Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity

Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre, Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity, trans. by Catherine Porter (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001)

This book is a comprehensive survey of the many different currents of thought and feeling that flowed into the great stream of Romanticism. It is a remarkable intellectual achievement. Löwy and Sayre trace the history of the Romantic “movement” from its modern inception in the second half of the eighteenth century-when such figures as Rousseau and Goethe marked the advent of a new sensibility that was to flower in the early and mid-nineteenth century- to our own time. They reject the conventional periodization adopted by many cultural historians, according to which Romanticism was a relatively coherent set of ideas and emotions only from the 1770s to about 1840. Their concluding illustrative figures are E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams; Thompson because of the “ethos of community” that traverses so much of his writing, especially his essay on the notion of time, and Williams’s highlighting of the affinity between move- ments such as ecology, feminism, and pacifism, and the Romantic tradition.

This chronological extension is crucially important to the argument the two co-authors want to make, namely that what fundamentally characterizes Romantic writers, poets, artists, historians, and philosophers is their opposition to and revulsion against capitalist modernity, with its callous indifference to all hitherto sacred spiritual values. They reason that if anti-capitalism is the dominant trait of otherwise diverse and disparate personalities, then Romanticism should not be enclosed within its customary chronological boundaries. Löwy and Sayre utilize the notion of worldview, or Weltanschauung, which they explicitly borrow from Lucien Goldmann. The Romantic worldview, they maintain, hinges essentially on a repudiation of capitalist-dominated civilization, with all its attendant corrupt manifestations in the realms of thought and culture.

This argument, although tenaciously and at times cogently presented, is not quite as convincing as the overall historical account the authors provide of the myriad personalities and creative works that, for a variety of reasons, qualify as “Romantic” in their scheme of things.

One problem in their presentation lies in the periodization to which I alluded above. In my opinion, we can speak of Romanticism as a “movement” if we limit our field of vision to the years 1770 to 1840, when a significant number of European writers, composers, poets and philosophers did share a common or similar outlook on nature as a source of wisdom, and on society as ideally a fellowship of human beings bound by comradely feelings (and not, as under capitalism, a war of all against all). These were years when a true correspondence or, to use Raymond Williams’s term, a common “structure” of feeling connected the creative intelligentsia of France, Germany, England and Italy. Lamartine, Schiller, Wordsworth, and Leopardi, for example, to name only four representative Romantic figures, were frequently inspired by each other’s work; they belonged to a “movement” that had definite characteristics and contours. But as soon as we move beyond that period, these connections become increasingly tenuous, despite the fact that, as claimed by Löwy and Sayre, the traditionally Romantic ethos of the years 1770 to 1840 continues to influence the work of cultural critics who come on the scene later, such as John Ruskin in the nineteenth century, and Charles Péguy, André Breton, Gyorgi Lukács and Ernst Bloch in the twentieth. It seems to me misleading to speak of this group of writers as belonging to a “movement,” inasmuch as their political, cultural, and philosophical affiliations were either highly idiosyncratic or were linked with events and experiences that lie rather far afield from those of Romanticism.

Another problem is that, even if we agree with Löwy and Sayre that all Romantics are by definition in some fashion opposed to, or critical of, the harsher aspects of capitalist modernity, this does not mean that their sensibilities and world outlook were shaped primarily by this attitude. I would say that there are key elements of the Romantic worldview that have little to do with capitalism and anti-capitalism. The passions that animated the four poets mentioned earlier-Lamartine, Schiller, Wordsworth, and Leopardi-stemmed from nostalgia for bygone eras (a Romantic trait but not only that), endemic melancholia, disappointments in love, and a tragic conception of life where nature is seen as at times a source of solace and wisdom, to be sure, but also as an awesome and often overwhelmingly destructive force. Wordswoth was critical of the new bourgeois commercial era of “getting and spending,” but was his attitude rooted in a broader critique of capitalism in any meaningful sense of the word critique? Was Leopardi’s pessimism a product of the nascent industrial-capitalist society, or was it a more deeply personal belief that happiness was at best a fleeting moment of surcease from an otherwise bleak and benighted existence subject to all the unpredictable vicissitudes of natural phenomena and human activity?

I raise these questions not to deny the importance of what Löwy and Sayre have to say about the interrelationship between Romanticism and anti-capitalism, but simply to express some reservations about certain aspects of their thesis, which has an undeniable intellectual appeal and historical relevance. In sum, it is disputable whether anti-capitalism was the “essential” ingredient in the worldviews of many eighteenth-and nineteenth-century figures usually associated with Romanticism. The case for the “essentiality” of anti-capitalism in thinkers and writers of more recent times is easier to make, but then the connection shows some weaknesses of a historical and philosophical character.

Let me now point out a feature of this book which readers of Socialism and Democracy will find to be of special interest: the ways in which the two co-authors seek to link Marxist thinkers-from Marx and Engels themselves to Rosa Luxemburg, from Györgi Lukács and Ernst Bloch to E.P. Thompson, Raymond Williams, and Christa Wolf-with aspects of the Romantic worldview.

