All Power to the Councils: A Review

By Matthew S. Adams
Anarchist Studies
Volume 2 Number 1
pp. 110-112

The motif of the guns falling silent is a popular one in studies of the First World War. The idea of an unreal calm makes the absurdity of the foregoing years starker, and marks the start of a period of uneasy mourning in Europe, complete with a patched-up peace that left many of the pressing political issues unresolved, and created many fresh ones. The tragedy of the experience of war is therefore mirrored by a deeper historical tragedy. In spite of the carnage, these unanswered questions and makeshift solutions set the scene for an even more sanguinary conflict to come, and gave fascism political purchase in the tumultuous 1930s.

Gabriel Kuhn’s documentary collection All Power to the Councils! unintentionally complicates both of these interpretations, by exploring a period of European radical history that is often ignored. For one, the idea that the guns fell silent in 1918 overlooks the fact that many of the regional conflicts sparked by the First World War continued well beyond the Armistice. The Russian Civil War for instance, emerging directly from the political and economic instability intensified by the war, rumbled on into the 1920s. And secondly, as the Russian example suggests, the road to fascism in Europe was by no means a predestined one, as a number of political traditions vied for supremacy in the social dislocation that characterised the post-war continent.

This is particularly apparent in the German case, and a revolution that started in October 1918, as the war was reaching its denouement in Flanders.

As Kuhn notes at the outset of his collection, the history of the failed German Revolution is partly of interest in a ‘What would have happened if?’ sense (p.xi).

How, for instance, would the history of Europe have been different if industrialised Germany had emerged as a socialist ally of Russia? While raising these questions in his introduction, Kuhn admits that All Power to the Councils! is not an exercise in ‘what if’ history, but suggests that understanding the history of the German Revolution might help ‘strategizing for the future’ (p.xi). With the manuscript completed against the backdrop of the ‘Arab Spring’, he notes a fitting historical resonance: ‘It was … apparent that many of the Arab revolutionaries faced questions that were essentially the same that German revolutionaries … faced almost a hundred years earlier – or, for that matter … all revolutionaries throughout history’ (p.xiv).

Instead of a straightforward history, or a polemical analysis of the Revolution, however, Kuhn’s book offers an overview of events in Germany through its primary documents, many of which appear in English for the first time. A central theme of All Power to the Councils! is that a number of revolutionary groups with a variety of political commitments defined the German Revolution, a fact that the historiographical focus on Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg and the Spartacus League has tended to obscure. While prominent, and enduringly influential given Luxemburg’s modest criticism of Bolshevik high-handedness, Kuhn emphasises in his introduction that both anarchists and the Revolutionary Stewards movement played an important role in the Revolution, and are in need of rescuing from historical obscurity.

This is reflected in the subtly subversive structure of the book, stressing as it does the efforts of these traditionally sidelined political actors, but also the geographically contingent nature of events in 1918 and 1919. The seven substantive chapters therefore focus on key political documents by region, starting with the mutiny of sailors in October 1918 in Wilhelmshaven and Kiel that is seen as the spark of the Revolution, before shifting to Berlin where the actions of Revolutionary Stewards and Spartacists were especially important. These chapters are followed by a document from the workers’ and soldiers’ council that assumed power in the state of Brunswick in November 1918, and proclamations from, and reflections on, the council in Bremen, where syndicalism was strong. The fifth, lengthy section, which will be of particular interest to readers of Anarchist Studies, focuses on events in Bavaria. Although a traditionally conservative state, Munich was, as Kuhn notes, home to ‘both radical workers and bohemian artists’, while Bavaria more broadly was a ‘center of federalist sentiments’ (p.169). This synthesis also meant that it was home to an important anarchist faction, with both Erich Mühsam and Gustav Landauer active in the state.

The documents collated in this section are varied. They include a rich collection of letters from Landauer, that give both a personal and political reflection on events at the end of 1918, and a more formal pamphlet from Landauer’s pen, translated here for the first time. There is also a reflection by Mühsam on the Revolution, written during his imprisonment in Ansbach in 1920, and addressed to Lenin, with the hope of influencing his policy during the Russian Civil War then in progress. Finally, two appendices collect documents from the Red Ruhr Armya, spurred into action fighting the Kapp Putsch in 1920, and the memoirs of the ‘Robin Hood-like’ Max Hoelz, leader of a band of communist rebels in the Vogtland (p.279).

Through judicious footnoting and brief contextual overviews at the beginning of each section, All Power to the Councils! deftly conveys the complex, and often overlapping political allegiances that characterised post-war radicalism in Germany. That Landauer and Mühsam are the subject of particular attention shows that this book is a companion volume to Kuhn’s other two edited collections published by PM Press, Revolution and Other Writings comprising selections from Landauer’s work, and Liberating Society from the State and Other Writings formed from Mühsam’s texts.

Nevertheless, the book stands alone. Its stress on the multiple strands of political dissent that defined the radical terrain in Germany is an important challenge to the dominant historical treatments, and it makes an important contribution by making the words of those involved in the Revolution, whatever their stripe, available in English for the first time.

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