On the internal difficulties of the Situationist International in its final years, including several resignations and exclusions.
The Theses on the Situationist International and Its Time1 report what the SI has done since 1969, and all the reasons for what it has done. It will suffice to add here some succinct information on the principal circumstances that were encountered in the same period, and on what became of various individuals.
About a month before the publication of number 12 of the French review, on 28 July 1969, [Guy] Debord announced in a letter addressed to all the sections of the SI that, after this number, he would cease "to assume the responsibility, as much legal as editorial," for the management of this review. He evoked "the old revolutionary principle of the rotation of tasks," and accorded it "even more weight from the circumstance that several texts of the SI have placed great emphasis on the coherence and sufficient capacities of all of its members." Now, such manifest self-satisfaction seemed rather contradicted by the fact that, as the members of the French section increased, these members had strangely picked up the habit of abandoning to Debord the charge of producing an ever more important part of the recent issues. An editorial committee was elected without pain a little later on and charged with producing the next issue more collectively; all agreeing, moreover, that this approach would involve a complete change in the form and content of the review, and thus better adapt it to the conditions of activity, which have become more complex and advanced. Thus, the first symptom of a crisis toward which the SI was rushing passed by almost unnoticed in the climate of euphoria that, on the part of several comrades, was real, and on the part of others was simulated.
The Conference of Venice constituted a second symptom, more manifest and of more weight. The 7th Conference of the SI was held in Venice from the 25th of September to the 1st of October 1969, in a very well chosen building in the popular quarter of La Giudecca. It was constantly surrounded and watched over by a great number of informers, Italian or delegated by other police. One part of the Conference knew how to formulate good analyses of revolutionary politics in Europe and America, and, notably, to foresee the development of the Italian social crisis in the coming months, as well as the interventions that we would have to make in it. But, if such a debate certainly showed the most extreme and best informed political grouping then existing in the world at work, the best aspects of what the SI also signified — insofar as fundamental theory, critique and creation in the whole of life, or simply the capacity for real dialogue between autonomous individuals ("association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all") — proved to be completely absent. The "pro-situ" mindset manifested itself in Venice in a grandiose manner. While some comrades systematically imitated the prudent silence of [Raoul] Vaneigem, half of the participants wasted three quarters of the time in repeating with the greatest firmness the same generalities that each preceding orator had just affirmed; and all this was translated step by step into English, German, Italian and French. Each of these eloquent comrades evidently had as their only aim to underline that he was just as situationist as the next, thereby justifying his presence at this Conference, as if he could have found himself there by chance, but also as if an ulterior and more historical justification had not been abandoned in the sole pursuit of this formal recognition that should have been thought of as already assured. In short, the situationists in attendance numbered eighteen, but they had the spirit of four.
After Venice, the French editorial committee, composed of [François] Beaulieu, [René] Riesel, [Christian] Sebastiani and [René] Viénet, did not manage to produce fifteen usable lines in more than a year. Not that their writings were rejected by the others: quite simply, they were not able to write anything that satisfied themselves. And on this point one must recognize that they showed their lucidity.
