Surrealists In Solidarity With The 4th International

The Libertarian Marxism of Andre Breton

In Uncategorized on March 9, 2012 at 3:32 pm

This article by Michael Lowy was first published in his book Morning Star: surrealism, marxism, anarchism, situationism, utopia and is reproduced here by kind permission of the author.

Predictably, the centennial of André Breton’s birth was marked by all sorts of officious, academic and media celebrations . However, these commercial apparitions were meaningless; Breton remains an unrecoverable.  His vast project, inevitably unfinished,  of alchemical fusion between mad love, the poetry of the marvelous, and social revolution, is un-assimilable by the bourgeois and philistine world.  He remains irreducibly opposed to that society, and as uncomfortable as a great bone—full of inscriptions and images, like the ornaments of the Solomon Islanders—in the throat of capitalism.

The revolutionary aspiration is at the very source of Surrealism—it is not by accident that one of the movement’s first collective texts, written in 1925, is called “Revolution First and Always.”  That same year, the desire to break with Western civilization led Breton to investigate the ideas of the October Revolution, for example, Trotsky’s  essay  Lenin.  Though he joined the French Communist Party in 1927, he did not give up , as he explains in his pamphlet Daybreak, his “right of critique.”

In the Second Manifesto of Surrealism of 1930, André Breton draws all the conclusions of that act, affirming “totally, unreservedly, our adhesion to the principle of historical materialism.”  But while making  the distinction—the opposition, even—between “primitive  materialism” and “modern materialism” (as Friedrich Engels would have said),  Breton insists that “Surrealism considers itself indissolubly linked, through the affinities which I have pointed out, to the  method of Marxist thought and to that method  alone.”

It goes without saying that Breton’s Marxism does not coincide with the official vulgate of the Comintern.  Perhaps one might call it a “Gothic Marxism,” that is, a historical materialism sensitive to the marvelous,  to the dark instant of revolt, to the illumination  which pierces, like a lightning, the sky of revolutionary action. In other words, a reading of Marxist theory inspired by Rimbaud, Lautréamont and by the English Gothic novel (Lewis, Maturin)—without losing sight for even an instant of the vital need to fight the bourgeois order.  It might seem paradoxical to unite, like communicating vessels, Capital  with The Castle of Otranto, The Origin of the Family and A Season in Hell, The State and Revolution and Melmoth.  But it is in that singular movement  that André Breton’s Marxism was formed, in all its unsettling originality.

In any case, this Marxism, like those of José Carlos Mariategui, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch and Herbert Marcuse, draws upon the subterranean current running through the 20th Century, beneath the immense blockades constructed by orthodoxy:  Romantic Marxism.  By this I mean a form of thought which is fascinated by certain cultural forms of the pre-capitalist past, and which rejects the cold, abstract rationality of modern industrial civilization—but which  changes that nostalgia into a force in the battle for the revolutionary transformation of the present.  If all Romantic Marxists fight the capitalist disenchantment of the world—the logical and necessary result of quantification, commercialization and reification of social relations—it is with André Breton and the Surrealists that the Romantic/revolutionary urge to re-enchant the world through imagination finds its most striking expression.

Breton’s Marxism is also distinguished from the rationalist/scientific, Cartesian/positivist tendency, strongly marked by 18th Century French materialism—which dominates the official doctrine of French Communism—by its insistence on the Hegelian dialectical heritage of Marxism.  In his conference inPrague in March 1935, on “The Surrealist Situation of the Object,” he insisted on the capital importance of Hegel’s philosophy for Surrealism:

Hegel, in his Aesthetic, was beset with all the problems which today, in poetry and art, can be considered the most difficult, and with an unequaled lucidity he resolved them, for the most part (…)  I would say that today, it is still Hegel who must be consulted as to the well- or ill-foundedness of Surrealist activity in the arts.[1]

Some months later, in June of that year, in his famous address to the Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture, he returned to the charge and fearlessly proclaimed, in contrast to a certain anti-Germanic chauvinism:

It is in the German-language philosophers above all that we have discovered the only effective antidote against the positivist rationalism that continues to enact its ravages here.  That antidote is none other than dialectical materialism as a general theory of knowledge.[2]

This adherence to Communism and to Marxism did not hinder the existence, at the heart of Breton’s evolution, of an irreducibly libertarian position.  It’s worth repeating his profession of faith from the First Manifesto of Surrealism of 1924:  “Liberty is the only word I still exalt in.”  Walter Benjamin, in his 1929 article on Surrealism, called on Breton and his friends to articulate the “anarchist element” of revolutionary action with its “methodical and disciplined preparation”—that is, Communism.[3]

The rest of the story is well-known:  Growing closer and closer to the position of Trotsky and the Left Opposition, most of the Surrealists (but not  Louis Aragon!) definitively broke from Stalinism in 1935.  This was not a rupture with Marxism, which would continue to inspire Surrealist analyses, but with the opportunism of Stalin and his acolytes which “unfortunately tend(ed) to annihilate the two essential components of the revolutionary spirit,” which are the spontaneous refusal of the conditions of life proposed to human beings, and the vital need to change them.[4]

