Brecht Was a Revolutionary

Not only did Bertolt Brecht transform German drama, but his work captured his radical commitment to socialist politics and the emancipation of working people.

A performance of Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill's 'Die Dreigroschenoper' or 'The Threepenny Opera,' which opened at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in 1928. Erich Auerbach / Getty

Bertolt Brecht was one of the most important dramatists, poets, and thinkers of the twentieth century. An unorthodox Marxist who sought new ways to bring together art and politics, during his lifetime he was often considered a thorn in the side of more traditional communist theorists and cultural policy-makers, but also one of the most innovative modern writers.

After his death in 1956, the Cold War divide that sundered Germany also split the reception of his works along ideological lines. The onset of translations of Brecht’s theoretical and literary works into French, English, and Spanish in the late 1950s and 1960s introduced new problems, especially because of the author’s dense style and neologisms. His international reputation, based sometimes on odd choices and mistranslations, has led to controversies and confusion. But who is the Brecht we know today?

In 1964 the prominent Swiss author Max Frisch expressed probably for the first time the frustrated accusation of “Brecht exhaustion” as he spoke of the “striking ineffectiveness of a literary classic.” Frisch was referring not to Brecht’s works but to the dull reception of his plays among theater critics and to theaters’ resistance against his dramaturgical innovations. He thus summed up the attitude of those who treated Brecht as if he were a classic writer by ignoring his suggestions for a new type of theater and turning his plays into bland entertainment.

If in 1964 Frisch had perceived a certain Brecht exhaustion, thirty years later a prominent German literary critic declared Brecht “dead as a doornail” and mummified, while his status as a literary classic advanced to a point where the controversial Brecht biographer John Fuegi — who claimed that Brecht “got text for sex” from his female collaborators — could be criticized as a “defiler of monuments.”

Upon the fortieth anniversary of his death in 1996, and again in 1998 (the centenary of his birth) there was no doubt that Brecht had definitively become a classic (i.e., meaningless), just as the defiled monument had finally fallen from its base. The compulsive repetition of these judgments suggests how far we are still occupied by Brecht — not the real person, but rather Brecht as the sum of a contradictory life’s work and its reception.

In the following I explore some of the myths about Brecht’s obsolescence and why his writings today still offer a valuable model for bringing together politics and culture in the public sphere.

Becoming a Classic

Today Brecht may indeed strike us as a classic in the traditional sense, as far as his popularity is concerned. For years, his plays have dominated the statistics as the most produced in Germany, and in the Anglophone world he is counted together with the classical Greek tragedians, Molière, Ibsen, and Chekhov among the most frequently staged dramatists in translation. This is remarkable given the intellectually ambitious character of Brecht’s theater, aimed at undermining the relationship between a complacent audience and a dramatic tradition based on entertainment.

His influence also extends further. Brechtian techniques of estrangement (Verfremdung), the rupturing of realist illusions that we are watching reality on stage, and the notion of “social gestus” or physical gestures that can reveal the contradictions of a figure’s actions, have become familiar elements not only in the theater but also for the aesthetics of the cinema, television, and even advertising, albeit without his political aim of interventionist thinking, of “changing the world because it needs it” (see the song by this title in Scene 5 of Brecht’s learning play The Decision [1930, also known as The Measures Taken]).

There is no essential Brecht to be distilled out of his critical writings or to be carved out of his creative practices, which were in any case a work in progress. The person and his writings have, however, been instrumentalized for various agendas. The postwar history of Brecht scholarship and Brechtian theater practice is marked by identifiable ideological commitments, shifts, and revisions in both East and West.

In the divided Germany, this reception followed fairly clear but countervailing patterns. His return to East Berlin in 1948 and the establishment of his own theater (the Berliner Ensemble) were celebrated by the East German government as a major public relations coup, since he represented a strong line of cultural continuity with the left-wing intellectuals of the Weimar Republic. Nonetheless, in the course of the 1950s, up till his death in 1956, Brecht’s politics and aesthetics were treated by the government’s cultural functionaries with suspicion, because his “formalism” did not fit the orthodox image of Socialist Realism. After the international success of the Ensemble’s tours to Paris (1954) and London (1956), and then Brecht’s own death, his work became acceptable as a model of political theater when applied to the fascist past and to Western capitalism, but not to actually existing socialism.

