Communitarian Elements in Select Works of Martin Buber

July 13, 1999

267. "Communitarian Elements in Select Works of Martin Buber," The Journal of Value Inquiry, No. 33, (July 1999), pp. 151-169.

I. Background and Focus

I was a high school dropout who chose to join the army and fight to drive the British out of Palestine and face the Arab invasions that followed during what is known as the Israeli war of independence. When the war ended, I enrolled in a brand new institution that Martin Buber had just created in Jerusalem, dedicated to training teachers for adults. 

The number of students was rather small, and, as a result, we had many opportunities to be exposed to Buber's ideas and discuss them with him. The following year, I enrolled at Hebrew University to study sociology. Buber was the professor of sociology there at the time. I was a first year undergraduate.

This background is relevant to this essay for two reasons: First, my training, interests, and vocation are rooted in sociology while my command of social philosophy is rather limited. Second, my studies with Buber occurred some 48 years ago. I did not spend any of the years that followed as a Buber scholar. Furthermore, I returned to study his work here from a strictly limited perspective, to inquire into the communitarian themes that run through some of his works, especially I and Thou--generally considered his most influential work--with some attention to Paths in Utopia and to essays collected inBetween Man and Man.(1) I plan to show that Buber, who so far has not been recognized as a communitarian, has strong communitarian elements in his thinking(2).

Even such a limited study faces considerable challenges. Buber is not considered a rigid, systematic thinker.(3) And Buber has a decidedly evocative, mystical side. Writing about the He or She in an I and Thou relationship, Buber writes "He is no longer He or She, limited by other Hes and Shes, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition that can be experienced or described [italics added]."(4) Buber even speaks mysteriously about mystery, writing: "Spirit in its human manifestation is man's response to his [the spirit] is response to the Thou that appears from mystery and address us from the mystery."(5) And about the encounter of a true relationship: "At times it is like feeling a breath and at times like a wrestling match; no matter: somethinghappens. . . [italics added]."(6) And finally, most clearly about the lack of clarity: "You do not know how to point to or define the meaning, you lack any formula or image for it, and yet it is more certain for you than the sensations of your senses."(7) In addition, Buber, like many other great scholars, changes his mind from one book to the next and even in different editions of the same book.(8) The Buber I studied with lectured in Hebrew; I read him now largely in English where there are considerable disagreements over how to translate his books written in German, even about such a basic term as whether to translate "Du" as Thou or You. Given all these conditions, the reader is offered fair warning: all the statements that follow about communitarian elements in Buber are subject to different interpretation and challenge.

The defining attribute of communitarian thinking, often contrasted with classical liberalism and its contemporary followers,(9) is that the former presumes that social formulations of the good are ontologically needed and morally justified.(10) While earlier communitarians focused on justifying the social nature of the person, and explored the implications of the particularistic obligations of the person to his or her communities, I believe there is no necessary contradiction between respecting universal individual rights and recognizing particularistic responsibilities. True, the two may sometimes come into conflict, and the balance between them may often need adjusting, but communitarians need not and should not exclude a priori considerations of individuality, individual rights, or universal principles.(11) This position has sometimes been referred to as responsive or new communitarianism. It remains to be seen whether Buber is an old or a new communitarian. This is not a matter of merely or even mainly currently establishing Buber's place in some typology, but exploring his position on the proper balance between social responsibility and individual rights.

II. The Starting Point

All narratives, philosophical accounts, and even mathematical systems, have a starting point that is particularly revealing. They often are rooted in one or more axiomatic statements that must be taken for granted. Many religious accounts, for instance, start with God, who reveals to Moses or Christ his message. If one accepts God, the rest of the account follows relatively readily. Why heed the Ten Commandments, indeed all the words of the bible? Many fundamentalists respond "because these are God's words". If one questions the starting point, often the whole narrative encounters considerable difficulties. Another case in point are the "self-evident truths" on which the founding fathers of the American state based their rebellion or the notions of natural law still others rely on.

For classical liberals, the starting point is a free standing, autonomous, fully formed individual. Individuals, in turn, form a state (or society) because it suits their purpose. Thus, these social arrangements derive their explanation and legitimacy from their capacity to serve the interests of the individual, a capacity confirmed by the fact that individuals voluntarily contract to form them and consent to participate in them. Communitarians reject this premise. Many start from a diametrically opposite position: at the beginning there is the community, which forms individuals. These, in turn, may later seek to change the community or even rebel against it; but even these acts tend to reflect the community in which these individuals have been cast. For many communitarians, there are no "individuals" per se but only members of this or that community. As Joseph de Maistre put it, "In my lifetime I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, [and] Russians. . . . But as for 'man,' I declare that I have never in my life met him."(12)

Buber's starting point is a strong and unmistakable communitarian position. Relationships, not the person, are his starting point. (I choose my words carefully: relationships, not necessarily community). Writing about the I and Thou and comparing the I and Thou to the I and It, Buber himself puts it explicitly, succinctly, and for once unmistakably: "In the beginning is [not was!] the relation."(13) The statement evokes the first line of Genesis: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth." Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that the first time doing good in the eye of the Lord is mentioned in the bible, which contains frequent admonitions not to do the wrong, is when reference is made that it is not good for man to be alone.(14) Sacks also observes that Adam, which means earthling in Hebrew, is not named "man,"ish in Hebrew, until God invests him in a relationship, by creating the woman.(15)) Returning to Buber, individuality is eked out of relationships, formed within them, not the other way around: "I require a Thou to become; becoming I, I say Thou. All actual life is encounter."(16) Our vocabulary makes it difficult to fully capture Buber's idea. We tend to think about a person who falls in love, forms a friendship, engages in exchanges, and so on. From a Buberian viewpoint such expressions miss the basic point. "Man becomes an I through a Thou."(17)Indeed, he writes that true "I's," true persons, emerge through the I-Thou relation: "Persons appear by entering into relation to other persons [italics added]."(18) There is no separate person prior to or outside the relationship.

