On Brecht’s “The Manifesto”: Comments for Readers in English1

Dal principio alla fine
è conveniente seguire ogni giustizia.
Giampiero Neri, L’aspetto occidentale del vestito
[From beginning to end/ it is proper to follow all justice.
G.N., The Western Aspect of Clothing, ca. 1960]

This most rich poet scattered into all he created seeds of thought destined to spring into full life only later. He was persuaded that any living work grows and works on by immanent force, that it changes with each listener and reader reached. His poems are based on this presupposition, and only the future will make visible the full breadth and plenitude of his work.
Lion Feuchtwanger, Bertolt Brecht [1957]

1. Some Pertinent History (as Teacher of Life)

In early 1945, most probably already in January, Brecht started working on what he at some point called a “versification of the [Communist] Manifesto” (GKA 27: 219) but at other points also thought of as part of a vaster project, a Lehrgedicht parallel to Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things. The title of that “Didactic Poem” or “Poem for Learning” was not yet fixed but could have been something like On the Nature of People or, more precisely, On the Unnatural Character of Bourgeois Relationships. The time slot for this venture of Brecht’s in Santa Monica came from a hiatus in co-translating his play Life of Galileo with Charles Laughton.  (Laughton had to act in the pirate movie Captain Kidd in order to redeem time for that translation-cum-adaptation, which eventually resulted in his playing the title role in its English-language premiere in Los Angeles.) But the deeper impulse for Brecht was the overwhelming approach of an end to World War 2, which put on the agenda the future of Germany.  For emigrés of Brecht’s stripe this meant: will it be socialist or not? (cf. Hartinger 34-38)  During his intense concentration on what turned out to be not only a versification but also a reworking of Marx’s Manifesto (hereinafter CM), Brecht noted in his diary on March 10, 1945: “Between the  ‘Didactic Poem’ and the terrible newspaper reports from Germany. Ruins and no sign of life from the workers” (GKA 27: 221). Pondering on how to rediscover for German workers the obviously forgotten teachings of Marxism, Brecht concluded that “it seems to me possible to renew the propagandistic efficacy [of the CM] today, one hundred years later, and to lend it new, fortified (bewaffnet) authority, by sublating its pamphlet character” (GKA 27: 219-20).

This was wholly in line with Brecht’s central strategy, perhaps best formulated in his magisterial 1934 essay Five Difficulties in Writing Truth (Fünf Schwierigkeiten beim Schreiben der Wahrheit), where the last but not at all least quality that a writer wishing to combat lying and ignorance must acquire was slyness: “slyness in disseminating the truth to many people” (GKA 22.1: 81). The subject-matter of the rise and fall of the “unnatural character” (this is more elegant in the German Unnatur, something like “mis-nature”) of bourgeois rule was forced on Brecht’s attention in the last years of the Weimar Republic and hugely intensified by the coming to power of Nazism. In the “Conclusion” to Five Difficulties, surely one of the great essays of the 20th century, he wrote:

The great truth of our epoch (which is not enough, but without which no other pertinent truth can be found) is that our continent is sinking into barbarism because violence is used to cling to the existing relations of property over the means of production… We cannot search out the truth about the barbaric conditions without thinking about those who suffer under them; and while we, continually sloughing off temptations of cowardice, search for the true relationships because of those who are ready to use such cognitions, we must at the same time think about presenting the truth in such a way that it could be a weapon in their hands, and also so slyly that this presentation may not be found out and cut off by the enemy. (GKA 22.1: 88-89)

But there was a further and deeper, or at least less moment-bound, reason to use the classical  model of epic verse (which, for Brecht, meant the Latin hexameter) as a pedagogical royal road to the listener’s understanding.  In a memo perhaps to be titled “From Whom Have I Learned,” written after the June 1953 rebellion of Berlin workers when Brecht was once again intensely meditating how to renew the efficacy of Marxian tradition for the German working class, he concluded from his experiences:

There are at least two linked reasons why it’s worthwhile to study the two great didactic poems of the Romans, Virgil’s Georgica and Lucretius’s Of the Nature of Things. For one thing they are models of how to describe in verse the cultivation of nature and an understanding of the universe; and for another, we have in the beautiful translations of Voss and of Knebel marvelous elucidations about our [German] language. The hexameter is a verse line which forces the German language to the most fertile exertions. It presents itself as clearly “manipulated,” which makes learning much easier. Like Virgil, the translator must teach versification together with agriculture…; in brief, the great artistry of the Ancients is developed by treating great contents. (GKA 23: 269-70)

Today we might wish to say either that there is a feedback between a given form and a given content which determines not only the momentary success of artful writing in its time but also its efficacy and survival for following generations (that is, its becoming and enduring as a classic), or that the vocabulary of form vs. content is helpful only to a limited degree, and that the how is always consubstantial with the what — most obviously so in poetry. But Brecht’s optimistic conclusion might serve us as a first reason to inquire further into the uses of what eventually became his unfinished poem Das Manifest (The Manifesto). Discouraged by his best friends such as Eisler and Feuchtwanger, engaged in many other pressing writings, and above all unsure of who would be the poem’s readers, Brecht broke off its composition in the second half (probably in September) of 1945. He cherished the project until the end of his life.

The following commentary is divided into a “technical” section and a “substantive” section. The former is less purely technical than it might seem, and taking it in may increase the reader’s appreciation of the longer “substantive” section that follows. Conversely, a reader not taking in that final section might find that supposedly technical decisions¾how the translation actually reads¾will not be persuasive. There have been liberal attempts to “save” Brecht by sundering the poetry and the politics in his writing. This degrades both, my two sections do not fully follow this divide, and I warn the reader against it.

