Forthcoming in Exquisite Corpse (www.corpse.org)
What is Surrealpolitik? Some assumed that the answer had emerged in 2003 when a historian reported a shocking episode. According to the report, anarcho-surrealists set up surrealist torture cells during the Spanish Civil War.1 French artist Alphonse Laurencic, put on trial after the war by the Fascists, confessed that he had invented a form of "psychotechnic" torture. Fascists were imprisoned in small cells in which everything sloped at weird angles, walls were covered with bizarre colors and geometric forms, and the floor was littered with geometrical blocks. The inmates were forced to watch the eyeball-slicing scene from “Un Chien Andalou.” Finally, the meaning of le surréalisme au pouvoir.
Not quite. The episode, though almost universally reported as fact, was an obvious fraud. Think about it. What would an anarcho-surrealist artist on trial tell his Fascist inquisitors? The truth? Hardly. More probably, he would turn the tables and tell the Fascists what their penalty would be if handed down by an anarcho-surrealist court. Twenty years of very hard cinema! A strong hint that the whole thing was a mocking fantasy is the fact that the dimensions of the cell, though crowded with surrealist paraphernalia, was all of 3 by 6 feet. The Fascists of Laurencic’s fantasy-world must have been evil little Liliputians.
So this promising case of Surrealpolitik turned out to be a hoax. Fortunately, however, there are several works that go a long way in exploring the momentous topic of surrealism and the political. Much of what follows are comments and reflections inspired—or provoked—by Michael Löwy’s recent work, Morning Star: Surrealism, Marxism, Anarchism, Situationism, Utopia,2 though several other important works that confront the question of surrealism and politics will also be discussed.3 The primary rationale for this reflection on surrealpolitik is to recognize the depth of the surrealist roots of anarcho-surre(gion)alism. As will become obvious, the focus here is also on defending the anarchistic basis of surrealistic politics and sometimes with demolishing Löwy’s case for collapsing together anarcho-surrealism and Troskyism.
The Black Mirror of Anarchism
Any discussion of surrealist politics will focus on the inescapable presence of André Breton, and this is true of Lowy’s book. The question of the nature of Breton’s politics is therefore a central one. In answering this question, he quotes Breton’s radically libertarian statement that “freedom is the only cause worth serving.”4 As Löwy formulates it, “an irreducibly libertarian position right at the heart of Breton’s evolution” was combined with his “Communism” and Marxism.5 This is certainly true of Breton, though more precisely, his evolution led him increasingly closer to the heart of his libertarian position, and away from views that compromised that outlook.
The “Morning Star” is an image taken from Breton’s 1944 work Arcanum 17. The star represents “revolt itself,” which Breton calls “the only creator of light.”6 This light, he says, is discovered through the three paths of “poetry, freedom, and love.”7 The “Morning Star” is thus a heroic, inspirational image, though in a way a strangely traditional one. For it has been “light” that illuminated everything of value throughout the history of Western civilization from Plato’s Cave, through the Siècle des Lumières, all the way to King George the First’s “Thousand Points of Light” and beyond.
The radicality inherent in Breton’s image finally shines through in the fullness of its radiant darkness when in 1952 he can finally say that "it was in the black mirror of anarchism that surrealism first recognised itself."8 Surreality is not revealed when bathed in the beneficently cruel and harsh light of civilized rationality. It can only be found when one peers into the infinite abyss of darkness, negativity, and creative nothingness. It appears when one “tarries with the negative,” or better, when one is violently tossed on the turbulent seas of negativity, battered by the waves of negativity, and thrown upon the dark shore, finally reaching the side of the other, awake to the fact that there is no “one.” The “Morning Star” is, in fact, as we already knew, the Evening Star that plunges us into the Dark Night of the Solar.
The reference to “the black mirror of anarchism” comes from Breton’s brief but absolutely crucial text “La Claire Tour,” which is, in effect, his final political testament. It is a work that, unlike the vast majority of Breton’s writings, is very difficult to locate in either French or in English translation. Löwy quotes most of the opening line, but passes over the rest of this enormously revealing text in silence. It’s understandable that many would turn away from this dazzlingly dark truth. Breton asks, “Black mirror, black mirror on the wall, who’s the most revolutionary of them all?” Breton is quite clear about what the answer is, and what it is not. And it is an answer that is suitably dialectical and paradoxical. One looks into the dark depths of the “black mirror” to find a revolutionary path illuminated by the “bright tower” of anarchism.
Breton concludes that when “a human ideal has reached the depths of corruption” (and we shall see shortly what led it into those depths), the only solution is “to return to the principles which allowed it to take form.” When we do so in this case we “encounter anarchism, and it alone.”9 Thus, one must give up ones political illusions, one by one (as Breton himself did) until one finally “hits bottom” politically. And au fond, one reaches the foundationless foundation. “Anarchism, and it alone.” Anarchism for Breton is “socialism itself,” it is “the demand for dignity of humans,” including “their freedom as well as their well-being.”10 It is an expression of the desire for a classless, stateless society in which “all human values and aspirations can be realized.”11 And as we shall see, it is infinitely more than this. He concludes that this conception of anarchism is one that “the surrealists make their own, without reservation, today.”12
The Land of Innocence
In Zen (the practice of being radically awake), one of the most stinging indictments is to observe that someone’s actions or reactions “stink of Zen.” That means “it’s getting old.” In Zen, the idea is to have “beginner’s mind,” which is the child’s mind, for which all activity is discovery, and everything is new. Surrealism, which in many ways shares this Zen sensibility, is subject to the same malady. Some surrealist games seem too much like surrealist games. Some automatism seems too automatic, in the mechanistic sense of the term. If we seek surreality, it’s important that we never forget Heraclitus’s warning always to expect the unexpected lest when it occurs we won’t notice it. He probably mentioned in some lost fragment that we need also to practice “unexpecting the expected.” Expecting the unexpected and unexpecting the expected are eminently surrealist exercises.
