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Landauer’s Fallacy

category international | anarchist movement | opinion / analysis author Thursday July 28, 2011 12:09author by Wayne Price - (personal opinion)author email drwdprice at aol dot com Report this post to the editors

Gustav Landauer's "Famous Statement"

There is a often-cited quotation by Gustav Landauer, that the state is only a relationship. It is frequently used to argue for a non-revolutionary anarchist strategy. I argue that it is mistaken and misleading. [Italiano]


Landauer’s Fallacy

Gustav Landauer's "Famous Statement"

Reading contemporary anarchist literature, I repeatedly come across some version of a quotation from the German anarchist Gustav Landauer (1870—1919). A book on anarchism and education cites “Gustav Landauer’s famous remark” (Suissa, 2010; p. 136),
The state is not something which can be destroyed by a revolution, but is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of human behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently.” (quoted in above)
The writer on education actually took this quotation from a work by the well-known anarchist writer, Colin Ward. Another version of this “famous statement by Gustav Landauer” (Gordon, 2008; p. 38) is cited in Uri Gordon’s book on the nature of anarchism,
One can throw away a chair and destroy a pane of glass but…[only] idle talkers…regard the state as such a thing or as a fetish that one can smash in order to destroy it. The state is a condition, a certain relationship among human beings, a mode of behavior between men [note]; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another…We are the state, and we shall continue to be the state until we have created the institutions that form a real community….” (quoted above)
In either version, this statement is fundamentally wrong, I will argue. First, I will paraphrase the statement, to summarize what I think Landauer was saying. He was denying that the state is primarily an institution, a social structure. Instead, he claims that it is nothing but a set of relationships among people. He draws the conclusion that it is wrong to seek to overthrow the state in a revolution. Instead, we should develop alternative ways of relating to each other, expressed in alternate social arrangements created in the here-and-now, to gradually replace the state. (While the quotations refer to the state, I assume they generalize to all forms of oppression, particularly capitalism.)

Note that it is not I but Landauer who counterposed these approaches: either we see the state as a thing, an institution, or we see it as relationships. Either we aim for a revolution to smash the state or we build alternate relationships here-and-now. This was his view and the view of those who quote him—not mine.

The Landauer quotation is admired by those anarchists whose basic strategy is to gradually build alternate institutions until they can peacefully replace capitalism and the state. Sometimes this is called a “new anarchism,” although it goes back to the ideas of Proudhon, not to mention Landauer. This nonrevolutionary strategy is opposed to the supposedly “old” strategy of revolutionary class struggle anarchism (see Gordon, 2008; Price, 2009).

Who Was Gustav Landauer?

In his time, Landauer was an influential anarchist thinker and activist. Erich Fromm referred to him as “one of the last great representatives of anarchist thought” (Fromm, 1955; p. 221). Jesse Cohen stated, “Gustav Landauer [should] be remembered, right along with Bakunin and Kropotkin, as one of anarchism’s most brilliant and original thinkers” (quoted in an advertisement for a new collection of Landauer’s writings, at the back of Suissa, 2010). Paul Avrich, the historian of anarchism, wrote, “He was also the most influential German anarchist of the twentieth century” (same). Perhaps the most impressive blurb is a 1893 reference in a German police file, “Landauer is the most important agitator of the radical and revolutionary movement in the entire country” (same). High praise indeed!

During his political career, Landauer went from being a Marxist oppositionist among the youth of the German Social Democratic Party, to complete hostility to Marxism and dedication to anarchism. (Until I have seen the new collection of his work [Revolution and Other Writings: A Political Reader, Gabriel Kuhn ed. & trans.; PM Press], I am relying on Landauer; 1978 and Ward; 1965).

In 1919, following World War I and the Russian Revolution, revolutions swept across Europe. Landauer was invited to serve on the central council of the region of Bavaria, which was trying to establish a repoublic of workers and peasants councils. Counterrevolutionary military forces, under the orders of Social Democrats, overthrew the council repoublic. Landauer was arrested, repeatedly shot, and then trampled to death, similar to the killing of Rosa Luxemburg in Berlin. “When [Luxemburg] and Gustav Landauer were murdered by the soldiers of the German counter-revolution, the humanistic tradition of faith in [humanity] was meant to be killed with them” (Fromm, 1955; p. 210).

Gustav Landauer’s Program

Landauer’s writings express keen insight into many of the problems of Marxism: its teleological determinism, its centralism, its scientism, its mostly uncritical attitude toward technology. He was entirely correct that socialism requires new ways of human beings relating to each other and of relating to nature. Almost all anarchists would agree with these views.

