The Prescient Praxis of Parable: Marx’s Theory of History in Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle

It is essential to view Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle within a historical context, both in terms of when he wrote and in terms of how he portrays historical development within the play. Brecht, undoubtedly a committed Marxist, intends to utilize Marx’s theory of history as a means of forcing the viewer to reckon with his or her preconceived notions of how humans and history interact. Brecht presents multiple temporal realities in a non-linear format and ultimately infuses the play with Marx’s conception of human societal progress away from estrangement through a dialectical-practical method.

In order to discuss Brecht’s work, it is first necessary to understand Marx’s theory of history, both in terms of its philosophical origins, most notably Marx’s inheritance of the hegelian dialectic, and its theoretical component parts that appear in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Although Marx intended to develop a holistic theory of history and developed the “materialist conception of history” in which he attempted to assert a unified, rational, and scientifically oriented account of human history, he was ultimately unable to develop an all-encompassing theory. Instead, Marx developed multiple fragmentary views of history. This is not to say that these fragmentary views of history were entirely separate from each other; on the contrary, the theories are largely interdependent.

The first aspect of Marx’s theory of history is an anthropological interpretation. Marx develops the concept of history as a process of humanization and naturalization in which history is directed towards man developing the potentiality of his being and becoming fully human while simultaneously becoming more united with humanized “nature”. Marx argues that this human development will arise out of the current state of affairs that is largely characterized by self-estrangement. In 1844, Marx developed a criticism of political economy in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. The manuscripts describe some of the fundamental elements of Marx’s anthropological theory of history including: man’s coming-to-be and future communism as goals of the historical process, the characterization of man as a social being, as well as a comprehensive depiction of the concept of man’s “self-estrangement”, which plays a central role in the theory. In the manuscripts, Marx identifies and describes four main aspects of the estrangement of labor:

  1. The fact that “labor is external to the worker…that therefore does not confirm himself in his work, but denies himself, feels miserable and not happy… ” (Early Writings 326). The worker feels disconnected from his activity and as such, the relationship of labor to the act of production within labor leads to alienation in the mind of the worker.
  2. The relationship of the “worker to the product of labor as an alien object that has power over him” (EW 327). This relationship creates hostile opposition between the worker and the “sensuous external world, to natural objects”, an opposition which is the root cause of the other estrangements.
  3. Estranged labor “estranges nature from man and estranges man from himself, from his own active function, from his vital activity…from his species” (EW 328). Marx goes on to explain how the animal is immediately at one with its life activity, and that humans make this life activity an object of his will and consciousness. As such, man is a species being “i.e. his own life is an object for him”. The object of labor is therefore the objectification of the species-life of man and estranged labor divorces man from his species-being. This self-estrangement makes man’s human essence and natural potential alien to him.
  4. Estranged labor also leads to the estrangement of man from man. Marx notes that because man is estranged from his individual specifies-being, “each man is estranged from the others and that all are estranged from man’s essence” (EW330). Marx later notes how estrangement is realized and expressed only in man’s social relationship to other men.

Estrangement, which Marx links to the current bourgeois mode of production, restricts man from fully becoming man and realizing the full wealth of his being. Only upon becoming conscious of this estrangement and transcending it, is man able to develop in accordance with his productive forces and truly express his species-being.

Marx characterizes man as “not merely a natural being: he is a human natural being…a being for himself…a species being, and has to confirm and manifest himself as such both in his being and in his knowing” (Marx Engels Reader 116). Marx places particular importance on the concept of man’s coming-to-be, and puts it at the center of his anthropological conception of history. To Marx this humanization is an end goal in man’s historical development and coincides with the inevitable realization of an un-estranged society. In the 1844 manuscripts, Marx explicitly describes the linkage between man’s coming-to-be and history when he states how “man too has his act of coming-to-be–history–which, however, is for him a known history, and hence as an act of coming-to-be it is a conscious self-transcending act of coming-to-be…history is the true natural history of man” (MER 116-117). By categorizing man’s coming-to-be as a natural historical process, Marx thereby confirms the conscious self-transcending act, man’s practical-critical activity, as a central component of historical development.

