Sean Ledwith examines how a dialectical approach that recognises the contradictions of Wagner’s ‘Ring’ might help us prepare for capitalism’s Gotterdammerung in the 21st century.
In May 1876, as part of his search for spa-based treatments for his carbuncles, Karl Marx found himself in the Bavarian town of Bayreuth. The atmosphere in the town, commented Marx in a letter to his daughter, was dominated by the imminent premiere of a long-awaited operatic cycle by the most controversial German musician of the day: ‘Wherever one goes, one is plagued with the question: what do you think of Richard Wagner?’ Marx’s curiosity regarding this burning question was piqued to the extent that he unsuccessfully tried to purchase one of the much sought-after tickets for the first performance.
In the decades following this unveiling of Wagner’s four-part ‘Ring of the Nibelung’ other notable figures on the left have found themselves enticed by the cycle’s titanic concatenation of mythology, romance, revenge and redemption not simply because of its dramatic power but also due to a political subtext which they believe is compatible with the emancipatory agenda of the left. This long-running thread of radical leftist critique of Wagner has attracted figures as diverse as Bernard Shaw, Theodor Adorno, Frederic Jameson and, most recently, the French critic Alain Badiou.
Not the least surprising aspect of this remarkable trend is that, for most people, if Wagner is associated with any form of politics it is most likely to be that of the most destructive and heinous form of the political right – the Nazi leadership of the Third Reich which adopted him as their official composer of choice. Scenes from Wagner’s’ ‘Meistersingers of Nuremberg’ were the dramatic inspiration for the torch-lit parades in the eponymous city in the 1930s and Hitler made numerous high-profile visits to the Wagner family at Bayreuth to pay homage at the grave of his favourite composer.
Add to this, the documented examples of Wagner’s own virulent strand of antisemitism and the stories of his music being used as the anthems of the Nazi concentration camps in WW2, and it becomes even more surprising that thinkers on the left believe that he can be reclaimed for the left. An examination of their views however, alongside an understanding of the roots of the ‘The Ring’ in nineteenth-century revolutionary politics provides ample justification for the notion that there can be a ‘Wagner for the left’.
Although first premiered in 1876, the first stirrings of the tetralogy in Wagner’s imagination significantly occurred in 1848, the year a wave of anti-feudal uprisings swept Europe. Despite being court conductor to the King of Saxony, the twenty-five year old Wagner had no qualms about throwing himself into an insurrection against the monarchy and joining demonstrations calling for a democratic and unified Germany.
Some of his writings from that period have titles such as ‘Republican Ideals versus the Monarchy’ and ‘Art and Revolution’. Their contents reveal a man who was fully committed to challenging the sclerotic despotism of King Friedrich August, a monarch who had turned his face against even the mildest reforms:
Dynastic rule is on its last legs and the privileges of birth must yield to the free rights of honest labour…fifty years from now royalty will be reduced to mere symbolism or else be relegated to waxworks and museums. The dawn of social conscience is approaching.....
Wagner found himself building barricades and organising supplies of grenades with that most legendary of contemporary disrupters of the status quo, the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. The composer volunteered for lookout duty at the top of Dresden’s Kreuzkirche watchtower, but was unable to avert the arrival of Prussian troops who provided the counter-revolutionary weight to smash the uprising in May 1849.
Wagner was forced to flee Germany and would not return for thirteen years. Others in the revolutionary leadership received death sentences and there is little doubt he would have faced the same if he had been apprehended. Wagner’s high-profile participation in the vanguard of progressive politics in the 1840s inevitably provokes the question of how he mutated into the appalling reactionary who in later decades penned hate-filled tracts such as Judaism in Music.
There are obviously a multitude of complex factors that explain how a person can shift from a revolutionary consciousness to a reactionary one but, in Wagner’s case, the specific nature of the 1848 revolutions must clearly have played a role. This wave of thwarted uprisings is commonly comprehended within the Marxist schema by deploying the concept of permanent revolution, first posited by Marx and then most fully developed by Trotsky in the twentieth century. The rising bourgeois classes of the nation-states of Western Europe found themselves initially challenging the decaying feudal oligarchies above them but then drew back from a decisive political engagement due to fear of the power of the embryonic working class that was stirring beneath them. Wagner’s intellectual journey from left to right in the aftermath of 1848 mirrored the receding optimism of Europe’s bourgeoisie regarding their ability to transform the continent with the pure ideals of the French Revolution of the eighteenth-century.
Although Wagner initiated work on ‘The Ring’ in Europe’s year of revolutions, it would take him almost three decades to complete; by which time the emancipatory impulse of 1848 had dissipated into disillusionment and reaction. In Wagner’s case, the retreat from the politics of liberation would take the ugly form of antisemitism, in which responsibility for the counter-revolution would be transferred from the capitalist class as a whole to primarily its Jewish section. A nascent anti-capitalist critique became distorted by the prism of antisemitism, possibly due to the influence of Bakunin who also suffered from this intellectual blight.
