Chapter 4: The Proletariat as Subject and as Representation
This very long chapter details the question as to whether the proletariat play their revolutionary (and unitary) role as subjects of history, or whether that power is deferred or dissipated or recuperated (not sure which would be best) through representation. The chapter starts off with a play on the final Thesis on Feuerbach and returns to this theme throughout.
"The subject of history can be none other than the living producing himself, becoming master and possessor of the world which is history, and existing as consciousness of his game” (74). He is talking about the proletariat, but in a way that sounds very Stirnerian, and he indeed mentions Stirner in #78 as one of the "theoretical currents of the revolutionary workers' movement" grounded in confrontation with Hegel.
Debord refers to the "long revolutionary epoch" beginning with the rise of the bourgeoisie as the first revolutionary class, and (pace Marx) the only class to ever successfully mount a revolution. After a discussion of Hegel, he talks about Marx's turn to science as a mistake or weakness. Science is inherently bourgeois as it tries to understand the world as a closed totality, much like Hegel did. In #80, he invokes the opposition between the blindness of quantitative data, and the qualitative as "conscious." He is absolutely Marxist in arguing that revolution can only come about when the practical conditions for it exist, and history should be studied to figure out when this will be and how to respond. However, this should not be a "science" and we should not let old, failed models interfere with the future actions.
In his critique of the utopian socialists, he elaborates the concept of the "mode of elaboration of truth” (#83). The utopians idolize science and thus follow the idea of trying to invent a model of a perfect society which they implement like an experiment, failing to understand the larger critique of history and existing power structures that would be necessary for a real revolution (as if the future society could be simply invented like a new device or something). Debord's point is that the utopians don't even understand science as it is actually done, they understand it through its popular appeal, or mode of explication, by which it is made sense of to the masses (and this, per Sorel who Debord cites, apparently is derived from the earlier mode of explication of astrology.) [This concept of a "mode of explication" of elite theory for the masses has a potential to play in a theory of articulation, as I do not recall a similar or equivalent concept in Foucault or Deleuze]
He has some fairly brutal comments about the failure of Marxism and of Marx. Marx and Engels had a critique for their own time (he means the Manifesto and the revolutions of 1848). These failed, then Marx spent years retroactively trying to justify, through an appeal to science, an approach which was already outdated, and could only get in the way of future revolutions. By the appeal to science, they basically turn Marxism into a bourgeois program, mistaking the proletarians for bourgeois (seizing power of the state, for example, was the Bourgeois mode of revolution, but would not suffice for the proletarian revolution). Debord is thus in an interesting position of being very Marxist in some regards, while strongly criticizing Marx in others.
He is particularly critical of the vanguardists, especially the Bolsheviks. Vanguardism mistakenly recreates bourgeois forms of practice (with leaders, state power, scientific agenda), and then fails to recognize spontaneous manifestations of actual workers' power.
He goes into the opposition of Bakunin and Marx, then critiques anarchism (#92-4). In my 1989 reading notes I call this an "important critique of anarchism," focusing on "informal domination within consensus organizations." However on rereading it is clear that Debord is more interested in critiquing anarchists as idealists, having an ideal of the perfect society which they use as their motive and goal for revolution, and which they then try to impose (like the utopians in a way). He does not seem to actually point out informal or uncritiqued domination, so much as intentional domination by a "conspiratorial elite" as called for by Bakunin. [cf. "Invisible Committee;" however, Debord will end the chapter by giving an out to revolutionary organizations (such as his own of course) and this could equally be applied to such anarchist groups as well)].
His main targets through the chapter will be 1) Bolsheviks and the international Communist Party; and 2) social democrats. He grounds an interesting critique of the Russian Revolution on the idea that the bourgeois intellectuals had had only constrained opportunities in Czarist Russia; this led them to adopt revolutionary positions and become "professional revolutionaries" of the sort that (like Lenin and Trotsky) flocked back to Russia after the revolution began (spontaneously) and then warped the revolution to suit their own purposes. Their profession of revolution then became the "profession of the absolute management of society" (98) because these guys would have been management in a capitalist society, after all.
