A short history of surrealist philosophy


This was written by myself back in 1996. (I was very young) 


The Crisis of the Object in Surrealist thought has been greatly neglected so far in studies dedicated to Surrealism. The bourgeois protagonist of art for art’s sake despised the Surrealist movement because of its solidarity with the cause of revolution, its adherence to the principle of success. Surrealism was dismissed as irrelevant.

Before becoming an art, surrealism became a philosophy and a way of life. Philosophy itself is an undertaking of man as a whole, not a system concerning objects. They discover subjectivity by his revolt against the System, refusing to be one of its parts, one of its moments. From 1921 – burst the Surrealist revolt. They used art as a tool for strictly aesthetic expression, surrealism involves a theory of love, of real life, of the imagination, of the relations of man and the world. The Surrealists were new that we vitally needed a new means of communication. Andre Breton one of the founders of Surrealism said: “What keeps me from scrambling the word order, thus attacking the completely seeming existence of things?” He was convinced that art could be used as “ a weapon that in the decline of bourgeois society turns inevitably against that society” They were determined to place the dream and the unconscious at the highest level of art, to enlarge and raise man’s consciousness of means which had enslaved man. They used art as a form of communication which could not be left on the bookshelf since it had no words it should be taken advantage of to express the freedom of man. Against rational logos, against the immanent structure of things, to pass from the rejection of human discourse to the rejection of the discourse which constitutes the World of perception and of science. Surrealism’s new concern was the principle of revolution, which at first meant the liberation of the mind and spirit and came to include political and social revolution. Surrealism is considered by the Author of The Philosophy of Surrealism Ferdinand Alquie who himself was closely associated with the Surrealists. ‘ As an effort towards the only truth’ and his friend Rene Nelli said ‘ He is right in a world that is wrong’

The Surrealists looked at themselves as scientists because they were serious explorers of a new world: the unconscious, the dream, the fantasy, or the marvellous. They tried their hand in experiments, such as automatic writing. Some striking images were produced. But many of the poets and painters were not entirely satisfied with this method and confessed years later that they did not always abide by the rules, but deliberately altered their compositions. Another important aspect of their research was a series of word games they invented: which consisted of writing a noun on paper, folding it so the word couldn’t be seen, passing it to a neighbour who would write a verb, and so on, until complete. The best known as “the exquisite corpse will drink the wine”

The Surrealist also conducted seances, but Breton insisted, “ it goes without saying that……..that we did not adopt a belief in spiritualism. As for myself, I formally refuse to accept the notion that there could be any kind of communication between the living and the dead” The ritual was only used to create a trance-like state which appeared to be a direct route to the unconscious. The rituals turned out to be disturbing since Crevel and several other Surrealists. Tried to hang themselves and on one occasion Desnos chased after Eluard brandishing a knife.

The third and most important method of research was the dream. As Breton explained it, the merging of two opposites into one continuum, “ I believe in the future resolution of these two states of dream and reality seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality” The Surrealists demanded the subordination of logic to the irrational.

SURREALISM, noun, masc, pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, the real function of thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason and outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation’s Encycl Philos – Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association neglected until now, in the omnipotence of the dream, and in the disinterested play of thought. It leads to the destruction of all other psychic mechanisms and substitutes itself for them to the destruction of all other psychic mechanisms and substitutes itself for them in solving the principle Aragon, Baron, Boiffard, Breton, Carrive, Crevel, Delteil, Noll, Peret, Picon, Soupault, Vitrac.` The Surrealist began to publicise these and other experiments and wanted to spread Surrealism through the masses. By 1924 the Surrealists began publishing their own periodical
La Revolution Surrealists, which appeared irregularly until 1929, and in successive issues showed startling changes in thought. They were determined to destroy traditional culture. They became to have a strong belief in the East and considered it would annihilate the West. Surrealism, at least in its early period, was clearly in the anarchist tradition. They could not admire the Russian Revolution because it seemed too orderly, too directed. Political Revolution was not the revolution of men’s minds that they wanted. Their idea of revolt was much more grandiose: they were nihilists but not blasphemers of God because they were atheists but blasphemers of the believers of God. They wanted a spiritual rebellion they advocated, not a change in social and economic structure.

But by the fifth edition of
La Revolution Surrealists, the Surrealist had made a decisive commitment to revolution. Breton reviewed Trotsky’s biography and though not totally committed to the Russian Revolution admitted that “ their enemies are our enemies” In his opinion, the principal achievement of the Russian Revolution had been to destroy the old order: “ I think …. that Communism, by its existence as an organised system, has alone brought about the greatest social upheaval …. defensible or not in itself from the moral point of view … it was thanks to this instrument that walls of the old order have crumbled” Breton realised that Surrealism was beginning to run the risk of sterility, in spite of its many manifestos and demonstrations. Marxist principles gave Surrealism unity and purpose. Without this philosophy, it could never have survived. Breton understood that Surrealism needed Marxism for its creativity. Breton said “ No coherent political or social attitude made its appearance until 1925, that is it to say until the outbreak of the Moroccan war which, re-aroused in us our particularly hostility to ….armed conflicts …abruptly placed before us the necessity of …dialectical materialism, insisted on the supremacy of matter over mind”

With the
La Revolution d’abord et Tourjours, Surrealism entered what Breton called its “ reasoning phrase,” becoming politically conscious, turning to Marxism and to the Communist Party. However, there was a conflict between the Surrealists and the Communist Party since the Surrealists tended to cling to their intellectual independence. He found himself attacked on all sides, his position was extremely precarious, and the future of the movement was called into question. What can the Surrealists do? “ We need of intellectuals and yet, for the most part, they are hostile to us…It is not absolutely necessary to extract a complete profession of faith from them ….nor to be very demanding concerning political questions” The Surrealists proceeded with numerous declarations of their support for the proletarian revolution in order to reassure both the Chartists and the Communist Party of the sincerity of their conversion. One such declaration was published in L’Humanite’ on the 8 November 1925. “Only semantic confusion has allowed the persistent misunderstanding that there was a Surrealist doctrine of Revolution ……..There was never a Surrealist theory of Revolution. We want the Revolution; nowhere, we want revolutionary means. Of what do these means consist? Only of the Communist Party … When it comes to realising the Revolutionary point of view in no way differs from that of the Communist International. They can only conceive of the Revolution in it’s social and economic form: The Revolution is the totality of events determining the transfer of power from the hands of the bourgeoisie to those of the Proletariat and the maintenance of that power by means of the dictatorship of the proletariat.” An article written by Desno’s a Surrealist attempted to give a Marxist interpretation of Surrealism in the First Manifesto. He conceded that the idea of psychic automatism, of thought dictation in the absence of all control by reason, outside of any moral or aesthetic considerations, might not seem at first glance to have revolutionary significance. Because by reason was meant the bourgeois aesthetic and moral questions. This definition, seemingly so irrelevant to political issues, was really perfectly compatible with the Revolution and Desnos said: “ I doubt that even Karl Marx would take exception to this.”

To say that Surrealism had always thought of the revolution in social-economic terms and that there had never been a Surrealist theory of revolution would give a good reason for conflict with the Communist Party. This is indicative of the concessions made by the Communist Party to accommodate the Surrealists. The Surrealist were given informed lessons in Marxist theory by the
Clarte group who were changing their ideas significantly. At the same time the Chartists, were attempting to gain acceptance of the Surrealists by the Party. But sections of the Party, however, remained hostile presenting the Surrealists with a dilemma. 1. Either to persevere in a negative anarchistic attitude which is false because it does not justify the idea of revolution it claims, an attitude which of refusal to compromise its own existence and the sacred character of the individual to engage disciplined action of class struggle. 2. To march resolutely on the path of the Revolution in Marxist theory, the struggle is directed against the bourgeoisie. The proletarian struggle is a struggle commanded by mass movements, resolved to recognise no field of liberty but that on which the bourgeoisie will perish.

The Surrealists became completely convinced of the need for social and economic revolution and they envisioned a close alignment with the Communist Party since their “heroes” were now Marx, Lenin and Trotsky. Unfortunately, they were probably unaware of the full implications of the Stalin-Trotsky split and of the great importance of orthodoxy on the question. They simply assumed that all that was needed to dispel the Party’s hostility towards them were repeated assurances of their good will.

