Richard and the Revolutionaries: Why did Lefties Love Wagner?Breaking News
tags: Communism, Richard Wagner, antisemitism, classical music
In 1883, the year of Richard Wagner’s death, the theatre critic William Archer noticed a red-haired, bearded youth who was sitting day after day in the British Library with two volumes open on his desk: the French edition of Das Kapital, which Karl Marx had written in the same library decades earlier, and the full score of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The young man was George Bernard Shaw, a staunch leftist who saw no conflict between the composer’s Romantic mythology and Marx’s historical materialism. In The Perfect Wagnerite, his anticapitalist reading of The Ring of the Nibelung cycle, Shaw wrote that the descent into Nibelheim, the realm of the enslaved dwarves, is “frightfully real, frightfully present, frightfully modern”. Both Wagner and Marx bear witness to the “predestined end of our capitalistic-theocratic epoch”.
Shaw’s perusal of Wagner and Marx must have raised eyebrows in 1883. It seems even more surprising now, given Adolf Hitler’s success in convincing posterity that the composer belongs exclusively to the extreme right. The Perfect Wagnerite was no isolated event, however. In recent decades, scholars have reconstructed a school of Wagnerian leftism, which gained purchase in Europe and America at the end of the 19th century. Socialists, communists, social democrats, and anarchists all found sustenance in Wagner’s work. After the Bolshevik revolution, Wagner had a brief vogue as a figurehead of proletarian culture.
The starting point for the Wagner left was the composer’s own revolutionary activity in 1848 and 1849, which forced him into exile for many years. His writings Art and Revolution and The Art-Work of the Future were classic, if eccentric, articulations of the idea that art could play a leading role in the struggle for social equality. His own work became a kind of dream theatre for the imagination of a future state. Of course, other ideologies exploited the composer in the same way. It would be a mistake to say that Shaw and his fellow leftists found the “true” Wagner. But it would also be a mistake to say they misunderstood him.
Although Wagner never mentioned Marx by name, he made scattered references to communism – occasionally positive, more often dismissive. The Wagner biographer Martin Gregor-Dellin heard a Marxist echo in notes that the composer made in the summer of 1849: “A tremendous movement is striding through the world: it is the storm of European revolution; everyone is taking part in it, and whoever is not supporting it by pushing forward is strengthening it by pushing back.” Wagner’s fanfare sounds more than a little like The Communist Manifesto’s introductory lines: “A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism.”
Wagner’s tale of the corrupting power of the golden Ring matches Marx’s musings on the “perverting power” of money. When, in Das Kapital, Marx speaks of the hoarding of commodities, he notes that the hoarder “sacrifices the lusts of the flesh to his gold fetish” and adopts “the gospel of renunciation”. The word Marx uses here, “Entsagung”, is the same that Wagner applies to the dwarf Alberich’s renunciation of love – the gesture that wins him access to the Rhinegold. For Marx and Wagner alike, love and power are irreconcilable.
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