In these words Husserl says that man's essence is not to be found in isolated individuals, for a human being's bonds with his generation and his society are of his essence; we must therefore know what these bonds really mean if we want to know the essence of man.(19)

To digress here briefly: In my discussion of Buber's concept of the I and of individuality, the I is treated as reflecting the ego or the person. One may argue, quite correctly, that these concepts denote existentially and ontologically different expressions or installations of the self. One should note, though, that Buber himself--never a rigid and strict thinker--crosses these lines as illustrated in the preceding and following quotes. Moreover, to explore Buber's communitarian approach one must ask about the implications of the I and Thou for the relations between the person and the community.

For Buber, relationships (including communities) are not merely or mainly a matter of choice, contract, or exchange but part of fate, history, and culture. Buber emphasizes the importance of communities in which men "understand their membership not as the result of a free agreement with others but as their destiny and as a vital tradition."(20)

And again, in "The Question to the Single One," Buber writes:

the one who thinks is bound, in different degrees of substantiality but never purely functionally, to a spatial realm, to a historical hour, to the genus man, to a people, a companionship in convictions. This entanglement in a manifold We, when known in an actual way, wards off the temptation of the thought of sovereignty: man is placed in a narrow creaturely position. But he is enabled to recognize that this is his genuine width; for being bound means being bound up in relation.(21)

Indeed, one cannot stress enough that the centrality and precedent of relationship over individuals for Buber is not merely historical, sequential or causal, but also existential. It is not as if relationships merely preceded the formation of the individual, the way, for instance, infants first feel themselves to be part of a mother-child whole and then gradually eke out a distinct sense of self, or the way members of a preliterate tribe become aware of their individuality, say under the influence of Western culture. The person is not merely formed but is and exists and acts basically as a participant in a relationship. The essential social distinction is not among people but between the kind of relationships they are engaged in. The I-Thou is characterized as follows: "The relation to the Thou is unmediated. Nothing conceptual intervenes between I and Thou, no prior knowledge and no imagination."(22) The other, the I-It, is depicted as the realm of "goal-directed verbs. . . . I perceive something. I feel something. . . . I want something."(23) This focus on relations rather than on individual actors represents a decidedly communitarian approach.(24)

To further highlight this point, a comparison to Kant's concept of treating people not merely as means but also as ends might help. At first blush it might seem that Buber's distinction between the I-It and the I-Thou parallels Kant's distinction, and that Buber might have been influenced by Kant. Indeed, Walter Kaufmann in his prologue to his translation of I and Thou notes this similarity: "Kant told men always to treat humanity, in our person as well as that of others, as an end also and never only as a means. This is one way of setting off I-You from I-It."(25) The main difference though is crucial: for Kant, both treatments of the other are two orientations ego may adopt in treating an alter. Even when ego treats alter as an end, which may profoundly change their relationship, for Kant the starting point and essence is the orientation person, the quality of approach; for Buber the comparison is based on the nature of the relation. The difference is like comparing the view of a city from the vantage point of a tower within the city, to viewing a city's layout from an over flying airplane. While at one point Buber suggests that one may speak to another as a Thou even if the other has not embraced that relationship,(26) most times Buber stresses reciprocity. "Relationship is reciprocity. My Thou acts on me as I act on it."(27)Among American scholars, only George Herbert Mead so completely made relationships his starting point. Focusing on relationship rather than on individuals makes Buber's central concept communitarian. The same holds for his strong emphasis on the importance of relationships that bond people to one another, rather than are merely are instrumental or exchange based, the very basis of the distinction between the I-Thou and the I-It. (One might also note that while Kant's respect for others is based on respect for autonomy, Buber's is much more encompassing, involving the whole person as a member of one's relationship and community).

One should also note that Buber distinguishes between a relation as a static affinity, say between objects or concepts such as numbers, to which he refers as Verhältnis, and relationship (Beziehung) as a dynamic bond between two beings. The distinction is of great importance for Buber who stresses the importance of the way a person approaches the other. An I-Thou relationship occurs only if one "holds" one's self in the proper way.(28) For the communitarian, the dual lesson is that relationships are not given but constantly constructed, and that their construction is dependant on the ways the parties to the relationships approach one another.

