Wagner as Metapolitical Revolutionary – Bolton

Richard Wagner as Metapolitical Revolutionary

By Kerry Bolton


Karl Marx reserved a special place of contempt for those he termed “reactionists.” These comprised the alliance that was forming around his time among all classes of people, high-born and low, who aimed to return to a pre-capitalist society. These were the remnants of artisans, aristocrats, landowners, and pastors, who had seen the ravages of industrialism and money-ethics then unfolding. Where there had once been craft, community, village, the marketplace, and the church, there was now mass production, class war, the city, and the stock exchange.

Rather than deploring capitalism, as one might suppose, Marx regarded this as an indispensable phase in the “wheel of history,” of the historical dialectic, which would through a conflict of thesis and antitheses result in a socialist and eventually a communist society. This was the inevitable unfolding of history according to Marx, based on as struggle for primacy by economic interests: class struggle, where primitive communism, feudalism, capitalism, socialism, and communism represented a linear progression. Hence, anything that interfered with this process was “reactionism.”[1]

Capitalism itself would go through a stage of increasing internationalisation and concentration, whereby increasing numbers of bourgeois would be dispossessed and join the ranks of the proletariat that would make a revolution to overthrow capitalism.[2] Hence, Marx sought to overthrow the traditions and ethos of pre-capitalist society, and, given that dialectics means that the new “synthesis” incorporates elements of what it has overthrown, Marxian-socialism, as “reactionist” historians such as Oswald Spengler[3] and Julius Evola[4] have pointed out, was itself an aspect of capitalism.[5]

Marx came into a revolutionary milieu comprised of varying elements but which generally took inspiration from the French Revolution of 1789, with an emphasis on the “rights of man” that provided a reformist façade for the rise of the bourgeoisie. Hence these revolutionaries of the mid-19th century regarded themselves as “democrats” fighting for equality. However, they also saw the nation-state and the sovereignty of peoples as the liberating factor from princes, kings, dynasties, and empires that were seen as placing themselves above “the people.” Hence, nationalism became the revolutionary force of the century, albeit at times intended, like Jacobinism, as a prelude to a “universal republic.”

Volk and Nation as Revolutionary Forces

The German Revolution moved in a völkisch direction, where the Volk was seen as the basis of the state, and the notion of a Volk-soul that guided the formation and development of nations became a predominant theme that came into conflict with the French bourgeois liberal-democratic ideals. J. G. Fichte had laid the foundations of a German nationalism in 1807–1808 with his Addresses to the German Nation. Although like possibly all revolutionaries or radicals of the time, beginning under the impress of the French Revolution, by the time he had delivered his addresses to the German nation, he had already rejected Jacobinism, and his views became increasingly authoritarian and influenced by the Realpolitik of Machiavelli.

Johann Gottfried Herder had previously sought to establish the concept of the Volk-soul, and of each nation being guided by a spirit. This was a metaphysical conception of race, or more accurately Volk, that preceded the biological arguments of Wagner’s friend Count Arthur de Gobineau in his seminal racial treatise, The Inequality of the Human Races, which was to impress Wagner decades later. Herder’s doctrine is evident in Wagner’s, insofar as Herder stated that the Volk is the only class, and includes both King and peasant, and that “the people” are not the same as the rabble, heralded by Jacobinism and later Marxism. Herder upheld the individuality and separation of nations, that had fortuitously been separated by both natural and cultural barriers, and that these nations manifested innate differences one from the other, including in their religious outlooks.

Wagner’s rejection of the French ideals in favour of the Germanic, as one might expect, can be traced to aesthetic sensibilities, and his stay in Paris gave him a distaste for the “exaggerations” of French music.[6] In France Wagner was acquainted with Jews whom he came to distrust and said of this period that it had promoted his consciousness as a German:

On the other hand, I felt strongly drawn to gain a closer acquaintance of German history than I had secured at school. I had Raumer’s History of the Hohenstaufen within easy reach to start upon. All the great figures in this book lived vividly before my eyes. I was particularly captivated by the personality of that gifted Emperor Frederick II, whose fortunes aroused my sympathy so keenly that I vainly sought for a fitting artistic setting for them. The fate of his son Manfred, on the other hand, provoked in me an equally well-grounded, but more easily combated, feeling of opposition. . . .

Even at this time it delighted me to find in the German mind the capacity of appreciating beyond the narrow bounds of nationality all purely human qualities, in however strange a garb they might be presented. For in this I recognised how nearly akin it is to the mind of Greece. In Frederick II, I saw this quality in full flower. A fair-haired German of ancient Swabian stock, heir to the Norman realm of Sicily and Naples, who gave the Italian language its first development, and laid a basis for the evolution of knowledge and art where hitherto ecclesiastical fanaticism and feudal brutality had alone contended for power, a monarch who gathered at his court the poets and sages of eastern lands, and surrounded himself with the living products of Arabian and Persian grace and spirit–this man I beheld betrayed by the Roman clergy to the infidel foe, yet ending his crusade, to their bitter disappointment, by a pact of peace with the Sultan, from whom he obtained a grant of privileges to Christians in Palestine such as the bloodiest victory could scarcely have secured.[7]

