This set of problems has a history, and Brecht is a key figure in it. If I like others am drawn to Brecht at this moment, it presumably is because the problems themselves point us back to his works and positions. Rereading Brecht, I have kept Adorno open on the table. I have tried to maintain the pressure that each puts on the other, and to think from that tension about the challenges of representing capitalism in art. Brecht’s works were aimed at producing pedagogical effects, at stimulating processes of radical learning. He took art’s relative autonomy for granted but refused to fetishize that autonomy or let it become reified into an impassable separation from life. He based his practice on the possibility of re-functioning and radicalizing institutions and reception situations. Adorno, in contrast, made the categorical separation from life the basis of art’s political truth content. In its structural position in society, art is contradictory: artworks are relatively autonomous but at the same time are “social facts” bearing the marks of the dominant social outside. Paradoxically, only by insisting on their formal non-identity from this outside can artworks “stand firm” against the misery of the given. Adorno’s position is first of all a categorical or structural one; it generally is not oriented toward effects or specific contexts of reception. Except, as will be shown, when it comes to the works of Beckett and a few others. The radically sublime effects that these works ostensibly produce led Adorno to advance them as counter-models to Brecht.

The argument I unfold here proceeds in three parts. In the first, I characterize Brecht’s committed approach to representing social reality as “dialectical realism.” In the second, I reread Adorno’s critique of Brecht, and in the third, I consider Adorno’s counter-models. My conclusions are, first, that Adorno’s critique fails to demonstrate the “political untruth” of Brecht’s work; and, second, that Adorno’s discussion of Beckett, Kafka and Schoenberg in this connection does not convincingly establish a generalized political truth effect for their works and therefore does not establish them as counter-models to Brecht. In any case, the truth effect Adorno claims for Beckett is not one that is oriented toward a radical political practice aiming at a passage out of capitalism.

I. Brecht’s Dialectical Realism

There are many roads to Athens.
– B. Brecht

Brecht’s representations of capitalism are often rough sketches or snapshots of the background processes against which radical learning takes place. Arguably, the learning process itself is almost always the main object represented. Capitalism – including fascism, one of its exceptional state and regime forms – appears as “the immense pressure of misery forcing the exploited to think.” In discovering the social causes of their misery, they discover themselves, as changed, changing and changeable humanity. Seeing the world opened up to time and history in this way, Brecht was sure, inspires the exploited to think for themselves and fight back.

As Fredric Jameson rightly points out, critical approaches to Brecht need to periodize his production carefully and situate each theater piece and other forms of writing within the context of struggles and social convulsions in which he worked. Minimally, we can distinguish between Germany before the Nazi takeover, the stations of exile through the period of fascism and war, and the years at the Berliner Ensemble after his return to a divided Germany. Within this rough division, moreover, every work and collaboration takes form as a specific intervention into a specific social force field.

Notably, the great experiments of committed didactic theater and film were produced in the three or four years just prior to 1933, a period of acute social misery and urgent partisan struggle. In addition to the crisis in Germany itself, where massive unemployment and the split in the German Left were effectively exploited by the Nazis and their backers, there was the additional problem, new and difficult, of evaluating developments in the Soviet Union under Stalin – namely the pressures of “socialism in one country” within a capitalist global order, the persecution of the old Bolsheviks in opposition, and the emergence, from 1929 on, of a leader cult enforced by terror. In the stresses of these few years, Brecht and Hanns Eisler collaborated on The Measures Taken and The Mother, the two most important of the learning plays, and Kuhle Wampe, the film with Slatan Dudow; from these years as well came Saint Joan of the Stockyards, the collaboration with Elisabeth

Hauptmann that is arguably Brecht’s most direct representation of capitalism as a nexus of forces and processes.
Brecht’s theoretical production has to be periodized and situated in the same way. The major treatments of epic or “non-aristotelian theater,” developed in the pre-Nazi German period in the wake of The Threepenny Opera, show Brecht opening his way to a fully committed and politicized theater. The encounter with Mei Lan-Fang, Sergei Tretiakov and others in Moscow in 1935, combined with the loss of his own apparatus and public, spurs the development of Verfremdung or estrangement, as an organizing artistic category, from 1936 on, as well as his reconsideration of the relation between critical thinking, feelings and pleasure in the Work Journals and Messingkauf Dialogues. These would be worked out more formally in the Short Organon for Theater, written in Zurich in 1948, just before his return to Germany, and would become the working program for the Berliner Ensemble. The retorts to Lukбcs and others over the meaning of realism, which Brecht chose to hold back from publication, were worked up from the insecurities of exile in Denmark on the eve of war in 1938, well after Socialist Realism had become official Comintern doctrine under Zhdanov. Around this same time Brecht learned that Tretiakov and Carola Neher, among others close to his own artistic positions, had been accused and disappeared in Stalin’s purges.

