Georg Lukacs. Expressionism. 1934


Written: 1934
First published: as “Größe und Verfall des Expressionismus,” in: Internationale Literatur, no. 1, 1934, pp. 153-73 (in German).
Translated: by David Fernbach.

“... the unessential, seeming, superficial, vanishes more often, does not hold so “tightly’, does not ‘sit so firmly’ as ‘Essence’ ... e.g. the movement of a river – the foam above and the deep currents below. But even the foam is an expression of essence!"
(Lenin, Philosophical Notebooks, Collected Works, Vol. 38, p. 130)

In October 1920, a deeply shattered Wilhelm Worringer, one of its theoretical forerunners and founders, pronounced a funeral oration over expressionism. He tackled the question in broad terms, even if marked by that rather comic professorial generalization that immediately sees general problems of humanity in all the affairs of its own intellectual stratum: “What is ultimately at stake is not expressionism – that would be only a matter of the studio. It is rather the organ of our present-day existence in general that is put in question, and today there are many people who are bankrupt expressionists who know nothing at all about art[1]. In Worringer’s eyes, therefore, the collapse of expressionism is far more than just the business of art. It is the collapse of the attempt to master the ‘new reality’ (the reality of imperialism, the epoch of World War and world revolution) from the standpoint of the bourgeois intellectuals, in thought and in art. Worringer, of course, has no inkling of the concrete class content of his efforts. All he is aware of is that what he was striving for, what was a central element of world outlook for himself and his stratum, has collapsed. “But precisely because the legitimation of expressionism lies not in the realm of the rational, but rather in the vital, we stand today before its crisis .... It is from the standpoint of the vital that it has exhausted itself, not from that of the rational[2]. And in confessing this despair, Worringer betrays to us both what he had hoped for from expressionism, and the dawning afterthought, as a mystically concealed insight, that these expectations were in fact condemned to non-fulfilment from the start.

“With a phial filled with ultimate essences, we sought to let the ocean of the world, the entire world feeling, flow in. We believed we could get hold of the absolute if we were to carry the relative ad absurdum. To give a name to the profound tragedy concealed behind this, those hopelessly alone sought to make common cause. But this remained mere simulation. Even here, with a desperate philosophy of ‘as if’ (my emphases: G.L.).” [3]

For all the mysticism of his terminology, and in what lies behind the terminology, this is a fairly clear statement. And the idea expressed in it, that the destiny of expressionism, from the bourgeois intelligentsia through to those intellectual circles in touch with the workers’ movement, is viewed not just as a literary or artistic event, is also found among many writers who otherwise might well not agree completely with Worringer’s views. Thus Ludwig Rubiner wrote at the time of highest hopes: ‘The proletarian frees the world from the economic past of capitalism; the poet (i.e. the expressionist: G.L.) frees the world from the past of capitalism in the sphere of feeling[4]. Between the world-transforming prospect that Rubiner opens up for expressionism, and Worringer’s funeral epitaph, there lay only a very short interval of time. But this phenomenon of a sudden collapse is itself characteristic of the destiny of expressionism. The expressionist movement, a relatively narrow one of ‘radical’ intellectual circles in the years immediately before the war, grew rapidly in the course of the war, particularly during its final years, to become a component part of the German anti-war movement that was by no means ideologically unimportant. To anticipate an argument that I shall later present in detail, it was the literary expression of the ideology of the USPD among the intelligentsia. The harsh questions that were posed during the first years of revolution, the defeats of the proletariat’s revolutionary attempts, the development of the left, proletarian wing of the USPD towards communism (its turning-point being the Halle split of 1920), and the parallel development of its right wing into an element of capitalist stabilization, forced such clear decisions between proletariat and bourgeoisie, revolution and counter-revolution, that this ideology could not but be smashed to pieces. A few of its representatives, particularly Johannes R. Becher, made a decision for the proletariat, and took pains to get rid not only of the baggage of expressionist ideology, but of its creative method as well. Most of them, however, landed up in the haven of capitalist stabilization, after the expressionist ‘salvation’ collapsed. The various paths, transitions, and epigonic preservation or transformation according to fashion of the original creative method are not of fundamental interest to us here. What is important, rather, is to indicate the most general outlines of this development, the historical destiny of expressionism, for this will enable us to disclose the social basis of the movement and the premisses of the world outlook that derive from this, as a step towards evaluating its creative method.


The transition to imperialism led to important ideological shifts of alignment among the German intelligentsia, naturally without the agents of ideological transformation being aware of the connection. For the same reason, the internal connections between the reshuffiings in the various different fields of ideology remained unrecognized also by bourgeois ideologists and historians of this epoch, which is all the more remarkable in that in this very period the demand for a Geistesgeschichte, a history that would embrace philosophy, art, religion and law as forms of appearance and expression of the ‘spirit’ or ‘life style’, grew ever louder. This programme was as characteristic of the stage of development of bourgeois ideology in Germany at the time as was the impossibility of fulfilling it. For the reversal that took place in German ideology with the entry into the imperialist period was firstly a striving for content (in contrast to the formalism of the preceding period), for a ‘world outlook’ (in contrast to the blatant agnosticism of the ‘neo-Kantian phase), for comprehensiveness and ‘synthesis’ (in contrast to the rigid division of labour between the different ideological fields in the ‘particular sciences’, each strictly confined to its own speciality). On the other hand, however, the epistemological foundations of the earlier, pre-imperialist ideologies could not be abandoned. This turn had necessarily to be effected with the subjective idealist and agnostic ideological foundations preserved (at most perhaps an inessential reformation of certain minor parts). The transition to an objective idealism, which was the object of the exercise, was condemned therefore to failure from the start. For when Hegel made his transition from subjective to objective idealism a century before, the epistemological basis of this transition was a radical break with agnosticism of any kind (the critique of the Kantian conception of the thing-in-itself). There is no need here to criticize the inconsistencies and half measures which Hegel fell into as a result of the idealist way in which he sought to overcome agnosticism – for every objective idealism falls back into a subjective idealism on certain points of epistemology, because of its basic idealist character. What is involved is rather the peculiarity of this period: why the transition from subjective to objective idealism was necessary, and why this transition had to be effected without the attempt to overcome the agnostic foundations epistemologically.

This contradiction in the epistemological basis is no more than the reflection in thought of the contradiction in the social being of the German bourgeois intelligentsia at the entrance to the imperialist period. The philosophy of the pre-imperialist stage, and the stage of the preparation of imperialism in Germany, was essentially divided into two camps. On the one hand there was the ‘unphilosophical’ glorification of the ‘existent’, i.e. the German Reich, as founded in 1871 and subsequently developed. (The school of Ranke in history, and Treitschke and the historical school in economics.) On the other hand, the ‘left’ wing of the bourgeoisie accepted the Bismarckian and later Wilhelmine regime from the standpoint of Kantian (or Berkeley-Machian) agnosticism: formalist ethics, formalist theory of value, the state as ‘mathematical’ foundation of ethics, these offered the bourgeoisie and its intelligentsia the possibility of accepting a state that correctly served its economic interest, defended it against the working class, but did not allow it to come directly to power itself – naturally it accepted it in a formalist manner, i.e. in a way that allowed whatever reservations were necessary as far as content was concerned, either keeping these in reserve or putting them forward according to its requirements. This twofold division is of course only a general schema. There was certainly no Chinese wall between the two main bourgeois tendencies and the less so as capitalist development in Germany steadily advanced and the imperialist development progressed further. The transformation of the big aristocratic landowners into rural capitalists, into a section of the imperialist bourgeoisie as a whole, united by finance capital, was necessarily ever more pronounced, and placed the state and its entire policy ever more strongly in the service of the general class interest, even though the form of the state, and the social composition of the state apparatus, changed hardly at all, certainly not fundamentally. This development in no way ruled out struggles within the bourgeois camp, and these were sometimes quite violent; but it did mean right from the start that their character was simply factional. In particular, this development determined the character of the liberal opposition movement. Its ‘struggle’ to transform Germany into a constitutional and parliamentary monarchy gradually became more and more blunted, and the attempts of the left-bourgeois ideologies to form a great ‘left-wing bloc’, ‘from Bassermann to Behel’, found a greater echo among the revisionists than they did on the right wing of the liberal opposition. The Bülow bloc between the conservatives and the liberal parties, despite its short life and subsequent fragmentation, showed how far this rapprochement had gone. And the same tendency is evident from the character of parties such as the free conservatives and the Centre Party.

It is quite self-evident, then that, long before the imperialist epoch, ideologies of mediation appeared, both in the direction of a better and more elastic adaptation between apologetics for the existing political system and the ideological requirements of the bourgeoisie, and in that of moving from an acceptance with formal reservations towards acceptance in content too. It is characteristic, however, that these ideologies of mediation only attained general significance in the imperialist period. This was when the Dilthey school of Geisteswissenschaft arose, as a mediation between neo-Kantianism and mere ‘unphilosophical’ history, a psychology that ‘understood’ its content instead of simply dismembering it. This was when Husserl, who up till then had stood somewhat apart, came to have a general effect – and one that very soon stretched beyond the sphere of pure logic which was what he had himself devoted his entire life to – in the application of new methods that were not merely formal, but agnostic on the question of objective reality. Neo-Kantianism, and especi ally its right wing (Windelband, Rickert), was very quick to take over both stimuli and results from the Dilthey and Husserl schools; both wings abandoned the ‘orthodox’ ground of neo-Kantianism and began to develop, via Fichte, in a Hegelian direction, even while stressing that the Kantian foundation should not be abandoned (Windelband, Die Erneuerung des Hegelianismus, 1910; J. Ebbinghaus, Relativer und absoluter Idealismus, 1910). The liberal tradition of rejecting Romanticism (Hettner and Haym) was itself rejected. Romantic philosophy experienced a revival, and Goethe was brought in alongside Kant at the very centre of the tradition, as a philosopher, the creator of a world outlook, a ‘philosophy of life’. This philosophy of extreme relativism developed ever more strongly into a mystical irrationalism, while, however, still preserving its agnostic and relativistic foundation (Simmel, and the influence of Bergson). Vaihinger linked Kant with Nietzsche as the basis of an extreme, ‘myth-forming’ relativism (his Philosophie des ‘Als ob’ appeared in 1911).

