Surrealists In Solidarity With The 4th International

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Resignation

In Uncategorized on May 2, 2014 at 10:52 pm

I helped set up SurrIV with Philip Kane and Rob Marsden as a virtual meeting place for people interested in the twin traditions of Surrealism and Trotskyism, specifically the Trotskyism of the Fourth International.

It has been a modest success. Since its establishment we have published a number of articles. At the same time our little website has generated considerable debate – not always conducted in a comradely way – within the broader Surrealist community.

While I have not been a member of Socialist Resistance (the British section of the Fourth International) for some time, I have continued to sympathise with the politics and perspectives of the organisation.

However, the position that SR has taken on the current crisis in Ukraine is one that I can neither condone nor ignore. It seems to me that SR, and the FI more broadly, have joined other misguided groups in providing “left cover” for NATO and its neo-fascist proxies in Kiev.

While the war in Ukraine remained “cold”, the question was somewhat academic. Today however things have changed. Today, the trade union centre in Odessa is burning, with many dead – victims of a far right, pro-Kiev mob. Also today, Western-backed troops have attacked Slavyansk with heavy weapons and helicopters – prelude to a wider attack on anti-Kiev strongholds in Eastern Ukraine.

Today, the killing has begun. SR argues that the fault lies with Russia. In this, it echoes Fox News and the governments in Washington and London. This is not a position I can endorse or excuse.

I hope that as events unfold SR and the FI will see sense, and reconsider their political line on this pivotal issue.

As things stand however, I feel that I have no option but to sever my links with the SurrIV project.

Jay Blackwood

2nd May 2014

Things fall apart, The Centre cannot hold

In Uncategorized on January 25, 2013 at 6:21 pm

Ruined_castleThat the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) is embroiled in a deep internal crisis is now recognised by most of the Left, and even acknowledged by broad swathes of SWP members. At the Party’s recent conference, held over the first weekend in January, substantial numbers of delegates voted against the Central Committee line and also opted to support an alternative slate for the election of the CC itself – something previously unheard of in the SWP’s history. There have subsequently been high profile resignations from the Party, a rising tide of demands for change from within the party, even one of the SWP’s sister organisations withdrawing itself from the International Socialist Tendency (IST) of which the SWP is the most significant member.

These events are not merely gossip and scandal for sectarians to gloat over. The SWP remains the largest single component of the revolutionary Left in England, with an active membership of perhaps over 2,000 and a much larger periphery, as well as a relatively high public profile. Its modus operandi, and its perspectives on joint work within the many campaigns where it organises alongside other socialists, are of legitimate concern to the rest of the Left.

The first indicators of its current crisis emerged in the struggle from 2008 onwards between supporters and opponents of John Rees and Lindsey German. This led to the defection of Rees and German, in February 2010, to set up Counterfire along with a group of their supporters. In April 2011 Chris Bambery followed them out of the party, forming ISG Scotland.

That factional struggle produced two immediate results.

Firstly, the SWP turned its back on the strategy of building “united fronts of a special kind” (e.g. Stop the War and Respect) which had been a hallmark of Rees’s leading role in the party. On his departure, the SWP returned to a more insular approach, prioritising their direct party-building over any involvement in broader campaigns alongside other forces.

Secondly, a Democracy Commission was established (February 2009) to examine the party’s internal structure. Its recommendations were ratified at a Special Conference in June 2009.

The groundwork for the most recent outbreak of factional strife was laid by this opening up of a discussion around democracy, combined with the Commission’s failure to implement any substantial changes to the party’s internal regime. This regime is a variant of democratic centralism, but incorporating the kind of restrictions on freedom of debate and organisation which were brought in as temporary measures in the Russian Communist Party in the aftermath of the civil war, a period in which the working class was decimated and the revolution teetered on a knife-edge.

The version of “democratic centralism” that reigns in the SWP is an ossified form of that model, removed from its historical context and turned into a fetish. The party’s top-down structure rests on three key pillars which in turn condition the party’s internal life and culture. Firstly, the CC (Central Committee) is re-elected annually through a slate system which ensures that it is almost impossible for the membership to effect changes at the top (the ousting of Rees and Bambery was the exception to the rule insofar as it originated in a split within the CC itself); it also wholly excludes oppositional voices from the ruling body. Secondly, a top-heavy apparatus of full-timers appointed from the top maintains CC control at local and regional level. And finally, party members are only permitted to organise around dissenting perspectives in the three months immediately preceding annual conference, and even then only via the party “centre”, which vets and distributes all pre-conference documents.

Even within this highly centralised structure the CC regularly intervenes to undermine residual democratic rights. Prior to the 2010 conference, Rees-German supporters took advantage of the pre-conference period to form a “legal” (i.e. constitutionally legitimate) faction, the Left Opposition. In November 2009 two prominent faction supporters were suddenly expelled on questionable grounds, a move that could be interpreted as a warning to others in the runup to conference. The CC also ensured that delegates supporting the Left Opposition found it difficult to attend that conference – a reversal of the democratic centralist norm where oppositional factions are encouraged to attend in order to represent the diversity of views in the party. These tactics worked. At the 2010 conference the expulsions were ratified, and the Left Opposition was overwhelmingly defeated.

The departure of the Rees-German faction was hailed by many as a new dawn for the SWP, but it was clear from the minimal tweaks to the existing system sponsored by the Democracy Commission that it would be business as usual for the new leadership.

