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”

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”.

Proletarian class determination: epistemology or ontology?


“Class determination of knowledge means that we do not know whether determination actually takes place in reality as the proletariat depicts it, since this class only knows reality through that facet of the prism corresponding to its collocation in the social structure. In a sense, therefore, the proletariat imposes its view of reality upon this latter so that determination is first of all an epistemological concept rather than an ontological one. This, however, calls for neither idealism nor absolute relativism since, from the point of view of the proletariat, its view does come from (is determined by) concrete reality and has inherent in itself the possibility of knowing reality correctly, as shown by verification. In short, the point of view of the proletariat is that each class secretes its own knowledge (class determined relativism of knowledge) and that within this view only the proletariat has the possibility of gaining a correct knowledge of all (and not only some) aspects of reality because of this class’s position in the societal labour process (class determined supersession of knowledge’s relativism).

“We do not claim that the proletariat depicts real processes as they take place in reality (reflection). But we do claim that this class’s view has the objectively determined possibility of being correct, to find a ‘match’ with the reality it depicts. It is in this sense that determination can be referred to as an epistemological calling into existence. And, it is in this sense that our view differs from the ‘reflection’ theory and can be called non-reflective realism: knowledge is not determined simply by material transformation, but by this transformation immersed in specific social contexts, that is, by the real concrete.”
–Guglielmo Carchedi, ‘Problems in Class Analysis: Production, knowledge, and the function of capital

To be read, in my view, as a crucial theoretical explication of Lenin’s axiom of truth being partisan, and Marx’s Eleventh thesis on Feurbach. Particularly the latter, on account of it being much abused as a shibboleth by vulgar ‘Marxian’-pragmatists. Justice can be done to Marx’s privileging of changing the world over interpreting it only if one grasps this affirmation of world-change rigorously in terms of Marx and Engels’ concept of “the real movement” and Marx’s conception of “practical materialism” that he derives through his critique of Feurbach’s “contemplative materialism” in The German Ideology and Theses on Feurbach. Thus Marx’s critique of interpretation, which is basically a critique of materialism articulated in contemplative terms, is not only a rejection of the primacy of contemplation but is also, by the same token, a severe criticism of decisionist pragmatism, which is contemplation reconstituted at the practical level of abstraction. Clearly, Marx’s privileging of world-change over world-interpretation is a dialectical critique of contemplation by having the modality of contemplation brush itself against its own grain. A theoretical, and philosophical, move that does not abandon knowledge and epistemology but radically alters their conception and status. And in this regard, Althusser’s explication of “overdetermination” and “epistemological void” (in ‘Contradiction and Overdetermination’) and his conception of “limit-form” (in ‘Marxism is Not a Historicism’), together with Badiou’s concepts of “metaontology” (in Being and Event) and “politics-as-its-own-thought” (in Metapolitics) are also indispensable.

Dipankar Gupta’s solipsism


Dipankar Gupta’s cynical article in The Times of India (Aug 30, 2008) is itself an expression of middle-class disenchantments, which he talks about. And Buddhadeb is undoubtedly in his brigade. In his anti-communist verbosity Gupta does exactly what he criticises. For him “the poor has never revolted”; it is the leadership, which everywhere rises in her name. Ironically, even to deny that the poor has ever revolted, it is a middle class intellectual like Gupta who has the privilege to proclaim this! Obviously in his discourse “they” will remain as “they” – “Why They Don’t Revolt”. So why should we accept his privileged denial about the poor(wo)man’s revolt, if he censures us for accepting the socialists’ claim that s/he does revolt, on the ground that they are elites?

According to Gupta, since the leaders came from the middle class or elite families the revolutions couldn’t be popular. This shows his ignorance about political processes, including class processes. Obviously he cannot be faulted for this, the disciplinarian divide that characterises the bourgeois academia does not require him to see things holistically (that’s the job of a generaliser, not an expert’s) – he is after all a sociologist! How can he understand that revolts/revolutions are conjunctural – their character is not simply determined by the membership of their leadership rather by the societal stage in which they occur? How can he understand that the process of class-ification, not the fixed descriptive sociological classificatory pigeonholes, allows revolutionary intellectual organicity to individuals from diverse backgrounds? How can he understand that revolution is not only a moment but also a process which comprises many “guerrilla fights” against “the encroachments of capital” before and after the “revolutionary moment” passes away? This was Marx’s understanding of the “revolution in permanence” or Mao’s notion of a “continuous revolution” or Lenin’s “uninterrupted revolution”.

Obviously within the commonsensical notion of revolution, for which the OMs (Official Marxists, as Kosambi characterised them) are most responsible, the 1949 event in China paints into insignificance the Hunan peasants’ self-organisation and struggle (as marvellously described by Mao in his Hunan Report) or the processes that constituted “Fanshen”, “Shenfan” and the Cultural Revolution. Within this framework a revolution loses its processual character, and is reduced to a moment and even a few elite figures. But why should we expect Dipankar Gupta to go beyond common sense? After all he is a “middle class” solipsist who sees the world made in his image – his class dominating everywhere, doing everything.

In fact, we can find a deep resonance between Gupta’s analysis and India’s chief security advisor MK Narayanan’s McCarthyist indictment of intellectuals. Both experts (in their respective fields) attempt to reduce movements to agencies, however the former does it as an expression of his academic cynicism, while MK Narayanan to find scapegoats. But both converge at a dangerous moment.