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Surrealism’s place in the fight against capitalism

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The Scent of Candles and Peat by Peter Harris

by Peter Harris

“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.”

–Manny Thain, ‘Surrealism’s Revolutionary Heart’ in Socialism Today (2008)

The artists expelled from the Surrealist group, which Manny Thain refers to above, included painters Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí – but why? It would appear that the general public perception of Surrealism is that it was a purely aesthetic movement or painting ‘style,’ which effectively died out at the end of the Second World War, and that primarily it focussed on producing art works which were ‘bizarre,’ ‘irrational’ and ‘dreamlike,’ such as Dalí’s melting clocks.

So why is Surrealism, and its historical development, of relevance to those struggling against the constraints of capitalism today?

The publication of the first ‘Surrealist Manifesto’ by French writer André Breton – the founder, leading theorist and principal spokesperson for the Surrealist movement – was in the autumn of 1924. Surrealism emerged in France as an integral factor of the world revolutionary ferment between the two world wars, of which the 1917 October revolution in Russia, and the formation of the Third (Communist) International, were some of the major political repercussions.

Surrealism produced a number of periodicals, including ‘La Révolution surréaliste’ (1924-29) 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.

In his invaluable book ‘André Breton and the first principles of Surrealism’, Franklin Rosemont, cofounder with Penelope Rosemont of the Chicago Surrealist Group, showed that Marxism and Surrealism, far from being in opposition, are complementary. The Surrealists maintained that the liberation of humankind, the liberation of the mind, can result only from socialist revolution, with the reorganisation of society on the basis of planning the economy democratically.

Politically, the Surrealists consistently defended the perspective of the working class and poor masses internationally overthrowing the exploitative ruling classes. Initially, the Surrealists pooled their resources in the cause of the French Communist Party. In 1927, the end of capitalism seemed possible only through workers following the leadership of the Communist Party.

Almost from the beginning, the Surrealists aligned themselves in the Communist Party with the ‘Left Opposition’ – the supporters of Leon Trotsky, fighting against the dictatorial bureaucracy around Stalin that was undoing many of the social and democratic gains the Russian revolution had made.

As Manny summed it up in his above-quoted article: “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 French general strike of 1936 offers an especially glaring illustration of the official Communist Party leaders’ role, compared to the spirit of genuine socialism. In that mass upheaval, which offered an unprecedented opportunity for socialist revolution in France, the Surrealists called for workers’ defence forces to protect against the states’ violent attacks, and a struggle to take state power from the capitalists. The Communist Party’s official line, however, was typified by its secretary-general, Maurice Thorez: “It is necessary to know how to end a strike!”

In the Moscow show trials from 1936, Stalin began the systematic purging of the genuine revolutionaries – the supporters of Lenin and Trotsky’s ideas of workers’ power and democracy – from power.

“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’.”

The Surrealists’ break with the increasingly Stalinist-dominated French Communist Party came in 1936 when its leaders tried to break a revolutionary movement taking place in the country.

In 1947, the French Surrealists defined their political position. They rejected Stalinism and its anti-internationalist policy of ‘socialism in one country’, along with the establishment of the rule of a totalitarian, bureaucratic elite. The Surrealists reaffirmed “their indefectible attachment to the revolutionary tradition of the working-class movement from which the Communist Party deviates more and more each day.”

André Breton never gave up his support for revolution. The poison of Stalinism led him to turn towards anarchist ideas to combat capitalism, but still collaborated closely with genuine Marxists. He had co-signed the ‘Manifesto: towards a free revolutionary art’ with Mexican communist muralist Diego Rivera in 1938, written by Leon Trotsky. Having fled the Nazi occupation of France, Breton returned in 1946, where he continued to develop the Surrealist movement and engage in political activity.

Surrealist ideas and Surrealist groups, in many countries across the world, either collectively or individually, still today continue to be inspired by and actively develop the original ideals set down by Surrealist pioneers.

