Two Intellectual Responses to the Dilemma of Political “Engagement” in Interwar France: Andr Breton & Pierre Drieu La Rochelle Christopher Terrence Ryan The period between the First and Second World Wars has become well-known for its political instability, economic unpredictability, and cultural vibrancy. Following World War I, many European artists and intellectuals struggled to express their disillusionment with a world turned upside-down. Many intellectuals found meaning and renewal in the revolutionary possibilities of radical politics. Others, however, were only willing to meet the commitment of political “engagement” in their own very personal and individual ways. This essay examines the lives of two French intellectuals, the Surrealist writer Andr Breton and the fascist writer Pierre Drieu La Rochelle. Similar in their bourgeois origins, war experiences, political variability, and artistic preoccupations, they nevertheless gravitated towards opposite political poles: Breton as a communist and Drieu La Rochelle as a fascist and Nazi collaborator.
This essay investigates the attractions and dilemmas of intellectual involvement in politics, as well as the forces that propelled two men of similar origins and aspirations toward opposite political ideologies. Heightened political activity was not a monopoly held by French intellectuals in the years after World War I. Deep concerns over French diplomatic, financial, political, and social ills prompted many in French society to turn to political extremes in search of solutions. The First World War left much of France in ruins and drained off the vast majority of her young men. Despite victory, France remained concerned with her national security throughout the interwar years. Frenchmen felt betrayed and alone as they faced a rebuilding Germany across the Rhine.
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French financial failures brought hard times, and forced France to lean heavily on financial assistance from the United States. 1 Traditional French party politics were at a loss to redress the nations many problems. Parliamentary factionalism paralyzed the Third Republics ability to meet the demands of a changing world order. In the 1920 s and 1930 s political activity on the extremes of both the Right and Left increased in intensity.
The rise of the French Communist Party in the early 1920 s, frequent strikes, mass socialist demonstrations, as well as significant parliamentary victories by the Left in the 1930 s, prompted the renascence of many nationalistic, right-wing organizations. By the 1930 s, the conservative and nationalistic organizations of pre-war years had evolved into a radical fascist Right, providing a revolutionary “third alternative” between liberalism and communism. 3 Contributing to the polarization in interwar politics was the wide-spread participation of intellectuals. Interwar intellectuals were heirs to a long tradition of political involvement, building upon precedents set during the Enlightenment and French Revolution. However, it was the Dreyfus Affair in the late 1890 s that created the tone and character of twentieth-century intellectual involvement in politics.
The highly polarized nature of the crisis between Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards set the stage for Left-Right opposition in the interwar years. Intellectuals between the World Wars were able to have a profound impact on events and ideas, due to the fact that this long tradition of political activity established intellectuals as defenders of the national spirit, of a great cultural and aesthetic mission civilisatrice to the rest of the world which they believed belonged to France alone. 4 French society deemed their pronouncements on political affairs worthy of a respectful hearing. In particular, political parties at the far ends of the spectrum were eager to acquire the credibility gained by boasting well-known literary and artistic celebrities. Correspondingly, interwar intellectuals remained receptive to promises of artistic freedom and reputation offered by both the fascist Right and communist Left.
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While the Communist Party attracted many intellectuals in the 1920 s, most were discouraged by Stalinist excesses in the 1930 s and offered their services to the extreme Right by the eve of World War II. 5 At opposite ends of the political spectrum, communism and fascism seemed to be worlds apart. Yet, if one allows that the political spectrum is not best seen as a straight, but a circular line, it seems possible that at certain points, the two extremes of Right and Left shared affinities in the origins and goals of their radicalism. Andr Breton and Pierre Drieu La Rochelle may indeed have been ideologically closer than first impressions indicate. the early years: family life, youth, education, influences Andr breton (1896-1966) was born in Tinchebray, a small town in Normandy, and grew up in Lorient, a fishing port on the Atlantic.
The boy was close to his father, a small businessman, but was often at odds with his straight laced mother who brought up her son with a puritanical bourgeois morality. 6 Bretons biographer, Anna Bala kian, portrays the Breton household as “modest,” and his parents “grimly conscious of the economic realities of life” in planning a safe career for their son. 7 Feeling stifled by the conventions and conformity of a typical bourgeois lifestyle, Breton eventually sought to shrug off those institutions and values, such as family and work, that he considered to be intellectually and artistically inhibiting. 8 Breton received a proper bourgeois education, graduating from the Llc e C haptal in Paris in 1912, and begining medical studies at the Sorbonne the following year. He records 1913 as the year of his intellectual awakening and points out that while “my physical presence was on the amphitheater benches or at the laboratory tables, my mind was elsewhere.” 9 His imagination was roaming the streets of Paris and mulling over the works of Rimbaud, Laut r among, Val ry, and Apollinaire.
These writers taught Breton to commit himself to the problems of life rather than to literature as a meas to financial gain and were instrumental in helping him to formulate his own ideas on the role and responsibility of the poet in society. 10 While Breton was influenced by many writers of his time, he did not heed the patriotic calls of Maurice Barr s, Paul Claudel, and Charles P guy. He would never forgive these “patriotic” writers whom he saw as opportunists falsely glorifying a war that sent a generation of youth off to its demise. Confessing that “nationalism had never been one of my strengths,” 11 Breton displayed an intellectual independence that isolated him from many of the authors and ideas that influenced many of his generation. He concluded it was useless to devote himself “to that which does not motivate me to my proper impulses.” 12 As a youth, Breton was determined to pursue his own ideas and seek out his own inspirations independent of the bourgeois expectations of his family, his schools, and his contemporaries. Pierre drieu La Rochelle (1893-1945) was born into a middle class, politically conservative, Catholic family.
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Drieus childhood seems to have been particularly unpleasant, for he feared and hated his father, an unsuccessful lawyer, who constantly ridiculed him for any displays of weakness or cowardice. Drieu loved his mother dearly, but she often neglected him in the pursuit of her active social life. 13 Consequently, Drieu spent much of his childhood immersed in books and daydreams about Napoleonic grandeur, military heroism, and colonial adventure, which he readily contrasted with his own familys decadent and pusillanimous bourgeois lifestyle. 14 Drieu was very conscious of his familys social status, especially after his fathers shady financial dealings had resulted in a sharp decline in the familys economic status while Drieu was an adolescent. Drieu confessed that “family life offered me nothing but repugnant trials, I lived between a father and a mother who were torn apart by adultery, jealousy and financial troubles.” 15 Drieu was able to separate himself from the negative influence of his early family life and began to assert himself in both the upper-bourgeois Catholic coll ge and the +cole des Sciences Politiques. He enjoyed the “group experience” of his school days, but was often wary of his inferior social position.
