Dialectics and Contradictions

Marxism, Dialectics and Contradiction


Brecht encountered Marxism in the mid-1920s, and it informed his view of reality  and how theatre might be able to represent reality. While Marxism is multi-faceted and understood in many different ways, there were some ideas in particular that chimed strongly with Brecht and helped him formulate approaches to a new kind of theatre.


Marxism’s Social Analysis

At its base, Marxism asks how society works and, put simply, proposes that society is driven by class struggle. The way any society works is based on the means it has at its disposal for producing things (that is, the state of technology for making things, the way communication works, the organization of the workforce) and the way those means are arranged (do private citizens own the means, the state, big transnational companies, and in what proportions to each other?). People’s place in society is defined by their relationship to the means of production, that is, by their social class. A member of the working class, for example, owns none of the means of production and sells his or her labour if employed. The middle class is broad and may have differing degrees of ownership, from the shopkeepers, who still depend on the prices demanded by suppliers, to the managing directors, who can shape the way things are made and sold. Class is thus central to Marxist analysis: one will have a different experience wherever one finds oneself in society, and that experience will not be entirely subjective. Social class may affect where you live, access to services and education, job prospects and life expectancy. The reason for this dynamic relationship is a mechanism known as…


The Dialectic

This idea is taken from the philosophy of Hegel (1770-1831). He proposed that history, society and people develop because of an opposition between a thesis and an antithesis, whose relationship is defined by contradiction. When the contradiction becomes too great, change occurs. While words like ‘thesis’ and ‘antithesis’ might sound dry and abstract, thinkers have been keen to understand their concrete application in society. Marx took on Hegel’s dialectic and proposed that history changed because of the contradictions between the classes.



Contradictions are thus the motor of change because nothing would change if things were harmonious. However, one may rightly ask why some things don’t seem to change, even when they cry out for it. Why is there a huge imbalance in the economic profile of the world with 1% of the population owning the same wealth as the other 99% put together? It may be that some contradictions are passed over because they appear irreconcilable, that ‘there is no alternative’, as the conservative politician Margaret Thatcher was wont to say. Yet the great changes that have taken place over human history suggest that nothing is stable and that certain interest groups may have a great investment in perpetuating the status quo. This is also a contradiction: the groups that are supposed to ensure that society works well only ensure that it works well for them.

Class struggle, dialectics and contradictions are a set of powerful ideas and all of them profoundly affected Brecht’s understanding of what theatre could do, as can be seen in the section on Brecht’s Approach to Reality.


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David Barnett
Professor of Theatre
University of York