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Peasant Dialectics: Reflections on Brecht's Sketch of a Dilemma

Antony Tatlow

In a work famous for the power of its suggestion and the beauty of its language, this must surely be one of the most intriguing passages. It is a fascinating and classic expression of a peasant dialectic, for it fuses the sharp observation of natural particularity with the social hopes of a class of survivors. In rejecting the "virtues" required of them in a feudal society, the Taoists here align their concept of social cohesion with the direction of natural process. The matter of subsequent and traditional attitudes to the Too Te Ching does not here directly concern us. The question of a culture's self-understanding depends upon the degree of that culture's sense of homogeneity, upon the extent of any agreement about the determinants of that culture and about the evaluation of the products of those determinants. With the vast social changes that have occurred in this century, that concensus has now disappeared. The later variants of that mechanistic theory which sees cultural forms, works of art and literature, simply as direct reflections of social relationships has been discredited. The connection between economic base and cultural superstructure cannot be accounted for so simply since it is mediated by many interposing factors. Certain areas of the superstructure can without question be more directly related to the economic base the law and property relations, for examplebut this cannot be maintained for other areas except in a much more general sense, though it is true that they often reflect unconsciously and can certainly be consciously used as ideological weapons for the preservation or alteration of the relations of production. If works of literature are in some sense the products of historically determinable factors, they also have the power
Too Te Ching, Ch. 78. In D. C. Lau's translation: "In the world there is nothing so submissive and weak as water. Yet for attacking that which is hard and strong nothing can surpass it." Lao Tzu, Too Te Citing (Middlesex: Penguin, 1963), p. 140.



to stimulate, to actuate and to assist the process of change by virtue of their ability to alter consciousness. We should not forget that there would be no social change if it were not first anticipated in the theoretical act of ideation. If this is so, it follows that a work of literature has an autonomous life and a capacity to alter consciousness when consciousness is ready to be altered. And if this in turn is true, it becomes a matter of vital importance that we should never cease to examine the past for its record of experience which may help us to anticipate the future. The study of literature is a historical discipline and a society that loses its sense of history abandons itself to the manipulations of an homogenized technology that has need of nothing so much as amnesic consumers. Let us for the moment disregard the more predictable criticisms that are likely to smother initially any discussion of the significance of patterns of thought produced in ancient agrarian China for the problems of modern industrial society. We may anticipate the charge of Rokoko agronomics or, at least, of nostalgia for an irrecoverable because historically totally outmoded egalitarian peasant collective, no matter how potent such nostalgia may be on an emotional level, or perhaps of that naive nostalgia for the future which for many constitutes the only component of utopianism. Such objections must be countered but let us first establish some sense of the context in which they must now stand, and establish also the evidence in recent literature for the employment of an essentially Taoist dialectic as an analytical measure. Particularly interesting is the fact that the employment of this measure, which we must understand in the full dialectical complexity of its context, would seem to point towards what is at least a difference of emphasis with significant political implications and at most a fundamental divergence between schools of Marxist philosophy, which may derive from different cultural and philosophical traditions. The consequences which flow from whatever distinctions we may here discern could be of some importance. To assert as much is to affirm that Marxist perception which even the most determined opponent of Marxism cannot deny: the inseparable connection between philosophy and social praxis. As a starting-point we may take the obvious difference between Marx's and Mao's assessment of the potential role of the peasantry in any revolutionary process. Marx saw the peasants as a conservative if not reactionary force, considering them little more than "rural idiots." Mao, on the other hand, would seem to have placed greater trust in their native intelligence and capabilities and consequently to have expected a certain spontaneity of response to the opportunities presented by the process of replacing rural feudalism with rural democracy. Behind such different evaluations must lie correspondingly distinct historical, social and philosophical experience. Despite his phenomenal analytical powers, Marx remained a European of the nineteenth century for whom, for example, even the artisans of an earlier age, favorably contrasted with the alienated proletarian or the isolated and primitive mushik, enjoyed an interest in their work of which Marx only concedes that "it could rise to a certain limited taste."2 Behind Mao's expectations, on the other hand, lay some two thousand years of a philosophical tradition which, though certainly amenable to revaluation for the benefit of a feudal ruling class, was based on assumptions decidedly antipathetical to any

2 Marx/Engels



(Berlin: Marx-Engels Archiv, 1932), V, 41.

