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The State as a Social Relationship: Gustav Landauer Revived

Whilst in Sweden I was fortunate to bump into one of the most prolific scholars of anarchist studies active today. Gabriel Kuhn has not one, two but three books out this year, published by the newly established PM Press, and they couldn’t be more poles apart. One of them charts the Golden Age of Piracy’s radical landscape via a roster of thinkers that includes Nietzsche, Mao-Tse Tung and Foucault; another aims to establish the political legacy of the Hardcore Straight Edge Punk scene; the last provides the first major collection of English translations of a German-Jewish anarchist called Gustav Landauer.

Finally, Gustav Landauer in English! Well perhaps it says something about me but I harangued Kuhn for an interview, about Landauer specifically. It’s not that I’m not interested in proto-queer disabled pirates or anti-machismo sober revolutionaries, it’s just that Landauer’s big influence on many of my German friends has made me aware that his ideas are sorely missing from English speaking discourses.

So there we sat, around a large sticky table in Stockholm’s activist hangout number one – Kafé 44 – talking about a man who died ninety years ago; whose thoughts about socialism as anarchism, escaping the state, the Zapatistas (of 1914!), anti-semitism, oil corporations, mysticism and spirituality, and of course revolution itself, seem as remarkable today as they ever were.

Dov Neumann: Firstly, I’d like to say thank you very much for meeting me Gabriel.

Gabriel Kuhn: My pleasure.

DN: In front of me is a copy of what you’ve obviously been working on for several years now, Gustav Landauer: Revolution and Other Writings – a rather mammoth translation project if you don’t mind me saying so. To English speakers you’ve made available for the first time a serious body of the writings of probably the most important German Anarchist of the twentieth century. Essays, articles, pamphlets, personal letters, even a postcard.

GK: His politically focused texts anyway. I had to focus on his political writings because he also wrote a lot on the arts, literature and philosophy. His lectures on Shakespeare fill two volumes, for example, which isn’t exactly in the scope of this book.

DN: But Landauer died, or rather was killed, in 1919. Why revive him today?

GK: I think there are two aspects for me. Firstly, I think that if you translate a text – whether it’s 50, 100, 200 years old – if you consider an author important in anarchism, a social movement, philosophical school or whatever: it’s a valuable research tool in itself.

However, I would say that what’s special about Landauer is that he really presented a definition of anarchism and socialism – he used the terms interchangeably – that is, I dare say, pretty unique.

He began his theoretical development with a broadly ‘class-struggle anarchist’ approach to politics, but ended up developing something of a spiritual understanding of socialism. It strongly focused on people finding something within themselves that cultivated inner change, from which values like mutual aid and solidarity would come naturally; rather than through a rational code where you might think, ‘Well it’s better for others therefore it’s better for me.’

DN: He was quite opposed to that kind of rationalism, wasn’t he?

GK: Absolutely. He believed that on that basis you couldn’t develop socialism because people wouldn’t really feel connected to one another. To do so you’d have to, and this is where it becomes complicated because it’s mystical, discover the inner essence of humanity that lies within each individual. You have to turn inwards first and discover this inner essence, and then you will perceive humankind in a different sense and approach people differently.

DN: Difference is a key word for Landauer. For example he vehemently opposes Esperanto for trying to unite humanity with one language. He makes an almost Tower of Babelesque critique.

GK: That’s a good example of Landauer’s opposition to rationalist measures of bringing people together. I guess Esperanto was to him a cold, mechanical idea of providing some kind of common structure of finding one another. Rather, people best do so through cherishing their own cultural traditions, expressions and language.

The idea of a homogenous socialist utopia was not something that appealed to him. If you’re not able to embrace all cultural forms that human kind has produced: you cannot embrace all of human kind, you cannot establish socialism. His idea of difference goes beyond a mere concept of tolerance. Socialism has to ‘grow’, that’s a word that appears often in his writings, it has to grow from the diversity of human beings and cultures that make up humanity.

DN: Perhaps that relates to his agrarianism, his belief in the revolutionary potential of agricultural settlements – what we would now call communes. I laughed when I read in your introduction how he visited one of these pioneering settlements, the Neue Gemeinschaft, but left ‘Disillusioned with the escapism they mistook for social transformation’, as you wrote. My own experience precisely!

GK: His settlement idea is superficially one of a commune movement: you move to the country, set up your commune, hope that more and more people will do the same. That is part of Landauer’s idea, but that alone would not suffice. Your commune could never be an isolated island. It has to be connected to its context and it has to have an impact on society overall.

DN: Does this slow settlement idea make Landauer something of an ‘evolutionary’ anarchist?

GK: Some people have argued that rapid social transformations are contrary to his beliefs, and therefore he’s been criticised for joining the 1918 Bavarian Revolution. I see that as rather short sighted. Landauer did believe that in certain times revolution could be part of a movement to create a better world. He just never thought that socialism could be achieved by changing the structure of government or establishing workers councils. He saw it as an important step but not the one thing that would establish socialism.

Eventually, for Landauer, the state would disappear because it would no longer be necessary. He famously defines it as a ‘social relationship’ between people. You abolish it by developing different relationships and not by changing the political system or the economic structure.

