Surrealists In Solidarity With The 4th International

Archive for February, 2012|Monthly archive page

A Surrealist Recipe

In Uncategorized on February 29, 2012 at 3:15 pm

This article was first published in Arcturus issue 1, January 2005.

There’s a Russian joke that dates from the blackest days of Stalin’s reign.  The story goes that Stalin was personally giving his own father a guided tour of the Kremlin.  He showed off his personal apartments.  Sentries clicked their heels and saluted smartly at the door; the rooms were the most opulent that the old man had ever seen.

“Splendid, splendid”, he said, “You have done very well, son”.

Then Stalin showed him the vast collection of art treasures.

“You’ve become wealthy, just as I hoped”, said the old man.

Stalin took him out onto the balcony overlooking Red Square, where they both waved to the cheering crowds.

“You’ve achieved so much”, the old man said, “and I’m very proud of you.  But still, one thing worries me”.

“What’s that, papa?” asked Stalin.

“Well”, his father asked, “What will you do if the Communists come back?”

A certain Terrance Lindall found himself faced with an oddly similar dilemma, during the autumn of 2003.  Lindall had organised, in New York, an “Exhibition of International Surrealist Art”.  His personal understanding of Surrealism was, and presumably still is, a curiously flawed one; the art of “self enlightenment, and the sharing of that”, as he described it, emptied of radical content, rejecting wholesale the entire body of actual Surrealist theory and practice.  The result was an exhibition of “surrealism” without Surrealists, but including rather too many twee paintings of fairies and unicorns.

It’s almost puzzling, in the circumstances, that Lindall was apparently surprised when he subsequently received a strongly-worded letter of protest and condemnation, signed by Surrealists in Europe and the US.  The Surrealists had come back.

Lindall’s response, as it happens, was unequivocal, and near-Stalinesque in its own absurd way.  He promptly contacted the US authorities, denouncing the Surrealists as “clearly anti-American and terrorist…a threat to decent peaceful members of society and culture”.  A telling accusation, in itself.

Perhaps it’s at least partly our own fault, as Surrealists, as a movement, that such ideological theft can take place at all; that opportunists like Lindall feel at liberty to disguise themselves in our clothes.  After all, we’ve left those clothes lying around, seemingly unattended, for long enough.  For several decades, we’ve tended to be an insular movement, huddling together in our own collective but very private game.  It was, arguably, a useful survival technique while times were hard for radicals of any stripe, let alone for the dreams and provocations of Surrealism.  But perhaps it’s been allowed to go on for too long.  It seems to me, certainly, that so far Surrealism as a movement has failed to grasp the potential for a Surrealist resurgence that is inherent in the current mass opposition to globalisation and to war.

So the stealing of Surrealist clothes is still a repeating event.  Even as I’m writing this, there’s a low-level debate simmering over the most appropriate Surrealist response to yet another entirely Surrealist-free exhibition of “surrealism”, this time in Brighton.

The truth is that, while Surrealism as an international movement is very much alive and kicking, what Surrealism actually means, what it signifies, has been thoroughly obscured.  It may be that the surrounding fog has been, at least in part, deliberately created.  Surrealism remains dangerous, as long as dreams and desires are dangerous.

The joke about Stalin and the return of the Communists is relevant on several different, but simultaneous, levels.  For instance, I was brought up believing that the regimes of Stalin, Mao, Ceausescu et al somehow represented the Communist idea of the future.  I was intended, like everyone around me at the time, to believe that those brutal bureaucratic dictatorships were the inevitable outcome of any attempt to create a better future, a better world.  It took me until my late teens, with a lot of reading, some false turns and a few happy accidents along the way, to realise that there was another, genuine and revolutionary, Marxist tradition that opposed not only capitalism in the so-called “free world”, but also the “Communism” of the other Cold War camp.  Often truth is the best-hidden secret of all.

