Gustav Landauer: A Nationalist Anarchist

by Peter Marshall

An exclusive extract from Peter Marshall's 'Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism' discusses Gustav Landauer, one of Germany's most important anarchist thinkers.

First published: 23 October, 2011 | Category: History, Philosophy and Theory, Vision/Strategy

Gustav Landauer was the most important anarchist thinker in Germany after Max Stirner. He was born in 1870 of a middle-class Jewish family in Karlsruhe in southern Germany. As a student he joined the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). Due to his political activities, which led to a spell in prison, he was refused entrance to the School of Medicine at Freiburg University. Because of his extreme views, he was also one of a small group who were expelled from the SPD in 1891. 

Two years later, he became an anarchist, although he preferred to call himself an 'anarchist-socialist' to dissociate himself from the Stirnerite egoism which was fashionable in some anarchist circles at the time. As he wrote to his friend Martin Buber, 'anarchism is the negative side of that which, positively, is called socialism.'[1] He went on to edit, from 1892, the Berlin anarchist paper Der Sozialist, but changed its subtitle to Organ fur Anarchismus-Sozialismus to stress the socialist nature of his anarchism and the libertarian nature of his socialism. In Der Sozialist, he wrote on 15 July 1911: 'Anarchy is the expression of the liberation of man from the idols of the state, the church and capital; socialism is the expression of the true and genuine community among men, genuine because it grows out of the individual spirit.'[2]

Landauer was always prepared to collaborate with socialists. In 1893 he was excluded, with Rosa Luxemburg and others, from the Zurich Congress of the Second International. Undismayed, he attended with Malatesta the Second International Congress held in London in 1896, and tried to put the anarchist case: 

What we fight is State socialism, levelling from above, bureaucracy; what we advocate is free association and union, the absence of authority, mind freed from all fetters, independence and well-being of all. Before all others it is we who preach tolerance for all – whether we think their opinions right or wrong – we do not wish to crush them by force or otherwise.[3]

Despite his plea for tolerance, the anarchists were expelled. It was the last time anarchists tried to attend meetings of the Socialist International. Such setbacks did not deter Landauer. He was primarily a thinker and a man of letters, elaborating a form of mystical anarchism which stood in the German idealist tradition stretching as far back as Meister Eckhart. His originality lies in the way he developed the romantic concern with the Volk in a libertarian rather than an authoritarian direction. The word Volk had come to mean something like the 'common people', but it was also used to described the German language, culture, and customs as distinct from the State. Landauer wanted to realize the potential unity of the Volk, to develop 'a connexion between people which is actually there; only it has not yet become bond and binding, it is not yet a higher organism'.[4] Landauer was thus an eloquent prophet of real community. 

Drawing on the work of the German sociologist Ferdinand Toennies, Landauer developed the distinction between community (Gemeinschaft), which is an organic, long-standing living together, and atomized, mechanical, and transitory society (Gesellschaft). He wanted to see the reborn community develop out of the artificial shell of existing society and the State. His most penetrating and oft-quoted insight is the recognition that the State is not merely something standing above society but a force which permeates everyday life: 

The state is a condition, a certain relationship among human beings, a mode of behaviour between them; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another . . . We are the state, and we shall continue to be the state until we have created the institutions that form a real community and society of men.[5]

The setting up of the community outside and alongside the State is therefore essentially a discovery of something actually present, something which has grown out of the past: 'This likeness, this equality in inequality, this peculiar quality that binds people together, this common spirit, is an actual fact.'[6]

While rejecting the artificial State and the atomistic society of capitalism, Landauer saw the nation as a peaceful community of communities: 'Every nation is anarchistic, that is, without force; the conceptions of nation and force are completely irreconcilable.' He also saw the nation as a stepping stone, not an obstacle, to internationalism. 'The goal of humanity', he wrote to Julius Bab in 1913, 'is the outer structure for which we strive; the way toward this goal, however, does not lead merely from our own humanity, but above all through our differentiated nationality.'[7] The nation is a circle within the ever-widening circles from the individual to the whole of humanity. This is Landauer's most important idea, and lays the ground for a nationalism which is not exclusive and xenophobic. He demonstrates that the nation can exist without the State; indeed, one of his principal objections to the State is that itllestroys the organic unity of the nation. Each nation can contribute something unique and valuable to our common humanity. 

