Franz Kafka, libertarian spirit



Notes on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the Czech writer


Franz Kafka was a libertarian spirit. It is clear that his work cannot be reduced to a political doctrine, whatever it may be. The writer does not produce speeches, but creates individuals and situations, expresses in his work feelings, attitudes, a Mood. The symbolic world of literature is irreducible to the discursive world of ideologies: the literary work is not an abstract conceptual system, like philosophical or political doctrines, but the creation of a concrete imaginary universe of characters and things.[I]

However, this does not stop us from exploring the passages, the catwalks, the subterranean connections between his anti-authoritarian spirit, his libertarian sensibility, his sympathies for anarchism, on the one hand, and his main writings, on the other. These passages give us privileged access to what could be called the internal landscape of Franz Kafka's work.

Three testimonies from contemporary Czechs document the Prague writer's sympathy for the Czech libertarian socialists and his participation in some of their activities. In the early 1930s, during his research for the novel Stefan Rott (1931), Max Brod gathered information from one of the founders of the Czech anarchist movement, Michal Kacha. It is about Kafka's participation in the meetings of the Club Mladych (Youth Club), a libertarian, anti-militarist and anti-clerical organization, attended by several Czech writers (S. Neumann, Mares, Hasek).

Incorporating this information – which was “confirmed to him by another party” – Max Brod observes in his novel that Kafka “often attended, in silence, the circle's meetings. Kacha found him friendly and called him 'Klidas', which could be translated as 'the taciturn one' or, more precisely, in Czech slang, as 'the colossus of silence'”. Max Brod never doubted the veracity of this testimony, which he would quote again in his biography of Franz Kafka.[ii]

The second testimony is that of the anarchist writer Michal Mares, who met Franz Kafka on the street (they were neighbors). According to Michal Mares – whose document was published by Klaus Wagenbach in 1958 –, Kafka had gone, at his invitation, to a demonstration against the execution of Francisco Ferrer, the Spanish libertarian educator, in October 1909. During the years 1910-12, he would have attended anarchist conferences on free love, the Paris Commune, peace and against the execution of the Parisian militant Liabeuf, organized by the “Youth Club”, the “Vilem Körber” association (anti-clerical and anti-militarist) and the Anarchist Movement Czech.

On several occasions, he even paid five crowns in bail to release his friend from prison. Mares, like Kacha, insists on Kafka's silence: “As far as I know, Franz Kafka did not belong to any of these anarchist organizations, but he had the strong sympathies of a man who was sensitive and open to social problems. However, despite his interest in these meetings (given his attendance), he never intervened in the discussions”. This interest also manifests itself in his readings – Speeches of a Rebel, by Kropotkin (a gift from Mares himself), as well as the writings of the brothers Reclus, Bakunin and Jean Grave – and in their sympathies: “the fate of the French anarchist Ravachol or the tragedy of Emma Goldmann, who edited Mother Earth, they touched him particularly…”.[iii]

The third document is Conversations with Kafka, by Gustav Janouch, first published in 1951 and, considerably expanded, in 1968. This account, which refers to exchanges with the Prague writer during the last years of his life (from 1920 onwards), suggests that Franz Kafka maintained his sympathies for libertarians. Not only does he describe Czech anarchists as “very kind and very cheerful”, “so kind and so nice that we are forced to believe everything they say”, but the political and social ideas he expresses in the course of these conversations remain strongly marked by the current libertarian.

For example, his definition of capitalism as “a system of dependency relations” where “everything is hierarchical, everything is in irons” is typically anarchist, due to his insistence on the authoritarian character of this system – and not on economic exploitation like Marxism. Even his skeptical attitude towards the organized labor movement seems inspired by the libertarian distrust towards parties and political institutions: behind the workers who parade “the secretaries, the bureaucrats, the professional politicians, all the modern sultans who prepare access to power… The revolution evaporates, all that remains is the mud of a new bureaucracy. The chains of tortured humanity are made of ministry papers.”[iv]

The hypothesis suggested by these documents – Franz Kafka's interest in libertarian ideas – is confirmed by certain references in his intimate writings. For example, in his diary, we find this categorical imperative: “Don’t forget Kropotkin!”; and in a letter to Max Brod in November 1917, he expressed his enthusiasm for a magazine project (Pages combating the will to power) proposed by the Freudian anarchist Otto Gross.[v] Not forgetting the libertarian spirit that seems to inspire some of his statements, for example, the caustic remark he made to Max Brod one day, referring to his place of work, the Social Security Service (where injured workers came to claim their rights ): “How humble these men are… They come to ask us for help. Instead of breaking into the house and ransacking it, they came to ask us for help.”[vi]