Psychical automatism, which emerged out of free association, means precisely being nothing like an automaton. It means finding that automatique and autrematique are one and the same (though at the same time many and different). It means following the way of the Ten Thousand Things, of the wild world around us and the wild mind within us, and finding that these paths break down the barriers between these two interpenetrating realms. It means dissolving the rigidities of civilized character structure to allow the world to reveal itself around us and within us. It means replacing the positive quest for domination and domestication with the negative capability to allow the wild to flow through us. It means practicing wu wei, doing without doing. Surrealpolitik is Macht(nichts)politik. It is the anarchic and surrealist politics of everyday life.
This is why Franklin Rosemont’s An Open Entrance to the Shut Palace of Wrong Numbers is so enormously significant. It is certainly free of any lingering odor of stale surrealism. It’s no corpse warmed over. It’s a product of the New World of Surrealism. This doesn’t just mean “New World” Chicago as opposed to “Old World” Paris. It means, above all, the New World that is perpetually discovered by every child. It is a world of joy, spontaneity, affection, openness. Some might have difficulty deciphering the politics of the book. It seems like fun and games, child’s play. Which is the whole point of the book. The child is the great sage. As Laozi said in his absolutely conclusive argument, “the child can cry all day without getting hoarse, and thus must truly be in accord with the dao.”13 And Rosemont quotes Breton’s judgment in the Surrealist Manifesto that “it is perhaps childhood that comes closest to ‘real life.’”14 The quotes are presumably needed because he doesn’t mean the unreal life that’s usually called “real life,” (the kind that “schools that work better” prepare you for), but the surreal life that is usually called “unreal.” Rosemont’s politics is the politics of eros versus thanatos. The true “Party of Eros” is perhaps a kind of Children’s Crusade.
The title of the book is overflowing with implications. The “Open Entrance” question, the problem of “opening the door” is the most crucial one possible. And the “numbers” at stake are considerable. William Blake pointed this out some time ago. “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear as it is, infinite.”15 Infinity is a very high number. Rosemont makes it clear that the entrance is to a path to shared perception and shared infinitude; it leads in the direction of the enchanted community. It is an expression of our “desire for a new and deliciously different society–a community without borders or boredom, and with equal rights for the unexpected.”16 A noble cause that cries out for a movement worthy to take it up. Defend the Rights of the Unexpected!
Radical psychoanalysis has told much the same story, as surrealists from Breton on have realized. Surrealism is the practice of free association, and surrealist groups are free associations of those practicing free association, whether in works of art, of in the art of living everyday life. Norman Brown pointed out that radical psychoanalytic politics is really all about eros versus thanatos, but surrealism realized or rather surrealized this long before word of it spread in the 1960’s. Löwy mentions the importance of love to surrealist politics a number of times, but to be honest it always sounds rather abstract. Rosemont in his little section called “Love Above All” goes a long way toward making it concrete.17 He gives actual examples of the meaning of the “land of innocence” to which lovers “escape” and one gets a strong feeling of what the marvelous or wondrous that emerges in the midst of the ordinary is actually about. We get a hint of what it might mean for whole communities to escape to the land of enchantment and begin practicing the Rites of the Unexpected.
Dishegeling the Dialectic
Considering the parody of dialectic that nearly everyone — ranging from analytical philosophers to postmodernists and post-ists in general—has turned into the conventional wisdom, it must seem shocking that surrealists would want to claim the legacy of dialectical thought. We’re all supposed to know by now that Hegel foists a contrived, deterministic, rationalistic, logocentric, etc. “master narrative” on us. But how can so many who go on endlessly about otherness, multiplicity, polysemy and the death of the author not notice that there is more than one Hegel (and less than one Hegel)? The delicate work of dialectic is a “Wages of Fear” kind of job. No matter how carefully you try to get where you think you’re going, you’re almost certain to blow yourself up along the way. Any “master narrative” you might have in your possession at the time is simultaneously exploded. At one point, Hegel discusses a certain stage of Spirit’s development that he calls “the Night of the World.” It’s a stage in which an image of Being is “stored in the Spirit’s treasury, in its Night. The image is unconscious. . . . The human being is this Night, this empty nothing which contains everything in its simplicity – a wealth of infinitely many representations, images, none of which occur to it directly, and none of which are not present. This [is] the Night, the interior of [human] nature, existing here – pure Self – [and] in phantasmagoric representations it is night everywhere: here a bloody head suddenly shoots up and there another white shape, only to disappear as suddenly. We see this Night when we look a human being in the eye, looking into a Night which turns terrifying.”18 This is no armored Prussian marching to the monotonous beat of Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis. These are the words of an inspired philosophical poet of radical imagination and surreality.
This is the dialectical heritage of surrealism. The situationists said “l’imagination au pouvoir” but the surrealists knew that the imagination is always in power and this could be either the most wondrous of things or the most terrifying. All revolution is a war of the imagination, and it always takes place on imaginary grounds. Dialectical thought and imagination do not aim at synthesis, but are thoroughly pervaded by ongoing contradiction and opposition. As surrealists perceive acutely, things are often just the opposite of the way they seem — and the way that they seem has the most astounding implications if we begin to think intently and deeply about this very seeming.
