The dialectic on trial in Manhattan

Meyer Schapiro (1904-1996) was an extremely important historian and theorist of art who specialized in Romanesque architecture. Schapiro was also a highly independent Marxist thinker and frequently wrote on politics throughout his long career. Among his most important contributions in this area were his interventions in defense of the revolutionary internationalist position on World War II, in the pages of Partisan Review and elsewhere (Alan Wald sketches the outline of this debate in his book The New York Intellectuals). Schapiro’s writings may be in line for a long-overdue revival now that the Getty Institute has published Meyer Schapiro abroad: Letters to Lillian and travel notebooks.

The text that follows is an excerpt from an interview with Schapiro that appeared in the Oxford Art Journal in 1994. Towards the end of a long and fascinating discussion with James Thompson and Susan Raines, Schapiro describes a debate he organized with André Breton, in which the dialectic itself was placed on trial. The date is not mentioned, but Breton arrived in New York in 1941 and after extensive travels in the U.S. and Canada, returned to France in 1946.

Schapiro was no stranger to debates over Marxism and philosophy, as New York in the 1930s and 1940s was the epicenter of attacks on dialectics from philosophers such as Sidney Hook and James Burnham. While politically opposed to Hook and Burnham, Schapiro evidently shares with them a strong ambivalence about what he calls here, “dialectical materialism.”

All I will say is that an appeal is in order, because the accused was poorly represented. Clearly, neither van Heijenoort, the Trotskyist, nor Calas, the Surrealist, was up to the task assigned to him. One wishes that Breton, to whom Schapiro, more than fifty years later, apparently still bears some hostile feelings, would have participated in the defense against the distortions of the dialectic by the official Communists on one hand and the attack by the logical positivist Ayer on the other.

Schapiro’s claim that Breton “made no allusion” to dialectics after this event is not accurate. If one reads the “Prolegomena to a Third Surrealist Manifesto, or Not,” or Arcanum 17, both of which were both written around this time, one is confronted with a profound sense of objective intellectual crisis. In my opinion, Breton is to be credited with not shirking from the problems of human cognition posed by the war. It can be argued that Breton’s turn toward Charles Fourier at this time is a highly individualistic effort to continue an engagement with dialectical thinking in the face of this crisis. In fact, in the interview with Jean Duché (1946) cited in an earlier post, Breton says, “Engels said [Fourier], ‘handled dialectics with as much power as his contemporary Hegel’.” (Whether Engels should be considered as authoritative on philosophy is a question for another time.)

The three notes in this piece are by the interviewers. It should be mentioned that in addition to his books on mathematics, van Heijenoort is the author of With Trotsky in exile, a fascinating memoir I highly recommend. Calas is the author of numerous books on art, in addition to being a contributor to Surrealism: pro and con.


James Thompson: Did you have much contact with Trotsky?

Meyer Schapiro: Not long before he was murdered, Trotsky wrote to me—in anticipation of Andre Breton’s visit to Mexico—asking me to send him some of Breton’s writings so he could read them before he came. They were sent through his secretary Jean van Heijenoort, who was once involved with me in a debate Breton organized.

James Thompson: What debate wast that?

Meyer Schapiro: It was on the term ‘dialectical materialism’. Breton was always using the phrase, and I said I thought the concept had some merit, but was being over-used in a dogmatic way. And, employed as an infallible key to decide on political issues, it was impossible. It had some merit in Hegel’s philosophy as a materialistic aspect combined with the idealistic one, in a dialectic, as a mode of thought. Breton had broken with the Communist party some years before, he was condemned by the Russians for all sorts of heresies. He had a following among the poets and painters who respected his ideas, except for Aragon and a few others. I got to know Breton when he came to the United States, almost from the time of his arrival. He rented an apartment less than a block away from me in the city on 11th Street, near the corner of West 4th Street. We lived across the street. We discussed things very often. He was glad to have someone with whom he could talk in French, so we saw him fairly constantly.

