1919-1950: The politics of Surrealism

Surrealist landscape by Breton

A history of Surrealism and its links with politics and, in particular, anarchism and socialism.

Submitted by Steven. on September 11, 2006

It's noticeable how mainstream writers writing about Surrealism
play down the politics. For example in the massive book on Breton, Revolution
and the Mind: The Life of Andre Breton
the author Mark Polizzotti passes over
the links beween Surrealism and anarchism in a couple of sentences . This
despite the signal devotion of Breton in showing solidarity, as one of a few
intellectuals to support the libertarian movement in a period of repression.
and despite the fact that the Surrealists wrote a weekly column for Le Libertaire,
a paper with not an inconsiderable readership.

"It was in the black mirror of anarchism that surrealism
first recognised itself." Thus wrote unequivocally the "Pope of
Surrealism", Andre Breton in 1952. Breton had returned to France in 1947
and in April of that year Andre Julien welcomed his return in the pages of
Le Libertaire the weekly paper of the Federation Anarchiste.

But why had not the Surrealists associated themselves
before 1947 with the ideas of revolutionary anarchism? This radical art movement
which had a fierce hatred of authority and religion was a natural ally. Indeed
the art movement of Dada, in many ways a precursor and influence on Surrealism,
had emerged in Zurich in 1916 as a reaction to the savagery and slaughter
of the World War. Breton himself was influenced by the poet Jacques Vache
whom he met in 1919. Breton was to note in the same 1952 article that: "At
that time, the surrealist refusal was total, and absolutely incapable of allowing
itself to be channelled at a political level. All the institutions upon which
the modern world rested-and which had just shown their worth in the First
World War - were considered aberrant and scandalous to us. To begin with, it
was the entire defence apparatus of society that we were attacking: the army,
‘justice’, the police, religion, psychiatric and legal medicine,
and schooling". He went on to demand: "Why was an organic fusion
not operated at this moment between anarchist and surrealist elements?"
and explained " It was undoubtedly the idea of efficiency, which was
the delusion of that period, that decided otherwise. What we took to be the
triumph of the Russian Revolution and the advent of a workers' state led to
a great change in our outlook. The only dark spot in the picture - which became
an indelible stain - was the crushing of the Kronstadt
insurrection of 18 March 1921


The surrealists had not hesitated in 1923 in showing solidarity
with the young anarchist woman Germaine Berton who had killed an activist
of the extreme right nationalist party L'Action Francaise and who was aqcquitted
in a jury trial! Another member of the surrealist group, Robert Desnos, had
associated with the individualist anarchist circles of Victor Serge and Rirette
Maitrejean, whilst according to a police record, the surrealist poet Benjamin
Peret had been active in an anarchist group in the Paris region and had contributed
to the anarchist paper Le Libertaire. All the surrealists attentively read
the anarchist press in this period. However, they were put off by the incoherence
of the French movement and remembered how some had supported the Allied effort
in the World War. When Breton took over as editor of the review La Revolution
from Antonin Artaud he wrote most of the collective texts like
the revolutionary Open the Prisons! Disband the Armies!

The Surrealists also leapt to the defence of the young
woman Violette Noziere who had poisoned her father. Violette accused her father
of having systematically raped her from the age of 12. The Surrealists used
the trial to denounce the bourgeois family and bourgeois hypocrisy.

In January 1927 5 members of the Surrealist group joined
the Communist Party: Breton, Aragon, Eluard, Unik and Peret. Others, like
Desnos and Miro refused to join. Even with Breton, Party membership was with
qualifications. He saw the Communist programme as only a minimum programme,
and criticised the Party paper as "Puerile, uselessly declamatory, cretinous,
unreadable; completely unworthy of the role of proletarian education that
it tries to assume". Whilst Aragon transformed from the "most libertarian
spirit of the Surrealist group" into a horrific Stalinist hack who wrote
poems honouring the Russian secret police the NKVD, others who had joined
the Party began to feel distinctly uncomfortable about the Moscow show trials.
It was a stormy period for the Surrealists as they tried to participate as
they saw it in the workers' revolution, whilst at the same time safeguarding
their own specific preoccupations, and fighting against the Party leadership's
attempts to keep them on a tight rein. Breton was expelled in 1933, and at
a Party-controlled International Congress for the Defence of Culture the Surrealists
were denounced and were only allowed to speak on the last day at 2 in the


By now some of the Surrealists were allying with Trotskyism
and oppositional Bolshevism. Peret made contact in France and Brazil with
the Communist Union and the Internationalist Workers Party. Breton made contact
in Mexico with Trotsky when he was put in charge of a series of conferences
at Mexico University on Poetry and Painting in Europe in 1938. Together with
Trotsky and the Mexican painter Diego Rivera he drafted For an Independent
Revolutionary Art
which announced that "The revolution is obliged to
erect a socialist regime with central planning; for intellectual creation
it must, even from the start, establish an anarchist regime of intellectual
liberty. No constraint, not the least trace of command". This contradictory
and bizarre document seems to have been written by Breton and amazingly Trotsky,
with Rivera substituting for Trotsky's signature when he got cold feet. It
is not clear when Trotsky helped write this document what he thought he was
doing, as it went against everything he had ever done or said.


