The ecstasy of revolution: Gustav Landauer

Only when anarchy becomes, for us, a dark, deep dream, not a vision attainable through concepts, can our ethics and our actions become one.

We want to be everything though: humans, animals, and Gods!  We want to be heroes!

In revolution, everything happens incredibly quickly, just like in dreams in which people seem to be freed from gravity.

We are proud and secure enough to demand a new age; an age where people live in a beautiful and joyful world.

Gustav Landauer

Gustav Landauer, writing as an anarchist, at the end of the 19th century, states that “we have no political beliefs – we have beliefs against politics”. (79)*  Anarchism as anti-politics may sound to many, enigmatic.  Even if anarchists oppose the authority of the State, do they not do so as part of a political movement?  Is not anarchism an anti-State politics?  Can one not speak of an anarchist politics?  Landauer’s refusal of politics suggests a negative answer to these questions.  And more significantly, it points towards a conception of anarchism, or more broadly, of anarchist-socialist revolution, that is in many ways not only distinct from more traditional conceptions of the same, but is also far more profound in its radical implications.

Criticising those who engaged in political assassination, Landauer distances himself from an individualist anarchist propaganda by deed, on the grounds that those who engage in such action “are not anarchic enough for me”. (85)  Anarchists, often imagining themselves to be a more enlightened elite among an otherwise politically passive population, then mistakenly infer that they must bring anarchism to the world.  And on such an occasion of the mission’s realisation, equivalent perhaps only to a divine Day of Judgement, a new millennial era will be inaugurated.  However, according to Landauer, those “who want ‘to bring freedom to the world’ – which will always be their idea of freedom – are tyrants, not anarchists”. (87)  Anarchy is not a political project to be made real in some unknown and indefinite future.  It is not to be gained through class struggle, the appropriation of the means of production, military attacks or armed revolt.  Anarchy “is a matter of the present” and is “about free, strong, and sovereign individuals breaking free from mass culture and uniting in new forms”. (86)  Anarchy “is not a matter of making demands; it is a matter of how one lives”. (87)

Anarchism, conceived of as a form of life, takes us beyond the notion of the political as a sovereign, constituting act.  It does not aim to conquer political power, to thereafter modify it, or destroy it.  It suggests rather an act of disengagement from and the creation of ways of, being together beyond political power, beyond regimes of oppression.  “[W]e need to disengage from everything that we despise, rebel against everything that oppresses and limits us, and take everything that we need and want”. (80)

To create life though is also to embrace it and to be “reborn from within”. (88)  The teeming abundance and generosity of life flows beneath the surface of all life; a chaotic torrent of forces and energies, appetites and desires, an anarchy that lies within every living being.  The anarchist is someone who is able to drink from this subterranean reality.

Every such man will have the urge to give birth to himself, to recreate his being, and – as far as possible – his environment and his world.  This extraordinary moment will be experienced by all who … are able to recreate the original chaos in themselves and to become spectators at the drama of their own desires and deepest secrets.  Only once we have achieved this can we decide which one of our many personalities should define who we are.  This in turn will define our uniqueness and differentiate us from the traditions and legacies of our ancestors.  We will understand what the world should be to us, and what we should be to the world. (88)

To be free, according to Landauer, is to unearth the desire that tells one who one truly wants to be.  “This desire is his life”. (88)  Desire, in this instance, is not symptomatic or expressive of a deficiency, a lack.  And nor is it, in its expression, necessarily free of distortion or manipulation.  It is however the ultimate source from which we create and act, and the ultimate court for judging which of our desires we pursue.  Whatever domestication, discipline, desire suffers, it nevertheless perpetually slips away from its restraints, opening up other possibilities of existence.

The way to a newer, higher form of human society passes by the dark, fatal gate of our instincts and the terra abscondita – the ‘hidden land’ – of our soul, which is our world.  This can only be constructed from within.  We can discover this land, this rich world, if we are able to create a new kind of human being through chaos and anarchy, through unprecedented, intense, deep experience.  Each one of us has to do this.  Once this process is completed, only then will anarchists and anarchy exist … (88)

Revolution is thus a killing of oneself, that is, of one’s self, of subjectivities past, of subjectivities moulded in fear, deception, and oppression.  If anything new is to be born in revolution, then it must involve the birth-creation of new selves.

