THE INTERNATIONAL SITUATIONISTS
‘Our ideas are in everyone’s minds…’
The lessons of Hungary were not lost on a tiny band of dissident western radicals and artists who in 1957 formed the International Situationists. Throughout the following decade, they exerted a major and profound influence upon all revolutionary thought and activity.
In the years between their founding and self-dissolution in 1972 they developed a highly sophisticated and coherent understanding of modern, repressive society and the aims and tactics required to ‘supersede’ it and reach a new world of absolute freedom. Their ideas and methods lay at the heart of the May 1968 revolt in France and have shaped and influenced radical groups and currents in dozens of countries around the world.
Although the core of the group never exceeded forty people, and at times was fewer than ten, its effects and legacy have been enormous, while the full potential of Situationists’ ideas are possibly still not realised. These ideas appeared between 1958 and 1969 in the twelve issues of their magazine, the Internationale Situationniste, and in several pamphlets and books, most importantly The Revolution of Everyday Life and The Book of Pleasures by Raoul Vaneigem, and The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord, who also edited the magazine.
Their writing contains a hard-nosed, merciless criticism of the timidity and limitations of most ‘radical’ opposition, including anarchism, while condemning the left, the unions and parties for their involvement in the existing order. The bottom line of Situationist theory is that ‘the greatest revolutionary idea is the decision to rebuild the entire world according to the needs of the workers’ councils …’ Hungary in 1956 was only the latest example of this popular attempt to bypass the state and achieve a self-managed direct democracy; councils emerged in every revolutionary upsurge of the 20th century — in Petrograd in 1905 and 1917, in Germany in 1919, in Turin in 1920, and in the Spanish agricultural and industrial collectives of 1936.
Situationism argued that all other voices of political or cultural resistance were either hopelessly compromised or lacking any real clarity of understanding: ‘the workers’ councils are the only answer. Every other form of revolutionary struggle has ended up with the very opposite of what it was originally looking for.’
This faith in workers’ councils’ was not unique. Other French radicals held the same belief — the anarchists of Noire et Rouge or the ex-Trotskyists of Socialisme ou Barbarie, for instance. But the Situationists went further and constructed a brilliant critique of the modern world. Its origins lay in a fusion of extreme radicalism, avant-garde art — several were ex-members of the neo-Dadaist Mouvement Lettriste — and the theories of the poet Lautreamont, who had argued that ‘Poetry must be made by all’.
The tradition of radical art movements — post-Symbolist poetry, Dadaism, the original Surrealists — held that the ultimate aim of art was revolution, and vice versa. Their ambition was for a world in which art becomes life and life becomes art. Artists become revolutionaries through their desire to realise and create what lies within themselves — their subjectivity. Creative subjectivity is in essence revolutionary because in its attempts to fulfil its aims it must come up against the bounds of this repressive society. In order to succeed in its aims it must break through any restraints.
Radical creative activity, with its goal of the total liberation of all desire, signposted the route Situationism was to take in its search for the ‘Northwest Passage’ out of present repressive existence. It located this passage from the world as it ‘appears’ — from the banal tyranny of the modern bourgeois order into the world ‘that has never been — within the map of 20th century art, a landscape of freedom and experiment with everyday life. As the Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara said 40 years before, ‘The modern artist does not paint but creates directly … Life and art make One.’
In 1916 at the Cabaret Voltaire the Dadaists had attempted the total recreation of everyday life while denouncing the claims of art to be superior and special, aiming to suppress art once and for all. In the 1920s the Surrealists tried to re-direct the artistic impulse into the recreation of everyday life while at the same time continuing to produce works of art — ‘to realise art without suppressing it’. Situationism, however, intended to supersede art: to finally suppress it as a special, separate activity — ‘Culture’ — and to transform it into everyday life.
The dominance of bourgeois rule over everyday life could be superseded by a radical art. This was Situationism’s point of departure, leading to an all-embracing assault on the nature of modern society — its division of labour, its schism between work and thought, its abundance of material wealth and the poverty of its everyday existence — a society where ‘faced with the alternative of love or a garbage disposal unit, young people of all countries have chosen the garbage disposal unit.’