Surrealism, meanwhile, was also very well hidden indeed.  The term itself has been appropriated in an attempt to defuse the revolutionary impact of the movement.  A duck billed platypus – it looks surreal!  Fantasy art – the further from reality it appears, the more surreal it must be.  The obscure byways of the legal system – they constitute a whole surreal world in themselves!  These meanings most often attached to the term “surrealism” are degraded meanings.  The reality of Surrealism has been buried even deeper than the reality of Communism.  It took me until my late twenties before I even began to suspect that Surrealism consisted of more than a few French dilettantes hanging around the cafés and art scene in Paris during the 1920s and 1930s, who happened to create some striking and even disturbing works of art along the way.

There were no works of Surrealist theory in the bookshops.  No surrealist writing at all, in fact, let alone any indication of Surrealist methods.  Surrealist visual art sometimes appeared.  I can recall that, in the Sixth Form common room at my school, on one brick pillar, someone had tacked up a print of a Dali painting (I should point out that Dali’s brief contribution to Surrealism remains, at best, a source of controversy).  It was as if Surrealism had been “disappeared”, almost as thoroughly and methodically as a dissident in some Latin American tyranny.  Whatever I discovered about the genuine Surrealist tradition, over the next decade-and-a-half, I discovered when I periodically chanced upon some window of synchronicity.

What is it, then, that defines Surrealism?  As soon as the question is asked, it tends to raise as many problems and disagreements as answers.  Because Surrealism has never been a movement of dogma, of rigid formulae, and has taken on variations in shape to suit varying times and circumstances.  I think it might be best to think of Surrealism as a form of recipe, and like a recipe a particular cook may adapt the essential core of it to suit.

With that in mind, let me point to the basic ingredients – basic, at any rate, in my own opinion as a practicing Surrealist.  The Surrealist cookbook, it should be realised straight away, has something in common with alchemical manuals, if only in that the fundamentals of the recipe often seem encoded or esoteric, waiting for the would-be initiate to discover them through experiment.  Other Surrealists may disagree with my results; indeed, I may even find that I disagree with them myself, having travelled some way further along the path.

I think that the first ingredient is to be found in the origins of the Surrealist movement itself, in the 1920s.  It emerged, not as a literary and artistic fad, but as a clearly political response to the circumstances of the time.  It isn’t even the case that all Surrealists were (or are) necessarily writers, or artists; for many participants, their involvement with the arts, their embrace of the creative impulse, has followed rather than preceded their involvement in Surrealism.

The positive impulse at the core of the Surrealist movement, the animating spirit of Surrealism itself, has consistently been the desire to liberate the imagination and to thus create a revolution in everyday life.  In the words of Octavio Paz, the great Mexican Surrealist poet, Surrealism is ultimately “the desperate attempt of poetry to incarnate itself in history”.  This, its revolutionary essence, is precisely the characteristic that most clearly defines Surrealism as Surrealism.

Literature, art, these are means to an end.  Along with dreams, games, investigations of the Unconscious, the empowerment of automatism…Surrealism is not confined by technique, but the technique is made Surrealist by the objective.

To uncover our second ingredient, it’s necessary to appreciate that Surrealism was never intended to be merely slang for the strange, the bizarre; the thin meaning it is usually reduced to in the context of appropriation.  It’s interesting to note that the founding figures of Surrealism as a distinct movement – André Breton, Benjamin Péret, and the rest – at first toyed with a number of other terms to describe their early experiments.  One of these was “super-realism”.  In other words, from the very beginning Surrealism set itself the task of engaging a heightened consciousness of reality, an awareness that reality extends beyond the obvious, empirical world.

A third ingredient is collectivism and its implications.  In an essay titled Against the Liquidators, Breton wrote:

“The quality of being surrealist remains sanctioned, in the end, not only by such poetic and artistic ‘talent’ but by reference to a precise collective activity which alone, in its totality, assumes the implications which define surrealism.  Group activity is essential, not only to the life of surrealism, but to its specificity. Contrary to what has often been said and thought, surrealism has not ceased to determine collectively its line of conduct”.

This does not absolutely negate the role of the individual within Surrealism as an individual, but by emphasising the centrality of the collective sets up a dialectical relationship between individual response and collective activity.

