Thursday, October 12, 2023

The Revolution of Everyday Life, Prefaces and Introduction

Raoul Vaneigem, (1967[2001]) The Revolution of Everyday Life. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Rebel Press, London

[I first read portions of this excerpted in AJODA, then took out a library copy in 1989. I read the line "we have nothing in common except the illusion of being together" to my roommate Ducky Heins (RIP), and he laughed and called it "pseudo-intellectual." That is a bit unfair, however.]

Translator's Preface

Nicholson-Smith thanks earlier translators he has relied upon, and notes that the title is not the best, “I would have preferred The Rudiments of Savoir-Vivre: A Guide for Young Persons Recently Established in the World, or more simply The Facts of Life for Younger Readers” (5). Nevertheless he sticks with the old name under which the work has become familiar in English. He embarks on a defense of his relation to the SI, since he was expelled in 1967, though he feels this “parting of the ways” was mutual. 


French preface from 1991/2:

In the 1990s preface, Vaneigem gives his take on the failure of 69:

In the end the economy picks up whatever it has put in at the outset, plus appreciation. This is the whole meaning  of the notion of ‘recuperation.’ Revolutions have never done anything but turn on themselves at the velocity of their own rotation. The revolution of 1968 was no exception to this rule. The commodity system, finding generalized consumption more profitable than production, itself speeds up the shift from authoritarianism to the seductions of the market, from saving to spending, from puritanism to hedonism, from an exploitation that sterilises the earth and mankind to a lucrative reconstruction of the environment, from capital as more precious than the individual to the individual as the most precious capital. (10)

“Even the critique of the spectacle has now been travestied as ‘critical’ spectacle.” Nevertheless he insists that the 1968 revolution, unlike all previous, more violent revolutions, did not fail because it did not ever really end; the system responded with “the official world’s recognition of pleasure – so long, of course, as the pleasure in question was a profitable one, tagged with an exchange value and wrested from the gratuitousness of real life to serve a new commodity order” (12). Besides pushing capitalist recuperation into a new, presumably less stable position, the 1968 revolution also gave birth to a new, anti-hierarchical form of mass movement, which poses new problem for authority/power: “a coming together of individuals in no way reducible to a crowd manipulable at will” (13).

He describes his work and writings as “the persistent attempt to create myself and reconstruct society at the same time” (13). He notes with optimism the conditions for revolution in the 1990s: the falling rate of profit continues, the various dissatisfactions of the present day.

Something is taking place today which no imagination has ever dared speculate upon: the process of individual alchemy is on the point of transmuting an inhuman history into nothing less than humanity’s self-realisation. (14)


The introduction sets up a list of related binaries, listed here with the preferred term first:

  • subjectivity, objectivity
  • living, survival
  • positive, negative
  • transcendence, power
  • freedom, oppression

Vaneigem claims “a humility that should not be hard to see” and notes various limitations in his work, and his attempt to intervene with it in this world (17). Perhaps this book can contribute to the ideas in it becoming someday better and more clearly formulated, and thus more effective. His point is not about creating novelty, but since everything has already been said, he means to put this to use, to “escape the commonplace by manipulating it, controlling it, thrusting it into our dreams or surrendering it to the free play of our subjectivity.”

He notes that while his argument is largely subjectivist, it will have impact beyond this: “Everything starts from subjectivity, but nothing stays there” (18).

The struggle between subjectivity and everything that corrupts it is about to widen the terrain of the old class struggles. It will revitalise it and make it more bitter. The desire to live is a political decision. Who wants a world in which the guarantee that we shall not die of starvation entails the risk of dying of boredom?

He seems to see the modern subject of his day reduced to a “man of survival,” “ground up in the machinery of hierarchical power....” However, this subject of survival is also one of self-unity, of “absolute refusal;” there is a constantly-experienced contradiction, for this modern subject, of oppression and freedom, as the capitalist system attempts to deliver on promises it simply cannot fulfill. The rest of the book will have two parts, “Power’s Perspective,” and “Reversal of Perspective,” but this order is purely for convenience; V wants the reader to see them as synchronic, and wishes that “a book would have no order to it, and the reader would have to discover his own.”

This work is part of a subversive current of which the last has not yet been heard. It constitutes one contribution among others to the reconstruc­tion of the international revolutionary movement. Its significance should escape no one; in any case, as time will show, no one is going to escape its implications.

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