This seemingly universalistic ideal of “humanity” is however at the root of his suspicion of the Jews as possessing traits inimical to “humanity.” Herder, Fichte, and other founders of German Idealism, including Kant, had taken the same view, their German nationalism including a certain universalism that saw the Germans as having a messianic world mission, just as the British, Jews, and Russians[8] have all held themselves to be bearers of a world mission vis-à-vis the whole of humanity. It was in Frederick however, that Wagner “beheld the German ideal in its highest embodiment.” “If all that I regarded as essentially German had hitherto drawn me with ever-increasing force, and compelled me to its eager pursuit, I here found it suddenly presented to me in the simple outlines of a legend, based upon the old and well-known ballad of ‘Tannhauser.’”[9]

Dresden Revolt and Bakunin

Having returned to Dresden from Paris in 1842, Wagner secured a position as a conductor at the Royal Theatre, a profession that failed to enthuse him over the course of seven years. However, it was here that the arch-revolutionist of anarchism, the Russian noble, Mikhail Bakunin, despite being a fugitive, sat in the audience at the public rehearsal of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony conducted by Wagner, who wrote:

At its close he walked unhesitatingly up to me in the orchestra, and said in a loud voice, that if all the music that had ever been written were lost in the expected world-wide conflagration, we must pledge ourselves to rescue this symphony, even at the peril of our lives. Not many weeks after this performance it really seemed as though this world-wide conflagration would actually be kindled in the streets of Dresden, and that Bakunin, with whom I had meanwhile become more closely associated through strange and unusual circumstances, would undertake the office of chief stoker.[10]

Wagner had met Bakunin in 1848, while the Russian was a fugitive from the Austrian authorities, in the house of a friend, the republican leader August Röckel. Wagner described the visage of Bakunin when they first met: “Everything about him was colossal, and he was full of a primitive exuberance and strength. I never gathered that he set much store by my acquaintance. Indeed, he did not seem to care for merely intellectual men; what he demanded was men of reckless energy.”[11]

Bakunin looked to his fellow Slavs as what we might call the new barbarians, who could regenerate humanity, “because the Slavs had been less enervated by civilization.”[12] He could cite Hegelian dialectics at length and was committed to the destruction of the old order, and saw in the Russian peasant the best hope of starting a world conflagration. The destructive urge of the Russian giant bothered Wagner. Bakunin cared nothing for the French, although having started his ideological journey by reading Rousseau, like many radicals of the time, nor for the ideals of republicanism or democracy. Wagner however, feared that such forces of destruction, once unleashed, would annihilate all culture, and that nothing could arise again:

Was any one of us so mad as to fancy that he would survive the desired destruction? We ought to imagine the whole of Europe with St. Petersburg, Paris, and London transformed into a vast rubbish-heap. How could we expect the kindlers of such a fire to retain any consciousness after so vast a devastation? He used to puzzle any who professed their readiness for self-sacrifice by telling them it was not the so-called tyrants who were so obnoxious, but the smug Philistines. As a type of these he pointed to a Protestant parson, and declared that he would not believe he had really reached the full stature of a man until he saw him commit his own parsonage, with his wife and child, to the flames.[13]

Bakunin was untempered fury, Wagner a contemplative aesthete who was to dwell for decades on the course of revolution as a means to a higher state of humanity, and who was ultimately to influence the course of history more so than his Russian friend.

Bakunin deplored Wagner’s intention to write a tragedy entitled “Jesus of Nazareth,” and implored Wagner to make it a work of contempt towards a figure whom Bakunin regarded as a weakling, while Wagner saw in Jesus the figure of a Hero. Indeed, Wagner, who sought the redemption of man through the return to nature and the overthrow of the superficiality of a decaying civilization, a pantheist and a heathen who looked to ancient Greece, nonetheless placed a focus on Jesus as a revolutionary hero whose meaning was that of redemption from mammon. He was to state to the Dresden Patriotic Club in the revolutionary year of 1848 that God would guide the revolution against “this daemonic idea of Money . . . with all its loathsome retinue of open and secret usury, paper-juggling, percentage and banker’s speculations. That will be the full emancipation of the human race, that will be the fulfilment of Christ’s pure teaching.”[14]

Yet paradoxically, again Bakunin betrayed his own repressed aestheticism when he intently listened to Wagner play and sing The Flying Dutchman and applauded enthusiastically. Wagner saw in Bakunin a man conflicted with the “purest ideal of humanity” and “a savagery entirely inimical to all civilization.” Wagner’s ideal was “the artistic remodelling of human society.” However, Wagner’s fears subsided when he found that Bakunin’s plans for destruction were as utopian as Wagner’s reshaping of humanity by aesthetics, and for all the zeal, Bakunin had no real means or following.[15]

Bakunin was back with Wagner in 1849, after a brief sojourn to see if the Slavs could be incited, and it was in Dresden that both were involved in the city’s revolt against the King of Saxony. Wagner on his own account felt no great attraction to democratic politics, but assumed the role of revolutionary it seems through a dissatisfaction with life: “My feelings of partisanship were not sufficiently passionate to make me desire to take any active share in these conflicts. I was merely conscious of an impulse to give myself up recklessly to the stream of events, no matter whither it might lead.”[16]

Nonetheless, the German democratic revolution was seen by many, including Wagner, as the means of dismantling principalities for the purpose of creating a united German nation. It was where a dichotomy between the democratic and the völkisch revolutions arose, the first derived from French inspiration and Jewish intellectualism such as that of Heine, the second from the roots of Germany, and expressed by Fichte, Hegel, and Herder.

