The Marxist and the artist view human existence in fundamentally different ways. Marxism regards human existence as absolutely knowable because scientific laws govern history and because materialism underlies all of existence. It is not so simple for the artist. Although the artist may study history, he knows that nature is not a closed circle within our grasp, and he regards the human condition as an incredible mystery.

Despite the inherent tension between artistic endeavor and Marxist thought, many have tried to combine the two. On one extreme are the writers, poets, and playwrights whose Marxist inclinations prevail. They end up producing thinly disguised propaganda and are artists in name only. On the other extreme are Marxists who follow their art to its frontiers only to discover that it challenges the first principles of their political beliefs. Eventually, they must forsake their Marxism if they intend to be faithful to their art. Such were the six writers who narrate their fall from Marxism in Crossman’s The God That Failed.

The third pattern—the middle way—is to temper the artistic and Marxist elements until they can coexist. For many, that means becoming a middling artist and a middling Marxist. A few escape such mediocrity, including Bertolt Brecht, here depicted by Ronald Hayman.

Brecht frequently envisioned his plays as being like trials in which the audience could judge the characters and their actions. He relied extensively on the use of narrative, placed great emphasis on the objective, external facts, and always wanted the audience to remember that they were, in fact, watching a play. Hayman’s biography provides a similar drama of externals, with a year-by-year (and sometimes day-by-day) account of the objective facts of Brecht’s life. Hayman does intersperse Brecht’s poems throughout the text to illustrate Brecht’s thoughts, and he dips into psychoanalysis to explain Brecht’s relationships with his wife and various mistresses and into critical theory to assess Brecht’s dramatic theories and productions. But generally Hayman simply provides evidence and lets the reader himself judge Brecht.

And what should that judgment be? Was Brecht somehow capable of combining art with a commitment to Marxism? The answer, based on Hayman’s evidence, is a qualified yes. But the qualifications are serious enough to suggest that artistic achievement owes nothing to ideological purity.

Brecht did actively participate in Marxist causes, and he did present himself to the world as a good Marxist. But when one studies the life, it is apparent that his wife, Helene Weigel, was his real political conscience. She was the one with a “quasi-religious faith in communism,” whereas Brecht was preoccupied with improving his artistry. Brecht’s professed Marxism may explain why he lived the last years of his life in East Germany, but it hardly tells us why he deviously maneuvered to gain Austrian citizenship. The problem was that Brecht wanted to move about and practice his art with the freedom that only such citizenship afforded.

For Brecht was an artist long before he realized that Marxism mirrored many of the emotions that already defined his personality and art. Hating his teachers’ authoritativeness, he naturally despised the capitalist’s hold over his workers. Having witnessed the growth of Nazism in his homeland, Brecht was convinced that an evil society corrupted good people. Marxism universalized what Brecht felt.

But like so many others, Brecht failed to distinguish Marx the social critic from Marx the savior of society. Marx did provide important insights in his explanation of alienation. It is not surprising that the artist who also is challenging society will feel comfortable with that element of Marxism. It does not follow, however, that Marx’s solution to social problems is equally valid, especially since that solution limits itself to only one dimension of human existence. It is ironic—and sad—when the artist who begins with the aim of providing a fictive vision of the whole settles for a political philosophy of the part.

Fortunately, the tension and dialectic in Brecht’s art never fully surrendered to Marxist formulas but remained vibrant and alive. He frequently collaborated with others in a genuine give-and-take relationship, and he rewrote his own songs and scenes and entire plays over and over, constantly fiddling with them for reasons far from ideology. The consequence was that even when Brecht tried to make his “Mother Courage” a mean-spirited woman, imbued with capitalism, war, and greed, the audience (to his chagrin) identified and sympathized with the old woman. They did so because in that character Brecht the artist betrayed Brecht the Marxist by revealing a small part of the mystery of our existence.



[Brecht: A Biography, by Ronald Hayman; New York: Oxford University Press]