Economic Theory

What Bertolt Brecht had in common with today’s Millennial Socialists

Today marks the 69th anniversary of the beginning of the East German uprising of 1953. It was the first of several revolts against the Soviet-backed socialist dictatorships in Central and Eastern Europe, the largest and most famous ones of which would become the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, and the Prague Spring of 1968. Those rebellions had varying degrees of initial success, but all of them were ultimately crushed by Soviet troops.

As far as events from contemporary history go, the East German uprising is not especially well-remembered in Britain. Its one lasting legacy is the phrase “Would it not be easier for the government to dissolve the people, and elect another?”, which commentators like to trot out when a politician makes a statement that could be interpreted as a criticism of public opinion.

It comes from the satirical poem The Solution by playwright Bertolt Brecht, which was written in response to the uprising:

“After the uprising of the 17th of June

The Secretary of the Writers’ Union

Had leaflets distributed on Stalin Boulevard

Which stated that the people

Had forfeited the confidence of the government

And could only win it back

With redoubled efforts. In that case, would it not

Be easier for the government

To dissolve the people

And elect another?”

Brecht was not the most obvious go-to source for criticism of the East German regime. A socialist since the early days of the Weimar Republic, he had voluntarily moved from Switzerland to East Germany around the time the German Democratic Republic was founded. The poem indicates a growing disillusionment with the actual reality of the self-described “Workers and Peasants State”. But Brecht nonetheless never gave up on his socialist ideals. He believed that the GDR’s Socialist Unity Party (SED) was simply not doing socialism properly.

This will, of course, sound extremely familiar to the current-day reader, because this is precisely the sentiment which underpins the more recent revival of socialist ideas in the guise of “Millennial Socialism”. Brecht’s criticism of the GDR was very similar to what any Millennial Socialists would say today.

But Brecht also had another thing in common with today’s Millennial Socialists: while he was very good at pointing out the discrepancy between the ideal and the actual practice, he was not able to spell out what exactly he would do differently.

Let’s remember the economic context of the uprising. In West Germany, the post-war economic miracle was in full swing. West Germany was already close to recovering the pre-war level of economic output, and would surpass it by quite a margin before the end of the decade. East Germany, meanwhile, was half-way through it first Five-Year Plan, and was experiencing the hangover of forced collectivisation. A noticeable gap in living standards had opened, which, as we know today, the GDR would never be able to close again. That gap had triggered a wave of emigration. Emigration, in turn, exacerbated the GDR’s economic problems, thus widening the East-West gap even further. Which then led to more emigration. And so on. The GDR was trapped in a vicious circle.

In an attempt to close the East-West gap, the SED increased production targets. At least in the short term, this meant that East German workers now had to work harder and longer for the same pay. This triggered a series of industrial strikes, which soon took on political demands for free and fair elections, thus snowballing into a full-blown political uprising.

Brecht, interestingly, was not at all opposed to the crushing of that uprising. He wrote:

“History will pay its respects to the revolutionary impatience of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. […] I feel the need to express my solidarity with the Socialist Unity Party of Germany at this moment”.

And elsewhere:

“Organised fascist elements tried […] to exploit dissatisfaction for their own gory purposes. For several hours, Berlin stood on the brink of a third world war. It is only thanks to the swift and safe intervention of Soviet troops that these attempts were thwarted. […]

[T]he workers’ demonstrations [were] misused for warmongering purposes […]

I now hope that the provocateurs will be isolated and their networks of communication destroyed, but that the workers and the provocateurs will not be tarred with the same brush.”

Brecht, in other words, denied that there really had been a popular uprising against the rule of the SED. He insisted that the workers had just been tricked into this – almost against their will – by “organised fascist elements” and “provocateurs”. In denying the popular character of the uprising, and misrepresenting its demands, it was Brecht himself who had, at least in his own mind, dissolved the people, and replaced it with a new one. “The people” of Brecht’s imagination stood fully behind the project of socialist construction; they only had misgivings about specific aspects of it.

So what was Brecht’s alternative the socialism of the SED? Here, we can only find two points.

Firstly, Brecht called for a “big debate”, in some unspecified format, between the SED leadership and the public.

But what new insights, we have to ask, could such a debate – big or otherwise – possibly have brought to light? That East German citizens wanted West German living standards, and West German political freedoms? That much was blatantly obvious. It required no “big debate”, or even a small one. But West German living standards were simply not achievable within the economic system of the GDR, and a free and fair election would have meant the immediate end of the SED’s rule.

Secondly, on the GDR’s economic problems, Brecht had the following to say:

“Production […] had the character of a means to an end, and was not in itself considered enjoyable or voluntary. From the point of view of socialism, we must […] abolish this division between means and end, production and standard of living. We have to make producing the real purpose of life and design it in such a way that it is tempting in itself”.

So that is Brechtonomics: just make sure that all work is great fun, and you will not need mandatory production quotas anymore. Why has nobody thought of this before!

Despite the banality of those statements, we might want to cut Brecht some slack here: he was neither an economist, nor a constitutional lawyer, nor a political theorist. It was not his job to come up with a fully worked-out plan for a completely different kind of socialism. Nonetheless – to evade all responsibility for the practical consequences of your political ideology in action is intellectual cowardice.

Like most Millennial Socialists today, Brecht preferred to talk about socialism as a set of abstract aspirations. He was not interested in the mechanics of it. When he witnessed an attempt to put his political beliefs into practice, and when it did not produce the results he was hoping for, he was not prepared to re-examine those beliefs. He was not prepared to ask himself whether there might be a reason for that discrepancy between what he imagined a socialist society to be like, and what the socialist society he lived in was actually like. Instead, he simply blamed the individuals in power. He acted as if the SED could have closed the gap between expectations and reality at any point, and simply chose not to do so.

In this, he very much resembles today’s Millennial Socialists, who will scoff and roll their ideas when an opponent brings up an example of a socialist society, but who can neither point to a better example, not spell out what it is that they would do differently. Instead, they escape into abstraction and flowery rhetoric.

It is a great way to protect the illusion of a beautiful, pure and noble idea, which has just never been properly tried.

Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).

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