Martin Buber: Paths in Utopia. (10/23/2001)

Finding the best way, the best path, as it were, to critique Martin Buber's perception of utopia, without overburdening the discussion with quotations from his work, may well be a desire beyond my capacity to fulfill. One approach that might work is to begin where he ends, work backward through his argument, and cast off everything that is not essential to the point he is trying to make. Hence, near the end of his last chapter, he says that

"The real essence of community is to be found in the fact . . . that it has a centre. The real beginning of a community is when its members have a common relation to the centre overriding all other relations: the circle is described by the radii, not by the points along its circumference. And the originality of the centre cannot be discerned unless it is discerned as being transpicuous to the light of something divine. All this is true; but the more earthly, the more creaturely, the more attached the centre is, the truer and more transpicuous it will be." (135)

The hidden contradiction in what Buber says here about the nature of community, and the contradiction that has always plagued the implementation of utopian states in the real world, driving them more toward totalitarian societies than toward ones that are "free," concerns the fact that Buber cannot think community without recourse to a circular configuration dominated by a "centre," which must be "divine," while insisting against all reason and reality that the radii, and not the points along the circumference, are the elements of the figure that describe its shape. The contradiction in this statement is hidden because it is true that the radii do actually describe the circle but, in the circle the radii must all be equal to each other as they emanate outward from the same center, which is all perfectly logical and valid as far as it goes; however, when God is placed at the center of the circle of community, and by necessity, a concept of hierarchical structure is introduced into the figure which makes it impossible for the radii to maintain their equality one to the other. Hence, the presence of God at the center necessarily and always deforms the figure into an unpredictable, even chaotically anomalous, shape that is controlled not by reason, not by planning, but most often by passion. This is true at two different levels.

On one side, and wholly within the confines of the community itself, an inevitable division of labor arises, or might even be pre-existent from earlier times, where individual tasks and functions are assigned different levels of value in the hierarchical structure that emanates outward from the Supreme Being who resides at the center. This inescapable inequality necessarily fractures the perfection of the circle that is supposed to describe the community. Even in a case where a conscious and deliberate effort is undertaken to diminish the sense of value that is assigned to various occupations in a community, differences are still apparent to anyone who lives within the structure. Buber even acknowledges this fact but does not seem to offer an escape from it; that is, "so that as once between individuals, so now between communities people discerned and acknowledged differences of nature and function" (131). Buber's involvement in the Kibbutz movement in Israel, at least in so far as he has been called one of its "ideological godfather" (Paths in Utopia, p. XV), suggests the ground on which the concept fails in another way. The use of the commune by the Israelis to colonize areas of Palestine that were seized in the aftermath of this or that war against their Islamic and Christian neighbors, wars that were initiated by the Other against the existence of the Jewish state, points explicitly to the fact that Buber's concept of a perfect circle, like all other utopian ideologies, necessarily excludes as many people as it welcomes. In other words, in spite of how Buber himself may have visualized the Kibbutz, as a social form meant to renew human society, its inherent hierarchical structure reaching out from the center of the Jewish conception of God, necessarily places people who are non-Jewish (Muslims and Christians who are also Palestinians) so far down on the scale of value in the hierarchical structure that they cannot be allowed to exist inside the circle of the Jewish community. Their exclusion, and even expulsion, from the "Promised Land," as Buber himself refers to it (135), has created so much enmity, distrust, and hatred in the area that Israel is assaulted from without by the nearly weekly appearance of suicide terrorist bombers intent on destroying Israel once and for all. That conflict, of course, has now spread to the US, where at least one reason given for the destruction of the WTC in New York on September 11, 2001, in which some 6,000 people were murdered, was that the US supports Israel's right to exist as a state as opposed to the Palestinian's insistence that it be destroyed and obliterated altogether. The war is now worldwide and probably endless.

To say that Martin Buber is somehow responsible for this horrific turn of events deliberately ignores the fact that individuals rarely influence the course of history in any but minor and insignificant ways; however, and putting the issue on its proper ground, it would be completely disingenuous to overlook the fact that Buber's ideology is directly and inescapably responsible for the division that now, and always has, separated, split, and alienated the warring factions from each other in the Middle East. Exactly why this is true can be seen in the following statement:

"Even those communities which call the spirit their master and salvation their Promised Land, the "religious" communities, are communities only if they serve their lord and master in the midst of simple, unexalted, unselected reality, a reality not so much chosen by them as sent to them just as it is; they are community only if they prepare the way to the Promised Land through the thickets of this pathless hour. True, it is not "works" that count, but the work of faith does. A community of faith truly exists only when it is a community of work." (135)

What is clear from this statement, of course, is the fact that Buber perceives the world, a priori as it were, as one shaped and controlled by the ruling ideology of hierarchical structure, since one cannot be said to have a "lord and master" who must be "served" if that person lives, works, and believes in a social structure that is not determined by a scale of value emanating out from a center occupied by a Supreme Being. The problem here is not so much that hierarchy exists as the ground for the social structure Buber envisions as the One meant to save man and the world from having to walk "along a narrow ledge between two abysses" (129), as he characterizes the state of the current crisis in human relationships, but rather, the fact that he insists that a "work of faith" is the only kind of action that can be appropriate in creating the sense of community he proposes. This is exactly the wrong kind of argument to make for the simple reason that Faith is the cause of the conflict in the first place and, as every 10-year-old child knows, the cause of conflict cannot ever be the force that resolves it. The Muslim does not have the Faith of the Jew any more than the Christian has the Faith of the Muslim, and so on, where each of these separate Faiths is rigidly and absolutely exclusive of the Other. The only thing Buber's ideology can be expected to accomplish is the continuation of the conflict he describes as "the greatest crisis humanity has ever known" (129). Indeed, since his advocacy for the creation of the Kibbutz, as the kind of utopian community his vision was meant to engender, the conflict has been transformed from regional to universal. That it is probably also endless is the true fruit that grows on the tree of every utopian ideology anyone has ever harvested.

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