Wager had already issued a clarion call for “Revolution” in an essay by that name just prior to the May 1849 revolt in Dresden. Like Bakunin, his revolution was a call to instinct and to vitalism, antithetical to the intellectualism of Jewish socialists and democrats. It was a romanticism of revolt that sought the overthrow of states because they suppressed the instinct, the vitality of life that welled up from within the Volk soul. He saw revolution as a “supernatural force” and referred to it as “a lofty goddess.” Wagner wrote: “I [the revolution] am the ever rejuvenating, ever fashioning Life.” “Everything must be in a state of becoming.” “Life is law unto itself.”[17] Wagner’s ode to vital forces had no kinship with the theoretical dissertations of Marx.

Yet, Wagner’s appeal was also to the kings and princes. He saw the ideal of the King as being the first among the Volk, and not as a debased hereditary ruler representing a single class. Wagner’s idea of Kingship harkened to the primeval Germans who selected their kings from among the populace on the basis of their heroism. Like Herder, Wagner saw the populous as one class, the Volk, and what Wagner was really fighting against was a system that intervened between Volk and King. Wagner wrote a völkisch appeal for princes and people to unite against the East, albeit unpublished, possibly because it did not express the sentiments of certain Jewish liberal publishers: “The old fight against the East returns again today. The people’s sword must not rust / Who freedom wish for aye.”[18] He wrote in an article published in the Dresdener Anzeiger of the intrinsic value of Kingship, and posed the question as to whether all the issues debated by the democrats cannot nonetheless be met under the personage of the King?

I must own, however, that I felt bound to urge this king to assume a much more familiar attitude towards his people than the court atmosphere and the almost exclusive society of his nobles would seem to render possible. Finally, I pointed to the King of Saxony as being specially chosen by Fate to lead the way in the direction I had indicated, and to give the example to all the other German princes.[19]

What did inspire Wagner was the revolt in Vienna that had seen workers and students unite. Yet Wagner was repelled by the rhetoric and the demagoguery of the revolutionary movement, which he regarded as “shallow.” It was the abhorrence of an aesthete who is instinctively repelled by the mob and its leaders.[20] Referring to the Dresden revolutionary committee of which he was a member, Wagner wrote that the part he played “as in everything else, was dictated by artistic motives.”[21]

Wagner had made enemies of the Court petty officials who surrounded the King. The pressure mounted to deprive Wagner of his position as Conductor of the Royal Theatre in Dresden, although the King resisted those pressures, and Wagner assured himself that the King had understood him. However, he went for a short period to Vienna. Wagner returned to Dresden, more concerned with “theatrical reform” than with social reform.

At this time however, Wagner’s friend Röckel, released on bail from jail for his role in the revolutionary movement, began to publish a journal extolling the aims of the French anarchist theorist Proudhon, to which Wagner states he was completely converted. He regarded his aesthetic revolution as first requiring a cleansing revolt by the “socialists” and “communists.” In this he as always sought to eliminate mammon from life, and to place humanity on an aesthetic foundation.

Proudhon, as Röckel explained to him,[22] advocated the elimination of the role of the middleman, which again meant the elimination of the role of the Jew, whom Proudhon described as a typical mercantile race, “exploiting,” “anti-human,” and “parasitic.”[23] Indeed, many in the socialist movement, including even Jews such as Marx, saw the Jew as the eternal middleman and socialism as the means by which humanity, including the Jews themselves, could be emancipated from a money-god that had shaped the entirety of modern civilization. Marx expressed the attitude of many in the Young Germany movement in stating of the Jews in an article specifically on the matter:

What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money. Very well then! Emancipation from huckstering and money, consequently from practical, real Judaism, would be the self-emancipation of our time. An organization of society which would abolish the preconditions for huckstering, and therefore the possibility of huckstering, would make the Jew impossible. His religious consciousness would be dissipated like a thin haze in the real, vital air of society. On the other hand, if the Jew recognizes that this practical nature of his is futile and works to abolish it, he extricates himself from his previous development and works for human emancipation as such and turns against the supreme practical expression of human self-estrangement. We recognize in Judaism, therefore, a general anti-social element of the present time, an element which through historical development—to which in this harmful respect the Jews have zealously contributed—has been brought to its present high level, at which it must necessarily begin to disintegrate. In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism. This is no isolated fact. The Jew has emancipated himself in a Jewish manner, not only because he has acquired financial power, but also because, through him and also apart from him, money has become a world power and the practical Jewish spirit has become the practical spirit of the Christian nations. The Jews have emancipated themselves insofar as the Christians have become Jews.[24]

Aside from Marx himself being a huckster motivated by self-interest and the “God of money,”[25] these sentiments were the common outlook of German radicals in the milieu in which Wagner worked and were to be expressed in similar terms a decade later by Wagner in his essay Judaism in Music, for which he has become irredeemable to many Jewish, Leftist, and liberal critics.