… what we are waiting for can only come from ourselves, from our own being.  It will come once we force the unknown, the unconscious, up into our spirit; it will come once our spirit loses itself in the spiritless psychological realms that await us in the caverns of our souls.  This marks our renewal as human beings, and it marks the arrival of the world that we anticipate.  Mere intervention in the public sphere will never bring this world about.  It is not enough for us to reject conditions and institutions; we have to reject ourselves.  “Do not kill others, only yourself” – such will be the maxim of those who accept the challenge to create their own chaos in order to discover their most authentic and precious inner being and to become one with the world in a mystical union.  What these men will be able to bring to the world will be so extraordinary that it will seem to have come from a world altogether unknown.  Whoever brings the lost world in himself to life – to individual life – and whoever feels like a true part of the world and not as a stranger: he will be the one who arrives not knowing where from, and who leaves not knowing where to.  To him the world will be what he is to himself. … This will be anarchy. (89)

Landauer’s anarchist revolution should not however be read as a celebration of radical individualism or aristocratism.  “One acts with others” (88) and “there will never be only one way to happiness”. (90)  Rooted as revolution is in life, it is nothing “if it is not an infinite sea promising eternity”. (89)  Like a Deleuzian plane of immanence, Landauer’s individual, plunging into the depths of her/his soul, discovers not a deeper, autonomous self or ego, but the flow of life that transcends binary oppositions of subject and object, I and world, self and other.  As regards this reality, “we lack proper words for it”. (102)  But words we must find.

Our task is to prove that the concrete individual and isolated individual is as much a spook as God. … there are no individuals, only affinities and communities.  It is not true that collective names are only sums of singularities or individuals; rather, individuals are only manifestations and points of passage, the electrical sparks of something greater, something all encompassing. (101)

… let us remember that there are no more dead causes or dead laws of nature, no transcendent principles, for us anymore.  We only know immanent life, only present forces. (101)

“’The individual’ is a rigid and absolute expression for something that is very mobile and relative. … The individual is a spark of the soul stream that we know as humanity, species, or universe.  If we see the world only as the outside world, then we do see, touch, hear, taste, and smell individuals.  If we turn within ourselves, however, we realize that there are no autonomous individuals. … What we are a part of is an unbreakable chain that comes from the infinite and proceeds to the infinite, even if little segments might tear off and experience complications.  Everything that we make while we are alive connects us with the universe.  And even our dead body is a bridge that is used to continue our journey through the universe. (101-2)

Matter, body, mind and the like, are “inadequate and dated expressions”, for they fail to capture what Landauer calls “the complex soul stream that we call the world”. (102)  He will employ the concepts of spirit and soul.  But they are admittedly cumbersome in the effort to elaborate a fundamental monism of universal life, from which individual forms emerge, but to which life can never be confined.  Beneath the conscious self and the isolated body, metamorphoses continually undermine any static integrity in the individual, in combination with forces and agencies that stream forth from other individuals and the hidden streams of life itself.

The individual bodies which have lived on this earth from its beginning are not just a sum of isolated individual beings; they form a big and real community, an organism; an organism that changes permanently, that always manifests itself in new individual shapes. (103)

In other words, the true individuality that we find in the deepest depths of our selves is community, humanity, divinity. (105)

The revealing of our desires, of the life that moves through us, takes us beyond ourselves, towards the infinite, a reaching out, beyond, felt and sustained in love.

Love … spins us round and elevates us to the stars, because it is a cord that connects us with humanity … Love sets the world alight and sends sparks through our being.  It is the deepest and the most powerful way to understand the most precious that we have. (106-7)

Such love feeds not the ego or possession.  It is rather that sentiment or affect which dissolves the ego as salt in water; opening then one up to others who share a newly emerging way of life, a life of fraternity (172), of free community.

The radicalness of Landauer’s revolutionary anarchism lies in his rejection of sovereignty, the seductive prize of political struggle.  Life cannot be governed without violence, for it is in the very nature of political sovereignty to identify, catalogue, and thereby establish those governed and those excluded from government.  If life then is the source of free community, then community so conceived is beyond sovereign power.  Instead of the conquest or destruction of power, Landauer proposes a separation, “revolution as way” (121), a way in opposition and divorced from, State-Capital.

… one pursues municipal socialism; one supports farmers’, consumers’, and tenants’ cooperatives; one creates public gardens and libraries; one leaves cities and works with spade and shovel; one simplifies one’s material life for the sake of spiritual luxury; one organizes and educates; one struggles for the creation of new schools and new forms of education. (88)

Such examples are strategies for creating freedom, strategies that embody their goals within their very means.  And though born in separation, they gain form though and exist only in community.

Through separation to community – what this means is: let us risk everything, so that we can live as complete human beings; let us get away from the superficiality of the authoritarian common communities; let us instead create communities that reflect the world community that we ourselves are! (108)


*All page references are to, Gustav Landauer, Revolution and other Writings, Oakland CA, PM Press, 2010.


This entry was posted in Commentary and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.