The fourth basic ingredient of Surrealism is automatism.  As the First Surrealist Manifesto established the parameters of genuine Surrealism, in 1924, psychic automatism has always been not merely a core technique, but a core principle.

Our attitude to automatism is similar to, yet a little different from, that of either occultists or psychotherapists.  The occultist regards it as a method of communication with unseen forces, a form of mediumship or perhaps mediation.  The psychotherapist regards it as communication with the hidden areas of the mind.  While both these perspectives impinge on the Surrealist attitude to automatism, for us it is also a means of exposing to view hidden relationships.  That is, those social, economic, psychological, erotic and psychic relationships that usually lay concealed beneath the surface of bourgeois society.

And why do we wish to bring these things into common view?  Naturally, so that they can be subjected to a process of intentional transformation.  To borrow a rather well-known comment from Karl Marx, the Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world differently, the point is, to change it”.  Surrealism began its life as, and remains, primarily a movement of revolutionary activism.  Mere art for its own sake or smug navel-gazing (which are, frankly, too often one and the same) are wholeheartedly rejected by any honest Surrealist.  We would prefer participating in a demonstration over languishing in a gallery.

As in all the best alchemical formulae, the last ingredient is, after all, the same as the first.  For the rest, well, the seasonings and the trimmings may vary, but these are the four elements that are fundamental to Surrealism.

There are obviously those who question the validity and the relevance of the old recipe.  Strangely, they always seem to be people, like Lindall, who are ideologically tied to the very life that Surrealism has so consistently sought to overthrow.  They would reduce Surrealism to a set of artists’ techniques; take the hollowed-out shell and rattle it from time to time like an exotic and faintly idiosyncratic instrument.

Yet in a society increasingly characterised by profiteering on the rapacious and immoral level of open banditry, by war and brutality, by fundamentalism and bigotry, by an epidemic of psychological and psychic dis-ease, it seems to me that Surrealism – and for that matter Surrealism’s old comrade, Marxism – grows more relevant, more necessary, than ever before.

The response from Surrealists must surely be to grow more strident, more confident in ourselves, more determined in our revolutionism; in fact simply more.  Surrealism is coming back.  And it is the future of Surrealism to be a movement of many cooks.

Philip Kane


Seeing Is Believing

In Uncategorized on February 17, 2012 at 3:17 pm

The Road Is Wider Than Long – Roland Penrose and British Surrealism, Southampton City Art Gallery, 9th February to 13th May 2012.

Roland Penrose was a key figure in the development of British surrealism. An accomplished painter, collagist and photographer, he organised the ground-breaking London International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936. As well as helping to gain a wider UK audience for painters like Ernst and Picasso, his personal friendship with European artists and writers strengthened domestic links with the continental movement. Alongside other innovators like David Gascoyne he helped to lay the groundwork for the broad dissemination of surrealist ideas and the development of an organised surrealist tendency in the UK.

The current exhibition running at Southampton City Art Gallery is therefore very welcome. It features some of Penrose’s most important works, including the wonderful Seeing Is Believing (shown above),  Bien Vise, The Conquest of the Air (final plate below) and Night And Day (directly below).

Also on show are a selection of his photographs, documenting his travels in Egypt, France and Spain as well as nearer to home – there are some nice snaps of Brighton! Included is a photo of Spanish Republican fighters, taken during his time in Spain; Penrose was a strong supporter of the Republican government and the anti-fascist struggle. In the same section are photos taken by Lee Miller (who married him following his divorce from Valentine Boué) showing daily life at the country home they eventually settled down in.

One of the strongest aspects of the exhibition is the inclusion of a small but resonant selection of works by contemporaneous British surrealists. These include paintings and drawings by Emmy Bridgewater, Conroy Maddox, Oscar Mellor, Edith Rimmington, Reuben Mednikoff, Grace Pailthorpe, Ithell Colquhoun, Eileen Agar and others.

