Romanticism and Socialism

A friend of mine recently made the following comment:

“The acceleration of the cause of Socialism was propelled by the advent of Romanticism as a Worldview. Not all Socialists were Romanticists but Romanticism tilled the cultural soil that allowed Socialism to take root and flourish. Romanticism did this by two components integral to its worldview.

First, Romanticism shifted the Western mindset away from the Changlessness of the Metaphysical with its emphasis on process and becoming found in the realm of the historical. Such a shift served the purposes of Socialism because socialism can not exist apart from the theory that progress is automatically to be preferred over constancy or the enduring aspect of reality. It is critical for socialism that things change and that they do not have an enduring nature

Second, Romanticism shifted the Western mindset from man as creature to man as creator via the use of his sovereign imagination. Such a shift allowed Western man to not only imagine Utopia but to also believe that it could be attained.”

I don’t think my friend has framed the discussion in a helpful way.  It seems like his purpose is to “attack” Romanticism specifically (anything that leads to socialism can’t be good) as if a Romantic poet ran over his dog that morning.  Why reach into the Wests’ bag of unappealing ideologies and pull out Romanticism alone?  (In my friend’s defense, the venue where he made this comment isn’t conducive to treatises on the complex roots of contemporary movements, so the overly-general observation is understandable.)

In responding, I think two very-important things should be kept in mind:

1.  Ideas have consequences.


2.  Our paradigm of history.

In light of ideas and their consequences, (and if ideas are presented through language),  we have to admit that a few of the words my friend used are ambiguous.  “Socialism” for instance, is notoriously ill-defined.

Consider Chesterton:

“It is really quite pedantic to say that the use of capital must be Capitalist.  We might as fairly say that anything social must be Socialist;  that Socialism can be identified with a social evening or a social glass.  Which, I grieve to say, is not the case.

Nevertheless, there is enough verbal vagueness about Socialism to call for a word of definition.  Socialism is a system which makes the corporate unity of society responsible for all its economic processes, or all those effecting life and central living.  If anything important is sold, the Government has sold it; if anything important is given, the Government has given it; if anything important is even tolerated, the Government is responsible for tolerating it.  This is the very reverse of anarchy; it is an extreme enthusiasm for authority.” ~ Outline of Sanity pg. 28

I could cite others to make my point but I don’t think it’s controversial.  I can imagine the hypothetical individual who would say otherwise.  He (or, maybe it will be a contentious woman?) might argue that there’s some authoritative body of people, or a god-like individual, who has managed the term so that it stands rigorously defined forever.  I can’t imagine what sort of person (or group) would have enough power to enforce a uniform understanding of “socialism” in the “brains” (I’m being polite to suppose they have any) of the “Occupy Wallstreet” gang.  Different ideals of Socialism abound in that camp.  Also, I bet that if you did a survey of a tea-party group, you’d likely get different notions of it as well.

So, I’m not sure exactly what my friend thinks “Romanticism” helped bring about.  (I get the impression that my friend has more contemporary manifestations in mind rather than the de-contextualized definition of Chesterton, which existed long before the Romantics, or even the West.)

Of course, there’s another term that is somewhat ambiguous:  Romanticism.

From my study of the topic, the so-called “Romantic Worldview” that my friend speaks of, is anything but homogenous.  There are various flavors and aspects of the movement; wide-ranging subtleties abound among Romantic thinkers.  But no matter how nuanced the position or how it’s defined, my friend has chosen two aspects of “The Romantic Worldview” (so-called) that helped grow Western socialism:

– Romanticism shifted the Western mindset away from the changelessness of the metaphysical and towards a worldview of process and change.


– Romanticism shifted man’s thinking away from that of a creature, to that of a creator, who creates by virtue of imagination (which lead to ideals of “Utopia”, somehow.)

It’s not my intention in this blog to contest these two statements, (although the Romantic would have a thing or two to say to my friend about accuracy and fair caricatures) but rather, to make the general observations that “ideas have consequences” and point out the importance of one’s historical paradigm in the discussion.