Naville a former Surrealist who became a militant Communist and ultimately a Trotskyist declared in 1926, by tracing back the evolution of Surrealism. That Surrealism began as pure anarchy but was developing dialectically towards revolutionary consciousness. “The bourgeoisie does not fear them it absorbs easily. Even their violent anti-patriotism was only a
moral scandal and could not contribute to the overthrow of capitalism.” Naville clearly favoured the second alternatives and asked, “ Do the Surrealists believe in the liberation of the mind before the abolition of bourgeois conditions of material life, or do they comprehend that a revolutionary spirit can be created only after the Revolution is accomplished?” Thus far, they have affirmed the possibility of the liberation of the mind before and independently of the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, so as of now, they can only be allies of the revolution. There were also certain “ counter-revolutionary” aspects of Surrealist thought he considered that must be changed. “First, they must abandon the “Orient myth”. Second, they must abandon their cherished individualism. Their passion for revolution is purely individual, not collective, which is why they cannot be truly revolutionary. Thirdly, they must abandon their poetic, Romantic scorn for science and technological progress because this attitude only plays into the hands of the bourgeoisie. The Surrealists have simply refused to face this question:” “ Is it liked to Marxism, or to contemplative theories about purification of the inner life?” They cannot have it both ways. “He reminded the Surrealist that “ wages are a material necessity with which three-quarters of the world’s population are constrained to live …. The quarrels of the intellect are absolutely vain before the unity of their condition.”

Breton was forced to reply when in December 1926 he explained that this merely meant that they proposed to deal with psychological questions not covered by Marxism as such. “ I am convinced, with the author of the pamphlet,…. that wages are a material necessity for three-fourths of the world’s population….. but cannot share his conclusion that disputes of the intelligence are absolutely futile…
Wages cannot pass for efficacy caused by the present state of affairs … There is no question here of disputing historical materialism, but once again of materialism.” Breton reiterated the Surrealist belief that there is no philosophical distinction between the concrete world and the realm of thought since both are equally real. He also reaffirmed his revolutionary zeal saying “ we would not, for anything in the world, defend an inch of French territory, but we would defend to the death in Russia, in China, for an infinite conquest of the proletariat.” “In my opinion, if there had been and had existed at that time a party both revolutionary and one that dictated all forms of spiritual activity, surrealism would have found its place within.”

Above all Breton wanted Surrealism accepted and approved as a revolutionary form of art, and never ceased to put this argument before Party officials. In spite of discouragement, he persevered in trying to be both Communist and Surrealist. Andre Thirion a new recruit of the Surrealists expressed “The Party fails to take advantage of the potential usefulness of artists and intellectuals.” The Surrealists continued to flourish and in October 1927 were causing new scandals publicly. Breton continued to stress a “ revolution of the mind”, as he indicated. “ Surrealism tends basically to provoke, from a moral and intellectual point of view” and also affirm that the true aim of labour is to free man from labour and to lead him to the values of knowledge, of contemplation, and of pleasure. The underlying philosophy of Surrealism had by 1929 become clarified and Breton began to emphasise its materialist nature. In a significant passage, influenced by Hegel, Breton disposed of the problem of dualism touched on in the first manifesto. Quote by Hegel “ Everything leads us to believe that there exists a certain point in the mind where life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and future, the communications and the incommunicable. Hegel’s ideas were very important to the surrealists and had the power to shock them. It led them to grasp the evolution of material and intellectual existence.


General – of dialectical materialism, by Frederick Engels.


Modern socialism like every new theory had to link itself with existing data ready at hand. It’s rooted lay in [material]economic facts – everything had to justify its existence with a reason. This was called the reasoning intellect. It was the time, as Hegel says, the world was stood on its head, first in the sense that the human head and the principles arrived at by its thinking claimed to be the basis of all human action and association; but later also the wider sense that the reality which was in contradiction with these principles was, in fact, turned upside down.

To make a science of socialism it would have to be placed on a real basis. When we reflect on nature or the history of mankind or our intellectual activity, at first we see the picture of an endless maze of connections and interactions, in which nothing remains what, where and as it was, but everything moves, changes, comes into being and passes away.[At first we see the picture as a whole, with its individual parts still more or less kept in the background; we observe the movements, transitions, connections, rather than the things that move, change and are connected] This correct conception of the world was first formulated by Heraclitus
in the ancient Greek Philosophy: everything is also is not, for everything is in flux, is constantly changing, constantly coming into being and passing away.

But this conception, correctly as it expresses the general character of the picture of a phenomenon as a whole, does not suffice to explain the details of which this picture is made up, and so long as we cannot do this, we are not clear about the whole picture. In order to understand these details, we must detach them from the natural or historical connection and examine each one separately according to its nature, special causes and effects. This is primarily the job of natural science and historical research. The beginning of these researches was worked out by the Greeks and of Alexandrian period, and later in the Middle Ages, further development by the Arabs. This analysis of natural processes and objects into definite classes, the study of organic bodies in their manifold forms, this was a fundamental condition of the gigantic strides in our knowledge of nature in the last for hundred years. But this bequeathed us the habit of observing natural objects and processes in isolation, detached from the general context; of observing them not in their motion, but in their state of rest; not as essentially variable elements, but as constant ones; not in their life, but in their death.

