André Breton broke resolutely with the Communist Party of France and the international apparatus of Communist parties in 1935, leaving behind forever former Surrealists such as Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard. Breton’s criticisms of the counter-revolutionary monstrosity the Stalin version of socialism had become are magnificently expressed in the indispensable essays of Political Position of Surrealism, included in Manifestoes of Surrealism. He remained true to Marxism and aligned his sympathies with Leon Trotsky and the Trotskyist movement, a courageous move in the France of the 1930s, when Stalinism was moving from strength to strength. He served with Alfred Rosmer and Fernand Charbit on the French Committee for an Inquiry into the Trials to help combat the falsehoods the Stalin apparatus were busy broadcasting around the Moscow trials.
Breton, in dire economic straits at the time, traveled to Mexico in 1938 to deliver lectures on French artistic trends and took advantage of this opportunity to visit Trotsky in his place of exile. The story of the visit is told in Jean Van Heijenoort’s With Trotsky in Exile. One major product of Breton’s time in Coyoacan was the magnificent Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art, co-written with Trotsky and distributed around the world. In the U.S., it appeared in Partisan Review in a translation by Dwight Macdonald. Another translation is included in Free Rein.
Below is a letter from Trotsky to Breton, written after the latter’s return to France. Although Trotsky’s high hopes for the organization the Manifesto was intended to launch did not bear fruit, at the very least a blow was landed on the powerful worldwide Stalinist cultural apparatus.
The contradictions of Trotsky’s position vis-a-vis the defense of the U.S.S.R. and the need for only a political—not a social—revolution to overthrow Stalin and the bureaucracy became overwhelming the next year when Nazi Germany and the U.S.S.R. signed a non-aggression pact. The Trotskyists (with a few significant exceptions)never regained their orientation and began from that point to diverge dramatically from a revolutionary perspective.
This letter, however, captures the spirit of perhaps the last moment before this divergence. It appeared in Partisan Review, Vol. VI, nov. 2 (Winter 1939). Diego Rivera (a close ally and benefactor at the time) is credited here by Trotsky as being a co-author, but it was Trotsky himself who collaborated with Breton. The letter is not included in Pathfinder Press’s Writings of Leon Trotsky 1938-1939.
Leon Trotsky to André Breton
My Dear Breton:
With all my heart I congratulate Diego Rivera and yourself on the creation of the FIARI—an international federation of truly revolutionary and truly independent artists. And why not add—of true artists. It is time, it is high time! The entire globe is becoming a dirty and reeking imperialist barracks. The heroes of democracy, with the inimitable Daladier at their head, make every effort to ape the heroes of fascism (which will not prevent them from landing in a fascist concentration camp). The duller and more ignorant the dictator, the more he feels called upon to prescribe the development of science, philosophy and art. The sheep like servility of the intelligentsia is, in turn, a not unimportant sign of the rottenness of contemporary society. France is no exception.
Why speak of the Aragons, the Ehrenburgs and other petites canailles? Why name those gentlemen (death has not absolved them) who compose, with equal enthusiasm, biographies of Christ and Stalin. Let us also pass over the pitiful, not to say ignoble, decline of Romain Rolland…. But one feels too strongly to ignore the case of Malraux. I followed his first literary steps with much interest. At that time there was already a strong element of pose and affectation in him. His pretentiously cold studies of heroism in other lands often made one uneasy. But it was impossible to deny him talent. With undeniable power he aimed at the very peak of human emotion—of heroic struggle, self-sacrifice, extreme anguish. One might expect—and I, for one, earnestly hoped—that the sense of revolutionary heroism would enter more profoundly into his being, would purify him of pose and make him the major poet of an epoch of disasters. But what in fact happened? The artist became a reporter for the GPU, a purveyor of bureaucratic heroism in prudently proportioned slices, just so long and so wide. (They have no third dimension).
During the Civil War I was obliged to fight stubbornly again the vague or lying military reports submitted by officers who tried to hide their errors, failures and defeats in a torrent of generalities. The present productions of Malraux are just such lying reports from the fields of battle (Germany, Spain, etc). However, the lie is more repugnant dressed up in artistic form. The fate of Malraux is symbolic for a whole stratum of writers, almost for a whole generation. It is the generation of those who lie from pretended “friendship” for the October revolution.
The unhappy Soviet press, evidently on orders from above, complains bitterly in these latter days of the “impoverishment” of scientific and artistic production in the USSR and reproaches Soviet artists and writers with lack of sincerity, courage and vitality. One can’t believe one’s eyes: the boa constrictor delivers to the rabbit a homily on independence and personal dignity. Hideous and ignoble picture, but how worthy of our time!
The struggle for revolutionary ideas in art must begin once again with the struggle for artistic truth, not in terms of any single school, but in terms of the immutable faith of the artist in his own inner self. Without this there is no art. “You shall not lie!”—that is the formula of salvation.
Properly understood, the FIARI is not an esthetic or political school and cannot become one. But FIARI can oxidize the atmosphere in which artists breath and create. In our epoch of the convulsive reaction, of cultural decline and return to savagery, truly independent creation cannot but be revolutionary by its very nature, for it connote but seek an outlet from intolerable social suffocation. But art as a whole, and each artist in particular, seeks this outlet in ways proper to himself—not relying upon orders from outside, but rejecting such orders and heaping scorn upon all who submit to hem. To encourage such attitudes among the best circles of artists—this is the task of the FIARI. I firmly believe that its name will enter history.
Coyoacan, D.F., Mexico
December 22, 1938