But having registered the differences in these moments, I now work back in the other direction, and go from the particular back to the general. For beyond the shifts in emphasis and focus, some abiding and properly Brechtian artistic principles are derivable. These can be brought together under the sign of “realism,” in the precise and flexible sense in which Brecht developed this category. For reasons I now make clear, “dialectical” is the best term with which to qualify Brecht’s notion.
In the polemics over realism, Brecht had to defend his earlier innovations against charges of formalism and against a rigid and restricted conception of realism based on models from the bourgeois tradition. His strategy then was to broaden the category by demolishing simplistic separations of form and content and by exposing the narrowness and rigidity of criteria derived exclusively from particular historical forms – in this case, from the bourgeois novels favored by Lukбcs. Brecht writes:

Keeping before our eyes the people who are struggling and transforming reality, we must not cling to “tried” rules for story-telling, venerable precedents from literature, eternal aesthetic laws. We must not abstract the one and only realism from certain existing works, but shall use all means, old and new, tried and untried, deriving from art and deriving from other sources, in order to put reality into peoples’ hands as something to be mastered.

Since there are many ways to represent reality as material to be mastered, as a nexus to be grasped and changed, it is important, Brecht goes on, to encourage artists to explore all means available in seeking effective combinations of form and content:

For time flows on, and if it did not it would bode ill for those who do not sit at golden tables. Methods exhaust themselves, stimuli fail. New problems surface and call for new means. Reality changes; to represent it, the mode of representation must change as well. Nothing comes from nothing; the new comes out of the old, but that is just what makes it new.

In contrast to official versions of Socialist Realism, then, the realism Brecht calls for is precise in aim but flexible, even experimental, in means and method. It aims at representations of reality that are workable, operable, practicable – helpfully applicable to transformative practice.
What makes them workable is that they are de-reifying: they show society not as a static and naturalized fate or second nature, but as a field of forces and processes in motion, unfolding in time, subject to development. The individual appears in such representations not just as a psychological subject but also as a “causal nexus”, an ensemble of social relations that are historical and therefore changeable. The name for this mode of radical thinking, this critical stance or Haltung oriented toward transformative practice, is, of course, dialectics. Brecht’s flexible realism is dialectical, in this radical, Marxist sense. The first test of dialectical realism is whether or not, in context, it produces this effect of de-reification or estrangement. Verfremdung is then the general category for all the diverse artistic techniques for producing this effect, which in turn becomes a moment in a larger process of radical learning. These artistic principles – what I now call dialectical realism – can be actualized today, provided artists mark the distance between Brecht’s time and our own and aim their interventions at contemporary conditions.

II. Re-Reading Adorno’s “Commitment”

Better no more art at all than Socialist Realism.
– T.W. Adorno

Adorno’s critique, developed most fully in the 1962 radio talk and essay “Engagement,” is notorious enough. Its conclusions are difficult to swallow: Brecht ends up as an apologist of Stalinist terror and the false-reconciliations of “really-existing socialism,” and his works are pronounced politically “untrue.” These damning judgments have been answered in various ways. Here I consider them specifically through the problematic of representing social reality. Adorno makes two kinds of arguments against Brecht. The first is structural or categorical: it unfolds from Adorno’s analysis of art’s double character. Art’s autonomy or difference from life is what constitutes it in the first place; art cannot renounce this autonomy without at the same time undoing itself as art. The second kind of argument is immanent: Adorno makes specific criticisms of Brecht’s works based on Brecht’s own political criteria. “If one takes Brecht at his word and makes politics the criterion of his engaged theater,” Adorno concludes, “then by this criterion his theater proves to be untrue [unwahr].”

How are the two kinds of arguments articulated? The joint that links them is an implicit distinction between artistic and theoretical representations. Artistic representations are assessed as aesthetic instances of non-identity, but theoretical representations have to meet the rigors of a different kind of testing. Brecht chose to be governed by the criteria of committed theory rather than those of autonomous art; in effect, he turned Marxist theory into his formal artistic principle. For Adorno, adequate theoretical representations of social reality have to dig out the “essence” of social processes – that is, their deepest logic and tendencies, what Marx called their “law of motion or movement.” Adorno invokes Hegel to make this point.

“Hegel’s Logic taught that essence must appear,” he notes. In other words, essence must take concrete, determinate form in time and place. To represent the social essence in a form other than the one in which it actually appears in history is to represent something different. If, in order to construct a memorable parable, amusing satire or effective piece of agitation, a committed writer or artist attempts to slip essence into a different form, Adorno concludes, then this is a falsifying representation that is politically untrue, even if it is produced in the name of a true cause. Why? Because the process of aesthetic reduction short-circuits the chain of mediations leading from social facts to the essence behind them. Brecht wants to foster critical spectatorship, but the imperatives of partisan struggle lead him to render reality as something less complex and threatening than it is. The theory that submits to such imperatives ends by teaching submission. For Adorno, this is most clear when Brecht “glorifies the Party without mediations” or degrades himself as a “eulogist of agreement.” Ultimately this is not just Brecht’s failure, Adorno argues; it is a structural problem with all committed art that renounces its autonomy in order to instrumentalize itself politically. Art can only do poorly what theory already does better; and dishonesty about this becomes political untruth. Art that accepts its autonomous status only has to answer to local aesthetic criteria and earns the medal of political truth by insisting on its difference from praxis and real life. But because Brecht’s art is bad theory, Adorno contends, it therefore, especially given Brecht’s position, fails as art as well. Adorno’s specific criticisms of Brecht’s works are underwritten by the structural-categorical argument, but try to demonstrate it through an immanent immersion in particular works: by showing how particular works fail as theory and recoil into dishonesty and untruth, Adorno also aims to show the impossibility of art merging with theory under the sign of commitment.

