The general literary canons of Georg Lukács are by now relatively wellknown in the English-speaking world. Translations of his most important theoretical essays of the thirties have still, however, to be published. It was during this decade that Lukács, having abandoned political responsibilities in the Hungarian Communist Party, turned to aesthetic writings and gradually acquired a commanding position as a critic within the ranks of the German literary left. His debut in this role occurred in the Third Period phase of the Comintern, as a contributor to Linkskurve, the organ of the Bund Proletarisch-Revolutionärer Schrift-steller (bprs) or Association of Proletarian Revolutionary Writers, created by the kpd in late 1928. Lukács first distinguished himself in Linkskurve by mordant attacks on novels by Willi Bredel, a workerwriter who had been a turner in the engineering industry, and Ernst Ottwalt, a close associate and collaborator of Brecht, for what he alleged was the substitution of journalistic ‘reportage’ for classical ‘creation of characters’ in their fiction. footnote1 Brecht himself, together with the Soviet writer Tretyakov, was expressly linked to the negative trend exemplified by these writers, and his conception of an objectivist ‘antiaristotelian’ theatre repudiated. After the Nazi seizure of power in Germany, and the switch of the Third International to Popular Front policies against fascism, Lukács’s literary views became increasingly influential in the official organs of the German Communist emigration, where they could be used as an aesthetic counterpoint to political attacks on ‘leftism’ within the intelligentsia and the workers’ movement. footnote2 In exile, Lukács’s next target was the legacy of expressionism in German literature, which he vigorously belaboured in the journal Internationale Literatur in January 1934, in an essay entitled ‘Grosse und Verfall des Expressionismus’. Brecht, like many other German writers of his generation, had of course started his career as a para-expressionist himself, in his plays of the early twenties. Lukács had thus assailed, in reverse order, both the two main phases of his own artistic development. Two years later, Lukács published his richest and most seminal essay of this period, Erzählen oder Beschreiben?. In this text, he set out the main categories and principles of the doctrine of literary realism that he was to maintain for the rest of his life: the reiterated antithesis between naturalism and realism, the notion of the typical character as a nexus of the social and individual, the rejection of both external reportage and internal psychologism, the distinction between passive description and active narrative, the extolment of Balzac and Tolstoy as classical models for the contemporary novel. Those modern artists who ignored or contravened these regulative norms of literary creation were insistently pilloried for ‘formalism’ by Lukács.

Brecht, the greatest German writer to have emerged in the Weimar epoch, and a fellow Marxist, evidently came to feel an increasing pressure and isolation as Lukács’s precepts, ably articulated in the ussr itself (where Lukács had moved in 1933) and seconded by lesser associates like Kurella, acquired more and more official authority within the ambience of the Comintern. Benjamin, recording his conversations with Brecht in Denmark in 1938, noted: ‘The publications of Lukács, Kurella, et al, are giving Brecht a good deal of trouble’. footnote3 Nominally, Brecht was himself one of the three co-editors of the emigré front journal Das Wort, published in Moscow between 1936 and 1939; his two colleagues being Willi Bredel and Leon Feuchtwanger. In fact, his name was used for prestige reasons on the mast-head, and he had no say in its policy from his own exile in Svendborg. During 1938 however, besides giving vent to his feelings in violent objurgations in his private diaries, he wrote a series of trenchant and sardonic counter-attacks against Lukács, designed as public interventions in Das Wort—where a major debate was meanwhile still raging over the issue of expressionism, whose merits had been defended by, among others, Ernst Bloch and Hanns Eisler. The four most important of these texts written by Brecht, entitled respectively Die Essays von Georg Lukács (I), Über den formalistischen Charakter der Realismustheorie (II), Bermerkungen zu einem Aufsatz (III), and Volkstümlichkeit und Realismus (IV), are translated below. None of them were ever published in Das Wort, or anywhere else, in Brecht’s life-time. Whether Brecht submitted them to Das Wort in Moscow and they were rejected, or whether his own characteristic tactical prudence dissuaded him from ever sending them, still remains unclear. Benjamin, to whom he read some of the texts, reports that: ‘He asked my advice whether to publish them. As, at the same time, he told me that Lukács’s position “over there” is at the moment very strong, I told him I could offer no advice. “There are questions of power involved. You ought to get the opinion of someone from over there. You’ve got friends there haven’t you?”—Brecht: “Actually, no, I haven’t. Neither have the Muscovites themselves—like the dead.”’ footnote4 At the height of the Great Terror, Brecht may well have himself decided against any release of these articles. In the event, they first came to light in 1967, with the posthumous publication of Suhrkamp Verlag’s edition of his Schriften zur Kunst und Literatur in West Germany.