In this we can see seeds of the separation between the political person Brecht and his artistic texts, and of the playing-off of the one against the other. Much of his subsequent reception in both East and West suffered precisely from this dogmatic definition of “the political,” which sustains narrow and polemical positions either for or against the playwright’s own politics. Such positions tend to close off the innovative, experimental energy of Brecht’s project before it even begins to develop.

Meanwhile, in the Cold War stand-off the reception of Brecht in the West took a different course. Esteemed or even venerated by a select few in the 1950s — more often in countries like Italy, France, and Britain than in West Germany — Brecht’s choice for the “other,” socialist Germany led to a virtual boycott at all publicly subsidized theaters in the Federal Republic until his death. By the mid-1960s he had become petrified in the East as an official icon of Socialist Realism, while in the West he was on the verge of being discovered by the politically motivated young generation as an alternative to the stuffy and dominant heritage of middlebrow humanism.

For some he became the springboard to an alternative, critical form of thinking, for others, a weapon in the Left’s factional battles. The 1970s saw renewal: a generation of younger writers in East Germany schooled in Brecht’s dialectical thinking and language extended his legacy into the present (e.g., Heiner Müller and Volker Braun); in West Germany the initial enthusiasm for the “established” Brecht of the Berliner Ensemble had paled, and the early Brecht and his learning plays — largely ignored in the East — dominated the attention of progressive theaters and scholars.

By the 1980s Brecht had become part of each of the Germanies’ different canons. His work had become professionalized, institutionalized, and specialized, ironically now part of a system of ideological authorization and legitimation in the universities and subsidized theaters. His stories, poems, and plays were anthologized in school readers. Embedded in a context of competing and contradictory discourses, a Siamese image of Brecht flourished among the East-West tensions. A sometimes-aggressive rhetoric of accusations and self-righteousness marked each of the opponents: on the one side the political Brecht, on the other the poet Brecht; here the rebel Brecht, there the Stalinist Brecht; here the antiquated Brecht in the museum, there his totalizing critique of the status quo.

Translations into all major languages and the magnetism of a non-dogmatic thinker made Brecht into a favored object to be deconstructed from a critical distance by scholars and artists in other countries. In Central and South America, Asia, and Africa his work has played and continues to play a vital role for articulating the emancipatory process of political transformation. Similarly underground, fringe, and avant-garde theaters “read” Brecht against the grain through various filters: feminism, performance theory, the body, humor, etc. After the end of the Cold War, artists, critics, and intellectuals have found suitable texts by Brecht to address old and new issues that resonate with their publics: the emergence of neo-Nazis, the rise of autocratic leaders, the constant threat of war

Interventionist Thinking

What, then, is Brecht’s relevance today? The ever-expanding forces of global capitalism, the hegemony of commodity market mechanisms, the growth of communications technologies, and the tendency to move from class-based to identity and lifestyle politics, all demand new conceptual and analytical tools if we are to understand where and how the cultural terrain can be contested. Meanwhile traditional conceptual categories such as enlightenment, pedagogy, progress, reason, and historical agency — all fundamental tenets in Brecht’s vision of transforming society — have been called into question as the values of “dead white men” in the service of dominant elites.

All this relegates Brecht’s oeuvre to a historically superseded period of modernism, but also echoes the crisis in representation that grounds his entire aesthetics. The historical illusions of modernism have now become a problem of positioning oneself as a subject in radically discontinuous realities. The momentous changes in the map of Europe over the last decade of the past century suggest that this problem of positioning is a question of practical politics as well, as we can see the intersecting demands raised by local, national, and international entities produce increasing tensions in the multinational space we inhabit.

At the same time, the substitutes that are replacing modernism’s disintegrated utopias (nationalism, regionalism, ecology, a renewed awareness of tradition, etc.) are yet to prove themselves as more than apologies for a new hierarchy of authoritarian or totalitarian relations between the particular and the plural. Given our distance from Brecht the person and his political reference system, it ought to be possible to read his texts without his ideological blinders, and thus discover how he used and transformed the material out of which he constructed representations of reality.

