Introducing Gustav Landauer


[Below is a biographical intro note on Gustav Landauer and his possible contemporary relevance, which I have also posted over at my other blog of translations from the German, Passing on the Flame. For anyone interested, I’ll be posting a few translated texts by Landauer at Passing on the Flame in the coming days and weeks.]

Gustav Landauer (7 April 1870 – 2 May 1919), German-Jewish mystic and non-violent anarchist, writer and literary critic, married to poet Hedwig Lachmann, was one of the leading innovative theorists of anarchism and libertarian socialism in Germany at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. Most would find it hard to disagree with anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker in his estimation of Landauer as ‘without doubt the most significant mind libertarian socialism in Germany has produced’.

Landauer was an advocate of Proudhonian social anarchism, non-violence, decentralised re-ruralisation and the concrete building of socialism right now in intentional village communities. Influenced by libertarians like Etienne de la Boétie, Proudhon, Stirner, Bakunin, Tolstoy, Kropotkin, Friedländer, mystics and philosophers like Meister Eckhart, Spinoza, Rousseau, Fichte, Nietzsche, Mauthner, and writers like Goethe, Hölderlin, Whitman, Ibsen, his approach to socialism was self-consciously opposed to that of Marxist historical materialism and economic determinism, stressing instead culture and spirit, or ‘Geist’ (spirit, consciousness), the latter understood as the universal human spirit of social cooperation and association. For Landauer this spirit was the defining essence of socialism rather than class struggle or material conditions.

Physically thrown out of the social-democratic Second International together with the other anarchists, and also rejected by other class-struggle anarchists, Landauer remained a lonely figure outside all political groupings. As Rocker noted: “that Landauer had to live and act in Germany, of all places, became his fateful destiny, as it were. The majority of anarchists then in Germany understood him the least, and most of them did not even realise what they possessed in this man. Landauer always remained alone and lonely in that circle which should have been closest to him, understood only by a few and misunderstood, reviled and fanatically fought by many.”

However, his writings did find resonance among many intellectuals and youthful activists of the time, influencing men like Rudolf Rocker, Erich Mühsam, Augustin Souchy, Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch. A close friend of Martin Buber, Landauer thus also directly influenced the latter’s form of religious socialism and thus the later kibbutz movement in Palestine. Buber published some of Landauer’s unpublished works after his death and also devoted a chapter of his Paths in Utopia (1946) to a discussion of his ideas.

Landauer was briefly ‘Commissioner of Enlightenment and Public Instruction’ of the short-lived Bavarian Council Republic of 1918-1919. He is also known for his study of sceptical metaphysics and mysticism (Meister Eckhart), his literary criticism and his translations of Shakespeare, Whitman and Wilde into German. At the age of 49, Landauer was murdered in prison by counter-revolutionary forces sent by governmental Social Democrats to destroy the Munich Council Republic in April-May 1919.

Landauer seems of great contemporary relevance for anyone interested in non-violent civil disobedience and anarchism/libertarian socialism, in the critique of both Marxist orthodoxy and mass parliamentary democracy, in communitarianism and cooperatives, in transitioning to and building another decentralised, free, non-capitalist world right now, in the almost unknown emancipatory tradition of radical mysticism, in the integration of meditation/spirituality and activism, poetry and praxis, of inner and outer freedom.

~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on September 16, 2015.

3 Responses to “Introducing Gustav Landauer”

  1. very interesting Peter thank you. See he came to an timely end .

  2. You say that he was influenced by Goethe. Did he write about his understanding of the Faustus character, a hopeful/tragic soul quite at odds with “the universal human spirit of social cooperation and association”?

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