It is very likely that these different accounts – especially the last two – contain inaccuracies and exaggerations. Klaus Wagenbach himself acknowledges (about Mares) that “some details may be wrong” or at least “exaggerated”. Likewise, according to Max Brod, Mares, like many other witnesses who knew Franz Kafka, “tends to exaggerate”, especially with regard to the extent of his friendship with the writer. As for Janouch, while the first version of his recollections gives an impression of “authenticity and credibility”, as it “contains the distinctive signs of the style in which Kafka spoke”, the second seems much less reliable.[vii]

But it is one thing to notice the contradictions or exaggerations in these documents, it is another thing to reject them outright, describing the information about the links between Franz Kafka and the Czech anarchists as “pure legend”. This is the attitude of some experts, including Eduard Goldstücker, Hartmut Binder, Ritchie Robertson and Ernst Pawel – the first a Czech communist literary critic and the other authors of biographies of Franz Kafka whose value is undeniable.


Here we will limit ourselves to examining the point of view of Ritchie Robertson, author of a remarkable essay on the life and work of the Jewish writer from Prague. What is completely new and interesting about this book is the attempt to propose an alternative interpretation of Kafka's political ideas, which, according to him, would be neither socialist nor anarchist, but romantic. This anti-capitalist romanticism would, in his opinion, be neither left nor right.[viii] Now, if romantic anti-capitalism is a matrix common to certain conservative and revolutionary forms of thought – and, in this sense, it actually goes beyond the traditional division between left and right –, it remains true that the romantic authors themselves clearly place themselves in a of the poles of this worldview: reactionary romanticism or revolutionary romanticism.[ix]

In fact, anarchism, libertarian socialism and anarcho-syndicalism are paradigmatic examples of “left-wing romantic anti-capitalism”. Therefore, defining Franz Kafka's thought as romantic – which seems entirely pertinent to me – does not mean in any way that he is not “left-wing”, specifically a romantic socialism with a libertarian tendency.

Like all romantics, his critique of modern civilization is tinged with nostalgia for the past – represented, for him, by the Yiddish culture of Eastern European Jewish communities. With remarkable intuition, André Breton wrote: “when marking the current minute”, Franz Kafka's thought “symbolically turns backwards with the hands of the synagogue clock” in Prague.[X].


The interest of the anarchist episode in the biography of Franz Kafka (1909-1912) is that it offers us one of the most enlightening reading keys to the work – particularly those written from 1912 onwards. I say one of the keys, because the charm of this work comes from also of its eminently polysemic character, irreducible to any univocal interpretation. O ethos libertarian expression is expressed in the different situations that are at the center of his main literary texts, but above all in the radically critical way in which the haunting and distressing face of non-freedom is represented: authority. As André Breton rightly said, “no work militates so much against the admission of a sovereign principle external to that which thinks”.[xi]

A libertarian-inspired anti-authoritarianism runs through all of Franz Kafka's novelistic work, in a movement of “depersonalization” and increasing reification: from paternal and personal authority to administrative and anonymous authority[xii]. Once again, this is not just any political doctrine, but a state of mind and critical sensitivity – whose main weapon is irony and humor, black humor which is, according to André Breton, “a superior revolt of the spirit".[xiii]

This attitude has intimate and personal roots in his relationship with his father. For the writer, the despotic authority of the paterfamilias it is the very archetype of political tyranny. In your Letter to the Father (1919), Kafka recalls: “You assumed for me the enigmatic character of tyrants, whose right is not based on reflection, but on their own person.” Confronted with the brutal, unfair and arbitrary treatment of employees by his father, Franz Kafka sympathizes with the victims: “It made the shop unbearable for me, it reminded me a lot of my own situation in relation to you... That's why I necessarily belong to the employees’ party…”.[xiv]

The main characteristics of authoritarianism in Kafka's literary writings are: (i) arbitrariness: decisions are imposed from above, without any justification – moral, rational, human –, and often with excessive and absurd demands made on the victim; (ii) injustice: guilt is considered – wrongly – as self-evident, without the need for proof, and punishments are totally disproportionate in relation to the “guilt” (non-existent or trivial).

In his first major work, the verdict (1912), Kafka dedicates himself only to paternal authority; It is also one of the few works in which the hero (Georg Bendemann) seems to submit entirely and without resistance to the authoritarian verdict: the father's order to the son to throw himself into the river! Comparing this novel with The process, Milan Kundera observed: “The similarity between the two accusations, culpability and executions betrayed the continuity linking the family's intimate 'totalitarianism' with that of Kafka's grand visions.”[xv]. With the exception that in the two great novels (The process e The castle) is a perfectly anonymous and invisible “totalitarian” power.

