The art historian T.J. Clark talked to me on the phone on 14 June 2021 as part of my oral history of the British New Left. He has extensively revised the transcript of our conversation and given permission for the transcript to be posted here. It covers Situationism, student radicalism at Essex and many other facets of Clark's involvement in revolutionary politics and movements.
Tim Clark also very kindly supplied the images which accompany the transcript.
AW: Were you politically involved before you got to Cambridge? Did you have a political allegiance? Or political views?
TJC: Oh yes, certainly, from pretty early on. I was a grammar school leftie. In those days, it was the Gaitskellite-CND period. And I was definitely a Gaitskellite. You know the kind of thing: I was a faithful reader of Encounter and took it all very seriously, the elaborate arguments against unilateral disarmament etc. (Not, by the way, that Gaitskell was simply a Blair or Starmer… we were still close to Suez in those days, and remembered his intransigence when it had mattered.) So I was a right-of-centre Labourite, and even that was enough to put you in a pretty extreme minority in your grammar school cohort. I went as delegate, Bristol West Young Socialist delegate, to a conference in London, I remember, where the big item on the agenda was the expulsion of Roger Protz (he of CAMRA, later!) and Keep Left from the Labour Party - and so on and so forth. So there was a history.
And you came from a political family or not?
No, not at all - from a solid lower-middle-class family. I know my father voted Labour in 1945, but he was basically sceptical, depoliticised (partly by his real-life experience of nationalization, working at the Western Electricity Board…), and he viewed my enthusiasm with a shake of the head.
And you went to Cambridge in the very early 1960s?
'61 I went up to Cambridge, yes.
And what was it like? How did you find it?
(laughs) It was grisly, really. I go on saying and believing - 60 years later! - that ’61 to ‘64 were the worst three years of my life. There was very little good about Cambridge as I knew it. It was then - and I gather that in many ways it's reverted to type – a caricature of class privilege. And I can easily relive the ’61 experience: a lower-middle-class grammar school boy suddenly encountering upper-class English society, having his first lived experience of what class meant. I know a lot of people have talked about this, I know it’s a banality -- but that doesn’t make it any the less real. Cambridge was dreadful; and, yeah, it was a grim start to adult life. Obviously I fairly quickly found kindred spirits and so on. But the place itself was the pits.
Was there any particular incident or moment when the awfulness was sort of manifest?
(laughs) No, it was just pervasive. Maybe a convenient shorthand would be every day having to pass by an eating place on Trinity Street called The Whim - full of public school boys having their 12 o'clock breakfasts. But the whole thing was grotesque.
And politically - were you active in politics at Cambridge?
Yes, yes. I did the rounds and went to the usual left-wing venues. My politics started to change. You know, from very early on, as I began to move left in my thinking and in my general political attitude, I was looking for - looking for people I could talk to and work with. That wasn’t easy. There was an immense problem to do with the ‘far left’ still being dominated by a kind of unreconstructed, base-and-superstructure Marxism. And a view of politics – the language of politics, the myth of the proletariat, the framing of questions of organization, the picture of the scope of the political -- which I go on summing up under the rubric Stalinist.
So I was looking for a way out of that. And I found it in various directions. For instance, there was something called the Anarchist Group…
Was this the one that Krishan Kumar set up?
Yes. I'm not sure whether Krishan set it up, but certainly he was a prime mover. And yes, there was Krishan involved in the group, plus one or two other important people for me…
Are you able to mention names?
Oh, gladly. There are two people who are still around, still very good friends of mine: Philip Cohen and Donald Nicholson-Smith. Those were two immensely important friends and comrades. And Catherine Pozzo di Borgo, who looked at Cambridge with a true French scepticism.
I spoke to somebody who remembers you going to meetings of International Socialism in Cambridge?
Yes, I S was definitely very important. It seemed, for a lot of us, to offer a way out of established British Communist Party Marxism. I remember going, with Nicholson-Smith actually, to an I S summer school or summer conference. Tony Cliff and Alasdair MacIntyre the leading lights (sparring partners). That must have been '63, '64, something like that. So yes, I S was important.
