I. dates from 1974: Supplement to No. 301 of the La Nouvelle Gazette Rhenane.[3])

Without fulfilling this task here, we can indicate some directions, which are not unrelated to what we discussed above about militanism.[4]

The second issue of the S.I. (December 1958, p. 10) set out thus the critique of everyday life:

“[…] to spread another idea of happiness. The Left and the Right were in agreement on the picture of poverty, i.e. food deprivation. The Left and the Right were also in accord on the picture of the good life. This is the root of the mystification which defeated the worker’s movement in the industrialised countries.”[5]

“Revolutionary propaganda must present to all the possibility of a profound and immediate personal change. […] The revolutionary intellectuals will have to abandon the debris of their decomposed culture, [and] seek to live in a revolutionary way.”[6]

“Presently, at the centre of our collective action there is the urgent obligation to fully understand what our specific task is: a qualitative leap in the development of culture and everyday life.”[7]

To measure both the difference between this time and ours, and to properly evaluate the vision of the S.I., we quote Debord in Potlatch (no. 29, 5 November 1957):

“I believe that all my friends would be satisfied, with the wage of a qualified worker, to work anonymously at the Ministry of Leisure for a government which preoccupied itself to the end of changing life.”[8]

One might wonder whether the central error of the S.I. is not to have started from a use for life, and to have [then] searched for a new one, even though there is no use to organise: thence comes the strategic obsession, the councilist formalism, that is to say the tendency (parallel to the management postulate of SoB [Socialisme ou Barbarie]) to make of everything a question of organisation more than of content.  This did not prevent the S.I. from rediscovering and developing the communist content, but through the filter of self-management and despite it.

In its third number (December 1959, p. 23), the S.I. explained at length how revolutionaries in culture must find “new experiences”.[9] Here is to be found an illusion which will result in others: the S.I. will replace the role of “avant-garde experimentalism” and experiment in art and culture with an avant-garde role in the way of being.

The S.I., which always defined itself as a group of revolutionary intellectuals, joined the proletariat in 1968: its action at the CMDO [Conseil pour le Maintien des Occupations[10]] affirmed principle more than a revolutionary practice. Its propaganda for the workers’ councils – by its very nature propaganda, slogans disconnected from the relations of real struggles where something else could have been put into play – proved the exteriority of the S.I. compared to a social movement which, moreover, it well expressed certain aspirations [of].

The Situationists had the right attitude to a whole series of realities to be destroyed, without the power to found [such an attitude]. But when there was no more than attitude, there was soon not even the right attitude – as was the case after 1968 (self-valorisation, incapacity to disengage from councilism, fascination for strategy, repetition of errors on Italy and Portugal).

The limit of the S.I. is contained within its strong point: the critique of the commodity. The society of the spectacle recovers a fundamental analysis without going to the base.

What constitutes the core of our critique of the commodity world and the wage? Each commodity confronts another with a face which is not its own, which is not its profound nature, because it puts forward the quantity of work incarnated in it and not it’s real content. It presents a résumé of itself, so different from it that it says nothing of it – it speaks of other things. Commodities do not stop exchanging with each other without saying what they are. Their relation establishes itself on a shape, a shell: everyone embalmed in a lump of work no one cares about. Since all is commodified, our world is a society of representation.

Every person, every act, every object exists not only through its real presence, but through its image. All must appear and be represented. All possess a second level of existence which doubles the first and dispossesses it, becoming more real than the first. With the industrial and consumerist expansion, this process was extended to everything: to the economy, to politics, to art, to thought, to public and private life. Democracy has shown itself to be the form most adequate to capitalism, since its principle rests on the delegation and representation of power. It always acts to find the suitable place and moment to confront opinions, to establish a structure of decision, to invent a form of organisation embodying a general will.

Capital is the society where in art as in politics, in business as in the exchange of ideas, the essential problem is [how] to represent a community to the end of giving it a reality that it would not have without this gathering, which is supposed to decide its future.

Faced with this democratisation, the great risk is to restrict oneself to the denunciation solely of its formal side, calling for a “real” democracy [that is] nowhere to be found. One of the limits of the revolutionaries of the mid-19th century, Marx included, was not being able to connect the critique of the commodity with [the critique] of politics and democracy. Yet there were some practical elements in the responses of proletarians against bourgeois liberalism, and theoretically in certain texts, in particular by Marx. But the critique of democracy as such was not made. Returning to the sources (Marx, Feuerbach…) the S.I. resumed and developed their content better, but also their historical limitations. The Situationists have always searched for true democracy, a structure where the proletarians are no longer passive but active.

