Critique of the New Left Movement
The Movement in General
Antifascism and the Cybernetic Welfare State
Yippies and Weathermen
Communes and Collectives
The Movement in General
Of all aspects of American society few are as rotten and degraded as the “movement” that claims to oppose it. This fact may be recognized with varying degrees of satisfaction or indifference by those watching its last spectacular gasps, or bemoaned with equal passivity and incomprehension by its own activists and “spokesmen,” but everyone knows that this decade-long spectacle of opposition has had its day.
What is considerably less understood is the real nature of the movement, the role it has played vis-à-vis the dominant society, and the reasons for its effective demise. Up until now, almost all the commentaries on the movement have represented a fundamental unity, masked by the apparent incompatibility of their versions: politicians, sociologists, newsmen, and leftists have all begun from the proposition that the movement is what it claims to be — the opposition to this society. In fact, the movement in the United States has never been a revolutionary opposition to the dominant order, but on the contrary has functioned effectively as a support for that order and a containment of all authentic revolutionary opposition.
The movement certainly contains different and even antagonistic tendencies. However, there is a fairly general agreement among the activists of black liberation, women’s liberation, anti-war action, ecology, etc., that “it’s all part of the same struggle”; and there is a considerable degree of common “participation,” mutual support, and alliances. But even when their differences seem fundamental or irreconcilable, the groups and individuals of the movement can be justifiably considered as a unity on the basis of the illusions that they all share.
We use the phrase “the movement” here in the commonly understood sense. This usage has a certain ambiguity. The real revolutionary movement for generalized self-management, expressing itself in the direct action of individuals against all forms of alienation, has little in common with “the movement” but the name. This real movement, in struggling for consciousness of itself, must first of all combat what passes for it: its various ideological distortions, its bureaucratic representations, and its spectacularization. The society of the spectacle paints it own picture of itself and its enemies, imposes its own ideological categories on the world and its history. It erects for itself a more or less unified pseudo-opposition that reinforces power society by the apparent all-inclusiveness of its false options. To the extent that truly radical acts escape destruction at the hands of the dominant order, the false opposition hastens to take them under its own wing: “the true becomes a moment of the false.”
Consider, for example, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of 1964 and the Watts riot of 1965. In the spectacle these events are securely situated as classic moments of the “New Left.” Their uniqueness, their “excesses,” their real significances are neutralized by being placed in this context. Watts is fit — if somewhat uneasily — into that oppositional category known as “black liberation,” where it consequently assumes an equal importance with Stokely Carmichael, the march on Selma, and the formation of the Black Panther Party. It is the “fault” of a racist establishment that didn’t move fast enough to ameliorate the condition of blacks in America; the police violence unleashed on the rioters is one more “proof” of the imminence of fascism. In an assault on the spectacle-commodity society that needed to become conscious of itself, the movement leaders can only see a battle with police that was too stupid to fight effectively. Gestures against the reign of survival are turned into an episode of the “struggle for survival.” The Situationist International was effectively alone in noting and defending the festive nature of the insurrection (in their pamphlet The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy). All of the reformist and leftist ideologists scrambled all over themselves apologizing for the looting and vandalism. Five years later the riot and all it laid bare had become so smothered in ideology that Huey Newton was able to get away with saying that Jonathan Jackson’s “revolutionary suicide” was “more revolutionary than Watts.” Evidently the blacks of Los Angeles hadn’t yet attained the “consciousness” to sacrifice their rage and their desires to the cause of “the people” (presumably under the guidance of their “Supreme Servant”).
The first significant signs of dissidence among youth in modern American society were not “political” at all. The juvenile delinquents of the 1950s were manifestations of crises in the major mechanisms of socialization — family, school, urbanism —, of the disintegration of all values, and their vandalism, theft and games of violence already expressed a crude revolt against the boredom of everyday existence, against the dead life that is the essential product of modern capitalism. All the priests of the old order — journalists, psychologists, sociologists, educators — worked overtime trying to fragment and “understand” these “rebels without a cause.” It was in fact this lack of a “cause” — the refusal of ideology — and the directness of their violence that constituted the most positive features of the delinquents’ rebellion. But their isolation, both from society as a whole and among themselves (in the hierarchy and battles of the street gangs), gave them no chance to escape the system of which they maintained an intentional ignorance. They typically returned, in their late teens, to the world of work, family, and patriotism — often preceded by a voluntary stretch in the army.
The early movement to a certain extent represented a complementary critique of modern society — its pacifism and vaguely libertarian tendencies beginning to pose questions of hierarchy and domination — but its humanism prevented it from seeing the more violent youth as allies, from affirming and extending the latter’s crude attempts at really making a party in the middle of the society of spectacular non-life. Each of these two movements of youth accepted the spectacular version of the other, and adopted the official opinions about them: the humanist-leftists dissociating themselves from the disorderliness and criminality of the delinquents (cf. the early civil rights and peace marches, in which everyone was supposed to be suited and beardless in order to make a good impression on public opinion), and the hoods ignorantly resentful of the intellectual “pinko creeps.” When, some years later, Allen Ginsberg turned the Hell’s Angels on to acid (thus averting their threatened disruption of an anti-war march) and the Yippies proclaimed the merger of the hippies and the politicos, this unity was achieved not by each side appropriating the radical tendencies of the other, but by a mutual reduction to their lowest common denominator — the passive consumption of culture and ideology: drugs, rock music, and the spectacle of community and revolution.
The specific form of the earlier rebellion of the delinquents will not reappear, being as it was the product of the dominant society’s relative poverty of mechanisms of recuperation. This vacuum has since been filled superabundantly: The teenager who exploded because he had “nothing to do” (spectacularized, for example, in the figure of James Dean) is now beckoned from all sides with things to occupy his idle hands and imagination — rock festivals, crafts, encounter groups, astrology, militant “revolution,” community service, country communes, etc. Where the official forces were not imaginative or avant-garde enough, the “opposition” manufactured its own substitutes, all the more credible for their “underground” origin: The same people who laugh at the imposture of the Peace Corps consume with respect the heroic saga of the Venceremos Brigade. The new youth will discover that their revolt is first of all against what now colonizes their lives in their own name — their “own” culture and their own “revolution.”
The movement is usually considered to have originated in certain more or less spontaneous struggles of dissident youth in the late fifties and early sixties. These youth — mainly students — developed tactics that were fairly effective in furthering the predominantly reformist aims which they set for themselves — strengthening bourgeois civil liberties, integration of blacks into the dominant society, and elimination of other admittedly archaic excesses on the fringes of that society. These struggles found a false unity and an ideological expression as the “New Left.” Its ideologists presented the New Left as distinct from the old left, which was recognized, but for the wrong reasons, as an anachronism in modern society. As an alternative to the manipulation, bureaucratization, and boredom of the old politics, the new watchwords were decentralization, “participatory democracy,” and “control over the decisions that affect our lives.”
It has been seldom noted that with all too few exceptions the “democracy” of the New Left was a myth. It would suffice of itself to demolish that myth to simply ask at what points, and for how long, there was any kind of democracy operating in the organizations and struggles of the New Left. As for a participatory democracy that would break down the separation between decision and execution, this was present only among a few small groups (for example, some of the earliest agitational experiments in the South) and, very briefly, in such massive actions as the spontaneous surrounding of the police car during the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. Usually whatever democracy there was lasted just long enough to elect a steering committee. Even during the FSM, the most democratic of the student strikes, the “leaders” of the various negotiating committees were not strictly mandated, but merely maintained a loose consulting relationship with the base of dissident students, reserving for themselves the possibility of “calling for the resumption of the strike” if the negotiations did not proceed satisfactorily.
Such democracy as did exist in the New Left organizations cannot be separated from its lack of subversive content. The early SDS maintained a democratized marketplace of ideas which were only the ideas of a democratized marketplace.
