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Richard Wagner (1813-1883) `The Revolution'

After a failed attempt to establish himself in Paris between 1839 and 1842, Wagner returned to Germany at the age of
28 and found employment as conductor of the court opera at Dresden. He was there until 1849. The revolutions of 1848
in Paris stimulated reform movements elsewhere, including the German states, and Wagner, although later an arch-
conservative, was at this time caught up in the wave of radicalism. His assistant, August Rockel, lost his post due to his
political activities, and started a newspaper, the Volksblatter in August 1848. Wagner contributed several
anonymous articles, including 'The Revolution' on 8 April 1849. The following month, May 1849, the Dresden
Uprising broke out. After its suppression, Wagner fled into exile in Switzerland, where he was to remain for the next
ten years. Wagner's invocation of Revolution contains images of cataclysm, of the existing world being shaken and
destroyed, comparable to those in the contemporaneous writings of such diverse figures as Marx (IIa11) and Delacroix
(IIIA4). And also like the early Marx (IIA9), he identifies the freedom to be brought by Revolution with a freedom
from alienated labour and enjoyment of creative power. The present extracts are from the translation of Wagner's text
by P. R. J. Ford and Mary Whittal in Wagner.- A Documentary Study, compiled and edited by Herbert Barth,
Dietrich Mack and Egon Voss, Vienna and London: Thames and Hudson, 1975, pp. 170-3.

If we look out over the nations and peoples of Europe we see everywhere the ferment of

a mighty movement, whose first ripples have already reached us and whose full weight

threatens to engulf us soon. Europe appears to us like some immense volcano, from within

which a constantly growing, alarming roar can be heard; from its crater dark, stormy pillars

of smoke are already rising into the sky and forming heavy blankets of cloud, plunging the

surrounding earth into darkness, while individual rivers of lava have already broken through

the crust and go pouring down into the valleys, destroying everything in their path, fiery

harbingers of the coming eruption.

A supernatural force seems to be about to seize our continent, to lift it from its welltried

course and hurl it off on to another track. Yes, the old world, we can see, is about to collapse;

from it a new world will arise, for the sublime Goddess of Revolution comes thundering in

on the wings of the storm, lightning flashing round her august head, a sword in her right

hand, torch in her left, her eye so dark, so vengeful, so cold; and yet what a glow of the

purest love, what abundant happiness it radiates upon him who dares to look straight and

unswerving into this sombre eye! She thunders down upon us, the ever-rejuvenating mother of

mankind, destroying and blessing she sweeps across the earth; and before her the howl of the
storm, shaking so violently all that man has fashioned that vast clouds of dust darken the air;

wherever her mighty foot treads what vain presumption built to last a thousand years crashes in

ruins, and the hem of her robe sweeps away its last remains! But behind her there is revealed to

us, bathed in glowing sunshine, an unsuspected paradise of happiness, and where her foot has

passed in destruction, sweet-scented flowers spring from the ground and the joyful hallelujahs

of liberated mankind fill the air, which is yet re-echoing with the din of conflict.

And now look around you. There you see some mighty prince, his heart beating

anxiously, his breath hesitant, struggling to put on a calm and collected air as he tries to deny

to himself and to others what he nevertheless clearly sees is inescapable. And there you see

another, his leathery old face furrowed with every vice, fishing out and bringing into play all

those crafty little tricks which have already earned him many a little title and many a little

medal; now a diplomatic smile spreads across his inscrutable countenance as he tries to calm

down the snivelling Junkers and their swooning dames by the semi-official intimation that the

highest authorities are already devoting their attention to this strange apparition, that couriers

with Cabinet decrees have already been despatched in all directions, that the considered

opinion of the wise statesman, Prince Metternich himself, is already on its way from London,

that the competent security forces all around have been alerted, so that elegant society may

look forward to the surprise of being able to inspect for themselves this notorious vagabond,

Revolution - in chains, of course, in an iron cage - at the next Court ball. And there is yet a

third, calculating the approach of the phenomenon, then running to the stock exchange to study

and assess the rise and fall of the stocks, haggling and bargaining, trying to squeeze out the last

ounce of speculative profit, until with one stroke his whole shabby business is blown to

smithereens. And now again, see behind the dusty desk one of those rusted and furred-up cogs
of our present-day bureaucracy, scratching his blunt old pens across the page with no thought

in his mind but to add more and more to the ancient heap of the paper world-order. Between

the piles of documents and contracts lie the hearts of living men, like dried plants, crumbling to

dust in these modern torture-chambers. There there is immense activity, for the country-wide

net is torn in several places and the surprised spiders are busily spinning new threads to repair

the weak spots. No ray of light enters there, all is eternal night and darkness, and it is in night

and darkness that the whole apparatus will disappear without trace. But from this side can be

heard bright martial music, the swords and bayonets are gleaming, heavy cannons rattle past

and the long columns of troops wind along shoulder-to-shoulder. The brave band of heroes

have set forth to match arms with the Revolution. The general marches them right and left and

places here the infantry, there the hussars and draws up his long ranks of soldiers and the

shattering artillery; and the Revolution, head high in the clouds, approaches - and they cannot

see it and wait for the foe; and it is already in their midst; and its tempestuous force seizes

them and scatters their ranks and pulverizes their borrowed strength, and the general sits there

still, studying the map and working out from which side the enemy might attack, and how

strong he is and when he will come! And now the vision again changes: we see an anxious

worried face, that of an honest and industrious citizen. He has worked and struggled his whole

life long and faithfully served the common weal, as far as his strength allowed him; no tears,

no injustice taints the little sheaf which he has fathered through his fruitful efforts, to support

him in his weak old age and his children as they enter a hostile world. Certainly he felt the

approach of the storm, certainly he realizes no power can resist it, but his heart bleeds as he

looks back on his arduous existence, the sole fruit of which is now destined to be destroyed.

