Sunday, September 5, 2010

Brecht’s Marxist Aesthetic

Brecht’s relationship to Marxism is extremely important and highly complex. From the 1920s until his death in 1956, Brecht identified himself as a Marxist; when he returned to Germany after World War II, he chose the German Democratic Republic (GDR), where his actress wife Helene Weigel and he formed their own theater troupe, the famed Berliner Ensemble, and were eventually given a state theater to run.
Yet Brecht’s relationship to orthodox Marxist officials and doctrine was often conflictual, and his own work and life were highly idiosyncratic. Of a strongly anti-bourgeois disposition from his youth, the young Brecht was also initially repelled by Bolshevism. He experienced the German revolution of 1918 with some ambivalence and dedicated himself to literary and not political activity during the turbulent early years of the Weimar republic. He recorded in his Diaries, for example, a negative response to a talk he heard on 1920 on the Soviet Union in which he was repelled by the concept of socialist order he heard discussed. He indicated a negative impression of Bolshevism and conclude his entry by noting that he rather have a new car than socialism!
Yet from the beginning of his literary career, Brecht was an enemy of the established bourgeois society. Brecht composed a strongly anti-bourgeois play Baal (1918-19), which had a complex relation to expressionism (Kellner, “Literature”), and in 1919 wrote Drums in the Night, a play that dealt with the disillusionment after World War I and the German revolution. The returning soldier in the play, Kragler, turned his back on the German revolution after the war in favor of going to bed with his girlfriend.
While in Berlin in the mid-1920s, Brecht began to show an interest in Marxism. He associated with a wide circle of distinguished leftist friends and artists, and became acquainted with Marxism through discussion with friends and collaborators such as Leon Feuchtwanger, Fritz Sternberg, John Heartfield, Wieland Herzfelde, Alfred Doblin, Hans Eisler, and Erwin Piscator. As Brecht tells it, he needed information about economics for a play planned with Piscator for the 1926-1927 season about the Chicago grain market. The unfinished play, Wheat, required knowledge about the sale and distribution of wheat. Brecht said that although he spoke extensively with grain brokers, they were not adequately able to explain the workings of the wheat market and that the grain market remained incomprehensible in standard economic and business discourse.
Although the planned drama remained fragmentary –– it was later renamed Joe Fleischhacker –– Brecht entered Marxist study groups at this time, including one run by Marxist heretic Karl Korsch. The man who he later referred to as. “My Marxist Teacher” was one of the first Marxist intellectuals to be thrown out of the Communist Party for “deviationism.” Korsch also developed a strong early critique of Leninism and then Stalinism. In this article, I argue that Brecht’s specific version of Marxism was highly influenced by his “teacher” Karl Korsch and that indeed Korsch’s version of Marxism shaped Brecht’s aesthetic theory and practice. I attempt to demonstrate that certain Marxist ideas not only were central to Brecht’s worldview, but to his very concept of political art. Accordingly, emphasis will be put on the ways that his political aesthetics, derived from Marxian ideas, helped shaped the very form of his theater and writing. But first, I indicate how Brecht appropriated his concept of Marxism and what version of Marx’s ideas so deeply influenced him.

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