Full-Private Number One in the Awkward Squad of the rank and file of life—the creation of a liberal, democratic, progressive hegemony or coalition.

Bedside reading, Landauer by day and by night
READINGS: "The Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids"—Matthew 25:1-13 

From “Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens, Book the First, The Cup and the Lip, Chapter 16: Minders and Re-minders

‘And does he work for you?’ asked the Secretary, gently bringing the discourse back to Master or Mister Sloppy.
        ‘Yes,’ said Betty with a good-humoured smile and nod of the head. ‘And well too.’
        ‘Does he live here?’
        ‘He lives more here than anywhere. He was thought to be no better than a Natural, and first come to me as a Minder. I made interest with Mr Blogg the Beadle to have him as a Minder, seeing him by chance up at church, and thinking I might do something with him. For he was a weak ricketty creetur then.’
        ‘Is he called by his right name?’
        ‘Why, you see, speaking quite correctly, he has no right name. I always understood he took his name from being found on a Sloppy night.’
        ‘He seems an amiable fellow.’
        ‘Bless you, sir, there's not a bit of him,’ returned Betty, ‘that’s not amiable. So you may judge how amiable he is, by running your eye along his heighth.’
        Of an ungainly make was Sloppy. Too much of him longwise, too little of him broadwise, and too many sharp angles of him angle-wise. One of those shambling male human creatures, born to be indiscreetly candid in the revelation of buttons; every button he had about him glaring at the public to a quite preternatural extent. A considerable capital of knee and elbow and wrist and ankle, had Sloppy, and he didn't know how to dispose of it to the best advantage, but was always investing it in wrong securities, and so getting himself into embarrassed circumstances. Full-Private Number One in the Awkward Squad of the rank and file of life, was Sloppy, and yet had his glimmering notions of standing true to the Colours.

“Landauer Today” — Richard J. F. Day’s preface to “Revolution and other writings” by Gustav Landauer (PM Press, Oakland CA, 2010, p. 9) 

I would like my final words to be some first words from [Gustav] Landauer (1870–1919) himself, who is surprisingly good at giving us a laugh, and a timeless, pointed, anarchist laugh, at that.

“I will not hesitate to say the following in all clarity (knowing that I will not receive much appreciation from either side): to some degree, the anarchist politics of assassination only stems from the intentions of a small group amongst them that wants to follow the example of the big political parties. What drives them is vanity — a craving for recognition. What they are trying to say is: ‘We are also doing politics. We aren’t doing nothing. We are a force to be reckoned with!’ These anarchists are not anarchic enough for me.” (“Anarchic Thoughts on Anarchism”—1901)”

Every time I see a twenty-something-year-old male dressed in combat fatigues strutting away from a protest with blood streaming from his head and swearing at the cops, I think of this quote from Gustav Landauer. And I think to myself: All well and good, but who’s going to do the dishes, drywall your bedroom, take out the recycling, cook your meals, clean the house, look after the kids and elders, and change your bandages, while you try to get yourself out of jail and then field that short-lived but highly ego-gratifying spate of inquiries from the global media? Here and now, boys, here and now!



During the past year or so a friend of mine and I have taken occasionally to walking over to Grantchester and back (via The Green Man) to discuss various philosophical and political questions that are currently concerning us. In doing this we are, of course, continuing a longstanding Cambridge philosophical tradition.

A recurring theme of our conversations has been the need strongly to resist letting ourselves be lured by the thought that, for any ideas or actions to be valid and practical, they must be capable of being played out immediately and successfully at either a national or even international level. Making this leap, from the highly local articulation of this or that religious or political idea or action to the articulation and implementation of the same at a national or even international level, can seem to us simply too great, impossible even, to achieve. Consequently, there can easily develop the temptation to begin to think our ideas and local actions must always be mere pie in the sky or, perhaps more appropriately for my friend and me, mere pork-pie in the pub, and to begin to see ourselves for what we really are, namely, two idealistic, middle-aged geezers irrelevantly talking about philosophy and politics over a few pints and a bar snack in a sleepy, fenland backwater of England — ivory-tower, Cambridge philosophy at its pointless best . . .

Many people will, of course, think this impression is true but neither my friend nor I think it is necessarily true and an initial dispelling of this impression was cast in the form of an observation made by my friend of the great value that has always existed in being, to borrow a phrase from Charles Dickens, a “Full-Private Number One in the Awkward Squad of the rank and file of life” (“Our Mutual Friend”); that is to say of being the kind of person who, regardless of their levels of formal education or other social or financial attainments, continues in their own small, highly local way, creatively to challenge society’s constant and always problematic desire to slip into thinking all is only well when all people are willing merely, slavishly to follow its own current habits, beliefs, prejudices and mores, allowing the status quo to continue unchallenged.

This point strongly resonated with me because I’m a minister (and this is a church) standing in an historic radical, liberal, “rational dissenting” tradition. Starting with the example of the human Jesus and going on to include all those people who have expressed the philosophy of what Albert Schweitzer called “reverence for life”, we have consistently refused to accept any status-quo which is crushing (or is beginning to crush) people under the boot-heels of anti-democratic religious or political creeds, confessions or ideologies. We have, instead, always insisted on keeping alive, in our individual hearts and local communities, a form of life dedicated to the democratic expression of freedom of thought and conscience that seeks to overturn of all pecking-orders. In short, our church has been (and I hope still is) very proud to be, along with Sloppy, a full member of the “Awkward Squad of the rank and file of life”. Connected with this, as our minister emeritus, Frank Walker, once splendidly put it, we are to the core of our being “boot resisters.” And I fully trust that up with the current disturbing nascent challenges to the basic values and practices associated with our liberal democracies here in the UK, Europe and the USA, we will not put.

