Brecht Peasant Didactics

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    Peasant Dialectics:Reflections on Brecht's Sketch of a Dilemma

    Antony Tatlow

    In a work famous for the power of its suggestion and the beauty of its language,this must surely be one of the most intriguing passages. It is a fascinating an d classicexpression of a peasant dialectic, for it fuses the sharp observation of natu ral p articularitywith the social hopes of a class of survivors. In rejecting the "virtues" required ofthem in a feudal society, the Taoists here align their concept of social cohesion withthe direction of natural process.The matter of subsequent and trad itional attitudes to the Too Te Ching does nothere directly concern us. The question of a culture's self-understanding depends uponthe degree of that culture's sense of homogeneity, upon the extent of any agreementabout th e determinants of that culture an d about the evaluation of the products ofthose determinants. W ith the vast social changes that have occu rred in this centu ry,that concensus has now disappeared.The later variants of that mechanistic theory which sees cultural forms, works ofart and literature, simply as direct reflections of social relationships has been discredited.The connection between economic base an d cultural superstructure cannot be accountedfor so simply since it is mediated by m an y interposing factors. Certain areas of thesuperstructure can w ithout question be more directly related to the economic basethe law and property relations, for examplebut this cannot be maintained for otherareas except in a much more general sense, though it is true that they often reflectunconsciously and can certainly be consciously used as ideological weapons for thepreservation or alteration of the relations of production. If works of literature arein some sense the prod uc ts of historically dete rm inab le factors, they also have the power1To o Te Ching, Ch. 78. In D. C. Lau's translation: "In the world there is nothing so sub-missive an d weak as water. Yet for attacking that which is hard an d strong nothing ca n surpassit." Lao Tzu, To o Te Citing (Middlesex: Penguin , 1963), p. 140.


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    278 NEW ASIA ACADEMIC BULLETIN I (1978)to stimulate, to actuate and to assist the process of change by virtue of their abilityto alter consciousness. W e should no t forget that there would be no social change ifit were not first anticipated in the theoretical act of ideation.If this is so, it follows that a work of literature has an autonomous life and acapacity to alter consciousness when consciousness is ready to be altered. And if thisin turn is true, it becomes a matter of vital importance that we should never cease toexamine th e past for its record of experience which may help us to anticipate th efuture. The study of literature is a historical discipline and a society that loses itssense of history abandons itself to the manipulations of an homogenized technologythat ha s need of nothing so muc h as amnesic consumers.Let us for the mom ent disregard th e more predictable criticisms tha t ar e likely tosmother initially an y discussion of the significance of patterns of thought produced inancient agrarian China for the problems of modern industrial society. We may an-ticipate th e charge of Rokoko agronomics or, at least, of nostalgia for an irrecoverablebecause historically totally outmoded egalitarian peasant collective, no matter howpotent such nostalgia may be on an emo tional level, or perhaps of that naive nostalgiafor the future which fo r many constitutes the only component of utopianism. Suchobjections mus t be countered but let us first establish some sense of the context inwhich they must now stand, an d establish also th e evidence in recent literature for theemployment of an essentially Taoist dialectic as an analytical measure.Particularly interesting is the fact that the employment of this measure, which wemust understand in the full dialectical complexity of its context, would seem to pointtowards what is at least a difference of emphasis with significant political implicationsan d at most a fu nd am ent al divergence between schools of M arxist philosophy, whichm ay derive from different cultural an d philosophical traditions. The consequenceswhich flow from whatever distinctions we may here discern could be of some im-portance. To assert as much is to a f f i r m that Marxist perception which even themost determined opponent of M arxism cannot deny: the inseparable connection be-tween philosophy an d social praxis.As a starting-point we may take the obvious difference between Marx's an dMao's assessment of the potential role of the peasantry in any revolutionary process.Marx saw the peasants as a conservative if no t reactionary force, considering themlittle more than "rural idiots." Mao, on the other hand, would seem to have placedgreater trust in their native intelligence and capabilities and consequently to have ex-pected a certain spontaneity of response to the opportunities presented by the processof replacing rural feudalism with rura l democracy. Behind such different evaluationsmust lie correspondingly distinct historical, social an d philosophical experience.Despite his phenomen al analytical powers, M arx rem ained a European of thenineteenth century fo r whom, fo r example, even the artisans of an earlier age, favor-ably contrasted with th e alienated proletarian or the isolated an d primitive mushik,enjoyed an interest in their work of which Marx only concedes that "i t could rise toa certain limited taste."2Behind Mao's expectations, on the other hand, lay some two thousand years ofa philosophical tradition which, thoug h certainly amenable to revaluation for the benefitof a feudal rulin g class, was based on assum ptions decidedly antipathetical to any

