SURREALISM, TROTSKY …. AND ME!
Salvador Dali - Metamorphosis of Narcissus
The first surrealist painting I ever set eyes on was Salvador Dali’s “Metamorphosis of Narcissus” 1936. It was exhibited at the Tate Gallery, London. Without being melodramatic it literally took my breath away and with hindsight hastened a profound change in my life.
I could not believe what I was seeing or experiencing and had no set of references to judge it by. Despite my awareness of psychedelia and involvement in the “underground”, its music and counter culture, Dali’s painting to me was unique.
From that day I gorged on the “surreal visuals” of Ernst, Tanguy, Bellmer, Arp, Magritte, Matta, Delvaux, Man Ray, Miro, the poetry of Breton, Eluard and Aragon, and the creative works of others in and around the surrealist movement: Henry Moore, Freida Khalo, Luis Bunuel, Leonora Carrington and Marcel Duchamp, to name but a few.
Alongside these activities I was reading more and more books that emanated from my primary interest in the surrealists, books that were predominantly concerned with the “individual and society”, “the self” and “freedom”: For example the writings of Freud, Jung, Marcuse, and inevitably the works of Hegel, Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin.
Refreshing and enlightening as this all was it nevertheless culminated in a profound difficulty for me. This was because it posed what appeared to be a very either/or question: Should I “tune in” and “drop out” and live a life of creativity devoid from external restraints or obligations to the outer world and politics or should I throw myself wholeheartedly into the revolutionary socialist struggle and use whatever creativity I had to enhance this fight to transform society? For example through agit-prop, propaganda art or even socialist-realist works? There appeared to be no middle way.
And then I came across the book “Andre Breton and the First Principles of Surrealism” by Franklyn Rosemont.
Franklyn Rosemont met Andre Breton (1896-1966) founder, leading theorist and principal spokesman for the surrealist movement in 1966 and later that year organised the first indigenous American Surrealist group. Rosemont played a major role in organising the 1976 world Surrealist Exhibition in Chicago where he lived and edited “Arsenal/Surrealist Subversion” until his untimely death in 2009. This English language journal of the international surrealist movement continues to be published.
On reading this book I realised for the first time that revolutionary Marxism and surrealism could and in fact needed to work harmoniously without any detriment to each other.
In 1978 I contacted Rosemont in Chicago expressing my gratitude for his book. In return he introduced me to a variety of surrealists based in London, with whom I collaborated briefly around the surrealist “Melmoth” magazine, before I returned to live in the North of England. (The Leeds Surrealist group to this day still continues fanning the flames of surrealist revolt!)
At that time there was a large Surrealist exhibition taking place in London and due to the need for a quick intervention I asked Franklin whether I could quote verbatim key sections from his “Breton” book. This he generously agreed to and an edited version of this following article was published in the “Militant” ‘The Marxist Paper for Labour and Youth’ Issue 405 12 May 1978 Page 4.
Unfortunately over the intervening 30+ years I have not been able to recall all pages and references for quotes that follow in this article. All quotations are, where possible attributed to their source. I have obviously added additional material gleaned along the way and again acknowledge the authors where possible. All the authors, sources and books this current article is taken from are listed at the end and I strongly urge the full contents of these works to be read and studied.
Any mistakes of author interpretation are down purely to me. I do not intend to make any financial gain from this article and give full credit to the authors named who have had the wisdom, courage and clarity to express their views and opinions. I will always be indebted to their actions.
The following pages are not therefore an attempt to tell the reader what surrealism really should or should not mean, neither is it an explanation of what “Trotskyism” is. Rather it is a synopsis of events and ideas that I have drawn on to help shape my life, both internally and externally. Hopefully this may be of assistance to others who may be experiencing similar difficulties in reconciling their freedoms as creative individuals with the collective revolutionary demands for international socialism.
“Art, which is the most complex part of culture, the most sensitive and at the same time the least protected, suffers most from the decline and decay of bourgeois society.
To find a solution to this impasse through art itself is impossible. It is a crisis which concerns all culture, beginning at its economic base and ending in the highest spheres of ideology. Art can neither escape the crisis nor partition itself off. Art cannot save itself. It will rot away inevitably – as Grecian art rotted beneath the ruins of a culture founded on slavery – unless present-day society is able to rebuild itself. This task is essentially revolutionary in character. For these reasons the function of art in our epoch is determined by its relation to the revolution.”
Leon Trotsky “Art and Politics in Our Epoch” 1938
“The surrealist pact let it not be forgotten is triple. I consider that the present situation of the world no longer allows the establishment of a hierarchy between the imperatives which compose it and which should be pursued with equal vigour.