We must not condemn him if he clutches anxiously at his little nest-egg and in his blind
fervour vainly resists the impending change with all his strength. Harken, unfortunate! Lift

your eyes and look up to where thousands upon thousands are gathering on the hillsides to

await the new sun, full of joyful expectation! Look at them, they are your brothers, your

sisters, they are the host of all the poor, those wretches who have never vet known anything

from life but suffering, who were strangers on this earth of joy; they are all longing for just

this Revolution, which you are afraid of, to set them free from this world of despair, to create a

new world of happiness for everyone! Look, there come thousands pouring from the factories;

they have laboured and produced the finest cloths, but they themselves and their children are

naked, they freeze and hunger for it is not to them that the fruits of their labour belong, they

belong to the rich and mighty, who call the earth and its inhabitants their own. See how they

come from the farms and villages; they have tilled the soil and made of it a garden of plenty,

and their efforts have produced crops in abundance, enough to feed every man alive - and yet

they are poor and hungry and naked, for it is not to them and the others who are in need that

the earth's gifts belong, they belong to the rich and mighty, who call earth and its inhabitants

their own. By the hundred thousand, by the million, they are all assembled on the heights and

look out to the far horizon, where the gathering clouds announce the approach of the liberating

Revolution, and all of them, who have nothing left to regret, whose very sons are stolen from

them to be turned into devoted warders of their imprisoned father, whose daughters must walk

the streets of our cities laden with shame, victims of the low desires of the rich and mighty, all

of them with their pallid, care-worn faces, their weak and shivering limbs, all of them, who

have never known happiness, they are gathered there on the heights and, trembling with

excited expectation, they look out with fervent gaze upon the approaching phenomenon, and

listen in silent rapture to the roar of the rising storm as it brings to their ears the greeting of the
Revolution; `I am the ever-rejuvenating, ever-creating life! Where I am not is death! I am the

dream, the comfort, the hope of the oppressed! I destroy what is, and wherever I go new life

springs from the dead rocks. I come to you to smash all the chains which crush you, to redeem

you from the embrace of death and breathe young life into your veins. All that exists must pass

away, that is the eternal law of nature, the rule of life, and I, the eternal destroyer, have come

to fulfil the law and create the eternally youthful life. I will utterly annihilate the established

order in which you live, for it springs from sin, its flower is misery and its fruit is crime; but

the seed has ripened and I am the reaper. I will destroy every wrong which has power over

men. I will destroy the domination of one over the other, of the dead over the living, of the

material over the spiritual, I will shatter the power of the mighty, of the law and of property.

Man's master shall be his own will, his own desire his only law, his own strength his only

property, for only the free man is holy and there is nought higher than he. Let there be an

end to the wrong that gives one man power over millions, which subjects millions to the will

of one individual, to the evil which teaches that one has the power to give happiness to all

others. Equals may not rule equals, equals have no higher power than equals, and since all

are equal I shall destroy all dominion of one over the other. [ ... ]

`Let there be an end to the injustice that makes man subject to his own works, to

property. Man's highest possession is his creative power, that is the spring from which all

happiness for ever arises and your greatest real pleasure lies not in what is produced but in

the act of production, in the use of your own power. [ ... ]

`I will destroy the existing order of things which divides mankind into hostile nations,

into strong and weak, into those with rights and those without, into rich and poor, for this

order simply makes wretches of all. I will destroy the order of things which makes millions
into slaves of the few, and these few into slaves of their own paper and their own wealth. I

will destroy this order of things which divides work from enjoyment, which makes work a

burden and enjoyment a vice, and renders one man miserable through want and the other

miserable through excess. I will destroy this order of things which consumes men's strength

in the service of the dominion of the dead, of lifeless matter which keeps half of mankind

inactive or engaged in useless activity, which compels hundreds of thousands to devote the

flower of their youth in busy indolence to the preservation of this damnable state of affairs

as soldiers, officials, speculators and financiers, while the other half has to sustain the

whole shameful edifice at the cost of the exhaustion of their powers and the sacrifice of any

enjoyment of life. I will wipe from the face of the earth every trace of this crazy order of

things, this compact of violence, lies, worry, hypocrisy, poverty, misery, suffering, tears,

deceit and crime which fathers an occasional burst of impure lust, but almost never a ray of

pure joy.' [ ... ]

And see, the hosts on the hillsides fall silent on their knees, they hark with dumb

rapture, and as the sunparched earth sucks up the cooling raindrops, so their hearts,

scorched by misery, gulp down the draught of the thundering storm and new life courses

through their veins. The storm rolls nearer and nearer, on its wings the Revolution; the re-

awakened hearts open wide and the Revolution, victorious, enters into their minds, their

bones, their flesh and fills them utterly. They jump up from the earth in divine rapture; no

longer are they the poor, the starving, bowed down by misery, their proud figures arise,

with the glow of enthusiasm transfiguring their faces, their eyes are alight with excitement

and, with the heaven-shaking cry `I am a man!', the millions, the living Revolution, the
man-become-god, burst forth into the valleys and the plains and proclaim to the whole

world the new gospel of happiness!

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