All these tendencies, which we have certainly not enumerated in full, let alone properly characterized, have in common, through all their variations, the turn towards content, to objective idealism, to a ‘world outlook’. And this requirement was precisely the result of the entry into the imperialist epoch. The continuous intensification of both internal and external contradictions, the rapid growth of both state and economy, the increase of rentier parasitism, the growing concentration of capital and economic power in a few great corporations, the expansion of Germany into colonies and spheres of interest, the consequent threat of war and preparation for war – all these things produced a series of questions that needed clear answers. Not in the sense that any of these ideologists, apart from a tiny minority, clearly recognized the problems of imperialism, understood them as problems of this stage of development and accepted or rejected them from this standpoint. And yet the specific kind of ideological distortion changes with the entry into imperialism. Formerly, the question had been to evaporate the social pattern into an abstract generality, for which a formalist ethical position, i.e. acceptance of duty as such, was sufficient (or alternatively, instead of such acceptance, its inconsistent, lame, and hence for the bourgeoisie reliable, rejection), but now everything to do with society had to be abstracted and distorted, in a way that was comprehensive in content. This pattern, the mythologized depiction of imperialist society, demanded acceptance of its content. To give an example of this development, the cultural values of the neo-Kantian Rickert, which he saw as linking the historical framework, were still not explicitly acknowledged as identical with the present bourgeois society, being so only from the formal side. The ‘value ethics’ of Husserl’s pupil Scheler, on the other hand, had at its centre ‘goods’ whose identity with the philosopher’s own present was already clear in content and unmistakable.

This development into mystical irrationalism, to a ‘philosophy of life’, a ‘world outlook’ full in content, accordingly bears a double face. On the one hand, there arises an ever-more decided apology for imperialist capitalism, while on the other hand this apology is clad in the form of a critique of the present. The more strongly capitalism develops, and the stronger its internal contradictions consequently become, the less possible it is to make direct and open defence of the capitalist economy the centrepiece of an ideological justification of the capitalist system. The social process that led to the transformation of classical economics into a vulgarizing apologetics is at work of course in other fields besides that of economics, and affects both content and form of bourgeois ideology as a whole. There is therefore a general estrangement from the concrete problems of the economy, a concealment of the connections between economy, society and ideology, with the result that these questions are increasingly mystified. The growing mystification and mythologization also makes it possible for the results of the capitalist system, which appear ever more clearly, and cannot be dismissed even by the apologists themselves, to be in part recognized and criticized. For the mythologizing of problems opens a way to presenting what is criticized either outside any connection with capitalism, or else giving capitalism itself so evaporated, distorted and mystified a form that the criticism does not lead to any kind of struggle, but rather to a parasitic aquiescence with the system (Simmel’s Kulturkritik), and even via this detour to an acceptance deriving from the ‘soul’ (Rathenau). The ideological transfiguration of Germany’s political backwardness that followed from the situation of the German bourgeoisie as here depicted naturally intensified this tendency all the more. A ‘critique’ of capitalism, brewed up from scraps of Romantic anti-capitalism, can very easily be turned round into a critique of the ‘Western democracies’, with a view to stylizing the German situation – in as much as its stands aloof from this ‘poison’ – as a higher form of social development.

It goes without saying that these critical movements were in no way all apologetic in intention. Even in the period of imperialism, there were in Germany intellectuals who honestly attempted, at least subjectively, either a critique of German political and social conditions, or even a critique of the capitalist system. But since they thought they could make such a critique without examining the general economic, social and ideological foundations of the epoch – which is simply the ideological reflection of the fact that they had not broken with the imperialist bourgeoisie – this critique, too, stood on the same basis as German imperialism, as far as its world outlook was concerned. Even in the best case, it remained unclear, confused, and unable to offer a dialectical solution to the divorce between objective basis and subjective intention, simply patching this up eclectically. At most, even this criticism, with its subjectively good intentions, developed into an unconscious and unwilled component, a particular nuance, of the basic ideological tendency of the epoch: an indirect apology, an apology by way of a mystifying critique of the present.

This development, therefore, was nothing more than an ideological preparation for the mobilization of the intellectuals for the war effort. But like any ideological development, it proceeded unevenly. The subordination of the bourgeois intelligentsia to an imperialism that was spreading and developing was not affected immediately or without contradiction; opposition movements also arose, and above all sham oppositional movements, which shared the same ideological foundations as the tendencies they were struggling against, and hence were only able to wage a ‘fractional’ struggle – no matter how radical their airs, or how convinced they were of this ‘radicalism’. We have already pointed out how the general and manifold movement towards content, towards a ‘world outlook’, overlooked the underlying question in a subjective idealist manner: i.e. knowledge of the objective, material actuality as this exists independent of us, of man. By clinging, therefore, to the basic doctrine of the subjective idealist theory of knowledge, the dependence of the objectivity of the known object on the knowing subject, its ‘superseding’ of formalism, agnosticism and relativism necessarily remained either pure illusion (as in the Husserl school), or else it collapsed into a mystically exaggerated philosophy of intuition (the followers of Bergson, Simmel, and the Dilthey school).

The character of the opposition movements was determined by this commonality of existential foundation, and hence of forms and contents of consciousness. If they set out to criticize the ‘abstract’, culture-destroying effects of capitalism, this led in the best of cases to a Romantic opposition, with all the internal contradictions of the earlier Romantic critique of capitalism, yet far inferior to this in that they were much less able to criticize the capitalist economic system, even from a Romantic standpoint (as Sismondi had done), remaining trapped in its ideological surface appearances. If an opposition movement attacked Germany’s political backwardness from a ‘democratic’ standpoint, or developed a polemic against its cultural reaction, this led in the best of cases to a rhetorical, ideologically self-important vulgar democratism, a defence of ‘big-city poetry’, etc. Even this attitude was restricted by German conditions. With a very few exceptions, for example, big-city poetry in Germany was devoid of that, albeit bourgeois, breadth and range which marked its Western prototypes; even with the expressionists, it is not much more than a somewhat exaggerated and ironically pointed depiction of the Bohemian café society of the intelligentsia (cf. in particular the anthology Der Kondor, Heidelberg, 1912). And this is by no means accidental, for the way that Germany was trapped by the narrow compromise forms of the missing bourgeois revolution and the foundation of the Reich in 1871, left its mark even on the thinking of the extreme ‘radical democrats’. Kurt Hiller, for example, the editor of Der Kondor, and presenter of the first expressionist cabaret, wrote on the occasion of Wilhelm Il’s jubilee, when Ganghofer and Lauff were decorated by the Kaiser: ‘It is still sad that the ruler of Germany, as this new act once again and frighteningly shows, has not the least trace of connection to what (before God) is Germany’s value, i.e. the German spirit. . . . The idea that a German emperor of genuine culture might raise Stefan George and Heinrich Mann to the hereditary nobility is not such a bad one. . . . Is this utopian? Perhaps less so in a monarchy than in a republic’ (My emphasis: G.L.). [5]

We see clearly here – and I repeat that Hiller was one of the most ‘political’ and ‘left-wing’ champions of early expressionism – a similar reactionary prostration before the backward form of the German state, a similar glorification of the monarchy, i.e. the apologetic transformation of German political backwardness into something exemplary, as that made by the official apologists. Hiller’s attack on Wilhelm II as an individual means very little in this connection; that can also be found in many opposition writers, including even conservatives.

What we have here, then, is the same common foundation, with the most far-reaching implications for both the content and form of expressionism. The stronger this common basis, then, the narrower the possibility of a new content, and the more the ‘opposition’ is restricted to formalism, and to the exaggeration of distinctions that are in reality only slight. This is far more the case with expressionism than it was with the naturalism of the 1880s and 1890s, the previous bourgeois opposition movement in the field of ideology, and particularly of literature. The very intensification of external conditions was responsible for this constriction. ‘Advanced Europe,’ Lenin wrote in 1913, ‘is commanded by a bourgeoisie which supports everything that is backward . ... In “advanced” Europe, the sole advanced class is the proletariat. As for the living bourgeoisie, it is prepared to go to any length of savagery, brutality and crime in order to uphold dying capitalist slavery’. [6]

The naturalist movement of the 1880s and 1890s still had a certain connection to the workers’ movement – however loose, vacillating and unclear this may have been – and owed everything positive that it achieved to precisely this connection. Expressionism, however, could no longer make the same connection. This was above all the fault of the expressionists themselves, whose bourgeoisification, even in their oppositional strivings, was so advanced that they could only raise even their ‘social’ questions to the level of a subjective idealism, or a mystical objective idealism, and could find no understanding of the social forces acting in the real world. This development, the objective foundation of which was parasitism as the general tendency of the epoch, the ever stronger subordination of the petty bourgeoisie to capital, the increasing concentration and monopolization of the ‘free’ intellectuals’ field of activity (press and publishing), and the growing importance of a parasitic rentier stratum as the decisive audience for ‘progressive’ literature and art, was effected quite naturally in interaction with the prevailing tendencies in the German workers’ movement. Here we stress only those aspects most important for this connection, in particular revisionism. Whereas in the era of naturalism the effect of the workers’ movement on the world outlook of the naturalist writers led in the direction of materialism, even if this was for the most part mechanical and vulgarized, revisionism accomplished a return to the subjective idealism of Kant (Bernstein, Conrad Schmidt, Staudinger, Max Adler), or else Mach (Friedrich Adler). It lay in the very nature of things that revisionism had closer connections with the left bourgeois intelligentsia than did its adversary, and was reinforced moreover by all kinds of circumstances (academic connections, for example via the Marburg school); in particular, it was reinforced by the fact that the struggle against revisionistn in Germany was precisely at its weakest at the level of world outlook – here in particular we can see the effect of the lack of ideological clarity and political and organizational uniformity on the part of the left wing of the workers’ movement. In the pre-war era this had as good as no influence on bourgeois opposition movements, and was also very much inhibited ideologically in criticizing these effectively and hence influencing them from the standpoint of revolutionary Marxism. On top of this, there was a further important distinction between the situation with naturalism and with expressionism, in that the former got to know the workers’ movement in the period of the illegal struggle against the anti-socialist law, which was – all things considered – a heroic one, growing up with the experience of the ‘great commotion’, whereas for the latter the already very marked bourgeoisification of the labour aristocracy and labour bureaucracy was not without influence. This influence was reinforced by the international anarcho-syndicalist critique of this tendency by Sorel, which was particularly influential among the intelligentsia, Sorel’s effect getting under way at precisely this time (Michels’s book on the sociology of political parties was part of the same phenomenon). Once again, the weakness of the revolutionary wing of the workers’ movement meant that it was unable to exert any significant counter-effect.

