January 10, 2021
January 10, 2021


“Our aims:
The independence of art – for the revolution.
The revolution – for the complete liberation of art!”
Breton, Rivera, Trotsky, Manifesto: Towards a Free Revolutionary Art1


In 1938, André Breton, Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky co-authored Manifesto: Towards a Free Revolutionary Art. Whilst rejecting both Fascism and Stalinism, the manifesto declared that the true “communist revolution is not afraid of art.”2 Drawing upon Marx’s defence of the freedom of the press and his defence of writing as an “end in itself”3, these writers called both for a free art for the revolution and a revolution for the arts. On the one hand, these writers, like Marx himself, could be seen as defending a version of the aestheticist motto “art for art sake”. Art and writing should not be treated as a means, neither a means to make money, nor mere subservience to a political regime. This is not to suggest that the artist does not need money in order to make art, nor that the art would not have revolutionary ambitions, rather the mistake these writers were attacking was the way these priorities were reversed. Breton, Rivera and Trotsky write that “the artist cannot serve the struggle for freedom unless he subjectively assimilates its social content, unless he feels in his very nerves its meaning and drama and freely seeks to give his own inner world incarnation in his art.”4 An artist can serve the revolution only through their own subjectivity, but they serve it nonetheless. Likewise, the true revolution serves the artist by creating a world of emancipatory freedom; a form of freedom that makes possible the artistic life.

André Breton, Diego Rivera, Leon Trotsky and Jacqueline Lamba

That the French Surrealist Breton, the Mexican muralist Rivera and Russian Revolutionary Trotsky would find themselves together in Mexico penning a manifesto for a free revolutionary art was testament to the way revolutionary ideas about art were travelling across the globe. Although the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) had preceded the Russian one (1917) and had not been a Marxist revolution, post-revolutionary Mexican artists such as Rivera, Kahlo, Siqueiros and Modotti each joined the Mexican Communist Party (PCM) during the 1920s and had attempted to develop their own approach to Marxist politics.5 Breton, as Max McNally notes later, would play a controversial role within the Surrealist movement, strongly linking the Surrealist movement to the proletarian struggle. As a French artist, Breton could be seen as coming from a long French tradition of revolutionary politics and avant-garde art in France. Trotsky, although primarily a political figure who had prioritised “the economic problem”, in his Literature and Revolution in 1924 he had declared that “the development of art is the highest test of the vitality and significance of each epoch.”6 Taken together these three figures were testament to a political idea of the avant-garde, which, whilst different in different countries, drew from each other and adapted concurrent ideas for their own context.
These visions of the relationship between the artist and the revolutionary should be situated in a long history of cultural revolutions. Cultural revolutions have often played an important role in political revolutions, and political revolutions have often required cultural revolutions. Yet, arguably the 1789 French Revolution saw a key shift in the relationship between art and revolution. To understand this shift it is tempting to compare the French Revolutions to the English ones. The 17th Century English Revolutionary period was also a cultural revolution, yet the question was not so much a question of art, but a question of religion. This is not to deny a particular intoxicating frenzy of ideas common in revolutionary periods, but rather that the Seekers, Quakers, Ranters and Diggers expressed their cultural revolution as a religious one, their main medium being the pamphlet.7
In the French Revolution the question of art was more pronounced. Prior to the revolution, Jacques-Louis David had declared that the artist “must be a philosopher”8. This statement should be set against a context where painters were often seen as lower class, their work having too many connotations of manual labour to be bestowed the esteem granted to men of letters. The French Revolution offered David the opportunity to demonstrate the utter falsehood of this. Throughout the revolution David would demonstrate the artist as a kind of vanguard who, through art, would shape the revolution. His philosophical influence in doing this was the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau was a proto-socialist thinker and defender of direct democracy, who attacked the idea of political representatives in the name of a participatory practice grounded in the general will.9 Such a participatory democracy would not be possible without creating the right kind of citizens, to this end Rousseau proposed the creation of a civil religion10, which, unlike the Christian religion that only created slaves, would create the condition for the virtues needed for the new republic. In advocating radical participation, Rousseau drew his ire against the theatre. For Rousseau, the theatre required passive reception, not active engagement. Against the theatre, Rousseau turned to the participatory dynamics of carnival and festivals.11