This is the gist of Adorno’s critique of Brecht. It can be tested by directing critical questions toward any of its three levels: the structural argument, the specific criticisms, or the notion of theory on which the whole case turns.

(1) The Structural-Categorical Argument

I accept the premise of Adorno’s structural argument, but not the proof he derives from it. Art under capitalism does have this double character: both relatively autonomous and social fact. Politically, art is this contradiction produced from an extracted social surplus: it exists only by sharing in the general social guilt and yet bears a radical promise of happiness that stubbornly exceeds its saturation by exchange value. Art is relatively autonomous because every artwork despite its autonomy remains a specific appearance of the social essence; the master logics of capitalist processes always leave scars traceable in the dialectic of form and content. Moreover, art is relatively autonomous because despite the autonomy of specific artworks, the production and reception of art as a whole has affirmative and stabilizing social functions: the compensatory virtual utopia of art captures and neutralizes rebellious energies, fostering resignation, accommodationism and conformity in real life. And because the reception of art, even leaving ownership issues aside, still presumes a privileged access to leisure time, education and dominant class culture, it also functions as a system of social distinctions that supports class society. For all these reasons, it is appropriate to speak of the capitalist art system, as well as culture industry – although Adorno does not go this far. The crux is this: within these institutionalized social functions, there is still enough relative autonomy for an artwork to assume a critical stance, even a radically critical stance. But, and here is where I part from Adorno, such a stance actualizes itself in the form of an intervention in specific moments and situations. The critical force and political truth content of a work can only appear and have effects within the openings and constraints of specific contexts or conjunctures. This Adorno tends not to admit. From art’s contradictory double character, he concludes that artists either accept autonomy as such or reject it full stop. Any compromise of autonomy at all becomes equivalent to total surrender. This does not follow, and the example of Brecht suffices to see why. Whatever Brecht may have said, in practice he never gave up an operative relative autonomy; there was never any absolute renunciation of autonomy. Thus the categorical argument on its own is not a serious disqualification of Brecht’s art. More on this below.

(2) What Form of Theory?

Before addressing some of Adorno’s specific criticisms, I want to question the conception of theory Adorno invokes against Brecht. Is he invoking radical critical theory, as Horkheimer elaborated it his programmatic 1937 essay, or is it in fact something more like that “traditional theory” – bourgeois or liberal theory – which Horkheimer rejected? Traditional theory sees its task narrowly as the production of knowledge in a form that is neutral with regard to social conflict. Accordingly, it enforces a strict separation of facts and values. Critical theory, in contrast, has understood that in a class society constituted by relations of exploitation and domination, pure knowledge is an illusion. Theory grasps reality and makes sense of empirical facts by means of categories. But these categories are themselves the result of selections and exclusions. They enable the analyst to think or do certain things, but only by not thinking or doing other things. The categories of social analysis are dense with congealed history. They always reflect a heritage of prior evaluative judgments about what is worthy of notice and study and what is not. And such judgments are never disinterested, even if the links to interest are indirect or unconsciously assimilated into the analysis. Overall, the pretense of theoretical neutrality necessarily aligns itself with the established powers of existing society, for these are the main beneficiaries of the knowledge it produces. Unlike traditional theory, which remains blind to the affirmative functions that implicate it, critical theory includes a reflection on its own position in society. Critical theory reflects on the historical origins and development of its categories and on the social functions of the modes and institutions of reason. All theory, then, is committed, knowingly or not.

Adorno certainly took over these Frankfurt Institute positions and, we know, polemicized energetically against the “positivist” heirs of Max Weber. But here he forgets that commitment to the real struggle to change the world is precisely what differentiates a radical dialectical critical theory from affirmative (or non-critical) and liberal (or non-radical) forms of theory. Frankfurt critical theory positioned itself outside Party discipline, but this was not in order to avoid the struggle for classless society. And Horkheimer makes this point unmistakably in his 1937 essay – just as the Moscow Trials were beginning and in the year after the new Soviet Constitution had cynically declared socialism to be an accomplished fact. After duly noting the tensions inherent in a critical theory that mirrors neither the existing consciousness of the exploited nor the slogans and policies of their Party vanguard, Horkheimer nevertheless makes clear that it is the practical orientation toward “the struggle for the future” that sets it apart from theory as a reified, ideological category: “[The critical theorist’s] profession is the struggle to which his thinking belongs, not the thinking that considers itself independent and separable from that struggle.” Or again: “The theory that in contrast drives on the transformation of the social whole has for now the effect of intensifying the struggle to which it is bound.” This struggle is imposed on theory by the social antagonisms structured into productive relations under capitalism.

