Translator’s afterword to ‘On the role of the SI’

fig. 1. A reproduction of the photomontage by Ernest Eugène Appert that the situationists used in their published version of ‘Du rôle de l’I.S.’ (‘On the role of the SI’). For more details of this image, see here.

Translator’s afterword to ‘On the role of the SI’

A translation of ‘On the role of the SI’ is available here.

If there is an article in which the Hamburg Theses of 1961 appear clearest, the conclusions of the Theses hidden in plain sight while their explicit presence is left as a brief citation to an exceedingly hard to find original, then it is ‘On the role of the SI’ (‘Du rôle de l’I.S.’) in Internationale Situationniste no. 7 (hereafter IS 7). Published in April 1962, the issue marked a significant turn in the group’s fortune. Over the previous three months the group around principally Debord, Vaneigem, and Kotányi, had expelled almost the entirety of the Spur group from the Situationist International (SI), soon followed by the split of almost the entire Scandinavian section of the SI and Jacqueline de Jong in Holland. However, the seventh issue was not simply marked with the expulsions and splits, even if they loomed large over the issue. As the first issue of a purged and purified group, it also signalled the victory of the ‘authors’ of the Hamburg Theses, and their conception of the SI as a general avant-garde—to use Debord’s 1963 term.[1]

My new translation of ‘Du rôle de l’I.S.’ (‘On the role of the SI’) is the first in English that is accompanied by the original illustrations in their proper location vis-à-vis the text. Rather than being inserted randomly and out of order, as done by the article’s first translator, I’ve returned the illustrations to their original location as I believe that they are a component of, and a graphic extension of the arguments that immediately precede and follow their appearance in the text.

The first image of a sectional elevation of an average family sized home nuclear shelter follows immediately upon the charge that capitalism has only realised ‘the inverted utopia of repression: it has all the powers, and nobody wants it’.[2] For the SI, the grim fact of a profitable market in shelter’s that purported to protect their owners from nuclear Armageddon summed up the irrationality of the commodity spectacle of the early 1960s. As they mordantly noted, elsewhere in IS 7,

If this system were to go to the point of bluntly proclaiming that it imposes such an empty and hopeless existence that the best solution for everyone would be to go hang themselves, it would still succeed in managing a healthy and profitable business by producing standardized ropes.[3]

The second image, taken from a photomontage representing the execution of Generals Jacques Leon Clément-Thomas and Claude Lecomte by revolutionary Parisian National Guardsmen on the first day of the Paris Commune, 18 March 1871, follows immediately upon this militant situationist declaration: ‘it is necessary to either accept or reject us as a whole. We will not be broken down into details’.[4]

The picture of the execution plays the role of projection into the imagined future; it is a détournement not mere decoration. It speaks to the challenge the SI throw down to a milieu they partly inhabit, that of leftist intellectuals breaking with Stalinism and Marxist orthodoxy in France circa the 1950s and after. On the basis of this détournement they present a vision of this future: the surprise of their academic contemporaries in coming days when another revolutionary proletariat will rise and ‘architects [will be] hunted down and hung in the streets of Sarcelles’.[5]

Perhaps the use of the image is also a sly dig at Ernest Eugène Appert, the pro-Versaillais, anti-communard photographer who produced the photomontage in question. No doubt Appert broke down the event into details by way of his photographic reconstruction aimed at garnering support for the counter-revolutionaries bent on the destruction of the Paris Commune.

Of the two articles that explicitly mention the Hamburg Theses in IS 7, ‘On the role of the SI’ speaks most substantially upon them:

The interpretation that we defend in culture can be regarded as a mere hypothesis, which we expect to be effectively verified and surpassed very quickly. In any case it possesses the essential characteristics of a rigorous scientific verification in the sense that it explains and orders a number of phenomena which are, for some, incoherent and inexplicable (and which are sometimes even hidden by other forces); and that it enables the possibility of foreseeing events that are ultimately controllable. Not for an instant are we abusing the so-called objectivity of any researcher, either in culture or what are conventionally known as the human sciences. On the contrary, the rule there is to hide both the problems and the answers. The SI will disclose the hidden, and itself as a possibility ‘hidden’ by its enemies. Highlighting the contradictions that others have chosen to forget, we will succeed by transforming ourselves into the practical force foreseen in the Hamburg Theses created by Debord, Kotányi, Trocchi and Vaneigem (summer 1961).[6]

The ‘hypothesis’ the SI defend in this article is summarised in their justly infamous claim: ‘Situationist theory is in people like fish are in water’.[7] If there is a single theme in ‘On the role of the SI’ it is this phrase, pointedly directed at undermining the exceptionalism of the SI. Here, the situationists wager that the specificity of the situationist critique is one manifestation—albeit a coherent and self-consciously revolutionary manifestation—of forms of contestation that are re-emerging amidst the appearance of the post-Second World War triumph of state capitalism East and West. Indeed, the situationists further wagered that this is necessarily the result of the intensive and extensive development of the global commodity-spectacle.