However, he integrated the communist-anarchism of Kropotkin with the gradualist alternative-institutionism of Proudhon’s mutualism. He advocating leaving the cities (and the class struggle in them). Instead he proposed building collective farms. These would spread until they replaced capitalism and the state.
The socialist village, with workshops and village factories, with fields and meadows and gardens…you proletarians of the big cities, accustom yourselves to this thought…for that is the only beginning of true socialism…” (quoted in Ward, 1965; p. 246). “Let us unite to establish socialist households, socialist villages, socialist communities….They should shine out over the country, so that the masses of men [note] will be overcome by envy of the new primeval bliss of satisfaction….” Landauer, 1978; p. 138).
There is nothing wrong with building cooperatives or collective villages. But this is not a strategy for overthrowing capitalism and its state. Its most “successful” implementation were the Israeli kibbutzim, which were ideologically inspired partially by Landauer’s friend, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. Whatever their virtues, these served as agents of a capitalist, colonial-settler, new state, not socialist anarchism.

Along with his valid criticisms of Marxism, Landauer also condemned its core orientation to the working class (he similarly condemns the syndicalists). After all, he wanted the workers to leave the big cities and industries where the class struggle was being fought out and (as the “famous statement” has it) “contract other relationships” by building collective agricultural-industrial farms in the countryside. This meant that they must stop being industrial workers, proletarians.

He supported labor unions only if they worked with consumer cooperatives, using their money to buy land for collective industrial-agricultural villages. This was not a class orientation, since he also hoped for “rich men [to] either join us completely or at least contribute to our cause” (Landauer, 1978; p. 140).

Unfortunately, his writing is full of vile insults and degrading caricatures of the working class. “Proletarians are the born uncultured plodders….The proletarian’s uncultured mentally is, incidently, one of the reasons why Marxism, systematized unculturedness, has been so well received by the proletariat…..The workers are not a revolutionary class, but a bunch of poor wretches who must live and die under capitalism….If the revolution came today, no stratum of the population would have less idea of what to do than our industrial proletarians.” (Landauer, 1978; pp. 69, 86, 134)

It is ironic that Landauer died, not defending his fantasy of collective villages, but as part of a real working-class revolution. Whatever his weaknesses, he died bravely in the cause of proletarian anarchism.

The Famous Statement

Returning now to the “famous remark” of Landauer’s: saying that the state is only a relationship between people, is like saying that Niagra Falls is just drops of water flowing downward. It is true, but misses the point. All institutions (social structures) are composed of individual humans. If a neutron bomb killed off all the people but left the buildings in which the government meets, there would be no more state. But this does not mean that, as Margaret Thatcher once said, there is no society, only individuals. When many people act in consistent, repeated, and stable patterns, then that is an institution. (By “act” I include both overt behavior and internal thinking and believing.) And such institutions resist change. The US national state has outlasted all those who once established it, and those who continued it, for over 200 years; the individuals are different, but the state continues.

No doubt, if tens of millions of individuals decided to live in a different, nonstate, way, this would challenge the state. But what if, at the same time, other millions decided to keep on living in a statist fashion? What if they have self-interests in living as powerful and wealthy people, and this is part of their self-conception? Statism will not be settled by how many people chose to live this way or that. It will take a clash, a conflict, a fight. Ruling classes have rarely permitted those they exploit to chose to live differently; they use force to maintain their institutions, especially the state—and the oppressed are forced to either use violence to defend their choices or to surrender to the masters.

Even Landauer notes that his strategy of collective villages and cooperatives will face state resistance. “The state…will place the greatest and smallest obstacles in the way of the beginners. We know that” (Landauer, 1978; p. 141). What is his answer to this? “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it!” (same). This is hardly adequate.

Socialist-anarchism will need a mass movement of workers and all the oppressed, determined to live differently, for ourselves and our children. But it will not succeed if the movement blinds itself to the obstacles, bases itself on fantasies, and refuses to prepare for an eventual revolution.


Fromm, Erich (1955). The Sane Society. Greenwich CT: Fawcett.
Gordon, Uri (2008). Anarchy Alive! Anti-Authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory. Ann Arbor MI: Pluto Press.
Landauer, Gustav (1978). For Socialism. (D. J. Parent, trans.). St. Louis: Telos Press.
Price, Wayne (2009). “The two main trends in anarchism.”
Suissa, Judith (2010). Anarchism and Education; A Philosophical Perspective. Oakland CA: PM Press.
Ward, Colin (1965). “Gustav Landauer.” In Anarchy 54 (vol. 5, no. 8). Pp. 244-254.

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author by Manuel Baptistapublication date Thu Jul 28, 2011 21:40Report this post to the editors

It is a good thing to imagine a society being run without what we all know as a «State». Be it whatever it is, be it institutions, with solid buildings (like tribunals, prisons, barracks, governement buildings, etc) or be it relationships.

It is very important for the class struggle, for the workers class, to run their own institutions in a democratic, non-hierarchical way, when they can perform this inner revolution. Then, the real social revolution is near, is arriving.

