The Trial: A Forgotten Dystopian Masterpiece

Franz Kafka

This book is what I imagine the modern, surrealist painter movement of the likes of Picasso and Dali is when applied to the art of literature. It is disjointed and contains dream-like, hazy scenes that leave you wondering if the character ever experienced it at all or was just daydreaming it. This book swirls around the imagination in a maelstrom of very odd characters, environments, and interactions; the story itself never quite touches fully solid ground.

Interlaced with these oddities is a description of “The Court”, a shadowy organization that accosts K, the main character, throughout the book. It is the most dystopian description of a court and legal structure that I could imagine, yet it appears not to be malevolent or purposeful in it’s abuses. The people who keep watch over and run the machines and manifestations that keep the Court moving seem to never question it’s processes and the role it plays in the lives of the people it sucks into it’s gravitational pull. The leaders, or high judges, of the court seem to never actually appear and are almost myths in the minds of those who supposedly serve them.

I hope that this book can be brought back onto the radar of libertarians as one of the great dystopian novels of the 1900s. It’s one I certainly had not heard of before, but I was stunned to find it’s compelling and beautifully composed case against totalitarianism via the legal system.

Let’s explore some of the key concepts that makeup the Court in Kafka’s world.


At it’s core, the Court maintains an extremely secretive organizational structure; it is indeed so secret that no one, not even those who work for it, really knows how it works. The court cases brought against people are classified in documents that no one else can read; the cases are passed around from employee to employee with no details or history. There is no possibility of legal precedent here; each case is decided seemingly absent of all knowledge of other cases past or present. In addition, no one seems to know who their superiors are.

The accusations that the Court makes against people for violating “laws” are themselves secret. The accused have no idea what they are being accused of; this makes creating a defense all but impossible. It is said that you must go back through every action you’ve ever taken and see if you can figure out what might have possibly brought about the Court’s ire. K’s lawyer tells him that it would only be by pure chance if his initial plea to the court contained anything even remotely relevant to the case itself. Indeed, K never actually finds out what he was accused of.

People who work for the Court are secretive that they even work for the Court; K finds out that almost everyone in society directly or indirectly works for them. It unravels as a network of spies and informants that spans throughout the entire culture and society. When K opens up a door in someone’s attic, it leads to offices of the Court. He is told there are Court offices in every attack of every household. The Court is everywhere and has infested the lives of every person in society.

Even with it’s omnipresence, K has difficulty locating an office when he actually needs to, and he is not told what time he is to appear for his hearing. When he shows up to the Court’s address, he finds a maze of residential apartments that he wanders through and asks a myriad of people for help in finding the correct Court offices. When he finally arrives, he is told that he is late and shall not be seen! When he protests that he was never told at what time to arrive, they finally begrudgingly agree to admit him while others must wait in waiting rooms for hours or days and are never told when or if they will be seen.


People wait in waiting areas forever at The Court and are sometimes never even seen. Doesn’t this remind you of some other government functions, such as the DMV? This is because governments cannot calculate demand; they don’t operate for profit and have no idea what resources should be allocated towards those demands. The best they can do is guess. Obviously, they don’t tend guess in the direction of overproduction of a good or service; quite the contrary, they generally ration their operation and create massively long queues and shortages.

Think of the gas lines of the 1970s where people would wait in line for hours for some gasoline. These lines also currently exist in the socialistic Venezuela who had it’s gasoline industry nationalized, where people wait in line for gas for 2-3 days at a time. Or think of the bread lines of Eastern Europe during times of other socialistic economies. Or even consider traffic in the United States: all of these conditions are caused by a higher demand than the supply provided. Taxation is not capable of calculating demand, because you cannot measure how willing people are to surrender their resources to acquire whatever is being offered. Taxation forces people to give up their money regardless of their actual demand for a product; so there is no incentive to increase production to meet that demand.

The Court in The Trial operates on a more sadistic level when it comes to people’s time, however. It’s not just that they can’t calculate resources as all socialistic entities are incapable of, they simply don’t care. One of the characters is left in limbo with his case for 5 years; every day he shows up and waits and waits for his case to be heard. Yet, after these 5 years of constantly worrying about and appearing at the Court, the Court’s agents finally tell his lawyer that his case has not even yet begun to be heard!