III. Holistic Rather than Structural

Buber focuses on what might seem, and to a large extent is, a treatment of a diadic relationship, not that of an entire community. It might, however, be fairly argued, that Buber--who, to reiterate, is readily open to numerous interpretations--means not necessarily relations between two persons but a quality of relationship in which many more people can be encompassed. One could reasonably claim that he seeks to characterize what used to be called the "nature of man" ( in German, Buber uses a non-gender specific term, human being, Mensch rather than Mann)--a term that captures better than the term "person" the notion of the essence of people rather than that of an individual. Such interpretations, though, must face the fact that once relationships extend beyond the diadic or even triadic, an issue arises: The conceptualization of these more complex relationships cannot ignore the effects of the relations of A and B on that of B and C, and so on, an issue that is often explored when one studies the effects of the relationship between parents on other relationships in the family, including that between each parent and his or her children, each child and his or her siblings, and each child and his or her parents.

Moreover, once there are more than two persons in a relationship, there almost never is a simple symmetry or parallelism among the various diadic relationships that a larger group contains, making it impossible to subsume all this complexity within a relatively less complex term such as I-Thou or I-It.

The same point holds many times over for communities that include numerous persons and sub-groups, that have internal structures, and that experience social tensions. By focusing on bipolar relationships, Buber (as well as several other communitarians) pay little attention to the composition and dynamic of communities and how they differ from twosome relationships. In short, the community or We--unless one assumes the We to be necessarily diadic--cannot be fully understood by treating it merely or even mainly as a large I-Thou.

IV. I and We: on Bonding Without Being Subsumed

Aside from questions concerning the structure of communities, communitarians must concern themselves with the relationships between the community and the person, which might well be captured by the concept of I&We (a term I introduced in an earlier publication).(29) Buber explores this relationship in his own way, illuminating it as much by that which he leaves in the shadows as by that which he brings into the light.

The major issue communitarians face when they study the I and We, is the danger that the individual will lose his or her identity, autonomy, self awareness, ability to act independently, capacity to form ethical judgments, and ability to take responsibility for action, by being subsumed in a relationship (or community). The term "oceanic feeling" was used by Romain Rolland in his encounters with Freud(30) to characterize the sense of someone so absorbed and consumed by love that he loses himself in it, as if the person has been engulfed by the waves of an ocean and disappeared. Charles Le Bonn was one of the first to write about such loss of individuality in a crowd, the danger of mass psychology. Bonn felt that "the psychology of men in a crowd differs essentially from their individual psychology; they become simply automata."(31)Many other students of religious cults, totalitarian and millennial social movements, and mass society have been concern about such a loss of individuality to the relationship of a group.

Communitarians, dedicated as they are to the study of relationships communal and otherwise, must concern themselves with finding ways to characterize the kind of social relationship that allow a person to engage in a profound relationship of the I-Thou sort without being subsumed by it. Buber, writing in 1923, earns his communitarian kudos here, by recognizing the problem. He is aware of the danger of being engulfed, of the oceanic feeling. He states in I and Thou: "What has to be given up is not the I, as most mystics suppose: the I is indispensable for any relationship, including the highest, which always presupposes an I and Thou."(32) In "What is Man?" he adds, "on the height of personal existence one must be truly able to say I in order to know the mystery of the Thou in its whole truth."(33) Susser argues that for Buber "there is no loss of self on either side" to the I Thou relationship,(34) but this is somewhat difficult to establish.

Buber has little to say about the ways a person, who has a "longing" or a "craving" for I-Thou, as Buber puts it,(35) or who "wants to be reconfirmed in his being. . . not merely in the family. . . but also in the course of neighborly encounters,"(36) may protect him or herself from being subsumed, a crucial question for communitarians, one which old communitarians used to ignore and new ones have not fully addressed.

V. Deliberations Compared to Dialogue

When classical liberals face the question how different individuals may form agreements, they tend to assume (a) that the basic interests of the various individuals are naturally harmonious or complimentary, at least compatible. John Locke relies on this point most explicitly. Adam Smith stresses that the division of labor leads to improved standards of living for all concerned, and hence one can rely on the invisible hand to bring people of different needs to embrace exchange. (Rawls' use of the veil of ignorance to solve the same problem is well known). (b) Classical liberals, as well as many contemporary classical liberals, assume that people who have formulated different conceptions of the good can reason or deliberate together--using facts and logic--and thus work out shared social arrangements and public policies while bracketing their values.(37)

Communitarians tend to reject both of these assumptions as unrealistic and as unmindful of social formulations of the good, and hence must find other ways for people of different interests and needs to come to share such formulations. Part of the communitarian answer lies in tradition, history, culture, and identity, which are depositories of the shared values that are transmitted from one generation to the next (and from the community to new members such as children and immigrants).