This plethora of fragmentary issues finds its echo in the desire for decentralization and leaderlessness (which is less the absence of leaders than the creation of the conditions for leaders to take over) within SDS chapters. . . . Many . . . militants have seen in the relative autonomy of SDS chapters not the early forms of another hierarchical organization — which it is — but a healthy rejection of hierarchies, cell bosses, party chairmen, secretaries. [Robert Chasse, The Power of Negative Thinking, or Robin Hood Rides Again]
Chasse’s critique, published April 1968, could hardly have been more definitively confirmed than by the subsequent history of SDS. That the New Left organization devolved into the control of three factions disputing the precise combination of Stalinist bureaucrats to worship has been liberally bemoaned by those who had proclaimed its essentially libertarian character; but they have never been capable of seeing the origins of this “degeneration” in the incoherence of the New Left. They have either maintained a discreet silence on this subject or impotently and tautologically referred to a “bureaucratization” which unaccountably grew out of this “healthy rejection of hierarchies.”
“Participatory democracy” was almost always an ideology in the service of New Left bureaucrats who originally prided themselves on their “rejection of ideologies.” The logic of their theoryless (if often originally honest) activism leads these veterans of pragmatic struggles to the position of specialists in participatory democracy — “community organizers,” benevolent knights who go to the people to “involve” them, to prove to them, by a patronizing arrangement of protests and local issues, that they “have no power over the decisions that control their lives.”
* * *
The early years of increased participation in the war in Vietnam provoked mass resistance. From draft card burnings and refusal of induction to the stopping of troop trains in Berkeley and of buses outside several induction centers, American youth refused as individuals to participate in a war they totally opposed. The slogan “Hell no, we won’t go” embodied the spirit of their refusal which, even if it was isolated and confused, took on the nature of a rebellion, both because it was directly opposed to a major policy of the government and because it was so widely practiced. Their resistance was not a symbolic mass protest but a direct attempt to halt the war. It was only later when opposition to the war became institutionalized in the demonstrations of the Peace Movement that it acquired the decency and good conscience which became the trademark of the anti-war movement.
The absence of a revolutionary movement in the US reduced the left to a mass of spectators swooning each time the exploited in the colonized countries took up arms against the masters. They could not help but see in the wars of national liberation the destruction of world capitalism. The New Left facilely identified itself with the Third World bureaucracies because it believed that they were fighting a common enemy — the American state — and because their internal policies seemed humane compared to the United States. Following the dictum that your enemy’s enemy is your friend, it imagined that any force which fought US imperialism was necessarily revolutionary.
Expecting the sum total of burning issues of the super-exploited to inspire an American revolutionary movement is the domestic counterpart to the movement’s contemplative reliance on the Third World to precipitate a global revolution.
* * *
With an ideology of “serving the people” the movement organizer justifies his reformist programs; for him they take on revolutionary significance. What is wrong with reformism is not the desire to ameliorate the immediate conditions of a number of people, but rather that these reforms are sought in order to transform these people into a constituency. In the movie The Troublemakers, made in 1965, Tom Hayden convinces some angry Newark blacks that what they need is a traffic light. In order to “educate them” he leads them through the proper bureaucratic channels. Here the individual is important only as another body to be used as leverage in bargaining with power.
The movement falsifies what lies at the center of all acts of radical refusal, the desire for a totally new life. When the organizer moves in, the totality is drowned in a sea of particulars; qualitative refusal is parcelized into particular defined needs. The organizers encourage the proliferation of a host of pseudoclasses: youth, blacks, women, gays, Chicanos... Separated according to their special interests, individuals are more easily manipulated.
Formerly the movement organizer (especially in the black and peace movements) relied heavily on guilt in order to motivate passive participation. Later he appealed to the “self-interest” of various groups — staying behind in order to coordinate their tactical alliance. As the movement decomposed, the old self-interest issues lost their recruiting power and new, more specific ones were improvised: gay vets for equal rights in the military, Asian women for separatist health care... Each hybrid made the frantic search for constituencies more absurd. Movement bureaucrats rushed in to fill every possible need, and collectives developed issue-specialization in order to justify their existence. As one women’s collective put it: “We’re filling a need that wasn’t being met before.”
At the same time, attempts were being made to join all these partial struggles together negatively, against a common enemy. Once the base had been “radicalized,” divided up by the movement bureaucrats, it was reunited in a pseudototality of solidarity. Connections which the very process of “radicalizing” had made seem obscure were demonstrated. We were told: “It’s all the same struggle.” This “radical” pluralism stands on the same ground as liberal pluralism in conceiving of social change as a particular remedy for every particular dissatisfaction, and thus in conceiving of history as a series of frozen, quantitatively equivalent moments evolving toward an abstract goal; the radicals can only distinguish themselves from the liberals by calling the final goal “socialism.”
The most recent manifestation of this pluralism, the New American Movement, makes workers into one of its proposed constituencies, and lumps workers’ control with all the classical movement issues, and some new ones, in an attempt to link all possible constituencies in a broader mass base. Having discovered that “bureaucracies alienate people,” the NAM proposes that “autonomous local groups administer the decisions of the national governing committee” (paraphrased) in order to ensure participation. They use the image of a decentralized democratic practice to modernize what is still in reality the old central committee/ignorant masses routine.
Antifascism and the Cybernetic Welfare State
The Movement adopted for itself an appropriate opponent in fascism. This convenient straw man enabled the Left to avoid defining itself positively; it provided a cover for the fact that the Movement failed to embody a radical critique of the system itself — of commodity production, wage labor, hierarchy. The daily misery produced everywhere by capitalism was made to seem normal — if not progressive — in the light of the barbaric excesses paraded before our eyes. Is the revolution ebbing? That new escalation of the war will give it some life. Or police atrocities, a repressive law, a new martyr, scandal in high places... The people will get so pissed off (“radicalized”) they’ll be ready for anything different. In the same way that war is the health of the State, atrocities are the health of a parasitic movement.
In the film Z, held up by Bobby Seale for the emulation of the United Front Against Fascism audience, the entire plot consists of the struggle to get the goods on the military dictatorship, to prove they broke the law. The role of the proletariat in this drama is evidently to have such shocking outrages revealed to them, after which radicalization they accordingly vote in (with ballots or bullets) the progressive heroes.
Fascism is an extreme development of capitalism, but it is also a retrograde one. It revives and relies upon outmoded institutions which the revolutionary bourgeoisie was originally obliged to attack: myth, family, the Leader, overly crude nationalism and racism. Its existence is precarious enough in Greece or Spain. Fascism can at best be only a temporary, stop-gap measure in the defense of capitalism, because it interferes with the system’s full development, its modernization and rationalization.
The actual movement of modern capitalism is not towards fascism, but towards a qualitatively new mode of social domination: the Cybernetic Welfare State. In marked contrast to fascism, this new form, at the same time that it strengthens and extends the capitalist system, is also that system’s natural development and rationalization. With the advance of the Cybernetic Welfare State, the various previous modes of domination become reduced to a consistent, smoothly running, all-pervading abstract control.
The Movement, since it does not make a radical critique of the existing system, is even more incapable of understanding the development of that system in the direction of greater subtlety. And so it happens that while it busies itself with things it can understand — super-exploitation, the cop’s club — it unknowingly enters into the service of the emerging cybernetic organization of life. Precisely because the Movement’s is only a surface critique, its struggles for “participatory democracy,” “quality of life,” and “the end of alienation” remain within the old world as agitation for its humanized modification. The “vanguard” movement joins with the advance guard of bourgeois society in an unconscious Alliance for Progress for the rationalization of the system. Bureaucratic capitalism does not always see the reforms necessary for its survival. In their search for constituencies, for issues to suck on, the Movement bureaucrats sniff out the incipient crises and, in their concern to appear as practical servants of the people, come up with reformist schemes with revolutionary ideology tacked on. Already the new volunteer social workers are administering medical and food programs, sketching out forms for new welfare and service institutions.
