This short essay is a study of Brecht, specifically the politics and poems of Brecht. Bertolt Brecht was one of the great poets of the 20th century — in that his poetry reflected the politics of the 20th century. Brecht was a Marxist, a Communist, and a Socialist. His poems, and his plays, reflected this political standpoint. His work was political in every sense, but Brecht also had a keen sense for ordinary men and ordinary women within society — and the society of the 20th century.
Brecht always insisted on placing ordinary people, their hopes, their fears, and their dreams, at the centre of his poetical work, his theoretical work, and his theatre work.1 This focus on ordinary people, as human beings, makes him a great poet — and a great Socialist poet.2
Brecht was a German poet and a German Communist. He lived through an age of revolution and counter-revolution — specifically the German Revolution of 1918-1919. He lived through the reality of the struggle against Fascism and Nazism — the struggle against Hitler. He lived through the Depression and the years of struggle. He also lived through the Weimar years and the struggles of the War years. If any poet understood the social difficulties of the 20th century, for Socialism and for humanity, that poet was Brecht.
Poetry is often seen as secondary in Brecht’s work. This is partially true — as his main work was always his plays, his screenplays, and his theoretical work. Despite this, poetry was important to Brecht — both to himself and to his wider intellectual development. The politics at the centre of Brecht’s poems should be obvious — he believed in solidarity, in comradeship, in friendship, in humanity, in a love of humanity, in compassion, and in Socialism. His poems look at the reality of life for countless men, countless women, and countless workers. His poems declare that humanity is vital.3 His poems declare that we are all deserving of some humanity.4
Brecht’s poems were central to his life. He wrote poems from an early age — and continuously worked to develop his poems and his ideas about poetry. There is a constant sense, in the poetry of Brecht, that his poetry is always developing, always seeking development. Pity and humanity are central concerns to the poetry of Brecht — and they are central concerns for any poet who really wants to be taken seriously. We can see the development of the poetry of Brecht in every stage of his career as a poet — from his youth, through the years of the 1920s and the 1930s, through the war years, through the years of living in East Germany, through to his death in 1956. The sense of constant, revolutionary, development is central to the poetry of Brecht — as is humanity. The poems of Brecht are poems designed to criticise existing Capitalist society — for its exploitation, its oppression, its wars, and its imperialism. We can see this, very clearly, in the following poem, ‘German War Primer’, (1955):
Amongst the highly placed
It is considered low to talk about food.
The fact is: they have
The lowly must leave this earth
Without having tasted
Any good meat.
For wondering where they come from and
Where they are going
The fine evenings find them
They have not yet seen
The mountains and the great sea
When their time is already up.
If the lowly do not
Think about what’s low
They will never rise
The Bread of the hungry has
All been eaten
Meat has become unknown. Useless
The pouring out of the people’s sweat.
The laurel groves have been
From the chimneys of the arms factories
The central point of any poem by Brecht is the ordinary person — the ordinary worker. In almost all of his poems he could be speaking of any ordinary person in the world — specifically any worker in the world. This makes his work not only political — but universal. This makes his work not only interesting — but socially vital. In times of social struggle, the poetry of Brecht remains revolutionary.
The 20th century was a century of revolution. Brecht lived through that century. Most of his poetry is expressly based around the politics of that century of revolution. From the Russian Revolution of 1917 to the German Revolution of 1918-1919, Brecht’s poems about revolution are probably his best. His poems also warn of the danger of the reality of counter-revolution — especially in the form of Fascism and Nazism. Brecht lived his life as a Marxist and as a Socialist. He lived his life through a period of serious social struggle — which he carefully documented through his poems. In these terms, Brecht can only be read as a committed revolutionary and as a committed revolutionary poet.5
The central point of any understanding of Brecht needs to be political. None of the poems or works by Brecht are apolitical. Every one of his works are political — designed to put forwards a Socialist vision of humanity and a Socialist vision of the struggle for the liberation of humanity. This makes Brecht a great poet — because he recognised the central political reality of all poetry. If we understand Brecht’s poetry, and Brecht’s biography, we can see a man who was always searching to make poetry into a revolutionary form of art. In this sense, in his own work, Brecht firmly succeeded. He was a revolutionary poet — in a revolutionary time. Brecht recognised that if poetry is to be useful to society then it must be political — and it must be revolutionary. Brecht remains one of the great revolutionary poets. Brecht will always remain a revolutionary poet.
1. B. Brecht, The Modern Theatre is the Epic Theatre, (1930)
2. R. Hayman, Brecht: A Biography, (1983)
3. W. Benjamin, Understanding Brecht, (1983)
4. W. Benjamin, Understanding Brecht, (1983)
5. B. Brecht, German War Primer, (1955)
6. F. Jameson, Brecht and Method, (1998)
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This post was written by R.G. Williams