Wagner’s friend Bakunin saw Marx and Rothschild as part of “a single profiteering sect, a people of bloodsuckers, a single gluttonous parasite . . .”[26] Bakunin, started his career as a revolutionary with the Young Hegelians in Germany, with an article published in one of their journals in 1842, entitled “Reaction in Germany.” What Bakunin advocated for his fellow Slavs was a federated Slavic republic stretching across Europe, on the ruins of the Hapsburg melting-pot. Non-Slavic minorities would live under Slavic rule.

His grandiose aim did not find favor at the Congress of Slavic Nationalities that he attended in Prague in 1848. He appealed for collaboration among German, Hungarian, and Slavic radicals. He hoped for simultaneous revolts in Bohemia, Hungary, and the German states. Paradoxically, what the chief proponent of anarchism sought was a totalitarian authority and the suppression of “all manifestations of gabbing anarchy” across the federated Slav bloc. Such were the ideals of a current of the European revolution which fermented side-by-side and fought along with Jewish intellectuals, neo-Jacobins, and bourgeois democrats, most of whom regarded for one reason or another the nation-state and/or the Volk as the means of securing freedom against dynasties and empires.

Bakunin’s internationalism was but a phase that begun with the founding of the Internationale in 1864 and ended with his disillusionment with the “masses” in 1874; his internationalist-anarchism had comprised merely ten years of his life.[27] At the time of his friendship with Wagner, as they walked about Dresden in tumult, with Prussian troops advancing, Bakunin was a Pan-Slavic anti-Semite.

On May 1, 1849 the Chamber of Deputies of Saxony was dissolved, and Röckel, having been a Deputy, now lost his legal immunity. Wagner supported Röckel in the continuation of his journal, Volksblatt, which also provided a meagre income for Röckel’s family. While Röckel escaped to Bohemia, revolution broke out in Dresden, as Wagner busily worked on Volksblatt. It was in his position as a journalist that Wagner observed the revolutionary proceedings and the loss of control of the bourgeois liberal theorists to the mob. On May 3 bells rang out from St. Anne’s church tower as a call to take up arms. On Wagner’s account, he seems to have been driven by the enthusiasm of the moment. He recounts that he looked on as though watching a drama unfold until, caught up with the zeal of the crowd, he transformed from spectator to actor:

I recollect quite clearly that from that moment I was attracted by surprise and interest in the drama, without feeling any desire to join the ranks of the combatants. However, the agitation caused by my sympathy as a mere spectator increased with every step I felt impelled to take.[28]

While the King of Saxony and his Government and officials fled, the King of Prussia ordered his troops to march on Dresden. At this time news reached Dresden that an uprising had taken place at Württemberg, with the support of the local soldiery. Wagner saw the prospect of an invasion from Prussia as an opportunity to appeal to the patriotic sentiments of the Dresden soldiers, and Volksblatt presses came out with an appeal in bold type: “Seid Ihr mit uns gegen fremde Truppen?” (Are you on our side against the foreign troops?). The appeal was ineffectual. The initial attitude of Bakunin, who emerged from his hiding place to causally wander about the barricades, smoking a cigar and deriding amateurism of the revolutionary efforts, was that the revolt was chaotic, and he saw no point in remaining to support the doomed insurrection. However a provisional government was formed, while news was coming from throughout Germany that other cities were in revolt.[29]

On May 6 the Prussian troops fired on the market square. The heroic actions of a single individual to remain, unarmed, atop the barricades while everyone fled, rallied the defenders and they thwarted the Prussian advance. This heroism was now enough for Bakunin to throw in his lot with the revolt. The revolt lasted a few weeks, before which Wagner had already left Dresden, and started making arrangements for the performance of Tannhäuser at Weimar.

Wagner’s participation in the revolt seems to have been primarily as a propagandist and he, like Bakunin, did not see much substance in it. While Bakunin was inspired by an individual act of heroism, for Wagner he had been enthused by the sight of a well formed people’s militia on the march: the forerunner of a regenerated Volk.

Wagner was regarded as one of the primary leaders of the revolt and fled to Switzerland and from there to Paris. Here again he become acquainted with the Jews as middlemen in the music world, whom he had come to distrust previously in that city. He then went back to Zurich, where he wrote the pamphlets Kunst und Revolution (Art and Revolution) and Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft (The Artwork of the Future). Back in Paris, Wagner started writing for a German radical journal, for which he prepared a lengthy essay, Kunst und Klima (“Art and Climate”) and then went back to Zurich.[30]

With the support of many German aristocrats and other well-placed individuals, Wagner returned to Germany via Weimar. In 1863, after petitioning Saxony, he was amnestied and permitted to resettle in Dresden.[31]

Those who see Wagner “selling-out” his socialist principles for the sake of royal patronage fail to understand that his “socialism” was not some type of class struggle for the rule of the proletariat, but was for a unified Volk from out of which would emerge a Hero-King-Redeemer. He maintained his closeness to many princes and princesses, counts and countesses, until finally securing the patronage of King Ludwig of Bavaria.[32]

“Communism”: Gemeinsamkeit

If Wagner was in 1849 still making allusions to a universalistic creed that was existing uneasily within the German völkisch freedom movement, having in 1841 written of “love for Universal Man,”[33] the same year (1849) he was articulating a conception of art that was thoroughly völkisch. In The Art-Work of the Future Wagner explains the völkisch basis of art, and in so doing the intrinsically “socialist” character of art not as an expression of the artist’s ego, but the artist as expressing the Volk-soul.