America (1913-14) is an intermediate work in this respect: the authoritarian characters are sometimes paternal figures (Karl Rossmann's father and Uncle Jakob), sometimes senior hotel administrators (the chief of staff and the head of the doormen). But even the latter retain an aspect of personal tyranny, combining bureaucratic coldness with a petty and brutal individual despotism. The symbol of this punitive authoritarianism appears on the first page of the book: demystifying American democracy, represented by the famous Statue of Liberty at the entrance to New York harbor, Franz Kafka replaces the torch in his hands with a sword... In a world without justice or freedom, naked force and arbitrary power seem to reign absolute. The hero's solidarity is with the victims of this society: for example, the driver in the first chapter, an example of the “suffering of a poor man subjected to the powerful”, or Thèrèse's mother, driven to suicide by hunger and poverty. He finds friends and allies on the side of the poor: Thérèse herself, the students, the inhabitants of the popular neighborhood who refuse to hand him over to the police – because, writes Franz Kafka in a revealing comment, “the workers are not on the side of the authorities ”.[xvi]

From the point of view that interests us here, the great turning point in Franz Kafka's work is the short story in the penal colony, written shortly after America. There are few texts in world literature that present authority in such an unfair and murderous image. This is not the power of an individual – the Commanders (Old and New) play only a secondary role in the story – but that of an impersonal mechanism.

The context of the story is colonialism… French. The colony's officers and commanders are French, while the humble soldiers, dockers and victims to be executed are “natives” who “do not understand a word of French”. A “native” soldier was sentenced to death by officers whose legal doctrine summarizes in a few words the quintessence of the arbitrary: “guilt must never be doubted!” His execution must be carried out by a torture machine that slowly writes on his body, with needles that pierce him: “Honor your superiors”.

The central character of the story is not the traveler, who observes the events with silent hostility, nor the prisoner, who does not react, nor the officer who presides over the execution, nor the colony commander. It is the Machine itself.

The whole story revolves around this device (Pageantry) sinister, which seems more and more, in the course of the officer's very detailed explanation to the traveler, like an end in itself. The Apparatus is not there to execute the man, but the man is there for the Apparatus, to provide him with a body on which to write his aesthetic masterpiece, his bloody inscription illustrated with “many flourishes and embellishments.” The officer himself is just a servant of the Machine and ends up sacrificing himself to this insatiable Moloch.[xvii]

In what concrete “Machine of power”, in what “Apparatus of authority” that sacrifices human lives, did Kafka think? In the Penal Colony was written in October 1914, three months after the start of the Great War…

Em The process e The castle, we find authority as a hierarchical, abstract and impersonal “apparatus”: bureaucrats, however brutal, petty or sordid they may be, are mere cogs in this mechanism. As Walter Benjamin acutely observes, Franz Kafka writes from the point of view of “the modern citizen who knows that he is entrusted to an impenetrable bureaucratic apparatus, whose function is controlled by bodies that remain obscure even to its executive bodies, a fortiori to those he manipulates.”[xviii]


Franz Kafka's work is, at the same time, deeply rooted in his Prague environment – ​​as André Breton notes, it “embraces all the charms, all the spells” of Prague[xx] – and perfectly universal. Contrary to what is often stated, his two great novels are not a critique of the old Austro-Hungarian imperial State, but of the State apparatus in its most modern aspect: its anonymous, impersonal character, as an alienated bureaucratic system, “ reified”, autonomous, transformed into an end in itself.

A passage of The castle is particularly illuminating from this point of view: it is the one – a small masterpiece of black humor – in which the village mayor describes the official apparatus as an autonomous machine that seems to work “by itself”: “It seems that the administrative body has already cannot bear the tension, the irritation that he has been suffering for years because of the same case, perhaps insignificant in itself, and that he pronounces the verdict on his own, without the help of the officials”.[xx] This profound intuition of the bureaucratic mechanism as a blind gear, in which relationships between individuals become a thing, an independent object, is one of the most modern, most current and most lucid aspects of Kafka's work.

Libertarian inspiration is at the heart of Franz Kafka's novels, which speak of the State – whether in the form of “administration” or “justice” – as an impersonal system of domination that crushes, suffocates or kills individuals. It is a harrowing, opaque and incomprehensible world, where non-freedom reigns. The process It was often presented as a prophetic work: the author, with his visionary imagination, would have predicted the justice of totalitarian states, the Nazi or Stalinist processes.

