Comments on Pierre Guillaume's Debord

About a year ago, in response to our "Open Letter to Stewart Home" (which in part concerns alleged anti-Semitism in the situationist milieu), a sympathetic European comrade sent us a copy of Pierre Guillaume's untranslated text "Guy Debord," which was published in La Vieille Taupe in Spring 1996. Though our French is not good, we were able to ascertain that the text in part questions Debord's relationship with historical revisionism. It was clear to us that -- no matter the nature or truthfulness of the accusations contained therein -- Guillaume's text would be of interest to our readers, and so we offered to make a copy of it for anyone who wished to read it. We answered about ten requests, and after a while the significance of the text faded somewhat.

Then, in September 1997, Guillaume's "Guy Debord" was recalled to our attention by a French comrade, who wondered why we hadn't discussed what the text says about the situationists' interest in workers' councils, which was the theme of our piece "Workers' Councils, Cornelius Castoriadis and the Situationist International" (NOT BORED! #26, 1996). (Based upon the observation that the history and functioning of workers' councils is an urgent and consistent concern in Political and Social Writings by Cornelius Castoriadis [who was a central figure in the French revolutionary group Socialisme ou Barbarie from its founding in 1949 to its dissolution in 1966], we deduced that the SI must have learned about the councils from S. ou B. and that -- despite the situationists' constant deprecation of the work of the S. ou B. group -- the SI was clearly and rather deeply indebted to it, especially given the rhetorical importance the situationists put on the councils in the post-1968 years.) Our answer was simple: we hadn't discussed Guillaume's text in this context because the text remained untranslated; we didn't know what the piece said about the councils in sufficient detail to discuss it.

Our French correspondent, who had prepared a rough draft of a translation of Guillaume's "Debord" into English, kindly sent it to us. Nearly unreadable due to all the mistakes and typos in it, the text had to be edited before it could be properly read. Uninvited to do so, we edited and proofread the entire translation, and then worked closely with the translator -- who was pleased with our efforts -- so that the final version was acceptable to both of us. During this several-week-long process, the translator disclosed the fact that the translation had originally been prepared for publication by Serge Thion, a prominent French historical revisionist and webmaster for the Ancient Amateurs Association of War and Holocaust Tales. This revelation did not trouble us, and has not dissuaded us from posting the translation on our site. Though we disagree with the conclusions and distrust the motives of historical revisionists such as Guillaume and Thion, we defend their right to free speech. We are categorically opposed to all forms of censorship. In posting Guillaume's text and allowing the translation to be freely circulated all over the world, we are not providing a forum for Guillaume's views, but an opportunity for understanding and discussing the issues that he raises.

It turns out that -- among other things -- Guillaume's "Guy Debord" supports our deductions and provides a great deal of useful background information about a variety of related subjects. According to Guillaume, who was a member of S. ou B. in the early 1960s, Debord was a member of the group in 1960, despite the SI's official policy against dual memberships. Guillaume's piece describes the S. ou B. group's chilly reception of the text "Preliminaries toward a definition of the revolutionary program," which was jointly authored by Debord and S. ou B. member Daniel Blanchard (aka Pierre Canjuers) in 1960, and which we found remarkable for its total absence of references to workers' councils. Finally, Guillaume's remembrance of Guy Debord includes a description of the circumstances of Debord's resignation from the S. ou B. group in 1961, which did not end his interest in S. ou B.'s themes and research. "From 1960 on," Guillaume writes,

"the influence of 'social-barbarian' theses and knowledge (more or less recomposed) didn't cease to grow in the situationists' publications; it appeared as a reference to the workers' movement. This incorporation was to constitute to me the main interest of the S.I. and determined the broadening of its audience in France."

To Guillaume, the SI became "heir of the best Socialisme ou Barbarie had produced," even if Guillaume himself had by 1967 abandoned the S. ou B. line, and started reading Bordiga and ridiculing the "illusions" of council communists like the SI.