2. A Commentary for Technical Readers

A hexameter is a verse line with six stresses. In English, hexameters are relatively rather rare, especially in longer poems. There are some longer English poems in hexameter, such as Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall,” Swinburne’s “Hymn to Proserpine,” or Kipling’s “Danny Deever,” but then they are very clearly, sometimes elaborately, rhymed. G.M. Hopkins wrote, I think, only one of the “terrible sonnets” (“Carrion Comfort”) in hexameter, again rhymed. Unrhymed hexameters, on the Greek and Latin mould (however this mould was misread) are very rare, except for splendid single lines:

What seas what shores what granite islands towards my timbers
(T.S. Eliot, “Marina”)

When hexameters are used, it is often only in conjunction with another, so to speak, redeeming meter, and again usually outfitted with rhyme, such as this representative first stanza of Hardy’s  “Afterwards,” in which the final line subsides into the more normal pentameter (5 stresses):

When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbours say,
“He was a man who used to notice such things”? (159)

— or, perhaps more cognate to Brecht’s epic intentions, the ecological protest plus technical attention to work of Hardy’s “Throwing a Tree”:

The two executioners stalk along over the knolls,
Bearing two axes with heavy heads shining and wide,
And a long limp two-handled saw toothed for cutting great boles… (204)

— but here too at the end of each stanza a new meter (the heptameter, 7 stresses) breaks any fears of monotony or awkwardness, not quite absent from the first line which contains a spondee, that is, two stresses in the same foot or metric unit, which I’d have never dared to use as a translator. But then Hardy’s later poems are notorious for bending stress schemes to his communicative needs; see the hexameters—if they can still be called such—of “The Second Visit”:

Clack, clack, clack, went the mill-wheel as I came… (208) 

When I decided to translate Brecht’s The Manifesto, I found a messy manuscript situation. In the Berlin Brecht Archive, much helped by the kindness of its director Dr. Erdmut Wizisla and its staff, I found there were 10 folders pertaining to it. But the materials in those folders are partly mingled with scantier materials for that larger plan to write a “Didactic Poem on the Nature of Man,” in which The Manifesto as it at present stands would have been one out of four parts. The latest and biggest Brecht edition, the Grosse Kommentierte Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe (1988-2000) (GKA), prints three variant versions of it plus a handful of fragments not contained in any version (in volume 15, edited by Jan Knopf and Brigitte Bergheim with three more collaborators, pp. 120-157). The notes (pp. 386-407), which follow Bunge’s path-breaking overview, claim that there are four “stages” (Bearbeitungsstufen) dating from 1945 of Brecht’s versification of Part 1 of Marx’s CM, plus one more “stage” consisting of only 10 verses, written in 1950. The three variants printed are stages 2-4.

To my mind, however, Brecht’s copious rewritings as presented in GKA fall into two groups of variants. The first consists of the GKA editors’ stages 1 plus 2 (of which they rightly print only one, and I shall here call it draft or variant 1), and it is obviously poetically less polished. The second comprises stages 3 plus 4 (printed variants 2 and 3), which are better and differ mainly in fine-tuning and in the fact that their stage 4 is shorter—that is, its corrections were abandoned before the end.  I used as my main text the printed variant 2 (GKA 15: 135-48), adding however to it the ending which exists only in variant 1 (GKA 15: 134-35; in my translation lines 371ff). But I took the liberty of using what I considered some better formulations from variant 3, and more rarely from variant 1. I interpolated one fragment (GKA 15: 157) as my lines 203-06 (“But liberty equality fraternity…”).

For my purposes of a narrative, indeed doctrinally expository, poem, I adopted Brecht’s adaptation of Lucretius’s hexameter, which takes for its model Knebel’s 1821 German hexameter translation of Lucretius;2 and furthermore I adopted Brecht’s solution of using a “loose stress” hexameter. Eisler claimed it was a “jazzed-up” hexameter, which may be a bit exaggerated unless he was referring to its use of syncopation (which is anyway common in some poetic traditions, such as the English one); however, this Brechtian hexameter is at the antipodes of, say, the stately and formal six-beat French Alexandrine in which some of the most splendid Racine tragedies are written. In “stress verse” (as opposed to syllable-stress verse) the number of syllables can vary. “Loose” also means here that I adopted several guiding principles, all based on the wish to have lines that could be read potentially aloud without too much violation of usual verse rhythms, that is, without either too much stopping or too much slurring over, except for specially intended and rare purposes. My first principle was that my hexameter can go up to but not beyond 18 syllables; i.e., in the Classicistic parlance I didn’t want to have stress units (feet) longer than 3 syllables—with the well-recognized exception of the final foot in any line. The second was that at the end of each of Brecht’s divisions into sections (which follow Marx’s paragraphs in CM) I allowed myself a final line—a dying fall, so to speak—of anything between 2 and 6 stresses, though I tried to keep them as near to 5 as possible. Also, I shunned wherever I could feet composed of a single stressed syllable (catalectic iamb) and even more so a foot of two stressed syllables (spondee). The third was that there should be generally rising rhythms—iambs and anapests—though amphibrachs (3 syllables with stress in the middle) were allowed. Of course, as in all English rising-rhythm verse, the first foot plus one or even two more feet could be “falling”—trochees or dactyls—since this would not put in doubt the general rhythm, but I tried to keep away, with rare exceptions, from lines with a predominantly falling rhythm (more than 3 feet of trochees or dactyls).

