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#3-27: The Great Method

Sergei Zemlyanoi /// Bertold Brecht’s Project for Humanity

In 2003, I translated Brecht’s Me-ti. The Book of Changes into Russian. Me-ti is a slightly distorted name that belongs to the ancient Chinese philosopher and politician Mo-Dzi (Mo Di; 479-400 BCE), while The Book of Changes (I-Ching) is the name of a classical tractate written in the 8th to 7th century BCE, which was subsequently reused by many ancient Chinese thinkers.

In 2003, I translated Brecht’s Me-ti. The Book of Changes into Russian. Me-ti is a slightly distorted name that belongs to the ancient Chinese philosopher and politician Mo-Dzi (Mo Di; 479-400 BCE), while The Book of Changes (I-Ching) is the name of a classical tractate written in the 8th to 7th century BCE, which was subsequently reused by many ancient Chinese thinkers.

Brecht’s text is an anthology of fables and aphorisms. He uses Chinese names, realia and plots, but actually, he addresses the most burning issues of the 1930th. Me-Ti is divided into five sections. The first of these is dedicated to philosophy, the second to problems of morality, the third to a critique of capitalist society, the fourth to the theory of revolution, and the fifth to the Soviet Union, Stalin, and Stalinism. Even though this book of prose by Brecht was never finalized and only appeared posthumuously, there are good reasons to assume that it is in Me-Ti that Brecht expounded his project for humanity, his anthropology of the leftist intellectual, and his practical philosophy as a revolutionary. It is appropriate to focus on a few moments in Me-Ti that may not be completely clear to today’s reader, but that are very important to understanding the text.

The first part of Me-Ti is called “The Book of the Great Method,” and in it, Brecht develops his interpretation of Marxism. From the name of this book it is already obvious that its author emphasized the methodological essence of Marxist philosophy in the wake of Lenin, who regarded the dialectical method “the living soul of Marxism.”. Correspondingly, Brecht decisively rejects any interpretation of philosophy as metaphysics or knowledge of pure concepts, and launches a vehement attacks on such practioners:

“With words alone, without the aid of experiments, they want to force a decision with consequences to behavior. All they try to do is to bring a heap of words into sequences that create a kind of inevitability – the meaning of the words used does not change, and certain rules of sequence always still apply – in saying that everything or nothing is cognizable.” [1]

It is only natural that in the light of Brecht’s clearly anti-metaphysical position, he also cannot brook any attempts at Marxist Naturphilosophie. For Brecht, as for Georg Lukacs, as mutandis mutandi, for Karl Korsch, the Marxist dialectic only works in social and historical dimensions of reality:

“Me-Ti taught: Thinking is a form of behavior of people to other people. It is far less concerned with the rest of nature; because man only reaches nature through a detour via man. One must find the people from or to whom thoughts travel; only then will their effectuality be understood.” [2]

It follows that Brecht did not see Marx, Engels, and Lenin as the intellectual practioners of something akin to a philosophy of nature. Instead, he understood Engels’ famous Dialectics of Nature as metaphor.

“Some claim that the classics founded a philosophy of nature. They gave some hints on how to think about this or that, but mainly it was human nature that preoccupied them. Nonetheless Master Eh-Fu said some instructive things about nature. He showed the workers that there are revolutions in nature too, so that one can see revolution as something quite natural. (…) Master Eh-Fu took the principles of the contemplation of nature and logic that the bourgeoisie had gained through their revolution, and passed them on to the workers, so that they might make a revolution of their own.” [3]

Philosophy has no gnoseological access to nature independently of modern science. The latter is present at many places in Me-Ti: Brecht mentions Michaelson’s experiments, Einstein’s theory of relativity, quantum mechanics and Heysenberg’s uncertainty relation, as well as determinism and indeterminism on macro and micro-levels. Brecht respected the theory of science, though he did not see it as a genuine philosophical discipline. For Brecht, on the contrary, Marxist philosophy was neither a science nor a theory of science, but a crucial element of revolutionary practice. The dialectic of Marx and Lenin, according to Brecht, lives not through the element of philosophizing, but in the element of action, through the real transformation of the world:

