Lenin, Hegel and Western Surrealism

I first saw reference to the connection between the Surrealists and Lenin’s 1914 Hegel Notebooks in David Roegider’s entry on Surrealism in the first edition of the Encyclopedia of the American Left. Martin Jay notes that it was André Breton who first introduced Henri Lefebrve to Hegel’s Science of Logic in 1924 in his book Marxism and Totality. Kevin Anderson has a discussion of Lefebrve and his interpretation of the notebooks in Lenin, Hegel, and Western Marxism, the fullest treatment to date of the reception of this still under-appreciated aspect of Lenin’s intellectual work. The Notebooks became first available in English in 1958 when Raya Dunayevskaya, one of the most profound readers of Lenin’s notes, published a translation as an appendix to her book Marxism and Freedom. Neither Jay nor Anderson, however, notes that the Surrealists were the first to make the Notebooks available in French in their journal   Le Surréalisme au Service de la Revolution, which was published from 1930 to 1933. Anna Balakian gives an account of the the appearance of the Notebooks in her book Surrealism, the Road to the Absolute. The excerpt below appears in Chapter 6: “Breton and the Surrealist Mind—The Influences of Freud and Hegel.”


In a pertinent article on the notebook kept by Lenin of Hegel’s principal concepts, André Thinion called attention to the fact that in 1932 when he and his colleagues were taking such an active interest in Hegel and published in French for the first time fragments of the Hegel-Lenin dialogue, Hegel’s Science of Logic had not yet been translated into French. In his introduction to the Lenin notes, published in Le Surréalisme au Service de la Revolution, Thinion asserted that in France the surrealists “with the exception of a few professional philosophers, are alone in claiming derivation from Hegelian though and in referring constantly their activities to this ideology.” (1) He states that these ideas are of the highest importance to the surrealists and have had the power of shock on them, have led them to grasp the evolution of material and intellectual existence.

Which were these thoughts that Lenin had underlined and which clarified the surrealists’ notion of the human world? It was Hegel’s stress on the superiority of the concrete over the abstract, his belief in the inner unity of contradictory conditions or phenomena, and particularly his definition of knowledge as the linking of thought with its object. The surrealists inferred from Hegel that the true understanding of existence depended on the knowledge of the interrelation of the subjective and the objective, which in turn meant a refusal of the kind of idealism that sought something finer than the concrete manifestations of reality. The metaphysical experience, then, could be reached not through transcendence but through a successful tuning of the mind with matter. As Tristan Tzara said, “it amounts to the conciliation of man in the making with the reality of the exterior world.”

(1) A. Thinion, “En Lisant Hegel,” Le Surréalism au Service de la Revolution, Vol. III, p. 1

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  1. Pingback: ‘The Greatest Power of Shock’ « Criticism &c.

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