Richard Wagner as a “True Socialist” Georg Lukacs 1937

Richard Wagner as a “True Socialist”

Written: 1937
First Published: as part of “Литературные теории XIX века и марксизм” (Nineteenth Century Literary Theories and Marxism), State Publishing House of the USSR, 1937 (in Russian)
Source: MIA Russian Section
Translated: by Anton P.

Feuerbach’s influence on the philosophical development of the forties is well known from the works of Marx and Engels, although bourgeois historians of philosophy usually deny or try to belittle it. Much less known is the rather significant influence of Feuerbach’s thoughts on the history of literature in the narrower sense of the word. The official bourgeois history of literature, although it has recently been fond of calling itself “history of the spirit,” for the most part bypasses this question. True, in all the “philologically accurate” prefaces and notes from scholarly books, the reader can find the necessary references to factual data. The only exceptions are, for very understandable reasons, only the biographers of Richard Wagner, in particular the notorious Houston Stewart Chamberlain, seeking to reduce Feuerbach’s influence on Wagner to a simple “misunderstanding.”

Although Gottfried Keller’s revolutionary materialist energy significantly diminished after 1848, its main direction was nevertheless the bourgeois-democratic tendency. The situation was quite different with Feuerbach’s influences in the socio-political field. Marx and Engels, through their criticism of the weaknesses of Feuerbachianism, prepared, in the field of philosophy, the transformation of a consistent bourgeois revolution into a proletarian one. But at the same time, in circles associated with the German workers’ movement, a trend emerged that proceeded precisely from the weak, idealistic sides of Feuerbachianism and developed them further into a whole system: this was the so-called “true socialism.” [1]

“True socialism” borrowed from Feuerbach the anthropological principle without its materialistic basis (without the position: consciousness is determined by being); “true socialism” borrowed from him the ethics of love, and also the doctrine of the “self-alienation” of man in Christianity, theology and philosophy – weakened already in Feuerbach himself in comparison with Hegel and having became even more abstract and divorced from its social roots – as opposed to the coincidence of being and essences in nature (and in “natural” society). “True socialism” borrowed from Feuerbach the doctrine of the contrast between “egoism” as a principle of capitalist society and “humanity” as a principle of communism. All these ideas, which in Feuerbach himself have an extremely vague, idealistic character, but are by no means promoted to the center of his system, became for the “true socialists” the foundation of their social doctrine.

In this idealistic phraseology, the grains of French and English socialism become completely abstract, divorced from reality, and degenerate into sheer nonsense. “True socialism” is a movement of backward workers and extremely confused, unstable petty bourgeois, which had acquired a fairly large political significance. It condoned the apolitical character of the German proletariat, which had not yet developed, had not yet had time to form. By its abstract criticism of bourgeois society, it distracted the masses from the direct tasks of the radical bourgeois revolution and moreover by one-sidedly concentrating all its attacks on the bourgeoisie, “true socialism” became an unconscious ally of monarchist reaction.

The ideological struggle of the second half of the forties, and especially the revolution of 1848-1849, destroyed “true socialism” as a movement. But only as a political movement, and not as a current of thought. Its ideological influence, which, however, became more “latent,” persisted for a long time in the German workers’ movement and in general ideological development – although, of course, the later bourgeois “history of the spirit” (Geistesgeschichte) prefers to remain silent about this.

It is very interesting that after the seemingly complete disappearance of “true socialism” (not counting individual brochures by Moses Hess, etc.), one of the greatest German composers of the 19th century acted as its epigone: Richard Wagner. He published in his theoretical books Art and Revolution (1849) and The Artwork of the Future (1850) a programmatic presentation of his aesthetics, built on his whole philosophy of history and is nothing more than an application of the principles of “true socialism” to the field of art.

As we mentioned at the very beginning of this article, many of Wagner’s biographers are trying to cover their tracks and reduce the connection between Wagner and Feuerbach to a simple “misunderstanding.” But it is not so easy to get rid of this unpleasant fact. The second of the aforementioned books, the title of which in itself recalls Feuerbach’s famous theses on the philosophy of the future, was dedicated by Wagner to Feuerbach. “You alone,” writes Wagner, “can I devote this work, because with it I only return your property to you.” And Wagner is absolutely right: the general content of this book comes from Feuerbach, only the specifically Wagnerian idea of a “synthetic work of art” really belongs to Wagner himself.

