SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 120 - July/August 2008

Surrealism’s revolutionary heart

They met in Mexico, 1938. Leon Trotsky, co-leader of the Russian revolution, André Breton, cofounder of the surrealist movement, and Diego Rivera, revolutionary Mexican artist/activist. Together, they formulated the Manifesto: Towards a Free Revolutionary Art. Trotsky, in exile and hunted by Stalin’s agents, was the main author, Breton and Diego its signatories. On the 70th anniversary of the Manifesto, MANNY THAIN looks at the significance of this collaboration.

THE MANIFESTO WAS a call to arms, pens and brushes addressed to radical artists and writers. It denounced fascism and Stalinism, two dictatorships suffocating artistic expression as they were drowning workers’ opposition in blood. It was also a comment on the role of art and culture in class society.

But what had brought these people together at this particular moment? This was a time of extreme turmoil, the world on the brink of war. The international capitalist economy was in severe crisis. Fascism had risen to power in Italy, Portugal, Germany and Spain, where the revolution had been recently defeated. Mass uprisings had taken place in France, the US, China and around the globe.

Joseph Stalin was consolidating his grip on power in Russia, show trials dispatching revolutionary socialists and other militants to labour camps in their hundreds of thousands. The ruling Stalinist bureaucracy and its ‘Communist International’ were tightening their control on the so-called ‘communist’ parties around the world. In Spain that had meant playing a consciously counter-revolutionary role, betraying the workers and peasants in the socialist, Trotskyist and anarchist movements.

In 1938, Leon Trotsky launched the Fourth International – recognition that the Third (Communist) International would never again play a revolutionary role. This was a time to take sides. Any activist worthy of the name would have to ask him or herself: Do I support capitalism, Stalinism, or those fighting against both?

But why should this involve the surrealists? From today’s perspective, it may seem strange. Although that is only because the radical political nature of the surrealist movement has been airbrushed out of mainstream art history. Surrealist art retains great popularity – in profitable, blockbuster exhibitions, and its prominence in modern art museums. Its immense influence on art, film, writing and many other media continues unabated today. It may be mentioned from time to time that the surrealists were radicals, influenced by anarchist or socialist ideas. References are made to the splits in the movement, expulsions and defections, when artists diverged from surrealist ideals. Usually, however, that is as far as it goes.

That is nowhere near far enough. Surrealism was revolutionary to its core. It could be said that it was and is only about revolution, nothing else. The surrealists wanted to smash establishment control of art and thought. They sought to break conventional artistic rules. They were experimental, pioneering revolutionary techniques. Automatic writing, for example, completely broke with rigid literary structures. Anyone could do it; everyone should feel empowered to do it. The surrealists understood that the precondition for freeing up art for all people was radical social change. That meant a revolution which took power away from the capitalist ruling class and placed it in the hands of the mass of the population, the working class.

The birth of surrealism

SURREALISM’S ROOTS WERE in the nihilistic western Dada art movement of the beginning of the 20th century. The international mass radicalisation accompanying the latter years of the first world war – illustrated most spectacularly by the Russian revolution of 1917 when working-class people, guided by a mass Marxist party, actually took power – had its impact on artists as it had on all sections of society.

The surrealists came out of that maelstrom. Made up of many different individuals and trends, incorporating many different ideas, using a variety of media, surrealism was an overwhelmingly radical, left-wing movement.

In 1924, André Breton wrote the Manifeste du Surréalisme, proclaiming the birth of the surrealist movement, himself in the leadership alongside Louis Aragon and Philippe Soupault. One of its most far-reaching aspirations was to get all people engaging in art, not as passive onlookers, but as producers of art as well. The surrealists participated in political activity to bring about the social and economic change required. There were even formal discussions within the surrealist movement on whether they should join the communist parties.

Whereas the ‘official’ history of surrealism tends to focus on its male leaders, a number of women played significant roles in its artistic and political life. By the end of the 1920s, for example, Denise Naville (née Lévy) and her husband, Pierre, both pioneers of surrealism, devoted themselves to the anti-Stalinist cause. Denise Naville, a key link between the French surrealists and German artists, translated Trotsky’s writings into German, along with works by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and others. (Surrealist Women, edited by Penelope Rosemont)

Surrealism was also strongly influenced by new, groundbreaking psychological theories, in particular Freudian psychoanalysis, and Breton defined it as "pure psychic automatism, by which an attempt is made to express, either verbally, in writing or in any other manner, the true functioning of thought. The dictation of thought, in the absence of all control by reason, excluding any aesthetic or moral preoccupation". So, just as society had to be freed from the restrictions of ruling-class control, thought could also be liberated.

Surrealism published a number of periodicals, including La Révolution Surréaliste (1924-30, co-edited by Pierre Naville) and Le Surréalisme au Service de la Révolution (1930-33). Those publications gave the movement a certain cohesion, and helped spread the ideas outside of France.

A cultural straitjacket

UNDERSTANDABLY, THE SURREALISTS gravitated towards the parties and groupings which seemed to be leading revolutionary struggle. In the 1920s and 1930s, that appeared to be the various communist parties around the world – mass working-class parties backed by the world’s first workers’ state, the Soviet Union. It would take time for people to see through the mistakes and betrayals of Stalinism. Many never did, of course, including Aragon.

The Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia, through its subordinate parties around the world, forced artists and writers into a cultural straitjacket. They were expected to unquestioningly glorify Stalin and his grotesque distortion of socialism. Freedom of expression was gagged by the doctrines of ‘proletarian literature’ and ‘socialist realism’.

As Stalin and the privileged, bureaucratic caste consolidated their grip on power, so the gains and freedoms ushered in by the 1917 revolution were snuffed out. Eventually, there would be little left, except the economic basis of a planned, nationalised economy – twisted out of shape, its socialist foundations barely recognisable – and the basic social provisions of employment, housing and welfare.

In the Moscow show trials from 1936, Stalin began the systematic purging of the genuine revolutionaries from power. The remaining elements of workers’ democracy were dismantled. The trials were the catalyst for many in the surrealist movement to openly challenge Stalinism.

Breaking with Stalin and the communist parties, however, involved the loss of powerful patronage, as they controlled a huge apparatus and influence over the intellectual scenes of many countries. Arguably, the high point of the movement’s influence had been reached by the time of the International Surrealist Exhibition in London 1936.

The manifesto

TOWARDS A FREE Revolutionary Art was completed on 25 July 1938 and published in the autumn edition of the Partisan Review over the signatures of Diego Rivera and André Breton. It is reprinted in the collection of Trotsky’s writings, Art and Revolution. In La Clé des Champs (Free Rein), published in1953, Breton explains that Trotsky was the main contributor.

The wide-ranging manifesto – which is a little shorter than this article – outlined the crisis facing civilisation, not only the approaching world war but generally. Against this backdrop, the position of artists and scientists was practically intolerable as they were shackled to the requirements of the various ruling classes and elites. The regimes of Adolf Hitler and Stalin received specific attention.

However, the manifesto opposed the abstract idea that art could somehow be neutral in a class-based society. ‘Neutrality’, in fact, would mean the continuation of the status quo. In other words, the retention of capitalism (a class-based society) or Stalinism (an increasingly unequal and dictatorial system based on a nationalised, planned economy): "… 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 recognise 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 manifesto explained the role artists could play in exposing the real nature of these systems. It rejected controls on artistic expression: "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… and we repeat our deliberate intentions of standing by the formula, complete freedom for art".

Many of the themes in the manifesto can be found in other writings by Trotsky, such as Literature and Revolution (1924), as well as in his definitive analysis of the nature of the Soviet Union, The Revolution Betrayed (1937).

In the years immediately after the Russian revolution, Trotsky was one of the main organisers of the new workers’ state. He consistently defended the need for artistic freedom. Again, the manifesto touched on the attitude a genuinely democratic workers’ state should take: "If, for the better development of the forces of material production, the revolution must build a socialist regime with centralised 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!"

While the manifesto understood why artists were drawn to the Stalinist organisations, it explained that their stifling censorship and servility spelt utter demoralisation to any but the most cynical careerist.

Artists of the world, unite!

IT WAS NOT, however, simply an analysis of the situation at the time. This was a manifesto, a call to action. So it included a section on to how to build this international movement: "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".

The manifesto is a remarkably succinct treatise on the relationship between art, class society and dictatorship. Although set in a particular period of acute worldwide crisis, it also serves as a general Marxist approach to art and culture.

Its publication was followed by the setting up of an embryonic revolutionary artists’ organisation, the FIARI (Fédération Internationale de l’Art Révolutionnaire Indépendant). This was an attempt to build an anti-fascist and anti-Stalinist movement. The potential was there. The French section of the FIARI published two issues of the journal, Clé (Key), January and February 1939. Although short-lived, they showed it had genuine support, for example by printing articles by the Russian revolutionary, Victor Serge (on why he supported the FIARI, and on disappearances in the Soviet Union), and the French surrealist poet, Benjamin Péret (on the situation in Spain). Its first issue included a statement by the FIARI National Committee on the right to asylum. (Culture and Revolution in the Thought of Leon Trotsky, edited by Al Richardson) Simone Kahn, a key figure in the development of the early surrealist movement, also joined the FIARI in 1939. She had married Breton in 1921 (they split in 1929) and was instrumental in convincing him to leave the Dada movement.

In the polarised political situation immediately preceding the second world war, however, the FIARI was unable to gain ground in a mass sense.

Breton never gave up his support for revolution, even after the death of Trotsky – brutally murdered in Mexico on 21 August 1940 by Ramón Mercader, one of Stalin’s agents. After having fled the Nazi occupation of France, Breton returned in 1946, where he continued to develop the surrealist movement and engage in political activity. He died in Paris on 28 September 1966, aged 70.

With the 70th anniversary of the Manifesto: Towards a Revolutionary Art it is high time that socialists – above all, Trotskyists – reclaimed the real history of surrealism, its revolutionary history. It is also a good time to defiantly defend democratic socialism, the struggle for democratic workers’ states – epitomised by Trotsky’s life and death – against the slanders of the capitalist system and the fading shadows of Stalinism. Not by accident did André Breton find himself side-by-side with Leon Trotsky. The link is summed up in the final two lines of their manifesto:

The independence of art – for the revolution

The revolution – for the complete liberation of art!


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