Brecht’s polemic against Lukács, while avoiding overly frequent invocations of his name after the first text, was in no way defensive in tone. On the contrary, it was caustic and aggressive, mustering a wide range of arguments designed to demolish the whole tenor of Lukács’s aesthetic. To start with, Brecht fastened on the manifest contradiction between Lukács’s view of the great European realists of the 19th century as essentially bourgeois writers, and his claim that their literary achievements should serve as a guide to proletarian or socialist writers in the 20th century: for if the novels of Balzac or Tolstoy were determinate products of a particular phase of class history, now superseded, how could any Marxist argue that the principles of their fiction could be recreated in a subsequent phase of history, dominated by the struggles of another and antagonistic class? The social reality of capitalism had undergone radical modifications in the 20th century, and necessarily no longer produced historical forms of individuality of the Balzacian or Tolstoyan type—hence to refurbish such figures in new conditions would actually be a signal flight from realism. The position of women in the contemporary usa, for example, let alone the ussr, structurally precluded the peculiar pattern of conflicting passions typical of Balzac. Conversely, where Lukács charged ‘modernist’ writing with formalism because of its use of such fragmented techniques as interior monologue or montage, it was actually Lukács himself who had fallen into a deluded and timeless formalism, by attempting to deduce norms for prose purely from literary traditions, without regard for the historical reality that encompasses and transforms all literature in its own processes of change. True realism, of which Brecht considered himself to be a staunch champion and practitioner, was not merely an aesthetic optic: it was political and philosophical vision of the world and the material struggles that divided it. At the same time, Brecht pointed out the extremely narrow range of literature in terms of which Lukács’s theory was constructed, even within the aesthetic field itself—its overwhelming preoccupation with the novel, to the exclusion of poetry or drama. The omitted genres were, of course, those in which Brecht himself excelled. More generally, many of the most radical innovations within German culture after 1918 had been first developed in the theatre. Brecht stressed the indispensable need for experimentation in the arts, and the necessary freedom of the artist to be allowed to fail, or only partially to succeed, as the price of the invention of new aesthetic devices in any transitional epoch of history. Interior monologue, montage, or mixture of genres within a single work were all permissible and fruitful, so long as they were disciplined by a watchful truthfulness to social reality. Fertility of technique was not the mark of a ‘mechanical’ impoverishment of art, but a sign of energy and liberty. The fear that technical novelties as such tended to render works of art alien or incomprehensible to the masses, moreover, was a fundamental error. Tartly reminding Lukács that working-class readers might often find notable longueurs in the leisurely narratives of Balzac or Tolstoy, Brecht invoked his own experience as a playwright as evidence that proletarian audiences and participants welcomed experimental audacity on the stage, and were generous rather than censorious towards artistic excesses, where these were committed. By contrast, any fixed or inherited concept of ‘popular art’ (Volkstümlichkeit) was contaminated by notoriously reactionary traditions, especially in Germany. To reach the exploited classes in the tempestuous era of their final struggle with their exploiters, art had to change together with their own revolutionary change of the world and of themselves.

The legitimacy and stringency of Brecht’s riposte to Lukács in the oblique polemic between the two, are plain and tonic. Brecht’s positions have, in fact, won very wide assent on the Marxist Left in West Germany since the recent publication of his texts, on the eve of the political rebirth of 1968. Few critiques of Lukács’s aesthetic theory have been so tersely effective in their own terms. Brecht’s diagnosis of the insurmountable anomalies and contradictions of his adversary’s recommendations for contemporary art remains largely unanswerable. Moreover, perhaps no other Marxist writer has defended (and illustrated) so forcefully—because soberly—the basic necessity for constant freedom of artistic experiment in the socialist movement. The intensity of Brecht’s feelings about the dangers to his own work latent in the generic strictures of Lukács and his colleagues in Moscow against formalism, can be judged from his outburst to Benjamin: ‘They are, to put it bluntly, enemies of production. Production makes them uncomfortable. You never know where you are with production; production is the unforeseeable. You never know what’s going to come out. And they themselves don’t want to produce. They want to play the apparatchik and exercise control over other people. Every one of their criticisms contains a threat.’ footnote5 This reaction of the artist to the critic, as practitioner to spectator, confers much of its strength on Brecht’s case. At the same time, it also indicates its limitations as a negative fin de non recevoir. For while Brecht was able to single out the weaknesses and paradoxes of Lukács’s literary theory, he was not capable of advancing any positive alternative to it, on the same plane. For all its narrowness and rigidity, Lukács’s work represented a real attempt to construct a systematic Marxist account of the historical development of European literature from the Enlightenment onwards. The precepts for 20thcentury art with which it concluded were often nostalgic or retrograde; but analytically it was far more serious in its attention to the past, as the precondition of the present, than anything Brecht was to assay. Brechtian aesthetic maxims always remained programme notes for his own productions. A remarkable achievement in its own way, even his doctrine of the theatre was essentially an expeditious apology for his particular practice, rather than a genuine explanatory typology of universal drama. Brecht’s precepts were far more emancipated than those of Lukács, but his theoretical reach was much shallower. The great vices of Lukács’s system were its consistent Europocentrism, and its arbitrary selectivity within the diverse strands of European literature itself—in other words, it suffered from too little history. Brecht was not in a position to correct these defects: his own attitude to the European past was at best empirical and eclectic (random borrowings, rather than repressive traditions), while his sporadic enthusiasm for Asian cultures was superficial and mythopoeic. footnote6 Tendencies to axe contemporary aesthetic debates within Marxism too centrally along the contrast between Brecht and Lukács, such as have currently developed in West Germany, overlook certain limits that in different ways they shared. In their own time, Lukács’s aversion to Joyce, Brecht’s to Mann, are suggestive of the divisions between them. But their common denunciation of Dostoevsky or Kafka is a reminder of the political and cultural bonds that made them interlocutors as well as antagonists in the thirties.