To be sure, this Feuerbachianism in every word and in every shade of thought has already passed through the prism of “true socialism.” The efforts of Wagner’s researchers to establish which books of Feuerbach he read or did not read are unnecessary, already because Wagner could draw almost all the elements of his Feuerbachianism from the literature of “true socialism.” We will not touch on the question of what exactly Wagner knew from this literature. For our purposes, it is sufficient to state that Wagner interprets Feuerbach completely in the spirit of the “true socialists.”

Wagner’s criticism of capitalism and its culture, proceeding from the principle of “man,” is very interesting in the sense that it reveals features of Romanticism that are not so noticeable among “true socialists.” Unlike economic Romantics in the narrower sense of the word, Wagner’s gaze is directed not to the small-scale production of the mythologized past (Sismondi, Carlyle), but to the coming revolution, which should abolish capitalism and its harmful influence on culture. At the same time, Wagner seems to be closer to Feuerbach than “true socialists,” for he energetically emphasizes the importance of the sensory element. But it would be wrong to overestimate the materialistic character of this sensualism in young Wagner. Already when speaking of Hermann Hettner we cited Lenin’s profound remark about the bifurcation of sensualism in an idealist and in a materialist direction. In Wagner, the first of these tendencies undoubtedly prevailed. Everything that could be at least somehow reinterpreted in Feuerbach, he combines with the Romantic philosophy of feeling. It is known that the idealistic shade of sensualism played a very large role in Romantic literature. Suffice it to point to the theory of the young Friedrich Schlegel, to early German Romanticism whose influences are clearly visible among the representatives of “Young Germany.” [2] Wagner’s youthful development was under the direct influence of E. T. A. Hoffmann. Wagner himself develops the philosophy of feeling in the direction of later decadent Romanticism. Depending on the various consequences of the revolutionary events of 1848, this Romanticism took on a special character in each country.

However, the flight from truthful representation of reality and the penchant for apologetics are very contradictory in decadent Romanticism. The inability or unwillingness to take a decisive approach to social problems is often combined with a deepening into the details of bourgeois life, with a sensually vivid depiction of these details. The subjectivist, mystifying psychology of personal fate and, above all, sexual life, is more and more becoming a uniting point. Idealistic sensualism is a favorable basis for this trend, for it reinforces the illusion that the very essence of reality is exhausted by the sensory depiction of surface phenomena. In Germany, due to the belated development of capitalism, the traditions of great realism [3] have not yet taken shape. The development of the country after 1848 removed the bourgeois ideologues from public life even more than in France. The period of national reunification, which in other countries was a heroic period of the bourgeoisie, passed among the Germans in servile and squalid forms. Therefore, it is in Germany that that curious mixture of Romantic mysticism with a sensualistic richness of details, with a hypertrophy of sexual psychology, that mixture of decorative “monumentality” in general with the sophisticated drawing of individual figures and scenes, which is so characteristic of Wagner’s works, arose. That this is not an individual feature, but a whole trend, is evident from the relationship of these features with the work of the playwright Friedrich Hebbel. Nietzsche discerned Wagner’s kinship with Flaubert, Baudelaire, and others with the vigilance of a hating brother, for he himself was a decadent Romantic.

Wagner’s “socialism” and its subordination to the influence of Feuerbach, unfolds precisely on this basis. Romantic sensualism was from the very beginning the soil on which Wagner became close to Feuerbach’s philosophy, and he could only assimilate it within this framework.

The vanguard of the democratic revolution – the proletariat – acquires, of course, in Wagner’s depiction an even more general and vague form than in that of the “true socialists,” it is simply turned into a “people,” the proletarian into a “man,” and the “people” is “an aggregate of all those who are in common need.” Only need “which takes it to the extreme is a true need,” and it inevitably leads to resentment against those people who “do not feel need,” against those who are “unrighteous and selfish” leads to revolution. But this revolution is a revolution of mankind. “The people save themselves in the revolution, and at the same time save their own enemies” (The Artwork of the Future). Wagner’s criticism of capitalism in economic and social matters is even more generic than that of the “true socialists.” It is directed mainly against the influence of the capitalist division of labor on culture and especially art. As a critic of bourgeois society, Wagner approaches such thinkers as Carlyle and Ruskin; Wagner criticizes in capitalism almost exclusively the impoverishment of art, the fragmentation and self-alienation of man, the transformation of artistic creativity from the true needs and genuine activities of the people (like the Greeks) to “the satisfaction of an imaginary need, into a luxury.

The revolution must save a person from this, and save with the help of art: “it is art that must reveal what the noblest meaning of social striving is, must show it its true direction. From the state of civilized barbarism, true art can rise to its true height only on the shoulders of our great social movement: they have one and the same goal, and they can achieve it only when they realize it together. This goal is a strong and wonderful person; the revolution should give him strength, art should give him beauty” (Art and Revolution).

