“We cannot go back to what preceded the mechanical society, but we can go beyond it, toward a new organicity”
Martin Buber (1878-1965) was an Austrian-born Jewish philosopher and communitarian socialist, close to the anarchist movement.
He was a cultural Zionist, but termed himself a “Hebrew humanist” so as to set himself apart from narrow, right-wing nationalistic Zionism. He strongly supported a binational solution in Palestine.
Buber was also a leading radical critic of industrial capitalism and its sterile materialist world, empty of all value, meaning and relation.
Writes Michael Löwy: “His diagnosis of modern society is particularly cutting and relevant to the present. It belongs entirely to the Romantic protest against modern capitalist/industrialist civilization; in other words, it is a cultural criticism of modernity in the name of premodern social, ethical, or religious values”. (1)
Buber was a friend of the German-Jewish anarchist Gustav Landauer and, like him, saw a close link between human interrelationships and the rebirth of community which was needed to put society back on the right track.
He consciously took a step beyond Ferdinand Tönnies’ contrast between organic traditional Gemeinschaft and artificial modern Gesellschaft, proposing a New Community, a utopian alternative rejecting bourgeois capitalist society but retaining all the modern freedoms.
In the key 1900 paper ‘Alte und neue Gemeinschaft‘, Buber described how this New Community would be based on the “living mutual action of integral human beings” and leave behind the dehumanising productivism of industrial capitalism. It would replace the principle of utility with the principle of creativity, which would permit individual beings to accomplish their human potential.
He argued: “Thus will humanity, which came out from a beautiful but rough primitive community, after going through the growing slavery of Gesellschaft, arrive at a new community, which will no longer be grounded, as the first one was, on blood affinities (Blutverwandtschaft), but on elective affinities (Wahlverwandtschaft).”
Only in these circumstances, insisted Buber, could the age-old revolutionary utopian dream come true and “the instinctive life-unity of the primitive human being (Urmenschen), which has been for so long fragmented and divided, return at a higher level and in a new form”. (2)
Löwy comments that Buber’s vision was clearly Romantic, with its nostalgic celebration of the lost Urgemeinschaft, or original community. But his organic emphasis was balanced by a radicalism which separated him clearly from conservatives who yearned only for a restoration of previous social forms.
Buber addressed Tönnies’ analysis again in his 1919 essay ‘Gemeinschaft‘. He concluded that there was no way of simply returning to the lost communities of yesteryear: “We went through the era of individualism, of the loosening of the person from his natural connections, and we cannot find the way home to that ancient communitarian life… Certainly, we cannot go back to what preceded the mechanical society, but we can go beyond it, toward a new organicity”. (3)
And what was this organicity? Buber wrote: “The new organic whole, founded on the regeneration of the ‘cells’ of the social tissue, will be the renaissance (rather than the return) of organic community in the shape of a decentralised federation of small communities”. (4)
This organic vision very much underlay Buber’s understanding of the role and identity of the individual. Our origins and our purpose went beyond the subjective individualism that is held up as the framework for our existence by modern society.
He wrote in I and Thou, for example: “Every child that is coming into being rests, like all life that is coming into being, in the womb of the great mother, the undivided primal world that precedes form”. (5)
Our separation from each other and from nature came from regarding things outside us as objects, rather than as fellow parts of that undivided primal world.
Buber wrote: “Whenever the sentence ‘I see the tree’ is so uttered that it no longer tells of a relation between the man – I – and the tree – Thou –, but establishes the perception of the tree as object by the human consciousness, the barrier between subject and object has been set up. The primary word I-It, the word of separation, has been spoken”. (6)
He continued: “The world and I are mutually included, the one in the other. This contradiction in thought, inherent in the situation of It, is resolved in the situation of Thou, which sets me free from the world in order to bind me up in solidarity of connexion with it”. (7)
For Buber, the spirit of humanity, and of his organic socialism, lay in the connections between human beings when they regarded each other as equal fellow subjects rather than as objects to be dominated or exploited.
“Spirit is not in the I, but between I and Thou. It is not like the blood that circulates in you, but like the air by which you breathe”. (8)
Video link: Buber in Ten Minutes
1. Michael Löwy, ‘Martin Buber’s Socialism’, Martin Buber: His Intellectual and Scholarly Legacy, ed. Sam Berrin Shonkoff (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, 2018), p. 135.
2. Martin Buber, ‘Alte und neue Gemeinschaft’, cit. Michael Löwy, ‘Martin Buber’s Socialism’, Martin Buber: His Intellectual and Scholarly Legacy, p. 133.
3. Martin Buber, ‘Gemeinschaft’, cit. Michael Löwy, ‘Martin Buber’s Socialism’, Martin Buber: His Intellectual and Scholarly Legacy, p. 134.
4. Martin Buber, cit. Michael Lowy, Rédemption et utopie: le judaïsme libertaire en Europe centrale (Paris: Editions du Sandre, 2009), p. 74.
5. Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Ronald Gregor Smith (London/New York: Continuum, 2004), p. 26.
6. Buber, I and Thou, p. 25.
7. Buber, I and Thou, p. 73.
8. Buber, I and Thou, p. 36.