Lies, Laws, and Literature: What Franz Kafka Teaches Us about Power and Politics Today

11 minutes to read
Katherine Huber

Franz Kafka (1883-1924) resisted the norms of his time. Avoiding the bourgeois expectation of marriage and procreation in a patriarchal family structure, Kafka studied law and wrote literature. By day, he worked for an insurance company, and by night, he created stories, fragments, letters, diary entries, and three novels: The Trial, The Castle and America. Much of Kafka’s writing grapples with injustice and bureaucracy. One hundred years after his death, European societies still struggle with similar issues – though now from new perspectives. In what follows, we reflect on the life, work, and ongoing relevance of reading Kafka in the twenty-first century.

Protest and Surveillance 'Before the Law'

His name comes up in colloquial phrases like ‘kafkan’ and ‘kafkaesque’ to characterize societal bureaucracy or absurdly impossible situations. Franz Kafka remains a part of the Western cultural imaginary a century after his death on June 3, 1924. Born in 1883 in Prague to a middle-class Jewish family, Kafka enjoyed a lively Jewish cultural scene in the main cities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Vienna, Berlin, Prague). Yet antisemitism was never far away. To escape the various forms of discrimination he experienced, Kafka sometimes dreamed of leaving Europe, for America or for Palestine, but Kafka was not a Zionist (Bokhove, 2004, p. 52, 58). Rather, Kafka appears in both life and writing to satirize and challenge systems of dogmatism and injustice, wherever he encountered them.

These systems of rigid and arbitrary rules benefit some at the expense of others. This situation arises in one of Kafka’s most famous works, The Trial. Like much of Kafka’s writing, this novel was published after Kafka’s death by his friend Max Brod. The Trial starts with a man waking up one morning to find a civil servant in his room, telling him that he is accused. The man, Josef K., has to find out what he is accused of, what he has done (or not), what the reason is for his trial, and how he can resist the legal procedures. The narrative takes readers to many buildings and houses, emphasizing the everyday and normalized architecture of systemic constraints. Josef K. visits these places and the various people inhabiting them to find out what is happening and how he can change his fate. But he fails. Josef K. is ultimately murdered by two civil servants.

This picture was taken on the set of The Trial (1962), a film adaptation of Kafka's work.

In the penultimate chapter of The Trial, Josef K. is convicted in a church rather than a courtroom, a location that removes the legal system from human intervention and reasoned debate. Josef K. discusses his case with a priest instead of judge or lawyer. Neither the charge nor the law is clear, and the rules evolve alongside the case: “‘You don't understand the facts,’ said the priest, ‘the verdict does not come suddenly, proceedings continue until a verdict is reached gradually” (Kafka, 1925). Josef K. deliberates with the priest, realizing there is also no truth to be found in the institution: “‘No,’ said the priest, ‘you don't need to accept everything as true, you only have to accept it as necessary.’ ‘Depressing view,’ said K. ‘The lie made into the rule of the world.’” This lie establishes opaque but powerful systems that constrain and incriminate Josef K., much to his and the reader’s mystification.

“‘You don't understand the facts,’ said the priest, ‘the verdict does not come suddenly, proceedings continue until a verdict is reached gradually”

Such systems of power and control come into sharp relief today as pro-Palestinian protesters are captured in a culture of surveillance and criminalization. Protesting students at universities around the world often have to fill in institutionalized forms of agreement and ask permission to march and dissent. This officially documents protesters and mediates who has the right to protest, which, in turn, has multiple ramifications. It silences those in more precarious positions, and it weakens the idea of protesting as a platform for voicing concerns in democratic societies.

Such ‘kafkan’ situations emerge as administrations at some of the most prestigious colleges in the world have changed the rules and called the police on their own students. While Minouche Shafik’s NYPD call to arrest protesting Columbia University students was widely debated, the editor-in-chief of the student-run Columbia Daily Spectator, Isabella Ramírez pointed out that administrative actions actually began much earlier (NYT The Daily, 2024). After the Hamas terrorist attacks on October 7, 2024, the Columbia University administration deauthorized certain student groups, such as Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, thereby prohibiting these groups from demonstrating on campus. Additionally, Ramírez noted that the administration also changed the processes for obtaining authorization.