In Portugal in 2016, 73 artists from 34 different countries exhibited in the ‘International Surrealism Now’ Exhibition. Surrealist groups are active in social, political, ecological and antifascist work as far afield today as Chicago, Madrid, Paris, Prague, Buenos Aires, Stockholm and Leeds – as well as numerous individuals aligned to the core aims of Surrealism.


Revolutionism v escapism

“Surrealism always has had its ‘enlightened’ enemies (some of them, indeed, ostensibly its friends) who seek to kill it by chauvinistically assimilating it into the sideshow of bourgeois culture and by celebrating such of its achievements as can be subsumed most easily into innocuous pastimes.”

–Franklin Rosemont, ‘What is Surrealism?’


“During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the ‘consolation’ of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge…”

–Vladimir Lenin, ‘The State and Revolution’ (1918)


The Surrealists recognised that capitalist culture aims, in part, at disciplining the mind to make mechanical responses – useful for maintaining profitable workplaces and consumer bases. As a result, people can be partly deprived of the real power of independent thought and creativity, and are under enormous pressure to rely on the material served up by big business as entertainment, education, social values, and so on. This material naturally tends to reinforce the ‘good’ and ‘efficient’ functioning of capitalism, offering escape and consolation, and preaching acceptance of the system. One reflection of this is that pursuits such as art and poetry can end up isolated from ordinary human activity.

In opposition to this, the Surrealists aimed to free the imagination from mental and social repression, so that the hitherto-restricted and exclusive domain of poets and artists would be acknowledged as the common property of all. The Surrealists aimed to overcome the old constraints of traditional logic, aesthetics, reason and morality, and explore and probe the deepest recesses of consciousness.

‘Automatism,’ by allowing for the free flow of uninhibited thought, is at the heart of the Surrealist project. By this I mean writing, drawing or speaking whatever immediately comes to mind, without any conscious or stylistic interference. For Surrealists, poetry, dreams, chance encounters – in life, in visuals and words, and in the subconscious – contain the key to radical new perceptions of the world and human relations.

Surrealism has been accused of being pure ‘escapism’ – as if by mentally turning inwards, the Surrealists were seeking distraction or relief from unpleasant realities. But instead of accepting an artificial separation between ‘dream’ and ‘reality,’ in André Breton’s conception, the two can be seen as “communicating vessels” which can be brought together in action.

This became particularly evident in later years, when the Surrealists gave to poetry an increasingly literary and revolutionary significance: “Today’s authentic art goes hand in hand with revolutionary social activity,” said Breton. “Like the latter, it leads to the confusion and destruction of capitalist society.”  In this transformative sense, Surrealism cannot be simplistically reduced to one of the passing avant-garde movements in painting, literature, film or sound such as abstract expressionism, pop-art, or the beat movement.


The Surrealist ‘style’?

Surrealists were involved in all aspects of the arts. Painting, sculpture, theatre, poetry, photography, literature and films. So how then is a work to be judged as ‘Surrealist’?

For example, Salvador Dalí, even after his expulsion from the Surrealists for supporting fascist leader Francisco Franco against the anarchist and socialist revolutionaries in the Spanish civil war, continued to paint and sculpt in what would be described by some as a Surrealist ‘style’.

“The Surrealism in a work,” wrote Breton, “is in direct proportion to the effects the artist has made to embrace the whole psychophysical field, of which consciousness is only a small fraction. In these unfathomable depths there prevails, according to Freud, a total absence of contradiction, a release from the emotional fetters caused by repression and the substitution of external reality by psychic reality obedient to the pleasure principle and no other.”

As such I would reiterate that there is no such thing as a ‘Surrealist style’. Only the briefest of looks through any book or exhibition devoted to the Surrealists would see a very wide range and diversity of visuals, words or actions. In the medium of painting, to name but a few, there is the  figurative, representational Surrealism of René Magritte, Salvador Dalí, Paul Delvaux; the abstract – Joan  Miró, Yves Tanguy, Hans Arp.

In terms of creative techniques there were the pioneering works of Max Ernst, who invented and used a whole variety – including frottage (rubbings), decalcomania (pressing wet paint between two surfaces), grattage (scraping paint), collage, drip-painting, fumage (impressions from smoking flames), automatic drawing and painting, as well as ‘chance’ collective painting and poetry.