Even if a community has a strong tradition and shared culture, there often are important differences among its members. To work these out in a communitarian fashion, the community must rely on dialogue, in which values, and not merely reason, are engaged. The liberals' fear that value dialogues will turn into culture wars, leading to civil wars or other forms of communal violence, and their skepticism that value differences can be worked out peacefully, are belied by the facts. As I have shown elsewhere, there are numerous issues on which communities and even large and complex societies, have reached new shared formulations of the good--albeit often only after messy and prolonged dialogues. For example, we came together regarding our basic commitment to the environment, an issue that was not even considered before 1960 by most people (although we still quibble about what exactly this commitment entails), we reached consensus about the need to accord women equal rights, and have forged similar shared understanding on numerous other issues.(38)

Where does Buber stand on these issues? Dialogue is one of his key and most often cited concepts. He contrasts it with monologues and inauthentic dialogues. In introducing these concepts, Buber is, at points, true to his mystical inclinations. He opens his examination of the subject with a tale of two persons who sit next to one another, without a shared past or conversation, or even a gesture or look. One of them is predisposed to dialogue at the outset; the other initially is not. Suddenly the second person opens up, is ready to engage in an I-Thou relationship, and a dialogue has taken place--without any communication of any kind.(39)

By and large, though, Buber's treatment of dialogue is less mystical. An authentic dialogue occurs when one person takes in (via one communicative means or another) another person's perspective, and opens up to that person, who also responds in a like manner. Communication must be honest and "unreserved"; "fictions" need to fall away, and every word must be "actual."(40)Dialogue takes place when "there is genuine dialogue--no matter whether spoken or silent--where each of the participants really has in mind the other or others in their present and particular being and turns to them with the intention of establishing a living mutual relation between himself and them."(41)

Authentic dialogues are contrasted with technical dialogues and monologues: "There is technical dialogue, which is prompted solely by the need of objective understanding. And there is monologue disguised as dialogue, in which two or more men, meeting in space, speak each with himself in strangely tortuous and circuitous ways and yet imagine they have escaped the torment of being thrown back on their own resources."(42) Buber adds eloquently "Being, lived in dialogue, receives even in extreme dereliction a harsh and strengthening sense of reciprocity; being, lived in monologue, will not, even in the tenderest intimacy, grope out over the outlines of the self."(43)

Buber can avoid explicitly addressing the question of what authentic dialogue engages--whether just the mind's reason or also one's values--because he assumes that dialogue engages the whole person. This position is compatible with the basic communitarian notion of the dialogue of values, without directly addressing the issue of how to keep dialogues from turning into first culture wars and then into civil wars.

VI. Amoral (Non-normative) Elements of Buber

As I see it, Communitarians must deal with the normative, moral dimension. Social formulations of the good are not merely sociological, observable facts; their ethical standing, the legitimacy of the specific claims they pose, indeed the very merit of their right to pose claims, must be assessed. John Stuart Mill, at least in one famous quote from On Liberty opposes such a notion. Mill writes:

But neither one person, nor any number of persons, is warranted in saying to another human creature . . . that he shall not do with his life for his benefit what he chooses to do with it.(44)

Mill adds that

The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion.(45)

Mill recognizes no principled difference between physical (or legal) coercion, and--the influence of the moral voice. From a communitarian viewpoint, at least as I see it, communities are not merely places in which people have a web of affective relationships, as students of Gemeinshaft often suggest, but communities also share a set of core values that they foster, a concept Durkheim emphasized. (A chess club, in which people share relationship but only few mores, largely of manner, is not a community. Nor are bowling leagues.) Buber, with two significant exceptions, in the texts here examined, is much more an anthropologist and philosopher than a student of ethics, communitarian or otherwise. (This is especially true of his most often cited work, I and Thou as well as most essays in Between Man and Man. Paths in Utopia, written some 24 years after I and Thou, while hardly a study in ethics, is much more normative, and quite ideological. It is widely regarded as a utopian socialist work.)

The fact that Buber's basic philosophical position is much more anthropological than ethical or critical comes into relief when one compares it to that of Harry Frankfurt, who argued that the ability to form judgments distinguishes human beings from animals.(46) When animals have an urge to eat or engage in sex, they are said not to have second thoughts if circumstances allow them to proceed. In contrast, human beings are able to examine their urges, inclinations, and preferences through the use of meta-preferences. For Frankfurt, these higher order preferences can take many forms, including pragmatic considerations, for instance, the notion that deferred gratification will provide more satisfaction than acts that yield immediate gratification, and hence that action should be deferred. One major set of these considerations which, as I have shown in The Moral Dimension, can and do come into play as long as the human delay loop exists--are ethical considerations. These may block or modify actions a person may otherwise prefer to undertake. Buber by contrast, does not in I and Thou explicitly recognize the two levels of existence and discourse, the tension between what there is and what values prescribe, between the ontological and the normative, between "is" and "should" statements. Paths in Utopia is much more openly value laden; however, the value judgments articulated therein are built on sociological and historical grounds, and thus not fully anchored in a basic concept of the human being. For instance, Buber discusses the merits of decentralization and the dangers of institutionalization, but does so by comparing various sociological arrangements, rather than analyzing what makes a person whole, let alone virtuous.

One important exception to Buber's often non-normative position is the value imbedded in the very relationship Buber celebrates, that of the I and Thou. It is here that Buber sees wholeness and freedom. He writes that "the basic word I-Thou can only be spoken with one's whole being. The basic word I-It can never be spoken with one's whole being."(47) And "Here I and Thou confront each other freely in a reciprocity that is not involved in or tainted by any causality; here man finds guaranteed the freedom of his being and of being.(48) Note, though, that being engaged as a whole, is not normative prescription; it is part of the definition of an I-Thou relationship. Freedom is briefly mentioned and one can surmise that Buber means largely freedom from rather than freedom to, to follow Isaiah Berlin's distinction between negative and positive freedom, but Buber does not elaborate.

But even here one must be careful not to exaggerate the ethical content. Buber certainly does not condemn the I-It, or hold up the I-Thou as some kind of new Zion, the final commune, the realization of the good. On the contrary, Buber states clearly that "the world is twofold for man"(49) and I-It is quite a needed part of the human condition: "Without It you cannot remain alive; its reliability preserves you."(50) He would no sooner argue that one can or should do without it than he would argue that one could or should do without economics or politics, two "chambers' of the I-It world. Indeed, in one of the more poetic lines Buber compares the I-It to the chrysalis, and the I-Thou to the butterfly.(51)That is, the I-It is a necessary realm out of which the I-Thou may be formed. Buber does not even contend that in a better world I-Thou relationships would be common, prevalent, let alone dominant. His is basically not a critical position.

It might be argued that Buber views that I-Thou relationship or dialogue as "meta-ethical", one in which all judgments are suspended, to be open for the possibility of a new crystallization of ethical insights or new force to old convictions. This may well be true, but given that there Buber provides no criteria by which to assess these new or renewed moral commitments--just being new or renewed does not render them ethical!--even by this interpretation Buber's basic position remains rather open ended.

Buber might be said to implicitly favor some sort of balance between the worlds of the I-It and I-Thou, perhaps suggesting if the I-It realm were to threaten the I-Thou realm, greater dedication to the I-Thou would be called for. At the same time, Buber implies that I-Thou relations are difficult to stabilize, that we must keep re-establishing them. This notion is best studied by reference to Buber's treatment of community, a context in which he strikes a rather parallel position, especially in Paths in Utopia.

(i) Communities: false, authentic, and others

Many communitarians, from Ferdinand Tönnies on, have recognized differences among social groupings with regard to the extent to which they form communities. And many of these same thinkers have used such comparisons to be critical of some social groupings (often those less communal) as compared to others. Buber follows a similar path. First of all, he recognizes that social groupings are not merely collections of individuals but have emergent properties and a culture of their own. Unlike many classical liberals, or Jeremy Bentham, who maintain that society is a fiction and that only individuals are real, Buber--like other communitarians--recognized a distinct social realm. He writes, "Society is naturally composed not of disparate individuals but of associative units and the associations between them."(52)

While Buber does not provide a formal list of the various kinds of social groupings he works with, he seems to employ four concepts. While he uses different terms at different points to refer to them, I find it helpful to use four terms to try to capture his meanings: collectivities, instrumental groupings, false communities, and authentic communities or "bunds"(53). (One should note that Buber often refers to all of these types of groupings as "community" or as a We, sometimes alerting us to his intended meaning by modifying the basic term with an adjective).

After a brief shot across the bow of classical liberalism, Buber depictscollectivities, in an unfavorable light because they provide no room for individuality:

If individualism understands only a part of man, collectivism understands man only as a part: neither advances to the wholeness of man, to man as a whole. Individualism sees man only in relation to himself, but collectivism does not see man at all, it sees only "society." With the former man's face is distorted, with the latter it is masked.(54)

Far from treating communities as some sort of perfect place, Buber stresses that authentic communities combine an inevitable I-It or instrumental grouping with an I-Thou bond. They become inauthentic only when they are largely instrumental groupings dominated by the I-It. Buber asks rhetorically: "isn't the communal life of modern man bound to be submerged in the It-world?"(55) But far from answering in the affirmative, Buber focuses on the economy and the state as the main "chambers of this life," a world of profit and power. He writes in a particularly telling passage: "Man's communal life cannot dispense any more than he himself with the It-world."(56) Buber adds in Paths in Utopia that community "embraces in itself hard 'calculation,' adverse 'chance,' the sudden access of 'anxiety.'"(57) Community is the reality of "the actual and communal life of big and little groups living and working together."(58) As Bernard Susser notes, for Buber "Community in itself. . . lies squarely in the world of I-It inasmuch as utilizing, experiencing, evaluating are necessarily involved."(59)

When the I-It dominates, and an association is primarily an instrumental grouping of people who have come together to serve specific needs or interests, community is lost:

Neither do those associations help which spring from the meeting of economic or spiritual interests - the strongest of which is the party: what there is of human intercourse in them is no longer a living thing, and the compensation for the lost community-forms we seek in them can be found in none.(60)

And: "The pressure of numbers and the forms of organization have destroyed any real togetherness."(61)

Other socialists have referred to commodification of relationships and to the fetishization of objects, in a similar context. Buber adds a point made by Weber, by railing against institutions (Weber's bureaucracies). Together, these factors produce hollowed out or false communities. These are contrasted with "The real living together of man with man can only thrive where people have the real things of their common life in common; where real fellowships and real work Guilds exist."(62) Buber calls these "true communities"(63) or "genuine" community.(64) They are not to be confused with the preliterate tribes romanticized by other thinkers. Buber writes in Paths in Utopia:

For community--not the primitive sort, but the sort possible and appropriate to modern man--declares itself primarily in the common and active management of what it has in common, and without this it cannot exist. The primary aspiration of all history is a genuine community of human beings--genuine because it is community all through. A community that failed to base itself on the actual and communal life of big and little groups living and working together, and on their mutual relationships, would be fictitious and counterfeit.(65)

And in Between Man and Man he argues:

The special character of the We is shown in the essential relation existing, or arising temporarily, between its members; that is, in the holding sway within the We of an ontic directness which is the decisive presupposition of the I-Thou relation. The We includes the Thou potentially. Only men who are capable of truly saying Thou to one another can truly say We with one another.(66)

(ii) Communities as "bunds"

In discussing the essential We or authentic communities, Buber at times, seems to express a position later embraced by Chinese and Cuban Communists, although hardly as his followers. Buber seems to labor under the belief that most if not all forms of institutionalization are antithetical to authentic communities, while the escape from routine and intense dedication to a project make for true communities. Here he occasionally uses the term community (meaning authentic community) to refer to both genuine communities, those that have effectively balanced It and Thou elements, and to temporary states of communal sense of elevation, even exhilaration, in which a pure I-Thou is approximated, however temporarily. Others have referred to such groupings as "bunds."(67) To put it in very colloquial terms, if instrumental groupings are "cold," and authentic communities "warm," then these bunds are "hot."

The term "bund" refers to human groupings that have the charismatic, intense, emotive quality many communities sometimes experience (e.g. when a much revered leader dies, when the end of a war is celebrated, or cults prevail). Buber writes that a true We is found among revolutionary or religious groups,(68) places in which

the closer union which is formed for a few days among the genuine disciples and fellow-workers of a movement when an important leader dies. All impediments and difficulties between them are set aside, and a strange fruitfulness, or at all events incandescence, of their life with one another is established.(69)

The essential We is "shown by the special character of the essential relation existing, or arising, temporarily, [italic provided] between its members."(70)

And again:

It is not a matter of intimacy at all. . . . The question is rather one of openness. A real community need not consist of people who are perpetually together; but it must consist of people who, precisely because they are comrades, have mutual access to one another and are ready for one another. A real community is one which in every point of its being possesses potentially at least the whole character of the community.(71)

Buber recognizes that a bund cannot be sustained for long; we cannot live constantly in the realm of the Thou. He muses that it "is the sublime melancholy of our lot that every Thou must become an It in our world. . . . Every Thou in the world is doomed by its nature to become a thing or at least to enter into thinghood again and again."(72)

In examining such passages, one may take into account Buber's deep interest is the Hasidic tradition, the more joyous and emotive version of Judaism, distinct from its more scholastic counterpart.(73) Buber's occasional treatment of authentic communities as bunds leads him to write: "In the happiest instances common affairs were deliberated and decided not through representatives but in gatherings in the market-place; and the unity that was felt in public permeated all personal contacts [italic provided]."(74) (One can see here a touch of Nietzsche's Dionysian, primordial ecstasy.)

Buber adds that, "A living togetherness, constantly renewing itself, was already there, and all that needed strengthening was the immediacy of relationships."(75) When it comes to bunds, Buber leaves aside his normative indirectness and writes quite dramatically: "I declare in favor of a rebirth of the commune."(76) (Even here the normative element is at least indirect; Buber reports that which he favors, but does not proclaim--one (let along: you) should declare for the commune.

Communitarian thinking is best served when the various kinds of human groupings are kept distinct, as Buber does. Communities, however, are best served if they are leery of becoming bunds, which tend to be cults, militias, or some similarly unstable grouping, that often turn autocratic and oppressive even if they started out as benign and egalitarian communes.

(iii) A non-judgmental God

Nowhere is Buber's non-normative approach more evident than in his exploration of God, which Buber called in 1957 the most essential part of his position, and one he felt most critics had missed.(77) Buber's God is not the angry deity of the Old Testament, whose true prophets keep admonishing the people to refrain from doing that which offends the Lord. Neither is it the God of the New Testament, whose son died to redeem humanity from its sins. According to Buber, one's relation to God is first and foremost, another expression of the I and Thou relationship. Ego needs God to form the essential relationship, but--in Buber's words--"don't you also know that God needs you?"(78) Indeed, if one replaced the word "God" with the word "Thou" in many of Buber's statements about the Lord, the difference between the I-God relationship and the I-Thou relationship vanishes.(79)

At other points, Buber describes the I-God as a sort of super I-Thou, the ultimate I-Thou, while all other I-Thous have a touch of Godliness. As he writes: "[e]xtended, the lines of relationships intersect in the eternal Thou. Every single Thou is a glimpse of that."(80) More poetically, Buber writes that the relation between man and God "is not one relation among others; it is the universal relation into which all rivers pour without drying up for that reason."(81)

Most relevant to my communitarian concerns is that Buber's super-Thou lays no claims on us, demands no charity for the poor, does not command us or beseech us to love our enemies, and champions no justice. God relates to us as we relate to Him (or Her). True, at one point Buber refers to our relationship with God (and to one another) as one of metaphysical love which entails responsibility for the other, and of other--for the I. Some have read into this a closeness of Buber to Christian ideals of love or "agape." It is important to note though that Buber stresses that one cannot endeavor or work to gain an I-Thou relationship. He writes, "The Thou encounters me by grace--it cannot be found by seeking."(82) Discussing God, he notes that "One does not find God if one remains in the world; one does not find God if one leaves the world. Whoever goes forth to his You with his whole being and carries to it all the being of the world, finds him whom one cannot seek."(83) Malcolm Diamond, in his bookMartin Buber: Jewish Existentialist, writes "One cannot plan to experience an I-Thou encounter any more than one can plan to fall in love."(84) But then he adds: "Yet without seeking . . . there is no possibility of an I-Thou encounter taking place."(85)

