Brecht on “the Concept of Class”

8 Jan 42

the concept of class too, perhaps because it has come down to us as it was framed in the last century, is used much too mechanically today. there is nothing to be derived from a purely statistical concept of a german working class nowadays; yet such a concept is deep-seated. trade-unions and political parties are accustomed to count members. the political concept is devalued too, since it presupposes organisations and ‘democratic forms of state’, a ‘free interplay of forces’ which can be steered by the ruling class. the closure of the labour market in the interests of the war economy has damaged the term ‘class’ as an economic concept. what remains is the class itself. it, happily, is not just a concept.

the fact that wars cannot be waged without the proletariat (as the productive force) does not mean that a war which is disagreeable to the proletariat cannot be waged. a revolutionary situation only comes into being when eg it takes the individual initiative of the proletariat to fight a war that the proletariat favours, or when a lost war can only be liquidated by the proletariat. etc etc.

In this entry from his Journals 1934-1955, Brecht captures the complexity of the class question. The “coming down” of this concept as “framed” in a particular phase in history leads to its devaluation in another phase in history. The statistical, political and economic conceptions were all devalued in the phase of the war economy, but what remained was the class itself, which “happily, is not just a concept.” In this note, he implicitly advances the need for the movement of concept to capture the reality of class.

In the second para, he brings out the reality of the proletariat of which Marx and Engels talked about in their Communist Manifesto – of the dialectic of class formation. Marx and Engels achieved this by critiquing the political economic logic of competition and cooperation as foundational to the formation of classes and class struggle in capitalism. They showed how the negation of classification is immanent in the process of classification. This dialectic recurs in Brecht’s writings at numerous occasions. As an example, we can cite one of his most used and abused poem, General, den Tank, or even his War Primer. In fact, that is why montage is central to his creative writings which captures the dynamics of internal relations that constitute the real, thus reclaiming “the genuine reality [that] has slipped into the functional”. The problem of the proletariat as the “productive force”, as a reification that constitutes capital, as being complicit in wars does not do away with the proletarian initiative. In fact, it is this initiative or art that interrupts the normal exposing what has been functionalised, thus generating “a revolutionary situation.”

This note can be posed as an answer to the dominance of the analytical tradition within the progressive (including the Marxist) circle in our times, which can be broadly divided into two complementary sections. On the one hand, there are those who immediately deploy the analytical concepts trying to straitjacket the concrete to suit those concepts, while on the other, there are those who in reaction stoop down to radical empiricism proclaiming the death of the grand narrative (including class), worshipping relativism. The poverty of both these sections is their tendency to reduce concepts to mere descriptive categories. It is in this regard that we can combine them under the identity of (post) structuralism.

In the above note, what Brecht achieves philosophically is an articulation of the distinction, yet necessary and problematic relationship between the real and the conceptual – “the class itself” and “the concept of class”.