A second aspect of Marx’s theory is history as praxis or activity. Marx develops the bulk of this interpretation of history in The German Ideology, The Grundrisse, and in his contribution to the Theses on Feuerbach. Marx’s 1845 contribution to the Theses on Feuerbach represents his philosophical and practical rationale to break with Hegel, Feuerbach, and philosophy at large. Marx instead focuses his efforts on an analysis of modern capitalist society from this point on. In his first point in the text, Marx states how Feuerbach mistakenly “regards the theoretical attitude as the only genuinely human attitude, while practice is conceived and fixed only in its dirty-judaical manifestation…[and] he does not grasp the significance of ‘revolutionary’, of ‘practical-critical’ activity” (EW 421). In this passage Marx criticizes Feuerbach’s dismissal of praxis as a “dirty-judaical manifestation”, as Feuerbach equates all practical activity to the dishonest market practices of Schacher (a term for haggling with a negative Jewish connotation). Marx deplores the mode of social behavior that was present in the market and implied in Schacher, and rejects Feuerbach’s conception that praxis and Schacher were inseparable. The passage also elucidates Marx’s view that ‘practical-critical’ activity plays an important and dynamic role in history. Marx further elaborates this position in the third point of the text when he argues that “the coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice” (EW 422). Again, Marx criticizes Feuerbach for not considering the act, the ‘revolutionary practice’, as a fundamental element of historical development. This emphasis on praxis marks a shift away from his initial anthropological thinking, but does not represent a complete break. Marx still entertains Feuerbach’s humanistic language, and still considers man’s coming-to-be as a vital aspect of historical progress.

In The German Ideology, Marx remains consistent with his prior humanism when he states how “the first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organization of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature…the writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men” (MER 149). Here Marx describes the connection between history and the action of living human individuals citing the actions of human beings as making history, a current that runs throughout his work. Later in the text, Marx goes on to define history as a series of historical acts including: the production of the means to satisfy human needs, the production of new needs, the production of the family, and finally the production of co-operation. Here Marx frames the development of history in the context of human activity. This is congruent with the anthropological view of history because both views use the process of man’s coming-to-be through his labor which he states is the self-confirming essence of man, but indicates that praxis itself takes precedence.

In his 1844 manuscripts, Marx states how “the real, active relation of man to himself as a species-being… is only possible if he really employs his species-powers-which again is only possible through the cooperation of mankind and as a result of history…” (EW 386).  Here Marx emphasizes the concept of the real active relation of man to himself, again bringing attention to the importance of the act in the development of history. Marx states how praxis is necessary in the creation of a society that is fully developed which produces man in all the richness of his being. Marx argues that in creating this society “the resolution of the theoretical antitheses themselves is possible only in a practical way, by virtue of the practical energy of man” (EW354). To Marx, the resolution of these antitheses must be practical because it is not merely a problem of knowledge, but a real problem which philosophy and other theoretical investigations are unable to solve.

The overlap between the anthropological and praxis-oriented theories of history is clear, especially when Marx continually references man’s relation to his species-being. The praxis-oriented view of history seems to have the same goals of man’s coming-to-be and future communism, but places particular emphasis on the active process itself whereas the anthropological view is more, if not excessively, metaphysical.  The anthropological and praxis-oriented views of history are also linked by Marx’s interpretation of labor as a process of productive consumption. According to Marx, labor “creates the material elements for the development of the rich individuality which is as all-sided in its production as in its consumption, and whose labor also therefore appears no longer as labor, but as the full development of activity itself” (Grundrisse 325). Marx uses labor to connect the concepts of the development of rich individuality and the development of activity itself, characterizing labor as productive consumption which enables the satisfaction of current needs and increases the productive potential of labor. This productive potential aligns with the development of history as it leads man to develop the potentiality of his being through active labor.