The exhibition is worth visiting, particularly if you are not already familiar with Penrose and the first wave of British surrealists. The small scale of the show is something of a disappointment, as is the prominence given to Desmond Morris; a whole section is set aside for Morris’s paintings, and another room is taken up with paintings produced by Congo the chimp, one of Morris’s ‘pet’ projects. Personally I rather like Morris’s work, but it is given far too much weight here – and the curator’s description of him as ‘the last living surrealist’ is extremely unfortunate. While the chimp died some years ago, its spirit clearly lives on.

Although the political dimension of Penrose’s life and work is not entirely neglected in the exhibition it is very much a minor concern. The revolutionary liberation of desire exemplified in his early and mid-period paintings is of a piece with his support for the Spanish revolution and his vocal pacifism. His later accommodation with the cultural establishment – he accepted a CBE and a knighthood – is an example of an all-too-common phenomenon which the Southampton show passes over in silence.

Defend Angye Gaona

In Uncategorized on February 17, 2012 at 2:02 pm
The Colombian poet Angye Gaona is currently on trial in Cartagena de Indias, facing trumped-up charges of  ‘drug trafficking’ and ‘rebellion’. A letter by Laurens Vancrevel, circulated to draw attention to her case, explains:

“Angye is completely innocent of these charges. She has passionately defended in several press articles and interviews the case of Colombian Indians (many of whom are being killed by paramilitary gangs on order of land developers; Angye has called this ‘genocide’) and that of working class people and their unions (who are constantly being repressed by industrialists, supported by the government). Angye has also called the present Colombian government ‘a terrorist government’.  She is now being considered a nuisance by the ultra-conservative government, because Angye’s voice has a considerable influence on young Colombians. But ‘rebellion’ or ‘drug trafficking’, no.
Her trial may have a very dramatic outcome if nothing is done. Colombia is known for its political trials. At the moment some 7,000 political prisoners serve long sentences in terrible and overcrowded prisons. It is necessary therefore to try to make known to the judiciary officials, that Angye’s case is being followed closely worldwide.”

International pressure on the Colombian junta is of crucial importance. We urge you to join others in writing to the examining judge, demanding a fair trial for Angye. The address is as follows:
Al Sr. Juez de Conocimiento, Centro de Servicios Juzgado Único Penal del Circuito Especializado De Cartagena Adjunto, Centro Barrio San Diego, Calle De La Cruz No 9-42, Antiguo Colegio Panamericano 2º Piso, Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, South America.
Please send copies of your letter (by snail-mail or email) to the Colombian embassy in your country.
We must let the Colombian authorities know that the world is watching.
Down The Pipe – by Angye Gaona
I follow the way of the sternum,
I search for the origin of thirst,
I go to the bottom of a pipe of silver walls,
solid due to time,
moving when the flood,
when childhood, was freezing.
I collect the rootlets of thought.
I carry them on my eroded back
next to the wild oblivion falling from me.
They look out
from small caves,
the signs of pain,
and fast elude the looks
and hide again in the skin of the pipe.
Inscribed on the walls
are the undecipherable coordinates
of the prehistoric ray
that formed my face.
It is a time of depths,
a time without syllable,
when I am only a sound
in transit to fatigue.
I search for a spring
to bathe the question affixed on my history.
I search for a new-born life
and I find thirst.
I follow the way of the sternum.
Translated by Nicolás Suescún



Surrealism And Working Class Emancipation

In Uncategorized on February 8, 2012 at 2:37 pm

For France and probably for the rest of Europe as well, the experiment that began with dadaism and is now pursued by surrealism has shown itself to be, beyond all argument, the most revolutionary experiment in poetry. Its whole tendency has been to destroy the many myths about art – myths which for centuries permitted not only the ideological but also the economic exploitation of painting, sculpture, writing, etc. Consider, for example, Max Ernst’s frottages which, among other things, have effectively overturned the scale of values long maintained by art critics and experts: values largely based on perfect technique, personal touch, and the durability of the artist’s materials.