    2 Marx/Engels Gesamlausgabe (MEGA) (Ber l in: Marx-Enge ls A rchiv , 1932 ) , V, 41.

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    Antony Tatlow 27 9such transvaluation.8 Bertolt Brecht was aware of this Chinese tradition and Adorno,in whose opinion Brecht advocated a sort of dangerously inane an d sarcastically re-jected Ruritanian rus in urbe, was not.4We mu s t first examine ho w Brecht made use of such Chinese perceptions andthen we will have to ask whether such usage may have an y significance beyond theconfines of his work. Brecht's response to China is a comparat ively complex topicand in the context of our present discussion I wish to single out for necessarily briefpresentation only those aspects related to the concept of peasant dialectics.Brecht's response to Taoism, stands in a specifically European context which wemust unders tand if we would appreciate the particular quality which he perceived inChinese thought. At the tur n of this centu ry m any E uropean intellectuals, feelingthe bankruptcy of a society which they had come to despise an d attributing its evilsto what they saw as an obvious disregard of spiritual values, sought a regenerationof the spirit in the philosophies of the East. Determ ined advocacy often seemed tostand in inverse proportion to the amou nt of first-hand personal experience and wecontrast th e diffidence of, for example, Forster's A Passage 1o India with this decisivelyimplied palliative from Klabund's introduction to his translations from the Too TeChing:

    Eastern man creates the wo rld, western man defines it.Western man is the scientist. Easte rn man is the Sage, theBright, the Holy, the Essential. He calls to us to become ashe is, to be as he is; for we are tired of functional, mechanis-tic, rational existence and thou ght. Of the relativities of kno w-ledge and science. Of fruitless dialectics. Of the spiritualstruggle of all against all. Yo ur deep longing is a longing fo ra true peace of the soul, fo r absolute meaning in itself an dfor itself.5These sentences catalogue platitudes current at the t ime an d probably reflect a Germ antendency to abstract idealist and schematic thinking as much as the relative lack ofdirect experience among German intellectuals of any context for the objects oftheir attention. Klabu nd takes no cognisance of any social or political aspects ofTaoism and, rejecting an inescapable element of that thought, its dialectical quality,understands the rest in terms of a mystical harm ony which will hopefully save Europeby substituting Eastern wisdom for W estern thought.Another writer who fell under the spell of the wisdom of ancient agrarian Chinawas Hermann Hesse. Like Klab und , but unlike B recht, he separated those w ritingsfrom the social conditions to which they responded, seeing them exclusively as an alter-native to the turbulen ce of the modern world and as representing a mode of existence

    3 I cannot pursue this matter within the naturally restricted framework of this essay. For afuller discussion of many issues here raised, see Antony Tatlow, The Mask of Evil. Brecht'sResponse to the Poetry, Theatre an d Thought of China and Japan. A Comparative an d CriticalEvaluation (Berne: Peter Lang Vcrlag, 1977).* Theodor W . Adorno, "Noten zu r Literatur," in Gesammelte Schriften (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp,1974), p. 422.