Indeed, to answer the question of whether Brecht is relevant is to consider whether political art is (still) possible. To this end, it is helpful to explain what Brecht meant by interventionist thinking (“eingreifendes Denken”), a central category in his conviction that the world needs to be changed. Not surprisingly, this is no simple task because, like so much in this pragmatist’s thinking, his suggestions were oriented toward concrete historical conditions and situations.

Interventionist thinking — a concept that arose in the early 1930s during what perhaps was Brecht’s most productive work phase — was something he realized in various forms and with differing goals in exile (1933–1948) and after his return to East Germany. First, it is important to establish the oxymoronic connection between “intervention” and “thinking.” Thinking describes a contemplative relation to an object, to an event, or to the world; it marks above all a distancing process between the subject and object. Thinking about something triggers analysis and logic, which deconstruct and then reconstitute this “something.” Intervention is the opposite of thinking, since it describes an act. From the perspective of the subject, intervention refers to changing the object, the course of an event, or the condition of the world. In short, interventionist thinking is typical of Brecht’s antagonistic worldview.

His creativity lived off crises and found its most productive inspiration from the intensification of contradictions. For this he devised ever new, dynamic poetic and aesthetic forms. The concept of interventionist thinking abstracts from such a dynamic; it signifies an attitude which demands not only contemplation and cognition but also application and effect. Interventionist thinking is, then, a result of specific aesthetic forms that set the addressee (e.g., the reader, the audience, the participant) in motion through an analytical, distancing process.

Toward Utopia

Many or even all of Brecht’s plays are directly political, addressing specific political themes. Yet his interests looked beyond historical specificities to seek ways of presenting problems that reveal the context and relations of power and thus awaken the desire to change things. In a broader sense his “politics” was directed against the institution of art, which he considered essentially conservative. Brecht’s practical work consisted in producing contradictions, revising texts, and breaking through the passivity of audience consumerism. As an abstraction, then, the concept of interventionist thinking is still viable, but it becomes problematic when we attempt to define its content. Which aesthetic forms are today still usable? Is there a set of “Brechtian techniques” or stylistic elements devised by Brecht for specific social situations and institutions of the 1930s, 1940s, or 1950s that are today still valid? Such questions cannot be answered abstractly and universally. Interventionist thinking would be engaged differently in various times and places, for it is not a formula but an attitude toward experience and imagination.

Here it is worth considering Brecht’s utopianism. For it is here that the very capacity to imagine change reveals its historical limits and systemic repressions. Modernism’s utopias sought to rehabilitate the subject from its anomie and alienation by imagining a non-place, outside of space and time, in which the ideal of unity between work and life, the individual and the collective, art and politics, economy and morality, would reign. Brecht created such non-places in his work, shifting the settings of his plays from a mythic Chicago to the Caucasus or to China and playing with anachronism in plays like Mother Courage or St Joan of the Stockyards. Yet, he insists precisely on difference in order to produce new insights into structural relations and between historically mediated specificities.

Verfremdung (e.g., estrangement) is Brecht’s primary means of historicizing perception, of demonstrating that the past was different than the present and that, because the past has changed, the present is changeable. Undoubtedly this is related to a deep empathy for the struggle to survive, one that he faced existentially as an exile during the Third Reich. Brecht’s plays, especially the mature parable plays set in faraway times and places but reflecting on political and moral dilemmas of his present, construct situations that show the contradictions between still functional old behavior and new situations. This disjuncture between historical time and the time of the subject is mediated by utopia. The intention is not of reforming an oppressive system but of transforming it, of empowering people to understand their present in order to change it. This, then, is Brecht’s materialist dialectics — his effort to imagine something that is not yet possible, but already inevitable.

Committed to the political avant-garde, Brecht aimed at a utopia that would integrate art and social praxis. Of course, this vision emerged from a particular social situation and was subject to important shifts in emphasis over time. Witness to the collapse of the old order and to the problematic constitution of an increasingly unacceptable new one in 1920s Germany, he was attracted to the idea of redemption through the negation of self. The excess and isolation of the asocial antiheroes of the early plays in the 1920s express his critique of the bourgeois subject without slipping into the modernist solution of escaping the masses through hyper-individualism. In the late twenties and in particular with the experimental learning plays (Lehrstücke) of the early thirties Brecht sought to formulate an alternative to this subjectivist, anti-bourgeois stance. It takes the form of a collectivity that derives from the consciousness of individual subjects transformed into a class identity through the dynamics of mass struggle. The earlier social chaos and individual rootlessness give way to a consensus model of obedience to the collective (Einverständnis) and to a new individual who is defined not in opposition to the masses but through them.

