Review of “Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity” Through a Dialectical Lens
Updated: Jun 19
Written by: Burak Reisyan
Romanticism can simply be summed up as a yearning for the values and the societies of the past. A deeper exploration, however, turns this simple definition on its head. In Löwy and Sayre‘s exploration of this phenomena, the readers are repeatedly reminded of the contradictory nature of romanticism. This is made apparent even from the start of the book, as it describes romanticism as simultaneously revolutionary and counter-revolutionary, individualistic and communitarian, cosmopolitan and nationalistic, realist and fantastic... While for some, the contradictory nature is used as an excuse to dismiss romanticism from being a valid criticism of modernity and capitalism, Löwy and Sayre embrace this contradictory nature in their analysis of romanticism. This embracing of contradictory nature allows us to identify a dialectical development of romanticism alongside the development of capitalism. After all, “romanticism is a modern critique of modernity,” meaning even if romanticism was born as a critique of modernity, it was a product of modernity itself. As romantics would put it, modernism’s alienation of humanity from human, generates a yearning for pre-modernism. The authors then accurately argue for inseparability of modernism and its critique. Therefore, development of romanticism is inherently tied to the development of modernity. Despite the contradictory nature of early romanticism, capitalism’s contradictions were accumulating while also being negated, causing crises in itself. What then becomes apparent is that, the future Löwy and Sayre foresee for romanticism is already set in motion by both the development of capitalism and romanticism.
What Löwy and Sayre see in the future of romanticism could be explained as looking ahead, rather than simply looking backwards to solve the crisis of the current system. They reject the restitution of the old but also the modernist inaction. Their analysis concludes the necessity of a new system to supersede capitalism. While doing so, this new system cultivates a new culture, community, and connection with nature. Rather than resurrecting the rotting feudal aristocracy out of their grave, supersession of capitalism revives “community, graciousness, gift giving, harmony with nature, works of art, and the enchantment of life”. Values which have been lost due to its direct contradictory existence against an economy which exists to reduce everything to value, surround it with exchange and find a way to extract a profit out of it, will naturally reemerge not trough the economic systems negations but by simply moving past it.
Despite the authors embracing the contradictory nature of romanticism, to move past the said stage and achieve a new one, romanticism needs to overcome its internal contradictions. Further exploration of this topic could be analyzed. For example, reactionary romantics have been quick to dismiss the concept of individual developed alongside of Enlightenment, French Revolution, and Renaissance. Blaming it for the development of industrial capitalism, and therefore the loss of human values, alongside the disenchantment of the world. This is also present among the libertarian, anarcho-syndicalist critique of Marxism. These critiques however fall short on creating a progressive way forward for romantic movement.
The contradiction between individual versus the collective is one of the contradictions brought up very frequently. A common offered solution is the yearning for, and a return to pre-Enlightenment world without rationality. With this regard, historian Isaiah Berlin represents romanticism as opposition to Enlightenment which is insufficient to represent diversity of romantic view and represents it as inherently reactionary. Rather than blaming the conception of the individual for hyper-individualization, this conception needs to be celebrated. The salvation of human beings is not achieved through the erasure of the individual, nor by a mere return to communal life. The romantic authors who advocate for reactionary regression of the world, inherently reach that conclusion trough a mechanical, rationalistic approach. This illustrates the inseparability of critique of modernity from modernity itself. Negation of individualism also negates the development of the communal society that lead to the development of the other. Here, the formal logic is at play: analyzing the subject a (individualism), recognizing it is not the same as subject b (communal); therefore, they are separate entities and overcoming subject a requires a regression into subject b. Instead, the dialectical supersession requires a sublation of the individual, the same way individualism’s coming into being required the sublation of the communal. Unlike the mechanical approach to logic, a dialectical approach can recognize both at the same time.
Hegel recognized the individual as the universal. Every particular belongs to a whole of species which makes up that species natural being, the universal. Dialectical unity of opposites can identify that the existence of the individual is dependent on its relation to whole of the species, meanwhile the whole of the species only exists by the unity of the individuals. The universal is made up of individuals, which is also made up of fragments of the universal — the unity of opposites.
