A reprint of a 1963 SI text critiquing Henri Lefebvre. From Internationale Situationniste #12 (September 1969).
"The qualitative is our striking-force."
Raoul Vaneigem, Internationale situationniste, #8.
For those who know how to read the social text of our era, despite the weak and crazy scribbling with which it is covered in the society of the spectacle, the disappearance of the journal Arguments shows some of the new conditions of existence, that is to say, the new conditions of struggle, for free thought today. Arguments presents the apparently unique case of a research journal that failed despite experiencing a clear economic success (a publisher, enough subscribers); it failed due to an exhaustion of ideas; a wearing-down that was impossible to conceal behind the minimum accord between its participants; in a word, under the weight of its own inadequacy, which was undeniable even for those in charge of the journal. In the French intelligentsia since 1957, Arguments officially represented the thought that questions what exists, seeks new perspectives, contests the dominant ideas, including the dominant ideas concerning the pseudo-contestation incarnated by Stalinism. In fact, Arguments exactly represented the absence of all thought of this kind from the "recognized" intellectual milieu. Since it was the very organization of that absence, this journal found itself obligated to completely hide any source of true contestation that it had heard about. Today, Arguments has died amidst an apotheosis of recognition of its [alleged] innovation and research (see L'Express, 14 February 1963). After the spectacle of absence, one now presents us with the spectacle of the disappearance of absence. One must confess that this is big news. -- The naked king stripped of his [non-existent] clothes. The fakes on the market are prime until the moment of their self-admitted collapse.
Despite the stunning satisfaction of the bankrupts ("no one today has done or could do better," p. 127 of the final issue of Arguments), many people -- too many people, in their eyes -- know that the Situationist International had declared at the end of 1960 that Arguments was condemned to death due its obvious collusion with all the false avant-gardes and the essentials of the dominant cultural spectacle, and two cases were enough for the development of the contradictions of the lie that was Arguments to execute our judgment.
On several occasions, the situationists had shown the astonishing stupidities of the editors of Arguments, who sometimes drew their inspiration from texts by the phantom situationists whose very existence these publishers denied (cf. Internationale situationniste #8, p. 18). There was coherence and loyalty, even amidst the confusionism and trickery. The leopard dies with his spots. And the Arguments gang has died with one final, highly revealing bit of deception.
Henri Lefebvre, then writing a book about the Paris Commune, asked the situationists for some notes that could be useful in his efforts.1 These notes were indeed communicated to him at the beginning of April 1962. We had believed it would be good to publish some of these radical theses on this subject in a collection that would be available to the general public. The dialogue between Henri Lefebvre and us -- let us take this opportunity to deny the perfectly fantastic rumor that Lefebvre was a clandestine member of the SI -- was justified by his important approach in La Somme et le Reste2 and even earlier, although more fragmentarily, in the first volume of his Critique of Everyday Life and his declaration concerning revolutionary romanticism,3 to several problems that concerned us. We then learned that Lefebvre had, of course, not ceased his collaboration with Arguments even though the SI had issued its call for a boycott as a counter-measure. As shown by the documents that have been reproduced since then, Lefebvre -- who had for some time been evolving away from a radicalization that was necessary for his own theoretical work -- believed it was time to rally the Argumentists at the precise moment of their rout. In the last issue, numbers 27-28, he published the good pages from his book on the Commune. It was in this way that the so-called "situationist theses" paradoxically found themselves celebrated by their enemies, like pearls hidden in the shit of absolute questioning.
We were not unaware that what we said about the Commune would certainly be diluted and weakened, which can easily be seen by comparing our text to the variations of Lefebvre, who could also proclaim in the same article that "until further notice the State will triumph in the entire world (even Yugoslavia?)." This questioning about Yugoslavia is worthy of Axelos' questions concerning the "God Problem" or the Greek insurrection of 1944. An unforeseen and unacceptable confusion and vulgarization of our theses emerged with their bizarre publication in Arguments. An even more restrictive reading is imposed upon them due to the sole fact of their proximity to everything that is well-known to be submissive and inoffensive in the French intelligentsia. Any well-informed reader will think that those who participate in the falsification [au truquage] of the current history of culture (and hiding the SI, without further ado, is part of the trick [truquage]) are obviously poorly situated to understand the revolutionary history of the past. The fact that someone would have recourse to the hidden present to understand the secret of revolutionary history testifies to a taste that is too close to occultism for our liking. This Versailles of culture will not be so quickly delivered from us.
