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The Brecht-Lukcs Debate

Shaswati Mazumdar, University of Delhi


The debate between the German writer Bertolt Brecht and the Hungarian hilosoher Georg !u"#cs
never too" lace as a formal debate between the two sides but rather as a series of reflections by both
arties on what should be the constitutive elements of a radical art and literature committed to the
revolutionary struggle for socialism$ %t has been variously labeled as the &'ressionism debate or the
(ealism vs$ Modernism debate as !u"#cs is seen to be defending realist forms of artistic creation
against Brecht)s contention that the e'erimental forms evolved by e'ressionist and other modern
artists were more suited to the contemorary needs of a revolutionary art$ %n fact the debate could be
more atly described as a debate about realism$ Both !u"#cs and Brecht insisted *uite vehemently that
the issue at sta"e was realism$ The debate too" lace in the +,-.s in the shadow of the rise of fascism
in &uroe and its most aggressive variant /azism in Germany, its violent attac" on the wor"ing class
and its war of annihilation against the Soviet Union$ %t was also art of a wider debate in Mar'ist
circles involving several other figures 0 &rnst Bloch, 1alter Ben2amin, Hanns &isler, Theodor 3dorno
and Ma' Hor"heimer, among many others 0 and reresenting different attemts to concetualise the
social function of art in a time of the severest crisis$ That it came to be called the Brecht4!u"#cs debate
is an e' ost facto reconstruction of the views of two towering figures of art and hilosohy of the
twentieth century$
The debate stems in art from the fact that Brecht was essentially an artist engaged with the ractical
concerns of artistic creation whereas !u"#cs was rimarily a hilosoher reoccuied with the nature
of social being in caitalist society$ %n art it also stems from how each of them envisioned the olitical
struggle and the role of art in that struggle at a time in which the conse*uences of such visions were
matters of life and death$ The olemical antagonism and even occasional bitterness associated with the
debate can only be understood if its two rotagonists are seen as living almost eretually in e'ile and
under the constant demands of the olitical, ideological and military struggle against fascism$ The
aesthetic *uestions in the debate were seen by both sides as as crucial to this struggle$ %t is worth noting
that in more eaceful times, after the end of the Second 1orld 1ar and the establishment of the GD(,
the relationshi between the artist and the hilosoher mellowed greatly, each giving recognition to the
significant contributions of the other$ /evertheless, certain fundamental differences underlie the debate$
Though much has changed since its times, the debate is not merely a matter of historical interest$
5omelling *uestions were raised by both sides that still ose a challenge for those concerned about
rogressive artistic and cultural forms aroriate to the needs of the olitical struggle for the end of
caitalism and the establishment of a socialist future$
The differing views of Brecht and !u"#cs crystallised in the main around the discussion carried out
about &'ressionism and other modernist forms of writing in the 2ournal Das Wort 6The 1ord, literary
2ournal of German e'iles ublished from Moscow, +,-74+,-,8$ 9ifteen writers, other artists and literary
theorists articiated in this discussion including !u"#cs$ Though Brecht was one of the three member
editorial team of the 2ournal and followed the discussion "eenly, he did not ublicly intervene in any
ma2or way, "eeing the larger interest of the common struggle against fascism in mind$ %nstead he
noted down his more detailed resonses which would only be ublished thirty years later in two
volumes of his writings on literature and art$ The olitical bac"dro to the discussion was the :oular
9ront olicy adoted by the 5omintern in +,-; and the olitical tas" of forging the broadest ossible
antifascist oular front, including the antifascist sections of the bourgeois olitical sectrum$
!u"#cs entered the debate with an essay with the rogrammatic title <&s geht um den (ealismus=
6translated as <(ealism in the Balance=, or the issue at sta"e is (ealism8$ %n this essay he defined three
currents of contemorary writing, firstly the oenly anti4realist or seudo4realist aologists of e'isting
caitalist society, secondly the >so4called avant4garde literature? characterised by its growing distance
to realism, and thirdly the realist writers among whom he named Gor"y, Thomas and Heinrich Mann
and (omain (olland$ !u"#cs argued that the second current of writers remained with all their literary
e'eriments on the surface of reality and the sontaneous immediacy of e'erience, rather than
enetrating to the essence, to >the real factors that relate their e'eriences to the hidden social forces
that roduce them?$ He felt that these writers were sub2ective and abstract, that their artistic methods of
brea"ing u reality and using forms such as montage to bring together heterogeneous elements were
one4dimensional and failed to rovide any sense of the world of relationshis, the totality of caitalist
society$ To illustrate his argument he comared the attitude of e'ressionist and other modernist
writers with vulgar economists who see the circulation of money as an indeendent and abstract
henomenon and fail to robe the causal relationshi that lin"s it to mercantile caital$ 3s against such
