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L'Internationale Situationniste, Socialisme ou Barbarie, and the Crisis of the Marxist Imaginary
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SubStance 28.3 (1999) 26-54



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L'Internationale Situationniste, Socialisme ou Barbarie, and the Crisis of the Marxist Imaginary

Stanford University

The Situationniste Internationale was a small transnational group of artist-revolutionaries that came out of the neo-Dadaist Lettriste movement.1 In Paris, Guy Debord and a small, changing cast of friends and supporting characters2 tracked through the Parisian cultural and political underground along the path laid earlier by the Surrealists.3 Skilled as provocateurs, anxious to abandon the constraints of artistic production and to acquire legitimacy as revolutionaries, Debord and his friends almost immediately began to look to the journal Socialisme ou Barbarie, edited by the group of the same name led by Cornelius Castoriadis.4

SB is a crucial, though little discussed, referent in the evolution of Guy Debord. The relationship was central for Debord, and worked on several levels. After months of discussion with SB militants, Debord joined the group for a few months during 1960-1961. The merger was inconclusive and strained. However, in the pages of the journal L'Internationale Situationniste, SB played an important role as the symbol of the "new revolutionary movement" with which Debord increasingly identified. Initially, SB was simply part of the political landscape. However, once Debord became more involved, SB became much more central, and the "Situ" journal much more deferential toward the older group. Debord was a sympathetic observer of SB, and his accounts form one of the few views of the group from an outside perspective. SB functions as an Archimedean point around which the Situs tried to pivot from art and cultural dissent into revolutionary politics. When SB exploded in 1963 and Castoriadis began to publish his long text "Marxisme et la théorie révolutionnaire"—in which he argues that "it has come to the point where one can either be Marxist or a revolutionary"— Debord began a sustained attempt to exclude SB from the revolutionary movement and to usurp its role in a new revolutionary vanguard. Elements of SB's [End Page 26] revolutionary project were central components in Debord's collage approach to Marxism and cultural critique as deployed in the 1967 Society of the Spectacle and as dismantled in the 1975 film of the same name. Debord's use of SB is curious for its external viewpoint. He maps SB's notions of the history of the workers' movement, bureaucratic capitalism and socialism as direct democracy onto a Marxist framework closer to Lukacs and Althusser in its abstract relation to the working class and revolution. In this paper, I argue that Debord's reversion to dialectical Marxism is a response to the implosion of SB. Debord's collage approach to revolutionary politics makes him interesting as an actor within and symptom of the crisis of the Marxist Imaginary.

SB and the Marxist Imaginary

When the Situationiste Internationale began to publish its journal in 1958 and to position itself on the fringes of the Parisian cultural and political underground, Socialisme ou Barbarie was regarded as the most "proletarian" and sophisticated of revolutionary Marxist organizations. The group was founded by Castoriadis, Claude Lefort and a circle of less well-known militants as an oppositional tendency within the Trotskyist Parti Communiste Internationaliste (PCI) in1946. The Chaulieu-Montal Tendency, as it was known, broke with the PCI in 1948 over the problem of interpreting the Soviet Union. Between 1948 and 1956, SB developed a variant of Marxist revolutionary theory notable for its sweep and attention to the situation of the working class, then undergoing radical change through the implementation of Fordism and the crisis of Stalinism. By 1958, SB's revolutionary project had become a primary reference-point for new radical organizations that were emerging in the space created by the intensification of the Algerian War and the retreat into self-isolation of the Parti Communiste Français. SB's project was built around extended interpretations of working-class actions since 1953 and seemed confirmed by the Hungarian Revolution of October-November, 1956. SB defined the terms...