The Politics of Surrealism

Against the Current, No. 143, November/December 2009

Amanda Armstrong

Morning Star:
surrealism, marxism, anarchism, situationism, utopian
By Michael Löwy
University of Texas Press, 2009, 174 pages,
44 line drawings. $55 hardcover.

IN THE FIRST notebook of his Grundrisse, composed in 1857, Marx predicted that the “romantic viewpoint” would “accompany [capitalism] as its legitimate antithesis up to its blessed end.”(1) He believed that romanticism, with its celebration of the richness — real or imagined — of pre-capitalist life, would remain a perennial reaction to the reification of social life under capitalism.

While some of Marx’s more famous predictions on overcoming of capitalism have not yet been fulfilled, as Michael Löwy shows in Morning Star, 20th-century history has vindicated Marx’s confidence in the durability of romanticism.

In the ten essays that make up Morning Star, first published here in English as part of the University of Texas Press Surrealist Revolution series, Löwy argues that the “romantic viewpoint” found its most fitting, and most insistently anti-capitalist, 20th-century guise in the transnational and multi-generational movement of Surrealism.

Three early chapters of this attractively designed book offer broad reflections on the political and philosophical entanglements of the movement, while later essays provide political biographies of an assortment of Francophone surrealists (Breton, Cahun, Bounoure, Saban), as well as a few of their more prominent interlocutors on the Left (Naville, Debord).

The final chapter attempts a comprehensive review of international surrealist activity post-1969, closing with a message to would-be 21st-century surrealists.

Löwy reminds us that we should not be indifferent to surrealism’s past —“Anything that cannot find a spark of hope in the past has no future” — even as he insists that, if it is to have a future, surrealism must remain radically open: “The old ways, the paved roads, and the beaten paths are in the hands of the enemy. New ways must be found — the wanderer makes the path.” (116)

As this closing exhortation makes apparent, Morning Star is a committed text, written by a participant in the movement it chronicles. This provides the book with a satisfying coherence, as Löwy’s constructive project enables him to glue together into a single, multilayered image what might otherwise appear to be unrelated historical and biographical vignettes.

At times, however, Löw’s commitment seems to discourage him from raising thorny questions about the history and politics of the movement — questions that must be worked through if we are to find new paths to surrealism and socialism in the 21st century.

Romanticisms, Left and Right

That the broad tradition of romanticism has cross-cutting and mercurial political impulses is something of a commonplace observation in critical discourse, and one that Löwy reiterates in Morning Star. As he notes, the romantic banner has been carried by both left-wing utopians from Fourier to Bloch, as well as a menagerie of reactionary cultural nationalists — agitated men who could be found skimming their copy of Herder when they weren’t busy railing against suffragists and socialists.

While a few surrealists, most notably Dalí, wandered over to this conservative camp, the vast majority allied for most of their lives with Left movements (particularly Trotskyism and anarchism), and in their works heaped scorn on the reactionary romantic fetishes of family, race and nation. One of Löwy’s projects in Morning Star is the reconstruction and explanation of these relatively consistent political commitments.

He presents two arguments for how surrealists sidestepped the conservative strains of the romantic tradition. First, Breton et al. were highly selective when drawing inspiration from the past: while they were inspired by Gothic literature, alchemy, American Indian art forms, and the rebellious verses of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, any past cultural traditions that reeked of religious hierarchy or national chauvinism drew their ire.

Surrealists were searching the archive for art forms that would shatter, rather than confirm, imperial bourgeois culture — a culture in which traditional patriarchal and religious ideals were utilized in order to sanctify hyper-modern forms of social control.

Second, Löwy suggests that the influence of Marx, a critical inheritor of the Enlightenment, channeled surrealists’ romantic passions in socially emancipatory directions. As his historical chapters make clear — particularly on Pierre Naville’s The Revolution and the Intellectuals — surrealists have widely embraced the Marxian critique of capitalism and have consistently moved in the same circles as revolutionary socialists.

While these circles were often riven by polemics and personal animosities, including those between Naville and Breton, Löwy suggests that the severity of such clashes has been overstated by historians of the movement.(2) To demonstrate the point, Löwy reveals that Naville, shortly before his death in 1993, sent an enthusiastic letter to Breton’s supporter Franklin Rosemont, of the Chicago Surrealists, expressing his hope that “your Surrealist movement will renew what we tried to do so long ago.” (62)

By taking up Marx’s critique of capitalist modernity, surrealists have generally been able to avoid some of the destructive political and aesthetic shortcuts that are characteristic of conservative romanticisms. While conservative romantics idealize the traces of earlier, hierarchical social formations in such a way as to put a human face on inhumane social conditions, surrealists seek to expose the cracked lineaments of contemporary systems of exploitation.

