No Comment, Quotation — April 17, 2010, 6:56 am

Brecht – Change the World!

marc-fighting-forms

Mit wem säße der Rechtliche nicht zusammen
Dem Recht zu helfen?
Welche Medizin schmeckte zu schlecht
Dem Sterbenden?
Welche Niedrigkeit begingest du nicht, um
Die Niedrigkeit auszutilgen?
Könntest du die Welt endlich verändern, wofür
Wärest du dir zu gut?
Wer bist du?
Versinke in Schmutz
Umarme den Schlächter, aber
Ändere die Welt: Sie braucht es!
Erzähle weiter!
Lange nicht mehr hören wir euch zu als
Urteilende. Schon
Als Lernende.

With whom would the just man not conspire
In the interests of justice?
What medicine would taste too bad
To a dying man?
What vile act would you not commit,
In order to extirpate vile acts?
If you could at last change the world,
Would you step up and do it?
Who are you?
Wade in filth
Embrace the butcher, but
Change this world: She cries out for it!
Continue this tale!
We will not hear you much longer
As judgmental. But rather as
The apprentice.

Bertolt Brecht, Ändere die Welt: sie braucht es! from Die Maßnahme, sc v (1930) in Gesammelte Werke in acht Bänden, vol. i, pp. 651-52 (E. Hauptmann ed. 1967)(S.H. transl.)


As a theme “change the world!” sounds like it might be a jingle for Coca-Cola, but Bertolt Brecht’s song, buried deep in one of his most radical and ideological plays, The Measure, is closer to a revolutionary manifesto. It presents the revolutionary’s view of justice. If our society is indeed rotten to the core, then changing it is the highest good. If that process produces some injustice along the way, well, so be it. It’s typical for Brecht’s artistry that he presents this as a credo surrounded with a whisper of doubt. The song is also laced with a number of ambiguities that cannot be smoothly translated. When he writes “der Rechtliche” this could be understood as a person involved in the justice process, but it also echos of what the medieval mystics like Meister Eckehart called homo justus, the just man. I have taken the latter approach here. Understood the other way, however, Brecht is simply using Marxist shop talk–he is referring to class justice and saying that the justice of a bourgeois society is all pretense. Those who peddle this justice will stoop to anything to accomplish the political and social interests of their class. That is one possible meaning, but perhaps not the first one. The core doubt can be explained by the conundrum: is it really possible to create a better world by acting unjustly? And that in turn presents us with two aspects of the concept of justice–justice as process and justice as ends. Are they really separable?

This is an ancient challenge, which we can trace back easily as far as the ends-justify-the-means discussions in a number of Platonic dialogues. But the most trenchant presentation of this question probably came in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov in the passage in which Ivan puts this question, which we might call the “revolutionary’s dilemma”:

Imagine that you are creating the fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it is essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature — that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance — and to found the edifice upon its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.

Moral ethicists and theologists grapple with this question at length. For the early Christians there was the notion of intrinsic evil, an act so inherently corrupt and wrong that no good should be expected to emerge from it. The example that Dostoyevsky puts in Ivan’s mouth — torturing an innocent child to death — would appear to be drawn from this category. But Dostoyevsky knows and demonstrates to us very slyly later in the legend of the Grand Inquisitor, that the Christian church in various manifestations also struggles to justify torture as a tool — the Catholic church, burdened with the responsibilities of temporal authority, adopted it. Pope Innocent IV overturned prior Catholic doctrine and reintroduced torture in the bull Ad Exstirpanda (1252), in which he wrote that imprisoned heretics, being “murderers of souls as well as robbers of God’s sacraments and of the Christian faith, . . . are to be coerced – as are thieves and bandits – into confessing their errors and accusing others, although one must stop short of danger to life or limb.” Thomas Aquinas, who wrote Summa Theologica at this time, naturally struggled to back up Innocent’s reauthorization of torture. And leaders of the Protestant reform, like John Calvin, likewise found ways of reconciling their faith with torture as a practice. The Christian rejection of torture and decision to make it, once more, a practice of intrinsic evil, took centuries to complete, and occurred after the church was separated from the world of politics. In the world of moral philosophy, Kant’s notion of the categorical imperative also embraces a firm rejection of the choice that Ivan presents. No good will come of such an evil act, it supposes–your premise is simply an illusion.

The examples of Brecht and Dostoyevsky show us that this concept of “revolutionary justice” can flourish just as easily on the political right as the political left. It can be associated with Stalin’s Russia and Torquemada’s Spain, for instance.

But is it not also something than can be brought closer to home in America today? Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, the chief of staff to Colin Powell, recently testified that senior figures in the White House fully appreciated that the large majority of prisoners at Guantánamo were mistakenly seized and were guilty of nothing. Wilkerson states the White House insisted on holding them, often under brutal conditions, because of the risk, however slight, that some of them might be terrorists. This reflected Cheney’s famous “one percent” rule — if there was even a one percent chance that a person might be a terrorist and do harm to American interests, then the United States was justified in holding him. That, however, actually puts the best possible face on the situation, since there is a far more compelling, darker explanation: that the Bush White House feared the political damage that would be done to it were it to be shown that it was both incompetent and unjust in the way it ran Guantánamo. Prisoners were treated unjustly to help the Administration at the polls. Either way, however, the posture of the Bush Administration was that of the radical ideologue. It was willing to act unjustly to large numbers of individuals in the interests of a “greater good,” namely, victory in the “war on terror” and victory at the electoral polls in the United States. Dick Cheney and Bertolt Brecht would thus appear to agree about the role of justice and the need to supersede it in the interests of their politics. And this demonstrates, once again, the convergence of political extremes and their instinctive hostility to a politically neutral, morally driven concept of justice.


Change the World was taken as the text for a song by Hanns Eisler, which regretably is not available on YouTube. But here is another Brecht/Eisler collaboration, from the same year, 1930–it’s Das Lied vom Klassenfeind (The Song of the Class Enemy):

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