Ruthless Criticism

Translated from: Was man im Unterricht lernt – Deutsch/Literatur/Englisch/Philosophie (1990), Socialistische Gruppe Erlangen

Bertolt Brecht:
An enemy of the constitution as a cultural asset

No doubt, Bertolt Brecht was an enemy of capitalism:

“An economic and political system which uses the want of the many for the advantage of the few; for capitalism does not survive in spite of the want of the many, but rather as a result of their want.”

He didn’t care much for high values such as nationhood:

“The talk that people would do well to defend something which does not belong to them . . .”


“religion, which sanctifies the use of property for the purposes of exploitation . . .”

Freedom of speech:

“The people in this country are not only controlled by the landowners and factory owners but also by themselves, which is called democracy. The first rule of self-control is keeping your mouth shut. In a democracy you also have freedom of speech, which is balanced out by the fact that it’s forbidden to abuse your freedom of speech by speaking.”

And precisely for those reasons he was also very much in favor of communism on principle:

“Communism is no mere variety among varieties. Radically bent upon the abolition of private ownership of the means of production, it opposes all the trends which, no matter how they are distinguished, are at one in the retention of private ownership, as if they were the same trend.”

He is even known to have liked Stalin and the Germany Democratic Republic. Taken together, he represents a body of ideas that would exclude anyone from becoming a train driver these days, in the freest of all social systems. So there’s no way that this is what earned him his place among the great classics of literature, even if he is seen as a hybrid because of his political views: He is definitely a cultural asset.

The bourgeois intelligentsia – otherwise averse to revolutionary activities – praised and appreciated him for a successful revolutionary act: “The theater of revolution.” Somehow he must have succeeded in doing something that made him interesting in these circles – without them having to become fans and advocates of Brecht’s views as a result. What could the reason be?

Is it because Brecht, in all his efforts to “update” the theater for “the cause of the proletariat,” always remained true to his love of classical bourgeois art? Is it because communists can’t cause any trouble on a stage? Or maybe because, with the alienation effect at the latest, the days are over when audiences would notoriously confuse theater with reality because of their “empathetic response”? Or is Brecht right when he says: “Capitalism has the power immediately and continually to turn the poison that’s thrown into its face into a drug, and then enjoy it”?

On the other hand – nobody really needs to falsify Brecht if they want to extract a message from “Mother Courage” about war and peace that is relevant today, or pick up on his sighs about the wickedness of the world in “The Good Person of Szechwan,” or that “you’ll never see the ones in the dark” in the “Threepenny Opera.” The “poison” itself must be good for intoxication if it’s so easy to enjoy!

The Good Person of Szechwan

The story in brief: a few gods come to earth to see if the world can stay as it is.

“If enough good people are found who live a moral life, the world can stay as it is.”

Result: they don’t find a single one. Even the good person on whom the gods have pinned all their hopes, the kindhearted prostitute Shen Te, can only live a kindhearted life if she, oppressed by creditors and the parasitic poor, uses a mask to transform herself into her hard-hearted male cousin Shui Ta, who plays along with the evil games of the capitalist world. As the kindhearted Shen Te, she can’t even provide for the child she is expecting, but as the hard-hearted cousin Shui Ta, she can exploit the labor of the poor in his factory and live a decent life, not morally, but financially. In the end, this thwarted good person is on his knees in despair and cries out for help, but the gods smilingly advise him to continue living as before, and if necessary, but not too often, to become evil.

To explain this conflict in more detail, let’s start with “the good person,” the prostitute Shen Te:

“Wait, Divinities . . . How am I good, tell me? I want to be but every month there’s the rent to pay. I sell my body in order to live. And even then I don’t make enough, since there are so many others doing it too. I want to follow your commands of brotherly love and honesty, I do, and not covet my neighbor’s house and to love one man faithfully and loyally and not exploit anyone or benefit from their misery or rob the poor and the helpless. But how’m I supposed to do all that? Even when I try my best I end up breaking half of them.”

“The instruction you gave me
To live and be good
Has ripped me apart like a lightning bolt. I couldn’t do it,
It was too hard – to be good to others And to myself at the same time.
Your world is so tough.
So much misery, so much despair.
Hold out your hand to help
And it will be torn off
Help the people who are lost
And you become lost yourself.
Who couldn’t resist being bad
If they know they’ll die hungry?
Where was I to find the strength that was needed?
Only from myself! But I wasn’t strong enough.
The weight of good intentions crushed me.
When I did wrong I walked around proudly,
My stomach full of fine food.
Something is wrong with your world.
Why is wickedness rewarded?
Why are the good punished so harshly?”