The result of these circumstances was that the oppositional cutting edge of expressionism was far less sharp than that of naturalism. In contrast to naturalism’s depiction of poverty, which concealed a social criticism and an anti-capitalist world outlook, for all its confusion, expressionism only managed a quite abstract opposition against ‘middle-classness’ [Bürgerlichkeit], an opposition which already betrayed its middle-class basis, and hence the common basis of world outlook that it shared with the middle-classness it was allegedly combating, by the way that it completely divorced the concept of middle-classness, right from the start, from any class connection. Here we shall simply introduce a few typical quotations, taken in fact from the period of the war and immediately after, i.e. from a period in which the politicization of even expressionism was far sharper than it had been in the pre-war era. Rudolf Leonhard, for example, wrote: ‘There are (at least today) only two classes: the middle class [Bürger], to which almost the whole aristocracy belong, as only a few of them are really aristocratic, as well as almost the entire proletariat, and on the other hand the non-middle class [Unbürger] . .. who cannot be defined in any other way, though they are in fact very well defined by this[7]. Again: “The question is to defeat the middle class, both bourgeois and proletarian, on all fronts, above all in the fields of middle-classness [Bürgertum][8]. We can also quote Blüher, the later fascist: ‘This time, however, the bourgeois can be found at all levels of society[9]. The most extreme formulation is perhaps that of Werfel: ‘The poet is in no position to understand political abstraction; he lies if he claims to believe in nations and classes[10]. Since the social criticism is directed against ‘middle-classness’ in general, and since it disdainfully rejects the economic problem of exploitation (not to mention the specific problem of imperialism), it comes into neighbourly proximity to the philosophical ‘interpretations’ and ‘critiques’ of capitalism from the purely bourgeois aspect (Simmel’s ‘philosophy of money’, Rathenau), as well as to the Romantic movements against capitalism. What is specific to the expressionist social critics is simply that they remain even more firmly trapped on the ideological surface: their ‘anti-middle-class’ stance always had a bohemian character in the pre-war period.

As an opposition from a confused anarchistic and bohemian standpoint, expressionism was naturally more or less vigorously directed against the political right. And many expressionists and other writers who stood close to them took up a more or less explicit left-wing position in politics (Heinrich Mann is an exceptional case). But however honest the subjective intention behind this may well have been in many cases, the abstract distortion of basic questions, and especially the abstract ‘anti-middle-classness’, was a tendency that, precisely because it separated the critique of middle-classness from both the economic understanding of the capitalist system and from adhesion to the liberation struggle of the proletariat, could easily collapse into its opposite extreme: into a critique of ‘middle-classness’ from the right, the same demagogic critique of capitalism to which fascism later owed at least part of its mass basis. What is important in this connection is more the fact that there are certain common ideological tendencies, than why, whether and to what degree various particular writers or ideologists of fascism began their career as expressionists (e.g. Hanns Johst).

For expressionism is undoubtedly only one of the many tendencies in bourgeois ideology that grow later into fascism, and its role in the ideological preparation for fascism is no greater – if also no less – than that of many other simultaneous tendencies. Fascism, as the general ideology of the most reactionary bourgeoisie in the post-war era, inherits all the tendencies of the imperialist epoch in as much as these express decadent and parasitic features; and this also includes all those that are sham-revolutionary or sham-oppositional. Naturally, this inheritance involves a transformation and reconstruction; what in earlier imperialist ideologies was still vacillating or just confused, is now transformed into something openly reactionary. But anyone who gives the devil of imperialist parasitism even his little finger – and this is done by all those who adhere to the pseudo-critical, abstractly distorting and mythologizing variety of imperialist sham oppositions – ends up by giving his whole hand.

This division is deeply rooted in the very essence of expressionist anti-middle-classness. And this abstract impoverishment in content not only marks the developmental tendency of expressionism, and hence its ultimate fate, it is right from the start its central and irresolvable problem of style, for this extraordinary poverty of content stands in crying contrast to the pretension of its delivery, to the exaggerated and over-intense subjective emotionalism of its presentation. This is the central stylistic problem of expressionism, which we shall deal with below.

What we have to do first, however, is show how the world outlook of expressionism is in fact the same world outlook of subjective idealism as that of German imperialism’s ‘official’ philosophy. Striking proof of this is given in an essay by Kurt Hiller, from a right-wing philosophical position. Hiller takes as his starting-point the extreme relativist theories of F. Somlo and G. Radbruch, and only ‘overcomes’ relativism for his part by the following salto mortale:

“Thus whereas the relativist ‘solves’ a legislative problem in a thousand ways, on the basis of a thousand different moralities, the voluntarist solves it unambiguously on the basis of his own morality .... The voluntarist in no way inquires whether (his) values are ‘justified’ or not – he simply applies them.” [11]

It is no wonder, then, that Hiller finds ‘the motto for the ethics and political philosophy of the future’ in Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’ [12], just as later, writing under the editorship of the ‘socialist’ Ludwig Rubiner, Wilhelm Herzog was to say of Nietzsche: ‘Not a socialist, but still one of the boldest of world revolutionaries[13]. Given this world outlook – intended as objective, as the overcoming of relativism and agnosticism, but in reality remaining relativistic and agnostic – the task of art and literature follows accordingly. Kurt Pinthus, one of the leading expressionist theorists, says of this:

“We felt ever more clearly the impossibility of a humanity that had made itself completely dependent on its own creation, on its science, technology, statistics, trade and industry, on an ossified social order, and bourgeois and conventional customs. This recognition meant the beginning of a struggle against both the epoch and its reality. We began to resolve the surrounding reality into the unreality it is, to penetrate through the phenomena to the essence, and to surround and demolish the enemy by assault on the mind. We sought first of all to distance ourselves from our environment by ironic superiority, by grotesquely jumbling its phenomena, floating easily through the viscous labyrinth (Lichtenstein, Blass), or rising into the visionary with the cynicism of the music-hall (van Hoddis)” (My emphasis: G.L.). [14]

What is important for the expressionists’ world outlook here is in particular the way in which they penetrate from the ‘appearance’ to the ‘essence’. We see how Pinthus sums up the ten years of expressionist theory and practice: ‘We began to dissolve the surrounding reality into a non-reality .... ‘ But this is not just a subjective idealist resolution of the question, i.e. the shift from the question of transforming reality itself (genuine revolution) to transforming ideas about reality, it is also a mental escape from reality. And this no matter how ‘revolutionary’ the guise in which the flight is masked, no matter how honestly certain expressionists might have subjectively taken this masquerade for revolutionary action.

In the pre-war period this ideology of flight was expressed much more clearly. Wilhelm Worringer, whose profound connection with the expressionist movement and its world outlook we have already seen from his ‘funeral oration’, expressed this quite unambiguously in his Abstraktion und Einfühlung ('Abstraction and Empathy’, Munich, 1909), a book of fundamental importance for expressionist theory. Here ‘abstraction’ (i.e. the art of the ‘essence’) stands in sharp opposition to ‘empathy’, by which Worringer means in particular the naturalist and impressionist art of his immediate past and present. Worringer’s polemic is only superficially concerned with art history: the ‘retrieval’ of primitive, Egyptian, Gothic and Baroque art in opposition to the one-sided preference for the art of ancient Greece and the Renaissance. His book owes its striking effect rather to the fact that Worringer makes the position he is really defending very clear, and it is in this connection that the renaissance of primitivism, of Baroque, etc., is so highly characteristic of the new art that he propagates. This is also clearly shown in the way that, as a representative theorist of the ‘empathy’ he is attacking (i.e. in his view, the ‘classical’ tendency), he does not pick on an art theorist of the classical period itself, but rather the modern aesthetician Theodor Lipps, whose theory in fact amounts to a justification of psychological impressionism. With Worringer, therefore, we find the same phenomenon in the field of the theory of art as we meet with time and again in the theory and practice of the new art itself: the problems and attempted solutions of the bourgeoisie’s revolutionary period are totally forgotten, and as far as these works are taken into consideration, they are simply equated with certain modern phenomena of decline (in this case, the old realism, which objectively was socially critical, is equated with psychologistic impressionism).