1) Helping man’s social liberation in every possible way
2) Working without respite for the complete defossilization of social behaviour
3) Refashioning human understanding. “
Andre Breton 1947
The origins of Surrealism
The beginnings of “Dada” corresponded to the outbreak of World War I. “Dada” was an informal international movement, with participants in Europe and North America. For many participants, the movement was a protest against the bourgeois nationalist and colonialist interests, which many Dadaists believed were the root cause of the war, and against the cultural and intellectual conformity—in art and more broadly in society—that corresponded to the war.
Many Dadaists believed that the 'reason' and 'logic' of bourgeois capitalist society had led people into war. They expressed their rejection of that ideology in artistic expression that appeared to reject logic and embrace chaos and irrationality. For example, George Grosz later recalled that his Dadaist art was intended as a protest "against this world of mutual destruction.”
According to its proponents, Dada was not art; it was "anti-art." Everything for which art stood, Dada represented the opposite. Where art was concerned with traditional aesthetics, Dada ignored aesthetics. If art was to appeal to sensibilities, Dada was intended to offend. Through their rejection of traditional culture and aesthetics, the Dadaists hoped to destroy traditional culture and aesthetics. Art historians have described Dada as being, in large part, a "reaction to what many of these artists saw as nothing more than an insane spectacle of collective homicide.”
“Revolted by the butchery of the 1914 World War, we in Zurich devoted ourselves to the arts. While the guns rumbled in the distance, we sang, painted, made collages and wrote poems with all our might. We were seeking an art based on fundamentals, to cure the madness of the age, and a new order of things that would restore the balance between heaven and hell. We had a dim premonition that power-mad gangsters would one day use art itself as a way of deadening men’s minds.” (Arp: Dadaland)
Dada in Paris lasted two years. In 1922 it collapsed in a series of internal quarrels which laid bare the differences between the old Dadaists, Tzara and Picabia, and the younger French group, which included Andre Breton.
There was a gap of two years between the dissolution of Dada in Paris in 1922 and the publication of the first Surrealist Manifesto by Andre Breton in the autumn of 1924. Therefore surrealism began as an integral factor of the world revolutionary ferment of which the October Revolution in Russia and the formation of the Third International were some of the major social repercussions.
What is Surrealism?
The definition of Surrealism given in the First Manifesto of 1924 was intended to be conclusive.
“Surrealism, noun. Pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations.”
“Encycl. Philos. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association heretofore neglected, in the omnipotence of the dream, and in the disinterested play of thought. It leads to the permanent destruction of all other psychic mechanisms and to its substitution for them in the solution of the principal problems of life.”
“In art as in life” Breton said, “the cause of surrealism is the cause of freedom itself.”
Appealing to inspiration, imagination, dreams and other forces and states which continue to be regarded as irrational, that is, penetrating the veneer of consciousness, undermining mental routine, suppressing the superego and plunging through the ego into the id, abolishing the contradictions between the different psychic states,, surrealism demonstrates the inescapable ‘necessity’ of poetry by restoring its value as the bearer of analogical discovery and imaginative revelation. Surrealism thus appropriates the prerogatives ascribed by Hegel to poetry as the universal art that embraces the totality of the human spirit and unites all ‘artistic’ activity. Moreover, surrealism gives to the practice of poetry an increasingly extra literary and revolutionary significance that reinforces and extends the Marxist critique of society.
“Today’s authentic art goes hand in hand with revolutionary social activity”, said Breton. “Like the latter it leads to the confusion and destruction of capitalist society.”
Contrary to prevalent misdefinitions, surrealism is not an aesthetic doctrine, nor a philosophical system, nor a mere literary or artistic school. It is an unrelenting revolt against a civilization that reduces all human aspirations to market values, religious impostures, universal boredom and misery. Surrealism aims at nothing less than complete human emancipation, the reconstruction of society governed by the watchword, “To each according to his desire.”
More specifically, surrealism aims to reduce, and ultimately to resolve, the contradictions between sleeping and waking, dream and action, reason and madness, the conscious and the unconscious, the individual and society, the subjective and the objective. It aims to free the imagination from the mechanisms of psychic and social repression, so that the inspiration and exaltation heretofore regarded as the exclusive domain of poets and artists will be acknowledged as the common property of all.
“Poetry must be made by all. Not by one.”
On the political plane, surrealism has consistently defended the perspectives of proletarian internationalism, combating every effort of capitalist recuperation, and it continues to propose and support the boldest revolutionary solutions to the problems posed by contemporary events. Most importantly is the awareness that surrealism by itself cannot transform the world. Surrealism, if it would remain true to its original revolutionary impulses, must pool its resources in the cause of proletarian emancipation.
