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Ian H. Birchall

The Real Brecht

(May 1977)

From International Socialism (1st series), No. 98, May 1977, p. 29.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to Sally Kincaid.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

IAN Patterson (International Socialism 97) is absolutely right to urge us to read Brecht’s poems. But his references to Brecht’s politics are, to say the least, misleading. Brecht, he tells us, was ‘revolutionary socialist’, who polemicised against the ‘Stalinist Lukacs’. Unfortunately, the record shows that Brecht was just as much a Stalinist as ever Lukacs was. When Brecht wrote that ‘hatred, even against baseness, distorts the features’, he was not indulging in comfortable abstract moralising about cracking eggs to make omelettes; he was justifying his own support for the crushing of the POUM, the Moscow Trials, and all the other obscenities of Stalinism. One of his best-known plays. The Life of Galileo, was written in explicit support of the Moscow Trials. Nor was he simply confused or misled. His friend, Walter Benjamin, tells us that Brecht was reading the writings of Trotsky in 1938. But he opted for Stalin.

If Brecht chose Stalinism, it was from a sense that all means were legitimate in the fact of fascism, and because he saw no viable alternative. It was a choice that many of the best working-class militants of his generation also made. It is the clarity and honesty with which Brecht describes his own choice that makes his poems and plays valuable for revolutionaries today; by understanding the mistakes he made, we can learn to avoid making similar mistakes ourselves.

Brecht today is a fashionable figure. The semioticians, sociologists of literature and theatrical trendies are quite happy with a cleaned up Brecht, reduced to the abstractions of theory and technique. The real historical Brecht was covered in dirt and bloodstains; for revolutionary readers this cannot and must not be forgotten.

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Last updated: 6 March 2015