First, our historical paradigm:

Personally, I’m a “nationalist.”  That’s more than simply a political view.  I view all of history in terms of racial-nations and their interactions with each other as well as (and most importantly for a Christian Nationalist) God’s interaction with mankind (as an aggregate of racial communities.)

So unlike, say, a “rationalist” who views history and people in terms of ideological groups, I see the history of the West in terms of a particular racial group — a group that has, many times, moved and danced through the ideological spectrum.

It’s hard for the rationalist to see beyond ideological camps.  “Romantics” vs. “Enlightenment Rationalism” vs. “British Empiricism” vs. “American Empiricism” vs. “New England Transcendentalism” vs. “Protestant Pietism” vs. “Catholic Monasticism” etc. etc. etc.

But all of these movements come and go as the attitudes and whims of the people change.  When this is realized, ideologies become nothing more than rhetorical swords people use to battle their way to self-appeasement!

We may as well commit the fallacy of reification (along with my friend) and claim that “Christianity tilled the cultural soil that has allowed radical egalitarianism and democracy to flourish in the west!”

It’s not an ideology that has tilled soil, but people.  People with attitudes and mindsets!

With that understanding of history, I would argue that the Romantics (despite how their rhetoric and poetry may have been used) had concerns other than “Socialism” and political systems.  They (the poets, at any-rate) were concerned with bridging the great divide between the noumenal and phenomenal world through a metaphysical understanding that the two were related and could be known (the one to the other) through the emotions, (or intuitive-thought IE: imagination, as Steiner and Goethe would put it.)

These may have been pagan men, but not all Romantics were pagans or had anti-Christian sensibilities.  (It irks me when Rushdoony makes hasty generalizations like the one on page 266 of “The One and the Many” when he claims:

The Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and every other movement of the modern mind have one common characteristic:  anti-Christianity.”

It’s just not true.  Certainly it wasn’t true of Steiner, Owen Barfield or William Blake.)

The butting-heads between “raitonalism” and “romanticism” (as literary or even ideological movements) was a contest between pagan peoples who had strong Christian roots.  The same sort of struggle happens even among the “church” which we see constant battling between the same two poles:  IE:  scholasticism vs. pietism.

But it’s the underlying attitudes and impulses of a people that determine which ideology or “worldview” they latch onto and use to bring about their whims.

So, if my friend wants to imply that “Romanticism” has done this or that…then I disagree.  I think it was fallen men who used a few rhetorical devices from Romantics to hoe up Europe and plant the seeds of Revolution.  To claim “romanticism” as an ideology is at fault, is unhelpful.

Secondly, I observe that “Ideas have consequences.”

I put it in quotes because it’s the title of a famous book written by a stalwart Conservative ideologue, Richard Weaver.

Even though I’ve rejected the notion of viewing history as a “rationalist” (who I’ve defined as someone thinking in terms of ideological groups instead of racial or otherwise organic categories) I’ve admitted that ideologies are used like swords (or plows, to keep with my friend’s literary device) and so it is important to keep up with how these ideologies are used (and in what combinations).

Weaver diagnoses the underlying attitudes of Western man which has lead to the use of various ideological traditions to bring about the current world-order (which I’m sure includes my friend’s notion of “Socialism.”)   Weaver attributes it all to hideous “egotism.”  A pride in the fallen intellect of man and a belief in his ability to rationally describe all of reality.

“As one views modern man in his innumerable exhibitions of irresponsibility and defiance, one may discern, if he has the courage to see what he sees … a prodigious egotism.  This egotism, which is another form of fragmentation, is a consequence of that fatal decision to make a separate self the measure of value.” ~ pg. 70

Weaver goes on to outline two different traditions in the West:

“The split in the theory of knowledge which took place at the time of the Renaissance is enough to account for that form of ignorance which is egotism.  Under the worldview possessed by medieval scholars, the path of learning was a path to self-depreciation, and the philosophiae doctor was one who had at length seen a rational ground for humilitas… Thus knowledge for the medieval idealist prepared the way for self-effacement.