This issue is familiar from many other religions, in which there is often a tension between the notion that we may rely on God's grace to shine upon us (or, redeem us) and the notion that we will be ready to be embraced by God once we are open to be received. In stronger forms, this second notion takes the form of having to lead a virtuous life, to be worthy of grace. On this continuum from the passive to the active on may debate how passive Buber's notion is, but it clearly falls somewhere near the rather passive end. There are no "should" statements here, in Buber; no "love others the way you wish others to love you" or some other explicit, firm prescriptions. In this sense Buber is closer to the Protestant then to the Catholic interpretation of virtue: we can find out if we are the chosen ones but become so by working to become virtuous.

While Buber does briefly mention responsibility for the other in the I and Thou(86) and he dedicates a particularly opaque passage to it in Between Man and Man,(87) it provides rather little normative guidance. Above all, he lines up here with the old communitarians, in that his has no concept of individual rights to balance the call of social responsibilities, a litmus test for new or responsive communitarians. Here, Buber seems to be influence by the Jewish tradition, which like Islam, stresses that we have a responsibility for others, say the poor among us, but they have no rights to lay claims on us. One should however be careful not to build layers of interpretation on a concept that Buber barely uses, that of responsibility, which contains a normative slant, by definition.

Buber adds that relations to God, around which we may form a true We, must not be institutionalized. Institutionalized religion can become a barrier, while a "true" prayer is personal.(88) While in the world of persons, the It-world has a legitimate, indeed essential role, God is a pure Thou. "By its very nature the eternal Thou cannot become an It."(89) But just as the smaller, human I-Thou is pulled toward the I-It and must constantly be nourished, just as bunds deteriorate into instrumental groupings, so we must recognize our tendency to "... reduce the eternal Thou ever again to an It, to something, turning God into a thing, in accordance with our nature."(90) But when we are successful in finding this super-link, what we have is a mysterious hyper-experience of an indescribable joy of connectivity, but one that provides no external guidance or affirmation of our own values. Values, let alone the stronger term "virtues," are not part of the vocabulary Buber uses in exploring these matters.

VII. Society Versus State

Communitarians stress that the commonly posited opposition between private and public sectors, or the market and the state, ignores the important role that society plays in our lives. Communitarians further stress the importance of social norms (or mores) as a source of social order in their own right, and as the foundations of laws that are truly heeded. Buber basically shares this position. He views the state as stepping in, but only where the society can no longer carry the load.

People living together at a given time and in a given space are only to a certain degree capable, of their own free will, of living together rightly; of their own free will maintaining a right order and conducting their common concerns accordingly. The line which at any time limits this capacity forms the basis of the State at that time; in other words, the degree of incapacity for a voluntary right order determines the degree of legitimate compulsion.(91)

At the same time, Buber is both aware that to keep the state at bay, one needs a vibrant communal life, and mindful of the dangerous potential the state to become oppressive if the communal life wanes. In this context, I should mention that Buber introduces the important communitarian concept of responsibility, not discussed here.(92)

So long as society was richly structured, so long as it was built up of manifold communities and communal units, all strong in vitality, the State was a wall narrowing one's outlook and restricting one's step, but within this wall, a spontaneous communal life could flourish and grow. But to the extent that the structure grew impoverished the wall became a prison.(93)

Socialism, Buber writes, must be sustained from below, through commitments of individuals and small communities, and a loose federation of communities (or community of communities), not through a centralized state. Communities should be free to choose their own courses, and to relate to one another in a true spirit of mutuality. Buber also sees the "sharing" of means of production, and "cooperative consumption"(94) rather than a nationalized as the underpinning of socialism. Few, if any, communities will disagree.

In Conclusion

Buber makes several key communitarian points and raises several important communitarian issues in I and Thou and Paths in Utopia (as well as several of the essays collected in Between Man and Man). He recognizes the centrality of relationships and the person's embededness in the social sphere. While he is aware of the danger of being lost in community, he leaves it to others to find ways to allow people to be well integrated into community while ensuring that their selves are not lost in the process. Buber tends to view communities as magnified relationships, paying less attention to their internal structure and dynamics. He realizes both the need for and the danger of instrumental foundations of communities--their I-It element--but is much less attentive to the danger of bunds, a peril that arises when communities seek to enjoy pure I-Thou.

Although Buber strongly favors small, personal, authentic communities over large, centralized, bureaucratized societies, his basic philosophical position, is often surprisingly amoral. Thus it would be erroneous to state that he judges the I-Thou to be morally superior to the I-It, not only because he stresses the fundamental need for the It, but also because while he depicts the I-Thou as wondrous, he typically avoids attributing to it a higher moral standing. Buber's rather non-normative approach, which leaves it to other communitarians to fill the void, is particularly striking in his treatment of God. Buber's Lord is eternal, essential, joyous, but devoid of moral content. Thus, Buber is clearly a powerful communitarian, but not one who encompasses all that ought to be embraced.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at The George Washington University. His book, The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society (New York: Perseus Basic Books 1998) was awarded the Tolerance Book Award by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. It is published in German by Campus Verlag under the title Die Verantwortungs-Gesellschaft: Individualismus und Moral in der heutigen Demokratie. Etzioni can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]. For more information about the Communitarian Network see


1. Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufmann, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1970); Buber, Between Man and Man, trans. Ronald Gregor Smith (New York: Macmillan, 1965); Martin Buber, Paths in Utopia, trans. (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1996).

