This essay was originally published on Verso’s blog on May 17
On the brink of working class and student insurgency came Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967), the radical book of the 1960s, perhaps the most radical radical book ever written. Its 221 strange theses give us stirring crescendos of literary power, compelling evocations of an epoch in which unity spelt division, essence appearance, truth falsity. A topsy-turvy world where everything and everybody partook in a perverse paradox. Debord mocked the reality of this non-reality, an absurd world in which ugliness signified beauty, stupidity intelligence, subjecting it to his own dialectical inversion, his own spirit of negation. This was theory that identified enemy minefields and plotted a Northwest Passage, getting daubed on the walls of Paris and other cities during May 1968: “POWER TO THE WORKERS’ COUNCILS,” “DOWN WITH THE SPECTACULAR COMMODITY ECONOMY,” “THE END OF THE UNIVERSITY.”
Its refrains were all over the modern high-rise environment at the University of Paris-Nanterre, a classic scene of urban isolation and separation, a “suburban Vietnam,” where a peripheral new town university coexisted with working-class slums and Arab and Portuguese shantytowns. The place was sterile, sexually and socially repressive, and totalitarian. This was the spirit of a society without any spirit. The same centralisation, hierarchy, and bureaucratic obsession persisting in the educational sector persisted in other aspects of the French state. Tough rules governed student dorms and freedom of movement; classes were overcrowded, resources stretched; professors were distant, student alienation rife. The right-wing Gaullist regime attempted to modernise the economy, in line with Common Market membership, and unemployment was growing.
At the University of Strasbourg, two years prior, a handful of Situationists had intervened, angry students of Henri Lefebvre and friends of Debord. They’d riled and denounced, tried to revolutionise students with an influential pamphlet called “On the Poverty of Student Life—Considered in its Economic, Political, Psychological, Sexual and especially Intellectual Aspects, with a Modest Proposal for its Remedy.” They’d infiltrated the National Union of French Students (UNEF), accused students at Strasbourg of pandering to a society dominated by the commodity and the spectacle. Student poverty was a poverty of ideas, a poverty of guts. Students were really “submissive children,” labour-power in the making, without class consciousness. They accepted the business and institutional roles for which the “university-factory” prepared them, never questioning the system of production that alienated all activity, products, people, and ideas. The Situationist’s text struck a chord; translated reprints extended its audience, notably to the U.S., Britain and Italy. In Strasbourg, the document caused a scandal; a coterie of students refused to be integrated, resisted co-optation. Critical awareness gathered steam over the next year and a bit, until, late March of 1968, it blew a gasket at Nanterre.
On Friday, March 22nd, assorted Situationists, young communists, Trotskyists, anarchists, and Maoists invaded the university’s administration building, and began occupying it. The week before, the “Committee of the Enragés and the Situationist International” had been established. Its members put up posters and scribbled slogans on the walls of Nanterre and the Sorbonne in the Latin Quarter: “TAKE YOUR DESIRES FOR REALITY,” “NEVER WORK,” “BOREDOM IS COUNTER-REVOLUTIONARY,” “TRADE UNIONS ARE BROTHELS,” “PROFESSORS, YOU MAKE US GROW OLD,” “IF YOU RUN INTO A COP, SMASH HIS FACE IN.” In early May, “the March 22 Movement” met with UNEF at the Sorbonne. The authorities tried to break up the meeting; instead they only unleashed its latent power. The gendarmerie mobile poured into the Sorbonne’s courtyard and encircled its buildings. Several thousand students fought back, inside and outside, ripping up paving stones on the street. Skirmishes broke out elsewhere, spreading both sides of the Seine, flaring up at Châtelet and Les Halles. On May 6 and 7 a huge student demonstration took over the Boulevard Saint Michel and thoroughfares near rue Gay-Lussac; protesters overturned cars, set them ablaze, dispatched Molotov cocktails, and manned the barricades.