Were you active in CND at all?
Well, I mean, at the start of the 60s I was still an opponent of CND, but I changed my mind about that. But in many ways the heroic days of CND were over. So I was never really active - I became part of the movement, or at least sympathetic to it, but I never went to Aldermaston.
What were you reading in terms of political reading or journals or papers?
Yes - certainly I was reading International Socialism and New Left Review and so on. But in many ways, what was more important was that some of us were looking around for another… another set of approaches to political thinking, and particularly to Marxist thinking. And it was extremely difficult at that point because most of the books and essays which later became the more-or-less sacred texts of the '70, '80', '90s, were really hardly available -- in many ways not available at all in English. So looking around for points of reference for a different kind of Marxism, you very quickly found yourself reading in other languages – well, particularly, I read in French, which I was able to do…
And this was Debord and Vaneigem and people like that?
No, that was a bit later. I didn't know anything about Debord and Vaneigem until '66, '67, but already in the years at Cambridge what was happening was that we were looking around for a different form of Marxism… What is this thing called the Frankfurt School?, for instance. There were almost no texts available in English at that point - I remember buying Prisms, I’m not sure when… that was probably the first book by Adorno available in English.
I remember sitting in the North Reading Room of the British Museum Library, as it was in those days, I think in 1965, calling up an obscure American rag called Studies on the Left and reading this piece by somebody called Walter Benjamin, entitled ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ – ‘God, what's this all about? This isn’t like any Marxism I’ve come within miles of before…’
I don't know, looking back, what had put me on to Benjamin… but I think it is worth writing back into the history of ‘the sixties’ the simple unavailability of this stuff at the beginning. It was only just coming to light for English-speaking people like me. And the same was true in the case of a writer like Henri Lefebvre, who became so important for us. He was only available in French - I think I must have started reading him also in 1965 or thereabouts. His Critique de la vie quotidienne, for a start. Likewise, a thinker like Karl Korsch existed, I think, still only in French and German. And Lukács - Lukács was not translated into English yet. I remember buying Histoire et conscience de classe in Paris, part of a series of Marxist texts put out by the group Arguments. It was very much patchwork, putting together any kind of alternative Marxist tradition.
And after Cambridge you moved to London, is that right?
That's right, yes.
You were doing a PhD then?
I was, yes. I was doing an art history PhD on the 1848 revolution and French art.
And was the choice of subject in part political?
Yes absolutely. From early on I was very interested in art and politics, and the choice of subject speaks for itself. This was a moment of which it had always been said that the 1848 revolution ushered in, rather abruptly, a new kind of painting, a new Realism – Courbet and co. And I wanted to investigate whether that was true, and if so how and why it happened.
And at this time in London, the counterculture was stirring, you'd got the International Poetry Festival, the launch of International Times, Arts Lab, the Round House - were you part of that? No, I don't think I was. Of course, I knew some of it was happening. But again the lack of totality is worth writing into the historical record. It was a very fragmented and fragmentary moment, this beginning of the so-called counterculture. Something was happening, you knew it was happening, it was already happening by the end of my Cambridge years… there was a strange feeling in the air… the allegiance of a whole generation was fraying at the edges. And odd ways of thinking, ways of behaving, ways of being, were emerging. But it hadn’t yet crystallized into an identity… I mean the International Times, the Round House, Marat/Sade… those things were out there somewhere, on the horizon… but there was no sense yet that any one set of people or institutions were calling the shots.
Cover of Chris Gray's translation of Vaneigem's 'Banalités de base' (1966)
And how did you come across Situationism?
