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International Socialism, January 1975


Gavin McFadyen

The History of Surrealism


From International Socialism, No.74, January 1975, p.32.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The History of Surrealism
Maurice Nadeau
Penguin, 50p.

FOR revolutionaries, opposition-cultures have occasionally had great appeal. Surrealism in particular enjoyed a close and continuous collaboration with revolutionary Marxism through the 1920s and 1930s. Its relationship with the Comintern and later with Trotskyism was an important bridge linking the struggle for socialism with the most advanced cultural critiques of bourgeois society.

Unlike the artistic movements which came to fruition within the revolution itself (constructivism, Brecht’s epic theatre), Surrealism emerged under far less favourable circumstances: within capitalism itself. And Surrealism reflected many of the contradictions both in dissident bourgeois culture and in the cultural attitudes of the French Communist Party. The relationship between the two movements provides a case-study in the contradictions and role of the artist in the revolution. Trotsky’s direct intervention in the formulation of a manifesto of independent revolutionary art with Diego Rivera and Andre Breton affords a singular example of the weight placed by the Left Opposition on the Surrealist contribution. It indicates a shift, on the part of a section of disenfranchised intellectuals, from ‘fellow-travelling’ to active participation in revolutionary politics.

Sprung from the confusions and scandals of Dadaism, Surrealism brought a unifying methodology to independent art and its relations with revolutionary theory. It tried to provide a poetry entirely at odds with prevailing bourgeois notions of ‘art and beauty’. It saw the repression of the individual unconscious, of dreams and human desire, as an exact parallel to the social repression intrinsic in class society itself. This was the society which had brought the carnage of the First World War, and starvation and hypocrisy in the years that followed, and which employed its artists and intellectuals as its commercial illustrators and policemen. To the Surrealists, the bourgeois notion of art and culture was as suspect as their bankrupt social policy.

Breton and Peret explained their critique by suggesting that the means to knowledge and poetry (largely rooted in the unconscious imagination) were the property, not of a select few, but of everyone. ‘In Surrealism, everyone is among the elect, Poetry must be made by all, not by one.’ They dismissed the idea of talent, along with other bourgeois notions of culture, as elitist-after all, everyone has dreams and imagination, whose very expression, wrote Breton, is revolutionary in itself.

Unshackled by common and conventional restraint, imagination was itself the means to revolution and to poetry simultaneously.

What quickly separated Aragon, Dali, Breton, Peret and the other Surrealists from Freudianism and mysticism was their conviction that it is the proletarian revolution alone that will free society and the individual unconscious.

But if Surrealism came to a cohesive, organised presence between the wars, it was – along with the Left and with other competing aesthetic tendencies – to be virtually destroyed by fascism and Stalinism. With fascism’s victories in Europe, many of the leading Surrealists were arrested and disappeared, or scattered to Latin America and the USA. As an organised presence in Europe, Japan and America it never regained the initiative it acquired in the pre-war struggles. But, unlike other groupings that arose in the same period, Surrealism has begun to surface again. Soviet Weekly has recently attacked the tendency by name as a particularly insidious tumour growing among painters and poets in Eastern Europe and in Russia itself. These states, like the fascists before the war, have sought to repress publication and exhibition of surrealist works.

Maurice Nadeau’s History has long had the status of an official history in academic circles, and a British paperback edition has been long overdue. Despite its official reputation, the book remains a valuable introduction to Surrealist ideas. Though he focusses mainly on the pre-war movement, as an organised presence, Nadeau presents a useful – if somewhat unimpassioned – chronicle of the development of Surrealism and its characteristic extraordinary pre-war critiques.

In common with most art historians, Nadeau prefers to see Surrealism as a fascinating relic, long dead and with little relevance to the postwar crises. But Nadeau was sufficiently in sympathy with the movement to give an accurate and lengthy account of its political evolution, apart from his cursory treatment of the Breton-Rivera-Trotsky manifesto. Himself once a participant in Paris, Nadeau sees the collapse of the movement as typical of all the. interwar groupings, and not as the result of massive repression. And his analysis does not entertain the possibility of the resurgence that has occurred in France, Czechoslovakia and America in the past five years or so. Nor does he give proper weight to the role within the movement of its most political figure, Benjamin Peret – a poet and professional revolutionary, about whom little has appeared in English, but who together with Breton gave the Surrealists their incisive revolutionary (and anti-clerical) character.

A much more extensive and committed exposition of post-war developments, and of the movement’s politics, can be found in the Studio Vista publication, Roger Cardinal and Rober Stuart Short’s Surrealism: Permanent Revelation.

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