Such shifting regulations recall the arbitrary and ambiguous forms of criminalization and bureaucracy in The Trial as they establish a ‘kafkaesque’ silence in the space of public debate and moral deliberation in democratic societies.

Dehumanization and Democracy

Kafka’s writing also depicts power relations, bureaucracy, perceptions of failure, and feelings of desire, shame, and alienation. Characters do not have control over their existences, and dialogues are often irrational and ironic, with feelings often heated and strange. Places, buildings, and venues imagine modern urban sceneries, in which people have to work in exploitative jobs and subsequently suffer. While Kafka’s protagonists are ordinary people living ordinary lives, they encounter unexpected circumstances that defamiliarize normalized forms of dehumanization in which they have thus far lived and worked.  

This situation occurs in one of Kafka’s most famous novellas, The Metamorphosis (1915), which tells the story of a man who wakes up one morning to find he has been transformed into a dung beetle:

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed on his bed into a gigantic insect. He was lying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his domelike brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes” (Kafka, 1971, p. 89).

A cover of Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis) by Kafka.

After Gregor recognizes his own changed state, the story meticulously narrates how the Samsa family reacts to Gregor’s transformation. At first, they take care of him. His sister gives him food and attempts to make his room amenable to his new condition. Yet gradually, as the family accepts Gregor’s metamorphosis, they see him not only as a disruption to societal expectations but also as something to detest and eradicate. The family dehumanizes Gregor, and he eventually dies of starvation.

Such forms of dehumanization arise in so many of the ‘kafkaesque’ situations our societies still create today.

The recent toeslagenaffaire, or Dutch childcare benefits scandal, for example, accused many families of fraud, asking some of the most socio-economically and under-resourced communities in the Netherlands to repay vast sums of money. The government’s audit and subsequent accusations targeted families with ‘non-Dutch’ names. Faith Bruyning, who was targeted in the scandal and now holds a seat in the Dutch Parliament, pointed out in an interview with the Dutch newspaper, NRC, that official government files on certain families even included racist language that dehumanized those from the Dutch Caribbean (Van Lil, 2024).

A century before the toeslagenaffaire, Kafka’s literary works strategically critiqued such forms of racial discrimination amid rising nationalism and colonial hierarchies, as scholars like Mark Christian Thompson have shown (McCabe, 2017). Like many of Kafka’s characters — both human and more-than-human —, individuals are lost in an institutional web, forced to suffer humiliation while paying enormous penalties. They are turned into outlaws without even understanding what – or even if – they have done anything wrong.

Ongoing Interpretation

The broad applicability and ongoing relevance of Kafka’s work has led many scholars, biographers, and literary writers to extensively discuss his life and writing, often emphasizing biographical elements, such as the conflictual relation with his father, frustration concerning sexuality, or the author’s tedious job as white collar worker. Contextual aspects of Kafka’s life also play a prominent role in Kafka scholarship on Jewish culture and religion, modernization of eastern Europe, bourgeois patriarchal society, the First World War, and the rise of Zionism, fascism, and the Holocaust.

In 1934, philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote that most interpretations of Kafka are either natural (psychoanalytic and biographical) or supernatural (theological). Many interpreters from an existentialist or Marxist perspective emphasize the bureaucratic systems described in Kafka’s texts, and underline how the lonely individual gets lost in the organization. There is no freedom, no room for self-development and imagination.

Other scholars, such as George Steiner in Language and Silence (1958), have accentuated the prophetic qualities of Kafka’s work: The author foresaw the totalitarian political systems in central Europe and the concentration camps of Nazi Germany (in which Kafka’s three sisters died in 1943).

It seems as if figures and events just happen, disconnected from a narrative organization. There is no narrative clarification; there only is the realness of the story.

