Chapter 8: Community and Religious Socialism

Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue
by Maurice S. Friedman

Chapter 8: Community and Religious Socialism

True community, writes Buber, can only be founded on changed relations between men, and these changed relations can only follow the inner change and preparation of the men who lead, work, and sacrifice for the community. Each man has an infinite sphere of responsibility, responsibility before the infinite. But there are men for whom this infinite responsibility exists in a specially active form. These are not the rulers and statesmen who determine the external destiny of great communities and who, in order to be effective, turn from the individual, enormously threatened lives to the general multitude that appears to them unseeing. The really responsible men are rather those who can withstand the thousandfold questioning glance of individual lives, who give true answer to the trembling mouths that time after time demand from them decision. (Die Jüdische Bewegung, op. cit., Vol. 11. 1916-20 [1921]. ‘Kulturarbeit [1917], p. 94; Hasidism and Modern Man, ‘My Way to Hasidism,’ p. 67ff. On Buber’s relation to the Christian religious socialist movement, cf. Ephraim Fischoff’s Introduction to Buber’s Paths in Utopia [Boston: Beacon Press. 1958].)

The principle obstacle to the erection of true community is that dualism which splits life into two independent spheres -- one of the truth of the spirit and the other of the reality of life. True human life is life in the face of God, and God is not a Kantian idea but an elementarily present substance -- the mystery of immediacy before which only the pious man can stand. God is in all things, but he is realized only when individual beings open to one another, communicate with one another, and help one another -- only where immediacy establishes itself between beings. There in between, in the apparently empty space, the eternal substance manifests itself. The true place of realization is the community, and true community is that in which the godly is realized between men.

The prophets, says Buber, demanded a direct godly form of community in contrast to the godless and spiritless state. True to Jewish thought, they did not simply deny the earthly state but insisted that it must be penetrated by the spirit of true community. It would have been unthinkable to them to have made a compromise with conditions as they were, but it would have been equally unthinkable for them to have fled from those conditions into a sphere of inner life. Never did they decide between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man. The kingdom of God was to them nothing other than the kingdom of man as it shall become. When they despaired of present fulfillment, they projected the image of their truth into Messianism. Yet here also they meant no opposition to this human world in which we live, but its purification and completion.

Jesus, like the prophets of Israel, wanted to fulfill rather than do away with human society. By the kingdom of God He meant no other-worldly consolation, no vague heavenly blessedness, and also no spiritual or cultic league or church. What He meant was the perfected living together of men, the true community in which God shall have direct rule. Jesus wished to build out of Judaism the temple of true community before the sight of which the walls of the power state must fall to pieces.

But not so did the coming generations understand Him. In the place of the Jewish knowledge of the single world, fallen through confusion but capable of redemption through the struggling human will, came the postulation of a fundamental and unbridgeable duality of human will and God’s grace. The will is now regarded as unconditionally bad and elevation through its power is impossible. Not will in all its contrariness and all its possibility is the way to God, but faith and waiting for the contact of grace. Evil is no longer the ‘shell’ which must be broken through. It is rather the primal force which stands over against the good as the great adversary. The state is no longer the consolidation of a will to community that has gone astray and therefore is penetrable and redeemable by right will. It is either, as for Augustine, the eternally damned kingdom from which the chosen separate themselves or, as for Thomas, the first step and preparation for the true community, which is a spiritual one. The true community is no longer to be realized in the perfect life of men with one another but in the church. It is the community of spirit and grace from which the world and nature are fundamentally separated. (Martin Buber, Der heilige Weg [Frankfurt am Main: Rütten & Loening, 1919], pp. 11-44. Later reprinted in Reden über das Judentum, op. cit, without the introduction, pp. 9-11).

This atmosphere of the dualism of truth and reality, idea and fact, morality and politics is that, writes Buber, in which our present age lives. Corresponding to it is the egoistic nationalism which perverts the goal of community by making it an end itself. It is not power itself which is evil, Buber states, in disagreement with the historian Jacob Burckhardt. Power is intrinsically guiltless and is the precondition for the actions of man. It is the will to power, the greed for more power than others, which is destructive.

A genuine person too likes to affirm himself in the face of the world, but in doing so he also affirms the power with which the world confronts him. This requires constant demarcation of one’s own right from the right of others, and such demarcation cannot be made according to rules valid once and for all. Only the secret of hourly acting with a continually repeated sense of responsibility holds the rules for such demarcations. This applies both to the attitude of the individual toward his own life, and to the nation he is a member of.

Not renunciation of power but responsibility in the exercise of power prevents it from becoming evil This responsibility is lacking in modern nations, for they are constantly in danger of slipping into that power hysteria which disintegrates the ability to draw lines of demarcation. Only in the recognition of an obligation and a task that is more than merely national can the criterion be found which governs the drawing of the distinction between legitimate and arbitrary nationalism. (Israel and the World, op. cit., ‘Nationalism’ [1921], pp. 216-225.)

The mature expression of Buber’s concern with realizing the divine through true community is the religious socialism which he developed in the period immediately after the First World War. This development was decisively influenced by the socialism of Buber’s friend Gustav Landauer, the social anarchism of Michael Kropotkin, and the distinction between ‘community’ and ‘association’ in Ferdinand Tönnies’s work, Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (1887). Community (‘Gemeinschaft’) Buber defines as an organic unity which has grown out of common possessions, work, morals, or belief. Association (‘Gesellschaft’) he defines as a mechanical association of isolated self-seeking individuals. It is an ordered division of society into self-seeking individuals held together by force, compromise, convention, and public opinion.