This man owns a business and has had his business suffer badly due to his inability to pay attention to it. Because all his time is spent chasing his case, he has lost most of his income, had to fire most of his employees, and lives in squalor just to get enough money to get by to live so he can continue to waste away in waiting areas of The Court.

K also suffers immensely from his time spent pursuing his court case. The bank at which he works has lines out the door of clients wishing to speak to him, but all he can do is think of is his case. If he gets any clue regarding how he can get ahead in his case, he is out the door chasing it. His competitor inside the bank vying for a managerial position takes every opportunity to take in his clients in when he dismisses them to chase his case. His career suffers immensely as his time is sucked away from him by The Court’s accusation of his so-called “wrong doing”.


The Court makes it’s judgements seemingly by just looking at those accused. If they have a “bad aura” to them, the outcome of their verdict is guaranteed; there is no argument possible that could dissuade them of the outcome. In fact, one of the ushers says that “all our cases are foregone conclusions”. Proof, evidence, facts, witnesses: none of that is submissable or even considered by those making judgements in The Court. Some of the guidance K gets from the lawyer’s office is to admit guilt as soon as possible; unless you do so, there is no possibility of getting out of The Court’s clutches. In other words, you’re guilty no matter what you do.

One may read this and be appalled; the system Kafka describes couldn’t possibly be more destructive of the concept of legality and innocent until prove guilty, yet it is precisely this kind of “court” which has plagued many of the totalitarian societies in history. The kangaroo courts of the State simply rubber stamp an edict passed by the government and finds the accused guilty regardless of any physical evidence or truth. This allows the government to attack intellectual dissidents and rebels without recourse while still claiming that the proceedings are legal and legitimate.

The only thing that seems to be able to influence the court members is personal relationships outside of The Court. A friend of a judge can convince them that someone is “o.k.”, and that judge might acquit you. This is also common in most socialistic societies: you get vaulted to the front of the line if you “know someone”. In this way, resources are allocated not universally, as most people think of socialism as achieving, but instead are allocated by personal acquaintance and political connections. This is in no way an assurance or guarantee that The Court will rule in your favor, however, as many cases were settled privately one way but announced publicly another way.

Even being acquitted here is not ideal; the Court can come and re-arrest you at any time if someone happens upon your file. Another alternative (also only achieved through personal connection) is a “delay of processing”, which requires immense upkeep by having to go back to The Court constantly to renew this delay. One character asserts that it’s foolish to chase full acquittal anyway, as there is no actual proof that anyone has ever really been acquitted.

There is one particular scene of a painter who is ordained to paint one of the judges of the Court. He is told to combine the goddess of Justice and the goddess of Victory together in his painting. This is extremely metaphorical: the purpose of the Court in Kafka’s story is not necessarily to provide justice but to provide victory; the complete and total victory of the Court over the individual and, in the process, making a mockery of actual justice.


Defense lawyers in this court system are not countenanced but are instead merely tolerated. There has been debate about whether or not to even allow for a defense whatsoever! In the Court’s attempt to get rid of defense lawyers altogether, they passed laws which forbid lawyers from doing structural repairs or improvements to their buildings as an attempt to eliminate their practice all together.

In the book is recalled a story about a group of lawyers who needed to gain access to The Court but were denied entry by one of the magistrates. Every time they tried to enter, he would throw them back down the stairs. So they conspired to tire him out by submitting themselves to being repeatedly thrown down the stairs until he finally grew weary. Such are the abuses heaped upon the lawyers to endure.

This quote accurately sums up their and their client’s experience of The Court:

“For although the pettiest lawyer might be to some extent capable of analyzing the state of things in the Court, it never occurred to the lawyers that they should suggest or insist on any improvements in the system, while – and this is very characteristic – almost every accused man, even quite simple people among them, discovered from the earliest stages a passion for suggesting reforms which often wasted time and energy that could have been better employed in other directions. The only sensible thing was to adapt oneself to existing conditions. Even if it were possible to alter a detail for the better here or there – but it was simple madness to think of it – any benefit arising from it would profit future clients only, while one’s own interests would be immeasurably injured by attracting the attention of the ever-vengeful officials.”