I quote Horkheimer’s own words, underscoring their repetition of the term “struggle,” because this is precisely what Adorno loses sight of in his 1962 essay. Although he is criticizing works written for a real and shifting context of struggle, he elides the concrete situations to which Brecht’s works respond. The slippage comes in the move from the empirical defects of Brecht’s representations to their ostensible political “untruth.” “Truth” and “untruth” – social and political Wahrheit and Unwahrheit in the Marxist-Hegelian sense in which Adorno used these terms – are relational categories, actually situational evaluations made with regard to the aim of global emancipation, classless society, what Adorno packed into the codeword “reconciliation.” Whatever really or potentially contributes to the process of realizing classless society is true, in this sense; whatever blocks, sets back or endangers this process is untrue.

But given the ruses of reason and ironies of history, assessing truth content is difficult work. And the reversals and paradoxes of the revolutionary process, experienced as the dilemmas of disciplined militant praxis, surely constitute one of Brecht’s abiding themes. “Who fights for communism,” as the control choir in The Measures Taken puts it, must “speak the truth and not speak the truth,” as the struggle demands. If a falsified or weaponized representation contributes effectively to the revolutionary process, because it answers to an urgent need in a context of struggle, then, false or not, it becomes politically true. What needs might these be? All that contributes to morale and sustains a struggle through difficult moments, for example – all that inspires tenacity and resilience and staves off resignation and despair. Have we then landed on the slippery slope tipping over the abyss of apologetics for terror? We are at least in waters deep and murky, and any evaluation in this direction is instantly contestable. Still, the paradox holds: sometimes doing bad contributes to the good, while sometimes doing good leads to the bad. Or, in the form we are considering: artful lies and fictions can sometimes serve the truth. It does depend on the situation. About these kinds of problems, to paraphrase Marx, clarity only begins post festum.

(3) The Level of Specific Criticisms

If we grant this, then an artwork’s truth content can only be evaluated on the basis of a rigorous, detailed analysis of its context and effects. Adorno does not provide this kind of analysis. Let us take his criticisms of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. They are, on first reading, well and cogently made. As a representation of German fascism, Brecht’s satire of Hitler is indeed problematic. “In place of a conspiracy of the highly placed and powerful,” Adorno writes, we have a silly gangster organization, the cauliflower trust. The true horror of fascism is conjured away; it is no longer something incubated in the concentration of social power but is accidental, like misfortunes and crimes.

In other words, Ui misses rather than clarifies the essence of fascism as a product of capitalist social logics. In so far as it re-packages this essence in a form that makes it unrecognizable, Brecht’s comic parable is a falsifying representation. Moreover, the strategy of satire and humor Brecht uses to deflate Hitler and ridicule the Nazi leaders only trivializes both the social forces backing the Nazis and the enormous powers of violence and terror gathering behind the social contradictions of Weimar. But let us accept these points. Must we then also accept Adorno’s summary judgment, that Ui is politically untrue? No, for this evaluation does not necessarily follow.

Brecht and his collaborator Margarete Steffin completed Ui in Finland in April of 1941, but it was never staged or published in his lifetime – a fact Adorno fails even to acknowledge in his 1962 critique. In early 1941 Hitler’s war machine was everywhere triumphant. Its eventual defeat could in no way be taken for granted then, as it could be after the belated entry of the Americans and turning of Stalingrad in early 1943. In this light, Ui is not so easily dismissed. Arguably, in that dark moment, this satire might have contributed something. However, had Ui been written and staged ten years earlier, in 1931, then Adorno’s criticisms would carry more weight. At that moment a representation of fascism that is falsifying in the ways Adorno pointed out would also have been politically untrue, for the underestimation of the Nazis and lack of clarity about the social forces behind them could have had catastrophic consequences for praxis. Just this kind of confusion contributed to the Nazis’ rise to power. A sober and accurate estimation of fascism would have clarified the urgent need for a united front between Communists and Social Democrats to bridge the split, if not heal the bad blood, in the German Left. Obviously, no single artistic representation can be held responsible for the poverty and defects of political consciousness at that crucial moment. But possibly, if enough eyes had been opened, the Nazi takeover might have been averted.

However, to go beyond such an assertion and actually demonstrate the political untruth of a given representation, it would be necessary to establish a correct and accurate baseline against which the representation in question could be assessed. Then it would be necessary to demonstrate how the defects of this representation actually damaged the antifascist struggle in the moments of a specific and unfolding situation. This Adorno does not try to do. With good reason: to do so would itself require a feat of historical representation. For what constitutes the essence of both fascism as such and German fascism are still hotly debated questions – especially as they touch the relation between fascism and capitalism and the role of anti-Semitism. And even within the tradition of critical Marxism, divergent theories of fascism are continuously being revised and corrected in light of ongoing research. But let us take it a few steps further. Assuming we can confidently establish what social forces and processes combined to produce particular forms of fascism, we would still need to mark the difference between our reflected retrospection and the efforts of those who had to grasp fascism from within that moment of struggle and crisis.

