Dora B. Montefiore 1902

Wagner as a Revolutionary

Source: The Social Democrat, Vol. VI No. 7 July 1902, pp. 202-205;
Transcription: Ted Crawford.
HTML Markup: Brian Reid.
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

The suggestive words spoken by our veteran guest Edouard Vaillant at the recent banquet offered to Comrade Quelch, on the relations of Art to the Social Organism, and as to its possibilities under new and better social conditions, struck a chord which is perhaps too seldom sounded by those who are working in the foremost ranks for that new and, better social order.

That this is so may be regretted, but it can scarcely be, wondered at. There is so much spurious, emotional, and superficial socialism, which like the seed by the wayside is bound to dry up and wither, because it is not rooted in economics, that those who can give a reason for the faith that is in them spend laborious days and nights in economic protiaganda, knowing but too well that at the present moment it is the one thing needful. Thereby they often deny themselves pleasant excursions into the more flowery by-ways or collectivist thought, amidst the blossoms of that new Art, new Literature, and new Science which shall eventually spring from the carefully nurtured and watered new economic root.

On the Continent, where Collectivism numbers amongst its disciples more men of genius in Art, Literature, and Science than it does in England, such excursions into a socialistic future, made under the guidance a the artist or the homme-de-lettres, afford acceptable breaks in the literature devoted to economic propaganda; and at a time like this in England, when the aesthetic side of one’s nature is more than, usually discouraged by the gaudy squalor of a projected Barnum Coronation show, it may prove refreshing to “hitch for a time our wagon to a star,” and listen to what the master, Richard Wagner, has to prophesy concerning Art under the coming social revolution.

As is well known, Richard Wagner, in his salad days, not only spoke and wrote, but struck a blow for progress. When, in 1848, the people of Saxony demanded of their king a constitution, trial by jury, a free Press, and representative government, Wagner and his friend, August Rockel, joined a revolutionary society known as the “Fatherland-Union,” and the young artist read a paper before the members of that society which showed already the direction of his budding thought, inasmuch as it urged that the theatre should be brought into closer relations with the higher artistic life of the people. Later on, in his famous article, “Art and Revolution,” we can observe the expansion of that earlier thought, when he points out the close connection between political and artistic reform, and shows the impossibility of attaining the, latter ruder existing capitalist conditions. The decaying rags of feudalism still cling to every existing institution, and Wagner foresaw that nothing but a revolution could sweep them finally away, and give a fair field to real freedom, and real art expression. Though at the time of the rising in Saxony he was dependant on Court favour, he obeyed the dictates of his conscience and of his aspirations, and sided with the revolutionary leaders. On May 1st, 1849, the King dissolved the Saxon Diet, and the people, though at first successful in their rising, were afterward dispersed by Prussian troops. Wagner was forced to fly from Saxony, and took refuge in Weimar. For many years after this, financial difficulties hindered his artistic work, and he shared the fate of Balzac, Beethoven, and many other luminaries, who, under a capitalist regime, have to write, not what their soul craves to express, but what will earn for them daily bread. Finally, as we know, after long and weary struggles for recognition and support from the musical public, Richard Wagner found artistic understanding and intellectual sympathy in the young King of Bavaria, who had just succeeded to that throne, and who, ever since the age of fifteen, when he first heard an opera by the Master, had been an ardent Wagnerite. Henceforth real art expression was no longer to be hampered by carping material considerations, and pursuing creditors; and the world’s joy was to be increased by the production of the life-work of a man of genius.

But Wagner himself had no illusions about the social and economic conditions which left the production of his work to the tender mercies of chance, and the romantic admiration of a royal youth. He knew that, like feudalism, the royal and ecclesiastic art patron were things of the past, and that the future of Art and Literature must depend on the verdict of a people as economically independent as the Prince and the Pope. Modern socialism, the socialism preached by Marx and his disciples, was just then much in the air, and was then, as now, often misrepresented and misinterpreted. One of these misinterpretations seems at first to have influenced Wagner in his conception of socialism, for he wrote in one of his essays: “The desire of the working man to force the rich to work like him by the sweat of his brow to gain his daily bread might make of Art an impossibility for all time.” Later do he wrote, fully acknowledging his misconception of socialistic aims, and adding: “What I feared meant equally allotted toil, I found, to wit, that, when equally divided among all, actual labour, with its crippling burthen and fatigue, would be downright done away with, leaving nothing in its stead but an occupation which necessarily must assume an artistic character of itself.”

