Gustav Landauer on the german revolution of 1918-19

Gustav Landauer would fully engage with the events of the German Revolution, both as writer and militant.  And if criticised certain decisions or actions, he did not hesitate to commit himself to revolution whose anarchist dimension is often ignored.

We share below a series of texts by Landauer available at the Passing on the Flame website.

The German Revolution 1918-19

The Revolutionary Spirit of the Beginnings

The old German Reich no longer exists. It has collapsed in ignominy. Ignominy is revealed when an illusionary power collapses into the dust because there is no one there to stand by it and support it. The fiction of the old Reich was smashed on the rocks of the new powers which expressed their vital force wonderfully, not only tearing down but constructing at the same time, tearing down by building. I am talking about the communal and military democratic movements which began on the north German coast and in western Germany;I am talking about the unheard of originality and egalitarianism with which the dynasties and governments in all of Germany were removed with one blow, about the magnificent, almost humorous ease and naturalness with which the People led by so-called utopians solved a problem that had caused grave and serious headaches for the political scientists, politicians and intellectuals of all levels; I am talking about the founding of the republics of Bavaria and Austria.

All these things are in process, are growing, and each new day can bring new linkages and connections. There is a wonderful public spirit blowing uniformally throughout all of Germany, with one exception, I believe: its spirit does not seem to have reached Berlin and the parts of Prussia that belong to it. There a life-in-death seems to reign, there the curious attempt is being made to maintain continuity, the continuity of the old Reich with its Prussian predominance and the continuity of its old desolate party politicking. […]

The spirit, my dear intellectual sirs, the spirit has toppled the old Reich and given birth to the institutions of the new, institutions that are still emerging; the spirit which has entered the hands, and where momentarily necessary, the fists, of our wonderful, our suffering soldiers, a troupe of workers and young men and a few indomitable, immortally young freedom fighters. It is now like it has always been in all revolutions: there is no need to ask whether the people erecting the new foundations represent an old majority or a minority: as activists they represent what the completely isolated prophets had previously represented: the new, the emerging, that which carries the world forward and fulfils it; they do not represent an accidental numerical majority of the always seemingly still present past but rather a historical totality and community: emerging humanity. That which is emerging and will create new institutions, institutions of a new democracy and a path to socialism, that which will draw a new spirit and thus new parties after it – all that shall and should begin now, should be targeted before those assemble as a National Convention who should first be grasped and educated by the new spirit.

The spirit, gentlemen, is not a place where it is appropriate to elbow one’s way in; rather, it is something like magically reconciled time. All those who, to their misfortune and perhaps a little to their own regret, have been left behind, would greatly benefit from many moments of reflection and pious, humble stillness. […]

(‘Zur Frage der deutschen Verfassung und der Nationalversammlung’, 23-25th November 1918, in U. Linse, Gustav Landauer und die Revolutionszeit 1918-19, pp. 56-57)

The Reassertion of the Old Spirit

The old Reich is dead, its dynasties are no more, its governments have collapsed, its parties too are actually dead. When consciences were called upon, when it was time to confess guilt and practise contrition, the parties played dead. Now that the revolution has come which will never provide a pig’s trough for them like the old system of the violent state, and in order to throttle the revolution and transform the republic into a pseudo-democratic of system of domination and opportunistic cunning, they want to revive themselves. They are appealing to electoralism, to the majority that has not yet been touched by the revolution, to what they call their national assembly!

The spirit of revolution, however, always represents the totality; the active who have now carried out the revolution and should lead it on represent exactly the same spirit as the prophets represented when they were completely maginalised: not the utilitarian, accidental majority of the still apparently present past but rather the coming, the growing, that which drives the world forward and fulfils it, a historical totality and community, emerging humanity. (25 November 1918)

Postscript 6 December 1918: In the meantime the old muddling along of the parties has gained awful victories over the revolution which has rested on its laurels. Thus the continuing revolution will have a longer and more difficult path to tread!

(‘Die Vereinigten Republiken Deutschlands und ihre Verfassung’, 25 November 1918, in U. Linse, op.cit., p. 63)

For years Kurt Eisner [independent Social Democrat who had split off from the main SPD and became the first President of the revolutionary Bavarian Council Republic in November 1918] had with incomparable tenacity in his speeches and writings helped prepare for this revolution, had in the small discussion meetings in Munich attracted a small group of insightful, knowledgeable and resolute people and this was the core group which intervened when things were ripe.