Enemies of Surrealism
Surrealism always has had its enemies who seek to kill it by chauvinistically assimilating it into the sideshow of bourgeois culture and by celebrating such of its achievements that can most easily be placed into innocuous pastimes. It is not accidental, in any case, that the strenuous efforts to turn as much as possible of “yesterday’s” surrealism to the purposes of capitalist culture are coupled with still more strenuous efforts to obscure and vilify the authentic manifestations of surrealism. Breton’s authoritarianism, middle-class dilettantes, male chauvinists, are some of the accusations made falsely against the early surrealists.
But as Lenin said on the first page of “State and Revolution,”
“During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes have visited ruthless persecution on them and received their teaching with the most savage hostility, the most furious hatred, the most ruthless campaign of lies and slanders. After their death attempts are made to turn them into harmless icons, canonize them, and surround their names with a certain halo for the “consolation” of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping them, while at the same time emasculating and vulgarizing the real essence of their revolutionary theories and blunting their revolutionary edge.”
Plumbing the depths of consciousness in pursuit of the automatic message, the always revelatory interrogation of dreams, the triumph of love, the “systematic derangement of the senses”, proclaimed by Rimbaud, and other methods which force inspiration and make it work to order, the quest for the grail of “objective chance” the revelations of play and analogy, the unleashing of the explosive powers of black humour, the rejection of the insipid notions of God, Money, Fatherland, Family, the conquest of the irrational, “poetry made by all,” whoever pretends that these series of leaps into the very source of everything in life that opposes the unlivable and that these complementary aspects of the revolutionary poetic cause belong to the past, merely confesses their capitulation to the ruling ideology.
The psychic roots of bourgeois values remain unconscious. The entirety of capitalist culture is a labyrinth of mystification which primarily is to drill the mind, especially the worker’s mind, in mechanical responses. Imaginative activity is channelled into predetermined grooves where it cannot harm the exploiting class. Human’s genuine need for the “marvellous” is perverted into a craving for religion. Art and poetry are isolated from ordinary human activity.
In the 1968 “Platform of Prague” the surrealist groups of France and Czechoslovakia declared:
“The repressive system monopolises language, to return it to people only after it has been reduced to its utilitarian function or turned towards ends of mere distraction. Thus, people are deprived of the real power of their own thoughts; they are forced, and soon become resigned to it, to rely on cultural agents which provide them with patterns of thinking which naturally conform to the good and efficient functioning of the system. In this way people are made to turn away, with suspicion and contempt, from the interior domain most personal to them, in which their identity is anchored……..The role of surrealism is to tear language away from the repressive system and to make it the instrument of desire. Thus, what is called surrealist “art” has no other goal than to liberate words or more generally the signs, from the codes of utility or entertainment, in order to restore them as bearers of revelation of subjective reality and of the essential intersubjectivity of desire in the public mind.”
Such an effort does not contradict but rather complements other revolutionary efforts. As Lenin said in “On the Significance of Militant Materialism”,
“It would be the biggest and most grievous mistake a Marxist could make to think that the millions of people……who have been condemned by all modern society to darkness, ignorance and superstition can extricate themselves from this darkness only along the straight line of purely Marxist education. The masses should be provided with the most varied atheist propaganda material……They should be approached in every possible way, so as to interest them, rouse them from their religious torpor, and stir them from the most varied angles and by the most varied methods.”
Surrealism and Women
Although the contributions of women participants in the International Surrealist Movement have been celebrated from within, few outside of the movement have much knowledge about women’s significant impact. Consequently old stereotypes about surrealism being a predominantly male painter’s preserve have been allowed, indeed deliberately fostered by capitalism, the “art” industry and misogynist male critics.
I can do no better at this stage than to immediately refer the reader to Penelope Rosemont’s book “Surrealist Women, An International Anthology.” 1998. This 500 page book, beginning in the 1920’s, the first anthology of its kind anywhere in the world, displays the range and significance of women’s contribution to surrealism. There are nearly 300 texts by 97 women from 28 countries and highlights the women poets, essayists, painters, and artists in other media who have actively collaborated in defining and refining surrealism’s basic project – achieving a higher, open and dynamic consciousness, from which no aspect of the real or the imaginary is rejected. Indeed, few artistic or social movements can boast as many women forebears, founders, and participants – perhaps only feminism itself.
Nineteenth-century French social reformer Charles Fourier was regarded by Andre Breton as one of the surrealist movement’s major forerunners, although his precursor status was not fully recognised until the 1940’s. This outstanding utopian visionary was also an early feminist as he explained that social progress and change in a historical epoch can always be determined by the progress of women towards freedom and that the degree of emancipation of women is the natural measure of general emancipation.