The agitation for Community Control of Police well exemplifies the role of fragmentary opposition in reinforcing the system’s control of the community. Is there a trouble spot the rulers haven’t properly diagnosed? White cops aren’t working out well in the ghetto? Why, the unconscious trouble-shooters are already at work, formulating the “problem” and suggesting a “workable solution.” A little oppositional initiative greases the wheels, and the commodity-spectacle grinds on, this time with humanist watchdogs.
The function of opposition as a feedback mechanism here still operates rather crudely; the vanguard scouts get paid bullets for their services. With the advance of the system towards totalitarian self-regulation the role of participatory feedback becomes extended qualitatively.
When participation is on a low level, we should expect people to be more apt to feel that the regulations are imposed upon them from above and that they are being pushed around by “them” — the bosses, the bureaucrats, and the oligarchies in the organizations, and by the strange and distant forces in Wall Street and Washington. This might breed feelings of resentment, and will anyhow frustrate people’s feelings of solidarity and identification with the purposes of the regulations. [Myrdal, Beyond the Welfare State]
The bureaucrats themselves wish to “overcome bureaucracy” (i.e. its dangerous visibility and obsolete inefficiencies). The “decision-making” (within the dominant framework of social separation) must be “democratized.” Self-regulatory institutions must be developed which allow — if not encourage — the active participation of the masses in running their own alienation. Such mechanisms serve to adjust the system to danger spots with a minimum of friction. “Political democracy, by incorporating larger and larger numbers in social decision-making, facilitates feedback. And it is precisely this feedback that is essential to control” (Alvin Toffler, Future Shock).
Yippies and Weathermen
The rejection at its base of the Movement’s degeneration into fragmentary opposition necessitated alternatives to left politics which would recapture the feeling of unity embodied in the early New Left’s “total commitment.” The most profound attempt was the Yippies, whose emergence expressed the widespread recognition that the Movement’s neglect of the cultural revolt among its constituency was dangerous as well as artificial. The Yippies took their ideas on fun from bohemia, their communalism from the Diggers, and their moralism from the more romantic Third World bureaucrats. This fusion begat monsters: making a revolution for fun became doing it for the joy of surviving in the face of a capitalism made hostile by taunts. Reacting in images to the image of rightist reaction, Hoffman and Rubin tried to ride the wave of false consciousness in an effort to devalue it. Entering the spectacle as clowns to make it ridiculous, they created diversions which, far from promoting the refusal of the spectacle, merely made passivity more interesting by offering a spectacle of refusal. Actions such as the invasion of the Stock Exchange or the presidential candidacy of a pig were meant to advertise the decomposition of bourgeois values, while promoting (through, e.g., the “Festival of Life”) their replacement with the less obviously recuperative aspects of the counterculture. The Yippies’ practice was centered around creating chaos through good-natured terrorism, and creating myths to fill the void thus opened up. This myth-making made them conscious partners of the spectacle: foregoing the Movement’s ambivalence toward the media, the Yippies’ practical significance was seen by themselves as equal to the spectacle they could create through these media. (“If you don’t like the news, go out and make your own news.”) The complement of this farcical frontal attack was an ideology of subversive survival inherited from the Motherfuckers and the Diggers, where the mere generalization of theft adds up to revolution. In the end the Yippies displayed all the positivity and negativity of populist criminals, whose method of forging a life underground is helpful in its practical suggestions for survival, but retards the growth of proletarian opposition through its primitive dualism and its opportunities for partial or vicarious participation. The Yippies further retarded themselves through the continued acceptance of false antinomies of the counterculture (hip/straight, the generations, Eastern and Western consciousness at all levels of mystification), and by their symbiotic relationship with the Left, which offered them a questionable stage in return for their questionable support. All these contradictions reached their dismal conclusion in Abbie Hoffman, who is reduced to collecting old shoplifting tricks and debating with Charles Reich.
Coming out of the student movement rather than the hip underground, Weatherman attacked the Yippies as not serious (sacrificial) enough, and appropriated only the signs but not the psychology of the hippies. Whereas the Yippies were an expression of what was nebulously there, the SDS bureaucrats who built the WeatherMachine forged a place for themselves at the vanguard of an increasingly passive and dwindling Left. Relating alternately to the images of the peasant guerrilla, the party bureaucrat, and the urban terrorist (in proportions varying with each militant’s standing within the Weather hierarchy), Weatherman attempted to create a myth of powerful bravado which would force the hand of the entire “class” of white youth, the only group it deemed capable of assisting its project of flying kamikaze for the world war on America. Their strategy was based on the shock value of exemplary (suicidal) militancy. They succeeded in inheriting the mantle of the fading Panthers, who had held the Left spellbound for two years with the mere rhetoric of Acts. With Weatherman, this myth of concreteness was escalated to the concreteness of myth as Weatherman acted out the Panther slogans (“Take the initiative,” “Off the pig,” etc.). One of their songs says, “We used to talk but now we do it.” The very concreteness of actually blowing a hole in the wall of a bank or courthouse placed Weatherman at the pinnacle of the spectacle of opposition. It was this “really doing something” — no matter how inane — that made them the focal point of all leftist discussions for over a year, against which each leftist measured his own inactivity. Particularly susceptible to such pressure were the students and intellectuals, dimly aware of their own impotence. In this religious division of labor, the leftist hero emerges from an ordeal of action to win the adherence of those who in their passivity are mystified by it. But interest in this kind of Passion Play, however intense, is always fleeting; by the time the cops closed down the show most of the audience had left. Weatherman first chose to return this spite by refusing to include anyone in their definition of the revolutionary motor. When even that failed to disturb America’s conscience, they decided to include everyone, and dissolved into the hip underground.
The desire for total opposition was expressed in the attempts of both the Yippies and Weatherman for a revolution in daily life, attempts mediated and frustrated by ideology. While the Yippies created an illusory radical subjectivity based on romantic individualism and the thrill of watching themselves piss in public, Weatherman sought to smash all subjectivity in order to build a WeatherMachine in which all resistance to bureaucratic authority was deemed bourgeois. Thus the former built a politics based on its lifestyle and the latter tried to build a militarized lifestyle based on its politics. The recognition that the revolution must be made in living was dissimulated through the ritualization of living the revolution.
Communes and Collectives
The early urban communes were a product of a widespread rejection of bourgeois roles and values — particularly of work, school, and the nuclear family. They were designed to protect those who rejected these values, to foster experimentation in new ways to live, and to enable their members to survive. They were to some degree (though not nearly so much as imagined) a free space in which the qualitative questions that bourgeois daily life represses were at least posed. But they were never answered — as the communes’ rejection of the old world failed to take up the project of its supersession, the communes began to fall apart. While utopian communalists dreamed of a mass movement of changing heads, the communes failed even to survive, as their tolerance and passivity left them open to underworld and police harassment, internal manipulation, endless crashers, disease, mental breakdowns and rip-offs. They failed because they accepted the false choice offered by the spectacle: to accept the world as it is or to abandon it; their advances and their failure were due to their “separation” from the dominant society.
With guilt as its lever, the Left put the finishing touches on the decomposition of the original commune movement. Radical militants criticized the communalists for their naïve isolationism, and introduced them to the joys of the bureaucratic reality principle. Seeking to attract the counterculture as a constituency in order to revitalize the faltering Left, Movement bureaucrats endorsed the form of the commune as they rejected its content. The result of this enlargement of the scope of reformist activity was a widespread mechanistic synthesis of daily life and politics institutionalized in a commune form usually referred to as “collectives.”