The Festival of the Supreme Being, June 1794

In the French Revolution, the construction of religious festivals such as the Festival of Reason and the Festival of the Supreme Being took on an artistic flare, deploying methods often associated with 20th century modernism, but also drawing upon and developing Rousseau’s ideas. For artists like David, the painter and pageant master of the revolution, the French Revolution offered an opportunity to redefine art and the role of the artist.12
This re-evaluation of the role of the artist would have radical implications for our understanding of art, not least for the emergence of the term “avant-garde” in relation to art. Originally a military term, and no-doubt made relevant through the republican army’s defence against foreign invasion, and later Bonaparte’s wars, designated the front line of the attack. The first known usage of the term in relation to art was used by Léon Halévy and Saint-Simon, who imagined a society no longer organised in the interest of the aristocracy and clergy. Instead they looked forward to an age where the scientist, artist and industrialist would organise society. Of the three figures, the artist would be the avant-garde and stand at the forefront stirring the sentiments of the people. The artist was the vanguard precisely because they addressed themselves “to man’s imagination and sentiments” and hence were “always bound to have the sharpest and most decisive effect…”13

The Paris Commune, 1871

Such a description could easily bring to mind Jacques-Louis David, who literally undertook such a role in the French Revolution, but it needn’t be limited to him. It could be applied to artists and writers such as Gustave Courbet and Élisée Reclus, who were both present at the Paris commune of 1871, where workers and artisans of Paris took over the city and ran it themselves in the spirit of democratic and libertarian socialism for two months before being bloodily repressed. The Paris Commune would seek to reinvent and democratise the arts, freed from the Salons and used to transform the city so all could enjoy its delights. The federation of artists would call for “the birth of communal luxury, future splendors and the Universal Republic.”14 Art, through the Paris Commune, was transformed into something communal that provided luxury not only for the aristocracy or the bourgeois, but for the whole community. Embodying this spirit, the communard Reclus would later write,
“Ah, if the painters and sculptors were free, there would be no need for them to shut themselves up in Salons. They would have but to reconstruct our cities, first demolishing these ignoble cubes of stone where human beings are piled up, rich and poor, the beggar and the pompous millionaire, starvelings and satiated, victims and hangmen. They would burn all the old barracks of the times of misery in an immense fire of joy, and I imagine that in the museums of works to be preserved, they would not leave very much of the pretended artistic work of our time.”15
Caught somewhere between iconoclastic anti-art on the one hand, and the democratisation of art for the city on the other, the artists of the Paris Commune would embody a number of strands taken up by future avant-gardist movements. As Kristen Ross notes,
“The workers that occupied the Hôtel de Ville, or who tore down the Vendôme Column were not ‘at home’ in the centre of Paris: they were occupying enemy territory, the circumscribed proper place of the dominant order. Such an occupation, however brief, provided an example of what the situationists have called détournement―using elements or terrain of the dominant social order to one’s own ends, for a transformative purpose. Integrating actual or past productions into a superior construction or milieu. Détournement has no other place, but the place of the other; it plays on imposed terrain and its tactics are determined by the absence of a ‘proper place’. Thus, the détournement of churches: using them to hold meetings for women’s clubs or workers organisations. Détournement is no mere surrealist or arbitrary juxtaposition of conflicting codes, its aim, at once serious and ludic, is to strip false meaning and false value from the original.”16
Ross’s description of détournement draws out the deep intertwinement of revolutionary praxis and avant-garde art methods. The practice of détournement links the activity of the Situationist International of the 1960s with the Paris Commune of 1871. Yet it also brings to mind the Cult of Reason’s transformation of Notre Dame in 1793. The practice of détournement also bears similarities with the resistance of colonised people to their colonisers. In fact, the concept of colonisation is extended to the proletariat, who are themselves, never really “at home in their city.” Their attempt to make ‘true’ art, or reclaim the city, always involves an act of subversion― of taking over the territory and transforming it. Here avant-gardism is reunited with its military connotations: the fight against an occupied territory.

