Changing the Wheel: Bertolt Brecht’s Stories from the Revolution

Lenin - The Russian Revolution

The poetry of Bertolt Brecht (1898 – 1956), author of The Threepenny Opera and The Good Soul of Szechuan, has often been belittled as “the second string on his bow”. For a poet who has published more than a thousand pages of poetry, this is an unsatisfactory description of a poetic corpus and a life story, both of which underwent dramatic changes in their engagement with the contemporary political world and its revolutions. Forced into political exile in 1933, first to Scandinavia and then to the USA, Brecht made the decision to return to East Berlin in 1949. Brecht assumed his role as a ‘state poet’ (Staatsdichter) of the German Democratic Republic and its Marxist-Leninist stance with mixed feelings that persisted throughout the 1950s. The two poems ‘In Smolny During the Summer of 1917 the Bolsheviks Discovered Where the People were Represented – in the Kitchen’, and ‘The Carpet Weavers of Kuyan-Bulak Honour Lenin’, published collectively as Stories from the Revolution are insightful, idiosyncratic and profound pieces of political poetry, which challenge romanticised ideas about political revolutions and provide a unique, literary point of view on the Realpolitik of the set of revolutions that occurred in Russia in 1917. His view on the subtle subversion of politics as a space for imaginative resistance, as well as on the failure of revolutions to bring about proper, holistic change can inform our view on what revolution and politics can mean in many of the contexts in which it is evoked. The concept of revolution, much like those of crisis, change, or transformation, is ambiguous, full of imaginary aspirations, and often misleading. Pedro Spivakovsky-Gonzalez has recently investigated only some of the manifold theatres and scenarios of the Arab Spring, now turned Summer, or even Winter. As he puts it, “in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, for example, presiding rulers can respond to the Arab Spring by either continuing or reversing their recent mild political reform efforts.” Under different circumstances, revolution can be a paradigm shift, a program towards gradual progress, or an initial reversion.

Either way, revolutions are the only political events that “confront us directly and inevitably with the problem of beginning”, Hannah Arendt (1906 – 1975), the emigrated Jewish German political philosopher, once argued. In many ways, her suggestion presents an ambiguous and a historically specific conception of the progression of time that is implicit in the concept of the revolution. Since a beginning implies novelty, a unique commencement of something different, time, here, is considered as progressing along a linear, non-repetitive trajectory. The notion of time-progression has been associated with conceptions of the revolution which vary greatly across the centuries and philosophies.

The Carmina Burana, a medieval (11th – 13th century) manuscript comprising 254 poems and songs, depicts the Goddess Fortuna as the empress of the world who has the power to turn the Wheel of Fortune. In ‘Fortune Plango Vulnera’ (‘I bemoan the Wounds of Fortune’), we read:

Fortune rota volvitur;
The wheel is turned by Fortuna;
Descendo minoratus;
I go down, demeaned;
Alter in altum tollitur;
Another is carried to the height;

This excerpt allows for two readings, which give insight into the word ‘revolution’. One concerns the medieval conception of time, which is bound up with Fortune, or Fate. Hence, the course of Fate, as that of time, is predictable but unchangeable. The other suggests a circular, repetitive motion of time; like that of a wheel, which revolves and brings to the fore the same alterations of Fate, such as being heightened, now, and demeaned, then. In this sense, ‘revolution’ is repetition, not novelty or beginning.

This notion of the circular motion – the revolution – is a concept that also appears in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900), as the ‘eternal recurrence’ (Ewige Wiederkehr) of time and events. For Nietzsche, awareness of the recurring pattern of history is at the same time the greatest shock to and, if responded to in the right way, the greatest affirmation of life. It is to describe the latter that he puts forward the notion of amor fati, the love of Fate. Here is how he puts it in Ecce Homo;

My formula for the greatness in the human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing differently, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not just to bear the necessary, even less to conceal it … – but to love it.