The commune movement’s preoccupation with “lifestyle,” though mystified and quite rigid, was at least a rudimentary critique of the capitalist daily life of augmented survival. In the collectives, on the other hand, there was a decided shift in emphasis from spontaneous social experimentation toward a total absorption in the politics of marginal survival. The collective, like the nuclear family it replaces, organizes the individual’s personal subsistence in return for his allegiance to the collectivity. The communalization of economic poverty is accompanied by a communalization of intellectual poverty. Most collectives have a few informal hierarchs who get their power by synthesizing from amongst the garbage heap of leftist ideologies the particular form of eclecticism of that particular collective. Thus there are anarcho-nihilist collectives, Stalino-surrealist groups, Third World suicide terrorist cells, and social service units. The leaders establish their positions by mastering the mysteries of this melange and consolidate it through the management of political tactics (alliances, “actions,” etc.) and of the reified experiments in daily life promoted by collectivist ideology. The struggle sessions against informal hierarchy are endless since there are neither rigorous criteria for membership in the collective nor exclusion of those who attempt to dominate or fail to participate autonomously.
Like the communalists, the collectivists base their strategy on reproducing themselves until the dominant society is “outnumbered” (i.e. at least until the ideological force of collectivism surpasses that of the bourgeoisie); thus the mere quantitative enlargement of a necessarily marginal phenomenon is seen to be the crux of social change. Through the panacea of reproduction, collectives hope to avoid facing their inability to enlarge the qualitative scope of their practice, a growth stunted by a reified ideology which forces each collective to start from scratch and defines the outer limits of its development.
The heart of collectivist ideology is “survival is revolutionary.” Everything the collective does is revolutionary because the collective does it in the face of pig repression. The collectives’ hope for victory lies in the strategy of out-surviving the society of survival. And the deus ex machina is supposed to be the police, who will promote the growth of collectives through repression. Thus we see the tired old story of utopian reformism and its dual revolution: one which is “lived” (pantomimed), the other which is idealized and postponed indefinitely.
Murray Bookchin arrives at the scene of decay with the history of anarchism in his carpetbag, determined to heal the split between self and organization just as he would cure the “disease” of class society — by a rational triumph of the will. “The very mode of anarchist organization transcends the traditional split between the psyche and the social world.” Bookchin’s version of this timeless mode is the affinity group, which he models after the Spanish FAI, the Parisian sections, and the Athenian ecclesia in direct proportion to their age and inverse proportion to their proletarian content. (The Spanish model is evoked by Bookchin more for the structure of the revolutionary organization, while the ecclesia and sections dominate his vision of post-revolutionary society; but the distinctions are always hazy.) It is of course not these forms themselves which are counterrevolutionary, but their utopian evocation separated from their own content as well as from the present. Bookchin uses the past to idealize the future and appreciate the present (i.e contemporary oppositional movements). Notably, he found the Spanish affinity group in the hero-worshipping, mystified activism of the Motherfuckers, and in the contentless democracy of Anarchos. Rather than shoot a sitting duck by attacking his sense of practice (which has virtually evaporated anyhow), we will mercifully turn to a critique of his theory of revolution.
Bookchin defines the affinity group in a moral critique of Stalinism which appeals to the counterculture by praising its lack of rigidity. In the process he only winds up celebrating its lack of rigor, which lack allowed it to be used by the Left in the first place. The abstention from domination is the only goal articulated for the affinity group; it is the revolutionary institutionalization of doing one’s own thing. Bookchin would have this revolutionary group “marked always by simplicity and clarity, always thousands of unprepared people can enter and direct it, always it remains transparent to and controlled by all.” (This confusion of the “revolutionary group” — which he previously modeled after the tightly-knit, coherent, ephemeral grupo de afinidad — with the general assembly must be expected from an anarchist, who constantly tries to force together the present and the future (i.e. the revolutionary process) by slips of the tongue and magic tricks.) To fill the void created by this “clarity,” he fetishizes the encounter within a vaguely praised general assembly and criticizes workers’ councils for their lack of constant face-to-face encounter.
Bookchin’s vision is in the great tradition of the petty bourgeois utopians: His vision of the future, dominated by the past, is completely unconnected with an endless present entitled “living the revolution.” Bookchin sees mankind, with consciousness raised by ecological disasters and political repression, merely deciding one fine day to reorganize society along rational grounds. His ecological determinism, rather than merely being an attempt to be stylish, is based on his variation of Engels’s mistaken attempt to construct a dialectics of nature: instead of trying to make nature fit into the materialist revolutionary dialectic, Bookchin tries to reduce revolution to a science of social ecology. This organic theory of revolution finds itself bewildered before proletarian self-activity, whose form Bookchin always celebrates without a clue to its content. The most profound praise he can find for the great proletarian uprisings is that they all surprised and surpassed the leftist bureaucrats. His praise of spontaneity never mentions organizational advances or shortcomings (the content of spontaneity). The revolutionary activity of the “masses” is defined only negatively against the hierarchy of the masters and deceivers; it becomes a series of battles connected only by the spirit and heroism of the oppressed. Thus the anarchist learns nothing from revolutionary failures except that the masses were deceived or had illusions, and he joins himself to the mass movement as either an uncritical participant or a professorial advisor.
Bookchin seeks to repeat the Yippies’ synthesis of left politics and hip culture on a higher level by having control of both political and cultural factors. He thus gently prods dozing mystics into nodding agreement with his nightmares, and attacks fading Stalinist bureaucrats in an effort to anarchize their constituents. He is slightly more abreast of reality than they are — thus he hopes that his anarchism will be the avant-garde of a reconstituted Movement.
Women’s Liberation, originating in opposition to the “male movement,” never really escaped the latter’s mystifications but only reproduced them in new forms. For the straw man of fascism it substituted male chauvinism. In attempting to overcome the overt hierarchy of the movement it created informal hierarchies. Criticizing the movement for defining itself only in terms of the oppression of others, it merely replaced the penitent militant purging himself before the image of Third World Revolution with the sister surrendering herself to abstract womanhood.
Within the movement the position of women has often been compared to that of blacks and other “super-oppressed” groups. But the “woman question” was essentially different in that it could never be considered as a question of “survival.” The factors that constitute the particular alienation of women tend to be central, advanced: the family, sexual roles, the banality and boredom of housework, consumer ideology.
In the early discussion groups there was the beginning of a critique of daily life and especially of roles. But this critique underwent a closure and rigidified around the problems of women; it only considered women qua women. The individual found herself in a therapy session or encounter group where she was to “become sensitive to her oppression as a woman” — and wallow in it, going over each detail until her “sensitivity” became resentment and her critique a moral one. A politics of resentment toward the oppressor, men, and abstract solidarity with all women replaced any critical sense she may have had at the beginning of her “consciousness raising.” Now the sister demanded not something so complex as a system to transform, but rather a living adversary to attack. Her rage to overcome her condition excited her aggression against men and her resentment materialized in the production of spectacles to haunt their guilty consciences. She had rejected passive sacrifice to the desires of men, but only to sacrifice herself to the “needs of women.” Pursuing the reflection of her abandoned self, she now goes to organize other women with whom she shares only a catharsis in a common misery.
Sharing this melodrama was that lesser known antihero of female liberation — the sister’s boyfriend. His dragged-out and slightly terrified look attested to his weary struggle to free himself from his oppression of his girlfriend. If he was at first hostile to her jeremiads, he soon recognized that his own alienation was insignificant compared to that of women. For this St. Anthony, besieged by the ghosts of his crimes against women, Women’s Liberation came just in time to replace his impotent activity in the collapsing movement.
Women’s Liberation rejected the hierarchy of the “male movement” but was never able to overcome hierarchy within its own groups. Since their organizational practice was based on an abstract democracy in which all women were admitted, the groups were forced to increasingly confine their internal practice to combating informal hierarchy and specialization, using quantitative means: the small group, lots, automatic rotation of tasks, quantitative criteria for exclusion. But all these methods only concealed the maintenance of separations and inequalities absorbed initially. The contradiction between the antihierarchical position of the women’s movement and its abstract solidarity with all women set the stage for the split of the antisexists and anti-imperialists at the Vancouver Conference (April 1971), where the antisexists of the Fourth World Manifesto exposed the anti-imperialists’ manipulative appeal to sisterhood in order to preserve a Stalinist united front while in the same breath embracing a group of “sisters” sent to the conference as a public-relations corps by the North Vietnamese state.
