Gustav Landauer

by James Horrox

The Literary Encyclopedia. Vol. 1.4.1
First published 04 August 2011


That Gustav Landauer is remembered by many primarily for the circumstances surrounding his death in the Bavarian revolution of 1918-19 does little justice either to the richness and originality of his thought, or to the sheer bredth of his achievements. A committed activist and political theorist par excellence, Landauer was also an accomplished journalist, playwright, essayist, lecturer, theatre critic, gérant of the anarchist periodical Der Sozialist, and a prolific translator, notable for his German editions of Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and Walt Whitman.

Born in Karlsruhe on April 7th 1870 into a middle-class, assimilated Jewish family, Landauer excelled academically from a young age, developing a keen interest in particular in literature, theatre and the arts.  After attending university in Heidelberg, Berlin and Strasbourg, where his burgeoning antiauthoritarian disposition was shaped by the art and philosophy of German Romanticism and the ideas of Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Rousseau, Tolstoy and Nietzsche, in Berlin in the early 1890s he was introduced to political activism in the left-wing, anti-SPD student faction the Jungen [The Youth]. Through the Jungen he came into contact with the writings of Proudhon and Kropotkin, and became involved in avant-garde theatre in the Freie Volksbühne [Free People’s Theatre], and subsequently the Neue Freie Volksbühne [New Free People’s Theatre], which he cofounded in 1892.

In 1893 Landauer took over editorship of Der Sozialist [The Socialist], a radical newspaper established by a Jungen offshoot known as the Union of Independent Socialists as the voice of left opposition to the SPD.  The paper served thereafter as the main vehicle for Landauer’s excoriations of Second International Marxism and German Social Democracy, his abhorrence of which – cemented during the 1890s by his expulsion from Second International congresses in Zurich (1893) and London (1896) – found early literary expression in his 1893 novel Der Todesprediger [The Preacher of Death].

The latter’s impact was slight, but while acclaim as a novelist eluded Landauer, his writings in Der Sozialist throughout the 1890s earned him the attention of the German anarchist movement, and in turn the country’s authorities. On charges of incitement he served three prison sentences in 1893, 1896 and 1899, during which he penned a second novel, Lebendig Tot [Dead Alive], edited his friend Fritz Mauthner’s Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache [Contributions to a Critique of Language] and translated the sermons of 13th century mystic Meister Eckhart into modern German.

The turn of the century augured a move away from the anarchist agitations of the 1890s; based from 1897 in the bohemian Berlin suburb of Friedrichshagen Landauer associated closely with prominent figures in German literary naturalism and the expressionist movement, in particular Georg Kaiser and Ernst Toller, and with the Friedrichshagen poet circle.  In 1900 he joined Heinrich and Julius Hart’s literary group Neue Gemeinschaft [New Community], which in 1901 published his essay Durch Absonderung zur Gemeinschaft [Through Separation to Community], subsequently the opening section of his first major philosophical treatise Skepsis und Mystik [Scepticism and Mysticism] (1903).

Landauer’s involvement in the Harts’ venture was short-lived, but he came away from the group having forged a number of important friendships, notably with the playwright Julius Bab, the anarchist Erich Mühsam and the Jewish theologian Martin Buber, to whom he became a close friend and mentor over the following years.  It was also through Neue Gemeinschaft that Landauer met the poet and translator Hedwig Lachmann, whom he married in 1903.

During the first decade of the 20th century Landauer turned out a series of literary studies and translations, including German editions of Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and Walt Whitman.  Politically, the increasing dominance in his writings of a view of anarchism first and foremost as a struggle of the spirit reflects the influence of Leo Tolstoy, and of Christian and Jewish mysticism.  A committed pacifist, Landauer denounced anarchist violence as not only bespeaking a moral and intellectual bankruptcy on the part of its protagonists, but as inherently incapable of bringing about revolutionary transformation, the state being not an ‘entity’ that can be ‘smashed’, but rather, “a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of human behaviour … We are the State”, he argued, “and continue to be the State until we have created the institutions that form a real community” (1910/1994, 1) [emphasis added].

This most famous of Landauer’s political insights fuses with his anti-materialist theory of history and left-leaning interpretation of völkisch Romantic ideals of nation, Volk and Gemeinschaft in his three seminal political treatises, ‘Volk und Land: Dreissig Sozialistiche Thesen’ [‘People and Land: Thirty Socialist Theses’] (1907), Die Revolution [Revolution] (1908), and Aufruf zum Sozialismus [A Call to Socialism; later published in English as For Socialism] (1911).

The impulse towards disengagement from capitalism led Landauer to participate in numerous ventures in which he saw the potential beginnings of a new social order, including in 1903 the Deutsche Gartenstadt Gesellschaft [German Garden City Association], inspired by the Garden City and Arts and Crafts movements in England, and later the Sozialistische Bund [Socialist Alliance], which he helped found in 1908.  But in late 1918 he found himself embroiled in an uprising far removed from his vision of peaceful social change.  Following the deposition of the Bavarian government in November that year, under the interim presidency of Independent Socialist Kurt Eisner Landauer served in various capacities in the new order, notably in the Revolutionary Workers’ Council and the Central Workers’ Council of Bavaria, and subsequently as Commissioner of Enlightenment and Public Instruction in the First Bavarian Council Republic of April 1919.

His tenure in the latter post was brief, for within a week of his appointment the Communists had seized power and installed a military Soviet government.  On May 1st, following the overthrow of the Bavarian Soviet by counterrevolutionary troops, Landauer was arrested and incarcerated in Starnberg jail. As he was being transferred to Stadelheim Prison on the morning of May 2nd, he was set upon by a mob of soldiers, beaten, and shot to death.

That Landauer tends to be remembered chiefly in relation to the events in which he found himself caught up during the final months of his life to some extent not only distorts the actual content of his ideas, but also obscures the true breadth of his influence, both during his own lifetime and in the decades since his death. Canonised by Buber in Paths in Utopia and hailed by Rudolf Rocker as a “spiritual giant”, he was a source of inspiration for, among others, Silvio Gesell, Eberhard Arnold, Ernst Bloch, Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin, Hermann Hesse and Arnold Zweig. His work as a translator has lived on in Germany, with many of his translations – notably of Kropotkin, Étienne de La Boétie, Meister Eckhart and Oscar Wilde – still reprinted as the standard German adaptations.  Through Buber he became a major ideological mentor for Europe’s socialist Zionist youth movements, among whom he lectured prolifically during the last decade of his life, and his ideas were instrumental in the development of the early kibbutz movement in Palestine in the 1920s and 30s.

His discursive understanding of power, which some have argued anticipated the insights of poststructuralism, and his emphasis on prefiguring the society of the future in the present, have led to him experiencing a revival among anarchist movements since the late 1990s, and with it the publication of new English translations of his work. An enduring presence on the right as well as the left – the völkisch aspects of his thought that complicate his appeal among the latter a key point of attraction for the former – Landauer remains one of European anarchism’s most complex and fascinating figures. “At once an individualist and a socialist”, writes anarchist historian Paul Avrich, “a Romantic and a mystic, a militant and an advocate of passive resistance, [he] was also the most influential German anarchist intellectual of the twentieth century” (Avrich 1974, 11).


WORKS CITED

Avrich, P. “Gustav Landauer”, The Match!, December 1974. 10-12

Landauer, G. “Weak Statesmen, Weaker People”, in Anarchism in Germany and Other Essays, Bender, S. and Kuhn, G. (eds.) Barbary Coast Collective, s.l. 1910/1994