Gustav Landauer

Special thanks to Luke for reproducing this old anarchist essay on Landauer!

Anarchy 54 (Vol 5 No 8) August 1965 (Freedom Press)

Gustav Landauer by C.W.

Very little of Gustav Landauer’s thought is accessible to the English reader, except as paraphrased in the writings of Martin Buber. Yet Erich Fromm, in his book The Sane Society, calls Landauer “one of the last great representatives of anarchist thought”, Rudolf Rocker described him as “a spiritual giant”, and Ernst Toller called “one of the finest men, the greatest spirits”, of the German revolution.

Landauer was born on April 7 1870, in a middle-class Jewish family in Karleruhe and became as a student a member of the German Social-Democratic Party (SPD). He was refused admittance to the school of medicine at Freiburg University because he had served a prison sentence for political activity. He was one of the group known as the Jungen who were expelled from the party in 1891, and who started a weekly paper in Berlin, Der Sozialist, which, beginning as a dissident Marxist organ, became under Landauer’s editorship, a vehicle for anarchist ideas. This was the period when the SPD was seeking to impose its rigid parliamentarian socialism on the whole European labour movement, and when an international congress was convened at Zurich in 1893, the anarchists, who had been expelled from the earlier Brussels Congress, returned to the attack. Explaining their intervention, Rocker, in his book The London Years, remarks that:

“Had the Congresses of the Second International not concealed their true nature and acknowledged themselves for what they were, international conferences of Parliamentary Socialism and of Social Democratic Parties, the anarchists would have been the last to want to be represented. But as long as they called themselves International Socialist Labour Congresses it would be wrong to deny them admission. For the anarchist too were after all, Socialists, for they opposed economic monopoly, and worked for a co-operative form of human labour, aiming to satisfy the needs of all and not the profits of the few. Nor could it be disputed that the great majority of the anarchists in the different countries belonged to the working class.”
At Zurich on the first day, the Germans who had been expelled from the SPD appeared and demanded admission, with the unexpected support of the British trade union delegation. Bebel, the SPD leader attacked them abusively and got a motion carried limiting membership trade unions and to parties and groups who accepted political action.

“There was an incredible commotion: Werner and Landauer were hustled from the room shouting ‘We protest!’ “ and the following day 15 other delegates including Rosa Luxemburg were excluded. They were joined by Amilcare Cipriani who resigned his mandate saying, “I go with those you have banished; with the victims of your intolerance and brutality”.

In 1896 the International Socialist Labour Congress was held in London at the Queen’s Hall, and there were many anarchists among the 750 delegates, including Landauer and Malatesta (who had come armed with mandates from trade unions in Spain, France, and Italy). Once again the SPD sought to exclude the anarchists.

“The Germans tried to steamroller the congress on this question so ruthlessly that it infuriated a great may delegates. The Chairman on the second day was Paul Singer, a member of the Reichstag. He tried to stop the discussion, and said he would take the vote on the question. But Keir Hardie of the ILP, who was deputy chairman of the session, got up and making himself heard above the uproar, told Singer that people didn’t conduct meetings like that in England. Before the vote was taken both sides must be given a hearing. So Malatesta and Landauer were allowed to speak.”

Landauer addressed a report to the Congress (which was published as a leaflet by Freedom Press), attacking the SPD in terms which its subsequent history showed to be correct. Only in Germany, he declared, could such a severely disciplined and pattern-cut labour party exist, exploiting in the most shameful way the imperialist and military spirit, the dependence and obedience of the masses “as the basis upon which an extremely strict party rule could be constructed, strong enough to crush on every occasion the rising germs of freedom and revolt”.

“I, as a German revolutionist and anarchist, consider it my duty today, as three years ago at Zurich, to tear off this painted mask and solemnly declare that the apparent splendour of the labour movement in Germany is but skin-deep, whilst in reality the number of those who fully conscientiously go in for a total regeneration of human society, who struggle to realise a free socialist society, is infinitely smaller than the number of Social Democratic votes… the laws (at the elaboration of which the Social Democratic deputies work with great assiduity in parliament and in the various committees) merely strengthen the State and the power of the police – the German, Prussian, monarchist and capitalist state of today – and it becomes more and more a question whether our Social Democracy thinks that some mere finishing touches applied to our centralised, tutelary, ceaselessly interfering police state, are all that is necessary to transform the German Empire into the famous State of the future.