The opposing tendency, ‘abstraction’, is naturally tackled in the same way. Worringer seeks to characterize Egyptian art, and gives a very clear and exact description and confirmation of the escapist character of his own expressionist tendencies and the world outlook on which they are based. I shall again quote simply a few important passages. Worringer takes as his starting-point ‘agoraphobia’, anxiety ‘in the face of the wide, unconnected and confused world of appearances’. ‘Humanity’s development in a rationalistic direction has repressed that instinctive anxiety, conditioned by the lost position of man within the universe.’ Only Oriental culture has preserved this correct recognition. Worringer sums this up by saying:

The less humanity has become spiritually reconciled with the phenomenon of the external world, and the less it has acquired a relation of trust towards it, the more powerful is that dynamic from which the highest abstract beauty is attained ... with primitive man the instinct for the ‘thing in itself’ is also most strongly developed (in Worringer’s case this always means the unknowable thing in itself: G.L.). The increasing command of the external world, and habit, involve a blunting and obscuring of this instinct. Only after the human spirit has gone through the whole course of rationalist knowledge, in a development of millennia, does the feeling for the ‘thing in itself’ again awake in him, as the final resignation of his essence. What was previously instinct is now the final product of reason. Hurled down from the arrogance of knowledge, man faces the world just as lost and helpless as did primitive man ...” (my emphases: G.L.) [15]

On the surface, Worringer’s clear ideology of escape seems sharply to contradict the ‘activist’ positions of Hiller and Pinthus – which are also quite different from each other on the surface. But this is simply a superficial contradiction: the same class tendencies, and hence the same tendencies in world outlook, lead this escapist ideology to take different and contradictory forms. Pinthus, who of course takes the ‘thing-in-itself’ as unknowable just as much as does Worringer (cf. Die Erhebung, p. 411), involuntarily concedes this himself by characterizing the pre-war expressionism as an ironic defence against reality, stressing its ‘cynicism of the music-hall’ – in methods that are no more than the typical gestures of superiority always found in bohemian literature, which itself takes flight before the real struggle with reality, and disguises its perplexity and embarrassment in the face of real and important problems (Pinthus’s ‘labyrinth'; others refer to ‘chaos’) in ironic attacks on symptoms. In Hiller’s case, the escape again lies in the way that he conceals the class antagonisms in the field of law, which he discusses, in the superficial ideological form of relativism, so as to avoid taking up a position towards them, and ‘overcomes’ relativism rather by putting the arbitrary subjective ‘decision’ in place of the former inability to decide (a typical concealing and obscurantist ideology of the declining bourgeoisie, or rather of a section of the bourgeoisie that no longer dares appeal to an open defence of its class interests). This gesture of ‘decision’ covers up Hiller’s flight from a decision between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, whether the concealment is deliberate or not.

The outward gestures and forms of expression are different. But the class content, the helplessness in the face of the problems of imperialism (which of course are idealistically distorted here into ‘eternal human problems’), the flight from their solution, are all the same.


The World War and its ending form the high point of expressionism. In this period it attained an importance that went beyond the literary field in the narrow sense – the first literary movement to do so in Germany since the beginnings of naturalism. This seems at first sight to contradict what we have maintained about the ideology of expressionism, but only at first sight. For we did indeed grant that expressionism was a literary opposition movement, even if, as a result of the circumstances that we explained, it stood ideologically on the same terrain as its adversary (imperialism). We shall now see that this common ground was never really abandoned, even at the time of the most violent, and subjectively most sincere, opposition. The passionate struggle of the expressionists against the war was objectively only a mock battle, even when their literary works suffered prosecution in wartime Germany. It was a struggle against war in general, and not against the imperialist war, just as the expressionists struggled against ‘middle-classness’ in general, and not against the imperialist bourgeoisie, and as in the further course of development of war and revolution they directed themselves against ‘violence’ in general and not against the concrete counter-revolutionary violence of the bourgeoisie. This form of extreme abstraction, extreme idealistic distortion and evaporation, in which all appearances are reduced to an ‘essence’, follows organically and necessarily from the preconditions of class and world outlook sketched out above. Appearances – ‘bourgeoisie’, ‘war’, ‘violence’, all in the abstract – were conceived right from the start in an external and ideological fashion, and not in terms of their actual being, while the penetration to the ‘essence’ led merely to an abstraction that was subjective and arbitrary in form, and hollow and empty in content. ‘ “Bourgeois,” for example, was taken to mean what appears common to the most varied ideological forms of appearance of bourgeois life, from a subjective standpoint: divorced from any actual economic and social determination in space and time.

This form of abstraction is not just originally determined by class, as we have seen, it also acquires a very definite and concrete class content precisely by way of its abstract emptiness. Since the abstraction is not in fact a penetration to the social roots of the phenomena, but rather an abstracting from them – conscious or unconscious, intentional or unintentional – an ideology of diversion from the key point of the class struggle is first of all created, which necessarily collapses into reaction as the battle hots up. We have already seen the general outlines of the ‘anti-middle-class’ ideology. Its emotional roots undoubtedly lie in a Romantic anti-capitalism, but since this only proceeds from the most superficial ideological symptoms of capitalism, since on its way to the ‘essence’ it turns directly and vigorously away from the economic, and since in this way it also finds similar symptoms in the proletariat (bourgeoisification of the labour aristocracy and labour bureaucracy), it is not too hard for it to decree in place of the class antagonism between proletariat and bourgeoisie an ‘eternal’ or ‘philosophy-of-history'-based antithesis between ‘middle-class’ and ‘non-middle-class’ man. The next and positive step is of course the demand for this ‘non-middle-class’ elite to take the leadership of society into their own hands. This idea is put forward with grotesque candour in Kurt Hiller’s essay ‘Ein deutsches Herrenhaus’ ['A German House of Lords'] (Ziel-Jahrbuch II, 1918) which presents a scenario in which the ‘league’ of this ‘intellectual’ elite influences public opinion to such an extent, by way of ‘high-class conferences and extravagant public meetings’, that only one ‘last step’ remains: ‘The executive of the league ... is appointed by the German constitution as an upper house[16]. This utopia deserves mention not just on account of its foolishness, but precisely because the ideological threads are clearly visible that draw a professedly ‘extreme left’ section of the intelligentsia towards fascism: the path from ‘mentally overcoming’ the class division in society, and class antagonisms, to the rule of the ‘elite’, the path from Nietzsche to fascism via Sorel and Pareto. What this involves is not the personal development of certain individuals – Sorel himself never became a fascist – but rather the course of development of the ideology, which by the most diverse left and right steps leads necessarily to fascism, the affinity between this ‘extreme left’ conception and the chiefly intellectual ‘leagues’ that stand close to fascism being the most striking point.

The expressionists’ attitude to the war followed the same methodological course in theory and practice: from certain symptoms, to the subjectively and arbitrarily abstracted ‘essence’. This time, however, the movement of thought reflected an oppositional process in which the broadest masses were involved, its political expression in the course of the war being the USPD. It lies in the very nature of the case that the symptoms here reached an altogether different force and tangibility from those that the expressionists had criticized before the war under the rubric of ‘middle-classness’. The expressionists now depicted in verse and prose the full terrors of the war, the hopelessness of the trenches, the horrors of ‘technical’ mass murder, the brutality of the war machine, all in the most grisly of colours, revealing all its atrocities. And this revelation was now not just something static, it served a struggle, the struggle against ‘war’. This is the precise point at which the inner affinity with the USPD takes effect. There were many among the leaders of the Social Democrat party, right from the beginning, who had strong tactical reservations about the party’s unconditional subordination to all the aims and methods of German imperialism. The rejection of the war by ever greater sections of the masses gradually forced them to take a more decisive position. Yet they naturally came no further than the idea, and political formulation, of the spontaneous yearning for peace of the broad masses, not penetrating through to an understanding of the causes of the war and thus to a recognition of its imperialist character, and in no way seeking to give the resistance to the war a socialist stamp.

The USPD arose out of the earlier ‘Marxist centre’ at the very time when the masses of workers were pressing ever more forcibly in the direction of revolutionary action, even if spontaneously, confusedly, and without a clear understanding either of the way ahead, or of their goals. Its express ideological intention was to divert the masses from the path of revolution. The theory of the USPD was the direct continuation of the theory of the ‘centre’, in that it was concerned on the one hand not to lose touch with the discontent of the masses, nor to come into conflict with their feelings, while on the other hand, and above all, it was anxious not to cut the cord that still connected it with overt opportunism, which in the war situation developed into social-chauvinism. The preservation of this connection, which remained in existence unchanged in the theory and tactics of the USPD even after its organizational break with the SPD itself, shows that in class terms the USPD, too, had not completely broken with the imperialist bourgeoisie, that its ‘opposition’ to the overt support for the imperialist war on the part of the right wing, its ‘struggle’ against the Cunows and Südekums, objectively still formed an essential component of the SPD’s war policy. Lenin recognized this connection right from the start, and expressed it as such. He discussed the essays by the social-chauvinist ‘Monitor’ in the Preussische Jahrbücher in the following terms:

‘Monitor’ held that the SPD’s attitude during the war was unobjectionable, i.e. from the standpoint of the bourgeoisie. It was performing, in other words, an unobjectionable service for the bourgeoisie and against the proletariat. The ‘regeneration’ of the SPD as a national-liberal labour party was making powerful progress. Yet:

“Monitor thinks that it would be very dangerous for the bourgeoisie if the Social-Democrats were to move still further to the right. ‘It must preserve its character as a labour party with socialist ideals; for the day it gives this up a new party will arise and adopt the programme the old party had disavowed, giving it a still more radical formulation’ [17]. Monitor hit the nail on the head. That is just what the British Liberals and the French Radicals have always wanted – phrases with a revolutionary ring to deceive the masses . . .” [18]

But the USPD could only fulfil this task because it shared the spontaneous mass sentiment against the war, and by a pseudo-tactic of struggle against the war it prevented the true proletarian class instinct expressed in this mass sentiment from developing into clear revolutionary class consciousness.