The others stood more or less at the ready, according to the mood, depending on their feelings. When the barracks were opened for them and they were told: Brothers, out onto the streets, show yourselves! they followed without knowing or wanting anything in particular, either negative or positive, beforehand. And the others, the citizens, stood, in whatever psychological state, on the sidelines, so that here where the Bavarian Republic was then founded, and afterwards almost simultaneously everywhere else in Germany, the result was: nothing, absolutely no one, stood up for the old regime! The latter consisted of the dead, zombies, they were there and not there. At the moment of decision, they had no one to stand by this puppet, and the clay-footed idol collapsed into the nothing it had already been for a long time.

However then came the time when the few who, because the time was ripe, had heard the call of the revolution and carried it out, also knew what they wanted positively, but the masses – both those who stood on the sidelines and those who had participated in their excitement and passion and hate against the execrable regime that had plunged us into disaster – now didn’t really know how to proceed because they had acted only on the basis of their feelings and mood. In that situation, I believe, it would have happened in every country that these people would have said to their revolutionary leaders with enthusiasm, reflectiveness and incomparable gratitude: It’s true, you did it, you felt it, you saved us thanks to your insight and understanding, so show us the way now, we will follow you, listen to you, we want to wake up, having let ourselves just drift along for years and decades.

But then the spectacle that happened after the successful first act of the revolution in Germany would have been impossible, in my strong conviction, in any other country. For now the following occurred: those who had been completely and utterly surprised, even frightened, suddenly recovered and said to themselves, and not only themselves but trumpeted it to the world: ‘Nothing has happened as yet, nothing has happened at all; first we have to vote, first we have to have a National Parliament, nothing has been done as yet, first the people have to come together as voters and decide; and of course the question has to be put forward: was it right to have the revolution? Do we recognise it as legitimate? Do we want the Republic the revolutionaries want or do we want a different one? Do we want to recall the [Bavarian] Wittelsbach dynasty etc.? The National Parliament has to decide all that again.’

I am sure there are a few well-intentioned professors who don’t intend anything evil, who just think everything has to go down this legal road. Revolution breaks legality, revolution creates a new legality, and the new legality is made by creative power. Then no one asks whether there is a majority wedded to the past which is responsible for things or whether it is rather the totality of the future which now might only be alive in a small group just as it was only alive for decades and centuries in lonely and marginalised prophets. It is the future, the totality, which crystallizes in a revolution; and those who now want to play at being the majority are the powers of the past, are in truth those who, although they still act as if alive, are just as dead as the old system. […]

(‘Der Krieg und die Revolution’, speech to the National Council 18th December 1918, in U. Linse, op.cit., pp. 91-92)

This is what happened. A very few individuals from the very beginning oppose the German war and can see that this war is what its originators always said it was, a German war. This war has such military, political and economic consequences that a large number of soldiers and a not small number of workers and women start feeling themselves getting into a revolutionary mood. The few decisive ones carry out the revolution, the ones who take their resolve from the future and the socialism they carry within themselves and who no longer wish to tolerate things but to themselves create. Those who helped them were a minority within the German people; all the rest first needed a long and emphatic education in truly democratic bodies; and the day after the revolution the revolutionaries lose many from this minority who at once develop a fear of socialism; before the revolution they were soldiers who had been tortured beyond belief, in the revolution they were death-defying rebels; on the day of the victory they were liberated soldiers; a day later they were fearful citizens.

That was the situation, not otherwise. And in this situation, in Berlin where the revolution was not carried out but first used as a theatrical backdrop and then brushed aside by scrupulous politicians, in Berlin the compromised ones, those co-responsible for militarism and the arms industry who called themselves Social Democrats, those who had turned their backs on the last remnants of socialism and the International, succeeded in forming a government or in dominating the government that had been previously set up.

And this government calls the German people to an election, to a National Parliament, to a voting on the revolution! The few, the revolutionaries resist, unfortunately with despairing means – that was the immense mistake ? with the means that were still in the country left over from the technically perfect war; these means are the bread and butter of the Social Democratic government and its militarists, and they just love continuing the war, that should have been over, against the revolutionary mob in their own country, and, even better: the revolt has been put down, its leaders, the leaders of the revolution, have been murdered, the National Convention has arrived.