He appealed to the delegates to allow the anarchist case to be heard:

“What we fight is State socialism, levelling from above, bureaucracy; what
we advocate is free association and union, the absence of authority, mind freed from all fetters, independence and well-being of all. Before all others it is we who preach tolerance for all – whether we think their opinions right or wrong- we do not wish to crush them by force or otherwise. In the same way we claim tolerance towards us, and where revolutionary socialists, where working men of all countries met, we want to be among them and to say what we have to got to say… If our ideas are wrong, let those who know better teach us better…” (G. Landauer: Social Democracy in Germany, Freedom Press, 1896)

But the anarchists were expelled. A protest meeting was addressed by Kropotkin, Louise Michel, ElisÈe Reclus, Landauer and Malatesta, and, among non-anarchists, by Tom Mann and Keir Hardie, who declared that:
“No one could prophesy whether the socialism of the future would shape itself in the image of the social democrats or of the anarchists. The crime of the anarchists in the eyes of the Congress majority appeared to be that they were a minority. If they agreed with that attitude then the socialist movement as a whole had no right to exist, because it represented a minority.”

Around this time Landauer was beset with a problem that always faces anarchist editors. He had made Der Sozialist a paper of a high intellectual standard but with little propaganda appeal and this caused continual argument. In the end he agreed to publish also a propaganda paper Der Arme Konrad edited by Albert Weidner who, says Rocker, “did his best… but it did not satisfy Landauer’s opponents. They started a new larger paper, and Landauer’s Sozialist slowly died. The new paper was poorly edited and badly written, and it was little consolation to plead that it was produced entirely by ordinary working men. For Landauer it was a tragedy. It deprived him of a valuable activity, for which he was extremely fitted, and in which he rendered splendid service.

In 1901 he edited with Max Nettlau, a volume of selections from Bakunin. “I have loved and admired Bakunin,” he wrote, “from the first day I came across him, for there are few dissertations written as vividly as his – perhaps that is why they are as fragmentary as life itself.” But in fact it was Proudhon and Kropotkin who influenced him more. In 1905, echoing Kropotkin’s views on the integration of agriculture and industry, he wrote:

“The socialist village, with workshops and village factories, with fields and meadows and gardens… you proletarians of the big cities, accustom yourselves to this thought, strange and odd as it may seem at first, for that is the only beginning of true socialism, the only one that is left to us.”

And two years later he declared that:

“It will be recognised sooner or later that, as the greatest of all socialists – Proudhon – has declared in incomparable words, albeit forgotten today, social revolution bears no resemblance at all to political revolution…”
This was in his essay Die Revolution, written at the request of Martin Buber, who, forty years later, was to bring Landauer’s ideas back into circulation in Paths in Utopia. In Buber’s view, Landuaer’s step beyond Kropotkin consists in his insight into the nature of the State, which is not, as Kropotkin thought, an institution which can be destroyed by a revolution, but rather, Landauer says:

“The State is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of human behaviour; we destroy it by contracting our relationships by behaving differently… one day it will be realised that socialism is not the invention of anything new but the discovery of something actually present, of something that has grown.”

He wants to displace the state by uncovering, bringing to the surface, the ancient communal institutions of society, and the instinctive mutual aid which, rather than state organisation, makes social life possible, preserving, renewing, and expanding them, “releasing the spirit that lies captive behind the State”.

“We want to bring the co-operatives, which are socialist form without socialist content, and the trade unions, which are valour without avail, to socialist, to great experiments.” All true socialism, he says, is relative and never absolute. “Communism goes in search of the Absolute and naturally finds no beginning but that of the word. For the only absolute things, detached from all reality, are words.”

“Everything comes in times, and every time after the revolution is a time before the revolution for all those whose lives have not got bogged in some great moment of the past.”

