Martin Buber Reply

By John Ellerby

Transcribed by Luke Dodson

Originally published in

Anarchy 54 (Vol 5 No 8) August I965 (Freedom Press)

Martin Buber, who died in Jerusalem on June 13 at the age of 87, belonged to a generation of central European Jews for whom it was a privilege to die in old age, in bed. We discuss him in this issue of Anarchy together with two of his contemporaries, the German anarchists Gustav Landauer and Erich Mühsam, who both died by violence, one murdered in the reaction to the revolutionary period after the First World War, the other, one of the first victims of Nazism. In a sense, looking back in the light of history, one could say that they were privileged too, in that their deaths were noticed.For, as Martin Buber wrote to Gandhi (who had suggested that the Jews in Germany should use satyagraha as a reply to Nazi atrocities), “Now do you know or do you not know, Mahatma, what a concentration camp is like and what goes on there? . . . An effective stand may be taken in the form of non-violence against unfeeling human beings in the hope of gradually bringing them thereby to their senses; but a diabolical steamroller cannot thus be withstood . . . Testimony without acknowledgement, ineffective, unobserved martyrdom, a martyrdom cast to the Winds – that is the fate of innumerable Jews in Germany. God alone accepts their testimony, and God ‘seals’ it, as is said in our prayers. But no maxim for suitable behaviour can be deduced therefrom . . . ”

Landauer, Mühsam and Buber were all Jews in the racial sense, if indeed there is such a thing, but Buber was also a Jew in the religious sense: in fact he was world-famous as a religious thinker who transcends the limits of any particular faith. (Though he remarked in a television interview, “I must confess I don’t like religion very much”) One might almost say that there is a “cult” of Martin Buber in the same way as there has been a cult of Simone Well. We do not subscribe to this cult: we are simply interested in Buber’s social ideas, but at least it has meant that his works are available in translation – while none of those of Landauer, the close friend who deeply influenced his ideas, have been published in English.

Buber was hardly an anarchist, but the essay Society and the State, reprinted in this issue of Anarchy, seems to me to have the greatest value for anarchists and especially for anarchist propagandists, because of the clarity of the light it throws on what we might call the sociological bases of anarchist thought: the idea of the social principle and the political principle and the inverse relationship between them in any society, and of the notion of the “political surplus” and the “latent external crisis” are surely more useful to anarchists than to anyone else in explaining the nature of the world we live in.

Again, Buber was not a revolutionary. “Just as I do not believe,” he wrote, “in Marx’s ‘gestation’ of the new form, so I do not believe either in Bakunin’s virgin-birth from the womb of Revolution. But I do believe in the meeting of idea and fate in the creative hour.” He was not a revolutionary, but his approach to the moral problems of revolution was identical with that of Malatesta (see V. Richards: Malatesta: His Life and Ideas). Buber, contrasting the revolutionary with the soldier, wrote that “the revolutionary stands, according to the situation, in the tension between goal and way, and within its responsibility, neither of which the soldier knows. His personal statement is not, ‘I must here use force, but I do not want to do so’; but, ‘I have taken it on myself to use as much force as is necessary in order that the revolution be accomplished, but alas for me and for it if more force is used than is necessary!’ The personal responsibility of the soldier stems from principle; he can carry the contradiction out to its logical conclusion in his soul, reaching perhaps a decision to allow himself to be killed rather than to kill; even if he does not follow this conclusion in practice, he at least achieves the fundamental formulation of it. But the personal responsibility of the revolutionary is, according to its nature, one of demarcation. The watchword of his spirit is “Up to here’, and for that ‘Up to here’ there is no fast rule, each moment presenting it with ever new face. The revolutionary lives on the knife’s edge. The question that harasses him is, in fact, not merely the moral or religious one of whether he may kill; his quandary has nothing at all to do, as has at times been said, with ‘selling his soul to the devil’ in order to bring the revolution to victory. His entanglement in the situation is here just the tension between ends and means. . . . ”