2. For more specialized scholarship on Buber, please see the works of Lawrence Silberstein, Malcolm Diamond, Steven Kepnes, Paul Mendez-Flohr, and Maurice Friedman.

3. Bernard Susser, Existence and Utopia (Brunswick, New Jersey: Associated University Presses, 1981), xi-xii.

4. I and Thou, 59.

5. Ibid., 89.

6. Ibid., 158.

7. Ibid., 159.

8. Ibid., Afterward.

9. Michael J. Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

10. For additional discussion of my ideas on this subject and for numerous references to communitarian writings see The New Golden Rule (New York: Basic Books, 1996), also published in German as Die Verantwortungs-Gesellschaft (Frankfurt: Campus Verlag, 1997). A fuller bibliography of communitarian work is available at

11. For additional discussion see The New Golden Rule, chapter 8, as well as chapters 4 and 5.

12. Joseph de Maistre, Considerations on France, Richard A. Lebrun trans. (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1974), 97.

13. I and Thou, 69.

14. Jonathan Sacks, Community of Faith (London: Peter Halban Publishers, 1995).

15. Ibid.

16. I and Thou, 62.

17. Ibid., 80.

18. Ibid., 112.

19. Between Man and Man, 160.

20. Ibid., 157.

21. Ibid., 80.

22. I and Thou, 62.

23. Ibid., 54.

24. For my characterization of communitarian thinking see, The New Golden Rule (New York: Basic Books, 1996), especially chapter 1.

25. Ibid., 16.

26. Buber writes that "The relation can obtain even if the human being to whom I say Thou does not hear it in his experience." I and Thou, 60.

27. Ibid, 67.

28. I am indebted to an anonymous reviewer of this paper for stressing the importance of this point.

29. Etzioni, The Moral Dimension (New York: Free Press, 1988).

30. See Alison Rush, "A Presence that Disturbs: Psychoanalysis and Conservation," available from Ecopsychology On-Line at

31. David Sills, ed., International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences 9 (New York: Macmillan & The Free Press, 1968): 83.

32. I and Thou, 126.

33. Between Man and Man, 175.

34. Susser, 34.

35. I and Thou, 77-9.

36. Maurice Friedman, Encounters on the Narrow Ridge: A Life of Martin Buber(New York: Paragon, 1991), 300.

37. For example, see Bruce Ackerman, "Why Dialogue?" Journal of Philosophy86 (1989).

38. The New Golden Rule.

39. Between Man and Man, 3-4.

40. Between Man and Man, 5.

41. Ibid, 19.

42. Ibid, 19.

43. Ibid, 20.

44. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, ed. David Spitz (New York: W.W. Norton, 1975), 71.

45. Ibid., 10-11.

46. Harry G. Frankfurt, "Freedom of the Will and the Concept of the Person,"Journal of Philosophy 68 (1971): 5-20.

47. I and Thou, 54.

48. I and Thou, 100.

49. I and Thou, 53.

50. I and Thou, 83.

51. I and Thou, 69.

52. Paths in Utopia, 14.

53. The term "Bund" is also used in Buber's original German.

54. Between Man and Man, 200.

55. I and Thou, 96.

56. Ibid, 97.

57. Paths in Utopia, 134.

58. Ibid, 133.

59. Susser, 50.

60. Paths in Utopia, 14.

61. Paths in Utopia, 136.

62. Paths in Utopia, 15.

63. Paths in Utopia, 15.

64. Paths in Utopia, 133.

65. Paths in Utopia, 133.

66. Between Man and Man, 176.

67. See Kevin Hetherington, "The Contemporary Significance of Schmalenbach's Concept of the Bund," Sociological Review 43 (1994): 1.

68. Between Man and Man, 176.

69. Between Man and Man, 176.

70. Between Man and Man, 175-6.

71. Paths in Utopia, 144-5.

72. I and Thou, 68.

73. For discussion on this point, see Ronald C. Arnett, Communication and Community (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986), 8.

74. Paths in Utopia, 135.

75. Paths in Utopia, 135.

76. Paths in Utopia, 136.

77. I and Thou, Afterward, 171.

78. Ibid, 130.

79. For examples, see I and Thou, 143, 152, 154.

80. I and Thou, 123.

81. I and Thou, 155.

82. I and Thou, 62.

83. Ibid., 127.

84. Malcolm Diamond, Martin Buber: Jewish Existentialist (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960), 24.

85. Ibid., 24.

86. I and Thou, 66.

87. Between Man and Man, 65-71, 82.

88. I and Thou, 162, 167.

89. I and Thou, 161.

90. I and Thou, 161.

91. Paths in Utopia, 47.

92. See "The Question to the Single One" in Between Man and Man, 80-2.

93. Paths in Utopia, 27.

94. Paths in Utopia.