A Conversation With Gustav Landauer’s Translator
By Yoel Matveev
December 9, 2010
Gustav Landauer was born to a Jewish family in 1870, in Karlsruhe, Germany. As did most radicals, he abandoned religion in his youth, however, at the beginning of the 20th century he got interested in pantheistic, neoplatonic and kabbalah-inspired varieties of Christian mysticism. A few years later, he became friends with Martin Buber, and his interest in mysticism brought him to Hasidic and kabbalistic ideas.
A new translation of Landauer’s “Revolution and Other Writings: A Political Reader” by Gabriel Kuhn brings his highly influential texts to an English-speaking audience and I discuss those at The Arty Semite.
Landauer is known not only as a revolutionary, but also as a prominent mystical philosopher, a literary critic and a translator. With the help of his wife, Hedwig Lachmann, he translated from English an impressive number of works by William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw, Walt Whitman and other classic authors.
The Forvert’s Yoel Matveev spoke to Kuhn about Landauer, his legacy and his appeal (a Yiddish version of this interview appeared in the Forverts).
Yoel Matveev: Most contemporary anarchist groups focus on socio-political protests, but don’t seem to pay much attention to practical or even theoretical organization of full-fledged anarchist communities. Such activism attracts young, single college kids, but doesn’t have anything to offer people who live a relatively stable life: professionals or families with children. Landauer’s reappearance on the scene could change that. He viewed anarchism as a practical socialist movement of all people, not just a political platform for a few dedicated revolutionaries. Of course, every consistent anarchist views anarchism more or less the same way, but there is an emotional warmth and universal tone in Landauer’s writings that might appeal even to those who don’t spend much time protesting or theorizing the left. Do you see this universal attractiveness in his writings too?
Gabriel Kuhn: There is no doubt that Landauer appeals to a wider audience than [just] protest-focused activists. There is nothing wrong with protesting of course, it is an important part of resisting oppression and exploitation; however, eventually you face the questions of what you are fighting for and of what kind of a world you envision. As you say, this is particularly relevant for people with social responsibilities and a need for security that they are not willing to risk for an uncertain future, even if they are unhappy with the status quo.
For Landauer, the notion of “realization” — in other words, of concrete expressions of our ideals in the here and now — were central. And not just in the sense of individual righteousness in our daily conduct: The establishment of self-sufficient rural settlements was at the heart of his understanding of socialism. Whether we follow the settlement idea or not, I believe that the emphasis on building concrete alternatives to oppressive and exploitative structures is as important as ever. Of course it is questionable whether a network of independent settlements can ever extend to a point where the state becomes unnecessary; however, if we insist that a different world is possible, we need tangible examples of what it can look like.
I would also agree that Landauer’s wide appeal relates to what you call a “certain emotional warmth and universal tone.” Landauer was deeply concerned with the well-being of all people, and this comes through in his writing. He could be a harsh critic, but his ideas were never determined by hate but always by a love for humankind. Of course he was aware of class structures and of social discrimination, and the support of underprivileged people was always central to his political work — yet, he always saw all human beings united in a universal spirit; this summarizes the concrete political consequences of his mysticism, if you will.
In your book, you mention Landauer’s influence on the commune movements in Germany and on the kibbutzim in Palestine. But Landauer also strongly influenced Isaac Steinberg, a prominent leader of the Jewish Territorialist movement. Steinberg was a prolific Yiddish writer, a Russian revolutionary and a traditional religious Jew, who tried to establish nonnationalist Jewish autonomous settlements outside the Middle East. Many idealists who get disillusioned with capitalism and outdated Enlightenment values are turning to mysticism and faith — often to the most extreme reactionary of religious movements like far-right messianic Zionism and radical Islamism. Do you think that Landauer shows how faith and spirituality can also fuel the fire of creative, progressive, nonauthoritarian revolutionary change?
I think that you are raising a very important point: namely, that Landauer provides an example of taking spiritual needs seriously and of incorporating them into political thought while avoiding both reactionary ideology and superficial esotericism. Landauer’s mysticism clearly opposed all notions of superiority, all moral dogmas and all clerical hierarchies. Like all true mystics — whether they come from the Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or any other tradition — he finds the unity of all people, the oneness of creation, to be the foundation of spirituality. I do believe that such a notion can be of great help in spreading the ideals of equality and justice. I also believe that it allows engaging in politics with love rather than hate.
Anti-religious leftist rhetoric is indeed helpless in confronting religious fundamentalism. The borders between anti-religious leftism and religious fundamentalism are clearly drawn, and neither side is willing to listen to the other. If you want to convince religious people that a life of justice and equality is the purest worldly representation of God, you have to talk to them about God. Of course some believers will insist that they have an exclusive link to God and that God is only there to protect them. In that case, any attempt at communication might fail.
But I think that these people are a minority. Most believers who support conservative politics do so because they are manipulated by the worldly representatives of their faith, by churches and by religious organizations. If you speak their language, you can make them understand that true spirituality lies outside of such bodies, as practically every mystic in history has stressed.
I know that you wrote a few articles on pantheism. Do you plan someday to translate some of Landauer’s mystical and philosophical writings?
I’m definitely open to the idea. To be honest, a lot will depend on how this volume will be received. If there is a demand for more of Landauer’s philosophical writings in English, I am happy to get to work. For readers who want to get a taste of Landauer’s mysticism, I recommend the essay “Through Separation to Community,” which is included in the volume. It basically constitutes the first part of “Skepticism and Mysticism,” Landauer’s main philosophical text, and it contains all of the key elements of Landauer’s spiritual thought. Many of these elements can also be found in “Revolution,” the main text of “Revolution and Other Writings.”