As Penelope Rosemont points out so clearly in her book, pages xliv – lii, unless social revolution comes to the rescue, war and postwar chaos lead inevitably to political reaction, of which misogyny is a major element. What is astounding about the postwar surrealists was how strongly they were able to avoid and reject it and leave behind any male chauvinist rhetoric. For example, Andre Breton who wrote “We shall be masters of ourselves, masters of women, and of love, too,” in the Surrealist Manifesto of 1924, would write twenty years later, in “Arcanum 17”, that the time had come “to make the ideas of women prevail at the expense of those of men” and eventually would identify surrealism historically as a direct continuation of feminism itself.
Without precisely being feminists Andre Breton and his fellow surrealists were the arch enemies of feminism’s enemies. They concentrated their attacks on the apparatus of capitalist, patriarchal oppression. God, church, state, family, capital, fatherland, and the military. All the ruling male chauvinist obsessions of the power elite of those years – productivity, progress, punishment, racial purity, repopulation, nationalism, the conquest of nature, were objects of the surrealists’ derision and contempt.
In matters of gender and sex, as in everything else, the first surrealist generation, men and women, were rebels and revolutionaries. Their maxim was “thought has no sex” and at a time when Marxist and anarchist organisations either downplayed sexuality or ignored it entirely, surrealists carried out a long series of open group discussions on sexual activity.
In a sense the men who founded surrealism could be called traitors to their sex. Not only did they reject such “masculine prerogatives” and proffered models of maleness such as businessman, bureaucrat, cop or banker, they actually went so far as to champion their opposites, the so-called feminine virtues of intuition, impulsiveness, and “mediums.” Hysteria was hailed by Breton as a supreme means of expression.
For these surrealist men, women were not mere objects of male consumption, child-bearing instruments, or status symbols. The male surrealists’ ideal, as was also true of the women surrealists, was not marriage and family, but rather free unions with free spirits. At an age when most men set into a callous cynicism towards women, Breton and his friends exalted reciprocal love and denounced the enemies of love.
What made surrealism different is that more and more women kept joining it, expanding it, and changing it, and that the men changed too or dropped out. Surrealism’s increasing openess to women’s full participation could not have occurred had the men who founded it been as sexist as sometimes portrayed.
Additionally, nature, wildlife and wilderness are constant compelling themes in the work of many surrealist women. Redefinition of the relation between humankind and other animals, a non exploitative regard for the planet we live on, these are some of the dreams whose realization they call for. The adjective ‘wild’ has always been a term of the highest prestige and it is primarily the women in surrealism who stressed these matters.
By emphasizing the ecological dimension of revolutionary social transformation, women surrealist have given the surrealist notion of a non repressive civilization a far more concrete actuality than before. Not only did they perceive the links among the emancipation of women, of the working class, of all humankind, and of nature – they also comprehended that all these emancipations are in reality but one: a new universal, a realizable global vision of marvellous freedom for all.
Surrealist “art” work
“The surrealism in a work,” wrote Breton, “is in direct proportion to the effects the artist has made to embrace the whole psychophysical field, of which consciousness is only a small fraction. In these unfathomable depths there prevails, according to Freud, a total absence of contradiction, a release from the emotional fetters caused by repression, a lack of temporality, and the substitution of external reality by psychic reality obedient to the pleasure principle and no other. Automatism leads us straight to these regions.”
Automatic writing, is writing without conscious interferences; the hand, holding a pen, runs along the page quite heedless of the promptings of immediate consciousness, whether these promptings take the form of critical, aesthetic or moral preoccupations. It crystallizes therefore in language the yearnings usually hidden beneath the comings and goings of everyday compromises. Surrealist automatism is a true photography of thought; liberating humanity from the ideological shackles that enforce the contradictions between dreams and waking life.”
At the same time surrealist poets and painters were attempting to ‘enchant,’ and create between the creative ‘art’ product and the spectator, a ‘shock ’or current, which acts and transforms. Where beauty would be “convulsive.”
But Andre Breton explained that surrealism is not concerned with what is produced around it on the pretext of ‘art’, or even anti-art or philosophy. Avowing the surrealists fundamental and unreserved adherence to the principles of historical materialism, Breton looked at the rapports uniting surrealism and Marxism.
“The nature of man himself” Trotsky wrote, “ is hidden in the deepest and darkest corner of the unconscious…..is it not self-evident that the greatest efforts of investigative thought and of creative initiative will be in that direction?”
A.V. Lunarcharsky, the Soviet Commissar of Education under Lenin, writing in his ‘Revolutionary Silhouettes’ of Leon Trotsky as the leader of the Red Army, spoke of him as a man who could not be replaced in his speeches, commands and continual motivation of the weakening army. Yet remarkable as Trotsky’s military and theoretical accomplishments were, little is known of the fact that, as he was racing from one front to another in his armoured train, he was reading recently published French novels.