That happened really in '65, '66. I began to go to-and-fro to Paris, partly because of friendships and partly because of my work, my academic work. And that was when I encountered the Situationists. It was really through my friend Donald Nicholson-Smith, whom I’d met at Cambridge. That takes me back to the question of when, in the 60s, things truly began to shift – when the whole tonality of life started to change. It’s worth recalling that both my closest friends – well, two of my three closest friends in Cambridge, Philip Cohen and Nicholson-Smith -- dropped out of Cambridge in '63 and '64. There was a disaffection brewing. A feeling – Cohen and Nicholson-Smith had the courage to put it into practice -- that the future prescribed for us in our lives was not one we were going to accept . So Donald went over to France and lived in Paris. Catherine Pozzo di Borgo was there too, with her sardonic intelligence – she was as sharp an observer of the French as she had been of the English. (She went on to make a series of fine activist documentaries later.) I went back and forth, and increasingly spent more time in Paris. And it was through these friends that the Situationists came up. Donald had already spent time exploring what was happening in the French left; he’d been interested in the group Socialisme ou Barbarie for a while; and he’d ended up thinking that the Situationists were the most sympathetic and dynamic of the lot.
You mention Socialisme ou Barbarie: they were seen as inspiring the group Solidarity. I just wonder whether you knew the group Solidarity or had any association with them?
Yes, very much so. That was a point of light in the landscape for us, alongside International Socialism. They were important. I didn't really know them personally, but I read their stuff and came across, for instance, the texts they printed by Cornelius Castoriadis… well, of course he was still the mysterious ‘Paul Cardan’ at that moment, wasn't he? I can't remember the name of the key pamphlet - but it's a very fine text, on alienation and the structure of the workplace, one of his most famous. [It must have been Modern Capitalism and Revolution.] All honour to Solidarity that they were the first to translate that kind of material into English.
At what stage did you regard yourself as a Situationist?
Well, I was involved with them from probably late '65 onwards. And at some point in '66 I think, there was a very ‘interesting’ process of more-or-less formal conversations (laughs)… or was it interrogations?… involving the group and me which ended with them - ended with me, yeah, entering the group.
And how big was the group? And how many English members were there?
The group wasn’t very big. They used to say it was about the same size as Fidel's initial group in the Sierras (laughs). And it had French and German members, Scandinavian members – but the core group was very small and the whole S I I think was probably just 20, 30, 40 people.
There were English Situationists. There had been English and Scottish members before - Ralph Rumney, for instance, Alexander Trocchi, Charles Ratcliffe. At the time I joined the English cohort was three of us, I think - me, Donald Nicholson-Smith, and Christopher Gray, who was in London at that point. Donald and I were mainly in Paris, but Chris – brilliant, unique character -- was in London.
And of course the Castro-ites in the Sierras were armed and disciplined, would you say the SI was armed and disciplined?
No, it wasn't armed. But it was absolutely concerned with effectiveness – the ability to ‘change the terrain of struggle’ – in the peculiar circumstances of late twentieth century consumer capitalism, with its immense new apparatus of persuasion, its emerging media, its cults of youth, its refractory subcultures, and so on. ‘Le qualitatif, c’est nôtre force de frappe’: that S I slogan summed up a lot. Certainly the Situationists wanted some kind of group coherence. And they wanted a coherence that wasn't adherence to an ideology, a Party Line. They wanted a coherence not based on hierarchy (acknowledged or implicit). They wanted to escape from the Leninist or Stalinist models of vanguard organization. Extraordinarily difficult to do all this, as you well know… and there were all kinds of problems in the ways they attempted to put it into practice. But the very intensity of the attempt was distinctive – extraordinary. When Vaneigem's book, Traité de savoir-vivre à l’usage des jeunes générations (great title, speaking ironically to the times) was published in whatever it was, '67 or '68, I remember the publisher put a sticker on it saying: ‘L’extrémisme cohérente des Situationistes.’ And the tension between the two main terms here was at the heart of what was special about the group – and what made it matter so much in 1968.
You'll have to translate the sticker for me
Yeah, OK: ‘The coherent extremism of the Situationists.’ That is, simply the idea of an extremism that didn’t go in all directions, relishing its bits-and-pieces ‘spontaneity’; but that ‘held together’; that had strategy and tactics (Debord was a disciple of Sun Tzu and Clausewitz) as a central concern; that saw how the necessary ‘extremism’ of any opposition to capitalism had to go in hand in hand with a constant effort at focus – at ‘discipline’, if you like.
