Friday, April 24, 2015

The Brecht-Lukács Debate

Shaswati Mazumdar


The debate between the German writer Bertolt Brecht and the Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukács never took place as a formal debate between the two sides but rather as a series of reflections by both parties on what should be the constitutive elements of a radical art and literature committed to the revolutionary struggle for socialism. It has been variously labeled as the Expressionism debate or the Realism vs. Modernism debate as Lukács is seen to be defending realist forms of artistic creation against Brecht's contention that the experimental forms evolved by expressionist and other modern artists were more suited to the contemporary needs of a revolutionary art. In fact the debate could be more aptly described as a debate about realism. Both Lukács and Brecht insisted quite vehemently that the issue at stake was realism. The debate took place in the 1930s in the shadow of the rise of fascism in Europe and its most aggressive variant Nazism in Germany, its violent attack on the working class and its war of annihilation against the Soviet Union. It was also part of a wider debate in Marxist circles involving several other figures – Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, Hanns Eisler, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, among many others – and representing different attempts to conceptualise the social function of art in a time of the severest crisis. That it came to be called the Brecht-Lukács debate is an ex post facto reconstruction of the views of two towering figures of art and philosophy of the twentieth century.

The debate stems in part from the fact that Brecht was essentially an artist engaged with the practical concerns of artistic creation whereas Lukács was primarily a philosopher preoccupied with the nature of social being in capitalist society. In part it also stems from how each of them envisioned the political struggle and the role of art in that struggle at a time in which the consequences of such visions were matters of life and death. The polemical antagonism and even occasional bitterness associated with the debate can only be understood if its two protagonists are seen as living almost perpetually in exile and under the constant demands of the political, ideological and military struggle against fascism. The aesthetic questions in the debate were seen by both sides as crucial to this struggle. It is worth noting that in more peaceful times, after the end of the Second World War and the establishment of the GDR, the relationship between the artist and the philosopher mellowed greatly, each giving recognition to the significant contributions of the other. Nevertheless, certain fundamental differences underlie the debate. Though much has changed since its times, the debate is not merely a matter of historical interest. Compelling questions were raised by both sides that still pose a challenge for those concerned about progressive artistic and cultural forms appropriate to the needs of the political struggle for the end of capitalism and the establishment of a socialist future.

The differing views of Brecht and Lukács crystallised in the main around the discussion carried out about Expressionism and other modernist forms of writing in the journal Das Wort (The Word, literary journal of German exiles published from Moscow, 1936-1939). Fifteen writers, other artists and literary theorists participated in this discussion including Lukács. Though Brecht was one of the three member editorial team of the journal and followed the discussion keenly, he did not publicly intervene in any major way, keeping the larger interest of the common struggle against fascism in mind. Instead he noted down his more detailed responses which would only be published thirty years later in two volumes of his writings on literature and art. The political backdrop to the discussion was the Popular Front policy adopted by the Comintern in 1935 and the political task of forging the broadest possible antifascist popular front, including the antifascist sections of the bourgeois political spectrum.

Lukács entered the debate with an essay with the programmatic title ‘Es geht um den Realismus’ (translated as ‘Realism in the Balance’, or the issue at stake is Realism). In this essay he defined three currents of contemporary writing, firstly the openly anti-realist or pseudo-realist apologists of existing capitalist society, secondly the “so-called avant-garde literature” characterised by its growing distance to realism, and thirdly the realist writers among whom he named Gorky, Thomas and Heinrich Mann and Romain Rolland. Lukács argued that the second current of writers remained with all their literary experiments on the surface of reality and the spontaneous immediacy of experience, rather than penetrating to the essence, to “the real factors that relate their experiences to the hidden social forces that produce them”. He felt that these writers were subjective and abstract, that their artistic methods of breaking up reality and using forms such as montage to bring together heterogeneous elements were one-dimensional and failed to provide any sense of the world of relationships, the totality of capitalist society.  To illustrate his argument he compared the attitude of expressionist and other modernist writers with vulgar economists who see the circulation of money as an independent and abstract phenomenon and fail to probe the causal relationship that links it to mercantile capital. As against such a subjective, abstract and surface approach to reality, which according to Lukács was also necessarily monotonous, the third current of realist writers represented the effort to grasp and portray objectively the totality of social relationships in all their wealth and diversity and to anticipate through their creation of typical figures incipient tendencies of human and social change that would develop more fully only in the future. These realist writers stood for Lukács in the tradition of Balzac and Tolstoy, the great 19th century realists, and only they could be seen as the literary avant-garde. The experimental forms adopted by modernist writers were for him a reflection of the decline of realism and the decadence of bourgeois art.

Lukács emphasized that the question of how to evaluate the experimental forms of modernist writing and the more traditional form adopted by Gorky or Thomas Mann was not just a literary question but was intimately linked to the political question of forging a Popular Front against fascism. He felt that the negation of literary tradition and cultural heritage represented by the modernists would not have the ability to draw popular support. Instead, all that was valuable in this cultural heritage needed to be appropriated and assimilated, though critically and in a manner that strengthened the relationship to the people. In conclusion he once again underlined the central argument of his essay, the importance of portraying life and society in its totality.