As he put in his 1935 diary: “Politics and literature constitute in essence the content of my personal life.”
Trotsky won not only the respect of Lenin and experts in the military but also his literary criticism won the respect of professional men of letters such as T.S. Eliot and F.R. Leavis, paying tribute to his cultivation and insight whilst they took issue with his Marxism. But a volume of his literary criticism is justified not only by his taste and judgement as a literary critic. It is justified by the points he discusses on the relationship between literature and society.
Although Trotsky called upon the artist to become the ally of revolution, he does not guarantee that the revolution will enable him to produce masterpieces. The revolutionary view cannot be merely intellectually accepted; it must become part of the very being of the artists, if he is to give expression to it in art.
“The artist cannot serve the struggle for freedom unless he subjectively feels in his very nerves its meaning and drama and freely seeks to give his own inner world incarnation in his art.”
In complete agreement with the surrealists, Trotsky felt that the artist must freely seek to communicate his own inner world, not present a view of the world which has been dictated to him by anyone else or even by himself, not allow any internal inhibitions or external compulsions to cause him to withhold a part of his vision.
Additionally although Trotsky is especially interested in literary works written by writers of revolutionary tendencies and summons writers to the revolutionary cause, he is appreciative of all kinds of literature. Politically partisan, though he was, he did not demand writers be of his political camp or even of his general political sympathies for them to receive his acclaim. He is aware that, as Rosa Luxemburg said, “With the true artist, the social formula that he recommends is a matter of secondary importance; the source of his art, its animating spirit, is decisive.”
For Trotsky literature and the creative arts are an essential part of human life and humanity, despite the degradation, sordidness and misery which surrounds us, is grand in the heroism of its struggles and noble in its potentiality. Over many years, Trotsky spoke and wrote on art and some examples are contained in the book “Leon Trotsky on Literature and Art,” by Paul Siegel. Topics Trotsky covered include Literature and Revolution, Class and Art, Culture and Socialism, Historical Objectivity and Artistic Truth, Art and Politics in our epoch, Culture and the Soviet Bureaucracy as well as some essays in literary criticism. But with particular reference to the Surrealist cause his writings in “Manifesto: Towards a Free Revolutionary Art” are of vital importance.
“Manifesto: Towards a Free Revolutionary Art.” 1938
When an impoverished Breton accepted a nonofficial appointment to give occasional lectures on French art and poetry, a major consideration for him was that it would take him to Mexico, where Trotsky was in exile.
Trotsky had been devoting his critical energies above all to the political situation in Spain, where workers and peasants had responded to Franco’s fascist revolt by seizing land and factories, and also to the situation in France. Towards both countries Stalin pursued a policy counter to what was advocated by Trotsky.
In Moscow at this period were staged the infamous “trials” in which many old Bolsheviks, trusted comrades of Lenin, were convicted of anti-Soviet crimes which were alleged to have been masterminded by the exiled Trotsky. The surrealists denounced the monstrous frame ups, and Breton served as a member of the French Committee of Inquiry into the Moscow Trials. Breton counted it as one of the highest honours of his life that he had been amongst the first to denounce Stalin and these diabolical proceedings.
The Bretons were guests of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, then associated with the fourth International, and his wife Frida Kahlo. It was here that Breton and Trotsky wrote this celebrated manifesto.
Tactically it involved some concessions by the surrealists to those who still thought of themselves as “artists” in the old sense; but the concession was conditioned by historical circumstances and was elaborated in strict accordance with the Leninist united-front approach.
In 1938 the very idea of genuine creative autonomy was being menaced on all sides, art being regarded by Stalinists and fascists alike as a mere appendage to state propaganda. Yet intellectuals were aligning themselves either directly or indirectly with one or other of these worldwide anti-proletarian tendencies. Still other writers and painters abandoned the revolutionary principle of autonomy for the counterrevolutionary principle of neutrality. A catch-phrase of these retreating intellectuals was “Neither fascism or communism” – which meant, of course, capitulation to bourgeois “democracy”.
Space does not allow a complete transcript of the Manifesto in this paper but below are some key points.
“We can say without exaggeration that never has civilization been menaced so seriously as today….We are no means thinking only of the world war that draws near. Even in times of “peace” the position of art and science has become absolutely intolerable……….True art is unable not to be revolutionary, not to aspire to a complete and radical reconstruction of society. This it must do, were it only to deliver intellectual creation from the chains which bind it, and to allow all mankind to raise itself to those heights which only isolated geniuses have achieved in the past. We recognize that only the social revolution can sweep clean the path for a new culture.”
“The communist revolution is not afraid of art. It realises that the role of the artist in a decadent capitalist society is determined by the conflict between the individual and various social forms which are hostile to him………The need for emancipation felt by the individual spirit has only to follow its natural course to be led to mingle its stream with this primeval necessity – the need for the emancipation of man………..