(‘Überschätzung der Wahlen’, 17th January 1919, in U. Linse, op. cit., pp. 131-132)

The Revolution has ended up in a Bog

The dismal things you narrate in your letter are for me a symptom of the miserable state of the German spirit. The revolution has, in all areas, ended up in a bog. Whether Leo Kestenberg is right in his consoling statement that we are only at the beginning of things, we will see. If we are only at the beginning of things, i.e. if the combined efforts of the Entente-capitalists and the famous German Social Democrats cannot save the German capitalist economy from collapse, then we will have to go through a terrible period of chaos because no one is listening to the few who know what would help, namely the building of a needs-based economy. I am almost as lonely and isolated as I was before the revolution; I can only see helpless error and meanness at work. Unless even greater misfortune occurs, I do not believe in any revolutionary renewal within this pitiful people.

Even such noble and courageous people like Liebknecht and Luxemburg knew nothing else for the constructive renewal of society but the struggle for power; and even such men of spirit as Kurt Eisner become spiritless the moment they begin to speak of socialism. All of them no longer see reality because they’re full of Marxism; all of them cannot see that socialism must fulfil both the demands of eternity and the dire needs of the moment, that for this totally peaceful construction of new work revolutionary energy and comprehensive implementation from one central point is just as necessary as thousands of small and decentralised beginnings.

Thus there are many opposite, contradictory positions into which I do not wish to enter or take up a partisan position because all these fractions engaged in bitter warfare with each other are in fact united in their mistakenness. When I then do speak, they take me for a mediator and man of the middle line, whereas I actually am standing on quite different ground and am truly radical enough on that ground.

And the same goes for the political: the old parliamentarianism is back again, and with it […] the unitary centralism: all these expressions of the mediocrity that had made Germany a spiritually arid country before. I can only see that the philistine is back on top and that the revolutionary spirit is back in its solitary corner. At best, it’s like 1848 in France: then some [right-wing General] Ludendorff will be able to make it as a Napoleon the Third, and if he joins the Social Democratic Party and operates cleverly, it won’t even take him two years.

Please have patience with my despondency: I have seen the best ones from up too close, they are already burned out by the raging fire of revolution and those who could be their successors, however, no longer find any mood in the people that might listen and participate. One will have to place one’s hopes in other nations, the Germans are too pitiful.

I shall close here. Out of all this bitterness I will draw only one consequence: to honour my debt even more than before…

(‘Versumpfung der Revolution’, Letter 25th January 1919, in U. Linse, op.cit., pp. 133-134)

On the Bolsheviks/Communists

And who still fears a dictatorship of the proletariat? I would too, no, not fear it, but hate it and fight it like the plague, if it were imminent. But it is not imminent; imminent, and sooner than anyone thinks, is not the dictatorship, but the abolition of the proletariat, and the emergence of the new human society.

[‘Die vereinigten Republiken Deutschlands und ihre Verfassung’, 25th November 1918, in U. Linse, op.cit., 1918-19, p. 62]

The Bolsheviks (the Spartacus people) are a difficult case: pure centralists like Robespierre and his people, they don’t seek any content, just power. They are preparing the way for a military regime that would be much more terrible than anything the world has ever seen before. Dictatorship of the armed proletariat… well, Napoleon would be preferable. However, the very best of the people have wandered into their very ranks by mistake. Their radical means are exerting a magic attraction because radicalness of meaning and goal, the calm and pious resolve of the new humanity, have as yet not found the right, shattering tone and expression. We need to not only give voice to the What, but to the beginning How…

(Letter 13th December 1918, in U. Linse, op.cit., p. 85)

But I readily confess, and will also say it to those who really don’t like hearing it: this revolution can bring no domination by a party, and the people calling themselves Bolsheviks and Spartacists, if they don’t soon tell us what they want, tell us how they intend to organise the humane society, the German people, if they’re always just telling us they want power – for the so-called dictatorship of the proletariat means nothing else ?

(Hear hear!)

then they belong to the same pot they’re standing in, they’re only fighting for the domination by parties in another form, using different expressions,

(Hear, hear!)

but it’s exactly the same.

(Hear, hear!)

We don’t need party domination. We need new goals, new paths, new democracy, new construction […]

(‘Der Krieg und die Revolution’, Speech to the Provisional National Council, 18th December 1918, in U. Linse, op.cit., p. 97)

In the meantime I have seen you [the Communist leaders of the third Munich Council Republic] at work, have got to know your popular education, your way of leading the struggle. I have seen what, in contrast to what you call the [previous] ‘pseudo-Council Republic’ [of which Landauer was a member], your reality looks like. My understanding of the struggle to create conditions that allow everyone to share in the products of the earth and culture is different to yours. I thus note – and this has not been a secret before ? that the feeling of aversion regarding working together is mutual. A socialism that is realising itself awakens all creative energies; however, in your economic and cultural endeavours I see that you, unfortunately, do not understand that.

