Leon Trotsky and revolutionary art

Image: Oto Vale


For the 80th anniversary of his death

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

October 1917 revolutionary, founder of the Red Army, inflexible opponent of Stalinism, founder of the Fourth International, Leon Davidovich Bronstein made essential contributions to Marxist thought and strategy: the theory of permanent revolution, the transitional program, analysis of uneven development and combined – among others. Your History of the Russian Revolution (1930) became an essential reference: it appeared among Che Guevara's books in the Bolivian mountains. Many of his writings can still be read in the 1920st century, while those of Stalin and Zhdanov are forgotten on the dustiest library shelves. We can criticize some of his decisions (Kronstadt!) and challenge the authoritarianism of certain writings from the 21s-XNUMXs (such as Terrorism and Communism, 1920); but we cannot deny his role as one of the greatest revolutionaries of the XNUMXth century.

León Trotsky was also a man of great culture. your little book Literature and Revolution (1924) is a striking example of his interest in poetry, literature and art. But there is an episode that illustrates this dimension of the character better than any other: the elaboration, with André Breton, of a manifesto on revolutionary art. This is a rare document of “libertarian Marxist” inspiration. In this brief tribute to the anniversary of his death, let us remember this fascinating episode.

During the summer of 1938, Breton and Trotsky met in Mexico, at the foot of the Popocatepetl and Ixtacciuatl volcanoes. This historic meeting was prepared by Pierre Naville, former surrealist, leader of the Trotskyist movement in France. Despite a violent controversy with Breton in 1930, Naville had written to Trotsky in 1938, commending Breton as a brave man who did not hesitate, unlike so many other intellectuals, to publicly condemn the infamy of the Moscow Trials. Trotsky had therefore agreed to receive Breton and he, with his companion Jacqueline Lamba, sailed for Mexico. Trotsky was living at the time in Casa Azul, which belonged to Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, two artists who shared his ideas and who welcomed him with warm hospitality (unfortunately, they would fall out a few months later). It was also in this huge house located in the Coyoacán district that Breton and his partner stayed during their stay.

It was a surprising meeting, between personalities apparently situated at the opposite ends of the spectrum: one, the revolutionary heiress of the Enlightenment, the other, installed in the tail of the romantic comet; one, founder of the Red Army, the other, initiator of the Surrealist Adventure. The relationship between them was quite unequal: Breton had enormous admiration for the October revolutionary, while Trotsky, although he respected the poet’s courage and lucidity – one of the rare left-wing French intellectuals to oppose Stalinism – had some difficulties in understanding surrealism. … He had asked his secretary, Van Heijenoort, to provide him with the main documents of the movement and Breton's books, but this intellectual universe was foreign to him. His literary tastes led him more to the great realist classics of the 19th century than to the unusual poetic experiments of the surrealists.

At the beginning, the meeting was very warm: according to Jaqueline Lamba – Breton's companion, who accompanied him to Mexico, interviewed by Arturo Schwarz: “We were all very moved, even Lev Davidovich. We were immediately made to feel welcome with open arms. LD was very happy to see Andre. He became very interested”. However, that first conversation almost went wrong… According to Van Heijenoort's testimony: “The old man quickly began to discuss the word surrealism, to defend realism against surrealism. He understood by realism the precise meaning that Zola gave to this word. He started talking about Zola. Breton was at first somewhat surprised. However, he listened carefully and knew how to find the words to highlight certain poetic traits in Zola's work.” (Interview by Van Heijenoort with Arturo Schwarz). Other controversial issues arose, notably on the subject of “hasard objectif”, dear to the surrealists. It was a curious misunderstanding: while for Breton it was a source of poetic inspiration, Trotsky saw it as a questioning of materialism…

And yet, the current passed, Russian and French found a common language: internationalism, revolution, freedom. Jacqueline Lamba rightly speaks of a elective affinity between the two. Conversations took place in French, which Lev Davidovich spoke fluently. They will travel together through Mexico, visiting the magical places of pre-Hispanic civilizations and practicing fishing by hand immersed in rivers. We see them chatting amiably in a famous photo, sitting next to each other in a thicket, barefoot, after one such fishing trip.

From this encounter, from the friction of these two volcanic stones, a spark emerged that still shines: the Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art. According to Van Heijenoort, Breton presented a first version and Trotsky cut this text pasting his own contribution (in Russian). It is a libertarian communist text, anti-fascist and allergic to Stalinism, which proclaims the revolutionary vocation of art and its necessary independence from the States and political apparatuses. He called for the creation of an International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Art (FIARI).

The idea for the document came from Leon Trotsky, which was immediately accepted by André Breton. It was one of the few, if not the only, four-hand document written by the founder of the Red Army. The product of long conversations, discussions, exchanges and, no doubt, some misunderstandings, it was signed by André Breton and Diego Rivera, the great Mexican muralist, at the time an ardent supporter of Trotsky (they would fall out soon after). This harmless little lie was due to the old Bolshevik's belief that a Manifesto on Art should only be signed by artists. The text had a strong libertarian tone, notably in the formula, proposed by Trotsky, proclaiming that, in a revolutionary society, the regime of artists should be anarchist, i.e. based on unlimited freedom. In another famous passage of the document, it proclaims "all license in art". Breton proposed adding "except against the proletarian revolution", but Trotsky proposed deleting this addition! We know André Breton's sympathy for anarchism, but curiously, in this Manifesto, it is Trotsky who wrote the most “libertarian” passages.

