Changing the wheel: Bertolt Brecht’s stories from the revolution

Jonas L. Tinius
March 19, 2013

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?


All by
Jonas L. Tinius