The dadaist-surrealist experiment, therefore, can and should serve the cause of working-class emancipation. Only when the proletariat has become conscious of the real meaning of the myths that uphold capitalist culture – indeed, only when the proletariat has destroyed these myths and revolutionized this culture – will working men and women be able, as a class, to proceed to their own self-development. The positive lesson of this experience in negation – that is, the dissemination of the surrealist experiment among the working class – is the only valid revolutionary poetic propaganda in our time.

Claude Cahun, 1933

From Surrealist Women – An International Anthology, ed. Penelope Rosemont, University of Texas Press 1998. Translation by Frankin Rosemont.

Manifesto: Towards A Free Revolutionary Art

In Uncategorized on February 8, 2012 at 1:58 pm

This manifesto was written by Andre Breton and Leon Trotsky in Mexico in the late 1930s. Diego Rivera, who later succumbed to Stalinism, was a co-signatory.

We can say without exaggeration that never has civilization been menaced so seriously as today. The Vandals, with instruments which were barbarous, and so comparatively ineffective, blotted out the culture of antiquity in one corner of Europe. But today we see world civilization, united in its historic destiny, reeling under the blows of reactionary forces armed with the entire arsenal of modern technology. We are by 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.

Insofar as it originates with an individual, insofar as it brings into play subjective talents to create something which brings about an objective enriching of culture, any philosophical, sociological, scientific or artistic discovery seems to be the fruit of a precious chance, that is to say, the manifestation, more or less spontaneous, of necessity. Such creations cannot be slighted, whether from the standpoint of general knowledge (which interprets the existing world), or of revolutionary knowledge (which, the better to change the world, requires an exact analysis of the laws which govern its movement). Specifically, we cannot remain indifferent to the intellectual conditions under which creative activity takes place, nor should we fail to pay all respect to those particular laws which govern intellectual creation.

In the contemporary world we must recognize the ever more widespread destruction of those conditions under which intellectual creation is possible. From this follows of necessity an increasingly manifest degradation not only of the work of art but also of the specifically “artistic” personality. The regime of Hitler, now that it has rid Germany of all those artists whose work expressed the slightest sympathy for liberty, however superficial, has reduced those who still consent to take up pen or brush to the status of domestic servants of the regime, whose task it is to glorify it on order, according to the worst possible aesthetic conventions. If reports may be believed, it is the same in the Soviet Union, where Thermidorian reaction is now reaching its climax.

It goes without saying that we do not identify ourselves with the currently fashionable catchword: “Neither fascism nor communism!”, a shibboleth which suits the temperament of the philistine, conservative and frightened, clinging to the tattered remnants of the “democratic” past. True art, which is not content to play variations on ready-made models but rather insists on expressing the inner needs of man and of mankind in its time – 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. If, however, we reject all solidarity with the bureaucracy now in control of the Soviet Union, it is precisely because, in our eyes, it represents, not communism, but its most treacherous and dangerous enemy.

The totalitarian regime of the USSR, working through the so-called cultural organizations it controls in other countries, has spread over the entire world a deep twilight hostile to every sort of spiritual value. A twilight of filth and blood in which, disguised as intellectuals and artists, those men steep themselves who have made of servility a career, of lying for pay a custom, and of the palliation of crime a source of pleasure. The official art of Stalinism mirrors with a blatancy unexampled in history their efforts to put a good face on their mercenary profession.

The repugnance which this shameful negation of principles of art inspires in the artistic world – a negation which even slave states have never dared to carry so far – should give rise to an active, uncompromising condemnation. The opposition of writers and artists is one of the forces which can usefully contribute to the discrediting and overthrow of regimes which are destroying, along with the right of the proletarian to aspire to a better world, every sentiment of nobility and even of human dignity.

