Surrealism encompassed an anti-work philosophy that’s as relevant today as it was 100 years ago, writes historian Abigail Susik
Forget the idea of surrealism as a parade of melting watches, rapier-sharp moustaches, and photographs of nude violin-women that now fetch millions of dollars on the auction block. In a world of steadily mounting inflation, debt, and seething anti-work sentiment, surrealism has more relevant things to show us.
Surrealism was in fact a resounding call to revolutionary consciousness with the potential to transform the world and change life for the better. This is the side of surrealism that is not so easy to display on a museum wall.
Briefly put, they waged a war on work. A century ago, a group of young French poets emerged from service in World War I. There were plenty of jobs available, but these young workers didn’t want to sign up. For many workers, the pay was too low, the hours were bad, and there were no benefits of which to speak. French workers across sectors were striking intensively, fighting for shorter hours, a shorter week, and above all, higher wages.
The surrealists responded by staging their own kind of strike: a lifetime of wage labour refusal.
Although most of the Parisian surrealists needed to work at least part-time to survive, most of them strove for shades of financial autonomy through gigging and precarious employment, and above all refusing work for a regular wage.
As poets and writers, members of what we now often call the “creative class”, they knew that the products of their intellectual labour were outrageously devalued in the market system, even though this exploitation was nothing compared to what workers on the factory floor faced.
They sought ways to organise, unionise, and build autonomy for artists and writers alongside the solidarity that they declared for proletarian workers on the factory line. As early as 1925, they experimented with the idea of the art strike, in which the art-worker withholds production and withdraws their “works” from the system of commodity exchange.
They were expert dropouts. André Breton and Louis Aragon, both veterans of the war who collaboratively fostered the surrealist brainchild with their friends, quit medical school. Once the young Jacques-André Boiffard started studying surrealist photography with Man Ray in 1924, he halted his medical studies, too.
Poet Philippe Soupault eventually managed to wriggle out of his legal studies, and as did another writer, René Crevel. Man Ray abandoned the family tailoring trade in Brooklyn, never looking back, and successfully supported himself with commercial photography gigs.
The surrealists turned down offers of cushy editorial positions at literary magazines with a lifted middle finger. The struggle to get by without a regular wage was a hardship for many, but in a pre-gentrified post-war Paris, it was an achievable goal. The shared ethos bolstered morale, and friendships often supported communal living situations.
Surrealists wanted to totally reimagine the role of work in modern life. They did so by spending copious amounts of time reading, writing, talking, drinking, and smoking, in cheap Parisian cafes where they could loiter on a dime.
In 1925, they declared a collective war on work. They began to advocate for the idea of wage labour abolitionism. They were anti-capitalists who, ahead of their time, imagined a post-work world.
It wasn’t the activity of creative work as such that the surrealists decried – the surrealists were constantly churning out artworks, texts, and collaborative events. It was working for the boss, selling bodily labour and the hours of one’s day which, they maintained, were social evils.
They opposed capitalism’s system of wage earning as a means of survival and deplored the colonialist oppression of people all over the world.
“There is no question of not making every effort to safeguard our imprescriptible rights not to work,” wrote surrealist André Thirion in 1929 in his magazine essay “Down with Work!”
“Human laziness is continually trampled underfoot by the need to work for the sole purpose of maintaining one’s own existence,” he continued.
Thirion predicted the likelihood of future violent revolutions by dehumanized workers and railed against the widespread ethos of workaholism. Humans can never escape from the reality of work, he agreed, and yet why should a lifetime of imprisonment in miserable wage labour be the measure of a human life span?
“And that’s why we say merde to those who would be ashamed to be the bad workers under this regime, merde to those who despise the temporarily unemployed … merde for them and all the counter-revolutionaries and their miserable idol, WORK,” Thirion exclaimed.
A few months after “Down with Work!” appeared, Thirion’s essay “Notes on Money” was published in the journal La Révolution surréaliste (Surrealist Revolution). Thirion’s new diatribe argued that money was a primary agent of exploitation. The compulsory act of earning money by trading one’s labour as a commodity and achieving accumulated wealth for the capitalist class is tantamount to collusion with those in power.
“Not content with reducing almost all human beings to work, it [the capitalist class] steals from workers the ridiculous value it attributes to this work, enriching itself in the act and leaving its workers only the promise of recommencing their exhausting labours the following day,” Thirion raged.
And André Breton exposed terrible working conditions at Renault. In the pamphlet Aux neuf assassinés (To the Nine Who Were Assassinated), published on 8 February 1933, he told a horrifying story.
An outdated boiler had exploded in a Renault factory in the western suburbs of Paris, killing nine and wounding roughly two hundred. Breton’s essay was titled “M. Renault Is Very Concerned”.
“Here is a man,” wrote Breton, “who exploits twenty thousand at salaries that can be as low as a franc an hour for women…. One day, in shop 180, a worker has her hair torn out by a drilling machine. In No. 5, a worker is electrocuted. In No. 3, another has two fingers chopped off … A simple accident – right?”
By the end of the Second World War, more surrealists around the world, far beyond Paris, were beginning to explore alternate utopian socialist and anarchist ideas of speculative futures and envisioned horizons for classless societies.
During the 1960s, a young group of anti-war and Civil Rights activists formed the Chicago surrealist group, and their renewed demand for a transformation of work went hand in hand with their call for the downfall of racist America.
The Chicago group is still active today, as are a number of surrealist groups in far-flung locations. A collection of Chicago surrealist pamphlets and posters are included in the current Tate “Surrealism Beyond Borders” exhibition, where you can see evidence of their own anti-wage labour struggle.
At the turn of the new millennium, Chicago surrealist Penelope Rosemont wrote, “To be effective, the struggle to abolish work must become conscious, vocal, public, organised, and international.”
Surrealists today are still fighting for a world in which work and pleasure are united.
Abigail Susik is the author of Surrealist Sabotage and the War on Work (Manchester University Press, 2021) and co-editor of Radical Dreams: Surrealism, Counterculture, Resistance (Penn State University Press, 2022).
This feature appears in the current issue of the Idler (May-June 2022) – out now.
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