The idea that alienation—in Marx’s sense of the term—was more of a problem in the early 1960s was certainly not shared evenly among much of the leftist intelligentsia in France (or elsewhere for that matter). This was the time in which structuralists came to argue that Marx’s early conception of alienation was a dread Hegelian residue that Marx had apparently given up on circa 1845. Indeed, even in those cases in which Marx’s early conception of alienation was taken up—by Eric Fromm and Herbert Marcuse for example—it was often used to illustrate the utter triumph of capital against the possibility of a revolutionary proletarian subject dis-alienating society. Nonetheless, there were exceptions: Henri Lefebvre and Lucien Goldmann, to name only two of the more influential champions of Marx’s conception of alienation encountered by the situationists.

The SI had early on rejected the idea that the burgeoning markets in culture and consumer durables aimed at a working-class audience signalled the end of material impoverishment and so too of proletarian alienation in the face of capitalist wealth. Rather, they proposed that such developments only signified the triumph of the ‘bourgeois conception of happiness’.[8] Thus, it would be a mistake to see in the SI’s dismissal and contempt for their academic contemporaries simply a de rigeur combativeness and sectarianism. No doubt there is this as well; but more pointedly, the SI rejected what they saw as the collapse of so-called revolutionary thought in the face of the transformations that capitalism underwent between 1945 and 1960.

Per the paragraph cited above, the SI proposed to disclose the truth of contemporary alienation ‘hidden’ amidst the burgeoning commodity wealth of Western societies, just as they would likewise disclose the SI ‘itself as a possibility “hidden” by its enemies’.[9] There is no question, to my thinking, that the ‘hidden’ here is also code for the deliberately hidden Hamburg Theses—theses, moreover, that constitute a moment of the SI as the hidden ‘possibility’ of revolutionary contestation. To the ‘negative pole of alienation’ that constitutes the commodity-spectacle, the SI proposed themselves as ‘the positive pole’ by which they will map the potentialities of ‘human geography’ buried in the ‘untapped layers’ of capitalist alienation.[10] In this sense, dis-alienation was immanent to alienation, the latter a negative image of the potential for modifying and shaping human powers beyond their alienated and alienating reification as capital and wage labour.

However, the idea that the SI was ‘itself […] a possibility “hidden” by its enemies’ was also directed against many of their contemporaries, particularly those published in the leftist journal Arguments (1956-62). For some time prior to 1962, the SI had remarked on a ‘silence’ that had come to be informally imposed vis-à-vis mention of the situationists within the pages of Arguments. In part this was due to the hostility the SI had directed at the group, which had resulted in a situationist initiated boycott upon Arguments from 1 January 1961.[11] However, more striking by far according to the SI was the unavowed influence the latter’s ideas exerted upon some of the writers in Arguments, albeit stripped of the SI’s revolutionary intransigence and, in particular, their increasingly explicit desire to re-establish a revolutionary movement. That is, the SI hidden as the inconvenient source of some of these writer’s ideas. This would reach a paroxysm of sorts in the following months with no less than two articles appearing in Arguments, both of which explicitly used situationist ideas in detail without any acknowledgment of their source or direction—one written by André Frankin an ex-situationist, and the other by their sometime comrade Henri Lefebvre.[12] Indeed, this ‘silence’ that the SI believed was maintained against them by leftist academics more generally in France, would be transformed in the wake of May 1968 into a rush to capitalise upon the newfound infamy of the group—and in some cases by the self-same gatekeepers of the previous silence.[13]