The working class gets trapped into representation when it is trapped between bolsheviks on the one side and social democrats on the other. In post-WWI uprisings the real alternatives like the Spartacists get wiped out. Social democrats actually support the ruling regime, compromising and "representing" the workers in the electoral system. Because of this compromise, the real "central question" of the choice between capitalism and socialism cannot be asked (per Luxembourg). Debord notes, the spectacle keeps this question from being posed, there can be no "central question."
The Bolsheviks, meanwhile, become the "pseudo-bourgeoisie" of the Russian state in the form of the bureaucracy. Per Debord, the bourgeois need to start off the revolutionary epoch, and a revolution in a state not already ruled by the bourgeoisie will only end up creating a substitute or proto-bourgeoisie. The CP bureaucrats in the USSR are caught in all kinds of contradictions because they can't really exist as "bourgeoisie" nor as "bureaucrats" so they must undergo constant purges. The crucial discussion of the bureaucrats as the "substitute ruling class" in "state capitalism" is in 102-108. Anyway the bolsheviks then market their (failed, crypto-Bourgeois) model of revolution as the only one possible; they then use the CPs of various nations to further the interests of the USSR, not for revolution. In #113, he discusses the form this proto-or crypto-Bourgeoisie takes in undeveloped nations through aid from the USSR and the west.
#109, Fascism. Debord is closer to my sense of Fascism as a retro-disease of the modern state, than Gilroy etc. seeing it as the core or essence of the state. Fascism is to some extent enabled by the false radicalism of the Bolshevik model, but this is turned in defense of the state and conservative ideals. "Fascism is technically-equipped archaism" (109), [or rather, as I have argued about fundamentalism, it is an absolutely modern movement that makes a revisionist appeal to an imagined past.] "However, since fascism is also the most costly form of preserving the capitalist order" it gives way to the mainstream capitalist state, which is "stronger and more rational" in defense of the same interests. Debord also emphasizes the capitalist connections of Fascism, over the Holocaust side emphasized by Gilroy etc.,
[There is a potentially disturbing point re the commonalities of left and right party forms hinted at here, when he talks about how fascism unites the petty bourgeois and the unemployed. these same groups came up in Shumsky's book on the Workingmen’s Party of California, which I am currently reading. Shumsky seems to see the WPC as proto-socialist, or but there is so much reason to see them also as proto-Fascist!]
He goes on to critique Trotskyism, which was influential when he was writing; also Lukacs, ironically because he is of course obviously influenced by the early Lukacs.
From 114 he turns to the revolutionary potential of the proletariat, which he recognizes in the youth movements and uprisings of the late 60s when he is writing (115). From 116 he talks about worker's councils (presumably modeled after the soviets?) as the real revolutionary form which will emerge in the future revolution, on their own from the working class, without being led by any vanguard etc. From 119-121 he talks about the role of revolutionary organizations (such as presumably the Situationists) within this context. A revolutionary organization must know that "it does not represent the working class, It must recognize itself as no more than a radical separation from the world of separation." Their role is to critique separation, and spread unitary understanding and communication, to help the working class become aware of its own role. "The revolutionary organization can be nothing less than a unitary critique of society" (121).
In 123 he states, the revolution will require "workers to become dialecticians and to inscribe their thoughts into practice." [A call for bottom-up critique as itself an inherent and necessary part of revolution]. "Revolutionary thought is now the enemy of all revolutionary ideology and knows it." (124) [presumably Debord is on the side of "revolutionary thought" and the ideology is that of the Bolsheviks, etc.]
[from my 1989 notes on this section: "I have to wonder if these alienations, spectacles, etc. are really merely products of Capitalism or whether the capitalist economy has merely made them evident (exposed them) by being itself the physical manifestation of a process (linguistic or otherwise sociological) which has been there all along. In other words, is the painfulness of modern life that it has created alienation in the individual, or that it has just exposed the alienation and separation which was (perhaps) previously concealed beneath comfortable layers of self-deception (mauvais-foi)? ... The history of the 20th Century has been the history of the destruction of illusion; what we have left to learn is whether there can be life without illusion. Clarification: illusion has not yet been destroyed, but seriously undermined. Soon it shall fall altogether (it is already coming apart in large pieces) and the world shall be plunged into a relativist vortex, a state of metaphysical chaos. That chaos, that arises, will be (as it were) the question mark at the end of the question (which we are still in) ...”]