The craziness of dialectic is manifested in the very word that Hegel uses to describe what happens to things in a dialectical process: “aufheben.” Aufheben is translated as to “negate,” “preserve,” “transcend,” “cancel,” “overrule,” “raise up,” “abolish,” “elevate,” “annul,” “lift up,” “break,” “merge,” “override,” “reverse,” the ever-popular but incomprehensible “sublate,” and finally, “suspend,” which is a fascinating word in itself, since it means both to stop something and to continue it. It’s easy to understand why surrealists find inspiration in Hegel. Contrary to the slanders of plodding post-modernists, the dialectic has nothing to do with the ideology of Hegel (or Marx), any more than psychoanalysis has anything to do with the dogmas of Freud. The dialectic demolishes all ideology and all dogma. It really is the ruthless critique of everything existing (though the ruthlessness is really dialectical tough love).
The reality of surreality is radical reversal—things turn into their opposites or transform into things that defy all our categories of opposition. Once again, as dialectics theorizes and surrealism demonstrates, everything always is what it is not and is not what it is (though as the ancient negative dialectican Nagarjuna theorized and Zen demonstrates, it also neither is nor is not what it is). Hegel pointed out that the truth is the whole, but he also showed, sometimes in spite of himself, in his most conceptually dishegeled moments, that there really is no whole, and even when there is a whole, there’s always a hole in the whole. The (w)hole is an empty whole.
Radical dialectic is the anarchic movement of mind and reflects the anarchic movement of things themselves, the circulatory movement of material things, living things, dream things, magical things, imaginary things, unimaginable things, fragmented things, hybrid things, mutating things, impossible things. Surrealism is radical dialectic in creative practice.
The Amourfous Community
Löwy cites Peret’s admirable description of surrealism as being in the tradition of Schlegel’s dream of “a borderless mythopoetic universe” that was “under the transfiguration of imagination and love”19 For surrealism there is an intimate connection between passion and politics, between amour fou and revolution. For Breton the greatest poetic, creative, transformative, revolutionary myth is mad love, love that “encompasses all one’s passion” and possesses “the power to regenerate the world.”20 Here, Breton touches on an enormously crucial truth. We must “regenerate the world!” The great irony and absurdity of ideology lies first in that it not only distorts reality but that it turns reality into its precise opposite, and secondly that it assures that the one thing that we ignore with the greatest determination is that which is most important. So that one thing we can’t think about is that the entire web of life on earth (zoe) is disintegrating, that we are living in the Sixth Great Mass Extinction of Life on Earth and facing a global ecological collapse, while at the same time the entire web of communal life (bios) has been disintegrating throughout the history of civilization and is entering into its death throes. Minor details!
Thus, surrealpolitik must be a biozöopolitics. In fact, a problematic of social and ecological regeneration is the only sane basis for any politics today (which is why politics in general is thoroughly insane). It is not entirely surprising that the impasse of the dominant Left for almost a century has been its vision of Revolution without Regeneration. “Revolution” may describe the physics of the matter, but “regeneration” describes its natural and social ecology. So we need to draw out the full meaning of Breton’s statement, more meaning than he perhaps consciously intended, when he said that surrealism proclaims such “mad love” with “the power to regenerate the world.” And at the same time with the power to regenerate each other. In a deadening world of domination and alienation, our surrealism and anarchism can become primarily reactive, other modes of remaining asleep, new modes of militantism, in short, isms. The amourfous community must know how to seduce the susceptible and awaken them: “Into the ear of every anarchist that sleeps but doesn't dream/We must sing, we must sing, we must sing.”21
The surrealist problematic is one of regeneration through reenchantment. Löwy describes surrealism as “a movement of the human spirit of revolt and an eminently subversive attempt to re-enchant the world.”22 True, but the other essential part of the story is that the surrealist forces of enchantment do not encounter a merely disenchanted world. For one thing, we are originally born into an enchanted world and that world always remains somewhere within us, a reservoir for the reemergence of enchanted surreality. Secondly, as Marx pointed out regarding the fetishism of commodities, the inhabitant of the imaginary world of capitalism is surrounded by and pervaded by enchanted objects, those mysterious subject-objects called commodities. So surrealism is not only about generating processes of reenchantment but also about waging war on the imaginary battlefield on which contending enchantments clash. It is about launching the forces of liberatory reenchantment and disenchantment all at once. Casting the spell of the surreal requires breaking the spell of spectacle, the enchanting consumptionist sublime.
Liberatory enchantment can really only succeed through the force collective of the enchanted community. Löwy very pertinently mentions Peret’s appeal to the maroon community, the quilombo, as the model of the anti-authoritarian community of solidarity.23 In one sense, the post-modern or late modern condition is precisely a condition of universal being-marooned. Unfortunately it’s in the involuntary sense of being stranded in limbo by a run-away (“hot,” overheated, running-out-of-control) society. What is needed is a revival of the intense desire for marooning in the voluntary sense of running a way to quilombo, on order to create the liberated community, to escape that same over-controlling out-of-control society. A famous May ’68 slogan was “Cours, camarade, le vieux monde est derrière toi.” Today you need to run twice as fast, because post-modernity is chasing after you at twice the speed, not just snapping at your ass, but trying to swallow you whole. You need some place to which you can escape. You need some magic phone booth you can run into and dial the right wrong number that sweeps you away to surreality.
It’s important to see surrealism as part of the great tradition of utopian communalism. Surrealism adds to the idea of the intentional community the even more important idea of the absolutely unintentional community, which is a challenge to the Prometheanism, the misguided rationalism, and the obsessive programaticism of the traditional Left. The unintentional community is the utopian, imaginary community that reaches out to you from the realm of impossibility and grabs you! And all those like you. It tears you out of the chains of deadening everydayness and pulls you into the creative unknown, just as it at the same time pulls itself into the midst of life itself, in all its density of being. In doing so, it incarnates utopia in thick, topian materiality. Utopia finds itself in the topos, in the richness of place, in the profusion of particularity, in the wonders of the ordinary, in the magic of things themselves. But, of course, it only does it if we do it.