Some anarchists accuse Landauer of having “fascist” tendencies. The keywords that ring the alarm are “Volk” and “organic.” His admiration of folk culture has also led to unfortunate associations. But doesn’t his healthy dose of romanticism actually bring him closer to contemporary continental philosophers, maybe even to Derrida and Žižek?
Within the left, terms like “bourgeois,” “reactionary” or “fascist” have often been used to discredit opponents. Usually, these accusations lack any substance. To speak of “fascism” in connection with Landauer is ludicrous, and I honestly don’t think it’s worth much discussion.
It is a little more complicated when we talk about “Volk,” but in my opinion, a lot of the criticism is based on misunderstandings. Yes, Landauer has been accused of being “völkisch” — a key element of Nazi ideology and later nationalist movements, as it gives particular value to a community of people supposedly connected by a particular language, a particular culture, and a particular area of land, although there are variations in the exact definition. We have to be clear about a few things, though: The German “Volk” can refer to “people” as an exclusive and nationally defined group (this would be its völkisch dimension), but it can also refer to “people” as “ordinary folks” in opposition to “rulers.”
In the latter sense, “Volk” has always been a key term of the German left — the modern-day term “Volksküche,” a German form of Food Not Bombs, is just one example. Furthermore, especially before World War II, “Volk” has also been used as a mere synonym for “society.” For example, speaking of the “russische Volk” did not necessarily suggest that one was talking about a homogenous and exclusive group of people with a common heritage — one simply spoke about the people living in Russia.
In short, Landauer’s usage of the term does in no way indicate that he was “völkisch.” You will be hard-pressed to find any German authors of the time who did not use it, whether they wrote pulp fiction or Hegelian treatises. If you look at Landauer’s texts, it is obvious that he had nothing to do with the völkisch movement. Not only because there is a complete lack of references to it in his writings, but also because the frequent references to a universal “humankind” as the subject of liberation clearly contradict this.
The fact that Landauer embraced cultural diversity does not necessarily satisfy the critics. They might call him an early proponent of “ethno-pluralism”: the conviction that it is best for people to live in their own ethnic communities, separated from others. This is a somewhat sophisticated form of right-wing nationalism but Landauer never advocated anything like this. He did not just embrace the diversity of cultures but also the blend of cultures; he saw culture as dynamic, in a permanent state of flux and constantly recreated — just as peoples, by the way, which “Revolution” clearly reveals. In this sense, I would wholeheartedly agree with you that Landauer is a thinker who was opposed to all forms of nationalism and whose writings can still be used to oppose all forms of nationalism today.
As far as the romantic element in Landauer’s thought is concerned, we must avoid misunderstandings here, too. Landauer is no “dreamer.” Much rather, his romanticism ties into his utopianism, meaning into his insistence that ideas need to be kept alive even if they seem unattainable. This, to him, is the driving motor of history, the force behind every revolution. If we give up utopia, we reach the end of critical thought and political progress.
How this relates to Derrida and Žižek is difficult to say. I believe that Derrida was often too cautious in his political allusions. As I said, I appreciate Landauer’s careful and balanced tone, yet he did not shy away from making clear political statements when they seemed necessary. Žižek is very hard to pin down politically, which is probably part of his popularity with the academic and cultural elite. Personally, I’d be happy if he replaced the Stalin portrait in his apartment with a picture of Landauer.
Is it possible that Landauer, even in his early years, was influenced by Jewish mysticism? His view of the society as a living organism, his emphasis on love and brotherhood, some of his pantheistic ideas, his belief in the power of language, are in perfect resonance with the teaching of Kabbalah and Hasidism. In fact, some very similar proto-socialist ideas, influenced by the French Revolution, are found in an 18th-century kabbalistic book called “Seyfer ha-Bris” (“The Book of Covenant”). The author, Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz, actually used the Germanic word “Bund” for the concept of self-organizing brotherly community in the original Yiddish preprint version of the book, pretty much in the same sense as Landauer.
My guess would be that the similarities stem from the similarities in mystic thought in general. According to my knowledge, the young Landauer was not well versed in the kabbalah and Hasidism. Judaism only started to play a role in his writing later in life. If he consciously avoided the topic at a young age, perhaps struggling with his Jewish identity, is hard to say. He met Martin Buber when he was 30 years old, and remained close to him throughout his life. He must have learned about Jewish mysticism in this relationship, even if it did not show in his publications or in his correspondence. The one mystical thinker he continuously referred to was Meister Eckhart, a Christian mystic from the late Middle Ages.
And finally, how did you become interested in Landauer?
I became interested in Landauer in high school, studying the history of German socialism. Together with Erich Mühsam, another important Jewish thinker and revolutionary, Landauer was the main representative of libertarian socialism in Germany. At the time, I only read the standard texts. During my university studies, Landauer played no central role; I focused on other periods and theorists. There is a Landauer quote in my thesis, though, which I guess indicates that he was always present in some way. I returned to more thorough Landauer studies a few years ago, when a friend of mine decided to publish a booklet with a few Landauer essays in San Francisco, asking me for help with the translations. It appeared to me that a fair amount of people bemoaned the lack of English Landauer translations, and I began to entertain the idea of putting together a more comprehensive collection. When the folks at PM Press signaled their support, the idea turned into reality. In the process, I was forced to read and study Landauer intensively, which I am glad for and I hope other people will be, too.