BBC Hardtalk: Interview with professor David Harvey

david_harvey_21

“David Harvey says capitalism is amoral and lawless – and should be overthrown.”
BBC HARDTALK

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Marx On Religion: The Opium of the People (From “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”)

Marx

“The basis of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. In other words, religion is the self-consciousness and self-feeling of man who has either not yet found himself or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man, the state, society. This state, this society, produce religion, a reversed world-consciousness, because they are a reversed world. Religion is the general theory of that world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in a popular form, its spiritualistic point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn completion, its universal ground for consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore mediately the fight against the other world, of which religion is the spiritual aroma. 

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusions about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of woe, the halo of which is religion.

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chain not so that man will wear the chain without any fantasy or consolation but so that he will shake off the chain and cull the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man to make him think and act and shape his reality like a man who has been disillusioned and has come to reason, so that he will revolve round himself and therefore round his true sun. Religion is only the illusory sun which revolves round man as long as he does not revolve around himself.”

In: MARX AND ENGELS. ON RELIGION. Dover, 2008. Pg. 42

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1983 British documentary on the basics of Karl Marx and Marxism. Written and narrated by the late great Stuart Hall.

Commodity Fetishism

Johan_Zoffany_-_Tribuna_of_the_Uffizi_-_Google_Art_Project

The Tribune of the Uffizi (1772–78), by Johann Zoffany, depicts the commodity-fetishism metamorphosis of oil paintings into culture-industry products.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_Zoffany

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commodity_fetishism

Feuerbach and the Cherry Tree: a Marxist parable

cherrytreeovermoatlg

“In total contrast to German philosophy, which descends from heaven to earth, we here ascend from earth to heaven.” – KARL MARX (1846)

Walking down the streets of a big city, are we aware that we are like fishes swimming in an ocean of History? Do we realize that tall buildings, concrete roads and old churches, just to mention a few items of the urban landscape, have been erected by human labour throughout the centuries?

One of the advantages of wandering around with the brain fueled by Marxist ideas is a certain transformation of perception in which History ceases to be something buried in books and museums. History is alive and kicking: while I drift through the metropolis, I bump on it everywhere.

This awareness may be much more intense in a visit to what’s properly called an “historical city” like Québec, founded in 1608, whose  CitadelleChâteau Frontênac and monuments to European conquerors (such as Jacques Cartier and Samuel Champlain), gives one the strong impression of past-still-present. Generations ago, humans who are no longer among the living, built this awesome castle on the top of the hill, facing from the height the Saint Lawrence River below, and now those who are among the living – myself included – can’t help but notice how the Québec of nowadays is actually a product of History. It’s History incarnate.

That’s how I’m coming to understand better what Karl Marx meant by his doctrine of Historical Materialism: the material world isn’t simply a world of “natural” objects; the material world is nature transformed by human endeavour; it’s the result of the productive activities of mankind, what necessarily includes the labour of bygone generations.

One of the commonest antithesis in the history of philosophy opposes Materialism to Idealism. To even attempt to describe this controversy, in all its subtleties and historical developments, is a Herculean job that I feel unable to cope with (this task would take a much larger knowledge of the history of philosophy than I presently have). My intention in the present scribbling is merely to share some Marxist ideas which, it seems to me, enlighten the matter of Historical Materialism quite vividly. It’s well known that Karl Marx’s philosophy is accurately described as a “Materialist Conception of History”. Its inception and development seems to be one of the endeavours to which Marx and his comrade Engels devoted theirs lives to accomplish.

