David Widgery

‘Poetry is made by all ... not by one’

(April 1978)

From Socialist Review, No. 1, April 1978, pp. 24–25.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

What is Surrealism?
André Breton, selected writings

Edited and introduced by Franklin Rosemont
Pluto £5.00

What is surrealism? ‘To transform the world, to change life, and re-make human understanding from scratch’ answers Breton. Transformation of the external world by proletarian uprising (as in Marx) the systematic re-organisation of the emotions and senses (as in Baudelaire).

Dreams, orgasms, madness, the feelings we habitually negate or worse sentimentalise, they are as real as the Winter Palace. A Marxism which denies them, denies itself. ‘I really cannot see, despite a few muddle-headed revolutionaries, why we should abstain from taking up the problems of love, of dreaming, of madness, of art, of religion, so long as we consider these problems from the same angle as they, and we too, consider the revolution’ writes Breton.

In the twentieth century, the only ‘art’ worthy of the name defies capitalist ‘reality’. Says Breton. ‘Today’s authentic art goes hand in hand with revolutionary socialist activity’. Communism and surrealism are necessary to each other; ‘communicating vessels’.

Breton thereby makes a critical linkage between the era of Bolshevism and our own pre-occupations, across the four decades when the genuine revolutionaries were strung out between a bourgeoisie that rejected them and a communist orthodoxy that heaped insults on them. More than anyone Breton held the line, not just expounding Marxism but expanding it. And applying it, with luminous intelligence, to a world of the imagination, a veritable Lenin of inner space.

This is a publication of genuine political importance, the most important book Pluto have published since Williams’ Proletarian Order. Comrade Rosemont is an outstandingly sympathetic and eloquent editor demonstrating the true political clarity of a man and a movement who the bourgeoisie are still trying to turn into a rather quaint species of artist in mausoleum-exhibitions such as the current assemblage on the South Bank.

It is a volume of enormous compressed political intelligence. To be an artistic agitator of such profundity Breton has understood Marxist philosophy through Hegel and re-worked, as Marx himself did, the heritage of the Utopian thinkers. He sought to apply dialectical materialism to the world of Freud, Edison and Vyshinksy and develop artistic techniques appropriate to 20th century capitalism; ‘We are specialists in revolt’ announced the Surrealists ‘We have nothing to do with literature; but we are quite capable, when necessary, of making use of it’.

In this process Breton redefined beauty; ‘it will be convulsive or nothing at all’, fished his own unconscious, denied classicism, savaged Stalinism, rescued Freud, discovered Cesaire, the Martinique poet of negritude, wrote factory bulletins for Billaincourt, knocked off stunning collages, organised exhibitions, denounced the Moscow trials, solidarised with the Hungarian uprising and organised against French colonialism in Algeria.

This book is the twentieth century odyssey of an unorthodox Marxist incapable of political compromise or prosaic thought. As Ian Birchall wrote in his obituary in issue 27 of International Socialism ‘Breton will serve us, not because he succeeded, but because he raised the issues’. Breton went on asking the question which the authorities, East and West, in the galleries and academies, asylums and studios, didn’t want to answer. His spirit roams, potently, if we can only rise to it. It’s there, just under your safety-pinned nose.

‘There are still today, in the lycées, even in the workshops, in the streets, the seminaries and military barracks, pure young people who refuse to knuckle down. It is to them and them alone I address myself; it is for them alone that I am trying to defend surrealism against the accusation that it is, after all, no more than an intellectual pastime like any other’ says Breton.

John Cooper-Clarke, punk poet, dad dead of asbestos poisoning, Salford new-wave-dada-agit bopper, the label doesn’t matter, replies ‘Punk is the nearest thing to the working classes going into areas like surrealism and Dada. Until now they’ve been the domain of the middle classes. I think people in the New Wave have done the smart thing and walked into those areas. Now you’ve got a kind of working class vision of things’. As Rosemont says, ‘The proof of the pudding is in the outcry of eternity ...’

Last updated on 13 September 2019