This degree of affinity can be seen most clearly by comparison with the two other outstanding German Marxists concerned with literature in the same period, Benjamin and Adorno. footnote7 Both the latter, of course, assigned pivotal importance to the work of Kafka, not to speak of Mallarmé or Proust. At the same time, there is a curious symmetry between the relationships of Benjamin to Adorno and Brecht to Lukács. With the Nazi consolidation of power, the German emigration had dispersed in opposite directions. By 1938, Lukács was institutionally installed in the ussr, Adorno was similarly established in the usa; Brecht remained solitary in Denmark, Benjamin in France. The personal, perhaps political, friendship between Brecht and Benjamin was much closer than their official relationships with Lukács or Adorno. Nevertheless, the main intellectual field of tension for both lay with their symbolically distributed correspondents in Moscow and New York, respectively. From each of these capitals, theoretical challenges were made to the two men, which engaged the whole direction of their work. In both cases, the ideological interpellation was not exempt from institutional pressures, but was never reducible to the latter. footnote8 The organizational co-ordinates of the Communist movement created a common space between Lukács and Brecht, as the more impalpable ambience of the Institute of Social Research linked Benjamin to Adorno; but ultimately Adorno’s criticisms of Benjamin and Lukács’s of Brecht acquired their force because of their degree of cogency and proximity of concern to the work at which they were directed. It is noticeable that the ‘Western’ debate reproduced the same dual problematic as its ‘Eastern’ counterpart: a dispute over both the art of the historical past of the 19th century, and the present aims and conditions of aesthetic practice in the 20th century. Consonant with Brecht’s desire to broaden Marxist literary theory beyond the novel, the prime object of the Adorno–Benjamin exchange was the poetry of Baudelaire. At the same time, whereas the clash between Lukács and Brecht over contemporary issues involved opposed conceptions of what socialist works of art should be within a framework of declared political militancy, the dispute between Benjamin and Adorno over modern cultural practice had different parameters: it was concerned with the relations between ‘avant-garde’ and ‘commercial’ art under the dominion of capital. The continuity and intractability of this problem has made it a central focus of aesthetic controversy on the left ever since, where the contradiction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ genres—the one subjectively progressive and objectively elitist, the other objectively popular and subjectively regressive—has never been durably overcome, despite a complex, crippled dialectic between the two. Against this history, Brecht’s art retrospectively acquires a unique relief. For his theatre represents perhaps the only major body of art produced after the Russian Revolution to be uncompromisingly advanced in form, yet intransigently popular in intention. The most important of Brecht’s claims in his polemic with Lukács was his assertion that his own plays found a vital resonance within the German working-class itself. The extent of the validity of this claim needs some scrutiny. Brecht’s largest successes in the Weimar period—above all, The Threepenny Opera—enjoyed a large bourgeois audience, in ordinary commercial theatres. His fuller conversion to Marxism post-dated them. His greatest plays were then written during exile and war without any contact with a German audience of any kind (Mother Courage: 1939; Galileo Galilei: 1939; Puntila: 1941; The Caucasian Chalk Circle: 1944–5). When they were finally staged in East Germany after the War, their audiences were certainly in the main proletarian, but since alternative entertainments (to use a Brechtian term) were not widely available in the ddr, the spontaneity and reality of working-class responses to the Berliner Ensemble remain difficult to estimate. But that the overall structure of Brecht’s dramaturgy was always potentially lucid and comprehensible to the spectators for whom it was designed, cannot be doubted. The magnitude of this achievement is suggested by its very isolation. After the Second World War, despite a plethora of socialist writers, no comparable work was produced anywhere in Europe; while in the West, the ascent of Beckett (critically consecrated by Adorno) as a new avatar of ‘high’ art, was actually to provoke Brecht to plan a play deliberately intended as an antidote to Godot. The fragility of Brecht’s synthesis, already evidence in this episode shortly before his death, has only been confirmed by aesthetic developments since. The collapse of the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard, in many ways the most brilliant and ambitious revolutionary artist of the last decade, when it attempted a political turn and ascesis not unlike that effected by Brecht’s theatre in the thirties, is the most recent and eloquent testimony to the implacable antinomies of cultural innovation in the imperialist world. Brecht’s example marks a frontier that has not been passed, or even reached again, by his successors.