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Unemployed: "you are the fifth wheel"

Still de Kuhle Wampe
Film still from Kuhle Wampe, directed by Bertolt Brecht in 1932: the situation of German workers on the eve of the Third Reich.

The German playwright and poet Bertold Brecht (1898-1956) was one of the most important artists of the 20th century.

He left behind plays, films, poems, and essays that were, above all, a powerful exercise in revolutionary art aimed at German workers.

Brecht was a Marxist intellectual who lived through all the contradictions of the Weimar Republic social democracy and closely watched the rise of Nazism.

In a 1934 essay titled Five Difficulties in Writing the Truth, he wrote:

Whoever, these days, wants to fight against lies and ignorance and write the truth has to overcome at least five difficulties. He must have the courage to write the truth, though it is hidden everywhere. He must have the intelligence to recognize it, even though it is permanently disguised. He must understand the art of handling it as a weapon. He must be able to choose which hands it will be effective in. He must have the astuteness to spread it among the chosen ones. These difficulties are great for writers living under fascism, but they also exist for those who fled or went into exile. And even for those who write in countries of bourgeois freedom.

It is exceptional to see how current this text is in our fake news and social media environment.

With his experiments in epic theater, Brecht consolidated an art that questioned the form of representation and the bourgeois point of view on the world.

More than that, he did not condone the fighting attitudes of unions or left-wing German parties in the period.

His masterpiece plays Saint Joan of the Stockyards (1931) is a lecture on monopoly capitalism and failed labor movements.

Many contemporary filmmakers use Brecht's theories as to the basis for films that question our current historical moment.

Given the Brazilian situation, resorting to Brecht is an encouragement and an invaluable source of teachings on the role of art in the revolutionary struggle.

Therefore, we selected a poem that is a dialectical exercise about unemployment.

It is part of a collection entitled The Reader for City Dwellers, written between 1925-1930, in which the playwright reflects on industrial Berlin, at the time a crowded city with more than 4 million inhabitants. (By way of comparison, the population of São Paulo did not reach 850,000 people.)

Regarding this situation, the analysis of Tércio Redondo, professor at University of São Paulo and translator of Brecht to Brazilian Portuguese, is precise:

The Berlin that Brecht knew was, therefore, the scene of vertiginous population growth, sustained by the permanent arrival of new contingents of workers. In this context, the precarious living conditions of the proletarian masses, resulting, among other things, from the unhealthy environment in the factories, low wages, and inhospitable housing, constituted a considerable factor of social insecurity, even during the “golden years” from 1924 to 1930.

(As I write this text, the Brazilian bourgeois media announced that the number of favelas in Brazil has doubled in the past ten years).

It is in a context of unemployment that Brecht wrote the following poem:

We are with you in the hour, in which you recognize

That you are the fifth wheel.

And hope leaves you.

But we

Don’t recognize it yet.

We notice

You speed up your conversations.

You’re searching for a word

To leave with

Because it’s important to you

Not to make a scene

You rise in mid-sentence

You say angrily: I want to leave

We say: Stay! And recognize

That you are the fifth wheel.

But you sit down.

So you sit with us in the hour

In which we recognize that you are the fifth wheel.

But you

Don’t recognize it anymore.

Let me tell you: You are

The fifth wheel

Don’t think I’m a villain

For telling you

Don’t reach for an axe, instead grab

A glass of water.

I know, you are not listening anymore


Don’t say loudly, the world is bad

Say it quietly

Because, not the four are too many

But the fifth wheel

And the world is not bad



(You heard that before)

(Translation: Tom Kuhn and David Constantine)

The poem opens up the role of the unemployed in capitalism. There is a collective voice that addresses the individual in the first person (you).

The poem's stanzas oppose situations of collective and individual alienation in an extremely hostile and hopeless scenario, within the German context of the time. It is possible to say that the country would have gone through a socialist revolution if it had not been interrupted by Nazism. The final sentence “you heard that before”, in parentheses, is a call to the reader's consciousness.

However, the words also reverberate in the catastrophic situation we live in today. An unemployed person is not a worker who is out of the labor market. On the contrary, its existence is very useful for this market for at least two good reasons: the unemployed keep wages low and keep the employees submissive and obedient, after all, nobody wants to be in this situation.

The key to the poem is in the raw words of the fifth stanza. The collective speaks them to the individual who was fired.

For Tércio Redondo, this is a moment of realizing reality in which collective and individual must show awareness in a moment of crisis, like the one we are currently experiencing, and not lose the revolutionary horizon:

In the save whoever can from the recessionary economy, the greatest risk faced by workers is that of losing this awareness. It is this situation that explains the final part of the collective speech in the poem, which, in a hasty reading, can be interpreted as a manifestation of cynicism and indifference. The Brazilian professor says:

(...) However, this shock comes more from the form than from the content of the speech and configures a procedure that is not foreign to the way Brecht used to express himself politically, in an attitude always opposed to rounding up and conciliation.

(...) To a comrade about to stray from militancy and join the ranks of the extreme right, the gesture of caressing would be pointless and virtually harmful. Unreasonable for not adding anything concrete to the collective struggle and harmful for its virtual potential for political sedation. The speech may be harsh and merciless, but this harshness serves a definite purpose.

(...) The fifth wheel is asked, in a direct and responsible way, to renounce despair and surrender, to assess the situation with the utmost objectivity, to understand it in the more general context of the crisis and not as a particular problem of the individual victimized by unemployment.

And the unions and left-wing political parties, especially those in the current Brazilian situation, are being asked to take responsibility for conducting this arduous struggle.

The quotes on this text are in the following books (translation to English are my own):

BRECHT, Bertold. Teatro Dialético. Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 1967.

REDONDO, Tércio (org.). Do guia para os habitantes das cidades. São Paulo: Fundação Rosa Luxemburgo, 2017.

Translation from German to English of The Reader for City Dwellers can be found:

CONSTANTINE, David & KUHN, TOM (org.). The Collected Poems by Bertold Brecht. London/New York: Liveright Publishing Corportation, 2019.


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