    5 Laotse Spru che. Deutsch von Klabund (Berlin: F. Heyder, 1921).

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    280 NEW ASIA ACADEMIC BULLETIN I (1978)which can be adopted as an act of will by the intellectual elite who can alone securethe necessary social transformations:

    Apar t from Dostoievsky, no mind in the last ten yearsha s made so strong an impact as Lao Tse's on the youngstudents of G e r m a n y who have been so disturbed by the war.That this movement is taking place in a fairly small minorityin no way detracts from its importance; the minority that hasbeen effected is precisely the one that m atters: the most gifted,most conscious, most responsible section of student youth.0

    Brecht's response stands against this background.During his exile in Denmark in the thirties Brecht began to gather anecdotes inwhich he embodied and refracted the problems of his times and which he entitled:Me-ti, Buch der Wendungen."1 He possessed an d carefully read the G erm an sinologistAlfred Forke's translation of Mo-tse 3-?-. Brecht's observation of the dialecticalquality in the writing and of the concern with practicality and his appreciation of theanecdotal style in some sections of the work all help to explain his own title. Amongth e papers in the Brecht Archives there is an unpu blished note w hich suggests ano therreason for the title:

    Exiled in a half-fascist coun try Bertolt Brecht w rote a"Book of Experiences" from which the following story derives.To disguise the authorship it is written as if it derived froman old Chinese historian.8

    Brecht's caution was in all probability not solely in response to the fascist threat fo rhe criticized Stalinist shibboleths as well.Although most of the book is devoted to an analysis of European events in aChinese disguise, Brecht's Me-ti contains many fascinating refractions of Chinesethought. As an example of Brecht's delineation of a peasant dialectic we may con-sider:

    W ei an d Yen's inability to keep disciplineWinter, the worst season, surprised the enemy in a landalmost deprived of food. Th e laziness of the peasants, causedby the cruelty of the landowners, was responsible, and thepeasants were sufficiently self-seeking to remove and hide alltheir own provisions. The enemy army grew extremely hun-

    gry- The inconsiderate and unscrupulous people of Hao who Hermann Hesse, Cesammelte Werke (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1970), XII, 27.? We may describe it as a book of practical dialectics. The title is a pun on the usual German

    translation of / Ching which is Buch der Wandlungen. "Wendung" means "turn," as in "turn ofphrase" or (unexpected) "turn of events"; it can also mean "change." "Wandlung" can only mean"change."s Bertolt Brecht Archiv, 1334/145.

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    Antony Tatlow 28 1had been educated to observe all the military virtues seizedthe landowners and slaughtered most of them, for they couldproduce no food. But then their army disintegrated in theterrible famine and fled to the border. The mass of the peopleof H ao perished in those border regions which they ha d laidwaste.

    In the spring the peasants crawled out of their huts againand, as Yen had hoped, their old weakness, selfishness, ap -peared again to an astonishin g degree. The landow ners hadbeen killed by the enemy or were cowed an d defenceless an dthe peasants, sure of being able to bring home their own har-vest, began to sow like men possessed. W ei prospered.When the good ruler Yen died, it could be truthfully saidthat he had won a great war wi thout military victories, simplythrough the cowardice of his subjects, an d that withoutgovernment decrees or warnings he had t ransformed th e landof Wei into a garden.0This anecdote fascinates fo r several reasons. Be fore tracin g th e characteristictwists of Brecht's dialectic, we recall how the strife between states is a primary topicin Mo-tse. That work also distinguished deprived thou gh indolen t peasants an d theirgrasping superiors.Brecht suggests specific causes fo r this indolence an d implies certain remedies.Th e good ruler Yen finally achieves his aim th rough a policy of non-interventionwhich in some sense relates to the Taoist prin ciple of "wu wei" }{RJ|. Yen placeshis faith in the natural egoism and in the saving pusillanimity of the people. Yet thisTaoist ending to the anecdote is surely not the point of the story, for the good rulerYen could never have achieved his aim withou t the unwelcome assistance from th emartial people of Hao who have no qualms whatsoever about killing the alien land-owners, tolerated by the people of Wei u n d e r the good ruler Yen's benevolence.W e can see, therefore, that Wei's prosperity was inhib ited by its system of land