In his article, “Art and. Revolution,” Wagner wrote: “Only the great revolution of mankind, whose beginnings erstwhile shattered Grecian tragedy, can win for us this Art work. For only this revolution can bring forth from its hidden depths, in the new beauty of a nobler Universalism, that which it once tore from the conservative spirit of a true and beautiful, but narrow-meted, culture; and tearing it engulfed.” He further on asks a question, which we are still asking ourselves, but are answering it perhaps with less faith and enthusiasm than they did fifty years ago. “Whence,” he wrote, “shall we get the force for this revolution in our present state of utmost weakness? Whence the manly strength against the crushing pressure of a civilisation which disowns all mankind, against the arrogance of a culture which employs the human mind as naught but steam power for its machinery? Whence the light to illumine the gruesome human heresy that this civilisation and this culture are of more value in themselves than the true living man? That man has worth and value only as a tool of these despotic, abstract powers, and not by virtue of his manhood!” Shall we obtain the light or the strength, we may well ask now, from meaningless and discouraging street shows, inspired, it would seem, by the same motives that led the governing bodies in times of Roman imperial decadence to toss as bribes to a demoralised populace “bread and circuses”? Shall we obtain them from wars of aggression, immoral in their inception, inept in their execution, and inglorious and futile in their issue? Shall we obtain them whilst the cancers of degraded poverty, of carefully-enforced ignorance, of physical conditions inferior to those of the beasts of burden fortunate enough to be owned by the upper middle classes and the aristocracy of this “great Empire”; while these malign cancers are eating out .the vital forces of Great Britain’s population? Is it not a fact that while a House of Commons elected on the principle of how not to represent the people, is engaged in meaningless discussions on a Bill intended to curtail the small amount of education already granted to that same people, thousands of our children still escape the meshes even of our primary education net, and England and Wales are in the proud, position of having the standard of education of their people lower than that of the Colonies, or than that of any civilised nation of the world?

Education as a means, and education as an end, should be one of the mainstays of socialist propaganda, and Wagner has a fine passage, which might serve us as text in such propaganda: “Whatsoever we deem the goal of life, to that we train ourselves and children. The Goth was bred to battle, and to chase; the genuine Christian to abstinence and humility; while the liegeman of the modern state is bred to seek industrial gain, be it even in the exercise of Art and Science. But when life’s maintenance is no longer the exclusive aim of life, and the freeman of the future, inspired by a new and deed-begetting faith, or better knowledge, finds the means of life assured by payment of a natural and reasonable energy; in short, when Industry is no longer our mistress but our handmaid; then shall we set the goal of life in joy of life, and strive to rear our children to be fit and worthy partners in this joy!”

As regards the influence of Art on the spirituality of the people—a spirituality worth cultivating as a corrective to crass middle-class materialism—Mr. William Archer called attention lately, in the, columns of the “Morning Leader,” to an interesting article on “The Play and the Gallery,” by Miss McCracken, in an American monthly; and he quotes Mr. Bernard Shaw in support of Miss McCracken’s conclusion that the Stage, and Art generally, under right conditions, might mean much more to the people morally and spiritually than they do under conditions which are bound by the present nature of things to spell “profits.” Mr. Shaw wrote in his preface to “Mrs. Warren’s Profession”: “I am convinced that Fine Art is the subtlest, the most educative, the most effective means of moral propagandism in the world, excepting only the example of personal conduct.” And Miss McCracken tells a touching story of a woman, whose life had been of the hardest, living as she did in one of the least model of the tenements, but who warmed to moral enthusiasm over a magazine portrait of Ellen Terry as Portia. “Yes,” said the woman, “once I saw her. I saw the ‘Merchant of Venice,’ and she was in it; she was Portia. It’s a long time since, I saw her, but I’ve never forgot the things she said ’bout havin’ mercy, and how she looked when she said ’em. People ain’t always had mercy for me, and when I’ve wanted to pay ’em back for it, or to be mean to anybody, I jes’ remember her, and what she said ’bout havin’ mercy, and I don’t want to be mean cos of her,” she concluded, almost shyly.

Miss McCracken evidently possesses the conscious abstract knowledge of the essence of the world of which Wagner, the artist and poet, had the intuition when he wrote of what socialism might do for Art and for the spiritual life of the people: “It is for Art, therefore, to teach this social impulse its noblest meaning, and guide it towards its true direction. Only on the shoulders of this great social movement can true Art lift itself from its present state of civilised barbarism, and take its post of honour. Each has a common goal, and the twain can only reach it when they recognise it jointly.” Then, in a burst of poetic metaphor, in which lovers of Wagner’s music will recognise the leit-motiv of some of his best work, he adds: “This goal is the strong, fair Man, to whom Revolution shall give his strength, and Art his Beauty!”