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While he was invited into the upper-class homes of his friends, he often assumed an air of intellectual superiority to compensate for his sense of class inferiority. 16 Drieu was heavily influenced by his trip to England at the age of fifteen, where he first cultivated a life-long love for all things English. He discovered there an energy and dynamism, evident in the British love for physical sports, which he readily contrasted against his view of France as a weak and decadent country. 17 It was in England that Drieu first discovered the work of Nietzsche, which further reinforced his growing interest in the role of power and responsibility of the individual will and the man of action in society.
Drieu reports that his intellectual awakening came at the rebellious age of seventeen when: On the eve of my baccalaureate exam… [a]bruptly I discovered reactionary thought. Thereafter it was Maurras, the Action fran aise, [Jacques] Bainville, Georges Sorel, and by way of them I linked myself to a long chain of French reactionaries… All had the effect of multiplying the formidable blow that I had received at Oxford when I was sixteen: Nietzsche. 18 Unlike Breton, Drieu was fervently drawn to the call of the nationalistic writers of the older generation, particularly the novelist and political thinker, Maurice Barr s. He admired the Barr sian emphasis on the individual will, the “Self,” which stressed the union of the intellectual life with the life of action and political “engagement.” Drieu was inspired by the Barr sian cult of national energy that glorified “eternal France,” but never truly subscribed to the Barr sian idea of “integral nationalism” which celebrated the intrinsic and native-born qualities of all Frenchmen.
Drieu was also drawn to some of the ideas of Charles Maurras and Georges Sorel. For a time between 1911 and 1914, Drieu was a member of the Cercle Proudhon, an antidemocratic, nationalistic, monarchist organization of young right-wing students, many of whom attended the prestigious +cole des Sciences Politiques with Drieu. Founded in 1911, it sought to revitalize the nation according to the “best” in French tradition, including the ideas of Proudhon, Maurras, and Sorel. 19 Like many of his generation, Drieu was drawn to a rightist stance in reaction to the liberalism, democracy, pacifism, positivism, and narrow rationalism of the older generation. Like so many, Drieu longed for the “realism” of direct energetic action and the glamour of war.
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20 For both Drieu and Breton, intellectual and political initiations seemed to have come less from proper bourgeois institutions of learning than from the wealth of literature and ideas fermenting in the prewar years. Both would draw on these ideas in the formation of their intellectual and political revolt against the bourgeois values of their youth. the war experience While both men came of age intellectually and politically in the last years of the Belle +pique, it was the First World War that hastened their development and helped to forge beliefs that would be instrumental in their later ideologies. Drieu was drafted in 1913 at the age of twenty and spent the next few months tied to the routines of barracks life, until war was declared in 1914. “What had I felt when war had been declared Liberation from the barracks, the end of the old laws, the arrival of possibilities for me, for life, for new laws, young laws, bold and surprising.” 21 Free from the stifling bourgeois conventions of his family, Drieu rejoiced in the “savage liberty” that military service promised from “social convention, preparations for life, for a career, and for the distant future.” 22 Drieus romantic notion of war soon changed on the battlefield of Charleroi, where Drieu mused, “war today means being prostrate, wallowing in the mud flattened. Before, war meant men standing upright.
War today means every possible position of shame.” 23 While Drieu got to know the discomforts and horrors of war, he also discovered its ability to liberate the most primal, virile, and “noble” instincts in man. Achieving the rank of sergeant and serving as a platoon leader, Drieu received three battle wounds in the course of his distinguished service at Charleroi, the Marne, Artois, Verdun, and the Dardanelles. He would always remember fondly the exhilaration of a bayonet charge that he had led in 1914 at Charleroi, where “all of a sudden, I found myself, I found my life. This was now me, this strong man, this free man, this hero.
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So, this was my life, this sudden joyous surge that would never ever stop.” 24 Drieu emerged from the war acutely aware of his own courage and virility, and was determination to find a means of expression that would communicate the intensity of his wartime experiences. Recovering in a hospital from battle wounds, Drieu discovered the work of the poet Paul Claudel and developed a taste for more “modern” styles of literature. He was done with flowery bourgeois literary styles, and adopted a more direct, abrupt approach: “I had some urgent things to cry about the war, about man in war, about the confrontation of life and death, and it was absolutely necessary that I find a means that measures up to the violence of my cry.” 25 Drieus first collection of poems, Interrogation, was published in 1917 and was very favorably received. Drieu was soon being touted as one of Frances most versatile young writers. 26 His early writings revealed a discreet but passionate “cult of France,” and a sense of fraternity or love for his comrades in the trenches, the death of whom solidified and internalized his love for his country.
27 Drieu had high expectations for the regeneration of France by the new generation of youth tempered by war and ready to seize political power. 28 He was convinced that his generation had proven itself superior to the older one, for they had held at Verdun and the Marne, while their elders had lost at Sedan. He believed that “now we have the right to speak… strong from thousands and thousands of energetic acts… and our elders have only to keep quiet.” 29 However, for most veterans, energetic acts had been exhausted on the battlefield. While enough veterans were elected to the Chamber in 1919 to dub it the “blue horizon chamber” after the color of the French army uniform, the victory of the rightist Bloc national marked a return to traditional democratic conservatism.
Drieu had hoped that his generation would seize power, “[b]ut no. We allowed them to continue and keep their places. The veterans had let themselves be totally frustrated.” 30 Drieu was disgusted with the inability of his generation to act, and continued to look for a group dynamic enough to transform French society. Andr Bretons war experience was less dramatic, and perhaps less exhilarating, yet no less formative than Drieus. Mobilized into an artillery unit, Breton was soon assigned to the Service de Sant, perhaps because of his brief exposure to medical school.