There are many opposing views to this theory, an idealist says that ideas are isolated, to be considered one after the other and apart from each other. For him a thing either exists or does not exist; a thing cannot at the same time be itself and something else. Since we live in an idealist society were the main purpose of our lives is consumption. We become involved in a division from which we are not yet in possession of what we seek. We see happiness as something to be attained and this then places us outside ourselves in the world of objects. Our concern for happiness makes us unhappy and the moment we are treated as objects leads us to delusion and alienation. [ But this depressive view could be changed to the view of the Surrealists who say never accept wholly the idea that consciousness has become unhappy in time and may, therefore, escape from its unhappiness of consciousness is not linked only to its history, but to its eternal condition] This opposing view is also seen in the bourgeois art for art sake were the paintings have no meaning no connection to the whole of society, just for the bourgeois. So in the presence of peoples existence, they forget they are coming into being and passing away because in their state of rest they forget their motion. In like manner every organic being is every moment the same and not the same; every moment some cells of its body die and others build themselves a new; in a longer or shorter time the matter of its body is always itself, and yet something other than itself. Therefore modern science has proven that nature works dialectically and not metaphysically. [ That nature does not move in an eternally uniform and perpetually recurring circle but goes through a genuine historical evolution. In this connection, Darwin must be named before all others. He dealt the metaphysical conception of nature man too- is the product of the process of evolution going on through millions of years]

This exact representation of the universe, of its evolution and that of mankind, and of the reflection of the evolution this evolution in the minds of men can therefore only be obtained by the method of dialectics with its constant regard to the general actions and reactions of becoming and ceasing to be, of progressive or retrogressive changes. And it is in this that modern German Philosophy terminated the Hegelian system. In this system mankind no longer appeared as a wild whirl of senseless deeds of violence, all equally condemnable at the judgement seat of mature philosophical reason and best forgotten as quickly as possible, but as the process of evolution of humanity itself. It was now the task of the intellect to follow the gradual march of this process through all its devious ways and to trace out the inner logic running through all its apparently contingent phenomena.

The recognition of the complete inversion of previous German idealism, not purely metaphysical, exclusively mechanical materialism of the eighteenth century. in contrast to the naively revolutionary, flat rejection of all previous history, modern materialism sees history as the process of development of humanity and its task as the discovery of the laws of motion of this process. In opposition to this conception, modern materialism embraces the more recent advances of natural science, according to which too has its history in time, the celestial bodies, like organic species with which they become peopled under favourable conditions, coming into being and passing away, and recurrent cycles, in so far they are at all admissible, assuming infinitely vaster dimensions. In both cases, modern materialism is essentially dialectical and no longer needs any philosophy standing above the other sciences. As soon as each separate science is required to clarify its position in the great totality of things and of our knowledge of things, a special science dealing with this totality is superfluous. All that remains in an independent state from all earlier philosophy is the positive science of thought and its laws – formal logic and dialectics. Everything else merges into the positive science of nature and history.

In 1831, the first working-class rising took place in Lyons. Socialism no longer appeared as an accidental discovery but as the necessary outcome of the struggle between two classes produced by history – proletariat and bourgeoisie. Its task was no longer to manufacture as perfect a system of society as possible but to examine the historical – economic process from which these classes and their antagonism had of necessity the means of ending the conflict. But the earlier socialism was just as incompatible with this materialist conception of history as the French materialist’s conception of nature was with dialectics and modern natural science. The earlier socialism certainly criticised the existing capitalist mode of production and its consequences. But it could not explain this mode of production, an, therefore, could not get the mastery of it. It could only simply reject it as evil.[The more violently it denounced the exploitation of the working class, which is inseparable from capitalism, the less able was it clear to show in what this exploitation consists and how it arises] But for this it was necessary, on the one hand, to present the capitalist mode of production in its historical interconnections and its necessity for a specific historical period, and therefore also the necessity of its doom: and attacked its evil consequences rather than the process as such. This was done by the discovery of
surplus value. It was shown that the appropriation of unpaid labour is the basic form of the capitalist mode of production and of the exploitation of the worker affected by it; that even if the market, he still extracts more value from which there is heaped up the constantly increasing mass of capital in the hands of the possessing classes. The process both of capitalist production and the production of capital was explained These two great discoveries, the materialist conception of history from writings of Hegel and the revelation of the secret of the capital production through surplus value, we owe to Marx. With them, socialism became a science, which had now to be elaborated in all details and interconnections.