Representations produced under such pressures can only be adequate in the most provisional way; to treat them as definitive would itself be a falsifying distortion. Retrospective evaluations of Brecht’s works would require a detailed discussion of both the actual social reality that forms the context of those works and the representations of that reality available at the time.
Strategy entails representations that interpret reality. For the working class on the defensive, the struggle against the Nazis was above all a strategic problem of alliances. A practical unification of working class parties and organizations should therefore have been the highest priority. If we accept that a united front between the Social Democrats of the SPD and Communists of the KPD would have been the necessary, not to say sufficient, condition of blocking the Nazis, then we would have a criterion: representations of fascism that foreclosed the possibility of a united front after events had clarified the urgent need for it would be both false and untrue. But the exact point at which this urgency became clear, or should have become clear, would be difficult to establish. It could probably be shown that the official position of the Third International from 1928 until 1935 was both false and untrue in precisely this way. Moreover, certain defects of the Comintern position could probably be tracked back to the strategic realignments compelled by the Stalinist doctrine of “socialism in one country.” The strict subordination of the Parties to the imperatives of Soviet foreign policy certainly distorted political analysis and strategy during these years, and it is there, in those distortions, where the false can be seen to become the untrue, in Adorno’s sense.

But we cannot implicate Brecht in this, by simply identifying his representations with official Stalinist ones – at least not without much more evidence and argumentation than Adorno provides. Adorno seems to assume, on the basis of The Measures Taken, that Brecht glorified the Party blindly and uncritically and that there is no distance at all between his positions and representations and the Party’s. Adorno certainly does not demonstrate this, and I doubt that it could be demonstrated, even for works produced in the early 1930s, when Brecht was closest to the KPD. When we immerse in the particulars, as Adorno insists we do, and work to dig out the truth and untruth entangled in the social flow of time, then the rigors of empirical testing cut both ways. What has been clarified is that each of Brecht’s anti-Nazi works – from Roundheads and Peakheads, nearing completion just as the Nazis came to power, to Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, written in 1937, Ui of 1941, and Schweyk in the Second World War, written mainly in 1943 – each has to be evaluated carefully in light of unfolding events and the urgent effort to comprehend them. They need, that is, to be assessed as specific interventions into specific situations.

“A Fairytale of Horror”

Roundheads and Peakheads, begun in 1931, would have been a better choice than Ui for Adorno’s critical attentions. A stage manuscript of this horror parable was circulating by the end of 1932. When he left Germany the day after the Reichstag burned, Brecht took with him the proofs of a revised version subtitled Rich and Empire Go Gladly Together. In exile he revised it again, with Steffin and Eisler; versions in Russian and English were published in Moscow in 1936 and 1937, and in German by the Malik Verlag in 1938. It was first staged, with Eisler’s music, in Copenhagen in 1936. Unlike Ui, then, the genesis of Roundheads and Peakheads reaches back before the Nazi takeover and, as a representation of fascism, presumably bears more directly the traces of class struggle in its pre-1933 conjuncture.

The epic parable focuses on the Nazi displacement of class antagonism into race antagonism. This displacement consists in a recoding that invests ideological meanings in arbitrary physical attributes, destroying solidarities and producing realignments among groups in class struggle. The shape of the head becomes the marker of standing in the new regime; those with the wrong head shape, purportedly evidence of foreign origins and an abject spirit, will be dispossessed and exterminated. The work depicts the susceptibility of the impoverished peasantry and Mittelstand – the petty bourgeois shop-owners, small producers and salaried employees – to this ideology. The Pachtherren, the estate owners, give Iberin-Hitler dictatorial powers because he alone can repress the rebellious renters and crush their communist Sickle League; at the same time they think they can manage and exploit Iberin’s racial turn. Roundheads and Peakheads began as an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. The Verfremdungseffekt of the parable derives in large part from the combination of a feudal setting and elevated poetic diction with contemporary scenes and language: in the streets of the old city, Iberin’s Huas or SS talk in Nazi jargon and Umgangssprache. However, the feudal setting is also a source of the main defects of the work.

The altered balance of social forces and state crisis that conditioned the Nazi takeover is inadequately represented. The Junker estate owners are depicted, but they were only one class making up the dominant power bloc in Weimar – the other, the big bourgeoisie, is absent. And with it, so is the master logic of capital accumulation. The antagonism between rural landlords and tenants is not the same as that between capital and waged labor. The sickle is there but the hammer is missing; the workers and their parties are absent. As a result, the real political problem of the German Left and the working class movement at that moment – how to overcome the SPD/KPD split and form a united front – cannot emerge.
An adequate representation of German fascism would need to comprehend it as a solution to accumulating social contradictions that were culminating in political crisis. Nicos Poulantzas gives us a powerful and theoretically precise account of the rise of Nazism within the shifting relation of forces in Weimar. The power bloc of dominant classes and fractions reflected the transition to monopoly capitalism in Germany and, internationally, the pressures of imperialist rivalries. It also reflected the changing conjunctures of class struggle between the main class antagonists, labor and capital.