He found himself not very adept at military exercises and could not easily reconcile himself to the prospect of trench warfare. Years later, he still resented the manner in which the war uprooted the aspirations of a generation in order to “hurl them in a cesspool of blood, stupidity, and mud.” 31 While not moved by patriotic appeals, Breton served honorably as a medical assistant assigned to psychiatric hospitals where he participated in the treatment of evacuees from the front suffering from shell-shock, delirium, and other mental disorders. He revealed that some of his first inspiration for Surrealist literature came from the fact that he was “able to do experiments on the patients using the process of psychoanalytical investigation, in particular, recordings, for the purpose of interpretation of dreams and associations of involuntary thoughts.” 32 At this time, Breton became acquainted with the work of Dr. Pierre Janet, a French professor of psychiatric medicine whose books on psychiatry were widely used by French medical students of Bretons era. While Breton and the Surrealists held Freud in high esteem, it was Janet who linked scientific psychology with the pursuits of the creative mind. Janet was a proponent of the therapeutic use of “automatic writing” (a form of Freudian “free association”), but was also receptive to its possibilities on the normal mind.
By freeing the creative mind from social constraints, it could uncover the uncharted recesses of the unconscious mind, allowing insight into mans most fundamental understanding of himself. This explosion of the boundaries of reality would eventually abolish the man-made frontiers between material and spiritual existence, revealing all reality to be one continue. 33 The practice of psychiatric medicine and the study of psychological theory gave Breton an early conceptual basis for Surrealism, while a personal encounter during the war brought him face to face with an individual whose attitudes contributed much to the tone and temper of early Surrealism. In 1916 Breton befriended Jacques Vach, a volatile precursor of Dadaist contempt for conventional art and society. In the course of their wartime friendship, he taught Breton detachment and sarcasm, to see life as absurd and to live for the moment. After once watching Vach parade about in a British officers uniform, brandishing a pistol in a crowded theater, Breton claims to have realized “the depth of the pit that had come to separate the new generation from the one that preceded it.” Vach had a profound influence on Breton, who would later declare that Vach “always incarnated for us the very highest power of disengagement.” 34 By the time of Vach s suicide in 1919, Breton had formulated many of his ideas for Surrealism and had been transformed from the sensitive poet to the nihilistic rebel.
Bretons immediate postwar outlook was somewhat different from Drieus. Having seen firsthand the horrors of war, yet not having experienced the thrill of combat, Bretons response was an ambiguous mix of expectation and disillusionment. He expected that disgruntled veterans would play an active role in the transformation of post-war France. However, he found most veterans apathetic rather than revolutionary, as most were glad to be done with their ordeal, and were hesitant to group themselves into veterans organizations that could channel their discontent. Breton himself was glad to be out of uniform, but was not willing to return to medicine, and for a time, drifted in indecision, disillusionment, and uncertainty.
Ideas and solutions eluded him, and day by day, he was prey to a sense of “fatalism.” 35 The only way to deal with recent experiences, he found, was through the response learned from his friend Vach -derision and scorn for the absurdity of life. He concluded that “no compromise was possible with a world to which such an atrocious misadventure had taught nothing.” 36 disgust towards a bankrupt france Both Breton and Drieu became thoroughly disenchanted with the condition in which they found post-war France, and decided that politically, morally, and intellectually, French society was bankrupt. In the last years of the war, Breton began to cultivate his literary contacts. Publishing the review Litt r ature along with his friends Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard, and Philippe Soupault, Breton came into contact with the Romanian poet Tristan Tzara who revealed to Breton the artistic movement that seemed to so clearly correspond to Bretons own turbulent sentiments-Dadaism. Tzara was one of the founders of Dadaism, an international pacifist movement born in Zurich in 1916, which repudiated all political, moral, and artistic values held by conventional society.
Dada was a pessimistic revolt against all tradition and all rational thought, and as Dada poet Louis Aragons manifesto of 1920 illustrates, Dada was in effect a revolt against everyone and everything: No more painters, no more writers, no more musicians, no more sculptors, no more religions, no more republicans, no more royalists, no more imperialists, no more anarchists, no more socialists, no more Bolsheviks, no more aristocrats, no more armaments, no more police, no more countries, enough of all these imbecilities, no more, no more, no more, no more, no more. 37 In an early Dada manifesto, Breton explained that “Dada is a state of mind… Dada gives itself to nothing… I speak and I have nothing to say. I do not have the least ambition.” 38 Soon after the war, Tzara and his group came to Paris, and with Breton and his friends, began to stage a number of Dada demonstrations consisting of banging drums, obscene insults, parading in outrageous costumes, and reciting nonsense poems, all designed to shock bourgeois society.
Dada served Breton well as a release for his anger and disgust, but as time passed, he realized that he did have ambitions and he did have something important to say. Drieu La Rochelle was also disappointed by the failure of his generation to take action, and was disgusted with a post-war France that was all too identical to pre-war France. In 1922 he wrote that while France had won the war: It took half the world to contain a people that my people, alone, had tread on with ease for centuries… On our soil, our flesh no longer held its place… Behind us in each house in the place of those who were dead or of those who had not yet been born there was a foreigner. He was alone with our women…
We did not go to bed alone with Victory. 39 Drieu was disgusted with Frances declining population growth, which was made shockingly apparent by the war. He also was ashamed at French weakness in the face of stronger powers and resented the influx of foreign labor following the war. 40 Drieu was sickened by what he saw as the decadence of French society, for he believed that sterility, onanism, [and] homosexuality are spiritual maladies. Alcoholism, drugs are the first steps that lead to this failing of the imagination, to this decadence of the creative spirit, when men prefer to submit rather than to assert themselves. 41 Drieus search for a group that would transform society with “thousands of energetic acts” led him to the early Dada and later Surrealist group of Andr Breton.
Having befriended Louis Aragon in 1916, Drieu was introduced to the Dada group after the war. He was impressed not only by the groups literary boldness, but also by their youthful energy and independence, their antirationalism, their internationalist opposition to xenophobic nationalism, and hostility towards the older decadent generation. 42 Drieu later wrote that his period with the Dadaists/ Surrealists was one of great pleasure, as he believed that this prodigious troop of young men and poets, I firmly believe, are the most alive group in the world today… This encounter has been for me an enormous event.” 43 The role that Drieu played in the group is sketchy and it is unclear to what extent he participated in Dada and later Surrealist group activities. While he lent his name to a number of Dada/Surrealist documents, Drieu did not always feel comfortable in the group, for he was often torn between both revolutionary and reactionary rebellion. 44 When the Dadaists held a mock trial of Barr s in 1921, Drieu was reluctant to participate.