a sub2ective, abstract and surface aroach to reality, which according to !u"#cs was also necessarily
monotonous, the third current of realist writers reresented the effort to gras and ortray ob2ectively
the totality of social relationshis in all their wealth and diversity and to anticiate through their
creation of tyical figures inciient tendencies of human and social change that would develo more
fully only in the future$ These realist writers stood for !u"#cs in the tradition of Balzac and Tolstoy, the
great +,
th
century realists, and only they could be seen as the literary avant4garde$ The e'erimental
forms adoted by modernist writers were for him a reflection of the decline of realism and the
decadence of bourgeois art$
!u"#cs emhasized that the *uestion of how to evaluate the e'erimental forms of modernist writing
and the more traditional form adoted by Gor"y or Thomas Mann was not 2ust a literary *uestion but
was intimately lin"ed to the olitical *uestion of forging a :oular 9ront against fascism$ He felt that
the negation of literary tradition and cultural heritage reresented by the modernists would not have the
ability to draw oular suort$ %nstead, all that was valuable in this cultural heritage needed to be
aroriated and assimilated, though critically and in a manner that strengthened the relationshi to the
eole$ %n conclusion he once again underlined the central argument of his essay, the imortance of
ortraying life and society in its totality$
There was no disagreement between Brecht and !u"#cs on the olitical tas" of forging a oular front
of antifascists and none in the emhasis on realism, but Brecht disagreed with !u"#cs on what
constituted realism and the continuing relevance of the forms used by the +,
th
century realist writers$
They were undoubtedly great writers but they had had other roblems to master, he argued, for they
wrote at a time when the bourgeoisie was in the ascendant and the bourgeois individual a reality$
5ontemorary writers found themselves in the age of the final struggle between the bourgeoisie and the
roletariat, the bourgeois individual was in a state of dissolution, the masses were on the move and the
issue was how to ortray this new reality$ Brecht felt that !u"#cs showed little interest in the ractical
roblems faced by contemorary writers trying to deict the new reality of their times$ This reality
could not be ortrayed, he insisted, by following secific forms of narrative merely because they had
been tried and tested$ Such an aroach would be formalist, since it would emhasise a tried literary
form over the new and changing reality$ %nstead writers should be ready to use >every means, old and
new, tried and untried, derived from art and derived from other sources, to render reality to men in a
form they can master?$ (ealism was not a mere *uestion of form and what was oular yesterday need
not be oular today, since the eole were no longer what they were yesterday$ Brecht agreed with
!u"#cs on the sub2ective and abstract nature of the wor" of several modernist writers but he argued that
the techni*ues develoed by them such as montage, inner monologue and techni*ues of distancing and
defamiliarisation offered more useful resources for ob2ective and concrete ortrayals of contemorary
reality than the narrative techni*ues of the +,
th
century realist writers$ Bourgeois writers may use these
modern techni*ues to describe their feeling of hoelessness, socialist writers could use these techni*ues
differently, since they saw a way out$ Brecht also did not re2ect the literary tradition and cultural
heritage but he loo"ed bac" with greater interest at the writers of the early &nlightenment, at
Sha"eseare, Swift, (abelais, @oltaire and Diderot, and he also drew on ideas that he found useful from
other arts of the world, from 5hina and %ndia, as well as from oular and fol" forms$
!i"e !u"#cs, Brecht too was concerned about the reification of human relationshis in caitalist society
and the need for the artist to tell the hidden truth behind the visible surface of reality$ He too believed
that a genuine realism had to enetrate the surface and ma"e visible the laws, the causal comle' of
social forces, that determined life rocesses$ 3 hotograh of a factory, for instance, did not tell the
truth about the factory$ But he did not agree that this truth could be made visible if the viewer identified
with and borrowed the eyes or the heart of an individual involved in these rocesses$ The artist had to
intervene with secific >artificial? devices to brea" the illusion of reality in order to enable the viewer
to see what the individual involved could not see$ The tas" of the artist committed to social change was
moreover not to offer assive e'eriences of reality recreated through aesthetic mediation but to
encourage the active intervention of the viewerAreader to change that reality$
1hat emerges from these differing viewsB Both Brecht and !u"#cs believed in the cognitive function
of art and the need for an aesthetic that would enetrate the everyday e'erience of surface reality$
Both emhasised the imortance of abstraction and artistic mediation in order to arrive at the hidden
truth behind the surface reality, the class character of caitalist society with its attendant forms of
fragmentation and reification$ Both were concerned about the need for wor"s of art to be oular in the
sense of having a dee and vital lin" to the eole$ Both also agreed that a oular front of all