Aleksandr Rodchenko, Krisis, 1923

The Russian Revolution of 1917 was accompanied by an array of different cultural experiments in an array of disciplines. The Proletkult movement, especially as embodied in the thought of Bogdanov, attempted to foster the workers as a kind of intellectual and artist vanguard capable of guiding the revolution. For Bogdanov this was linked to his philosophy of science, science fiction writing and attempt to develop a form of co-operative collectivism emerging from the workers themselves. Unlike Lenin who emphasised the party as vanguard, for Bogdanov the workers themselves were the vanguard. Conditioned by the collaborative context of the factory, the workers had, in pregnant form, a radical understanding of collectivism that would be necessary for a genuine transition to socialism.17 Through the proletkult movement, workers would themselves participate in the creation of a new culture. Not only constructing art, including applied arts, theatre and music, but also publication, instruction, science, youth, finance, and liaison with Narkompros.18 Through the proletkult movement Bogdanov sought to aid the worker in the process of constructing a new vision for a new world. Lunarcarsky’s interest in culture building also drew from religion, attempting to explore the essence of religion that, for him, was embodied in social bonds and could be achieved without having to appeal to the mysticism of religion.19 Writers such as Alexandra Kollontai would advocate radical ideas on gender and sexual liberation.20 Communalist movements would experiment with new forms of social organisation challenging notions of family, domestic organisation and daily routines.21 In urban planning ideas of total urbanisation, anti-urbanism and disurbanism challenged, in very different ways, the relationship between the city and the countryside.22 In the arts, movements such as Constructivism, Futurism and Suprematism, and artists such as Tatlin, Lissitzky, Rodchenko, Malevich, Meyerhold, Vertov (etc.) challenged conventions of art and design and shaped new visions for Russia’s (and the world’s) future.23 Key to this were new ideas about time, coming from Frederick Winslow Taylor, who attempted to speed up capitalist production, and Nikolai Federov, who hoped to overcome death, raise the dead and colonise space. Attempting to synthesise these different strands, writers like Alexander Konstantinovich Gorsky, Nikolai Alexandrovich Setnitsky, Valerian Nikolaevich Muravyov, Alexei Gastev, Vsevolod Meyerhold and Vasily Nikolaevich Chekrygin would develop new ways of thinking about time.24 It is not surprising, therefore, that all these innovations would be a futile ground for a wave of utopian science fiction writings, which challenged notions of economy, temporality, urban design, gender, sexuality, social organisation and the future. As Richard Stites notes, “the Revolution was the launching pad for utopian science fiction.”25 It wasn’t just that the revolution inspired science fiction, but that, from a particular lived experience, the Russian Revolution had become science fiction itself. Stites writes,
“It is no exaggeration to say that almost the entire culture of the Revolution in its early years was ‘utopian’. All the arts were suffused with technological fantasy and future speculations: Constructivist art, experimental film, “rationalist” architecture, Biomechanics, machine music, engineerism, and many other currents. Had the artists of these schools possessed power, resources, and consensus, they would have tried to transform Soviet Russia immediately into a physical utopia of modern cities of glass and steel, inhabited by functionally dressed citizens who would be treated to Constructivist and Futurist culture.”26

Monument to commemorate the Third International by Vladimir Tatlin, 1919 – 1920

It was precisely the way that the Russian Revolution was simultaneously a political revolution and an industrial revolution that would imbue it with utopian and sci-fi characteristics. If the Bolsheviks themselves often had a suspicion of utopianism, this did not prevent (until the 30s at least), thoroughgoing experiments in everyday life.
Such experimental fusions of art and politics would provide inspiration to other countries. Most especially in Mexico (as discussed above) and Germany. Both countries were experiencing their own revolutions and developing their own paths. Emerging amidst revolutionary struggle, German Dadaism was often the most radically political of the Dadaist movements. From its inception Dada had embraced artistic rebellion, provocation, nonsense, satire, absurdity, play and the fusing of high and low art. Early pieces by Dadaist artists often explored and celebrated themes of insanity, violence and sexuality. Inspired by the incarceration of the radical psychoanalyst Otto Gross as a “mentally ill anarchist”, the psychological effect of the war, and the absurd authoritarianism of Weimar Germany, these artists played with ideas of insanity.27 Franz Jung’s novel Der Fall Grosz (The Grosz Case, 1917) and George Grosz’s Krawall der Irren (The Riot of the Insane, 1917) both took questions of insanity as their central theme in a manner that commented on both the absurd (supposedly ‘sane’) world in which they lived, and the parallel persecution of the insane. These early works were often political, but not with a capital ‘P’. They agitated for a new form of art, a new form of rebellion and a new form of life.