“The left-wing Social Democrats in Germany say that imperialism and the wars it engenders are not accidental, but an inevitable product of capitalism, which has brought about the domination of finance capital. It is therefore necessary to go over to the revolutionary mass struggle, as the period of comparatively peaceful development has ended. The ‘right'-wing Social Democrats brazenly declare: since imperialism is ‘necessary’, we too must be imperialists. Kautsky, in the role of the ‘Centre’, tries to reconcile these two views.” [19]

This is not the place to analyse the theory and history of the USPD in detail. All that is required here is to show how the refined social-chauvinists, the Kautskys, Hilferdings and Max Adlers, all took the greatest pains, as the elevated theorists they were, to retouch the overall picture of the war so as to brush away imperialism, to present the war as emerged (opposition to war in general – support for peace in general) acquired a specific class content precisely through this formalism, its clearest expression being Kautsky’s celebrated formulation that the International was simply an instrument of peace, and that the struggle of socialists in the war must be difected towards the re-establishment of peace. The USPD ideology corresponded, therefore, to the spontaneous anti-war sentiment of the disillusioned petty-bourgeois and backward workers; it did not require them to go beyond their spontaneous feelings and ideas in theory, and held out to them in practice a hope that seemed easier to realize, with less friction, and more ‘legally’, than civil war. It linked up, therefore, with all the petty-bourgeois prejudices and all the consequences of the bourgeoisification of social-democracy resulting from its opportunist policies, strengthening and reinforcing these precisely by seemingly going beyond them, by its apparent and abstract opposition to the superficial appearances. In this way it sought to guide the mass movement back onto bourgeois lines, a mass movement which spontaneously (though only spontaneously) was marked by the striving to escape the boundaries of middle-classness and the subordination of the workers’ movement to the imperialist class aims of the bourgeoisie. The overt delivery of the workers’ movement to the imperialist bourgeoisie would have come to grief in practice against the resistance of the masses, if the spontaneous resistance of the masses had been illuminated by genuine class consciousness, if the Spartacist League had not been incapable, for both external and internal reasons, of striking a really decisive blow at the USPD ideology among the mass of working people.

The methodological connection between expressionism and the USPD ideology is already apparent, I believe, from these few observations. Its social basis is that the expressionists became the literary mouthpiece of precisely that section of the mass movement that was guided by the USPD in the direction I have described. The expressionists, moreover, were far more closely connected with the petty-bourgeois wing of this movement than with its proletarian section, as a result of their social being, which had the result that the spontaneous, unclear, but instinctive strivings in the direction of proletarian revolutionary action were weaker in their case than they were among the proletarian supporters of the USPD. On the other hand, however, the method of abstraction analysed above, which diverts from the real battlefield of the class struggle, was also a spontaneous manifestation of the expressionists’ own class position; their continued use of this method in their world outlook and creative method was thus not just a political manoeuvre, treachery or a betrayal. The objective affinity of method, which at some points amounted to actual identity, was due to the fact that both tendencies, USPD and expressionism, while remaining on the class foundation of the bourgeoisie, sought to avoid a confrontation with the underlying causes by their attacks on symptoms. Within this affinity, however, there was the distinction that the expressionists who, naively, and out of genuine conviction, retained the backward, petty-bourgeois values, imagined – both in their world outlook and in their creative method – that at the level of form they had reached the topmost peaks of abstraction, the purest essence of the phenomena, and necessarily fell into the same exaggerated and empty, even if subjectively honest, pathos, that characterizes this era of war and revolution.

They reached this peak of abstraction by counterposing ‘war’ in general to ‘man’ in general. Kurt Pinthus, for example, wrote: ‘But – and this is the only way that political literature can also be art – the best and most passionate of these writers struggle not against the external conditions of humanity, but rather against the condition of deformed, tormented and misled man himself’. In this way, the question of the struggle against war was shifted from the battlefield of the class struggle onto the private realm of morality. A false world outlook and a wrong morality are the real cause of the atrocious human condition of the present. Max Picard, again, counterposed the impressionistic and expressionistic world outlooks: “Through impressionism man absolved himself of responsibility .... Instead of conscience towards things, all that was needed was knowledge of their connections.” [20] He continued : ‘This concern only for connections is what made possible the long war. Everything is already contained in all things, war is already in all things, war can be derived from all things, war can disappear and come back again. And so back and forth. Mars, as individual to be encountered and grasped, no longer exists; he dies each day into a thousand things, and comes to life again each day out of a thousand things[21]. Here we see the ‘pure’ concept at the summit of idealist distortion: the mythological figure of Mars is more tangible for Picard, more capable of taking ‘responsibility’, than is the real complex of facts of the imperialist war. The true theorist of expressionism, Kurt Pinthus, drives this abstraction yet further, if that is possible. He maintains that ‘all created and mechanical systems and organizations gain power over those who create them and develop a vile social and economic order[22]. The laws that are put forward here Pinthus calls ‘determinants’: ‘If we are to speak for the future, this means we must proclaim a struggle against these determinants, call for their overcoming, preach anti-determinism’ (my emphasis: G.L.). [23]

The process of overcoming these ‘determinants’, according to Pinthus and all other expressionists, thus takes place in the human head. The overcoming of a concept in thought is synonymous for them with the abolition of the reality to which the concept refers. This extreme subjective idealist ‘radicalism’ connects very closely with the USPD ideology at two points. First, in the way that the real cause of events is sought not in the objective economic foundations, but rather in ‘inadequate understanding’, in the ‘mistakes’ made by individuals and groups. Pinthus expressly says that ‘not the determinants are to blame, but we ourselves’, in the very same sense that, according to Kautsky, imperialism really goes against the interest of the greater part of the bourgeoisie itself, who are simply ‘misled’ by a minority; or as the Austro-Marxists made military and diplomatic cliques responsible for the war, and seriously investigated what ‘mistakes’ this or that person might have avoided, with a view to escaping further war, which they alleged did not necessarily arise from the capitalist system as such. Secondly, the subjective ‘radicalism’ of the expressionists agreed with the USPD ideology in as much as human education was now logically viewed as the central problem of the social revolution. It is well known how the neo-Kantian Max Adler gave this question a central role, with great emphasis, and sought to persuade the workers – with all the sham radical phrases that he knew how to use – that the education of the ‘new man’ who would create and build socialism had to precede the seizure of power, the revolution. Here again the expressionist and the USPD ideology meet up. And once more, of course, with the difference, despite the agreement in content, that what with Max Adler was a betrayal of Marxism, a twisting of Marxism into its direct opposite, follows in the case of the expressionists spontaneously from their class position.

Pinthus traces the domination of human life by the ‘determinants’ to the fact that ‘our education is designed completely in terms of historical causation’. ‘And in this way human life ... is made completely dependent on determinants that lie outside its spirit’. In a positive formulation: ‘We could see ever more clearly that man can only be saved by man, and not by the environment’.

Viewed from this standpoint, the expressionists’ attitude to the question of violence, and their affinity with the USPD, is clear both in content and form. The abstractly idealist conception of the rigid antithesis between ‘man’ and ‘violence’ (state, war, capitalism) receives clear expression on all sides. ‘Today violence is battling against the spirit’, said Ludwig Rubiner, and his drama Die Gewaltlosen shows very clearly all the implications of this conception of ‘violence’. No other violence can or may be opposed to ‘death’ and ‘soullessness’, i.e. no violence on the part of the oppressed; this would only reproduce the old situation with a simple change of sign.

Karl Otten, therefore, preached to the unemployed:

“You want to erect the same god
With newspaper, money and war
Who now torments mankind with bloody face
With fire and slaughter, stock-exchange, order and victory."
(‘Arbeiter’ (‘Worker’), in Menschheitsdämmerung, p. 183)

The same idea is expressed still more clearly by René Schickele:

“I renounce:
Any kind of violence,
Any compulsion,
And even the compulsion
To be good to others.
I know: ...
Violence turns
What began well
Into evil”
(‘Abschwur’, (‘Renunciation’), ibid., p. 273)

The intention behind these expressionist writings is very ‘radical’. Far more ‘radical’ and ‘revolutionary’, they allege, than the revolutionary workers who confront the violence of imperialistic capitalism with the violence of the revolutionary proletariat. They do not consider for a moment that through this very abstract – and so uncompromising! – confrontation they end up precisely where they serve the class interest of the bourgeoisie, as the revolutionary situation comes to a head. Kautsky and his fellow-thinkers seek to confuse the workers about the clear Marxist conception of the proletarian dictatorship, by rigidly counterposing ‘dictatorship’ in general to ‘democracy’ in general, by seeking to dismiss by sophistic arguments the difference between the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, which is the essential class content of every bourgeois democracy, and proletarian democracy, which is ‘a thousand times more democratic than any bourgeois democracy’ (Lenin). And this abstract counterposing of dictatorship in general and democracy in general serves precisely to brush under the carpet the inescapable necessity of revolutionary violence during the transition period. As Lenin wrote:

“And note how he [Kautsky] inadvertently betrayed his cloven hoof when he wrote: ‘peacefully, i.e. in a democratic way'! In defining dictatorship, Kautsky tried his utmost to conceal from the reader the fundamental feature of this concept, namely, revolutionary violence. But now the truth is out: it is a question of the contrast between peaceful and violent revolutions. That is the crux of the matter. Kautsky has to resort to all these subterfuges, sophistries and falsifications only to excuse himself from violent revolution, and to conceal his renunciation of it, his desertion to the side of the liberal labour policy, i.e. to the side of the bourgeoisie.” [24]

It is characteristic that Max Weber, who at this time was extremely influential among the left bourgeois intelligentsia, put the question in a similar manner to Werfel: violence, or the Sermon on the Mount. Either accept the state, with all the violence that Weber completely recognizes as part of the bourgeois state, i.e. either pursue a bourgeois politics in the framework of the bourgeois state, or else ‘turn the other cheek’, be ‘holier’, and follow the way of Francis of Assisi or Tolstoy. Any attempt to escape from this dilemma Weber considered madness, hopeless confusion. The expressionists, for their part, vacillated between the ideologies of Kautsky and Weber, though it necessarily followed from their class position that most of them stood closer to the Weberian dilemma – even without being aware of it as such.