As to syntactic choice: I chose to have a mildly Teutonic syntax. I found a fully colloquial English syntax of 2001 (or indeed 1945) both impossible to attain with Marx’s-cum-Brecht’s vocabulary and aims, and also unsuited to the matter at hand: the reader is goddam well supposed to invest as much energy into it as into a dozen pages of physics or political economy. On the other extreme, I hope I’ve avoided the awful translationese of  (as an unkind friend put it) “flowers did I for you pick.”  A kinder friend said my halfway house made for a mild estrangement (Verfremdung): my heart leapt when I read him, for that’s exactly what I’m aiming at. The reader should understand that this was written in German 60 years and one historical epoch ago. It is a piece of history. It is in my opinion more than indifferently useful for today; otherwise I wouldn’t have buckled down to translating it. Thus, the reader is not supposed to gobble but to enjoy while understanding (or vice versa) and come back to ponder the poem’s voice and meanings; ideally, this would be done as a collective effort after reading aloud parts or the whole of the poem. It is the voice of a near and dear but by now old-fashioned grand-uncle. But fashions have not only changed, they can change again: “O change of times, thou hope of the people!” (Brecht). So we who were “born after” (Brecht again) have to invest mental energy into finding out what we can learn from this buoyant, overconfident, wise, irritating, sly, doctrinaire, flexible, and above all stimulating voice. The central questions we must address are:  How much, and just where and how, in what parts or aspects, is this poem applicable to the present day?  How much can its various passages as well as its overall tone and stance be of use in vitally needed present-day debates?  A public discussion of these central points is the aim of this translation. I shall attempt to start it in the next section of this commentary.

A final principle of mine imitated (even if by eversion) the mythical constitution of the Anarchist  Federation of Catalonia:

1. There are no obligatory rules.
2. The foregoing paragraph is not obligatory.

In practice this meant that any of the above rules could be violated if my ear and/or my responsibility to Brecht-cum-Marx’s sense told me so and I found no other way to convey their meaning. I tried not to have too many of such violations.

3. A Commentary for Substantive Readers

Most of the previous discussion might hold for any translation of a long hexameter poem into English. There are of course especially complex problems in Brecht’s poem, as in any so-called didactic and/or propagandistic verse (I shall try to unpack this banal designation later). I shall first focus on the relationship of poetry to doctrine. One can imagine extreme ideal-types, not encountered in practice, where either is a means completely at the service of the other: either verse as a flat rhythmical and mnemonic ploy to sweeten the doctrinal pill, or doctrine as an overall, often far-off armature to organize the poet’s different—compatible but richer—concerns. The best example that comes to mind of nearness to the second extreme is Dante’s Commedia, or at least its first two parts. But in Brecht’s case the danger is rather the first extreme, that is, the use of verse for the overriding or even sole purpose of enunciating a cognitive theory, a use for which already Aristotle had in the first section of his Poetics banished Empedocles from poetry to physics. I found a wonderful example of it in a poem that was T.S. Eliot’s now almost totally forgotten contribution to World War 2 propaganda in 1942. He seems to have attempted to show how the type of “universal” poetry he was then writing could express Britain’s struggle in 1941-42, but the result is prose arbitrarily hacked into lines:

The enduring is no substitute for the transient
Neither one for the other. But the abstract conception
Of private experience at its greatest intensity
Becoming universal, which we call “poetry,”
May be affirmed in verse. (in Harding 78)

To the contrary, a valid poem—that is, one which should have a good reason to exist side-by-side with a prose formulation of the same doctrinal (philosophical, religious, political, etc.) notions—would be somewhere in the middle between the above extremes, in a semantic creative space where ends and means, sense and sensuality, doctrine and poetry remain in a more or less fruitful tension, from the Left of much Mayakovsky and Neruda or Brecht’s Manifesto to the Right of Eliot’s contemporary Four Quartets or indeed some of Pound’s Pisan Cantos. (The “Liberal” bourgeois center, being in the saddle, has no passionate reason to compose didactic poetry, which is I think—at any rate since the Romantics—born of dissatisfaction.)

In the 1920s Brecht famously remarked that gasoline doesn’t fit into, and therefore disallows, the five-act “dramatic tension” form; and he subsequently elaborated—together with many other dramatists and theatre people—his “epic” or dialectical dramaturgy. Analogously, the language of the CM doesn’t fit the dominant forms of the English individualist lyric, which have 5 stresses or less. Let me note that it would have less trouble with the popular ballad form, which often had 7 stresses, as in Brecht’s beloved “Sir Patrick Spens” or his equally beloved urban Moritat (street ballad) “Das Seemanslos” (though they are usually printed as two lines of 4+3 stresses, and some ballads even have 6 stresses). Thus I believe Brecht’s instinct to use the hexameter was sound even apart from the wonderful example of Lucretius.3  Brecht inventively varied and enriched this language in his attempt to find a halfway house between doctrinal generalization and concrete experience, to which I’ll return; but his goal was to retain the power of Marx’s generalizations that construct a cognitive edifice held together by terminological rigour. Therefore The Manifesto frequently uses words coined for such doctrinal precision rather than for euphony (sound) or prosody (rhythm). Such repeatedly found terms might have two stresses, like “commodity,” which at least has the right pair of rising stresses [-‘-‘], or like the more difficult, but fortunately rare in Brecht, “capitalism”[‘–‘]. Almost as difficult is “bourgeoisie” (phonetically: boor-zhoo-ah-zee [‘–‘]), since—with the quite normal elision of its second syllable and stress—it will have 3 syllables (phonetically: boor-zhwa-zee) with a principal stress on the first and a subsidiary but often-used stress on the third syllable [‘-‘].4 Most difficult to me (does this say something about my political unconscious?) were “proletarian” and  “proletariat,” which are quite unmanageable in the full 5-syllable form and must  usually be, with some difficulty, elided into 4 syllables and two (falling) stresses (proh-leh-teh-ryat, [‘-‘-])—on the example of Pope’s “con-gen-yal.” I note that the difficulties exist also in German (indeed, Feuchtwanger took the impossibility of fitting words such as “Proletariat” into verse as an excuse to cease collaborating on the project after six weeks in 1945; see his “Bertolt Brecht” 105-06 and Bunge), but given the different rhythms they seem to me smaller.

