Socialisme ou Barbarie, the Situationist International and the theory of communization: part three of a series

part 1, part 2

As noted, the theory of communization that Gilles Dauvé and others developed offers a critique of the ultraleft (which here refers in the main to council communism) by way of the ideas of Amadeo Bordiga. I’ve described this as a synthesis, the production of a new theory of revolution. This synthesis could not have taken place without the presence of a crucial catalyst, the Situationist International.

But first, some background narrative. The confrontation between Bordiga and council communism described above was made possible by an international revival of ultraleft ideas initiated, in part, by defectors from Trotsky’s Fourth International right after the end of the war. In France, the group Socialisme ou Barbarie, in the United States, the circle around CLR James’s Johnson-Forrest Tendency, and in Italy, the writers later associated with operaismo, corresponded during the 1950s and 1960s, repudiating Trotsky’s account of the USSR—they largely converged around a “state capitalism” thesis—and placing special emphasis on spontaneity and workers’ self-activity.

The triumph of capital during this period, of Taft-Harley and the Marshall Plan, looks more total to us than it was experienced then. In Europe, communist partisans essential to the Allied victory exited the war in control of France, Greece, Italy, and Belgium, with massive strikes and other workers’ actions on the upswing.  Revolt in East Germany in 1951 and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, alongside lesser developments in Poland, convinced ex-Trotskyists, council communists, and others that a wave of class struggle traversing the Cold War division of east from west might soon upset the American century. The publication of Kruschev’s secret speech, also in 1956, accelerated defections from various communist parties around the world, some of whom went looking for heterodox Marxism that could explain the defeat from within they had suffered.

Socialisme ou Barbarie (hereafter S. ou B.) gathered many of these dissidents together around the ex-Trotskyist Cornelius Castoriadis, who had come to Trotskyism during the Greek Civil War, and Claude Lefort, an associate of Merleau Ponty and writer for Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes. In arguing that the USSR was state capitalist, Castoriadis placed special emphasis on the dimension of control, management, and execution, developing a theory of capital-as-power that could describe both French capitalism and nominal socialism in the USSR and elsewhere. S. ou B. was influenced by CLR James’ Johnson-Forest tendency, and particularly the analysis of the workplace this group was producing in texts like The American Worker, which combined auto worker Phil Singer’s reflections on the labor process with analysis from Grace Lee Boggs, and which inspired S. ou B.’s turn to the practice of worker writing and workers’ inquiry. Such a turn was already anticipated, though, by Claude Lefort’s emphasis on proletarian experience in the debates he had conducted with Sartre and others at Les Temps Modernes in the 1940s. To this rich conjuncture came a core of factory workers in a few plants, ex-Bordigists, council communists, and many young intellectuals including Jean-Francois Lyotard, Gerard Genette, Edgar Morin, and Hubert Damisch.

Like twins suns acting upon a host of comets, Lefort and Castoriadis would force two exits from the organization that demonstrate the contradictions within the group, and likewise the impasses to which the theory of communization responds. As S. ou B. developed its critique, it engaged Anton Pannekoek and council communism in a way that would bring Lefort and some others within the organization to adopt a more or less council communist position, resisting the residual vanguardism of Castoriadis, who still imagined the organization might play an interventionist role. The Algerian war and coup d’état of 1958 brought these organizational differences to a head, and Lefort left with Henri Simon to form Informations et correspondance ouvrières, taking with them the complicated theory and practice of workers’ inquiry as well as most of their connection to factory organizations. ICO was rigorously anti-vanguardist, concluding that the only valid role for a theoretical organization was as an inter-syndical apparatus for workers to communicate about and theorize their experience.

This exit to council communism in 1958 was followed by the influx of new members into S. ou B., and a new journal Pouvoir Ouvrier, free to engage more freely with existing struggles. This group around PO was the version of S. ou B. that Guy Debord joined briefly in 1960, and left, with a parting critique that suggested the group remained traversed by divisions, between “stars” and “spectators,” that looked similar to the divisions between order-givers (dirigeants) and order-takers (exécutants) that Castoriadis had been theorizing. A new organization was needed, and Debord was already working on that elsewhere. Eventually Castoriadis’s egoism and his incapacity for true collective work led most of those around Pouvoir Ouvrier to found a new group, which brought with it the burden of all these critiques, and whose members would eventually, after 1968, join some of the small collectives developing the theory of communization.

To summarize, S. ou B. featured a departure to council communism and another to interventionism and between them a swerve, which was Debord’s critique of the militant. Debord, in other words, provided the missing element, the element necessary to overcome the contradictions internal to S. ou. B.  Debord therefore, in our story, is not the locus of the reconstituted critique but merely a catalyst for it. This is because the Situationist International itself never resolved its relationship to council communism or articulated the role it envisioned councils playing in revolution. The factory occupations of May ‘68 were, in this sense, both the realization and neutralization of the political project of the SI—the workers brought the economy to a standstill, but they did not behave as the theory of council communism expected; their motives and desires were elsewhere.