The Dadaists abhorred Barr s as the symbol of stagnant cultural traditionalism and rabid nationalism, yet Drieu was unwilling to denounce his idol. When bluntly prodded by Andr Breton to confess whether or not he still found Barr s appealing, Drieu replied evasively that he retained a sense of respect for Barr s. 45 For the time being however, he had found a much needed friendship and camaraderie with the Dada/Surrealist group-a sense of attachment and belonging that he had craved since his days in the trenches. the purging of western society Thoroughly disgusted with the bankrupt society which sent them off to a war that had accomplished so little, Breton and Drieu both declared war on the decadence that had created it. Both proposed to initiate a thorough regeneration of France and Western society through force and violence, by first wiping the slate clean and starting anew. Breton had believed in the message of Dadaism, but by 1921, began to feel that Dada had run its course.
His article “Apr s Dada” (After Dada), written in 1922, revealed his concern that “there is more at stake here than our carefree existence and our good humour of the moment… [T]he sanction of a series of utterly futile Dada acts is in danger of gravely compromising an attempt at liberation to which I remain strongly attached. Ideas which may be counted among the best are at the mercy of their too-hasty vulgarization.” 46 By 1921, the two dominant personalities in the group, Breton and Tzara, had begun to clash. Bretons attempts to root Dadaism in a tradition of rebellion and clearer political purpose were criticized by Tzara, who opposed any attempts to treat Dadaism as a serious vehicle of political protest.
47 In 1922 Breton bid adieu to Dada and urged his followers to “Let go of everything. Let go of Dada… Let go of your hopes and fears… Take to the roads!” 48 Breton was now free to translate destructive and pessimistic Dada revolt into a more constructive Surrealist R volution, although the Surrealists would never abandon the Dada propensity for spontaneous violence.
Breton clarified and explained the Surrealist position in the first Manifeste du Surr alisme, which appeared in October 1924: Surrealism rests on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin definitively all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in the resolution of the principal problems of life. 49 To facilitate the Surrealist revolution, the review La Revolution Surr aliste was founded in December 1924 proclaiming, “We must arrive at a new declaration of the rights of man!” A “Bureau of Surrealist Research” was also created to investigate and collect Surrealist material, and assured the public that “[w]e are on the verge of a Revolution!” 50 The Surrealists had set out on their quest to transform the world. The Surrealists first public “scandal” was a derogatory pamphlet in 1924, Un Cadavre, on the death of novelist and national literary hero, Anatole France, whom they despised as the epitome of the pretentious bourgeois literary establishment. This four page tract was a collection of short essays, including contributions by both Breton and Drieu La Rochelle, which ridiculed and defamed the novelist in the most irreverent manner. Drieu asserted that “our devotion rests with those who died young…
in the blood and scum” of World War I, and asked the youth of his generation, “what good was this old grandfather, anyway”51 Breton was less diplomatic: Let it be a holiday when we bury trickery, traditionalism, patriotism, opportunism, skepticism, and heartlessness… To put away his corpse… throw the whole thing in the Seine. Dead, this man must produce dust no longer.
52 Breton would later explain that “Anatole France represented the proto-type of all that we loathed… [W]e hold his attitude as the most shady and the most despicable of all.” 53 While Un Cadavre had assailed a well-known national figure, Surrealist revolt had not yet adopted a political tone. Many significant political events of the early 1920 s, such as the 1922 Rapallo Treaty, Mussolini’s march on Rome, French occupation of the Ruhr in 1923, Hitlers Munich putsch, and the death of Lenin in 1924, received no mention in early Surrealist writings. 54 It was the threat of war in Morocco in 1925 that prompted the Surrealists to assume a more openly political stance. In 1925 they published an open letter to Paul Claudel, the poet and French ambassador to Japan, regarding the French suppression of the colonial uprising in Morocco. The Surrealists asserted that “we hope with all our strength that revolutions, wars and colonial insurrections come to annihilate this Western civilization which you defend.” In addition, the grudge was a personal one, for in an earlier letter, Claudel had both referred to the Surrealists as “pederasts” and had exaggerated the importance of his own noncombatant role in the First World War.
This was too much for the Surrealists, who retorted by calling Claudel a hypocrite for pretending to be both a poet and a politician, and advised that he “write, pray, and slobber on; we demand the dishonor of having treated you once and for all as a pedant and a swine.” 55 This literary outrage was soon followed by outright violence when the Surrealists instigated a brawl at a banquet honoring the poet Saint-Pol-Roux. Amidst a tension created by their recent letter to Claudel, the Surrealists became even more agitated at the presence at the “table of honor” of two guests: Mme. Rachilde, an outspoken anti-German chauvinist and M. Lune-Poe, suspected of counter-espionage against France during the war. When Breton rose to defend his friend Max Ernst against the anti-German diatribes of Mme.
Rachilde, Maurice Nadeau reports that: Suddenly a piece of fruit… flew through the air and splattered on an official amidst cries of “Long Live Germany!” The uproar quickly… turned into a riot. Philippe Soupault, swinging from a chandelier, kicked over plates and bottles on the tables. Outside, idlers gathered. Blows rained down from right and left.
56 Many Surrealists were beaten and arrested. Right-wing journals, such as the Action fran aise, demanded reprisals and the Surrealists expulsion from France. For Breton, “the importance of this episode is that it marks the definitive rupture of Surrealism with all conformist elements of the period.” 57 As Breton assumed greater influence over La R volution Surr aliste, the movement began to take on a more clearly political tone. Their opposition to the Moroccan uprising of 1925 united them with the Marxist group Clart. Founded after World War I by such French liberal intellectuals as Henri Barbusse, Jules Romains, and Romain Rolland, Clart was originally conceived as an “international of the mind” in defense of vague socialistic, humanitarian, and pacifist ideals.
58 United in their distaste for conventional society and its imperialist wars, the Surrealists and members of Clart jointly published in 1925 La R volution da bord et toujours! (Revolution Now and Forever! ): Inspired by the success that cooperation with the Clart group had achieved, Breton considered alliance with a political party a way to assure that Surrealism would not sink into the same sterility that had buried Dadaism. In order to assist the revolution of the mind, Breton aligned Surrealism with the Communist Party. Inspired by Leon Trotskys biography of Lenin, Breton reviewed the book in La R volution Surr aliste in 1925, and concluded that: Communism, existing as an organized system, alone permits the accomplishment of the greatest social upheaval… Good or mediocre, in itself defensible or not from the moral point of view, how can we forget… that it has revealed itself as the most marvellous agent ever for the substitution of one world for another 60 While Breton and several friends would not join the Communist Party until 1927, he and the Surrealists had committed themselves to Marxist revolution and embarked on a tumultuous journey with communism that would last for ten trying years. Having found a group of young men with whom he could relate, Drieu La Rochelle began to identify with the early Surrealists urge to destroy bourgeois society.