Although it had industrialized relatively late, Germany did so efficiently: as it entered the transition phase, it was the leading economic power in Europe and globally second only to the United States. Despite the burden of war reparations, Germany had regained this position by 1928. But this economic strength concealed some grave contradictions. Agriculture, still loaded with feudal traces, lagged far behind industry, and the Junker landowners occupied command positions in the state and military “quite out of proportion to their economic power and their position in production.” Burdened with debts to foreign and especially American capital, Germany had become a net importer of capital. With no colonial empire, it was critically dependent on access to world markets. Finally, the state form in Weimar, largely a legacy of Bismarck’s revolution from above, was unable to play the role required of it in the transition to monopoly capitalism. Due to the accommodation with labor that founded the Weimar Republic, the parliamentary share-out of political power often impeded large-scale state interventions supporting the fusion of industry and banking into finance capital, or big monopoly capital. In sum, despite Germany’s economic power, a deep political crisis was looming in these structural instabilities: when the political and ideological aspects are taken into account, the “ensemble of contradictions in the German social formation” made it, with Italy, one of the two weakest links in the international “chain” of unevenly developing imperialist rivals.

The class struggle in Germany must be grasped as a dynamic factor that both conditions this structural predicament and, as the state form goes into political crisis, is conditioned by it. The traditional social alliance between the Junkers and the big bourgeoisie survived into the Weimar transition phase. As firms merged into combines, trusts and cartels, the old divisions of the big bourgeoisie according to sectors of industry were resolving into a single fractional division between big monopoly and medium capital. The interests of these three dominant groups did not always coincide; conflicts erupted as the balance and composition of the power bloc shifted. But throughout the Weimar interlude, these dominant groups deployed their economic power, first to collaborate with the SPD in repressing the revolutionary option represented by Spartakus and the KPD, then to contain and roll back the wage gains and social securities extracted by the SPD and unions. By 1924, revolution had been checked in Germany and the working class offensive had come to a halt. By 1928, after a step of stabilization, big capital went on the offensive. Processes of concentration and the fusion of banking and industrial capital accelerated, but resurgent big capital was unable to establish its political hegemony over the power bloc. The political crisis of late Weimar, then, was this: the parliamentary state form that the dominant capitalist bloc had been forced to concede in 1918 was by 1930 fissuring under the pressure of capital’s restored economic power. To the decisive dominant groupings of big capital, the multi-party Weimar state no longer appeared a viable medium for resolving conflicts within the power bloc or for securing mass loyalty for a higher rate of exploitation. The “legal path” to dictatorship seemed to offer more than the costs and risks of defending parliamentary Social Democracy. What the Nazis offered the dominant bloc was a virulent right-wing ideology (anti-communist and racist, but also populist, authoritarian and ultra-nationalist) capable of recomposing a mass base from the Mittelstand or middle class. As Poulantzas puts it in his Gramscian-Althusserian idiom, the Nazis of the late Weimar conjuncture were “indispensable to mediate a re-establishment of political domination and hegemony.” The hegemony mediated was that of big monopoly capital.

In this light, the obstacles to clarity about the urgent need for a united front can emerge. The SPD, having reconsolidated its mass base by negotiating a redistribution of extracted surplus in the form of labor reforms and wage increases, was unable to realize that by 1929 the structural limits to a reformist position had been reached in Weimar. The SPD was not prepared to respond to the crisis by radicalizing its analysis and joining the Communists in an open rejection of the master logic of accumulation. For its part the KPD, even leaving aside external distortions resulting from Stalinism, was never able to overcome the trauma of its decapitation and repression at the hands of the SPD and Freikorps in 1919. Its leadership would never again trust the SPD, and those more lucid were unable to correct the defects of the so-called “third period” Comintern position on fascism. According to Comintern interpretations, fascism was a general phenomenon of monopoly capitalism in its final decay, a continuum rather than exceptional mutation of bourgeois democracy. Poulantzas autopsies the Comintern’s economism, which led it to interpret fascism as proof of capital’s weakness – and to mistake it for a defensive formation rather than the offensive it was. The strategy that followed was disastrous. Fascism’s mass base in the middle class was held to be unshakable; no use trying to realign its loyalties or enlist parts of it as allies. The Social Democrats were merely “social fascists” with whom no practical alliance was thinkable. Fatally, these positions guided practice until 1935. This crucial political problem for the German Left simply doesn’t appear in Roundheads and Peakheads.

