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In this experimental article on visions-based on the writings of anarchist Gustav Landauer and the lyrics of 1970s German rock band Ton Steine Scherben - Andreas Speck argues that while visions should guide us, provide us with energy, and stimulate our imaginations, they shouldn't turn us into slaves to our ideals.
"Reality is realised in our time through the ideal, only through the ideal."
Visions - a difficult topic during times of war and of increased militarisation and marginalisation of peace activists, but perhaps then, even more important.
In this essay I want to explore visions from a personal perspective. I will base this “experiment” on the writings of Gustav Landauer (a German anarchist who was born in 1870, and murdered in 1919, at the end of the anarchist Munich Soviet Republic), and the music and songs of Ton Steine Scherben, a (Western) German anarchist (and gay) rock band of the 1970s and `80s, that is still influential today. Both played, and play, an important role in the shaping of my anarchist thinking, and in the way I live, work and enjoy myself - the way I try to put my anarchist vision(s) into practice.
The dream is over1
The war was over
You were here
And we were free
And the morning sun was shining
All the doors were open
The prisons empty
There were no weapons
And no wars anymore
This was paradise
What Ton Steine Scherben describe, in the 1972 song above, is pretty much an anarchist vision. “The dream is over” is like an anarchist “anthem” in Germany. Anarchism in essence means freedom, the absence of wars and prisons, and not just for one person, but for everyone as a collective.
During difficult times such as those in which we now live, with the “war on terror” leading to a huge backlash against antimilitarism and civil liberties, maintaining visions helps me to believe that there really is sun at the end of the
The darker the night the closer the day...2
I was often at the end
finished and alone
All I heard was
Let it be
You don't have that much power
You can't give that much
Take the path everybody takes
You only have one life
But I want to follow this path
Until the end
And I know
We will see the sun
The darker the night the closer the day.
path-or at least that there could be. And although I only have one life, living this life trying to achieve my visions, or at least working in accordance with my visions-together with others who have similar ideas-is what gives me the power I need to confront reality, and to keep going in spite of war, terror, and in spite of political and personal frustrations.
We have to get out of here
This is hell
We are living in prison
We are born to be free
We are two out of millions. We are not alone
And we will achieve it. We will achieve it
For me, visions develop when we can't stand reality anymore, when we “have to get out here”, as well expressed by Ton Steine Scherben in 1972. Because we don't agree with or accept the way our world is organised, we start to imagine how the world could be. Or as Gustav Landauer puts it: “Socialism [which, for him means anarchism] is striving, with the help of an ideal, to create a new reality. . In unspiritual times of decline, un-culture, un-spirit, and misery, men [and women!] who suffer not only externally but also internally under this general condition which seeks to engulf them fully - in their life, thought, feeling and will.
Men [and women] who resist this engulfment must have an ideal. They have an insight into the oppressive depravity and debasement of their situation. They are unspeakably disgusted with the misery that surrounds them like a swamp. They have energy that presses forward and longs for something better, and thus arises in them, an image of a pure, salutary, joyous mode of human communality in lofty beauty and perfection. They see in broad, general lines how it could be if a group, no matter how big or small, wanted and acted accordingly. . And no longer they say: it can be so. Instead, they say: it should, and must come about.” 4
“Socialism is possible at all times and impossible at all times. It is possible when the right men [and women!] are there who want it and who will carry it into action, and it is impossible when men [and women] do not want it, or supposedly want it, but cannot act accordingly”, so. Landauer in strong in his opposition to Marxism 5 . For him, “anarchism is not a thing of the future, but of the present; not a matter of demands but of living.” For me this means that we shouldn't wait for the revolution to change our lives, but we need to start now, to act according to our vision, at least as much as we can.
If, as Landauer puts it, “the state is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behaviour”, then “we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently”. In practice this can mean many different things: forming communities, workers struggles, alternative media, food coops, or nonviolent direct action. To me, it seems less important where we get involved, but much more important how. In our action, we need to “contract other relationships”, in a way that aims to put our vision into practice. It means not demanding anything from the state - because doing so gives it even more credibility in the end - but acting in a way that leads to empowerment, and to the creation of our own, nonviolent, alternatives.
This is even more important for anti-militarists. Landauer puts it quite bluntly: “War is an act of power, of murder, of robbery . it is the sharpest and clearest life expression of the state . the struggle against war is a struggle against the state; whoever gets involved in politics of the state, even from the standpoint of revolution, is a party to the war.”
This is why I favour nonviolent direct action before appealing to governments, and why I put a lot of energy into forming affinity groups, and making decisions by consensus. To me, these structures represent a small and probably imperfect model of anarchism, a way to practice our vision in our action, and also a way to make sure that “everything begins with the individual, and everything depends on the individual”.
Visions are not blueprints
“They do not say: this ideal must become reality, as plainly and explicitly, as it stands on paper. They know well: the ideal is the ultimate in beauty and joy of life, the best thing their mind and spirit can imagine. . The ideal does not become reality, but our reality is realised in our time through the ideal, only through the ideal.”
Landauer makes a very important point here: visions are not blueprints, but the striving force that leads us to action, but we will never be able to put the ideal into practice as it is. In his earlier book, Revolution, Landauer writes: “The utopia is the total of efforts, which in no way will lead to the goal, but always to a new topia. . Each utopia . is made up of two elements: the reaction against the topia, out of which it grows, and the memory of all former utopias.” For Landauer, revolution is the way from one topia to a new topia, which in effect leads to the death of utopia. “The new topia comes into existence to rescue the utopia, but means its decline.” 6
This might sound sad, but seen this way, visions or utopias don't lead to new dictatorships. Visions should guide us, should provide energy and imagination, but shouldn't turn us into slaves to the vision, and never should be seen as a blueprint, in which to fit society or human beings. Visions should not be prisons - when they are they can turn society itself into a huge prison, as happened in the Soviet Union after 1917, or in China, or in many other countries after a “successful” armed “liberation” struggle. “What we fight is State socialism; levelling from above, bureaucracy; what we advocate is free association and union, the absence of authority, mind freed from all fetters, independence and well-being of all.” While Ton Steine Scherben are (rightly so) sure about the realities in their country -and, quite appropriately since this part was also very popular in Eastern Germany -they didn't fall into the trap of looking for revolutions somewhere far away, into which they could project their ideas.
While solidarity is important, it can become very disempowering when we give up hope at home, and in all our support for far-away revolutions we can end up forgetting our real task: to change our own society, here and now! After all, it is about our lives, and it is also about changing the structures of world domination - and we here in Europe are living in the “heart of the beast”.
The dream is a dream1 During these times
But not for long
For the fight
We have nothing to lose
But our fear
It is our future, our country
Give me your love, give me your hand
The dream is over
The dream is over
But I will give everything
So that it becomes reality!
Is there a country on earth
Where the dream is reality
I really don't know
I only know one thing, and here I'm sure
This country certainly is not!
On democracy and the nature of state
Henry David Thoreau
Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognising and organising the rights of man [and woman]?
There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognise the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him [or her] accordingly. I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men [and women], and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbour; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbours and fellow men [and women]. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which I have also imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.
All translations of song lyrics were done by Andreas.
1 Der Traum ist aus, LP Keine Macht für Niemand, 1972
2 Wenn die Nacht am tiefsten., LP, 1975.
3 Wir mssen hier raus. LP Keine Macht für Niemand, 1972
4 Gustav Landauer, For Socialism. St Louis, Missouri, 1978 (German: Berlin 1911)
5 For Socialism, p107
6 Gustav Landauer, Revolution. Frankfurt/Main, 1907 (not available in English).