Investigations without a Guidebook

Some book reviews from Internationale Situationniste #10 (March 1966).

Submitted by Fozzie on March 1, 2023

Kurt Wittfogel's Le Despotisme Oriental (Editions de Minuit) is principally an important contribution to Marxist theory, on the central but oft neglected question of the economic importance of the state in history. It is easy to reject the book's numerous errors on account of their very enormity. Wittfogel's entire current direction is based on the identification — a practically geographical identification — of "Oriental" state totalitarianism born of "the hydraulic means of production" with the current bureaucratic zone of the world. He overlooks, on the one hand, the existence in current bureaucratic society of an industrial development which has effectively taken its first great stride toward the conditions enjoyed by the European bourgeoisie of the middle ages, but which must now be adapted and administered in all its aspects. On the other hand, he fails to extend his analogies to the decisive role of the state in the concentrated capitalism of the West. It is nevertheless this perspective neglected by Wittfogel that best reveals the universal actuality of a potential under-estimated in Marx's analyses, on account of the passing economic effacement that it experienced between the middle ages and the 19th century (an effacement that effectively permitted the cumulative "kick start" of the economy, and ultimately the appearance of "economic thought"). Wittfogel's schematization is meant to lead to the conclusion that Western freedom must go to war as soon as possible to drive back the hydraulic slaves that lay siege to it from Moscow and Peking. Wittfogel then concludes his work with a quotation from Herodotus, asserting that when one knows the nature of freedom, one must fight for it, "not just with the spear, but with the hatchet." This peculiar optimism, which is very much like that of Dr Strangelove, is otherwise refuted by the fact that those who fight most for freedom are often those who have never known it, like the Vietnamese, or the masses of Santa Domingo, still battling to make Wittfogel's marines see it. The reader might recognize themself among the mirages in which Wittfogel loses his way. But this is certainly not made any easier by the pedentic preface in which Pierre Vidal-Naquet has authoritatively slipped in his own counter-interpretation of "the Left," without permission of the author. This "critique of the Left," imposed on the reader to mediate before gaining access to the author's own thought — which is most assuredly right wing — is as authoritarian in its content as it is in its presentation. Vidal-Naquet is so prostrate before neo-Stalinism that he contributes to the perpetuation of a division of the world à la Wittfogel. Lie against lie, the choice is yours. As a sufficiently sordid qualitative example, Vidal-Naquet has allowed himself to write in a note on page 41 of his preface: "By Marxists, we mean the majority currents of the worldwide communist movement. It is quite obvious that Stalinist theses have no influence whatsoever on those currents which are, by definition, anti-Stalinist. Studying their position here would be completely beside the point."

[Joseph] Gabel's False Consciousness: an essay on reification (same publisher) is on the whole an excellent parallel between schizophrenia and political ideology, both shown to be related to the loss of the dialectical apprehension of reality. The absence, however, of a corollary critique of the practical functioning of political ideology (Gabel's psychiatric description is far more substantial than his recognition of the interest held by the interaction with ideological alienation) gives rise at the same time to a certain weakness within Gabel toward Stalinist orthodoxy, as it does toward Western academic thought — such as a poorly considered attempt to salvage Bergsonism. False Consciousness, which throws all revolutionary theory and action out with the bathwater of ideology, seems in the end like of a book of "specialization without portfolio," of a specialist without perspective who prefers to ignore what and whom he can serve. The "putting back the dialectic back on its feet" to which Gabel frequently refers — after Marx's treatment of Hegelian method — can in no way be understood in the form of a simple amelioration of dialectical discourse in the same book. As Karl Korsch put it so well in Marxism and Philosophy, the inversion of Hegel goes further than that. A dialectical book in our time is not only a book that presents a reasoning dialectically; it is a book that recognizes and calculates its own relationship with the totality to be actually transformed.

Maurice Pianzola's book Peintres et Vilains (Editions Cercle d'Art, 1962) has the merit of showing the participation of the principle artists of the era in the Peasants' War of 1525, often in a leading role among the insurgents. Unfortunately, this study remains firmly within the traditional framework of the art book.

The pocket book on Les Marxistes (L'Essential collection) produced by Kostas Papaioannou constitutes an excellent choice, with intelligent and honest commentary. The intelligence of the texts is nevertheless limited by its historian's perspective in dealing with a period that is now over. It is indeed strange to restore such texts without any idea of their future. The use of the book escapes its author who even seems to believe that that it doesn't have one. This is an example of the basic character of contemporary mass culture. The contradictions and superficial uncertainties of this culture have allowed a great deal of abstractly utilizable information to enter it, but in a state of practical incoherence. The curiously restrained partial coherency of Papaioannou's work is the most extreme case of this incoherence.

A long way from these books which should still, of course, be read, the book that Françoise Choay has devoted to Urbanisme, utopies et réalités (Seuil) only warrants being pointed out for the achievement that consists of dealing with this subject without ever mentioning a single situationist thesis.

Translated by Reuben Keehan. From