Peret for his part had gone as delegate of the Internationalist
Workers Party to the Civil
War and Revolution in Spain
. Here he worked as a radio broadcaster for
the anti-Stalinist Marxist party the POUM, but left this post when he criticised this organisation for participating
in the Catalan government. He joined the anarchist Durruti Column on the Aragon
front. "All collaboration with the POUM was impossible, they wanted very
much to accept people to their right, but not to their left. I have decided
to enter into an anarchist militia, and here I am at the front, at Pino de
Ebro", he wrote to Breton. Two years later he paid tribute to Buenaventura
, after whom the Column was named. "I have always seen in
Durruti the most revolutionary anarchist leader, whose attitude was most violently
opposed to the capitulations of the anarchists who had entered the government
and his killing moved me very much. I think that the lesson that was the life
of Durruti should not be lost." Returning to France, he was called up
at the start of the war. He was arrested for distribution of leaflets of "an
anarchist character" and after a prison term managed to escape to Mexico.
Here he undertook a thoroughgoing critique of Trotskyism and distanced himself
from its organisations. Writing later in a letter to Georges Fontenis, the
French libertarian communist militant, he remarked: "If the disappearance
of the State can not be envisaged in the immediate, it is no less true that
the proletarian insurrection must mark the the first day of the death agony
of the State".


After the War the Surrealists began to collaborate with
the Federation Anarchiste. Fontenis and another militant of the FA, Serge
Ninn, maintained good contacts with the Surrealists, the former becoming a
friend of Breton. In 1951, the Surrealist started to write a regular weekly
column in Le Libertaire - Le Billet Surrealiste. A series of articles by Peret
were also published in Le Libertaire which characterised the unions as counter-revolutionary
organisms and put forward workers councils as an alternative. The FA were
in disagreement with him on this and published a reply in the paper. Peret
was certainly in advance of French anarchists on this question. The controversy
here was fraternal, but in a later Billet the Surrealist Jean Schuster insisted
that the Surrealists should take charge of the intellectual struggle, whilst
the anarchists got on with the economic and social struggle. This elitist
arrogance stirred up a lot of trouble, and the relationship between the Surrealists
and the anarchists began to cool and the last Billet appeared in Le Libertaire in January 1953.

The article Poet, that is to say Revolutionary written
by Peret, the most politicised and revolutionary of the Surrealists, that
appeared in the paper in 1951 said the essential. He showed up to what point
poetry is revolutionary but he added: "It does not follow that the (the
poet) puts poetry at the service of political action, even if it is revolutionary,"
(Which was certainly never the wish of the anarchist militants of the period)
. "But his quality of poet makes him a revolutionary who must struggle
on every terrain: that of poetry by his own means and on the terrain of social
action , without ever confusing the two fields of action".


Apart from Breton and Peret the other Surrealists were
never seen on the field of social action. Breton was consistent in his support
for the Federation Anarchiste and he continued to offer his solidarity after
the Platformists around Fontenis transformed the FA into the Federation Communiste
Libertaire. He was one of the few intellectuals who continued to offer his
support to the FCL during the Algerian war when the FCL suffered severe repression
and was forced underground. He sheltered Fontenis whilst he was in hiding.
He refused to take sides on the splits in the French anarchist movement and
both he and Peret expressed solidarity as well with the new FA set up by the
synthesist anarchists and worked in the Antifascist Committees of the 60s
alongside the FA.

Some were able to synthesise anarchism and Surrealism
on an individual level even if it had not happened on a collective level.The
poet Jehan Mayoux, great friend of Peret, the son of anarchists and anti-militarists,
joined the Surrealists at the end of the 20s. Called up at the start of the
war, he went AWOL and was imprisoned. Escaping, he was captured by the Germans
and sent to a concentration camp from which he was liberated in 1945. He continued
to take part in libertarian activity up to his death. Jean-Claude Tertrais
participated in Surrealist activities in the 50s whilst Breton was still alive.
Called up during the Algerian war, he went AWOL and was sent to the hellish
"Disciplinary Battalions". He joined the FA on his release, contributing
articles on surrealism to the FA paper Le Monde Libertaire.

However, as Fontenis was to remark: "It is true that,
too often, poets are just poets, without being really revolutionary, no insult
to B. Peret intended, and if sometimes they attach themselves to the movement
of the masses they often fixate on individual high deeds, on spectacular subversion,
on illegalist deeds, rather than on the hard daily struggles... As much as
it is preferable that the libertarian movement stays intimately linked to
the spirit of revolt of the poets, as much it is prejudicial to subject its
revolutionary views to the fantasies of men of letters. Yes to implacable
revolt, yes to insurrection, yes to the libertarian spirit... but is this
a reason to leave on the side the anarchist thought and the class action that
nourishes it and that it inspires?".

Further notes

Other criticisms can be made of Surrealism - the individual
intolerance and authoritarianism of Breton, the sexism and homophobia, the
cod Freudianism, the dubious celebration of sexual violence - but that would
require an article in itself.

Whatever you do read Breton's Claire Tour - his enthusiastic ode to anarchism.
It's been translated into English as The Lighthouse in the Drunken Boat, an
anthology of writings on anarchism and art available from Freedom and AK Press.

By Nick Heath, edited by libcom