In 1938, Breton visited Trotsky in Mexico.  Together they wrote one of the most important documents of the revolutionary culture of the 20th Century, the call “For An Independent Revolutionary Art,” which contained this famous passage:

The revolution must, from the very start, establish and assure an anarchist regime of individual liberty for cultural creation.  No authority, no constraint, not the slightest trace of commandment! On this issue Marxists can march hand in hand with anarchists…[5]

As we know, the passage was penned by Trotsky himself, but one might also imagine that it is the product of his long conversations with Breton on the shoreof LakePatzcuaro.[6]

Breton’s anarchist sympathies manifested more clearly in the postwar years.  In the 1947 book Arcanum 17, he describes the emotion he felt when, still a child, he discovered in a cemetery a headstone with the simple inscription, “Neither God Nor Master.”  Commenting on these words, he raises a general reflection:  “Above art and poetry, whether we wish it or no, flies a flag alternately red and black”—two colors between which he refused to choose.

From October 1951 to January 1953, the Surrealist group in Parisregularly contributed articles and leaflets to the journal Le Libertaire, the organ of the French Anarchist Federation.  Their principal correspondent in the Federation was, at that time, the libertarian communist George Fontenis.  It was during this time that Breton wrote the flamboyant 1952 text entitled “La claire tour/The Light Tower,” which gives the libertarian origins of Surrealism:

Surrealism first came into being in the black mirror of anarchism, well before it defined itself, when it was nothing more than a free association among individuals rejecting spontaneously and outright the social and moral constraints of their time.[7]

Thirty years and many betrayals later, he declared himself  once more  partisan of anarchism—not that which is easily caricatured, but “that which our comrade Fontenis describes ‘as socialism itself, that is, that modern revindication of human dignity (our liberty as much as our well-being).’”  Despite the intervening rupture in 1953, Breton never burned his bridges with the libertarians, continuing to collaborate with certain of their initiatives.[8]

This interest and active sympathy for anarchism did not at all  lead Breton to renounce his adhesion to the October Revolution and the ideas of Leon Trotsky.  In an intervention on November 17, 1957, André Breton insisted and signed,

Against winds and tides, I am among those who still find, in the memory of the October Revolution, a high degree of that unconditional enthusiasm which I bore toward it in my youth and which implies total self-sacrifice.[9]

Saluting Trotsky’s gaze, as he appeared in an old 1917 photograph in the uniform of the Red Army, he proclaimed, “Such a gaze, and the light emanating from it, can never be extinguished, no more than Thermidor could have altered the traits of Saint-Just.”[10]  Finally, in 1962, in an homage to Natalia Sedova Trotsky, who had just died, he hoped that one day history would  accord Leon Trotsky “not only justice…but will be called to accept, in all their vigor and amplitude, the ideas to which his life was given.”[11]

In conclusion, Surrealism and the thought of André Breton are perhaps that ideal infinite  point, that supreme mental location where the libertarian trajectory meets that of revolutionary Marxism.  But we must not forget that Surrealism contains what Ernst Bloch calls “a utopian excess,” a surplus of dark light which surpasses the limits of every social or political movement, however revolutionary it may be.  That light emanates from the unbreakable heart of  night of  the Surrealist spirit, from its obstinate search for the gold of time, from its headlong dive into the abysses of dream and the marvelous.


[1] André Breton.  “Surrealist Situation of the Object,” in Manifestos of Surrealism.  Richard Seaver andH. Lane, translators. Ann Arbor: Ann Arbor Paperbacks,University ofMichigan Press, 1972.

[2] Maurice Nadeau.  Histoire du Surréalisme:  documents surréalistes. Paris: Seuil, 1988, Vol. 2.

[3] Walter Benjamin.  “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia,” In Benjamin Reflections.  Edited and introduced by Peter Demetz.  New York:  Schocken Books, Random House, 1989.

[4] Nadeau, p. 309.

[5] André Breton and Leon Trotsky, “Manifesto For an Independent Revolutionary Art,” in  What is Surrealism?  Selected Writings.  Edited and introduced by Franklin Rosemont. New York:  Pathfinder Press, 1978.

[6] Arturo Schwarz.  Breton/Trotski.  Paris:  10/18, 1977.  Also Gérard Roche.  “La rencontre de l’aigle et du lion:  Trotsky, Breton et le manifeste de Mexico,” in Cahiers Léon Trotsky, No. 25, March 1986.

[7] André Breton.  “La claire tour,” in La Clé des champs, Paris: 10/18, 1973.

[8] Atelier de création libertaire de Lyon.  Surréalisme et Anarchisme  1992, 1994.

[9] Schwarz, p. 194.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Breton, “Homage to Natalia Sedova-Trotsky,” in What is Surrealism, pp.306-308.

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