He also expressed the belief that the old order had to be eliminated before a regeneration could begin. Drieu was no stranger to the idea of violence, for even before his days with the Dadaists, he had been drawn to the philosophical language of violence preached by Nietzsche, Barr s, P guy, Maurras, and Sorel, the renowned author of R flexions sur la Violence (1908).
Drieu marvelled that “all of them sang to me of violence. Without doubt I was born to reverberate to this call rather than to some other.” 61 Drieus notion of violence saw no exceptions in its need to destroy traditional society, and often directed itself towards the old order as it was defined through its art and culture: We will destroy…
With a bitter joy, we will strike down this civilization… What will remain of beauty Of that which our ancestors brought into the world… We will put that beauty to the torch in the houses of the rich where its presence for us is a malediction. Too bad if the flames do not stop, too bad if they consume everything.
62 Drieu cherished his bonds of friendship with the Surrealists and admitted that “I found among you a nourishment more substantial than ever before.” 63 However, while Drieu was not a monarchist or a racist, he was also attracted in the early 1920 s to the friendship offered by the Action Fran aise on the extreme Right. Drieu was torn between two poles: “I have been solicited by the only two groups that exist in France in our time, where one can think and where one can act passionately.” He rightly feared that fully embracing one would irrevocably alienate him from the other. However, Drieu realized that the two were incompatible, and regretted that “I can no longer hold them in balance.” 64 In many ways the Surrealists made his choice for him when they embraced communism in 1925. Drieu was too much a man of his class and was repulsed by communism which he regarded as too materialistic, rational, egalitarian, and non-European. He believed that communism promoted intellectual and artistic mediocrity and stressed a naive collectivity that denied the value of the individual will. 65 Interestingly, he established his political position in response to the leftist turn of the Surrealists: “I called myself a man of the Right, by a scruple that, not without irony, imitated your inconsiderate dash towards communism…
[T]he moment that I was not communist, I was against communism, and therefore a man of the Right.” 66 However, Drieus notion of the Right evidently did not include the Action Fran aise, for he found it and other right-wing groups too nationalistic, monarchist, and decadent. In addition, the threat from the extreme Left seemed reduced since the return to moderate policies after the fall of the Cartel des Gauchos in 1926. Having left the Surrealists, Drieu announced in an open letter to them that he had taken a political stand “equal distance between M. Bainville [of the Action Fran aise] and M.
Francois Poncet [Radical Party politician].” He proclaimed himself a “national republican” with an eye towards the “elegant possibilities of a modern conservatism.” 67 In reality, Drieu was disenchanted with parties on both the Left and Right, and was more confused than firmly committed. Drieu began to formulate his own political position after 1925 which would take nearly a decade to materialize into his own brand of fascism. towards a “spiritual” regeneration of society Both drieu and Breton were proponents of violent rebellion based on vigorous action, change, and renewal. In addition, both were more concerned with a “spiritual” revolution than a material one-placing morals, aesthetics, and ideals above economics, finance, and production. Drieu would stop at the doors of many political organizations in his search for the means to the spiritual revitalization of Europe. He had been disillusioned by the decadence he saw both in the Action Fran aise and in communism.
Determined to pursue his own political ideology, Drieu founded in 1927 with his friend Emmanuel Berl, the journal Les Derniers Jours (The Last Days).
Drieu hoped to save France from sinking into utter decadence by cutting across traditional party lines in creating an amalgamation of the best in capitalism and communism to achieve a political monopoly by the big capitalists of the upper bourgeoisie. Political control in the hands of big capitalist cartels would lead to greater European unity, perhaps a United States of Europe, which would abolish in turn the evils of parliamentary democracy, petit bourgeois capitalism, and chauvinistic nationalism. 68 However, in the relative security of the moderate Poincar government (1926-29), big business did not feel the need for such drastic measures, and lack of substantial support resulted in the failure of Les Derniers Jours. Drieu, however, still focusing on spiritual ideals rather than economic realities, by 1928 had shifted his allegiance to the petite bourgeoisie. While he called for a “Young Right” of dynamic enlightened capitalism, he now really had in mind a nineteenth-century ideal of rugged individualism and small, risk-taking economic enterprises.
69 Such radical economic and political proposals would attract little attention until the Depression of the early 1930 s brought about new political alignments. The elections of 1932 gave an alliance of parties of the Left a parliamentary majority, and initiated a rightist backlash seen in the increased membership in veterans organizations and paramilitary leagues. Fascism was on the rise in France, but Drieu was still in search of a less nationalistic solution. In 1933, he joined Gaston Berger ys Front commun, a pacifist and anti-fascist organization of Right, Center, and Left ideologies. Drieu hoped that the Front commun would unite the petite bourgeoisie against both big capitalism and communism. However, Drieu left the organization in 1934 as he sensed that it was leaning too heavily toward communist control.
70 Drieus political wanderings even included cautious flirtation with the Left, as he later admitted in his diary, “from 1926 to 1935 I had come close to Communism.” 71 Drieu apparently inquired into membership in the Socialist Party in 1933, and also attended a meeting of the Amsterdam-Ple yel movement in 1933. This French Communist Party initiative led by Henri Barbusse and Romain Rolland was designed to consolidate a united leftist front against the threat of fascism. 72 Drieu later recalled in 1942 that: “I [had] dreamt of becoming a communist. A strange sort of communist, in order to push [France] to utter decadence… to put everyone against the wall [to be shot], especially the masses.” 73 Despite his attraction to the “spiritual” qualities of force, destruction, and radicalism that he saw in communism, Drieu realized that “I could not do it, [due to] my bourgeois blood… .” 74 Drieu could never reconcile himself to the hard realities of communist economic and social programs.