This message is strictly private; I do not wish in the least to disturb the difficult task of defence you are mounting. But I do most painfully regret that what is now being defended is only to a minute extent my work, a work of warmth and elevation, of culture and rebirth.

(Letter 16th April 1919, in U. Linse, op.cit., p. 248)

Maintaining Humour and Equanimity in Revolutionary Chaos

I can see terrible confusion and suffering ahead, and am content. I don’t know whether you understand this contradiction, which is only an apparent one. What it’s all about now is meaning, the highest matters of humanity, social justice and a rational, beautiful life, about the struggle against all party politics and for the New, the Hidden wanting to emerge. Woe is us if such a humourist coup [the German November Revolution of 1918] should have been our revolution! The great decisions still lie ahead of us, we are within the revolution and thus purification and elevation shall be a time of intensity; it is grace that we may experience it. All the old must collapse of its own exhaustion; quite new humans, of whom we now know nothing, shall come. Perhaps terrible suffering shall occur, hundreds of thousands of unemployed; perhaps we shall see industrial ruins like old castle ruins; have we not learnt in this [world] war that only the most desperate suffering brings people to their senses? As yet people know nothing, absolutely nothing, about the right political and economic institutions. What I and my comrades know we will tell them, as loudly and nicely as possible; but I think they will not listen as yet, they shall have to feel it.

But all that does not trouble me, my life and fate have taught me how to be able to simultaneously be a fighter in life and a spectator, and where it’s not about obsolete insanity, as in the war, but about meaning, no struggle and no abyss is too great. (One need not consider the riots and suchlike; what do the few unfortunate events matter when compared to the systematic slaughter of the world war?) I always like repeating: humour is having a sense of the eternity of time; I wouldn’t even dream of wanting to experience finished results; I shall always see something else beyond the goal; for me it’s all about the movement, and we are now in that, finally.

(Letter 27th November 1918, in U. Linse, op.cit., pp. 63-64)

The Difficulties Facing Council Democracy in Bavaria (March 1919)

There are two very different concepts of council democracy; the one says ‘councils’ and wants to use their present, imperfect design, built under pressure of the pressing needs of the moment, for a not-too-short lasting ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’; the other trusts the new institution and the spirit that ought to pervade these corporate bodies, and seeks the general administration of public affairs through these institutions of the whole working population, and here the emphasis is not primarily on replacing parliament by council congresses but rather on local action by councils.

Now, however, – and this is the most urgent task before us ? the big question arises: How should the councils be formed, how should their delegates be ‘elected’? The party-machine men, who are so aridly and rigidly entrapped within the old ways that there is no need to ascribe any conscious intention to them of making councils irrelevant, demand proportional voting; this is without doubt the most erroneous suggestion because then one would have voter masses and parliamentarians again and no self-determining organs of the people.

We others, however, face the huge difficulty that the factories and occupations in which one should elect delegates are not organic parts of the people but fragmentations created by capitalism. I am thinking less of the problem of capitalists, semi-capitalists, corporate and state bureaucrats, who are to some extent also workers; I am thinking rather of the fact that all strata of society have been capitalised and that the factories and occupations of capitalism’s workers and unemployed are decomposing features of a decaying world rather than those independent bodies filled with public spirit which the new democracy needs.

One solution says: the councils do not exist yet, they are in the process of becoming, and the transformation of the economy towards socialism must go hand in hand with the growth and transformation of the councils. Another solution would be: to not have occupational bodies, but rather community and neighbourhood bodies. That would work for the countryside and a few small towns, since village communities and country towns indeed function as organic wholes and one could think that this wholeness could resist all economic change. However, this forgets that if our revolution is to be complete it needs education, the transformation of schools, a new position of the church and other communities of the mind and spirit, the transformation of the public service, the redistribution of large landholdings and re-settlement of urban workers, the granting of land to rural servants and labourers and the reduction of rural working hours deriving therefrom and from a denser rural population, the creating of workshops and factories in the countryside along with a communal, cooperative and intensive economy.

One forgets that all this renewal, which must begin immediately, must first make the rural population and its political spirit mature enough for the new community. In that there is no great difference between the countryside and the industrial city: if the forms of living together in cities is nothing organic and again belongs to capitalism and its decay, then in the countryside one also finds only the empty form, not the spirited reality of community. Every attempt at a solution thus means that the new economy and the new community can only be built in tandem, that there is no true democracy without socialism just as there will be no just economy without the public self-activity of the whole people.

(Letter 29 March 1919, in U. Linse, op.cit., pp. 206-207)

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