Everything that Landauer thought and planned and said and wrote, declares Buber, was steeped in a great belief in revolution and will for it. But the struggle for revolution, Landauer insists, can only bear fruit when “we are seized by the spirit, not of revolution, but of regeneration”. For the strength of revolution lies in rebellion and negation; it cannot solve social problems by political means. Studying the French Revolution, he observed that:

“When a revolution ultimately gets into the terrible situation that this one did, with enemies all round it inside and out, then the forces of negation and destruction that still live on are bound to turn inwards and against themselves, fanaticism and passion turn to distrust and soon to bloodthirstiness, or at least to an indifference to the added terrors of killing, and before long killing becomes the sole possible means for the rulers of the day to keep themselves provisionally in power.”

And ten years later, he wrote of the same events:

“Thus it happened that the most fervent representatives of the revolution thought and believed in their finest hours – no matter to what strange shores they were ultimately flung by the raging winds – that they were leading mankind to a rebirth; but somehow this birth miscarried and they got in each others way and blamed each other because the revolution had allied itself to war, to violence, to dictatorship and authoritarian oppression – in a word, to politics.”

Soon afterwards Landauer was to find himself the victim of such a situation, a revolution wrecked in violence and politics. In the German elections of 1912, the SPD became the largest single party in the Reichstag, and in the following year the Social Democrats without exception voted for the Rearmament Bill. On the eve of the First World War the Socialist International met in Brussels and Jean Jaures put his faith in the strength of the SPD. “Don’t worry,” he said to a friend, “four million German socialists will rise like one man and execute the Kaiser if he wants to start a war:. But Landauer had no such optimistic hopes, writing in July 1914:

“Let us be under no illusions as to the situation in all countries today. When it comes to the point, the only that these revolutionary agitations have served is the nationalist-capitalist aggrandisement we call imperialism; even when originally tinctured with socialism they were all too easily led by some Napoleon or Cavour or Bismarck into the mainstream of politics, because all these insurrections were in fact only a means of political revolution or nationalistic war but could never be a means of socialist transformation, for the sufficient reason that the socialists are romantics who always make use of the means of their enemies…”

On August 4 the Socialists unanimously voted the government’s war credits.

“The SPD, loyal to its reformist past, bound the destiny of German labour to that of the German Reich.” Opposition to the war, led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg did not begin until 1916. In the following year, Ernst Toller, who had been profoundly influenced by Landauer’s Aufruf Zum Sozialismus, went secretly to see him at Krumbach. Toller described the visit in his autobiography I Was a German:

“I couldn’t understand why, at a time when everybody was waiting for the voice of truth, this ardent revolutionary kept silent. But when I put the question to him he said: ‘All my life I have worked for the downfall of this social system, this society founded on lies and betrayals, on this beggaring and suppression of human beings; and I know now that this downfall is imminent – perhaps tomorrow, perhaps in a year’s time. And I have the right to reserve my strength until that moment. When the hour strikes I shall be ready”.

On November 9, 1918, with defeat in the field, mutiny in the Navy, hunger at home, and Soldiers’ and Workers’ councils being formed everywhere, the Chancellor, Prince Max von Baden, handed over his office to Karl Ebert, the leader of the Social-Democrats, who had told him two days earlier, “Unless the Kaiser abdicates, social revolution is inevitable. But I will have none of it. I hate it like sin.” And at a time when dynasties were falling, the High Command decamping, and the people rising, the socialist government of Ebert, Scheidemann and Noske, sought at all costs to preserve the militarism of the officer corps, the feudalism of the Junkers, and the capitalism of the industrial magnates.

In Munich on November 7, soldiers and workers deposed the government and proclaimed the Republic of Bavaria, and the Independent Socialist Kurt Eisner formed a cabinet. Of the role of Erich M¸sham, and of Landauer who had come to Munich at the beginning of the revolution, Willy Fritzenkotter, writing on “The Council-Republic of Munich” in Freedom (26.9.53) described the events:

“The first action of the two anarchists was to organise the ‘Revolutionary Workers’ Council’. This council then took the initiative and formed in every workshop the ‘Revolutionary Workshop Organisation’. These councils were to be organised in every city, and form (in connection with the ‘Sailors’ and Farmers’ Council’) the administration in every city and village. All these councils in the country were to elect representatives and send them to a ‘Council Congress’ in Munich. According to the plan of M¸sham and Landauer these councils and congress should work on a federative basis, and not be centralised. Against this revolutionary movement Eisner and Auer worked in conjunction with the reactionary forces. The Parliament they aimed at making the real law-maker in Bavaria, forcing the ‘Workers’ Councils’ into insignificance.

