Fellowship (Gemeinschaft) by Franz Kafka (1909)

Fellowship (Gemeinschaft)


by Franz Kafka



We are five friends, one day we came out of a house one after the other, first one came and placed himself beside the gate, then the second came, or rather he glided through the gate like a little ball of quicksilver, and placed himself near the first one, then came the third, then the fourth, then the fifth. Finally we all stood in a row. People began to notice us, they pointed at us and said: Those five just came out of that house.

Since then we have been living together, it would be a peaceful life if it weren’t for a sixth one continually trying to interfere. He doesn’t do us any harm, but he annoys us, and that is harm enough; why does he intrude when he is not wanted? We don’t know him and don’t want him to join us.

There was a time, of course, when the five of us did not know one another, either, and it could be said that we still don’t know one another, but what is possible and can be tolerated by the five of us is not possible and cannot be tolerated with this sixth one. In any case, we are five and don’t want to be six. And what is the point of this continual being together anyhow? It is also pointless for the five of us, but here we are together and will remain together; a new combination, however, we do not want, just because of our experiences.

But how is one to make all this clear to the sixth one? Long explanations would almost amount to accepting him in our circle, so we prefer not to explain and not to accept him. No matter how he pouts his lips we push him away with our elbows, but however much we push him away, back he comes.

The above is fast-becoming my favorite text for teaching about the German concept of Gemeinschaft. The concept is fundamental to the sociology of classical sociologists Fedinand Toennies, and Max Weber; both based their sociology on the German concept of Gemeinschaft.

Gemeinschaft is a social group or identity rooted in a sense of belongingness. Members of a Gemeinschaft share personal loyalties to each other because of who they are. They have an “origin story,” share a present, and by implication will share a future together. Families and marital couples are a Gemeinschaft. But so are college fraternities and sororities, doctors guilds, nurses associations, lawyers’ bar associations, fellow citizens, militaries make up their own Gemeinschaft within a larger society. The academic Gemeinschaft dominate universities, college graduate have such respect each others degrees, and political groups do so too. For that matter, it applies to ethnic and linguistic groups as well. The point being that loyalty and privilege is on the basis of inherited or earned rights. Thus when you understand that someone is a member of your group, you offer them a special type of fellowship out of loyalty and mutual obligation, just like the five friends, who did not need a sixth., and do not need to justify why they do not want the sixth.  It just is.

These are the groups in which we as human thrive.  But on the basis of Gemeinschaft we also exclude.

Gemeinschaft is in contrast to the German Gesellschaft, which is a instrumental relationship for which there is no loyalty or future obligation. The market transaction is the most obvious type of Gesellschaft relationship, where you sell your goods, labor, or anything else for hard cold cash in the anonymous marketplace. Money is the nexus, not loyalty or human connection, and once the transaction is complete you have no responsibility to each other.  This type of relationship is the most common one we undertake in the modern world, as we sell our own labor, and buy the labor of others in order to survive, respecting only the lure of cold hard cash.  The classic example of a Gesellschaft-type relationship is the hired killer described by Max Weber. You pay, the killer kills, and the next time you see each other on the street, you ignore each other. Classic Gesellschaft.

And unlike with Gemeinschaft, the Gesellschaft does not need to exclude, except when you do not have money. Thus in the Gemeinschaft, only when there is loyalty and privilege, is there exclusion. Not everyone can be a member of the Gemeinschaft, and in fact the point of a Gemeinschaft is that there is someone who is not part of your group. And of course the point of having a group is that someone else is not part of your group. To be an insider you need an outsider. Which is the Kafkaesque point that the ever-cheerful Franz Kafka made about the nature of the “Fellowship” which is Gemeinschaft.


Kafka, Franz (1909) “Fellowship.”  https://adwilkin.wikispaces.com/file/view/Fellowship.pdf   translated by Tania and James Stern, from Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories, edited by Nahum N. Glazer.  Random House, 1946.

Waters, Tony and Dagmar Waters, translators and editors (2015 in press). Chapter 4 “Classes, Staende, Parties” in  Weber’s Rationality and Modern Society.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan.