Was Karl Marx a hater of ideology

From revolution to world fire: Marx and Wagner

Richard Wagner and Karl Marx were contemporaries; both thinking was sparked by a criticism of capitalism. Their conclusions, on the other hand, could hardly have been more different.

The worker serves his machine "like the fetish worshiper serves an idol made by his own hands". All that remains for him of the product of his hands is the "abstract monetary value". "But our God," it continues, "is money, our religion is money." No, these words are not from Karl Marx, but from Richard Wagner, who wrote them down after his participation in the Dresden May uprising in 1849.

It was not until a few years later that Marx, who was five years his junior, stated in his “Grundrisse”: “Money is the god of commodities. From its servant form, in which it appears as a mere means of circulation, it suddenly becomes the ruler. " Both men paid for their participation in the revolutionary movements of the 19th century with their exile: Marx in London, Wagner in Zurich. Both sought ways out of the alienation they diagnosed in their increasingly commercialized world. As striking as the parallels seem, the conclusions they drew from their diagnoses of the time appear contradictory.

Paradigmatic opposition

After 1864, Wagner was financed by the young Bavarian King Ludwig II, and from then on pursued his subversive ideas only in the fantasy worlds of his musical dramas, especially in the "Ring of the Nibelung", which since George Bernard Shaw has been interpreted time and again as an essentially anti-capitalist parable of power is. With Das Kapital, Marx wrote the historically most momentous analysis and criticism of capitalist society. In the 20th century, the following of both men turned fanatic and ideological - another parallel that also marked the end of what they had in common.

Wagner and Marx - this was the quintessence of a top-class symposium at the German Historical Museum in Berlin - can be understood as paradigmatic poles in the momentous German intellectual history of the 19th century. The politician and economist Peter Struve, who was born in Perm in 1870, summed this up as early as 1933: "The intellectual battle that Germany today, consciously or unconsciously, is fighting", so the bold conclusion, which Struve immediately followed up in an unpublished report the manuscript drafted by the election of Hitler as German Chancellor dares, "is really a struggle between Richard Wagner and Karl Marx."

As a co-founder of “Legal Marxism” in Russia, Struve underwent a remarkable change of mind in the course of his life, as the historian Christina Morina described: As a supporter of parliamentary democracy, he fought against Lenin's Bolsheviks, fled into exile in Paris and finally subscribed to a religious worldview. Against the background of the 50th anniversary of the deaths of Wagner and Marx - both died in 1883 - Hitler's election as Chancellor in 1933 appears to him as "a strange coincidence", even as a "judgment of God" between the irreconcilable attitudes of the two men.

Soon after his early revolutionary impulses, Wagner had advanced to become a "spiritual likeness of Bismarck" and embodied the "religious-national", "folk-state-building" mentality of German history, according to Struve. On the other hand, it is silly to “dress up” Karl Marx in a statesmanlike manner: “He hated and negated the state; he made the national contemptuous and mocked. "

Alienation and redemption

In both men’s criticism of capitalism, demarcation from Judaism plays a role. But their anti-Semitic statements are not comparable. In the case of Marx, the baptized descendant of two large rabbi families, they are only ever documented in a single early document. For the young Marx, the anti-Semitic stereotypes of the selfish "money Jew" serve here as an explanatory model for the emergence of capitalism, which he of course only sees fully realized and led to triumph through the Christian adoption of these characteristics. In MarxVision of a socially liberated society, the Jews have their equal place.

Wagner, a fervent Jew hater, was completely different. His anti-Semitism was racist throughout his life and aimed at the extermination of the Jews. Two years before his death, this is how he wished, according to Cosima Wagner's diary, that “all Jews should burn to death in a performance of Nathan the Wise”.

Also very different from Marx's, Wagner's concept of alienation is fundamentally undialectical and again anti-Semitic. Because the driving force behind the estrangement felt by Wagner is none other than the untalented Jew. It is the evil that has to be overcome by returning to a supposedly unadulterated inwardness, which Wagner in his "Nationalization of Sound" (Michael Steinberg) attributes only to the essence of German music.

Wagner's works therefore seek redemption in a Germanic world of myths, even with pseudo-religious blood cleansing rituals such as in “Parsifal”. The author and historian Gerd Koenen brilliantly summed up the difference to Marx in his lecture: «While Wagner's retrograde cultural pessimism takes him into a mythical, timeless world of Germanizing heroes and gods, in which Jews can at least find redemption if they stop To be a Jew, Marx opens the way to a European socialism in which very real proletarian, female, Jewish and other emancipation concerns have come together in a new, always precarious, but historically significant way. "

The "German feeling"

And in all of this, where is the “feeling” that will play a key role in the exhibitions of the German Historical Museum planned for the coming year? In Marx's writings, it plays a role - albeit a secondary one - as a universalistic moral feeling: his theory appeals to the sense of justice of all people.

In contrast, the elevation of the "German feeling", evoked by Wagner, to a national idea led to political and civilizational catastrophe. It was no coincidence that Wagner's Götterdämmerung provided the music to accompany this downfall: on April 12, 1945, Hitler repeated the order to defend German cities in the Führerbunker under the Reich Chancellery. The Berliner Philharmoniker ended their last concert with the world fire of “Götterdämmerung”. At the exits of the Philharmonie, uniformed Hitler Youth distributed cyanide capsules to the visitors.

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In the coming year the German Historical Museum in Berlin will show the two exhibitions “Karl Marx and Capitalism” (January 28 to August 21, 2022) and “Richard Wagner and the German Feeling” (April 8 to September 11, 2022) .

“Back from the Ring!”: Final scene from Wagner's “Götterdämmerung” in the Bayreuth production by Patrice Chéreau.