Löwy touches on this radical, anarchistic surrealist utopianism. He points out that the Romanticist dimension of surrealism is a very expansive sensibility that encompasses revolt against the destruction and degradation wrought by industrial society, a nostalgia for “a lost paradise,” a movement of hope, a war on capitalist and technocratic quantifying values, and a rebellion against the disenchantment of the world.24 He recalls the fact that primitive magical practices, alchemy and various esoteric arts have been admired by surrealists for their “charge of poetic electricity.”25 So true! Living in surreality means being continuously shocked into recognition and being occasionally (and often, if possible) literally struck by bolts of non-literal lightning. Contrary to Lenin:
“Communism” is not “Soviet power plus electrification.” Rather, Anarcho-Communism (the only kind possible) is “poetic power plus, above all, “poetic electrification!”
The Indelible Stain
And speaking of Communism . . . . While Löwy invokes Breton on behalf of the compatibility between surrealism, anarchism, and Trotskyism, Breton himself eventually saw Trotskyism as an obstacle to the surrealist project in general, and to its alliance with anarchism in particular. In his considered view, he saw that anarchism and surrealism were from the beginning inseparable. Yet, he notes, they were separated. He asks: “Why was an organic fusion unable to come about at this time [in early surrealism] between anarchist elements proper and surrealist elements?” And he finds three reasons. The answer, he says, is first that “it was undoubtedly the idea of efficiency, which was the delusion of that period, that decided otherwise.” This is the delusion that the precondition for aesthetic and political progress is the further unleashing of industrialism and the vastly greater consumption of material goods. This is a form of the economistic delusion that has captured the imagination of the modern age, including that of the most ostensibly oppositional movements, so that the latter become what the early (more radical and critical) Baudrillard called “the Mirror of Production.”
The second obstacle was that “what we took to be the ‘triumph’ of the Russian Revolution and the advent of a ‘worker's State’ led to a great change in our perspective.” A classic story: the lure of triumphant power and capitulation to Realpolitik. The Revolution is declared a success to be emulated everywhere just as reactionary elements gain control and the system of domination is reinstituted in a new guise. Breton remarks that “the only dark spot in the picture--a spot which was to become an indelible stain--consisted of the crushing of the Kronstadt rebellion on March 18th, 1921. The surrealists never quite managed to get beyond it.” Löwy does not, however, even get to it. He does not mention this dark spot, this dark mirroring stain that stares back into the innermost depths of the political observer. Who is it that “crushed” the Kronstadt Rebellion? The commander of the Red Army, the high official who ordered the Kronstadt sailors to surrender or be crushed, was one Leon Trotsky.
Third, Breton mentions that “around 1925 only the [Trotskyite] Third International seemed to possess the means required to transform the world.” In the sequel, we discover that this International didn’t make much a dent on the real world or any part of it, but rather sank into the murky abyss of sectarianism. In short, highly unrealistic (not to mention highly un-surrealistic) illusions about Trotskyism got in the way. Breton adds that “We are well enough aware of the ruthless pillaging to which these illusions [i.e., those concerning: 1) the technocratic hell of economistic efficiency; 2) the grotesque horror of authoritarian revolutions; and 3) the deadening mire of Trotskyite sectarianism] were subjected during the second quarter of the century.”
Perhaps we should look more deeply into this fascinating question of the intersection of Trotsky, anarchy, and surreality.
“Anarchists Must Be Shotsky”—Leon Trotsky (1921)
One could argue the surrealists who fell for Stalinism might be more easily forgiven than those who went Trotskyist, on grounds that if a surrealist sins, he or she should sin as boldly as possible. Why not go for the genocidal sublime rather than some second-rate authoritarianism? This is actually an awful argument, but one must still wonder where the attraction of the rigid, unimaginative Trotsky comes from. Stalin was a wholesale mass murderer, while Trotsky merely did it retail, as indicated by his nickname, the “Butcher of Kronstadt” (which comes from the days when he was advising his Red Army to “shoot” the anti-authoritarian Kronstadt sailors “like partridges”). Stalin owned the slaughterhouse while Trotsky was a mere shopkeeper, a petit-bourgeois boucher.
“Just Kidding.”—Leon Shpasky (1938)
However, as everyone knows, Trotsky was forced to lay down his meat cleaver and go into involuntary retirement. Strange things happened. Löwy quotes Trotsky as writing, during his days of exile in Mexico and in collaboration with André Breton, the text For an Independent Revolutionary Art. In it they write that “Marxists must march hand in hand with anarchists” in support of “an anarchist ideal of individual freedom for cultural creation.”26 It’s amazing what a good surrealist friend and a condition of complete political powerlessness can do to someone suffering from an acute military-industrial complex. If only Breton had gotten through to him a bit earlier! Imagine, for example, that instead of slaughtering the Kronstadt rebels, Trotsky would have given an order for his troops to break through the lines and not let up until they were holding hands with every revolutionary sailor and doing something culturally creative. What a vast improvement over the Revolution, Bolshevik style!
