Georges Henein: Egyptian poet and revolutionary

The massive ongoing uprising in Egypt provides us with an opportunity to recall an almost forgotten group of revolutionaries and artists—the Egyptian Surrealists. Robin Kelley and the late Franklin Rosemont included them in the book Black, Brown and Beige: Surrealist Writings from Africa and the Diaspora (reviewed earlier on Criticism &c.), but I recently came across a longer account of the group’s founder, Georges Henein (1914-1973), in a book called Dissident Marxism: Past Voices for Present Times, by Dave Renton.

Renton’s book profiles a rather idiosyncratic list of figures from the Marxist tradition (does Karl Korsch deserve to be lumped together with Harry Braverman?), but he does deserve credit for choosing to include Henein, who is virtually unknown in the English-speaking world.

Henein’s father was a Coptic Egyptian and his mother was Italian. This background may have provided Henein with a sense of otherness that responded to Surrealism, which he encountered in Paris as a young poet and  intellectual. He brought word of Surrealism back with him to Egypt, where he founded a series of groups that evolved into a tiny but independent counter to both the Stalinists and the Arab nationalists. The group, at first named Art and Freedom, then Bread and Freedom, considered itself Trotskyist in orientation and Renton provides excerpts from correspondence with figures of British Trotskyism. Henein and his comrades were distinguished by their internationalism and their refusal to practice the grand-scale class collaboration of the Stalinist parties of the colonial world.

State oppression seriously impeded the activities of the group and Henein left Egypt for Paris sometime in 1946. His development roughly paralleled that of André Breton, who while remaining a revolutionary and—in the broadest sense of the term—a Marxist, grew estranged from the Trotskyists. Henein was a signatory to Inaugural Rupture, the important Surrealist thesis of 1947 which outlines this position (Henein also signed the Surrealist denunciation of the Moscow Trials).

Renton mentions a fascinating work written as a response to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima titled The Prestige of Terror, which, like Breton’s Arcanum 17, condemned the discrepancy between the rhetoric of liberation of the close of World War II and the reality of class and racial oppression that characterized the societies of the victorious democracies.

At a time when the door to freedom in Egypt may be opening—however fleetingly—an encounter with this unjustly neglected poet and revolutionary might be a contribution to the struggle.

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