The role of Women’s Liberation has been to incite the dominant society to realize the abstract equality of total proletarianization. With demands for more jobs and a transference of housework into the public sector, the women’s movement has worked, in effect, for the integration of women into a more rationalized system of alienation. The varieties of women’s liberationists all have in common a reformist program, although some try to dissimulate this by claiming that women per se are a revolutionary class. They see not men and women in servitude to the commodity, but the commodity in the service of male chauvinism, which they facilely identify with power.
Women’s Liberation never left enemy terrain because they had failed to identify the enemy. The terrain was the spectacle of opposition. Women’s Liberation began by castigating male militants for hogging the stage, then set up a parallel spectacle. Eventually this departure from an anti-hierarchical perspective was attacked by those who again wanted more democratic access to the spectacle (see especially “The Dialectics of the Celebrity”).
Women’s Liberation clears away the exhausted images of the passive woman only to replace them with the image of the liberated woman. The openly reformist NOW image committee consults with advertising agencies in order “to convince them to use a pro-lib approach. . . . We tell them women are changing and they better show it because it’s good not only for us but for them.” The shattered myth of female inferiority is replaced by the stereotypes of female liberation. The self-proclaimed bitch, the witch, the radical lesbian and the struggling feminist enter the who’s who of the spectacle with the careerist, the Cosmopolitan cover girl and the housewife. The old and new types battle, support and modify one another. Jane Fonda sheds her devalued cosmetics and transforms herself from a sex goddess into a star radical.
(unpublished drafts, April 1972)
Excerpts from these drafts were reprinted in Public Secrets: Collected Skirmishes of Ken Knabb. Some critical comments on them can be found in Remarks on Contradiction.
Remarks on Contradiction and Its Failure
“Now . . . the story . . . does not disperse indefinitely like the banal actuality; rather it organizes itself. The principle of organization is the something that was secret in the actuality. Previously the actuality was indefinite and wandering because the organizing figure was unnoticed; now that it is allowed to claim attention, the rest falls into place. . . . By telling the story, the author frees himself from a certain phase of his life. . . . Obviously the malfunction of the flexible interplay of imagination and actuality has a general importance far beyond cases of a specific inhibition of writing.”
—Paul Goodman, “On a writer’s block”
“ ‘What are you working on?’ Herr Keuner was asked. ‘I’m having a lot trouble,’ he answered. ‘I’m preparing my next mistake.’ ”
—Bertolt Brecht, “Anecdotes of Herr Keuner”
In September 1972 the group “Contradiction,” of which I was a member, dissolved itself. Judged by the goals this group had set for itself, it had failed.
* * *
“The author is embarked on telling the actual story, when suddenly he says to himself, ‘Oh, but — I see, I remember — if I tell this and try to unify it dramatically, I shall have to mention — that. But I didn’t foresee that!’ ”
—Goodman, op. cit.
The history of Contradiction cannot be separated from the history of what it undertook to criticize: the “movement” and the “counterculture” in the United States. The ambiguities in those at once real and spectacular entities were reflected in the quandaries we found ourselves in in our year-long wrestling with this project. Our effective acceptance of these notions, even if to criticize them, measured our own incomprehension of modern society and of our own position in it.
We sometimes actually recuperated where we were aiming at exposing recuperation. For example, very diverse and often admirably spontaneous acts, such as small discussion groups or practical rejection of sexual roles, might, in our drafts, find themselves joined together with the most cynical Stalinist manipulations under the category “women’s liberation”; which category in turn was treated in the rather inappropriate context of the internal dynamic of the movement, as, e.g., a vaguely radical offshoot of or out of it. This, even if by inversion, was giving the little leftist organizations credit for an influence they only wish they had! The organization of our critique can be seen in retrospect as a continual attempt to unravel what we had raveled in the first place. In the process we got very entangled! Each problem that we ran up against (and we were at least lucid enough to recognize the multitude of them) found itself superficially solved by the rearrangement or expansion of the original project whose very form was in fact the major source of our difficulties. We became a victim of our own project, the conclusion of which, by indefinitely receding into the future, pushed aside our engagement with matters of far greater importance and interest to us. We came to fetishize the fetishes we had wanted to demystify. It was left for reality itself to finally force our supersession of the project: When this very “movement” itself knew that it was dead (see the glut of analyses of “what went wrong” and attempts at artificial respiration by its old partisans in the period 1971-72), all that remained was to make a more accurate autopsy. This was too much. We prepared a selection of the most substantial of our “political and cultural manuscripts of 1971” [Critique of the New Left Movement and On the Poverty of Hip Life] for distribution to close comrades, and abandoned the project (and our journal) early in 1972.
(A few copies of these drafts found their way into the hands of less discriminating readers, who distributed them and even went so far as to express an interest in reprinting them. No such publication of the articles in this unfinished form was ever intended by Contradiction.)
Our drafts were good at tracing the internal contradictions and development of Yippies, Weathermen, political collectives, at examining the specific forms of the poverty of hip life, etc. But our attempts to place these developments within the context of the society as a whole — that is, of the opposition to that society — were crude, artificial, unhistorical, or nonexistent. In fact, we did not fully comprehend the position of the hippie or the student leftist because we were too close to that position ourselves. We could analyze the absurdity of various ideas and manners, but we didn’t know why they appeared in the first place.
Many attitudes, illusions, and behavior which we analyzed as hippie in fact pertain to a wider and yet nonetheless delimited social stratum. So that where we sometimes accepted the spectacular notion of the hippies as a cultural vanguard (while drawing different conclusions as to the merit of their “innovations”) which was later followed and imitated in a diluted form by the society as a whole, it was more the case that a certain stratum produced certain ideas and manners, and that a part of that stratum — the hippie — merely expressed those ideas and manners of uncertainty in the most extreme and visible way. To “accept” oneself, to passively “dig reality,” to “flow with things” is nothing other than the consumer ideology of this stratum of society. So that if a minor functionary or mercenary of the spectacle takes up hippie manners and ideas, those manners and ideas are not being watered down; they are returning to their origin. This rather amorphous stratum includes notably the direct producers and agents of social falsification — ad designers, teachers, counselors, artists, psychologists — and so it is quite natural that it is so sensitive to the “failure of communication.” (Whereas, in contrast, the direct producer of commodities has to be forced into the encounter groups which quite unsuccessfully try to instill a “sense of community” into his less compromising labor. He prefers watching sports and adventures to humbly imbibing cultural rehashes. He takes his alienation straight.) It is this stratum that worries about consuming only “quality” products. In this sense the hippie is a vanguard scout in that he helps to discover and unearth the products that embody such quality, from organic foods to organic illusions. When he attempts himself to produce and market these commodities in a way which avoids the hassles of “straight” society, he only rediscovers the logic of the craft guild, with the difference that the superabundance of his variety of pseudocreativity rapidly forces its price to a pitiful level, leaving him more insecure than his medieval forbears. All that remains are the illusions, 700 years late. “Thus there is found with medieval craftsmen an interest in their special work and in proficiency in it, which was capable of rising to a narrow artistic sense. For this very reason, however, every medieval craftsman was completely absorbed in his work, to which he had a contented slavish relationship, and to which he was subjected to a far greater extent than the modern worker, whose work is a matter of indifference to him.” (The German Ideology.)