Ultimately his ideas were pantheistic and heathen, seeing Nature as the basis of human action, and the artificial civilization that had subjugated Nature as the object for revolt: “The real Man will therefore never be forthcoming, until true Human Nature, and not the arbitrary statutes of the State, shall model and ordain his Life; while real Art will never live, until its embodiments need be subject only to the laws of Nature, and not to the despotic whims of Mode.”[34]

Part III of his essay is devoted to “The Folk and Art,” which in his essay on Revolution and Art just shortly before, is relegated to being subsidiary to the “universal man.” The Volk now assumes the central role as the “vital force.” The Volk were all those, regardless of class, who rejected ego and considered themselves part of a “commonality.”[35] The subversion of this is the desire for “luxury,” and the subordination of the state and the Volk to capital, industry and the machine.

This alienation of man from Nature, observed Wagner, leads to “fashion,” where the “modern artist” creates a “freshly fangled fashion,” or “a thing incomprehensible,” by resorting to “the customs and the garb of savage races in new-discovered lands, the primal fashions of Japan and China, from time to time usurp as ‘Mannerisms,’ in greater or in less degree, each several departments of our modern art.”[36]

It is with socialism or “communism” that Wagner repudiated the great enemy of the art of the future: the individual aliened from the Volk. What is translated into English as “communism” was rendered in German as Gemeinsamkeit,[37] meaning “commonality,” hence we can discern something quite different between Wagner’s “communism” and what is today understood as “communism.”

It was not until several decades later that Wagner seems to have concluded that race differences preclude the desirability of states in constant flux according to external circumstances and that the folk should be a stable unit rather than a phase along the evolution to “Universal Man.” Hence, with his friend Count Arthur de Gobineau, author of the seminal Inequality of the Human Races, which made race a physical rather than a metaphysical question, being a major new influence on his thinking, Wagner explained in an essay “Hero-dom and Christendom,” in his magazine Bayreuther Blätter, that racial mixing among “noble” and “ignoble” races results in the irredeemable fall of the noble. For Wagner the noblest of all races was the “white.” Now Wagner wrote that the “uniform equality” of humanity, which he had once dreamt of as evolving into “Universal Man” under the leadership of the free German, “is unimaginable in any but a horrifying picture.”[38]

In 1850 Wagner published Judaism in Music, an important treatise in understanding his revolutionary ideas. Since the distinct characteristics of an object can be most clearly understood by comparing it with another object, the character of the German Volk was most evident by comparing it with the perceived traits of the Jews in their midst. Wagner alludes to this in a later essay, when stating that one can most readily state what is “German” by comparison with what is Jewish.[39] Judaism in Music was also the treatise that marked Wagner as a seminal leader of modern German “anti-Semitism” as a forerunner of National Socialism.

As noted, Wagner’s views on Jews were fairly typical of the ideologues of German Idealism, and of anti-capitalist radicals such as Proudhon, Bakunin, and Marx, the common belief being that Jews had detached themselves from “humanity,” and that the liberation of humanity from Jewishness would also emancipate the Jews.

As Wagner explained in Judaism in Music, he is only concerned with the Jews in culture rather than in politics or religion. As far as politics goes, with reference to Herr Rothschild as being “Jew of the Kings” rather than being content as “King of the Jews,” Wagner referred to the previous “Liberalism” of himself and his fellow radicals as “a not very lucid mental sport,” that failed to understand the true character of the Volk; and likewise, for all the radicals’ declaration on emancipating the Jews in theory, their remained an instinctive revulsion in practice.

So far from needing emancipation, the Jew “rules, and will rule, so long as Money remains the power before which all our doings and our dealings lose their force.”[40] Hence, being the middleman and the moneychanger, Jewish influence in the arts turns culture into an “art-bazaar.” While Wagner could still talk of the “Universal Man,” he nonetheless also refers in 1850 to something “disagreeably foreign” about the Jew no matter to which European nationality he belongs. While speaking the language of the nation in which he dwells, he nonetheless “speaks it always as an alien.”

Wagner had just a year previously written of Volk communities as subjected to change as per external circumstances, as a natural and desirable historical development, but here writes of a community as an enduring historical bond, and not as “the work of scattered units.” This is a development from his prior anarchistic definitions of communities as pragmatic rather than enduring: “only he who has unconsciously grown up within the bond of this community, takes also any share in its creations.”[41]

The Jew however has developed as a people, “outside the pale of any such community,’ as “splintered, soilless stock” whose communal attachment is to their God Jehova. Hence, the Jewish contribution to music, vocally, has been “a creaking, squeaking, buzzing snuffle,” “an intolerably jumbled babbler.” It is modern society based on money that has emancipated the Jew and therefore brought the Jew into the arts.