The independence of art – for the revolution.
The revolution – for the complete liberation of art.”
This manifesto calling for the creation of an International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Art (FIARI) failed, as the workers have failed to overthrow capitalism, and for the same reason: a reaction too powerful. But FIARI lives in memory as a heroic effort, in the face of enormous odds, to overcome that reaction and to serve the revolution. A remarkable convergence of surrealism and communism, the Breton/Trotsky manifesto remains an excellent summary of the problems involving the interrelationships of individual creative activity and social revolution.
Surrealism and Anarchism
Acknowledging that Trotsky played a key role in the writing of “The Manifesto: Towards a Free Revolutionary Art” it may come as some surprise to read the following quotes:
“If for the better development of the forces of material production, the revolution must build a socialist regime with centralized control; to develop intellectual creation an anarchist regime of individual liberty should from the first be established.”
“The revolution must, from the very start, establish and assure an anarchist ideal of individual freedom for cultural creation. No authority, no constraint, not the slightest trace of influence! On this issue Marxists must march hand in hand with anarchists.”
As Michael Lowy comments in “Morning Star” pages 25-26, Breton’s anarchist sympathies manifested themselves even more clearly in the post-war years.
“Above art and poetry, whether we wish it or not, flies a flag alternately red and black” – the colours of communism and anarchism.
“Surrealism first came into being in the black mirror of anarchism.”
Breton “La Claire tour” 1952.
Franklin Rosemont himself stated that the Chicago Surrealist group was never Trotskyite.
“From the start we respected Trotsky as an outstanding revolutionist and Marxist theorist, but we explicitly opposed the notion of a ‘vanguard part’ and our attitude towards elections, the state and even proletarian dictatorship was (and remains) basically anarchist.”
For further information on the links between Surrealism and Anarchism I would strongly encourage people to read the works of Ron Sakolsky, in particular his tract “Surrealist Desire, Anarchy and the Poetry of Revolt.”
But in my view Surrealism and the thoughts of Andre Breton are as Michael Lowy points out in “Morning Star” page 27 “that supreme mental location where the libertarian trajectory meets revolutionary Marxism. But we must not forget that Surrealism contains what Ernest Bloch calls “utopian excess,” a surplus which surpasses the limits of every social or political movement, however revolutionary they may be.
Breton insists that the surrealists support for proletarian revolution is total, undiminished by their taking up such problems as love, dreams, madness, art, etc, which they examine precisely from the standpoint of materialist dialectics. “Before surrealism,” he adds, “nothing systematic had been done in this direction.”
This materialist conception of poetry challenges the ideological assumptions regarding human consciousness that have prevailed throughout the bourgeois epoch. In contrast to the rationalist, for whom dreams are an unimportant by-product, and for whom the unconscious does not exist or “does not matter,” and for whom poetry is at best a harmless diversion, the surrealist holds that poetry, dreams and the unconscious life contain solutions to the greatest problems of human existence.
The viewpoint of aesthetic realism, which accompanied rationalism as the bourgeoisie consolidated their leadership, is of course, undermined by the surrealist onslaught. Surrealism finds realism deficient in its estimates of reality. Ignoring dreams and the unconscious, and so being unable to give more than superficial consideration to problems like love and madness, realism inevitably bows to the accomplished fact. It is true that historically the realist mode in literature played a revolutionary role of sorts. But capitalism too was once revolutionary! Surrealism introduces what is implied in its very name: an extension of the notion of reality- more precisely, an expanded awareness of reality. It demonstrates not only the continuity between internal and external reality but their essential unity.
Surrealism can thus be considered an “open rationalism”, responsive to the pleasure principle and opposed to the rigid rationalisms which always permit the reality principle to have the last word.
In a letter to Breton, Trotsky said;
“The struggle for revolutionary ideas in art must begin once again with the struggle for artistic truth, not in terms of any single school, but in terms of the immutable faith of the artist in his own inner self. Without this there is no art in our epoch of convulsive reaction, of cultural decline and return to savagery, truly independent creation cannot be but revolutionary by its very nature, for it cannot but seek an outlet from intolerable social suffocation. But art as a whole, and each artist in particular, seeks this outlet in ways proper to himself – not relying on orders from outside, but rejecting such orders and heaping scorn on all who submit to them.”
However, the surrealists did not demand privileges as “artists” or “intellectuals.” It was clear, however, that the worth of surrealism as a revolutionary force was not primarily in its adhesion to a political line, much less a single political organisation, but rather in its fidelity to its own means.
