Absolute Negativity, Occupy and Situationists

February 2, 2012


by Ron Kelch

[Absolute negativity] is the simple point of the negative relation to self, the innermost source of all activity, of all animate and spiritual self-movement, the dialectical soul that everything true possesses and through which alone it is true; for on this subjectivity alone rests the sublating of the opposition between concept and reality. –Hegel on second negation in the Absolute Idea

You cannot abolish [Hegel’s] philosophy without realizing it. –Karl Marx

The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement that swept the country created, as Bay Area activist Ken Knabb put it, a “radical situation” that is “just a beginning.” Further, no single demand captures the movement’s sense that “every aspect of the system is problematic.” This movement, Knabb suggests, drew its inspiration not only from the Arab Spring and the demands for “real democracy” in the public squares of Europe, but also “situationist theories and tactics” (“The awakening in America,” Slingshot, 2011).

The Situationist International (SI) existed from 1957 to 1972. SI’s central theoretical work, Guy Debord’s 1967Society of the Spectacle (Black and Red, 1983, further ref. as SP), attracted many who participated in the May 1968 revolt in France. Knabb edited and translated Situationist International Anthology (Bureau of Public Secrets, Berkeley, Ca., 1981, further ref. as SIA), theoretical exchanges and SI publications, which young participants raised in discussions I had at Occupy Oakland.

Anarchist youth helped orient the occupy movement toward SI’s anti-statist, non-elitist Marxism, rejecting prevailing politics and economics in favor of asserting their own democratic relations and everyday practice. This total rejection is the idea the forces of “order” wanted to evict when they brutally crushed the peaceful “Oakland Commune” and other encampments in public squares. The occupiers created their own “situation” and self-organization opposed to the prevailing mode of being spectators of reality as images and representations.

It awoke a new generation to the possibility of overcoming decrepit capitalism. If this bold self-assertion, which has just begun, can’t be evicted, how can it complete itself? How can it go beyond France 1968, which saw 10 million workers join occupying students, creating a moment when suddenly “All things are possible,” but which nevertheless saw Charles de Gaulle, who had been frightened enough to leave the country, even more securely in power with an overwhelming election victory on June 23, 1968? France 1968 underscored the problem: how to sustain a new beginning which comes out of activity as total opposition to what is? What is totality, not just as an opposition to the old, but positively in relation to the new, including organization?


How did SI respond to this challenge from practice in their revolutionary theory and organization? In 1969, then Situationist Rene Riesel discussed how SI saw its own role even as it singled out spontaneous workers’ councils (soviets) as “the sole power…where people learn how to become conscious of their own action, where they ‘realize philosophy'” (SIA, p.360). Should councilists, as they called themselves, dissolve their “organizations the very instant the councils first appear”? For Riesel, the answer “will be found only in practice” (SIA, p. 361) which means 3/4 of the participants have to be workers, not workers in general but those “who have ‘become dialecticians,’ as they will have to become en masse in the exercise of the power of the councils” (SIA, p. 362).

Here the council alone is the “necessary mediation between theory and practice”: “Everything ultimately depends on how the new revolutionary movement resolves the organization question; on whether its organizational forms are consistent with its essential project: the international realization of the absolute power of workers councils as prefigured in the proletarian revolutions in this century” (SIA, p. 426).

In other words, one becomes a dialectician through practice alone as in the emergence of soviets in the Russian Revolution. Once masses from below create councils, the universal, the goal, is “generalized self-management” (SIA, p. 363). How does a vision of “generalized self-management” assure “becoming dialecticians” and “realizing philosophy”?

For councilists, this vision was the opposite of the “Leninist theory of organization,” the vanguard party to lead, which became the locus of a new state-capitalist class and a counterrevolutionary repression of workers’ struggle for self-determination. However, the same Lenin, as a minority opinion in the party, proclaimed in 1917 “All power to the soviets!” and saw soviets as the way to bring each one, “to a man, woman, and child,” into running the whole society.

A dramatic moment leading to Lenin’s vision of universal self-management through soviets, came when he studied Hegel and broke with vulgar materialist Marxism, including his own. He saw in Hegel’s depiction of the practical Idea–“the self-certainty which the subject has…is a certainty of its own actuality and the non-actuality of the world”–a “pure materialism” that could achieve a “union of cognition and practice” (LeninCollected Works, vol. 38, 212-14).

This self-certainty resonates with the SI-oriented youth’s irreverent rejection of the actuality of the prevailing world in favor of their own self-organization. What Lenin didn’t heed, and perhaps needs underscoring for today, is Hegel’s warning that the practical Idea’s fixation on the “intrinsically worthless” external world gets in the way of realizing its own power of cognition as it creates a new world, including organization.


While SI ascribes “ulterior motives” (SIA, p. 427) to Lenin, his vision of universal self-management existed transparently along side his holding to a vanguard party-state organization. Lenin’s new appreciation of Hegel was as well a new appreciation of spontaneous practice and organization. Lenin didn’t give up on his idea of universal self-management. In the 1920-21 dispute over trade unions after the civil war ended, Trotsky and Bukharin wanted to keep workers militarized and have the state control their unions because now they lived in a “workers’ state.” Lenin countered that no such “workers’ state” had been achieved in reality and said the dialectic, in opposition to Bukharin’s eclecticism, could only emerge in workers’ own organizations where they could learn to self-manage the whole economy.

Against Trotsky and Bukharin, Lenin saw the revolution as an alliance of workers with another distinct class of toilers, Russia’s predominantly peasant population, whose struggle to determine their everyday working lives was also integral to universal self-management.

Lenin didn’t make it easy to recognize the philosophic context for his appreciation of spontaneous organization. Debord reduces the April Theses, with its electrifying exclamation “All power to the soviets!” to Lenin adopting Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution (SP, para. 103). Not only philosophy but the open point of contention between Lenin and Trotsky, the peasantry as a distinct subject, simply vanishes.