The missing element that Debord brings is of course the artistic critique, the heritage of Dada and Surrealism, Rimbaud and Lautreamont, and the entire project of the historical avant-garde, which Debord both submitted to merciless critique and, in a manner of sorts, brought to completion. When Debord and his peers began in the 1950s, their activities were well-circumscribed by the domain of culture—they were communists as the Surrealists and the Dadaists were, but their activity was not directly anticapitalist except by analogy. Like the earlier avant-gardes, their overcoming of the separation of art from life was not yet an overcoming of the separation of art from political effectivity, but rather a passage into ethics and psychology on the one hand, and architectural fantasy on the other. It was only once Debord decoupled the group from any type of cultural production that the SI was able to play its ultimate historical role. This critique of art gave Debord a unique window into the problems facing S. ou B. Viewing the tyranny of both the workplace and the political vanguard through the lens of the critique of the division of labor Debord had developed with respect to art, he could go much further than Castoriadis in a critique of bureaucracy, management, and control.

Neither is Debord, however, siding with Claude Lefort and his departed associates, as he emphasizes in his letter. If Debord locates in the self-organizing actions of workers a capacity for creative problem-solving independent of their representation by intellectuals and bureaucrats, he never imagines that this means intellectuals must quiet themselves. As Dauvé notes later on, this is one thing Debord got absolutely right. He simply assumed that, as a condition of revolution, the workers and the intellectuals would eventually join together, in advance of which anxiety by intellectuals served no purpose. Perhaps Debord’s creativity as a writer and filmmaker lead him to fear less that his ideas might bully the workers into submission.

Despite all this the SI never really overcomes the limits of the ultraleft as Dauve defines it. As Dauve notes, those who joined the group towards the end of the 1960s adopted a theory of the council as revolutionary instrument that is left more or less unconfronted with the group’s implicit worker’s anthropology. On the one hand, in many texts the SI establishes the revolutionary proletariat as a group whose many-sided needs and desire bring it into fundamental conflict with the capitalist mode of production and the workers’ movement. On the other hand, they imagine a more or less classically councilist passage to revolution, in which the need for a party is sidestepped by the direct seizure of the means of production by the workers’ themselves, who can then presumably figure out how to manage their affairs. But if the factory and office, the mine and the field, are places that the proletariat instinctively refuses how then imagine them as managers there of their own suffering. Where, then, is the aesthetic critique of the barren one-sidedness of everyday life in capitalism? Surely the requirements of revolution mean more than a workers’ council electing itself owner and hanging some cheerful bunting across the shop floor?

Debord and the SI therefore implicitly posed the question of content, but left it for the revolution to explicitly do so. Perhaps this is in keeping with Debord’s unique way of thinking about the avant-garde. He envisions the SI as an adventurist group but not a vanguard. Its goal is to provoke, unsettle, unmask, at which point whatever it has to contribute will have been generalized. As he writes, in the soundtrack to his elegiac reflection on the SI, In girum imus nocte et consumimumr igni, “Avant-gardes have only one time, their goal is to enliven their time without outliving it.” With this idea or the avant-garde, he sides neither with Lefort nor with Castoriadis—the SI is a catalyst, a form of avant-garde action that catalyzes proletarian self-organization, thus obviating the worries about party domination that obsessed S. ou B.

I mean the metaphor of catalyst here rather explicitly. A catalyst is an element required for a chemical reaction of which no trace can be found in the completed product. The product here is the theory of communization, the critique of the ultraleft that Dauvé effected by means of Bordiga. Note that in that original Dauvé text, “Sur l’ideologie ultra-gauche,” from 1969, the SI is not mentioned.  But it remains essential nonetheless, as Dauvé will acknowledges in his later articles. For it is the emphasis we find in the SI on everyday life as a site of suffering, and on creative expression as both proletarian weapon and general good, that shows up the failings of Bordiga’s “barracks-communism.”* Bordiga may point out that the council communists leave the content of communism undetermined in a way that implicates the Situationist International, but nonetheless the aesthetic critique of capitalism they develop offers a surer sense of the consistency of that content than Bordiga does.

*: kasernenkommunismus, “barracks communism,” is the term Marx coins to critique the militaristic, forced collectivism of Sergey Nechaev during the split in the First International.

References/Further Reading

  1. On S. ou B. , see a) Marcel Van Der Linden, “Socialisme ou Barbarie: A French Revolutionary Group (1949-1965),” Left History 5.1 (1977), b) Stephen Hastings-King, Looking for the Proletariat: Socialism ou Barbarie and the Problem of Worker Writing (Haymarket 2015). On the split in particular, Henri Simon is instructive:

  2. On workers’ inquiry, S. ou B. , JFT, and the Italian experience, see the invaluable third issue of Viewpoint:

  3. On Debord’s connection to S. ou B., see Anthony Hayes, “The Situationist International and the Rediscovery of the Workers’ Movement”

  4. Gilles Dauvé spells much of this out in Critique of the Situationist International; see also the passages on the SI, in Roland Simon, Histoire critique de l’ultragauche, which is the best general history available.

  5. I don’t have cause or space here to discuss the Situationist International and what they offer to aesthetic theory and aesthetic critique but suffice it to say I think the importance hard to overstate. For more on this, see my essay “Art and Revolution” from the Handbook of Frankfurt School Critical Theory.