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Visions of Society

Martin Buber & Leo Tolstoy: Two Examples of Spiritual Anarchism

Patrick Cannon articulates an alternative anarchism.

I would like to present for your consideration two interesting and peculiar versions of anarchism, as articulated by the German-Israeli existentialist and social thinker Martin Buber (1878-1965) and the reclusive Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910). Buber is a fascinating representative of Jewish left-wing thought, while Tolstoy a famous Christian anti-authoritarian. Although the two thinkers came from different religious backgrounds and geographic circumstances, Buber and Tolstoy’s political philosophies converge on a position I will be calling ‘spiritual anarchism’. Both thinkers stand sharply divided from the dominant, secular anarchist orthodoxy (if there were ever aproximately such a thing).

Martin Buber

Martin Buber is best remembered for his magnum opus I and Thou (1923), in which he sought to give an account of our relationship to other people and to God – the ‘Eternal Thou’. Buber’s interests were, however, much broader than reflections on religion. One often overlooked interest, or perhaps better put, commitment, is Buber’s political philosophy.

Despite the media stereotype of anarchy and anarchists, anarchist philosophy is actually fundamentally one of non-violence and reciprocity based on a system of communal ownership where no single person would own the things necessary to make goods, but all people would hold common ownership of them, and the subsequent wealth would be enjoyed equally and democratically. This system would do away with capitalism as we now know it, and also the socioeconomic classes we know today. If that weren’t enough, Buber agreed with Marx and Engels that the state – in short, government as we know it today – ought to ‘wither away’ as well, so as to usher in a condition of true, highly developed communism. But otherwise Buber differs with Marx about the role of the state. Marx believed that the state was an integral tool for workers to achieve liberation from their miserable existence under capitalism. Through the state, workers in a post-revolutionary society would wield political power to help direct the new, democratically owned and operated society. Buber disagreed with Marx about this, believing that capitalism and the state ought to wither away simultaneously rather than one after the other. Buber disagrees with Marx even more about the nature of human emancipation: while Marx was a staunch atheist, seeing religion as a false worldview designed to delude the working class, Buber was staunchly committed to his Jewish faith. He remarked in his 1949 classic Paths in Utopia that he saw the kibbutz as the most advanced anarchist society to date. (A kibbutz is a kind of Jewish anti-authoritarian socialist commune in Israel or Palestine.)

Buber’s understanding of socialism was mystical. In his work Three Theses on Religious Socialism (1928), he says that religious truth can be found by standing within “the abyss of the real reciprocal relation with the mystery of God,” of which socialism is the worldly equivalent, where one wades in “the abyss of the real reciprocal relation with the mystery of man.” For Buber the kibbutz was an attempt at this worldly experiment – an experiment, he thought, that originated organically out of the ‘village communes’ of Medieval Christian Europe.

As early as 1928 Buber considered socialism(-anarchism) as inherently religious. He argued that “socialism without religion does not hear the divine address” while “religion without socialism hears the call but does not respond.” Rather, the religious aspects of life are wholly incorporated with, integrated in, and inform the entire matrix of social life, and vice versa. They dynamically interpenetrate and mutually reinforce.

Buber centred his anarchist ideal on the rejuvenation and renewal of social structures, citing ‘social spontaneity’ as a key aspect of the healthy functioning of society. He drew heavily from the notions of institutional renewal of his friend and colleague, Gustav Landauer (1870-1919), a German Renaissance man and fellow anarchist. Landauer was primarily motivated by pacifism and an idea of the ‘organic spontaneity’ of the human spirit, imagining that these are the only pillars upon which a future anarchist society could come to exist. This society as Buber describes it has an underpinning of revolution with a spontaneous human spirit continuously developing itself in pulses.

Buber expands this image further in his 1951 essay ‘Society and State’. He writes there that vibrant civil society (the space where civilians, churches, schools, hubs of commerce, and so on, exist day-to-day) is endangered by political society – that is, the state – which always has a surplus of power in relation to civil society. “The political principle,” he tells us, “is always stronger [than] the social principle. The result is a [weakening] in social spontaneity.” Thus for Buber, as for Landauer, socialist anarchism is a paradoxically ‘conservative’ endeavor. That is, one finds that the task to ensure liberation is to conserve, nurture, and fortify those social forces and institutions that encourage the general tendencies toward spontaneous, radically creative thinking, and radical, revolutionary behaviors. The task of liberation for Buber’s anarchism is revolt against the surplus of political power, and for “men to appreciate the incomparable value of the social principle to prepare the ground for improving the relations between” society and the government. Buber launches an anarchist, anti-authoritarian critique of Soviet Russia, which he says exemplifies the polar opposite of his notion of socialism. In 1949, when Buber was penning Paths, Stalin’s rigid authoritarianism was at its worst. Under Stalin, the Soviet Union’s so-called ‘socialism’ was little more than state terror, torture, mass deportations, exiles, forced labor, and paranoia.