In a society organised around the choice of what to consume, art is no different from a garbage disposal unit. Consumer capitalism imposes a universal structure, based upon the commodity, which radiates out onto every experience — culture, leisure, political organisation. In fact all of life is dominated by the commodity and everyone participates in social life as a consumer. Modern life becomes mere survival, dominated by the economy of consumption. In the 19th century alienation was located in capitalist production, but in the 20th century it has shifted into everyday life. People are no longer simply alienated producers but also alienated consumers, with all human relations modelled on exchange and consumption. We become alienated from our own lives, which become objects to be consumed. The Situationists defined this as the 'Spectacle':
‘The first phase of the domination of the economy over social life brought the degradation of being into having. The total occupation of social life by the spectacle leads to having becoming appearing.’
Humanity becomes a vast audience of the spectacle, a one-way communication of experience, a show to which it cannot reply, spectators of their own lives reduced to a state of abject isolated passivity — ‘The Spectacular-commodity-society'. This is imposed everywhere on everyday life by a 'totalitarian management', which shapes how we wish to behave. It replaces action with passivity, thought with dumb contemplation, living with materialism, and desire with needs. It says 'That which appears is good, that which is good appears', while in times of 'crisis' it promises nothing but simply says 'It is so'.
‘The show is over. The audience get up to leave their seats. Time to collect their coats and go home. They turn around… No more coats and no more home… The spectator feels at home nowhere because the spectacle is everywhere.’
This was how the Situationists saw things. The arena of revolutionary struggle was no longer located in capitalist economic production, but within everyday existence. Life itself had been stolen. Revolution's project, then, is to recreate — to reconstruct — life. The Situationists set out to expose the everyday contradictions found within the banal emptiness of modern life, contradictions experienced by everyone — 'our ideas are in everyone's mind' — not yet as ideas, though, but as desires. For this enormous split between desire and ideas, between what people accept and what they want, is now part of everyone's life. They intended to bridge the gap between desires and ideas: to make the contradictions so clear, and the link so real, that everyone would have to act upon the understanding.
Although the desire to reconstruct everyday existence is almost invisible in the overwhelming shadow of the spectacle, it is universal. In a thousand ways, in acts of refusal and rebellion, scattered and isolated, men and women attempt to recreate their own lives out of their desires. Just as the spectacle is ‘both the result and the project of the existing mode of production', this reconstruction of life is both the result and the project of revolution. This was the way to supersede — to 'leave' — modern times: 'Ours is the best way so far towards getting out of the 20th century.'
Situationist theory emphasised the affirmation of pleasure and of love. Desire unleashed would make 'a clean sweep of all the values and rules of everyday behaviour.
‘People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth.’
They urged people to ‘take their desires for reality’ and quoted with approval the 19th century utopian philosopher Charles Fourier:
‘Never sacrifice present good for the good to come. Enjoy the moment. Avoid any matrimonial or other association that does not satisfy your passions from the very beginning. Why should you work for the good to come when it will exceed your desires anyway and you will have in the Combined Order only one displeasure, that of not being able to double the length of days in order to accommodate the immense range of enjoyments available to you?’
Situationism’s emphasis on art as both tactic and goal, coupled with an attack on all existing specialised art forms, gained widespread support among artists. For them, it proposed a concrete strategy for confronting social conditions. Such ideas took immediate hold with the anarchists and artists of Amsterdam, traditionally an anti-authoritarian city.
Anarchist and artist Robert Grotveld began his ‘happenings’ in 1964, and with Roel van Duyn,Rob Stock and others went on to found the magazine Provo. Its first issue reprinted a 1910 pamphlet on bomb making — The Practical Anarchist. With a circulation among Holland’s youth of over 30,000, Provo soon mushroomed into a mass movement.
In March 1966, Holland’s Crown Princess Beatrix married a German Prince, Claus von Amsberg, a man suspected of neo-Nazi connections. The Provos transformed the State wedding into a perfect ‘situation’. After police reacted to a smoke bomb attack in the royal coach with savage beatings, the demonstration escalated into days of widespread rioting.
The popularity of the Provos was soon confirmed when they received 13,000 votes in the city elections, partly on the strength of their ‘White Plans’ to solve critical urban problems. For example, they began to tackle the housing shortage by painting the doors of empty buildings — including the Town Hall itself — white, and urging the young or homeless to occupy them.