    tenure and that th e people of Wei themselves actively accomplished nothing whichcould be regarded as the direct cause of the alteration of that system. The anecdoteshows how one set of hard men destroys another an d that the non-combattant victimsof both survive an d eventu ally prosper. This anecdo te therefore presents a di lemmaand, in terms of Brecht's work and of a t rans fera l of this peasant dialectic beyond itsow n f ramework , a criticism of the efficacy of such an ethic, whilst at the same timedemonstrating its manifest success on this occasion.There are in Brecht's work of the late thirties and early forties, those times of"confusion and disorder," three topics which relate to the Taoist peasant dialectic:the critique of virtues, the strategy of survival and the problem of natural process.It is plain enough that there can be no question, in any Marxist context, of aconsistent principle of non-contention, whether it be Taoist or Tolstoian in character.O n the other hand it would be patently dogmatic and undialectical to insist that non-contention never solves anything.- Tolstoy was particularly interested in the Taoistprinciple of " le non-agir" which he had encountered through a French translation

    Bertolt Brecht, Gesammelte Werke (werkausgabe) (Frankfur t : Suhrkamp, 1967), XII, 544.

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    282 NEW ASIA ACADEMIC BULLETIN I (1978)of the Tao Te Ching.10 He saw it in terms of his understanding of Christianvalues, interpreting it as encouragement to offer passivity in the face of evil. Indeedthe Russian intellectuals' idealization of peasant life, sceptically countered by Chekov,11reminds us of the fairly decisive distinctions between the advocation of a staunchlyrevisionist peasant ethic in a fallen world and the Chinese alignment with naturalprocess, where all the philosophical an d social assumptions ar e completely different.12But Brecht's is no conventional party Marxist context and the consistent reflec-tion of Taoist thought in his work of this period suggests that there may be somemore intriguing relationship here than the use of a Chinese peasant dialectic for itsillustrative or alienating properties in the very different European context.Brecht encountered in the Tao Te Ching the Taoist critique of virtues which wereessential to the maintenance of a feudal social structure; it served as a useful analogyand critics not familiar with the kind of thinking that activates these Chinese peasantdialectics have often misunderstood Brecht or have failed to perceive the full thrust ofhis arguments. Mother Courage offers us a sufficiently clear example:

    If there ar e such great virtues anywhere, that proves thatsomething is wrong.In a good country you don't need any virtues, everyoneca n be quite ordinary, not particularly bright, an d cowards asfar as I'm concerned.13

    Because Mother Courage is supposed to be a "negative" example, such patently out-rageous opinions are sometimes thought to demonstrate her moral inadequacy. In fact,sh e is quite capable of analyzing the state of the world; the trouble fo r herself, an dby implication for all others like her, is that she is unable to draw th e necessary per-sonal consequences. That is her tragedy.14 In Brecht's Me-ti we encounter the samekind of analysis, "In geaeral it should be said that every country, in which there isneed of particular morality, is badly administered."15 As an antidote to these lethaldemands fo r "virtue" Brecht suggests "egoism," the strategy of the tortoise or of thepeasants in the state of Wei. This does not perhaps solve the dilemma but at leastit states the problem.16Th e tortoise reminds us of the strategy of survival which Brecht treats directly,rather than in parabolic anecdote, in Schweyk in the Second World War.11 Using theplot of Hasck's celebrated novel for hi s own purposes Brecht shows ho w Schweyk ha s10 See Derk Bodde, Tolstoy and China (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1950), p. 82.11 In, for example, the story Peasants which forcefully disabuses the idealizers. The OxfordChekhov (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1965), VIII, 195-222,12 Marx's half-asiatic mode of production with its concomitantly despotic rulers is blamed fo rthe insufficiently democratic institutions in the Soviet Union, th e model for all Eastern Europe.

    It could well be that the Taoist critique of th e ethic and bureaucracy required of that asiaticmode of production in China might assist in overcoming the failings which as a legacy plaguethe social models in post-capitalist Brecht, Werke, IV, 1365 and 1366.n See also Brecht's Conversations of Refugees. Werks, XIV, 1398 and Werke, XII, 456.10 Although this problem is at its most acute in times of war, the strategy of survival maylater encourage the depredations of those it seeks to escape.'7 Werke, V, 1913ff. See also Brecht, Collected Plays (New York: Vintage, 1975), VII.

