In the theater and forms of writing he practiced, Brecht tried in many ways to depict “the immense pressure of misery forcing the exploited to think.” In discovering the 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. Any art that shows this process becomes a weapon of class struggle. Brecht theorized this kind of committed art under different names at different times. “Realism” and “dialectics” are probably the most useful, and the most important to grasp. In the precise but flexible way he developed these terms, they may be helpful to those seeking to develop an effectively politicized artistic practice today.

Dialectical Realism

In the polemics with Lukács in the late 1930s, Brecht aimed to defend his work against charges of “formalism” and to position it within the official, Comintern-sanctioned conceptions of “realism.”In some essays written for Das Wort, the Moscow-based journal, but not published at the time of these debates, he sought to broaden the notion of realism according to some very sensible criteria.He rejected, in fact demolished, simplistic attempts to separate artistic form and content into crudely opposed elements.For Brecht this was a dangerous tendency that distracted from the real critical problem.Every artwork, every artistic innovation or experiment, brings form and content into some kind of relation – in short, into a dialectic.What critics need to ask is this:does a particular dialectic of form and content reveal the individual as a “causal nexus” capable of struggling and collectively changing the world?This question can only be answered by looking at the work itself and the effects it produces in context.The answer can’t be looked for, Brecht insisted, in past models imposed once and for all or in abstract rules set down in advance.

Brecht’s version of modernism, theorized in the essays on epic theater from 1930, unfolded from the possibilities he saw to open up the static relations between form and content conventionalized by tradition.Against Wagnerian fusions of form and content into an intoxicating aesthetic soup, experienced as an overwhelming unity, Brecht called for a “radical separation of elements.”Music, spoken and sung words, and www, as well as additional elements such as film and radio, were to be clearly differentiated and deployed in order to take up a critical position or attitude vis-à-vis the plot.Each formal element, in other words, sets up a separate dialectic with the unfolding action, or content.The total effect of these dialectical moments or episodes was insight into the changeable nature of reality that stimulated and empowered the spectators’ critical faculties.Radicalized in a context of partisan struggle in Germany, this strategy led directly to the Lehrstücke or didactic plays.

Defending these experiments in the essays for Das Wort, Brecht argued for a broader understanding of realism than the narrow one advanced by Lukács:“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 in the hands of people in such a way that it can be mastered.”

Since there are many ways to do this, some established and others yet to be discovered and developed, it’s important 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 demand 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.”

Representing the Enemy

In Brecht’s notion of realism, any artistic strategy is effective if it exposes the social totality as a causal nexus of relations and changeable product of history.To put it differently, Brecht’s art always aimed at a dialectical representation of capitalist society and its processes of exploitation and domination.Dialectics, as I’m using the term here, means grasping how time and possibility flow continuously through social life, actually or potentially transforming from within all that tends to be mistaken for fixed, eternal and unchanging.A dialectical representation of social reality is one that de-reifies and de-naturalizes human relations.Ultimately, it shows humanity to be an open essence produced in and by history, rather than an invariable nature imposed by fate.

In this regard, it would be instructive to understand Brecht’s oeuvre dialectically as well – as a sequence of dialectical representations produced at particular moments within an unfolding social context.That is, each of his theater works, poems, textual fragments and multi-media collaborations with Weigel, Hauptmann, Steffin, Weill, Eisler, Laughton and others, can be seen as an intervention, an attempt to establish a dialectic with the causal network, the social force-field, as Brecht perceived it in specific times and places:Germany during the partisan struggles, when a revolutionary passage to classless society was still a global project and evaluations of the USSR under Stalin a difficult problem; the stations of exile after 1933, when the Nazi seizure of power deprived Brecht of direct access to an apparatus and public; Europe after 1939, when war made support for the alliance against the fascist states an urgent priority; California from 1941 through the end of the war, as the disclosures of Auschwitz and the news of Hiroshima impelled reassessments of fascism and capitalist modernity; East Berlin after his return in 1948, as he tried to hold open space for an experimental realism under the pressures of the Cold War and a Stalinist regime.

Working back through Brecht’s production in this way would at least help us to see that any contemporary practice inspired by Brecht would have to be more than a mere application of his categories and positions.It would have to establish the essential features of the contemporary context, in order to clarify the conditions for an effective dialectical representation and intereventionist practice today.

It also opens up somewhat Adorno’s polemic against Brecht in the 1962 essay “Engagement.”Aside from their obviously different positions regarding the politics of artistic autonomy, Adorno’s specific dialectical criticisms of Brecht here have mainly to do with the effectiveness of Brecht’s dialectical representations of fascism and Nazism.The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui and other anti-fascist works of the late 1930s and early 40s deploy humor to undercut the aura of invincibility of the Nazi war machine.Writing after critical reflection had begun to expose the full historical meanings of Auschwitz, Adorno condemns Brecht’s strategy as a dangerous trivialization of fascist power.For Adorno, the problem had become, not just how to depict capitalist relations and processes in an adequate way, but how to represent the whole disaster of capitalist modernity.On that point, Adorno’s critique bites.But with regard to Brecht, we may find that it goes too far and strays off target, especially given, first, that these works were meant to be weapons of struggle at particular moments rather than definitive representations and, second, that Brecht, recognizing their limitations, chose not to stage them after the war.

Why Dialectics?

It is probably unnecessary to pose this question for regular readers of Chto delat.But given the persistent prevalence of Deleuze-inspired rejections of “dialectics” in art theory today, it won’t be a waste of time to review quickly the case for holding on to the weapon of dialectics, as sketched above.Capitalist relations impose a fundamental division of labor on productive activity and processes, that between those who control and direct production and those who carry it out through wage labor.Making it possible for those who control production to pump surplus value out of those who have to perform it, this division is a wound that literally tears social reality in two.Mediated, institutionalized and enforced by state power and violence, it spreads through every aspect of what is now a globalized class society, saturating everyday life with alienation.Dialectics is the mode of thought that digs out and tracks the effects of this social division.It is not simply one intellectual tool on a menu of many, to be called on if we feel like it.Dialectics is imposed on us, as a necessary urgency, so long as we aim to hold the capitalist causal nexus in view and overcome it.

It is not that these categories – division of labor, exploitation, class – amount to an exhaustively complete description of social reality, accounting for all forms of human activity, conflicts and possibilities.They don’t.But they do account for the forces and processes out of which class society unfolds and is reproduced.If we want out of capitalism and class society, then we are obligated to become critical dialecticians.In doing dialects, we are simply empowering ourselves to see the main cause of our collective misery.If we manage to find the political solutions with which to overcome the historical impasses of revolutionary practice and make the passage to a classless society – that is, one which organizes production without exploitation or domination – then we won’t need dialectics any more.Until then, what we need is more dialectics, not postmodernist confusions about this.

Saying this is not of course to claim that all forms of thought that have historically gone by this name are the same or are equally valuable or even legitimate.We have known for many decades that the crude forms of Diamat that supplied the pieties of orthodoxy were hostile to dialectics as outlined above.It would be nice if this were acknowledged more often.In any case, if we’re going to go on reading A Thousand Plateaus for inspiration today, then we had better at least read it together with Negative Dialectics and Brecht’s Collected Works.


Gene Ray is a critic and theorist living in Berlin, a member of the Radical Culture Research Collective (RCRC).  He is the co-editor, with Gerald Raunig, of Art and Contemporary Critical Practice: Reinventing Institutional Critique (2008) and guest-editor, with Gregory Sholette, of a Third Text special issue on tactical media (2008).