This hapens nowadays as many of our youth live in a «here and now classless, anarchistic dream»...
It is good and bad at the same time.
Everything has good and bad sides: Proudhon's gradualism is often a necessary attitude, even when our core theory remains attached to revolutionary anarchism.
The syndicalist praxis is «gradualist» class stuggle in «normal times». The «revolutionary» aspect of it can only be brought when people are being educated inside unions and other collectives not to rely anymore on the State (like a super-Mother or Father), but to their own strenght and to collective solidarity.

Still, we can be inspired by Landauer, Marx, Proudhon, Kropotkin, etc... No need to endorse their weaknesses!

We should take from these outstanding thinkers what is still worth today, and leave their practical and theoretical weaknesses to their time context ...

author by Waynepublication date Fri Jul 29, 2011 04:25Report this post to the editors

Manuel Baptista is correct in writing that today, "we can be inspired by Landauer, Marx, Proudhon, Kropotkin, etc.," while being aware of their strengths and weaknesses. He is also correct in noting that popular organizations, such as unions and community groups, should be as democratic and libertarian as possible, prefiguring a new society.

However, there is a difference between being a revolutionary who fights for reforms and being a reformist who think that gradual changes can peacefully lead into anarchism. This is a fundamental matter of strategy, how we think the struggle will lead to a new society. I completely disagree with Landauer's statement that “The state is not something which can be destroyed by a revolution." Yes it can and it must.

author by Wayne, citing otherspublication date Fri Jul 29, 2011 11:21Report this post to the editors

I reeived two comments on the essay, which I am repeating here (without names).

(1) I never read that quote as Landauer meaning that the state is *only* a relationship-- I always read it as an additional way of understanding institutions and hierarchies-- and I read it as an idea that is crucial and necessary one for people to visit if we ever want to live in better ways, sans the state. But that's just my reading-- perhaps I didn't read it in enough context.

(2) I had never thought of it as anti-revolutionary, but rather a critique of propaganda of the deed, Galleanisti, etc. But I can see how some people might use it to argue a conservative bent. I did not mean to put it forward in that light.

My response is this: Many people do read the quotation as nothing more than an assertion that anarchist-communism requires a different way of human beings working and living together, a different way of people relating to other people and to nature--not just a more efficient way of producing goods through centralized machinery, social and technological.

This would be a valid, even important, thought, and no doubt Landauer meant this ALSO. But he used this true, humanistic, concept to justify a nonrevolutionary orientation. He is explicit abut this, even within the quotation, and even more in other statements (such as I quote).

And nonrevolutionary anarchists use this quotation to justify their belief in a gradual, peaceful, step-by-sstep, alternate institutional, program--such as Uri Gorden, whose views I explore elsewhere (cited in the essay).

author by Duanepublication date Fri Jul 29, 2011 15:31Report this post to the editors

I found this great quote from Landauer:

"However, this is year another crucial fallacy [on the part of the so-called revolutionary anarchists]: that one can -- or must -- bring anarchism to the world; that anarchy is an affair of all of humanity; that there will indeed be a day of judgment followed by a millennial era. Those who want 'to bring freedom to the world' -- which will always be THEIR idea of freedom -- are tyrants, not anarchists. Anarchy will never be a matter of the masses .... Anarchy is not a matter of the future; it is a matter of the present. ... The old opposition between destruction and construction begins to lose its meaning: what is at stake are new forms that have never been."

author by Waynepublication date Sat Jul 30, 2011 03:42Report this post to the editors

To Duane this is a "great quote from Landauer." To me this quote is greatly muddled. Landauer seems to be denouncing revolutionary anarchists as elitists, as "tyrants," without stating why he thinks so.

But his real views come through when he denies that "anarchy is an affair of all of humanity" and then declares that "anarchy will never be a matter of the masses." Put this together with the vicious insults directed at the working class which I quote in my essay. The antidemocratic elitism of the nonrevolutionary wing of anarchism come through, unfortunately.

author by Waynepublication date Sat Aug 06, 2011 04:07Report this post to the editors

Gabriel Kuhn has written a response to my essay “Lndauer’s Fallacy,” at the PM Press website

Kuhn is the editor and translator of the recent book by and about Gustav Landauer’s political writings. So he, unlike me, is an expert on Landauer. He writes, “While some of Wayne's criticism touches on problematic aspects in Landauer's thought …Wayne jumps to a few conclusions that distort Landauer's beliefs and principles.” He gives me some leeway, noting that one version of the well-known Landauer quotation I cited was, unknown to me, inaccurate. “This [distortion], however, is only partly Wayne's fault…. The following remarks must therefore not necessarily be read as a criticism of Wayne….” He then gives a correct version of the quotation (not mentioning that I also quoted this version).