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    Antony Tatlow 28 3to trace th e thin dividing line between ignominy an d disaster, as he balances th e risksof survival an d intervention. At the end of Brod's an d Reimann's 1929 stage versionhe is killed, but in Brecht's later play Schweyk survives, as the class which he repre-sents must survive. Among Brecht's papers there is a note about Schweyk which wouldhave been well understood by the author of the Too Te Ching: "The great plans willcome to nothing because of the small plan of the small man to survive."18 The playends with th e thematic Song of the Moldau:

    Am Grunde der Moldau wandern die SteineEs liegen drei Kaiser begraben in Prag.Das GroBe bleibt groB nicht und klein nicht da s Kleine.Die Nacht hat zwolf Stunden, dann kommt schon der Tag.In literal t ranslat ion:

    O n the bed of the Moldau the stones are shiftingThere lie three emperors buried in Prague.The great wont stay great and the small won't stay small.The night has twelve hours and then comes the day.

    This song echos the passage from the Too Te Ching that Brecht had used before inhis wonderful poem "Legend of the Origin of the Book Tao Te Ching," which ac-counts his version of the story of Lao Tse and the official at the Han Ku pass. Versefour introduces the fifth verse which contains the crux of the Taoist peasant dialectic:Four days ou t among th e rocks, a barrierWhere a customs man made them report."What valuables have you to declare here?"And the boy leading the ox explained: "The old man taught."Nothing at all in short.Then th e man, in cheerful dispositionAsked again: "How did he make out, pray?"Said the boy: "H e learnt how quite soft water, by attritionOver the years will grind strong rocks away .In other words that hardness must lose the day."18

    This poem, written in 1938, balances nicely the ironies of the encounter but it alsopredicts victory from a moment of what looks perilously like defeat.Wh at interests us in the context of the present discussion is the manner withwhich Brecht fuses the strategy of survival and an image of process with its connota-tion of naturality. And here w e reach the center of our problem. We can under-stand Brecht's texts as specific signals in a particular historical context, as psycholo-gical weapons, sources of comfort an d encouragement at moments of great weaknessand frustration. Or we may say that they represent perhaps a strategically limited

    1!' XIX, 460. See also Tao Te Ching, for example, ch. 73.19 In John Willett's fine translation. Bertolt Brecht, Poems 1913-1956 (London: EyreMethuen, 1976), p. 314f.

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    284 NEW ASIA ACADEMIC BU L L E T I N I (1978)an d ult imately inefficacious peasant dialectic which no serious Marxist could ever thinkof applying to modem problems. Or we can say that they illustrate Utopian hope,open to similar objections. Or we can consider whether there is not contained insuch a dialectic a core of valuable experience which may offer something more sub-stantial than a sense of nostalgia for an agrarian past or an inaccessible future.For some years now a new sensibility about man's relationship to the naturalworld has slowly begun to question the wisdom of a life of piracy. Some socialgroups are more acutely conscious than others of the scale an d inevitable consequencesof such steady depredation. As the epitome of econom ic and social pillage, imperi-alism st'll thriv es in ecological terms. W hilst the protest aga inst the values of suchexploitive strategies has taken often dramatic but always more obvious shape in theideological "West," there is also in the advanced indu strial societies of Eastern Europea strong sense of discomfort which, because of the greater role played by theoreticalquestions in public life, immediately effects discussion of philosophical principles andof the forms of social organization which allow such exploitive strategies to unfold.In Eastern Europe we can discern what I have heard called "a certain absence oftheory," a sense of the inadequacy of established dogma. We may be witnessing thebeginning of the end of that tenacious, essentially nine teenth centu ry mechan ical ma-terialism in favor of a more truly dialectical form. The new subjectivism in poetryis a signal of this sense of change. Th e problems of ecology simply remind us thatnatu ra l and social philosophy are ultimately inseparablesomething which was wellunderstood in China.The philosophy adequate to the demands of natural an d social ecology might betermed radical organicism.20 And here, no matter ho w provocative such an assertionmust appear, something may be learnt from the Taoist peasant dialectic. The deeppeasant suspicion of outsiders derived from the observation that such intruders merelydeprived the peasa nt producers o f the m eans of subsistence. Mo-tse and the Too TeChing both have much to say about such institutionalized robb ery. The Chinesepeasant text envisages a time when there will be no such int ruders and the egalitarianpeasant coop erative w ould eliminate the imp edim ents to dem ocracy. W hat distinguishesTaoist thinking is the quality of its perception of the relationship between such valuesan d natural process.In the West organicism ha s invariably connoted political conservatism, bu t organicnaturalism in China involved no such connotations although the Neo-Confucianistsundoubtedly later integrated it with a hierarchical social system. The Tao, the orderof Nature, does no t govern by force but by "a kind of natural curvature in space an dtime."21 The sage must work as the Tao, not as the ideal Confucian ruler from above,bu t from within an d from behind. The water symbol, so impor t a n t fo r Taoism as animage of process, expresses the ideal of a feminine yieldingness which Needham ha s

