|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 203 November 2016
Bertolt Brecht: a literary life
By Stephen Parker
Published by Bloomsbury, 2015, £17.99
Reviewed by Niall Mulholland
Available from Left Books
This year marks the 60th anniversary (4 August 1956) of the death of Bertolt Brecht, one of the greatest dramatists of the 20th century. Although much has been written about the playwright, poet and theorist of the theatre, Stephen Parker’s book is the most complete biography in English to date. As well as drawing on letters, diaries and unpublished material, including Brecht’s medical records, Parker was able to delve into archives from the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). In contrast to some other works, Parker’s biography is thankfully sympathetic towards Brecht’s socialist politics.
Born in 1898 to a German middle-class household in Augsburg, southern Germany, Brecht suffered from severe heart and kidney ailments. Parker attaches great significance to how life-long poor health and fear of death affected Brecht’s art, including early plays like Baal. At the outbreak of the first world war, Brecht wrote pro-Kaiser poems for school literary magazines. But as news of the slaughter at the front reached home, his poems show growing revulsion. "Initially, writing was a refuge, but in adolescence it became a means of asserting himself", Parker comments.
Brecht welcomed the Russian revolution in 1917 and took part in a minor way in the revolutionary events in Munich. He was politicised by the war and years of revolution and counter-revolution under the Weimar republic. The struggle between the left-wing Spartacist movement, led by Rosa Luxemburg, who Brecht greatly admired, and the reactionary Freikorps, in the years 1918-19, had a big impact on the emerging author. While a medical student in Munich, he started to write plays and to develop his distinctive directorial style. He boldly asserted he would rescue German theatre from the sentimental and expressionistic.
After moving to Berlin in 1924, a combination of reading Karl Marx and deep frustration with the constraints of bourgeois theatre led to what Brecht called his new revolutionary approach, the ‘epic theatre’. Brecht concluded that established theatre could not fully address modern reality. He wished to revolutionise it into a forum that would help audiences realise it was necessary to change the world. His ‘theatre of the scientific age’, entertaining yet didactic, would present modern society’s dilemmas, where the individual alone is helpless under barbarous capitalism and only new ways of thinking and organisation can make life truly human.
In this quest, he was greatly aided by the actress Helene Weigel, who he married in 1929, and by other partners (professional and personal) in Berlin. Parker provides new material on the biographies of Elisabeth Hauptmann, Margarete Steffin, and Ruth Berlau. "Dramatic composition was an eminently social activity for Brecht", Parker writes, although he insists that Brecht was the "presiding genius". Parker also gives interesting details about the strong influence of the ‘independent Marxist’, Karl Korsch, and left cultural critic, Walter Benjamin.
In 1928-9, Brecht "enjoyed phenomenal success throughout Germany" and international acclaim for The Threepenny Opera. The "first great modern musical", which he co-wrote with Kurt Weill, was a "social and political satire" in which "criminals are simultaneously bourgeois". The pair later responded to the rise of Hitler and fascism with the opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany.
Fleeing Germany on the day Hitler came to power in 1933, Brecht eventually ended up in the USA. As the cold war descended, however, he was cross-examined by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947. Brecht was able to return to Germany, to the newly established GDR, where he established the famous Berliner Ensemble. This allowed his plays to be performed and toured in Europe and the publication of his works. Poor health eventually overwhelmed Brecht and he died in 1956.
Brecht was never a member of the German Communist Party (KPD) but a ‘fellow traveller’. While sometimes critical of Stalinism, he remained within its orbit and publically toed the line. Parker asserts that Brecht was correct to believe that the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and KPD could not have united and successfully prevented the rise of Hitler, "given the prevailing KPD doctrine of social fascism", which was "compounded by dogmatic unwillingness on the left to acknowledge that ‘their’ working-class voters had opted for the NSDAP [Nazi party]".
While it is true that the Comintern and KPD’s ‘third period’, declaring SPD supporters ‘social fascists’, was a major obstacle to workers’ unity, the majority of workers were not in the camp of the Nazis. They could have been won to a principled united front policy of the mass workers’ parties to defeat fascism, as called for by Leon Trotsky.
While Brecht admired Trotsky – he told Walter Benjamin there were "good reasons for thinking that Trotsky was the greatest living European writer"– he often publicly took the side of Stalinism against the exiled revolutionary. "His admiration for Trotsky’s writings, if not political strategies of this banished revolutionary, remained: in 1942, Brecht would read Trotsky’s book on Lenin ‘with great pleasure’," Parker writes. In the run-up to the second world war, "Brecht echoed Trotsky’s criticisms of Stalin’s strategy, which had eschewed world revolution", and made private criticisms against the monstrous Stalinist purges. Yet, on other occasions, Brecht justified the Moscow show trial frame-ups of Old Bolsheviks.
Brecht’s famous satire, The Solution – "Would it not be easier/In that case for the government/To dissolve the people/And elect another?" – sits uncomfortably with his public support for the GDR’s ruling Stalinist party during the 1953 Berlin workers’ uprising. Brecht’s call for a ‘great debate’ with the ‘justified’ complaints of workers was predictably ignored by the regime once it imposed a state of emergency and re-established control.
How can these extraordinary contradictions be explained? Brecht, like many contemporary artists and intellectuals on the left came under immense political, social and often career pressures from both capitalism and Stalinism. For many years, Brecht faced state persecution and exile, declining health and a precarious way of making a living. Kindred artist-thinkers perished under Stalinist purges in Russia.
In this situation, very few left intellectuals and artists managed to keep their heads. Like many others, Brecht mistakenly believed that any public criticism of the totalitarian bureaucratic regime would give ammunition to capitalist reaction in its efforts to undermine and destroy ‘socialist’ Russia. For Brecht, the "only alternative to socialism" [ie Stalinism], writes Parker, "was fascism and war".
What was required, however, was an understanding of the need for the independent role of the working class and the programme of the socialist revolution in the capitalist countries and the political revolution in the Stalinist regimes – overthrowing the ruling bureaucracy and reintroducing workers’ democracy. Adherence to this struggle, as put forward by Trotsky and his international co-thinkers, meant a decisive break from the capitalist establishment and the Stalinist regimes’ resources, prestige and privileges.
To his credit, Brecht was no toady. He clashed with the leadership of the KPD and, later, the ruling bureaucracy of the GDR. Like Trotsky, Brecht opposed Stalinist ‘socialist realism’ in culture and the arts. He debated with influential political-literary figures like Georg Lukács, whose ‘mimetic aesthetic’ Parker describes as the idea that art must "inspire the masses with uplifting images of society in its revolutionary development". Brecht denounced this as undialectical and supressing imagination. In the 1930s, Parker writes, such disputes had high stakes. Lukács "regarded Brecht as a ‘deviationist’, a judgement tantamount to the charge of Trotskyism. The judgement would be dangerously damaging to Brecht in party circles until the end of his life".
Brecht’s works outlived the GDR and its grey Stalinist functionaries. His plays and poems remain alive and relevant. His ‘distance-creating’ techniques of acting, directing and writing, which pose ‘dialectical objectivity’, produced ground-breaking works, such as those mentioned and Mother Courage, St Joan of the Stockyards, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Caucasian Chalk Circle, and Galileo Galilei. All told, Parker presents a scholarly biography that generously adds to the illumination of the great playwright’s legacy.