The Hamburg Theses of September 1961—Guy Debord

The Hamburg Theses of September 1961
(Note to serve in the history of the Situationist International)
[1]

The ‘Hamburg Theses’ [‘Thèses de Hambourg’] surely constitute the most mysterious of all the documents that emerged from the SI; among which many have been widely reproduced, while others have been distributed discretely.

The ‘Hamburg Theses’ were mentioned several times in situationist publications, but a single citation was never given. For example, in Internationale Situationniste no. 7, pages 20, 31 and 47;[2] more indirectly in IS no. 9, page 3 (in the title of the editorial, ‘Now, the SI’ [‘Maintenant, l’I.S.’][3]; and also, in the still unpublished contributions of Attila Kotányi and Michèle Bernstein to the debate concerning A. Kotanyi’s programmatic propositions in 1963. The ‘Theses’ are mentioned without commentary in the ‘table of works cited’ (page 99) of Raspaud and Voyer’s L’Internationale situationniste (protagonistes, chronologie, bibliographie).[4]

In fact, the ‘Theses’ were conclusions, voluntarily kept secret, of a theoretical and strategic discussion that concerned the entirety of the conduct of the SI. The discussion took place in a series of randomly chosen bars in Hamburg over two or three days at the beginning of September 1961, between G. Debord, A. Kotányi and R. Vaneigem, who were then returning from the SI’s 5th Conference, which took place in Göteborg from the 28th to the 30th of August.[5] Alexander Trocchi, who was not present in Hamburg, would subsequently contribute to the ‘Theses.’ Deliberately, with the intention of leaving no trace that could be observed or analysed from outside the SI, nothing concerning this discussion and what it had concluded was ever written down. It was then agreed that the simplest summary of its rich and complex conclusions could be expressed in a single phrase: ‘Now, the SI must realise philosophy’ [‘L’I.S. doit, maintenant, réaliser la philosophie’].[6] Even this phrase was not written down. Thus, the conclusions were so well hidden that they have remained secret up until the present.

The ‘Hamburg Theses’ have had a considerable importance, in at least two respects. First, because they mark the most important choice made in the history of the SI. But also, as an experimental practice. From this latter point of view, the ‘Theses’ were a striking innovation in the succession of artistic avant-gardes, who hitherto had all given the impression of being eager to explain themselves.

The summarised conclusions evoked a celebrated formula of Marx from 1844 (in his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel Philosophy of Right[7]). It meant that we should henceforth no longer attribute the least importance to any of the ideas [conceptions] of the revolutionary groups that still survived as heirs of the old social emancipation movement destroyed in the first half of our century; and therefore, that it would be better to count on the SI alone to relaunch a time of contestation as soon as possible, by way of revitalising all the basic starting points [bases de départ] that were established in the 1840s.[8] Once established this position did not imply the coming rupture with the artistic ‘right’ of the SI (who feebly desired only to repeat or continue modern art), but rendered it extremely probable. We can thus recognise that the ‘Hamburg Theses’ marked the end of the first period of the SI—that is research into a truly new artistic terrain (1957-61)—as well as fixing the departure point for the operation that led to the movement of May 1968, and what followed.

On the other hand, considering only the experimental originality (that is to say the absence of any written ‘Theses’) the subsequent socio-historical application of this formal innovation is equally remarkable—of course only after it had been subjected to a complete reversal. In fact, little more than twenty years later you could see that the process had encountered an unusual success in the highest bodies of many States. We now know that truly vital conclusions—[whose authors are] loath to inscribe them on computer networks, tape recordings or telex, and even wary of typewriters and photocopiers—often having been drafted in the form of handwritten notes are simply learned by heart. The draft is immediately destroyed.[9]

This note was written specifically for the Thomas Y. Levin,[10] who so tirelessly raced around the world to find traces of the effaced art of the Situationist International, as well as its various other historic infamies.

(November 1989)

Guy Debord[11]


Translated by Anthony Hayes, 2022. This translation is a revision of one I made and published in 2017see, Hayes, How The Situationist International Became What It Was, Appendix One. Note that this latest translation, though a complete draft, is liable to updates and corrections.