It’s worth remembering that the so-called “Young Marx” was already deeply interested in philosophical Materialism, so much so that Marx’s 1841 Doctorate was a thesis about the philosophies of nature of two of the most important Greek materialists, Democritus and Epicurus. It’s also well known that Marx, despite having been deeply influenced by Hegel, was far from being an orthodox disciple who would preach the Hegelian gospel like a conditioned parrot. Marx’s sharp powers of criticism and scorn were also directed against  “The German Ideology”, guilty of an idealism  that’s incarnate in the tradition of Kant, Fichte and Hegel. In Robert C. Tucker’s Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx (Cambridge University Press, 1961), we can find some help in understanding the “materialist-idealist antithesis”:

428500“The idealist starts from the ‘heaven’ of theory and attempts to descend to the ‘earth’ of practice. He proceeds from man’s ‘sacred history’ or thought-process in the effort to comprehend the historical process as a whole. The materialist, on the other hand, begins with the ‘real life-process’ or ‘practical developmental process of man’. He takes his stand on ‘earth’ and adopts man’s ‘profane history’ as the starting point for theory. Abandoning the vain effort to descend from heaven to earth, he rises from earth to heaven. He treats the sacred history as a mental reflex of the profane one, the history of mental production as an epiphenom of the history of material production. His underlying principle is that ‘Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.’ Marx defends it on the ground that man cannot think, and cannot live at all, without producing the material means of life. Here is the doctrine of economic base and ideological superstructure, better known in Marx’s later formulation in the preface to his Critique of Political Economy: ‘The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.” (TUCKER, p. 179)

Materialism, after all, doesn’t deny the existence of ideas and ideals, of phantasies and imaginations, of all those contents that can be said to pertain to the life of the mind, to subjective space or to the psychological realm. It’s undeniable, for example, that religious ideas do exist, but not as abolute or objetive truths, but as concepts produced by the human brain. The idealist, usually infected by theological ideologies, confuses a creature of his own brain with something that exists outside himself – a critique expounded in detail by Feuerbach’s highly influential The Essence of Christianity (1841).

Historical materialism aims to understand the world around without supposing for it a divine origin or an ideal which serves as its foundation. Rather, historical materialism aims to describe the sensuous external world – that which our senses have access to – as a “materialization of all past productive activity of the human race. The sensuous world around man is a nature produced by history, or in Marx’s words ‘an historical product, the result of the activity of a whole succession of generations. He criticizes all past doctrines of materialism for the failure to grasp the external material objects as materializations of human activity.” (TUCKER, op cit, p. 182)

We’re like fishes swimming in a sea of History, but also fishes who are born into a certain stage of the process of Nature’s transformation by human labour. Each one of us has a consciousness, or an “ego”, which can only be understood as something necessarily determined and conditioned by its situation in a certain historical epoch, in a particular web of social circumstances.

Even when we presume to be witnessing Nature in its purity, we may actually be witnessing Culture and History. This is one of the cleverest criticismsMarx shoots against Feuerbach: when facing a cherry tree, Feuerbach believed it to be a sensuous object from the natural realm, but he failed to grasp that “the cherry tree was transplanted to Europe by commerce only a few centuries ago, and solely by virtue of this historical fact is it given to Feuerbach’s senses.” (TUCKER, op cit, p. 182)

Art Gallery: Diego Rivera (1886-1957), Mexican painter

Zapata de RiveraAgrarian Leader Zapata (1931)

“Emiliano Zapata, a champion of agrarian reform and a key protagonist in the Mexican Revolution, here leads a band of peasant rebels armed with makeshift weapons, including farming tools. With the bridle of a majestic white horse in his hand, Zapata stands triumphantly beside the dead body of a hacienda owner. Though Mexican and U.S. newspapers regularly vilified the revolutionary leader as a treacherous bandit, Rivera immortalized Zapata as a hero and glorified the victory of the Revolution in an image of violent but just vengeance.”- MOMA

Rivera - Liberation of the Peon

Liberation of the Peon (1931)

“In Liberation of the Peon, Rivera developed a harrowing narrative of corporal punishment. A laborer, beaten and left to die, is cut down from a post by sympathetic revolutionary soldiers, who tend to his broken body. Peonage—a system of indentured servitude established by Spanish colonizers, under which natives were forced to work the land—persisted in Mexico into the 20th century. The mural offers the injustice of earlier social and economic conditions as a rationale for the Mexican Revolution.” – MOMA

Rivera - Sugar Cane

Sugarcane (1931)

