Tuesday, June 26, 2007

chose consequence

In a 1934 essay titled "In the Fight against Injustice even weak Weapons are of Use" ("Man muss das Unrecht auch mit schwachen Mitteln bekampfen"), Bertolt Brecht defends The International League of Human Rights, against leftist criticism for its "individual aims" in its efforts to prosecute rights violations. The organization was banned by the Nazis in 1933. He writes:

"I did not go as far as many, who claimed to be observing a wholesale, long-term collapse of the large-scale organizations which aimed to change the social structure completely, but I too saw the tough and important small-scale activities of frequently disparaged organizations like the League of Human Rights, which actually saved many people, which constantly and untiringly exposed injustice with its small voice, and which galvanised many to return to the struggle. So we saw that the fight against injustice must not only be waged in the most ultimate way, addressing all of its causes, but also in the most general way, i.e., using all the means available, even the most feable. For even worse than the illusion that it is possible to eradicate unnecessary misery without removing its causes is the illusion that we can fight the causes without their consequences, separately, without recourse to the weakest and most feable of means. I have seen how knowing about these terrible things actually prevented many people from combating their terrible consequences." (Brecht on Art and Politics 140-141)

Brecht is here writing about the transformation of Germany into a Nazi state, a moment and a historical shift which remains inaccessible. I find it interesting that he is talking about this moment--one that the historical record tries to shore up in various ways. The problem that he describes is what counts as "doing enough" and he here argues that even the smallest effort needs to count. The position that he takes here is one he is characteristically criticized for, since it is often read as a moment of compromised investment (in communism vs. capitalism at all costs even to the extent of praising Stalin), of failed dialectic (see David Pike's inflammatory argument in Lukacs and Brecht), or of apologetic politics (as reform socialist); in one way or another he doesn't hold the line. In other places, in his poetry, for example, Brecht seems to phrase this conflict between possible action and principled action in terms of "the times"; with a pseudo-utopic nostalgia he documents the things disallowed by the darkness of the age--and this darkness is the spread of fascism, of the imperial rule of Germany, and therefore and in turn the spread of the capitalist mode of production. To an extent, the equation of fascism and capitalism seems to be the confused relation behind each of the above-mentioned positions he is criticized for. Confused, not in terms of interpretation alone or in terms of the history, but in reality, i.e. for Brecht. Whether or not this equation was right (or true, as Brecht might claim) seems to be a question that is lost to us, but the question of the political efficacy of small actions is one that constantly circulates in places where intellectual labor is a form of political activity.

So it could be said that Brecht's phrasing of these pairs--capitalism/fascism, condition of possible action (unfriendliness)/principled action (friendliness), cause/consequence--represent a strained equality. I am not sure that this is the best way to phrase a relationship that seems to have the markings of a base/superstructure form, but I feel that given the moral weight of the terms, the type of conflict and commensurability that Brecht presents is a version of his "realism," and thus of his reality. In other places (such as most of the ones cited by David Pike), Brecht seems to hold blindly to the "conditions of production" as the bearers of reality. This might be especially clear in his address at the First International Writers' Congress in Paris in 1935 ("A Necessary Observation on the Struggle Against Barbarism"), where he is clear that the conditions of ownership bear upon every relation man has in society. It might also be clear in places where he equates these conditions to the "truth" of communism (and the lie of capitalism). But in this little piece, it seems less clear that one's project need always be with the conditions, or the cause. That the weakest weapons might be what is needed to fight some of the consequences seems to formulate still a need for weapons, a clarity of "a cause," and the sense that any action counts.

image: Dragon, Tim Hawkinson (2007)

1 comment:

RT said...

Kafka's "Silence of the Sirens" (1917) starts out offering "proof that inadequate, even childish measures [mittel] may serve to rescue one from peril." The childish measures are the earplugs: "it was known to all the world that such things were of no help whatsoever."