Allegations of very serious sexual misconduct, including rape, against a leading party member, and the way those allegations were handled, fed into renewed rumblings of discontent in the latter half of 2012. This prompted the declaration of a “legal” pre-conference faction, the Democratic Opposition, basing itself on modest demands for democratic reform. But even before this faction was up and running, the CC (in a repetition of November 2009) moved to expel four of its supporters on charges of “secret factionalising” – which seems to have amounted to no more than their involvement in an informal Facebook discussion. To quote the Democratic Opposition:

On a basic level, if we cannot have discussions about whether to form a faction or not, then, in reality, factions are de-facto impossible to organise and the right to form them is purely notional.”

In the wake of this, yet another “legal” faction – Democratic Centralism – also emerged. Describing itself as a “loyal opposition”, its apparent focus was also on internal democracy. It opposed the recent expulsions and cautioned against a draconian reaction from the CC, which it feared would result in an exodus of young, disillusioned party members.

The modest structural changes advocated by the Democratic Opposition were, of course, not to be countenanced by the party leadership. But it was (and remains) clear that the struggle around the Rees-German group and the setting up of the Democracy Commission has opened a Pandora’s Box that may prove impossible to close.

The SWP conference in January 2013 naturally became the central arena in which the various interweaving conflicts that had developed within the organisation were to be played out.

Perhaps inevitably, the questions of internal democracy became irrevocably bound up with the very serious allegations that had been made against “Comrade Delta”, and particularly with the way that the Party had handled (or rather, mishandled) that case. It is, by now, unnecessary here to go into the exact details of those allegations or the SWP’s mistaken policy of handling them as a matter for a purely internal investigation – much of that detail has already been widely circulated on the internet and has become common knowledge, at least on the Left.

However, it quickly became clear that the SWP’s leadership continue to be intent on closing down discussion, and especially on sweeping the controversy around “Comrade Delta” well and truly under the carpet. But the consequences of that approach are proving little short of catastrophic for the SWP as a whole.

Within a few days of the Party conference, a journalist on Socialist Worker, Tom Walker, resigned from the organisation and wrote a highly damning open letter explaining his reasons for doing so.

Furthermore, Walker wrote, the SWP is in his opinion now facing inevitable destruction. I am not its destroyer – it has already destroyed itself. Maybe it will be days, months or years, but it is now a permanent time bomb. I cannot imagine how it will hold on to any recruit who knows how to use Google…In the absence at the very least of the most grovelling public apology and a massive process of internal reform, I am afraid I think the SWP is broken for good”.

The truth is that Tom Walker is almost certainly reflecting the opinions and feelings of very many SWP members at this point.

Richard Seymour, a longstanding SWP member whose blog Lenin’s Tomb is widely read and respected on the Left, has launched a stinging public attack on the leadership of his own Party:

There isn’t enough bile to conjure up the shame and disgrace of all of this, nor the palpable physical revulsion, nor the visceral contempt building, nor the sense of betrayal and rage, nor the literal physical and emotional shattering of people exposed to the growing madness day in and day out.

 

This is the thing that all party members need to understand. Even on cynical grounds, the Central Committee has no strategy for how to deal with this. A scandal has been concealed, lied about, then dumped on the members in the most arrogant and stupid manner possible. The leadership is expecting you to cope with this. This isn’t the first time that such unaccountable practices have left you in the lurch. You will recall your pleasure on waking up to find out that Respect was collapsing and that it was over fights that had been going on for ages which no one informed you about. But this is much worse. They expect you to go to your activist circles, your union, your workplaces, and argue something that is indefensible. Not only this, but in acting in this way, they have – for their own bureaucratic reasons – broken with a crucial component of the politics of the International Socialist tradition that undergirds the SWP. The future of the party is at stake, and they are on the wrong side of that fight. You, as members, have to fight for your political existence. Don’t simply drift away, don’t simply bury your face in your palms, and don’t simply cling to the delusional belief that the argument was settled at conference. You must fight now”.

It is beyond question that the SWP leadership will lose more members, perhaps in considerable numbers, both through further expulsions and through a steady trickle of resignations. As it tries to shroud its own crisis in secrecy, something that was never likely to work even before the emergence of the internet and social media, it also risks looking increasingly absurd and outdated in its desperate attempt to retain tight bureaucratic control over the organisation.

More weight is given to this assessment by other subsequent events, especially the resignation from the SWP’s own international body, the IST, of their Serbian sister organisation Marks21.

The Serbian comrades, in their open letter of resignation, specifically cite the SWP’s mishandling of the “Comrade Delta” case alongside the Party’s turn away from united front activity as reason for their departure.

At the time of writing, it remains to be seen whether more of the IST’s affiliates will follow the Serbian group, and also the extent to which comrades like Richard Seymour are able to fight for their position within the Party. But on the basis of bitter past experiences, the prognosis cannot be good.

The SWP’s implosion gives us no cause for celebration. Whatever its many faults, the Party contains large numbers of good comrades, many of whom will be embittered and demoralised by these events, and perhaps in many cases will be lost to revolutionary Marxism forever.

Those of us who have been part of the International Socialists/SWP tradition, and who still relate to the best elements of that tradition even though we may have moved into membership of other political tendencies, need to avoid any inclination to smugly say, “We told you so”. But even while the agonies of the SWP contain elements of both tragedy and farce, any crisis is also an opportunity.

At the same time as the SWP is in turmoil, there are a number of encouraging unity initiatives; the recently formed Anti Capitalist Initiative, for example. The various currents of the radical Left in England, including Socialist Resistance, have their own contributions to bring to the discussion, yet the finished article must be a collective effort, and above all must learn from the wider movement rather than being yet another indulgence in quasi-Bolshevik navel gazing. What confronts us now is a real chance to reforge the revolutionary Left in Britain as a genuinely democratic, pluralist, dynamic force. The new organisation that we need will take time to build, even with encouraging signs of some recomposition on the Left in the wake of crisis and scandal. But we need to start the process of building it now.