‘The Ring’ would retain the revolutionary ardour of the young composer who had marched alongside Bakunin in 1848 with characters such as Brunnhilde and Siegfried defying the commands of Wotan, the king of the gods in parts 2 and 3. The politics of defeat, however, would also be visible, in the ultimate demise of these challenges in the climactic part 4. According to Wagner scholar, Paul Lawrence, the composer displaced his youthful scorn for the bourgeoisie onto the Jewish people in a particularly twisted case of false consciousness:
Jews are the agent of law, inhibiting the freedom to be human; they're the agents of capitalism, reinforcing repression; and domination, that's seen as a Jewish thing – the Ring gives the holder power over the world.
The first leftist figure to actively engage with the Wagnerian project prioritised the link with Bakunin and the proto-socialist rebels of 1848 as the key to the cycle. Bernard Shaw’s ‘The Perfect Wagnerite’, first published in 1897 is still widely regarded as one of the best commentaries on ‘The Ring’, even by critics who do not share the author’s central claim that the tetralogy is essentially a political attack on the excesses of nineteenth-century capitalism.
Although Shaw’s personal politics never really strayed beyond tame Fabianism, this slim but powerfully written volume positively drips with class hatred, aimed at the hubris of the ruling class and what he takes to be their mythical avatars in the saga. For Shaw, ‘The Ring’ is a straightforward allegory in which the main classifications of characters represent the class structure of capitalist society. Alberic, his brother Mime and son Hagen, whose ruthless pursuit of the Rhinegold at the expense of human love, mirror the all-consuming pursuit of profit of the bourgeoisie. The dwarves of Nibelheim, who are enslaved by Alberic, take on the function of the proletariat, which toils away in darkness and degradation. The doomed gods, such as Wotan and Loge, are symbols of the declining power of religious leadership in a secular age. Shaw even interprets Siegfried, the ultimate iconoclast and challenger to the gods, as the dramatic incarnation of none other than Bakunin, Wagner’s erstwhile comrade-in-arms. This forceful reminder of the composer’s roots in a progressive revolutionary movement is a valuable antidote to the caricature of Wagner as a progenitor of fascism:
He was proclaimed as wanted by the police; that he wrote revolutionary pamphlets; and that his picture of Niblunghome under the reign of Alberic is a poetic vision of unregulated capitalism as it was made known in Germany in the middle of the nineteenth century by Engels’ Condition of the Labouring Classes in England .
Shaw’s analysis, however, is obviously the product of a pre-Holocaust era and therefore for a modern reader lacks the subtlety required to engage with the problematic presence of antisemitism in not only the cultural origins of Wagner’s version of the cycle, but also according to some critics, in its actual dramatic core. This was the theoretical challenge that exercised the figure who produced what is probably the most stimulating radical critique of ‘The Ring’ from the left.
Theodor Adorno’s ‘In Search of Wagner’ was originally written in 1938, as the terror of the Nazi regime was unfolding and finally published in 1952 when the depths of its barbarity had been fully revealed. Unlike Shaw, Adorno is able to ask perhaps the fundamental Wagnerian question for socialists, of how any viewer with radical sympathies can watch and appreciate the operas in light of the catastrophe anti-Wagnerians argue the composer was partially responsible for. The purpose of this study was to explicitly reclaim Wagner for the project of the left and save the composer’s reputation, which was inevitably in tatters after WW2.
The progressive dimension of ‘The Ring’, according to Adorno, was in Wagner’s deployment of the concept of ‘phantasmagoria’, a variation on Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism. The latter is capitalism’s ability to conceal the exploitative relationships that lie at the heart of all production and to create the illusion that our lives primarily revolve around products. In Adorno’s analysis of ‘The Ring’, Wagner effected a similar deception in the theatrical sphere by generating the illusion that the astonishing range of musical, dramatic, audio-visual and narrative ingredients of the tetralogy was the work of his own unique genius. The actual musicians, actors, back-stage operators and assorted others who converge to deliver the Wagnerian spectacle are pushed to the back of the viewers’ mind as we sit in awe at the composer’s stunning edifice of the imagination. The overwhelming effect of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) is to temporarily lift us emotionally out of the deleterious effects of alienation on our fragmentary everyday experience. This euphoria is short-lived but according to Adorno, creates a yearning for a social order that sustains a more durable sensation of coherence and purpose in our lives. In his words:
Because it does not, in the end, realise what it has promised, it is therefore fallible, given into our hands incomplete, as something to be advanced. It awaits the influence that will advance it to self-realisation. This would seem to be its true relevance for our time.
Adorno perhaps perceives here an aspect of ‘The Ring’ that was not present in the composer’s own conceptualisation, but the critic’s influential attempt to salvage Wagner from appropriation by the right played a major role in the postwar productions sanctioned by his grandson, Wieland Wagner, that redefined the cycle in a manner that was assimilable to the democratic and secular ethos of the post-Nazi West German state.