The direction in which this reactionary and utopian sham radicalism leads, and how clearly it flows into a counter-revolutionary preaching of tolerating the violence of the capitalist class, can be seen very clearly in Franz Werfel’s poem ‘Revolutionsaufruf’ ('Revolutionary Appeal’) (in Menschheitsdämmerung, p. 215). Here Werfel says:

Just let the powers that be trample all over you,
Let the forces of evil stab you unceasingly,
See how fiery justice rises from your ashes.

In Werfel’s case, this is not just a poetic mood. In a longer essay, ‘The Christian Message. An Open Letter to Kurt Hiller’, he takes up the struggle, quite consistently, against ‘politicization’ (even in the expressionists’ sense), and for Christianity. ‘What is the aim of political activism?’, he asks:

“It is to remedy evil with evil’s own means (the activist is resolved on becoming a trade-union secretary). He seeks to attain his goal in the old way. He wants for example to use the organization that he has learned from the present regime for social welfare. And this is where the dangerous error lies .... Social unrest is unrest against one social order, in the interest of another order of the same kind, simply with a different label” [25].

These formulations are important because. they are the necessary and logical consequences of the expressionist theory as analysed above. Kurt Hiller, who, as we saw, shares the same social premisses and world outlook as Werfel, seeks in his reply to justify ‘activism’ against Werfel’s objections. He finds himself, however, very much on the defensive, his arguments subdued and embarrassed. He speaks of all kinds of things (for instance, the question whether it is ethical to kill flies), but has no word of an answer to the key point of Werfel’s attack, which is extremely consistent. This is in no way accidental, for Hiller’s sham-revolutionary ‘activist’ theory of the dominance of the ‘spirit’ (cf. his ‘House of Lords project’ in the same volume) simply draws purely verbal and inconsistent conclusions from the same social premisses and world outlook that Werfel thinks through to the end. He has therefore to be very cautious in his efforts to persuade Werfel to desist from the logic of his argument, and is in no position to refute him.We have seen how the anti-violence ideology stretches from the sham-revolutionary phrase through to open counter-revolutionary capitulation before the bourgeoisie’s white terror. The ideological affinity with the USPD’s theory of violence is scarcely in need of further proof. But we must emphasize once again that here, too, the expressionists wrote from the spontaneity of their petty-bourgeois class position, whereas the leadership of the USPD were involved in a deliberate political manoeuvre designed to rescue the threatened rule of the bourgeoisie. In this respect the similarity to the USPD is still closer than it was with the anti-war struggle. At that time the expressionists were carried along by a mass upsurge that at times took them far above the ‘real political’ goals of the USPD, in however unclear a manner. Later on, however, they expressed the division and vacillation of the petty bourgeoisie in the face of the approaching proletarian revolution. Fear of revolutionary ‘chaos’ has necessarily to gain the upper hand. When Hasenclever described the revolution, his main concern was not the class enemy – with which he was very quick to ‘fraternize’ – but rather this ‘chaos’:

Lightless embers. Night on the barricades.
Violence is in the air, everything is permitted.
The thieves’ lantern slinks in the suburban shop.
Looting raises its ugly head.
You fighters for freedom, establish your freedom,
Before the unfaithful betray your work ...
Wars will not abolish violence ...
(‘Der politischer Dichter’ [’the Political Poet'] in Menschheitsdämmerung, p. 166: there follows a hymn to the League of Nations)

Werfel’s overt panic is more honest and consistent than Hiller’s activism, which indeed is ‘active’ only in leading the revolution onto the path of the ‘spirit’, i.e. pressing it into a constricted bourgeois framework. And these efforts are so close to the strategy of the USPD that the boundaries between the two often disappear, both materially and sometimes even personally (Toller in Munich). The bitter struggles of the first ten years of revolution, and the initial defeats of the revolution in Germany, were to shatter ever more clearly the sham distinctions between revolutionary phrase and whimpering capitulation. And so expressionism came to an end as the dominant literary tendency in Germany – at the same moment in time, and this by no accident, as the dissolution of the USPD.


The creative method of expressionism is still more evidently and directly connected with its world outlook than was the case with earlier movements. This is not a function of the relatively greater devotion to theory that characterizes expressionism – this theory being contradictory and confused – but rather of the principally programmatic character of the expressionists’ actual works. In the very period of its strength, expressionism sought to give its works the same manifesto-type quality that always marked its theory. The same manner of viewing and dealing with reality prevailed at this level too. The attitude the expressionists adopted towards reality, and this means both their philosophical attitude to objective reality and their practical attitude to society, has already been characterized above as subjective idealism, by detailed quotation and analysis, a subjective idealism, however, that stakes a claim to objectivity. In referring once again to the formulations of Worringer, Pinthus and Picard, we add here a further passage from Max Picard in which the application of the expressionists’ epistemological method (penetration to the ‘essence’) to creative practice becomes clearly visible.

“The expressionist [says Picard] ... is emotional in that it seems as if he has never taken part in the midst of things and their movement, but had to hurl himself into them with a great leap from afar, and because with this leap of emotion things can be captured from the vortex of chaos. Emotion alone, however, is not enough to fix a thing snatched in this way. It is still necessary to transform a thing, as if it had never stood in relation to other things in the chaos, so that it is no longer recognized by them and can no longer react on them. Abstraction and stereotyping are necessary, so that what has been achieved does not slip back again into the chaos. In this way, so much passion is pressed into a thing that it almost breaks apart, and the thing can only concern itself with maintaining the tension of its own break-up; it can then no longer reach out to anything else.” (my emphasis: G.L.) [26]

The connection with Worringer’s ‘ abstraction’ is immediately visible here. Three points need to be made. Firstly, that reality is conceived right from the start as ‘chaos’, i.e. as something unknowable, ungraspable, which exists without laws; secondly, that the method needed to grasp the ‘essence’ (here called the ‘thing’) must be isolation, tearing apart, the destruction of all connections, the lawless tangle of which is precisely what makes up the ‘chaos'; and thirdly, that the ‘method’ used for grasping the ‘essence’ in this way is passion, something that is presented right from the start as irrational, and counterposed rigidly and exclusively to reason and understanding.

If we now consider these three aspects of their creative method somewhat more closely, it begins to become clear why reality had to appear to the expressionists as ‘chaos’. They stood in a Romantic opposition to capitalism, yet purely in an ideological sense, not even seeking any insight into its economic laws. Reality consequently appeared to them as so ‘meaningless’ and ‘soulless’ that not only was it unrewarding to engage in it, it was in fact degrading. The task of the writer was tyrannically to introject a meaning into this ‘meaninglessness’. As Pinthus put it, writing is ‘not ethically indifferent and accidental like history, but rather the portrayal of a self-conscious spirit that develops, wills and forms itself’. But if this trumpeting arrogance is to be concretely portrayed, we find very frequently, and in fact precisely in those cases where the writer’s efforts are honest, a typical petty-bourgeois helplessness and sense of loss in the workings of capitalism, the impotent remonstration of the petty bourgeois against being ground down and trampled on by capitalism. Georg Kaiser’s finest drama, From Morning Till Midnight, depicts this situation in a very lively and perceptive way, and is especially penetrating about the hollowness and vacuousness of such a ‘revolt’. His poor cashier, who embezzles and absconds for no apparent reason, finds he can do nothing with this supposed ‘freedom’ (and with the monetary preconditions behind it). He has already been beaten down and turned into a ‘cog’ in the same mechanism, if in a slightly different position, long before fate catches up with him. Kaiser’s other plays, and the comedies of Sternheim, show that what is involved here is less the weakness of the hero than that of the writer himself. It is simply that this weakness is openly expressed in the better and more honest plays of Kaiser’s, whereas Sternheim, for example, seeks to conceal it beneath a supercilious air of superiority that presents itself as very fashionable and bohemian. The same is true in expressionist poetry. Werfel, writing how ‘we are all strangers on the earth’, simply expresses rather flabbily and sentimentally, but at least openly, what in Ehrenstein’s verse comes out as violently bombastic and tortured:

And though the engines brashly roar
And airplanes soar up in the sky
Man lacks the constant, world-shaking power.
He is like mucus, spat on a rail . . .
The rushing torrents drown helplessly in the sea.
The Sioux Indians in their war-dances are unaware of Goethe
And the pitiless eternal Sirius does not feel the passion of Christ.
Suns and atoms, bodies in space,
Rise and fall without the tug of feeling
Rigidly unaware of one another.
(‘Ich bin des Lebens und des Todes müde’ ['I am tired of life and death'] in Menschheitsdämmerung, p. 37)

It is plain to anyone that these feelings are in no way new. They are an age-old component of the poetry of the urban petty bourgeoisie. What is new in expressionism, from the point of view of content, is simply the quantitative intensification of this sense of loss and despair. And this again is a necessary product of the position of the petty bourgeoisie in the imperialist era. As far as form is concerned, the intensification of content brings about a qualitative change. The movements that preceded expressionism, in particular naturalism, genuinely sought to portray the hopeless entanglement of the petty bourgeois in the capitalist mechanism, his impotent subordination to the capitalist system – even if they did so inadequately, for the naturalists themselves failed to recognize the social basis and the economic driving forces, and thus could not portray them; they, too, clung to surface phenomena (for example marriage and the family in their psychological reflections), even when they tried to portray these in some kind of social connection (still necessarily external and superficial). It was characteristic that naturalism was superseded by intensifying rather than making good its defects. Impressionism brought an extraordinary refinement vis-a-vis naturalism in the portrayal of the outward surface of life and the psychological impulses unleashed at this level, but in a way that was still further divorced from its social basis, making the portrayal of objective causes still more impossible. (It should be stressed here, if this is not superfluous, that this technical obstacle to realism is the result and not the cause.) Symbolism then decisively separated the emotional symptoms even from the externally and superficially conceived social environment, portraying a helplessness in general, a sense of loss in general, etc.