As a result of the abuse the lawyers face, and the fact that they can really only influence the court by personal, cozy relationships with the magistrates, there are very few lawyers of any merit. This makes them a monopoly, like the Court itself, and they are therefore incentivized to heap similar abuses on their clients. In one scene, the business man mentioned above is forced to live in his lawyer’s quarters for days at a time because he may be summoned at any moment. If he does not appear immediately, the lawyer refuses to see him. Even if the business man comes in on time, the lawyer still refuses to see him. It is said that if the lawyer told the man to get in a kennel and bark on command, he would do so.

This arbitrarily capricious behavior can only occur in the state of a politically induced monopoly, where there is no competitor to offer a similar service to clients. The is no other Court; there are no other lawyers of any worth. The people here are stuck with an abusive system and simply have no other option, whereas in capitalism there are always other options. All of them better than this.


In the second to last chapter, Kafka describes K’s interactions with a Priest, later found out to be the Prison Chaplain for The Court, who tells him a story. In it, a man approaches the building of The Law. When he tries to enter, he is stopped by a guard and told he cannot enter at this time, but he is welcome to wait for a while until he is allowed to. The man waits days, months, and then years only to approach his own death. As he lay there dying, he asks one more time why he cannot enter. The guard tells him that he could have entered at any time and, in fact, the entrance had been built specifically and only for him.

K asks the priest several times if he thought the man was deceived by the guard. Why would the guard tell him he couldn’t enter when he actually could have?

K’s perceptiveness in the story doesn’t seem to follow into his own experience with The Court. He was told at the beginning of the story that, despite being under arrest, he could go about his life normally until summoned by The Court. What if he never bothered to reply, however? What if their abuses fell on deaf ears, and K simply “walked away” from their impotent threats? What if he never sacrificed his work, personal life, and time by pursuing his court case zealously in order to acquit himself? He went to The Court every time willingly of his own accord; he was never really forced to do anything.

Alas, the end of the book is not as kind to K. He is finally forced and brought against his will to a quarry and is stabbed and killed by agents of The Court. Such is the ever-ominous threat of all political power, obey or face the music. The death of innocent people is the consequence of having governments that face no responsibility or consequence for their own wrongdoing.

The government’s threats of courts and prisons in our own world are very tangible and real; there is no “walking away” from them. If you do not pay your fines or show up at court summons, at some point the government will force you to pay them and potentially to force you to go to prison.

But perhaps that wasn’t Kafka’s point with his story of the priest. Maybe his point was that we can ideologically walk away from The Court and it’s abuses, secrecy, and it’s perceived omnipotence. The man waiting to enter the Law building could have just ignored it and gone about his life. Maybe we can also disregard the current legal system intellectually, despite it’s threats and use of force, knowing that liberty and freedom always works better in society than force and coercion. Indeed, much of what government courts currently do disregards property rights e.g. their enforcement of drug laws, eminent domain, and taxation.

As K is faced with his final moments in this world, he thinks he sees movement in the distance. He says to himself, is that mankind? Is help on it’s way? Surely, Kafka must have been hoping that there is help coming for a destructive system that would order a man killed without even telling him what he did wrong or even allowing him to argue his case.


Oddly, I thought as I read the first chapter of this book that it was to be just another boring crime drama. I had missed the subtle cues that Kafka had given me; the interrogators that came to his apartment to arrest him ate his breakfast, stole some of his shirts, and even disrupted his neighbor’s pictures only to tell him that by being under arrest he could be free to do whatever he wanted to! He remarked that being under arrest didn’t really seem to have much importance if that was the case. By the second chapter, the full glimpse of Kafka’s surrealistic and dark but comedic description of the dysfunction of the reductio ad absurdum of government courts had set in and I was hooked.

One particularly striking instance in the book was one in which K found himself lost in a maze of bureaucratic hallways and offices and could not find his way out. He started to get sick when an office worker told him that the air there was terrible and people set their laundry inside the building to dry which corrupted the air. There were no windows and fresh air was not accessible, but he would get used to it eventually! When they did bring him outside, he began to feel relieved as he breathed the fresh air yet the office workers started to feel sick from being outside their caverns.

Such is the stark contrast between those who work inside the bureaucracy and those merely accosted by it. It’s almost as though even the air they breathe is different. Hopefully someday we can make society into the win-win of the market and capitalism instead of the win-lose of politics.

“You see, everything belongs to the Court.”

~Titorelli, the Painter

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