Bertold Brecht, still a fellow traveler from the USSR, observed in a conversation with Walter Benjamin about Kafka in 1934 (even before the Moscow trials): “Kafka only has one problem, that of organization. What impressed him was the anguish in the face of the Anthill State, the way in which men alienate themselves through the forms of their common life. And he predicted certain forms of this alienation, like the methods of the GPU.”[xxx]

Without questioning the relevance of this tribute to the Prague writer's clairvoyance, it is, however, worth remembering that Kafka does not describe “exceptional” states in his novels: one of the most important ideas – whose kinship with anarchism is evident – ​​suggested by his work it is the alienated and oppressive character of the “normal”, legal and constitutional State. Right in the first lines of The process, he clearly states: “K. lived well in a rule of law (rule of law), peace reigned everywhere, all laws were in force, so who would dare attack him in his home?”[xxiii]. Like his friends, the Prague anarchists, he seems to regard every form of State, the State as such, as an authoritarian and liberticidal hierarchy.

The State and its justice are also, by their very nature, deceptive systems. Nothing illustrates this better than the dialogue in The process between K. and the abbot about the interpretation of the parable of the guardian of the law. For the abbot, “to doubt the dignity of the guardian would be to doubt the Law” – the classic argument of all representatives of the order. K. rejects that, if one adopts this opinion, “you have to believe everything the guardian says”, which seems impossible to him:

“_ No, says the abbot, you are not obliged to believe that everything he says is true, you just need to consider it necessary.

“A sad opinion, says K…, it would elevate lies to the level of rule of the world”[xxiii].

As Hannah Arendt rightly observed in her essay on Franz Kafka, the abbot's speech reveals “the secret theology and inner belief of the bureaucrats as a belief in necessity for its own sake, the bureaucrats being ultimately functionaries of necessity.”[xxv]

Finally, the State and judges administer justice less than they hunt victims. In an image comparable to that of the replacement of the torch of freedom by a sword in America, we see in The process a painting by the painter Titorelli that was supposed to represent the goddess of Justice turns, when the work is well lit, into a celebration of the goddess of Hunting. The bureaucratic and legal hierarchy constitutes an immense organization that, according to Joseph K, the victim of the Trial, “not only uses stupid guards, inspectors and investigating judges... but also maintains an entire high judiciary with its indispensable retinue of valets, scribes, gendarmes and other assistants, perhaps even executioners, I do not shy away from the word”[xxiv]. In other words: State authority kills. Joseph K. meets the executioners in the last chapter of the book, when two public servants kill him “like a dog”.

The “dog” constitutes an ethical – or even metaphysical – category in the work of Franz Kafka: it describes any person who slavishly submits to authorities, whoever they may be. The merchant Block kneeling at the lawyer's feet is a typical example: “He was no longer a client, he was the lawyer's dog. If he had ordered him to crawl under the bed and bark as if he were in a doghouse, he would have done so with pleasure.” The shame that must survive Joseph K. (last word of The process) is that of having died “like a dog”, submitting without resistance to his executioners. It is also the case of the prisoner of In the Penal Colony, who doesn’t even try to escape and behaves with “canine” submission (hündisch)[xxv].

The young Karl Rossmann, in América, is an example of someone who tries – but does not always succeed – to resist the “authorities”. For him, only “those who allow themselves to be treated like dogs” become dogs. The refusal to submit and crawl like a dog thus seems to be the first step towards walking upright, towards freedom. But Franz Kafka's novels do not have “positive heroes” or utopias of the future: it is, therefore, a matter of showing, with irony and lucidity, the hippocratic facies of our time.


It is no coincidence that the word “Kafkaesque” entered common parlance: it refers to an aspect of social reality that sociology or political science tends to ignore, but that Franz Kafka's libertarian sensibility marvelously managed to capture: the oppressive character and absurdity of the bureaucratic nightmare, the opacity, impenetrability and incomprehensibility of the rules of the state hierarchy, as they are experienced from below and from without – unlike social science, which has generally limited itself to examining the bureaucratic machine from the inside. “interior” or in relation to “superiors” (the State, authorities, institutions): its “functional” or “dysfunctional”, “rational” or “pre-rational” character.

Social science has not yet developed a concept for this “oppression effect” of the reified bureaucratic system, which is, without a doubt, one of the most characteristic phenomena of modern societies, experienced daily by millions of men and women. While we wait, this essential dimension of social reality will continue to be designated in reference to Kafka's work...[xxviii]

*Michae Lowy is director of research in sociology at Center nationale de la recherche scientifique (CNRS). Author, among other books, of Franz Kafka unsubmissive dreamer (Cem Cabeças Publisher) []

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.