One last defect must be registered. At the beginning of the work, Brecht effectively fingers the genocidal threat of Nazi “blood and soil” ideology. In scene two, an Iberin militiaman reads it aloud from a newspaper: “Iberin says expressly that his single aim is: extermination of the Peakheads, wherever they are nesting!” By the end, however, this racist aspect has become a discardable, merely opportunistic factor. The Peakhead landlords are able to restore themselves to power, and the class antagonism is now projected outward in a war of expansion. In retrospect at least, this reflects a fatal underestimation of the Nazi investment in anti-Semitism. To sum up, my reading doesn’t so much prove the political untruth of Roundheads and Peakheads as it shows how far truth and untruth remain entangled in it. The critical task is to do the untangling, not to issue a crude retrospective condemnation of the playwright.

Adorno’s Critique of Brecht: Conclusions

All this points to a problem in the critical method Adorno develops from his structural analysis of art’s double character. Any artwork that takes a critical stance against capitalism necessarily does so from a position of at least relative autonomy vis-а-vis the dominant social totality: otherwise, such a stance would not be possible at all. But because Adorno does not admit that radically committed art under capitalism entails an operative relative autonomy rather than an utter renunciation of all autonomy, he relieves himself of the need to investigate context in a more than abstract and passing way. If the social outside always shows up within artistic form, as its “polemical a priori,” then this structural constant cannot by itself be the basis for differentiation and assessment. This alone should point us back to the outside, to specific effects in actual reception situations, but Adorno declines to make this move. His formalist tendency to discount context leads him to treat representations as if each one was definitive – meant to stand for all time, rather than to intervene in specific situations. If there is a “use by such-and-such a date” marking, Adorno does not notice. In the case of his critique of Brecht, this tendency becomes a destructive avoidance. To conclude: dialectical immersion in particular works entails a simultaneous immersion in the social contexts for which they were produced. Evaluations of the quality of Brecht’s representations and the net balance of their truth content cannot simply be carried out categorically. Nor do specific criticisms alone suffice to render a summary judgment, without seriously taking into account the real context of struggle. If this is right, then Adorno has failed to back up his judgment of Brecht in anything like an adequate way.

III. Of the Radical Sublime

Not even the dead will be safe from the enemy wins if he wins.
– W. Benjamin

The essay “Engagement” is also one of the places where Adorno revisits his 1951 assertion that “after Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric.” Elaborating this claim, he advances Beckett as the artistic counter-model to Sartre and Brecht. Without getting into all the issues and problems opened up by this “after Auschwitz” formula, I at least need to insist that Adorno is pointing here to the catastrophic character of capitalist modernity as a whole. The catastrophe is the whole dialectic of enlightenment – as it has unfolded and continues to unfold in the late capitalist era of culture industry and administered integrations. To Adorno’s Auschwitz, we need to add Hiroshima. These two events are the “test pieces” which confirm that the catastrophe is not somewhere in the future, still to be avoided, but has already taken place – and is continuing, in the sense that the global social process that produced them continues to churn on. More specifically, they demonstrate what administered state violence is now materially capable of. All this confirms that social reality, unfolding as history, has killed off the myth of automatic progress. The future of humanity in any form, let alone emancipated ones, is from now on open to doubt and can no longer be taken for granted. If this is so, and I at least must grant it, then there are consequences for the representation of social reality.

Crucially, these genocidal techno-administrative forces were developed in a specific global conjuncture of class struggle: they are products of defeats suffered by the exploited and from now on are aimed at the exploited, as the weapons of state terror. That is, they are aimed at humanity itself, at the potential humanity carries in itself to overcome its fears and collective self-oppressions and make the social passage from necessity to freedom. It does not follow that the revolutionary process is dead or that humanity will never reach classless society. But it does mean that, on the side of the exploited, the political and cultural forms of class struggle have to process and reflect these new realities. The old postures, images and marching music asserting the advent of classless society to be imminent, inevitable or any way automatic have been falsified by history, in a very precise sense. Auschwitz and Hiroshima are two events of qualitative genocidal violence that cannot be folded back into any redemptive narrative of progress. The potentials they announce enter history as irredeemable moments that explode toxically in every direction. Revolutionary theory and practice now must take this into account: the qualitative event that arrives to reorder everything is not necessarily progressive. The Novum or radically new now appears as the ambiguous Angelus novus – the machine angel or angel of history that announces either a leap toward emancipation or else an absolute ruination more terrible than any momentary defeat. Which one, none can know beforehand. Now, any representation of contemporary social reality must also comprehend these products and meanings of capitalist modernity. It is no longer enough merely to represent capitalism as such, as if Auschwitz and Hiroshima have not taken place, for these events clarify tendencies and potentials that belong to the essence of capitalism as it actually has developed in time. Today, the global regime of exploitation and control is enforced by nation-states; state terror, grounded in genocidal powers accumulated and held in reserve, has very specific social functions. Given that the pathway to emancipation and reconciliation still has to pass through the ordeals of class struggle, aspirations to radical social transformation are obligated to develop a non-catastrophic revolutionary process. One crucial field of strategic struggle therefore opens up around the obvious and urgent need to organize a political containment and neutralization of state terror. For that task, we collectively are very far from where we need to be.

