“At the core of the approach of most of the great anarchist thinkers lies a Romantic attitude towards the past”
Michael Löwy (1938-) is a contemporary sociologist and philosopher whose work has done much to illuminate and revive the organic radical current of political thought.
Like Charlene Spretnak, among others, he offers an invaluable overview of the processes of ideological evolution.
Löwy says current society is dominated by a way of thinking which accepts the basic assumptions of industrial capitalism.
This, he argues, has coloured all points of view from conservatism to liberalism, social democracy to communism, authoritarianism to democracy, reaction to revolution, colonialism to anti-colonialism.
He wrote in his 2009 book Rédemption et utopie: “Based on a strictly quantitative conception of temporality, it sees the movement of history as a continuum of constant improvements, of irreversible evolution, of growing accumulation, of beneficial modernisation for which scientific and technological progress provides the motor”. (1)
Struggling against this dominant modern ideology was a dissenting current which he termed “anti-capitalist Romanticism”.
This rival worldview, he wrote, “hasn’t until now received the attention it deserves because it defies the usual classifications”. (2)
The way that the political terrain was currently divided in terms of left/centre/right, conservative/liberal/revolutionary or even regression/status quo/progress made this dissenting position impossible to imagine within the contemporary context, he argued.
But at the end of the nineteenth century and start of the twentieth, it was widespread among libertarian anti-capitalists.
Löwy noted that there was an element of nostalgia for a lost Golden Age in all revolutionary anti-capitalist thought, but added that “while with Marx and his disciples this dimension is relativised by their admiration for industry and the economic progress delivered by Capital, with anarchists (who don’t at all share this industrialism), it shines out with a particular, unique, intensity”. (3)
He added: “For Bakunin, Sorel, Proudhon and Landauer the revolutionary utopia always goes hand in hand with a profound nostalgia for forms of the pre-capitalist past, for traditional rural communities or craftsmanship; with Landauer, that even extends to an explicit defence of the Middle Ages… In truth, at the core of the approach of most of the great anarchist thinkers lies a Romantic attitude towards the past”. (4)
Löwy said this outlook, now unacceptable in many anarchist circles, was prevalent across Europe at the time.
He wrote: “In France, as everywhere else, nostalgia for certain moral values from the past, the idealisation of certain pre-capitalist social forms (rural living or cottage industry) and the rejection of industrial/bourgeois civilization were an essential component of anarchist culture”. (5)
Löwy sees this significant intellectual resistance to industrial capitalism as apparent everywhere from the writing of Thomas Mann and Theodor Storm or the poetry of Stefan George and Richard Beer-Hoffmann to the Kathedersozialismus of Gustav Schmoller, Adolph Wagner and Lujo Brentano.
The philosophy of Oswald Spengler and Martin Heidegger and the art of the Expressionist movement were also part of this wide trend, according to Löwy.
He also regards the Symbolist art movement in France as part of the phenomenon, as it reacted against “blinkered rationalism and bourgeois positivism” (6) in a similar way to the German Romantics and he describes Octave Mirbeau, Laurent Tailhade, Paul Adam, Stuart Merrill, Francis Vielé-Griffin, Camille Auclair and Bernard Lazare as adhering to this revolutionary Romanticism.
But, throughout his work, Löwy has consistently identified the intellectual heart of this anti-capitalist Romanticism as being in central European, and predominantly Jewish, thought.
He explained in the 2010 book Juifs hétérodoxes: “In many respects, the Jewish intellectuals of Mitteleuropa, in the utopian-Romantic movement, grouped around Martin Buber’s review Der Jude, expressionist publications (such as Die Aktion), the Bar-Kokhba circle in Prague, the Frankfurt School or various left-wing parties, set themselves apart from Western or Eastern European Jewish intellectuals, as well as from their peers, the ‘gentile’ intellectuals of German culture, by the kind of culture they produced”. (7).
Their vision, he said, revolved around “a cultural critique of modern capitalist civilization in the name of pre-modern or pre-capitalist values” and they were revolting “against the quantification and mechanisation of life, the reification of social relationships, the dissolution of community (Gemeinschaft) and, above all – to take up the terms used by Max Weber – the disenchantment of the world (Entzauberung der Welt) resulting from the instrumental rationality (Zweckrationalität) and the corresponding calculating spirit (Rechnenhaftigkeit) which dominated modern culture”. (8)
The key principles for this alternative, organic radical, worldview were, according to Löwy “an egalitarian community, libertarian socialism, anti-authoritarian revolt, a permanent revolution of the spirit”. (9)
1. Michael Löwy, Rédemption et utopie: le judaïsme libertaire en Europe centrale (Paris: Éditions du Sandre, 2009) p. 249.
2. Löwy, Rédemption et utopie, p. 34.
3. Löwy, Rédemption et utopie, p. 27.
4. Löwy, Rédemption et utopie, p. 26.
5. Löwy, Rédemption et utopie, p. 226.
6. Löwy, Rédemption et utopie, p. 222.
7. Michael Löwy, Juifs hétérodoxes: Romantisme, messianisme, utopie (Paris: Éditions de l’éclat, 2010). p. 23.
8. Löwy, Juifs hétérodoxes, pp. 33-34.
9. Löwy, Rédemption et utopie, p. 8.