from Guy Debord

To Robert Chasse
23 December 1967
Dear Robert:


I have just read your letter of 20 December. It is very fortunate that we stop the “escalation” of bad feelings! The atmosphere of misunderstanding, it seems to me, has already dissipated. What remains is a theoretical and “technical” discussion of our organizational practice. Thus I would immediately abandon subordinate discussions, for example, discussions about certain translations. We can combine with this discussion an examination of the recent history between New York, London, and Paris (because this second aspect is a good concrete illustration of the first problem). In the meantime, you will receive our letter of 21 December (and the three adjoined copies indicating a series of “linked” breaks).[1]

I too am responding immediately. Thus, we will avoid the slightly “administrative” style that collectively drafted letters inevitably have, and always with a certain haste: because each of our meetings must send off a quite large number of letters – and also deal with other problems, with the result that this frequently lasts all night. But for all that this isn’t a “personal” letter: I think that it summarizes our recent conclusions, and I will transmit a copy, with your response, to the next meeting of our friends (today almost all of whom are dispersed across Europe to accomplish diverse tasks).

First of all, we speak of our theory of “coherent and democratic” organization. As you know, we are not interested in an abstract theory. Thus, this theory is the theory of our own practice as the Situationist International until now. This theory is certainly modifiable and surpassable, but still by a conscious collective decision, and not by the arbitrary stroke of someone who puts us in the presence of a fait accompli. We define this practice – ever since the beginning of the SI and up to and including the current period – as a task of an extreme avant-garde that does not aim at transforming itself in the direction of a large revolutionary movement that is beginning to constitute itself. We think that the first effort, faced with the new era of contestation that spontaneously begins everywhere, is to produce the most adequate critical theory (thus helping to free spontaneous movements from the inconsequence that makes them mix their own truth with a certain dose old ideological lies). To produce this theory is neither possible nor desirable without a practical conduct that is also “exemplary.” Without insisting on our own praiseworthiness, we are quite sure that we have been able to begin the formulation of a new theoretical rigor, [but] only to the extent that we’ve known how to defend an equal rigor in our practical attitude. We must avoid all recuperation in the “spectacle” and all concessions to confusionism. Tony [Verlaan], although he’d only met us a short time before leaving Europe [for New York in February 1967], can already testify to you how people here try to approach the situationists (or “recruit” for us or speak in our name) with objectively compromised intentions. Tony can also tell you how we strongly resist this. In other words: we ten times over refuse a “success” that would assuredly be an alienation, so as to finally attain a success that we really desire. At this stage, the individuals in the SI must have sufficient ability to be autonomous (for example, to not be mere “partisans” of theories that they themselves are unable to develop and apply). And, simultaneously, the small number of individuals who have known equal participation at this level of “coherence” find themselves collectively engaged by what each one of them is constrained to decide immediately and on his own in the name of our shared principles (likewise, someone in the SI who fights our shared principles engages and compromises me in a refutation of myself: such a person must be excluded to guard our seriousness). This is done to make understood that a publicly pronounced break from an external person by one of us (for reasons concerning the SI and at that level, quite obviously) obliges us to immediately adopt this break or exclude the situationist whose action we do not want to approve of (if this act was manifestly a betrayal or an abuse of our general demands, which have been made well known by our writings).