Finally, in 1934, Drieu abandoned all reservations towards fascism following the nights of bloody rioting in Paris from 6-12 February which arose out of the Stavisky scandal. Drieu was exhilarated by the apparent solidarity between communists and fascist leagues fighting together in the streets against the corrupt liberal Third Republic: “And then all at once there was fascism. Everything was possible again. Oh, how my heart soared!” 75 Drieu believed that he had finally found the means to combat decadence and to propel France towards spiritual regeneration. For Andr Breton the ida of “spiritual” regeneration was a fundamental point of interest, for Surrealism proposed a “spiritual” rather than materialist revolution. This would bring the Surrealists into conflict with the Communist Party to which they had committed themselves in 1925.
The Clart group had been serving as interpreters of Surrealism to the party, but a falling-out between the Surrealists and the Clart group in 1926 left the Surrealists isolated, and their usefulness to the party in question. Party officials argued that only by abandoning fundamental Surrealist principles and fully devoting themselves to the proletariat could the Surrealists be useful to the party. 76 Breton responded in 1926 with the pamphlet, L gi time d sense (Legitimate defense), which attempted, with assertions such as “Long live the social revolution!” , to convince the communist world that the Surrealists could play a “legitimate” and meaningful role in social revolution. However, Breton maintained that revolution must proceed beyond the narrow aims of Marxist ideology, for he believed that “it is not by mechanism that the Western peoples can be saved…
[W]ages cannot pass for the… cause of the present state of affairs.” 77 Breton believed that all forms of revolt, political and artistic, were creative and valid, and proposed that the Surrealists continue their literary efforts to tear down bourgeois barriers that restrained mental and spiritual advancement, while the communists continued the war on capitalist social and economic barriers. It was imperative that Surrealist “experiments of the inner life continue… without external or even Marxist control.” 78 The Communist Party continued to view the Surrealists with suspicion, and constantly questioned the abstract artwork and bizarre literature of La R volution Surr aliste. Breton hoped to silence his critics by joining the Communist Party in 1927 along with four of his Surrealists friends. He also continued to affirm his commitment to communism in the Second Manifeste du Surr alisme in 1929, which guaranteed: “[P]provided that communism does not treat us as merely curious animals…
we will show ourselves capable of doing our full revolutionary duty.” However, Surrealism would not be compromised: “[W]e have not found any valid reason to change the means of expression that are uniquely ours.” 79 In 1930, Breton affirmed his commitment to the cause by changing the name of La R volution Surr aliste to Le Surr alisme au service de la r volution, and pledged it to the service of the Third International and the French Communist Party. Perhaps the point of closest cooperation between Surrealism and communism occurred in 1930 in the context of incidents following the debut of the Surrealist film LAge dor (Golden Age).
This film by Surrealists Salvador Dali and Luis Bu uel outraged the reactionary Right through its mocking of traditional values, and the right-wing paramilitary Ligue des patriots responded by harassing the audience and destroying the theater. 80 For the first time, the communist press came to the defense of Surrealism against the encroachments of fascistic power and censorship. This period of solidarity between the two groups would prove brief, however.
The falling-out between the Surrealists and the communists began with a falling-out between members within the Surrealist group. In 1930, Louis Aragon travelled to the Soviet Union where he participated in the Second International Congress of Revolutionary Writers in Kharkov, only to put his signature on documents that criticized and repudiated many of the major principles of Surrealism. Bretons response was one of shock and dismay, and many Surrealists used this opportunity to reassess the dilemma of their allegiance to both artistic freedom and party doctrine. 81 The final break between Aragon and Breton occurred after the appearance of Aragons 1931 poem Front rouge (Red Front) in a communist journal. Aragons poem encouraged workers to “kill the cops” and “blow up the Arc de Triomphe,” and urged them to: “Fire on L on Blum/Fire on Bonjour Frossard D at/Fire on the trained bears of social democracy.” 82 Several months after its publication, Aragon was indicted by French authorities on charges of inciting murder and provoking military insubordination. Breton mounted an extensive petition campaign to clear his old friend, but in the process, seriously compromised Surrealist doctrine by arguing that poetic texts should not be taken literally as weapons in the revolutionary struggle.
Bretons critics did not miss this inconsistency. In spite of it all, Aragon refused the efforts of his old Surrealist friends, for the new communist no longer considered himself a Surrealist. Breton realized that this incident “removed our last illusions on the compatibility of Surrealist aspirations and communist aspirations… [N]o longer was there a possibility of a political and cultural reconciliation.” 83 However, for the time being, the alliance held as the two groups remained united in their opposition to fascism. The February 1934 riots prompted leftist parties to join in alliance against the fascist threat and prompted the Surrealists to organize a meeting of prominent leftist intellectuals to coordinate a united response against what Breton called the “fascist putsch.” 84 They published the tract App l la lutte (Call to the Struggle) that warned: “[W]ith a violence and an unheard of rapidity, the events of these last few days have brutally put us in the presence of an immediate fascist danger.” Noting Hitlers sudden rise to power and the facility with which he suppressed leftist groups in Germany, Breton called for worker solidarity and immediate action in the form of a general strike. 85 While the Surrealists supported the communist struggle against fascism, their disenchantment grew in 1934 as the party abandoned its “class against class” strategy and joined in cooperation with bourgeois governments.
The Surrealists were also alienated by the Franco-Soviet Pact of 1935 which abandoned the “revolutionary defeatism” that had attracted the Surrealists at the time of the Moroccan war. 86 The final parting of ways between the two groups occurred at the communist-sponsored, anti-fascist International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture held in Paris in 1935. Organizers intended the meeting to promote the new Soviet artistic policy of socialist realism that had been decreed in September 1934, but the Surrealists suspected that the congress had also been timed to win favor for the recent Franco-Soviet Pact. Groups such as the Surrealists that were eager to debate both the aesthetic and political issues were excluded. 87 After much maneuvering, Paul Eluard was finally allowed to read a statement by Breton, but not until well after midnight, when the hall was nearly empty, and to prevent any discussion, the lights were turned off immediately afterwards. In response, Breton published a manifesto declaring the end of all formal Surrealist association with communist organizations.
Breton regretted that “it was… the collapse of the hopes we had placed for all these years in the reconciliation of surrealist ideas with practical revolutionary action.” 88 It is quite evident that this break was the product of many years of friction and tension between two movements that were fundamentally incompatible. In his Entretien’s (1952), Breton explained why the Surrealists had adopted communism even though the two ideologies seemed an unlikely pair. He conceded that developing an independent political program would have been his preference, but the urgency of circumstances demanded the adoption of the pre-existing solution of marxism-leninism.
