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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Situationist Punk Paradox

This is from 1997. No idea who Clark and Nicholson -Smith are.

So here is a picture of a steam train

It is from:


The Society of the Spectacle

Clark and Nicholson-Smith describe Debord's Society of the Spectacle as a 'forced conversation with the early Marx and with the shades of Feuerbach and Hegel' (26). This is true, but only in so far as any attempt to argue for a working-class politics will force this conversation - or collapse into a variety of historical errors. As they point out, in 1967 Guy Debord faced the 'overwhelming reality' (27) of Stalinism. Not only a dictatorial form of state-capitalism in Russia and China that called itself 'Marxist', but a French Communist Party that claimed to represent the working class, but actually served a trade-union bureaucracy benefitting from compromises with capitalism and the state. Faced with this caricature of Marxism, Debord improvised a critique.
Although sympathetic towards working-class militants whose Trotskyism denied them the support of Parisian intellectuals (28), Debord was not deeply versed in working-class politics. However, like André Breton before him, he was a superb critic and polemicist. The tragedy of Society of the Spectacle was that its brilliant aphorisms on the superstructure were meshed with a flawed 'critique' of the Communist Party. Debord recirculated anarchist and liberal slurs on Lenin and stooped to raising the ghost of Bakunin. His thought was developed during a time of unprecedented boom, and his intent was to produce a critique of capitalism that would operate even in such a time of abundance. What point the accumulation of material things when the subject is denied a role in history? Debord relaunched the revolutionary idea as an absurdist refusal of contemporary values. After the slumps of the mid-70s - along with the return of first-world mass unemployment and Fascism - Debord's theory looks threadbare. It lacked the empirical study of economics that allowed revolutionary Marxists to predict the return of economic crisis.
Artistic praxis has also left Debord high-and-dry. The punk interpretation of situationist principles - radical subjectivity, contempt for bourgeois ideology and parliamentary democracy, hatred of the military and the cops, proletarian pride and humour - has become part of the armoury of working-class revolt. To reach the working class, punk used commercial channels (precisely those routinely denounced by the mandarins of Western Marxism). Punk provided such a paradoxical reply to Debordian denunciations of the spectacle - spectacular anti-spectaculism - that his terms were superseded. Only a return to traditional Marxist class analysis - for which the key is people's relationship to the means of production - can cleave the reactionary consumerism of buying records from Punk's Reichian rearmament of the proletarian psyche. The issue cannot be resolved by the inane 'theories of culture' published by NLR, each of which attempts to label different areas of the culture as holy or profane. These are simply aspects of modern reality a revolutionary must learn to use. Only action is capable of splitting apart the contradictions of capitalism.
Distinguishing Debord's cultural theory from his anti-Leninism may sound like reinstating the separation between aesthetics from politics. However, this is not done in order to convert Debord's good side into an apolitical art 'theory'. It is to point out that Debord's art criticism had the virtues of immanent critique; when he dissed Breton his words had the energies of a disciple betrayed. His condemnation of Marxist organisation, on the other hand, lacked the knowledge to point out that Communist hacks and Trotskyist sectarians fail to understand the lessons of Lenin and Trotsky. His criticism of revolutionary politics is not Marxist, but abuse hurled from the sidelines by a bohemian and aesthete. This explains his partiality to the intellectual sloughs of Bakunin and anarchism.
Without an understanding of what went wrong with the Russian Revolution there can be no politics that speaks for the dispossessed. Debord argues that Stalinism arose because the Bolshevik Party was 'organised according to the bourgeois model of separation' (29). Debord's animus against 'separation' is as trendy and abstract - as ungrounded in a materialist understanding of history - as John Lennon's 'Come Together' (30) (if no less charming). It may indeed be the case that the neoplatonic One prefigured the dialectical emphasis on totality, but Debord's application here leapfrogs attention to actualities.
Debord quite correctly points out that Trotsky failed to recognise the emergence of the Russian bureaucracy as a class, but wrong to conclude that this was due to his commitment to the idea of the Leninist party. (31) Debord's criticism of third-world Communism is powerful (32), but nothing the state-capitalist critique had not already achieved. The compromised monolith of the French Communist Party in 1967 made evaluation of Lenin and Trotsky difficult. In 1997, Clark and Nicholson-Smith's repetition of Debord's anti-Leninism simply aligns them with the liberals of postmodernism. (33)
They say 'the Left' refuses 'to pose the problems of revolutionary organisation ... and come to terms with the disaster of its Leninist and Trotskyite past' (34) - yet they show no signs of having read any Lenin or Trotsky. They have no inkling of the 'leaps' that C.L.R. James admired in Lenin. (35) Lenin and Trotsky were polemicists in opposition to the inertness of bureaucracies and party structures, continually attempting to make contact with the radicalism of the proletariat.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tim Clark and Donald Nicholson-Smith = members of the English section of the Situationist International, innit? Timothy J Clark is now a big-name art historian.

10:45 am  
Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks - have followed up the information.

1:34 pm  

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