And do you think it did hold together?
Well, no. No, it didn't hold together and there were all kinds of problems. Nonetheless, what it had to offer (and still does, as a point of reference) was above all a determination to try to face up to the actual nature of this new consumer society. To respond to the disintegration of an older class system and the rise of, you know, new forms of allegiance and identity -- new forms of subjection and exploitation, as well as new forms of revolt.
Everything Debord came to theorize under the rubric ‘spectacle’… This was surely the group’s great strength -- that it was absolutely determined to confront what it saw as an unprecedented situation, massively repressive and yet unmistakably volatile, vulnerable.
What did the group do in Paris? Did it meet regularly? Or do anything in terms of outreach or activity or what you might call agitprop type art?
Yes. it did all of those things. It met regularly. It published a lot. It staged various kinds of interventions, shuttling between kinds of agitprop – graffiti, of course, strip cartoon posters in the streets, denunciations of giants of the left -- and more straightforward kinds of political activity. It was involved in the takeover of… well, of course this was the age of ‘student power’, remember (laughs)… an ongoing (scandalous) ‘student unrest’… What on earth was going on in the universities?... we didn't quite know.
So there was a big event in Strasbourg in which a group of students sympathetic to the Situationists took over the student union there and some other student organisations. And the Situationists helped them write this remarkable pamphlet called De la misère en milieu étudiante - On Student Poverty, as it became known -- which was immediately translated in Berkeley and then retranslated by Donald and myself (freely, as members of the S I, as a texte de combat), and went the rounds in the English-speaking world. I think it was also translated very swiftly into Italian and so on…
In other words, the answer to your question is that there were various kinds of activity in train. It was important to the Situationists, several of whom were very good artists (or had been), that Art was over; and that somehow or other, they thought, a set of practices now had to emerge in which the kind of activities that had been called Art were remade in a way which would give them a political force and pertinence. So, roughly, the S I was operating in the territory between art and politics. But that involved action with both.
Did you go to Strasbourg during the student protests there?
No, I didn't. In fact I think - I can't exactly remember the date there but it may have been just before I was fully established in Paris. But I did not go myself.
Were you involved in the establishment of King Mob Echo?
Yes, yes. That was an attempt - to cut a long story short… We obviously knew that at some point or other we had to come back to Britain and try to connect with what was going on in London and elsewhere. And we came back really in '67, Donald and myself, linking up with Chris Gray and others. And yes, fairly soon after that I think we put together the first number of King Mob’s magazine and the group began to coalesce -- in so far as it ever did coalesce.
Well you say in so far as it ever coalesced but - ?
(laughs) Well, a painful story this, in some ways. I don't think King Mob - I don't think the attempt to translate the Situationist project into Britain and America worked. It wasn't successful. That's not to say it was a complete failure, but it certainly did not realise our somewhat naive hopes. So there was a lot of unhappiness involved.
This, by the way, seems to me in general an aspect of the 1960s that's somewhat lost in the retelling. It was not a happy time, you know. The counterculture was not simply full of wonderfully liberated effervescence and energy. (Days in Notting Hill Gate could be mind-numbingly dull.) Of course there was a real energy – there’s a reason why people look back on the period and wonder at its sheer intensity and strangeness -- but all this was accompanied, as maybe had to be the case (especially in such a sclerotic society as Britain) by a tremendous feeling of anomie… loss of bearings… and a certain degree of real fright at what was happening… at the loss of a predictable or stable future.
That was certainly the case for people like me, lower-middle-class, high-achieving grammar school boys… Suddenly we were somewhere else – somewhere our upbringing and education had rigorously excluded even as a possibility – and we found ourselves… particularly this was the feeling in Paris, I think… we found ourselves in a ‘pre-revolutionary’ situation. It felt like that. And, you know, in many ways it was. After all, the process ended in the events in Paris in 1968… it did involve a real breakdown in society for a while, the biggest general strike ever in any developed country, De Gaulle flying off to consult with the generals, the Communist CGT rallying to the side of Order. So again: the general tonality of the 1960s was a whole lot more agitated and distraught than often gets registered in retelling. ‘Pre-revolutionary situations’ are frightening as well as electrifying. Particularly when they surge out of previous long years of social acquiescence.