How do we make our majority decisions? Straight off, one must note that there are very few votes. When we must make a choice concerning a problem – generally tactical – the bases that we share make it so that, after a discussion, the solution that appears to be the best almost always rallies unanimity. Nevertheless, certain cases can only settled – before being decided upon by experience itself – by adopting the majority opinion. Let’s envision a case in which there is disagreement and a vote (this is what inevitably takes place each time the bases of agreement of the SI are put into question; thus, in all instances of [proposed] exclusion or break). Until now, we have enjoyed the ease that goes along with a numerically limited group, and we have suffered the difficulty that this same group is geographically quite dispersed. We make decisions during meetings or a series of meetings, an exchange of letters or delegates (if a delegate is unfaithful to his mandate, he is excluded, naturally). This material difficulty obviously requires that no one – except in cases of new facts – puts into question the commitments that he made after discussion. But this difficulty is, at the same time, normally greatly diminished by the fact that we have a confidence in each other that is based upon a good knowledge of the proven abilities of each of us in the handling of theoretical and practical rigor. We are all quite in agreement with you on the fact that the way we function will be different when the situationists number in the hundreds. But here I recall our collectively defined task: we do not want to transform ourselves into a political party (thus, for some time now, we’ve been able to easily admit more than a hundred individuals in France, and this wouldn’t be desirable). We must create – at the limit, in each country – a nucleus capable of accomplishing the same “extreme avant-garde” task that we have only begun to approach in two or three European countries. (It is also obvious that in the moment of the development of a profound revolutionary movement, the SI must still solve other problems concerning modalities of action, which are problems that are now hardly touched upon by our discussions, because in no case will we lay claim to a leadership role in the movement, neither from outside nor from within). Thus, one can say, due to what’s taken place, that at the moment when there are a hundred members of the SI, they will inevitably be spread over five or six countries. The relations of “autonomous individuals” would then take place through the mediation of active groups. At the moment, it is obvious that each one of these groups would have to resolve for itself the problem of democratic decision-making concerning its activity, and [must do so] on the basis of the general accord between all the groups. The most “universal” questions would then have to be debated at the general conferences of all the groups, at which – everyone not being able to attend – we will have to keep track of how many mandates are represented by the participants (one can also make known one’s positions in writing, but this brings the debate nothing when in direct dialogue). With the appearance of “America” among our practical problems, we already find ourselves confronted with the premises of the question of the liaisons between distant groups. We must discuss this question and define the practical forms at our next conference, which we think will be held in 1968.[2] From now on, it is all the same clear that we will not ask of you, if you find a third or fourth comrade in the USA,[3] to send them on a tour of Europe so as to meet and be accepted by all the others here! By contrast, on the problem of your “membership” in the SI, the current situationists must make a pronouncement, as a unique group, following the existing rules of our game, of our general principles of agreement and – yes, all the same! – the expression of your own desires.

It is here that begins the history between us since Raoul [Vaneigem]’s trip to New York and the series of difficulties that we have now become fully aware of. I will now return to this question, chronologically, briefly concerning the points that you already know from the preceding letters and in a more detailed fashion concerning the points that are new.

A little before Raoul’s trip, I went to England: Donald [Nicholson-Smith] and Chris [Gray] had the same opinion as we did (see below) on this question. Raoul was delegated without any other instructions than those which were on the piece of paper that he read to you. We only recommended to him that he at first make contact with you, which he did upon disembarking. Because we know all the serious weaknesses of Murray [Bookchin]’s behavior (having seen it at work in Paris) and, on the other hand, we all estimate – the English situationists included – that, as a result of the letters exchanged with you, that you are the New Yorker who is the closest to our positions. No one proposed to limit Raoul’s freedom by demanding that he have discussions with everyone (nor by demanding that he meet, for example and precisely, Morea, independently of the conditions that Raoul might find and judge by directing seeing the state of the problem in New York). I saw Raoul before his departure and transmitted the opinion of the English situationists to him.

Here is our collective opinion at the moment (already expressed in the document that Raoul brought you). We thought that after so many translations, and especially the opening of a post office box in the name of the SI in New York,[4] which obviously involves our responsibility, and for which we have no guarantee at all, it was urgent to discover with whom we could be in accord and in contact with in New York. (In accord on the fact that “prospective” = possible: the other possible members of the SI do not engage our responsibility through their unilaterally decided public actions.) We were particularly disquieted by the fact that Tony did not maintain the least contact with us for several months. When he finally wrote a long letter, he said that the had kept in useful contact with London, something that Chris strongly denies.

When Raoul returned to Paris, before departing on another voyage (which meant that we couldn’t reconsider new details in his presence for the next two weeks) – in his exposition on New York, Raoul had naturally spoken with much more of his agreement with Tony and you than of the corollary breaks, which were good things, but less important. Nevertheless, Raoul had insisted on the case of the mystic[5] to demonstrate Morea’s bankruptcy. (So that the problem is quite clear: there were many other serious disagreements that he would have told Morea about, if he had met him, and he even hesitated to meet a person of little interest who was already opposed to our friends, but, after the scandal with the mystic, he no longer wanted to meet Morea, and this isn’t at all contradictory with respect to the more theoretical critiques that you might make of Morea in the study of the “New Left.”) I believe that I must remark here that the discussion with a mystic shocked us more than it appears to have shocked you.

Raoul said that the accord with you was sure and solid, but that you would prefer to wait until you’d completed your own theoretical text before you openly presented yourselves as “situationists.” This preference seemed to him – and to us at the time of his report to the SI – to be an excellent procedure. But we understood this to be a simply tactical choice, secondary with respect to our “strategic” accord (tell us if Raoul is mistaken in this). Indeed, the evolution brought about by [our] tactical problems with New York have led us to accelerate the process. I am still speaking of tactical questions. Obviously, after your response of 10 December,[6] we thought that there appeared to be a fundamental disagreement, not perceived by Raoul, that is, if you intend an “absolute American autonomy” that would not take account of the rest of the SI, but your letter of 20 December[7] denied this hypothesis. Nevertheless, even after your letter of 10 December, which left us very skeptical about the chances of an accord with you – although we took allowances for your bad feelings due to our response to Morea – we were all absolutely resolved to no longer have discussions with anyone other than you. The break with Morea objectively imposes itself: whatever becomes of the discussion with you hereafter, you haven’t “bought” this break from us by proving yourselves right about everything in our debate!

