Trotsky / Breton / Rivera

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Mar 5 14:16:57 MST 2003

Ben Halligan wrote:

> sublimation here = the unwitting expression of the effects of alienation (in
> the Marxist sense)?
> and this, when expressed, posits a kind of modernist "interior psychological
> state" that is intrinsically opposed to "decadent capitalist society"?
> i would recognise such a strategy in dissident art from the east bloc of the
> 1960s... but here it doesn't seem to make too much sense in relation to
> trotsky's general ideas

It is something of a mystery why there would be such a powerful affinity 
between Leon Trotsky and André Breton, Surrealism's leading theoretician.

At the outset, Breton's enthusiasm for psychoanalysis would not present 
any sort of obstacle since he had expressed a friendly interest in 
Freudian theory in the 1920s, long before both he and Freud had become 
personae non grata in the USSR. Trotsky looked to those elements in 
Freud that were of least interest to the surrealists, namely the almost 
mechanistic relationship between the material environment and the mind. 
It should come as no surprise that Trotsky looked favorably on both 
Freud and Pavlov in his "Culture and Socialism," since both figures 
resonated with his own biological reductionist tendencies. Trotsky writes:

"The school of the Viennese psychoanalyst Freud proceeds in a different 
way. It assumes in advance that the driving force of the most complex 
and delicate of psychic processes is a physiological need. In this 
general sense it is materialistic, if you leave aside the question 
whether it does not assign too big a place to the sexual factor at the 
expense of others, for this is already a dispute within the frontiers of 
materialism. But the psychoanalyst approaches the problems of 
consciousness not experimentally, going from the lowest phenomena to the 
highest, from the simple reflex to the complex reflex, but attempts to 
take all these intermediate stages in one jump, from above downwards, 
from the religious myth, the lyrical poem, or the dream straight to the 
physiological basis of the psyche."

Obviously, Breton and his colleagues theorized Freud in a completely 
different manner, but at least both sides saw something good. 
Furthermore, when Trotsky was in exile, and when Soviet art was becoming 
ever more pedestrian and didactic, it is understandable that he would 
reach out to a major figure in the French intelligentsia. According to 
Isaac Deutscher, Trotsky "accepted the Surrealists' quasi-Freudian 
concentration on dream and subconscious experience, but shook his head 
over a 'strand of mysticism' in the work of Breton and his friends."

You can find an altogether touching description of how the two engaged 
with each other in Breton's account of his visit with Trotsky in 
Rosemont's book. They are discussing "objective chance," a key element 
of surrealist ideology. It is not easy to capture in words, but it deals 
with serendipitous and unpredictable moments when incongruous elements 
encountered in everyday life combine together to produce a kind of 
mystical insight, like in a waking dream. Here is Breton's account of 
their discussion:

At other times he took up this or that concept which he considered 
worthy of putting before me, submitting it to a sharp critique. He thus 
said one day: 'Comrade Breton, your interest in phenomena of objective 
chance does not appear clear to me. Yes, I know well that Engels 
referred to this notion, but I ask myself if, in your case, it isn't 
something else. I am not sure you aren't interested in keeping open [his 
hands described a little space in the air] a little window on the beyond.'

"I hadn't finished defending my position when he reproved me: 'I'm not 
convinced. Elsewhere, you have written something - oh yes, that these 
phenomena present characteristics disturbing to you.'

'Pardon me,' I replied, 'I wrote "disturbing in the present state of 
knowledge". Would you like to look it up?'

He looked up a little nervously, took a few steps, and turned back to 
me. 'If you said "in the present state of knowledge", I see nothing more 
to argue about. I withdraw my objection.'



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