    20 The mechanical materialism of earlier days has been to tally discredited by modern science.However, its political consequence, the Stalinist revo lution from above, administered through anubiquitous bureaucracy, is still about us. A properly understood "dialectical materialisin" mightserve as another term for what I mean by radical organicism. Briefly, such dialectical material-ism implies the interpenetration and inseparability of the "material" and the "spiritual"; it alsoimplies individual involvement in and the nuturing of a recognition of the reality of individualresponsibility for forms of social organization.21 Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press,1962), II, 37.

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    Antony Tatlow 28 5called "the poetical expression of a cooperative collectivist society."22 What this canmean in political terms may be deduced from th e following passage in Chuang Tse:

    The hundred parts of the body . . . are all complete in theirplaces. Which should one prefer? Do you like them allequally? . . . Are they all servants? Are these servants un-able to control one another and need another as ruler? Ordo they become rulers an d servants in turn? Is there an y trueruler other than themselves?23

    W e have seen ho w Brecht made use of the Taoist image of process which, unlikeits Heracleitan counterpart, w as linked with a social prediction. There is also evidencein Brecht's Me-ti and elsewhere of spec ulation strikingly akin to Taoist attitudes:

    Occupation with MoralityThere are few occupations, said Me-ti, which so damage aman's morality than the occupation with morality. I hear peoplesay: O ne must love truth, on e must keep one's promises,one must fight for the Good. But the trees do not say: onemust be green, one must drop the fruit vertically to earth,on e must rustle the leaves when the wind passes.24

    This may remind us of another Chinese assumption: that morality is more a matterof that good government which, attuned to natural process, allows men to developetheir potential. The problem lies in establishing the necessary constraints.Whilst all modern culture depends upon an imme nsely complex process of differ-entiation, and hence a return to any peasant cooperative would be a denial of all thathas been enabled by transcending it, this very process of differentiation ha s also pro-duced social behavior that no w forces us to acknowledge natural constraints an dlimitations. W e must now learn to live with nature, and not against it, in a natural-social continuum which is not at war with itself. It is first of all a matterof consciousness. Perhaps a radical organicism might both achieve and develop froma sudden shift of consciousness, like the blow from a Zen monk, which would enableus to overcome that debilitating sense of alienation from nature which Marx alsodeplored bu t which the administrators of his nineteenth century testament have ye tto dispel.23 It will, however, need more than a blow from a monk to translate an ysuch recognition into social praxis.

    2 2 ibid., II, 59.23 ibid., II, 52.2 4 Werke, XII, 504.2 5 Marx is full of surprises. For example: "Atheism, as a denial of this noa-essentiality (ofnature and of man) no longer makes sense, fo r atheism is a negation of God and through thisnegation posits the existence of man; but socialism as socialism no longer needs any such media-tion; it begins with the theoretical and practical sensual consciousness of man and of nature asessence." MEGA, III, 125.