An opposing conception comes in with Bacon’s “knowledge is power.”  If the aim of knowledge is domination, it is hardly to be supposed that the possessors of knowledge will be indifferent to their importance.  On the contrary, they begin to swell; they seek triumphs in the material world (knowledge being meanwhile necessarily degraded to skills) which inflate their egotism and self-consideration.  Such is a brief history of how knowledge passes from a means of spiritual redemption to a basis for intellectual pride.”

So here I would argue that those who follow Bacon’s attitude of “knowledge is power” and who have sought their fortunes in Van Til’s “void” are the ones who take up any ideology at will and use it to dig themselves further and further into the darkness.

It’s not just “Romanticism” they’ve used.

Hegel is the “rationalist” extraordinaire!  It was his disciple Karl Marx who gave voice to the prevailing whims of the day and enabled progress and dialectical change to inform his economic views.

I did it facetiously above, but one might even argue that “Christianity” has been used (repeatedly) to advocate for socialist utopias.

Certainly materialism and naive-empiricism have played their role (perhaps more-so than Romanticism.)

So, there.  I’ve listed at least four other “ideas” that have helped “till the Western ground” and make it ripe for a Socialistic harvest.

That’s my point of contention with my friend and if I were to boil it down to a succinct statement, it would be:

“Romanticism is not the only ideological tool involved in the tilling.”

To conclude:

“Romanticism” and “Rationalism” and all the other “isms” were eddys in the stream of the West; arrows in the arsenal of Europeans; swords in their scabbards.

And, as any good conservative knows, it’s not swords that do the killing, but the men wielding them.

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7 Responses to Romanticism and Socialism

  1. Laurel says:

    Romanticism is the current conceptual whipping boy, I’ve noticed. A few years ago it was the overemphasis on reason pushed by Enlightenment thinkers that ruined the Western world.

    One thing I think most people looking at these two movements and their effects on the development of Western thought forget, and that is that the rationalists of the Enlightenment were the parents of the Romantics. The pendulum had swung so far to the reason-only side that their children, quite literally their children in the worldly, physical sense, reacted by embracing the emotional/metaphysical/experiential side of life to an extreme.

    It is common for each generation to embrace something conceptually different from the ideas their parents embraced. My prayer is that this stays in the realm of the everyday, and that our views of our Savior remain constant, as He is.

  2. Joshua says:

    While I’m not too fond of some of their philosophical/social views (especially as the more irrational school goes), they did emphasize some important communal aspects of man that were lost in the “enlightenment” where an overemphasis on reason and the individual (i.e. the guys with the most money) essentially turned men into cold calculating robots. I also must say that romanticism produced some of the finest artwork in the history of western man (quite possibly the finest).

  3. Laurel says:

    Amen to your opinion of the art of the Romantic era, Joshua.

  4. Faust says:

    I have always had some fondness for the 19th century Romantics. Ruskin, Pugin, Thomas Cole and many some 19th century Romantics were Christian and Neo-Medievalists.

  5. Whispie says:

    “The Wisdom of Samwise Gamgee

    JAMES N. writes:

    I am often reminded when reading your site of how, at the end of Tolkien’s The Return of the King, Frodo is thinking out loud about his memories of the Shire, and Sam remembers “Rosie Cotton dancing. She had ribbons in her hair. If ever I was to marry someone… it would have been her. It would have been her!”

    Here, at what looks like the end of all things, after an enormous, draining quest and ultimate victory over the evil of Sauron, Sam’s thoughts are of a happy woman, dancing, “with ribbons in her hair.”

    I don’t think most women know that about us (men). And if they were told, I don’t think most women would believe it.

    But it’s the truth. To the ends of the earth, even to death, for that smiling woman who thought to put ribbons in her hair. For me.”

  6. Shotgun says:

    Well, that’s a great comment from a great site, and I appreciate you posting it here, but all day, you’ve had me trying to figure out why you posted it on my “Romanticism and Socialism” blog…if there’s a connection, I don’t see it.

    (I do appreciate Tolkien allusions though, no matter where they pop up!)

  7. Shotgun says:

    …by the way…about that particular Thinking-Housewife post:

    KB, in the comments section, makes Penelope sound pretty attractive! lol


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