One of their most famous activities was to counter the destructive effects of the private motor car by leaving white bicycles in the streets for the use of everybody.
PROVOS’ BICYCLE PLAN
‘Amsterdamers! The asphalt terror of the motorised bourgeoisie has lasted long enough. Human sacrifices are made daily to this latest idol of the idiots: car power. Choking carbon monoxide is its incense, its image contaminates thousands of canals and streets.
PROVO’s BICYCLE PLAN will liberate us from the car monster, PROVO introduces the WHITE BICYCLE, a piece of PUBLIC PROPERTY.
‘The white bicycle is never locked. The white bicycle is the first free communal transport. The white bicycle is a provocation against capitalist private property, for the white bicycle is anarchistic.
‘The white bicycle may be used by anyone who needs it and then must be left for someone else. There will be more and more white bicycles until everyone can use white transport and the car peril is past. The white bicycle is a symbol of simplicity and cleanliness in contrast to the vanity and foulness of the authoritarian car. In other words:’A BIKE IS SOMETHING, BUT ALMOST NOTHING!’
The practice grew quickly until police began to confiscate them on the grounds that they were able to be stolen’!
THE COUNTER CULTURE
These ideas — simulataneously both utopian and practical — could not for long be confined to one country, or even one continent. Spreading like a contagious disease, they were carried by the cultural and political avant-garde to London, New York, and to the area of San Francisco known as Haight Ashbury.
Among Situationist prescriptions for the overthrow of the ‘spectacular commodity society’ were wildcat strikes, sabotage, looting and riot; in their view, these and not the more traditional political strategies were the authentic forms that the future struggle would take. The long hot summer of 1965 seemed to prove them right.
In August, Los Angeles’ black ghetto, Watts, erupted in three days of open rebellion. Attempts at peace talks failed utterly: there were no leaders of the spontaneous revolt to talk to. Beginning with liquor stores and gun shops the populace started a carnival of systematic pillage, looting and arson. Order could only be restored by the use of an entire infantry division supported by tanks. 32 people were killed, 800 wounded and 3000 were arrested. Fires alone cost the city 30 million dollars.
For Situationists, Watts was a ‘rebellion of worker consumers against commodities. Deprived of future, they reject commodity exchange through theft and gift.’ In New York, the radical group Black Mask linked that rebellion with their own struggle against the art establishment:
‘A new spirit is rising. Like the streets of Watts we burn the revolution. We assault your Gods . . . We sing of your death. DESTROY THE MUSEUMS … Our struggle cannot be hung on the walls. Let the past fall under the blows of revolt. The guerrilla, the blacks, the people of the future, we are all at your heels. Goddamn your culture, your science, your art. What purpose do they serve”? Your mass-murder cannot be concealed. The industrialist, the banker, the bourgeoisie, with their unlimited pretence and vulgarity, continue to stockpile art while they slaughter humanity. Your life has failed: The world is rising against your. oppression. There are people at the gates seeking a new world. The machine, the conquering of space and time, there are the seeds of the future which, fed from your barbarism, will carry us forward. We are ready…
‘LET THE STRUGGLE BEGIN.’
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the USA in apartments, jazz clubs and coffee bars, the generation of writers and poets known as the Beats had also been calling for the world to take a new direction. Although their outlook was never defined, if the Beats had any political philosophy it was an anarchist one. This was clearly spelt out in some poetry, especially that of Alan Ginsberg, Kenneth Rexroth, Laurence Ferlinghetti, Diane di Prima and Tuli Kupferberg.
‘. . . The Charleston on Charles St
featuring my Sister Eileen
and the Kronstadt sailors . . .
Civilians telling cops to move on . . .
The world an art
Life a joy
The village come to life again . . .’
— from Greenwich Village of my Dreams, Tuli Kupferberg.
‘. . . advocating the overthrow of government is a crime
overthrowing it is something else
altogether, it is sometimes called
but don’t kid yourself: government
is not where it’s at: it’s only
a good place to start:
1. Kill head of Dow Chemical
2. Destroy plant
3. Make it unprofitable for them to build again
i.e., destroy the concept of money
as we know it, get rid of interest, savings, inheritance . . .'
— from Revolutionary Letter No. 9, Diane di Prima.
‘. . . In Golden Gate Park, the peacocks
wandering through falling leaves.
sailors are marching
streets of Budapest.
They take the shapes
of the peasant armies
The Streets are lit
Of the Solvetsky
anarchists Burn at every
street corner. Kropotkins starved
corpse is borne In state past the
Of the cowering
In all the Politisolators
Of Siberia the partisan
dead are enlisting.
Berneri, Andreas Nin,
Are coming from Spain with a legion.
Carolos Tresca is crossing
The Atlantic with the Berkman Brigade.
Buhharin has joined the Emergency
Economic Council. Twenty million
Dead Ukranian peasants are sending wheat. . .'
— from Noretop-Noretsyh, Kenneth Rexroth.
The University of California’s Berkeley campus provided, in 1964, the flashpoint for the growing student unrest. Attempting to halt the spread of radical ideas the authorities called in the police to arrest a student activist. 7000 students seized the police car and held it ‘captive’ for 2 days until their demands were met. The Free Speech Movement was born.
The next year, the students united with local youth in a battle against the University’s plan to re-develop a vacant lot. The protestors occupied the land, bombing and burning construction machinery and buildings to create the ‘People’s Park’.
In 1966 San Francisco was faced with a major crisis when thousands of young people, fleeing parents, schools and jobs, began to arrive homeless and broke in the city. The authorities’ response was to refuse any aid, so the people found their own solutions through voluntary action and mutual aid.
The Diggers, named after the 17th century English anarchists, set about dealing with the problems. First they opened a free clinic to halt the growth of venereal disease and drug damage, then a free store where donated goods were given away. Next the Diggers organised free housing in the form of communes and spread information via free newspapers. Eventually they declared Haight Ashbury a 'Free City'.
The Diggers' example was repeated across the USA. The world had witnessed nothing like it since the days of the Free Spirit. Spreading like wildfire via thousands of 'underground' newspapers with millions of readers, the 'Counter-Culture' grabbed the minds of an entire generation. All existing notions were questioned and alternatives suggested in politics, sexuality, art, education, psychology, work, family and relationships.
In no time at all these ideas were transformed into practice as people set up Free schools, communes and collective workshops, or simply turned their back on the consumer world and with only a sleeping bag headed for the open road.
Berkeley’s student revolt was echoed in France. In 1966, Strasbourg students elected five Situationists to run the Student Union. Once in control, their first act was to use all the funds to publish Situationist pamphlets. Their second art was to dissolve the Union.
Outraged, the University authorities dragged the Situationists into court where they were charged with 'misappropriating student funds'. The Judge summed up with these words:
'The accused have never denied the charge, they freely admit making the Union pay 5000 francs for printing 10,000 pamphlets inspired by the Situationist International. These publications express ideas which have nothing to do with the aims of a student union. One has only to read their publications for it to be obvious that these five students, scarcely more than adolescents, lacking any experience of real life, their minds confused with ill-digested philosophical, social, political and economic theories and bored by the drab monotony of their everyday life, make the empty, arrogant and pathetic claim to pass judgement and even heap abuse upon their fellow students, professors, God, religion, the clergy, the government and political and social systems of the entire world.
Rejecting all morality and restraint, their cynicism does not hesitate to preach theft, an end to all studies, the suspension of work, total subversion and world revolution with unlicensed pleasure as its only goal. In view of their basically anarchistic character these theories and propaganda are socially noxious. Their wide dissemination in both student circles and among the general public, by the local, national and foreign press, is a threat to the morality, the studies and the good name of the University, and thus the very future of the students of Strasbourg.'
The judge was right. Such ideas did indeed threaten all of France's 600,000 students, especially the prospect of 'unlicensed pleasure'. At Strasbourg, mass debates on sexual liberty followed; at Antony the guard house that segregated the women's dormitories was attacked and demolished, and at Jussieu the students abolished all sexual regulations. At Nanterre, near Paris, Les Enrages, a small group of 'college bums' aligned to the Situationist International, led mixed groups of students in the occupation of the segregated dormitories. With breathtaking speed this act by a tiny group was almost to bring the entire French state to its knees and to restore to the modern world the vision of revolution.