There was no disagreement between Brecht and Lukács on the political task of forging a popular front of antifascists and none in the emphasis on realism, but Brecht disagreed with Lukács on what constituted realism and the continuing relevance of the forms used by the 19th century realist writers. They were undoubtedly great writers but they had had other problems to master, he argued, for they wrote at a time when the bourgeoisie was in the ascendant and the bourgeois individual a reality. Contemporary writers found themselves in the age of the final struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the bourgeois individual was in a state of dissolution, the masses were on the move and the issue was how to portray this new reality. Brecht felt that Lukács showed little interest in the practical problems faced by contemporary writers trying to depict the new reality of their times. This reality could not be portrayed, he insisted, by following specific forms of narrative merely because they had been tried and tested. Such an approach would be formalist, since it would emphasise a tried literary form over the new and changing reality. Instead 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”. Realism was not a mere question of form and what was popular yesterday need not be popular today, since the people were no longer what they were yesterday. Brecht agreed with Lukács on the subjective and abstract nature of the work of several modernist writers but he argued that the techniques developed by them such as montage, inner monologue and techniques of distancing and defamiliarisation offered more useful resources for objective and concrete portrayals of contemporary reality than the narrative techniques of the 19th century realist writers. Bourgeois writers may use these modern techniques to describe their feeling of hopelessness, socialist writers could use these techniques differently, since they saw a way out. Brecht also did not reject the literary tradition and cultural heritage but he looked back with greater interest at the writers of the early Enlightenment, at Shakespeare, Swift, Rabelais, Voltaire and Diderot, and he also drew on ideas that he found useful from other parts of the world, from China and India, as well as from popular and folk forms. 

Like Lukács, Brecht too was concerned about the reification of human relationships in capitalist 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 penetrate the surface and make visible the laws, the causal complex of social forces, that determined life processes. A photograph 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 processes. The artist had to intervene with specific “artificial” devices to break the illusion of reality in order to enable the viewer to see what the individual involved could not see. The task of the artist committed to social change was moreover not to offer passive experiences of reality recreated through aesthetic mediation but to encourage the active intervention of the viewer/reader to change that reality.

What emerges from these differing views? Both Brecht and Lukács believed in the cognitive function of art and the need for an aesthetic that would penetrate the everyday experience of surface reality. Both emphasised the importance of abstraction and artistic mediation in order to arrive at the hidden truth behind the surface reality, the class character of capitalist society with its attendant forms of fragmentation and reification. Both were concerned about the need for works of art to be popular in the sense of having a deep and vital link to the people. Both also agreed that a popular front of all opponents of Hitler had to include bourgeois writers and artists and both played an active role in support of this policy. However, though they were faced with the same questions and animated by the common goal of the social function of literature and art in the struggle against the dehumanisation of capitalist society, they arrived at very different answers.

For Lukács, the philosopher, the primary concern was the fragmentation, alienation and reification of human relationships under capitalism. The aesthetic as a central category in his philosophy had the task of overcoming these negative features of lived experience, of making “whole” that which was fragmented and of endowing it with a progressive dynamic. This “whole” or the totality of societal relationships not only had to be made perceptible but the form of its artistic representation had to be such that the reader could experience it as life as it actually appeared. Lukács saw this as an extraordinarily arduous task for the writer involving a twofold labour: “Firstly, he has to discover these relationships intellectually and give them artistic shape. Secondly, although in practice the two processes are indivisible, he must artistically conceal the relationships he has just discovered through the process of abstraction – i.e. he has to transcend the process of abstraction. This twofold labour creates a new immediacy, one that is artistically mediated; in it, even though the surface of life is sufficiently transparent to allow the underlying essence to shine through (something which is not true of immediate experience in real life), it nevertheless manifests itself as immediacy, as life as it actually appears. Moreover, in the works of such writers we observe the whole surface of life in all its essential determinants, and not just a subjectively perceived moment isolated from the totality in an abstract and over-intense manner.”  Art had for Lukács the most important task of providing the sensual and emotionally cathartic experience of reality in all its totality in place of the fragmented, fetishized experience of everyday life. The intellectual discovery of the manifold relations underlying surface reality and their artistic concealment in a manner to make them sensually perceptible as totality, as defetishized, unalienated life, were the tasks he set for the artist. What follows from his reflections is the nature of the aesthetic experience as a transformative humanising process functioning through catharsis. This process moreover is aimed at individual readers and takes place in a slow, prolonged and complex way.

For Brecht, concerned with the practical questions of artistic creation, the matter of how to tell the hidden truth behind the surface reality was equally a central question and he outlined five difficulties that the writer had to overcome: “Nowadays, 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 opposed; the keenness to recognize it, although it is everywhere concealed; the skill to manipulate it as a weapon; the judgment to select those in whose hands it will be effective; and the cunning to spread the truth among such persons. These are formidable problems for writers living under Fascism, but they exist also for those writers who have fled or been exiled; they exist even for writers working in countries where civil liberty prevails.” Brecht believed that art could only play its appropriate role during what he saw as the final struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat if it had as its objective a combative realism. It had to be a weapon in that struggle which would destroy the last illusions of bourgeois society. For this it was not enough to merely write the truth but to write it for a specific audience, for those who had the greatest need of it and could therefore make the most effective use of it in the struggle for the end of capitalism. For him, therefore, popular art meant art for “the mass of producers who were for so long the object of politics and must  now become the subject of politics”. The task of the socialist artist was to help these people so that they could intervene actively in historical development, “usurp it, force its pace, determine its direction”.

Like his concept of a combative realism, he insisted on a combative concept of the popular. 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 practical questions of artistic creation was therefore a concern about the practical uses to which art could be put.

While both Lukács and Brecht were writing generally about the principles of artistic creation, the differences between the artist and the philosopher are also demonstrated by the literary genres they were most preoccupied with. In the case of Lukács this is clearly the novel with its more individualised and indirect mode of aesthetic experiences. For Brecht, though he wrote a considerable body of poetry and also some novels, the theatre remained the central reference point with its more direct link to a collective audience rather than to an individual reader. This does not mean that their arguments rest on their generic preferences. But it at least suggests that the different conceptions of the aesthetic that they proposed addressed different needs that do not cancel each other out.


The author is Professor at University of Delhi.

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