To that end, we hope that any comrades departing the SWP in the current crisis will join in with the conversation, and move forward with us to the kind of non-sectarian revolutionary Marxist organisation that we all know is an absolute necessity.

Long Live Palestine!

In Uncategorized on November 28, 2012 at 11:01 am

SurrIV Statement on Gaza/Palestine

Surrealists have always seen through the West’s use of its ‘civilising mission’ as a pretext for colonial war. French Surrealists were prominent opponents of France’s actions in North Africa and elsewhere. In more recent years, there have been international Surrealist initiatives to condemn US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as statements in support of the struggles of indigenous peoples.

In recent days we have seen in the Middle East another example of the Great Myth of the civilising West, this time with Israel acting in its traditional role of imperialism’s well-trained attack dog. The Western media has been full of the usual rhetoric, pitting ‘plucky little Israel’ (with its huge arsenal of weapons) against the backward, barbaric Islamist masses of Gaza. The narrative is one of a Westernised, democratic state acting in self-defence against the anti-democratic extremists of Hamas.

The asymmetrical character of the conflict is clear for anyone with eyes to see. Despite the huge institutional bias of the BBC and other official media outlets, the internet has enabled us to follow the shocking toll in civilian casualties that the Israeli state has once again imposed on the Palestinians. These are effectively mass punishment killings, with the Israeli war machine acting as judge and executioner against ordinary Palestinian non-combatants. The flouting of ‘civilised norms’ – to the extent that such things exist – is absolutely open, and is fully endorsed by the US, the UK and Israel’s other allies. After all, how else does one deal with savages?

But there is a problem with the narrative being imposed on the conflict by Western observers, aside from the sheer scale of the carnage being inflicted on Gaza. The Hamas government is a democratically elected one, owing its popularity to a militancy long ago eschewed by the PLO and other traditional Palestinian resistance organisations. Its election was even endorsed by Western observers, who were certainly no friends to its cause. Hamas has tried repeatedly to find alternatives to violence in its dealings with Israel; predictably to no avail, given the nature of the Israeli state – its overwhelming monopoly of power and its unflinching support in the West. Hamas didn’t start this conflict, and ultimately it is in no position to end it. That task lies with the Arab masses, who have begun to mobilise so effectively on the stage of history in recent times.

Those who deflect attention away from Israeli war crimes, focusing instead on the nature of the Hamas government or the ‘Islamist’ shortcomings of the anti-colonial movement, are effectively colluding with Zionist apologists who provide the Israeli state with alibis for its genocidal actions. As Surrealists we will have no truck with this. We unequivocally give our support to the international anti-Zionist struggle in its many forms – from the cultural boycott and disinvestment campaign to the aid flotillas and the mass demonstrations that are taking place all around the world.

There can be no peace without justice, and no justice without the dismantling of the racist Israeli state.

Long live the Arab Revolution!

Long live Palestine!

We will play other games

In Uncategorized on June 29, 2012 at 7:28 am

A SurrIV statement on the 2012 Olympics

We confidently predict that the Austerity Olympics will be remembered more for their presentation off-field than for any outstanding sporting achievements to come.

For the long shadows of surface to air missiles over Tower Hamlets.

For warships moored along the Thames.

For the homeless priced out of the ‘market’ by landlords eager to turn a fast buck.

For the jarring incongruity of sponsors who, like Dow Chemicals, take the breath away.

Citius, Altius, Fortius – do you want fries with that?

For the ticket prices which stick two fingers up to working class people.

For the eleven miles of Iron Curtain: an electrified border around the neoliberal Narnian bubble where they steal your food at the entrance in order to sell you Turkish Delight at an extortionate price within.

Enough of this Olympic spectacle which appals and repels even before the first ball is kicked, the first race is run, the first medal awarded or career summarily ended by a piss-test!

We will play other games.

Games of chance and games of wonder. Games of awakening consciousness, of mass participation and collective goals – liberty, ecology, social justice. In short, the ideals and interests of humanity in all its myriad diversity.

 
In furtherance of these ends, we advance two immediate demands:

 
The Olympic games must be repatriated to Greece forever and run for the benefit of the Greek people, not for multinational profiteers. The staging of the games to be paid for by the rest of the so-called ‘international community’ until such time as all debts owed to the people of Greece are deemed to be paid in full.

 
The games to be accompanied by the Parthenon marbles and placed at the disposal of all those resisting austerity on the streets, to be broken up into small chunks and hurled at the Troika.

This sport to be played by all.
 

The Liberation of Wilderness

In Uncategorized on May 1, 2012 at 12:12 am

By way of a May Day manifesto, we republish this text, first circulated by the London Surrealist Group, which is fully in accordance with the views of the SurrIV editorial collective.

Today, environmental action is both essential and urgent. Even world leaders are quite happy to mouth the words, while their actions continue the downward spiral towards environmental catastrophe. There are imminent ecological dangers that must be faced, climate change and its consequences being, perhaps, the most terrifying. As the rulers of capitalism prevaricate, more afraid of falling profits than of human extinction, it is at least some small encouragement that the awareness of this has become more widespread, no longer the preserve purely of ageing hippies and backwoods radicals.

 

Yet for us as Surrealists, even a triumph of environmental activism would not be sufficient to turn humanity aside from millennia of conflict with nature. Our own radical ecology, our quest for the poetic unification of the human imagination with the lived and living environment, is not a matter of salvaging whatever we can from the wreck, nor is it dependent on a sentimental re-visioning of nature. Rather, we demand the absolute liberation of wilderness.