To return to our “stratum.” (I must note here the imprecision of my analysis, which is only partially attributable to the imprecise nature of this stratum. The sector or sectors of society to which I am referring are clearly neither of the classical proletariat nor of the ruling class — bourgeoisie, upper bureaucrats, technocrats, etc. But in between these two lie a number of strata which can be differentiated not only by their positions within the production system but also by their varying illusions and social aspirations. My “stratum” clearly does not embrace all of these.) The struggle against “dehumanization” or for “control over the decisions that affect one’s life” is the confused reaction of this same stratum, which feels its alienation and impotence intensely but which, because of its ambiguous position, is led to express itself in continually oscillating and self-contradictory ways. The student “radical,” who is generally destined for a place in this stratum but who can temporarily give vent to his self-indulgent confusions, simply expresses these longings in a more exaggerated, ideological form as, e.g., “community control” of some alienation or other, perhaps garnished with scraps of some long outmoded leftism. But this leftism is largely a reflex, an unimaginative response to contradictions that have become unavoidable. (Just as the hippie, in addition to embodying all the modern mystifications, digs up all the old ones — astrology, Buddhism, etc. — in his never-ending search for something that could really fulfill the promise that was disappointed in each “trip” before.)
The superficial nature of all these fantasies is revealed when one notes the ease with which the Weathermen become absorbed into the pastoral hippie idyll or the Yippies turn enthusiastic voters. What the “movement” thought it wanted was less important than who it was composed of. It didn’t collapse because the junior Guevarists found out about Kronstadt, any more than “hip culture” was ripped off. All these apocalyptic visions found their authentic realization in stores and religions — and often in a combination of the two! In places like the San Francisco Bay Area, where the more archaic pseudoconflicts have been superseded, one can see the coming together of what was never essentially separate: an ad designer grows long hair, joins an encounter group, and dreams about chucking it all and going to the country; while a jaded youth, wiped out from smashing his “bourgeois hangups” (i.e. his subjectivity) in a Maoist collective or from the poverty of a rural commune, returns to set up a serve-the-people store or go into dealing “awareness” of one or another reified banality by joining up with an “alternative” media or perhaps leading an encounter group. Neither the be-ins of passive masses nor all the “happenings,” neither the militants’ ritualized “trashing” for every cause but their own nor the spectacular sabotage of a few suicidal guerrillas were able to turn a city upside down like the workers of Pittsburgh did for a day in October 1971 out of mere joy in winning the World Series.
By no means do I wish to say that all of those struggles which found themselves included in “the movement” — or even all of those that thought they belonged under that spectacular label — were pure figments, purely passing fantasies. While most “opposition” to the Vietnam war, to take just one example, was simply a stale spectacle of humanist outrage and impotent “bearing witness,” or was in the interest of political recruitment, many individuals accomplished admirable concrete tasks, whether by publicizing suppressed information or ways to fuck up the draft, or by desertion, “fragging,” etc., within the army itself. And on the other hand, a few of the little leftist groups also had a small but nonetheless concrete effect on modern society; they were real “vanguards,” but in a different sense than they thought. They served as a feedback warning mechanism and as unwitting idea men for a bureaucratic capitalism not always capable of seeing the reforms necessary for its survival. Many of these reforms (minus the ideological exaggerations) are already firmly established (e.g. Black Studies programs); others are no doubt on the way to being so, once a few snags get worked out (e.g. “community control” of police). Some of the unconscious trouble-shooters received bullets for their services. Others found their natural level and went into business as brokers of “people’s survival.”
In the same way, not quite all “hip” phenomena are contemptible. That label, usually denoting a heavy illusion of community and a community of heavy illusions, takes under its wing a few real breaks with the dominant mode of “life” and a few real experiments in the direction of community without illusions. These latter individuals will stand out from the slough of hippiedom precisely by their ability to stand out of it, i.e. to openly junk the entire religio-ideological superstructure; and by the fact that the very authenticity of their experiences, in combination with the intelligence that is able to distinguish between what is living and what is dead in those experiences, pushes them ineluctably toward a more and more rigorous radicality.
* * *
“I have mentioned our prompt critique of the mistakes of the pro-situs, not in order to imply that it is not in itself justified, but in order to note that the pro-situs are not our principal reference point (any more than ICO or the leftist bureaucrats). Our principal reference point is ourselves, our own operation. The underdevelopment of internal criticism in the SI both reflects and contributes toward the underdevelopment of our (theoretico-practical) action.”
—Guy Debord, Remarks on the SI Today
(internal document of the SI, July 1970)
Contradiction’s inability to confront its own history was in part a carryover from its failure to coherently confront its own prehistory around the time of its formation. Most of the future members of Contradiction came together, in the fall of 1970, largely around a critical consensus on their respective past activities, principally within the recently disbanded quasi-“situationist” groups the Council for the Eruption of the Marvelous and “1044”. But the fact that we were able to express these critiques among ourselves and to individuals we happened to encounter is just as academic as the fact that some of the stronger members of Contradiction wrote pieces that were publishable but which, by being subsumed into the journal, got postponed beyond the point of timeliness or interest. We failed to make a collective and public accounting of ourselves, of our previous collective, public activity. (The one significant exception was our distribution of a barely adequate “Critique of ‘On Wielding the Subversive Scalpel’ by One of Its Authors” — with an appended “What Subversion Really Is” by one “Frederick Engels” of 1044 — to those who had read that CEM pamphlet.) And so we remained somewhat entangled in leftovers from our past by having to diffusedly correct, over and over, the assorted fantasies (irrationalist or confusionist conception of détournement, manichean split between “coherent” and “incoherent” organization and activity, fetishism of not working, fetishism of communalism, etc.) which we had so actively disseminated during the year 1970, and which remained understandably linked, in the minds of many people, with our more recent and intelligent positions and projects.
The CEM’s edition of On the Poverty of Student Life contained extensive additions (which, moreover, ranged from the inadequate to the mystical) and omissions, without the presence of these alterations in the original Strasbourg pamphlet being mentioned. And 1044’s Riot and Representation: The Significance of the Chicano Riot (which, among other things, too facilely reproduced the SI’s observations on Watts: looting or antipolice violence did not have quite the same significance for the Chicanos, because they took place in the context of very thick spectacular ideologies of violence and Third-Worldism which had arisen in the intervening five years) was signed “by Herbert Marcuse.” If this perhaps enlarged — while reducing the quality of — its readership (e.g. it was reprinted in the San Diego Street Journal), it was at the expense of clarity: If Marcuse was forced to publicly deny the pamphlet (in the UC San Diego student newspaper), it was equally true that many people did not know this, and actually accepted it as being by him — which was giving this dialectically illiterate professor far too much undeserved credit.
Contradiction might have resolved many of its difficulties more quickly and more clearly if its members had been more rigorous in their relations with each other, and first of all on the question of their being members of Contradiction in the first place. The movement/counterculture critique had the merit of beginning (around October 1970) as a frank testing of our mutual practical accord, over and beyond the consensus regarding mistakes in our pasts. But the formation of Contradiction in December 1970, while being a correct recognition of the manner in which a delimited project was being carried out, simultaneously bypassed the tentative, experimental nature of that project; as if we had already found a satisfactory “general equality of capacities” among ourselves. The adoption of a wider range of activities (publication of a journal, enlarging of the movement critique, etc.) in fact allowed for a pseudoresolution of the differences in participation, quantitative and qualitative, which had shown up in the earlier delimited project, and which would undoubtedly have shown up even more clearly had we continued to collaborate on this sound basis. The more grandiose the projects, the easier for someone to be “working on” one for months; the more projects, the easier for someone to hide behind a flurry of apparent activity. In this way the weaker members bypassed the necessary development of their own autonomous practice, while the stronger members got bogged down in making up for the weaker. The abstract desire to “cover” everything (arising out of our abstract aim of being a group “like the SI”) contributed to the abstract need of these stronger members to try to salvage poorly prepared drafts, instead of simply rejecting them and perhaps also their authors.
