The Crisis of the Situationist International - Jonathan Horelick

A critique from a former member of the American section of the SI, published in 1973.

Submitted by Fozzie on May 4, 2023

The succeeding failures of the majority of revolutionaries to participate effectively in revolutionary organization manifest, in the last analysis, the failure of the organization itself. An ineffective stage of collective action proves nothing at root except the failure of nearly every participant in knowing how to act for himself and for others. Between October, 1969 and at least as it concerns us, April, 1971, the new revolutionary current initiated and sustained by the situationists declined in force both quantitatively and qualitatively. Despite the noticeable enlargement of the group, after the revolutionary occupations in France, in May, 1968, real activity was dissipating severely. The paralysis of critical publications and fresh types of exemplary action coincided with an unceasing multiplication of internal antagonisms, pseudo-expulsions, expulsions and breaks. The visible lapse of almost all personal effort and imagination accumulated with the internal breaks and expulsions.

The critical inertia of almost every situationist formed the radical absence of spontaneous life from common association and induced in turn the heavy, artificial presence of the “organizational question.” With persisting torpor in the formation of specific subversive projects and the selection of tasks “to the man” which goes hand and hand with them, the second and third round of interpersonal judgments and expulsions had become abstract. The judgments became abstract to the extent that no working truth was present even among a few as their positive point of contrast. The application of a group discipline (in response to a reservoir of specific inequalities in combination with the insufficient qualitative participation of many individuals) did not lead in turn toward an extremism of coherence.

The problem of how to be more than a “group of theoreticians” and yet still realize both an effective and equalitarian formation of the radical critique never found its solution in the American section of the S.I. The first number of Situationist International1 , printed in June, 1969, missed delivering a full revolutionary analysis, not only because two of the three other American situationists failed to materialize certain articles promised but also because of what was said and how it was said. One cannot find in that publication just one positive affirmation of all the historical forces existing visibly in America then and, accordingly, the concrete prospects of the social revolution which were carried in them. From June, 1969 to April, 1971, the failure to prepare the task implied by that deficiency and then in turn to realize the task transpired at two succeeding intervals with the ultimate dissolution of the section. A minimum coherence never came, that realization of radical theory which makes practice possible.

On November 7, 1969, an ultimatum of expulsion was issued from New York by two members of the American section, Robert Chasse and Bruce Elwell, against the two others then in Europe, Tony Verlaan and myself. Less than four weeks after the accepted geographic separation had begun, in my case to exist up to a year, they posed their measure on the basis of our failure to keep “close contacts” (apropos of an actual lax in correspondence for approximately 17 days) and therefore, to “participate” as agreed in the section. The ultimatum demanded, at least initially, an immediate response to the commentaries contained in former letters from N.Y. as well as an adequate explanation for the lapse of contact. The two claimed to represent a “qualitative majority,” insofar as they considered themselves executors of a unanimous decision of the section and would thus determine our expulsion or re-acceptance. In reality, one could hardly have imagined more regarding “participation” during such a period than a common critical contribution in publications. Instead, the most ideal expectation of sustaining and even enlarging all common activity existed prior to the geographic separation without the slightest preparation and specification: in the outline of critical works, the personal choices, the order of priorities. The gross absence of concrete organization now passed to an excessive measure of formalism.

The ultimatum from New York was completely unacceptable in both its form and its content. The bureaucratic logic of the measure revealed itself in the term “qualitative majority” as much as in its abstract identification of the brief interlude of silence in letters with the withdrawal from “participation” in “projects.” The ultimatum was, after all, simply the point of provocation. The very next day, the 8th, Chasse and Elwell received three letters from us which contained substantial evidence of interest and preparation for the forthcoming elaboration of projects and collaborations. One of the letters, written at my hand, informed them clearly of certain personal difficulties which transpired with Verlaan in these preparations as well as in the process of finding a suitable living location. Even the preliminary solution to the difficulty was stated with the explicit intent to draw better coordination, namely, to “delimit our daily relations.” A day later, the reasons and the reality had arrived in their hands, which annulled the trivial bases of their precipitous measure and immediately required a retraction. To the contrary, as their ultimatum evidently intended to force the whole section to reconvene in New York--four weeks after a common decision was made to the contrary and acted upon--their response now was to form another ultimatum, to provoke Verlaan in particular, in order to impose his expulsion in the end. As they were not content with what was not said, they were now even less content over what was.