You’ve heard much untruth about it from enemies, from friends
Much untruth also. This is what the classics say: ….
Thus came about the age, which now is ending, of the bourgeois:
A fleeing serf, he became a burgher of the market town, 
Then of the city, & behind its secure walls the guilds
Flourish. Cloth keeps crossing the walls…

The present tense simultaneously conveys the validity of insights from CM and yet also modifies it with new ways of seeing and the immediacy of direct witnessing. Paradoxically, in terms of German literary theory (derived from Schiller), where the epic is characterized by turning to the past and drama by turning to the present, Marx is more epical while Brecht is epico-dramatic.

It ought to be stressed that Brecht’s Manifesto, like some of the best poetry of our age, tends to use an “antipoetic”—or more precisely, anti-Idealist—language employing exact scientific or philosophical terms. This language was wonderfully defined by the Italian poet Gozzano already around 1908 as: “lo stile d’uno scolare/ corretto un pò da una serva”—”the style of a scholar/ Somewhat corrected by a charwoman” (in his poem “L’altro” [“The Other”], cited in Marcheschi 13-14). This style of poetry dovetails neatly with Brecht’s constant attempt at melding plebeian demystification from below with precise intellectual critique. Its informing horizon is that of verse narration as cognition, not confined to but not at all shunning conceptual cognition in feedback with behavioural information. Poetry is here not only in strong opposition to the stifling superficial babbling of the reigning, totally ideologized doxa of the capitalist media or brainwashed common sense; it is above all a “stumbling block” (formulation of the poet Giampiero Neri, ibidem 16) to the hegemonic babble—one which forces the reader/stumbler to stop and look at what is really happening at his feet. This type of poetry remains playful but it is a serious play, the young lions exercising sudden jumps upon each other. It is necessarily fixated on the necessary complicitous reader, at the antipodes and at the expense of the narcissistic navel-gazing of most Post-Modernism. It is much concerned as Brecht noted in his great programmatic poem “To the Danish Worker-Actors” with precise, technical, verifiable, and repeatable observation of recurring, key and typical events and relationships. Such materialist poetry, while remaining different from the prose of precise observation, is yet also related to it by an umbilical cord—that is, the verse is in fruitful tension both with the precise observing and, as noted earlier, with the doctrinal obsessive clarity.

The poetry is therefore articulated as a rational discourse “without any inferiority or superiority complex toward natural sciences or history” (Marcheschi 17), yet never sundered from possibly discreet or hardboiled but always strong emotion. Paradoxically, one can verify in Brecht’s Manifesto how, at its extreme, such apparent objectivity touches upon and fuses with a functional and gnomic, almost ceremonious, ritualization, using frequent repetitions, syntactic inversion, enjambement (syntactic carry-over into the next line), and a marked rhythm. Characteristically, a rhetorical figure called “adnomination” is used, which repeats noun root in verb root or vice versa (e.g., “passing without passport” or “Slaves of the bourgeois class, daily & hourly enslaved”); it is in my opinion emblematic of Brecht’s attempt to create additional verisimilitude for Marx’s concepts by replunging them into the collective activity of the working classes from which they presumably sprang. This figure may serve as a good example of how cognition is to be found hidden in sensual tricks of alliteration, assonance and echo, just as in Dante’s initially obscure “Amor, che a nullo amato amar perdona,” which will be found, upon reflection, to carry a serious point beneath, through and by means of the virtuosity.5 The poetic cognitive movement is in Brecht’s usage spiral, for it is both determined, in some ways even predetermined, by the nature of things, and also open to human passion and struggling endeavour (in the above examples, against prisons and slavery): nature can only work for us through human nature, and Marx’s socioeconomic laws through classes of embodied people. The movement of verse enacts — with the participation of the reader — a ceremony of the struggle against overweening social injustice, in which words and things are given allegorical faces and figures, again turned toward each other; and its Great Ancestor is, indeed, Lucretius On the Nature of Things.

Brecht’s acumen is nowhere more apparent than in his full consciousness of this ancestry. His unfinished poem had the ambition to be to Marx what Lucretius was to Epicurus (himself an object of Marx’s doctoral dissertation).6 Epicurus’s teachings survived only in some fragments — and in Lucretius’s verse, where he is repeatedly praised as the great liberator of mankind from superstition and fear of death, whose glory reaches to heavens and whose footsteps the poet wishes to follow (cf. Book 5: 55). The premonition that the oblivion could happen to Marx too—practically if not literally — was never absent from Brecht (see his poems on the great exiled poets, among whom Lucretius is — unhistorically — also to be found: “Die Auswanderung der Dichter” [“The Poets’ Emigration”] and “Besuch bei den verbannten Dichtern” [“Visiting the Exiled Poets”], GKA 14: 256 and 12: 35). Recent history gave Brecht reason to insist on his fears.