“Me-ti said: Thought is something that comes after difficulties and comes before action.” (A Definition of Thought. p. 31). This clarifies why Brecht saw Lenin (Mi-En-Leh) and not Plekhanov (Le-Pe) as a great Marxist philosopher: “Many said of Min-eh-leh that he was a great practitioner, while Le-peh was a great philosopher. Me-ti said: Le-pehs practice proved that he was no great philosopher; Mi-en-lehs practice proved that he was a great philosopher. Mi-en-leh was practical in philosophy and philosophical in practice.” [4]

The emphasis Brecht places on the unbreakable unity of Marxist philosophy and revolutionary practice is so strong that he actually interprets the Great Method, that is, the dialectic, as a teaching on a dialectical way of life, a dialectical behavior:

“Me-ti said: It is beneficial not only to think according to the Great Method but to live according to the Great Method too. To be at odds with oneself, to force oneself into crises, to turn small changes into large changes etc., that all can not only be observed; it can also be done. One can live with more or less mediations, in more or less contexts. One can aim for or pursue a lasting change of one’s own consciousness by changing one’s social being. One can help to make state institutions contradictory and capable of development.” [5]

This dialectical way of life is perhaps the most important aspect of Bertolt Brecht’s project for humanity. In examining the Marxist philosophy presented in The Book of Changes, we should keep in mind that its author is following in the footsteps of his teacher in philosophy, the left Marxist theoretician and communist apostate Karl Korsch, who was to become one of the founders of Western Marxism. (In Me-ti, Korsch appears under the names of “Ko” and “Ka-osh.”) Here, I would only like to illuminate two of the many points of convergence in the views of Brecht and Korsch. First of all, in his pioneering work “Marxism and Philosophy,” Korsch unambiguously declared that a Marxist philosophy could never exist autonomously from practice. “To accord theory an autonomous existence outside the objective movement of history would obviously be neither materialist nor dialectical in the Hegelian sense; it would simply be an idealist metaphysics.” Further on, Korsch continues: “Moreover, the unbreakable interconnection of theory and practice, which formed the most characteristic sign of the first communist version of Marx’s materialism, was in no way abolished in the later form of his system.” [6]

Second, Korsch believed that, it would be unacceptable for Marxist philosophy to accept the criteria customary of science in the epoch of late modernity: “The real contradiction between Marx’s scientific socialism and all bourgeois philosophy and sciences consists entirely in the fact that scientific socialism is the theoretical expression of a revolutionary process, which will end with the total abolition of these bourgeois philosophies and sciences, together with the abolition of the material relations that find their ideological expression in them.” Brecht was fascinated by Korsch’s interpretation of the sciences of modernity as an ideology above which Marxist philosophy would rise, not as a meta-science, but a moment of practice that sublates this science into integral knowledge.

At this point it makes sense to look back at what lies at the center of Brecht’s view of humanity. In the second part of Me-ti, the “Book of Experience,” there is something like a sketch of “fleeting nature” under the innocent title “The Ideal of a Man in Older Times”:

“Keep your head when others are losing it; trust yourself when everybody else doubts you; but allow for their doubts; be able to wait and never tire of waiting; hear lies but don’t take part in the lying (…)” [7] and so on. If one looks at this text more closely, one soon finds that it is a prose paraphrase of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem “If…”: “IF you can keep your head when all about you // Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,// If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, / But make allowance for their doubting too;// If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, // Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies…” [8]

Why did Brecht have to retell Kipling’s poem in prose?

Brecht was clearly trying to defamiliarize the “ideal of a man of former times” that he saw in Kipling’s “If…” It is against this ideal that Brecht sets forth his own communist project for humanity, which the entire “Book of Experience” develops in detail. At the same time, one should realize that he does not appear as an enthusiast of this project, but more as its developer and constructor, much like Engineer Preckl, as Lion Feuchtwanger portrayed him in his novel “Success.” (Incidentally, Feuchtwanger also appears in Me-ti under the name of Fe-Khu-Wang). If the French moralists of the Enlightenment believed that “the mind is always the dupe of the heart,” in Brecht’s case, the heart was always the dupe of the mind.