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such transvaluation.8 Bertolt Brecht was aware of this Chinese tradition and Adorno, in whose opinion Brecht advocated a sort of dangerously inane and sarcastically rejected Ruritanian rus in urbe, was not.4 We must first examine how Brecht made use of such Chinese perceptions and then we will have to ask whether such usage may have any significance beyond the confines of his work. Brecht's response to China is a comparatively complex topic and in the context of our present discussion I wish to single out for necessarily brief presentation only those aspects related to the concept of peasant dialectics. Brecht's response to Taoism, stands in a specifically European context which we must understand if we would appreciate the particular quality which he perceived in Chinese thought. At the turn of this century many European intellectuals, feeling the bankruptcy of a society which they had come to despise and attributing its evils to what they saw as an obvious disregard of spiritual values, sought a regeneration of the spirit in the philosophies of the East. Determined advocacy often seemed to stand in inverse proportion to the amount of first-hand personal experience and we contrast the diffidence of, for example, Forster's A Passage 1o India with this decisively implied palliative from Klabund's introduction to his translations from the Too Te Ching: Eastern man creates the world, western man defines it. Western man is the scientist. Eastern man is the Sage, the Bright, the Holy, the Essential. He calls to us to become as he is, to be as he is; for we are tired of functional, mechanistic, rational existence and thought. Of the relativities of knowledge and science. Of fruitless dialectics. Of the spiritual struggle of all against all. Your deep longing is a longing for a true peace of the soul, for absolute meaning in itself and for itself.5 These sentences catalogue platitudes current at the time and probably reflect a German tendency to abstract idealist and schematic thinking as much as the relative lack of direct experience among German intellectuals of any context for the objects of their attention. Klabund takes no cognisance of any social or political aspects of Taoism and, rejecting an inescapable element of that thought, its dialectical quality, understands the rest in terms of a mystical harmony which will hopefully save Europe by substituting Eastern wisdom for Western thought. Another writer who fell under the spell of the wisdom of ancient agrarian China was Hermann Hesse. Like Klabund, but unlike Brecht, he separated those writings from the social conditions to which they responded, seeing them exclusively as an alternative to the turbulence of the modern world and as representing a mode of existence

I cannot pursue this matter within the naturally restricted framework of this essay. For a fuller discussion of many issues here raised, see Antony Tatlow, The Mask of Evil. Brecht's Response to the Poetry, Theatre and Thought of China and Japan. A Comparative and Critical Evaluation (Berne: Peter Lang Vcrlag, 1977). * Theodor W. Adorno, "Noten zur Literatur," in Gesammelte Schriften (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1974), p. 422. 5 Laotse Spruche. Deutsch von Klabund (Berlin: F. Heyder, 1921).



which can be adopted as an act of will by the intellectual elite who can alone secure the necessary social transformations: Apart from Dostoievsky, no mind in the last ten years has made so strong an impact as Lao Tse's on the young students of Germany who have been so disturbed by the war. That this movement is taking place in a fairly small minority in no way detracts from its importance; the minority that has been effected is precisely the one that matters: the most gifted, most conscious, most responsible section of student youth.0 Brecht's response stands against this background. During his exile in Denmark in the thirties Brecht began to gather anecdotes in which he embodied and refracted the problems of his times and which he entitled: Me-ti, Buch der Wendungen."1 He possessed and carefully read the German sinologist Alfred Forke's translation of Mo-tse 3-?-. Brecht's observation of the dialectical quality in the writing and of the concern with practicality and his appreciation of the anecdotal style in some sections of the work all help to explain his own title. Among the papers in the Brecht Archives there is an unpublished note which suggests another reason for the title: Exiled in a half-fascist country Bertolt Brecht wrote a "Book of Experiences" from which the following story derives. To disguise the authorship it is written as if it derived from an old Chinese historian.8 Brecht's caution was in all probability not solely in response to the fascist threat for he criticized Stalinist shibboleths as well. Although most of the book is devoted to an analysis of European events in a Chinese disguise, Brecht's Me-ti contains many fascinating refractions of Chinese thought. As an example of Brecht's delineation of a peasant dialectic we may consider: Wei and Yen's inability to keep discipline Winter, the worst season, surprised the enemy in a land almost deprived of food. The laziness of the peasants, caused by the cruelty of the landowners, was responsible, and the peasants were sufficiently self-seeking to remove and hide all their own provisions. The enemy army grew extremely hungryThe inconsiderate and unscrupulous people of Hao who
Hermann Hesse, Cesammelte Werke (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1970), XII, 27. ? We may describe it as a book of practical dialectics. The title is a pun on the usual German translation of / Ching which is Buch der Wandlungen. "Wendung" means "turn," as in "turn of phrase" or (unexpected) "turn of events"; it can also mean "change." "Wandlung" can only mean "change." s Bertolt Brecht Archiv, 1334/145.