By 1850 then, Wagner had largely disposed of any former universalistic ideals, in favor of a völkisch doctrine. Over the next few decades, having recognized the folly of previous types of radicalism, he had fully embraced a völkisch ideology that remained rooted wholly in his first calling as an artist. Wagner’s ideal remained the elevating of humanity, led by the Germans, to higher levels of Being, of that which defines what is human, towards man-as-artist manifesting his creativity and appreciation for creativity within the context of the Volk community. Hence, the following year he wrote of his transcendence of the current isms: “I am neither a republican, nor a democrat, nor a socialist, nor a communist, but–an artistic being; and as such, everywhere that my gaze, my desire and my will extend, an out and out revolutionary, a destroyer of the old by the creation of the new.”[42]

His aesthetic ideals did not temper his zeal for revolution, but enhanced them, writing to a friend, “the bloodiest hatred for our whole civilization, contempt for all things deriving from it, and longing for nature . . . only the most terrific and destructive revolution could make our civilized beasts ‘human’ again.”[43]

His “anarchism” was the type of the free Germanic Volk who did not tolerate tyrants and whose concept of “freedom” was that of communal, Volk freedom, and not the egotism of the individual, a type of “anarchism” nonetheless that was postulated by Bakunin and later by Kropotkin, that states that communities are organically formed by free association from instinct, and not imposed by laws. “The same Wagnerian spirit favouring in music the revolt of emotional inspiration against classical rules favours in politics the revolt of instinctive Volk against law,” writes Peter Viereck.[44] By 1865 he had repudiated the widespread revolutionary spirit of 1848, as “a Jewish importation of French rationalism,” Viereck states.[45] Wagner explained his rejection of the prior era of revolt, writing in 1876 that,

I have no hesitation about styling the subsequent revolutions in Germany entirely un-German. “Democracy” in Germany is purely a translated thing. It exists merely in the “Press;” and what this German Press is, one must find out for oneself. But untowardly enough, this translated Franco-Judaico-German Democracy could really borrow a handle, a pretext and deceptive cloak, from the misprised and maltreated spirit of the German Folk. To secure a following among the people, “Democracy” aped a German mien; and “Deutschthum,” “German spirit,” “German honesty,” “German freedom,” “German morals,” became catchwords disgusting no one more than him who had true German culture, who had to stand in sorrow and watch the singular comedy of agitators from a non-German people pleading for him without letting their client so much as get a word in edgewise. The astounding unsuccessfulness of the so loud-mouthed movement of 1848 is easily explained by the curious circumstance that the genuine German found himself; and found his name, so suddenly represented by a race of men quite alien to him.[46]

While critics claim that Wagner reneged on his former revolutionary ideas to curry favor with the aristocracy, his greatest patron being King Ludwig of Bavaria, his great English admirer, the Germanophilic English-born philosopher, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who married Wagner’s daughter Eva, said of the maestro that he remained a revolutionist from 1840 to the day of his death, on the basis that you cannot separate corrupt society from corrupt art.[47]

Wagner’s revolutionary “freedom” was the innate German instinct for freedom; not the French, nor the English nor the Jewish conceptions of humanism and liberalism, of freedom for commerce and for parliaments. That völkisch freedom could as well be served in the ancient institution of a King if that King embodied the völkisch spirit. The Wagnerian leader is a nexus with the divine and the highest embodiment of the Volk. Wagner referred to this leader who would liberate the Germans as a Volk, rather than as a class of money interests, as a “hero,” as the “folk-king” and as the legendary “Barbarossa,” the German’s King Arthur who awakens from a slumber when his people are most endangered. Wagnerians looked for the Germanic Messiah, the reborn Barbarossa as the saviour of Germany.

Even in 1848 Wagner sought a King who would embody the Volk; a King who would be “the first of the Volk” and not merely representative of a class, and he sought to elevate the King of Saxony to that position, rather than to overthrow him.[48] He was a “republican” in a very definite sense, not of wishing to overthrow the King, but of the king leading the res publica, the public–the people–the Volk–as a unitary whole. Such a “folk-king” must transcend class and selfish interests. Here we see that Wagner could have no time for the banalities of parliament or of class war. Such matters as parliaments, constitutions and parties were divisive to the völkisch organism, undermined the authority of the folk-king, and reduced the Volk to separate constituents rather than maintaining a unitary organic state.[49] However Wagner drew a distinction between King and Monarchy, because a monarchy is a hereditary class that does not arise from the Volk, and indeed we see how monarchies might disintegrate over centuries, where they are based on birth rather than achievement, and that birth-lineage often becomes degenerate and effete, perhaps with no recourse other than through revolution, which more generally throws up a rulership that is worse. Wagner looked to the primeval Germanic Kinship drawn from selection among free men, which was the rule of Herodom, the divine Hero[50] often the plot of his operas.

In his essay Art and Revolution Wagner introduced his remarks by an admission of his own muddled thinking at the time of the Dresden revolt. He sought to amalgamate the ideas of Hegel, Proudhon, and Feuerbach into a revolutionary philosophy. “From this arose a kind of impassioned tangle of ideas, which manifested itself as precipitance and indistinctness in my attempts at philosophical system.”[51]