Mustapha Khayati, who had figured among the most intelligent and effective comrades of the SI in recent years, had presented his resignation to the Conference of Venice, which accepted it, at the same time expressing profound disagreement on his ulterior perspectives. He had imprudently volunteered, two months earlier, to take part in the activities of the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PDFLP), at the heart of which he thought he could discern a revolutionary proletarian faction. It is known that the SI cannot allow a double membership that would immediately verge on manipulation. Khayati showed, by what followed in Jordan, that he was less sure as a revolutionary when he found himself isolated in a nearly desperate position, but one into which he had put himself, than when he was well accompanied. The proletarian faction of the PDFLP, and even the least expression of its autonomous perspectives, had only existed in the well-intentioned imagination of Khayati himself, who found himself holding a seat in the simple management of this underdeveloped leftist misery. All the Palestinian organizations were armed and enjoyed in Jordan a situation of dual power, but exactly at the level of local conditions. All the ridiculousness of the impotent Arab states — divided, and accumulating bombast on their unity — found itself concentrated in the embryonic statist pseudo-apparatus that shared the part of Jordanian territory that, little by little, had escaped the State of Hussein. A dual power can never last, however, not one of the Palestinian organizations wanted to overthrow Hussein, and thus all of them renounced their sole slim chance of winning, not even wishing to see that it was the last hour to risk everything. Each of them feared that the operation would only profit some rival organization and its Arab protector State. It was thus perfectly clear that Hussein would move to destroy the Palestinian organizations. One had to be prisoner of a veritable ideological hysteria not to acknowledge that few heads of State can have so constantly show proof of so much resolve as King Hussein to maintain himself in power whatever the cost, in the most difficult conditions, and that he disposes of the most solid and faithful army of all the Arab countries (which, certainly, is not saying very much, but it was obviously enough to crush the unfortunate Palestinians who militarily obeyed such strategists). Khayati could not be entirely ignorant of all this, but he literally did not know how to say a word of it, in any form. However, the boukha was drawn, and so it had to be drunk. Since the revolutionary Palestinian elements had merited Khayati's adhesion, they merited his provision of a minimum perspective and his keeping them on their guard. He contented himself with returning to Europe before the inevitable repression, gravely deceived.
Undoubtedly, he brought out on 1 August 1970, with Latif Lakhadr, twenty-four insufficient theses entitled En attendant le massacre [Waiting for the Massacre]. But these theses, which were published in the Trotskyist journal An Nidhal, were in fact written after the massacre, which had begun before the summer and were completed in the autumn. Thus Khayati disappeared definitively from the SI; and, in leaving, he certainly did not come closer to revolutionary praxis, and gave us no ground for congratulating ourselves on the mastery that some comrades who have been formed by the SI are able to deploy.
The Italian section of the SI succeeded much better in practical circumstances nearly as dangerous — notably in escaping from the police officers who had made a show of looking for them after the explosion of the bombs that the secret services of the Italian State utilized in December 1969 [at the Plaza Fontana in Milan] to shatter or retard the movement of wildcat strikes that had come to the point of constituting a menace of immediate subversion to society. The Italian section of the SI was equally able to immediately publish and distribute clandestinely the tract Il Reichstag Brucia?, which revealed the essentials of this maneouver several months before the first timid doubts advanced by Italian leftists. The Venice Conference had clearly seen the troubles of the following three months, and had even halted in advance the dispatch of some "French adventurers, all men of elite and skirmishes" (to re-employ the expression of the Loyal Servant at the time of another Italian war) to reinforce the ranks of the Italian situationists. However, this time it was the State that was able to seize the initiative, albeit intrepidly (providing an example of what can be easily reproduced elsewhere), and it was the Italian comrades who had to flee Italy and go into exile for some time in France.
The whole of the facts evoked above led us to undertake, at the beginning of 1970, an orientation debate that had to decide on what the SI had henceforth to do, and above all to examine how it was going to it, and why certain people managed to do nothing. This debate, which lasted nearly a year, showed clearly the emptiness and abstraction of the conceptions of many contemplative situationists, and even the naive ruses of certain others. Some said with assurance that what had to be done was just what they were unable to do; others tranquilly repeated the existence of diverse projects that they had absolutely no wish to undertake and bring to completion. (One will be able to read — in the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam — the mass of uninteresting documents and the fastidious correspondence that all those who were unable to do anything else accumulated during this period.)
Certain insufficiencies and errors in this debate or in practical conduct brought about — before the more general rupture that we commenced in November 1970 — the retrenchment of a certain number of members of the SI. Successively and over five distinct affairs, [Alain] Chevalier, [Robert] Chasse and [Bruce] Elwell, [Claudio] Pavan, [Eduardo] Rothe, and [Paolo] Salvadori were excluded for having gravely failed the organizational rules of the SI. Beaulieu and [Patrick] Cheval both had to resign, but for quite opposing motives: Beaulieu because he was reproached for his silliness and lack of dignity. Cheval because he had, after a drinking bout borne worse than the others, attempted to defenestrate comrade Sebastiani, whom he had not recognized, and who was obliged at last to defend himself (one will understand that the SI, just because it puts into play a certain violence, cannot accept that this violence be exercised on any occasion whatsoever or between those who are part of the organization). In conclusion, one must underline that Patrick Cheval, Eduardo Rothe and Paolo Salvadori, despite the regrettable incidents that constrained us to separate ourselves from them, are estimable comrades who no doubt can bring some notable contribution to subsequent moments of the revolutionary process of this time. The others, no.