TRANSLATOR’S FOOTNOTES

[1] Two slightly different versions of Debord’s 1989 note exist. The first, published in 1997, excised the name of the original addressee, Thomas Y. Levin, from the text of the note. The second, published in 2008, reinstated the full text of the note as it was originally conceived: as a letter addressed to Thomas Y. Levin in November 1989. See, respectively, 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, Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 1997; Guy Debord, ‘Lettre à Thomas Levin, Novembre 1989—Les thèses de Hambourg en septembre 1961 (Note pour servir à l’histoire de l’Internationale Situationniste),’ in Correspondance, volume 7, janvier 1988 – novembre 1994, ed. Patrick Mosconi, Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2008. Except where indicated in the footnotes, this translation follows the text of the 1997 Fayard edition.

[2] See footnote 4 below.

[3] See footnote 5, below.

[4] Jean-Jacques Raspaud and Jean-Pierre Voyer, L’internationale situationniste : chronologie, bibliographie, protagonistes (avec un index des noms insultés), Paris: Éditions Champ libre, 1972.

[5] Of the three pages Debord mentions, one will find a clear mention of the ‘Hamburg Theses’ only on two of them: pages 20 and 47. The citation on page 31 is far more allusive, speaking of the unnamed Theses as, in effect and appropriately, an urban drift (dérive) that gave rise to the Hamburg Theses in the immediate wake of the SI’s 5th Conference: ‘After the closing of the final session, the Conference ended in a much more constructive celebration, for which, unfortunately, there is no record [procès-verbal]. This celebration wound down into a drift [dérive] departing across the Sound, continuing on to the port of Frederikshavn—and for others extending on to Hamburg.’ Internationale Situationniste, ‘La Cinquième Conférence de l’I.S. à Göteborg,’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 7 (Avril 1962), p. 31.

[6] Debord noted above, that the title of the article, ‘Now, the SI’ [‘Maintenant, l’I.S.’] in IS no. 8 was ‘indirectly’ inspired by the Hamburg Theses. I take it that he means their ‘summarised conclusion’, namely: ‘L’I.S. doit, maintenant, réaliser la philosophie’. I’ve translated this as ‘Now, the SI must realise philosophy’, which draws out the connection explicitly between the summarised conclusion of the Hamburg Theses and the title of the article in IS no. 9. However, the summarised conclusions could also be literally translated as ‘The SI must, now, realise philosophy’, which perhaps gives a better indication of the ‘indirect’ influence.

[7] Debord is referring here to what is known in English, for example, as ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law. Introduction’ (Marx Engels Collected Works) and ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Introduction’ (Penguin Marx Library). This work was published in Marx’s lifetime, in the only issue of the journal Deutsch-Französische Jahrbüch in February 1844. It is the source of the famous chiasmus that the situationists would make so much of: the realization and abolition of philosophy. In English these Introductions contrast with another, earlier text that remained unpublished in Marx’s lifetime. Indeed, Marx had written the Introduction for a planned re-write of the earlier text for publication. This latter text has since been published, and translated, as ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law’ (Marx Engels Collected Works) and ‘Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the State’ (Penguin Marx Library). In French, this earlier, previously unpublished text is known in the edition used by Debord as ‘Critique de la philosophie de l’Etat de Hegel’, contrasting with the one published in Deutsch-Französische Jahrbüch: in French, ‘Contribution à la critique de la philosophie de l’Etat de Hegel’.

[8] The second clause of the forgoing sentence has caused me some pain over the years. Both extant English translations—by Reuben Keehan (n.d.) and Not Bored! (2008)—have rendered it the reverse of what I believe it to be. This was pointed out to me by Tom Bunyard, author of Debord, Time and Spectacle (2018), who had himself had it pointed out to him by another—both of whom I appreciate for bringing it to my attention. Unfortunately, this notice did not arrive soon enough to prevent me from naively relying solely upon these earlier translations in a brief article on the Hamburg Thesis, ‘Three Situationists walk into a bar’ (2015). Not only has this helped to shown me the worth of carefully checking one’s claims, but it has also proven perhaps more useful in gaining some humility regarding my own hasty judgements and barbs occasionally throw at other scholars and travellers who, like me, find themselves in a dark forest where the right way is lost.

[9] For more on the Hamburg Theses, see, Anthony Hayes, ‘How the Situationist International became what it was’ (Australian National University, 2017), chapter one, passim.

[10] Levin’s name is excised from the 1997 publication of the note. See footnote [1], above.

[11] In the 2008 publication of the full letter to Thomas Y. Levin, it is noted that ‘The signature is followed by the Chinese seal of Guy Debord’. See, Debord, ‘Lettre à Thomas Levin, Novembre 1989—Les thèses de Hambourg en septembre 1961 (Note pour servir à l’histoire de l’Internationale Situationniste).’

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4 Responses to The Hamburg Theses of September 1961—Guy Debord

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