Did anarchism influence the Dadaists?


In this essay I shall assess the claim that anarchism influenced the Dada movement and see how appropriate it would be to refer to it as an 'anarchist' movement. I shall begin with a loose definition of the ideology that we can then apply to the art movement.

Contemporary anarchist intellectual, Noam Chomsky provides a coherent definition of anarchism, without being too restrictive, in an attempt to do justice to the nature of the ideology. He typifies Anarchism as 'skepticism towards authority':

Anarchism is… a kind of tendency in human thought which shows up in different forms in different circumstances, and has some leading characteristics. Primarily it is a tendency that is suspicious and skeptical of domination, authority, and hierarchy (Wilson, Chomsky, and Success, 2013).

This provides us with a loose umbrella definition from which we can then cover the diverse and disparate developments of anarchism underneath. These different 'trends' vary radically — from the ego-driven individualist anarchism of Max Stirner (Stirner, 2007), to the collective mutual aid of Kropotkin's anarcho-communism (Kropotkin, 2002) and beyond. This also perfectly illustrates how anarchism stands outside of the conventional left — right political dichotomy, which has come to shape our understanding of politics in the modern age. I would assert that it is much more apolitical. As Chomsky continues:

[Anarchism] assumes that the burden of proof for anyone in a position of power and authority lies on them. Their authority is not self-justifying. They have to give a reason for it, a justification. And if they can't justify that authority and power and control, which is the usual case, then the authority ought to be dismantled and replaced by something more free and just. (Wilson, Chomsky, and Success, 2013)

This is not a call in itself for a complete destruction of all facets of civilization, just an assertion that nothing should be deemed so sanctified that it is free from questioning. If we can take an incredibly broad definition of right wing politics as valuing liberty over equality, and left wing politics as being the reversal of that polarity then we can begin to address anarchism as evidently 'apolitical'. Generally speaking, Anarchism asserts that by destroying and dismantling oppressive and unnecessary institutions (for example 'the state') to ensure greater personal liberties, equality and horizontal cooperatives based on free associations, would naturally arise (an example of what scientists, anthropologists and economists call 'spontaneous order'). However, anarchism is generally considered a radical 'left' ideology most likely because of its widespread insistence (There are a few exceptions) that private property is despotic, tyrannical and unnecessary — (made evident in Proudhon's famous declaration “property is theft”) (Proudhon, 1994 p.34).

Despite being considered a politically radical ideology, It is worth mentioning that there are many great artists and writers that were also noteworthy anarchists in our mainstream cultural pantheon; From Oscar Wilde's adoration of Kropotkin's theories (Wilde, 2001) to the Christian anarchism of Leo Tolstoy (Tolstoy, 2009) and the anarchic sympathies of Henry David Thoreau (Thoreau, 2000) — Anarchism has always had its fair share of representatives in our collected consciousness. They even date back to the ancient Chinese dynasty; Zhuangzi wrote “A petty thief is put in jail. A great brigand becomes a ruler of a Nation.” (Ludwig, 2012) With this proclamation he establishes the tradition of skepticism towards state power, which becomes anarchism's biggest theme. It is entirely plausible, then that such an age-old philosophy could very well have influenced the anti-establishment, anti-war and anti-bourgeois art of the Dadaists.

Now that we have a loose framework to appeal to we can begin the analysis. The First World War became a catalyst for critical activity; through its senseless violence and bloodshed it exposed the chaotic and valueless nature inherent to existence. This greatly undermined the prevailing value systems of the time and by extension the dominant institutions that espoused them. The Dadaists were driven by a destabilizing and destructive ethos in regards to society, which they believed had become illegitimate after suffering the irreparable damage of the First World War. This is evident in Louis Aragon's “Dada Manifesto,” which reads as an intense negation of all western values: “No more bourgeois, no more aristocrats, no more arms, no more police, no more nations, an end at last to all this stupidity, nothing left, nothing at all, nothing, nothing” (1916).

Speaking for the Dada movement generally, prominent artist Hugo Ball explained it thus: “For us, art is not an end in itself … but an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in” (Bright, 2016). We can see how this mentality also resonates with Chomsky's propositions mentioned earlier. In his book 'On Anarchism' Chomsky further elucidates:

…at every stage of history our concern must be to dismantle those forms of authority and oppression that survive from an era when they might have been justified in terms of the need for security or survival or economic development, but that now contribute to — rather than alleviate — material and cultural deficit (Chomsky, 2014 p.2).