My little essay on Landauer’s “famous quotation” was not meant as an overview of Landauer’s politics nor of his life as a whole. It did refer to positive aspects of his thought and actions, and to other people’s positive assessments of him, but did not go into detail about these. Instead it focused on a single quotation which is frequently used by anarchists with a particular strategy. But first, to respond to Gabriel’s comments:

1) I did not cover many things about Landauer. This led to my essay giving a misleading impression of Landauer’s thought as simply “nonrevolutionary.” I should have made clear that he thought of himself as a revolutionary and wrote about “revolution.” However, his concept of “revolution” was rather mystical and (in my opinion, not Kuhn’s) unclear, as can be seen by the paragraph which Kuhn quotes.

2) Gabriel asks where I got the impression that Landauer counterposed the state as an institution (“a thing”) versus a “relationship.” Why, from the very quotation which I quoted and which Gabriel re-quotes. That is what it says.

3) Grabriel is unsure where I got the view of Landauer as having negative opinions about workers (although he himself notes “a certain cultural elitism” of Landauer’s). But I gave a set of unpleasant quotations and cited the sources.

4) Landauer is quoted as writing,” The entire system would vanish without a trace if the people began to constitute themselves as a people apart from the state." Surely this supports my interpretation of Landauer’s politics? The people withdraw themselves from the state, reorganize themselves into a community of communities, with only a minimal (at most) direct confrontation with the state, and the state will “vanish without a trace.” I reject this perspective.

As Gabriel states, this is a matter of “strategy.” I agree completely with Landauer’s vision of a socialist-anarchist society. But strategy is important. However, a revolutionary class-struggle perspective certainly includes building community organizations, clubs, study groups, theaters, childcare collectives, and cultural centers. This is part of a mass struggle strategy.

What my little essay did was to interpret Landauer’s “famous statement” as seemed appropriate to me. I connected this (nonrevolutionary) meaning with statements by Landauer about his strategy of building alternate institutions (collective villages). I noted the consistency of this with his negative statements about the working class, as they appeared in his book, For Socialism. And (the real object of my essay!), I connected this line of thought to present-day anarchists who advocate an alternate-institution strategy and oppose working toward a popular, working class, revolution. Which is why they like Landauer’s quotation. That is, I am not so much interested in Landauer as in those anarchists of today who interpret him in an antirevolutionary fashion.

author by Scott Nappalos - Miami Autonomy & Solidaritypublication date Sun Nov 06, 2011 21:13author email s.nappalos at gmail dot comReport this post to the editors

Kuhn brings up good points, and I'm not sure Wayne thinks this, but I'd oppose a purely structural account of the state. MAS' points of unity for example lays out a conception that tries to paint a coherent picture that goes beyond mere structure or mere relations.

"Abolition of the State
The state is an institution of minority class rule held through a monopoly of violence and centralized decision-making, which is reproduced as a social relationship throughout society. The modern state as we know it co-developed with capitalism in Western Europe and has spread to nearly everywhere across the globe, and in almost all instances sided with economic power against the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population. Today, the position of the state, both in terms of power and its participation in the market, creates divisions amongst the ruling class in competing for control. The ruling class and the state are therefore not identical.

The level of centralization both of power and wealth in the hands of the state makes any hope of change through working within the state only an illusion. History has been clear in showing that the state transforms rebels into masters or destroys those who try to defend the oppressed classes. Revolutionary change won’t come by changing who’s in power, only the eradication of hierarchy will achieve this.

We seek a social revolution that will overthrow the state and capitalism. Yet a society-wide transformation can’t happen overnight, since we have seen that the state is inside us too. Without an internal transformation, we will continue to reproduce the dominating and exploitative relations of the state and capital daily. It is only through the process of collective struggle that we can both draw out the potential for change and see the kernel of its realization.

To organize a revolutionary society, we must have popular institutions that replace the necessary functions which the state and capital distorted and monopolized. After defending ourselves in revolution and achieving greater stability, the re-organization of society for human needs rather than the profit-driven production of capitalism will increasingly become our task."

author by Waynepublication date Mon Nov 07, 2011 11:55Report this post to the editors

I am pretty much in agreement with this statementby the MAS comrades. It is not enoiugh to change the state as a structure but also to change how people relate to each other. And this will change in the course of popular struggle. It is through revolutionary struggle that people change themselves and make themselves capable of self-management. The main form of "pre-figurement" is the democratic popular organizations of struggle.

However, I am unclear about the line: "To organize a revolutionary society, we must have popular institutions that replace the necessary functions which the state and capital distorted and monopolized." I am all for community organizing and popular institutions. But we cannot expect to have alternatives to steel production ready to be put into place right after the revolution. We will have to take over the existing steel factories and reorganize them under workers anc community control.

But I agree with the basic idea of the statement, that a revolution is necessary and that counterinstitutions can be effective only in the context of a revolution.

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