Foreword to the 1974 Black & Red edition
Author's note: Small changes have been made and new notes added.
In spite of its shortcomings, the Situationist International has shown—among other things—that it is important not just to understand the historical movement and act accordingly, but also to be something different from the attitudes and values of the society the revolutionary wants to destroy. The militant attitude is anti-revolutionary: it splits the individual into two, separating his needs, his real individual and social self, the reasons why he cannot stand the present world, from his action, his attempt to change this world. The militant refuses to admit that he rebels against this society because he needs to change his own life as well as society in general. He represses the impulse which made him turn against the present world. He engages in anti-capitalist activity as if it were external to him: the sacrificial character of this attitude is plain to see. The militant as an individual, and political groups as organisations, suffer from a displaced personality.(1)
Whatever the situation may have been fifty or a hundred years ago, the present revolutionary movement does not aim to bring about the conditions of communism: these have been fully created by capitalism. Our objective is no longer to further promote the development of productive forces or to maintain and support this development with coercive action by the proletariat over the petite bourgeoisie: it is the immediate communisation of society. Capital has managed to invade and dominate our lives to such an extent that—at least in so-called developed countries—we are now revolutionary because we can no longer stand our relationship to our work, our friend, our environment, namely to everything from our next-door neighbour to our cat or radio programme. We want to change the world because it becomes increasingly difficult to realise and assert oneself in it. Our most vital need: others, seems so close and so far at the same time. A human community is at hand: its basis is present, a lot more so than a century ago. Passivity prevents its emergence. Mercantile ties are both fragile and strong.
Capitalism reacts by diverting social impulses from revolution to politics: revolutionary activity which strives to realise people’s needs is deviated towards a mere quest for power. For instance, people want to control their own lives, which are now regulated by the logic of commodity production and value. Political groups come and explain that the alternative is real democracy, or workers’ government, or even anarchy-inspired institutions: in other words, they wish to alter the decision-making apparatus, not the social relations which determine it. They always reduce social aspirations to a problem of control or command, which ought to be given to a proletarian party, or to the masses, or shared by everyone, and they express every real problem in terms of power.
Yet this is only part of the question. Communising society is more than a sum of piecemeal actions. Though capital will be destroyed by general subversion through which people appropriate their relationship to the world, nothing decisive will be achieved so long as the State (i.e. all States) retains some of its power. The State has to be destroyed by acting on its central bodies in addition to the action which destroys its power everywhere. Both are necessary. The use of force is a relevant question: insurrection won’t be peaceful and non-violent.
Capital would be only too happy to see us change our lives locally while its active process continues on a general scale. This is not a moot point: many people are desperate to modify their personal life now, even it boils down to a remodelled lifestyle. Capitalism can tolerate a lot (decomposition of the traditional family and hierarchy, even of mercantile relations on a limited scale) as long as these changes do not prevent it from realising its cycle, from accumulating value. The coming revolution will paralyse it by developing direct communist relations and by systematic action against State bodies and private bourgeois militia.(2)
As for the present, what we can do is reject all forms of militantism and politics, all groups standing as mediations between the proletariat and communism, and which believe and make people believe in political solutions.
Such groups are of course different from one country to another. In France and Italy, the traditional Communist Parties are very powerful, and the unions they control differ from North American, British, or northern European unions.(3) Therefore the text on “The Class Struggle and Its Most Characteristic Aspects” might seem irrelevant to the American, German, or English contexts. But the essential process is the same. When we speak of the end of reformism we refer to a general trend, and do not mean that reformist struggles are becoming rare. On the contrary, many people, inside and outside the working class, are fighting for reforms, but these struggles are manifestations of something deeper. Though few strikes are similar to the one at Lordstown in the United States (1972), such an event was symptomatic of a social tendency.(4)
The relative backwardness of France and Italy in relation to the United States or Britain has created a number of mediators which play a more open role than in other countries. In the still fairly traditional and formal French or Italian politics, the left and the far left are hardened bodies which pretend to oppose the State. They still retain some ability to organise people. In other countries, many extremist groups have disappeared, the American and German SDS for example.(5)
The difficulty lies in the need to go beyond traditional “Marxism” while not rejecting relevant concepts. It is not enough to understand that Marcuse, Mandel, Sweezy, and Magdoff have hardly anything in common with communism.(6) Breaking new ground means drawing a line between what to rubbish and where to begin a thorough re-think.
The nub of the debate is how we envisage communism. For example, underdeveloped countries—to use a capitalist vocabulary—will not have to go through an industrialisation phase similar to what advanced countries experienced in the past. In many parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, capital has not yet completely subjugated labour to its domination. Old forms of social life still exist (for how long?). Communism will give them a new birth—with the help of “Western” technology, applied totally differently from the way it was used in the West. We cannot be content with a mere demonstration of the capitalist nature of China and North Vietnam: we must also just as clearly assess the role Asia could play in a future revolution. The Ceylon uprising of 1971 was indeed a modern movement.(7) Utopia is back. We can already hear news from everywhere.
1. “Militant” is positive in English: it denotes true commitment and eagerness to fight. The French meaning is closer to Latin etymology: the term was borrowed from army vocabulary: the militant acts like a political soldier. See the now-classic “Militancy: The Highest Stage of Alienation,” by the French group OJTR, 1972, available at https://libcom.org/library/militancy-ojtr.
2. On the one hand, “security” has become a boom industry. On the other, police in the streets now often look and sometimes act like soldiers.
3. See above preface, n.5.
4. Ken Weller, 1970–72: The Lordstown Struggle and the Real Crisis in Production, Solidarity Pamphlet, 1973. Contrary to what we believed at the time, “the union controlled the anger of the worker.” See “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country: The Strike at Lordstown,” available at http://www.prole.info/texts/heartofheart.html.
5. The U.S. Students for a Democratic Society disbanded in 1969, the German SDS in 1970. They had been born out of student rebellion against nuclear armaments, the Vietnam War, racism, masculine domination, consumerism, authority, etc. Both were broad organisations covering a wide range of issues and involving a large number of participants with frequently conflicting views.
6. Ernest Mandel (1923–95): one of the leaders of the Trotskyist Fourth International and its main economist: see the critical review of his Marxist Economic Theory (1968, 2 vols.) by Paul Mattick, Mandel’s Economics (1969), https://www.marxists.org/archive/mattickpaul/1969/mandel.htm. Paul Sweezy (1910–2004), academic Marxist, specialist of monopoly capitalism, Harry Magdoff (1913–2006), antiimperialist and Third-Worldist socialist. Like Sweezy, one of the editors of Monthly Review. These writers are not widely read anymore, and their place has been taken by an array of similar critics who describe what’s wrong with this world without knowing why. They want wage-labour to be fair and money to be invested in the “real economy.” They are aware that big business runs democracy, and would like it the other way round. They have one thing in common: they are economists. Communist theory is a critique of the economy: this is a marker delineating the parting of the ways. Today’s soft left is as anti-revolutionary as hard Stalinists used to be.
7. Ceylon: The JVP Uprising of April 1971 (London: Solidarity, 1972), available at https://libcom.org/history/ceylon-jvp-uprising-april-1971.