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.
By sublime coincidence, Marx was travelling through Nuremberg at the time of the first Bayreuth festival. Unable to find a hotel room, in part because of the overflow of festival-goers from Bayreuth, the co-founder of communism resorted to sleeping on a railway station bench. In a letter to Friedrich Engels, he heaped scorn on the “Bayreuth fool’s festival of the official town-musician Wagner”. In another letter, Marx amused his daughter Jenny Longuet with an account of the Wagners’ tortuous sexual history, adding: “The activities of this group might also be dramatised, as with the Nibelungs, in a tetralogy.”
Other revolutionaries had a better opinion of the composer. Peter Kropotkin was an admirer; Alexander Herzen endorsed Wagner’s revolutionary writings, though not his music. The most committed Wagnerite among Marx’s contemporaries was Ferdinand Lassalle, the founder of the General German Workers’ Association party. Flamboyant, charismatic, fond of silk dressing gowns, prone to scandalous affairs, Lassalle was more than a little Wagnerian himself. After reading the libretto of the Ring, he wrote: “I am still in endless excitement like a foaming sea, and days and weeks will pass before I can concentrate the soul sufficiently undivided upon the arid statistical and economic investigations to which my next period is devoted.”
In defiance of Marx, Lassalle believed that revolutionaries should engage in parliamentary politics rather than wait for capitalism to collapse from its own contradictions. The Social Democratic Workers’ party (SDAP), the ancestor of the modern Social Democratic party in Germany, arose from his efforts. Perhaps as a result of Lassalle’s legacy, references to Wagner cropped up often among social democrats. In general, the party saw music as a useful tool, especially in the form of workers’ choirs and bands. In 1868, marches from the operas Rienzi and Tannhäuser blared at a commemoration of the fourth anniversary of Lassalle’s death.
August Bebel, one of the SDAP’s founders, lauded Wagner in his 1879 tract Woman and Socialism, which holds that the “society of the future” would ensure the equality of women and liberate the entire proletariat from menial labor. “Everyone will practice with the like-minded whatever his inclinations and abilities lead him to do,” Bebel writes. He then quotes Wagner’s prophecy of a postcapitalist utopia in Art and Revolution: “The purpose of life will be the enjoyment of life … every human being will, in some way, truly be an artist.” Such optimism buoyed German socialists through years of repression. A poster marking the end of Bismarck’s antisocialist law, in 1890, showed Siegfried thrusting his sword into a dragon.
Similar sentiments surfaced in Austria, where the social-democratic leader Victor Adler found Wagner a lifelong source of inspiration; and in France, but nowhere was this leftist appropriation more emphatic than in Russia, where Vsevolod Meyerhold and Sergei Eisenstein immersed themselves in Wagner. The poet Alexander Blok wrote in 1918: “Wagner is still both alive and new. When the Revolution starts sounding in the air, Wagner’s Art answers back.” Lenin was a fan, and Siegfried’s Funeral Music was played in his memory after his death.
In Germany, though, the left’s claim on Wagner weakened as the 20th century advanced. Nationalists and anti-Semites became ever more forceful in their efforts to annex Wagner to their cause – a project that could make use of the composer’s antisemitism but had to ignore his intermittent socialism, anarchism and anti-militarism. By the late 1920s, loyal leftist Wagnerians were crying out in alarm. Bernhard Diebold, a Swiss-born progressive, wrote in 1928: “Who bears the greatest blame for the political loss of the most popular high art of the past few decades?” The leftist press, he said, had surrendered Wagner to the reactionaries.
The following year, the Kroll Opera, Otto Klemperer’s progressive Berlin company, delivered a counterblow to the nazification of Wagner when it mounted The Flying Dutchman in proletarian modern dress. Nazi critics called it a desecration, but the Kroll’s effort to revive the revolutionary Wagner resonated into the postwar era, when directors such as Joachim Herz, Götz Friedrich and Harry Kupfer underscored his radical themes. Patrice Chéreau’s epochal Bayreuth production of the Ring (1976-80), took inspiration from The Perfect Wagnerite, realising Shaw’s vision of “tall hats for Tarnhelms, factories for Nibelheims, villas for Valhallas”.
In 1943, the great theatre critic Eric Bentley – who recently died at the age of 103 – asked a charged question: “Is Hitler always right about Wagner?” The question hangs in the air as the controversy rolls ever on. Anyone who cherishes the composer’s music must accept the straight line that leads from his antisemitic writings to Nazi propaganda. Yet emphasising the Nazi trajectory to the exclusion of all else distorts the history of Wagner’s reception, and it hands Hitler a belated cultural victory–exclusive possession of the composer he loved.
• This is an edited extract from Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music published on 17 September by 4th Estate and available from the Guardian Bookshop for £26.10.