The spectacle is the result of the transformation of our life into an image which doubles it and substitutes for it. All social labour, with exchange as its heart, separates us from a life directly lived. The spectacle is the automated product of this. It leaves us, ceases to be us, and the universal representation of commodities is the mechanism of this separation. The spectacle only becomes exterior to our life because this life produces and reproduces its own exteriorisation.

If the S.I. so insisted on the spectacle (perhaps because of its origins in the critique of art) and not on representation (which is a more total concept and better explanation than that of the spectacle), it was also pushed to demand a society of non-spectacle which remained within the problem of representation: the democracy of the [workers’] councils. There is not and there cannot be a critique of democracy in the S.I. because, [even] though it has shown the way, it has not gone to the foundation of the capitalist mechanism.

La Banquise No. 4, 1986

Thanks to Alastair Hemmens and C.F. for help with the translation, and Pete Jovanovic for proofing.


[1]et l’I.S. ?’, from La Banquise No. 4, 1986.

[2] La Banquise (The Ice Flow) was a French language Left communist magazine that was published in four issues between 1983 and 1986. Note that the present article is from the fourth and last issue of the magazine published in 1986. It is also worth noting that a critique of the Situationist International (S.I.) did appear in the second issue of La Banquise in 1983 under the title of ‘Le roman de nos origines’ (The story of our origins). However this article was an account of the theoretical and practical origins of the current of communist praxis that is presently (2013) associated with Gilles Dauvé’s and Karl Nesic’s troploin. The critique of the S.I. that figures in it only makes up a small part of the entire article. An English translation of the section on the Situationists can be found here.

[3] La Nouvelle Gazette Rhenane (sup. no. 301), April 1974, distributed by Editions de l’Oubli, 1975.

[4]According to the John Grey website ‘et L’I.S. ?’, published in La Banquise No. 4, 1986, was a part of a longer ‘article looking back at its own activities’. Unfortunately we do not have access to the entire article. With regards to ‘militanism’ the following afterword to Dauvé’s Back to the Situationist International is illuminating: “about the critique of militantism: Militant has a different meaning in French and English. The word comes from the same origin as “military”, and in both languages conveys the idea of fighting for a cause. But in English, it means combative, “aggressively active” (Webster’s, 1993). In French, it used to be positive (“militants” were supposed to be dedicated soldiers of the workers’ movement), until the SI associated it with self-sacrificing negative devotion to a cause: this is how we use the term here.”

[5] From ‘L’effondrement des intellectuels révolutionnaires’ in Internationale Situationniste no. 2, December 1958, p. 10. This article has been translated as ‘Collapse of the Revolutionary Intellectuals’ by Reuben Keehan. Note that my translation of this passage differs from Keehan’s.

[6] Ibid.

[7] From ‘Le tournant obscur’ in Internationale Situationniste no. 2, December 1958, p. 10. This article has been translated as ‘The Dark Turn Ahead’ by Reuben Keehan. Note that my translation of this passage differs from Keehan’s.

[8] From ‘Encore un effort si vous voulez être situationnistes’ in Potlach no. 29, 5 November 1957. This article has been translated by John Shepley as ‘One More Try if you Want to be Situationists (the SI In and Against Decomposition)’. Note that my translation of this passage differs from Shepley’s.

[9] From ‘Discussion sur un appel aux intellectuels et artistes révolutionnaires’ in Internationale Situationniste no. 3, December 1959, p. 23. This article has been translated as ‘Discussion on an Appeal to Revolutionary Artists and Intellectuals’ by Reuben Keehan. The sentence this phrase is extracted from reads in English: ‘Revolutionaries in culture must not discover new doctrines but new experiences.’ Note that my translation of this sentence differs from Keehan’s. It is significant to note that this appeal was never released by the S.I., never moving beyond a heated argument over the role of the revolutionary proletariat at the 3rd Conference of the S.I. in April 1959. The chief disputants were Debord for the possibility of a revolutionary proletariat and Constant against such a possibility.

[10] Council for the Maintenance of the Occupations.

First published in La Banquise, no. 4, 1986. Translated from the French by Anthony Hayes, May and June 2013. The source of the original French is from the editorial introduction to an English translation of Gilles’ Dauvé’s Critique of the Situationist International. Dauvé, who wrote this Critique under the name of Jean Barrot, was later involved in the editorial circle of La Banquise. As far as we can ascertain, with the translation of et l’I.S.?, all of the published criticisms of the S.I. either by Dauvé or co-written by Dauvé are now available in English.

In our opinion the clearest and most concise expression of Dauvé’s critique of the S.I. can be found in the article he published in issue no. 9 of Aufheben: Back to the Situationist International.

At a later date Notes from the Sinister Quarter will publish a critique of Dauvé’s assessments of the Situationist project.

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1 Response to and the S.I.?

  1. Pingback: On Gilles Dauvé and the Situationist International |

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