 

The civilised bourgeois hates and fears the wilderness, damning it as evil in its untamed vitality and eroticism, even as he builds civilised killing machines and uses them to fight civilised wars. For us, on the other hand, wilderness is essential to the creation of a truly complete humanity.

 

And where is wilderness to be found today? It is in the spirit of rebellion and of revolution, it is in human desire, in the forests of the imagination and in a fully liberated sexuality as much as it is in mountains or oceans. The Surrealist vision sees our world not simply as a physical, environmental, unity but also as a poetic unity.

 

Thus when another species is extinguished by the vaulting greed of capitalism, the destruction affects the ecosystem outwardly and at the same moment it extinguishes a part of our humanity. Whether the victim is dodo, redwood or wolf, the loss inevitably resonates through the deepest levels of our own being.

 

We want to bring back the wolves. We even want to bring back the dodo. Only this will bring us back to becoming fully and irrevocably human.

 

There can be no true victory for the ecological movement unless and until we are able to bring about the rebirth of wilderness in the most profound sense. This, beyond the prevention of climate change or the preservation of ancient landscapes, is a central objective of the Surrealist revolution.

 

Manifesto: LONG LIVE DEGENERATE ART

In Uncategorized on April 26, 2012 at 9:51 am

December 1938

We know with what hostility current society looks upon any new literary or artistic creation that directly or indirectly threatens the intellectual disciplines and moral values of behaviour on which it depends for a large part of its own life – its survival.

This hostility is appearing today in totalitarian countries, especially in Hitler’s Germany, through the most despicable attacks against an art that these tasselled brutes, promoted to the rank of omniscient judges, qualify as degenerate.

All the achievements of contemporary artistic genius from Cézanne to Picasso – the product of the ultimate in freedom, strength and human feeling – have been received with insults and repression. We believe that it is mere idiocy and folly to reduce modern art, as some desire, to a fanaticism for any particular religion, race or nation.

Along these lines we see only the imprisonment of thought, whereas art is known to be an exchange of thought and emotions shared by all humanity, one that knows not these artificial boundaries.

Vienna has been left to a rabble that has torn Renoir’s paintings and burned the writings of Freud in public places. The best works by great German painters such as Max Ernst, Paul Klee, Karl Hoffer, Kokoschka, George Grosz and Kandinsky have been confiscated and replaced by Nazi art of no value. The same recently took place in Rome where a committee was formed to purge literature, and, performing its duties, decided to eliminate works that went against nationalism and race, as well as any work raising pessimism.

O men of art, men of letters! Let us take up the challenge together! We stand absolutely as one with this degenerate art. In it resides all the hopes of the future. Let us work for its victory over the new Middle Ages that are rising in the heart of Europe.

The following artists, writers, journalists and lawyers have signed this manifesto:

Ibrahim Wassily, Ahmed Fahmy, Edouard Pollack, Edouard Levy, Armand Antis, Albert Israel, Albert Koseiry, Telmessany, Alexandra Mitchkowivska, Emile Simon, Angelo Paulo, Angelo De Riz, Anwar Kamel, Annette Fadida, A. Paulitz, L. Galenti, Germain Israel, George Henein, Hassan Sobhi, A. Rafo, Zakaria AL Azouny, Samy Riad, Samy Hanouka, Escalette, Abd El Din, Mohamed Nour, Nadaf Selair, Hassia, Henry Domani.

Cairo, December 22, 1938.

Leon Trotsky: Art and Politics in Our Epoch

In Uncategorized on April 17, 2012 at 7:45 pm

This letter was published in the June 1938 edition of the US left journal Partisan Review, a few months before the drafting of  Manifesto: Towards a Free Revolutionary Art which was published in the autumn issue of the same journal.

The full text, with an introduction and a follow-up letter by Trotsky is at:

http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/06/artpol.htm

You have been kind enough to invite me to express my views on the state of present-day arts and letters. I do this not without some hesitation. Since my book Literature and Revolution (1923), I have not once returned to the problem of artistic creation and only occasionally have I been able to follow the latest developments in this sphere. I am far from pretending to offer an exhaustive reply. The task of this letter is to correctly pose the question.

Generally speaking, art is an expression of man’s need for an harmonious and complete life, that is to say, his need for those major benefits of which a society of classes has deprived him. That is why a protest against reality, either conscious or unconscious, active or passive, optimistic or pessimistic, always forms part of a really creative piece of work. Every new tendency in art has begun with rebellion. Bourgeois society showed its strength throughout long periods of history in the fact that, combining repression, and encouragement, boycott and flattery, it was able to control and assimilate every “rebel” movement in art and raise it to the level of official “recognition.” But each time this “recognition” betokened, when all is said and done, the approach of trouble. It was then that from the left wing of the academic school or below it – i.e. from the ranks of new generations of bohemian artists – a fresher revolt would surge up to attain in its turn, after a decent interval, the steps of the academy. Through these stages passed classicism, romanticism, realism, naturalism, symbolism, impressionism, cubism, futurism … Nevertheless, the union of art and the bourgeoisie remained stable, even if not happy, only so long as the bourgeoisie itself took the initiative and was capable of maintaining a regime both politically and morally “democratic.” This was a question of not only giving free rein to artists and playing up to them in every possible way, but also of granting special privileges to the top layer of the working class, and of mastering and subduing the bureaucracy of the unions and workers’ parties. All these phenomena exist in the same historical plane.

