Tuesday 21 July 2009

Parallels or influence - the Dutch Christian anarchist movement 1897-1907 and the Landauer connection

This was my first ever lecture on Christian anarchism, Haifa 1998, incorporated by the grace of God in a series on mysticism.
Taken from the original christianarchy-site.
I noticed that neither Landauer's Aufruf zum Sozialismus (Call to socialism) nor Tolstoy's The end is nigh have been published as books in English. An omission that still should be rectified.
I now doubt whether it would be useful to advocate the expression "transcendental anarchism". (AdR)

1. Cornershops

One of the most beautiful articles written by Gustav Landauer - at least in my opinion - is "Brot", Bread, in which he gets carried away by a bakers' strike which would have been forgotten if he had not written about it. The baking of bread is a craft, common to all humanity throughout history, which should not be left to factories, and which in the socialism of the future would again be a common skill. Reading about this most essential craft my thoughts go back to remote villages in this part of the world, where you will be given freshly baked bread from the communal oven: the most wonderful product of a still most common craft, and according to Landauer's article, ovens in such villages spell the future in stead of being a relict of a vanishing past. Why not, indeed?

About twenty years ago anarchists in England used a slogan: "We don't just want more bread, we want the whole bloody bakery", which reflects the situation in a country where people have got used to bread being an industrial product. But Britain seems to be unique among West-European countries in this respect. In Amsterdam there still are lots of independent craftsman-like bakeries, although legislation on working at night leads to furthering centralisation: most bakers bake off dough already supplied by factories, in stead of going through the whole process themselves. But probably the two most famous bakeries in my home town, visited by people from all over town who do not mind making queues which would remind you of - say - Poland not so long ago, are remnants of anarchist movements: one (Paul Année, as a service for future visitors) was started in the days of the short-lived Kabouter Movement of around 1970, and although the founder is dead the bakery is still alive and well. The other one celebrated its 100th anniversary this year, and I should have written a history about it probably, but this remark should do now: it is Bakkerij Hartog, known as "the pacifist bakery", and it advertised its products in the weekly of the christian anarchist movement, about which I will tell you more shortly.

Incidentally, just around the corner in my part of town there is a dairy shop (a trade which is on the verge of dying out in the Netherlands), and a cleaning company run by Moroccan immigrants, both called Nieuw Leven, New Life, which completely independent of each other still testify of the movement for worker's self-management and small industries run by the workers themselves, initiated by the aforementioned christian anarchists of a century ago. Ironically, that is where anarchist movements seem to end or where they survive anyway: in small cornershops. The Squatters Movement, which started in the Kabouter days about thirty years ago, but which lasted longer, also ended in quite a few small businesses - there is even a slogan going around: Make the world better, begin for yourself (Verbeter de wereld, begin voor jezelf). So after all it might seem, marxist critics were right about anarchism being a petty bourgeois ideology - it all ends in small cornershops. Maybe, but since we know now marxist socialism blew itself up with its own technology in the form of a nuclear power plant, there should be no argument about which kind of socialism has to be preferred and which still has a future ahead of it.

2. Christian anarchism

There may be some confusion about the name of the movement of which I am writing a history: the Dutch christian anarchists. In 1987 the American theologist Vernard Eller wrote a book called Christian anarchy. He included in his gallery of honorable christian anarchists Jacques Ellul, to whom he dedicated his book, which is fair enough since Ellul was both Christian and anarchist, and has written Anarchie et christianisme to explain his position on both, in 1986. Others mentioned by Eller are: Sören Kierkegaard, the Blumhardts, Karl Barth (at least the younger Karl Barth), and to some extent Dietrich Bonhoeffer. A remarkable and honorable list indeed, and Eller succeeds in convincing at least this reader of his book that the qualifications are justified. Unfortunately, Eller claims in his book that it is the first in history with such a title. It is not. I would not dare to say Eugen Heinrich Schmitt, a German gnostic teaching in Budapest, was the first to use this qualification, Christliche Anarchie, but since the word "anarchy" was still young in this sense, more than a hundred years ago, it probably was the first with such a title.