Are you suggesting that your own political allegiance was formed by a sense of social insecurity?
Yes absolutely. I go back to that awareness some of us had in ’63 or ’64 that something strange, something unnerving was happening to the established social order, and we didn't have much of a clue what it was and what was driving it. So we cast around for guidance. Maybe a little desperately. There were, for instance, books by an immediately previous generation of American sociologists, people like Vance Packard and David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd, The Hidden Persuaders - they're dated now, but you look back on them and at least they are trying to make sense of a kind of re-constellation of the means of social solidarity, social organisation and social legitimation. And they were important.
I think we were looking, if I can put it this way, for a theory and practice of the disintegration of classical class society and the emergence of ‘consumerism’ (a poor shorthand for a complex new structure) - what the Situationists went on to call the ‘spectacular society’ or ‘the colonisation of everyday life’… colonization by a whole new apparatus of marketization, mediation, the pricing and packaging of more and more of lived reality. We were looking for such a theory, and it wasnot there. It was promised. There were only fragments of it.
Enormously important for some of us was the new preface that Herbert Marcuse wrote for his book Reason and Revolution (a book of the 1950s) – a very fine book, I think. And the new preface – it is still a remarkable read -- seemed to promise a theory and politics of the new consumerism. What he then published, as you know, was One Dimensional Man, a few years later… Of course that book had its strengths… but it was very disappointing… many of us thought that it lacked concreteness and detail, that it was too much a theory of theories.
Our friend Phil Cohen had been operating in Tower Hamlets since dropping out of Cambridge, laying the foundations of his ’72 essay on working-class subcultures, mods and rockers etc – a real breakthrough in thinking about class, leading later to Resistance through Rituals and Knuckle Sandwich and so on. I remember Phil sitting there in ’67 trying to persuade us that the new class structure could be plotted using Lacan-type algorithms plus Basil Bernstein language theory! (He was an early reader of Lacan and co.)
And I’ve hardly talked about the idea that somehow a link had to be forged – or re-forged, after the Stalinist decades – between Marxism and psycho-analysis. Plenty of that in the air at the time. Obviously in Marcuse – but very much not just him. Sartre… God! The hours I spent (I don’t regret them) with ‘La conscience de classe chez Flaubert’ and ‘The Question of Method’. (‘Flaubert’s Class Consciousness’ was pretty soon translated – not very well, but it’s a monster -- in Philip Rahv’s magazine in New York.) Juliet Mitchell’s Psychoanalysis and Feminism, a bit later. And Castoriadis. And Norman O. Brown – Life Against Death. And Laing and Cooper and the whole Sartre strand in anti-psychiatry.
Anyway, you get the flavour of this mid-to-late-60s moment as I experienced it. This is what we were looking for - and I think that it was this sense of a real re-constellation of social realities that underlay a lot of what was going on.
The various spectacles that King Mob organised in London and the Lake District and elsewhere, were you a part of that?
I was part of some of it. I wasn’t part of much. There was very quickly a division within King Mob between, I think, those of us who had started it, and who hoped it could be some kind of British equivalent of the Situationist International, and those who, very understandably and in many ways very wisely, thought: ‘Well, the reality in Britain is what matters, and it is so different from that of Paris… and in any case our reality is different…’ These were very often people who were certainly not like me… still teetering between an academic career and the possibility of dropping out… they were drop outs, mostly.
So there was that kind of division. People wanted action. They wanted confrontation and, you know, insolent challenge to the established left. I didn't mind the insolent challenge to the established left (laughter)… but I guess I didn't go along with some of the other high jinks.
And of course, in terms of King Mob Echo itself, if you look to buy an original copy now, they are several hundred dollars each -
- what happened there?