Decay of Capitalist Society

The decline of bourgeois society means an intolerable exacerbation of social contradictions, which are transformed inevitably into personal contradictions, calling forth an ever more burning need for a liberating art. Furthermore, a declining capitalism already finds itself completely incapable of offering the minimum conditions for the development of tendencies in art which correspond, however little, to our epoch. It fears superstitiously every new word, for it is no longer a matter of corrections and reforms for capitalism but of life and death. The oppressed masses live their own life. Bohemianism offers too limited a social base. Hence new tendencies take on a more and more violent character, alternating between hope and despair. The artistic schools of the last few decades – cubism, futurism, dadaism, surrealism – follow each other without reaching a complete development. 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.

But precisely in this path history has set a formidable snare for the artist. A whole generation of “leftist” intelligentsia has turned its eyes for the last ten or fifteen years to the East and has bound its lot, in varying degrees, to a victorious revolution, if not to a revolutionary proletariat. Now, this is by no means one and the same thing. In the victorious revolution there is not only the revolution, but there is also the new privileged class which raises itself on the shoulders of the revolution. In reality, the “leftist” intelligentsia has tried to change masters. What has it gained?

The October revolution gave a magnificent impetus to all types of Soviet art. The bureaucratic reaction, on the contrary, has stifled artistic creation with a totalitarian hand. Nothing surprising here! Art is basically a function of the nerves and demands complete sincerity. Even the art of the court of absolute monarchies was based on idealization but not on falsification. The official art of the Soviet Union– and there is no other over there – resembles totalitarian justice, that is to say, it is based on lies and deceit. The goal of justice, as of art, is to exalt the “leader,” to fabricate an heroic myth. Human history has never seen anything to equal this in scope and impudence. A few examples will not be superfluous.

The well known Soviet writer, Vsevolod Ivanov, recently broke his silence to proclaim eagerly his solidarity with the justice of Vyshinsky. The general extermination of the old Bolsheviks, “those putrid emanations of capitalism,” stimulates in the artists a “creative hatred” in Ivanov’s words. Romantic, cautious by nature, lyrical, none too outspoken, Ivanov recalls Gorki, in many ways, but in miniature. Not a prostitute by nature, he preferred to remain quiet as long as possible but the time came when silence meant civil and perhaps physical annihilation. It is not a “creative hatred” that guides the pen of these writers but paralyzing fear.

Alexis Tolstoy, who has finally permitted the courtesan to master the artist, has written a novel expressly to glorify the military exploits of Stalin and Voroshilov at Tsaritsin. In reality, as impartial documents bear witness, the army of Tsaritsin – one of the two dozen armies of the revolution – played a rather sorry role. The two “heroes” were relieved of their posts. If the honest and simple Chapayev, one of the real heroes of the civil war is glorified in a Soviet film, it is only because he did not live until the “epoch of Stalin” which would have shot him as a Fascist agent. The same Alexis Tolstoy is now writing a drama on the theme of the year 1919: The Campaign of the Fourteen Powers. The principal heroes of this piece, according to the words of the author, are “Lenin, Stalin and Voroshilov. Their images [of Stalin and Voroshilov!] haloed in glory and heroism, will pervade the whole drama.” Thus, a talented writer who bears the name of the greatest and most truthful Russian realist, has become a manufacturer of “myths” to order!

Very recently, the 27th of April of this year, the official government paper Izvestia, printed a reproduction of a new painting representing Stalin as the organizer of the Tiflis strike in March 1902. However, it appears from documents long known to the public, that Stalin was in prison at that time and besides not in Tiflis but in Batum. This time the lie was too glaring! Izvestia was forced to excuse itself the next day for its deplorable blunder. No one knows what happened to the unfortunate picture, which was paid for from State funds.

Dozens, hundreds, thousands of books, films, canvases, sculptures immortalize and glorify such historic “episodes.” Thus the numerous pictures devoted to the October revolution do not fail to represent a revolutionary “Centre,” with Stalin at its head, which never existed. It is necessary to say a few words concerning the gradual preparation of this falsification. Leonid Serebriakov, shot after the Piatakov-Radek trial, drew my attention in 1924 to the publication in Pravda, without explanation, of extracts from the minutes of the Central Committee of the latter part of 1917. An old secretary of the Central Committee, Serebriakov had numerous contacts behind the scenes with the party apparatus, and he knew enough the object of this unexpected publication: it was the first step, still a cautious one, towards the principal Stalinist myth, which now occupies so great a place in Soviet art.

The Mythical “Centre”

From an historical distance the October insurrection seems much more planned and monolithic than what it proved to be in reality. In fact, there were lacking neither vacillations, search for solutions, nor impulsive beginnings which led nowhere. Thus, at the meeting of the Central Committee on the 16th of October, improvised in one night, in the presence of the most active leaders of the Petrograd Soviets, it was decided to round out the general-staff of the insurrection with an auxiliary “Centre” created by the party and composed of Sverdlov, Stalin, Bubnov, Uritzky and Djerjinsky. At the very same time at the meeting of the Petrograd Soviet, a Revolutionary Military Committee was formed which from the moment of its appearance did so much work towards the preparation of the insurrection that the “Centre,” appointed the night before, was forgotten by everybody, even by its own members. There were more than a few of such improvisations in the whirlwind of this period. Stalin never belonged to the Military Revolutionary Committee, did not appear at Smolny, staff headquarters of the revolution, had nothing to do with the practical preparation of the insurrection, but was to be found editing Pravda and writing drab articles, which were very little read. During the following years nobody once mentioned the “Practical Centre.” In memoirs of participants in the insurrection – and there is no shortage of these – the name of Stalin is not once mentioned. Stalin himself, in an article on the anniversary of the October insurrection, in the Pravda of November 7, 1918, describing all the groups and individuals who took part in the insurrection, does not say a word about the “Practical Centre.” Nevertheless, the old minutes, discovered by chance in 1924 and falsely interpreted, have served as a base for the bureaucratic legend. In every compilation, bibliographical guide, even in recently edited school books, the revolutionary “Centre” has a prominent place with Stalin at its head. Furthermore, no one has tried, not even out of a sense of decency, to explain where and how this “Centre” established its headquarters, to whom it gave orders and what they were, and whether minutes were taken or where they are. We have here all the features of the Moscow trials.