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had been educated to observe all the military virtues seized the landowners and slaughtered most of them, for they could produce no food. But then their army disintegrated in the terrible famine and fled to the border. The mass of the people of Hao perished in those border regions which they had laid waste. In the spring the peasants crawled out of their huts again and, as Yen had hoped, their old weakness, selfishness, appeared again to an astonishing degree. The landowners had been killed by the enemy or were cowed and defenceless and the peasants, sure of being able to bring home their own harvest, began to sow like men possessed. Wei prospered. When the good ruler Yen died, it could be truthfully said that he had won a great war without military victories, simply through the cowardice of his subjects, and that without government decrees or warnings he had transformed the land of Wei into a garden.0


This anecdote fascinates for several reasons. Before tracing the characteristic twists of Brecht's dialectic, we recall how the strife between states is a primary topic in Mo-tse. That work also distinguished deprived though indolent peasants and their grasping superiors. Brecht suggests specific causes for this indolence and implies certain remedies. The good ruler Yen finally achieves his aim through a policy of non-intervention which in some sense relates to the Taoist principle of "wu wei" }{RJ|. Yen places his faith in the natural egoism and in the saving pusillanimity of the people. Yet this Taoist ending to the anecdote is surely not the point of the story, for the good ruler Yen could never have achieved his aim without the unwelcome assistance from the martial people of Hao who have no qualms whatsoever about killing the alien landowners, tolerated by the people of Wei under the good ruler Yen's benevolence. We can see, therefore, that Wei's prosperity was inhibited by its system of land tenure and that the people of Wei themselves actively accomplished nothing which could be regarded as the direct cause of the alteration of that system. The anecdote shows how one set of hard men destroys another and that the non-combattant victims of both survive and eventually prosper. This anecdote therefore presents a dilemma and, in terms of Brecht's work and of a transferal of this peasant dialectic beyond its own framework, a criticism of the efficacy of such an ethic, whilst at the same time demonstrating its manifest success on this occasion. There are in Brecht's work of the late thirties and early forties, those times of "confusion and disorder," three topics which relate to the Taoist peasant dialectic: the critique of virtues, the strategy of survival and the problem of natural process. It is plain enough that there can be no question, in any Marxist context, of a consistent principle of non-contention, whether it be Taoist or Tolstoian in character. On the other hand it would be patently dogmatic and undialectical to insist that noncontention never solves anything.- Tolstoy was particularly interested in the Taoist principle of "le non-agir" which he had encountered through a French translation
Bertolt Brecht, Gesammelte Werke (werkausgabe) (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1967), XII, 544.