On May 13 there was a one-day general strike. With the French Communist Party (PCF) and general worker’s union (CGT) joining the action, “student-worker” solidarity suddenly looked possible. Situationists and students took over the Sorbonne. On one revered fresco they emblazoned the caption: “HUMANITY WILL ONLY BE HAPPY THE DAY THE LAST BUREAUCRAT IS HUNG BY THE GUTS OF THE LAST CAPITALIST.” Exams had been cancelled at the barricades; sociologists and psychologists became the new cops. Next day, in Nantes, workers at the Sud-Aviation plant occupied their factory and locked out the bosses. Meanwhile, Renault workers at Cléon in Seine-Maritime followed suit. Then the Nouvelles Messageries de la Presse Parisienne launched a wildcat action, halting newspaper distribution. Workers’ councils linked up with students’ councils, becoming comrades in arms. The working class, at last, declared its unequivocal support for the student movement when rank and filers at Renault-Billancourt took over France’s largest factory.
By May 20 strikes and occupations became contagious. Nationwide, around 10 million workers downed tools and froze assembly lines. France seemed on the precipice of revolution; a festival of people was glimpsed. Alienation was cast off, momentarily; freedom was real; capitalised time abandoned. Without trains, cars, Metro and work, leisure time was reclaimed, time lived. Students and workers seized the contingent situation, acted spontaneously, created new situations, realising something what no trade union or party could ever do, or wanted to do. And yet, as quickly as things erupted, they were almost as speedily repressed, by state and bourgeoisie, soon backed by the Communists and the CGT. The optimistic promise, the beach beneath the paving stones, had dissipated, for now. The music was over. There was no other side to break on through to.
The occupation of Paris was, still is, seen throughout the world as an event of historical significance. Solidarity between workers and students had for a moment expressed itself; so too direct action militancy and student internationalism. From the LSE to Berkeley, from Columbia to Nantes, from the Sorbonne to Barcelona, dissatisfaction had spread like wildfire. At the same time, The Society of the Spectacle’s demands, as Debord would write (with Gianfranco Sanguinetti) in The Veritable Split in the Situationist International (1972), “were plastered in the factories of Milan as in the University of Coimra. Its principal theses, from California to Calabria, from Scotland to Spain, from Belfast to Leningrad, infiltrate clandestinely or are proclaimed in open struggles…The Situationist International imposed itself in a moment of universal history as the thought of the collapse of a world; a collapse which has now begun before our eyes.”
In old photos of the student occupations of the Sorbonne, Debord is visible in the thick of the action, lurking with intent. He was no student himself, nor was he particularly “youthful”: in May 1968, Debord, the freelance revolutionary, was thirty-six, older than a lot of junior professors, and almost twice the age of many student leaders (like Daniel Cohn-Bendit). He must have seemed like an old guy to many kids, somebody’s dad drinking in the student bar. Already his appearance had started to deteriorate. Surrounded by a large crowd of student activists, we can see him standing side on, without glasses, wearing a white jacket. His face is a lot puffier than a decade earlier; a boozer’s physiognomy was rapidly becoming apparent. By comparison with other ’68ers, who were mere political toddlers, he was a veteran provocateur.
Debord and other Situationists were genius agitators and organisers, and their presence was felt, practically and theoretically. The spirit of The Society of the Spectacle was there, even if some kids had never read nor fully understood it. On the other hand, Debord was frequently the most sectarian, invariably falling out with allies—especially falling out with allies, being most ruthless with old friends and former comrades. “Guy was a very tenacious person,” Jean-Michel Mension, a past oustee, remembered in his Situationist memoir The Tribe. “He was already very hard—very strict in the way he conceived of existence with this person or that.” There “were certainly jokers who became part of Guy’s group merely because they were friends of so and so, people who had no business there and who lasted only six months or a year before Guy found them really idiotic and kicked them out.”
Debord likewise dissed former pal Henri Lefebvre, the Nanterre Marxist professor, denouncing him as an “agent of recuperation.” He said the sexagenarian philosopher had stolen certain Situationist ideas. Debord reckoned Lefebvre’s take on the 1871 Paris Commune was almost entirely lifted from SI’s pamphlet, “Theses on the Commune” (1962). “This was a delicate subject,” Lefebvre recalled in a 1987 interview. “I was close to the Situationists…And then we had a quarrel that got worse and worse in conditions I don’t understand too well myself…I had this idea about the Commune as a festival, and I threw it into debate, after consulting an unpublished document about the Commune that is at the Feltrinelli Institute in Milan.”