The communist revolution is not afraid of art. It realizes 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. This fact alone, insofar as he is conscious of it, makes the artist the natural ally of revolution. The process of sublimation, which here comes into play and which psychoanalysis has analyzed, tries to restore the broken equilibrium between the integral “ego” and the outside elements it rejects. This restoration works to the advantage of the “ideal of self”, which marshals against the unbearable present reality all those powers of the interior world, of the “self”, which are common to all men and which are constantly flowering and developing. 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 conception of the writer’s function which the young Marx worked out is worth recalling. “The writer”, he declared, “naturally must make money in order to live and write, but he should not under any circumstances live and write in order to make money…..The writer by no means looks on his work as a means. It is an end in itself and so little a means in the eyes of himself and of others that if necessary he sacrifices his existence to the existence of his work…..The first condition of the freedom of the press is that it is not a business activity.” It is more than ever fitting to use this statement against those who would regiment intellectual activity in the direction of ends foreign to itself, and prescribe, in the guise of so-called reasons of state, the themes of art. The free choice of these themes and the absence of all restrictions on the range of his exploitations – these are possessions which the artist has a right to claim as inalienable. In the realm of artistic creation, the imagination must escape from all constraint and must under no pretext allow itself to be placed under bonds. To those who urge us, whether for today or for tomorrow, to consent that art should submit to a discipline which we hold to be radically incompatible with its nature, we give a flat refusal and we repeat our deliberate intention of standing by the formula complete freedom for art.

We recognize, of course, that the revolutionary state has the right to defend itself against the counterattack of the bourgeoisie, even when this drapes itself in the flag of science or art. But there is an abyss between these enforced and temporary measures of revolutionary self-defense and the pretension to lay commands on intellectual creation. 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. No authority, no dictation, not the least trace of orders from above! Only on a base of friendly cooperation, without constraint from outside, will it be possible for scholars and artists to carry out their tasks, which will be more far-reaching than ever before in history.

It should be clear by now that in defending freedom of thought we have no intention of justifying political indifference, and that it is far from our wish to revive a so-called pure art which generally serves the extremely impure ends of reaction. No, our conception of the role of art is too high to refuse it an influence on the fate of society. We believe that the supreme task of art in our epoch is to take part actively and consciously in the preparation of the revolution. But the artist cannot serve the struggle for freedom unless he subjectively assimilates its social content, unless he feels in his very nerves its meaning and drama and freely seeks to give his own inner world incarnation in his art.

In the present period of the death agony of capitalism, democratic as well as fascist, the artist sees himself threatened with the loss of his right to live and continue working. He sees all avenues of communication choked with the debris of capitalist collapse. Only naturally, he turns to the Stalinist organizations which hold out the possibility of escaping from his isolation. But if he is to avoid complete demoralization, he cannot remain there, because of the impossibility of delivering his own message and the degrading servility which these organizations exact from him in exchange for certain material advantages. He must understand that his place is elsewhere, not among those who betray the cause of the revolution and mankind, but among those who with unshaken fidelity bear witness to the revolution, among those who, for this reason, are alone able to bring it to fruition, and along with it the ultimate free expression of all forms of human genius.

The aim of this appeal is to find a common ground on which may be reunited all revolutionary writers and artists, the better to serve the revolution by their art and to defend the liberty of that art itself against the usurpers of the revolution. We believe that aesthetic, philosophical and political tendencies of the most varied sort can find here a common ground. Marxists can march here hand in hand with anarchists, provided both parties uncompromisingly reject the reactionary police patrol spirit represented by Joseph Stalin and by his henchman Garcia Oliver.

We know very well that thousands on thousands of isolated thinkers and artists are today scattered throughout the world, their voices drowned out by the loud choruses of well-disciplined liars. Hundreds of small local magazines are trying to gather youthful forces about them, seeking new paths and not subsidies. Every progressive tendency in art is destroyed by fascism as “degenerate”. Every free creation is called “fascist” by the Stalinists. Independent revolutionary art must now gather its forces for the struggle against reactionary persecution. It must proclaim aloud the right to exist. Such a union of forces is the aim of the International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Art which we believe it is now necessary to form.

We by no means insist on every idea put forth in this manifesto, which we ourselves consider only a first step in the new direction. We urge every friend and defender of art, who cannot but realize the necessity for this appeal, to make himself heard at once. We address the same appeal to all those publications of the left wing which are ready to participate in the creation of the International Federation and to consider its task and its methods of action.

