Marxist Theory

The Brecht- Lukacs disagreement (Marxist philosophy)

Reproduced from

CLASSICAL HERITAGE: The Brecht-Lukacs Disagreement

Even though the writings of Marx and Engels did not produce a complete and easily accessible aesthetic, they both devoted an enormous amount of attention to the arts. The work of Mikhail Lifshitz, _The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx_, gives ample evidence that when the scattered comments of Marx on art are collected and arranged, they are both coherent and consistent. Nowhere are they more consistent than on the question of cultural heritage and their high regard for the classics. Their views on the Greek classics, Shakespeare and the Elizabethans, Goethe, Schiller, Balzac, etc., are clear, yet they are variously understood and interpreted. The positions of Brecht and Lukacs on the classical heritage serve as an instructive illustration of both the differing interpretations of Marx and the different reasons given by Marxists for the acceptance or rejection of classical art works and artistic methods.
The differences in the views of Brecht and Lukacs on the social mission of art and the aesthetic effect (rhetoric and cerebration versus catharsis and ethics) tend to foreshadow the
nature of their differences regarding the classics. Apart from his discouragement of the imitation of "models," Brecht's appreciation of the classics is limited by a youthful romantic
radicalism which he can never completely shed. He seems to hold that, unlike other social changes in history, the change from capitalism to socialism is not a transition, a dialectical
rejection-acceptance, but a complete obliteration of everything old, to be replaced by the entirely new in every facet of social, economic and cultural life. Since bourgeois  society/culture has become thoroughly corrupt, it must be rejected as a whole, including its accumulated artistic/literary traditions. He polemically contrasts dramatic (old) and epic (new) theatres as if they were completely exclusive, polar opposites and proclaims, with reference to the classical heritage: "We know that the barbarians have their art. Let us create another."(1)
When it comes to the evaluation of individual artists, however, Brecht is inconsistent with his otherwise categorical rejection of the past. This is partly the result of his often ready acknowledgement that his position regarding the past is exaggerated and partly the result of change with maturity in his theory of literature. He first ridicules Thomas Mann (_The Magic Mountain_)  and rejects Balzac and Shakespeare as irrelevant and useless, but later regards them highly. Even then he does not agree that their methods should serve as models, yet his dramaturgy owes a lot to Shakespeare. His appreciation of Swift, Rabelais, Diderot, and Chinese didactic poetry, leads Mittenzwei to conclude that "Brecht's concept of tradition is considerably wider" than Lukacs's.(2) In fact these exceptions only point out that while Brecht is usually open-minded toward techniques and contents in individual works from any period he actually studies, his generalized theoretical attitude toward the classics is intolerant. During the 1920s and the early 1930s this is so obvious that Lukacs, while in Berlin, criticized the "anti- heritage" positions of both Walter Benjamin and Brecht. When Lukacs criticizes those who fail to "appreciate the popular roots and progressive quality of classical literature and the relationship of the aesthetic problems of this literature to critical and social issues and to national history, past, present, and future,"(3) he is addressing "academicism" specifically, but some of the comments apply to Brecht as well. During most of his career, a classical piece to Brecht was only worthwhile as something other than a relic if it did not settle for the characterization of the universal aspects of human nature and if it somehow addressed current social issues or was adaptable to do so. But, as we shall see later, there were contradictions even in this view, because at times he spoke clearly in favor of preserving the historical value of such works. Part of the problem with Brecht's critical treatment of the classics is that his reading of particular works is often inaccurate, his opinion excessive and his generalization hasty. This is particularly true in his youth, when he calls Thomas Mann "a typical, successful bourgeois producer of artificial, trivial and useless books,"(4) and sarcastically, but semi-seriously, offers money to anyone who would burn them. As late as 1927 he wants to "abolish aesthetics" and regards Shakespeare not only as barbaric but also as "no longer effective."(5) He says that the "traditional theatre" means nothing any more, that its significance is purely historic. The works of Ibsen and Strindberg, for example, "remain important historical documents, but they no longer move anybody. A modern spectator can't learn anything from them."(6) Even in his "Short Organum" he gives such an inaccurate reading of _Hamlet_ that Eric Bentley has to remind him that Shakespeare's Hamlet kills neither his mother nor himself. In short, his passion for the ideas of his new (epic) theatre often overwhelms the facts and his otherwise good critical judgment.
The writings and theatre activities of the middle and latter part of Brecht's life reflect ambivalence and contradiction regarding the classical heritage. He characterizes the art of the Greeks and the Elizabethans as barbarian, whose "dreamlike figures up on the stage" (as in _Oedipus- and _Othello_) allow us, even force us to indulge in emotional excesses.(7) He still dualistically reduces the question of the value of the classical heritage to the struggle of the old and the new in which the new must win, but often admits the necessity for studying the old artistic methods and tools in order to transform and use them and not reject them.(8) And he continues to struggle with the question of "eternal value." To justify his position he quotes
only Marx's somewhat condescending remark that through ancient Greek literature mankind likes to remember its childhood.(9) His opposition to "eternal forms" and eternal values in art is usually automatic (as his debate with Lukacs shows), but in 1952, when asked about this, he states that although he does not think that art-works remain equally valuable through all ages, he believes they do for a "long time." He finds it strange that Aeschylus' works are still enjoyable today, but does not deny it, nor does he consider the phenomenon mere escapism. But more importantly, he now agrees with Lenin that it is ridiculous to suggest that a new proletarian art which owes nothing to literary tradition can be created.(10)