“Art must make its own way, and by its own means,” said Trotsky in “Literature and Revolution,” affirming a view held by Marx, Engels, and Lenin and indeed by the entire revolutionary movement till the Stalinists concocted “proletarian culture” and “socialist realism.”
That there is no solution to the decisive problems of human existence outside proletarian revolution is, for surrealism, a first principle beyond argument. Only the socialist revolution “the leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom” will enable the true life of poetry and love to cast aside, definitively, the fetters of degradation and dishonour and to flourish with unrestrained magnificence.
In answer to the criticism that the first surrealists came from the bourgeoisie or petty bourgeoisie let us note that Marx and Engels observed in the Communist Manifesto that the class struggle produces a “process of dissolution….within the ruling class”, so that a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift and joins the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands.”
Clearly a principal feature of distinguishing the surrealists from other sectors of revolutionary intellectuals is their devotion to the “problem of human expression in all its forms.” Marx pointed out in “Theories of Surplus Value” that “capitalist production is hostile to certain aspects of intellectual production, such as art and poetry.” Those who determined to practice poetry by any means necessary found themselves inevitably on the side of the revolutionary workers who were, after all, fighting to overthrow the same enemy and ultimately to realise the same aim: complete human freedom.
To the revolutionary perspective of the proletariat, surrealism added a whole new dimension. For the first time, an organised current of poets whose interests and aspirations were inseparable from those of the proletariat undertook systematically to combat the bourgeois regime on the cultural plane.
Lenin’s critique of opportunism was an inextricable part of his larger effort to restore integrally the revolutionary doctrine of Marx and Engels. Similarly, the first surrealist’s critique of literary and artistic opportunism was an inextricable part of their effort to restore integrally revolutionary poetic practice, reserving their worst epithets for the cultural figureheads of the bourgeois order. The surrealists affirmed, that “the only social overturn valid in our time is the dictatorship of the proletariat as Marx and Lenin have conceived of it.”
The surrealists entered the French Communist Party in 1927 when the overthrow of bourgeois society seemed possible only through the agency of the communist party. Their earnestness in the communist movement is evidenced by their association, almost from the beginning, with the Left Opposition, i.e. with the continuity of authentic bolshevism, against the self-serving perversions of Stalin’s bureaucracy. The break with the C.P. came in 1936. The official C.P. organisations were adopting an increasingly overt capitalist comportment. The French general strike of 1936 offers an especially glaring contrast in this regard. In that mass upheaval, which offered an unprecedented opportunity for revolutionary intervention, the surrealists defended the proletarian watchwords, calling for a workers’ militia and seizure of power; the Communist Party, however, as typified by one of its leaders, Thorez said, “It is necessary to know how to end a strike.”
In 1947 the French Surrealists defined their political position, detailing their divergence from Stalinism and reaffirming their “indefectible attachment to the revolutionary tradition of the working class movement from which the Communist Party deviates more and more each day.” That this orientation is inseparable from the Trotskyite theory of permanent revolution and proletarian internationalism is suggested by surrealist Benjamin Peret’s observation that “surrealism tends to infiltrate every country like the materialist dialectic in which it is intimately allied.” Any sort of “national” surrealism would be a contradiction in terms.
Surrealism, if it would remain true to its original revolutionary impulses, must pool its resources in the cause of proletarian emancipation. For only through the conquest of power by the proletariat can there be a victory for the surrealist revolution. As with research into psychic automatism and the surrealist objects, the exploration of objective chance aims at deepening, broadening, extending the research of scientists, and thus complements the task of transforming the world. At stake is nothing less than the liberation and reintegration of the whole human personality – the personality not of the atomized individual but the entire species, agreeing with Lenin that ‘in revolutionary times the limits of the possible increase a thousand fold.’
The relationship of surrealism to the working class is comprehensible only in the light of the dialectics of history. The degree to which the workers are unable to appreciate a surrealist work is to the degree which the workers are suffering from the ignorance and fear sown by the ruling class; the degree to which they are still afflicted with bourgeois illusions, religious superstitions, sexual anxieties; the degree to which they are mired, to use Marx’s phrase, in ‘all the muck of ages.’ If the workers, for the most part, do not see themselves in these works, it is because they see themselves as their oppressors want them to see themselves.