oonents of Hitler had to include bourgeois writers and artists and both layed an active role in
suort of this olicy$ However, though they were faced with the same *uestions and animated by the
common goal of the social function of literature and art in the struggle against the dehumanisation of
caitalist society, they arrived at very different answers$
9or !u"#cs, the hilosoher, the rimary concern was the fragmentation, alienation and reification of
human relationshis under caitalism$ The aesthetic as a central category in his hilosohy had the tas"
of overcoming these negative features of lived e'erience, of ma"ing >whole? that which was
fragmented and of endowing it with a rogressive dynamic$ This >whole? or the totality of societal
relationshis not only had to be made ercetible but the form of its artistic reresentation had to be
such that the reader could e'erience it as life as it actually aeared$ !u"#cs saw this as an
e'traordinarily arduous tas" for the writer involving a twofold labourC >9irstly, he has to discover these
relationshis intellectually and give them artistic shae$ Secondly, although in ractice the two
rocesses are indivisible, he must artistically conceal the relationshis he has 2ust discovered through
the rocess of abstraction 0 i$e$ he has to transcend the rocess of abstraction$ This twofold labour
creates a new immediacy, one that is artistically mediatedD in it, even though the surface of life is
sufficiently transarent to allow the underlying essence to shine through 6something which is not true
of immediate e'erience in real life8, it nevertheless manifests itself as immediacy, as life as it actually
aears$ Moreover, in the wor"s of such writers we observe the whole surface of life in all its essential
determinants, and not 2ust a sub2ectively erceived moment isolated from the totality in an abstract and
over4intense manner$? 3rt had for !u"#cs the most imortant tas" of roviding the sensual and
emotionally cathartic e'erience of reality in all its totality in lace of the fragmented, fetishized
e'erience of everyday life$ The intellectual discovery of the manifold relations underlying surface
reality and their artistic concealment in a manner to ma"e them sensually ercetible as totality, as
defetishized, unalienated life, were the tas"s he set for the artist$ 1hat follows from his reflections is
the nature of the aesthetic e'erience as a transformative humanising rocess functioning through
catharsis$ This rocess moreover is aimed at individual readers and ta"es lace in a slow, rolonged and
comle' way$
9or Brecht, concerned with the ractical *uestions of artistic creation, the matter of how to tell the
hidden truth behind the surface reality was e*ually a central *uestion and he outlined five difficulties
that the writer had to overcomeC >/owadays, anyone who wishes to combat lies and ignorance and to
write the truth must overcome at least five difficulties$ He must have the courage to write the truth
when truth is everywhere oosedD the keenness to recognize it, although it is everywhere concealedD
the skill to maniulate it as a weaonD the judgment to select those in whose hands it will be effectiveD
and the cunning to sread the truth among such ersons$ These are formidable roblems for writers
living under 9ascism, but they e'ist also for those writers who have fled or been e'iledD they e'ist even
for writers wor"ing in countries where civil liberty revails$? Brecht believed that art could only lay
its aroriate role during what he saw as the final struggle between the bourgeoisie and the roletariat
if it had as its ob2ective a combative realism$ %t had to be a weaon in that struggle which would
destroy the last illusions of bourgeois society$ 9or this it was not enough to merely write the truth but to
write it for a secific audience, for those who had the greatest need of it and could therefore ma"e the
most effective use of it in the struggle for the end of caitalism$ 9or him, therefore, oular art meant
art for >the mass of roducers who were for so long the ob2ect of olitics and must now become the
sub2ect of olitics?$ The tas" of the socialist artist was to hel these eole so that they could intervene
actively in historical develoment, >usur it, force its ace, determine its direction?$
!i"e his concet of a combative realism, he insisted on a combative concet of the oular$ The central
idea that drove his artistic creation was the need to show reality both as changing and also as
changeable$ The goal of a socialist art was to >stimulate a desire for understanding, a delight in
changing reality$? Brecht)s concern with the ractical *uestions of artistic creation was therefore a
concern about the ractical uses to which art could be ut$
1hile both !u"#cs and Brecht were writing generally about the rinciles of artistic creation, the
differences between the artist and the hilosoher are also demonstrated by the literary genres they
were most reoccuied with$ %n the case of !u"#cs this is clearly the novel with its more individualised
and indirect mode of aesthetic e'eriences$ 9or Brecht, though he wrote a considerable body of oetry
and also some novels, the theatre remained the central reference oint with its more direct lin" to a
collective audience rather than to an individual reader$ This does not mean that their arguments rest on
their generic references$ But it at least suggests that the different concetions of the aesthetic that they
roosed addressed different needs that do not cancel each other out$