These incidents, precisely because they did not carry off only the worst, nor all of the worst, did not at all improve the quality of our thinkers or the verve of our editors. Though everybody always threw themselves as one into condemnation of the excluded situationists, many members of the SI continued to be tolerant among themselves, while the very conditions that they were living in rendered suspect such long-suffering on their part. Despite its recognized urgency, the critique of the pro-situs did not advance any faster than the critique of the new epoch or the real auto-critique of the SI. Those of us who brought the most elements to bear on these tasks were approved in principle, but without any of this being effectively taken up and employed. Nevertheless, one could read in Informations Correspondance Ouvrieres, a journal generally more senseless and deceitful than this, these lines full of sense:
"For two years, all the Vaneigemists have succeeded very well in congealing the struggle for human adventure, which the SI had led for fifteen years, in a given sphere (and not all alone, either). The struggle for daily life and from daily life has frozen into a miserable aesthetization of 'certain' relationships, 'certain' affinities, and 'certain' desires, the whole dressed up with a certain apoliticism that makes one doubt their desire to live. As for their ludic and creative possibilities, it is enough to have skirted some of their debauches to be persuaded that these do not go beyond those of the bons vivants that we all are"
(ICO, supplement to #97-98, undated).
Since the Venice Conference, and during the whole of the subsequent crisis, we had agreed on the fact that the SI would not accept new adherences without having first clearly mastered the difficulties that it found in itself. Without a doubt, it would have been more expedient to have a certain number of new comrades enter the SI, who would have immediately undertaken to drive out the incapable and the antiquated. However, this would have presented the grave inconvenience of reinforcing the SI at a time when the most general theoretical conclusions that one could already sketch out, on the basis of this crisis and the new epoch, led us on the contrary to the certitude that it was necessary to weaken the SI. Besides, such a path would involve, at least in its first stages, a certain forced subordination of these new comrades to our perspective in a struggle that would make them triumph among the situationists of several countries — and we no longer want anything of such a subordination, even momentarily, now that we have clearly seen what it is — and we have seen this so clearly because the epoch now permits us to do without it. These adherences would thus have constituted a bad path, and would have led to an inopportune result.
On the other hand, it was good that the SI kept silent for a while, above all in France. First of all, to interrupt the conditioned reflex of a crowd of spectators — certainly more than half of our tens of thousands of readers — who only awaited the next number of the review that it had picked up the habit of consuming, so as to bring to light its "knowledge" and its dreamed of orthodoxy. But also because the SI had never written anything that might secretly be in contradiction with what, on the whole, it was. At the moment when the SI knew a great part of its misery, but had not yet surmounted it, its silence avoided the unpardonable split between writings that would attempt to present themselves as partially or completely grounded in reality, and the real miserable conditions that would remain uncriticized: the authentic writings of some justifying the inauthentic existence of the silent followers. Such a dissimulated split would not permit us to say anything really valid about and against the Chinese bureaucracy or American leftism: everything would have assumed a lying coefficient. The SI thus maintained its truth by saying nothing that could indirectly conceal a lie or a grave uncertainty about itself. Without doubt, many situationists wanted to pursue, through unscrupulous ambition or simple personal vanity, the glorious role of a SI that would have added some beautiful pages to its old stylish book, at the price of some semi-critiques of the recent past and the last people to be excluded, and thus would have presented an improvement or a supercession of which they themselves were not the bearers. But precisely those who would have liked to maintain this style of publication were incapable of producing them. Those who, on the contrary, could produce them accordingly let the incapable ones get stuck in the mud for some time, simply by taking at its word the organizational principle of the SI (the equal capacities of its members in general), as a result of which it became clear that they could no longer verify themselves with these people, and in such conditions. It was this "casting out the nines" which showed that insufficiency in form was identical to insufficiency in the content. In keeping the SI silent in this manner, for quite some time we made its crisis appear, at first in the negative, and we thus began to help the thought and action of real autonomous forces to liberate themselves by themselves. On an ulterior level, it seemed to us even better to cease publication of a review that was beginning to enjoy too routine a success. Other forms of situationist expression are more suitable to the new epoch. They will be even more troubling to the habits of the comfortable spectators, who will never know the answer to their most impassioned expectation: which metallic color had been chosen for issue number 13? The review in France called Internationale Situationniste was published for eleven years, during which time, moreover, it managed to bankrupt two successive printers. It dominated this period, and it attained its goal. It was very important for passing on our theses in this epoch. The numerous pro-situ aficionados, who do not know at all what this review was for — and who seem quite incapable of themselves producing, on the basis of the equal autonomy that they proclaim to believe in, anything that would be on this level — dreamt no doubt that we would continue to furnish them until the end of the century (and for 3 francs, an "attractive price") their little dose of intellectual "festival." Oh no! If they are anxious to read such a review, they will now have to write and publish one themselves.