The Christian Anarchy Schmitt writes about is the socio-political consequence of Tolstoy's teaching in The Kingdom of Heaven is within you, which in its turn deems the Sermon of the Mount to be the essence of Christianity. Both Schmitt's and Tolstoy's messages hit home with some modern theologists of the Dutch Reformed Church (Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk), some of whom got acquainted with what was called "the social question", in their student days: poverty, long working hours, alcoholism, prostitution and the diseases attached to it, the oppression of women. Tolstoy's idea of non-violent revolution, on the duty of refusing conscription, of non-resistance against evil men, was the definitive ingredient of what was to be Dutch Christian anarchism. The most important minister of this movement, maybe the one who started it all (1893: first translation), was Louis Adrien Bähler, reverend in several villages in the already free-thinking northern part of the Netherlands.

Historiography of the Dutch worker's or socialist movement is still heavily dominated by social-democrats who love to denounce anarchism, let us say according to the cornershop syndrome as mentioned before. In their writings in the Netherlands suddenly "Tolstoyans" prop up, and disappear again with the growth of glorious social democracy, but do not be fooled: there was no such thing as a "Tolstoyan" movement in the Netherlands, as opposed to England, where there was, and maybe still is. The only Tolstoyan in the Netherlands I know of is J.K. van der Veer, the first to refuse conscription, celebrated by Tolstoy in The end is nigh (the end of militarism, of course...). Van der Veer venerated everything about the Russian master, even went so far as to propagate the contents of the Kreutzer Sonata, which makes one wonder, since he was and remained married, was thrown out of the Christian anarchist printshop where he worked, because his Tolstoyan zeal got on the nerves of his colleagues, moved to England where he met with some real deep Tolstoyan asceticism and came back as a converted social democrat - and that is the unfortunate story of Dutch Tolstoyanism.

The movement or tendency which by the social-democrat historiogaphers is called "Tolstoyan" called itself Christian anarchist, and is in this respect treated fairly by their contemporaneous non-christian fellow-anarchists. The name was coined in the Netherlands by waterstaatkundig ingenieur (civil engineer of hydraulics) Felix Ortt, who wrote a book called Christelijk anarchisme (Christian anarchism) in 1897, the second printing of the same year was called however Het beginsel der liefde (The principle of love). Putting it short: the main message of this and other religious writings of Ortt was that love is the unifying principle of the universe, the all-encompassing sign of God's incomprehensible existence. Propagating love in the Paulinian sense was the foremost aim of the fledgling Christian anarchist movement. Probably the longest lasting legacy of their workings has been the tradition of conscientious objection, which in the Netherlands has been very strong and after quite a few cases of young men refusing to wear a uniform eventually ended in legislation granting the right to have his own conscience - conscience, from a mystical standpoint, being the voice of God in the Self. The finest hour of Dutch Christian anarchism was the Objector's Manifesto, an initiative of the Rev. Louis Bähler I mentioned before, in 1915 - several ministers went to jail for signing the manifesto, and it was supported by people to the left of social-democracy in general. It did not have lethal consequences for anyone, since the Netherlands stayed out of the First World War.

3. Inland colonisation

For the beginning movement itself the striving for Inland Colonisation was definitely the most important aim in the early days. Theirs is a sad story, of too high-reaching hopes, asking too much of people who were not always willing to live up to the high standards raised by the Christian anarchists - and then again, starting an agricultural colony on poor soil in a poor part of the country may be daring, but if skill is lacking, it becomes torment. The worst part was the enmity with which the colony was judged by farmers and fishermen of the neighbouring villages of Blaricum and Huizen. In 1903 the Netherlands had its only strike movement which might have had a revolutionary momentum - were it not for the stifling division between anarchists and social democrats, which was successfully exploited by the christian coalition government. The strikes were crushed down, and a drunken mob besieged the colony in Blaricum which had supported the strike movement. One of the houses was put on fire. Our anti-militarist, non-resisting Christian anarchists had to be saved from the drunken proletariat by the military - which meant the end of the idealistic colony. One craft practised at the colony in Blaricum survived, though - it was the bakery, which existed 'til in the 1940's, the best known product being sportbeschuit, I think this must be translated as 'wholemeal crispbake' - it is a Dutch speciality anyway, and it was the object of utmost mockery by especially the social-democrats: baking bread is not making revolution, was their joke which apparently they thought extremely funny.