Here now is the continuation of the tactical problems that have arisen so quickly. I’d already written quite briefly to the English situationists about the (to us) fortunate conclusion of Raoul’s trip. But, at the same time, they received Morea’s first letter of protest. They immediately came to Paris: they regretted that Raoul had not agreed to meet Morea. We gave the crudest – and uncontested – argument by which Raoul had justified his choice. The English – to our astonishment – proposed suspending our decision until their own visits to New York had been made. We – once more the majority – absolutely rejected any perspective that would be equivalent to disavowing Raoul. They then insisted, with many scruples, on the fact that “perhaps Morea did not know why Raoul had to conduct himself with such violence” (they made use of the valid argument that we cannot count on Murray to faithfully transmit the reasons, even the most important ones, that Raoul had given him, nor on Hoffman). Then we agreed to sign with them a letter to Morea to inform him of a sufficient reason for our refusal of dialogue with him. We were all in agreement on the fact that contact with Morea could no longer take place, except if he were to immediately excuse himself from his collusion with the mystic, and the insulting tone of his letter. Almost all of us thought that this was absolutely improbable. Nevertheless, Chris says that, according to him, Morea is “honest” and that such a change of mind [on Morea’s part] is not completely impossible (but Chris himself estimates that in no case need we envision an accord with him). Nevertheless, we did not want this slightly excessive manifestation of formalist scruples (naturally it is completely necessary to openly declare to someone in particular our reasons for rejecting him, but in Morea’s case it was more than probable that he knew them quite well) – we did not want this manifestation to put back into question the irreversible choices made during Raoul’s trip to New York. At the same time that the SI’s response was to be made to Morea, we then demanded that we immediately note that we are engaged with Tony and you (and that it is no longer a question of still discussing things indifferently with the others). The English accepted this: thus came into existence the “administrative” document of December 5,[7] which didn’t much please you!

These were our reasons. They can be summarized this way: the appearance of publications issued in our name from New York should’ve pushed you to more quickly seek a precise accord with comrades in the city; then the hostile reactions to this accord ([reactions by] Morea, for example) would’ve led us to the public formalization of it. It would then have been up to you to choose from there.

You know what followed. Morea only responded with new insults, and the English wrote to him again – breaking our agreement – in a manner that could leave one to believe that Raoul had lied by describing Hoffman as a mystic (which, of course, neither Donald nor Chris said in our discussions; they themselves know, and also through Murray, that Hoffman is a mystic).

Then we immediately broke with Morea and Murray through letters: we did so without them [the English situationists] and this means their break with us.

The English telegrammed us to ask for a supplementary discussion in London. Raoul went there with a text bearing an ultimatum and to tell them directly about his trip to New York. The English said straight off that they did not want to break with us. Thus, they began to write letters breaking with Murray and Morea, but the editing process appeared to be very difficult, because they found each phrase too violent! This effort, which didn’t advance quickly, had to be pursued the next day. But when the next day came, the English didn’t want to continue and raised new problems. Giving your letter of 10 December as sufficient proof, they then declared that Raoul had been wrong, not only in breaking with Morea, but also in declaring you and especially Tony acceptable to the SI! (I must note that they themselves had signed the letter of acceptance dated 5 December, and that they hardly knew Tony, less than I do and much less than Raoul, who had met with him for a long time in New York).

Raoul and Rene [Vienet] then declined to take part in the discussion. It had become clear that this was no longer a question of a misunderstanding and a slowness in reasoning, but a will to not understand. Thus, we came to a definitive break; one can say that it wasn’t produced as rapidly as our horrifying legend would have it: more than ten letters were exchanged; two trips were undertaken;[9] and more than six solid days of discussion between the two “currents.”

What the three English comrades[10] have done can be summarized as follows.

1) From the beginning and without any supportable reasons, they have systematically refrained from solidarity with all of Raoul’s activity in New York (whereas all the other situationists have affirmed that their confidence in Raoul, founded upon a multitude of experiences at all levels, is unassailable).

2) They have manifested a stupefying indulgence – comical and unworthy of them – for Morea, his mystical acquaintances and his “methods of discussion.”