“Set on a sugar plantation, this portable mural introduces the tensions over labor, race, and economic inequity that simmered in Mexico after the Revolution. In the foreground, an Indian woman, with the traditional braids and white clothes of a peasant, cuts papayas from a tree while her children collect the fruit in reed baskets. Behind them, dark-skinned men with bowed heads gather bunches of sugar cane. A foreman, with distinctly lighter skin and hair, watches over them on horseback, and in the background a pale hacendado(wealthy landowner) languishes in a hammock. In this panel, Rivera adapted Marxist ideas about class struggle—an understanding of history born in industrialized Europe—to the context of Mexico, a primarily agrarian country until after World War II.” – MOMA

Flower Festival Feast of Santa Anita by Diego Rivera OSA117

Flower Festival: Feast of Santa Anita (1931)

“Rivera spent the tumultuous years of the Mexican Revolution (1910–20) painting and traveling abroad in Europe. Upon returning to his native country in 1921, he exalted indigenous Mexican people and traditions, making them a central subject of his work. As he later recalled, “My homecoming aroused an aesthetic rejoicing in me which is impossible to describe. Everywhere I saw a potential masterpiece—in the crowds, the markets, the festivals, the marching battalions, the workers in the workshops, the fields—in every shining face, every radiant child.” This painting, depicting a flower festival held on Good Friday in a town then called Santa Anita, was included in a solo exhibition of Rivera’s work at MoMA in 1931. Only the second artist (after Henri Matisse) to receive this honor, Rivera was, at the time, an international celebrity: the New York Sun hailed him as “the most talked about artist on this side of the Atlantic.” – MOMA

"The Arsenal" (1928)

The Arsenal (1928)

“Almost all of Rivera’s art told a story, many of which depicted Mexican society, the Mexican Revolution, or reflected his own personal social and political beliefs, and in The Arsenal is no different. The woman on the right side of this painting in Tina Modotti, an Italian photographer and revolutionary political activist, who is holding ammunition for Julio Antonio Mella, a founder of the internationalized Cuban communist party. Vittorio Vidale, an Italian-born Stalinist sympathizer, stands behind them in a black hat. The figures in this painting are an illustration of Rivera’s transferring his political beliefs onto canvas. He was an active member of the Mexican communist party, and was friends with Leon Trotsky, who lived with him for seven months. ”  – Wikipaintings

Frozen Assets (1931-32)

“In Frozen Assets, Rivera coupled his appreciation for New York’s distinctive vertical architecture with a potent critique of the city’s economic inequities. The panel’s upper register features a dramatic sequence of largely recognizable skyscrapers, most completed within a few years of Rivera’s arrival in New York. In the middle section, a steel-and-glass shed serves as a shelter for rows of sleeping men, pointing to the dispossessed labor that made such extraordinary growth possible during a period of economic turmoil. Below, a bank’s waiting room accommodates a guard, a clerk, and a trio of figures eager to inspect their mounting assets in the vault beyond. Rivera’s jarring vision of the city—in which the masses trudge to work, the homeless are warehoused, and the wealthy squirrel away their money—struck a chord in 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression.” – Wikipaintings

man-at-the-crossroads-rivera3

Man at the Crossroads (1933-34)

“Rivera stirred up controversy yet again when he was commissioned to create Man at the Crossroads for the Rockefeller Center in 1933. He was chosen to complete a mural on the first floor of the Rockefeller Center, with the theme of man at the crossroads, looking to the hope of a new and better future. The original work included pictures of women drinking alcohol, cells depicting sexually transmitted diseases, Leon Trotsky and a portrait of Lenin, which upset Rockefeller, who commissioned the work. He demanded that the face of Lenin be changed, but Rivera refused. Rockefeller immediately paid for the work, dismissed Rivera, and covered the mural. Rivera, who was determined to have his mural shown, re-created it at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City and renamed the piece Man, Controller of the Universe. The original Man at the Crossroad in the Rockefeller Center was smashed and hauled away in 1934.” – Wikipaintings


Diego Rivera's The Uprising (1931)
The Uprising (1931)