His theoretical writings aside, Brecht's artistic work in the theatre also demonstrates some degree of ambivalence toward the classics. While it is an unfair exaggeration to say that "in a broad sense, all of Brecht's plays are adaptations,"(11) it is true that he relies heavily upon classics for source materials, ideas and inspiration. His motives vary from creating performance vehicles for certain talents (e.g., _The Duchess of Malfi_ for Elisabeth Bergner) to offering reinterpretations or counterversions of several well-known works of classical literature. Among the latter are such plays as Shakespeare's _Coriolanus_, Moliere's _Don Juan_, Marlowe's _Edward II_, Sophocles' _Antigone_, Lenz's _The Tutor_ and Farquhar's _The Recruiting Officer_.
The artistic merit and the reception accorded the adaptations also varies significantly from the highly successful _Threepenny Opera_ (Gay's _Beggars' Opera_), to the controversial _The Roundheads and the Peakheads_ (using the plot line of Shakespeare's _Measure for Measure_) And the relatively unsuccessful reworking of Gorky's novel, _The Mother_. In his critical writings Brecht calls for historicity in the adaptation or production of plays from other periods. He does not want them stripped of "everything that makes them different" so that the age they reflect looks "more or less like our own."(12) But by historicity he does not mean slavish reproduction of authentic detail. He argues that if the socio- economic systems of earlier periods are not portrayed as being essentially different from ours, we will get the impression that social forms and human relationships are unchangeably permanent.
Instead of pointing up parallels and similarities, "we must leave them their distinguishing marks and keep their impermanence before our eyes, so that our own period can be seen to be impermanent too."(13) Our theatres, Brecht says, "like to annihilate distance, fill in the gap, gloss over the differences," in other words, they like to modernize.(14) He wants, consistently with his theory of alienation, to preserve the distance and point up the dissimilarity. Brecht's practice, however, is not always consistent with his theories on the classics. We can easily see the contradiction between his heavy reliance on the classics for adaptations and his frequently stated low regard for the very authors he borrows from. To demand that we preserve in our theatre productions the "passionate quality of a great masterpiece" is to pay homage. So is making an adaptation in the spirit we described above. Yet, even if we classified every Brecht adaptation a so-called "counterversion," we would still have to find it remarkably interesting that in his artistic work he is usually attracted to the very authors he generally rejects in his theory (Shakespeare, Marlowe, Sophocles) and not to those (Swift, Rabelais, Diderot) he embraces. One of the notable exceptions is Maxim Gorky, whom Brecht always admires and still adapts. If we look at the adaptation of _The Mother_, however, we find that Brecht does not trust Gorky's artistic method. In short, Brecht's practice disagrees in several ways with his theory on the classics. Brecht criticizes Lukacs's favorite 19th century novelist, Balzac, as severely and as unfairly as he does, largely because he believes that lukacs had set Balzac up as an absolute model for realism. When he is commenting unfavorably on Balzac, he is really commenting on his perception of Lukacs's literary theory. To the extent Lukacs's expects modern artists to copy the form of old, established realistic works, says Brecht, he is a formalist critic regardless of his ideological foundations. So his objection to Lukacs's position on the classics is twofold: first, that Lukacs's concept of realism is modeled too rigidly after the 19th century and is therefore too narrow; and second, that Lukacs recommends the molding of new works into old forms and, consequently the only twentieth century writers he likes are those who come close to this requirement (e.g., Thomas Mann and Maxim Gorky). The first of these objections is a Brechtian exaggeration, but it has become a widely held assumption about Lukacs. Certainly, Lukacs's concept of realism is too narrow to include Joyce, Kafka, Beckett and Ionesco, but in the final analysis so is Brecht's. Going back before the nineteenth century, Lukacs's concept allows room for a great many writers, including Aeschylus, Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Goethe and Walter Scott. In fact, his theory makes clear that these and other great figures were the founders, nurturers and preservers of realism through the ages. Brecht, on the other hand, is ambivalent: he sometimes rejects these same classics and other times admires them. He sometimes alters classical works to suit his ideological purpose and make them relevant to our times, while in other instances he praises the "fighting spirit" of the classics and wants to preserve "the passionate quality" of every "great masterpiece."(15)
Lukacs, as we have seen, denies categorically the Brecht allegation that he wants modern writers to copy the classics. It would be childish to suggest, he says, that today's writers should imitate Goethe or Tolstoy, no matter how fine examples they may be. The great classics, however, are useful and relevant today as examples and standards of quality. The usefulness of classics in this sense does not exclude similar value in modern works. Lukacs does not admit to a wholesale rejection of modern literature as Brecht and others have implied. His criticism of the anti-realist tendencies of what he calls "modernism" should not be seen as a negative opinion of all contemporary art.(16) Still, even though his list of outstanding contemporary realist writers includes Anatole France, Roman Rolland, Heinrich Mann, Anton Chekhov, Solzhenitsyn and the late Brecht in addition to Gorky and Thomas Mann, he finds the era relatively sparse in good works. (Even less in socialist than in
bourgeois society.) In Lukacs's final analysis, the nineteenth century novel is superior to the twentieth century novel and the drama of the Greeks and the Elizabethans rises above modern
drama. But these judgments do not imply that the road to raising the standards for modern literature is by way of the imitation of the classics. At the end of his book, _The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx_, Mikhail Lifshitz declares that the slogan of Marx's aesthetics is: "_Art is dead!_ LONG LIVE ART!" This is an expression of a rather utopian belief, not Marxian in its implication, that socialist art is born without roots and fully grown, as Pallas Athena had sprung from Zeus' head. Neither Marx's esteem for the classical heritage nor the eighty year history of socialist literature and art would justify such a slogan. Yet Brecht's theoretical writings, his desire for radically new art and his ambivalence about the classics, flirt with just such a belief. Brecht's maxim, as quoted by Benjamin, is: "Don't start from the good old things but from the bad new ones."(17)