of the Tao Te Ching.10 He saw it in terms of his understanding of Christian values, interpreting it as encouragement to offer passivity in the face of evil. Indeed the Russian intellectuals' idealization of peasant life, sceptically countered by Chekov,11 reminds us of the fairly decisive distinctions between the advocation of a staunchly revisionist peasant ethic in a fallen world and the Chinese alignment with natural process, where all the philosophical and social assumptions are completely different.12 But Brecht's is no conventional party Marxist context and the consistent reflection of Taoist thought in his work of this period suggests that there may be some more intriguing relationship here than the use of a Chinese peasant dialectic for its illustrative or alienating properties in the very different European context. Brecht encountered in the Tao Te Ching the Taoist critique of virtues which were essential to the maintenance of a feudal social structure; it served as a useful analogy and critics not familiar with the kind of thinking that activates these Chinese peasant dialectics have often misunderstood Brecht or have failed to perceive the full thrust of his arguments. Mother Courage offers us a sufficiently clear example: If there are such great virtues anywhere, that proves that something is wrong. In a good country you don't need any virtues, everyone can be quite ordinary, not particularly bright, and cowards as far as I'm concerned.13 Because Mother Courage is supposed to be a "negative" example, such patently outrageous opinions are sometimes thought to demonstrate her moral inadequacy. In fact, she is quite capable of analyzing the state of the world; the trouble for herself, and by implication for all others like her, is that she is unable to draw the necessary personal consequences. That is her tragedy.14 In Brecht's Me-ti we encounter the same kind of analysis, "In geaeral it should be said that every country, in which there is need of particular morality, is badly administered."15 As an antidote to these lethal demands for "virtue" Brecht suggests "egoism," the strategy of the tortoise or of the peasants in the state of Wei. This does not perhaps solve the dilemma but at least it states the problem.16 The tortoise reminds us of the strategy of survival which Brecht treats directly, rather than in parabolic anecdote, in Schweyk in the Second World War.11 Using the plot of Hasck's celebrated novel for his own purposes Brecht shows how Schweyk has
See Derk Bodde, Tolstoy and China (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1950), p. 82. In, for example, the story Peasants which forcefully disabuses the idealizers. The Oxford Chekhov (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1965), VIII, 195-222, 12 Marx's half-asiatic mode of production with its concomitantly despotic rulers is blamed for the insufficiently democratic institutions in the Soviet Union, the model for all Eastern Europe. It could well be that the Taoist critique of the ethic and bureaucracy required of that asiatic mode of production in China might assist in overcoming the failings which as a legacy plague the social models in post-capitalist societies. is Brecht, Werke, IV, 1365 and 1366. n See also Brecht's Conversations of Refugees. Werks, XIV, 1398 and 1464. us Werke, XII, 456. 10 Although this problem is at its most acute in times of war, the strategy of survival may later encourage the depredations of those it seeks to escape. '7 Werke, V, 1913ff. See also Brecht, Collected Plays (New York: Vintage, 1975), VII.
11 10

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to trace the thin dividing line between ignominy and disaster, as he balances the risks of survival and intervention. At the end of Brod's and Reimann's 1929 stage version he is killed, but in Brecht's later play Schweyk survives, as the class which he represents must survive. Among Brecht's papers there is a note about Schweyk which would have been well understood by the author of the Too Te Ching: "The great plans will come to nothing because of the small plan of the small man to survive."18 The play ends with the thematic Song of the Moldau: Am Grunde der Moldau wandern die Steine Es liegen drei Kaiser begraben in Prag. Das GroBe bleibt groB nicht und klein nicht das Kleine. Die Nacht hat zwolf Stunden, dann kommt schon der Tag. In literal translation: On the bed of the Moldau the stones are shifting There lie three emperors buried in Prague. The great wont stay great and the small won't stay small. The night has twelve hours and then comes the day. This song echos the passage from the Too Te Ching that Brecht had used before in his wonderful poem "Legend of the Origin of the Book Tao Te Ching," which accounts his version of the story of Lao Tse and the official at the Han Ku pass. Verse four introduces the fifth verse which contains the crux of the Taoist peasant dialectic: Four days out among the rocks, a barrier Where a customs man made them report. "What valuables have you to declare here?" And the boy leading the ox explained: "The old man taught." Nothing at all in short. Then the man, in cheerful disposition Asked again: "How did he make out, pray?" Said the boy: "He learnt how quite soft water, by attrition Over the years will grind strong rocks away. In other words that hardness must lose the day."18 This poem, written in 1938, balances nicely the ironies of the encounter but it also predicts victory from a moment of what looks perilously like defeat. What interests us in the context of the present discussion is the manner with which Brecht fuses the strategy of survival and an image of process with its connotation of naturality. And here we reach the center of our problem. We can understand Brecht's texts as specific signals in a particular historical context, as psychological weapons, sources of comfort and encouragement at moments of great weakness and frustration. Or we may say that they represent perhaps a strategically limited
' XIX, 460. See also Tao Te Ching, for example, ch. 73. In John Willett's fine translation. Bertolt Brecht, Poems 1913-1956 Methuen, 1976), p. 314f.
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(London: Eyre