In his book Paths in Utopia (Routledge 1949), Buber relates the collective settlements in Palestine (he was writing before the establishment of the State of Israel) to the tradition of Proudhon, Kropotkin and Landauer. The book is a defence and restatement of that stream of socialist thought which was castigated by Marx and Engels as “utopian”:

“Kropotkin summed up the basic view of the ends in a single sentence: the fullest development of individuality ‘will combine with the highest development of voluntary association in all its aspects, in all possible degrees and for all possible purposes; an association that it is always changing, that bears in itself the elements of its own duration, that takes on the forms which best correspond at any given moment to the manifold strivings of all’. This is precisely what Proudhon had wanted in the maturity of his thought. It may be contended that the Marxist objective is not essentially different in constitution; but at this point a yawning chasm opens out before us which can only be bridged by that special form of Marxist utopics, a chasm between, on the one side, the transformation to be consummated some time in the future – no one knows how long after the final victory of the Revolution – and, on the other, the road to the Revolution and beyond it, which road is characterised by a far-reaching centralisation that permits no individual features and no individual initiative. Uniformity as a means is to change miraculously into multiplicity as an end; compulsion into freedom. As against this the ‘utopian’ or non-Marxist socialist desires a means commensurate with his ends; he refuses to believe that in our reliance on the future ‘leap’ we have to have now the direct opposite of what we are striving for; he believes rather that we must create here and now the space now possible for the thing for which we are striving, so that it may come to fulfilment then; he does not believe in the post-revolutionary leap, but he does believe in revolutionary continuity.”

When we examine capitalist society, says Buber, “we see that it is a society inherently poor in structure, and growing poorer every day”. (By the structure of a society is to be understood its social content or community content: a society can be called structurally rich to the extent that it is built up of genuine societies: that is local communes and trade communes and their step by step association.) He compares Proudhon with Saint-Simon: “Saint-Simon started from the reform of the State. Proudhon from the transformation of society. A genuine reconstruction of society can only begin with a radical alteration of the relationship between the social and the political order. It can no longer be a matter of substituting one political regime for another, but of the emergence, in place of a political regime grafted upon society, of a regime expressive of society itself.”

Buber sees Kropotkin as amplifying Proudhon’s thought in stating the simple antithesis between the principles of the struggle for existence and mutual help. He regards Kropotkin’s earlier theory of the State as historically under-substantiated and regards as more correct the later view in Modem Science and Anarchism (French edition of 1913):

“All through the history of our civilisation, two contrary traditions, two trends have faced one another; the Roman tradition and the national tradition; the imperial and the federal; the authoritarian and the libertarian.” In his critique of Kropotkin, Buber declares that “As in his inadequate distinction between the excessive and the legitimate State, or the superfluous and the necessary State, so in another important respect Kropotkin’s view, although perceiving many historical relationships unnoticed by Proudhon is not realistic enough. . . . The danger of collective egoism, as also that of schism and oppression, is hardly less in an autonomous community than in the nation or party, particularly when the community participates as a co-partner in production.” He thinks that Landauer’s step beyond Kropotkin consists in his insight into the State. “The State is not, as Kropotkin thinks, an institution which can be destroyed by a revolution. ‘The state is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of human behaviour; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently’.” Therefore, says Buber, we shall always be helping to destroy it to the extent to which we do in fact enter into other relationships.

He then examines the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, and shows how in their changing and contradictory attitudes to the old Russian communal institutions, the Mir and the Irtel, and in their attitudes to co-operatives and workers’ councils, they regarded them simply as a tool in the political struggle. “From the standpoint of Leninism,” said Stalin, “the collective economies and the Soviets as well, are, taken as a form of organisation, a weapon and nothing but a weapon.” One cannot in the nature of things, comments Buber, “expect a little tree that has been turned into a club to put forth leaves”. And he goes on to consider the history of the co-operative movement: “But for the most part the running of large co-operative institutions has become more and more like the running of capitalist ones, and the bureaucratic principle has completely ousted, over a wide field, the voluntary principle, once prized as the most precious and indispensable possession of the Co-operative movement. This is especially clear in countries where Consumer Societies have in increasing measure worked together with the State and the municipalities, and Charles Gide was certainly not far wrong when he called to mind the fable of the wolf disguised as a shepherd and voiced the fear that, instead of making the State ‘Co-operative’ we should only succeed in making the Co-operative ‘static’.”