This perpetual turning of the wheel of fortune, the medieval idea that what is has been recurring and will continue to do so has been taken up by Nietzsche in an affirming manner. The repetitive continuation of the ever-same is not to be rejected, but to be embraced. This concept, in its burdening omnipresence, has long been present in Indian cosmology as the never-ending cycle of birth, life and death from which liberation is sought. The Kalachakra (Sanskrit: kāla – time, chakra – wheel/cycle) represents both eternally circular time without beginning and a deity within a particular tradition of Tantric Buddhism. Similar notions exist in its temporal implication and revolving notion, as discussed, in medieval cosmology, in Renaissance astronomy, and their influence on Nietzsche (arguably through his philological expertise and acquaintance with Schopenhauer) has been debated.

The concept of a political revolution has brought about a radical change of the implied concept of time. Radiating from the two great Revolutions at the end of the 18th century, the French and the American, the notion has come to influence political, philosophical, and literary imagination. On this point, Raymond Geuss (in a 2011 public lecture entitled ‘Revolution, Utopia and Imagination’ held in Cambridge) has recently noted the relation between the concepts revolution, utopia and imagination. For him, they are all hinting at that which is completely different; the other side of the wheel of fortune Fortuna revolves. They hint at the ou- topos, the non-place, which has been transformed by way of mistranslation into the u – topos, the good place (as in Thomas More’s Utopia). For Geuss, the capacity to imagine and talk about that very other requires an idea of what it is different from. If we assume that political revolutions, different from rebellions (political, rather than social), insurrection (violent, but indeterminate) and reform (not violent and not intending radical change of basic structure), are usually short temporally, violent and aimed at a radical change of the basic social and political structure, then that structure has to be perceived as a critical juncture.

More specifically, post-18th century revolutionary ideas, such as those of Karl Marx, are based on a notion of progress, of basic change, which modifies the prior concepts of a revolution as repetition. The imagined Communist utopia is radically different from the now, but it is not the opposite and will not revolve back – at least not causally in time (the literal counter-revolution is a different matter, as we shall see in Brecht’s ‘In Smolny’). It introduces a novel era, one that has progressed linearly. As Marx himself put it, using the word ‘poetry’ in an interesting sense (Gr. ‘poiesis’ – production):

The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot derive its poetry from the past, but only from the future.

What I want to point out is the substantial difference of this political model of the revolution. It is not one that expects the repetition of past events, but one that requires an active engagement and creation of novel socio-political conditions. As Arendt puts it, “only under the conditions of a rectilinear time concept are such phenomena as novelty, uniqueness of events, and the like conceivable at all”. The Russian Revolution of 1917, which is really a set of revolutions including those in February and June, is the envisioned and practised change that Bertolt Brecht took as the subject of his Stories from the Revolution (1933).

Bertolt Brecht published his first volume of poetry, Die Hauspostille (Devotions) in 1927, most of which he had written by 1922, aged 24. In 1930, after having moved to Berlin, Brecht had published a second volume on the unpleasant experiences of urbanity, correspondingly entitled Aus dem Lesebuch für Städtebewohner (Reader for Those Who Live in Cities). In 1933, the year of the Reichstag Fire, Brecht was forced into exile, fleeing first to Scandinavia and later to the United States. It was also in this year that he published Stories from the Revolution. During the 14 years of his exile, he became a prolific political writer, shifting the subject-matter of his poetry to address and instigate more “political and economic discussion, couched in the dry, indecorous vocabulary appropriate to such”. The Svendborg Poems (1939), one of his early volumes of poems in Danish exile, includes the second, altered reprint of ‘The Carpet Weavers’.

When Brecht decided to entitle the sequence of two poems (originally three, the brutal and forceful epic poem ‘Die Internationale’ was edited out in the 1933 edition) Stories from the Revolution, the mere choice of title provoked thought. First, the casual objectivity of the title formula seems on the one hand to blunt notions of a politically sensationalised revolution. On the other hand, it suggests and emphasises a folk tale character of a common man’s experience with revolutionary occurrences. Second, the title itself suggests a new sort of temporality. Revolutions, as opposed to reforms, are usually characterised by violent, short-term, radical and basic changes of social institutions. Written Stories (Geschichten), or as the poem sequence was called before, Narrations (Erzählungen), imply a certain duration and continuation.