In his 1922-23 Testament, Lenin questioned whether the revolution had a future if differences within the party reflected objective differences between the workers and the peasants. Of Lenin’s devastating critiques of his co-leaders, the most provocative but least comprehended was that Bukharin, the party’s favorite and most prolific theorist, did not comprehend the dialectic. Again, what exactly is “dialectic” once revolutionary practice demonstrates its total power over the actuality of the old?


Post-1968 exchanges within SI reveal a similarly undefined need to get beyond the limits of pure practice with a total dialectical perspective. In a self-critical evaluation of SI in 1970, Paolo Salvadori says the newness of the post-1968 situation demands “beginning over again” to “deepen theory in a decisive manner” by which he meant the need for “our 1844 Manuscripts” and “our Critique of the Gotha Program.” Salvadori asks, what is a new beginning that totally breaks with the old, but asks that in relation to past revolutions whose possibilities only “correspond[ed] to the level attained by the productive forces” (SIA, p. 467-8)?

Debord answers that “it is necessary to dialectize…the question of the relation of Bolshevism to the backwardness of productive forces in Russia” claiming that Lenin’s Bolshevism retarded the “central part of the productive forces: the revolutionary class’s consciousness.” Apart from this assessment of Lenin, is the force of “class consciousness,” which is still bound up with opposition to the old, sufficient when a new actuality emerges with popular and revolutionary self-organization?

When Marx analyzed the emergence of the “productive power of social labour” under capitalism, he singled out not “class consciousness” but a universal of the kind he first introduced in 1844. With “co-operation,” says Marx, the worker “strips off the fetters of his individuality, and develops the capabilities of his species” (Capital, p. 447, Fowkes trans.). The total lie of isolated individuality perpetuated by capitalism is a fetter that can only be fully, consciously, broken when workers’ co-operation becomes freely associated, as in the Paris Commune (PC), the 1871 revolutionary “workers’ council” singled out by Marx.

Far from making the PC the sole “mediation between theory and practice” Marx returns in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program to his 1844 Manuscripts to lay out the principles of a Marxist organization which are inseparable from principles of a post-capitalist society. The post-capitalist concerns singled out by Marx, like the need for labor to go from “mere means to prime necessity of life,” echo themes in his recreation of Hegel’s dialectic in the 1844 Manuscripts.

Magritte's pipe

Magritte’s painting with a notation “This is not a pipe” challenges representational reality. How does the Hegelian-Marxian dialectic of freedom, aiming to go beyond “picture thinking,” answer that challenge?

SI didn’t deepen theory with their own 1844 Manuscripts. Further, they took no hints from how the content of those manuscripts spoke to the 1956 Hungarian revolutionaries whose workers’ councils fought official Communism. Answering Salvadori on how to begin anew in a new reality, Debord brings in Magritte’s paintingof a pipe with its notation “This is not a pipe,” returning to the Situationists’ theme that the old reality is the self-alienation of human beings from one another through images or representations. Debord then criticizes SI’s “underuse of theory,” their failure to unite theory and practice. By 1971, Debord felt SI should no longer exist because it “has not applied its own theory in the very activity of the formulation of that theory…” (SIA, p. 478) Debord never looks to the 1844 Manuscripts‘ new dialectical sense of reality that could speak to a mass awakening created in practice.

A central idea of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts is that humans are species beings whose innate capacities are constantly externalized and expanded, continuously transforming their own nature as well as external nature. Key is not only the negation of the given, whether external nature or human nature, but a second negation, an ongoing negative return to self as confirmation of those innate human capacities. What distinguishes humans from other species is that their labor or engagement with nature is “free conscious activity.” This species character is violated when labor becomes a mere means to make a living as under capitalism which creates a class of people who have no way to survive except by selling their ability to labor.

Marx’s positive concept of labor encompasses all the ways humans materially and spiritually recreate their humanity, including working the fields. In this context Marx reasserts Hegel’s absolute “negation of the negation”, absolute negativity, as an internally generated movement that finally overcomes being defined by what one is against. Communism, for example, cannot be the goal of human development because as the opposite of private property, it is still another form of property. Negation of the negation in a universal sense of negative return to self is “positive humanism beginning from itself.”

After the collapse of the highpoint of 1960s’ pure activism, Raya Dunayevskaya turned to Hegel straight as the only one who, in his critique of the practical Idea, sees negation of the negation explicitly shaping a new unity of theory and practice. (See “From The Archives” column.)


An awakening like OWS that radically shifts the prevailing discourse, reveals what Hegel meant when he insisted absolute method is not esoteric, it is the most objective and real of sciences. “Becoming dialecticians” and “realizing philosophy,” however, cannot be taken for granted when all the old ways of thinking keep attaching a truncated meaning onto the new moment. Now is the time not just for more activity but to seriously engage Hegel’s absolute method that recognizes the power of thought in every new moment of externalization, including organization.

Beginning from the immanence of the idea in reality, Hegel says theory that reaches absolute method can never be something that is used. Using theory implies it is applied externally in the manner of a tool. No, the negation of the negation in the absolute is a negative self-relation shaping a totally new unity of theory and practice. Far from shutting down, a revolutionary organization’s responsibility to engage the idea immanent in practice becomes most urgent when the idea reveals its power in new organizational forms. Stopping at the practical Idea or actuality as the subject’s self-certainty against the old, which both SI and Lenin did, cannot reveal reality as the idea immanent in practice, that is, the power not only of consciousness but cognition. In both cases, a failure to spell out the dialectic in-and-for-itself makes organization an enclave separate from realizing the Hegelian-Marxian philosophy of freedom.

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