The Situationist International was a libertarian Marxist group, based primarily in France from 1957 to 1972, that criticized the consumerist “society of the spectacle” and played a guiding role in the May 1968 French revolt. They urged the creation of spontaneous "situations" that would jolt people out of their ordinary routines. Ever since, their cultural critiques have influenced anti-authoritarian movements around the world.
The Situationists advocated that decisions be made by "rank-and-file general assemblies, in the enterprises and the neighborhoods, whose delegates are answerable to those assemblies alone and always subject to recall by them."
Origins and Analysis
The Situationists developed out of a 1950s avant-garde art group called the Lettrist International and borrowed from them the concepts of the dérive (wandering around a city, paying attention to one's psyche and the surrounding geography) and detournement (modifying comics and other popular culture artifacts in order to subvert their original meaning). The Situationists considered such techniques to be tools for creating “situations” that could temporarily jolt people out of their boring everyday routines.
The Situationist Guy Debord, in his 1967 The Society of Spectacle, argued that all social relationships had become mediated by consumerist imagery; in other words, society had become a giant Spectacle. Alienated from their real desires, people believed they needed to consume the products and ideologies being pitched to them by the mass media. This mind-numbing consumption, Debord wrote, “monopolizes the majority of the time spent outside the modern production process.”
The Situationists had the goal of eliminating the separation between art and the rest of everyday life, so that all of life could be a creative, stimulating endeavor. In his 1967 The Revolution of Everyday Life, the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem criticized the traditional leftists who never focused on the possibilities for pleasure and liberation in people's day-to-day experiences: “People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have corpses in their mouths.”
The Situationists had between 10 and 20 members at any time, and in total they had 63 members from 16 countries.
The Situationists had a formally horizontal structure. The group's members Guy Debord and Gianfranco Sanguinetti explain that everyone had “an equal role in decision-making.” However, they observe that the Situationists never succeeded in reaching full egalitarianism, since the group was “was very wrong in not seeing and talking about the partially inevitable and partially circumstantial obstacles” to equal participation.
Simon Ford claims the Situationists suffered a "lack of fit between its anti-hierarchical" beliefs and Guy Debord's clearly disproportionate influence in the group. Morever, Ford writes, “There remains a huge question mark over the group's attitude toward feminist issues.”
On the Poverty of Student Life
In November 1966, radical students at Strasbourg University took advantage of student apathy and won the elections to take over the campus's section of the French Student Union. They got in touch with Mustapha Khayati, a Tuniasian Situationist, who wrote with them a subversive pamphlet called “On the Poverty of Student Life.” The students appropriated funds from the student union to print and distribute ten thousand copies around campus.
The pamphlet argued that university life was just a “form of initiation” into the Spectacle. It criticized the bureaucracy of academia as well as students' vapid consumption of hip trends from Zen Buddhism to existentialism. It also attacked certain students' naïve embrace of Stalinsim. One passage argued that the most intelligent and resourceful students only are in the university system in order to have access to grants:
We must add in all fairness that there do exist students of a tolerable intellectual level, who without difficulty dominate the controls designed to check the mediocre capacity demanded from the others. They do so for the simple reason that they have understood the system, and so despise it and know themselves to be its enemies. They are in the system for what they can get out of it--particularly grants.
The pamphlet spread to universities around France and inspired many of the libertarian impulses in the May-June 1968 revolts.
In May and June of 1968, a wave of riots and occupations swept France and nearly 10 million workers went on strike. The uprising enjoyed strong popular support; on May 8, a poll by the French Institute of Public Opinion found that four-fifths of the country sympathized with students in Paris who had been rioting for several days. With the influence of the Situationist International, radically anti-authoritarian and utopian slogans appeared on walls across the country. "Be realistic: demand the impossible." "Live without dead time." "Boredom is counterrevolutionary." "Happiness is hanging your landlord." "No forbidding allowed."
The economy was brought to a halt, and the conservative president Charles de Gaulle even temporarily fled the country. However, workers stopped short of actually reopening and self-managing the factories they occupied, and in June the country re-elected de Gaulle. An Anarchist FAQ offers the following explanation for why the revolt failed in the short-term:
So why did this revolt fail? Certainly not because "vanguard" Bolshevik parties were missing. It was infested with them. Fortunately, the traditional authoritarian left sects were isolated and outraged. Those involved in the revolt did not require a vanguard to tell them what to do, and the "workers' vanguards" frantically ran after the movement trying to catch up with it and control it.
[I]t was the lack of independent, self-managed confederal organisations to co-ordinate struggle which resulted in occupations being isolated from each other. So divided, they fell. In addition, Murray Bookchin argues that "an awareness among the workers that the factories had to be worked, not merely occupied or struck," was missing.
The Communist Party played a role in suppressing the revolution. Crimethinc summarizes the conclusions of May 1968 participants Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Gabriel Cohn-Bendit: "The Communist CGT union negotiated a settlement with the government to get the workers back to work, and when the workers they claimed to represent refused en masse, they functioned as strikebreakers."
- Situationist International, "The Beginning of An Era", originally published in French in 1969, translated by Ken Knabb, https://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/beginning.html.
- Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (Red and Black, 1967); Marxist Internet Archive, https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/debord/society.htm.
- Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/raoul-vaneigem-the-revolution-of-everyday-life.
- Simon Ford, The Situationist International: A User's Guide (Black Dog, 2005), ch. 1.
- Guy Debord & Gianfranco Sanguinetti, “Theses on the Situationist International and its Time,” La Veritable Scission dans l'Internationale, 1972; translated by Christopher Winks and Lucy Forsythe, Situationist International Online, http://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/sistime.html.
- Debord and Sanguinetti, “Theses.”
- Ford, The Situationist International: A User's Guide, 157.
- Sadie Plant, The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age (London: Routledge, 1992), 94.
- U.N.E.F. Strasbourgh, “On the Poverty of Student Life,” http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/display/4.
- George Katsiaficas, The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968 (Cambridge: South End Press, 1987), 87-88.
- "May 1968 Graffiti," Bureau of Public Secrets, http://www.bopsecrets.org/CF/graffiti.htm.
- Crimethinc, "#23: May ‘68 and the Situationist International," The Ex-Worker", "https://crimethinc.com/podcast/23/transcript
- An Anarchist FAQ, http://anarchism.pageabode.com/afaq/secA5.html#seca57.
- Crimethinc, Ex-Worker, "#21: Communism and Socialism, pt.2," https://crimethinc.com/podcast/21/transcript/.