A short biography of the anarchist-influenced writer whose name spawned an adjective for the absurdities of bureaucratic power.
“Our laws are not generally known; they are kept secret by the small group of nobles who rule us … for the laws were made to the advantage of the nobles from the very beginning, they themselves stand above the laws” (Kafka, The Problem of Our Laws)
Franz Kafka was born Prague in 1883 the son of a wealthy Jewish-Czech family. His father was described as a "huge, selfish, overbearing businessman." The eldest of six children, his two brothers died before the age of six, while his sisters outlived him only to die in the Nazi concentration camps.
Bilingual in German and Czech, Kafka studied Law at the University of Prague, graduating with a degree of Doctor of Law in 1906. He subsequently performed a year’s mandatory unpaid service as law clerk for the civil and criminal courts, but then took a job in insurance, which he referred to as a "brotberuf", literally "bread job", a job done only to pay the bills.
These dual experiences of alienating, meaningless work and the vagaries of legal, bureaucratic power were to become core themes in his writings. Kafka was an insecure man, believed to have suffered from clinical depression and social anxiety throughout his life, and subsequently little of his work was published during his lifetime. The posthumous notoriety he now enjoys owes much to his closest friend Max Brod, who disregarded his instructions to destroy his unpublished manuscripts upon his death.
According to associates, Kafka was interested in the contemporary anarchist movement and had attended meetings of the ‘Klub mladijich’, an anarchist group that was under police surveillance. However, he was was reportedly known as the "colossus of silence" on account of his tendency to sit and listen rather than contribute. Consequently he was not mentioned in police records or by members under interrogation, and he himself had no criminal record.
Whilst this may suggest Kafka was only on the periphery of the movement, he did reportedly attend a demonstration against the execution of Spanish anarchist teacher Francisco Ferrer in 1909, and in the course of 1910-1912 is reported to have attended anarchist conferences on free love, the Paris Commune, peace and in opposition to the execution of the Paris activist Liabeuf, which were organized by the Klub mladijich, the anti-militarist and anti-clerical Vilem Koerber Association, and the Czech Anarchist Movement.
The intersection of Kafka's insecurity and his anarchist leanings is apparent in a passage from The Problem of Our Laws:
“We are more inclined to hate ourselves, because we have not yet shown ourselves worthy of being entrusted with the laws. And that is the real reason why the party who believe there is no law have remained so few – although their doctrine is in certain ways so attractive” (The Problem of Our Laws)
Whilst perhaps only on the fringes of organised anarchism, an anarchist current undoubtedly runs throughout his writings. Perhaps his most famous work, The Trial (1925) is often taken as an attack on totalitarianism, but it is easy to forget that the archetypal totalitarianisms of Hitler and Stalin had yet to be when it was written - when the manuscript was left with Brod in 1920, Stalin had yet to assume power (1922-8) and the Bolsheviks had yet to repress the Kronstadt uprising (1921). In fact, it is clear the target of his critique is the notionally free, liberal democratic states:
“His strong nose twisted to one side as if ignoring K. and sharing an understanding with the other policeman. What sort of people were these? What were they talking about? What office did they belong to? K. was living in a free country, after all, everywhere was at peace, all laws were decent and were upheld, who was it who dared accost him in his own home?” (The Trial)
While Kafka’s bleak and sometimes darkly comic writings repeatedly emphasise the futility of individual resistance to state power, from the doomed efforts of the protagonists of The Trial and The Castle, to the lone voice of the visitor in In the Penal Colony, there are moments when hope breaks through. In his Zürau Aphorisms, written whilst ill with tuberculosis at his sister’s house in 1917-18, he writes:
The fact that the only world is a constructed world takes away hope and gives us certainty (Aphorism 62)
In the end he succumbed to the tuberculosis that had dogged him for years, and died of complications in Prague in 1924 aged 40. However, he left behind a body of works much informed by anarchist ideas, containing unique explorations of our existential condition when confronted by mundane work, the pettiness of landlords and the arbitrariness of state power.