An Introduction to the Social and Political Philosophy of Bertolt Brecht: Revolution and Aesthetics
by Anthony Squiers
Brill/Rodopi, Amsterdam, NL, 2014
187 pp. Paper, €42,00
ISBN: 978-90-420-3899-8; ISBN: E-book: 978-94-012-1181-9.
Reviewed by Rob Harle
This book is meticulously researched, very well written, and, I believe, an important addition to the literature on both Bertolt Brecht specifically, and Marxist socialist literature generally.
The book is divided into eight chapters as follows:
1 - Introduction
2 - Brecht's Ethics of Praxis
3 - Consciousness, Cognition and the Altering of Socio-Temporal Order
4 - Eidetic Reduction and Contradiction
5 - Rethinking Brecht's Split Character: Dialectics, Social Ontology and Literary Technique
6 - Brecht's Dialectics of Enlightenment
7 - Primary and Secondary Contradictions
8 - Conclusion
These are followed by an extensive Bibliography, comprehensive Index(s) and a Brechtian Chronology.
Squiers has successfully reconstructed Brechtian thought into a "single theoretical framework". This task involved the analysis of the relationship of art, politics, and philosophy. As Squiers shows, these three disciplines are inextricably intertwined throughout Brecht's project.
The results of the research could best be described as "a Marxist revolutionary aesthetic" (p. 139). Brecht's main purpose in his literary and artistic works, especially his "epic theatre," was not to provide light-hearted entertainment but to change the Weltanschauung of the proletariat--that is, "Brecht's ethical position was found in his philosophy of praxis. This position was to change the worldview of the proletariat and help set the conditions necessary for the end of social antagonisms and universal human emancipation. In Brecht's words, this "road leads over capitalism's dead body, but ... the road is a good one" (p. 53).
This demise of capitalism being "a good one" highlights just how obsessed Brecht was in changing the thinking of the masses. This book brings out the depth and extent of Brecht's missionary zeal, which to my mind borders on a "holier than thou" evangelistic approach. This revelation was not, I believe, a direct intention of Squiers' research; however, he does acknowledge this aspect of Brecht's mission. For example, when he says, "Brecht is confident that one objective truth can be ascertained and that he has done this (as anyone can) through material dialectics. His cocksure assertions like: 1) dialectics are "the only possible aid to orientation." 2) before the discovery of dialectics "the world could not be explained" (p. 143). Perhaps this aspect of Brecht's obsessive missionary zeal could be explored in detail in further research as it is a vitally important component of his overall project.
Brecht believed the proletariat were myopic in their understanding of the way the bourgeoisie values suppressed them, held them down, and exploited them. His epic theatre "constituted a specific philosophy of praxis, which was intent on converting the epistemic center of the working class to the material dialectical Weltanschauung" (p. 52). The main problem with this was that Brecht believed his work would result in the 'absolute' truth being revealed - just as misguided as any fundamentalist religious fanatic! There is no absolute truth!
Reading this book transported me back nostalgically to my university studies of Marxism and Philosophy & History of Ideas. This made me wonder just how relevant this book is in today's global society of neoliberalism, unregulated capitalism, and consumerism--that is, who now cares about Marxism and challenging the bourgeois' superiority? I suggest very few; unfortunately this challenge is now more important than ever because the destruction of the planet, not just exploitation of workers is at stake. Who are the bourgeoisie now? Who are the workers? China--and Brecht found a mentor and inspiration in the works and philosophy of Mao Tse-Tung--is perhaps still communist by name, but its wealthy billionaire class are buying properties and business all over the world.
The most important aspect of Squiers' research, and this resultant book, is to expand the somewhat narrow existing scholarship that concentrates on the aesthetic analysis of Brecht's works, which neglects or only superficially deals with his major contribution as a social and political thinker in his own right. I'm not sure if Squires' lofty claim that Brecht is the "Missing Link in Western Discourse," that which connects philosophy to literature to common sense is correct, but that is something that each reader will have to decide for himself or herself.
As Squiers says himself, "This work has been ambitious in scope [but] it constitutes only the beginning of an analysis of Brecht's social and political philosophy" (p. 142). As I previously mentioned, who cares about this area of philosophy? I can only hope that perhaps this book may re-open, in a sense, the whole socialist/political debate across a number of disparate, though relevant, disciplines. Apart from being important (essential) reading for political and critical theorists, this book will be truly inspirational for all those involved in creative areas whose praxis has an activist underpinning.