Applying this reflectively, it seems to perfectly echo the context in which the Dadaists were working. Their propensity to mock and degrade western values through 'shocking' art was foundational to the movement. It is not a stretch to assert that the Dadaists felt that mainstream society was responsible for a 'Cultural Deficit'; As art historian, Fred S. Kleiner writes, the movement was a “reaction to what many of these artists saw as nothing more than an insane spectacle of collective homicide” (Gardner and Kleiner, 2012). The art was designed to be challenging, irrational and offensive; a celebration that all things were possible. In his article “Unpopular Culture: Dada”, Peter Fleming explains: “Dada was a fully-realized, soulless expression of Dionysian excess; A howl of existential despair … and a casualty of war” (Fleming, 2015).

Working before the Dadaists was Russian dissident intellectual Mikhail Bakunin (who may or may not have been an influence). We can certainly see, in their anti-idealist thought, similarities to the writer. “No theory, no ready-made system, no book that has ever been written will save the world. I cleave to no system. I am a true seeker.” (E. H. Carr, 1961 p. 175).

In response to this ugly world, ravaged by war, the Dadaists employed a form of ‘Active Nihilism’ to topple the remaining vestiges of western civilization. This was in order to create a vacuum for new values to flourish. ‘Active Nihilism’ was clearly a prominent idea in circulation amongst the Dadaists, however it is worth noting that its main proponent — Friedrich Nietzsche, had a decidedly anti-anarchist view. He actively attacked the state, but also the anarchists whom he thought perfectly embodied his philosophical idea of 'ressentiment'. This was a worldview that was summarized by feelings of intense resentment towards ones position in life, whereby one values themselves not in accordance with their own self assigned ideals, but by contrast to the value system of their oppressors, in order to gain a psychological revenge of sorts:

“A word in the ear of the psychologists, assuming they are inclined to study ressentiment close up for once: this plant thrives best amongst anarchists and anti-Semites today” (Nietzsche, 1998 p.48).

With this Nietzsche successfully manages to abolish the two political divisions that would appropriate his ideas in the years after his death — The Nazis and the anarchists. He was also a fierce critique of the democratic method believing that it only perpetuated mediocrity and restricted our individuality through mass conformity. He warned that under a democracy “exalted, self-directed spirituality, a will to solitude, even great powers of reason are felt as a danger” (Nietzsche, 2001 p.123). This is in direct contrast to the anarchist's love of horizontal, linear, non-hierarchical rule where a democracy (of sorts) would operate.

Writing in 1937, in order to disparage political readings of Nietzsche, French surrealist writer George Battailles wrote against the appropriation of Nietzsche's work for any political end — be it left or right. He maintained that a political reading of Nietzsche was “radically incompatible” with the philosophers' themes of fierce independence and self-determination (Bataille, 1993). With this in mind, was the Dadaists' use of Nietzsche's ‘Active Nihilism’ justified? Or are we misunderstanding Dada to say there is a connection with anarchism in the first place?

Nietzsche's relationship with anarchism — much like the Dadaists he undoubtedly influenced — is however hard to define. Despite openly rejecting their ideology and having a personally negative opinion of its principles, He nonetheless espoused views that were similar to anarchist thought; As Spencer Sunshine writes:

There were many things that drew anarchists to Nietzsche: his hatred of the state; his disgust for the mindless social behavior of 'herds'; his anti-Christianity; his distrust of the effect of both the market and the State on cultural production; his desire for an 'overman'—that is, for a new human who was to be neither master nor slave; his praise of the ecstatic and creative self, with the artist as his prototype, who could say, 'yes' to the self-creation of a new world on the basis of nothing (Sunshine, 2010).

My own view of this would be that for Nietzsche, much like everything else in his philosophical canon, there are gradations. An anarchist that embodies the virtues of self-sufficiency, direct action and independent values seems to be much more amenable to Nietzsche's philosophy than one who is driven by a deep resentment towards those who he perceives are in power, driven by an unrelenting desire to seek revenge upon them. Murray Bookchin, in his 1973 introduction to Sam Dolgoff's book The Anarchist Collectives, describes the anarchist's vision of society as a Nietzschean project.