Modern western culture, states Buber, is on the way from ‘Gemeinschaft’ to ‘Gesellschaft.’ The mechanical type of social living has replaced the organic. Marxism, the dominant form of modern socialism, desires to overcome the atomization of present-day life and sees itself as the bearer and executor of an evolutionary process. Yet it is nothing other than the process of development from community to association that it is completing. For what today is still left of an autonomy of organic community of wills must, under the working of this tendency, be absorbed into the power of the state. The state will indeed guarantee justice through laws, but the power of the state will be raised to an all-controlling dogma which will make impossible any spontaneous righteousness. Community which once existed universally, and which today exists almost alone in personal life and unnoticed fellowships, will not be able to withstand the all-embracing power of the new socialist state.

In opposition to that socialism which promotes and completes the evolution to ‘Gesellschaft’ stands another which wills to overcome it. The first movement desires to gain possession of the state and set new institutions in the place of those existing, expecting thereby to transform human relations in their essence. The second knows that the erection of new institutions can only have a genuinely liberating effect when it is accompanied by a transformation of the actual life between man and man. This life between man and man does not take place in the abstraction of the state but rather there where a reality of spatial, functional, emotional, or spiritual togetherness exists -- in the village and city community, in the workers’ fellowship, in comradeship, in religious union.

In this moment of western culture a great longing for community possesses the souls of men. This longing can only be satisfied by the autonomy of the communal cells which together make up true commonwealth. But this autonomy will never be accorded by the present state, nor by the socialist state which will not renounce its rigid centralization to bring about its own decentralization, nor abandon its mechanical form in favour of an organic one. Hence the renewal of communal cells and the joining of these cells into larger communities and commonwealths must depend on the will of individuals and groups to establish a communal economy. Men must recognize that true participation in community demands no less power of soul than participation in a parliament or state politics and is the only thing that can make the latter effective and legitimate.

The decisive problem of our time, however, is that men do not live in their private lives what they seek to bring to pass in public. Wholly ineffective and illusory is the will for social reality of circles of intellectuals who fight for the transformation of human relations yet remain as indirect and unreal as ever in their personal life with men. The authenticity of the political position of a man is tested and formed in his natural ‘unpolitical’ sphere. Here is the germinating ground of all genuine communal-effecting force. No lived community is lost, and out of no other element than lived community can the community of the human race be built. (Martin Buber, Gemeinschaft, Vol. II of Worte an die Zeit [Munich: Dreiländerverlag, 1919], pp. 7-26. On Buber’s relation to Landauer see Martin Buber, ‘Landauer und die Revolution,’ Masken, Halbmonatschrift des Duesseldorfer Schauspielhauses, XIV [1918-19], No. 18/19, pp. 282-286; Hinweise, op. cit., ‘Erinnerung an einen Tod’ [192]), pp. 252-258, and Pointing the Way, op. cit., ‘Recollection of a Death,’ pp. 115-120; Martin Buber, Paths in Utopia, trans. by R. F. C. Hull [London: Routledge, 1949], chap. vi, pp. 46-57; and Kohn, op. cit., pp. 29-31. On his relation to Kropoekin see Paths in Utopia, chap. v, pp. 38-45. On his relation to Tönnies, see Kohn, op. cit., pp. 195-197, 348.)

Buber’s religious socialism is built on closeness to the land, on the meaningfulness of work and of mutual help, on the leadership of those men who can take responsibility for individual lives, on community built out of direct relationship between men and between groups of men, on the spirit of an eternal yet ever-changing truth, and above all on the reign of God. Der heilige Weg, op. cit., pp. 85-87 [my translation]. See also Martin Buber, Worte an die Zeit, vol. I, Grundsätze [München: Dreiländerverlag, 1919], pp. 5-11. 47) In this religious socialism Buber’s call for the realization of God on earth and his concern for the relations between man and man have merged into one mature whole -- the message of true community. This community starts not with facts of economics and history but with the spirit working silently in the depths. Even in 1919 Buber saw the true nature of the socialist power-state which, in the name of compulsory justice and equality, makes impossible spontaneous community and genuine relationship between man and man. True to the ‘narrow ridge,’ he refused the clamouring either-or of the modern world -- the demand that one accept the centralized socialist state because of the defects of capitalism or the capitalist society because of the defects of socialism.

Buber’s socialism of this period is religious but it is not ‘Utopian,’ for it does not base its claims and its hopes on any easily workable scheme or any facile trust in human nature. Rather it demands the thing that is hardest of all, that men live their lives with one another with the same genuineness and integrity as they desire to establish in the pattern of the total community. And it demands it in the face of ‘history’ and of ‘determinism’ and by the strength of the power of the spirit to come to man in his deepest need. It does not expect community to be established simply through the grace of God or simply through the will of man, but through the will of man which in extremis becomes one with the will of God.

The socialist power-state is not, for Buber, evil in itself any more than the capitalist state. Both are evil in so far as they prevent the springing-up of the good, the socialist state in that it makes impossible even those remnants of true community which exist in the capitalist state, the capitalist state in that the relations between man and man are indirect and perverted, based on desire for exploitation rather than true togetherness. The remedy for these evils is not the immediate establishment of some super-society but simply the strengthening of the forces of good through the will for genuine relationship and true community. The surging tides of inexorable world history are slowly pushed back and reversed by the invisible forces working in the souls of men and in the relations between man and man.