When the February Revolution was over
and the movement of the masses came to a halt/
the war was not yet ended.

Brecht stretches the idea of the revolution to encompass more than the violently heroic and romanticised initial short-time fervour, to include the longer, continuing, everyday forms in which history is written and tales are narrated. Both poems in the Stories tell of ‘exemplary’ actions and attitudes in the incomplete revolutions in post-1917 Russia, which are revealing of Brecht’s partisanship with the Leninist cause. They thereby provide an insight into Brecht and his initial engagement with Marxism in the years of the Weimar Republic when he wrote the pieces.

The first poem of the sequence, ‘In Smolny During the Summer of 1917 the Bolsheviks Discovered Where the People were Represented – in the Kitchen’, as the full title reads, is set in St. Petersburg. This was a location of revolutionary imaginations, where the offices of the Smolny Institute, the Bolshevik headquarters, were located. As Louise Bryant put it, “not the kind of place in which an imperialist of any sort would have been comfortable”. Brecht situates the poem, sarcastic in tone and narrative in style, in the vague aftermath of the ‘February Revolution’ (more precisely, 8-12 March in the Western calendar); one of the first revolutions in Russia in 1917, in the post-World War I disorder. Early in February, workers in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) began to demonstrate and clashed with the Tsar’s forces. In short, the subsequent gatherings, including those centred on International Women’s Day, brought more and more factories to a halt and the streets of the capital into chaos, eventually causing the Tsar to abdicate and a ‘Provisional Government’ to be established. Lenin returned from exile in Switzerland in April 1917 and fuelled the dual power struggle between the ‘Provisional Government’ and the Bolsheviks (Red ‘Guards’/‘Army’) under Lenin, to whom a vast mass of workers pledged their allegiance. The ‘October Revolution’ (in November) crystallised the opposition between White (anti-Bolshevik) and Red factions, swiftly overthrowing the Provisional Government. The ensuing civil war lasted for a number of years, however, ultimately leading to the establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) under Lenin.

It is in the years between the Revolutions that ‘In Smolny’ tells its story. The Soviets had been established in Petrograd (St Petersburg), and were led by those who “were elected by all but represented the few” (“waren von Allen gewählt und vertraten die Wenigen”). Brecht situates the poem not in a scene of grand revolutionary protest, but in the quotidian actions of the Bolsheviks, who, under accusations of being “counter-revolutionary” (“für Konterrevolutionäre gehalten”), are continuously trying to convince the ‘common people’ to raise their arms, again, against the proper enemy of the proletariat: the rulers. In his poem, he does not speak of grand insurrections or violent clashes, but of those everyday forms of solidarity for the Red Cause. It is a soldier, a waiter in the Canteen of the Executive Committee, who encourages the political activity with “hotter tea and thicker-spread sandwiches” for the Bolsheviks. I am reminded of Frantz Fanon’s account in Studies in a Dying Colonialism, in which he tells of the mundane activities of resistance and dialogic terror in French-occupied Algiers in the 1950s. Of course, James Scott’s Weapons of the Weak already points us to “[w]hat is missing from this perspective, [which] is the simple fact that most subordinate classes throughout most of history have rarely been afforded the luxury of open, organized, political activity. Or, better stated, such activity was dangerous, if not suicidal.” In the light of his analysis, we can understand Brecht’s attention to minute and mundane communication. Whilst for the Algerian, according to Fanon, “to ask for l’Express, l’Humanité, or le Monde was tantamount to publicly confessing his allegiance to the Revolution” and, in fact, “equivalent to an act of war”; for Brecht’s Bolsheviks, it was “the slightest move on such people’s part/ utterance or look, but likewise silence and the averted gaze/ [which] struck them as important”.

In short, ‘In Smolny’ draws our attention to the dialogic games of the post-revolution phase, in which solidarity with the cause of the Bolsheviks was not always dramatic or grand-scale, but would happen in an extra bit of butter passed on in the canteen on the food counter, amidst cabbage soup and tea (“in der Kantine (…) bei der Ausgabe der Speisen, Kohlsuppe und Tee”).

