Brecht and Workers’ Self-Inquiry


The lucidity of Brecht’s journal entries is remarkable. He is a master of aphorisms, yet he never allows forms to stifle the richness of content. The meaning overflows through the pores of the condensed entries of his journals. Every entry is a bombshell, which fractures appearances and reveals the structure of the real, putting it into a crisis.

In 1936 he wrote an entry in which a worker’s almost instinctive refusal to work and the right to leisure are articulated. It shows that “incipient class consciousness” is already there among workers in work relations and the feeling of solidarity emerges right there.

The worker in this entry is Brecht himself. He is working as a scriptwriter in London, where he came to “learn to write for films”, but he ends up “learning something different”.

Although his boss or superior treats him as “an absolute equal, the nature of the work” is such that he feels “like an employee”. But a worker’s refusal is not about unfairness, or even formal and informal inequality at the workplace. It is about work itself. “i have not chosen the subject i am working on for myself, i can’t relate to it and i don’t know what will happen to my work when it comes on the market. i only have my labour to sell, and what is done with it afterwards has nothing to do with me.

But it is also not just about being disinterested towards the subject. Work is the whole material structure of work relations which is intrinsically class polarised. Workers’ interests are totally opposed to the efficient functioning of this structure. Hence, the refusal to work. “my interests are quite opposed to those of my employer. since i am on a weekly wage, it is not good for me if the work progresses quickly, quite the contrary.

The subjectivity that takes shape in this atmosphere is spontaneous. “already i even catch myself taking out my watch as evening approaches; i want to get away, it’s time for real life to begin.” But his urge to escape is not because he is looking forward to something. “real life is quite separate, and incidentally quite unappealing.” He is not falling for the fetish of “own time”. It is simply a space-time where he is not thinking about work. “but in ‘my own time’ i don’t waste a single thought on my daily work.

It is this refusal that makes a worker relate and empathise with other workers and build horizontal relations. “i leave with the little englishman who works alongside me as translator and we strictly avoid touching anything that might remind us of work. i feel a sense of total solidarity with him when he refuses to work on sundays.

The building of such relations cannot remain hidden, it disturbs the whole segmentation that constitutes these relations. It makes superiors (in work hierarchy – supervisors etc) suspicious, and they try to regain confidence of workers by making a common cause against employers. But workers are aware of the tactic, yet they know its possible need too, so they remain silent. “kortner seems to have noticed this incipient class consciousness, for he often says on the phone, when he is cancelling an appointment, that with his job he has work to do – just as any boss might.” whenever he can, he makes mock of his employers, points out their inferiority and laziness, whereupon we are both silent.

When Brecht eats his lunch at his superior’s place, it is in the company of the latter’s wife who “is very nice” that “it all stops and i am the great poet once more.” He also has “the privilege of being able to take a nap, but then, after coffee, the situation changes once more.

And as a finale, Brecht ends, “the paper i am using to write this is from work: i pinched it.”

Visit: Brecht on “the Concept of Class”

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