THE SITUATIONISTS AND COUNCIL COMMUNISM
One result of the Situationist International’s program of anti-specialisation is that their work has some degree of relevancy to a diverse range of fields. As such, the SI is generally approached from one of these fields – architecture and urbanism, avant-garde aesthetics, (post-)Marxist traditions etc. – and attempts at conceptualising the SI in its heterogeneous and shifting totality are replaced by prismatic understandings of the group, which can serve to replicate the specialisation it originally sought to counteract.
Recently, there have been some efforts to render more fully an interpretation of the SI beyond the dominant image of Guy Debord’s post-1963 theory-based politico cell. MacKenzie Wark, for example, has emphasised the importance of other members of the SI at this time (Jorn, Constant, Gallizio, Bernstein), whilst also offering an alternative characterisation of Debord himself, now cast as strategist of war. Stewart Home has previously attempted to redress the unbalance of attention paid to this predominantly Parisian group compared to the 2nd Situationist International in Scandinavia, centred around de Jong and Nash.
Despite this unconsolidated historical identity, what has remained dominant is an impression of the SI that treats them as aestheticians prior to political theorists. Although they are recognised for their novel and prescient theoretical contributions, these are often introduced as the basis to a more rigorous analysis of the SI’s aesthetic tactics: ‘détournement’ and the ‘dérive’ after all, offer clear avenues of development, unlike the dead-end and negation of individual agency of ‘the spectacle’. Elsewhere, the SI are cast as endlessly oppositional (which isn’t an unfair conclusion to be taken perhaps from Debord’s later writings): resistant to the spectacularised forms of Western party politics, the politics of everyday life, the bureaucratic state capitalism of so-called actually existing socialism, as well as the reification of much contemporary Marxist opposition. What is often overlooked, however, is their (admittedly few and underdeveloped) moments of positive political alignment: their proposals for what the inverse of spectacular society could look like. Their supported political program was one of council communism.
This form of fervently anti-hierarchical communist organisation is most commonly association with the short-lived Hungarian revolution of 1956, when local revolutionary councils sprung up independently of party or union authority. The journal Socialisme ou Barbarie (to which Debord briefly contributed) and Cornelius Castoriadis (Paul Cardan) would seem to have been influential on the SI in this respect; and many of the principles of councilist organisation were put into use by the SI during May ’68, with their involvement in the Council for the Maintenance of Occupations (CMDO).
What I plan to do with this post is keep a rolling record of references to and elaborations of council communism from the Internationale Situationniste and the writings of individual situationists, to be accompanied eventually by some sort of overview or critique that may (or may not) form the basis of an image of the SI as grounded in a positive political program, in addition or contrast to their current image as free-floating agents of negation. Any contributions or criticisms would be greatly appreciated.
Excerpts begin below
Guy Debord – Society of the Spectacle
“The long-sought political form through which the working class could carry out its own economic liberation” has taken on a clear shape in this century, in the form of revolutionary workers councils which assume all decision making and executive powers and which federate with each other by means of delegates who are answerable to their base and revocable at any moment. The councils that have actually emerged have as yet provided no more than a rough hint of their possibilities because they have immediately been opposed and defeated by class society’s various defensive forces, among which their own false consciousness must often be included. As Pannekoek rightly stressed, opting for the power of workers councils “poses problems” rather than providing a solution. But it is precisely within this form of social organization that the problems of proletarian revolution can find their real solution. This is the terrain where the objective preconditions of historical consciousness are brought together – the terrain where active direct communication is realized, marking the end of specialization, hierarchy and separation, and the transformation of existing conditions into “conditions of unity.” In this process proletarian subjects can emerge from their struggle against their contemplative position; their consciousness is equal to the practical organization they have chosen for themselves because this consciousness has become inseparable from coherent intervention in history.
With the power of the councils – a power that must internationally supplant all other forms of power – the proletarian movement becomes its own product. This product is nothing other than the producers themselves, whose goal has become nothing other than their own fulfillment. Only in this way can the spectacle’s negation of life be negated in its turn.
The appearance of workers councils during the first quarter of this century was the most advanced expression of the old proletarian movement, but it was unnoticed or forgotten, except in travestied forms, because it was repressed and destroyed along with all the rest of the movement. Now, from the vantage point of the new stage of proletarian critique, the councils can be seen in their true light as the only undefeated aspect of a defeated movement. The historical consciousness that recognizes that the councils are the only terrain in which it can thrive can now see that they are no longer at the periphery of a movement that is subsiding, but at the center of a movement that is rising.
