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Demanding the impossible

Alastair Hemmens celebrates a book that had a major influence on 'les événements' of 1968

September 27, 2010
7 min read

The Revolution of Everyday Life
Raoul Vaneigem
New edition, Just Press 2010

If it had not been for the infamous scandal that shook the University of Strasbourg in 1966, Raoul Vaneigem’s radical text might never have seen the light of day. Written between 1963 and 1965, The Revolution of Everyday Life was rejected by 13 publishers before media coverage of student rebellion in the university brought the name of the Situationist International (SI) to Europe’s attention. Then, in the space of a single day, Vaneigem received both a rejection of the manuscript from Gallimard, France’s most prestigious publishing house, and a telegram asking for the book to be returned, following articles blaming this previously unknown band of revolutionaries for the behaviour of Strasbourg’s students. The Revolution of Everyday Life was published the following year in tandem with Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle.

Today readers tend to focus on the differences between these two texts rather than recognise that Vaneigem and Debord spent much of the 1960s in close conversation and with a single goal. Along with the rest of the SI, they felt that the history of the left since the brutal massacre of the Paris Commune in 1871 had been a thorough disaster. Of course there had been special moments such as the Kronstadt rebellion, the Spartacist uprising of 1919 and Spain’s experience of anarchism in the 1930s, but these were not the forms of power advocated by contemporary self-proclaimed anti-capitalists of the 1950s and 1960s.

Leninism, Trotskyism, Maoism, trade unionism, the various communist and labour parties and, not forgetting, the ‘Soviet’ Union, were understood by the SI as an essential part of capitalism’s ‘unified spectacle’. Superficially they offered possible alternatives but, precisely because they co-opted human agency, they revealed themselves to be nothing more than mutually supporting varieties of capitalism.

Reorienting revolution

By posing the question of subjectivity in modern life, Vaneigem and Debord hoped to reorient revolutionary politics. This was an attempt to return to the period of the international workers’ movement begun in the 1840s, when the revolutionary potential of human agency was thought of in all the infinite richness that human subjectivity provides. On the one hand, they celebrated the spontaneous revolts that erupted from the streets of Europe at this time. On the other, they lauded its utopian demands for a better world where human beings could fully realise every facet of their lives and not be tied to a life defined by work.

At the core of this repositioning, however, was a concern for the isolated man and woman: the bored, the lonely, the humiliated, joyless and exploited masses of the modern world. By emphasising the concept of the subject, the SI hoped to make sure that the desires of real human beings and authentic human agency would be at the centre of any future revolutionary activity. Only in this way could the false forms of opposition to capitalism be exposed.

The Revolution of Everyday Life took this idea to the extreme. Where Debord had written an impassionate series of short theses, Vaneigem’s book was a fiery and poetic essay on his own subjectivity. Vaneigem reasoned that through self-examination he might strike a chord with others like him. If he succeeded, the recognition of a mutual desire for a passionate life could explode into spontaneous acts of insurrection.

In the course of this self-diagnosis Vaneigem details the psychological and social effects of nearly every aspect of contemporary society, from modern consumerism and the daily grind of work to the welfare state and, of course, spurious forms of political opposition. His conclusion is that he, with the rest of mankind, is suffering from a ‘survival sickness’. Our lives are reduced to the bare essentials. We are given food to eat and houses to live in, cars to drive and clothes to wear, but even these are only allowed to us on the condition that we continue to produce.

This system of production and consumption necessitates that our lives become alien to us because the economy runs on a system of rationalised quantitative exchange that is in its essence an enemy to qualitative human experience.

Authentic liberation

Yet far from being a mere updating of western Marxism to incorporate a critique of modern forms of consumerism and production, Vaneigem’s book is a return to those people, ideas and moments of authentic liberation rejected by the traditional left. These included anarchists, libertarians, utopians, avant-gardes and critics of idealist philosophy evoked by such names as Fourier, Nietzsche, Bakunin, Lautréamont and Schopenhauer. For this reason The Revolution of Everyday Life is not only an essay but also an encyclopedia, a guide to the revolutionary arts that the readers are invited to delve into and take whatever liberating ideas speak to their own experience: ‘Ideally a book would have no order to it, and the reader would have to discover his own.’

In this way the book undermines official histories of the left and smashes the supposed limits of the possible placed on our lives by those who wish to govern us. However, one of the limitations of the book, and part of a wider problem within the SI, is the lack of specific engagement with gender issues. This is an aspect of his writing that Vaneigem goes to great pains to correct in all of his post-’68 work, beginning with The Book of Pleasures in 1979. And of course, the SI’s rejection of roles, hierarchies and the desire to break any boundary to self-realisation implicitly applied to everyone, including women and oppressed minorities.

Just months after Gallimard finally published The Revolution of Everyday Life, Paris exploded into open revolt against the government. The glorious period of May ’68 was to Vaneigem’s mind the uprising of the ‘will to live’, which he had argued would emerge as a refusal of the life-denying conditions of survival. This ‘will’ – a concept he had in part hijacked from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche – was the striving, desiring and passionate part of us that makes up our subjectivity and refuses all constraint.

It was this force, this desire to live a life full of joy and spontaneity, that had broken through the passivity of contemporary society.

Whether or not this was the case, it is true that in the month of May The Revolution of Everyday Life could suddenly be read everywhere on the walls of Paris, its words painted there by those anonymous readers who found it echoed their desires.

There is a strong argument that The Revolution of Everyday Life was the single most important text in fuelling what was most authentic about the revolt that shook Paris and the rest of Europe in the ‘year of revolutions’. Though undoubtedly essential reading, Guy Debord’s imperious and concurrently published Society of the Spectacle did not speak to the passions in quite the same way as Vaneigem’s feverish poetic prose.

As one contemporary has stated (pp123-124 of The Tribe by Jean-Michel Mension): ‘I’m even convinced that Vaneigem was better known to [the kids of May ’68] than Guy, no doubt because there were ideas in Vaneigem that appealed for some of them, which was not true of Debord. Debord was simply unfathomable, and they didn’t understand a word.’

Either way, The Revolution of Everyday Life, as with the work Vaneigem is still publishing today, remains the most authentic example of a revolutionary literature devoted to the joy of life: ‘We have a world of pleasures to win, and nothing to lose but our boredom.’ n

The new edition, published by Just Press and out now, is titled Knowing How to Live or The Revolution of Everyday Life Part 1. It is fully illustrated with original photographs (see right)

 

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