A slightly off-beat post for Splits & Fusions, suggested to us by John Plant.
Like John I have an interest in the Surrealist movement and its interactions with the radical left… Here is a very brief sketch.
In Britain Surrealism first came to widespread public and media attention as a result of the London International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936.
Two years later, what had become the English Surrealist Group established the London Bulletin. Originally London Gallery Bulletin, this was a magazine edited by E.L.T. Mesens and published by his London Gallery between April 1938 and June 1940.
The magazine was the most influential English Surrealist periodical. Although it described itself as an avant-garde review, Surrealist contributions predominated; and it featured the work of Mesens, Paul Eluard, Andre Breton, Benjamin Peret, Roland Penrose, Conroy Maddox and many others. 16 issues were published though some were double or triple numbers.
In the summer of 1938, Breton and Trotsky met in Mexico, at the foot of the Popocatepetl and Ixtacciuatl volcanoes. This historic meeting was prepared by Pierre Naville, a former Surrealist and leader of the Trotskyist movement in France.
Despite a heated controversy with Breton in 1930, Naville had written to Trotsky in 1938 recommending Breton as a courageous man who had not hesitated, unlike so many other intellectuals, to publicly condemn the infamy of the Moscow Trials.
Jointly Trotsky and Breton drafted a Manifesto For An Independent Revolutionary Art, which appeared above the signatures of Breton and Diego Rivera.
This Manifesto was published in London Bulletin no6 October 1938 in French and then in English translation in the next issue.
We found all the issues of London Bulletin nicely scanned and online– which is just as well as a set recently sold at auction for £8,000. Donations are welcomed should another set ever come up for sale!
Remy’s book “Surrealism in Britain” discusses in detail the London Bulletin and what he calls the “the drift towards Trotskyism” in this period but the engagement of Surrealists with the Left goes back further.
Prior to the establishment of the London Bulletin, in 1936, the Surrealist Group in England had issued a Declaration on Spain in another Surrealist journal- Contemporary Poetry And Prose. This was edited by Roger Roughton, a passionate Surrealist and revolutionary who remained, nonetheless, a member of the Stalinised Communist Party of Great Britain. Roughton was later to resolve his own contradictions in favour of the CP, breaking with Surrealism.
Toni del Renzio, widely seen as a rival to Mesens for ‘leadership’ of the London Surrealists, fought briefly on the Aragon front during the Spanish Civil War and Wikipedia suggests this was with the Trotskyists (probably POUM). Roger Cardinal’s obituary in the Guardian is useful.
For many years Surrealists carried out political activity in collaboration with the wider left in initiatives around Spain, anti-fascism etc. whilst at the same time carrying on a lively debate in the pages of Left Review– initiated by a supplement to the July 1936 issue which was devoted to Surrealism. We don’t have a copy of this but would love to find one…
For further information we recommend Remy (op.cit.). Also this thesis on Mesens, of which chapter 13 on the wartime and immediate post-war activities of the British Surrealists is very useful.
Postscript: It has been suggested that Mesens was close to the Revolutionary Communist Party in the 1940s and was a financial contributor. Can anyone corroborate this?
Post-postscript: Inevitably in the later 1930s there was a split from the (London centric) English Surrealist Group by the Birmingham Surrealists who included John and Robert Melville – father and uncle respectively of Theo Melville, early member of the International Group who joined the Posadist Revolutionary Workers Party. Theo wrote an intro to an exhibition of his father’s paintings.
This factoid would make a good Surrealo-Trotskyist pub-quiz question.
Post-post-postscript: The 1970s saw a minor resurgence of politically engaged Surrealism in Britain. However, this time more closely aligned to Anarchism than Trotskyism- at least if we go by the fact that Freedom Press published two key Surrealist magazines The Hinge Of History in 1978 and Melmoth in 1979 (this latter was incorporated into Freedom magazine).
Post-post-post-postscript: Also in 1979, a (different?) group of Surrealists made an intervention in the pages of Socialist Challenge (issue 88) with a four page pull-out supplement- Surrealist Challenge. This included texts by the well-respected US Surrealists Franklin and Penelope Rosemont and reproduced the Breton / Trotsky Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art.
However, the supplement was strongly criticised by feminists and some members of the IMG for the allegedly misogynistic imagery of some of the texts. The Surrealist Group in England responded with a broadsheet “And Onan Cried over his Spilt Milk…” critical of both Trotskyism and feminism. Another text we would like to see a copy of.
Post-post-post-post-postscript: We draw your attention to the Curious Case of Comrade Kukowski– Trotskyist, Surrealist, Tory!
The beginnings of an Archive Of Surrealist Publications
https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/BookDetailsPL?bi=22895052662&cm_sp=SEARCHREC-_-WIDGET-L-_-BDP-N&searchurl=an%3Dandre%2Bbreton%2Bfranklin%2Brosemont%26sortby%3D17 Surrealist Challenge (supplement to Socialist Challenge, March 22, 1979)
Rosemont, Franklin, Stephan Kukowski, and others
Published by Socialist Challenge, London, 1979
Here is our scan: https://www.dropbox.com/s/q1kcz5qubtnsy20/Socialist%20Challenge%20no88%20Surrealist%20Challenge%20supp.pdf?dl=0
Very nice paper, interesting information. Thanks for picking up my phrase on Trotsky and Breton meeting “at the foot of the Popocatepetl and the Ixtacihuatl”, I see my recent note on their meeting has been read.
Thanks Michael, I .was sent a translation of your article by John Richardson, which I used to introduce the Trotsky-Breton Manifesto on the Weaponised Poetry blog and also forwarded to International Viewpoint.
See more on the Mesens circle in George Melly’s autobiography, Rum, Bum and Concertina.