[I] See L. Goldmann, “Materialisme dialectique et histoire de la littérature”, Recherches Dialectiques, Paris, Gallimard, 1959, pp. 45-64. []

[ii] M. Brod, Franz Kafka, pp. 135-136. []

[iii] M. Mares, “Comment j'ai connu Franz Kafka”, published in annex in K. Wagenbach, Franz Kafka. Années de jeunesse (1883-1912), Paris, Mercure de France, 1967, pp. 253-249.

[iv] G. Janouch, Kafka m'a dit, Paris, Calmann-Lévy, 1952, pp. 70, 71, 135, 107, 108, 141.

[v] F. Kafka, Diaries and Briefs, Fischer Verlag, 1975, p. 196. On Kafka and Otto Gross, see G. Baioni, Kafka. Letteratura ed Ebraismo, Turin, Einaudi, 1979, pp. 203-205.

[vi] M. Brod, Franz Kafka, Paris, Gallimard, 1945, pp. 132-133.

[vii] See K. Wagenbach, Franz Kafka. Années de jeunesse… (1958) p. 213 and Franz Kafka in Selbstzeugnissen (1964), p. 70; Max Brod, Streitbares Leben 1884-1968, München-Berlin-Wien, FA Herbig, 1969, p. 170, and Über Franz Kafka, Frankfurt am Main, Fischer Bücherei, p. 190.

[viii] R. Robertson, Kafka. Judaism, Politics, and Literature, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1985, pp. 140-141: “If we conduct research into Kafka's political leanings, it is, in fact, a mistake to think in terms of the usual antithesis between left and right. The most appropriate context would be the ideology that Michael Löwy defined as 'romantic anti-capitalism' (…) Romantic anti-capitalism (to adopt Löwy's term, although 'anti-industrialism' would be more precise) has different versions (…), but as an ideology Overall, it transcends the opposition between left and right.” Robertson refers here to my first attempt to explain “anti-capitalist romanticism”, in a book about Lukács, but there is an obvious misunderstanding in his interpretation of my hypothesis.

[ix] I tried to analyze romanticism in my book Pour une sociologie des intellectuels révolutionnaires. L'évolution politique de Lukács 1909-1929, Paris, PUF, 1976 (quoted by R. Robertson from the English translation, published in London in 1979), and, more recently, with my friend Robert Sayre, in Revolt and melancholy. Le romanticism à counter-courant de la modernité, Paris, Payot, 1992.

[X] A. Breton, Kafka's presentation in his Anthology of noir humor, Paris, Le Sagittaire, 1950, p. 263. []

[xi] A. Breton, Anthology of noir humor, p.264.

[xii] For a more detailed analysis of anarchism and romanticism in Kafka's work, I refer you to my book Redemption et Utopie. Le judaïsme libertaire en Europe centrale, Paris, PUF, 1988, ch. 5. []

[xiii] A. Breton, “Paratonerre”, introduction to Anthology of noir humor, P. 11.

[xiv] F. Kafka, “Lettre au Père”, 1919, in Sweet desserts à la campagne, Paris, Gallimard, 1957, pp. 165, 179. []

[xv] M. Kundera, “Quelque part là-derrière”, Debate, no. 8, June 1981, p. 58.

[xvi] F. Kafka, America, Frankfurt, Fischer Verlag, 1956, p. 15, 161.

[xvii] Kafka, “In the Penal Colony”, Erzählung und kleine Prose, New York, Schocken Books, 1946, pp. 181-113.

[xviii] W. Benjamin, “Lettre à G. Scholem”, 1938, Correspondence, Paris, Aubier, 1980, II, p. 248.

[xx] A. Breton, Anthologie de l'humour noir, p. 263.

[xx] F. Kafka, The castle, Paris, Gallimard, 1972, p. 562.

[xxx] See W. Benjamin, Essais on Brecht, Paris, Maspero, 1969, p. 132.

[xxiii] Kafka, The Process, Frankfurt, Fischer Verlag, 1979, p.9.

[xxiii] F. Kafka, The trial, Paris, Gallimard, 1985, p.316.

[xxv] H. Arendt, Sechs Essays, Heidelberg, Lambert Schneider, 1948, p. 133.

[xxiv] The trial, p.98.

[xxv] F. Kafka, Le Procès, pp. 283, 309, 325 and In der “Strafkolonie”, p. 181.

[xxviii] The issues addressed in this article are discussed in greater depth in my essay Franz Kafka, rêveur insoumis, Paris, Ed. Stock, 2005.

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