Countering these prophetic interpretations, Theodor W. Adorno in Aufzeichnungen zu Kafka (1953) warned that readers should not take the words of Kafka’s texts literally. Adorno wrote about the experience of a déjà vu that readers often have when reading Kafka. The aim of the work is, as Adorno suggests, the collectivization of the déjà vu, the idea that one knows a scene or event from memory or sensitivity. The work is effective, another scholar explained, because of the particular (modernist) style of writing in which there is no prominent narrator. It seems as if figures and events just happen, disconnected from a narrative organization. There is no narrative clarification; there only is the realness of the story.

Philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in Kafka, Pour une littérature mineure (1975), agree that interpretation should not strive for explanation. They suggest an alternative strategy of reading Kafka’s text, based on the acknowledgement of rhizome and assemblage – the network of interconnections that we find in this oeuvre – that opens up the work for political and ideological stances.

Emphasizing that there are many entrances and routes into the work, Deleuze and Guattari write: “[O]ne misses the mark in Kafka by either putting him in the nursery – by oedipalizing and relating him to mother-father narratives – or by trying to limit him by theological-metaphysical speculation to the detriment of all the political, ethical and ideological dimensions that run though his work and give it a special status in the history of literature” (1975, p. ix). For Deleuze and Guattari, reading Kafka should be practical: How can readers implement text? Studies of Kafka should not be an exegesis, that is, a quest to find meaning in the depth of the text. Instead, they argued, Kafka should be freed from his interpreters (1975, p. xxi).

Yet how to free Kafka from his interpreters is an intimidating task when so much secondary literature exists. What should the reader do? What should they add? How do (or should) they get rid of all the established interpretative frames? To keep a work new, people should read it openly, spontaneously, and critically. What others have said and done should not stop the reader’s own thinking and innovation. Literature is not an archive, a prestigious closed off library, but must be actively read and created in the present.

Literature is not an archive, a prestigious closed off library, but must be actively read and created in the present.

Reinventing language and literature is something Kafka himself did through his use of the German language. Deleuze and Guattari introduce the fascinating concept of ‘minor literature’ as a literature constructed by a minority in a dominant language. In bilingual Prague, Jewish people spoke a particular type of German, more experimental than the standard language: “Kafka marks the impasse that bars access to writing for the Jews of Prague and turns their literature into something impossible – the impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing in German, the impossibility of writing otherwise” (1975, p. 16). Kafka reclaimed the German language to rework relationships of power and politics for Jewish people living in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the early twentieth century.

A picture of Kafka in front of the Oppelt house, the apartment building in Prague where his family lived.

Reading Kafka Today

One hundred years after his death, reading Kafka can still inspire us to think critically about the world we live in. This world is indeed ‘kafkaesque’ or ‘kafkan,’ which Czech dissident author Milan Kundera defines as “the progressive concentration of power, tending to deify itself; the bureaucratization of social activity that turns all institutions into boundless labyrinths; and the resulting depersonalization of the individual” (1988, p. 93). We can recognize the ‘kafkan’ in several political events and mechanisms.

The Trial sheds light on the expanding criminalization and surveillance of protest actions today, as authorities violently suppress public demonstrations on various social issues, from racially motivated police brutality and governmental failures to address the climate crisis to pro-Palestinian student protest demands. It also, like The Metamorphosis, highlights Kafka’s writing about powerful organizations that dehumanize and impose barriers to representation, so that the ‘victim’ has nowhere to go to complain or appeal. Today, neither politicians, nor civil servants, nor legal institutions empower ordinary people who are stuck in the “boundless labyrinth” of bureaucratic systems embedded with normative biases and social hierarchies.

Such political conditions and Kafka’s characters and stories apply to a wide range of marginalized people and social locations. These considerations lead us to argue that Kafka’s work is still very relevant today. Its rhetorical power and fascinating imaginaries challenge us to think differently about the world and our own perceptions, worries, and frustrations. Kafka’s writing does not mirror the world, but it does demonstrate experiences of surveillance, alienation, mistrust, and punishment that persist today. A century after Kafka’s death, these are still fundamental parts of modern life that ironically reflect ideas of progress and expose the need for rigorous reassessment of the norms and systems that regulate everyday interactions and encounters.


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