Evidently, the strikingly unharmonious relations which persisted among the first three situationists, since their first encounters in the summer of 1967, reached their last stage: the formalism of Chasse, the activism of Verlaan and the weak, un-autonomous comportment of Elwell. At a meeting in Paris in late September, the apparent formation of a new solidarity between the three (myself having joined the group only months before with the defect of natural ignorance in regard to many aspects of past operations as well as some of the best theoretical texts) supposedly had cohered. There, Verlaan agreed that his previous restraint from participating in the first number of the magazine and his frequent geographic departures were in themselves unjustifiable. Chasse and Elwell had in turn recognized the mistaken part which each of them played in a particular incident in the past which had disenchanted him. In this incident, Chasse, who was then only considering his formal adherence to the S.I., wrote to the situationists in Europe in respect to Verlaan who was already a member. He stated his unwillingness to become a situationist, so long as Verlaan remained a part of a student commune which operated around Columbia University, the Radical Action Committee, where in effect he had stayed for two months among people in no way equal to him as a de facto leader and as a carrier of entrism--dual organizational ties. Elwell now admitted his belief that Chasse was mistaken in having mailed the letter without first showing it to Verlaan, even though he continued to refuse to leave the commune until much later. Chasse himself agreed. Certainly, none of the elements of the common problem were in any way more or less detrimental and least of all those manifest by Verlaan. The ultimatum, however, was radically preemptive.

Our response to them in November simply proved to be an indulgence in their rigidity and delirium. On the 10th, I wrote that “hasty ultimatums” were “remaining a problem of the present” and three days later demanded the recognition and retraction of the error. On the 17th, Verlaan opposed the measure in turn and expressed his disgust with an “ultimatum practice” on their part which was becoming ‘cyclic.” In so doing, he recapitulated and introduced various faults which he felt existed in them. Both Chasse and Elwell, now judging the manner of his response to their initial provocation, claimed that he was simply reversing “the history of the section.” Accordingly, they authorized the pseudo-elimination of Verlaan on the 26th. After having pretended to accept the validity of my own presence in the American section, Chasse and Elwell now claimed the right to expel Verlaan without a majority vote, not on the basis of an ultimatum--in any case false and provocative--but his reaction to it. Later, after they had been expelled from the S.I. in turn, the two of them wrote an attack against the situationists consisting of forty-six pages and an equally ridiculous title, A Field Study In The Dwindling Force of Cognition, Where It Is Least Expected2 . The text tries among other things to prove that the countermeasure of expulsion directed against them by the French section on December 19, 1969, sufficiently demonstrated the centralist role which that section played. The judgment of centralism was evidently their last rationalization. In truth, every section had already offered its complete opposition to those bureaucratic ordinances which Chasse and Elwell never failed to sustain. The prudent hypothesis formed by the Italian section, namely, that the false measure of elimination does not automatically eliminate those in turn who formulated it, had no real significance in regard to their case of indefatigable bureaucratic energy. But one must still recognize the error contained in the initial form of their expulsion in its specificity. In the same way that Chasse and Elwell could say in their polemic that they themselves committed “a breach of democratic practice” in issuing their expulsion of Verlaan without first notifying me of their intent, in spite of the known stature of my opposition, one must indicate our own “breach” even though nothing would have changed. This was at the root of their dissimulated resignation on December 28th. At the Conference of Delegates at Wolsfeld, on January 19, 1970, their resignation was refused by everyone. Their expulsion was reiterated.

As in many other times and places, the formulation of some expulsions, under the pressure of certain immediate events, were simply necessitated without marking a definite level of theoretical or practical progress in the actual life of the group. The “old problems” themselves had not been resolved in a complete way here. Merely one aspect of them had been negated. Much of the poor style of the American situationist activity continued as it was. The absence of qualitative progress persisted even after a break had occurred with the few remaining Europeans as the result of our stated disapproval over two specific cases of expulsion and resignation which had occurred there some months before. In early April, with six months spent again in New York since the first breaks, the activist outlook which had manifest itself in past times reappeared. Activism reemerged from the side of Verlaan by default of a genuine contribution and originality. Not only the originality but the very struggle for it was diminishing in him between October and February. Previously, the relations had almost broken completely in periods of extreme discord over the most cursory common writing. Moreover, no individual analyses emerged up to April except my own. As for Verlaan, he had chosen at various intervals to rewrite not only finished parts of incomplete texts but amended even key organizational writings with an ever more obscure result. At a meeting on April 1, 1971, just after his return from another six-week excursion to Europe, Verlaan failed to offer anything new, as was promised, in regard to the completion of articles involved in the publication of a second edition of our magazine. He did bring much which was old.