“Eisner had M¸sham and 11 other revolutionaries arrested on January 10, 1919, because he feared they would frustrate the election for parliament which should take place on January 12. Yet M¸sham and his comrades were on the next day liberated from prison by the ‘Workers’ Council’ which forced Eisner to set them free.”

Eisner was assassinated in February by a Bavarian aristocrat, and his place was taken by Johann Hoffmann, a Social Democrat who began negotiations with Berlin. “But the workers of Munich were not amenable to this, and on the night of April 6-7 they proclaimed a Soviet Republic. It was acclaimed with cries of Los vom Reich.” Hoffmann’s government fled to Bamberg in North Bavaria. Ruth Fischer gives this account of the Council Republic (in her book Stalin and German Communism):

“Erich M¸sham proposed to the Munich Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council that they proclaim a socialist republic. This proposal was adopted by 234 votes to 70 with the Spartakists voting against it… The first Bavarian council has always been depicted as a half-crazy adventure of literati and intellectuals… All of them later proved to be serious militants, who suffered loyally for the cause they had adopted.

“At the head of this group was Gustav Landauer, a cultured humanitarian anarchist. He visualised socialism as an anti-autocratic co-operative. Landauer was an outspoken individualist, a defender of socialist morality, an opponent of terror and violence against the class enemy. Erich M¸sham, the other anarchist writer in the cabinet, had a following among intellectuals and young workers. Ernst Toller, the third writer in the government, was in 1919 a young man uncertain of his politics. He was also what the Germans call an ethical socialist…”

The Communists condemned what they called this “pseudo-soviet” and demanded the resignation of the Central Council, and the Social Democrats, with the aid of the Monarchist garrison arrested several members of the council of April 13 and took them to North Bavaria. Communist troops then defeated the garrison, and the Revolutionary Council formed a new Soviet cabinet. Then Noske’s army of 100’000 men, commanded by Gen. von Oven moved on Bavaria. Rudolf Coser, in The Failure of a Revolution, says:

“His army was not to crush a handful of men; it was to crush any idea that the substance of the German State could be changed in any way whatever… what was to be done to them was to serve as a warning to all the millions of Germans who wanted to eliminate militarism by different means.

“The revolutionary councils realised the hopelessness of fighting against Noske’s army and declared the solidarity with the survivors of the soviet government and were negotiating with Hoffmann in order to avert a catastrophe and forestall the Prussian invasion.”

About 700 people were butchered by Noske’s army, among them Landauer. A workman who was arrested with him described his death:

“Amid shouts of ‘Landauer! Landauer!’ an escort of Bavarian and Wurttemberger infantry brought him out into the passage outside the door of the examination room. An officer struck him in the face, the men shouted ‘Dirty Bolshi! Let’s finish him off!’ and in a rain of blows from rifle-butts drove him out into the yard. He said to the soldiers round him: “I’ve not betrayed. You don’t know yourselves how terribly you’ve been betrayed’. Freiherr von Gagern went up to him and beat him with a heavy truncheon until he sank in a head on the ground. He struggled up again and tried to speak, but one of the men shot him through the head. He was still breathing and the fellow said:

‘That blasted carrion has nine lives; he can’t even die like a gentleman.’
“Then a sergeant in the Life Guards shouted out: ‘Pull off his coat!’ They pullied it off, and laid him on his stomach. ‘Stand back there and we’ll finish him off properly!’ one of them cried, and shot him in the back. Landauer still moved convulsively, so they trampled on him till he was dead; then stripped the body and threw it into the wash-house.”

