People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have corpses in their mouths. (The Revolution of Everyday Life by Raoul Vaneigem, Chapter 1)
The Revolution of Everyday Life by Raoul Vaneigem (originally Traité
de savoir-vivre à l'usage des jeunes générations) is one of the classic texts of the Situationist movement in France, written between 1963 and 1965 and published in 1967. The following May, the French state was nearly toppled by student protest and widespread rioting and civil disobedience; Vaneigem's book was one of the key texts for the protestors.
Along with The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord, it forms the main theoretical statement behind the Situationist International, a movement of artists and radicals in the 1960s, libertarian Marxist in outlook, who sought to upturn modern society, capitalist and communist alike, and replace it with a world free from boredom, oppression, alienation and want.
The Society of the Spectacle is written in a minimalist, aphoristic style that yields its meanings up with difficulty. In contrast, Vaneigem's writing is often rousing in rhetoric, laden with references to history, literature, psychoanalytic theory and culture. In keeping with the philosophy of the Situationists, who opposed boredom and theory and celebrated love, play, creativity and lived experience, it is not a drab sociological text. Along with rabble-rousing rhetoric and comparisons with past revolts throughout history, it is packed with unexpected references, humor, irony and clever turns of phrase. Here he speaks of an earlier International, the leading body in Nineteenth Century Marxism:
Power cannot enlist true creativity. In 1869, the Brussels police thought they had found the famous gold of the International, about which the capitalists were losing so much sleep. They seized a huge strongbox hidden in some dark corner. When they opened it, however, they found only coal. Little did the police know that the pure gold of the International would always turn into coal if touched by enemy hands. (Chapter 20)
The Situationists had learnt from the corruption of the ideals of communism in Russia and the French Revolution, and from the failure of the Paris Commune, the Spartacist rising in Germany, and countless other revolutionary movements. They did not believe in heroism, in dying for a cause. They believed in living for a cause: "The moment revolution calls for self-sacrifice it ceases to exist." (Chapter 12)
The means for revolution would be various. The Situationists did not place their faith in guerrilla cells or Leninist organizations. They believed in the power of spontaneity, in saying "no" and "yes"; they distrusted dogma and celebrated passion and action. Everyday life is the source of our freedom, which must be found inside us, they felt. Vaneigem saw signs of hope in the avant-garde, in nihilist and violent artistic movements like Dadaism, and in criminals, murderers and street kids. "The only modern phenomena comparable to Dada are the most savage outbreaks of juvenile delinquency." (Chapter 18)
And what would save us would be the stuff of childhood, of creativity and directly lived experience: everyday life, communication and love; what was instantaneous and sensual could not be controlled by authority. Vaneigem wanted "to base everything on subjectivity and follow one's subjective will to be everything" (Chapter 19) (which was reflected in a slogan of 1968, "If we take our dreams for reality, it is because we believe in the reality of our dreams.") The goal of the Situationists was not to gather a mob to storm the Bastille, but to serve as an example of creativity. Through their fearless play, their refusal to be a part of the capitalist system, they would show the way forwards not by planning a revolution but by living it:
Waiting for joyous tomorrows is what kills our joys today. The future is worse than the ocean itself, for it contains nothing. Blueprints, plans, castles in the air. A solidly constructed present is the only necessity -- the rest will take care of itself. (Chapter 22)
Vaneigem writes throughout with passionate commitment about modern life
. He savagely characterises a world where unrivalled technology
serves only to limit us, where people have only the role of consumers
and are left only as spectators
before what Guy Debord
called "The Society of the Spectacle
". He is alert to the ways that revolutionary thought becomes co-opted into capitalist society, and sees that only through action can they avoid the fate of so much rebellious rhetoric that becomes no more than advertising slogans. The book seeks to describe how we are become passive, and to see where the seeds of escape lie: turning to the art
of the past, to Dada
, and to the long history of revolution and struggle throughout the world.
The Revolution of Everyday Life is the best single work expressing the Situationist ideology, but is important for its sociological analysis as well as its historical role and prose style; it deserves its place in a library of philosophy and social criticism on merit. Vaneigem's main theoretical influence was Karl Marx, particularly the younger, less doctrinaire Marx of the Grundrisse. The ideas in The Revolution of Everyday Life have much in common with New Left Marxist social critics like Herbert Marcuse, whose book One-Dimensional Man, written around the same time, makes many of the same points about a world obsessed with the quantitative at the expense of the quantitative. Situationism also influenced French sociologist Henri Lefebvre, who viewed the mundaneness of everyday life as the only realm that capitalism had not colonized and sociology described. Intellectually they have had considerable impact, particularly in leftist anarchist circles and more generally on modern French thinkers like Jean Baudrillard.
But the Situationists' influence over the past thirty years has been immense, extending far beyond political theory. They were an inspiration for Malcolm McLaren, the man who put together the Sex Pistols and helped countless other punk bands come to existence. They are still hugely important in modern art, providing both intellectual backbone and rebel cool for every rebellious young artist who dreams of shocking the bourgeoisie and promoting a revolution. These two strands, the theoretical and the childish, make up the strength of the Situationist movement, and its attractiveness.
Their weakness was egotism, selfishness, a lack of real concern about others. Situationism was a political movement largely inspired by boredom. The Situationists were the classic left-wing group of caricature, constantly expelling members, staging petty revolts, trying to preserve their purity while thinking up clever slogans. The Revolution of Everyday Life is not primarily a book about suffering workers or exploited people in developing nations; it is about the the emotional suffering of life in modern industrial capitalism. The Situationists were primarily artists; like the Surrealists they were creative thinkers who rejected or were rejected by more doctrinaire political movements. Angry young men and women, not responsible self-sacrificing leaders. As artists they believed in subjectivity, and celebrated free expression, but saw that the creativity that began in art could be extended to "other spheres: firearms, desires, dreams, self-realization techniques." (Chapter 19) This book is their clearest statement of how thier dream could be fulfilled.
The full text of the book is widely available on the internet.