Sunday 15 February 2009

Elective affinity of Jewish mysticism and anarchism

Whoever connects marxism to liberation theology has not understood Marx, and, as Jacques Ellul forcefully and convincingly argues in Jesus and Marx, has not understood the Gospel either. If there are political consequences to Christian belief then they should be found in the anti-politics of anarchism. Michael Löwy has written a popular book on liberation theology, but he should not be dismissed easily.

Projecting back the way of seeing applied in his Rédemption et utopie he finds a Wahlverwandtschaft (elective affinity) between liberation theologians and marxists/ “We anarchists” may shrug about this. But we cannot do that when Löwy states such an affinity between some selected Jewish thinkers (all male) with mystical or messianic character on one side and with anarchism on the other. He may be better equipped to move on this terrain, as a Jew and a seeker of paths to liberation. From the book I cannot conclude whether he chooses for affinity with anarchism (he is politically affiliated to trotskyism). But his taking stock leads the way to thoughts and names which are new to me in this field. Thinkers I think sympathetic but who I would not connect to anarchism are included in his Wahlverwandtschaft company. After reading this book I can connect my predilection for Fromm, Benjamin and the Frankfurter Schule with my own choice for anarchism and my interest in religious anarchism with each other. We may call this synthesis.

The Israeli critical theorist Ilan Gur-Ze’ev once told me that Herbert Marcuse saw the abandonment of linear time as the goal of revolution. This thought can be found in the last writings of Benjamin, and Marcus alludes to it in his contribution to the Dialectics of liberation in an inspired way. The theme apparently emerges in his literary remains. I have not read much of these yet but I willingly believe it. This subjec should be dealt with further. It indeed is a thought fitting to the eschatolgical strivings of (religious) anarchism. And apparently it belongs to the Jewish tradition rather than the Christian.

Löwy does not mention Marcuse at all, and Adorno and Horkheimer only in passing, and it is daring to elect people who have distanced themselves from the "dark" philosophy of anarchism and considered themselves to be marxists for this affinty. Löwy however concludes to this affinity as inevitable, and he does it convincingly. And let’s face it: the Frankfurt School referred to Marx, but they never were in step with one of the parties claiming to represent Marx’ inheritance. Strictly speaking Marx himself, at his best, might be seen as part of the company Löwy brings to the fore. L&oumlwy does not go that far. However, “we” anarchists may wonder whether we should not rescue the “libertarian Marx” from threatening perdition (Seán Sheehan does this in his Anarchism).

That Buber, Landauer and Kafka fit into both a Jewish and an anarchist paradigm is no surprise to me. The same might be said about Toller and Sperber. Heterodox marxists as Bloch and Lukács neither ever fully broke with anarchism nor with Jewish eschatology. And they are not far removed philosophically from the Frankfurters. Then there is Leo Löwenthal. But they were members of a party that considerd itself to be The Party. They may be forgiven with some hesitation. New names to me are Franz Rosenzweig and Gershom Scholem, who are distinctly mystics – frankly I never had given a thought to the kabbala, let alone that there would be a treasure of libertarian thoughts to be found there. A world, or a new dimension – how to express this – presented itself when I read the chapters on this subject. (Books by David A. Cooper, especially God is a verb, are a worthwhile read on this – he is a different Cooper from the one of Dialectics of liberation).

I am not convinced by the special Central European character of this combination of Jewish mysticism and anarchism Löwy claims. He mentions a West European exception to the rule of this elective affinity, namely Bernard Lazare. Might not Simone Weil, who was very interested in Christian mysticism – like Fromm, Landauer and others mentioned by Löwy -, but who never changed religious affiliation, and who was an anarchist with a light marxist touch, be a good example? We might even think of popular English radio rabbi Lionel Blue who does not sound much removed from anarchism. And then – my own specialism – the Netherlands have their own Jewish religious anarchists, like S. van den Berg for example.

But these are questions I would not have asked if I had not read Löwy’s book, so let’s not fret... Let’s work! And a the end of the tunnel, cannot I see a vista of broken clocks, heralding the end of linear time?

- Michael Löwy, Redemption and utopia - Jewish libertarian thought in Central Europe - a study in elective affinity. Published by Stanford University Press.

[This is a slightly actualized translation of a review I wrote in 2000. Interestingly, Löwy in his motley company also includes Albert Einstein, whom I did not dwell upon in the review.]