This is not the first time such a linkage has been attempted, but it is certainly one of the most thoroughgoing. In chapter one, “Redefining Romanticism,” Löwy and Sayre pass in review some of the leading studies of Romanticism produced in the twentieth century, indicating their preference for an approach that “recognize[s] the cultural multiplicity of Romanticism and that therefore see[s] it as a worldview, a weltanschauung manifested in the most varied forms” (7). This extraordinary variety, they observe, “is illuminated from a common source,” namely, an irreconcilable antipathy to bourgeois-capitalist society. Marxist historians, they argue, have been among the pioneering thinkers in opening up the study of Romanticism to social and historical contextualization. In this regard they speak of Lukács-together with two of his disciples, Herbert Marcuse and Ernst Bloch-as being the first and principal Marxist theorist “to associate Romanticism explicitly with opposition to capitalism” (15).

In chapter 2, Löwy and Sayre offer us a somewhat schematic but very useful discussion of the six main types of Romanticism, the last of which, “revolutionary and/or utopian Romanticism,” is broken down further into five sub-tendencies: Jacobin-democratic, populist, utopian-humanist socialist, libertarian, and Marxist. Here they briefly mention “the significant, if not truly dominant, Romantic dimension in the work of Marx and Engels” (82), a point that is fleshed out in subsequent chapters, especially chapter 3, “Excursus: Marxism and Romanticism.”

Chapter 3 attempts to explain, in a philologically rigorous way, why the two founders of historical materialism can be inserted into the discussion of Romanticism and anti-capitalism. Marx, the authors argue, was in some respects “anti-Romantic,” inasmuch as he ulti- mately rejected the whole gamut of sentiments associated with German Romanticism and embraced in its stead a materialist dialectics, which formed the basis of his “philosophy of praxis.” Yet he was nonetheless touched by some typically Romantic attitudes. He was attracted, for example, to primitive rural communities and to the Russian rural commune, a trait he shared with many Romantic thinkers, who saw in these communities a prefiguration of what modernity could accomplish if only the newly released energies of capitalist industry could be harnessed for ethically desirable social or socialist ends. Marx’s concept of alienation was “strongly tinged with Romanticism.” Basically, it was “the dream of integral humanity, beyond fragmentation, division, and alienation” that constituted the chief link between Marx and the Romantic legacy (96).

Lest readers conclude that Löwy and Sayre argue for a total and unqualified insertion of Marx into the Romantic heritage, the following judgments (from chapter 3) should allay that concern:

It would be quite mistaken to deduce from the foregoing remarks that Marx was a Romantic: he owes more to the philosophy of the Enlightenment and to classical political economics than to the Romantic critiques of industrial civilization. But the latter helped him perceive the limits and the contradictions of the former…

Marx’s ideas were neither Romantic nor modernizing, but constituted an attempt at a dialectical Aufhebung between the two, in a new critical and revolutionary worldview. Neither apologetic for bourgeois civilization nor blind to its achievements, Marx sought a higher form of social organization, one that would incorporate the technological advances of modern society along with some of the human qualities of precapitalist communities — and above all one that would open up a boundless field for the development and enrichment of human life (88-89).

The sixth and final chapter, “The Fire is still Burning: From Surrealism to the Present Day and Beyond,” sums up the previous chapters, while adding a vital new ingredient: the amalgamation, so to speak, of Marxist historians and political thinkers with poets by reason of their shared revolutionary perspectives. The chapter opens with a bold attempt to link two figures not customarily seen as belonging to the same currents of thought, Marx and Rimbaud. What legitimizes such an amalgamation, in the authors’ opinion, is that Marx and Rimbaud embody two diverse yet spiritually analogous impulses that are present in nineteenth-century Romanticism:

Intellectual rebellion and social revolution, transformation of life (Arthur Rimbaud) and of the world (Karl Marx): these two pole- stars have oriented the Romantic movement since it began, pulling it toward a perpetual search for subversive cultural and political practices (214).

In reviewing the contributions made by assorted Marxist thinkers to the Romantic heritage in the twentieth century, chapter 6 searches out impulses, motifs, tendencies, and fragments of thought in the writing of E.P. Thompson, Raymond Williams, and Henri Lefebvre, with a view to identifying them with the same radical and “transformative” project undertaken by André Breton, the founder and main theorist of the Surrealist movement. Again, this is not the first time such a connection has been made, but it has rarely been expounded so eloquently and with such a rich admixture of historical and literary insights.

All in all, despite some dubious arguments and perhaps an overzealous pursuit of the “essential” anti-capitalist component of Romanticism, Löwy and Sayre are to be commended for their contribution to the intellectual history of a complex movement, one that continues to be relevant to the concerns of Marxists and progressives today.

Reviewed by Frank Rosengarten
City University of New York

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