“In The Uprising, a woman with a baby at her hip and a working man fend off an attack by a uniformed soldier. Behind them, a riotous crowd clashes with more soldiers, who force demonstrators to the ground. The location is unclear, though the figures’ skin tone implies that the scene is set in Mexico or another Latin American country. In the early 1930s, an era of widespread labor unrest, images of the violent repression of strikes would have resonated with both U.S. and Latin American audiences. The battle here stands as a potent symbol of universal class struggle.” – MOMA

Rivera - Aztec Warrior

Indian Warrior (1931)

“Of all the panels Rivera made for The Museum of Modern Art, Indian Warrior reaches back farthest into Mexican history, to the Spanish Conquest of the early 16th century. An Aztec warrior wearing the costume of a jaguar stabs an armored conquistador in the throat with a stone knife. The Spaniard’s steel blade—an emblem of European claims to superiority—lies broken nearby. Jaguar knights, members of an elite Aztec military order, were known for their fighting prowess; according to legend, their terrifying costumes enabled them to possess the power of the animal in battle. The panel’s jarring vision of righteous violence offered a Mesoamerican precedent for Mexico’s recent revolution, as well as its continuing struggles.” – MOMA

The Conquest of America and the Imperialist Siphon – A remembrance of past deeds in History with Galeano, Todorov, Clastres & Fanon

Diego Rivera - Pre Hispanic America

Diego Rivera (1886-1957) – “Pre Hispanic America”

The Conquest of America and the Imperialist Siphon

Eduardo Carli de Moraes

“In 1492, the natives discovered they were indians, discovered they lived in America, discovered they were naked, discovered that Sin existed, discovered they owed allegiance to a King and Kingdom from another world and a God from another sky, and that this God had invented the guilty and dress, and had sent to be burnt alive who worships the Sun, the Moon, the Earth and the Rain that wets it.” – EDUARDO GALEANO

Fellow earthlings!

I’m speaking to you from America, a continent that was “discovered” more than 500 years ago, thus finally beggining its relations with the so-called Old World. Or at least it’s told so in tales written by Europeans…  The first thing that we tend to forget or overlook when we get hypnotized by history as written by European White Christians is this: the name this continent was given by the ones who have “discovered”  is clearly European, a tribute to a conquistadorseñor Américo Vespúcio. The second thing that brings awe to my conscience is to discover that, during the whole Imperialist/Colonialist epoch, a huge magnitude and diversity of procedures that we nowadays deem utterly imoral and unnaceptable were  employed in mass scale. Not only did the Europeans sucked out the wealth of these invaded lands, they used slave labour and genocide of indigenous populations to do it. Not only did they try to force their civilization and culture on the native populations, they brought along in their ships not only their Bibles and crosses, but also their guns and their germs.

Many historians, sociologists, anthropologists and artists have argued – Uruguyan writer Eduardo Galeano or Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, for example – that the Industrial Revolution in Europe got kick-started by the wealth that was shipped out of colonies in America. Capitalism is basically born out of robbery. Just think of all the tons of gold that were taken from Minas Gerais, in Brazil, or all the silver who was extracted from Potosí, in Bolívia, and then shipped to Europe, being pocketed by enriching capitalists and noblemen. The people who originally lived in this Land for millenia prior to the White Men Invasion, the people who had lived since time immemorial in this land that afterwards its conquerors would baptize “America”, they didn’t get a chance to choose their own path, nor could they remain faithful to their own past. Europe imposed on the indigenous populations not only its culture, its civilization, its moral values, its religious beliefs; it acted as a material force of great power, conquerors by force, who left a shockingly huge trail of blood and death while imposing their modes of production.

Genocide and ethnic cleansing were enduring historical realities in this land after the Europeans for the first time reached these beaches with their ships. The wealth produced in the continent by means of forced-labor, either from people kidnapped from Africa or enslaved native populations,  was sent away, shipped abroad, to feed the greedy bellies of European kings and queens, landowners and cardinals, the “cream” of the European aristocracy. Can we understand History rightly if we forget this colossal event, I mean, the massive stream of wealth that went from America to Europe in the centuries following “Discovery”? Welcome to the birthplace of modern Capitalism!

The so-called Discovery of America (what an euphemism!) is actually something else: the continent wasn’t simply “discovered”, it was invaded, conquered, plundered. Tzvetan Todorov very aptly calls his excellent book on the subject The Conquest of America. When the Catholic kingdoms of Spain and Portugal set out to cross the ocean and reach the continent later to be called America, they weren’t arriving on virgin, inhabited land. According to estimates by researchers such as Pierre Clastres and Todorov, there were 80 million people living in the continent in 1492, when the population of  planet Earth was of about 400 million. Of these 80 million indigenous inhabitants of pre-Columbian civilizations and tribes, how many survived the invasion of foreign white europeans? Todorov estimates that, only in Mexico, there were 25 million people prior to the invasion; a century later, in 1600, there were only 1 million left. It’s a genocide of such proportions that our minds almost refuse to fully realize it. But if we take America as a whole, the numbers are worse – and even more shocking: prior to the Europeans’ invasion, there were 80 million people living here; one century later, 90% had been wiped out. This is not only genocide, but ethnocide – to apply a distinction made by Clastres in a excellent article in Archeology of Violence. What ensued from the Conquest was not only the murder of individuals in massive scale, but the death of whole cultures and civilizations, with all its temples and buildings, its mythology and its history, all tramped underfoot by the Europeans’ unmerciful quest for profit.

John Berger, in his book (and BBC Series) Ways of Seeing (1972), has something quite interesting to say about this theme. He remembers his school days, when he was taught about “heroic voyages bringing human civilization to all the world”. “It tends to be forgotten”, reminds us Berger, “that these voyages were the start of the European slave trade, and the traffic which began to siphon the riches of the rest of the world into Europe.” (BERGER, J. 3rd Episode) I consider these remarks very bright, especially for the image they evoke, that of the siphon. Europe really did exactly this: it sucked out, with its Imperial Siphon, the fruits of labor produced in this newly-discovered land. An immense transfer of wealth ocurred: from the authentic producers of these wealth – that did all the work and received none of the pay – to capitalists in Europe. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, there’s another very pedagogical metaphor employed by Daniel Day Lewis’ character, when he explains a process by which he stole oil from the properties of others: imagine a milkshake with two drinkings straws. One is for its legitime “owner”; the other from an intruder. Europe’s drinking straw is the intruder’s, and the Europeans can be understood, from 1492 on, as stealers of the milkshakes of wealth they enslaved others to produce

It’s then that I start to suspect – a suspicion that gives me shivers of indignation and disgust…  – that slavery was so present in the dawn of the Commercial-Industrial society because one would be impossible without the other, one is the condition of the other. Slavery and Capitalism: haven’t they “evolved” together, like siamese twins? And when slavery was officially abolished from all colonies, what happened them? Did the system underlying it get utterly transformed? Or the same system went on, with just a little reformation in secondary elements of its machinery, only with slaves being substituted by underpaid wage workers? And can it be said that in the 21st century Imperialism is dead and gone? Or does it live on, masked and disguised behind the new vocabulary that capitalism developed? Are “Free Trade” or “neoliberalism” just  techniques for some corporations to plunder the wealth produced by empoverished workers, just ways to keep on opression, inequality and obscene concentration of capital in few hands?

To answer some of these questions, let’s summon a powerful voice from Africa, Mr. Frantz Fanon (1925-1961). Writing after the II World War, when colonies in Africa were still struggling for their independences from European rulers, Fanon’s book The Wretched of the Earth is born out not only of theoretical thinking or historical research, but mainly from lived experience. In the context of the Algerians fight against French imperialism, Frantz Fanon speaks a language that White Men from the Developed World aren’t used to hearing – and his writings impressed and inspired important Europeans intellectuals, from Jean-Paul Sartre to Jean Ziegler. “Let us not lose time in useless laments and sickening mimicry. Let us leave this Europe which never stops talking of man yet massacres him at every one of its street corners, at every corner of the world. For centuries it has stifled virtually the whole of humanity in the name of a so-called ‘spiritual adventure’… Natives of all the underdeveloped countries unite!” This is the sound of Africa rising against centuries of foreign dominion and attempting to break its chains. This is the voice of someone who wishes to rewrite history in order to tell the whole truth, and not only the convenient fabrication of Europeans. This is the voice of someone who is quite aware, at the dawn of the 1960s, that Latin America and Africa have been systematically robbed, and that won’t forget that the opulence of the so-called Developed World is built upon exploitation, opression and slavery.

