“A natural order in which every member does his part harmoniously in order to enjoy his share”
Ferdinand Tönnies (1855-1936) was an influential German sociologist, famous for contrasting Gemeinschaft (traditional community) with Gesellschaft (modern society).
It is clear throughout his best-known work, Community and Society, as well as in Geist der Neuzeit, that Tönnies regarded the Western transition from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft as a social and cultural decline rather than as a triumph of “progress”.
Since the Middle Ages, people had been reduced from participants in a generally harmonious, living entity into atomised victims of a system which imposed its demands and laws from above.
Tönnies spelled out clearly the difference between the two ways of living: “There exists a Gemeinschaft of language, of folkways or mores, or of beliefs; but, by way of contrast, Gesellschaft exists in the realm of business, travel, or sciences… Gemeinschaft is old. Gesellschaft is new as a name as well as phenomenon”. (1)
The term “organic” was used frequently, and always in a positive sense, by the sociologist and placed in direct contrast with the word “mechanical”.
He wrote, for instance, in Community and Society: “In contrast to Gemeinschaft, Gesellschaft is transitory and superficial. Accordingly, Gemeinschaft should be understood as a living organism, Gesellschaft as a mechanical aggregate and artifact”. (2)
He added that “the tendencies and inevitableness of organic growth and decay cannot be understood through mechanical means”. (3)
Tönnies extended his holistic view to the individual human being, criticising the idea that the soul, or the will, influences the body. He declared: “This is impossible as both are identical”. (4)
He put forward instead the idea of “natural will”, a kind of individual manifestation of Gemeinschaft – innate, organic and artistic – as opposed to the “rational will” of increasingly artificial modern society.
Tönnies referred to “the masterly analysis of Karl Marx”, (5) one of his principal influences, and clearly presented a left-wing and anti-capitalist organic ideology – it was not for nothing that he was ousted from his long-term presidency of the German Sociological Association when the Nazis took power in 1933.
He explicitly equated Gesellschaft, the opposite of his organic Gemeinschaft, with capitalism. “The merchants or capitalists”, he wrote, “are the natural masters and rulers of the Gesellschaft. The Gesellschaft exists for their sake. It is their tool”. (6)
The move to Gesellschaft “meant the victory of egoism, impudence, falsehood, and cunning, the ascendancy of greed for money, ambition and lust for pleasure”. (7)
The city, for Tönnies, was the epitome of the soulless, artificial, capitalist modern world: “The city is typical of Gesellschaft in general… Its wealth is capital wealth which, in the form of trade, usury, or industrial capital, is used and multiplies. Capital is the means for the appropriation of products of labor or for the exploitation of workers”. (8)
Alongside his critique of how mercantile relationships – capitalist society – destroyed authentic communities, came a scathing condemnation of the modern state.
The state, said Tönnies, “is nothing but force” (9) and totally opposed to the “folk life and folk culture” (10) which underpinned the cohesion of Gemeinschaft, suppressing all possibility of “a natural order in which every member does his part harmoniously in order to enjoy his share”. (11)
The common people were all too aware that the state acted against their interests, he said, and that it effectively stopped them from existing as an organic entity.
“The state is their enemy. The state, to them, is an alien and unfriendly power; although seemingly authorized by them and embodying their own will, it is nevertheless opposed to all their needs and desires, protecting property which they do not possess, forcing them into military service for a country which offers them hearth and altar only in the form of a heated room on the upper floor or gives them, for native soil, city streets where they may stare at the glitter and luxury in lighted windows forever beyond their reach!
“Their own life is nothing but a constant alternative between work and leisure, which are both distorted into factory routine and the low pleasure of the saloons. City life and Gesellschaft down the common people to decay and death…” (12)
This understanding of the state as an artificial entity which claims to embody community, but in reality kills it, is very much part of the classical anarchist tradition, particularly when combined with Tönnies’ class awareness and anti-elitism.
As a young man, in 1873, he read Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy and was impressed with the work and its author to the point of “hero worship”, writes Richard Noll. (13)
But the more Nietzsche wrote, and won acclaim, the less Tönnies liked what he saw and in 1897 he penned Der Nietzsche-Kultus: Eine Kritik in which he attacked the cult that had developed around the philosopher.
Says Noll: “Part of this Nietzschean faith was the exaltation of the mastery of the many by the few, a new nobility of the perpetually self-creating who would lead the way for the rest of the herd.
“Tönnies argued that rather than provoke widespread liberation, Nietzschean ideas were being used instead to maintain conservative and especially elitist classes in society – precisely those persons and values that Nietzschean cults claimed they were repudiating”. (14)
Video link: Ferdinand Tönnies – Community and Society
1. Ferdinand Tönnies, Community and Society: Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, trad. Charles P. Loomis, (New York: Dover Publications, 2002), p. 34.
2. Tönnies, p. 35.
3. Tönnies, p. 36.
4. Tönnies, p. 121.
5. Tönnies, p. 89.
6. Tönnies, p. 83.
7. Tönnies, p. 202.
8. Tönnies, pp. 227-28.
9. Tönnies, p. 216.
10. Tönnies, p. 225.
11. Tönnies, p. 208.
12. Tönnies, pp. 230-31.
13. Richard Noll, The Jung Cult: The Origins of a Charismatic Movement (London: Fontana, 1996), p. 3.
14. Noll, p. 5.