What was new in the creative method of expressionism lay in the way that on the one hand it accelerated this process of abstraction, while on the other hand it transformed its formal orientation. The impressionists and symbolists, as open and honest subjectivists, subjectivized their creative method more and more, i.e. they mentally abstracted the material to be depicted from its real foundations. Yet they still preserved the general structure of immediate reality: the stimuli that provoked these impressions were still ascribed priority over the subject impressed by them, this priority being at least externally dynamic; they confronted the subject as an external world. This was of course only in the world they portrayed. Their theory already conceived these impressions as products of the creative subject, at least in their ‘how’ aspect; their ‘what’ and ‘why’ still remained in places an unknowable thing-in-itself. (Here there are the most diverse transitional forms between the later naturalism and these new creative methods.) The reversal that expressionism seeks to effect was that of tr an sf erring the process of creation – which existed in the mind of the modern writer – into the structure of the work itself; i.e. the expressionist depicts the ‘essence’ already sufficiently known to us, and – this is the decisive question of style – only this ‘essence’. We have repeatedly pointed out how this ‘essence’ had nothing in common with the objective summary and emphasis of the general, permanent, recurring and typical features of objective reality. The expressionist precisely abstracted away from these typical characteristics, in as much as he proceeded, like the impressionists and symbolists, from the subjective reflex in experience, and emphasized precisely what in this appears – from the subject’s standpoint – as essential, in as much as he ignored the ‘little’, ‘petty’, ‘inessential’ aspects (i.e. precisely the concrete social determinations) and uprooted his ‘essence’ from its causal connection in time and space. This ‘essence’ is then presented by the expressionist as the poetic reality, as the act of creation that simultaneously reveals the ‘essence’ of reality as attainable by us.

He does this in poetry by nakedly exposing this creative process itself, this distilling out of the subjective aspects, this abstracting away from the objective reality; by gathering together as a literary form his own inability to arrange and master the objective reality in thought, making this into the chaos of the world itself and simultaneously the sovereign act of the writer. He does this in the objective forms (such as drama, for instance), by presenting only this experiential centre as reality, and grouping everything else around this centre, seen only from this standpoint. He thus stands in contrast to the realist writers who conceived drama as the objective struggle of opposing social forces. He finds himself in closer affinity, however, with the impressionists and symbolists, who similarly stopped portraying the contradictions of objective reality, replacing them more and more with the contradiction between subject and reality. It is simply that with these latter (e.g. Maeterlinck) objective reality actually disappears, giving way to the impression it makes on the subject, such as abstract fear, etc., whereas the expressionist dramatists place the writer himself on the stage as central character, and portray all the other actors only from his point of view – exclusively as what they are for this central character (the expressionist ‘essence’).

In this way, a double and insoluble dissonance arises. On the one hand, these characters become in their form mere silhouettes, who must however claim on the stage to be real living beings. On the other hand, the writer is forced to express the problem abstracted in this way in its unconcealed hollowness and vacuity; he cannot rest content with his emotional reflexes, for all their emptiness, in the way that the symbolist can. We therefore get such gems of wisdom as the following:

The Son: And what am I to do?
The Friend: Destroy the tyranny of the family, this medieval abcess ; this witches’ sabbath and torture chamber with brimstone! Abolish the laws – reestablish freedom, men’s highest good.

The Son: At the point of the earth’s axis I burn again with enthusiasm.

The Friend: Then you should realize that the struggle against the father is what revenge against the prince was a hundred years ago. Today we are right! At that time the crowned heads fleeced and enslaved their subjects. stole their money, locked their minds in dungeons. Today we are singing the Marseillaise! Any father can still freely have his son starve and drudge, and prevent him from doing great things. This is simply the old song against injustice and cruelty. They insist on the privileges of the state and nature. A way with them both! Tyranny disappeared a century ago – let’s help the growth of a new nature!
(Hasenclever, Der Sohn, Act 4, Scene 2).

We have quoted this representative expressionist drama at some length in order to show quite clearly how the content of the conflict here is basically in no way different from the typical family conflict of the naturalists (from Hauptmann’s Friedensfest to Hirschfeld’s The Mothers). In both cases a phenomenon that results from the capitalist social order is presented, with the writers understanding it as such. But while the naturalists, with the almost photographic fidelity of their superficial presentation, kept at least certain (uncomprehended) features of the mode of appearance of this conflict, the expressionist abstraction from reality only serves up as the ‘essence’ a childish nonsense. Of course, this nonsense is not accidental: it shows close affinity in content with the Romantic and reactionary ‘youth movements’. And through this creative method, which copies the processes with which this subjectivism has striven impotently to master the reality in thought as faithfully and as superficially as the naturalist photographed his uncomprehended impressions, this “essence’ is supposed to be discovered, demonstrated and exposed by literary work.

This is an exaggerated subjectivism, appearing here with the empty gesture of objectivity. In this way there arises a sham activity of the creative subject, in which the expressionist theory sees the principle that distinguishes expressionism as something radically new in relation to all former art (by which it always means the impressionism that immediately preceded it). The theorists of expressionism overlook the fact that class content and basic world outlook remain the same, and exaggerate the distinction in form into a rigid and exclusive antithesis. The continuity of development is only apparent, only inscribed on the surface. The process of impoverishment of content, in particular, continues in expressionism with unchanged direction, only at a greater pace. The very method of isolation by which the expressionists believe they can grasp the ‘essence’ involves a decisive step forward in this direction, for it means the deliberate ignoring of the determinations whose richness, linkage, entwining, interaction, sub- and superordination, in a dynamic system, are what form the foundation of all portrayal of reality. Worringer’s abstraction, Picard’s ‘removal from connections’, and Pinthus’s ‘essence’, thus all mean a deliberate impoverishment in the content of the reality portrayed. What is ‘new’ in expressionism, and comes out of the struggle against the inessential superficial determinations of impressionism, thus increases the emptiness and lack of content, for in reality the superficiality of the immediately grasped determinations can only be overcome by research into the real, underlying and essential determinations. A ‘pure essence’ divorced from all determinations is necessarily empty.

“There are no ‘pure’ phenomena, nor can there be, either in Nature or in society – that is what Marxist dialectics teaches us, for dialectics shows that the very concept of purity indicates a certain narrowness, a one-sidedness of human cognition, which cannot embrace an object in all its totality and complexity.” [27]

This thesis of Lenin’s is also of extreme importance for our argument, in that it underlines yet again the connection between the ideology and creative method of expressionism and the USPD and ultra-left in the war and post-war period (Pfemfert and Aktion). The ideological emptying of the concept of revolution – ‘pure’ capitalism, ‘pure’ socialist revolution – is most closely connected with opportunist politics in both right and left variants. The complete emptying of content of the concept of revolution by the expressionists is of course the most extreme point of these efforts, in which different political shadings may be eclectically mixed together. A sham movement towards content and objectivity, ‘struggling’ against the preceding clearly subjective idealist and agnostic tendencies, overcoming them only apparently, in a formal manner, both ideologically and artistically; a sham movement, which in actual fact strengthens the subjectivist tendencies, empties out content, and which objectively, therefore, is and can only be a linear continuation and intensification of the pre-imperialist bourgeois tendencies, since its class basis, despite the changed conditions, remains the same. The atrophy of content as the necessary result of expressionism’s deliberate creative method is to be seen on all sides in the tendency to the deliberate elimination of all concrete determinations. Picard deduces, for instance, from his attempt to ‘reduce the sphere of chaos’, that expressionism does not want to know ‘how a thing arose, does not even want to see what a thing is, but only that it is’. Causality is to be eliminated, since it increases ‘the number of things’ in the chaos by ‘patterns of transformation between cause and effect’. The expressionists, therefore, place themselves again here in that great series of ideologists of the imperialist era who, in the interest of rescuing old theoretical ideas, or with the purpose of introducing a new mythology of causality, deny the objective linkage between objects and processes in the external world. This series stretches from Nietzsche and Mach through to Spengler, Spann and Rosenberg. Herwarth Walden draws from these premisses, which, as we have seen, are indeed general premisses of the expressionist world view and not just the opinions of particular theorists, conclusions that involve linguistics as well. He combats the sentence for the sake of the word. ‘Why should only the sentence be understandable, and not also the word?’, he asks. If all determinations are rejected on principle as ‘disruptive’, then of course in language, too, what must prevail is not the living context with all its ramifications, but rather the isolated word, abstracted and applied outside any context. Word and sentence are counterposed just as rigidly and exclusively as thing and connection were in philosophy. The attempt to reproduce the interconnection of reality in words in an all-round way must necessarily appear from this standpoint, that of the ‘personal’ caprice of the writer, as a violation of the word. ‘Because writers like to dominate, they make the sentence prevail over the word. But the word rules. The word tears up the sentence, and poetry is piecework. Only words connect. Sentences happen only accidentally’. [28]