The historical importance of the contemplative situationists, when placed in the best experimental light, had by the autumn of 1970 perfectly rejoined its concept. They had to acknowledge that one cannot make revolutionary theory while neglecting the material foundations of the existing social relations. It is this critique of modern capitalism as it really is that separates the SI from all leftism and also from the lying lyrical sighs of the various Vaneigemists. We had to recommence the critique of political economy in understanding precisely and in combating "the society of the spectacle." And assuredly we had to continue this critique because this society, since 1967, has pursued its movement of decay in an accelerated manner. Those of the contemplatives who knew themselves to be the most pitiable — the Beaulieus, Riesels and Vaneigems — and who consoled themselves by sometimes being patronizing, in the name of the SI, to some individuals who were outside the group but who were often worth much more, could neither refuse nor execute this critique of the spectacle, and, when faced with the simplest tasks, found themselves paralyzed in proportion. During this time, history continued — even for us! And there were also, and endlessly, people to see, texts to read, letters to write to ten countries, translations to do, etc. All those who could do nothing, or nearly nothing — or did it badly when they did do something — began to tire us immensely by their mere frequentation: their insistent and boring presence drained away part of the time of what they would call our collective amusements or debauches (realities that are not contrary to the spirit of the SI, although this remained for them qualitatively quite inaccessible). And they felt some bitterness in finding themselves kept only too often in the background in everyday life, in which they were even more dreary than they were in political gossip. If "boredom is counter-revolutionary," the SI was becoming boring at top speed, without giving rise to as much protest as one might have expected.
On 11 November 1970, a tendency constituted itself in the SI that announced in its Declaration2 its wish "to break radically with the ideology of the SI," through "a radical critique, that is to say, ad hominem," by accepting "no response that would be in contradiction with the real existence of whomever formulates it," and to attain as soon as possible a "split of which the imminent discussions will fix the frontiers." This tendency presented itself, moreover, as a first step, and had also to pursue the purge in its own ranks. Our Declaration had an instantaneous practical efficacy, because it concluded with the announcement that we were going "to make our positions known outside the SI." The rout of the contemplatives began on the spot.
Horelick and Verlaan, last remnants of the American section, wanted nothing of a split. But, to avoid a split, the two sides must have the same intention. Besides the faults that one could point out in their practice or their pretensions in our organizational relations, we intimated to them that their participation in our activities had been too minimal for us to be able to continue to consider ourselves as co-responsible for what they would do. Their split even preferred not to present itself as such for a long time, and became — under the title Create Situations — an autonomous group in which Verlaan at least pursues an activity, which is principally devoted to the English translation of ancient texts of the SI.
