'For centuries the soldiers, priests and civil agents of imperialism, in a welter of looting, outrage and wholesale murder, have battened with impunity on the coloured races; now it is the turn of the demagogues, with their counterfeit liberalism…" So wrote the surrealists in their 1932 tract 'Murderous Humanitarianism', which was translated into English by Samuel Beckett and published in Nancy Cunard's 1934 book, Negro Anthology. The tract argues that, in the name of humanitarianism (a term equated in their writings with humanism) a 'counterfeit liberalism' had supported the decimation of indigenous cultures, and sought to replace them with an African "bourgeoisie, covered by the machine guns of culture". Those not so incorporated were rounded up and domesticated into a cult of labour suffused with "notions of original sin and atonement".

This extraordinary and little known essay is accompanied by a photograph of the effect of the bourgeoisification process: an African man, dressed in a European suit, with a clearly visible waistcoat and jacket, stands before us. A tape measure hangs around his neck and he holds an iron in one hand. The caption tells us that this is a tailor working in a small factory in France. The photograph, when taken together with the argument is an exercise in demystification: it reveals something that was previously hidden, the presence of black factory workers in 1930s France. It thereby shows us one of the consequences of 'humanitarian' colonialism. This is how its natives have been 'humanised'. This type of juxtaposition of picture and text was a favourite surrealist political device. For surrealism, everyday life is where we practise our politics, and their strategy to make us think about this was to rearrange everyday words images and ideas.

The rage that the surrealists directed at what they saw as a humanist justification of colonialism is indicative of a political and philosophical radicalism not always recognised by their critics, or indeed by their admirers. In fact, the anti–humanism of the surrealists is a precursor to a whole tradition of French intellectual anti–humanism as a critique of colonialism, through Sartre and Roland Barthes to, for example, the structuralist Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, who assailed humanism in the 1960s for what he saw as its central theoretical weakness: its readiness to refer to a universal human nature which transcended cultural differences.

'Murderous Humanitarianism' is an oxymoron, combining the usual sense of humanity, as a set of specifically non–barbaric characteristics, with barbaric murder. The specific historical context of this surrealist text is of course that French colonialism was justifying itself in the name of fraternity (not liberty and equality). All those who live under the French flag are brothers. The surrealists attacked humanism, as a theory of human self–development and its presumed practice of humanitarianism as a root cause of the misery created in colonialism. In the photograph, the black worker looks back at us, as though to ask the viewer a question: "Look, this is the result of your humanism. Is this what it means to treat me like a brother?"

It is surprising that the surrealists' passionate engagement in such philosophical and political debates is so little recognised. Perhaps the problem lies in the common tendency to dismiss surrealism as obscure or opaque. When someone says something is 'surreal', they mean it is 'bizarre', 'uncanny': it defies reason. So the myth is born that surrealism itself is incomprehensible.

But the basic aim of the surrealists was to conduct a 'scientific inquiry' into the nature of human subjectivity and to disseminate the results. Their various investigations into this phenomenon were initially conducted amongst themselves but were later shared with a wider public with questions like: 'Is suicide a solution?', 'What would you give up for love?' 'What is wrong with Western culture?' Their interest in dreams and other apparently 'insignificant' phenomena like daydreams, or slips of the tongue, or inexplicable forgetting (the whole array of phenomena now labelled Freudian slips) was part of the means to access repressed material and to criticize the 'obvious' or so–called normal values of society. Surrealism is often reduced to its 'art', but this has been at the cost of the specific context in which the work produced by surrealists was originally shown.

Surrealism needs to be taken seriously again — to be saved from the resonances of the adjective 'surreal'. This is not a restoration project. If the intellectual and critical work the surrealists did on and in their culture is recognised, it might actually help us think about the issues of our time. We need only think of some of their political tracts on the subject of war: in the 1930s they wrote 'Mobilization against War is Not Peace' and in 1947, as the French military activity increased in Indochina, 'Freedom is a Vietnamese Word'. We need another history of surrealism, one that reconnects with the idea of social responsibility in cultural practice, an idea sadly lacking in so many other versions of 'artistic' critiques of surrealism.