Of the repeated attempts in the last 150 years in Europe and America to found co-operative settlements, he says he would apply the word failure not merely to those attempts, which after a more or less short-lived existence, either disintegrated completely or took on a capitalist complexion, thus going over to the enemy camp; he would also apply it to those that maintained themselves in isolation. “For the real, the truly structural task of the new Village Communes begins with their federation, that is, their union under the same principle that operates in their internal structure. Even where, as with the Dukhobors in Canada, a sort of federation itself continues to be isolated and exerts no attractive and educative influence on society as a whole, with the result that the task never gets beyond its beginnings and, consequently there can be no talk of success in the socialist sense. It is remarkable that Kropotkin saw in these two elements – iso1ation of the settlements from one another and isolation from the rest of society – the effective causes of failure even as ordinarily understood”.

If the “Full Co-operative” in which production and consumption are united and industry is complemented by agriculture, is to become the cell of the new society, it is necessary, says Buber, that “there should emerge a network of settlements, territorially based and federatively constructed, without dogmatic rigidity, allowing the most diverse social forms to exist side by side, but always aiming at the new organic whole”. There is one effort, he concludes, “which justifies our speaking of success in the socialistic sense, and that is in the Jewish Village Commune in its various forms, as found in Palestine”. He calls it a signal non-failure, he cannot say a signal success, because he is too aware of the setbacks and disappointments, of the intrusion of politics, of the “lamentable fact that the all important attitude of neighbourly relationship has not been adequately developed,” of how much remained to be done. But of the importance of this non-failure he writes:

“There can hardly be any doubt that we must regard the last war as the end of the prelude to a world crisis. That crisis will probably break out – after a sombre interlude that cannot last very long – first among some of the nations of the West, who will be able to restore their shattered economy in appearance only. They will see themselves faced with the immediate need for radical socialisation, above all the expropriation of the land. It will then be of absolutely decisive importance who is the real subject of an economy so transformed, and who is the owner of the social means of production. Is it to be the central authority in a highly centralized State, or the social units of urban and rural workers, living and producing on a communal basis, and their representative bodies? In the latter case the remodelled organs of the State will discharge the functions of adjustment and administration only. On these issues will largely depend the growth of a new society and a new civilisation.”

There are two poles of socialism, Buber concluded, between which our choice lies, one we must designate – so long as Russia has not undergone an essential inner change – by the formidable name of Moscow. “The other I would make bold to call Jerusalem.”

Another crucial reason why he thought that the kibbutzim were the germs of a new form of social life was the variety to be found among them: “New forms and new intermediate forms were constantly branching off in complete freedom. Each one grew out of the particular social and spiritual needs as these came to light – in complete freedom, and each one acquired, even in the initial stages, its own ideology – in complete freedom, each struggling to propagate itself and spread and establish its proper sphere – all in complete freedom. The champions of the various forms each had his say, the pros and cons of each individual form, were frankly and fiercely debated – always, however, on the plane which everybody accepted as obvious; the common cause and common task, where each form recognised the relative justice of all the other forms in their special functions. All this is unique in the history of co-operative settlements.”