With the docility which distinguishes it, Soviet art so-called, has made this bureaucratic myth into one of its favourite subjects for artistic creation. Sverdlov, Djerjinsky, Uritsky and Bubnov are represented in oils or in tempera, seated or standing around Stalin and following his words with rapt attention. The building where the “Centre” has headquarters, is intentionally depicted in a vague fashion, in order to avoid the embarrassing question of the address. What can one hope for or demand of artists who are forced to follow with their brushes the crude lines of what they themselves realize is an historical falsification?

The style of present-day official Soviet painting is called “socialist realism.” The name itself has evidently been invented by some high functionary in the department of the arts. This “realism” consists in the imitation of provincial daguerreotypes of the third quarter of the last century; the “socialist” character apparently consists in representing, in the manner of pretentious photography, events which never took place. It is impossible to read Soviet verse and prose without physical disgust, mixed with horror, or to look at reproductions of paintings and sculpture in which functionaries armed with pens, brushes, and scissors, under the supervision of functionaries armed with Mausers, glorify the “great” and “brilliant” leaders, actually devoid of the least spark of genius or greatness. The art of the Stalinist period will remain as the frankest expression of the profound decline of the proletarian revolution.

This state of things is not confined, however, within the frontiers of the USSR. Under the guise of a belated recognition of the October revolution, the “left” wing of the western intelligentsia has fallen on its knees before the Soviet bureaucracy. As a rule, those artists with some character and talent have kept aloof. But the appearance in the first ranks, of the failures, careerists and nobodies is all the more unfortunate. A rash of Centres and Committees of all sorts has broken out, of secretaries of both sexes, inevitable letters from Romain Rolland, subsidized editions, banquets and congresses, in which it is difficult to trace the line of demarcation between art and the GPU. Despite this vast spread of activity, this militarized movement has not produced one single work that was able to outlive its author or its inspirers in the Kremlin.

Rivera and October

In the field of painting, the October revolution has found her greatest interpreter not in the USSRbut in faraway Mexico, not among the official “friends,” but in the person of a so-called “enemy of the people” whom the Fourth International is proud to number in its ranks. Nurtured in the artistic cultures of all peoples, all epochs, Diego Rivera has remained Mexican in the most profound fibres of his genius. But that which inspired him in these magnificent frescoes, which lifted him up above the artistic tradition, above contemporary art, in a certain sense above himself, is the mighty blast of the proletarian revolution. Without October, his power of creative penetration into the epic of work, oppression and insurrection, would never have attained such breadth and profundity. Do you wish to see with your own eyes the hidden springs of the social revolution? Look at the frescoes of Rivera. Do you wish to know what revolutionary art is like? Look at the frescoes of Rivera.

Come a little closer and you will see clearly enough, gashes and spots made by vandals: Catholics and other reactionaries, including of course, Stalinists. These cuts and gashes give even greater life to the frescoes. You have before you, not simply a “painting,” an object of passive aesthetic contemplation, but a living part of the class struggle. And it is at the same time a masterpiece!

Only the historical youth of a country which has not yet emerged from the stage of struggle for national independence, has allowed Rivera’s revolutionary brush to be used on the walls of the public buildings of Mexico. In the United States it was more difficult. Just as the monks in the Middle Ages, through ignorance, it is true, erased antique literary productions from parchments to cover them with their scholastic ravings, just so Rockefeller’s lackeys, but this time maliciously, covered the frescoes of the talented Mexican with their decorative banalities. This recent palimpsest will conclusively show future generations the fate of art degraded in a decaying bourgeois society.

The situation is no better, however, in the country of the October revolution. Incredible as it seemed at first sight, there was no place for the art of Diego Rivera, either in Moscow, or in Leningrad, or in any other section of the USSR where the bureaucracy born of the revolution was erecting grandiose palaces and monuments to itself. And how could the Kremlin clique tolerate in its kingdom an artist who paints neither icons representing the “leader” nor life-size portraits of Voroshilov’s horse? The closing of the Soviet doors to Rivera will brand forever with an ineffaceable shame the totalitarian dictatorship.

Will it go on much longer – this stifling, this trampling under foot and muddying of everything on which the future of humanity depends? Reliable indications say no. The shameful and pitiable collapse of the cowardly and reactionary politics of the Popular Fronts in Spain and France, on the one hand, and the judicial frame-ups of Moscow, on the other, portend the approach of a major turning point not only in the political sphere, but also in the broader sphere of revolutionary ideology. Even the unfortunate “friends” – but evidently not the intellectual and moral shallows of The New Republic and Nation – are beginning to tire of the yoke and whip. Art, culture, politics need a new perspective. Without it humanity will not develop. But never before has the prospect been as menacing and catastrophic as now. That is the reason why panic is the dominant state of mind of the bewildered intelligentsia. Those who oppose an irresponsible scepticism to the yoke of Moscow do not weight heavy in the balance of history. Scepticism is only another form, and not the best, of demoralization. Behind the act, so popular now, of impartially keeping aloof from the Stalinist bureaucracy as well as its revolutionary adversaries, is hidden nine times out of ten a wretched prostration before the difficulties and dangers of history. Nevertheless, verbal subterfuges and petty manoeuvres will be of no use. No one will be granted either pardon or respite. In the face of the era of wars and revolutions which is drawing near, everyone will have to give an answer: philosophers, poets, painters as well as simple mortals.