It’s hard to believe that Trotsky was serious about trotting over to surrealism, much less allying himself with the anarchists (apart from the fact that he was always deadly serious about everything). As Nick Heath comments about the “contradictory and bizarre document” he coauthored with Breton, “it is not clear when Trotsky helped write [it] what he thought he was doing, as it went against everything he had ever done or said.”27
Löwy makes a heroic effort to find libertarian and visionary impulses in an intellect that was authoritarian and rigid on the one hand, and plodding and pedestrian on the other. Take, for example, Trotsky’s “vision of humanity.” In his view, “man is a fairly lazy animal.”28 Don’t think that this was a radical defense of the “right to be lazy” and the immediate utopian dépassement of the division between work and play. Quite to the contrary, Trotsky uses the human laziness premise to justify a reductionist, economistic, productionist vision of social evolution. The great virtue of laziness, he reveals, is that it demands “the largest possible quantity of products in return for a small quantity of energy.”29 So it’s “a progressive force”30 in driving industrialism and technological development. Trotsky did have some minimal utopian potential, but to realize it he would probably have needed an extended stay in one of those dadaosurrealist prisons/fun houses set up (mythologically) by the Spanish anarchists.
On the other hand, his dystopianism was rather highly developed. His writings are littered with references to the need to “conquer” whatever is wild and free and “subject” it to rational control and triumphant will. Trotsky was not a wild and crazy guy. He was more on the domesticated and neurotic side. He feared what was wild and crazy. Whereas surrealism takes its stand on behalf of the wild, for Trotsky, authentic “culture” is a process of murdering it. Culture is the cult of domination. He defines it as “all kinds of knowledge and skill in the struggle with nature in order to pacify nature.”31 But it was one particular part of nature, human nature, that he was most interested in domesticating.
Is the New Man Having Fun Yet?
While surrealism thrives on making people feel uncomfortable, indeed, on smashing the zombifying state of comfort, Trotsky contends that “art needs comfort.”32 He almost stumbles inadvertently on the truth when he says that its precondition is “abundance.”33 But he doesn’t mean the abundance that lurks behind the murderous illusion of scarcity first imposed by early civilization and finally perfected by late capitalism. No, for the kind of abundance that Trotskyite art needs, “furnaces have to be hotter, wheels have to move faster, looms have to turn more quickly, schools have to work better.”34 In other words, it needs what Breton epitomized as the delusion of “efficiency.” But surrealist art has never needed any of this!
Surrealist art needs nothing!
It desires everything!
The most excruciating comfort!
An abundance of lack!
The iciest of furnaces!
Wheels moving at infinite velocity going nowhere!
Looms instantaneously reweaving the world!
Schools that have nothing to do!
And do it with absolute perfection!
Meanwhile, back in dystopia. . . . Trotsky predicts that “socialist art will revive tragedy. Without God, of course. The new art will be atheist. [Dear Sophocles, I regret to inform you . . . .] It will also revive comedy, because the new man of the future will want to laugh.”35 Unfortunately, the laugh of “the new man,” Trotsky’s new guy of the future, will always be somewhere in the future, but Trotsky does give us a good laugh now. Maybe socialist art will revive porn because this new guy of the future needs orgasms. The Ministry of Orgasms will work it out. Troubling question: how does Trotsky know that this new guy of the future might not want mystical experiences? Is there room in the future for a Ministry of Gods? No doubt it could even provide atheist gods for people like Trotsky, in case some new guy of the future is like him.
Trotsky’s aesthetic Five Year Plan (or was it Fifty? or Five Hundred?) is in a sense quite wonderful, surpassed only perhaps by “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” He predicts that we humans will get off our lazy asses and begin to emulate the harmonious rhythms of those marvelous machines that our lazy-ass qualities originally made possible. “Man at last will begin to harmonize himself in earnest. He will make it his business to achieve beauty by giving the movement of his own limbs the utmost precision, purposefulness and economy in his work, his walk and his play.”36 It’s easy to see why Emma Goldman didn’t invite Leon to her revolution where everybody gets to dance. Can you imagine doing the Trotsky? The band Devo has done a number of videos addressing the dialectical contradictions inherent in this project.
For surrealists, the unconscious is the source of creative inspiration and utopian imagination and must be liberated from the fetters of civilized repressive rationality and patriarchal repressive will. For Trotsky, the unconscious is a dangerous menace that needs to be “mastered” by the powers of rationality and will. “Man,” he says “will try to master first the semiconscious and then the subconscious processes in his own organism, such as breathing, the circulation of the blood, digestion, reproduction, and, within necessary limits, he will try to subordinate them to the control of reason and will.”37 Breton defined surrealism in part as “Psychic automatism . . . . Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason” — a view that is rather precisely the opposite of Trotsky’s on the matter.38 For Trotsky, we must look forward to the day when the proletarian masses have finally mastered their unconscionably unconscious blood circulation, and gotten those unruly “reproductive processes” under the control of will and reason. Then they will proclaim the great revolutionary watchword, “Master Digestion!” We’re along way from “Take your desires for realities,” not to mention “l’Amour Fou.”
In the inadvertent dystopian science fiction story that Trotsky has written, “even purely physiologic life will become subject to collective experiments.”39 He predicts that “the human species, the coagulated Homo sapiens, will once more enter into a state of radical transformation, and, in his own hands, will become an object of the most complicated methods of artificial selection and psycho-physical training.”40 One can well imagine. “Object?” — definitely. “In our own hands?” — highly unlikely. One of our revolutionary tasks needs to be keeping the Ministry of Psychophysical Experimentation’s hands off us. No thanks, Leon, we can uncoagulate ourselves!