Breton was shocked that I did not believe that dialectical materialism was an adequate philosophy on which to ground theoretical and practical issues. It worked as a way of expressing concepts through the model of dialogue between people of opposing views, so that they would sooner or later generate an approach which would reveal certain aspects of the problems which could be grounds for criticism of idealistic views; that’s all I would accept. But the idea that there was a formula, the three terms and the logic of dialectic different from the logic of more practical theory, that was a mode of speculation—the official character of dialectical materialism in Russia and in the parties in Europe and in America—such factors were an obstacle to any clear thinking on these matters.

So, when we had an argument about dialectical materialism, I proposed that he would choose people to defend it and I would select two or three for my side. I chose the logician and philosopher Ernest Nagel, a very dear friend of mine. He was at Columbia, a great teacher as well as logician. A. J. Ayer was in New York, working for the British Government in their information bureau. Breton choose Jean van Heijenoort, (1) who was the last secretary of Trotsky, a man who had a philosophical and mathematical education and who wrote on logic — that excellent book which is a collection of the most important essays on modern symbolic logic — and he also chose a Greek poet named Nicolas Calas, a man who adored Breton and followed him everywhere. We met in Breton’s apartment, with Breton positioned like King Solomon in a higher chair. We sat around, disposed below. Breton was a very mild person, but he not only sat higher, he also talked with an air of authority, with that great leonine head. He said he would hear both sides; he wasn’t going to say anything until it was all over. No one else was there.

We carried on for an evening, in the course of which criticisms were offered by Ayer and myself and Nagel. Nagel put questions to van Heijenoort to answer. No one addressed any questions to Calas, who simply spluttered. He spoke with dogmatic authority; but when asked, ‘How would you justify it?’,’ What are the grounds for believing that?’, or,’Is that consistent with such and such that you expressed before?’, was helpless. Van Heijenoort, when asked several such questions, said, ‘I’m sorry, but I’ve never really thought about that aspect. I regret it, but I really don’t know.’ He opted out, and within a few months he broke completely with that approach and with his communist friends. (2) He became a graduate student at NYU to complete his doctor’s degree that he’d worked on in France (he came from the Belgium part, Flemish France). During the debate Breton said not a word.

James Thompson: I’m not surprised, confronted with your titanic trio.

Meyer Schapiro: It finished when van Heijenoort was unable to answer, and poor Nicolas Calas was left to himself. Afterward Breton made no allusion to the phrase in his writing anymore. All his previous writings which were not strictly poetic had had some reference to dialectical materialism, and he had condemned people because they were not ‘dialectical’. It also disappeared from the vocabulary of Surrealism. Van Heijenoort did a doctorate in mathematics. He wrote a thesis which turned out to have already been presented and carried through logically by another mathematician in Europe, but since he had presented the outline of his ideas earlier, they made an exception and granted him a doctorate. As far as I know, he never did any further original work in mathematics or logic. He did all sorts of odd jobs. He died in California. (3) He became active among the painters and artists. He lectured on the artist’s viewpoint toward modern logic and philosophy to a circle that met in the East Village during the 1940s.


1. Jean van Heijenoort (1912-87) became Trotsky’s secretary in 1932 and was with him intermittently until January 1937, when both he and Trotsky went into exile in Mexico. He was in the U.S. in 1940 when Trotsky was murdered. From 1950-64, he was Professor of Mathematics at New York University, and from 1965-77 at Brandeis University.

2. Van Heijenoort did not break with Trotskyism and Bolshevism until 1948. For a fine overview of his career both as a revolutionary and a mathematician, see Alexander Buchman, ‘Van Heijenoort Remembered’, Against the Current, nos. 12-13, Jan.-April 1988, pp. 57-8.

3. Van Heijenoort, who received his Ph.D. in 1939 from New York University, wrote several important books on mathematics and logic, including From Frege to Goedel. A Source Book in Mathematical Logic (Harvard,1937), and died in Mexico City.


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