Guillaume's text also includes very useful -- and previously unavailable -- information on the relationship between Debord and the situationists, on the one hand, and Guillaume and La Vieille Taupe (The Old Mole) Bookstore, on the other. Founded, named and stocked with books by Guillaume and Debord in 1965, La Vieille Taupe seems to have been an important source of situationist publications; indeed, for a time it may have been the only store in Paris to keep them in stock. The bookstore must also have been a hang-out for situationists and other ultra-leftists. According to Guillaume, the tie between La Vieille Taupe and the SI was rather suddenly severed (by the later camp) in June 1966, at which time another store in Paris became the official repository for situationist publications offered for sale. Despite the stinging notice about La Vieille Taupe that appeared in Internationale Situationniste #11 (October 1967), Guillaume declares that the parting of the ways was amicable on both sides. He says that he still thinks and speaks highly of both Debord and the SI (though there are a few situationists Guillaume doesn't care for), and he takes comfort in the idea that -- other than the stinging but short notice that appeared in I.S. #11 -- there has not been a single published or publicly declared critique of La Vieille Taupe by Debord, the SI, or any individual situationist. This would seem to be cold comfort, for, after the 1966 break-up and for the rest of his life, Debord had absolutely nothing to do with -- and nothing to say or write about -- Guillaume personally or any of the post-bookstore projects in which he has been active.

If this were all there was to Guillaume's story, it would be a useful and occasionally interesting account, but ultimately sterile: the angry, paranoid and yet still devoted-to-Guy testimony of yet another worthy -- another former friend and collaborator -- excluded, once and for all, from the side of Guy Debord, revolutionary situationist. But there is more, much more. Guillaume seems to presume that his audience is familiar with his post-S. ou B. activities, and so doesn't tell his readers very much about what he's been up to since 1967. But it is clear from what he does say that sometime after 1978 he -- like Serge Thion -- became active in the defense of the free speech rights of such historical revisionists as Robert Faurisson, and became a historical revisionist himself. The translator of Guillaume's portrait of Debord assures us that, though Guillaume is a Holocaust revisionist, this does not mean that he is either an extreme Rightist or a white supremacist. Guillaume is an ultraleftist historical revisionist. This makes him something of a double exception, a stereotype-buster.

One would expect someone in Guillaume's delicate position to claim that Debord "had among his close friends a few more or less consistent [historical] revisionists," and Guillaume does not disappoint us (though he doesn't name any names). One would even expect Guillaume to assert that Debord -- whether he knew it or not -- was at times close to positions taken by many historical revisionists. Again, no disappointment: he says of Debord's very paranoid and very oblique book Comments on the Society of the Spectacle: "if you replaced the word 'capitalism' by words referring to the ideology and the mono-ethnic organizational structures that pretend to be the representatives of the Jewish 'community' " -- in other words, groups such as the "powerful international freemasonry" B'nai B'rith -- certain passages take on their "full meaning." This is garden variety right-wing propaganda: disingenuous, ridiculous, banal.

But Guillaume shows himself to be more than a common right-wing propagandist when he describes his own responses to Debord's post-1966 silence. "Until 1979," he writes,

"this silence could be understood by La Vieille Taupe's enemies as being the consequence of mercy shown to an insignificant thing. . . . Or even as a manifestation of indifference, if not contempt. It's fairly possible. . . . But the silence of Debord since 1979 (and the public outbreak of the Faurisson affair) . . . is much less easy to understand."

It is strange that, in a text so full of details and evidence of the author's desire to be thought a reliable and reasonable source of information, Guillaume tells us absolutely nothing about the Faurisson affair and nothing about its relevance to Guillaume himself and to Debord's silence. Strictly speaking, the Faurisson affair has nothing to do with Debord's severed relationship with Guillaume. Professor Robert Faurisson of Lyon University is a French historical revisionist; the "affair" that bears his name concerns the suppression of his writings on the existence of gas chambers at the Nazi concentration camps. Perhaps because he personally was vocal in his support of Faurisson's positions and in his defense of Faurisson's right to free speech, Guillaume believed that the affair made it more likely that Debord would break his silence and say something, anything about La Vieille Taupe. But Debord remained silent.

"Until 1985, I couldn't exclude the idea that Debord was biding his time," Guillaume writes. He had to know: was Debord remaining silent because he secretly sympathized with the plight of the historical revisionists (but couldn't come right out and say it), or was he silent because he thought that both the revisionists and the scandal of the suppression of their writings were spectacularly inconsequential? It's a false question: Debord was silent in 1979 and 1985 (and thereafter) because of a decision he had made back in 1966; that decision was based upon Debord's impressions of Guillaume as he was then. There was no possibility of re-admittance or change of mind, no matter what had happened since then. This was Debord's rule, and it applied to Guillaume as much as anyone else.