Wagner explains what he means by his frequent references to “communism,” not wishing to be misconstrued as being a supporter of the Paris Commune, as was then frequently supposed, but as a term meaning the repudiation of “egos.” Wagner explains that by “communism” he means the collectivity of the “Volk,” “that should represent the incomparable productivity of antique brotherhood, while I looked forward to the perfect evolution of this principle as the very essence of the associate Manhood of the Future.” This Germanic conception was antithetical to the Jacobin, liberal-democratic mind of the French.[52] He regarded Germany as having a mission among the nations, by virtue of a “German spirit,” to herald a new dawn of creativity that renounced egotism and the economics that was being driven by it.[53] Quoting Thomas Carlyle[54] on the epochal impact of the French Revolution and the “spontaneous combustion” of humanity, Wagner saw this mission of the “German race” as one of creation rather than destruction and the “breaking out of universal mankind into Anarchy.”[55] In Art and Revolution Wagner addressed the question of the impact of the late 1840s European revolt on the arts, and where the artist had been in the era preceding the tumult. It was the “Hellenic race,” once overcoming its “Asiatic birthplace,” which birthed a “strong manhood of freedom,” most fully expressed in their god Apollo, who had slain the forces of Chaos, to bring forth “the fundamental laws of the Grecian race and nation.” It was in Greece, including Sparta, where art and state and war-craft were an organic entity.[56] The Athenian “spirit of community” fell to “egoism” and split itself along a thousand lines of egoistic cleavage.”[57] The degradation of the Roman world succumbed to “the healthy blood of the fresh Germanic nations,” whose blood poured into the “ebbing veins of the Roman world.” But art had sold itself to “commerce.” Mercury, the God of commerce, had become the ruler of “modern art.”

This is Art, as it now fills the entire civilised world! Its true essence is Industry; its ethical aim, the gaining of gold; its aesthetic purpose, the entertainment of those whose time hangs heavily on their hands. From the heart of our modern society, from the golden calf of wholesale Speculation, stalled at the meeting of its cross-roads, our art sucks forth its life-juice, borrows a hollow grace from the lifeless relics of the chivalric conventions of mediaeval times, and—blushing not to fleece the poor, for all its professions of Christianity—descends to the depths of the proletariat, enervating, demoralising, and dehumanising everything on which it sheds its venom.[58]

In ancient Greece, by contrast, art belonged to the entire populace; not to a single class. The contrast between Greek and modern education shows the differences between a Volk and a state of classes educated for commerce:

The Greeks sought the instruments of their art in the products of the highest associate culture: we seek ours in the deepest social barbarism. The education of the Greek, from his earliest youth, made himself the subject of his own artistic treatment and artistic enjoyment, in body as in spirit: our foolish education, fashioned for the most part to fit us merely for future industrial gain, gives us a ridiculous, and withal arrogant satisfaction with our own unfitness for art, and forces us to seek the subjects of any kind of artistic. . . .[59]

The task was not to restore the Greek or anything else from the past, but to create new art, freed from commerce:

From the dishonouring slave-yoke of universal journeymanhood, with its sickly Money-soul, we wish to soar to the free manhood of Art, with the star-rays of its World-soul; from the weary, overburdened day-labourers of Commerce, we desire to grow to fair strong men, to whom the world belongs as an eternal, inexhaustible source of the highest delights of Art.[60]

Only the “mightiest force of revolution”[61] can overthrow the money despotism and inaugurate the free “republic” where the whole populace partakes of the art that expresses its spirit. This however, was not a revolution of “the windy theories of our socialistic doctrinaires,” who sought to level and proletarianize until there is no possibility of art. The aim was not universal proletarianization, as per Karl Marx, but what Wagner called “artistic manhood, to the free dignity of Man,”[62] emancipated from the economic treadmill.

Bayreuth as the Center of the German Revolution

Wagner’s redemption of humanity, having found a patron in Ludwig of Bavaria, became centred on Bayreuth, where Wagner’s pageants could be performed and a journal published, the Bayreuther Blätter, that would articulate the political and aesthetic ideals implicit in those operas. Wagner proceeded with a metapolitical strategy decades before the Italian Communist theorist Gramsci formulated his strategy of the “long march through the institutions” and subtlety redirecting a society by first changing its culture.[63]

These ideas, together with the racial doctrines of de Gobineau, were intended to permeate German society, emanating from a cultural and meptapolitical center, Bayreuth, intended as the microcosm of a völkisch classless society. The festival house at Bayreuth was what Wagner’s son-in-law Chamberlain called in 1900 “a standard for armed warriors to rally around” in their revolt against corruption.[64]

Under the Second Reich of Bismarck, Bayreuth became a center of pilgrimage for those seeking “what Wagner’s Meistersinger chorus calls ‘the holy German art.’” The Second Reich relied on Bayreuth to give it an historical and mythic cult connecting the Golden Age of Frederick Barbarossa with that of Bismarck. Without Bayreuth the Bismarckian Reich would have been nothing more than a Prussian state edifice. Wagner Societies throughout Germany propagated the ideas emanating from Bayreuth.

Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Wagner’s son-in-law, whose racial history[65] championed the Holy Grail of Germandom, expounded mystically in Wagner’s operas, was the direct link between Wagner and the Third Reich. It seems likely that Wagner would have viewed with enthusiasm the mass parades of armed Volk, the purging of the arts, the breaking of usury, and the mantle of virtual kingship assumed by a war veteran from out of the people.

As we have seen, whether Wagner’s views are explicitly the doctrinal antecedent for National Socialism per se is questionable. His views on race and Jews were quite typical of revolutionaries of the time, including those of non-Germans such as Proudhon and Bakunin. History has been kinder to these than to Wagner because, despite their revolutionary political commitment, and Wagner’s primary commitment to the arts, it was Wagner who has been the greater influence on history, attesting to the greater influence of the metapolitical over the political.