Some Surrealists were attempting to ‘enchant’; to generate between the creative product and the spectator a shock or current, where beauty would be ‘convulsive’. But they were not painting or creating to conform to a ‘Surrealist style’.

As Breton explained, Surrealism is not concerned with what is produced around it on the pretext of ‘art’, style’ – or even anti-art like the Dadaists. The Surrealists’ fundamental and unreserved adherence was, and in a lot of cases still is, to the cause of the working class and international socialism. The Surrealists wanted liberation of the whole human personality for the entire human race.

The expulsion of Dalí was just one example of their serious political intent.

It is interesting to compare the actions of this former Surrealist against one of the other leading Surrealist theoreticians, Benjamin Péret, who fought in the Spanish civil war against fascism, and was imprisoned in 1940 for his political activities. Péret had previously been arrested and deported from Brazil for forming the Brazilian Communist League, which followed the anticapitalist, anti-Stalinist ideas of Lenin and Trotsky.

That there is no solution to the fundamental problems of human existence outside of socialism is, for Surrealism, a first principle. Only the socialist revolution – “the leap from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom,” as Marx’s co-philosopher Friedrich Engels put it – will enable the true life of poetry and love to begin to flourish with unrestrained magnificence.


Surrealism’s contribution

Surrealism added a whole new dimension to socialist struggle. For the first time, an organised current of poets and artists, whose interests and aspirations were inseparable from those of the working class and oppressed groups, systematically undertook to confront the capitalist regime on the cultural plane.

Surrealism makes constant efforts to dispel the illusions that capitalism and its representatives use to try to keep workers divided and disoriented. It makes exertions to demystify life and language, and free people from the debasing influences of class-based society. It aims at creating a radical intellectual environment, where workers could be able to express themselves freely, and learn unhampered by the snobbery and contempt of establishment academicians and other supporters of capitalism.

In these, in all its endeavours, Surrealism strives to meet its revolutionary obligations in accord with the German revolutionary leader Rosa Luxemburg’s assertion that the first task of socialism “is the spiritual liberation of the working class from the tutelage of the capitalist class.”

As Breton wrote: “The isolation of the poet, the thinker, the artist from the masses, which is mutually harmful, is a result of the tactics of those who feel that they themselves stand to lose from this association.”

And as Rosemont explains: “Contrary to prevalent misdefinitions, Surrealism is not an aesthetic doctrine, nor a philosophical system, nor a mere literary or artistic school. It is an unrelenting revolt against a civilisation that attempts to reduce all human aspirations to market values, religious impostures, universal boredom and misery. Surrealism aims at nothing less than complete human emancipation, the reconstruction of society governed by the watchword, ‘to each according to his desire’.

“It aims to free the imagination from the mechanisms of psychic and social repression, so that the inspiration and exaltation heretofore regarded as the exclusive domain of poets and artists will be acknowledged as the common property of all.”

But Surrealism, most importantly, contains the awareness that art by itself cannot transform the world. Surrealism, if it would remain true to its original revolutionary impulses, must pool its resources into the cause of working-class struggle against capitalism.

Understanding the history and ideas of Surrealism is still of great importance and relevance in today’s struggles for social and political revolution, justice and freedom.


Peter Harris is a Surrealist artist and retired teacher based in Lancashire, England. He was a member of the London-based English Surrealist Group, but left when he had to return to the north of England. He retains connections with Surrealist groups around the world. Peter is a lifelong socialist, and was expelled from Britain’s Labour Party in 1984 for supporting the Marxist newspaper ‘Militant’.


Further reading

‘Manifestos of Surrealism’ by André Breton

‘What is Surrealism? Selected Writings’ by André Breton, edited by Franklin Rosemont

‘Surrealism’s Revolutionary Heart’ by Manny Thain, available at socialismtoday.org

‘Morning Star: Surrealism, Marxism, Anarchism, Situationism, Utopia’ by Michael Lowy


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