Brecht wants to show that life and virtue are not compatible, that “man” (actually) wants to be “good” but is prevented from being good by his circumstances. But this contrast between good intentions and bad circumstances does not exist. “I want to follow your commands,” says this woman – where did she get these commandments? Honesty, modesty, etc., the moral standards that appear here as (real) purposes to be pursued, are not real, practical purposes such as earning money, living, eating, etc. Honesty and modesty do not positively indicate what one wants to do or should do, on the contrary: they warn you not to do something, to refrain from doing something. They take into account a standard by which an existing will should be relativized, they demand the restriction of the will, what it wants or the use of means for its own success. One should not lie, steal, or be dissatisfied with what one has. This self-restriction of the will, which morality demands, is a peculiar contradiction: why should one actually hinder oneself from realizing one’s will in principle? The demand that every will must axiomatically subject itself to a restriction only arises when people are subject to practical restrictions, and the violation of these restrictions in the pursuit of normal purposes seems likely. Hypocrisy and cheating are on the agenda only when good faith is violated; only when there is reason to be dissatisfied with what one has or gets does the demand for honesty and humility make any sense at all. Earn money, but honestly: this admonition not to violate other people’s property only comes up when one doesn’t have the means to earn a living oneself. People only champion ideals of voluntary restriction because they are subject to state restrictions not of their own choosing, because by law they are only allowed to earn a living if they make a habit of respecting other people’s property. On account of these practical barriers to individual advancement, there is just as much need for the “neighbor’s house” to commit itself to not overstepping these barriers. The commandment to be good, the moral standards, express this as a self-imposed restriction on those who must, and then want to, get by without the means for a good life.

Brecht also can’t avoid mentioning in the course of his construction that the will to mercy is based on hardship and poverty. The good Shen Te wants to be good to the poor. Brecht turns this around and says that hardship and poverty do not give mercy a chance. He thereby completely forgets that this will to be good doesn’t exist unless practical necessities come to grief, that it only translates practical restrictions into freely chosen standards. The will to get along considers these standards to be (theoretically) absolutely valid – and in practice, of course, constantly violates them. So while morality includes hypocrisy because the unfairness of the world, the selfishness of others, forces one to think of oneself, Brecht takes an incredibly honorable, completely honest suffering from precisely these characterizations of the hypocrisy of bourgeois morality. He does not take this whining – I want to be good, but the world won’t let me – as the separation familiar to every bourgeois subject between one’s own actions and the maxims espoused in principle, which one simply has to override because of the immorality of other people. He considers this ploy to be, of all things, criticism. Not of morality, not of this fraudulent trick of self-deception; Brecht sees hypocrisy as a justified objection to conditions that do not give morality a chance. The criticism corresponds to this. The first God gives a summary:

“Business! Everyone’s doing business nowadays! Were the Seven Good Kings in business? Did Kung the Just sell fish? What does business have to do with a righteous and worthy life?”

Exactly: nothing! Business and justice can only be brought into a relationship retrospectively when, as a well-meaning person, one wants to complain about the unpleasant consequences that business success inevitably has. Measuring the capitalistic accumulation of wealth by the ideal of human dignity is therefore as baseless as it is wrong. All that Brecht comes up with as a critique of capitalism, of exploitation, from everything he cites from the world of the factory, is bunk about how capitalism hinders ideals that only arise on its basis. Szechwan, according to a stage direction, is a place where “people exploit people.” Exploitation, this economic category, is by no means unknown to Brecht. However, nothing more follows from the conflict between the owners of the means of production and those who, for lack of property, have to make themselves useful to the increase of this foreign wealth than the banality that it is about of “people” on both sides. The economic dichotomy does not seem to be based on the economic purposes being pursued, but rather to be a violation of a state of affairs in which the antagonism does not exist. He does not see overruled or curtailed interests to be a reason to raise objections to the former and then to make sure that the interests are asserted. The real antagonisms appear to be completely groundless, purely due to ill will. The exploiters in Brecht’s play (although this is very useful from a theatrical point of view) show a particularly evil disposition. They are imaginary figures, cardboard dummies for the image of malevolence, cold and calculating forces. The antipodes, paragons of virtue such as Shen Te, are correspondingly stupid. They are updated forms of Schiller’s characters and similar others. They are supposed to present the purpose of a pure goodness which must fail in the face of evil. After the play is over, Brecht adds an epilogue in which the audience is asked to draw a lesson from the world conjured up on stage, which is that morality has a very hard time in the world.

“What could be the ending? We couldn’t find one, not even for money. Could one change people? Can the world be changed? Would new gods do the trick? Or none at all? Moral rearmament? Materialism? It is for you (the audience) to find a way, to help good men arrive at happy ends. Dear audience, go on, find your own conclusion, there must be a good one, must must must!”

It’s clear what Brecht has in mind. A world should be created in which this ideal of a good common humanity exists. It is also clear who should build it. Precisely those he is addressing, those who feel their morality is being ripped off. When addressing the audience in this way, he simply highlights his idealism of morality to them, curtly ignoring the fact that in being moral one makes the mistake of wanting to cope with the necessities of the world and re-stylizes these necessities into guidelines for one’s own actions. This is the shortest and, incidentally, the normal path to becoming a “good person” in bourgeois society. This very ordinary paragon of virtue knows from “worldly wisdom” and precautionary “experience” that the realization of “goodness” is not possible anyway, and thus interprets his life as a wisely balanced and therefore deeply moral act. Brecht, who was of the opinion that a radicalization of this morality would lead to criticism, is kidding himself in the end, something that the play itself sets up so that the viewer/reader sits back contentedly because his Threepenny Opera philosophy about the wickedness of the world has been confirmed. The author warns against his own “moral of the story” and even considers this to be the strongest argument for committing oneself to this moral.

The good Bertolt Brecht

Interpretations exploit the poet’s moralism in their own way. His desire to abolish exploitation is praised as the very virtue that fails so sadly and beautifully in “The Good Person of Szechwan”: a very decent, but of course completely unworldly wish. Brecht is thus regarded as a particularly consistent idealist whose maxims can prove foolish in reality: The good B.B. as a key witness for the “bad world.”

That’s why a communist is the most widely read author in German literature classes.