In all this, of course, there was much that was correct, but Wagner lacks a clear understanding of the nature and driving forces of the revolution. He follows Feuerbach and sees a genuine revolutionary force in nature: “nature, and nature alone, can unravel the great destinies of the world.” In his construction of history, necessity (need), true need and arbitrariness (egotism, luxury, lack of truthfulness) are opposed to each other, and, moreover, in a frozen form. The abstract opposition of freedom and necessity is typical of the entire post-Hegelian period in the development of German philosophy. Feuerbach himself takes on this point the position of the old materialism of the eighteenth century. Further development proceeds along the line of an idealistic (often with a Romantic tinge), frozen polarization of these opposite moments. Wagner’s idealistic tendency is quite clear. Feuerbach, with his soberly materialistic nature, was, of course, very far from Wagner’s mystical Romanticism. But the connection of this Romanticism with the weaknesses of its philosophy is undeniable. It is interesting that Feuerbach here never protested against such a deterioration of his teaching, just as he did not protest against its distortion among the “true socialists.”

To illustrate Feuerbach’s connection with such supporters as the “true socialists” and Wagner, let us cite several passages in Natural History and Revolution. This is one of Feuerbach’s most politically charged writings. Here Feuerbach tries to define the relationship of natural science to progress in general and revolutions in particular. At the same time, he proceeds from the position that “natural science is indifferent to politics,” because “nature itself is indifferent to politics and even constitutes its direct opposite. Where there is nature, there is no politics, at least politics in the dynastic sense, and where there are politics, there is no nature ... The naturalist sees how nature is eternally moving forward.” And therefore the naturalist “is not only a democrat, but even a socialist and a communist, although, it is true, only in a reasonable and general sense of the word ... The need for starvation arises only as a result of production of the state ... the spectacle of nature therefore raises a person above the narrow horizon of criminal law, it makes a person communist, that is, free-thinking and generous.[4]

Due to the backwardness of Germany, political economy as a scientific reflection of capitalist production could not develop there as it developed, for example, in England, and therefore German materialism was very far from the pathos of the development of productive forces that is so characteristic of the materialism of the British. For the progressive ideologues of the bourgeoisie in Germany, like Feuerbach, there was only a “natural-scientific” justification for progress, which they held on to. Let us note here that the direct comparison of “nature” with “politics,” which we observe in Feuerbach, is characteristic of this entire period in Germany. The ideologists of bourgeois progress are being pushed along this path by the rapid rise of capitalism and the natural sciences. F. A. Lange and others are trying to derive the laws of social development directly from Darwin.

Among the petty-bourgeois supporters and fellow travelers of the labor movement, this inability to understand the driving forces of social development manifests itself in exaggerated idealistic expectations of a “sudden” and “radical” revolution. It is clear that these expectations very easily turn into their opposite – with a slowdown in the pace of development, with temporary victories of reaction, etc. Let us point out here the struggle of Marx and Engels against the Willich-Schapper faction (1850). In a dispute with his opponents, Schapper uttered, among other things, the following characteristic words: “If it had not been for this (that is, an immediate revolution in France and Germany. – G. L.), I, of course, would immediately go to sleep, and besides I could then have a different financial situation.” If such moods and views were possible for a person like Schapper, who was according to Marx, “all his life a champion of the labor movement,” then all the more were they possible for such “true socialists” as Wagner, who were associated with the workers’ movement only with purely utopian expectations, devoid of even a subjectively solid foundation.

It would, of course, be ahistorical and incorrect to simply identify Wagner’s rushing to the enemy camp, as a result of this disillusionment, with analogous phenomena of our time. The difference in the economic and political situation does not allow for such an analogy. At the time of Feuerbach, the ideology of bourgeois progress, and with it natural science, still had an objective basis in the face of the upsurge of capitalist production that had just begun. On the other hand, a reactionary mass movement based on social demagogy (such as fascism) could not yet arise in Germany at that time. For the time being, the Romantic-reactionary currents could still nestle even within the workers’ movement itself, which was gradually emerging from the general democratic front, or they more or less openly adhered to royal power, passing – as Romantic socialism had passed with Carlyle and many others – into the Romantic glorification of reaction. This turn takes place in Wagner under the ideological influence of Schopenhauer, that is, in a form that is very typical for post-revolutionary Germany.