Here we can see the internal contradictions of expressionism as contradictions of its creative method. Firstly, its extreme subjectivism is revealed – a subjectivism that borders on solipsism. Walden is only logical in saying of his premisses: ‘The expressionist picture of verbal art offers the image without relationship to the world of experience. Illogicality makes the non-sensuous concept perceptibly palpable’. Similarly Otto Flake: “It is a half measure to select a “theme” ... What is called real, the environment and the facts outside of me, exist in fact only in my brain, in as much as I acknowledge them and want them to be so ...[29] The grasping of the essence, the supposedly ‘purest form’ of objectivity, collapses into the ‘non-objective’ art of absolute caprice. The impressionist lack of content, as seen in the accumulation of inessential and only subjective!y significant superficial features, now undergoes a formal – though only formal – intensification: the purely subjective ‘expression’, emptied of content and separated from the objective reality, can only produce in its totality an empty series of ‘eruptions’, a rigid combination of sham movements. For it is unavoidable and this is the second point – that expressionism should raise the question of totality. Its internal contradiction, from the standpoint of class basis and world outlook, shows itself in the expressionist creative method in the contradiction that, while on the one hand it has to lay claim to a total portrayal (simply on account of the social and political position it adopted during the war and after), on the other hand this creative method does not permit the portrayal of a living and dynamic world. The totality, therefore, can only be brought in via an external surrogate, and is purely formal and empty in the works of expressionism. “Simultaneism,” for example, is such an empty and formal external means designed to substitute, for the missing internal all-round context, an external juxtaposition of words grouped by association. But this means a gaping contradiction between content and form. And the sham solution that expressionism invents shows the same antagonism in its most intense form. The nothingness of the content – and this is the third point – is disguised in a self-trumpeting emotionalism in the use of language. The early expressionism of the pre-war period, and even its vegetative epigones after the ebb of the first revolutionary wave, could display this division quite openly, with destructive self-irony, thus apparently overcoming it artistically, but this was ruled out for expressionism in its heyday. These writers were forced, by their attitude towards war and revolution, to present themselves with great excitement and self-assurance as ‘leaders’, and to offer the empty subjectivity of their vacuous and irrational ‘concepts’ as proclamations, appeals and directions. Their language, divorced from the objectivity of external reality, thus ossified into a hollow ‘monumentality’, and their inadequate ability to penetrate the content had to be replaced and concealed by the hysterical exaggeration of pictures and images thrown together without any internal connection. This language bears the clear marks of its class content, the helplessness, dressed up as ‘leadership’ , of a rootless and decomposing petty-bourgeois intelligentsia, caught in the midst of world-historical, even if still not fully matured, class struggles between proletariat and bourgeoisie. And in and through this division, this language adequately expresses the real class content of expressionism, by unveiling precisely the nullity of the imagined contents, involuntarily but all the more nakedly. An empty dynamism as its principle – ‘the dynamic as principle is itself to become the human quality, what is revolutionary in man is to be perpetuated over and above the transient’ (Wolfenstein) – the ‘eternal’ revolution, i.e. a revolution divorced from the class struggle, finds corresponding expression in this language. This dynamism is not that of the genuine revolutionary, it is forced on these petty-bourgeois writers from outside, by historical events, and is therefore hysterically exaggerated. It goes without saying, of course, that once the external stimulus dies down, the hysterical exaggeration also subsides: with the relative stabilization, the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia found their way once again to a peaceful and self-possessed emptiness, the ‘new objectivism’. Those few who did not just imagine themselves to be revolutionaries, who, however unclearly, were genuinely striving towards the proletarian revolution and not the ‘eternal revolution of humanity’, jettisoned their expressionist baggage as they clarified their attitude towards the revolution. Expressionism was left behind in the course of development.

The very partial and problematic interest with which expressionism is honoured by fascism can certainly not suffice to awaken expressionism from this death. The fact that the fascists, with a certain justification, see expressionism as a heritage that they can use, only seals its tomb the more firmly. Goebbels accepts expressionism, and also the validity of the ‘new objectivism’ (which is again instructive), but he rejects naturalism, which ‘gets distorted into environmental description and Marxist ideology’, i.e. he maintains artistic continuity only with the art of post-war imperialism. He justifies this in the following interesting way: ‘Expressionism had healthy beginnings, for the epoch did have something expressionist about it.’ If words do have any meaning, and with Goebbels this is not always the case, this means that he thinks of the expressionist abstracting away from reality, the expressionist ‘essence’, in other words expressionist distortion, as a method of portraying reality, as an adaptable means for fascist propaganda. The upside-down justification that reality had something expressionist about it, shows the way in which myth-making idealism has subsequently proceeded. The expressionists themselves took their creative method only as a stylizing grasp of the ‘essence'; the mendacious demagogue Goebbels identifies this method with the reality itself.

It goes without saying that this ‘resurrection’ of expressionism is only partial. Expressionism can never win back its dominant position of the years 1916 to 1920. On the other hand, Goebbels couples expressionism with the ‘new objectivism’ as ‘ steely romanticism’. On the other hand, the fascist Professor Schardt, for example, gives it an extremely elevated pedigree. Any kind of ‘naturalism’, i.e. any genuine grasp and reflection of reality, is rejected by Schardt as ‘un-German’. The expressionist pedigree, on the other hand, with its ‘Gothic and Faustian yearning for the infinite’, begins with Walther von der Vogelweide, the Naumberg school of sculpture and Grünewald, and leads on through to Stefan George, Nolde and Barlach. What is specifically expressionist is reduced here to a mere moment in this eclectic search for a style, its diverse elements being held together only by the common intention of the fascists, their flight from portrayal of reality, though a flight that pompously disguises itself as a ‘Faustian’ self-elevation over the ordinary, ‘un-German’ reality.

It is not accidental that fascism has accepted expressionism as a part of its inheritance. Even in the field of literature, fascism has failed to produce anything genuinely new. It brings together all the parasitic and putrefying tendencies of monopoly capitalism into an eclectic and demagogic ‘unity’, all that is new being the way in which this collation is effected, and in particular the way it is exploited in order to create a mass basis for a monopoly capitalism threatened by crisis and revolution. New also is the radicalism with which all knowledge of objective reality is rejected, and the irrational and mystical tendencies of the imperialist epoch are intensified to the point of nonsense. It is evident that this must lead in the literary field to the radical rejection of any realism. Even that naturalism which was so lame and superficial in comparison with the revolutionary period of the bourgeoisie has to be condemned as ‘un-German’, and where the fascist theory and practice of literature still does permit a kind of realism, this is in the pseudo-realist, half or completely apologetic traditions of late German Romanticism. Only the realism of the ‘new objectivism’ is so openly apologetic, and leads so clearly away from the artistic reproduction of reality, that it can find a place in the fascist inheritance. Expressionism, however, as we have shown, links up with this turning away from reality, both in its world outlook and also in its creative method. As a literary form of expression of developed imperialism, expressionism stands on an irrational and mythological foundation; its creative method leads in the direction of the emotive yet empty declamatory manifesto, the proclamation of a sham activism. It has therefore a whole series of essential features that fascist literary theory could accept without having to force them into its mould. Naturally the conscious tendencies of expressionism are different from this, indeed sometimes even the direct opposite. And for this reason it can only be incorporated in the fascist ‘synthesis’ as a subordinate element. But its abstracting away from reality, and its lack of content, facilitate such an incorporation and ‘Gleichschaltung’ to an extraordinary degree.

This acceptance of expressionism is of course also still much contested. The general battles between different tendencies within National Socialism can be seen also in the field of literary theory. Alfred Rosenberg calls the supporters of expressionism artistic followers of Otto Strasser, while Nazi students rage against the ‘Sturm-und-Drang tendency in painting of crazed dilettantes and philistines’, against ‘beards and velvet collars’, against the ‘Greco-Romano-Wilhelmine academicism of suburban painters dressed up as National Socialists’, etc.

However violently these discussions swing to and fro, their importance should not be overrated. Rosenberg may well speak of a ‘war on two fronts: against decadence and against regression’, but in actual fact the theory and practice of National Socialism is a unity of decadence and regression. The expressionists certainly wanted anything but a regression. But since they could not free their world outlook from the basis of imperialist parasitism, since they shared uncritically and without resistance in the ideological decay of the imperialist bourgeoisie, even being sometimes its pioneers, their creative method needed no distortion to be pressed into the service of fascist demagogy, of the unity of decadence and regression. Expressionism forms a legitimate part of the general “November legacy” of National Socialism. For despite its rhetorical gestures, it was unable to rise above the horizon of the 1918 Weimar republic. Just as fascism is the necessary result of the November betrayal of the German working class and the revolution by the SPD and USPD, it can also take up this November legacy in the literary field.

Note, 1953: That the National Socialists later condemned expressionism as a ‘decadent art’ in no way affects the historical correctness of the above analysis, G. L.


1. Wilhelm Worringer, Künstlerische Zeitfragen, Munich, 1921, pp. 7-8

2. ibid., p. 9

3. ibid., p. 16

4. Ludwig Rubiner, Afterword to the anthology Kameraden der Menschheit, Potsdam, 1919, p. 176

5. Kurt Hiller, Die Weisheit der Langeweile, Leipzig, 1913, II, pp. 54-5

6. V. I. Lenin, Backward Europe and Advanced Asia, Collected Works, Volume 19, p. 99

7. Rudolf Leonhard, Tätiger Geist, Ziel-Jahrbuch II, Munich and Berlin, 1918, p. 375

8. ibid., p. 115

9. ibid., p. 13

10. Franz Werfel, Das Ziel, I, 1916, p. 96

11. Kurt Hiller, Die Weisheit der Langeweile, Leipzig, 1913, II, pp. 117-18

12. ibid., p. 122

13. Wilhelm Herzog, Die Gemeinschaft, p. 64

14. Kurt Pinthus, Preface to the anthology Menschheitsdämmerung, Berlin, 1920, p. x

15. Wilhelm Worringer, Abstraktion und Einfühlung, Munich, 1909, pp. 16 and 18

16. Kurt Hiller, Ein deutsches Herrenhaus, Ziel-Jahrbuch II, 1918, pp. 410-15

17. Preussische Jahrbücher, 1915, no. 4, pp. 50-1

18. V. I. Lenin, Opportunism and the Collapse of the Second International, Collected Works, Vol. 22, p. 114

19. V. I. Lenin, The Collapse of the Second International, Collected Works, Vol. 21, p. 224

20. Max Picard, Expressionismus, in the anthology Die Erhebung, pp. 329-30

21. ibid., p. 331

22. Kurt Pinthus, Speech on the Future, ibid., p. 402

23. ibid., p. 403

24. V. I. Lenin, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, Collected Works, Vol. 28, pp. 238-9

25. Franz Werfel, Das Ziel, II, pp. 215-18

26. Max Picard, Expressionismus, in the anthology Die Erhebung, pp. 333

27. V. I. Lenin, The Collapse of the Second International, Collected Works, Vol. 21, p. 236

28. Herwarth Walden, Introduction to the anthology Expressionistische Dichtung, Berlin, 1932, pp. 11-12

29. Otto Flake, Souveränität, in Die Erhebung, p. 342