Toller and M¸sham were each imprisoned in a fortress for five years. In 1934 M¸sham was killed by the Nazis in Orienberg concentration camp.
In 1933 the Nazis dug up Landauer’s remains and sent them to the Jewish community in Munich. Some years ago Mrs. Adama van Scheltems of Amsterdam told me how in 1939 she visited Landauer’s daughter and son-in-law, living in a Rhineland town, to get his papers and manuscripts which she smuggled across the frontier for the Internation Institute for Social History.

Gustav Landauer failed, said the philosopher Fritz Mauthner, “because he was no politician, and yet was driven by his passionate compassion for the people, to be active politically; too proud to join a party, not narrow enough to form a party round his own name”. Landauer failed, but was not the failure of the political socialists more ignominious? In the struggle for the soul of the socialist movement in the 1890s, like that between Marx and Bakunin in the First International in the seventies, his forebodings on the nature of the German Social Democracy were ignored, but were shown to be correct in every detail by the events of 1914, by the crushing of the revolutionary hopes of 1918 and by the final collapse before the Nazis. Is his vision of “a society of equalitarian exchange based on regional communities, rural communities which combine agriculture with industry” any more ridiculous than the vision of a society of machine-minders and bureaucrats which is all the “realistic” socialists can offer?

But what are we to say of the Munich Council Republic? Was it in fact “the embodiment of impractical romantic anarchism” that James Joll calls it in his book on The Second International? From the fragmentary and contradictory accounts that are all one can find, it is hard to come to any firm conclusions, but a number of points are worth making. It is variously referred to as the Bavarian Soviet Republic and the Bavarian Council Republic (Bayrishe Raterpublik_. This in itself has no significance. Soviet is the Russian word for Council, and the slogan “All Power to the Soviets”, usurped by the Bolsheviks for an exactly opposite policy, had a wide currency in the years immediately after the Russian Revolution. The Communists were opposed to the Raterpublik. Why then did they form a “second soviet cabinet” to succeed it? “Very simply, the Communists could not resist the drive of the Munich workers, who, irritated after the garrison coup, wanted to defend Munich”, explains Ruth Fischer.

Was the Landauer cabinet a government? This is a matter of nomenclature. It as the “soviet” installed by the Bavarian Central Council of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils. Fritzenkotter regards he Council of Workers as lasting for six months, i.e. the whole period from the abdication to the suppression by the German army and the Freikorps.

Was there any chance of success? Mrs. Fischer, as an ex-Communist, deprecates the Communist attitude that it was simply an “adventurist folly”. She points out that it took place in the context of general unrest in Germany, especially in neighbouring Saxony, and of the setting up of Bela Kun’s Hungarian Soviet Republic. Moreover Bavaria had only been incorporated in the German Empire in 1871, and had a strong separatist tradition. It was widely thought that “Berlin would not dare invade Bavaria”. In Bavaria, unlike most of Germany, Peasants’ Councils had been formed at the end of the war. Rudolf Coser says:

“The majority of them were non-revolutionary. Nevertheless they supported the revolution because they feared Bavaria would become a battleground after the defection of Austria, and because they regarded the war as a private business between monarchs… After the war was over, the Bavarian peasants’ councils remained important; they wanted to have a  say in the administration of their country… However, although one of their leaders was in the soviet government they blockaded the capital; no victuals were delivered to Munich.”

The Council Republic failed because not enough people supported it, because it failed to win over the peasantry, and to win over the returning soldiers from the reactionary Freikorps, because it failed to alienate people from their allegiance to political parties and political violence, and because German Social Democracy itself was so deeply wedded to German reaction. “Socialism”, Landauer had written years before, “is possible and impossible at all times’ it is possible when the right people are there to will and do it; it is impossible when people either don’t will it or only supposedly will it, but are not capable of doing it.”

This is the sense in which the Council Republic was doomed to failure.
In his “Recollection of a Death”, reprinted in Pointing the Way, Martin Buber concludes: “Landauer fought in the revolution against the revolution for the sate of the sake of the revolution. The revolution will not thank him for it. But those will thank him for it who have fought as as he fought and perhaps some day those will thank him for whose sake he fought.”

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