So long as it remains a proletariat – that is, so long as it remains in the stultifying condition of wage slavery and so long as it bears, to quote Marx again, ‘all the burdens of society without enjoying its advantages’ – so long will the proletariat fail to appreciate surrealism fully, for the simple reason that surrealism prefigures the qualitatively new poetic sensibility of the future classless society. This does not mean, of course, that the surrealist movement has no vital revolutionary role here and now; quite the contrary. In its constant efforts to dispel the illusions that keep the workers atomized and disoriented; in its exertions to demystify life and language, and free them from the debasing influences of class society; in its contributions to the creation of a radical new intellectual environment where the workers will be able to express themselves freely and to learn unhampered by the snobbery of bourgeois academicians and litterateurs – in these, in all its endeavours, surrealism strives to meet its revolutionary obligations in accord with Rosa Luxemburg’s dictum: ‘The immediate task ……… is the spiritual liberation of the proletariat from the tutelage of the bourgeoisie.’ But must these problems fall outside the sphere of Marxist interest? Marx venerated the motto ‘Nothing human is alien to me’ and he called for ‘merciless criticism of everything in existence.’ Lenin, in his ‘Philosophical Notebooks’, emphasised ‘the endless process of the discovery of new sides, relations etc. …….. the deepening of man’s knowledge of the thing, of phenomena, processes etc. from appearance to essence and from less profound to more profound essence.’
Any ‘Marxism’ uninterested in the problems raised by surrealism has nothing in common with Marx or Lenin. As Breton wrote ‘The isolation of the poet, the thinker, the artist from the masses, which is mutually harmful, is a result of the tactics of those who feel that they themselves stand to lose from this association.’
The critical light it sheds on such problems is only one of the reasons why surrealism deserves the support of every revolutionist. A much more important reason is the surrealist project itself, in all its integrity – not as a mere adjunct but rather as an extension of the communist revolution. With the establishment of communism on a world scale the present ‘theory’ of communism will be realised in practice and therefore will gradually ‘wither away’, having fulfilled its indispensable revolutionary function in helping the proletariat to gain power and liquidate the bourgeois state and property relations. Surrealist theory likewise is a powerful force in the conquest of power by the proletariat; but its revolutionary function will not end even with the establishment of communist society. Rather, communism provides the social basis necessary for the surrealist project to reach its fullest fruition.
I would like to be known as a surrealist by other genuine surrealists. The public’s perception of me in this regard is irrelevant.
Politically I would label myself as a “Trotskyist.” Although not a card carrying member of any party, as a former supporter of the Marxist “Militant Tendency” my political allegiances would be with the “Socialist Party” and their “The Socialist” Marxist weekly paper.
Creatively I work through three mediums, poetry, photography and collage. As Kenneth Cox (co-founder of the Leeds Surrealist group) encouraged me I find, experiment, transform and…enjoy! This is particularly the case when I working with collage as the element of surprise in the creation of this work is, to me, the most important factor. The collage develops before my eyes, unfolding its surprises as it progresses. It is this which gives me the complete sense of mental liberty. Completed collages are kept by me if they hold that ‘electrical charge’ if not they are discarded. I always prefer this journey of exploration.
I attempt in a dialectical way to let my imagination wander, to transform objects, deepen and extend ‘reality.’ Ideally I build on visual representations of things I have really seen or remembered but I enact no sense of aesthetic or moral judgment to determine my collages outcome. The collages are determined by ‘objective chance’ but I am looking and feeling for that outcome where life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, the high and the low, the communicable and the incommunicable will cease to appear contradictory.
I wish to express the redemption of pleasure, the halt of time, the absorption of death, the marvellous and the sensuousness of life.
With hindsight I have observed familiar objects reccurring in my creative work. They have for me taken on additional symbolic depth but they are not used as symbols.
Human figure…………………………………………………….. eroticism/reality
Prehistoric Carved Rocks……………………………………….mathematics/reason/cosmos
But as surrealists have done in poetry and the arts I recognize what Breton called the “extreme precariousness” of the human condition and at the same time an incitement to do something about it. If, as Penelope Rosemont explains in her book on surrealist women, page xxxiv, civilization persists on its disastrous path – denying dreams, degrading language, shackling love, destroying nature, perpetuating racism, glorifying authoritarian institutions, (family, church, state, patriarchy, military, the so-called free market), and reducing all that exists to the status of disposable commodities, then surely devastation is in store not only for us but for all life on this planet. Effective ways out of the dilemma, however, are accessible to all, and they are poetry, freedom, love and revolution.
My support for these aims are “as serious as pleasure” as Jaques Rigaut once said.
Sources and suggested further reading
Andre Breton “Manifestoes of Surrealism” 1972 Ann Arbor Paperbacks
Michael Lowy “Morning Star” 2009 University of Texas Press
Franklin Rosemont “Andre Breton and the First Principles of Surrealism” 1978 Pluto Press
Franklin Rosemont “Andre Breton. What is Surrealism/” 1978 Pluto Press
Penelope Rosemont “Surrealist Women. An International Anthology” 1998 University of Texas Press
Leon Trotsky “On Literature and Art” 1970 Pathfinder Press
Leeds and Chicago Surrealist groups for pamphlets, books, meetings, exhibitions, etc