There were other colonies, some of them very short-lived, others struggling on for a few decades, none surviving. The most well-known is Walden, named after Thoreau's book and specifically led by one of the charismatic figures of the Dutch socialist movement of a century ago, author and psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden - the fact that it was being led unequivocally was the main reason why there were very few working contacts between the main Christian anarchist colony and Walden; they were not far apart, geographically speaking. The one thing they did together oddly enough was a kind of festival during which the remainder of the strawberry harvest was finished together. The best working colony was probably that of the village of Nieuwe-Niedorp in Noord-Holland, the place where the rev. N.J.C. Schermerhorn preached, christian and anarchist, but not willing to be called christian anarchist (I will return to the matter of classifying all these different anarchists shortly). Nieuwe-Niedorp, small though it was, had the greatest number of conscientious objectors (relatively speaking, if not at one time absolutely) of the Netherlands. The colony fared rather well, but when colonists wanted to start small industries in the colony they were confronted with the non-colonising inhabitants of the village, who did not want competition under the flag of anti-capitalism - and who could blame them? This colony, though it did not face the internal and external problems the other ones had, saw just as well many people coming and going again, so eventually it became a private agricultural enterprise.

The Christian anarchist colonial undertakings were financed by their own Federatief Fonds (Federative Fund), and they were only loosely connected to the larger union Gemeenschappelijk Grondbezit (G.G.B.), which they supported cordially but which was not Christian anarchist: it aimed at uniting all willing to support the idea, irrespective of any attachment to religious ideals. The people this movement attracted were mostly socalled freethinking or atheistic anarchists, called vrije socialisten (free socialists) in the Netherlands, liberal-socialists as the supporters of the ideas of Henry George were called, and a special but important category, people attracted to or brought in by the writer Frederik van Eeden. It is with Van Eeden that the Landauer-connection might come in: they were corresponding, Van Eeden wrote several articles for Der Sozialist and he certainly admired Landauer very much (I do not think the feeling was mutual). Gemeenschappelijk Grondbezit (Common Ownership of Land) purported - in its own words - to create the Archimedal point from which capitalism could be abolished: by starting self-managed productive units, industrial or agriculural or both, on "liberated" land - liberated not by occupation or guerrilla warfare, which I do not think you would have expected anyway, but by buying it. You do not have to be a social-democrat to see some inconsistency here, but certainly they were very much propagating against this movement. There are still surviving production units, and the organisation continued in a different way after World War Two as a union of co-operatives, which the social-democrats had abandoned with their last surviving ideal of socialism. Frankly, I could not tell you in what way this union still works, it certainly is not propagating anything spectacularly. They are kept out of sight by the ideological onslaught about "market economics" which is sweeping across the world, and in the Netherlands probably worse than anywhere else.

A particularly interesting aim of the movement, which should have been integrated in the colonising movement, but came nowhere to completion, was the abolishing of the contradiction between city and countryside - the city being the main focus of capitalism. The colonies should take the form of garden cities, a model also propagated by the Christian anarchists. This was, and still is, the point all those not supporting the movement thought the laughing stock of it all: "you cannot go back to Nature" still is the catchword phrase against movements with such an aim, progress cannot be halted. Christian anarchists and members of G.G.B. simply did not think of following the logic of capitalist technological development as being Progress, or at least as the new kind of Nature passed beyond a point of no return.

The most outspoken ideologue at this point probably was S. (Sam) van den Berg, one of the Jewish Christian anarchists. (If you wonder about this: as modernist protestants the Christian anarchists did not think of Jesus as being God's only Son, but as the prophet whose main message was to love thy neighbour as thyself; so the movement attracted Jews who could agree with this). Van den Berg particularly argued against the introduction of grain elevators in the Rotterdam docks, where he was working (he was one of the very few proletarians in the movement, too). Machinery that would rob workers of their livelihood should not be introduced under capitalist conditions and the workers should fight against it - and so they did, but as usual in these cases, the social-democrats turned against their fellow workers who would stand in the way of Progress, which for them was and is symbolized by anything capitalist technology will come up with. So the Rotterdam strikes of 1905 and 1906 were crushed with "help from within the worker's movement" so to speak - and since Van den Berg actually did not get any backing from his fellow Christian anarchists he left the movement, after which it was declared dead anyway, in 1907.