He added that at the time, “we still had no reason to suppose that this position would become poisoned.” 89 the new society and the “new man ” Both drieu and Breton ultimately conceived of revolution in “spiritual” terms and had “spiritual” conceptions of a future re-generated society that would give birth to new conceptions of man himself. Once Drieu accepted fascism in 1934, he promptly presented his political position as “fascist socialism.” While his political position was fascist, it was nevertheless one of his own invention and was socially and economically quite conservative. Drieu generally believed in a social revolution of the petite bourgeoisie, for he saw the modern French proletariat as too decadent and oppressed to act heroically as a revolutionary force. He believed that Marks faith in a revolutionary proletariat was based on an obsolete nineteenth-century class of artisans and peasants rather than an actual urban proletariat.
Drieu also rejected the Marxist view of class struggle as the real inspiration for historical change. Refuting the very idea of a proletarian class, he also denied the existence of a bourgeois ruling class, for he saw a clear separation between political power (controlled by a political elite), and economic power (controlled by the bourgeoisie).
90 Against the Marxist view, Drieu proposed a fascist revolution by an elite drawn from the petite bourgeoisie and peasantry. Drieu saw these groups, threatened with extinction by big capitalism above and marxism below, as receptive to revolutionary action leading to a return to a “heroic” vision of nineteenth-century artisan and peasant society. Political power would be more “elitist” than democratic, residing in the natural leaders of society (an elitism in keeping with the Maurrasian tradition), motivated by noblesse oblige rather than democratic electoral politics. The upper bourgeoisie and aristocracy, who controlled big business, would retain their economic hegemony, but political power would be relinquished to the fascist elite of the petite bourgeoisie.
91 In his article “The Young Man and the Older Man,” written in 1935, Drieu revealed through the young man that: Fascism will be nothing other than a new Radicalism, … a new movement of the petite bourgeoisie, disciplined and organized in a party that inserts itself between Big Capitalism, the peasantry, and the proletariat, and that, through terror and authority, imposes on these different interest groups an old charter under a renovated form. But this new charter instead of being liberal, will this time be socialist. 92 Drieus concept of “socialism” was political rather than economic, meaning an authoritarianism imposed by the petite bourgeoisie rather than a socialism of humanitarian concerns, social reforms, or working class interests.
This socialism was also in many ways nationalist, in that it did not serve the interests of foreign powers such as the Soviet Union, as Drieu believed international socialism and communism did. 93 While Drieus economic and social views were reactionary, his political and cultural conceptions were radical. Economic systems were less to blame for present conditions than the bodies and minds of Frenchmen that had grown soft and decadent. Drieu was especially sensitive to these shortcomings, as he had always been tall, awkward, and unathletic. Seeing himself as the product of a too-comfortable bourgeois upbringing, he sought to compensate for his inadequacies by attaching himself to various sources of strength outside of himself. 94 Drieu projected his own self-disgust onto France, and blamed his country, not himself, for his own physical and moral weakness.
Drieu now saw fascism not only as the best way to combat decadence, but also as a way to reconcile and elevate both the physical body and the spiritual mind: The deepest definition of Fascism is this: it is the political movement which leads most frankly, most radically towards the restoration of the body-health, dignity, fullness, heroism-towards the defense of man against the large town and the machine. 95 Drieu saw the need for the emergence of a “new man” created from the ground up, a man able to combine political idealism and physical strength, both a militant and an athlete. 96 Drieu hoped fascism would produce a man of a new “virile disposition” who would only reach his fullest potential by acquiring the courage “to have advanced his body to reach the point to which he has advanced his thought.” 97 Drieu was like many fascist writers who expected the creation of a fascist state to bring about a new breed of man, the homo fascista, a “complete” man overcoming the fragmenting forces of mass society and industrialization. Standing triumphant in a Darwinian world where might always makes right, he was to be a man of energy, virility, force, and action-a hero, yet an individual who recognized the value and strength of the cohesive group, of order, discipline, and authority. 98 Drieus conception of the “new man” first found its concrete form in the person of his friend, Andr Malraux. In 1930, Drieu had published “Malraux, the New Man,” praising Malraux for boldly addressing the most fundamental problems of the times.
Malraux leftist leanings did not initially bother Drieu, because he saw in him the “raw man” who had found the perfect union of a life of vigorous action with a life of intense thought, which gave his writing the force and conviction of reality. 99 By the late 1930 s, Drieu seemed to think Jacques Doriot of the Parti Populaire Fran aise (PPF) was also an embodiment of this “new man.” Doriot had been a communist mayor of Saint-Denis, but had been expelled from the party due to conflicts with Party discipline. Formed in 1936 in reaction to the leftist Popular Front government, the PPF was an amalgamation of rightist ideology and communist organizational structures which drew from both Right and Left. Drieu was inspired by Doriots physical vigor and athletic appearance, and rejoiced that Doriot: [S]tanks before France not as a fat-bellied intellectual of the last century watching his sick mother and puffing at his radical pipe, but as an athlete squeezing this debilitated body, breathing his own health into its mouth.
100 There is some suggestion of latent homosexuality in Drieus at tration to force, strength and masculine group experiences. 101 More important, however, were the results of such attractions, for in the case of Doriot, Drieu hoped that his youth, energy, and physical vigor would transform a France of apathy, flabbiness, and decadence into a land of youthful vigor that relished sports and outdoor activities. Drieu also hoped that the PPF would instigate a fascist coup, defend French national security, and provide the type of joyful camaraderie that he had missed since his days with the Surrealists. It provided none of these for Drieu, and he left the PPF in 1938 over Doriots open support of the Munich Settlement.
His letter of resignation to Doriot complained that “you betrayed us, you did not want to save France. You remained inert, enveloped in disbelief and bad faith.” 102 With the failure of the PPF or any other French fascist party to seize power, along with French appeasement of Hitler in 1938, Drieu realized that “in France, a revolution instituted by Frenchmen was impossible. A revolution could come only from outside.” 103 No longer believing in the political resources of France or England, and fearing the intrusion of foreign empires such as the United States and the Soviet Union, Drieu lamented that “I have seen no other recourse than in the genius of Hitler and Hitlerism… Hitlerism appeared to me more than ever as the last rampart of any liberty in Europe.” 104 Drieu had visited Nazi Germany in 1934 and had attended the Nuremberg rallies. Visiting again in 1936, he was impressed by the fascists ability to galvanize and remold the state and inject it with a sense of rediscovered spiritual values. Drieu believed that the German fascists were moving towards a “spiritual” and aesthetic conception of society.
