Surrealist Arsenal

Against the Current, No. 37, March/April 1992

Michael Löwy

Arsenal Surrealist Subversion 4
Edited by Franklin Rosemont
Black Swan Press (1726 West Jarvas Avenue, Chicago, IL 60626), 1989, 224 pages.

THERE HAS ALWAYS been a deep “elective affinity’ between Surrealism and revolutionary politics, since the early days of the movement in Paris during the 1920s, Andre Breton’s meeting with Trotsky in Mexico (1938) and their common document on Art and Revolution was one of the highest moments of this spiritual fusion.

ARSENAL Surrealist Subversion, the surrealist journal published in Chicago belongs to this radical tradition. Edited by Franklin Rosemont, its fourth issue is still available.

As its name says, the journal does not aim at aesthetical entertainment but conceives itself as a provider of cultural weapons and ammunition against the established order. Its cover states unambiguously: “Surrealism in the service of Revolution, Poetry, the Marvelous, Dream, Revolt, Freedom, Desire, Wilderness and Love”—a vast and explosive program.

A short editorial settles accounts with the “incantations of those whose job it is to reassure society’s self-appointed managers that surrealism, like working class emancipation, is safely obsolete,’ and explains the political and human meaning of being a surrealist in the United States today:

“We are living, precariously enough, in a strange place called the United States, a nation founded on genocide, and whose government;, the most murderous in history, is the deadliest enemy of human freedom in the world today… Surrealism continues to advance today, and make a difference, because it refuses to compromise with unfreedom, because it holds true to its own irreducibly wild and untameable means, outside all repressive frameworks.”

In the spirit of revolutionary negativity, surrealism is presented as “anti-statist, anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-religious, anti-anthropocentric, anti-academic’ as well as “allergic to Western Civilization and its values and institutions.” Its dialectical philosophy is illustrated by a wonderful quote from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom…. He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence …. Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion…. What is now proved was once only imagin’d.”

A Wealth of Content

It is impossible to summarize the astonishing, rich and multiple content of Arsenal 4: poems and reproductions of works by surrealist artists from Europe and the Americas; a fraternal philosophical debate between Herbert Marcuse and the Chicago Surrealists (1971-73); poems and articles of the Trotskyist-Surrealist couple Mary Low and Juan Brea, authors of the Red Spanish Notebook (1937), a testimony of the struggle of the POUM in the Spanish Revolution; poems of the revolutionary Yiddish writer Samuel Greenberg (with a beautiful article by Paul Buhle on the Yiddish radical poets and writers during the 1920s); translations of texts by Benjamin Peret, Karol Teige, Luis Bunuel, Georges Bataille, Andre Breton; essays on Surrealism and Jazz (Paul Garon), and Surrealism and African Art (Cheith Sylla); etc. etc.

This diversity goes together with a deep unity and coherence: The spirit of Surrealist Subversion runs through all the articles and materials.

Among the essays two seem to me of particular interest. The first, by Nancy Joyce Peters, is on “Women and Surrealism.” It is well known that there was disproportionally large number of women in the Surrealist movement in comparison with their token presence in other artistic currents. More than a few have at-tamed world prominence: sculptor Meret Oppenheim, filmmaker Nelly Kaplan, poet Joyce Mansour, painters Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Dorothea Tanning and Toyen are only some of the best known.

Nancy Peters argues that Surrealist thought, although not feminist, had prophetic parallels with feminist concerns—such as a deliberate stand against patriarchal institutions like the State, the Church, patriotism, militarism, domesticity. Moreover, Surrealism encouraged diversity and recognized difference without perpetuating oppositions; women had neither to sacrifice their singular Ah-So-Qua-Ta (Iroquois Pipe) feminine experience by taking on a male persona, nor be bound to a specifically “women’s art.”

On the other hand, it is obvious that the surrealist attitude, or surrealist art, is full of unresolved conflicts and ambivalence toward women.

Iroquois and Civilization

The other important piece is Franklin Rosemont’s essay “Karl Marx and the Iroquois.” Drawing extensively on Marx’s little-known Ethnographical Notebooks and other neglected writings, Rosemont shows how the reading of Morgan’s Ancient Society helped Marx to understand the essential superiority, in real human terms, of “primitive” societies like the Iroquois Confederation, over degraded civilizations founded on the fetishism of commodities.

In his last years, toafar greater degree than before, Marx focused his attention on people of color, the colonized, peasants and “primitives” and their contribution to the global struggle for human emancipation. Using the “marvelous insights” of Theodor Shanin’s book Late Marx and theRussian Road, Rosemont very perceptively links the ethnological research of late Marx with his writings on the Russian rural commune, and suggests that Marx’s reading of Morgan was anactive factor in the 9ualltative leap in his thought on revolution in the underdeveloped countries. In conclusion, Rosemont writes:

“With his radical new focus on the primal peoples of the world; his heightened critique of civilization and its values and institutions; his new emphasis on the subjective factor in revolution; his ever-deeper hostility to religion and the State; his unequivocal affirmation of revolutionary pluralism; his growing sense of the unprecedented depth and scope of the communist revolution as a total revolution, vastly exceeding the categories of economics and politics; his bold new posing of such fundamental questions as the relation of man and woman, humankind and nature, imagination and culture, myth and ritual and all the “passions and powers of the mind,” Late Marx is sharply opposed to, and incomparably more radical than, almost all that we know today as Marxism.”

March-April 1992, ATC 37