In his essays in the mid-nineteenth thirties, Breton repeatedly refers to “The Crisis of the Object” which implies a new orientation of the world of things which surround us in daily life. The external object may become an extension of our subjective self and serve as a point of departure for a new conscience of reality. The crisis also implies an attempt to change the world by acting upon its objects in such a manner as to deviate them from admitted physical properties and accepted roles. The relationship between person and object within the framework of the Crisis moulds and shapes a personal conscience. In a variety of shapes, colours, textures and functions, objects are man’s reality. Philosophically, the relationship between man and the object involves an interchange between mind and matter within a framework which is acceptable to it. The emphasis is shifting from a preoccupation with individual concerns to the enlargement of our vision of the world.

There work on the “ Crisis of the Object” was a return to purely abstract thinking, and there activity’s consisted in inventing objects by deviating from their admitted physical and accepted roles, thereby changing the world. The surrealists decided to change their perception of drawing and instead of thinking that he had drawn an object within himself and then had made an abstraction of it; the surrealist would project himself into the concrete existence of the object.

Perhaps one of the true problems is the fact that Surrealism seems to have spread so quickly throughout the world, the word has passed faster than the philosophy. Artists who should be named abstractionists have taken the liberty of naming themselves, Surrealists. So the Surrealists wanted to avoid such misunderstandings and vulgar ** adverts ***abuses impossible in the future. The ideal, obviously, would be for an authentic Surrealist Object to have some distinction outer sign so that it would be immediately recognisable. Man Ray suggested a mark or a seal. They decided that the best way of securing agreement on this question seems to seek to determine the exact situation of the Surrealist object and it is only when we have reached perfect agreement on the way in which Surrealism represents the object in general to justify the adjective Surrealist.

The Surrealist artist has the privilege of attaining the precision of the definite forms of a really visible object, to the very degree that one must take into account the fact that he is acting directly on the material world. Andre Breton remarks on the fundamental criticisms that Marx and Engels levelled at the materialism of the eighteenth century:(1) His conception of the early materialists was “mechanistic”; (2) it was metaphysical (because of the anti-dialectical nature of their philosophy);(3)it did not exclude all idealism still existed “ at the top” in the domain of social science (because it had no knowledge of historical materialism). On all other points, of course, Marx and Engels agree with the early materialists.

Surrealism in its own domain has difficulty designating the “ limits” that had restricted the means of expression, but also the thought of realist writers and artists. By looking at materialism Surrealism could demonstrate that all the specifically intellectual movements at that time. Surrealism is the only one to have armed itself against any inclination toward idealist fantasy, the only one to have thought out the art and settled with “fideism”[ which is a doctrine substituting faith for science, or, by extension, attributing certain importance to faith by Lenin]

Idealist painting s concerned themselves uniquely with expressing the obvious relationships that exist between the perception of the outside world and the ego.. this had been long exhausted, and which allowed nothing to exist except an extravagant concern to deify the external object. But photography was to deal it a decisive blow. By the very fact that the image of the exterior object was caught mechanically, in conditions that produced a resemblance that was immediately satisfying and that, moreover, was indefinitely perfectible, the representation of this object was to cease to appear to be an end for the painter, and movies were to bring the end of sculpture.

The only domain the artist thought was left to exploit became that of
pure mental representation from their inner perception. We say that the art of imitation ( of places, of scenes, of external objects) has had its day and that the artistic problem today consists of making mental representation more and more objectively precise through the voluntary exercise of imagination and memory ( it being understood that only the perception of the outside world has permitted the involuntary acquisition of the materials which mental representation is called up to use). The greatest benefit that Surrealism had got out of this sort of operation is the fact that we have succeeded in dialectically reconciling these two terms perception and representation – that is so violently contradictory for the adult man and the fact that we have thrown a bridge over the abyss that separated them. Surrealist painting and construction have permitted the organisation of perceptions with an objective tendency around subjective elements. These perceptions, through their very tendency, to assert themselves as objective perceptions are of such a nature as to be bewildering and revolutionary, in the sense that they as to be bewildering and revolutionary, in the sense that they urgently call for something to answer them in outer reality. It may be predicted that in large measure this something will be.





Thames and Hudson.



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Printed in the USA.

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Peoples Republic of China



Surrealism and the Crisis of the Object.

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Red Empire. The Forbidden History Of the USSR.

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London.



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Edinburgh University Press.



Material Culture & Mass Consumption.

Basil Blackwell.




Fontana Modern Masters Editor Frank Kermode.



Surrealism. 1919 – 1939




A History of Western Philosophy.




Max Ernst. A Retrospective


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