Superman, If You Please
In Trotsky’s scientistic, technocratic view of history, “Man first drove the dark elements out of industry and ideology, by displacing barbarian routine by scientific technique, and religion by science.”41 So, according to Leon (alias “the Prophet”) Trotsky, after another century of linear progress (maybe around 2010?), work everywhere will become something like ecstatic synchronized swimming, and all religion will have withered away, just like the state. “Man,” he says, “drove the unconscious out of politics, by overthrowing monarchy and class with democracy and rationalist parliamentarianism and then with the clear and open Soviet dictatorship.”42 So Trotsky thought that the unconscious had been “driven out of politics” by 1924 when he was writing this book, which was published (consciously, we can assume with confidence) by the Soviet State. Trotsky certainly qualifies as one of the great (though quite unconscious) disclosers of the meaning of repression and the return of the repressed. Once more we see how “the sleep of rationalists breeds monsters.” Very shortly, the Monster, in the form of Stalin, would venture forth to wreak havoc. But if Stalin had not existed, the unconscious would have found it necessary to create him. Some other Frankenstein or Borenstein Monster would certainly have arisen.
While surrealism is above all the poesis of freedom, Trotskyism is beneath it all a discourse of domination. Well, not that far beneath. In fact, Trotsky is quite explicit about his insanely rationalistic dream of domination, including the most insidious form of domination possible, l’autodétournement, the auto-cooptation of one’s own stupid selfhood into the project of domination. “Man,” he says, “will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses [yes, we’ll even wire ourselves!], and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a superman.”43 Look! Up in the sky, in the heights of consciousness! It’s a bird! It’s a brain! It’s bird brain! Feelings—master them! Instincts—rehabilitate them as higher consciousness! Dark recesses of the psyche—get the agents of the will to wire them! Your miserable self — a means toward to better social and biological specimen. Der Trotzkistische Übermunchkin, the final product of the Subrealist International.
Socialism: Dystopian and Surrealistic
Trotsky was a leading advocate of Demonicratic Centralism. He said: “if the Party adopts a decision which one or other of us thinks unjust, he will say, just or unjust, it is my party, and I shall support the consequences of the decision to the end.”44 This is the political death drive in action, the most obsessive fixation on one particular expression of the Reality Principle that surrealism so diligently undermines, the ultimate expression of the Realpolitik that Surrealpolitik faithfully combats. Of course, even Trotsky could not live up to the exalted principles of Demonicratic Centralism, or else his own end would have taken place shortly after a show trial in which he confessed his sins and commended Comrade Stalin on finally achieving the noble goal of Socialism in One Country.
If the mystifying appeal of Trotsky in some surrealist circles seems like a form of mass hysteria of the other than fun kind, the attraction of Marx to surrealists is quite easy to understand. Marx was one of the greatest dialectical thinkers and was a master ironist. And surrealism is the moment to moment practice of dialectic and ironism in thought and action. The affinity with Marx is self-evident. Löwy cites Breton in the Second Manifesto as saying that “the Hegelian-Marxist dialectic is at the heart of the philosophy of Surrealism.”45 One could even turn the tables and say that the surrealism is at the heart of the Hegelian-Marxist dialectic. It is the heart of a heartless dialectic. At its worst, Hegelian-Marxist or any dialectic deteriorates into a mechanized, preconceived view of where things are going. At its best, it is wild at heart. It expresses the crazy anti-logic of unexpected reversals and shocking emergences, of the discovery of objectivity at the core of the subject, and of subjectivity at the heart of things. It abjures any neat synthesis or any privileged telos. And Marx is underneath it all a great romantic. Hegel may have said that all we need is R-E-S-P-E-C-T, but Marx said that “All we need is Love.”46 “The greatest wealth for the human being is the other human being!”
Marx once said “I am not a Marxist.”47 He also pointed out that if we are not complete idiots, “our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself.”48 And as anybody familiar with dialectic know, things always both are what they are not, and are not what they are. But just remember, this is not some sloppy “anything goes” procedure: they are and are not in a determinate, though perhaps very strange, way, so it’s best to check. And if you check out Marx, or the various Marx’s, you will find that the dialectical one, or ones, often go in a rather surrealistic and even anarchic direction. “Tendance Groucho” took a while to mature, or perhaps demature, but it’s been around for a long time.
And Now, a Word from the Text
To return to Löwy’s book — a strong point in it is his effort to retrieve the memory of several extraordinary but forgotten moments and figures in the history of surrealism. An example is his chapter on Claude Cahun, “non-Jewish Jewess, androgynous woman, dissident Marxist, lesbian Surrealist” who said "my religion is paganism, including inspired figures such as Socrates, Buddha, and Kropotkin; and my (dialectical) method of thinking is taken from Heraclitus, Hegel, and Marx.”49 It’s hard to imagine a more inspiring and challenging collection of influences. What’s more, Cahun was capable of moving from poetic subversion to anti-Fascist resistance. She was sentenced by the Nazis to be decapitated, and at the last moment saved miraculously (unexpectedly? marvelously? dialectically?) by what else but “The Liberation.” Cahun’s story hints at the wealth of surrealist history that Löwy touches on, but one must look to other more comprehensive works to see them explored adequately.
Here are four brief passages randomly selected from the Morning Star through the method (that some will find familiar) of opening to random pages and pointing to a line, giving the book a chance to more or less speak for itself:
Surrealists define revolution . . . as an interruption of the monotonous rotation of Western civilization around itself, to do away with this self-absorbed axis once and for all and to open the possibilities for another movement: the free and harmonic movement of a civilization of passionate attraction. . . . If one could use one word to describe [Vincent Bounoure’s] personality, it would be ‘poetry’ . . . In April 1925 Naville wrote a short declaration. Originally intended for internal debate, it was published the next year as a pamphlet including texts by Antoinin Artaud, Michel Leiris, and André Masson. . . . Of unprecedented scope, [the Chicago World Surrealist Exhibition] featured more than six hundred works—paintings, drawings, collages, photographs, assemblages, games, sculptures, and objects—by well over a hundred active surrealists from thirty-one countries.50
Let’s hope that book told you some useful things about itself. One thing that it tells me is that although Löwy presents some helpful information about surrealism and some useful insights into it, he doesn’t allow the surrealists’ surrealism to speak for itself quite enough. On the other hand, he offers an introductory guide to the fascinating political dimensions of surrealism, and the book will be most successful if it leads the reader into the vast, astonishing literature of surrealism itself. Fortunately, there are several works that put the reader on the fast track to surreality and surrealpolitik..
