A “true” socialist, I have learned, is a humanist. And a humanist, per 19th-century German socialist writer Karl Grün, was Goethe. Or so he tried to make Goethe out to be in a biography that appeared in 1846 entitled Über Goethe vom menschlichen Standpunkte (On Goethe from the Human Standpoint). Friedrich Engels took umbrage at this portrait and critiqued it in five installments in the Deutsche Brüsseler Zeitung in 1847. (It turns out that a lot of German communists were holing up in Brussels in that year.)
As I have mentioned in several posts, Goethe appears in the most varied contexts, and so it was that I came across just last week something of interest at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which, besides the mammoth Manet/Degas exhibition, is also hosting a smaller exhibition entitled “Art for the Millions: American Culture and Politics in the 1930s.” Among the exhibits was a display of copies of the journal New Masses, including the September 1932 issue, with “Engels on Goethe” featured on the cover. Engels was no longer around in 1932, but 1932 being the year of celebration of Goethe’s centenary (“in Russia as well as in Germany, and by the working class as well as by intellectuals”), New Masses offered excerpts from the 1847 critique.
I managed to download the New Masses piece, but as with many subjects that catch my interest and seem appropriate for a blog post, I found it necessary to plunge into research. In order not to make this piece longer than necessary, let me introduce the authorities that I have made use of. These include, besides the excerpt from Engels in New Masses, two scholarly articles, both of which appeared in a journal entitled Science and Society. The first, by Auguste Cornu on German utopianism, of which “true” socialism was a part, appeared in 1948 (vol. 12, no. 1); the second is by Renate Bridenthal, which appeared in 1971 (vol. 35, no. 1), and has Grün as its subject. Had I not read the two scholarly articles, I would have been in the dark about the subject of “true” socialism, which seems to have been the name by which the movement went. Truth is an ideal category, after all, which reflects the idealistic character of the movement. It reflects the world of human thought.
True socialism was a phenomenon in Germany among Hegel-influenced intellectuals, at a time when the communist movement had not yet become revolutionary in the sense of being proletariat-based, in favor of abolishing private property and substituting common ownership, and acknowledging that only a violent, democratic revolution was the means of accomplishing these goals. True socialists like Grün were not revolutionaries in that sense. Although Grün used the word revolution freely, he meant a revolution in thought. For him, the goal of history was “the achievement of human self-consciousness,” and the real battleground was the mind. Thus, the need for education, which “could bring out the true nature of man and fulfill its potential.” As Bridenthal writes: “The idea that political, economic, and social institutions could be forcibly overthrown and a free society established before humanity as a whole had achieved consciousness was flatly contradictory to his metaphysical conception of history.”
What bothered Engels in particular about Grün’s biography was its attempt to champion Goethe as the first humanist in the “true” socialist sense. Since I don't have Grün’s book, I am relying on Bridenthal for his claim that Goethe “had recognized recognized 'true' human nature, socialist man, and had portrayed man’s historic struggle to achieve existence in his writings. Goethe's notorious lack of interest in the politics of his day resulted from his having seen beyond what these politics hoped to accomplish and his impatience with their limited goals. He had fought out the conflicts of humanity within himself and had achieved inner peace.” Further, “Grün saw in Goethe's works the chronicles of his inner battle and of human history in its striving for self-consciousness. He had been a hundred years ahead of his time.”
Engels was having none of this and ridiculed Grün:
“Herr Grün lifts him onto his untiring shoulders and carries him through the mud; in fact, he charges all the mud to the account of true socialism, just to keep Goethe's boots clean.”
Here is Engels’ judgment on Goethe in the New Masses:
“It is not only single sides of German life that Goethe accepts, as opposed to others that are repugnant to him. More commonly it is the various moods in which he find himself; it is the persistent struggle in himself between the poet of genius, disgusted by the wretchedness of his surroundings, and the Frankfurt alderman’s cautious child, the privy-counselor of Weimar, who sees himself forced to make a truce with it and to get used to it. Thus Goethe is now colossal, now petty; now a defiant, ironical, world-scorching genius, now a calculating, complacent, narrow philistine. Even Goethe was unable to overcome the wretchedness of German life; on the contrary, it overcame him, and this victory over the greatest German is the best proof that it cannot be conquered by the individual.”
As the New Masses editor writes, Engels’ chief point was that “even so great a genius as Goethe could not overcome the weakness of his class, and that the artist, as artist, was affected by his compromise with bourgeois society.”
Bridenthal cites the full critique by Engels in her bibliography, although anyone interested in interpretations of Goethe’s political thought might also want to look at the shorter version in New Masses.
Since I have worked on utopian themes myself, I found Cornu’s article very illuminating. For instance, “Feuerbach's critique of idealism and Hess' critique of alienation as the basic phenomenon of society were the starting point of Engels' and Marx's evolution from idealism to historical and dialectical materialism, and from liberalism to communism.” Marx and Engels were liberated, so to speak, from idealism by their stays in “the most advanced capitalist countries,” where they “attained a new conception of historical development and communism.” Hess and Feuerbach were still expressing the social and economic situation of “backward Germany.” Interestingly, according to Cornu, it was the revolt of the Silesian weavers in 1844 that occasioned the "true" socialism movement and also led to a vast bourgeois philanthropic current — which Marx and Engels would call “liberalism.” While Grün is practically unknown today, Bridenthal remarks that the section on “true” socialism in the Communist Manifesto was aimed primarily at him (according to Engels’ notes of 1890 to that document), while the bulk of Part 3 of The German Ideology also contains of a critical analysis of Grün’s book Soziale Bewegung in Frankreich und Belgien, written in 1846.
The first figure is Paul Goodman, whose vision for a “modernized anarchism” was purely aesthetic, one of life style. The second is Herbert Marcuse, who, like Goodman, found “the highest form of human expression to be aesthetic: the play impulse could replace the impulse to dominate in shaping the world. Under liberated conditions, work itself becomes invested with eroticism and provides instinctual gratification.”
The last is Charles Reich, working in “the optimistic, success-oriented American tradition” in his best- seller The Greening of America. Appropriately, she calls his vision “the Grüning of America”: “Once again we hear that personal institutions hold us spellbound, that there are no classes, only generations, in opposition to one another, that a consumer revolution is all that is necessary, that an emotionally and intellectually satisfying life is only a thought or two away.” You have to love it.
Image credits: All Riot