Then what can be argued is that a similar synthesis can become present among romantic and romantic movements in order to achieve ‘the new way’ against the struggle between preserving modernity and regressing backwards. One aspect where this progressive move away from modernism materializes is in the criticism of capitalism by Marx and Engels. While acknowledging respect and the beauty of primitive community by its lack of class divisions, policing, wars, prisons, and patriarchy; they argue that digression away from equal and free society was necessary for positive development of production. This conclusion is not simply advocating for return to the society of simple, childlike mentality.
Introduction of private property negated the contradictions of class society by rationalizing, reinforcing, and ratifying it. State bodies formed such as prisons, courts, and kings are born and developed with this intention. Yet, with the development of productive forces and accumulation, brings the negated contradiction into a higher level. This Marxist analysis criticizes class society, not with the intention to regress humanity into primitive society; but to transform it to a higher, not yet discovered form of living. While the authors argue this critique emerges from Marx’s interaction with romantic literature prior to his engagement in Hegel’s dialectics, [Feuerbach’s] materialism, and the philosophy of praxis, it has nonetheless developed into a distinctive critique from the romantic approach.
In a way, his romantic critic approach to bourgeois society, mixed with his conception of materialism, influence from enlightenment and classical political economics is a synthesis of positive products of bourgeois society and romanticism — Yielding a new forward looking, revolutionary alternative to modern world. However, when Löwy and Sayre look at the Marxist states of 20th century, they still see modernism, just in a non-capitalist form. Stalin’s first five-year plan for example is described as favoring hyperindustrialization, with utilitarian rationality, productivism and alienation from laborer’s work. Thus, while 20th century Marxists states have moved away from capitalism, they failed to move away from modernity, and its side effects on people (both communal and on an individual level) that the contemporary romantics criticized. This is illustrated very clearly in Christa Wolf’s stories, despite living in East Germany, her stories revolve around longing for community, Heimat, and unattained upright position of humanity. All of the mentioned concepts are developed by romantic perspectives which analyzed what has been lost during modernity. This proves that one can move away from capitalism but still be plagued by modernism. While it is certainly a unique exploration into degeneration of revolutionary states the 20th century, a deeper examination of this argument would require a separate essay to make stronger conclusions. Yet the final point remains that they degenerated due to various reasons.
Alongside the ideological rivalry between capitalism and Stalinism, the polemics surrounding romanticism also qualitatively changes in the 20th century. Similar to Marx’s analysis of bourgeois society, romantics of 20th century also start taking a more dialectical approach. For example, German surrealist movement qualitatively evolved German romanticism. It created a new myth that was secular; rejected counter-revolutionary, nationalistic, and religious interpretations. Most importantly, enlightenment values were defended, unlike modernity however, it still argued that not everything could be rationalized. This unarguably raised German romanticism to look forward and not backwards to bring back what had been lost. A similar observation can be made with the 1960’s movements in France. In these youth uprisings collective action against modern capitalist society, reminds people of the strength that has been taken away from them by hyperindividualization, competition, and marketization of everything.
Therefore, modernist contradictions imposed upon the world, is not only the movement that drives modernity into the future, but also romanticism. We can see that as contradictions strip humanity from its connection from nature, alienate them from their labor, and make commodities into god-like figures, we are reminded time and time again that this is unsustainable, unnatural, and has to be stopped. My favorite example of this used in the book was done through the interpretation of ecosocialist critique. The contradiction between immediate profits sought by modern bourgeoisie stands directly against the long-term interest of all of humankind. Law of profit and protecting the environment presents us with a contradiction so big, so irreconcilable that today we are faced with the biggest ecological crisis that humanity has ever witnessed. Even though this contradiction has been becoming apparent throughout the decades, with every oil spill, forest fire, irregular flooding, and extinction of many species, it has been negated by the bourgeois due to priority of immediate profits. Yet, each time it has been negated, further damage inflicted upon nature reasserts itself in a bigger crisis than before. This constant expansion of modern crises not only effects the status-quo but its critics too. We can see that this cycle of crises, conflict, and negation of contradictions has also shaped romanticism to be more progressive, forward looking, and revolutionary. While old romantics saw regression as a solution modernity, through its own development, romanticism may have evolved to be forward looking. Development of romanticism, alongside modernity, naturally deviates itself from looking back. The third way Löwy and Sayre advocate for is already at the works and materializing with the development of modernity.
Lenin, Vladimir. “On the Question of Dialectics.” Marxists Internet Archive, 2003. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1915/misc/x02.htm.
Löwy, Michael and Robert Sayre. Romanticism against the Tide of Modernity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.