“We must refuse outright the situation to which the West wants to condemn us. Colonialism and imperialism have not settled their debt to us once they have withdrawn their flag and their police force from our territories. For centuries the capitalists have behaved like real war criminals in the underdeveloped world. Deportation, massacres, forced labor, and slavery were the primary methods used by capitalism to increase its gold and diamond reserves, and establish its wealth and power.

The European nations achieved their national unity at a time when the national bourgeoisies had concentrated most of the wealth in their own hands. Shopkeepers and merchants, clerks and bankers monopolized finance, commerce, and science within the national framework. The bourgeoisie represented the most dynamic and prosperous class. Its rise to power enabled it to launch into operations of a crucial nature such as industrialization, the development of communications, and, eventually, the quest for overseas outlets…

Today, national independence and nation building in the underdeveloped regions take on an entirely new aspect. In these regions, except for some remarkable achievements, every country suffers from the same lack of infrastructure. The masses battle with the same poverty, wrestle with the same age-old gestures, and delineate what we could call the geography of hunger with their shrunken bellies. A world of underdevelopment, a world of poverty and inhumanity. But also a world without doctors, without engineers, without administrators. Facing this world, the European nations wallow in the most ostentatious opulence. This European opulence is literally a scandal for it was built on the backs of slaves, it fed on the blood of slaves, and owes its very existence to the soil and subsoil of the underdeveloped world. Europe’s well-being and progress were built with the sweat and corpses of blacks, Arabs, Indians, and Asians. This we are determined never to forget.”

FRANTZ FANON. The Wretched of the Earth. Pg. 53 –  57.

RECOMMENDED FURTHER READING:

Galeano

EDUARDO GALEANO’s The Open Veins of Latin America. DOWNLOAD E-BOOK (PDF, 3MB, at libgen.org)

Jared

“Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies”, by Jared Diamond. Download E-book.

Clastres2

Pierre Clastres, “Archeology of Violence” – DOWNLOAD E-BOOK

Theather in Toronto: a review of Bertolt Brecht’s “Rifles” @ Next Stage Festival, January 2014, Factory Theathe

Rifles

Synopsis: “In the midst of the Spanish Civil War, Senora Carrar refuses to pick sides: her husband died in combat and she’s determined to keep her two sons alive and out of the conflict. But as Franco’s army marches towards their village, her resolve is challenged.”

RIFLES
Based on Bertolt Brecht’s
Señora Carrar’s Rifles

Written by Nicolas Billon and directed by Michael Wheeler.
Cast: Kate Hennig, Ben Sanders, Cyrus Lane, Araya Mengesha and more.

Seen at The Next Stage Theatre Festival,January 18th,
at The Factory Theatre in Toronto.

Article by Eduardo Carli de Moraes:

Bertolt Brecht‘s work is almost unanimously considered one of the best in 20th century’s dramaturgy. In 1952, Hannah Arendt hailed Brecht as “beyond a doubt the greatest living German poet and possibly the greatest living European playwright”. She was not alone in praising him: an intelectual of the stature of Walter Benjamin also cherished Brecht’s oeuvre and these “independly-minded Marxists” met in the 1920s, becoming involved in a dialogue and correspondence that is really worthwhile to get acquainted it. Toronto’s 2014 Next Stage Theatre Festival has honoured Brecht accordingly with an intense and lively staging of his 1937 play “Señora Carrar’s Rifles”.