That Contradiction was not a true federation of autonomous individuals contributed towards its not being a truly autonomous federation. If we were mystified about ourselves we could hardly avoid being mystified about others. Our premature group formation and the insufficiently shared participation in common projects within the group found its external corollary in the incredible amount of time and energy we wasted — going up to the point of fantasizing imminent collaboration or “federation” — with individuals with whom we shared no common projects, but only common ideas, “perspectives,” or, in the final analysis, pretensions. (Sydney Lewis had participated in the beginnings of our movement critique, but had left town just before the formation of Contradiction. A series of progressively more confused letters, culminating in pathetic defenses of the most retarded leftist and hippie illusions, caused us to break with him in June 1971.) In particular, we too readily accepted membership or ex-membership in the Situationist International as implying a superior practical comprehension of matters on which we were unclear — an illusion that was reinforced when they perhaps proved to be right in other instances.
This was nowhere more strikingly revealed than in the history of our relations with Create Situations. We allowed their formulation of basically correct critiques of our lacks of organizational rigor and coherence to divert, obscure, or postpone for months our own demands and positions (most notably against their attempted “use” of the underground press by soliciting the publication there of their and our comics, their patronizing of “promising individuals” on their mailing list, and their otherwise sloppily and spectacularly “getting the critique around” so as to drum up, in short order, a “1000 situationists”). It was, in fact, precisely in our criticisms of them where this organizational incoherence was most evident. It sometimes happened that one or another of us would venture an opinion which was erroneously taken to express a group position; in other cases, such positions were, with insufficient reflection, accepted by the group, which then found itself obliged, perhaps the very next day, to retract what had shown itself as mistaken — and perhaps to do this with a similar lack of reflection; or finally, on those points where we did arrive at considered, collective positions, those positions were rendered meaningless by our failure to execute them, to pose them in practical terms (e.g. by simply refusing to have anything to do with them until they had definitively superseded the underground press strategy). We also “pragmatically” rushed into collaboration with them while important differences remained unresolved, as in my extensive correction of their translations of the SI pamphlets “Beginning of an Epoch” and “The Poor and the Super Poor.” (Unfortunately, their bungling in the final layout and printing managed to reintroduce numerous — though usually not fundamental — errors in most of the articles. These pamphlets are presumably still available from C.S., P.O. Box 491, Cooper Station, NYC 10003.) Other divergences included our confused temporizing over our relations with individuals whom they had broken with; which hesitation was reinforced by Tony Verlaan’s inability to adequately answer criticisms made of him in the Chasse-Elwell pamphlet “A Field Study.” As was too often the case in our relations with groups and individuals, we had to be knocked over the head before we could draw the most elementary practical conclusions. Even when the crucial nature of our divergences could no longer be ignored and our communication had effectively collapsed, it still took Create Situations’s manifestly intolerable proposal (to work with us as individuals while we remained members of a group under which “appearance” they would not deal with us) to finally force us to break with them, in July 1971. Truly, when they noted our failure “to recognize the moments that matter and what matters on a given moment” they were most correct precisely in regards to the long retardation of our relation with them.
Copies of correspondence and other documents relating to any of Contradiction’s breaks can be obtained from me by anyone who can explain what good use he has to make of them.
* * *
“There were also people who were already beginning to spread this doctrine in a popularized form . . . using all the arts of advertisement and intrigue. . . . Nevertheless it was a year before I could make up my mind to neglect other work and get my teeth into this sour apple. . . . Although this work cannot in any way aim at presenting another system as an alternative to Herr Dühring’s ‘system,’ it is to be hoped that the reader will not fail to observe the internal coherence underlying the views which I have advanced. . . . This is an infantile disorder which marks the first phase of, and is inseparable from, the conversion of the German student to social-democracy, but which will rapidly be thrown off in view of the remarkably healthy instincts of our working class.”
—Engels, preface to Anti-Dühring
“When I hear the word ‘situationist’ I reach for my revolver.”
—old proletarian saying
We broke with Point-Blank in December 1971 over their defensiveness in response to criticism. Around the time when we were coming to recognize some degree of our failure and to act accordingly (by making original, consequential contributions to the new revolutionary movement or nothing), the members of Point-Blank had come to prefer the image of their success. These little militants have since more than confirmed the diagnoses we made of them at that time. Their principal activity over the last year — which has even assumed the proportions of an avowed strategy — has been to broadcast the spectacle of their coherent radicality. Their reinvention of the history of others reveals — in good old psychoanalytic fashion — their own failings and defenses. They are compelled to utterly redefine “pro-situ” (as referring only to those who are purely passive and admiring) so that it won’t include them. Again, they note approvingly that by 1966 “the SI’s theory had gone beyond the experimental stage” (Point-Blank! #1, p. 57, exclamation mark theirs). It is, of course, Point-Blank that has gone beyond the experimental stage. They go “beyond the SI” by “revising” away whatever they don’t comprehend there, that is to say, almost everything fundamental. They think they have discovered something when they find that Debord and Sanguinetti don’t salivate, as they do, to the stimulus of every “partial opposition” with illuminating declarations that they’re not “total.” The barrage of exposés and simplistic “analyses” they serve up to the masses only says (with a few exceptions) the same things over and over; but then their principal effort has long revolved around how to package their reified rehashes in different “scandalous” ways. It is with good reason that they court those who are used to “learning” by the repetition method (see, on p. 92, the laughable attempt of these poor students of student poverty to justify their inability to be anything other than subversive campus mascots). To return to their disguised self-revelations, we find that the “obstacles” confronting the SI (around May ’68 yet!) “centered around extending the radicalism of the SI beyond its immediate membership” (p. 60). It is in fact these little neo-Leninists who conceive of their task as “extending” the “radicalism” (i.e. the explicit situationism) of Point-Blank beyond its immediate membership. What “obstacles” they must run into!
It is one invariable sign of this sort of spectacular situationism that it scrupulously avoids making any practical decisions because it hopes that, in exchange, no one will make any practical decisions about it. It would like to present an image of an international community of situationists joined together around certain intriguing ideas — by the dissemination of which image and ideas any unimaginative impotence can hope to convince himself that he is alive. Thus, Point-Blank tells “who they are,” with that “rigor” for which they have tried to make themselves famous, by omitting any mention of the annoying fact that they collaborated closely with Contradiction for nearly a year, or that we broke with them, and why. Or one Paul Sieveking, founder-member of English pro-situ clearing house “B.M. Ducasse” (= “The Friends of Lautréamont”), will try to simultaneously and publicly keep up connections with Create Situations and us by “agreeing” with the positions of whomever he happens to be talking to at the moment (which sidestepping we put a stop to by breaking with him in December 1971). Or an underground paper trying to fill up the current ideological void will put out a special issue on situationism which simply lumps together everyone who is able to babble a few slogans about the spectacle, sacrifice, Leninism, etc., and publishes a “Dictionary of Situationese” for the edification of those who aren’t yet even capable of that.
The widespread and serious interest in situationist theories and methods in various sectors of society — even if through the absurd mediation of pro-situ propaganda — is one sign of the advance of modern prehistory and its critique. Of this advancing critique, however, the pro-situs themselves are only a confused and confusing rear-guard. That such backward infantile elements can capitalize on an apparent association with an apparently prestigious label in front of those who are often far more radical and original than them is an inevitably temporary phenomenon. The impotence of those who debate with voters, Jesus freaks, and a movement they admit is a dead horse, because anyone else would be more than a match for them; or of those who “publicize their existence” and are compelled to come back the next day to announce how scandalized everyone was, in case nobody noticed the first time around — this impotence is obvious to everybody but themselves, who are caught up in the brief exhilaration of that “certain notoriety” of theirs which they report with such poorly feigned indifference. It takes a pro-situ not to know one.
* * *
“However, that neither the World nor our selves may any longer suffer by such misunderstandings, I have been prevailed on, after much importunity from my Friends, to travel in a compleat and laborious Dissertation upon the prime Productions of our Society; which, besides their beautiful Externals for the Gratification of superficial Readers, have darkly and deeply couched under them the most finished and refined Systems of all Sciences and Arts.”