(laughs) Well, you know, it's called ‘spectacle’. Always very efficient at turning attempts at real contestation into a set of piquant commodities. That's what happened, yes. I think I have somewhere in my loft probably about 30 or 40 copies of King Mob Echo 1. But they're not for sale (laughs).
// Can you talk me talk me through the production and publication process of King Mob Echo, and indeed distribution process?
Well, heaven knows… It was absolutely hand to mouth and I can't remember much about it... I remember sitting there and pasting the thing together and doing some of the visuals. And choosing the text, obviously, and writing part of it, and being there at the printers. But as to distribution… it was people going home and putting them in book stores, and sending packages to friends in Newcastle. All that kind of stuff.
Are we talking about a print run of a hundred or two, or a thousand or two, or what?
It must have been about a thousand, I think. But this degree of detail, it’s all a bit fuzzy.
When you look back on King Mob Echo, do you think it has merit? It's O K. Some of the material is good. The Norman O. Brown text we took from Caterpillar, for instance – that still ought to be part of the ‘sixties’ story. (Not that the official left historians will allow it to be.) A wild text, but well worth reading – and we chose to republish it because part of what we wanted to do was to confront the British left not only with Situationist perspectives but also with the depth and variety of what was happening at the time in California and New York. And yes, of course we were trying to shake up the normal look and feel of left publications in G B -- or of too many such publications. Yes, the Echo had merit – I can still look at the first issue’s front cover and give a thumbs up -- but it didn't… it didn't go on to develop into what we hoped.
Cover of our translation of 'De la misère en milieu étudiant' (1967)
In '67, you went to Essex to teach?
I did, yes.
What was that like?
It was alright, I guess. Essex was a strange place - very much a feeling of a ‘new university’ encampment set down on the edge of the city, and… Oh Lord! those dismal towers… It was an alienated workplace. There were some excellent people that immediately became very good friends. It was a campus with a feisty academic left. That helped.
And there was, while you were at Essex, a student occupation there, and I think the Revolutionary Festival in early '69 happened in your time?
Were you involved in those?
Yes, very much so. I was completely involved in most everything that happened in '68, especially earlier '68, in Essex. We published a newspaper there, I think at the time of the ’69 events - I can't remember what the newspaper called itself. I have a copy of it somewhere. Oh, I remember now: The Manifesto of Rationalism. (You gather that there was plenty of irony already about the counterculture and the ‘summer of love’. We knew revolt was marketable. ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’, and so on.)
How strong was the connection with students who were protesting or unhappy or expressing their anger?
Well, this again is quite a difficult subject. It bring us back to everything about the '60s which was dangerous; and the aspects of my own conduct, for instance, which I look back on with all kinds of question marks. At Essex I was very much connected with a group of students there who were interested in the Situationists. They were students who were looking around for orientation in this new situation. And so - I had very intense relations with a group of students… including some who went on to do certain things later, or be accused of doing them, for which they paid dearly… people like Anna Mendelssohn, for instance.
So the Angry Brigade and the group around it?
Yes, the Angry Brigade. Yes. One of my two specialist art history students in ‘67 (the department was just starting) was an American, who went back to the States and disappeared into the Weather Underground and ended up doing hard time as a result. Many years later, one evening in Berkeley, California, he emerged out of an audience in a bookshop and talked over the past with me -- in a very forgiving way. He let me off the hook, essentially. I mean, the situation in those fabled ‘late 60s’ was actually very difficult, very bewildering, threatening in all sorts of ways… people were often desperate, they wished so mightily to make change. And they took terrible risks and they made mistakes.
I remember my Essex student saying to me at Berkeley: I made a mistake back there -- a bad mistake. And this aspect of the late '60s and early '70s – even this verdict, on the part of one serious participant in retrospect – needs to be written back into a story that is too often too emptily celebratory, too lacking the force of the negative.
None of this is meant detract from what was positive – indispensable, unforgettable – about the moment. But let’s have a bit of elementary dialectics, looking back... The force of the negative is what produces the positivity, the ‘Bacchanalian revel of the categories’ – if you’re damn lucky…
You are hinting at the suggestion that at least some of those who turned to violence were influenced one way or another by Situationism or indeed by - not your advocacy but your analysis?