In the June issue of your magazine I found a curious letter from an editor of a Chicago magazine, unknown to me. Expressing (by mistake, I hope) his sympathy for your publication, he writes: “I can see no hope however [?] from the Trotskyites or other anaemic splinters which have no mass base.” These arrogant words tell more about the author than he perhaps wanted to say. They show above all that the laws of development of society have remained a seven times sealed book for him. Not a single progressive idea has begun with a “mass base,” otherwise it would not have been a progressive idea. It is only in its last stage that the idea finds its masses – if, of course, it answers the needs of progress. All great movements have begun as “splinters” of older movements. In the beginning, Christianity was only a “splinter” of Judaism; Protestantism a “splinter” of Catholicism, that is to say decayed Christianity. The group of Marx and Engels came into existence as a “splinter” of the Hegelian Left. The Communist International germinated during the war from the “splinters” of the Social Democratic International. If these pioneers found themselves able to create a mass base, it was precisely because they did not fear isolation. They knew beforehand that the quality of their ideas would be transformed into quantity. These “splinters” did not suffer from anaemia; on the contrary, they carried within themselves the germs of the great historical movements of tomorrow.

“Splinters” and Pioneers

In very much the same way, to repeat, a progressive movement occurs in art. When an artistic tendency has exhausted its creative resources, creative “splinters” separate from it, which are able to look at the world with new eyes. The more daring the pioneers show in their ideas and actions, the more bitterly they oppose themselves to established authority which rests on a conservative “mass base,” the more conventional souls, sceptics, and snobs are inclined to see in the pioneers, impotent eccentrics or “anaemic splinters‚” But in the last analysis it is the conventional souls, sceptics and snobs who are wrong – and life passes them by.

The Thermidorian bureaucracy, to whom one cannot deny either a certain animal sense of danger or a strong instinct of self-preservation, is not at all inclined to estimate its revolutionary adversaries with such whole-hearted disdain, a disdain which is often coupled with lightness and inconsistency. In the Moscow trials, Stalin, who is not a venturesome player by nature, staked on the struggle against “Trotskyism,” the fate of the Kremlin oligarchy as well as his own personal destiny. How can one explain this fact? The furious international campaign against “Trotskyism,” for which a parallel in history will be difficult to find, would be absolutely inexplicable if the “splinters” were not endowed with an enormous vitality. He who does not see this today will see it better tomorrow.

As if to complete his self-portrait with one brilliant stroke, your Chicago correspondent vows – what bravery! – to meet you in a future concentration camp either fascist or “communist.” A fine program! To tremble at the thought of the concentration camp is certainly not admirable. But is it much better to foredoom oneself and one’s ideas to this grim hospitality? With the Bolshevik “amoralism” which is characteristic of us, we are ready to suggest that gentlemen – by no means anaemic – who capitulate before the fight and without a fight really deserve nothing better than the concentration camp.

It would be a different matter if your correspondent simply said: in the sphere of literature and art we wish no supervision on the part of “Trotskyists” any more than from the Stalinists. This protest would be, in essence, absolutely just. One can only retort that to aim it at those who are termed “Trotskyists” would be to batter in an open door. The ideological base of the conflict between the Fourth and Third Internationals is the profound disagreement not only on the tasks of the party but in general on the entire material and spiritual life of mankind.

The real crisis of civilization is above all the crisis of revolutionary leadership. Stalinism is the greatest element of reaction in this crisis. Without a new flag and a new program it is impossible to create a revolutionary mass base; consequently it is impossible to rescue society from its dilemma. But a truly revolutionary party is neither able nor willing to take upon itself the task of “leading” and even less of commanding art, either before or after the conquest of power. Such a pretension could only enter the head of a bureaucracy – ignorant and impudent, intoxicated with its totalitarian power – which has become the antithesis of the proletarian revolution. Art, like science, not only does not seek orders, but by its very essence, cannot tolerate them,. Artistic creation has its laws – even when it consciously serves a social movement. Truly intellectual creation is incompatible with lies, hypocrisy and the spirit of conformity. Art can become a strong ally of revolution only in so far as it remains faithful to itself. Poets, painters, sculptors and musicians will themselves find their own approach and methods, if the struggle for freedom of oppressed classes and peoples scatters the clouds of scepticism and of pessimism which cover the horizon of mankind. The first condition of this regeneration is the overthrow of the domination of the Kremlin bureaucracy.

May your magazine take its place in the victorious army of socialism and not in a concentration camp!

Leon Trotsky
Coyoacan, D. F.,
June 18, 1938.

“With pens of hope and anger…”

In Uncategorized on April 15, 2012 at 11:20 am

A SurrIV statement on Syria and the Arab Spring

The Syrian uprising, which continues despite the bitter setback of defeat at Homs – like the Libyan revolution that preceded it – cannot be considered in isolation from the wider Arab Spring of which it is part.

This uprising of the exploited and downtrodden, this elemental fury of the Arab street, has initiated a long process that is redrawing the map of the Middle East – for decades a map of straight edges shaped not by the tidal actions of millions, but cut abruptly by the bayonets of competing imperialisms and the swords of the elites in hoc to them.