105 Drieu had now put his faith in “Hitlerian man,” a new breed of German youth-tough, athletic, and Spartan. He believed that Germany had produced legions of this new prototype which had surpassed the physically and morally inferior Anglo-Saxon man. He conjured up images of a German “wolf-man” from ancient German lore, but this time clad in black leather and armed with American gangster machine guns. While Germany had succeeded in cultivating this “new man,” Drieu also pictured various antecedents, such as the Christian crusader, the Spanish conquistador, the colonial adventurer of the nineteenth century, and the American gangster of the 1920 s. 106 French fascism relied heavily on myths. Its proponents conjured up a glorious mythical past based on ancestor worship and the “pays r el” or the “eternal” nation characterized by order, hierarchical elitism, and authority.
This language of mythical symbols and images that had provided the foundation of past order had to be reasserted in the modern day in order to provide fascism with an identity. These myths were conjured up to betray and deceive a believing public by appealing to irrational passions rather than intelligence. 107 However, fascists like Drieu seem to have left themselves susceptible to the power of their own deceptions. Communism had provided Breton and the Surrealists with some degree of direction and cohesion and had served as proof of their revolutionary committment. While the Surrealists may have used communism as a shield against absorption into the dilettante and bohemian Parisian artistic world, 108 Breton nevertheless had a “spiritual” conception of society and man that far surpassed the communist vision.
While the Surrealists had always supported the need for social revolution, Breton saw it as an oversimplification to suppose that the barriers that kept man from fully adapting himself to life “would fortuitously disappear with the abolition of classes.” Only when the revolution of the human mind and spirit could be freed from the inhibitions of artificial social concerns, would “the human spirit raised to new levels… break away for the first time towards a road without obstacles.” 109 For Breton, the true revolution of human consciousness and understanding would lead to the unification of the interior reality of dreams and the exterior reality outside of the mind, thus re-creating man as a more “complete” being. By the late 1930 s, Breton was convinced communism could not address these goals. He realized Marxist man was artistically and intellectually confined to mediocrity, unable to pursue personal initiatives. Marxist man was no more than a slave to materialistic and economic forces. Lost as a cog in a machine in this collectivity, Marxist man could never achieve intellectual and spiritual emancipation.
One finds that Breton does not dwell on this concept of the “new man,” perhaps because of his greater concern for the collective good, the liberation of all minds; yet he does consider the role of man and the poet in a future society. It was Surrealism itself that was expected to facilitate the formation of a “new man” by immersion into the “unknown,” madness, insanity, dreams, chance, the subconscious, antirationalism, and the occult. Surrealist art and poetry would teach man to expand his vision of what was possible, and then lead the struggle to elevate reality to the level of his dreams. In addition, the Surrealist role in a post-revolutionary society would be to facilitate, guide, and encourage an emerging working class in the formation of an artistic identity that would be the first truly “human” culture. 110 To facilitate and sustain the transformations that would bring about the “new man,” the Surrealists would employ new myths and emblems through the creation of new objects or beings in painting, sculpture, and writing. 111 These new myths would be the foundation for a future society and provide a collective sensibility, neither particularly political, scientific, or religious, but addressing basic human problems that had been neglected by all previous erroneous systems of thought.
112 Traces of this “myths nouveau” could already be found in modern art and poetry, in the “poem-objects” of Breton, the collages of Max Ernst, the paintings of Salvador Dali, Ren Magritte, Giorgio de Chirico, Joan Miro, and the sculptures of Alberto Giacometti. Breton would proclaim that “the hour has come to promote a new myth, one that will carry man forward a stage further towards his ultimate destination. This undertaking is specifically that of Surrealism.” 113 After the break with communism, the Surrealists denounced political parties on both the Left and Right. They protested the spread of fascism, yet also faulted the communists and socialists for preserving capitalism by participating in bourgeois parliaments. In 1936, the Surrealists published Neutrality Non-sens, crime et trahison! (Neutrality Nonsense, crime and treason! ), which assailed the French Popular Front governments policy of neutrality in the Spanish Civil War: “Get hold of yourself, Popular Front! Help the heroic Frente popular! Not just with speeches and resolutions, but with volunteers and equipment!” 114 While the Surrealists faulted the French Popular Front for its non-intervention, they opposed Stalins support for the Spanish Republic. They accused the Stalinist of fomenting intrigue and dissension among leftist parties and sabotaging the chances for proletarian victory by their support of a Republican government.
115 Breton became even more disgusted with Stalin when the Moscow trials surfaced between 1936 and 1938. His 1937 essay on the Second Moscow Trial likened Stalins purges to the witch-hunts of the Middle Ages and lamented that “socialist thought will no longer be anything the day when it accepts the cheapening of human dignity.” 116 Breton argued that the trials were really an extension of the Stalinist vendetta against the exiled Leon Trotsky. Breton had always been sympathetic to Trotsky, and the Surrealists break with the Communist Party left the group free to take the Bolshevik intellectual and revolutionary war hero as their champion. Breton admired Trotskys consistent revolutionary position and his interest in the arts with a veneration that bordered on hero-worship.
While he never referred to Trotsky as a “new man,” he regarded him in much the same manner that Drieu had regarded Malraux and Doriot. Breton was able to visit Trotsky in Mexico in 1938, and he admitted that “my heart beat fast” at the prospect of meeting one whose life was “incomparably more dramatic than any other.” The very appearance and presence of Trotsky moved Breton: The deep blue eyes, the remarkable face, the abundant silver locks… [H]e radiates from his whole person something electrifying… a depth of unaltered fresh youthfulness… [T]here is no greater intensity of spirit than his. 117 In the course of their visit, Breton and Trotsky jointly produced Pour un art r volutionnaires ind pendant (Manifesto for an independent revolutionary art), which emphatically demanded freedom for art in the face of repressive fascist and communist regimes.
Their argument was not for the freedom of “pure” art for arts sake, for they believed that true art could be nothing but revolt.