Community for Landauer not is merely the liberal's view of society as a sum of individuals; it is an organic whole which has its own interests. According to Landauer, Stirner's absolute and independent individual is a myth, a phantom in the brain. Each individual is united not only to his own local community but also to the rest of humanity, both in a physical and spiritual sense: 'As the individual organism is only a part of a great, real physical community, so the individual soul is part of a great, real spiritual community.' Landauer did not reject genuine individualism but rather the atomistic, uprooted individualism of capitalism. In each individual there is a unique individuality which offers a different picture of humanity. The individual personality is therefore a 'vital part of a larger organic whole'.[8]

Landauer was not opposed to revolution. 'Revolution', he wrote, 'concerns every aspect of human life – not just the State, the class-structure, industry and commerce, arts and letters, education and learning, but a combination of all these social factors which is at a given moment in state of relative stability.' He did not consider revolution merely as a period of time or even a borderline between two social conditions, but 'a principle stepping over vast distances of time'.[9] He insisted on the identity of means and ends and the necessity of moral action in the present. He was totally opposed to violent revolution and individual acts of terrorism. The great error of revolutionary anarchists, he wrote, is 'the idea of being able to reach the ideal of powerlessness through power . . . every act of force is dictatorship'. For Landauer, anarchy should not involve more war and murder but a spiritual rebirth: 'The way to a new, higher form of human society leads from the dark, fateful gate of our instincts and terra abscondita of our soul, which is our world. Only from within to without can the world be formed . . . '[10]

Landauer recognized that in revolution, there rises up 'the image and feeling of positive union through the binding quality, through love' but it is impossible to solve social problems by political and violent means.[11] This can only be done by each individual's decision to refuse to co-operate with the existing State and its institutions in order to create positive alternatives: 

there comes a time in the history of a social structure, which is a structure only as long as individuals nourish it with their vitality, when those living shy away from it as a strange ghost from the past, and create new groupings instead. Thus I have withdrawn my love, reason, obedience, and my will from that which I call the 'state'. That I am able to do so depends on my will.[12]

It is a process which is never complete, but constantly renews itself: 'No final security of measures should be taken to establish the millennium or eternity, but only a great balancing of forces, and the resolve periodically to renew the balance . . .'[13]

He therefore called for the development of self-managing communities and co-operatives which can bring people together and release them from their crippling dependence on authority. As he grew older, he talked less of class struggle and saw 'direct action' as the building of co-operatives coupled with Tolstoyan passive resistance to authority. The 'general strike' – the panacea of the anarcho-syndicalists – should not be a downing of tools but rather the reorganization of work under workers' control. In the end, he came to see revolution not as a violent cataclysmic upheaval but as the peaceful rejection of coercive society and the gradual creation of alternative institutions. Rejecting industrial urbanism, he further urged the renewal of the traditional rural community by a return of the workers to the land. 

Although Landauer wrote a preface to a pamphlet by Max Nettlau on Bakunin, his mature anarchism drew on the writings of both Proudhon and Kropotkin (whose works he also translated). He considered Proudhon the greatest of all socialists and freely adopted his schemes for mutual credit and exchange. He tried to reconcile individual possession of property and mutualist co-operation by suggesting that there should be a profusion of different forms of possession - individual, communal and co-operative – in a free society. It would be for the members of each community to decide periodically on the right balance between the different forms of possession. 

Landauer translated Kropotkin's Mutual Aid and was impressed by his Fields, Factories and Workshops. Like Kropotkin, he promoted the economic independence of local and regional communities which combined agriculture and industry on a small scale. For Germany, he advocated a confederation of local communities in order to release the creative and organic spirit which lay imprisoned within the State. But while sharing Kropotkin's vision of the integration of industry and agriculture, he called more insistently for a return to the land. Landauer even went so far as to argue that 'the struggle for socialism is a struggle for the land; the social question is an agrarian question'.[14] By identifying the genuine community with the land, Landauer turned his back on urban-based syndicalism. 

The philosophical idealist in Landauer ultimately diverged from the scientifically-minded Kropotkin. He shared his stress on mutual aid and co-operation, but he insisted, like Malatesta, that they were the result of human will, not of natural laws at work in human society. In order to create a free society, he looked to spiritual awareness, not to the development of reason or science. A degree of high culture is reached only when a unifying spirit pervades social structures, 'a spirit dwelling in the individuals themselves and pointing beyond earthly and material interests'. Socialism, he wrote in 1915, is 'the attempt to lead man's common life to a bond of common spirit in freedom, that is, to religion'.[15]

Landauer was not very optimistic about the possibility of change in his own day. He felt  that his German contemporaries were the most obedient of subjects, demonstrating only too well la Boétie's notion of voluntary servitude. The authoritarian State existed as a result more of human passivity than of externally imposed tyranny. He had little faith in the German working class and felt that only a few would be able to develop anarchism in exemplary co operative settlements on the land. 

Landauer remained an impressive figure in German literary circles, tall and gaunt with his long, dark beard and hair. 'One felt when he spoke', Rudolf Rocker recalled, 'that every word came from his soul, bore the stamp of absolute integrity.'[16] But he became increasingly isolated within the socialist movement before and during the First World War, earning the hatred of many compatriots for his principled opposition to it: 'War is an act of power, of murder, of robbery', he wrote in 1912. 'It is the sharpest and clearest expression of the state.'[17]

Nevertheless, Landauer participated as a minor leader in the Bavarian Revolution of 1918-19. In November 1918, he was invited to Munich by his friend Kurt Eisner, the new socialist President of the Bavarian republic. He threw himself into the struggle as a member of the Revolutionary Workers' Council and the Central Workers' Council, trying to create his ideal of a federalist and decentralized society of self-managing communities. After the assassination of Eisner, Landauer became minister of education in the 'cabinet' of the short lived Munich Council Republic proclaimed in April 1919. It was an attempt by anarchists and intellectuals to establish a free and independent Bavaria. Landauer worked with the poet Erich Mühsam, Ernst Toller (the author of a play about the Luddites), and Ret Marut (later to become the author B. Traven) but their efforts were tragically cut short. Landauer's programme to provide libertarian education for people of all ages was never realized. In little more than a week, the anarchists were ousted by communists who rejected their 'pseudo republic'. The revolution was eventually crushed by an army of 100,000 troops sent from Berlin by the Minister of Defence Gustav Noske.