Demystification of the Individual

This collectivity had not only aesthetic but also biographical consequences in Brecht’s practice of collaborative authorship. One of the distinctive features of the modernist crisis in Germany during the Weimar Republic was a rapid shift in the conditions of cultural production. The increasing commercialization of leisure-time activity with the rise of popular entertainment (cinema, sports, dance revues, jazz, etc.) and the commodification of cultural relations that accompanied it marked a social crisis in the function of traditional cultural institutions.

The educated, bourgeois audience was dissolving, and taking its place was a much broader audience of consumers with new demands for imaginative and recreational activity. This tendency toward cultural democratization also affected the role and the self-identity of the writer. On the one hand, the avant-gardists as well as the traditionalists sought new, distinctive ways of asserting their elitism; on the other, writers like Brecht embraced modernity’s tendency toward social disintegration and massification as emancipatory.

The constraints of bourgeois individualism were falling away. Brecht began to develop an approach to production that submerged the author’s subjectivity within a collective. The very notion of aesthetic activity as “production” (rather than creation), theorized by Brecht in his book-length essay The Threepenny Lawsuit (1932) indicates this fundamental shift. Indeed, his Man Equals Man (1926) thematizes a sociological model of identity constitution based on the protagonist’s function as a material object in the socioeconomic process of a business exchange. The demystification of the bourgeois notion of the individual is equally pertinent for the demystification of the bourgeois notion of the author.

With the growth of new forms of domination and specifically the rise of fascism in the 1930s, Brecht’s vision of a more humane society was appealing but became more and more abstract, whereas his attempts to represent a compelling alternative order to contemporary fascism largely failed. Forced into exile and faced with the horrors of Nazism, Brecht focused on new possibilities of representing the old rather than on constructing a new order.

On the one hand, the formal reductionism of his parable plays from this period seems to function as a kind of protective shield against the impossible contradictions of reality, but on the other the shift in subject and technique to more deliberate forms of estrangement decenters the text-audience relation by transferring the utopian imagination into the spectators themselves. The prologue to The Caucasian Chalk Circle (written in 1944, first published in 1949) offers a succinct suggestion of the political and poetic utopia he envisioned in his mature plays. In the play the conflict of maternal instinct versus blood ties unfolds against the backdrop of inequality and injustice when, during a war, a noble lady abandons her child, who is then raised by a servant girl until peace returns and the child turns out to be the heir to a fortune. The prologue raises the question of how a society can rebuild after the Nazi catastrophe. The setting of the prologue, in Soviet Georgia, was the first region to be liberated from the occupying German army, and the dialogue pits two groups of farmers (goat herders and fruit growers) against each other, vying for control of the fertile land. Projecting his own fears of a recurrence of nationalist and racist ideology, Brecht shows how an enlightened attitude toward reasoned argument could be a model for postwar Europe. The anticipated collective destiny of the two cooperating groups of farmers who reach a resolution of their conflict through the Singer’s narration of the main part of the play demonstrates how art (the Singer’s narration) and labor (the collective farm project) are equally valuable forms of production for free subjects.

Representation, aesthetics, and the work of imagination become political acts with a use value comparable to labor. In his theoretical writings of the forties Brecht characterized this collectivity as the way people live together (“das menschliche Zusammenleben”), and after the war his endeavors at the Berliner Ensemble comprised the practical model in the theater for such a collective, at least in a rough, imperfect form.

Brecht the Marxist

Brecht became a Marxist in the late 1920s. Like the early Marx, his critique of capitalism was not anticapitalist but rather posited it as a material force, as a motor that leads to ever more complex relations of production. Yet there is an idealist continuity in Marxist utopian thought that also adheres to Brecht’s own. It presumes that everyone shares the imagined collective’s interests because of a fundamental class identity, whereas the highly differentiated interactions in such a social constellation suggest a much more complex intersecting of needs, demands, fears, and desires.

Brecht, too, insisted on a political and sociological definition of class as the primary or hegemonic articulation of subject identity. But he was not oblivious to other elements of the subject’s complexity. His entire poetic model, for example, undermines the strong tradition in Marxist understanding of the dialectic as a movement towards the resolution of contradictions.