But, once again, I need to acknowledge that many people can feel that such small local sites of struggle and resistance, like this church community and those others to which I know many of you belong, are simply insufficient to the huge tasks we see looming up all around us and those same people can come to feel as if they are powerless and irrelevant.

This feeling can have at least two problematic consequences. The first is simply to give up in despair, to remove yourself from that local community and either sink back into silent depression or to retreat into pleasant private hobbies and past-times of every conceivable type. For obvious (understandable) reasons, this is currently a very popular past-time. This approach is, to hark back to an address I gave sometime ago, an example of what Simon Critchley calls “passive nihilism.”

The second is to go ballistic in some fashion, to engage in what Critchley calls “active nihilism”. This, again understandable, but ultimately unsustainable, hyper-active way of raging against a current situation nearly always ends in burn-out, sometimes of a quite catastrophic kind — and I see a lot of this in my life as a religious and political activist. Mostly, at least in liberal democratic, progressive circles, this active nihilism is non-violent in nature (at least to others if not the activist’s self) but sometimes, alas, the deep frustration at the evident and seemingly intractable injustice of our world can lead some liberal and progressive folk to begin to consider committing acts of violence either against property or people, or both. Gustav Landauer (1870–1919), an advocate of social anarchism, an avowed pacifist and a philosopher (who developed an interesting pantheistic, mystical theology that mixed both Christian and Jewish thought in a way that is very congenial to the Unitarian mind and spirit) saw this actively nihilistic tendency emerge clearly in the early years of the twentieth century. Indeed, his best known essay, “Anarchistic Thoughts on Anarchism”, was written in 1901 as a response to the shocking news from the USA that a man claiming to be an anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, had just assassinated President William McKinley. Landauer wanted to distance both himself and his own understanding of the anarchist tradition from what he called the “propaganda by the deed.” In a letter from 1901 to the novelist, Fritz Mauthner, Landauer wrote, “By the way, I will soon give the anarchists a piece of my mind in an article on the most recent events; I am tired of the glorification of these so-called ‘deeds.’”

I think we who would today protest strongly against many of the illiberal and anti-democratic things occurring in our world today should listen carefully to Landauer when he suggests that moves towards violent protest nearly always occurs because people are all too often driven by “vanity – a craving for recognition” and that their violence is simply a nihilistic cry that “‘We are also doing politics. We aren’t doing nothing. We are a force to be reckoned with!’”

But this is, of course, to be lured into using the same violent and illiberal methods of power and control that the progressive protester claims they, themselves, wish ultimately to overturn. This is what Landauer means when he concludes, “These anarchists are not anarchic enough for me.” Landauer could see that such people aren’t really acting as true members of the “Awkward Squad of the rank and file of life”, as true “boot-resistors”, but are in fact playing the same, grim violent power game that shows as little reverence for life as that shown by their “enemies”. In doing this they become jackboot-wearers themselves.

But Landauer offers us a glimpse of a third, effective, non-nihilistic middle way of boot-resisting as a full private in Awkward Squad of the rank and file of life. What this looks like, the contemporary commentator on Landauer’s work, Richard J. F. Day helps tease out in the words taken from the conclusion of his fine preface to a new collection of English translations of Landauer’s work that you heard in our readings.

By continuing to do the dishes, drywalling (i.e. plaster boarding) a bedroom, taking out the recycling, cooking your meals, cleaning the house, looking after the kids and elders, and (as Jesus memorably showed in the parable of the good Samaritan) changing the bandages of those who we find injured by the wayside, we show ourselves to be genuine boot-resisters and members of the awkward squad — people who are properly preparing the way for the development of a grounded reverence for life that is truly able to stand-up against a, by now, global culture that, no matter how one tries to spin it, really doesn’t give a damn about anything other than the short-term “well-being” and “success” of a few rich and powerful un-democratic individuals and corporations.

You’ve all heard of “kitchen-sink drama”, well, I guess this address is a modest proposal for the self-conscious development of a kind of kitchen-sink religion and politics.

At this point I can conclude with an obviously Advent theme not least of all because, as Landauer himself notes, in doing this kind of thing we show, “[w]e are all waiting for something great — something new” and that “All of our art bears witness to the anxiety involved in preparing for its arrival. But what we are waiting for can only come from ourselves, from our own being”. Following Landauer’s advice seems to me to be doing something like that done by those wise bridesmaids who prepared for the coming of the bridegroom and we, in our own time and place, fill our lamps and trim our wicks by continuing to do the dishes, drywalling bedrooms, taking out the recycling, cooking our meals, cleaning the house, looking after the kids and elders, and changing the bandages of the injured. We do this, not to prepare for the coming of a bridegroom but certainly for a certain kind of marriage celebration, namely, the hoped for loving, democratic, coming together of lots of anarchic, little awkward squads who still have in their hearts, as did Sloppy, “glimmering notions of standing true to the Colours” and who are beginning better to understand the truth contained in some words attributed to the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901–1978): “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

This way of coming together we may call the creation of a liberal, democratic, progressive hegemony or coalition.

But it takes considerable wisdom, foresight and courage to see that, together, all our little local sites of struggle, resistance and of reverence for life are, not only necessary, but also, potentially anyway, this powerful and influential in the creation of a common, democratic good.

So, here’s an Advent toast to Sloppy and to all the other countless noble, loving and brave Full-Private Number Ones and battalions in the Awkward Squad of the rank and file of life like Jesus, Albert Schweitzer and Gustav Landauer. Let our collective, peaceful, progressive, liberal democratic cry from the sink and common-table ever be that, together, “Yes we can” — “Podemos” — and let’s not forget that it starts here and now boys and girls, here and now.


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