Through the Retina of Actual Imaginary Experiences
Penelope Rosemont’s Surrealist Women is a 500-page “international anthology” that is required reading for anyone interested in the surrealist movement and its history, including the diverse directions that surrealpolitik has taken. About one-hundred women are represented, including well-know figures such as Leonora Carrington, Nancy Cunard, Frida Kahlo, Jacqueline Lamba, Mary Low, Joyce Mansour, Nadja, and Meret Oppenheim, and many others who should be known by any lover of surreality, creative anarchy and the wild imagination. The work includes a wealth of material on surrealist politics. It explores topics such as revolution, war and peace, working class struggle, oppression and liberation—including its racial, sexual, and political dimensions.
In his perceptive introduction to Morning Star, Donald LaCoss calls the May ‘68 General Strike in Paris “the best political fit” for the political dimension of surrealism “in more than forty years.”51 He notes the failure of Löwy to address this in the book. LaCoss was being rather indulgent in merely noting that the author “stops short,”52 for what he is really pointing out is that Löwy conspicuously avoids, or perhaps represses, a rather momentous topic that relates to the deepest dimensions of surrealist politics. Not only did May ’68 help bring out the anarchistic implications of surrealist and situationist politics, it also helped bring out the more surrealist and situationist dimensions of anarchism, and purge it of some of its more rigid, regressive and ideological vestiges. Anyone interested in exploring the implications of surrealist politics cannot afford to neglect its relationship to the whole soixante-huitard culture that emerged, its possibilities and limitations, its relation to reality, unreality, desire, imagination, surreality, and subreality. And this is exactly the sort of project that Rosemont takes on repeatedly in Surrealist Women. For example, it includes a section of almost one-hundred pages (nearly the length of Löwy’s whole book) on “The Making of ‘May ‘68’ and Its Sequels”53 in which the libertarian, anti-authoritarian, anarchistic dimensions of the events and their influence are recognized.
Though Rosemont’s book is on surrealist women, she takes time to defend what she sees as the generally anti-patriarchal sensibilities of surrealist men. She says that not only did they “reject such ‘masculine prerogatives’ as law and order, reason and logic, they went so far as to champion their opposites, the so-called feminine virtues (or vices): intuition, impulsiveness, and ‘passivity’ (as in automatic writing and trance-speaking).”54 However, she also points out that surrealist women have in many ways gone far beyond the men: “in surrealism, the adjective wild has always been a term of the highest prestige. But it is primarily the women in surrealism who stressed these matters.”55 This proclivity for wildness has perhaps been one reason why surrealist women have been less subject to the pitfalls of many male surrealists — a lack of appreciation of wild nature, an attraction to political sectarianism, an inability to overcome some sexist attitudes, a certain rigidity of character.
Rosemont says that “surrealism’s sense of freedom—its undeviating, irreducible, physical insistence on freedom—continues to distinguish it from all the other political and intellectual currents of our time.”56 This also distinguishes it, though it never entirely separates it, from much of the anarchist tradition (in fact, the part that has become most canonical, especially academically). The surrealist sense of freedom has been deeper and more experiential than that of most forms of anarchism. When it has intersected with anarchism, surrealism has helped infuse it with the substance and the spirit of freedom and countered the tendency, typical of political movements and ideologies, to get lost in the form and the letter. Surrealism helps make anarchism less ismic and more anarchic.
Rosemont goes a long way in demonstrating how it does this. Here’s a random sampling of passages that hint at the imaginary force of the selections included in Surrealist Women:
I was transforming my blood into comprehensive energy—masculine and feminine, microcosmic and macrocosmic—and also into a wine which was drunk by the moon and the sun. . . . And there appeared to me a woman with chains upon her wrists, riding on a bicycle; and in her hand a banner bearing these words: THERE ARE NO MORE WHORES IN BABYLON. . . . Without beginning or end, memories and their ectoplasm, photographs come to contradict themselves on the retina of actual imaginary experiences. . . . I have thrust my knife through her pretty shirt, her hands are white and cold under the sheets. Mine are too much alive; they have no strength. But in her palm I see a tiny fruit, studded with pink tiny fragments which I melt between my fingers.57
Exterminating the Blind Flags
Franklin Rosemont’s foreword to Ron Sakolsky’s important work Surrealist Subversions begins with a quote from Breton: “An anarchist world and a surrealist world: They are the same.”58 The realm of surreality is the world that appears beyond all archés and all archisms, beyond the limits of domination. This impressive collection consists of seven hundred pages of evidence of these anarchistic dimensions of surrealpolitik.
Rosemont goes on to say that the basic aim of surrealism is “to realize poetry in everyday life.”59 Poesis signifies creation, creativity, and the creative spirit. Poesis is everywhere around us and everywhere within us and everywhere in between. It is true that in an important sense “realizing” poetry means the greater actualization of this poesis. But in another significant sense it means the coming to awareness of this all-pervasive creativity. It’s like the Buddha-nature in Zen. Realizing the Buddha-nature means achieving awakened mind through realizing that it has always been present (though often in an absent sort of way, of course). Similarly, realizing poetry means recognizing poetry as the real real (in reality, the real reals), so that the impoverished, fetishized, objectified image of the real is displaced by the overabundant, limitless, infinitely-dimensional realms of surreality. Poetic realization is this anarchic, derealizing, transrealizing, surrealization. It means surrendering our selves to the Reality Non-Principle. We discover that there is no One and no one. We can relax and enjoy the multiplicity.