In 1988, Guillaume thought he'd come up with the perfect way of forcing an answer to the question that was evidently driving him crazy. He would publish excerpts from Debord's newest book, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, in the Annals of Historical Revisionism. Widely noted for treating references to him and his work as direct modes of address, Debord would have to respond to Guillaume's use of these excerpts. It would look like Debord approved of this recontextualization if he didn't. Clever trick this: it's called blackmail.

To Guillaume, the content of Debord's Comments "doesn't seem to be explainable without the hypothesis of an implicit reference to the Faurisson affair." The point might be better put this way: some of Debord's remarks, especially those concerning censorship, could easily and appropriately be applied to Faurisson's situation. But the principal theme of Debord's book is -- to quote from the very same passages from the Comments that were reprinted by Guillaume -- "historical knowledge in general," "the totality of events whose consequences would be lastingly apparent" (emphasis added). Guillaume and other historical revisionists -- perhaps because of simple stupidity, willful ignorance, personal prejudice or inescapable religious indoctrination -- are fixated on historical knowledge of only one event. They are totalitarians to the extent that they elevate a fragement, i.e., the critique of historical knowledge about the Nazis' attempted extermination of Europe's Jews, to the level of a total critique of contemporary society. (This same totalitarian movement is repeated within the revisionists' critique of the history of WWII: i.e., if it can proved that there are reasonable doubts about the existence and widespread use of gas chambers in the camps, then the mass murder of Jews couldn't have taken place at all.)

After Guillaume published the excerpts, once again "there was no comment at all" from Debord, who clearly preferred to run the risk of being thought of as a secret supporter of historical revisionism, than to say anything at all about Pierre Guillaume and his friends. Given the way Guillaume tried to blackmail Debord, whom he praises as "impossible to tame, constrain or manoeuvre," Debord's silence is not only understandable: it is admirable as well. But for Guillaume, the silence was too much; and so he wrote this piece, which attempts to damn him posthumously. "By making a show of the way he had been persecuted and of the media's vindictiveness against him," Guillaume says of Debord, "and -- at the same time, by occulting the infinitely more serious, constant and systematic persecution of the revisionists -- he collaborated with the totalitarian coherence of the spectacle." Since Debord did not "apply to the commemoration of the Holocaust and the Shoah business the principles of his critique of the spectacle," he must have been a collaborator with the spectacle, and thus -- by Debord's own absolute standards -- no revolutionary at all.

But Debord did not ignore nor did he miss "the central role of Auschwitz in the spectacle," as Guillaume claims. As a matter of fact, in the Comments Debord precisely traces the beginning of the modern spectacle to 1939 and the beginning of World War II. For Debord, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were the inventers of the concentrated spectacle; and the concentrated spectacle -- rather than being an aberration or the polar opposite of the diffuse spectacle of American society -- is the diffuse spectacle's essence and its destiny. For Debord (as well as Henri Lefebvre and the members of the SI), the concentration camp uncannily prefigures the post-World War II housing block. "If the Nazis had known contemporary urbanists, they would have transformed their concentration camps into low-income housing," Raoul Vaneigem quips in "Comments Against Urbanism" (Internationale Situationniste #6, August 1961). "The final result of the process thus undertaken," Theo Frey writes (I.S. #10, March 1966), "henceforth appears as the modernized version of a solution that has proven itself, the concentration camp, here deconcentrated all over the planet." For the situationists, it was the reality of the Nazis' deportation, concentration and mass murder of Europe's Jews, homosexuals, Communists, anarchists and Gypsies -- and not the way the concentration camps have been (mis)represented -- that makes them "spectacular" and our society "the society of the spectacle" in the precise way that Debord used these terms.

"Thus it is no longer possible to believe anything about anyone that you have not learned for yourself, directly," Debord writes in one of the passages reprinted by Guillaume, who would have his readers believe that this statement strengthens the revisionists' assertion that the official history of the Holocaust is falsified, or that even if it isn't falsified, the official history of the Holocaust is only accurate to the extent that you personally have verified it. But it seems far more likely that Debord meant that conditions such as the one he described can be all-too-easily exploited by totalitarian ideologies such as historical revisionism, which can become popular by intensifying and exploiting any one (or a combination) of the deep prejudices held by segments of the population. Whereas Guillaume seems to ask his readers to acclimate and adapt themselves to these new conditions of perpetual doubt, Debord expected only half his readership to do so. The other half he expected to create a society in which it is possible to believe the word of another about historical events. This affirmative side is completely missing from Guillaume's portrait of Debord.

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