The Manifesto affirms the revolutionary destiny of authentic art, that is, that which “opposes the powers of the inner world” against “the present and unbearable reality”. Was it Breton or Trotsky who formulated this idea, undoubtedly drawn from the Freudian repertoire? It matters little, since the two revolutionaries, the poet and the fighter, managed to reach an agreement in the same text.

The document retains, in its fundamental principles, a surprising relevance, but it suffers from certain limitations, perhaps due to the historical context of its writing. For example, the authors denounce, with great acuity, the restrictions on the freedom of artists, imposed by the States, in particular (but not only) by the totalitarian States. But, curiously, it misses a discussion, and a critique, of the obstacles resulting from the capitalist market and commodity fetishism… The document quotes a passage from the young Marx, stating that the writer “must never live and write just to earn money"; however, in their commentary on this passage, instead of analyzing the role of money in the corruption of art, the two authors limit themselves to denouncing the “restrictions” and “disciplines” that are tried to be imposed on artists in the name of the “reason of State". It is even more surprising that one cannot doubt their visceral anti-capitalism: wouldn't Breton have described Salvador Dalí, who became a mercenary, as an “Avida Dollars”?[I] We found the same gap in the FIARI review prospectus (Key), which calls for the fight against fascism, Stalinism and … religion: capitalism is absent.

The Manifesto concluded, as we have seen, with a call to create a broad movement, a kind of International of Artists, the International Federation for Independent Revolutionary Art (FIARI), including all those who recognize themselves in the general spirit of the document. In such a movement, write Breton and Trotsky, "Marxists can here go hand in hand with anarchists (...) provided that both break relentlessly with the reactionary police spirit, whether represented by Joseph Stalin or by his vassal Garcia Oliver". This call for unity between Marxists and anarchists is one of the most interesting aspects of the document and one of the most current, a century later.

In parentheses: the denunciation of Stalin, qualified by the Manifesto as “the most perfidious and dangerous enemy” of communism, was essential, but it would be necessary to address the Spanish anarchist García Oliver, Durruti's companion, the historic leader of the CNT-FAI, the hero of the victorious anti-fascist resistance in Barcelona in 1936, of its “vassal”? It is true that he was a minister (he resigned in 1937) in the first government of the Popular Front (Largo Caballero); and his role in May 1937, during the struggle in Barcelona between Stalinists and anarchists (supported by the POUM), in negotiating a truce between the two camps, was very questionable. But that doesn't make him a henchman of the Soviet Bonaparte...

FIARI was founded shortly after the publication of the Manifesto; managed to bring together not only supporters of Trotsky and friends of Breton, but also anarchists and independent writers or artists. The Federation had a publication, the magazine Key, edited by Maurice Nadeau, at the time a young Trotskyist militant with a great interest in surrealism (he became the author, in 1946, of the first History of Surrealism). The manager was Léo Malet and the National Committee was composed of: Yves Allégret, André Breton, Michel Collinet, Jean Giono, Maurice Heine, Pierre Mabille, Marcel Martinet, André Masson, Henry Poulaille, Gérard Rosenthal, Maurice Wullens. Among the participants we find: Yves Allégret, Gaston Bachelard, André Breton, Jean Giono, Maurice Heine, Georges Henein, Michel Leiris, Pierre Mabille, Roger Martin du Gard, André Masson, Albert Paraz, Henri Pastoureau, Benjamin Péret, Herbert Read, Diego Rivera, Léon Trotsky… These names give an idea of ​​FIARI's ability to associate quite diverse political, cultural and artistic personalities.

The magazine Key it only had 2 editions: nº 1 appeared in January 1939 and nº 2 in February 1939. The editorial of nº 1 was entitled “Pas de patrie!”, and denounced the repression and internment of foreign immigrants by the Daladier government: a very topical issue in 2018! FIARI was a beautiful “libertarian Marxist” experience, but of short duration: in September 1939, the beginning of the Second World War put an end, in fact, to the Federation.

Postscript: in 1965, our friend Michel Lequenne, at the time one of the leaders of the PCI, the Internationalist Communist Party, the French section of the Fourth International, proposed to the Surrealist Group a refoundation of FIARI. It seems that the idea did not displease André Breton, but it ended up being rejected by a collective declaration, dated April 19, 1966 and signed by Philippe Audoin, Vincent Bounoure, André Breton, Gérard Legrand, José Pierre, Jean Schuster – for the Surrealist Movement .

Bibliographic note: the book by Arturo Schwarz, André Breton, Trotsky et anarchie (Paris, 18/10/1974) contains not only the text of the FIARI Manifesto, but also all of Breton's writings on Trotsky, as well as a substantial 100-page historical introduction by the author, who was able to interview Breton himself, Jacqueline Lick, Van Heijenoort and Pierre Naville. One of the most moving documents in this collection is the speech given by Breton at the funeral in Paris in 1962 for Natalia Sedova Trotsky. After paying homage to this woman whose eyes experienced “the most dramatic battles between shadow and light”, he concluded with this stubborn hope: the day will come when not only will justice be done to Trotsky, but also “to the ideas for which he gave your life ".

*Michael Lowy é director of research at Center National de la Recherche Scientifique.

Translation: Arthur Scavone

[I] NT – In the artistic community Dalí received this nickname for his alleged greed. It was called “Avida Dollars”, a pun on his name.

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