Marx’s theories of history are personified and fully expressed through the dramatic works of Brecht. In The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Brecht shows that historical social change can be reflected, inspired and made accessible through fable to the audience. Brecht’s progressive presentation of historical development indicates his preference to subvert the dominant capitalist paradigm. Brecht’s Chalk Circle provides a unique opportunity for the spectator to stand outside of linear temporal reality. No longer a passive audience member, Brecht’s critically engaged observer is able to observe the montage of changing epochs, able to juxtapose the “Old World” and the new, and ultimately able to glean some philosophical lesson from the experience to share with his or her own immediate community. This format of “Epic Theater” enabled Brecht to provoke the viewer into considering Marx’s theories, and in this case, his anthropological and praxis-oriented views of history.

Brecht’s jumbled chronology invites the reader to consider the social relations of the community in each distinct socio-historical context, compare them, and acknowledge the contradictions present in each. The comparison of the land dispute portrayed in the prologue and almost all of the disputes portrayed in the “old world’ story indicate Brecht’s preference for the resolution described by the former. The peaceful resolution of a land dispute under a communist plenum runs counter to the often violent and arbitrary legal process outlined in the rest of the play. There is no doubt that Brecht intended the prologue to serve as an ideological counterweight to the rest of the play, something for the viewer to keep in mind as one observed the arbitrary and cruel rulership of the Prince, the Governor, and Azdak, whose character is more nuanced and benevolent, but unavoidably corrupt. This notion of mismanagement of the community by its elites further signals Brecht’s proletarian sympathies.

Brecht’s characterization of the “old world” as backwards indicates his preference for progress and modernity, for a future guided by the science of dialectical-historical development. By juxtaposing the “old world” and the “new”, Brecht wants to draw our attention to the fact that things have indeed gotten marginally better, history has developed and improved the lives of all those involved in the peaceful resolution of the post-war land dispute. In terms of Marx’s theory of history, the public plenum that Brecht portrays in the preface represents an active relation of species being to species powers insofar as the cultivators win the land for use, which only comes about from the cooperation of mankind and the logical result of history, which has developed since the “old world” that is expressed in the rest of the play. There are multiple dimensions to the word “develop” here, as it implies not only a sense of temporal passage but also of a net growth in social decorum, which is augmented by the structural juxtaposition against the  traditional “feudal” order, which is consistently characterized as oppressive and tyrannical.  Brecht’s portrayal of historical development mirrors Marx’s in the sense that the development of the old world into the new will only occur through what Marx describes as the real active relation of man to himself, actualized in the plenum that occurs in the prologue.

The moral framework that Brecht introduces in The Caucasian Chalk Circle is ultimately defined in Marx’s terms of social utility and production, and follow Marx’s theories of historical development. For both Brecht and Marx, historical development represents a process of both anthropological development, or actualization and expression of the species-being, and practical activity. Any sense of progress in the play relates back to this historical model first put forth by Marx. In the prologue, the land goes to the party most likely to put it to good use, to develop it in accordance with the growing collective’s species-being. In Grusha’s case, this utility oriented morality is most clearly expressed by the actions she takes to make the child her own, which indicate her social utility and her seizure of the “means of production”. Grusha’s intersession and adoption of the child represents a direct expression of her species-being, of her motherliness.

Grusha’s sacrifices and peril, her crossing the bridge and her engagements with the ironshirts, all develop her “productive” capacity, as she “produces” her own sense of motherhood of the child. At the conclusion of the fateful chalk circle scene, Grusha states how she is unable to tear the child from the circle in fear of hurting him, indicating the true heart of a mother. In response, Adzak formally appoints Grusha as the new mother, stating how “In this manner the court has determined the true mother” (CCC127).  It is Grusha’s practical activity, or in this case, the lack of harmful action towards the child, that ultimately cements her identity as a mother. This final sentencing accords with Marx and Brecht’s social utility-oriented moral framework and anthropological-practical model of historical development.