Furthermore, Brecht’s peculiar choice to focus on specifically banal activities is complementary to his focus on peripheral places and people. ‘The Carpet Weavers’ (as The Good Soul of Szechuan, only this time based on a true story) relocates the action, the arena in which the revolution takes place, to places in the middle of nowhere, almost non-existent places, forgotten by many. Kuyan-Bulak, a village in Uzbekistan, was the location of a curious little ritual in honour of Lenin, which must have caught Brecht’s attention (published as an anonymous Russian account, which appeared in 1929). As retold in Brecht’s poem, the villagers of Kuyan-Bulak, fever-ridden by a local swamp and the plague of mosquitoes it caused, one day receive the notice that “the day approaches for honouring Comrade Lenin”. The Carpet Weavers, poor and ill as they are, nonetheless collect money for a plaster bust. Collecting the willingly offered but “hard-earned kopeks with trembling hands”, the Red Army man Stepa Gamalev, who was counting the money, suggests buying a barrel of petroleum instead with which to burn the swamp. They buy the petroleum and eliminate the plague. And in doing so, Brecht writes:

They helped themselves by honouring Lenin, and/
Honoured him by helping themselves, and thus/
Had understood him well.

The mundane nature of the honouring, the exchange of a bust for petroleum, is revealing. The agency of the peasants to appropriate Lenin as a signifier for the common good, rather than a form of elevated person cult as with Stalin in the end, produces a double-win – the Carpet Weavers are rid of the malaria and the successful intervention prompts the villagers – ironically – to install a plaque commemorating the event.

As in ‘In Smolny’, where the story took us from the Soviet Councils to the canteen, here, we are taken from busts to petroleum. Brecht points out two aspects of the Russian Revolution, which are unique and particularly well expressed in his casual writing. First, we are reminded that revolutions don’t consist merely of an initial coup. The fight, as Lenin emphasised, continues long after. Second, we are shown that revolutions don’t only take place in the memorable arenas of violent clashing, but also in the village, in the remote no man’s land. They also don’t just concern flags and weapons, but sometimes butter, tea and “dented buckets” filled with petroleum. As Brecht himself wrote in ‘Of all the Works of Man’:

Of all the works of man I like best
Those which have been used
The copper pots with their dents and flattened edges
The knives and forks whose wooden handles
Have been worked away by many hands

The necessitated solidarity of the collective makes things happen – the evoked imagination and desire for change. As Arendt puts it: “What the man of the Russian Revolution has learned from the French Revolution (…) was history and not action. They had acquired the skill to play whatever part the great drama of history was going to assign them”.

So was Brecht the fervent supporter of the left cause, the writer of the Proletariat for the Proletariat? If so, then his role as a ‘state poet’ in the GDR should have been suitable for him. Well, as the poem from which I drew the title for this article reveals, Brecht became increasingly disillusioned with the direction of the USSR, the party party dogma and the violently suppressed uprisings of 1953 in the GDR. His ‘revolutionary’ poem ‘Changing the Wheel’ from the Buckow Elegies (1953) paints a different picture:

I sit by the roadside
The driver changes the wheel.
I do not like the place I have come from.
I do not like the place I am going to.
Why with impatience do I
Watch him changing the wheel?

Is this the same Brecht we encounter in Stories from the Revolution? Evidently, his position has been altered. His dialogue with the reader has shifted focus from the aspirations of change and novelty in the everyday to the disillusionment with the apparent lack of progress the post-revolutionary reality in the GDR and Russia has produced. Brecht’s lyrical observations are much like those of the lyrical “I” in this last melancholic and yet agitated poem. Why do I watch him changing the wheel? Why do I not change my fortune? Whose responsibility is it to cause and interpret its change, its revolutions?

Jonas L. Tinius is a doctoral researcher in the Division of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, U.K. His work explores the dynamics of art traditions, patronage, and aesthetics in relation to German theatre.