3) They have simultaneously affirmed an absolute and irrational hostility towards Tony and you. (I said that we all have critiques to formulate about Tony’s prior actions, but that – having learned since then of his complete agreement with you and Raoul – we could not believe that he is metaphysically condemned for having neglected contact with us in the preceding period. We also recalled that his attitude during “the battle of Strasbourg”[11] had been entirely worthy and rigorous.) If we had given in on such a clear and shocking refusal of solidarity, the SI would logically have to relent in ten other important external affairs in which we are simultaneously engaged, and thereafter, as well! The radical function that we have had until now would be ended.

We regret the exclusion of Donald, whom we like very much. For two years, while he was in Paris, we had always been in complete agreement with him. He only became “English” again in the last two months to help found an “English group” that – for the last 18 months – hasn’t been able to surpass the stage of making translations,[12] because this group was only composed of Chris (and, episodically, one other person: [Charles] Radcliffe had rigorously done nothing for 18 months[13] and finally had amicably formulated his resignation to Chris several months before this affair). We find it quite strange that the atmosphere of this “virtual group” so rapidly altered Donald’s rigor in reasoning and even knowing the meaning of dignity.

I must emphasize that, after our first discussion ended in an accord with Chris and Ch. Radcliffe, we still were completely confident in the English situationists (which seems quite normal to us), without in any manner ever controlling what they did in England. And then, upon their first intervention in a general debate, we found out that they truly did not feel bound to have the same confidence in Raoul and the others! A useful lesson.

We still do not clearly understand their intentions in this affair (but the continuation of their own activity will not fail to reveal them).[14] No opposition to any of our theses or perspectives was ever indicated. We can only find this one point, hardly mentioned in ten minutes, and quite recently: Chris said that England and the USA should be considered as a single terrain of action, with the same publications, a single journal, etc. I responded that this idea didn’t seem very realistic to me. But we hardly see how such a barely sketched-out “theoretical” divergence can lead to a break in practical solidarity 15 days later.

There is a lot of European news that would be interesting (the most notable: the criminal charges filed against us in Paris for incitement to theft, crime and debauchery due to the comics[15] that you know about – and the recent scandal of the pro-SI students in Rennes,[16] which restarts the Strasbourg process). But this letter is already quite long enough.

Best wishes,
Guy

P.S. Tell us when you have received Raoul’s book and mine. If not, we will send them in a more discrete way.


[1] Letters of 21 December 1967 to [Ben] Morea and [Murray] Bookchin, plus the letter to all sections of the SI dated 21 December 1967.

[2] The Eighth Conference wouldn’t take place until 1969 (25 September to 1 October) in Venice. [Translator: all the members of the newly formed American section were in attendance.]

[3] Translator: eventually there would be four: Robert Chasse, Bruce Elwell, Tony Verlaan, and Jonathan Horelick.

[4] Translator: this was done by Tony Verlaan, a Dutch student who encountered and assisted the situationists in Strasbourg in December 1966.

[5] Translator: Allan Hoffman, a member of the Black Mask group in New York, which produced ten issues of their journal between 1966 and 1967. See the collection Black Mask and Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker (1992). Hoffman seems to have been a peripheral figure in the group.

[6] Translator: never published.

[7] Translator: never published.

[8] Translator: To Robert Chasse and Tony Verlaan, dated 5 December 1967.

[9] Translator: I count three trips: Debord to London; the English to Paris; and Vaneigem to London.

[10] Translator: Donald Nicholson-Smith, Christopher Gray and T.J. Clark. The fourth English situ, Charles Radcliffe, doesn’t figure in this affair at all.

[11] Translator: the publication of On the Poverty of Student Life.

[12] Translator: no mention of the document that surfaced many years later, supposedly written in 1967, entitled The Modern Art of Revolution and the Revolution of Modern Art.

[13] Translator: since the publication of Heatwave #2 in October 1966.

[14] Translator: though the English group collapsed, each of its members went on to be devoted fans and practicitioners of situationist theory: Gray and Nicholson-Smith as translators, Clark as a writer, and Radcliffe as an editor.

[15] Translator: English in original. The comics that announced the publication of Internationale Situationniste #11.

[16] It was in fact Nantes, not Rennes. See letter to Yvon Chotard dated 17 December 1967.


(Published in Guy Debord Correspondance, Vol "0": Septembre 1951 - Juillet 1957: Complete des "lettres retrouvees" et d l'index general des noms cites by Librairie Artheme Fayard, October 2010. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! February 2011. Footnotes by the publisher, except where noted.)




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