In The Caucasian Chalk Circle human activity is the object of inquiry, not merely taken for granted as a function of the plot. It is Grusha and Azdak’s radical actions that propel the play forward, each one overturning the status quo in some manner. Grusha’s praxis is present in her intercession with the child. She interrupts the natural lineage of the royal family to claim the child as her own, and has in this sense created history on her own. Azdak co opts the legal-juridical framework and introduces his own brand of arbitrary sentencing. Brecht describes Azdak’s period of judging as “a brief golden age, almost an age of justice” (CCC128). Considering the fact that Grusha and Azdak are the only characters who exhibit praxis and develop in accordance with their species-being, perhaps society at large is not yet prepared for a full-fledged “age of justice,” hence the “almost” that modifies the singer’s narration. For both Brecht and Marx, the actions of these two characters represent a taste of what is possible for a more modern society developing under proper conditions with the proper actions taken by all individuals of the community.

The conclusions of the legal disputes in both eras of the story indicate Brecht’s approval of Marx’s developmental theory of history, and Marx’s theory as a whole. The legal outcomes of both trials reject estrangement, which restricts man from fully becoming man and realizing the full wealth of his being. Grusha and Azdak both “invent” history by disrupting the normal progression of “feudal” society, they reject the bounds placed upon them by their class, and reject the ruling paradigm. By overturning the pre-existing structures of authority, they are effectively staging a revolution of their own, advancing the historical dialectic that Marx puts forth in his theory of history. Even the trial of the chalk circle represents a practical resolution of two antithetical agents. Two individual humans physically pull on the child to resolve the dispute, only one can win, just as the dialectic propels Marx’s praxis oriented theory of history.

The legal outcomes of the play are also congruent with Marx’s view of history as a series of historical acts, which appeared in the excerpts from The German Ideology mentioned above. Azdak, Grusha, and the collective farmers are responsible for the production of means to satisfy human needs, the production of new needs, the production of the family, and finally the production of co-operation, especially the last two. As Marx frames this development in the context of human activity, it is congruent with his anthropological view of history, as both views use the process of man’s coming-to-be through his labor which he states is the self-confirming essence of man.

In the closing scene of the play, the singer neatly summarizes the moral of the story, which ultimately affirms the anthropological and practical aspects Marx’s theory of history. The singer states how “what there is shall go to those who are good for it, children to the motherly, that they prosper, carts to good drivers, that they be driven well, the valley to the waterers, that it yield fruit” (CCC 128). By allowing “what there is” to go to “those who are good for it,” Brecht’s form of justice negates estrangement and allows for both Grusha and the collective farmers to fulfill their species-being. Only upon becoming conscious of estrangement and transcending it are the characters of the play able to develop in accordance with their productive forces and truly express their species-being, be it as a mother, or a farmer. These final lines of the play neatly summarize Brecht and Marx’s position, and leave the reader or viewer with a pithy reminder of the moral-historical model expressed over the course of the play.

It is only fitting that Marx’s philosophy should find its expression in the practical act of theater, especially Epic Theater, the necessarily political form of artistic consciousness that forces the viewer into a critical, analytical frame of mind. Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle seems to posit the inevitability of progress, and the central role that humans have in the historical process. Things will develop over time, and humans will be the ones engaged in the practical activity. For Epic Theater practitioners like Brecht, historicization is necessary to show that the human being is determined by and determining of its social and physical circumstances, as Marx describes in his theory of history. Brecht considers questions of progress and rightful ownership, and invites the audience to realize the larger forces and dynamics at work in society. Marx’s theory of history ultimately equipped Brecht with the proper tools to investigate how humans participate in history, an especially pressing question in the post-war environment.

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