One could object that we too often occupy ourselves with terribly mediocre people (in five years, who would know that Edgar Morin had ever existed if he'd never been mentioned in Internationale situationniste?). People who represent nothing on the plane of thought -- and one must say that it is regrettable that Lefebvre hadn't better sensed his differences from them -- people who are almost nothing as the last epigones of the classical thinkers and even less as bearers of a supercession. Exactly. As preliminary work towards the realization of other possibilities of acting, we have undertaken to demonstrate methodologically that they wouldn't be anything if they did not permanently play the role (paid) of researching and questioning thinkers in a precise zone of the society of the spectacle that everywhere constitutes modern capitalism. Thus, they lead a considerable portion of those who sometimes seek the contestation of the present and the early signs of a new life before the resignation that organizes all the forces of the old world [sets in] towards their nullity of thought and action.
Almost all the people from Arguments have previously participated in Stalinism and have allowed many serious political and intellectual consequences to take place without reacting. They have seen sent "to the trashcan of history" former thinkers whose importance hasn't been fully understood and whose methods haven't yet been appropriated. Then they found themselves to be "free," and showed their true colors, to which the Arguments collection testifies quite precisely (if one excepts several good translations of articles in German or English, destined to gild their poverty). Thus, it is clear that they, along with their historic approximations, have twice merited being thrown into the famous trashcan of history. The SI can say this because at this moment it represents, not abstractly the truth, but the avant-garde of the truth.
One must recall a remark that Marx made against his era: the current owners of Marxist thought, which has been more or less degraded (regressively revised), resemble the Hebrews wandering in the desert; they must first disappear to make room for a generation that is worthy of entering into the promised land of the new revolutionary praxis.
After this, we suggested to Lefebvre that he immediately publish his own opinions, whatever they are, not of course about the Commune, but about the Situationist International and the collapse of Arguments: silence about the SI could not be legitimated either by complete ignorance nor by a sincere judgment about the subject's lack of interest. An essay in manuscript that he communicated to us on 14 February  and that seemed intended for publication in L'Express, though favorable, wasn't as promptly published nor as profoundly studied as his book about the Commune. Thus, and once more, we can only count on ourselves to indicate the meaning of the itinerary and shipwrecking of Arguments.
Another useful conclusion concerns the objective verification of what we advanced in issue #7 of Internationale Situationniste (pp. 17-18) with respect to our handling of the qualitative:
"The specialists perhaps flatter themselves with the illusion that they hold [key positions in] certain realms of knowledge and practice, but there is no specialist who escapes our critique . . . We have the qualitative, which acts right away like an exponent that multiplies the quantity of information that we have. One could extend this example to the comprehension of the past: we make ourselves strong by going deeply into and reevaluating certain historical periods, even without acceding to the largest part of the erudition of the historians."4
No doubt one cannot exactly consider Lefebvre to be a specialized historian. But it is fitting to keep in mind that our notes on the Commune only represent a vague and hasty sub-product of situationist theoretical elaboration, produced in three or four hours by only three of us. These facts are something to think about.
21 February 1963
The Central Council of the SI:
Michele Bernstein, Guy Debord, Attila Kotanyi, Uwe Lausen, J.V. Martin, Jan Strijbosch, Alexander Trocchi [and] Raoul Vaneigem
Translated from the French by NOT BORED! January 2010. All footnotes by the translator. From https://www.notbored.org/trashcan-of-history.html
- 1The situationists or, at least, Raoul Veneigem and Guy Debord, had been friends with Henri Lefebvre since early 1960. See letter from Guy Debord to Andre Frankin dated 14 February 1960. The notes "On the Commune" were dated 18 March 1962 and signed by Guy Debord, Attila Kotanyi and Raoul Vaneigem.
- 2See letter from Debord to Asger Jorn dated 2 July 1959.
- 3See letter from Debord to Henri Lefebvre himself dated 5 May 1960.
- 4Cf. the essay entitled "The Role of the SI." This passage as translated by Reuben Keenan: "The specialists flatter themselves with the illusion that they control certain fields of knowledge and practice, but none of them escapes our omniscient criticism [...] We control the qualitative, which multiplies the quantity of the information we have at our disposal. This example can be extended to the understanding of the past: there is certainly a need for a more thorough evaluation of certain historical periods, even without a general accession to the scholarship of the historians" (emphasis added).