Surrealist Subversions introduces the reader to the vast multiplicity within surrealism itself, and focuses heavily on the diverse dimensions of surrealist politics. It includes entire sections on revolution, capitalism, patriarchy, sexual repression, racism, authoritarian religion, ecodefense, and working class organization. Many of these themes run through the rest of this huge collection. And it doesn’t just give the usual lip-service to anti-patriarchy and concede token representation to women. It includes about seventy-five articles, in addition to many works of art, by women. Finally, it’s a volume thick with surrealpolitik, a basic guide book into the world of surrealist politics. One can easily gather this from the following random passages:
POETRY (as opposed to literature): breathing like a machinegun, exterminating the blind flags of immediate reality . . . . Desire, sexuality, and its relationship to revolt have always been central themes in the music, but too often avoided by well-meaning defenders of the race concerned about reinforcing stereotypes of Black promiscuity. . . . Back in Southern California in the world of esoteric-occultist printers and bookmen, Jaque’s thoughts on society, health, spirituality, and ethics matured as he studied theosophy, Buddhism, zen, semantics, and ebonite Christianity. . . . The best work understands that sexual identities and practices are lived through race and class and can only be understood historically.60
Thing of the Future
A number of years ago I was part of a group that picketed regularly outside the headquarters of neo-Fascist politician David Duke, who was at the time waging a frighteningly strong campaign for governor of Louisiana. Duke’s henchmen loved to taunt the left-wing protesters. On one occasion, a Fascist thug shouted out to us, “Communism is a thing of the past!” One of our picketers responded immediately, “And anarchism is a thing of the future.”61
What might be added to this truth is that communism, not in its degraded, state-capitalist and bureaucratic centralist sense, but in its most primordial Pre-Ancientist sense of the free commons, is also a thing of the future. And as one can begin to gather from Löwy’s account and can see quite vividly from the Rosemonts’ and Sakolsky’s works, surrealism (including the surrealpolitik that goes along with it) is a thing with many futures. Many anarchic futures.
1 As analyzed in the Spring, 2003 edition of the Fifth Estate. See Don LaCoss’s article at http://flag.blackened.net/liberty/anarchotorture.html.
2 Michael Löwy, Morning Star: Surrealism, Marxism, Anarchism, Situationism, Utopia (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009).
3 Specifically: Franklin Rosemont’s An Open Entrance to the Shut Palace of WRONG NUMBERS (Chicago: Surrealist Editions, 2003); Penelope Rosemont’s Surrealist Women: An International Anthology (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998); and Ron Sakolsky’s Surrealist Subversions: Rants, Writings & Images by the Surrealist Movement in the United States (Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 2002).
5 Löwy, p. 24.
6 Löwy, p. viii.
8 André Breton, “The Lighthouse” at http://raforum.info/spip.php?article2408&lang=fr.
13 Daodejing, Ch. 55.
14 Open Entrance, p. 149.
15 Willam Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Plate 14.
16 Open Entrance, p. 163.
17 Open Entrace, pp. 147-49.
18 Hegel, Philosophy of Spirit, 1805-06 at http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/jl/ch01a.htm]
19 Löwy, p. 14.
20 Löwy, p. 17.
21 Bright Eyes, “At the Bottom of Everything.” In which the narrator of this little story in song is apparently relieved to find out that at the bottom he is no one. However, the sleeping, dreamless anarchist is described as a “that,” rather than a “who,” and therefore has seemingly fallen, not to the bottom of things, but into reification.
22 Lowy, p. 1.
23 Löwy, p. 11.
24 Löwy, p. 29.
25 Löwy, p. 38.
26 Löwy, p. 25.
28 Leon Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism, Ch. 1, at http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1920/terrcomm/ch08.htm]
31 Leon Trotsky, “Culture and Socialism” at http://www.wsws.org/articles/2008/oct2008/cult-o23.shtml
32 Leon Trotsky, “Literature and Revolution” at
35 “Introduction” to Literature and Revolution at http://www.marxistsfr.org/archive/trotsky/1924/lit_revo/
36 “Revolutionary and Socialist Art” in Literature and Revolution at http://www.marxistsfr.org/archive/trotsky/1924/lit_revo/ch08.htm
38 Surrealist Manifesto (1924) at http://wikilivres.info/wiki/Surrealist_Manifesto.
39 “Revolutionary and Socialist Art”
44 Speech at 13th Party Congress (May, 1924), quoted at http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/souvar/works/stalin/ch08.htm.
45 Löwy, p. 3.
46 Actually, the young Hegel came under the spell of the Age of Aquarius perhaps even more than the young Marx. See “The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate,’ and “Love” in the Early Theological Writings.
47 For example, as quoted by Engels in a letter of 1890. See http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1890/letters/90_08_05.htm
48 “Preface” to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.
49 Löwy, pp. 65, 79.
50 Löwy, pp. 6, 87, 45,111.
51 Löwy, p. xxix.
53 Surrealist Women, pp. 283-379.
54 Ibid, p. xlv,
55 Ibid., p. li.
56 Ibid., p. 391.
57 Ibid., pp. 151, 89, 326, 220.
58 Surrealist Subversions, p. 15.
59 Ibid., p. 27.
60 Ibid., pp. 158, 139, 688, 305.
61 New Orleans poet Dennis Formento deserves credit for this spontaneous retort, which mystified the obnoxious Fascist, who, thankfully, was reduced to silence, at least for the moment.