“The nature of man himself”, Trotsky wrote in Literature and Revolution, “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?”
The First Surrealist Manifesto appeared eighty-eight years ago, in October 1924. It was less a publication than an intellectual detonation. The major breakthrough of the First Manifesto lay in its fusion of Freud’s new psychological theories with a concept of the poetic that had expanded beyond mere literature to embrace the whole of everyday life.
At the manifesto’s heart was the realisation that Freud had identified the critical tools – most importantly, the study of dreams and the process of automatism – with which to embark on a serious journey into the realms of the unconscious. During 1919 André Breton and Philippe Soupault had published their first experiments with automatic writing. In 1922 Breton, Benjamin Péret, René Crevel and others initiated further experiments in the use of dreams, hypnosis and automatism.
All these early Surrealists were involved with the Dada movement. Dada had emerged as a response to the horrors of the First World War – in fact, deserters from military service had been among its founders in Geneva. Dada expressed absolute contempt for Europe’s rulers; for their “culture”, their “morals”, and their “civilisation”. Dada made “anti-art”, launched increasingly furious provocations, and flung its derision in the faces of the cultural and political elite.
But Breton and the others realised that, by 1921, Dada had reached its high tide and could go no further. Surrealism as a distinctive, independent current developed out of that awareness. Where Dada was a protest, the Surrealists, while remaining “specialists in revolt” (as they expressed it in an early pamphlet), set out 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” (Franklin Rosemont, André Breton and the First Principles of Surrealism). Their aim was nothing less than complete human emancipation.
In 1924, the specifically Marxist orientation of the early Surrealists was still in the future. Dada had been a nihilistic outburst, and in its earliest phase the new Surrealist circle in Paris had vague, though never formalised, anarchist leanings.
The convergence of Surrealism with Marxism began, in part, because the publication of the 1924 manifesto marked the beginning of the Surrealist group as an organised movement. The demands of collective activity led the group to recognise, through analysing their own experience, the key role of the revolutionary party within the workers’ movement.
It was, secondly, a consequence of a debate with Clarté, a Marxist journal associated with the Left of the French Communist Party. Victor Crastre and Marcel Fourrier, for Clarté, approved of the Surrealists’ activities but criticised them for not understanding the significance of the Russian Revolution. As the debate grew more heated, so the Surrealist position became both more coherent and more Marxist.
Another factor was the French government’s colonial war against the Rif tribes, in Morocco, which was raging at the time. The Surrealists were absolutely unflinching in their denunciation of France’s rulers, and in their support for the Rif.
From 1927 onwards, increasing numbers of the French Surrealists officially joined the Communist Party. Although a few of them – most notably the writers Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard, and Tristan Tzara (who had been one of the leading figures in Dada) – later went over to Stalinism, all through the difficult struggles of the late 20’s and the 1930’s the Surrealists as a body were among the staunchest defenders of revolutionary Marxism, and close allies of the Left Opposition. During the last months before Trotsky’s assassination by a Stalinist agent, Benjamin Péret, one of the founders of Surrealism, was among his closest comrades in Mexico. The relationship never wavered. When Trotsky’s companion, Natalia Sedova, died in 1961, she was in France visiting André and Elisa Breton; André Breton spoke, in his funeral speech for her, of his unswerving confidence in the cause of the socialist revolution.
As Surrealism spread to become an international movement, many of its participants played important roles in the anti-Stalinist Left.
These developments in the Surrealist project, to some extent, might be considered to overshadow the First Surrealist Manifesto, with its emphasis on the revolutionary implications of Freud rather than of Marx, and on the dream as opposed to direct activism. But Surrealism was and is essentially concerned with the resolution of such apparent opposites. The revolutionary dynamic of Surrealism, the revolutionary nature of its methods, was already explicit in 1924. So that the First Manifesto remained, and remains, a core document of Surrealist principles and strategy, which set out to integrate automatism, the dream, the unconscious, with the demands of practical revolutionary politics.
Is this really possible? The early Surrealists had learned, from their experience of Dada, the value of demonstrations and provocations. They were not merely writers and artists, but primarily militants whose frequent and often spectacular acts of defiance – for instance their notorious disruption of the Diaghilev ballet – outraged the establishment, and gave heart to the wider movement for social change.
That same insistence on the unity of inspiration and action has continued to be a central tenet of the international Surrealist current. And Surrealists have consistently been in the forefront of struggles across the world, from resistance against post-war consensus and Stalinism, to the present mass movement against globalisation and war.
The First Surrealist Manifesto still seems as striking, as fresh and as radical today as it seemed nearly ninety years ago, because it is still as relevant. Surrealism, even now, is a creature ahead of its time. For Surrealists, even the socialist society is only a beginning, the precondition for absolute human liberation.
The last words, like the first, must go to Trotsky. “The creative union of the conscious with the unconscious is what one usually calls ‘inspiration’”, he wrote, “Revolution is the inspired frenzy of history”.