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Saul Newman – Gustav Landauer’s Anarcho-Mysticism and the Critique of Political Theology

The Anarchist Library

Author: Saul Newman
Title: Gustav Landauer’s Anarcho-Mysticism and the Critique of Political Theology
Date: 2020
Notes: Newman, Saul. 2020. Gustav Landauer’s anarcho-mysticism and the critique of political theology. Political Theology, 21(5), pp. 434-451. ISSN 1462-317X [Article].
Source: PDF retrieved on June 17, 2022 from https://research.gold.ac.uk


This paper explores the anarcho-mystical thought of Gustav Landauer as a critical response to sovereign-centric political theology. It is argued that Landauer’s political thought – central to which is a mystical withdrawal from existing state institutions and social relations – effects a radical displacement of the concept of state sovereignty through the emergence of new and autonomous forms of subjectivity, affinity and community. The paper starts with a discussion of Carl Schmitt’s critical response to anarchism which, I argue, is the register through which we must interpret his version of political theology. I then turn to Landauer’s original articulation of anarchism, defined through spiritual or micro-political self-transformation and the mystical experience, as a way of decentring sovereignty. Lastly, I develop some parallels between Landauer and recent interventions in Italian (im)political thought, in which the sovereign representative function of political theology is radically called into question. I conclude by suggesting that anarcho-mysticism, as a critical engagement with political theology, not only broadens out this category, but offers a way of interpreting new forms of political activism and protest in which sovereign representation is fundamentally delegitimised.

Recent interventions in political theology have sought to go beyond the parameters of a debate that has been largely dominated by thought of Carl Schmitt. According to Schmitt’s oft-cited definition, political theology refers to the way that modern political and juridical concepts, particularly the sovereign state, are founded upon a secularisation of theological categories. However, for Schmitt, the significance of political theology lies in more than simply a sociological interpretation of the political institutions, but consists in a new way of legitimising, through the state of exception, the idea of absolute sovereignty.

Alternatively, thinkers such as Giorgio Agamben, Roberto Esposito, Massimo Cacciari and others have tried to, as it were, de-throne political theology by, for instance, displacing it within the field of economic theology, or by gesturing towards alternative concepts of community and co-belonging that transcend the ‘immunitarian’ impulses of the biopolitical sovereign state. Yet, what is generally neglected in such approaches is anarchism, which constitutes the most radical rejection of state sovereignty. This was a tradition of thought and politics that Schmitt himself took seriously, recognising in it his genuine ideological enemy. Indeed, Schmitt’s engagement with key anarchist figures such as Bakunin and Proudhon points to an important, yet overlooked, aspect of the debate over political theology and its meaning and significance today.

In this paper I will explore the importance of anarchism as a critical response, not only to Schmitt’s political thought, but also to the seeming inescapability of sovereignty as the dominant category of our political experience. When the spectre of sovereignty has ‘returned’ to the centre of political debates today, when it becomes the rallying cry of authoritarian populisms, it is vitally important to find resources for a critical interrogation of this concept. The recent and growing interest in political theology speaks to the desire to understand this renewed demand for sovereignty that, as phantasmatic as the concept might be, has tangible effects in the form of intensified border controls, enhanced surveillance and security and heightened anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. At the same time, we witness new forms of political mobilization that combine a sort of millenarian and antinomian spirit with modes of organization and expression that can only be described as anarchistic, particularly in their rejection of formal channels of political representation. Here one could point to movements as diverse as the so-called Gilets-Jaunes in France and the global Extinction Rebellion, not to mention mass protests taking place in many other parts of the world. As amorphous as such movements are, they need to be understood as part of a new and emergent political paradigm in which the representative authority of the state is fundamentally called into question. And it is here that re-thinking political theology in relation to anarchism can be of some help in understanding what is at stake here.

It is in this context that I want to focus on the fin de siècle German anarchist theorist and militant, Gustav Landauer. I will argue that Landauer’s thinking, which I will describe as anarcho-mysticism,[1] represents the true critical counterpoint to Schmitt’s sovereign-centric political theology, more so even than the more familiar strains of revolutionary anarchism that Schmitt contended with. Instead, Landauer’s anarchism[2], inspired in large part by Christian mystical traditions, opposes the ‘spiritual’ to the theological or, rather, to the politico-theological and dissolves the concept of the unified sovereign state into new forms of voluntary association and community. Indeed, rather than simply opposing the sovereign state and calling for its revolutionary overthrow – and thus in a sense mirroring its absolutism – Landauer refuses to recognize the state as a transcendent entity, showing instead that it is composed of a series of individual relationships that can be transformed and spiritually redeemed. Moreover, as I shall argue, Landauer’s conception of autonomous, voluntary and self-organized community life based on affinity offers an alternative to Schmitt’s idea of a political community constituted through authority and enmity. My claim is that to find ways out of the bind of political theology and the politics of sovereignty, we must look to both mystical and anarchistic ways of thinking about politics.