Walter Benjamin’s Surrealism essay explains how these competing political aims manifest themselves at the level of aesthetic form:

“Here due weight must be given to the insight that in the Traité du style, Aragon’s last book, required a distinction between metaphor and image, a happy insight into questions of style that needs extending. Extension: nowhere do these two — metaphor and image — collide so drastically and so irreconcilably as in politics. For to organize pessimism means nothing other than to expel moral metaphor from politics and to discover in political action a sphere reserved one hundred per cent for images …. Only when in technology body and image so interpenetrate that all revolutionary tension becomes bodily collective innervation,(3) and all the bodily innervations of the collective become revolutionary discharge, has reality transcended itself to the extent demanded by the Communist Manifesto. For the moment, only the Surrealists have understood its present commands. They exchange, to a man, the play of human features for the face of an alarm clock that in each minute rings for sixty seconds.”(4)

Benjamin’s somewhat enigmatic analysis here provides the scattered fragments of a political-aesthetic diagnosis of surrealism which would sharply differentiate this movement from conservative romantic traditions. While such traditions trade in “moral metaphor” and the “play of human features” — idealized human forms which are meant to serve as soothing allegories of the supposedly homogenous and unified social body — surrealists circulate what Benjamin elsewhere terms “dialectical images.”

Such images split the putrid air of our petrified world, rendering uncanny and untimely the dazzling spectacles and dancing commodities that everywhere captivate our senses.

Dialectical images perform this defamiliarizing and activity-generating (“innervating”) task in a variety of ways: by juxtaposing idealized forms with images of the violence required to produce and sustain these forms, by showing the aging of industrial wonders such as railroads in a way that reveals the historicity of the present, by transfiguring marks of capitalist drudgery into signs of revolution (i.e. Benjamin’s alarm clock), by tearing objects out of their conventional contexts in order to reveal their unexpected possible uses, and by offering hints of the marvelous freedoms that could materialize in a post-capitalist world.

The black-and-white images reproduced in Morning Star, many of them surrealist montages, are compelling examples.

A number of these montages, particularly those made by Albert Marencin, deform and render uncanny conventional images of women and/or bourgeois domesticity. In one image, the nude torso of a woman is superimposed over the scene of a shipwreck, while in another, a couple of Victorian women converse with birds in a room crammed with stately public buildings.

Undoing Gender: Claude Cahun

These montages open up questions about the gender and sexual politics of surrealism — questions that Löwy addresses, though somewhat indirectly, in his lengthy chapter on Claude Cahun. Cahun, whose works have recently been rediscovered by a cohort of younger queer and feminist artists, was a prominent early surrealist who worked, like Man Ray, in the medium of photography.

Her best known pieces are self-portraits, which scramble conventions of gender and expose the violence underpinning normative heterosexual relations. Even as these photographs have had an energizing effect on a new generation of radical artists, however, her written contributions to socialist and surrealist theory are at risk of falling into obscurity.

Löwy’s chapter on Cahun does an admirable job of outlining and contextualizing her theoretical essays, while also recounting Cahun and her life partner’s courageous and creative opposition to Nazi occupation.

In presenting Cahun’s theoretical work, Löwy focuses particularly on a polemical essay she wrote in 1934, entitled Les Paris sont ouverts (Bets Are On). In it, Cahun takes aim at the instrumentalization of art for ideological ends, directing most of her ire at Louis Aragon, who by this time had begun writing canned poems in celebration of the Soviet Union.

According to Cahun, ideological poetry invokes moral ideals and utilizes soothing formal devices such as predictable rhyming schemes in order to neutralize its readers, whereas emancipatory art brings social contradictions to the surface, and thus provokes its readers to critical reflection and action.