[1] Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), pp. 46-47.

[2] Marx, The Communist Manifesto, pp. 41, 44.

[3] Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1971), Vol. II, pp. 402, 506.

[4] Julius Evola, Men Among the Ruins (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions International, 2002), pp. 167-68.

[5] Cf. K. R. Bolton, “Marx Contra Marx: A Traditionalist Conservative Critique of the Communist Manifesto,” http://www.anamnesisjournal.com/issues/2-web-essays/43-kr-bolton K. R. Bolton, The Banking Swindle: Money Creation and the State (London: Black House Publishing 2013), “The Real Right’s Answer to Socialism and Capitalism,” pp. 152-74.

[6] Richard Wagner, My Life, Part I, http://www.wagneropera.net/MyLife/RW-My-Life-Part-1-1813-1842.htm

[7] Ibid.

[8] British = a civilizing mission, Jews = a domineering material mission, Russians = a metaphysical mission.

[9] Richard Wagner, My Life, Part I, op. cit.

[10] Ibid., Part II, http://www.wagneropera.net/MyLife/RW-My-Life-Part-2-1842-50.htm

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Cited by Paul Lawrence Rose, Wager: Race and Revolution (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), p. 52.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Wagner, “Revolution,” cited by Peter Viereck, Metapolitics: From Wagner and the German Romantics to Hitler (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2004), p. 109.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Richard Wagner, Part II, op. cit.

[20] K. R. Bolton, Artists of the Right (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2012), inter alia.

[21] Richard Wagner, Part II, op. cit.

[22] Paul Lawrence Rose, p. 29.

[23] Ibid., p. 64.

[24] Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question,” February, 1844 in Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher; http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/jewish-question/

[25] K. R. Bolton, The Psychotic Left (London: Black House Publishing, 2013), pp. 70-100.

[26] Michael Bakunin, 1871, Gesammelte Werke, vol. 3 (Berlin, 1924), pp. 204-16.

[27] Max Nomad, Apostles of Revolution (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1939), “The Heretic: Michael Bakunin: Apostle of ‘Pan-Destruction’.”

[28] Richard Wagner, My Life, Part II, op. cit.

[29] Wagner, Part II, ibid.

[30] Wagner, Part II, ibid.

[31] Wagner, Part IV, http://www.wagneropera.net/MyLife/RW-My-Life-Part-4-1861-1864.htm

[32] Wagner, Part IV, ibid.

[33] Richard Wagner, “Art and Climate,” 1841, p. 264, http://users.belgacom.net/wagnerlibrary/prose/wagclim.htm

[34] Richard Wagner, The Art-Work of the Future, 1849, p. 72, http://users.belgacom.net/wagnerlibrary/prose/wagartfut.htm

[35] Richard Wagner, Art-Work, ibid., Chapter I, Part III.

[36] Richard Wagner, ibid., Part V, p. 88.

[37] Richard Wagner, ibid., Part V, p. 147.

[38] Richard Wagner, “Hero-dom and Christendom,” 1881, http://users.belgacom.net/wagnerlibrary/prose/waghero.htm

[39] Richard Wagner, “What is German,” 1876, http://users.belgacom.net/wagnerlibrary/prose/wagwiger.htm

[40] Richard Wagner, Judaism in Music, 1850, p. 82, http://users.belgacom.net/wagnerlibrary/prose/wagjuda.htm

[41] Richard Wagner, Judaism in Music, p. 85.

[42] Richard Wager, 1851, cited by Paul Lawrence Rose, op. cit., p. 177.

[43] Wagner, 1851, cited by Rose, ibid.

[44] Peter Viereck, op. cit., p. 108.

[45] Ibid., p. 109.

[46] Richard Wagner, What is German, op. cit., p. 167.

[47] Cited by Peter Viereck, ibid., p. 109.

[48] Peter Viereck, op. cit., pp. 111-112.

[49] Ibid., p. 112. Viereck calls all of this “monstrous sophistries.”

[50] Richard Wagner, Bayreuther Blatter, September 1881.

[51] Richard Wagner (1849) “Art and Revolution,” in The Art-Work of the Future, op. cit., Vol. 1, 1895, p. 26.

[52] Richard Wagner (1849) Art and Revolution, ibid, p. 29.

[53] Richard Wagner, ibid, p. 30.

[54] Thomas Carlyle, History of Frederick II of Prussia, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/25808/25808-h/25808-h.htm

[55] Richard Wagner, Art and Revolution, op. cit., p. 30.

[56] Richard Wagner, ibid., p. 33.

[57] Richard Wagner, ibid., p. 36.

[58] Richard Wagner, ibid., p. 43.

[59] Richard Wagner, ibid., p. 48.

[60] Richard Wagner, ibid., p. 55.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Ibid., p. 57.

[63] Steven Yates, “Understanding the Culture War,” http://www.lewrockwell.com/yates/yates24.html

[64] Peter Viereck, op. cit., p. 115.

[65] Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (London: John Lane Company, 1911).



Bolton, Kerry. “Wagner as Metapolitical Revolutionary.” Counter-Currents Publishing, 20 May 2013. <http://www.counter-currents.com/2013/05/wagner-bicentennial-symposiumwagner-as-metapolitical-revolutionary/ >.



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