Under Feuerbach’s influence, the poet Georg Herwegh took up the study of natural sciences in his Paris exile, but these studies remained an episode that did not change anything in the general line of his development. He considered Richard Wagner (1851) to be the purest revolutionary along with Feuerbach (cf. Herwegh’s letter to Feuerbach). And even when Wagner openly went over to the enemy camp, Herwegh did not cease to treat him with enthusiasm. Granted, in Herwegh’s poems addressed to Wagner, there is sometimes a mockery, but this mockery is directed against the petty reactionary patrons of Wagner, against the stupidity of the public, and not against the composer himself, who betrayed the revolution and accepted such reactionary patronage.

In 1854 Herwegh, still a follower of Feuerbach, advised Wagner to study Schopenhauer in detail, and this advice created an era in the development of the German composer: it was from this moment that the history of the true Wagner began as the most influential composer-poet of the end of the century. But it has already been pointed out more than once that this turn of Wagner, being extremely important in its consequences, did not mean for him something completely new, as Wagner nevertheless transferred a number of significant moments from the first period to the second. Some explain this by the fact that Wagner has always been a Schopenhauerian and that Feuerbach’s influence was for him only an “accidental episode,” a “misunderstanding” (Chamberlain); others find that the echoes of Feuerbachianism were preserved by Wagner even later (Levi and Rawidowicz). Both of these explanations, although not equivalent, equally pass by the very essence of the question. The continuity of Wagner’s development – through Feuerbach to Schopenhauer, from “communist” atheism to mysticism and Christianity – is rooted in the continuity of social life, in the backward development of the German bourgeoisie on its path from 1848 to 1871.

To show this continuity of Wagner’s development, it would be necessary to analyze in detail not only the evolution of his worldview, but also his work itself. This analysis would show, first of all, that Wagner always faced the same problems, and there was also much in common in the way they were resolved at different stages of his development. Undoubtedly, Wagner also in his “communist” period defined the revolution as an abstract Christian “salvation” – as “salvation” for its enemies as well. Hidden in “true socialism,” the religious current was very close to Wagner’s tendencies, which were clearly revealed already in his early works [5]. At first, he embodied this thirst for salvation in the idea of a universal human revolution, in order then, after the collapse of revolutionary hopes, to transfer his aspirations to the field of personal-human relations, to give them a Christian guise. During this restructuring, two main ideological complexes played a major role: the Romantic hostility to capitalism and the ascension of love (sexuality) into the sphere of mysticism. Both of these complexes are closely related to each other in the literature of that time, and especially in Wagner. The struggle against the “self-alienation” of man in capitalism was Wagner’s struggle from the very beginning against the suppression of sensuality by religion, philosophy, etc. His “communism” is the renewal of Romantic tendencies and at the same time one of the manifestations of the very widespread bourgeois “emancipation of the body.” The reader will remember Feuerbach’s error, that sensuality was not a “sensible activity” for him and that therefore “love” was idealistically divorced from the social movement and was overly praised. This shortcoming of Feuerbach made possible his influence on Wagner. Wagner’s departure from the revolution was accompanied, at least at the beginning, not by a change in the foundations of his worldview, but only by a change of emphasis: Siegfried is doomed to tragic death, mystically inflated “love” is acquiring more and more the character of the forbidden, “sinful,” “demonic,” etc. In short, Wagner passes, like many of his contemporaries, from progressive bourgeois criticism of the social order to decadent Romanticism.

Nietzsche, who perfectly understood a lot about Romantic decadence, finds that Wagner’s heroes, “if only you first remove the heroic husk from them, are extremely similar to Madame Bovary[6]. To be sure, a real comparison of Wagner with Flaubert would probably turn out to be far from favorable to the former. For the importance of social criticism is pushed aside more and more decisively, and sexual Romanticism is elevated into something “timeless,” as a result of which Wagner’s musical drama could become the most characteristic type of art of the Bismarck era: ideologically harmless for the Hohenzollern empire and even worthy of royal acceptance and praise from this point of view, it sanctifies the existing order and at the same time is distinguished by both “monumentality” and “modernism.”

Rapprochement with the German sovereigns, then admiration for the Kaiser, the empire and the army, and finally for Christianity, with curses against science” – this is how Nietzsche describes this result of Wagner’s development (Kunst und Kunstler). Nietzsche describes Wagner’s path to this point of view in caustically vivid images, and the correctness of his description is in no way annulled by the fact that a reactionary of a different shade, Nietzsche, absolutely did not understand anything about the real reasons for this evolution. Wagner fights at the beginning, says Nietzsche, “like all revolutionary ideologists” against “morals, laws, customs, institutions ... on which the old world, the old society rests.” Let us recall that Feuerbach also explains the poverty of the masses by the “arbitrariness of the state”: this is the old educational reappraisal of the “institutions,” understandable for the then ideological needs of the bourgeois revolution, for a class at that time still revolutionary but imbued with idealism. For the young Wagner, this overestimation is, however, vaguely Romantic in nature. The very birth of Siegfried is already a violation of morality. “But his main undertaking,” continues Nietzsche, “has as its goal the emancipation of women ... Siegfried and Brünnhilde; the sacrament of free love; the beginning of the golden age; the twilight of the gods of the old morality – evil is destroyed.

