Leon Trotsky and Revolutionary Art


Michael Löwy

First published at https://blogs.mediapart.fr/michael-lowy/blog/100820/leon-trotsky-et-l-art-revolutionnaire

For the eightieth anniversary of the death of Lev Davidovitch Bronstein (1940-2020).

Eighty years ago, in August 1940, Leon Davidovitch Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico by Ramon Mercader, a fanatical agent of the Stalinist GPU. This tragic event is now widely known, far beyond the ranks of Trotsky’s supporters, thanks in part to the novel The Man Who Loved Dogs by Cuban writer Leonardo Padura.

A leader of the October Revolution, founder of the Red Army, inflexible opponent of Stalinism, founder of the Fourth International, Leon Davidovitch Bronstein made essential contributions to Marxist thinking and strategy: the theory of permanent revolution, the transitional program, the analysis of uneven and combined development, among others.

His History of the Russian Revolution (1930) became an essential work of reference: it was found among the books of Che Guevara in the Bolivian mountains. Many of Trotsky’s writings are still read in the twenty-first century, while those of Stalin and Zhdanov lie forgotten on the dustiest shelves of libraries.

One can criticize some of his decisions (Kronstadt!), and challenge the authoritarianism of some of his writings from the 1920-21 period (such as Terrorism and Communism); but no one can deny his role as one of the greatest revolutionaries of the twentieth century.

Leon Trotsky was also a man of great culture. His little book Literature and Revolution (1924) is a striking example of his interest in poetry, literature and art. But there is one episode that illustrates this aspect of the character better than any other: his authorship, together with André Breton, of a manifesto on revolutionary art. This is a rare document, of ‘libertarian Marxist’ inspiration. In this brief tribute on the anniversary of Trotsky’s death, I would like to recall this fascinating episode.

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. Trotsky had therefore agreed to receive Breton, who had taken the boat to Mexico along with his partner Jacqueline Lamba.

Trotsky was living at that time in the Blue House, which belonged to Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, two artists who shared his ideas and who had received him with warm hospitality (they would sadly fall out a few months later). It was also in this large house located in the Coyoacán district of Mexico City that Breton and Lamba stayed during their visit.

This was a surprising meeting between seemingly opposite personalities: the revolutionary heir to the Enlightenment and a fantasising romantic; the founder of the Red Army and the initiator of the Surrealist adventure.

Their relationship was rather unequal: Breton had enormous admiration for the October revolutionary, while Trotsky, though respecting the courage and lucidity of the poet – one of the rare French left-wing intellectuals to oppose Stalinism – had some difficulty understanding Surrealism. He had asked his secretary, Jean van Heijenoort, to obtain for him the main documents of the movement and Breton’s own books, but this intellectual universe was foreign to him. His literary tastes lay more towards the great realist classics of the nineteenth century than the strange poetic experiments of the Surrealists.

The encounter was initially very warm, according to Jacqueline Lamba, in an interview with Arturo Schwarz: ‘We were all very moved, even Lev Davidovitch. We immediately felt welcomed with open arms. L. D. was really happy to see André. He was very interested.’

However, this first conversation almost went badly wrong. According to van Heijenoort's testimony: ‘The old man quickly began a discussion about the word Surrealism, to defend realism against Surrealism. By realism he meant the precise meaning Zola gave to the word. He started talking about Zola. Breton was at first somewhat surprised. But he listened attentively and found the words to bring out certain poetic features in Zola's work’ (interview of Jean van Heijenoort with Arturo Schwarz).

Other controversial subjects arose, notably about the ‘objective chance’ dear to the Surrealists. This was a curious misunderstanding: while, for Breton, it was a source of poetic inspiration, Trotsky saw it as a questioning of materialism. But, despite this, the Russian and the Frenchman found a common language: internationalism, revolution, freedom.

Jacqueline Lamba rightly speaks of elective affinities between the two. Their conversations took place in French, which Lev Davidovitch spoke fluently. They went on to travel together through Mexico, visiting the magical places of pre-Hispanic civilizations, and wading into rivers to try out fishing by hand. In a famous photo we see them in friendly talk, sitting next to each other in the undergrowth, barefoot, after one of these fishing trips.

This meeting, the rubbing of these two volcanic stones, gave rise to a spark that still shines today: the Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art. According to van Heijenoort, Breton presented a first version which Trotsky then edited, inserting his own contribution (in Russian).

This is a libertarian communist text, anti-fascist and hostile to Stalinism, which proclaims the revolutionary vocation of art and its necessary independence from states and political apparatuses. It called for the creation of an International Federation for Independent Revolutionary Art (FIARI).

The idea of the document came from Leon Trotsky, and was immediately accepted by André Breton. It was one of very few documents, if not the only one, that the founder of the Red Army wrote jointly with anyone else. The product of long conversations, discussions, exchanges and some likely disagreements, it was signed by André Breton and Diego Rivera, the great Mexican muralist painter, at the time a fervent supporter of Trotsky (they would soon fall out).

This harmless little lie was due to the old Bolshevik’s conviction that a manifesto on art should be signed only by artists. The text had a strong libertarian tone, especially in the formula proposed by Trotsky, proclaiming that, in a revolutionary society, the regime of artists should be anarchist, i.e. based on unlimited freedom.