The ideal of Christian anarchism of course survived, and after World War I it took a revived organisational form, being renamed religious anarchism - but I shall not go into that history here and now.

4. A new name?

Before coming upon the apparent point where Landauer comes into the story of the Dutch Christian anarchists I would like to dwell upon the question how to classify anarchists like Landauer, the Dutch Christian anarchists, Tolstoy and his followers, Buber, Kierkegaard, Barth, Ellul and all others, some of whom would either disagree with being called anarchists at all or who simply lived before this word was introduced in any language. Christian thinkers, be they protestant, Roman-Catholic or Eastern Orthodox probably will not mind being called Christian or Christian anarchists. I realize I have not mentioned any Roman Catholics yet - which is unfair, because the American Catholic Worker Movement, the De-fence Movement or Swords into Ploughshares, the Berrigan Brothers, some Franciscan activists I know in the Netherlands even, are proud of being called Christian and anarchists.

I already mentioned the fact that in the Dutch christian or religious anarchist movement there were Jews, who did not mind about the label of their organisation. But Martin Buber and Gustav Landauer certainly would not want to be called Christian anarchists, even though they looked with respect upon the Jesus of the Gospel. And how about for example buddhist or taoïst, or islamic anarchists? I admit having no knowledge about any of them, but still they are bound to exist. If we want to stress what they have in common with the Jewish or Christian anarchists, what name shall we give them? Mystical anarchists? But I doubt if this is what they really have in common - and for one, I know Jacques Ellul explicitly rejects both the concept of Christianity as a religion and mysticism, so to keep him aboard we have to do away with the term "religious anarchism" too. I know the Dutch Christian anarchists would not agree with being called "metaphysical" - and personally I strongly reject the label which probably comes to mind with most people, which reflects current fashions and quests, which will make these anarchists being sold to the millions maybe: "spiritual anarchism". Not only for this reason, because it tastes of the idiocies of consumer society - I would not like Dutch Christian anarchist to be labelled under a name which could be associated with alcoholic drinks, and quite a few others who would not agree with a name that could make them look as being spiritist or spiritualist.

But there is something, which actually should not be called something, but human language is not fit for adequately expressing it, which binds all these anarchists, with all their apparent differences and yet with more in common than the rejection of the wielding of and yielding for worldly powers. I propose the classification "transcendental anarchists" and the correspondending "transcendental anarchism". Or transcendental libertarians, for those who would still be afraid of the anarchist label, because in the language of the media "anarchism" is commonly associated with a disorderly collective shoot-out, as in Albania 1997.

Maybe it sounds awkward, maybe it would take time to get used to it so the awkwardness would vanish, and what I like about the classification is the built-in ambiguity. Does not what all anarchists have in common, the rejection of authority unwanted by any human being, transcend the existing order or disorder? Indeed, that is why I propose this seemingly pleonastic classification - maybe it is just another phrase for what Landauer saw as the religious message of anarchism in general - atheists, agnostics and others I cannot think of now can be welcomed under this label as well. I have forgotten to mention the spinozist Dutch anarchists, and those who wanted to be called "humanitarian anarchists" and who certainly had a tendency towards mysticism, like Jan Hof, who did much to popularize the study of nature in the Netherlands. They can be included under the label I propose, for example. In other countries other or comparable tendencies may be found. Anyway,, on the subject of atheism: Dutch Christian anarchists at one point spoke of Bakunin and Kropotkin as bearers of the Spirit of Christ, and I mention the phrase of Sam van den Berg, the Dutch Jewish Christian anarcho-syndicalist, about "the great anarchist of love from Nazareth", and leave the subject of classification with this quotation to think about.

5. The Eckehart connection

Now we got the possibility to classify philosophers, theologians and teaching masters this way, expanding back in time as far as we can, it should be of no relevance who was first with bringing in mediaeval mysticism in the anarchist movement, under its contemporary name. Indeed, quite probably it was Gustav Landauer, who took up the task of translating some homilies and treatises of the then recently rediscovered Meister Eckehart into modern High German. After all, he had already written Skepsis und Mystik, in which he celebrated Eckehart. But I shall grant the English Tolstoyans the benefit of the doubt: they started issuing a series on Christian mystics in the same year Landauer's translation came out, 1903.