George Grosz, The Riot of the Insane, 1917

Officially launching German Dadaism in 1918, Richard Huelsenbeck and the signatories of the First German Dada Manifesto raised Dada as a battlecry, in part against expressionists who had “found their way back to the abstract, pathetic gestures which presupposed a comfortable life free from content or strife.”28 Instead, Dada was “the international expression of our times, the great rebellion of artistic movements.”29 Here Dada still seemed to be primarily calling for a form of artistic rebellion that challenged everyday life, yet as the revolution gained pace Dada began to move away from a focus on art and insanity and into a more overtly political direction. Founded in December 1918, the German Communist Party (KPD) attracted artists such as George Grosz, Wieland Hertzfelde, John Heartfield, Franz Jung and Erwin Piscator in early 1919. In their 1919 manifesto “What is Dadaism and what does it want in Germany?”, Richard Huelsenbeck and Raoul Hausmann aligned Dadaism with radical Communism, calling for the “introduction of progressive unemployment through comprehensive mechanisation of every field”, the “communal feeding of all” and the “erection of cities of light, and gardens which belong to society as a whole and prepare man for a state of freedom.”30
Just as with David, the communards and constructivists, Dadaists imagined art liberated from art institutions and used to transform the city in the service of all. This was the transformation of art into something participatory that all could engage in. In March 1919, Alexander Bogdanov’s Die Kunst und das Proletariat (Art and the Proletariat) was translated into German. As Barbara McCloskey notes, Bogdanov’s ideas were politically important to these radically politicised Dadaists in both providing a “fundamentally anti-authoritarian” approach to culture, “emerging from the workers themselves” and also a “wholesale rejection of bourgeois culture.”31 Whilst Dadaists often blurred the distinction between high and low art, and promoted the idea that anyone could make art, it was Piscator’s proletarian theatre that would “transform workers from passive consumers of entertainment into active producers of political meaning.”32 Sharing affinities with Rosa Luxembourg’s defence of radical democracy, worker councils and the general strike, Dadaism’s synthesis with proletkultist ideas enabled them to think through radical ideas of art, participation and its relation to the class struggle. In this respect, Dadaists took from the Russian avant-garde, never merely copying it, but adapting it for their own context.
Through the history of French Revolutionary art, Russian Constructivism, Mexican Muralism and German Dadaism, we see the development of a political idea of avant-garde art and the avant-garde artist. In all these examples, the artist emerges as a kind of political vanguard, stirring the sentiments and imagination, building a creative vision of a new society and constructing it in the lived environment. The avant-garde, in this sense, was intimately bound up with the idea of revolution. It was a process of upheavals and intertwining stories that spread across countries and continents, each adapting from the previous and creating an ‘avant-garde’ suited to their own time and own context.