For Adorno, the catastrophe of capitalist modernity in this larger sense can only be evoked in art indirectly, through negative representations. Beckett’s Endgame becomes the main model. This, I have argued at length elsewhere, is Adorno’s rewriting of the sublime. Sublime representations do not have to be empirically accurate renderings of social processes. They merely have to stand firm in their autonomous difference from the given, Adorno claims, and they will function as formal mirrors of the social outside whether they want to or not. Perhaps. And perhaps, as Luke White has argued cogently, a work like Damien Hirst’s infamous platinum and diamond skull is a sublime representation of capitalism along these lines. Perhaps we can even, with enough ingenuity and good will, get from there to the critique of capitalism – as we would need to, if we would set free the political truth locked up in the sublime. But in general, it is clear that sublime representations of the social given – and especially those evoking the catastrophic aspect of social relations and processes – are not likely to inspire a struggle-oriented political practice. The sublime hits and overwhelms us, but nothing more or specific necessarily follows from this hit. If there is a likely political response to an enjoyable encounter with the semblance of terror, then it is probably resignation or prudent quietude. If sublime hits are linked to a radically critical receptive process – it is by no means certain that they will be, but if they are – then representations of this kind may help us by grounding our critical reflections bodily, in the feelings and sinews, as it were. Where this happens, it means that sublime feelings have been successfully translated into critical consciousness.

This, I take it, is how Adorno thought we might respond to Beckett: an aesthetic experience that, triggering and passing through emphatic anxiety, gives bodily support to a radical stance against all forms of false-reconciliation. This seems to be the only kind of hit or effect (Wirkung) Adorno is willing to endorse. Here is the passage where he makes the case for this sublime way of representing post-Auschwitz capitalism. The paradox, that for the impulse of committed art to be fulfilled, art has to give up all commitment to the world, is, he writes: based on an extremely simple experience [Erfahrung]: Kafka’s prose and Beckett’s plays and his truly monstrous novel, The Unnamable, produce an effect [Wirkung] in comparison to which official works of committed art look like child’s play; they arouse the anxiety [Angst] that existentialism only talks about. In taking apart illusion, they explode art from inside, whereas proclaimed commitment subjugates art from outside, and therefore in a merely illusory way. Their implacability compels the change in behavior that committed works merely demand. Anyone over whom Kafka’s wheels have passed has lost all sense of peace with the world, as well the possibility of being satisfied with the judgment that the world is going badly: the moment of confirmation within the resigned observation of evil’s superior power has been eaten away.

Such an experience actualizes at the level of form the Verfremdungseffekt that Brecht tried to install at the level of content or message. Maybe. This is first of all Adorno’s testimony about his own responses; the rest is extrapolation dressed in categories. Let us assume these responses really can be generalized. But in that case, what is their politics, really, all these Beckett and Kafka readers? How many battalions are they? Will their labor produce “four moons” to light the night sky? My crude point is that the stance that appreciates standing firm against false-reconciliation is different from the stance seeking a practice to restart a blocked revolutionary process. Or in a more contemporary idiom: these are different subjectivities. It is the latter stance or subjectivity that dialectical realism on the Brechtian model would today aim to support and foster. Not to say that the sublime is therefore worthless and should be thrown away. We can have our Brecht and read our Beckett too. It is only Adorno’s insistence on posing a choice between two “irreconcilable” positions that justifies some sarcasm.


If a problem can be clarified, the solutions are emerging.
– anonymous paraphrase of the Marxist classics

Adorno’s case against Brecht, then, comes down to this: art must not try to do what theory already does better, and in any case preaching to the converted does not win anyone for the revolution. For the reasons given, Adorno’s preference for the sublime anxieties of uncommitted art should not scare us away from Brecht or contemporary forms of dialectical realism. Until everyone has the time and access to culture to work through Das Kapital and has actually appropriated Marx’s critique of capitalism, we will be happy to have artistic representations that bring social processes and power into view, however incomplete or flawed such renderings ultimately may be. Flaws and omissions can, after all, be pointed out and discussed. If it is “the immense pressure of misery” itself that forces us to think, what we think still needs to pass through our reflections and representations. Any artistic representation of social reality that provokes or fosters radical learning is a contribution to emancipation. In certain contexts and given an adequate critical reception, sublime works and images may have this effect.

Committed works of dialectical realism are likely to be more helpful. We cannot expect that any single representation, however ambitious and monumental, will give us the essence of social appearance with exhaustive perfection, as Alexander Kluge’s nine and a half hour gloss on Eisenstein’s unmade film of Capital should remind us. But if the pressures of crisis and war, mega-slums and absolute poverty, climate change and ecological degradation lead us to try again to organize a passage beyond the master logic of capital accumulation, then we will need artistic as well as theoretical representations of social reality. The more representations the better, then, so long as they are dialectical – so long as they dissolve social facts into processes and the logics driving them. This kind of radical realism will always contribute to that Great Learning by which alone we can make our collective leap.