Anthony Squiers outlines the contemporary relevance of Brecht, especially for artists who seek to produce meaningful works of art in our own dark times.
On February 27, 1933 the Reichstag building, which housed the German parliament in Berlin, burst into flames. Nazi leaders alleged this to be a Communist plot to unsettle the German government. Marxist playwright and poet, Bertolt Brecht, a shrewd political observer, accurately anticipated the Nazis' violent and repressive response to the fire and, the following day, fled Germany with his wife, Jewish actor Helen Weigel, and their two children.
Brecht was only thirty-five at the time but was already established as an important literary figure, gaining notoriety for widely acclaimed and commercially successful productions like Drums in the Night (1922), Baal (1923) and The Threepenny Opera (1928). His early works expressed general discontent with the socioeconomic realities of the day, and explored class-based themes.
In this way, Brecht’s early writings are marked by proto-Marxist tendencies which subsequently developed into overtly Marxist sentiments when in the mid-1920s he discovered Marx and Lenin. In 1926 he wrote, “it was only when I read Lenin’s State and Revolution (!) and then Marx’s Kapital that I understood, philosophically, where I stood.”
Around this same time, Brecht began attending Marxist discussion groups and lectures hosted by philosopher Karl Korsch and sociologist Fritz Sternberg. Brecht considered these influential writers and public intellectuals to be his primary teachers of Marxism. Their gatherings had considerable impact on Brecht’s intellectual development. In them, he was introduced to Marxist concepts, critically explored ideas, and engaged with like-minded individuals.
Babylon Berlin depiction of May 1, 1929. Blutmai (Bloody May) Photo: Sky 1
On May 1, 1929, Brecht was with Sternberg, in Sternberg’s Berlin apartment across from the Karl-Liebknecht-Haus, the headquarters of the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands. The two watched from Sternberg’s window as police massacred protesting communists on the street below. Sternberg later reflected that witnessing this event drove Brecht even closer to communism and by the early 1930s he had established many long lasting and intimate friendships with prominent German Marxists. Among his confidantes were critical theorist, Walter Benjamin; novelist Bernard von Brentano; and composers, Kurt Weill with whom he collaborated on The Threepenny Opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, and Hanns Eisler his collaborator on The Measures Taken, The Mother, and the film Kuhle Wampe.
These associations, along with his theatrical successes and his reputation for an acute intellect, made Brecht an important and influential leftist in Germany and thus a potential target for the Nazis. In fear of their brutal designs during those, in his words, ‘finsteren Zeiten’ or dark times, Brecht spent fifteen years in exile. To stay ahead of the Nazi war machine, he first went to Denmark, then fled to Sweden, then again to Finland, and lastly the USA.
From 1941 to 1947 he lived in Santa Monica, California where he often associated with other exiled German intellectuals like Thomas Mann, Fritz Lang, Lion Feuchtwanger, Eisler, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse. He awaited the conclusion of the war in California and in 1947, a day after famously testifying in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)......
.....he returned to Europe, living in Switzerland, in preparation for a return to Germany. His exile was a long, financially and emotionally difficult period for Brecht and his family.
Nevertheless, he never lost his faith in, nor commitment to, Marxism and in late 1948, Brecht arrived in Berlin where, the following year, he established his celebrated Berliner Ensemble theatre company, with state aid from the newly formed German Democratic Republic (GDR). Brecht died in 1956, in the GDR leaving behind a formidable artistic legacy. He is perhaps best known for creating major theatrical works such as: Mother Courage and Her Children, The Good Woman of Szechwan, Life of Galileo, and his theoretical writings on his ‘epic theatre’, which attempted to create a Marxist revolutionary aesthetic. Many excellent English translations of these works exist through a series published by Bloomsbury Methuen.
The questions he posed, and the insights he gleaned from creating his revolutionary, emancipatory aesthetic, make him an important thinker at the intersection of art and politics, and one who is particularly useful for artists who seek to produce meaningful works of art in our own dark times. From his theoretical writings, we can see that Marxism provided Brecht with two things: a framework for understanding the social world, and a purpose for his artistic expressions.
The framework was dialectical materialism, Marx’s theory of history positing that history moves predictably, as successions of contradictions (manifested as class-based social antagonisms) work themselves out. Dialectics served as the interpretive basis of social reality for Brecht and guided his approach to writing. Marxism also offered Brecht a clear purpose for his art. He adopted Marx’s view that history was moving toward communism; however, before that could happen, certain conditions would first have to be met. Specifically, the proletarian class had to become ‘class-conscious’ and recognise its economically exploited position within society.
Brecht spent considerable amounts of intellectual energy figuring out ways to reveal these sociological ‘truths.’ In order to be successful at this, however, he believed a sort of overcoming or subversion of the dominant (bourgeois) ideological order was required. What was needed, according to Brecht, was ‘de-familiarisation,’ something that would nudge the audience past the mystification of bourgeois ideology. Brecht attempted to achieve de-familiarisation through his famous estrangement effects (Verfremdungseffekte). These were techniques he hoped would produce a critical, cognitive detachment between the audience and what they saw represented. In short, the idea was to make the familiar world seem unfamiliar by turning the audience into self-reflective anthropologists who would ask themselves sociological and historical questions about the material conditions and social relations of their time. Ultimately, Brecht hoped that the audience would come to see these conditions and relations as mutable, and awaken a revolutionary impulse to change them.
According to philosopher Roland Barthes, the theorisation of these techniques allowed Brecht to divine “the variety and relativity of semantic systems,” which allowed the world to be shown as “an object to be deciphered.” This, in turned, opened the possibility for an understanding of how human action shapes reality, and that our reality is not independent of ourselves, but a product of our historically determined mental representations of the world. Brecht was keenly aware of the dialectical interplay between theory and praxis, the ideological and the material. He intuited that the way we conceive our world shapes our material realities, and that those material realities mould the way we understand the world.
In sum, Brecht’s representations of the material world were designed to undermine hegemonic ideology and produce cognitive uncertainty, which would force people to conclude that humans are largely responsible for the construction of their ideological and material reality and that they are not, therefore, bound to how things are currently. Alternatives are possible. This idea alone doesn’t make Brecht an important Marxist thinker because it isn’t unique.
However, Brecht didn’t just make this argument. He developed novel approaches to going about changing the reality. He represents a materially transformative impulse which is exactly why he is relevant for revolutionary-minded artists today. He represents the un-foreclosed possibilities, liberating potentials which are rendered through a willingness to perplex and a practical attitude toward philosophy. This willingness to perplex is defined by a disposition to confront complexity, ask difficult questions and be ready for even more difficult answers. The practical attitude toward philosophy is defined by a readiness to engage in the material realm by making transformative artistic interventions into it.
It is precisely these types of interventions which point to the crux of Brecht’s usefulness in our dark times, curing the sickness. He compels us to undermine the ruling order that permits the atrocities and injustices with which we are plagued. He calls us to break open new possibilities, to make alternatives possible. At its essence, this is who Bertolt Brecht is and why we should care about him in these dark times.
Brecht, Bertolt, Marc Silberman, Steve Giles, Tom Kuhn, and Jack Davis. Brecht on Theatre. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019.
Glahn, Philip. Bertolt Brecht. London: Reaktion Books, 2014.
Roessler, Norman, and Anthony Squiers. Philosophizing Brecht: Critical Readings on Art, Consciousness, Social Theory and Performance. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill|Rodopi, 2019.
Squiers, Anthony. An Introduction to the Social and Political Philosophy of Bertolt Brecht: Revolution and Aesthetics. Amsterdam: Brill|Rodopi, 2014.