In the aftermath, Landauer was beaten and murdered in Munich. According to a worker who witnessed the event, 'an officer struck him in the face. The men shouted, "Dirty Bolshi! Let's finish him off!" and a rain of blows from rifle-butts drove him out in the yard . . . they trampled on him till he was dead; then stripped the body and threw it into the washhouse.' 'Kill me then!', he is reported as saying, 'To think that you are human beings!'[18] The unassuming pacifist had just turned forty-nine years old. 

But he was not forgotten. The Anarchist Syndicalist Union of Munich, with workers' contributions, raised a monument to him, using his own words as his epitaph: 'Now is the time to bring forth a martyr of a different kind, not heroic, but a quiet, unpretentious martyr who will provide an example for the proper life.'[19] It was torn down by the Nazis after Hitler's rise to power. 

Since his death, Landauer has exerted a strong influence on those who see the State as a set of relationships pervading society rather than as some mechanical superstructure. Through his friend Martin Buber (who edited his writings), Landauer influenced the Israeli communitarian movement. In the sixties and seventies, his call to drop out and to create alternative institutions found a resounding echo in the counter-culture. 

The Jewish poet Erich Mühsam was also deeply influenced by Landauer and worked with him in Munich Council Republic. He was sentenced to fifteen years' hard labour in the aftermath. He was a brilliant journalist as well as lyric poet, combining the insights of Kropotkin and Nietzsche to develop his own eccentric anarchism. After the defeat of the Munich Council, Mühsam served more than four years of a long sentence before being released in 1924 in a general amnesty. He did not turn his back on politics: he became active in the Red Aid organization which assisted political prisoners, and edited a monthly anarchist review Fanal. He remained an outspoken critic of German militarism and warned of the growing dangers of Nazism. He not only continued to write poetry but also composed a volume of 'Unpolitical Memoirs'. One of his last works was called The Liberation of Society from the State. Mühsam was eventually arrested by the Nazis in 1933 and murdered in Oranienburg concentration camp the following year. 

This is an extract from Peter Marshall's Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism, published with kind permission from the author.

Peter Marshall is a philosopher, historian, travel writer and poet. He has written fifteen highly acclaimed books which are being translated into as many languages. His circumnavigation of Africa was made into a 6-part British TV series.

[1] Gustav Landauer to Martin Buber, quoted in Charles B. Maurer, Call to Revolution: The Mystical Anarchism of Gustav Landuar (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1971), p. 101

[2] Der Socialist (15 July 1911)

[3] Landauer, Social Democracy in Germany (Freedom Press, 1896), p. 8

[4] Quoted in Martin Buber, 'Landauer', Paths in Utopia, p. 46

[5] Landauer, Die Revolution (Frankfurt, 1907), quoted in Eugene Lunn, The Prophet of Community: The Romantic Socialism of Gustav Landauer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), p. 226

[6] Quoted in Buber, Paths in Utopia, p. 49

[7] Quoted in Lunn, The Prophet of Community, op. cit., pp. 257-8

[8] Ibid., pp. 107, 110

[9] Landauer, Die Revolution, op. cit., quoted in Landauer, 'Thoughts on Revolution', Anarchy 54 (August 1965), pp. 252, 254

[10] Quoted in Lunn, The Prophet of Community, op. cit., pp. 135, 136-7

[11] Landauer, Die Revolution, op. cit., a work written at Buber's request and quoted extensively in his Paths in Utopia; ibid., p. 5

[12] Gustav Landauer to Margarete Susmann, reprinted in Gustav Landauer, sein Lebensgang in Briefen, ed. Martin Buber (Frankfurt, 1929)

[13] Buber, Paths in Utopia, op. cit., pp. 55-7

[14] Ibid., p. 218

[15] Ibid., pp. 53, 55

[16] Rocker, The London Years (Robert Anscombe, 1956), p. 90

[17] Quoted in Lunn, The Prophet of Community, op. cit., p. 242

[18] Quoted by Colin Ward, 'Gustav Landauer', Anarchy 54 (August 1965), p. 250; and Avrich, 'The Martyrdom of Gustav Landauer', Anarchist Portraits, op. cit., pp. 247-54. See also Russell Berman & T. Luke, 'On Gustav Landauer', The Radical Papers, ed. Dimitrios Roussopolous (Montreal: Black Rose, 1987), pp. 97-114.

[19] Lunn, The Prophet of Community, op. cit., p. 342


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