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  • Contradiction and Coriolanus:A Philosophical Analysis of Mao Tse Tung's Influence on Bertolt Brecht


When asked, in 1954, which book he read the previous year had the most impact on him, Bertolt Brecht indicated it was Mao Tse Tung's On Contradiction.1 Brecht was, of course, as serious a philosophical scholar as he was a brilliant artist. As Wolfgang Haug states, "[B]ehind Brecht's world fame as a playwright and poet it is still a widely kept secret that he was one of the most outstanding Marxist philosophers."2 Given this, it is unlikely that Brecht would have arbitrarily designated any text as being the most significant if it did not have considerable impact on him. While Brecht's European influences are fairly well documented in the literature, very little is written that explores his Eastern philosophical influences, particularly those of Mao.

Brecht read On Contradiction just a few years before his death. By then, he had already established himself as a serious Marxist thinker. His work had been influenced by such Marxist figures as Engels, Lenin, Korsch, and Marx himself. Although these thinkers clearly had more influence on Brecht's work in general, Mao was not without influence. This paper seeks to systematically unravel the philosophical connections between Mao's and Brecht's thinking and work. Specifically, it seeks to answer the question, "What is it about Mao's treatise that made Brecht choose it as the most important reading of an entire year?"

While it is possible that Brecht favored the book because it was largely a reiteration of Lenin's reading of Marx's material dialectics (a reading Brecht subscribed to), it is unlikely that he would consider the work the most important book he read that year solely for this reason. My analysis of Brecht's philosophical thought suggests it is Mao's treatment [End Page 239] of higher order antagonisms—that is, between "dominant" and "secondary" contradictions—that appealed to Brecht. In fact, Brecht used Mao's treatise as a means of teaching others, particularly his cast about "dominant" and "secondary" contradictions. One primary source in particular, "Study of the First Scene of Shakespeare's 'Coriolanus'"3 attests to Brecht using Mao's treatise in this manner (see Brecht on Theatre [endnote 7], pp. 252-65). In this dialogue, Brecht makes reference to having asked his collaborators to read On Contradiction and their responses indicate that they did.

I begin with a discussion of Mao's concept of "dominant" and "secondary" antagonisms. Next, I will show how this concept influenced Brecht's adaptation of Coriolanus, using specific examples from primary sources and the text itself.


According to Mao, a process of development has many contradictions. However, every process of development contains one principal or dominant contradiction. Mao states, for example, that the principal contradiction in bourgeois society is between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.4 The other contradictions in a process of development "occupy a secondary and subordinate position," according to Mao.5 Although, for Mao, there is always one dominant and various secondary contradictions, the relations between them are not always static. The principal and a secondary contradiction can shift positions. That is, the dominant contradiction can be "temporarily relegated to a secondary and subordinate position."6 This occurs when the reactionary forces of a historic antagonism that have not fully been reconciled threaten the present level of historical progression.

Mao highlights, for example, the contradiction in bourgeois society between the remnant feudal class and the bourgeoisie. As was mentioned above, the contradiction between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is the dominant contradiction in bourgeois society. The contradiction between the remnant feudal class and the bourgeoisie, then, would constitute a secondary contradiction. If, however, the reactionary feudal forces threatened the progress made by bourgeois society, the feudal-bourgeois contradiction would become primary and the proletariat-bourgeois contradiction would be temporarily relegated to a secondary position. [End Page 240]

Brecht and his associates were definitely aware of these ideas. Evidence for this exists in the allusions to reading On Contradiction and discussion on it found in "Study of the First Scene of Shakespeare's 'Coriolanus.'"7 Moreover, an...


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