Richard Wagner and the Critique of Capitalism

Jascha Nemtsov | 27 July 2022

The first person who comes to mind in connection with the critique of capitalism is most likely Karl Marx, but it is also a central topic in the works of Richard Wagner. His approach is less academic and analytical and is rooted, as it were, in the zeitgeist. In this article, which is published in the context of the exhibition “Richard Wagner and the Nationalization of Feeling“, the pianist and music scholar Jascha Nemtsov considers Wagner’s capitalism critique.

In May 1877, a Wagner Festival took place in London, where excerpts from the “Ring des Nibelungen” were presented to an English audience for the first time. During his trip, Wagner saw English factories. While ascending the Themes, he remarked to Cosima: “Alberich’s dream is fulfilled here. Nibelheim, world dominion, activity, labour, everywhere the pressure of steam and fog.”

Hardly any other important 19th century work of music has been so deeply inspired by sociocritical thought than the “Ring”. The ruling class is represented here in the form of the “Gods”, who are not only profligate and depraved, but who also yearn for their own downfall. The whole work is informed with the idea of a revolution that will put an end to the unbearable conditions and usher in a new world order. The revolution, which Wagner experienced first hand in 1849, is consummated on stage as “Götterdämmerung” and is the culmination of the opera tetralogy.

While these “Gods” stand for the established ruling class, the two despicable Nibelungen brothers Alberich and Mime in the “Ring” symbolise capitalist parvenus, the new “moneyed aristocracy”. For Wagner, money is not merely the lynchpin of the iniquitous capitalist world order, but evil itself, the ever-present “Demon of Humanity”. “Property is theft” – this he had already learned in the early 1840s from the French anarchist leader Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. While working on his Nibelungen drama in Swiss exile, Wagner read Karl Marx’s pamphlet “On the Jewish Question”, in which Judaism is characterised as the embodiment of monetary power in capitalism: “Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist. […] Money is the universal self-established value of all things. It has, therefore, robbed the whole world – both world of men and nature – of its specific value. […] The god of the Jews has become secularized and has become the god of the world.” That made sense to Wagner, and some of the passages in the work he wrote shortly thereafter, “Judaism in Music”, read like a direct continuation of Marx’s ideas: “In the present state of things, the Jew is more than free, for he dominates; and, as long as money continues the power before which all our doings and strivings are as naught, he will continue to do so.”

Whereas Marx later abandoned his mythological identification of Jews with money and attempted to understand the mechanisms of capitalist exploitation theoretically and analytically, Wagner continued to reinforce the myth he had created. “The fateful Ring des Nibelungen as stock exchange portfolio,” he pondered in his writings in 1881, “can only bring the dreadful image of the ghostly world ruler to fruition.” The future revolution should bring with it the liberation of the world from the imagined “Jew”, the “sculpted demon of the downfall of humanity,” wrote Wagner.

As a critic of capitalism, Wagner remained a product of the early socialist movement, whose mindset Marx and Engels mocked in the Communist Manifesto as the “robe of speculative cobwebs, embroidered with flowers of rhetoric, steeped in the dew of sickly sentiment.” Unlike the founders of “scientific socialism”, Wagner did not believe in the class struggle, but rather in the artistic power of his music dramas and the spiritual strength of his own pseudo-Christian “religion” of a chosen community of blood as revealed in “Parsifal”. He believed this would ennoble humanity and liberate it from the curse of money.

Although the means of overcoming social misery were very different for Wagner and Marx, the two are similar in their implacable rejection of the hated social order of their time, the downfall of which they longed for. “Like an evil nightly incubus, this demonic notion of money will quit us with all of its horrid retinue of public and secret usury, racketeering, interest and banker speculation,” declared Wagner in a public speech in June 1848. He was open to literally any means to achieve this. He did not shrink from revolutionary violence; on the contrary, only a violent upheaval, a “gigantic volcano”, would be able to destroy the order “that makes millions the slaves of the few, and these few, slaves of their own power, their own wealth, […] which makes one person miserable through deprivation, and the other through profusion.” Wagner’s grandson, the publicist Franz W. Beidler, is correct in calling his grandfather a “social-revolutionary poet composer”, whose “Ring des Nibelungen” was an “artistic-visionary counterpart” to Karl Marx’s scientific critique: “The complicated shaft mines and steel mills of the Ruhr District are simplified down to the workshops of Nibelheim, the anonymity of capital, the uncertainty of the shareholder reveals itself in the cloak of invisibility. The demonic power of the ring, i.e. the capitalist striving for power and profit, permeates all relationships, severs all bonds, rights, and customs.”

Wagner did not give up his belief in the destructive and cleansing power of the coming revolution even after it failed. The next revolution would be a success, he firmly believed. “I will then call together what I need out of the ruins,” he wrote in 1851 to a friend about the work he now planned. “On the Rhine I will pitch a theatre and extend an invitation to a great dramatic festival. After a year of preparation I will perform my entire work in the course of four days. With it I will then reveal to the people of the revolution the meaning of this revolution, in the most noble sense.”

The dream was only realised twenty-five years later, albeit not on the Rhine, the authentic setting of the plot, but in placid Bavarian Bayreuth, and not in the form of a revolutionary theatre tent, but instead reminiscent of the castle of the gods and temple Valhalla. Fortunately, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus even survived the world infernos of the 20th century. And today, 150 years after its consecration, the Wotans, Frickas and Alberichs of this world gather every summer on the red carpet to then regale in the images of their own downfall and become exhilarated by the Wagnerian music. Afterwards they gather for a jovial dinner in a genteel restaurant.

But for how long?



Jascha Nemtsov

Jascha Nemtsov, Prof. Dr. habil., pianist and music scholar, professor of the history of Jewish music at the University of Music Franz Liszt Weimar and academic head of cantor training at the Abraham Geiger College of Potsdam University. Numerous publications on Jewish music and Jewish composers of the 19th and 20th centuries as well as on topics such as “Nationalism and Music”, “Religion and Music” and “Totalitarianism and Music”. Worldwide concerts and more than 40 CDs, including many first recordings of the works of rediscovered Jewish composers.