Today, such a form of cognitive poetry is one of the best ways to carry across the roaring oceans of incessantly battering brainwashing the indispensable memories of how great hopes flourished in the 20th century. It offers a good chance to restore that necessary piety which entails both a reacquaintance with the forgotten teachings and simultaneously their “pitiless critique” (Marx). To use Brecht without criticizing him, observed pithily Heiner Müller, means to betray him. In our age this holds, of course, for every cognitive endeavour, and in particular for Marx and the whole Marxian and left-wing tradition. The poetry is a watchman: “Watchman, what of the night?” The night is deep and dark, but not insurmountable: “it goes on for twelve hours, then comes the day” (Brecht, Schweyk in the Second World War). But orientations in the thick clouds of words and tear gas, or indeed bomb bursts, are badly needed. They have to be supplied from wherever one can get them.

What is, then, the relation of poetry to history? Surely, charity begins at home: poetry cannot exist without a relation to its own history. The poet—and the translator—must be cognizant of it, but not necessarily the synchronic reader who has to fry today’s potatoes today. For her, the relation is basically one of poetry to what Marx and Engels called the only science they knew—the history of relationships among people, in different social formations, in the struggles of classes differently shaping each formation.  There should be no special problems here for a poet as teller of (hi)stories, committed to an understanding that functions equally as his ethics and his aesthetics: for each of us has debts contracted in time toward the living and especially the dead, and the poet pays those debts. The most deeply personal economy is here at one with the sciences studying human and natural economy and with the Marxist understanding of history—those commitments to truth and memory.

However, given that readers are the central reason for the poem’s existence, the overriding question for a Marxist or socialist—which includes, no doubt in complex ways, a Marxist or socialist poet—is surely the relation of the poems he is writing to the synchronic history, ongoing in the flesh of these readers. (One then also hopes for the poem’s long duration, its reaching future readers too, but it doesn’t do to think too much about that while writing.) What has changed in that history between 1848 and 1945, and what has not? As Braudel would put it, what are its short-duration and its long-duration elements and aspects? A brief investigation of the relation between Marx’s CM and Brecht’s The Manifesto might suggest how a poem’s relation to its textual models and antecedents is linked with its relation to the ongoing historical situation.

In his diary for Feb. 1945, cited at the beginning of this commentary, Brecht noted: “The [Communist] Manifesto is as pamphlet itself a work of art,” but continued by postulating that its efficacy could be “today” renewed and strengthened “by sublating its pamphlet character” (GKA 27: 219-20). This implies two main points. First, that in spite of its eminent political and artistic status, CM has been in the practice of both the Second and the Third International movements (that is, of the Social Democratic and the Communist parties) so automatized and ossified that it no longer strikes a potentially interested and approachable reader with the freshness required for joyous perception and efficacy: as the Formalists would have said, it has to be de-automatized, or in Brecht’s own coinage, estranged (verfremdet). Later in Berlin, he would confide to an assistant, Käthe Rülicke: “This was conceived so slyly. I thought that if the great form is found beautiful, then the content has to be accepted together with it…. Brecht laughed a lot remembering it” (Wizisla ed., 40). And of course we should not forget that the rigidity on the official Left was in great part a defense mechanism against intense physical and ideological repression. But a second point that follows from Brecht’s proceeding is that the change in literary genre, from prose pamphlet to narrative poem in hexameter, was supposed to decisively intervene in this de-automatization and new perceptibility, in the renewed and (in comparison to the dogmatic idolization) strengthened efficacy of Marx’s diagnosis in actual political life. Such changes may be useful to discuss, at least partly and initially, to sharpen the reader’s understanding of Brecht’s ways of working and his intention.

My thesis is that what unites the Marxian political pamphlet and the Brechtian poem for learning is that they both aspire (and largely accede) to a cognitive status. If we are still to bother about them, it is because at least some of their key insights remain valid as guides for action, and others are instructive as to where, why and how they were (are) wrong. What the social-science people could and should learn from philology is that the what is never to be separated from the how: they are consubstantial. Therefore, the cognitive dusting off melds two modes of new understanding: it means not only a notional updating but also a rephrasing in the idiom and for the imagination of the new readers. And rephrasing is never innocent, since the how intervenes in the what. This is what differentiates CM and The Manifesto.

What have been retained here from the “classical” Marxist tradition are, first, Hegelian metamorphic forces of constant change, reinterpreted as Marx’s chthonic forces at work from the magmatic depths of society (whose role in strengthening the dynamic element of the poem I shall return to). Brecht’s “testimonial tenacity” (Marcheschi 27) is grounded in a view of how Marx’s cognitions about forces of history-as-political-economy operate in the flesh of working people. Second, CM is updated with some later insights of Marx’s, of which I shall mention only the cyclical theory of crises and the hidden fetishism of commodity economy, which are reworked as the magnificent double passage about the Ogres of Crises (translation lines 319ff) and about the blind Moloch-God of Profit (lines 242ff). (As usual in Brecht, there are many Biblical echoes.) Brecht participates in the style of the most effective poems discussed earlier—by Neri, for example—posited “to appear as ‘marginal notes’ of readings in science” (Marcheschi 17): he always treated with contempt the opposition of two forms of understanding and learning, the scientific and the artistic one, while insisting that they cannot be confused. However, his Manifesto is more ambitious than such poems (and therefore longer), for it constitutes an updating of CM for the age in which the bourgeoisie reaches for world wars in response to economic crises of its system.