—Jonathan Swift, A Tale of a Tub
In January 1971 Contradiction published the wall poster Bureaucratic Comix, which noted the role of the various movement heroes, local and imported, vis-à-vis the recent workers’ uprising in Poland. Our poster was reprinted in April by Create Situations; whose distribution of which, however, left something to be desired in the way of rigor, as noted above.
In April we distributed an Open Letter to John Zerzan, Anti-Bureaucrat of the S.F. Social Service Employees’ Union at a meeting of that vaguely “participatory” but tame organization.
In June we published Wildcat Comics, which was distributed principally to the San Francisco cable-car drivers whose wildcat strike some months earlier was discussed therein.
In July we published — in collaboration with Point-Blank — the comic-leaflet Still Out of Order, which was distributed to telephone workers during their brief national wildcat.
In August we published a critique of the Anti-Mass pamphlet “Methods of Organization for Collectives,” that attempt to revive the movement by incorporating into it, among other things, fragments of ill-digested situationism.
I consider that “Anti-Anti-Mass” was a decent if somewhat stodgy analysis; that in its time and place “Bureaucratic Comix” was an appropriate agitation, as evidenced, for example, by the speed and vehemence with which local militants ripped the poster from the walls of Berkeley, ordinarily noted for the peaceful coexistence of all cultural and political fragments (“It is good to be attacked; it proves that you have drawn a clear line between yourselves and the enemy,” as one of their stars has said); and that, slightly excepting “Wildcat Comics,” the worker agitations were pitiful, the product of an abstract desire to say something to workers when in fact we had hardly anything to say to them but abstractions.
Contradiction, which from its inception had declared its accord with the principal theses of the Situationist International, issued in May 1971 a statement which sketched some of those theses, along with the SI’s “Minimum Definition of Revolutionary Organizations.”
Contradiction reprinted English translations from the following SI texts: the first six chapters of Raoul Vaneigem’s Treatise on Living for the Use of the Young Generation (January 1971, 2500 copies); On the Poverty of Student Life (May 1972, 2000 copies); and continued the distribution of 1044’s editions of The Decline and Fall of the ‘Spectacular’ Commodity Economy, Vaneigem’s The Totality for Kids, and “Desolation Row” (chapter on nihilism from the Treatise).
In our editions of the Treatise and Decline and Fall we made the mistake of leaving out our address, giving the impression that they had been published by the American section of the SI (which no longer exists).
Copies of “Territorial Management” (chapter from Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle), along with a Contradiction comic, were handed out at the appearance in Berkeley of urbanist numbhead Palo Soleri in March 1971. That same month we also distributed copies of the SI’s “Theses on the Commune,” published as a wall poster by Create Situations.
I have published 750 copies of these “Remarks on Contradiction and Its Failure.”
* * *
“My chief objection was not the vanity there is in writing one’s life. . . . I was afraid of deflowering the happy moments I have known by describing and dissecting them. Well, that I refuse to do; I shall skip the happiness. . . . Shall I have the courage to relate humiliating events without saving them with endless prefaces? I hope so. . . . But I must begin with so sad and difficult a subject that laziness overtakes me already; I am almost inclined to throw down my pen. But at the first moment of loneliness I would regret it.”
—Stendhal, Memoirs of an Egotist
That six months elapsed since the dissolution of Contradiction before any of its ex-members were capable of so much as a simple public statement of that dissolution shows that one does not embark on such enterprises with impunity. The incompleted, the unclarified, the unresolved, the falsified accumulate with painful results. The repressed returns. That long collective coitus interruptus that was the history of Contradiction, or rather of the radical projects initiated there and so little fulfilled, left us not only frustrated but chronically blocked. We are not the first nor will we be the last revolutionaries to mysteriously lapse into more or less cynical dabblings with culture, preoccupation with schemes for survival, or the most trivialized or false personal relations: you have to keep running to keep ahead of the clutches of the old world. Our inability to publicly resolve the collective stasis of our public practice was not unrelated to our failure to adequately pose the questions of the specific impoverishments of our individual lives. While rejecting the stupidities and illusions of our daily-lifist prehistory, we also, to a large extent, lost the playfulness and outrageousness of those beautiful days. If we forgot the most elementary lessons it was because we had ceased to live them; our theories had ceased to be the theories of our real lives. All that was left was, on the one hand, an articulate ideology of passion and pleasure which mediated our personal relations within and outside the group; and on the other, a tendency which reacted to the laughable results of that ideology by simply writing off our “personal” lives as a matter of coherent, collective concern.
No one was more a victim of all the contradictions of Contradiction than I. It was I who most pushed forward the premature extension of our activity to becoming a group “like the SI.” I more than anyone identified with Contradiction as spectacular family. As one old comrade put it, “Knabb realized himself in situationist politics,” which, if it expresses that the group was less alien to me than to the others — that I expressed myself most fully within it — also measures the degree of my more fundamental alienation. If I initiated and participated consequentially in more projects, I was often less radical in recognizing their failures and drawing appropriate conclusions. It was I who more than any of the others clung to illusions about possibilities for Contradiction months after that form had become obviously obsolete and oppressive. In the interest of brevity I can say that if I could write a veritable Anti-Dühring about Point-Blank (a doleful undertaking to even imagine!) it is because I know whereof I speak; I have myself passed through the outskirts of that bizarre little ideological sub-world. There is hardly a thesis in the Debord-Sanguinetti portrait of the pro-situ (in Theses on the SI and Its Time) where I do not recognize myself — in the past and far too much right now!
As for the other members. They have all been content to passively recognize the errors of their past. And some of them seem to have included living with passion, rigor, and originality among those errors. So much have they “matured.” They have risen as one in incomprehension and hurt defensiveness against the most elementary public criticisms of the fakery of one or another of their associates. Have they forgotten everything? Then they themselves will have to suffer that same criticism become even more public! Most of them have yet to really speak for themselves. And the ones who were best able to are now no longer able to at all. They are behind the times. And these times will leave them even further behind if they don’t do something desperate.
* * *
“The time for writing is ripe, for I must spare nothing of what I have spoiled. The field has not yet been plowed. . . . The time of artistry is ended, the time of philosophy is ended, the snow of my misery is gone. . . . The time of summer is here; whence it comes I know not, whither it goes I know not: it is here!”
The members of Contradiction might well have confronted their dilemma by enlisting that fundamental tactic of breaking the impasse by concentrating precisely on the resistance to the analysis. This would have pointed not only to the basic collective organizational errors I have outlined in these “Remarks,” but also to our individual resistances, that is to say, to our characters. These resistances were strikingly evident, around the final collapse of the group, in our sudden pathological indifference to our often very exciting past activity; to the reasons for that activity’s devolution into boring routine; to the practical possibilities for superseding this state of affairs; and to each other. This phenomenon raises questions (sketched out in Jean-Pierre Voyer’s beautiful Reich: How To Use) which are obviously of crucial importance and which I have hardly dealt with here at all. Suffice it to say, for now, that if it is indisputable that the practice of theory is individually therapeutic, it seems to me equally true that an assault on one’s own character is socially strategic, a practical contribution to the international revolutionary movement. The character of the pro-situ is objectively reinforced by the spectacle of his opposition to the spectacle (which character, of course, is most evidenced by his inability to recognize its existence, other than as a “banality,” until excessive symptoms, perhaps visibly inhibiting his social practice, force his attention there). At the opposite pole, all the lucidity of an Artaud, who attacks his character in isolation, does not prevent the “external” commodity-spectacle he disdainfully brushes aside from reappearing in his internal world as the fantasy of being possessed by alien, malignant beings. Like a revolution in a small country, the person who breaks a block, a routine, or a fetish must advance aggressively to discover or incite radical allies outside, or lose what he has gained and fall victim to his own internal Thermidor. The dissolution of character and the dissolution of the spectacle are two movements that imply and require each other.
These formulations will have to be made more precise.
March 1973. Reprinted from Public Secrets: Collected Skirmishes of Ken Knabb.