Yeah, I think that's right. I think they were. It was very far from being the only influence on them. You can look, for a start, at what the Situationists actually wrote about tactics and strategy in the new situation – which certainly involved a critique of voluntarist violence, very much so. But again, this was a chaotic and unmanageable sequence of events. The arguments you had, and the explorations of a possible politics that were going on – calling them ‘volatile’ is a euphemism… So that afterwards, yeah, in the bleak 1970s, I had a lot of questions to ask myself about the degree of our responsibility - my responsibility -- for some of the bad things that had happened.
What was your answer to those questions that you posed to yourself?
I think my answer was that yes, I was responsible… but I'm not sure, given the circumstances what else I would have done... I mean, the Angry Brigade actually happened a bit later, in London; and it involved a range of people, only one or two of whom I knew. I think if I'd have been there at the time I would have been arguing very strongly against what they were doing. I was never an advocate of avant-garde bombing campaigns, for goodness sake. Certainly not. For all kinds of reasons.
But nonetheless you feel that you're involved because… one or two of them had learnt the depths of their disaffection from established society partly through what had happened in Essex, and the kind of conversations we had had, and the kinds of action that took place there. Provocative actions - not violence, but certainly provocation.
May '68 of course was while you were at Essex. How closely was the campus watching what was happening at the Left Bank?
It was definitely watching it closely, and various people went over. I remember we decided we would not go over. It was not going to be a question of it ‘all happening in Paris’… we wanted to do politics where we were, where things were already in free flow. But yes, of course, Paris was very closely watched indeed.
So you chose not to go -?
Yeah. Chose not to go, yeah.
And the Revolutionary Festival the following year, what was the idea behind that?
(laughs) Well I don't know because I wasn't really involved in organising it. And in many ways we were very sceptical about it, I remember - because there was already (surprise, surprise) a spectacular dimension to the whole thing. I remember we published some kind of pamphlet for the Festival which had the headline: ‘If you see a camera, smash it -- It must be Godard.’ And that was flippant, yes, but it spoke to a degree of impatience and disgust, shared by many of us, about the way ‘Essex’ so soon became a kind of marketable media commodity. (As did ‘the sixties’ in general.)
Did you speak at the Revolutionary Festival? Or go along to it?
No I didn't. I certainly went along – but I didn't speak at it. Really, in many ways a much more interesting moment at Essex was the long sequence of months the previous year, when there had been a series-- almost weekly, sometimes every few days, as I remember it -- of mass meetings, ‘occupations’, with the university stopped dead… mass meetings, mass democracy, in which we had people like Donald Davie and Alasdair MacIntyre very uneasily addressing an audience of almost the whole student body (and many faculty and staff), and (laughs) essentially pleading moderation.
Alasdair MacIntyre, I'm told, was actually a dean at Essex at the time?
He certainly was. Yes, he was.
It is quite remarkable that somebody who I think was still in I S was sort of involved in disciplining student protestors?
Yes it was remarkable. And again - I think it speaks to everything that was discombobulating about the time. Things were moving so fast. More and more of the local particular order of things was being called in question. So MacIntyre suddenly was faced with a situation in which he had to take sides -- had to decide what he should do, there and then, concretely. And he took his own decisions.
And then tried to justify them later, you know, in that abominable little book he wrote about Marcuse in the Modern Masters series… I don't know whether you've ever read it? (It's one of the very few books that I've taken ceremoniously out into the garden and burnt.) (laughs) Not that I'm a whole-hearted admirer of Marcuse, very far from it. But the MacIntyre screed is truly dreadful, truly pathetic - ending with a dismissal of 1968 as a children's crusade.
You think it was more than that?