Thus, the de-automatization of CM implies, first of all, its desacralization, that is, its critical updating and modification for the 1945 situation in Germany and the world. In March 1945 Brecht wrote to Karl Korsch, the heretical Marxist theoretician whom he, for all their disagreements, revered as one of his few teachers, and who was also the most prominent among his friends to enthusiastically encourage Brecht’s project and indeed to praise it as a masterpiece (Korsch 54): “I have modified, as cautiously as I could, some matters in CM, I put instead of the immiseration theory the insecurity caused by structural unemployment, etc. Do you think this is correct?” And further about the never fulfilled plans: “I’m now getting to the second chapter of CM. In it [in Brecht’s plan to adapt there Engels’s Principles of Communism, a small “catechism” in question‑and‑answer form], the classics will answer questions. Should I smuggle in new questions? Which ones?” (GKA 29: 349)

Second, Brecht’s estrangement entails the historicization of CM. Even the title, THE Manifesto, indicates it is a citation, a second-order reference to a classic. “CM was the report of its authors to the party they were founding. Brecht’s hexameters are the report of a report” (Mayer 65). They relate the past to the present, entangling and disentangling them. The poem is a dialectics of history, both rooted in the past and going on. Therefore, Brecht very often substitutes for Marx’s past tenses, which he uses in a few beginning lines, the present tense, which makes his report more dramatically immediate and more vivid, though no less historically sweeping: I shall emphasize in the two examples below (translation lines 15ff and 51ff) the initial switch to the present:

Third, as is proper to poetry, the already vivid but largely analytical argumentation of CM is much more strongly dramatized. This is achieved by various means: syntactic parallelism instead of Marx’s logical subordination; further use of personification, most prominent of which is the bourgeoisie, but which encompasses also the Ogre Crises or the God of Profit, and thus builds on the strong fantastic imagery already there in Marx (see Suvin-Angenot for a lengthy discussion); and dynamic action, for instance, by the much more articulated and active Spectre of Communism. The main sections of CM begin with a general thesis, which is then discussed and validated in lengthy analytical passages, and leads to a general programmatic upshot. Brecht uses much of this, but always subsumed under a dramatic story of workers as representatives of a humanity subjected to an increasing whirlpool of violence, predicated on mysterious deities of Profit, and of a possible remedy to the terrible threat.

Much more could be said, for example, about his vocabulary or his rhetorical figures such as the hyperbole (cf. Schober 145-65), but I shall close by noting that there is an overriding unnamed figure in the poem: the narrating voice, the poet-narrator. He is an anthropologist, advancing into the jungle of factories and cities with “a hot heart in a cold person” (Brecht, GKA 26: 207); and his rigour arises out of the blood, sweat and tears of millions through the centuries. Here is an example for the foregoing discussions, the first lines of the poem:

Wars are destroying the world, and the ruins are visibly haunted
By an enormous spectre, not simply born of war.
In peace it could already be sighted, terror to the rulers
But friend to the children of slums. In scanty kitchens
Often it peeps, horrified, angry, into the half-empty pots.
Often it waits for the exhausted in front of shipyards and mines;
It visits friends in jails, passing without passport.
Even in offices it may be seen and in auditoria
Heard. At times it dons a hat of steel, enters
Huge tanks and flies with deadly bombers. It speaks in many
Tongues, in all of them. And in many it holds its tongue.

The discourse has shifted to 1945, that is, out of Marx’s early 19th-century situation of the Holy Alliance in Europe. We are in the modern world of world-wide wars, of tanks, bombers and ruins, of many languages and repression in most of them; and yet still a world recognizable to Marx, with mines, shipyards, offices and auditoria, but—most important—with half-empty pots, exhausted workers, slums and jails. In other passages, the most massive addition to Marx’s CM is his own crisis theory, actualized through the vivid experiences of the post-1929 crash. This fits into the poem’s heroic attempt to create a productive feedback between Marx’s formulations  (the haunting spectre, the grave-digging, etc.) and Brecht’s return to the original magma of the daily experience of millions which also lay at the distant basis of those formulations. In philosophical language, Brecht’s verse actualizes this feedback between deduction and induction, between a framework pre-dating the matter of the poem (ante rem) and a verification plus modification within the matter (in re). The modification can best be seen in this breathtakingly daring opening, in the best epic tradition of beginning in medias res, in the thick of things: “Wars are destroying the world.” The class struggle will re-emerge with a vengeance in the latter part of the poem, but to begin with it is here to arrest not simply millennial social injustice but also the by now possible smashing up (zerschmettern, a wonderful expression that I failed to fit into the poem’s rhythm) of the world. It is my strong conviction that the wars—both the two World Wars and the perhaps 200 “local” wars since 1945—are an essential and indispensable tool of capitalism, without which the bourgeoisie couldn’t survive,7 so that the singular paucity of sustained left-wing theorizing about war borders on death-wish. Perhaps we’re just beginning to climb out of this largely self-dug pit after the Gulf and Serbian wars. Brecht can here too serve as our Great Ancestor, who prophetically indicated the way. 

Here we could then reopen the question of didactic or propagandistic poems. These terms are more than a little misleading, for to my mind all poetry teaches attitudes or bearings by pregnant example: say, Petrarch’s about yearning for the ideal woman, Dante’s about the political ethics of his time, Baudelaire’s about the beauty proper to the evil megalopolises of the bourgeoisie. It is simply that, at some point of etiolated Romanticism, bourgeois critical hegemony had decided that the teaching of politics was not the proper pursuit of unreliable verse, and identified all didactics with such disallowed “propaganda”: “Politisch Lied, ein garstig Lied”—”political poem, a nasty poem,” said the great Philistine Goethe (in a political poem). Brecht’s voice is one of a teacher, no doubt, but of a peculiar one: a Socratic pedagogic facilitator, whose overriding maxim was that the learner is more important than the lesson. In other words: the Law is here for Humanity, not vice versa; the lesson is not only to be incarnated into but also modified by the Brechtian “worker-readers,” just as the versifying voice has transubstantiated and modified the original CM. This is the voice of a critical intellectual, in a Gramscian sense organic to the plebeian movement; in Brechtian terms we could call this poem the voice of an “intellectual-reader” who has found some answers reading Marx, and repeats them faithfully, that is: reworking them for the situation of the mid-20th century.