When a preliminary international contact has been established through the press and by correspondence, we will proceed to the organization of local and national congresses on a modest scale. The final step will be the assembly of a world congress which will officially mark the foundation of the International Federation.

Our aims:

The independence of art – for the revolution.

The revolution – for the complete liberation of art!

The Politics Of Surrealism

In Uncategorized on February 8, 2012 at 1:54 pm

The following article was originally published in Socialist Outlook, Spring 2002.

When Andre Breton spoke to a packed meeting of students and intellectuals in Port-au-Prince in December 1945 on the philosophy of surrealism, he inadvertently sparked off an uprising which led to the overthrow of the Haitian government a few days later.

As Breton himself pointed out, the country in any case was ripe for revolt, with the bulk of the population living in grinding poverty under a repressive regime. But this incident undoubtedly reinforced his belief that raising the watchword of liberty could constitute a revolutionary act.

Surrealist engagement with political struggle has a long history. The movement’s emergence from the nihilism of Dada was marked by the dawn of a new political consciousness within its ranks.

Faced with the attack on the Rif tribesmen by the French government in 1925, Breton’s circle published the first of many collective tracts, declaring “…we profoundly hope that revolutions, wars, colonial insurrections, will annihilate this Western civilisation.” This statement was followed by a series of consistent and principled interventions on all the major political issues of the day throughout the twenties and thirties.

After the Second World War, which dispersed the movement and led to a series of fractures and regroupings, the surrealists renewed their assault on Western imperialist pretensions.

Breton signed the “Manifesto of the 121” against the French war in Algeria, and declared that “the cause of the Algerian people, which has contributed in decisive fashion to the overthrow of the colonial system, is the cause of all free men.”

They continued to agitate against war, exploitation and clericalism. Following Breton’s death in 1966 the movement again fragmented, but remained influential in the arena of ideas. The Paris slogans of May 1968 were “Long live the surrealist revolution” and “All power to the imagination”.

Surrealist groups, which had existed at one time or another in countries as diverse as Japan, Yugoslavia, Martinique and Czechoslovakia, began to spring up once again, and inevitably made new interventions around the struggles of the day. In recent times they have protested against the attack on the rights of indigenous peoples, the war against Afghanistan, and the rise of the fascists in France.

But it is the surrealists’ involvement with Trotsky which most sharply catches the imagination. The abrupt shift towards a revolutionary political stance in the twenties had its roots in Breton’s reading of texts by Lenin and Trotsky, which convinced him of the heroic nature of the Bolshevik uprising and of the need for proletarian revolution.

There followed several years of stormy relations with the French Communist Party, whose reactionary ideas on art and literature – not to mention their impatience with the surrealists’ desire to maintain their own separate group – ensured that the marriage would not be a happy one. The adoption successively of the absurd doctrines of “proletarian literature” and “socialist realism” by the Stalinists widened the rift.

It was the Moscow show trials which prompted the surrealists to come out openly against Stalin, characterising the trials as “an abject police enterprise which far surpasses that of the Reichstag fire”, and their perpetrator as “the great negator and principal enemy of the proletarian revolution.”

Breton and his supporters were active in building support for Trotsky and the other victims of Stalin’s purges. In Spain, where a number of surrealists went to fight for the republicans, their sympathies were with the POUM and the anarchists.

In 1938 Breton travelled to Mexico on the pretext of a French cultural mission to meet Trotsky. He was deeply moved by the heroic isolation of the great revolutionary:

“I saw him as that man who placed his genius in the service of the greatest cause I know….I saw him at the side of Lenin and later, as the only one continuing to defend Lenin’s ideas. I saw him standing alone among his fallen comrades….accused of the greatest crime possible for a revolutionary, threatened every hour of his life, delivered up to blind hatred…And yet, what self control, what certainty of having lived in perfect accord with his principles, what great courage!”