I certainly do, yes. I certainly do. Of course the whole ‘youth phenomenon’ of the 60s was partly concocted, partly a media creation. But again, there was a true disaffection, a destabilization taking place. A large fraction of a generation – at moments it seemed almost a majority - fell out of love with its assigned roles, its assigned future. It’s not for nothing that a culture war goes on being fought - particularly in America, which is where I spent most of my adult life – precisely over the meaning of ‘the 1960s’, still, interminably, and how anything like them might be prevented from ever happening again. That’s because, I think, Conservative America can’t forget that there was a moment when they stood to lose the allegiance of their children. Maybe I should be clear about this one more time. I haven’t disguised my doubts and second thoughts about some of what I did back then; and I certainly want to own up to the failure of many of our hopes for Situationist politics in Britain. But what did the man say?: ‘Some defeats are more glorious than a thousand victories.’ Something was happening in the late 1960s, and Mr Jones (he with the Party card as well as he in the pinstripe suit) didn’t, for a while, know what it was. People were inventing a politics, not imbibing one from approved sources. It was precisely this mixture of elation and improvisation and anxiety and loss of bearings that threatened the status quo. I know I got in a previous swipe at Godard, so let me recommend to anyone his movie Essex Sounds – it does manage to get on film something of the negative and the positive of the moment. The insolence and the honesty and the vulnerability.
The first page of the 'Manifesto of Rationalism' a group of us in Essex produced for/against the Revolutionary Festival
You were eventually expelled from the Situationist International - ?
Yeah, very early on.
Was that a sort of what you might call a real split or was that part of the spectacle?
No, it was a real split. I mean, it can hardly be seen as part of the spectacle because nobody knew or gave a damn about the Situationists in Britain at that point. It happened when we went back in ‘67. It was about - it was about the Situationist attitude to what was happening in America and Britain, essentially. To make it short, there was a kind of French loftiness towards Anglo-America, an impatience with what the ‘counterculture’ meant. There was a dismissal, we thought, of too much of what was going on. That was the division of opinion.
And as I said to you before: for reasons which were in many ways sympathetic, and yet also ultimately quixotic and self-defeating, the Situationists did want agreement. And so if you disagreed over fundamental things – and at the time this did seem fundamental -- there had to be a parting of the ways.
And that wasn't just you, it was the whole British membership, such as it was?
Yes that's right. It was the three of us - kicked out at that point.
If I can just ask one concluding question, I'm looking at the New Left - and you could say it's a bit of stretch to include Situationism and allied movements and tendencies within the definition of a New Left which arose out of a split in the Communist Party. But I wonder whether at the time or on reflection you think Situationism was part of a clear New Left tradition?
Yes I think it was. Look, I think that the disintegration of Stalinism, and the emergence of a left that tried to confront late capitalism and the re-forming of an older class society -- I think that this new reality involved, or gave rise to, a whole different spectrum of thought and action on the left. One which certainly included a man like Lefebvre, for instance, who after all began as very much part of - an important member of -- the French Communist Party. Lefebvre was tremendously important to the Situationists, and them to him. His search for a ‘politics of everyday life’ -- and his attempts to describe the new means of social control, the new ‘modernity’… Or compare the trajectory of Castoriadis in the 50s, 60s and 70s… Or Marcuse, for that matter… Let alone the Sartre of Critique of Dialectical Reason and the drafts of the book on Flaubert. A ‘New Left’ that doesn’t include such figures and their thinking seems to me a travesty of the truth. And obviously the Situationists were part of the picture. Their campaign against the remains of Stalinism in the left bloodstream was indispensable, even if, for many, it was what made them completely taboo. Likewise their contempt for semiotic Maoism etc…. (That’s a story the academic left wants to forget…) And then there’s the whole discovery and revaluation of the Lukacs-Frankfurt school-Walter Benjamin tradition - the Situationists were also completely involved in that. The Society of the Spectacle is nothing if not a dialogue with History and Class Consciousness (much to the discomfiture of those who want it to be all about media). So any notion that Debord and co were way out there on an ultra-red frequency, beyond the fringe, far too far left… that they were more a kind of art movement than a political one… This is all a later rewriting of history (‘rewriting’ is putting it kindly), essentially on the part of the eternal Trotskyist centre. Those guys have never quite recovered from the writing on the walls in ’68… from the refusal of the revolution to follow their script.