Somewhere in his “poetics” Ad Pisones, Horace discusses whether the tragic poets who take their arguments from Homer are really poets, that is, creative writers. His answer is that the epic events of Homer will be transmogrified into the tragic effects of a good tragedian if he refrains from idle paraphrase and, instead of being a servile imitator, is a true “translator,” who takes the Homeric characters and supplies them with new speeches and actions. In Book 3 of his Scienza nuova, Vico comments on this passage that such excellent tragedians “will be new poets in the style of Homer” (320). Vico argues elsewhere that “all ancient Roman law was a serious poem” or carmen (390), a binding social incantation (Valéry’s charme). Thus Brecht can be called a new serious poet in the style of Marx.

For analytical convenience, we can separate his reworking into two aspects: as to the what, lessons that have intervened between 1848 and 1945, and in particular Marx’s later work on capitalist economics and some lessons of Leninism, born and reborn out of the World Wars; and as to the how, the new cognitive tool of Lucretian narrative poetry. (Of course, I have been arguing that how and what are in any corporeal reality, including very much the corporeal reality of practicing poetry and poetic practice, consubstantial.) From various other works of Brecht, it can be inferred he considered this tool to be at least equivalent, and possibly superior, to systematic philosophical discourse, which may be a good weapon but is prone to doctrinal congealment (Brecht likened it to a condensed snowball, which shouldn’t be kept in one’s pocket too long). It was again Valéry who, in his discussion of poetry, observed that when mutton is consumed by a lion it turns into lion-flesh. Unfortunately, he hasn’t given us a metaphor as to what happens when a lion cannibalizes another lion from long ago. At any rate, Marx’s substance is transmuted in Brecht, as Brecht’s ought to be in the reader facing any new situation—keeping however unchanged and constant the central and determining horizon of class liberation, and the vector of desire toward it.

Brecht’s poem was not finished, but it happens to end, rephrasing the end of Part 1 of the CM, with what I see as a sufficient ending. It answers the initial, catalyzing violence of the bourgeois World Wars of each against each with a healing leveling of the violent class structure:

…the proletarians, lowest
Level of society must, in order to rise, smash
Into pieces the whole social structure with all its upper levels.
The proletariat can only throw off its special class
Servitude by throwing off the servitude of all.

While today we may have to redefine what we mean by the proletariat, I believe that the beginning of the 21st century, amid still worse wars already upon us, still has to absorb—and no doubt transmute—this end.


1. My thanks are due first of all to the Brecht-Archiv, Berlin, and its director Dr. Erdmut Wizisla who provided crucial help both with Brecht’s variants and with the secondary literature, including a preview of his planned annotated list of Brecht’s library. They extend to the encouragement of Fredric Jameson and Tom Kuhn, and to productive observations, suggestions and/or queries by Marc Angenot, Johannes Angermüller, Bonnie Borenstein, Ronnie Davis, Marcelline Krafchick, Joan Roelofs, Marc Silberman, Renate Solbach, and Victor Wallis; Stephen Bronner undertook the heroically kind task of giving me a line-by-line critique. The translation was first presented at a panel devoted to it in the “Marxism 2000” conference, Amherst, Mass., Sept. 2000, which was encouraged by Richard Wolff and helped by Stephen Cullenberg; the respondents at the panel were Ronnie Davis and Sara Lennox. Of course the remaining faults are 99% mine and only 1% Brecht’s.

2. For the record, the original is De rerum natura in six “books” by Titus Lucretius Carus, ca. 95-55 BCE; this is perhaps best translated as On the Nature of the Universe or …Of What There Is. One of the first proofs of Brecht’s intensive consultation of Knebel’s 1821 translation that also contained Lucretius’s Latin (Brecht read both)¾which he must have owned from the Weimar years and which followed him in his emigré wanderings¾is to be found in the essay Five Difficulties, where he cites “the great Lucretius” as an authoritative source for beauty of verse being used for dissemination of doctrine (GKA 22.1: 83); eight further references to and citations of Lucretius in Brecht’s poems or essays about poetry from 1933 on have been found  (Knopf 158 and GKA 14: 548-49 and 675). They always use and/or adapt the Latin verse in German, so that Brecht’s first hexameters in the footsteps of Lucretius also date from 1933 (ibidem 171). The two other most important discussions are Brecht’s cited memo “From Whom Have I Learned” and the famous programmatic essay “On Unrhymed Poetry with Irregular Rhythm” in 1939, where the irregular rhythms and “gestic elements” of Lucretius testify to his openness to social dissonances and function as the ideal modern procedure. Much has been said (best in Mayer, Bunge, Mittenzwei, and Knopf) about the relationship to Lucretius documented in these places; much more could be said.

On Brecht’s great liking for Roman themes and literature, second in importance perhaps only to an analogous affinity to the Chinese and Japanese ones, cf. at least the classic monograph by Hans Mayer. See also note 5 below.

Brecht used the CM text from a selection of Marx’s works published in German in the USSR in 1934; the Brecht Archive conserves the photographs and films he had Ruth Berlau make of its pages  in order to scatter them singly over his study room (GKA 29: 220; Bunge 184).