On the final page of Paths, Buber affirms his commitment to his Jewish socialist-anarchism by making the starkest of contrasts with Soviet Russia. “We must designate one of the two poles of Socialism between which our choice lies, by the formidable name of ‘Moscow. The other, I would make bold to call ‘Jerusalem.’” Thus he perceived two diametrically-oriented modes of socialism, one authoritarian and the other anti-authoritarian.

Buber seems sympathetic to what modern political theorist would call communitarianism. Briefly summarized, this is the notion that an individual is not ‘an island unto himself’, but individual identity and value are firmly embedded in one’s community, relationships, and surroundings. The community, then, plays a major role for Buber. Should there be anarchism, it would have to be essentially communitarian and social in every aspect of its unfolding.

Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy, a fellow spiritual anarchist, advocated a different view of anarchism to Buber’s, best described as individualistic rather than communitarian.

Tolstoy is best known for his landmark novels, War and Peace (1869), Anna Karenina (1877), and The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886), but like Buber, he was also an interesting religious thinker. Gandhi, the great liberator, called Tolstoy’s classic, The Kingdom of God is Within You (1894) “overwhelming” in its potency and inspiration. That book argues that one’s relation to God alone – not to one’s community, one notices – is the only relationship with which any legitimate power dynamics are possible and coherent. That is to say, for Tolstoy, God is the ultimate political sovereign: he believed that God was the most supreme of all powers, even earthly. Thus “For a Christian the oath of allegiance to any government whatever – the very act which is regarded as the foundation of the existence of a state – is a direct renunciation of Christianity” because the only absolutely sovereign power is “the divine law of love [bestowed by God] which one “recognizes within him[self]” (p.212). Moreover, writing in a letter of 1896, Tolstoy explains that earthly government is totally “incompatible with Christianity” especially Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, which, he argues, implores the faithful to reject violence altogether. Government, Tolstoy writes, “is violence; Christianity is meekness, non-resistance, love. And, therefore, government cannot be Christian, and a man who wishes to be a Christian must not serve government” (p.42).

Tolstoy, although motivated by spiritual sympathies, makes a valid point when he says that government is based upon violence. The famous economic and political sociologist Max Weber said similarly that one of the essential aspects of any modern government is the systematic monopolization of the control of citizens. That is, a monopoly on the use of violent coercion.

We can see that Tolstoy’s anarchism is something of a side-effect of his fervent and mystical Christianity. The idea that all governments are illegitimate because of their predication upon violence logically follows from his strict adherence to non-violence. He presents us with a choice: the state or Christianity. If we admit that Christ does indeed forbid murder and violence, then the entire network of the armed forces must be dissolved; “no one [should] wish to obey a government that exists merely by its power to kill” (from Tolstoy’s ‘Last Message to Mankind’, a presentation given to the 1910 International Peace Congress in Stockholm).

Buber and Tolstoy
Buber and Tolstoy by Elizabeth Bevington, 2016

Unspiritual Anarchisms

Tolstoy’s individualist Christian anarchism is quite different than Buber’s Jewish communitarian anarchism. But they both base their anarchist conclusions upon religious and spiritual convictions rather than the earthly premises used by the early French anarchist thinkers such as Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, whose work laid the foundation for Karl Marx’s so-called ‘scientific socialism’. Buber and Tolstoy also stand opposed to the main stream of anarchism which, historically speaking, has been atheist.

One of the most prominent anarchists, Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876), took a position opposite Buber and Tolstoy. For Bakunin and the majority of anarchists, atheism is a foundational tenant of their philosophy, so that it often goes without saying that God is exiled from anarchism, and humanity is thus itself placed on the throne of ultimate power. In Bakunin’s thinking, anarchism is the total emancipation of humanity from all forms of oppression and coercion, and he thought religion inhibits humanity from developing our potentials. “God, once installed,” writes Bakunin in 1871, “was all; and man, his real creator, after having unknowingly extracted him from the void, bowed down before him, worshipped him, and avowed himself his creature and his slave” (God and the State, p.10). The anarchist Emma Goldman writing in 1916, forty years after Bakunin’s God and the State, reinforces Bakunin’s point that “the idea of God implies the abdication of human reason and justice; it is the most decisive negation of human liberty, and necessarily ends in the enslavement of mankind, both in theory and practice” (‘The Philosophy of Atheism’, Red Emma Speaks, p.242).

Both historically and theoretically, anarchism has generally seen religion as an oppressive force, alongside the government and multinational corporate capitalism. Buber and Tolstoy, on the other hand, represent a rich tradition of spiritual anarchism. For them, anarchism and spirituality are profoundly interconnected and self-reinforcing. Both Buber and Tolstoy offer their spiritual positions as primary, and their social-political positions as following naturally and straightforwardly from them. These spiritual anarchists believed that the only possibly way of orienting a free society of free individuals is upon a Judeo-Christian ground.

© Patrick Cannon 2016

Patrick Cannon studied Philosophy at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, and Oxford University, and lives in California where he works in local government administration.

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