At this point something must be said of Buber’s attitude to Zionism. According to the Jewish Chronicle’s obituary, it was when he was a student in Vienna that he became the spokesman of a group known as the Democratic-Zionist Fraction “which opposed the purely political trend of Herzlian nationalism and stressed the culture side of the Jewish renascence. . . But the rejection of the brand of spiritual and cultural Zionism favoured then by Buber disappointed him so much that he withdrew for some time in the Zionist political field. . . Finding himself in agreement with many of the views on nationalism held by A. D. Gordon and his Hapoel Hatzair group, he gave his support to them and to the Chalutz movement . . . (but) it was not long before he saw, once more, that he could not agree with his fellow Zionists and their militant nationalism.” (Hapoel Hatzair means “the young worker” and Aaron David Gordon, about whom Buber wrote movingly in his book Israel and Palestine was a kind of Tolstoyan anarchist.) Buber himself, who left Germany at the last possible moment in 1938, to become Professor of Social Philosophy at the University of Jerusalem, continued to hold unpopular views, he did not want a Jewish state, but like Judah Magnes and Ernst Simon, sought co-operation with the Arabs. The Guardian notes that “In Palestine his idea of binationalism caused him to be ostracised by the orthodox as ‘an enemy of the people’.” It is 44 years since Buber warned his fellow Zionists that if the Jews in Palestine do not live with the Arabs as well as next to them, they will find themselves living in enmity to them, and he never ceased to give his support to Brit Shalom and its successor Ihud, the organisations seeking co-operation with the Arabs.

In 1951 Buber was criticised for accepting the Goethe Prize of the University of Hamburg. Was he not, it was asked, in too much haste to forgive? His reply was to accept another German prize and in doing so, to say these words:

“About a decade ago a considerable number of Germans – there must have been many thousands of them – under the indirect command of the German government and the direct command of its representatives, killed millions of my people in a systematically prepared and executed procedure, whose organised cruelty cannot be compared with any previous historical event. I, who am one of those who remained alive, have only in a formal sense a common humanity with those who took part in this action. They have so radically removed themselves from the human sphere, so transposed themselves into a sphere of monstrous inhumanity inaccessible to my conception, that not even hatred, much less an overcoming of hatred, was able to arise in me. And what am I that I could here presume to ‘forgive’! . . .

“When I think of the German people of the days of Auschwitz and Treblinka, I behold, first of all, the great many who knew that the monstrous event was taking place and did not oppose it. But my heart, which is acquainted with the weakness of men, refuses to condemn my neighbour for not prevailing upon himself to become a martyr. Next there emerges before me the mass of those who remained ignorant of what was withheld from the German public, and who did not try to discover what reality lay behind the rumours which were circulating. When I have these men in mind, I am gripped by the thought of the anxiety, likewise well known to me, of the human creature before a truth which he fears he cannot face. But finally there appears before me, from reliable reports, some who have become as familiar to me by sight, action, and voice as if they were friends, those who refused to carry out the orders and suffered death or put themselves to death, and those who learned what was taking place and opposed it and were put to death, or those who learned what was taking place and because they could do nothing to stop it killed themselves. I see these men very near before me in that especial intimacy which binds us at times to the dead and to them alone. Reverence and love for these Germans now fills my heart.”

Buber was often described as a mystic, and parried this by declaring that he was in fact a rationalist, that being “the only one of my world views that I have allowed to expand into an ism”. For, he wrote, “my innermost heart loves the World more than it loves the spirit”. Nine years ago I heard him lecture in London on “That Which is Common”, relating his philosophy of dialogue, of “I and Thou” with his views on community and society. He took as his text an account of Aldous Huxley’s experiments with the drug mescalin, which became, in Buber’s slow and emphatic English, a parable of the disjointed society of Western individualism. Huxley, in his escape from the “painful earthly world” under the influence of the drug, found that his lips, the palms of his hands, and his genitals (the organs of communication with others, interpolated Buber) became cold, and he avoided the eyes of those who were present. For, said Buber, to regard the eyes of the others, would be to recognise that which is common. And after this flight from selfhood and environment, Huxley “met them with a deep mistrust”. Huxley regarded his mescalin intoxication as a mystical experience, but, declared Buber, those whom we call mystics, like those we call creative artists, do not seek to escape from the human situation. “They do not want to leave the authentic world of speech in which a response is demanded. They cling to the common world until they are torn from it.”

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