In this century, the American Marxist critic, Frederic Jameson, has constructed a reading of ‘The Ring’ that assesses the pivotal character of Siegfried in parts 3 and 4 as symbolic of the transformational nature of bourgeois revolutions that rip apart pre-industrial modes of thinking. In ‘Wagner as Dramatist and Allegorist’ (2013), Jameson notes that Siegfried is brashly contemptuous of the power of gods and dwarves, despite both playing a formative role in his development. For Jameson, Siegfried‘s ultimate demise in the climactic Gotterdammerung is a portent of the fiery destruction that awaits capitalism-and perhaps the whole of humanity if its ruthless pursuit of profit is not curtailed. Jameson writes:
We must now confront the character of Siegfried directly, inasmuch as he is positioned to bear the meaning of hope for the future and for the resolution of the baleful effects of the ring and its curse. First, he is the boy who, like the eponymous Grimm character, fails to learn fear. Then, and perhaps as a result of this youthful innocence, he embodies a more general ignorance about the world and about his own genealogy, something that could also be taken to signify his nascent individualism (as a bourgeois subject, for instance).
The innovations introduced by postwar productions of ‘The Ring’ are also the crux of another significant intervention by a major figure on the contemporary left, the French critic, Alain Badiou. In ‘Five Lessons from Wagner’ (2010), Badiou focuses on the highly influential French staging of ‘The Ring’ in 1968, Europe’s other year of revolutions. Perhaps affected by the revolutionary tumult of that era, the director Patrice Chereau and conductor Pierre Boulez devised a memorable finale in which the cast turn and face the audience and implicitly throw down the fundamental challenge that faces all generations on the left: ‘What is to be done?’
Like Wieland Wagner in the previous decade, Badiou contends that Chereau and Boulez successfully elided the fascistic overtones of prewar stagings in Nazi Germany and restored the universalistic and emancipatory core of ‘The Ring’. Like Jameson, Badiou perceives a residue of the revolutionary Wagner who had participated in the 1848 uprisings as being present in the cataclysmic downfall of the gods that leaves the world left for humanity to inherit:
In fact, I’m inclined to say that this ending consists in the fate of the world being handed over to generic humanity, stripped of all transcendence and left to its own devices, which will have to take responsibility for its own fate. This hypothesis is put forward in Gotterdammerung only after much trial and error and many partial revisions, and it ultimately boils down to this: after the gods comes humanity, regarded in a revolutionary sense, an utterly generic, not specific, sense.
Interestingly, the spectacular conclusion to ‘The Ring’ cycle also forms the core of Slavoj Zizek’s case that the political ramifications of Wagner should not be seen as the monopoly of the right. In ‘Why Wagner is Worth Saving’ (2004) , the self-styled post-Marxist constructs a characteristically idiosyncratic but stimulating analysis which, like the aforementioned thinkers, aims to encourage us to reject the conventional reading of Wagner as the musical godfather of fascism. Zizek notes that during the annus mirabilis of 1848, young Wagner was reading the works of the nineteenth-century pioneer of atheism, Ludwig Feuerbach, who would also prove to be a crucial influence on the development of the thought of Karl Marx.
The destruction of the gods in Gotterdammerung can be traced back, argues Zizek, to Feuerbach’s seminal notion in ‘The Essence of Christianity’ that the divinities of the world’s religions are nothing more than elaborate projections of human potentiality and that our progress as a species will come from perceiving them as such. He also focuses on the historical fact that Wagner famously worked on numerous versions of the denouement and struggled to construct a final sequence that would leave the viewer satisfied after fifteen hours of surging drama. The solution, according to Zizek,was a call-back to the revolutionary Wagner of the barricades in which Brunnhilde’s apparent betrayal of her lover, Siegfired, is in fact an act of death-defying courage in the name of a higher love – that of the cause of the people. Zizek notes:
Not sure about the final twist that should stabilize and guarantee the meaning of it all, he took recourse to a beautiful melody whose effect is something like "whatever all this may mean, let us make it sure that the concluding impression will be that of something triumphant and upbeating in its redemptive beauty …” The underlying paradox is that love, precisely as the Absolute, should not be posited as a direct goal - it should retain the status of a by-product, of something we get as an undeserved grace. Perhaps, there is no greater love than that of a revolutionary couple, where each of the two lovers is ready to abandon the other at any moment if revolution demands it.
When part 2 ,’The Valkyrie’, was broadcast live from the Royal Opera House in October this year, it is unlikely this interpretation – or any of the others outlined above – was paramount in the minds of many viewers. However, that staging was watched by probably the biggest ever audience for a Wagner production as it was simultaneously transmitted to 800 cinemas in 23 countries. There is clearly a growing audience for the composer’s essential vision of a decaying world desperate to be cleansed of fear and oppression. The interpretations of Adorno, Badiou and others are not always wholly convincing but illustrate how a dialectical approach that underlines the contradictions of Wagner’s ‘Ring’ might help us prepare for capitalism’s Gotterdammerung in the 21st century.
Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History and Politics at York College, where he is also UCU branch secretary.