In another famous passage of the document, it proclaims ‘every license in art’. Breton had proposed adding ‘except against proletarian revolution’, but Trotsky chose to delete this addition. André Breton’s sympathies for anarchism are well known, but curiously, in this Manifesto, it was Trotsky who wrote the most ‘libertarian’ passages.

The Manifesto affirms the revolutionary destiny of authentic art, art that ‘pits the powers of the inner world’ against ‘the present, unbearable reality’. Was it Breton or Trotsky who formulated this idea, seemingly drawn from the Freudian repertoire? It doesn’t matter, given that the two revolutionaries, the poet and the fighter, managed to agree on the same text.

The fundamental principles of the document are still surprisingly topical, even if it suffers from certain limitations, perhaps due to the historical context in which it was written. For example, the authors denounce very clearly the obstacles to the freedom of artists imposed by states, particularly (but not only) totalitarian ones. Curiously, however, there is no discussion and critique of the obstacles resulting from the capitalist market and commodity fetishism.

The document quotes a passage from the young Marx, proclaiming that the writer ‘must not under any circumstances live and write just to make money’; however, in their commentary on this passage, instead of analysing the role of money in the corruption of art, the two authors limit themselves to denouncing the ‘constraints’ and ‘disciplines’ imposed on artists in the name of ‘raison d’état’.

This is all the more surprising given the visceral anti-capitalism of each author: didn’t Breton describe Salvador Dali in his mercenary turn as ‘Avida Dollars’?[1] We find the same lacuna in the prospectus for the FIARI magazine (Clé), which called for fighting fascism, Stalinism, and religion: capitalism is absent.

The Manifesto concluded with a call to create a broad movement, a kind of Artists’ International, the International Federation for Independent Revolutionary Art (FIARI), embracing all those who recognized themselves in the general spirit of the document. In such a movement, wrote Breton and Trotsky, ‘Marxists can walk hand in hand with anarchists (...) on condition that both break implacably with the reactionary police spirit, whether represented by Joseph Stalin or his vassal García Oliver.’ A century later, this call for unity between Marxists and anarchists is one of the most interesting aspects of the document as well as one of the most topical.

In passing: the denunciation of Stalin, described by the Manifesto as ‘the most perfidious and dangerous enemy’ of communism, was indispensable, but was it necessary to treat as a ‘vassal’ the Spanish anarchist García Oliver, Durruti’s companion, the historical leader of the CNT-FAI and hero of the victorious antifascist resistance in Barcelona in 1936?

Certainly, Oliver had been a minister in the first Popular Front government led by Largo Caballero (he resigned in 1937), and his role during the May 1937 fighting in Barcelona between Stalinists and anarchists (supported by the POUM) was highly debatable, negotiating as he did a truce between the two camps. But that did not make him a henchman of the Soviet Bonaparte.

FIARI was founded shortly after the publication of the Manifesto; it succeeded in bringing together not only supporters of Trotsky and friends of Breton, but also anarchists and independent writers and artists. The Federation had a publication, the magazine Clé, edited by Maurice Nadeau, at that time a young Trotskyist militant with a great interest in Surrealism (he became the author of the first History of Surrealism, published in 1946).

The magazine’s publisher was Léo Malet, and its committee brought together Yves Allégret, André Breton, Michel Collinet, Jean Giono, Maurice Heine, Pierre Mabille, Marcel Martinet, André Masson, Henry Poulaille, Gérard Rosenthal and Maurice Wullens.

Contributors included Yves Allégret, Gaston Bachelard, André Breton, Jean Giono, Maurice Heine, Georges Henein, Michel Leiris, Pierre Mabille, Roger Martin du Gard, André Masson, Albert Paraz, Henri Pastoureau, Benjamin Péret, Herbert Read, Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky himself. These names give an idea of FIARI’s capacity to bring together quite diverse political, cultural and artistic figures.

Only two issues of Clé appeared: the first in January 1939 and the second a month later. The editorial in the first issue was entitled ‘No Fatherland!’ and denounced the expulsion and internment of foreign immigrants by the Daladier government, a very topical issue.

FIARI was a beautiful ‘libertarian Marxist’ experience, but of short duration: in September 1939, the beginning of the Second World War put a de facto end to the Federation.

Postscript: in 1965, our friend Michel Lequenne, at that time one of the leaders of the Parti Communiste Internationaliste, the French section of the Fourth International, proposed to the Surrealist Group a refoundation of FIARI. It seems that the idea did not displease André Breton, but it was finally rejected by a collective declaration, dated 19 April 1966 and signed by Philippe Audoin, Vincent Bounoure, André Breton, Gérard Legrand, José Pierre and Jean Schuster on behalf of the Surrealist movement.

Bibliographical note: the book by Arturo Schwarz, André Breton, Trotsky et l’anarchie (Paris, 1974) contains the text of the FIARI Manifesto as well as all Breton’s writings on Trotsky, along with a substantial 100-page historical introduction by the author (who was able to interview Breton himself), Jacqueline Lamba, Jean van Heijenoort and Pierre Naville. One of the most moving documents in this collection is Breton’s speech at the funeral of Natalia Sedova Trotsky in Paris in 1962. After paying homage to this woman, an eye-witness to ‘the most dramatic struggles between darkness and light’, he concluded with this stubborn hope: the day would come when not only would justice be done to Trotsky, but also ‘to the ideas for which he gave his life’.

Translated by David Fernbach


[1] An anagram of ‘Salvador Dali’, pronounced in French as ‘avide à dollars’ (greedy for dollars) – Trans.