Both Lefebvre and Debord believed the Commune some sort of historical antecedent of 1968. For seventy-three days, between March and May of 1871, when Prussian forces at war with France surrounded Paris, the city had become a liberated zone of people power. The barricades went up, even across Haussmann’s mighty boulevards, amid the carnivals and pranks. Freely elected workers, artists, and small business owners were suddenly at the helm. Their rally cries were territorial and urban; their practice was festive and spontaneous. The Communards, until the National Guard massacred 20,000 of them, launched a revolt in culture and everyday life, demanded freedom and self-determination, crushed Louis Napoleon’s authority as he’d once crushed their freedom, occupied the streets, shouted and sang for their “right to the city.”
For the first time, it looked like a working-class revolution wasn’t merely possible, but imminent. In “Theses on the Commune,” Debord said the Situationists believed that the “Commune was the biggest festival of the nineteenth-century” (Thesis #2). “Underlying the events of that spring of 1871,” he went on, “one can see the insurgents’ feeling that they had become the masters of their own history, not so much on the level of ‘governmental’ politics as on the level of their everyday life.” “The Commune,” Thesis #7 said, “represents the only realisation of a revolutionary urbanism to date.” It “succumbed less to the force of arms,” the next thesis explained, “than to the force of habit.” “Theoreticians who examine the history of this movement,” continued #11, importantly, “can easily prove that the Commune was objectively doomed to failure and could not have been fulfilled. They forget that for those who really lived it, the fulfillment was already there” (emphasis in original). “The audacity and inventiveness of the Commune,” #12 stated, “must obviously be measured not in relation to our time, but in terms of the prevailing political, intellectual and moral attitudes of its own time, in terms of the interdependence of all the prevailing banalities that it blasted to pieces.” “The social war of which the Commune was one moment,” declared the penultimate #13, “is still being fought today. In the task of ‘making conscious the unconscious tendencies of the Commune’ (Frederick Engels), the last word is still to be said.”
In the wake of May ’68, Debord released a film version of The Society of the Spectacle, dedicating it to wife Alice Becker-Ho, whose beautiful image, clad in flat cap, leaning on a wall with a cigarette drooping nonchalantly from her mouth, fills one frame. It evokes an Alice-cum-Brando’s Wild One pose: “Alice, whattya rebelling against?” “Whaddya got?” The film’s dialogue closely follows Debord’s original text, but the rapid-fire captions, disarming classical music, and exaggerated footage make it visually stunning. There are battle scenes and moody vistas of Paris, spliced between images of Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Castro, all giving speeches; Debord plainly disapproves. There are news clips from the ’68 Renault strike, with workers locked inside the factory by the unions; scenes from the Bourse alive with frenzied traders, participating in money mayhem; there’s a vision of the Tower of Babel amid pitched battles from Vietnam and Watts (Los Angeles), circa 1965; Paris’s streets are ablaze, and students can be seen fighting cops; there are burning barricades at night, the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917, street altercations in Italy in the 1960s, Italian police leaping from jeeps, truncheoning a crowd of young people; West German security forces patrol another street, while Soviet tanks push back German workers in Berlin in June 1953.
The Society of the Spectacle, the movie, sealed a magical era for Debord. “Whoever considers the life of the Situationists,” he contended a few years later, “finds there the history of the revolution. Nothing has been able to sour it.” It was how it’d been for the Communards, who really lived it, whose fulfillment was already there. Fulfillment was already there for Debord, too: he really did live it in ’68, and now it was over. Nothing could sour it. Yet as the dust settled from 1968, emptiness prevailed in the ruins. Many soixante-huitards suddenly found themselves stuck between the rock and the hard place, between a degenerative past and an impossible future. For a moment, the dream of spontaneous freedom became real, in wide-awake time. An instant later, it disappeared in a puff of smoke.