Lessons from Brecht

Bertolt Brecht was one of the most innovative and unique cultural products of “the Left”, his work is the product of lived experiences in Weimar Germany, Nazi Germany, the United States, and the German Democratic Republic. Consequently, Brecht, politically and ideologically, inhabits a distinct space that has many lessons for socialism today.  

Brecht lived through multiple defeats of socialism in an age of extremes. In Germany he saw the triumph of fascism (chronicled in Fear and Misery in the Third Reich and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui), in the United States he was hauled before the House of Un-American Activities Committee, and in East Germany he lived under  Stalinism. Thus, Brecht observed that “Socialism isn’t revolutionary, Capitalism is”. Too often socialism clings to past glorious failures or spectacular successes, without modifying its approach for the reality it inhabits. This can be seen in the Labour Party under Corbyn, which mourned the glorious failure of the 1980s while clinging to the nationalisation-heavy socialism of the Attlee Ministry. For Brecht, this fixation with the past misses the point; not only does capitalism not wait, it revolutionises the world as it revolutionises itself, to succeed, socialism must recognise and imitate this.

Because of the prevalence of historical conditions, the individual is relatively powerless and shaped by their surroundings. In the Threepenny Opera morality is shaped in relation to poverty/affluence, while in Mother Courage and Her Children, war, and the commerce that accompanies it, conditions the characters’ personalities and human essence, to the extent that Mother Courage’s children are named after commodities.  Individuals, no matter how capable, cannot overthrow their material reality. Therefore, it is always collective action that is necessary. In The Mother, one of the most extreme examples of Brecht’s “Epic Theatre” and based on Maxim Gorky’s novel Mother, the victory of socialism is celebrated but only exists because of the dedication and commitment of the collective which is embodied in the play’s protagonist, Pelagea Vlassova. Thus, it is not enough to observe the inadequacies inherent to the world, instead one must seek to change them as part of a collective or suffer the consequences.

It was because of the importance of large-scale collective action that Brecht’s theatre was inherently didactic and participatory. This emphasis on the importance of culture for shaping society is Brecht’s greatest contribution to socialism and is highlighted by his observation that “art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it”. Integral to the use of culture as a weapon of struggle is the viewpoint that people within society can be convinced to change their mind, rather than dismissed as an enemy, stark     contrast to some of the contemporary left that seems more fixated upon its own ideological purity. Brecht’s “Learning Plays” which had people play specific roles to learn a different set of historical conditions were an attempt to foster empathy and societal understanding. For Brecht, in order to change the world, one must first interpret it.

Brecht’s emphasis on culture and its didactic possibilities, should, perhaps paradoxically, be accompanied by a healthy suspicion of blind loyalty to “the party”, too often seen as the unchallengeable embodiment of the socialist cause. Brecht himself had a complicated relationship with The Party, he fell afoul of it during the 1930s as a result of the debates between himself and Georg Lukács, but continued to defend the Purges, though in 1939 he mourned their effect as “Literature and art are up the creek, political theory has gone to the dogs…Marxists outside Russia find themselves in the position Marx adopted towards social democracy”. However, he still moved to the GDR in 1949.

Although Brecht’s life does not necessarily demonstrate a scepticism of The Party, his work certainly does. Brecht’s Fatzer fragment demonstrates the conflict between the individual and collective party discipline in the struggle between the egoism of the protagonist Fatzer and the character Keuner. Moreover, in the unfinished Garbe Brecht planned to celebrate the 1953 June uprising against the government of the GDR as the achievement of a new independent political consciousness by the workers. In this uprising, The Party, mirroring Kronstadt in 1921, crushed the workers, the very class they were supposed to be the political embodiment of. On these events Brecht wrote The Solution, a poem containing the well-known line: “would it not in that case be simpler for the government to dissolve the people and elect another?”. While a political party is a necessity for the advancement of socialism, for Brecht it should never be socialism’s executive because it will be compromised by the realities of power.

Ultimately, the most prevalent, and the least glamourous lesson in Brecht’s work, is that simply surviving is a victory in and of itself. Surviving in a capitalist reality built on exploitation and structured inequality, as Brecht did his entire life, is something that socialism should laud, even if it comes with compromise and small victories. This is the crux of The Life of Galileo in which the protagonist reneges on his views to ensure survival, which is not too dissimilar to Brecht in his debates with Lukacs. This outlook is encapsulated in Brecht’s declaration that “to live means to finesse the processes to which one is subjugated” even while one actively attempts to alter those processes for future generations.   This declaration is vital for today; we live in a hostile world where the structures of society confine all but a privileged few, and, consequently, we have limited individual agency. Rather than let this realisation crush us, we must make the most of the agency we possess and extract all the joy from life that we can, recognising our limitations while collectively attempting to redefine them.