Workers must see themselves as human beings, not as class beings; as creative personalities, not as ‘proletarians,’ as self-affirming individuals, not as ‘masses’ […] [the] economic component must be humanized precisely by bringing an ‘affinity of friendship’ to the work process, by diminishing the role of onerous work in the lives of producers, indeed by a total ‘transvaluation of values’ (Bookchin, 2010)

Perhaps the Dadaists embodied a nihilistic and destructive attitude without being anarchist? After all, destruction and chaos aren't interchangeable terms for anarchism, and amongst Louis Aragon's treatise we can also find the explicit demand for “No Anarchism”. It reads, to me, as a complete rejection of all ideology. However, I would assert that there is a shared theme that pervades all and that is the crisis of humanity facing a godless world.

We have already established how Dadaism was a reaction to the insanity, barbarity and 'godlessness' of the First World War. Nietzsche's most famous assertion was “God is dead” (Nietzsche, 2013 p.184) and with this he accurately prophesied the nihilistic years after his death; of frantic searching for meaning and the inevitable depravity that would follow. In his eyes, it is only through our own self-prescribed values that we can sincerely escape the void left in its wake. Mikhail Bakunin also wrote his essay “God and the state”, where he explains how religion is utilized as an instrumental tool to keep the masses in servitude. He argues: “God being everything, the real world and man are nothing. God being truth, justice, goodness, beauty, power and life, man is falsehood, iniquity, evil, ugliness, impotence and death. God being master, man is the slave” (Bakunin, 1916). Only with the reversal of this dichotomy can humanity truly be free. 'Godlessness' implies liberation through Bakunin. “A boss in heaven is the best excuse for a boss on earth…” He proclaims, “therefore if god did exist, he would have to be abolished.” (Bakunin, 1916)

The First World War had already established a worldwide suspicion against ecclesiastical authority. Reacting against this godless world, The Dadaists were active in cleansing culture; to allow it to redefine itself again. In this sense, they enlightened humanity and empowered it, paradoxically through aggression and humiliation. Their actions and love for personal liberty also resonate well with the famous anarchist phrase 'no gods, no masters'. (Conrad, 1994)

There is a long-established relationship between these existential problems and anarchism. Albert Camus, famous for his related philosophy of Absurdism, was an ardent anarchist, even fighting in French resistance movements during the war and writing for different underground anarchist newspapers. “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion” (Existence, n.d.). In this passage, it's as though Camus is advocating the rebellious attitude of the Dadaists who preceded him.

All of this points to the fact that although the Dadaists may not have been militantly 'anarchist', they did put significant effort into clearing the path for anarchism to potentially grow, and they may have unknowingly been reacting, albeit in a very limited destructive way, to the same crises that the anarchists were also undertaking. It is perhaps apt to describe Dadaism as ‘anarchic’, rather than foundationally anarchist; to see the similarities without seeing a causal connection.

It seems to fit more the stereotypical misapplication of the term, of anarchism being irrational, chaotic and destructive, rather than the actual nature of the ideology itself, which is obviously much more than this. Their direction seems to be far too lacking in foresight to be considered 'anarchist'. After all, anarchism (broadly speaking) still has a strong humanitarian ethos that ultimately seeks the benefit of all through emancipation rather than destruction, irrationality and chaos for its own sake. However, we do see glimpses of idealism that escape the Dadaists revolt against everything. Writing regarding his intentions for the Dada club Cabaret Voltaire, artist Hugo Ball wrote: “It is necessary to clarify the intentions of this cabaret. It is its aim to remind the world that there are people of independent minds—beyond war and nationalism—who live for different ideals.” (Hofmann, 2001) This quote goes someway to illuminate a potential deeper force driving the Dada movement and it was the anarchist printer Julius Heuberger that published it.

However, at the core of the movement seems to be this all consuming, anti-everything stance, which rejects all ideology — however radical it may be. It would be hard to argue that such a negation would stop short enough to allow affiliations with anarchism.

Dada artist Marcel Janco explained Dada's mentality as this: “We had lost confidence in our culture. Everything had to be demolished. We would begin again after the tabula rasa.” For me, the potentiality for 'anarchism' to sincerely be ascribed to the Dadaists exists solely in this tabula rasa state. Without anything to assert their future intentions, the Dadaists could equally be portrayed as nihilists rather than specifically anarchists. To say this would be to assume that Dadaism could of continued. Yet it was Dada's short lived, explosive nature that was precisely its power. Because the movement was such a disparate mix of interlocking individuals it would also be disingenuous to assume that there was one unified vision, political ideology or project that they all ascribed to. It was these passionate differences that inevitably destroyed the movement, and by 1924 Dada had dissolved into a myriad of different movements — most notably Surrealism and social realism.


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