While reading the “Book of Experience,” it sometimes seems that its author agrees fully with something the young Lenin said, who conceded to Werner Sombart that “‘in Marxism itself there is not a grain of ethics from beginning to end’; theoretically, it subordinates the “ethical standpoint” to the “principle of causality”; in practice it reduces it to the class struggle.” [9]

Brecht seems to be saying the same thing: “Ka-Me and Mi-en-leh (Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin – S.Z.) never postulated a doctrine of mores.” He quotes Lenin almost literally:

“Mi-en-leh said: we derive our mores from the interests of our struggle against the oppressors and exploiters.” [10]

By declaring his full support of a Marxism devoid of any reference to ethical frameworks, however, Brecht simply gains additional arguments in favor of his personal ethical utopia. Brecht dreams of a country that would not need do-gooders, a country without any need for a written ethic. Insofar as the Leninist imperative of the subordination of ethics to causality is concerned, Brecht felt that this thesis was a given of a global historical consensus, in the hope that one day it would not be so.

Brecht’s ethical utopia is a red thread that runs through his prose of the 1930th and beyond. One finds it in Stories of Mr. Keuner, in his journals, in his Refugee Conversations and in other texts of the time. In a diary entry dated 19.03.1940, for example, Brecht writes “I am thinking about a small epic called ‘Mr. Keuner’s Worries,” something a little like “Candide” or “Gulliver’s Travels.” Mr. Keuner is worried that the world could become uninhabitable once people, in order to make a living, must commit too many crimes or do too many good deeds. So Mr. Keuner runs from one country to the next, because everywhere they ask too much of him: they want either self-sacrifice, or bravery, or intelligence, or love of freedom, or the thirst for justice, or brutality, deceit, and so on. It is impossible to live in any of these places.” It follows that in Me-ti Brecht is developing precisely this ethical-anti-ethical position:

“In general, it holds that a country that with a need for a special moral code is poorly governed. [11]

He also fundamentally questions the kind of virtuous person that Plato and Aristotle praised and described as the just:

“In countries that are well governed, there is no need for any special justice. The just lack injustice, just as the lamenter lacks pain.” [12]

Embarking on this risky path, Brecht takes yet another decisive step: he launches an ethical rehabilitation of egotism, legitimizing it in the framework of communist thought.

Brecht’s dialectical interpretation of egotism is hardly identical though related to the theory of “rational egotism” popular among the Russian revolutionary democrats:

“Yang-chu taught: if one says that egotism is bad, one is thinking of the conditions in a state in which it [i.e. egotism] is having a negative effect. I call such conditions of a state bad. […] To speak out against egotism often entails wanting to uphold conditions that make egotism possible or even necessary. […] One cannot be against self-love if it is not directed against others. But one can be against the lack of self-love. Bad conditions come from both the self-love of some and its lack on the part of others.” [13]

At the same time, Brecht’s ethical innovation cannot be reduced to his utopia and his rehabilitation of egotism. In fact, at the center of that “intelligent place” at which his communist ethic is located, he breaks with century-old philosophical traditions. The subject of his ethics is not a wise man, a saint, or a hero, but the most ordinary, mediocre type of person, a philistine concerned with survival and thoroughly immune to idealism. This is what one calls a Jedermann in German, an everyman, with all his empirical weaknesses, his survival skills, his calculating schemes, and his mimicry. This is, in fact, the source of Brecht’s burning interest in the figure of the Good Soldier Љvejk, invented by the wayward genius of Jaroslav Hasek. Notwithstanding his simplicity, which looked like idiocy to “decent society”, it was Љvejk who could not be broken by the bureaucratic and military machines of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; in fact, it was Љvejk who ultimately made these machines break down. This is why Brecht saw the “Љvejks” of this world as a revolutionary resource that had yet to be tapped in developed capitalist countries. This shines a rather absurd light on the leftist avant-garde’s polemic against the “philistines,” the petit bourgeoisie, the middle class of bourgeois society that was undergoing a process of proletarianization during the Great Depression. In this point, Brecht proved more far-sighted than all of Comintern put together. Yet that does not mean that he was any less suspicious of the established left in the West, which quickly became an element crucial to late capitalism’s preservation and survival.