After the traumatic experience of the besieged colony, of which they had expected so much, the Christian anarchists who never could organise a working group of any size (their journal had about two thousand readers, but these seem to have been happy with reading the message and did not want any organisation) were at a loss about what to do. They started schools which stressed individual development and universal love for all creatures, and which still exist today in a very watered-down way. But apart from syndicalist Van den Berg, whom I mentioned earlier, and some followers of the apparently charismatic professor Jacob van Rees, generally people around the journal Vrede did not feel like organising and even hated the idea. "Ours is a spiritual movement," wrote Lodewijk van Mierop, one of the members of the old colony, and Felix Ortt, leading figure in the colony and amongst many other things publisher and printer of "the movement" at that moment, declared, more or less in disgust, that he did not want to have to do with anything like "propaganda for the masses." Not joining a movement, but being converted to the real human ideal was what counted. Der Geist is entscheidend, as Landauer said, but you have to get this Geist individually, not collectively, because that would be of no value.

Amidst this "organisational" confusion rev. Louis Bähler, the most mystical christian anarchist and at that moment editor of the journal Vrede discovered both the series of Christian Mystics of W.P. Swainson from England, and through a translation by Dutch vrije socialist Joan Nieuwenhuis Landauer's version of Meister Eckehart. Apparently this struck the right chord: Bähler started reading what was then considered the original Eckehart text (we had to wait till about 1960 for a textcritical edition). A complete own series and a translation of Swainson's books was announced. Bähler was proud in offering the first of these translations, a Life of St. Francis, a most completely Holy Man (Bïählers sincere admiration still sounds remarkable from a Reformed minister). And there was the own series, dedicated to the Inward Word or the Inward Life: Geschriften van het ingekeerde leven. It opened with a catechism on the Inner Word by Johannes Tennhard, a second hand translation on The Presence of God by Berniïères de Louvigni and a Dutch treatise from the seventeenth century Dutch reformed mysticist Johannes Teellinck.

The Eckehart-effect had its own peculiar working within Dutch Christian anarchism, but we have to bear in mind that this switch to mysticism came in stead of any idea of reaching the masses, the working class or anyone striving for imminent change. Even the support of conscientious objectors had stopped, apparently after some bad experience with someone who did not have the right Spirit. So mysticism was not the starting point for something new, if I may use these words, it appeared as a dead end street - and it certainly hastened the downfall of the own publishing company the Christian anarchists still had. Mysticism as the spiritual guidance for a movement towards renewal of society did not get support in the Netherlands, and it took several decades until after Landauer's death that anything apart from his Eckehart-translation was translated into Dutch - so I must say his legacy has to be sought in the future, not in the past, as far as the Netherlands are concerned.

The reverend Bähler, who caused the "right wing" of the Dutch Reformed Church to organise separately within the Church, stopped being a minister in 1911, and became a theosophist. Van Mierop launched an idea of new spiritual communities in 1909, but this never came to be practised, and he and Ortt gave their energy to all kind of adjacent causes which were neither expressly anarchist nor Christian, let alone Christian anarchist, though never abandoning the original idea. Yet here are the issues where the workings of the Dutch Christian anarchists went far beyond their small numbers: apart from the movement for conscientious objection and the still radical Reformed peace movement, which would not have existed in this way without the christian anarchists, it is on humanitarian issues, like the protection of animal rights, the idea of abandoning criminal justice in general and jails in particular (although I must admit, this idea has been silenced at the moment) that the ideas of Christian anarchism have continued.

The religious anarchist movement which resurrected in 1919 hardly survived high mounting discussions on how to act against Spanish fascism, during the Civil War, and at the point where it could be revived Nazi Germany occupied the Netherlands, the event that left little else but Hope. Van Mierop did not live to see it, I do not yet know about the fate of Van den Berg (I hope he emigrated as he had already planned in 1911), Bähler died of old age during the occupation, and Ortt kept writing and still had fourteen years ahead afterwards of spreading the message on his own, which he did. When he died in 1959 anarchism, Christian or not, seemed to be a thing of the remote past in the Netherlands - but here too is a legacy that is for the future even more than for the past, rich though it may be.

(Speech delivered at the University of Haifa, August 1998)