His evolving definition of the Epic Theater in the 1930s — with its separation of theatrical elements such as music, text, and sets and its stress on the interruptive quality of the fragment or montage owing to its openness to the audience — as well as his later 1950s revision of the “confabulating” audience in what he called the Dialectical Theater are examples of his view of contradiction as a productive moment rather than one of closure.

Moreover, Brecht’s reformulation of the collective as a community’s intersubjective “living together” stresses the positionality of the subjects who are constantly producing themselves as subjects through conflict and contradiction with one another. Clearly, he understood the idea of the subject as construction.

Brecht was no rosy-eyed utopian, but an artist-intellectual who developed his critical faculties through the experience of political reversals and historical ruptures. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the ossified socialism identified with it is a powerful indictment of traditional left utopianism. But Brecht’s project of a more just, egalitarian society never sought to provide answers on how to make the world better. Rather, his writings are scripts for how to ask questions, how to formulate the right questions for a given situation that is untenable and therefore must be changed.

While Brecht believed in the power of reason that enables people to recognize the problems around them and to solve them, he was neither a narrow-minded rationalist nor a naive believer in the inevitability of progress and human emancipation. Thus, his critique of emotions, which is frequently misunderstood or implemented as a dramaturgy of “coldness,” was not directed against feeling or spontaneity as such but rather against the function of emotions in traditional theater. Like interventionist thinking, Brecht’s belief in reason is a functional concept that enables individuals to determine their interest and to act on its behalf, in other words, a principle of reasoned action excluding neither passion nor emotion.

Sand in the Gears

Our image of Brecht is a mediated one, constructed from biographical and historical facts, from interpretive readings and polemical speculations, from instrumentalized needs and utopian desires. This Brecht-in-process, whose image is never finally established, contributes precisely to its quality, still able to provoke us. Yes, Brecht is a classic today, recognized as a canonical artist and thinker in the modernist, Enlightenment tradition who reflected on and wrote about some of the major catastrophes in the past century.

In a world governed by media and electronic communications, the voice of Brecht sounds strangely old-fashioned, while simultaneously Brechtian practices — like vandalizing world literature, mixing poetry and kitsch, using mass culture positively, and “complex seeing” in the presentation and reception of art — have not only been co-opted by the market economy but have been integrated into its very strategies of functioning.

In the age of television streaming and virtual internet identities, even the estrangement effect (Brecht’s famous V-Effekt) can be used to sell commodities more efficiently. Yet, this kind of pessimism takes a part for the whole, in a system that raises the images in the media to the definitive experiences in advanced capitalism. For those who share Brecht’s critical project, the goal is to seek forms of instruction and communication that instead encourage thinking and undermine contemplative attitudes.

Brecht was a cunning master of throwing “sand in the gears” of institutional hierarchies. In this respect he is a particularly relevant example for the public intellectual today. He lived at a time when the self-image of the artist and thinker as a socially and politically engaged person corresponded to the expectations of the public; today, however, the autonomy and self-preservation of artists and thinkers seems more important. In a historical situation that threatens critical thinkers and devalues strategies of critique, we need models of oppositional voices, lest we forget the necessity of protest. Brecht is such a model.

Partisan without being bound to a party, independent of official institutions yet experienced at surviving within institutions, again and again prepared to entertain risks and undertake unconventional attempts: this was how Brecht accommodated a world which he saw as changeable. In our times, when social media shape the values of public opinion, attempts and strategies to throw “sand in the gears” are again useful, and Brecht’s writings offer compelling examples of how to do it. As witnesses to how new technologies displace familiar securities and identities, we need tools that can strengthen insight, render human relations visible, and destabilize habits of seeing.

Brecht’s main contribution, then, is to be found in the innovative ways he devised for examining history and making visible the changeability of the processes of history. Inscribed with the collisions and ruptures of the century in which he lived, Brecht’s significance as an artist and thinker will become relevant whenever his sort of vision becomes necessary, whenever a situation conducive to ideological unpredictability allows for ideas to be criticized, radically, without worrying about reestablishing certainties. In short, Brecht’s impact is not to be found in any recipes he may have provided, but rather in his writings’ ability to feed our own creativity in thinking about the truths and processes of history.