A revolutionary organization that exists before the establishment of the power of workers councils will discover its own appropriate form through struggle; but all these historical experiences have already made it clear that it cannot claim to represent the working class. Its task, rather, is to embody a radical separation from the world of separation.
…This “historic mission of establishing truth in the world” can be carried out neither by the isolated individual nor by atomised and manipulated masses, but only and always by the class that is able to dissolve all classes by reducing all power to the de-alienated form of realised democracy – to councils in which practical theory verifies itself and surveys its own actions.
‘Instructions for an Insurrection’ (IS#6, 1961)
Of the tendencies toward regroupment that have appeared over the last few years among various minorities of the workers movement in Europe, only the most radical current is worth preserving: that centred on the program of worker’s councils… Even if militants are no longer mere underlings carrying out the decisions made by masters of the organization, they still risk being reduced to the role of spectators of those among them who are the most qualified in politics conceived as a specialization; and in this way the passivity of the old world is reproduced… The revolution of everyday life cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future… (see the activity of the groups that publish Socialisme ou Barbarie in France, Solidarity in England and Alternative in Belgium)
‘A Councilist Program in Spain’ (IS#10, 1966)
When workers councils appear, there can be no moderation on either side… The enemies of workers councils are quite justified in fearing the worst from councilist power, just as he councilists must fear the worst from the inevitable retaliation their agitation will provoke, whatever they do or don’t do.
Councilist power is the total enemy of existing “survival.” It therefore cannot itself survive for very long without staking and winning its best on the total transformation of all existing conditions and the immediate liberation of life. From the very beginning it must bring about the fundamental transformation of what is produced and how it is produced, reorienting people’s needs and abolishing the whole commodity production system. It must transform the organization of the environment, the methods and goals of education, the implementation of justice and the very definition of crimes. It must eliminate all hierarchies and the morality and religion that go with them.
‘Preliminaries on Councils and Councilist Organization’ (IS#12, 1969)
Here, Rene Riesel produces a history of moments when council communism/councilism has either developed or been suppressed prior to its maturation. These moments have included: Kronstadt sailors, the St Petersburg Council of Worker’s Deputies, Turin 1920, Budapest 1956, the German Communist Workers Party, CNT-FAI in Spain. He then lays out some ‘preliminaries’ which try to account for the lessons learnt in these historical case studies.
‘Notice to the Civilized Concerning Generalised Self-Management’ (IS#12, 1969)
In the same issue of IS as above, Raoul Vaneigem offers more preliminaries on what council-based social organisation will look like. This is based on the experiences of May 68 but is otherwise ahistorical. Note that this first IS after May 68 has these two articles on the practicalities of organising a future society. Mostly, Vaneigem is concerned with emphasising the generalised spread of self-management, ie: beyond the workplace and production. He begins to offer some specifics, even numbers and an analysis of the liberatory promise of telecommunications technologies, but always falls back to abstractions, like ‘the exhilaration of universal freedom’. Hippy-speak!
Problems: his proposals for a systematic ordering of councils looks an awfully lot like the bureaucratisation that he is elsewhere so critical of (eg: councils will have ‘equipping sections’, ‘information sections’, ‘coordination sections’, ‘self-defence sections’ etc). Similarly, he says nothing of arriving at the horizontal power structure of the council. This might involve confronting and overcoming inherited power structures such as those of man over woman, adult over child or white over black. The problem seems to be something like: this conception of council communism is pre-spectacle, almost feudal in organisation. The real challenge would be to accommodate this arguably antiquated system of organisation with a post-spectacular society.
‘For the Power of the Workers Councils’ (22nd May 68)
This is a CMDO communiqué written, presumably, at a juncture when de Gaulle may have negotiated with the major trade unions, and the CMDO express their refusal to negotiate. Their alternative is for the workers to ‘take the upper hand’ and ‘speak for themselves’, as vague and maybe naive as that is. Again, the SI’s position here remains with utopian philosophic platitudes rather than coherent political strategy.
Raoul Vaneigem – A Cavalier History of Surrealism
…the Surrealists grasped even less clearly than the Dadaists to what degree and in what sense the sailors of Kiel, the Spartacist workers or the members of the first Russian councils were putting into practice the same project that they themselves nurtured. (p36)