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.