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New Left Review I/84, March-April 1974

Bertolt Brecht

Against Georg Lukács


I have occasionally wondered why certain essays by Georg Lukács, although they contain so much valuable material, nevertheless have something unsatisfying about them. He bases himself on a sound principle, and yet one cannot help feeling that he is somewhat remote from reality. He investigates the decline of the bourgeois novel from the heights it occupied when the bourgeoisie was still a progressive class. However courteous he is in his treatment of contemporary novelists, in so far as they follow the example of the classic models of the bourgeois novel and write in at least a formally realistic manner, he cannot help seeing in them too a process of decline. He is quite unable to find in them a realism equal to that of the classical novelists in depth, breadth and attack. But how could they be expected to rise above their class in this respect? They inevitably testify, too, to a decay in the technique of the novel. There is no less technical skill about; it is merely that technique has acquired a curious technicality—a kind of tyranny if you like. A formalistic quality insinuates itself even into realistic types of construction on the classical model. Some of the details here are curious. Even those writers who are conscious of the fact that capitalism impoverishes, dehumanizes, mechanizes human beings, and who fight against it, seem to partake of the same process of impoverishment: for they too, in their writing, appear to be less concerned with elevating man, they rush him through events, treat his inner life as a quantité negligeable and so on. They too rationalize, as it were. They fall into line with the ‘progress’ of physics. They abandon strict causality and switch to statistical causality, by abandoning the individual man as a causal nexus and making statements only about large groups. They even—in their own way—adopt Schrödinger’s uncertainty principle. They deprive the observer of his authority and credit and mobilize the reader against himself, presenting him with purely subjective propositions, which actually characterize only those who make them (Gide, Joyce, Döblin). [1] Alfred Döblin (1878–1957): German novelist and exponent both of Expressionism and Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity). His major work was Berlin–Alexanderplatz (1929), written under the influence of Joyce and Dos Passos. One can follow Lukács in all these observations and subscribe to his protests. But then we come to the positive and constructive postulates of Lukács’s conception. With a wave of his hand he sweeps away ‘inhuman’ technique. He turns back to our forefathers and implores their degenerate descendants to emulate them. Are writers confronted by a dehumanized man? Is his inner life arid? Is he driven through existence at an intolerable pace? Are his logical capacities weakened? Is the connection between things no longer so visible? Then writers must simply retain the old patterns, produce a rich life of the spirit, hold back the pace of events by a slow narrative, advance the individual to the centre of the stage by their art, and so on. Here specific instructions dwindle into an indistinct murmur. That his proposals are impractical is obvious. No one who believes Lukács’s basic principle to be correct, can be surprised at this. Is there no solution then? There is. The new ascendant class shows it. It is not a way back. It is not linked to the good old days but to the bad new ones. It does not involve undoing techniques but developing them. Man does not become man again by stepping forth from the masses but by sinking deeper into them. The masses cast off their loss of humanity and thereby men become men again—but not the same men as before. This is the path that literature must take in our time when the masses are beginning to attract to themselves everything valuable and human, when they are mobilizing people against the dehumanization produced by capitalism in its fascist phase. It is the element of capitulation, of withdrawal, of utopian idealism which still lurks in Lukács’s essays and which he will undoubtedly overcome, that makes his work, which otherwise contains so much of value, unsatisfactory; for it gives the impression that what concerns him is enjoyment alone, not struggle, a way of escape, rather than a march forward.

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Bertolt Brecht, ‘Against Georg Lukacs’, NLR I/84: £3

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