Verlaan felt obliged to make a pseudo-critique of what was done, how it was done and how it should have been done in New York during his absence. This pseudo-critique actually concerned a clerical mailing as well as one contact, Arnaud Chastel. Verlaan arduously stated his opposition to the manner in which posters had been folded and to the way in which readers on the old list were asked to “send bread,” as it was written on the back of envelopes in regard to publications sent them for over a year. In addition, he indicated his belief that Chastel and another ally, Steef Davidson, should have been “put together,” namely, “better organized.” In response, I simply stated the core of the militantism which such remarks contained in respect to “organizing” others, others in whom I did not yet place full confidence and who did not find that confidence in each other. Only a few months before, Verlaan and I had formally threatened to cut off all relations in particular with Chastel for the most abstract, insubstantial tendency to voice criticism at the first moment over anything. On April 1, the common decision to sustain a modified relationship with Chastel for whom Verlaan admitted finally that he held his own “suspicions” concerning his contacts was maintained. Nevertheless, Verlaan showed in future days--during which he preferred to continue working on the translation and reproduction of other established texts--an arbitrary disloyalty to the common decision and a persisting desire to maintain his criticism of detail. Days later, we met again in order to speak with still another contact, Ken Knabb, belonging to a group from California, which at least then was anonymous and whose positions were self-admittedly very elementary as this anonymity showed. In the past, Verlaan particularly wanted to criticize the members of the group by mail in relationship to many of the particulars involved in their preliminary activity. In any case, at this meeting, in answer to a question posed by Knabb concerning the type of relationship which existed between Chastel and us, Verlaan quickly responded in this way. Upon the basis of the criticism which Verlaan already put to me, Chastel was willing, as he too now agreed, to join our group. The abstract urgency felt by Verlaan in organizing those who were not equal or corresponding with them in detail after detail of critical advice, now became obvious. He wanted to “organize” them and unite with them to the extent that he could not fulfill the game of the qualitative on his own terrain--and no matter what was said there about them. This evidently was hostile enough to former positions. Despite the fact that Verlaan was unable to hold to the slightest agreement, the trouble was still taken to arrange a meeting on the following day at which time, I said, the matter would be settled at last “in one way or another.” Although having lost trust in him, with little expectation of an effective settlement in view of such arbitrariness, I made it explicitly clear then that all other engagements and all other matters were suspended until this sudden maneuver was resolved definitively. But on the following day, he failed to appear. Among all his subsequent excuses he included a delay resulting from previous engagements that day with Chastel and others. After this absence, I broke with Verlaan on the 15th of April according to the central fact that he could not “be taken at his word.” This genre of militantism, carried in the enthusiasm of an “organization man,” had completely obstructed all further struggle for radical coherence. The desire to translate volumes of material, to bask in an image of coherence on the laurels of past organization in which one had played a very modest part, constituted the most patent ideology.

In this light, it is necessary to criticize the preceding organizational position which had been taken in New York--“The Tendency for the Truth of Practice”-- since September 21, 1970. Our criticism of the methods and the practical reality which had existed in Europe was, after all, glib. In our analysis, there was no element of self-criticism present. We said very little about ourselves, our own part in past errors and our difficulties. However, the refusal in turn of the five remaining comrades of the “Declaration” initiated on November 11, 1970, to recognize the disputable form as well as the bases involved in the past elimination of Eduardo Rothe was certainly mistaken itself. The same was true for the forced nature of the resignation imposed on Francois Beaulieu who was attacked for being “pitiful.” As much as the comrades in Paris had violated the basic rules of sectional autonomy in the elimination of Eduardo Rothe, the following clarification should also be made now. One must respect the spirit of irrevocable decision which was present in Paris. A fundamental loyalty existed among all the situationists there in living by the same rigor in the rules of the game, as they applied not only to others but to themselves. It is important to note, apart from the most severe conditions of inequality under which judgments were made there, that every measure itself always expressed a clear democratic majority. As for our objection to the above two cases, our proposal to include the two departed comrades in a “regroupment” was hardly qualified really. Certainly, our proposal for “regroupment” itself offered no real specifications suitable in any way to the vast dimensions of general practical inertia which had already evolved.

April 8, 1973

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