Orwell2Rifles is an one-act play with a minimalist setting: the whole action takes place inside a Spanish household during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Inside this house, wounded by a bullet and with a broken arm, lies in bed a British writer, Eric Blair, worldwidely known by his nom de plume George Orwell (1903-1950), who would publish Homage to Catalonia about his experience in war-drenched Spain. In Brecht’s play, while Orwell waits to be taken to a hospital, he spits words of rage: “I would fight the fascists with only one arm!”

In Carrar’s home, while the sound of bullets and battle are heard all around, a heated controversy arises. In an historical situation such as this, with Fascism gaining terrain in Europe (Hitler was in power since 1933 in Germany, and Mussolini since 1922 in Italy…), what would be the best decision for the common people: to take arms and join the militias that are resisting the fascists? Or to stay unarmed and neutral, just observing the events without actively engaging in them?

If Rifles was a movie, it could be shot in one single take, inside an apartment, similarly to Hitchcock’s Rope or Tommy Lee Jones’s The Sunset Limited. But, despite the fact that Brecht’s play focus his attention only at the Carrar’s home (this play could be called a “chamber piece”), it’s amazing how public matters flood in from all sides, attacking the Carrar’s house like a snowstorm, until it becomes impossible for the family to retreat into private life.

The drama is centered on the mother of the family, recently widowed by the civil war: her husband has been killed in combat by Franco’s soldiers, and now she’s determined to forbid their two sons of following the same path. Señora Carrar has had enough of emotional loss and is convinced that her family should completely withdraw from battle. Then enters the scene Señora’s Carrar brother, who has joined the anti-fascist militias: he comes to get the rifles that are hidden in a trunk of the Carrar’s household. Brother and sister then engage in a heated debate, until bloody events leads them to agree on the necessary course of action.

The ethical dilemma proposed by Brecht is one of the enduring virtues of this work-of-art, which still has so much to say to audiences nowadays. One of the greatest dialogues in the play opposes Señora’s Carrar brother and the priest of the village, Francisco. The warrior in the militias, defending the need for the people to rise in arms against General Franco’s killing machine, clashes against the pacifist of the clergy who praises resignation and unresistance. This debate is still alive today – for example, in Mexico, where the Zapatista uprising has resorted to armed struggle against neoliberalism, imperialism and ethnocide since January 1st, 1994: the EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional), according to its leader Subcomandante Marcos, has decided that the only way they had to be heard was to get armed, an defends this choice by claiming this the path to empowerment that the powerless had to take in order to no longer by crushed by capitalism’s devastating powers.

Brecht’s message, in Rifles, seems to be that pacifism can’t be seen as an absolute ethical value, to be defended in all circumstances, with no possible exception. This play written in the 1930s seems to state that there are historical circumstances in which it’s almost impossible to discern between pacifism and complicity with a genocidal dictartoship. Those who do nothing are being simply “neutral”, or is neutrality a fallacy, a mask that cowardice hides behind?

todorov  In an excellent study about concentration camps and gulags, Tzvetan Todotov’s Facing The Extreme, the author asks the question: could the genocidal machinery of the III Reich be stopped by any other way than by the an armed struggle against it? What would have happened to Europe, and especially to its Jewish population, if France, England and U.S.A. had chosen the path of pacifism? Todorov’s impressive description of the up-rising in the Jewish ghettos of Warsaw, in 1943, leads the reader to a similiar state of mind than the one aroused by Brecht’s play: is it better to walk sheepishly to the slaghterhouse, or is it better to fight until death in the resistance?

In Brecht’s Rifles, Señora Carrara starts the play believing that the fascists “can be reasoned with” and that pacifism (or neutrality) is the best course of action. But when innocent and beloved blood gets spilled all over her face, once again, she experiences a sudden transformation, not unlikely the one that Lars Von Trier’s Grace (Nicole Kidman) goes through by the last acts of Dogville (2003) – perhaps the most Brechtian movie filmed in our century. After witnessing too many murderous acts by Franco’s genocidal regime, she finally decides that the rifles shouldn’t be left rusting inside the trunks. In an Orwellian twist of events, she goes outdoors to fight the fascists with her whole family. What will happen from this moment on, Brecht prefers not to reveal us: we’re left to wonder and debate about it after the curtains have dropt. 

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