An anticolonial consciousness : surrealism, marxism, and colonialism in interwar France.


Michael King

Date of Award


Document Type



Caspersen School of Graduate Studies

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


The historiography of interwar surrealism demonstrates that as part of the movement's revolt against the intellectual, cultural, and political categories that defined Western civilization, the surrealists embraced both Marxism and anticolonialism. This study argues that the existing literature on surrealism has maintained an interpretive divide between surrealist Marxism and anticolonialism that obscures the decisive interplay between these elements of the movement's political project during the interwar period. As a result of this separation, scholars have failed to account properly for why the movement first turned to Marxism and they have offered an overly simplistic understanding of surrealist anticolonialism, construing it as a simple inversion of the fallacy of French cultural superiority that proponents of colonialism championed to legitimize the colonial system. This study brings together these two strands of the historiography to overcome the failings of each. Relying on an examination of the political texts and images produced by the surrealists, drawing largely on the official periodicals La Revolution surrealiste and Le Surrealisme au service de la revolution, this study shows that the movement's anticolonialism was not an outgrowth of its Marxism, but rather that an anticolonial impetus actually motivated surrealism's engagement with Marxist politics and the French Communist Party. This commitment to Marxism endured even after the movement's alliance with the PCF collapsed in the early 1930s, but these changes in the movement's relationship to Marxism generated important revisions to surrealist anticolonialism, which this study reconstructs. Thus this reappraisal of the relationship between surrealist anticolonialism and Marxism shows that the true nature of the surrealist project and its influence on broader interwar debates about colonialism, communism, and the role of art in society can be uncovered only when these elements of the movement's political agenda are understood in tandem. [Note: 1919-1938 are generally considered France's interwar years].