DN: In a way that’s quite a Post-Structuralist way of understanding power.

GK: I think so. For example Foucault’s theory of power stresses that aspect, that a lot of our power structures are reproduced in personal relationships, not just in government institutions. So I think that is one aspect in which Landauer’s theories fit in with more contemporary theory. Another is with the idea of ‘counter-power’, where you try to build a parallel underground society and use that to escape and diminish the power of the state. I think a lot of contemporaries would find something interesting in Landauer’s writings which goes beyond merely satisfying a historical interest.

DN: Landauer had a Jewish background. Did that affect his ideas?

GK: His thoughts on Judaism emerged only later in his life. Like many secular Jewish intellectuals at the time he almost made a point of not addressing that part of his identity. The spiritual aspects of his central political text Revolution focus on Middle Age Christian mystics, not Jewish mysticism. Judaism comes in his later essays, where he confronts the anti-semitism inherent in the Beilis Trial, and seemingly discovers Jewish mysticism for the first time, with the help of his close friend, the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber.

DN: Did he join in with Buber’s enthusiasm for some form of Jewish state?

GK: Landauer just started joining the discussion on Zionism a few months before he died. He was invited to a couple of conferences that dealt with Zionism and settlement projects in Palestine but he couldn’t attend because of the events in Munich, in which he was killed.

DN: He was invited by Nachum Goldman, founder and president of the the World Jewish Congress, right?

GK: Exactly. All we have there are a couple of letters between Landauer and Goldman where Landauer expresses, if you will, – hesitant – interest. It’s really hard to tell whether Landauer would have actively supported settlements in Palestine. Nevertheless, a lot of people in the early kibbutz movement were directly inspired by his idea of developing socialism through a network of agricultural settlements.

It’s hard to believe Landauer would have supported Jewish statehood. Perhaps he would have shared his friend Margarete Susman’s anti-statist interpretation of Zionism; Zionism as part of an international socialist movement. Even before the events of 1948 she declared explicitly that the Zionist movement must not turn into a nationalistic, nation-state-building movement: that would kill the whole idea.

DN: It has been argued that Landauer named his Sozialistische Bund organisation (Socialist Association) that way because of the link between the German word ‘Bund’ and the Hebrew word ‘bris’ (covenant). Would he perhaps have favoured the other significant Hebrew related Bund at the time – the Yidisher Arbeiter Bund (Yiddish Workers Association) – over the Zionist cause? Their values seem closer to his . . .

GK: I’m not aware of any direct links to the Yidisher Arbeiter Bund. That said, if he had lived longer, he would probably have seen the return of Rudolf Rocker [important German anarcho-syndicalist; leading light in London’s Yiddish-anarchist movement, despite not being Jewish] to Germany, and it would have been interesting to see what their contact would have been.

In a sense, much of the Yidisher Arbeiter Bund‘s ideas would fit with Landauer’s beliefs. You have this universal, socialist-anarchist ideal, but if your cultural background is Jewish, or you come from a Yiddish speaking background, you want to pursue that as well, because that’s what allows you to formulate and express your ideas best.

DN: One of your next projects, I gather, is something of an accompaniment to your Landauer book. You’re translating a major body of writings from a German anarchist who is even less known outside Germany than Landauer: his friend Erich Mühsam.

GK: Yes. They were the two most important German anarchists of the century. Mühsam was influenced by Landauer’s spiritual socialism and they collaborated quite a lot in writing and action. Both had similar backgrounds – Jewish, middle class – Mühsam was ten years younger though and throughout his entire life saw Landauer as a kind of mentor-teacher. The main difference between the two was that Mühsam was closer to class-struggle anarchism, considering the proletariat a revolutionary subject. Landauer was more skeptical. . .

DN: Landauer called the proletariat ‘Significant but overrated’!

GK: Exactly. The other major difference was that Mühsam, while being very close to the ideas of proletarian council communism, was also a prototypical bohemian. Free love, artist-colonies and so on were important things for him. And that was a conflict between him and Landauer. Landauer considered the family the smallest unit of a socialist society, where you craft the solidarity and mutual aid. He had a well known love affair with a Swiss syndicalist called Margarethe Faas-Hardegger which ended when Margarethe wrote an article which criticised the nuclear family unit and argued for communal child rearing. He also didn’t feel comfortable discussing rights for homosexuals, which Mühsam was very involved in. So there was a conflict there, but they were good friends and shared a lot of ideas. Mühsam would eventually be one of the first prominent victims of the early Nazi concentration camps.


Gustav Landauer: Revolution and Other Writings will be on sale from the beginning of July. See HousemansAmazon.

Gabriel Kuhn holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Innsbruck, Austria, and lives as a writer and translator in Stockholm, Sweden. Currently, he is mainly working with Unrast Verlag in Germany and with PM Press in the US.

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2 thoughts on “The State as a Social Relationship: Gustav Landauer Revived”

  1. Forverts have published an article about Gustav Landauer and Kuhn’s translation. I wonder if the former revolutionary-socialist voice of Yiddish New York is going back to its roots? It’s worth reading even if you don’t know Yiddish and need Google Translate – though beware that GT translates yiddisher (Jewish) into Indian…

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