Richard and the revolutionaries: why did leftwingers love Wagner?

His antisemitism made him a far-right icon. So what attracted reds and radicals from Lenin to George Bernard-Shaw to the tumultuous sounds of Hitler’s favourite composer?

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.

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