So Schopenhauer’s philosophy provided the ideological basis for Wagner’s reworking of the end of Der Ring des Nibelungen. Initially, Brünnhilde was supposed to sing a farewell song in honor of free love, consoling the world with the utopia of bourgeois socialism. After the transition to Schopenhauer, the picture changes: “Everything goes badly, everything dies; the new world is as bad as the old ... Only thanks to the philosopher of decadence did the artist of decadence become himself,” writes Nietzsche (Der Fall Wagner).

Of course, Nietzsche could not understand the real origins of Wagner’s development that led to decadent Romanticism. This is most clearly seen from the following. Nietzsche correctly sees that Siegfried’s birth from incest, invented by Wagner himself, is a caricature of a legend, but he does not know how to use this observation. It is precisely on this point that Marx attacks Wagner with his devastating criticism: “Has it ever been heard of a brother hugging his sister like a spouse?” Wagner asks. To these Wagnerian divine lechers who spice their love affairs in a very modem fashion through the addition of a little incest, Marx replies: “In the primitive era, the sister was a wife, and that was moral.[7]

Here the decadent-idealistic emptiness of Wagner’s philosophy, both in his “revolutionary” and in his reactionary period, is criticized much deeper than in the criticism of Nietzsche: Wagner has not the slightest idea of the actual social relations which he first attacks and which he subsequently acquits. Wagner always proceeds from the immediate emotional needs of the bourgeoisie of his time, mythologizing these needs – positively or negatively – into some kind of “timeless” “eternal” principles, thus deviating from a real comprehension of the past and from a real criticism of the present. Chained to the immediate surface of bourgeois ideology, he first paints it in “socialist” tones; when the revolutionary wave calmed down, he very easily clothed the same content in an apologetic form. The revolutionary elements are processed and incorporated so organically into the new worldview that they are almost completely forgotten; in any case, they do not in the least interfere with Wagner’s influence in the circles of the most reactionary bourgeoisie (even in the fascist circles of modern Germany). Only the authentic epigone of Romantic socialism, Bernard Shaw, again draws from the Ring of Nibelung the anti-capitalist tendencies it contains (The Perfect Wagnerite). [8]

Thus, Wagner maintains the continuity of development, despite the change in the class front. Feuerbach and Schopenhauer signify at the same time two extreme poles of ideology in this period – and not only in Wagner.


1. “True socialism” was a political and philosophical movement in Germany during the 1840s associated with Moses Hess and Karl Grün. Grün was strongly influenced by contemporary French socialist theories (Proudhonism), combining them with Young Hegelian and Feuerbachian philosophy and democratic politics. He was associated with the group of ‘True Socialists’ around Moses Hess, a Young Hegelian philosopher and forerunner of labour Zionism. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels sharply criticized the ‘True Socialists’ as utopian crypto-idealists.

2. Young Germany (Junges Deutschland) was a group of German writers which existed from about 1830 to 1850. It was essentially a liberal-republican and radical-democratic youth ideology (similar to those that had swept France, Ireland, the United States of America and Italy). Its main proponents were Karl Gutzkow, Heinrich Laube, Theodor Mundt and Ludolf Wienbarg; Heinrich Heine, Ludwig Börne and Georg Büchner were also considered part of the movement. The wider group included Willibald Alexis, Adolf Glassbrenner, Gustav Kühne, Max Waldau and Georg Herwegh.

3. Lukacs uses the term “great realism” to refer to outstanding works of 19th century realist literature of the time of capitalist consolidation, ie. Balzac, Stendhal, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Ibsen etc.

4. Karl Grün, Ludwig Feuerbach in seinem Briefweehsel und Nachlass, Leipzig-Heidelberg, 1874, Volume.11, pp. 74-76.

5. The Flying Dutchman, 1841; Lohengrin, 1846

6. Friedrich Nietzsche, Der Fall Wagner, Taschenausgabe. Kroner. Leipzig, 1921, Volume XI, pg. 205.

7. From a 1882 letter from Karl Marx, quoted in Engels’ The Origin of the Family. Partizdat, 1932, p. 37.

8. Shaw’s complete essay can be found here.