In 1962, the idea that proletarian revolution was off the agenda in the so-called advanced capitalist world was widespread. Such a perspective had already been argued out within the SI, most notably by Constant between 1958 and 1960, and then again by some of the German ‘Spur’ section of the group in 1960 and 1961. With the expulsions of 1962 this perspective was decisively defeated within the SI. Outside of the group, it gained its most forceful elaboration from an explicitly revolutionary direction that shared some of the SI’s concerns regarding alienation in Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (1964). Nonetheless, a mere four years later, this vision of a quiescent and fully integrated working class was decisively shattered amidst the movements of May 1968 in France and the Hot Autumn in Italy in 1969 and 1970. Clearer than most of their erstwhile revolutionary contemporaries, the SI not so much prophesised this as they participated in calling these movements into being—harbingers and organisers of the ‘detonation’ they worked toward.[14]

By the end of the 1960s such sweeping, all-encompassing radicalism beloved of the situationists would be common coin across the growing revolutionary left. By the early 1970s, theorists like Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, all of whom were remarkably quiet before 1968 concerning such matters as they impatiently flipped through the pages of Internationale Situationniste, now offered their own versions of revolutionary intransigence. Briefly infused with a Zarathustra like courage, they were in truth more like the Owls of Minerva spoken of by Hegel (who they detested), than they were like their much-desired anti-master, Nietzsche. Debord, the Marxian-Hegelian, having published The Society of the Spectacle in 1967, attempted to wield theory in the moment of May 1968, while Lyotard and company bided their time and research grants to finally hold forth on what 1968 was, too late to matter. Indeed, their masterworks appeared well into the dusk of the movement emanating from 1968 (Anti-Oedipus in 1972; The Mirror of Production in 1973; Libidinal Economy in 1974). Surely it is one of the perversities of history that Lyotard et al, and not Debord, are more often considered exemplars of what is known in France as ‘68 thought’ (pensée 68).

Yet it is here, early in the 1960s in the pages of Internationale Situationniste, and in ‘On the role of the SI’ as much as its elusive template, the Hamburg Theses, that we begin to see the true becoming of the revolutionary thought of May 1968.

Anthony Hayes
June, 2022

Link: ‘On the role of the SI’


[1] See, G.-E. Debord, ‘L’avant-garde en 1963 et après’, in Guy Debord Œuvres, Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2006.

[2] Situationist International, ‘On the role of the SI’ (1962).

[3] Situationist International, ‘Geopolitics of Hibernation’ (1962).

[4] SI, ‘On the role of the SI’ (1962).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. Italics in the original.

[7] Ibid.

[8] See, Guy Debord, ‘Report on the Construction of Situations’ (1957), and Situationist International, ‘Collapse of the Revolutionary Intellectuals’ (1958). Indeed, such a conception would briefly bring Debord and some other situationists into the orbit of a similarly marginalised group of ultra-leftists, Socialisme ou Barbarie, who also suspected that the apparent improvements in wages and conditions for workers in the West was won at the cost of a more thoroughgoing intensification of commodity production and alienation. For more on this, see, Anthony Hayes, ‘The Situationist International and the Rediscovery of the Revolutionary Workers’ Movement’ (2020).

[9] SI, ‘On the role of the SI’ (1962).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Internationale Situationniste, ‘Renseignements situationniste [5]’, Internationale Situationniste, no. 5 (Décembre 1960), pp. 12-13.

[12] See, André Frankin, ‘Le parti, le quotidien’, Arguments, no. 25-26 (1er et 2e trimestres 1962); Henri Lefebvre, ‘La signification de la Commune’, Arguments, no. 27-28 (3e et 4e trimestres 1962). Lefebvre’s article resulted in a definitive break between him and the SI. For the SI’s version, see, ‘Into the Dustbin of History!’ (partially translated here), and for Lefebvre’s version see, Kristin’s Ross 1983 interview with Lefebvre.

[13] I realise that there is still much to be explained about the situationist claim of the ‘silence’ around them. I will hopefully return to this question at a later date.

[14] See, Situationist International, ‘The Counter-Situationist Campaign in Various Countries’, 1963.

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3 Responses to Translator’s afterword to ‘On the role of the SI’

  1. Pingback: On the role of the SI—Internationale Situationniste number 7 |

  2. unruhlee says:

    Thanks for the translating. Been reading the SI for over 30 years but never saw some of this. Interesting stuff!

    There are a number of typos you might want to fix. For example:
    “their justly infamously claim”
    “would by transformed in the wake of May 1968”
    “Outside of the group, it gained it most forceful elaboration”
    “all of who before 1968 were remarkably quiet”

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