It was during this visit that Breton and Trotsky wrote the “Manifesto: Towards A Free Revolutionary Art” which has since become the classic statement on the subject of art and class struggle.

The manifesto was designed both as a vigorous rejection of Stalinist attempts to impose military discipline in the cultural sphere, and as a rallying cry for writers and artists who supported the class struggle but were not prepared to accept Communist Party hegemony. The necessity of facilitating the development of an organic, unfettered revolutionary art is made clear:

“In the realm of artistic creation, the imagination must escape from all constraint….To those who would urge us….to consent that art should submit to a discipline which we hold to be radically incompatible with its nature, we give a flat refusal, and we repeat our deliberate intention of standing by the formula complete freedom of art.”

How different from the prescriptive formulations of the Communist Party’s cultural bureaux, and from the injunction of the surrealist renegade Louis Aragon, recently converted to Stalinism, to eschew the avant-garde in favour of “writing the Stalinist truth”.

Publication of the Manifesto was followed by the setting up of an embryonic revolutionary artists’ organisation, the F.I.A.R.I., which however failed to flourish in the worsening political climate of the late thirties. The outbreak of war put paid to the experiment.

The impact that the collaboration with Trotsky and the infusion of revolutionary socialist ideas had on Breton lasted for the rest of his life. He fought a principled, and at times bitter, struggle within his own circle against defections to both right and left. Salvador Dali, whom the surrealists nicknamed Avida Dollars (“greedy for cash”), is the best known of those who sold out to commercialism.

But in a sense the defections to Stalinism were far more damaging; Breton lost his closest allies, Aragon and the poet Paul Eluard, to the French CP. Even after the “occultation” of the surrealist movement in the post-war period, Breton’s insistence on the link between surrealism and the fight for proletarian emancipation remained as strong as ever.

The potency of this link can be judged from the fact that even today politics is written out of the accounts of surrealism which we find in the media, in the groves of academe and (perhaps above all) in the art world.

The recent exhibition of surrealist work, “Desire Unbound”, at the Tate Modern in London paid Breton and his comrades a back-handed compliment when (as Andrew Kennedy pointed out in his recent review) it omitted any serious reference to the politics of surrealism from what was supposed to be a definitive account of the movement’s development.

Even Breton’s translator and biographer, Mark Polizzotti, who seems to have established a monopoly position for himself in the publication of Breton’s work, manages to combine political illiteracy with a thinly-veiled antipathy to his subject’s revolutionary views.

If it is the relationship with Trotsky and the political engagement of the surrealists as a collective which is most immediately striking, there is another aspect to the relationship of surrealism to revolutionary politics which should not be overlooked.

If we look for the driving force behind the surrealists’ move to the left in the early twenties, it lies not only in their reading of Lenin and Trotsky, but also in the profoundly revolutionary analysis they produced of the creative process itself.

At the heart of surrealism is the belief in the creative potential of every human being, and a vision of a post-revolutionary society in which the role of artists as specialists will wither away.

The surrealists saw themselves as technicians of the imagination, developing a series of techniques – some borrowed from other disciplines, some wholly innovative – which would enable non-specialists to tap into the well-springs of the imagination located in the unconscious mind.

They seized on the researches of Sigmund Freud but rejected therapeutic applications in favour of using his techniques as a means of exploration. Their tool-kit included experiments in automatic writing and drawing, the use of hypnosis and trance, collective inquiries and games, word and image collage, found images and objects.

They investigated objective chance, occultism, eroticism, dreams, tribal art and art produced by mental patients. Their focus throughout was on the pragmatic exposition of a new poetics, a new democratic art in which – to quote the words of their hero Isidore Ducasse – “poetry should be made by all.”

Breton realised that this specifically surrealist revolution could never be accomplished within class society. Under capitalism, such techniques would be the preserve of a privileged minority.

“Surrealist activity,” he stated, “had to cease being content with the results….which it had originally planned.” The surrealists had to turn to Marxism in order to create the social conditions in which the imagination could regain its rights. The surrealists joined the revolution.