Why does Brecht hold such an apparently insensible position? This is a difficult question to answer, because while Brecht's theoretical writing often confirms a negative view of the classics, his artistic work rarely does. Early in his career, influenced by the romantic, rebellious stance of German expressionism and by the radical goals of Russian formalism, Brecht turns against the approach of traditional dramaturgy and aesthetics. His polarized opposition of the (old) dramatic theatre with the (new) epic theatre expresses just such a rebellion. At the core of this opposition is the belief that the "dramatic" theatre (and evidently most literature) has portrayed the world and human beings and unchanging and unchangeable. To Brecht, who by now considers himself a Marxist, this fundamental error in perception and reflection makes all such literature unrealistic. He holds an insensible position because he bases his judgment about literature before him not on empirical date (i.e., his own study), but on the oversimplified belief that before Marx all consciousness was false consciousness. His proposed epic theatre would be superior, because its perception and artistic methodology would be from the Marxian perspective and its aim would be not merely to interpret the world, but to change it.
Lukacs, in "Reportage or Portrayal?" (a 1932 essay that is a part of the "expressionism debate"), not only defends his critique of Ottwalt, but also challenges Brecht's rigid opposition to the old ("dramatic") and new (epic) theatres. Specifically he disagrees with Brecht's core point that before him human beings and the world were always portrayed as "unalterable" and only after Marx have they been portrayed as "alterable and altering." Lukacs argues a subtle but important point, that in the best literature, the world and its human
beings were always portrayed as changing and changeable, but not with the same consciousness as after Marx, not from the Marxist point of view. He cites the epoch-making changes portrayed by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe among others.
Even some of the post-Marxian dramas (Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, etc.) reflect such changes in society though the reflection rests on a non-Marxian world view. So there is partial agreement between Brecht and Lukacs. Lukacs disagrees with Brecht's overstatement that pre-epic drama only offers a static portrayal of the world, but agrees that artistic reflection from a Marxist point of view is different from, and usually superior to, artistic creation from a pre-Marxian consciousness. Still, though Lukacs would agree that all history should be written from a Marxist point of view, he would reject the notion that all classical literature should be re-written or adapted to satisfy such a point of view. Art is unlike history which is a science intended to broaden man's awareness of his social development. Art is anthropomorphic reflection designed to broaden man's self-awareness. To change the point of view of any particular work of art, is to destroy its most essential ingredient. Does this mean that Lukacs accepts the classical heritage uncritically? The answer is no for both content and form. He is inclined to agree with Brecht that taking over our literary "inheritance" is not a process carried out without struggle. (18)
His rigorously critical acceptance of the content of classical literature is evident in his writings. For an example of the dialectical correction-acceptance of progressive forms and methodologies by Marxism, Lukacs points to Marx's "inheritance" and correction of Hegel's dialectical method. He never advocates absolute acceptance of what Brecht calls "eternal" artistic forms.
With regard to the classical heritage, Brecht sometimes advocates and other times struggles against an aesthetic formula that, as Frederic Jameson puts it, "deliberately shuts itself up within the narrow confines of an exclusively temporal perspective." Finding "eternal value" in an art work, as Lukacs does and Brecht sometimes comes close to doing, is not the same as accepting and copying fossilized "eternal forms." Nor is there a contradiction between "eternal" value and the art work's historicity as Brecht Generally seems to believe. In fact, Marxist aesthetics, historicity (or historical representativeness) is the most important component of the art work's "eternal" value. Lukacs quotes Lenin about Marxism's acceptance of the "most valuable achievements of the bourgeois era," a position which in fact gives Marxism its "world-historical importance."(19) But in 1932 (when the debate begins) and still today, the bourgeois era is very much alive. For some Marxists it is difficult to welcome the idea of inheriting anything from the hated bourgeois society. If they believe in the theory of continuity in the development of human society, there is a gap in their belief when it comes to the envisioned change from capitalism to socialism. The sins of the slave society are hazed by distance, but the crimes of capitalism (particularly during the Great Depression) are right
there to see and struggle against. Under those circumstances inheritance seems abhorrent to some, including Brecht. They would rather create in a vacuum then rely on bourgeois methods.
Lukacs firmly believes in progress, even though he admits that historical progress is two steps forward and one step backward. Progress in art relies upon the best accomplishments of the past and the historically demonstrable task of art is to contribute to the human-Promethean liberation of mankind. He sees continuity and progress when he looks at the development from the Book of Genesis where man's transformation from half- animal being is conceived as the work of Satan, through Aeschylus's Prometheus, Dante's Satan, Milton's Lucifer "which explodes the theological outlines," to Goethe's's _Faust_ through Dostoyevsky to Thomas Mann's _Faustus_ novel where the satanic element is merely an attempt to separate the individual from the destiny of mankind.(20) It is this enlightened, humanist, this- worldly focus of art that is passed on from era to era and is the core of our classical heritage.
Our classical heritage is humanist, for it endeavors to depict man as a whole in the whole of society. Lukacs reminds us that "the Marxist philosophy of history analyzes man as a whole, and contemplates the history of human evolution as a whole, together with the partial achievement, or non-achievement of completeness of its various periods of development."(21) Though Marxists want to build a bridge back to the classics, they do not regard this objective as a reversion to the past. The way in which great literature from Homer to our times brings about in individual art works the unity of particular and the universal (the typical), Lukacs concludes, gives us pictures of the great periods of human development and at the same time serves as "signposts in the ideological battle fought for the restoration of the unbroken human personality."(22)