In providing examples of ideological art, she references state and corporate ad jingles, such as “Every elegant woman is a client of Le Printemps,” and “Your Fatherland is the USSR, one-sixth of the planet” — lines of patriarchal pseudopoetry that, like Aragon’s latest works, enable little more than “revolutionary masturbation.” (70)

Ironically, in distinguishing ideologically deformed art from authentically emancipatory works, Cahun echoed Benjamin’s aforementioned arguments about dialectical images, which were themselves inspired by Aragon’s pre-Stalinist works. Her essay supplemented Benjamin and the early Aragon’s arguments, though, as it added a psycho-sexual dimension to their more narrowly political and aesthetic reflections. It also broke new ground by aligning an emergent Stalinist culture with earlier, conservative forms of romanticism, thus setting in motion the surrealists’ decisive break with Stalinism.

Shortcomings on Sexuality

Cahun’s essays, when read alongside her self-portraits, issue a defiant surrealist response to sexual and gender oppression — a response that, unfortunately, was not always embraced by other participants in the movement. While Bets Are On was generally well received by Breton and his collaborators (in part because it explicitly criticized Aragon), Cahun’s gender nonconformity and queer sexuality met with a sometimes hostile reception, according to Löwy. (73)

Nor were the surrealist movement’s false steps around gender and sexuality simply confined to interpersonal settings; a number of surrealist images, for instance, depict women’s bodies in ways that are less than emancipatory. From Man Ray’s photographs, which, while sometimes raising critical questions about sexuality and violence, too often simply present women’s bodies as eroticized fetish objects, to a number of early surrealist montages, which convey “shock effects” via the depiction of dismembered female body parts — so many fishnet-clad legs and made-up faces — early surrealist images, particularly those produced by men, often confirmed normative heterosexuality rather than disrupting this formation.

Of course it would be possible to pass over this failure by ascribing it to a residual “influence of the times,” or to reorient the discussion by pointing out that surrealist women produced an extensive corpus of pre-second-wave feminist art, and in this way helped spark the 1960s international movement for women’s liberation.(5) While these are no doubt legitimate responses, it seems to me that we might still have something to learn by thinking through this particular failure.

One way that we might make sense of the use of dismembered female body parts in surrealist montages is to see these images as misguided attempts to shatter the symbolically charged figure of “the woman” — a figure regularly employed by imperialist myth-makers in the form of the “national woman” or “national mother.”

The mistake of the surrealist producers of these montages was twofold. First, they assumed that this figure was nothing more than a false image which could be overcome by literally being shattered, rather than seeing it as an oppressive ideal that daily molded women’s bodies and psyches and that could only be overcome through a sustained struggle to demonstrate that women were other than this oppressive ideal.

Second, they assumed that depictions of the death and dismemberment of women were unconventional and shocking, when in reality they were both an integral element of national allegories that treated women’s deaths as sublime acts of sacrifice, and potentially complicit in the naturalization of violence against women. In this way, images that might have appeared subversive actually bore within themselves a reactionary kernel.

Only through critical feminist reflection, performed in part by surrealist women, could this kernel be exposed and overcome. This is an important lesson for the present, since, as Jacques Rancière argues in The Future of the Image, artistic processes that may have been counter-hegemonic in the past have recently been recaptured by an emergent neoliberal cultural establishment.(6)

Rather than exposing social contradictions, montage today more often sacralizes our global commodity culture by suggesting that all people and objects partake in a seamless, universal system: the montage practiced in MTV studios as well as leading art galleries invites us to revel in the exchangeability of all things, rather than work to exchange our current social order for a less damaging world.

In the face of this challenge, much critical and historical reflection will be required if we want to reconstruct an emancipatory artistic and political practice in the 21st century. For those interested in taking on this task, Löwy’s Morning Star is essential reading.


  1. Karl Marx, Grundrisse, trans. Martin Nicolaus (London: Penguin and New Left Review, 1993), 162.
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  2. For a traditional interpretation of the Naville/Breton split, see Martin Jay, Marxism and Totality (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 291.
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  3. Innervation is a keyword Benjamin also employed in his famous essay on Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility. It means, more or less, the opposite of enervation. While many early 20th-century cultural critics thought that technology had an enervating effect on the masses, Benjamin saw the possibility for technology to be employed in ways that would stimulate revolutionary energies — a possibility that the surrealists also saw.
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  4. Walter Benjamin, Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia, Trans. Edmond Jephcott (NLR I/108, March-April, 1978).
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  5. For an extensive compilation of surrealist women’s theoretical and artistic compositions, see: Penelope Rosemont, Surrealist Women: An International Anthology (University of Texas, 1998).
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  6. Jacques Rancière, The Future of the Image, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2007).
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ATC 143, November-December 2009