1967: André Breton
Published in International Socialism (1st series), No.27, Winter 1966/67. According to Dave Widgery (Preserving Disorder, 1989, p. xiii, it was this obituary that made him decide to join the International Socialists.
André Breton, who died at the end of September, will be remembered primarily as one of the founders of the Surrealist movement, but he should be mourned also by revolutionary socialists. Breton described surrealism as ‘absolute non-conformism,’ and his pursuit of liberty and revolt in art necessarily involved him in politics. The fact that, unlike his fellow surrealist, Aragon, he was not willing to hand himself over to the French Communist Party (of which he wrote, as early as 1930: ‘How can one fail to be terribly disturbed by such a decline in the ideological level of a party formerly so brilliantly armed by two of the greatest thinkers of the nineteenth century?’), does not mean that he was not a revolutionary, a Marxist even, albeit an unorthodox one. He was ready to oppose with equal vigour oppression on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
Breton’s view of revolution was always a total one. In the second Surrealist Manifesto, he called for a study, in revolutionary perspective, of ‘the problems of love, dreaming, madness, art and religion.’ In an attempt to bring together Marx and Freud, he turned back to the most visionary of the Utopian Socialists, Charles Fourier. Breton was personally associated with Leon Trotsky, and in February 1938 visited him in Coyoacan. There, in collaboration with Trotsky and Diego Rivera, he prepared the manifesto, Towards a Free Revolutionary Art, for the launching of the International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Art. (Published Partisan Review, autumn 1938; reprinted Labour Review, autumn 1962). The manifesto stated:
’We believe that the supreme task of art in our epoch is to take part actively and consciously in the preparation of the revolution. But the artist cannot serve the struggle for freedom unless he subjectively assimilates its social content, unless he feels in his very nerves its meaning and drama and freely seeks to give his own inner world incarnation in his art.’
The IFIRA was still-born; but the problem of authentic revolutionary art, rejecting both ‘socialist realism’ and the modern apology for art for art’s sake, remains. Breton will serve us, not because he succeeded, but because he raised the issues.