Bela Kiralyfalvi
Witchita State University


1. John Willett, trans., _Brecht On Theatre_(New York, 1964) 189.

2. Werner Mittenzwei, "The Brecht-Lukacs Debate," in _Preserve
and Create_, eds. Gaylord LeRoy and Ursula Beitz (New York:
Humanities Press, 1973) 211.

3. Georg Lukacs, _Writer and Critic and Other Essays_ (London:
1970) 201.

4. Bertolt Brecht, _Gessamelte Werke_ (Collected Works) 18
(Frankfurt on the Main, 1967) 49-50. In the following this
edition is cited as GW.

5. Willett 20.

6. 66.

7. 189.

8. GW 19, 553.

9. 549.

10. 522.

11. Karl H. Schoeps, _Bertolt Brecht_ (New York, 1977) 399.

12. Willett 190.

13. 190.

14. 279.

15. 272.

16. Gyorgy Lukacs, _Esztetikai irasok 1930-45_ (Budapest, 1982)

17. Walter Benjamin, _Understanding Brecht (London, 1977) 121.

18. GW 19, 317.

19. Georg Lukacs, "Realism in the Balance" in Ronald Taylor
(ed.), _Aesthetics and Politics_ (London, 1977) 55.

20. Gyorgy Lukacs, _As esztetikum sajatossaga II_ (Budapest,
1969( 772.

21. Georg Lukacs, _Studies in European Realism_ New York, 1964)

22. 5.

All translations are by the author.

originally published in the site