Brecht rehabilitated the moral status of the everyman, for whom the main hypothesis on the world is that it must be inhabitable. This went hand in hand with a sharp attack on moral imperatives:

“There are few pursuits, said Me-ti, that damage the morality of a man as much as the pursuit of morality. I have heard it said: You must love the truth, you must keep your promises, you must fight for the good. But the trees do not say: you must be green, you must let fruit fall straight down, you must rustle your leaves when the wind blows through them.” [14]

The only moral imperative that Brecht recognized was as follows:

“Me-ti said: I have not found many sentences beginning with ‘you must’ that I wanted to repeat. By this I mean sentences of a general nature, sentences directed to the world at large. One of the few sentences of this kind, however, is: “You must produce.” [15] Unlike many recognized authorities on morality, Brecht actually tried to follow the imperatives that he formulated in theory in his life. This brings to mind one of his poems: “I am in no need of a grave stone,// But should you need one for me// I wish it said// “He made suggestions. // And we accepted them. // This inscription would // do honor to us all.” [16]

You must produce… It is characteristic of Brecht that he addressed this demand to something so subtle as love and lovers:

“[…] Love should be examined separately, because it is a production. It changes the lover and the loved, for better or for worse. Even from afar, lovers appear as producers, producers of a higher kind.” [17]

 

But even in love, Brecht was incapable of giving up his intellect. He was convinced that to preserve their love, lovers would need a “third component.” They needed to find a cause in common. And for the men and women of the left, this common cause would be revolutionary activity.

These is a short version of introduction to the Russian translation of the Bertold Brecht’s “Me-ti. The Book of Changes”, published by Logosaltera in Moscow, 2004

Translators notes:

1. Exploring the Boundaries of Cognition. Bertolt Brecht, Me-ti. Buch der Wendungen. Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt/Main 1977. p. 28

2. Bertolt Brecht, Me-ti, “On Thought”, p. 19/20

3. Bertolt Brecht, Me-ti, The Great Method. The Philosophy of Nature. p. 120

4. Bertolt Brecht, Me-ti, Care in Safekeeping Experience. p. 40

5. Bertolt Brecht, Me-ti, How to Live According to the Great Method. p. 88/89

6. Karl Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy, 1923. Monthly Review Press, 1970, reproduced in its entirety at https://marxists.org

7. Bertolt Brecht, Me-ti, p. 154

8. Rudyard Kipling, “If,” 1896, https://www.kipling.org.uk

9. K. Tulin (V.I. Lenin), The Economic Content of Narodism, 1894

10. Bertolt Brecht, Me-ti, Condemnation of Ethical Doctrines,

11. Bertolt Brecht, Me-ti, A Country Should Not Need a Special Morality, p. 44

12. Bertolt Brecht, Me-ti, The Virtue of Justice, p. 44

13. Bertolt Brecht, Me-ti, On Egotism, p. 57/58

14. Bertolt Brecht, Me-ti, The Pursuit of Morality, p. 92

15. Bertolt Brecht, Me-ti, Me-ti and Ethics, p. 86/87

16. Bertolt Brecht: Ausgewaehlte Werke in sechs Bдnden. Vierter Band: Gedichte 2. Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt/Main 1997. p.223

17. Bertolt Brecht, Me-ti, Kin-jeh on Love. p. 158

 

Sergei Zemlaynoi, born 1949. Philosopher, research fellow at the Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of the Sciences. Translator of Brecht and Lukacs. Lives in Moscow.

Translated from German and Russian by David Riff. 

This is a short version of introduction to the Russian publication of the Bertold Brecht’s “Me-ti. The Book of Changes”, published by Logosaltera in Moscow, 2004

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