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.
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
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.