3. A great deal of memoir literature and philological attention has been devoted to Brecht’s not using the truly classical (Homeric or indeed Lucretian) hexameter but a freer German form. I believe the correct judgment on this was given in Eisler’s retraction of his strong 1945 objections (both formal and political) in the dialogues with Bunge (81-90): the objections were formally irrelevant and politically shortsighted. See the literature in GKA 27: 220 and 226, both Feuchtwanger items (to my mind mistaken), Hartinger 62-68 (whose arguments I find best), and Knopf 163-64.

4. It is much easier in the expletive two-syllable Russian “burzhuy” (boorzhoo’y), as proved by Mayakovsky:

Yesh ananasy, ryabchiki zhuy,
Den’ tvoy poslyednyi prikhodit, burzhuy!
(Gulp down pineapples, chew your quails/ Your last day is dawning, boorzhooy!)

5.  Literally, “Love that pardons no beloved/lover for loving.” There’s a whole little library of comments on this verse from the Paolo and Francesca episode of Inferno. Very crudely, “Love,” the allegorical figure not too far from the Greek Eros, is not sickly sweet but is often (in Dante’s usual hyperbole, always) merciless toward the lovers/beloved, who have to bear the consequences of this semi-divine—in some versions, dear to Dante who ends the Commedia with a verse on divine love “that moves the Sun and other stars,” fully divine—impulse and project. Indeed Paolo and Francesca are both killed for it and land in the perpetual tempest zone of the Inferno.  And yet they are presented with such understanding and beauty through full 62 lines, their loyalty holds so fast even in that tempest, that most readers would suspect loving may be worth it, if you are truly lovers/beloved, whatever Love may do to you.

6. The following few lines from a standard handbook speak about Lucretius, but the reader may amuse herself by considering how much of it would apply also to Brecht, and where modifications would have to be applied: .”..he shows a firm intellectual grasp of what is often a complex and abstruse philosophical argument. He has the artist’s intense sensory awareness of the world about him…. His moral involvement in his subject and his sense of the ludicrous make it easy for him to modulate into satire. He is a superbly endowed artist wrestling triumphantly with intractable material, writing with a vigour and gusto hardly found in Latin after the end of the republic…. He is aware of his own originality, of the difficulties involved in treating philosophy as subject-matter for poetry; he has something of the loneliness of the pioneer as well as of the creative artist. But his theme is life itself as he had realized it in Epicurean terms….”  (Wormell).

7. See my paper “Capitalism Means/Needs War,” read at conferences in Berlin June 2000 and Amherst Mass. Sept. 2000, so far without a publishing venue.

Works CitedThis list does not pretend to give an overview of the secondary literature on Das Manifest. A number of pioneering works, such as Spaethling 1962, Witzmann 1964, Rösler 1975, and Ter-Nedden 1976, have for the purposes of this subject-matter been superseded by later research. This work of Brecht’s is also briefly mentioned in some surveys of his work, e.g., by Esslin, Ewen and K.-D. Müller.


Brecht, Bertolt. Werke. Grosse Kommentierte Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe. Suhrkamp & Aufbau V., 1988-2000 [GKA].

Bunge, Hans-Joachim. “Das Manifest von Bertolt Brecht.” Sinn und Form 15.2-3 (1963): 184-203.

— [und Hanns Eisler]. Fragen Sie mehr über Brecht. München: Rogner & Bernhard, 1970.

Feuchtwanger, Lion. “Bertolt Brecht.” Sinn  und Form, Zweites Sonderheft Bertolt Brecht, 1957, 103-08.

—. “Die Zusammenarbeit der Dichter.” Berliner Zeitung no. 301 of Dec. 25, 1958 (letter to Bunge). Harding, D.W. Words into Rhythm. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1976.

Hartinger, Christel. Bertolt Brecht—das Gedicht nach Krieg und Wiederkehr. [Berlin]: Brecht-Zentrum der DDR, 1982.

Knopf, Jan. Brecht Handbuch: Lyrik, Prosa, Schriften. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1984.

Korsch, Karl. “Antwort an bb.” Alternative 8.41 (1965): 54-57.

Marcheschi, Daniela. “Giampiero Neri o della coesistenza,” in S. Aman ed., Memoria, mimetismo e informazione in “Teatro Naturale” di Giampiero Neri. Milano: Otto/Novecento, 1999, 13-28.

Mayer, Hans. Bertolt Brecht und die Tradition. Pfullingen: Neske, 1961.

Mittenzwei, Werner. Brechts Verhältnis zur Tradition. Berlin: Akademie-V., 1972.

Schober, Rita. “Brechts Umschrift des Kommunistischen Manifests,” in her Vom Sinn oder Unsinn der Literaturwissenschaft. Leipzig: Mitteldeutscher V, 1988, 126-80.

Suvin, Darko,  with Marc Angenot. “L’aggirarsi degli  spettri. Metafore  e  demifisticazioni, ovvero l’implicito del  manifesto,” in M. Galletti ed., Le soglie del fantastico. Roma: Lithos, 1997, 129‑66.

Vico, Giambattista. The New Science…. Transl. T.G. Bergin and M.H. Frisch. Ithaca NY: Cornell UP, 1988.

Wizisla, Erdmut, ed. “…und mein Werk ist der Abgesang des Jahrtausends.” Catalog of the exhibition 1898—Bertolt Brecht—1998. Berlin: Akademie der Künste, 1998.

W[ormell], D.E.W. “Lucretius,”  in The Penguin Companion to Classical… Literature. Eds. D.M. Lang and D.R. Dudley. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969, 109-10.

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