With his back to the wall, Vaneigem had to show to the public what he had become with the text of his resignation3 , in which his clumsiness is just as striking as his ignominy. The poor child whose toy has just been broken calls out while leaving: "the SI was not at all interesting! Na-na-na-na-na!" He rediscovers thus an originality that he had well and truly lost a good five years ago, although in an entirely inverted position, since it is he who is today without doubt the only one in the world to pretend that one can brush aside the disquieting historical and social problem of the SI with so tranquil a pseudo-disdain. One understands very well why Vaneigem can now ask himself if the SI ever existed: "The proof of the pudding is in the eating." Vaneigem wrote a revolutionary book in a certain period, a book that he knew neither how to translate into practice nor how to correct in the light of the advances of the revolutionary epoch. In this matter, one can only judge the beauty of a book by that of the life of its author. Moreover, at a time when so "subjective" a book — wherein abound pleonastic confidences in himself and on what he needs or would need more radically — can only be the consummation of a life generously risked and tasted, Vaneigem had only prefaced his nonexistent life. Now, following his only talent as a man of letters, he prefaces others. In the communique A propos de Vaneigem, drafted immediately after Vaneigem's resignation by Debord and Vienet, the SI publicly summoned him to point out at least one of the "scheming tactics" that he claimed to have found, and would therefore have evidently "let pass," during all the time that he was among us. This character preferred to admit his calumny by his silence, rather than risk himself in trying to back it up.
One must mention comrade Sebastiani quite apart from the others. He addressed to us at this moment [November 1970] two successive texts of an undeniable honesty. He criticized himself on the fact that he had been far too inactive, especially in writing. But one would have to be really petty to reproach Christian Sebastiani — who, a little before joining the SI, was the author of many of the most beautiful inscriptions of May 1968, and who had thus expressed with an eminent merit one of the most original aspects of the historical moment — with his laziness with regards writing in these less burning days. What we reproached him with — and it unfortunately brought about the end of our collaboration — was that he did not really employ himself as he should have in the management of the SI. Even at the end of the crisis within the SI, he did not seem to recognize its depth in theoretical terms. We must also plainly declare that he cannot be identified with the current image of the pro-situ, or of the pro-situ member of the SI, to the extent that this image includes as its dominant traits dissimulation, cowardice, meanness in all aspects of behavior and, frequently, unscrupulous ambition. Sebastiani, if one can reproach him with a casualness that sometimes verged on thoughtless, has always been frank, courageous and generous while among us. He is estimable for the dignity of his life, and pleasant to be around.
Soon after this split, ie, in February 1971, Rene Vienet resigned for "personal convenience." Lastly — and so that the drama of civic troubles and banishments in the SI might have something really Shakespearean about it — Rene Riesel played the character of the Fool. This person had seen with joy the disappearance of several of his "rivals," because he wished to further his career. But the new situation obliged him to undertake diverse tasks of which he was more incapable of completing than anyone else. Revolutionary at the age of 17 (in 1968), Riesel has known the rare misadventure of getting old before reaching 19. Never has such a dry fruit given himself up so despairingly to so extreme an unscrupulous ambition, all the means of which were denied to him. He tried to mask this unscrupulous ambition, and the sour envy that his permanent failure brings about, beneath the air of self-assured confidence of the feeble person who seems to dread a harsh word or a kick to come at any moment. But now Riesel could mask his supreme impotence in the activities of the SI for only a few weeks more by lying wretchedly to all and sundry on the advancement or quasi-completion of his non-existent works. Simultaneously, he had cautiously indulged in several other unscrupulous acts of deception, and even thought himself obliged to clandestinely guarantee to certain persons whom he thought were well chosen several gross lies by which his burlesque wife — evidently left hungry by the poor reality of her household — attempted to better the standing of her image in society. All this naturally and quickly became well known, as anyone other than this mediocre crook could have been certain of in advance. Riesel had to own up, and was thus excluded in September 1971, in the midst of conditions that no one had seen — not even the Garnautin liars of 1967 — in the SI.
Thus, the theoretical-practical activity of the SI and its pleasure, both of which had fallen asleep, reappeared immediately in the process of the purge. The light and superficial aspects of this affair, especially the frankly comical reality of several of those who lost their tragedians' masks and their subversive buskins, must not allow us to forget that — because the affair concerned the SI and thus many other people as well — it was a confrontation that concerned the most general conditions of the revolutionary struggles of our epoch and of history itself.
Translated by Lucy Forsythe and others. Originally published as part of "The Veritable Split in the International" (1972). Text from https://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/notes.html
- 2Declaration by Guy Debord, René Riesel & René Viénet 11 November 1970
- 3Letter of Resignation from the Situationist International - Raoul Vaneigem 14 November 1970