Contagious revolt has upset the strategic plans of Western imperialism, which now attempts to regain the initiative, hoping to neuter the struggle by riding to its head and posing as a friend. In doing so, it abandons its support for some previously friendly client regimes (Mubarak, Gaddaffi) whilst continuing to bolster others (such as Bahrain). And, within the mass movements themselves, promotes the more pliable pro-western, pro-capitalist liberals who have come to the fore.

In some cases, such as in Egypt, this has dammed the progress of the revolution, with the consolidation of a military regime little different from the one it “replaced” but for the additional co-opting of the Muslim Brotherhood as a loyal opposition.

In Libya, the process went much further. The Gaddaffi regime was buried with the active military intervention of the Western branch of the imperialist family (led by Britain, France and the US), whose nervous gazes are now fixed on their estranged brothers, China and Russia, as much as on the states of the Arab world.

In Syria, we continue to counsel against the embrace of imperialism. We counterpose to demands for imperialist intervention our own demand for ARMS WITHOUT STRINGS to the revolutionaries. We call for this against the United Nations arms embargo that can only contain the struggle, which favours the Assad regime and prevents a radical rupture with imperialism itself.

Our support for the absolute right of oppressed peoples to throw off their shackles and cast the dice for a better future is unconditional. It does not depend on the character of this or that faction of the leadership, or the direction they may face from one day to the next. It does not rise and fall like mercury depending on the pace or temperature of the struggle.

However, the other side of that coin of principled support for the right to revolt is the obligation to criticise; to offer advice or to issue warnings. The lessons of previous struggles are plain to us and we will not bite our tongues in the fatuous belief that a false façade of unity is more important than the elaboration of a correct perspective.

Principally, we argue that the immediate spontaneous demands for national liberation, social justice and radical democracy cannot be fully realised or made permanent within the framework of capitalism or under the aegis of imperialism. Nor can the struggle proceed without a break from local bourgeois, clerical or military elites. They are the gardens in which the seeds of internal counter-revolution are sown.

 With pens of hope and anger the masses have written their verses in the street, in the public square, in the factory and in the marketplace.

We will not allow the imperialists to edit or censor this poetry of revolution, to cram it into meagre volumes. Nor shall we let the jackals of counter-revolution blot the pages with red ink.

 

An intellectual detonation- the first surrealist manifesto

In Uncategorized on April 14, 2012 at 6:39 am

“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”.

Philip Kane

A Letter From Coyoacan, 1938

In Uncategorized on April 9, 2012 at 10:56 am

 This letter appeared in Partisan Review, Winter 1939. We are grateful to the very interesting Criticism&C website for bringing it to our attention.

http://criticismetc.wordpress.com/2010/04/23/a-letter-from-coyoacan-1938/

Leon Trotsky to André Breton

My Dear Breton:

With all my heart I congratulate Diego Rivera and yourself on the creation of the FIARI—an international federation of truly revolutionary and truly independent artists. And why not add—of true artists. It is time, it is high time! The entire globe is becoming a dirty and reeking imperialist barracks. The heroes of democracy, with the inimitable Daladier at their head, make every effort to ape the heroes of fascism (which will not prevent them from landing in a fascist concentration camp). The duller and more ignorant the dictator, the more he feels called upon to prescribe the development of science, philosophy and art. The sheep like servility of the intelligentsia is, in turn, a not unimportant sign of the rottenness of contemporary society. France is no exception.

Why speak of the Aragons, the Ehrenburgs and other petites canailles? Why name those gentlemen (death has not absolved them) who compose, with equal enthusiasm, biographies of Christ and Stalin. Let us also pass over the pitiful, not to say ignoble, decline of Romain Rolland…. But one feels too strongly to ignore the case of Malraux. I followed his first literary steps with much interest. At that time there was already a strong element of pose and affectation in him. His pretentiously cold studies of heroism in other lands often made one uneasy. But it was impossible to deny him talent. With undeniable power he aimed at the very peak of human emotion—of heroic struggle, self-sacrifice, extreme anguish. One might expect—and I, for one, earnestly hoped—that the sense of revolutionary heroism would enter more profoundly into his being, would purify him of pose and make him the major poet of an epoch of disasters. But what in fact happened? The artist became a reporter for the GPU, a purveyor of bureaucratic heroism in prudently proportioned slices, just so long and so wide. (They have no third dimension).

During the Civil War I was obliged to fight stubbornly against the vague or lying military reports submitted by officers who tried to hide their errors, failures and defeats in a torrent of generalities.

The present productions of Malraux are just such lying reports from the fields of battle (Germany,Spain, etc). However, the lie is more repugnant dressed up in artistic form. The fate of Malraux is symbolic for a whole stratum of writers, almost for a whole generation. It is the generation of those who lie from pretended “friendship” for the October revolution.

The unhappy Soviet press, evidently on orders from above, complains bitterly in these latter days of the “impoverishment” of scientific and artistic production in the USSR and reproaches Soviet artists and writers with lack of sincerity, courage and vitality. One can’t believe one’s eyes: the boa constrictor delivers to the rabbit a homily on independence and personal dignity. Hideous and ignoble picture, but how worthy of our time!

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. “You shall not lie!”—that is the formula of salvation.

Properly understood, the FIARI is not an aesthetic or political school and cannot become one. But FIARI can oxidize the atmosphere in which artists breath and create. In our epoch of the convulsive reaction, of cultural decline and return to savagery, truly independent creation cannot but be 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 upon orders from outside, but rejecting such orders and heaping scorn upon all who submit to them. To encourage such attitudes among the best circles of artists—this is the task of the FIARI.

I firmly believe that its name will enter history.

Yours,

LEON TROTSKY

Coyoacan, D.F.,Mexico

December 22, 1938