Surrealism belongs to one of the terminal phases in the crisis of culture. In unitary regimes, of which monarchy based on divine right is the best known example, the integrative power of myth concealed the separation between culture and social life. Artists, writers, scholars and philosophers, just like the peasants, the bourgeois, the wielders of power, and even the King himself, had to live out their contradictions within a hierarchical structure which was from top to bottom the work of a God, and unchangeable in its very essence.
The growth of the bourgeois class of merchants and manufacturers meant the moulding of human relationships to the rationality of exchange, the imposition of the quantifiable power of money with mechanistic certainty as to its concrete truth. This development was accompanied by an accelerating tendency toward secularization which destroyed the formerly idyllic relationship between masters and slaves. The reality of class struggle broke upon history with the same brutality as the reign of economics, which had suddenly emerged as the focus of all preoccupations.
Once the divine State, whose form constituted an obstacle to the development of capitalism, had been done away with, the exploitation of the proletariat, the forward march of capital, and the laws of the commodity, by everywhere bending beings and things to their will, became cumbersome realities susceptible neither to the authority of a divine providence nor to incorporation into the myth of a transcendent order: realities which the ruling class, if it was not to be borne away by the next revolutionary wave – already incontestably foreshadowed by the Enragés and Babouvists – was now obliged at all costs to conceal from the consciousness of the proletariat.
Out of the relics of myth, which were also the relics of God, the bourgeoisie sought to construct a new transcendent unity capable of using the force of illusion to dissolve the separations and contradictions that individuals deprived of religion (in the etymological sense of a collective bond with God) experienced within themselves and between each other. In the wake of the abortive cults of the Supreme Being and the Goddess of Reason, nationalism in its multifarious guises - from Bonaparte's Caesarism to the gamut of national socialisms - came to the fore as the necessary but increasingly inadequate ideology of the State (whether the State of private and monopolistic capitalism or the State of capitalism in its socialized form).
Indeed, the fall of Napoleon marked the end of any prospect of reinstituting a unitary myth founded on empire, on the prestige of arms or on the mystique of territorial power. All the same, there is one trait common to all the ideologies that evolved either from the memory of the divine myth, or out of the contradictions of the bourgeoisie (liberalism), or by way of the deformation of revolutionary theories (that is, theories thrown up by real struggles which feed back into those struggles and hasten the advent of a classless society by remaining necessarily opposed to all ideology). That common trait is the same dissimulation or distortion, the same deprecation or misapprehension, of the real movement that arises from human praxis.
The radical consciousness cannot be reconciled with ideology, whose only function is to mystify. What the acutest eighteenth-century consciousness perceived for the most part, in the void left behind by the ebb tide of divine consciousness, was the suffering of separation, isolation and alienation. Disenchantment (in the literal sense of the end of the spell cast by a unifying God) thus went hand in hand with an awareness of contradictions that had no chance of being resolved or transcended.