1 Breton, Rivera, Trotsky, Manifesto: Towards a Free Revolutionary Art (1938) (
2 Ibid.
3 Also see Marx, On the Freedom of the Press (
4 Breton, Rivera, Trotsky, Manifesto: Towards a Free Revolutionary Art (1938)
5 See Stephanie J. Smith, The Power and Politics of Art in Postrevolutionary Mexico (University of North Carolina Press, 2017)
6 Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (
7 See Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (Penguin, Middlesex, 1972)
8 Jacques-Louis David quoted in Simon Lee, David (Phaidon, London, 1999) p.6
9 “Sovereignty cannot be represented, for the same reason that it cannot be alienated. It consists essentially in the general will, and will cannot be represented: it is the same or it is other ― there is no middle ground. Hence, the deputies of the people are not and cannot be its representatives; they are merely its agents, who cannot conclude anything definitively. Any law that the people has not ratified in person is null; it is no law at all.” Jean Jacques Rousseau, “Of the Social Contract” in Of The Social Contract and Other Political Writings, ed. Christopher Bertram, trans. Quintin Hoare (Penguin Books, London, 2012) p.92
10 Rousseau, “Of the Social Contract” p.126
11 Jean Jacques Rousseau, “On Theatre and Morals”, in The Portable Enlightenment Reader, ed. Isaac Tramnick (Penguin Books, London, 1995) p.334
12 According to Rousseau “People imagine themselves in company at the theatre, but it is there that everyone is alone. We repair thither to forget our relations, our friends, our neighbors; to interest ourselves in fabulous representations, to mourn over the imaginary misfortunes of the dead, or to laugh at the expense of the living.” (p. 334). In contrast he tells us to “let the spectators become an entertainment to themselves; make them actors themselves; do it so that each sees and loves himself in the others so that all will be better united.” (p.336) Jean Jacques Rousseau, “On Theatre and Morals”, in The Portable Enlightenment Reader, ed. Isaac Tramnick (Penguin Books, London, 1995) p.334
13 Saint-Simon and Léon Halévy, “The Artist, the Scientist, and the Industrialist: Dialogue”, in Henri Saint-Simon 1760-1825 Selected Writings on Science, Industry and Social Organisation, trans. & ed. Keith Taylor (Croom helm Lmt, London, 1975) p.281
14 Quoted in Donny Gluckstein, The Paris Commune: A Revolution in Democracy (Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2011) p.33. Also see
15 Élisée Reclus, Art and the People (,_Elisee_-_Art_and_the_people.html)
16 Kristen Ross, The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune (Verso, London, 2008) p.42
17 See Zenova A. Sochor, Revolution and Culture: The Bogdanov-Lenin Controversy (Cornell University Press, New York, 1988) especially pp.125-157
18 Sochor, Revolution and Culture: The Bogdanov-Lenin Controversy, p.128
19 See Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (Oxford University Press, New York, 1989) p.102
20 Alexandra Kollontai, “Make way for the Winged Eros”
21 Richard Stites, ‘Chapter 10: Utopa in Life: The Communal Movement’ in Revolutionary Dreams, p.205-222
22 Richard Stites, ‘Chapter 9: Utopia in Space: City and Building’ in Revolutionary Dreams, p.190-204
23 See Camilla Gray, The Russian Experiment in Art: 1863-1922 (Thames & Hudson, London, 1971/1986) pp.244-276
24 See Stites, ‘Chapter 7. Man the Machine’ in Revolutionary Dreams, pp.145-164, and George M. Young, ‘Chapter 11: Fedorov’s Twentieth-Century Followers’ in The Russian Cosmists: The Esoteric Futurism of Nikolai Federov and his followers (Oxford University Press, New York, 2012) p.193-218
25 Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams, p.172
26 Ibid.
27 See Barbara McCloskey, George Grosz and the Communist Party: Art and Radicalism in Crisis, 1918 to 1936 (Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1997) p.11-47
28 Richard Huelsenbeck, ‘First German Dadaist Manifesto’ (1918) in 100 Artists’ Manifestos: From the Futurists to the Stuckists, ed. Alex Danchev (Penguin Classics, 2011) p.147
29 Huelsenbeck, ‘First German Dadaist Manifesto’, p.148
30 Richard Huelsenbeck and Raoul Hausmann ‘What is Dadaism and what does it want in Germany?’ (1919) in 100 Artists’ Manifestos: From the Futurists to the Stuckists, ed. Alex Danchev (Penguin Classics, 2011) p.157-8
31 McCloskey, George Grosz and the Communist Party: Art and Radicalism in Crisis, 1918 to 1936, p.59
32 McCloskey, George Grosz and the Communist Party: Art and Radicalism in Crisis, 1918 to 1936, p.62


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