and ultimately inefficacious peasant dialectic which no serious Marxist could ever think of applying to modem problems. Or we can say that they illustrate Utopian hope, open to similar objections. Or we can consider whether there is not contained in such a dialectic a core of valuable experience which may offer something more substantial than a sense of nostalgia for an agrarian past or an inaccessible future. For some years now a new sensibility about man's relationship to the natural world has slowly begun to question the wisdom of a life of piracy. Some social groups are more acutely conscious than others of the scale and inevitable consequences of such steady depredation. As the epitome of economic and social pillage, imperialism st'll thrives in ecological terms. Whilst the protest against the values of such exploitive strategies has taken often dramatic but always more obvious shape in the ideological "West," there is also in the advanced industrial societies of Eastern Europe a strong sense of discomfort which, because of the greater role played by theoretical questions in public life, immediately effects discussion of philosophical principles and of the forms of social organization which allow such exploitive strategies to unfold. In Eastern Europe we can discern what I have heard called "a certain absence of theory," a sense of the inadequacy of established dogma. We may be witnessing the beginning of the end of that tenacious, essentially nineteenth century mechanical materialism in favor of a more truly dialectical form. The new subjectivism in poetry is a signal of this sense of change. The problems of ecology simply remind us that natural and social philosophy are ultimately inseparablesomething which was well understood in China. The philosophy adequate to the demands of natural and social ecology might be termed radical organicism.20 And here, no matter how provocative such an assertion must appear, something may be learnt from the Taoist peasant dialectic. The deep peasant suspicion of outsiders derived from the observation that such intruders merely deprived the peasant producers of the means of subsistence. Mo-tse and the Too Te Ching both have much to say about such institutionalized robbery. The Chinese peasant text envisages a time when there will be no such intruders and the egalitarian peasant cooperative would eliminate the impediments to democracy. What distinguishes Taoist thinking is the quality of its perception of the relationship between such values and natural process. In the West organicism has invariably connoted political conservatism, but organic naturalism in China involved no such connotations although the Neo-Confucianists undoubtedly later integrated it with a hierarchical social system. The Tao, the order of Nature, does not govern by force but by "a kind of natural curvature in space and time."21 The sage must work as the Tao, not as the ideal Confucian ruler from above, but from within and from behind. The water symbol, so important for Taoism as an image of process, expresses the ideal of a feminine yieldingness which Needham has
The mechanical materialism of earlier days has been totally discredited by modern science. However, its political consequence, the Stalinist revolution from above, administered through an ubiquitous bureaucracy, is still about us. A properly understood "dialectical materialisin" might serve as another term for what I mean by radical organicism. Briefly, such dialectical materialism implies the interpenetration and inseparability of the "material" and the "spiritual"; it also implies individual involvement in and the nuturing of a recognition of the reality of individual responsibility for forms of social organization. 21 Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1962), II, 37.

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called "the poetical expression of a cooperative collectivist society."22 What this can mean in political terms may be deduced from the following passage in Chuang Tse: The hundred parts of the body . . . are all complete in their places. Which should one prefer? Do you like them all equally? . . . Are they all servants? Are these servants unable to control one another and need another as ruler? Or do they become rulers and servants in turn? Is there any true ruler other than themselves?23 We have seen how Brecht made use of the Taoist image of process which, unlike its Heracleitan counterpart, was linked with a social prediction. There is also evidence in Brecht's Me-ti and elsewhere of speculation strikingly akin to Taoist attitudes: Occupation with Morality

There are few occupations, said Me-ti, which so damage a man's morality than the occupation with morality. I hear people say: One must love truth, one must keep one's promises, one must fight for the Good. But the trees do not say: one must be green, one must drop the fruit vertically to earth, one must rustle the leaves when the wind passes.24 This may remind us of another Chinese assumption: that morality is more a matter of that good government which, attuned to natural process, allows men to develope their potential. The problem lies in establishing the necessary constraints. Whilst all modern culture depends upon an immensely complex process of differentiation, and hence a return to any peasant cooperative would be a denial of all that has been enabled by transcending it, this very process of differentiation has also produced social behavior that now forces us to acknowledge natural constraints and limitations. We must now learn to live with nature, and not against it, in a naturalsocial continuum which is not at war with itself. It is first of all a matter of consciousness. Perhaps a radical organicism might both achieve and develop from a sudden shift of consciousness, like the blow from a Zen monk, which would enable us to overcome that debilitating sense of alienation from nature which Marx also deplored but which the administrators of his nineteenth century testament have yet to dispel.23 It will, however, need more than a blow from a monk to translate any such recognition into social praxis.

22 ibid., II, 59.

23 ibid., II, 52. 24 Werke, XII, 504. 25 Marx is full of surprises. For example: "Atheism, as a denial of this noa-essentiality (of nature and of man) no longer makes sense, for atheism is a negation of God and through this negation posits the existence of man; but socialism as socialism no longer needs any such mediation; it begins with the theoretical and practical sensual consciousness of man and of nature as essence." MEGA, III, 125.