You may remember that the ‘Our Quarter’ editorial for Volume 6, No. 1 began with a discussion of a new activist group:the International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Art: here is that paragraph again.
“Andre Breton, a founder and leader of the Surrealist movement, and Diego Rivera, the painter of the Mexican Revolution, are two artists who have long been active on the Left. Some time ago they rejected the Third International (the Comintern, 1919-1943), politically as well as culturally. They now propose a new federation of artists and writers, Left-wing in tendency and free of all organizational dependence. [In this issue] we print their manifesto calling for the formation of the International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Art. An increasing number of writers, artists, and intellectuals are coming to realize that socialism offers the only permanent escape from barbarism that is gaining ground so fast in capitalist society. We believe that these intellectual forces, hitherto scattered and isolated, should now draw together into some sort of organization for free discussion and for defense against their common enemies. We are, therefore, in complete sympathy with the general aim of the IFIRA, and we are ready to take part in the formation of an American section of the Federation. This, we think, should incorporate the international aims of the IFIRA in a program otherwise strictly adapted to American conditions. We invite all those interested in forming such a group in the United States to communicate with the editors of Partisan Review.”
The Manifesto signed by Breton and Rivera was an attempt to create a leftist, anti-Stalinist, association of Artists that would be Marxist, but stand outside the artistic aims of socialist realism and and prolit cult. It was 1938, and it was clear that Stalin’s trials had betrayed the Revolution of 1917. Scholars have argued that it was when Breton went to visit Trotsky, then living in exile in Mexico, that the two men drew up this ‘Manifesto,’ which was then signed by Rivera instead of Trotsky.
The Manifesto is part of a European network of socialist ideas that attracted anti-conventional, anti-conformist, and anti-war artists. It’s first and explosive appearance is with the group of Swiss artists who called themselves DADA. The Cafe Voltaire in Zurich was founded by Hugo Ball and Emmy Hemmings in the middle of the First World War, and advanced an art of irrationality, anti-authoritarianism, allied with comic and satirical events — ancestors of 20th century Performance Art — Hans Arp, Kurt Schwitters, and others, including Andre Breton, joined them.
Andre Breton was an intellectual adventurer and after WWI, he announced the beginning of a new movement, which combined the attributes of DADA with those of Freudian analysis: He defined SURREALISM as “pure psychic automatism by which one proposes to express, either verbally or in writing or otherwise, the actual functioning of the thought.”
It was through Breton that SURREALISM attached itself to the idea of proletarian revolution and to the overthrow of bourgeois society. Breton joined the Communist Party in 1924 and left in 1937 because of the Stalinist programme and the Moscow Trials. This is the link to the Manifesto we are looking at today. Trotsky was expelled from the Party in 1929, and with the formation of the Fourth International, and Trotsky’s asylum in Mexico, Breton became a closer ally and went to visit him where he was living with Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo.
During his exile, Breton had the opportunity to meet Léon Trotsky. Together, they composed the manifesto for an independent revolutionary art. Surrealism as a movement died in the 1950s. It was, as we shall learn more of, the attack on SURREALISM by Jean-Paul Sartre, who, through his entire career, argued against surrealism.
So, back to the Manifesto itself.
It begins with an assault on the geo-politics of 1938, and the force of its style is both politically radical and anti-Stalinist: you will know from earlier posts that Trotsky was an advocate of freedom in artistic creation: “True Art,” the Manifesto repeats, “is unable not to aspire to a complete and radical reconstruction of society…We recognise that only the social revolution can sweep clear the path for a new culture.” From there it is a small step to a denunciation of Stalin: “If we reject solidarity with the Soviet Union, it is because it represents not Communism, but its most treacherous and dangerous enemy.”
So, because art is what conceives of the radical reconstruction of society, “The opposition of writers and artists is one of the forces that can usefully contribute to the discrediting and overthrow of regimes which are destroying, along with the right of the proletariat to aspire to a better world, every sentiment of nobility and even of human dignity.”
Trotsky and Breton both carry the romantic gene of creativity as central to their quite different positions on authority, struggle, and really, the functions of the imagination, but in this manifesto, the importance of the artistic spirit is critical to the political point. Much like our own days here in 2018 — its the death of imaginative freedom that will thwart the Revolution.
The paragraph below is flung against the shadow of Stalinist ‘aesthetics’ and asserts the humanism that is marching both with anti-fascist Liberalism and against Stalinism:
“The free choice of themes and the absence of all restrictions on the range of [their] explorations – these are possessions of which the artist has the right to claim as inalienable. In the realm of artistic creation, the imagination must escape from all constraint and must, under no pretext, allow itself to be placed under bonds. To those who would urge us, whether for today or tomorrow, to consent that art should submit to a discipline which we hold to be radically incompatible with its nature, we give a flat refusal, and we repeat our deliberate intention of standing by the formula: complete freedom for art.”
To enable this, the authors of the manifesto suggest that even if we need centralised control over the building of the material conditions for improved production, “an anarchist regime of individual liberty should first be established.”
What an amazing demand! I love it.
“In the present period of the death agony of capitalism, democratic as well as fascist, the artist sees himself threatened with the loss of his right to live. Only naturally, he turns to the Stalinist organizations, which hold out the possibility of escaping his isolation….He must understand that his place lies elsewhere, not among those who betray the cause of revolution, but among those who with unshaken fidelity bear witness to this revolution, among those who, for this reason, are alone able to bring it to its fruition.”
So, what happened to the International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Art? In 1997, Frank Brenner of the [still active, if not very….active] 4th International, wrote about the fate of the IFIRA:
“It is instructive to note the fate of the International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Art (IFIRA) called into being by the 1938 manifesto. Breton was able to rally fellow Surrealists such as poet Benjamin Péret, painters Yves Tanguy and André Masson; Victor Serge, Marcel Martinet, Ignazio Silone, Herbert Read [who, in turn, solicited the support of George Orwell] and others. Despite this the French section ceased operations after the publication of two issues of its journal Clé (Key) in January and February 1939.
Internal differences played a part in the IFIRA’s failure to take root, but the greatest problem was the extremely difficult political environment: the influence within the intelligentsia of the Stalinist apparatus and the demoralized condition of many of those not under the latter’s thumb, as well, of course, as the outbreak of war in Europe. In his last letter to Trotsky in June 1939, Breton wrote: “Perhaps I am not very talented as an organizer, but at the same time it seems to me that I have run up against enormous obstacles. (The tragic element in this should not be lost on the reader.)
The tragic element is going to unfold even more dismally over the following months of 1938 and 1939.
Next Week: “Blumfeld, an elderly Bachelor”, by Franz Kafka