So, in terms of generating a spirit of change amongst the mass of the population, 2012 has felt like a bit of a damp squib to some extent - and 2011 can be written off as just another false dawn. And yet, and yet...
Here in Scotland in 2012 there was something happening which seemed to offer the genuine possibility of a chance for radical change, in this country at least. I'm referring to the Radical Independence Campaign, which I've covered previously on these pages 'here'. Right now, some of the things we promised would happen at the conference in November are already being planned, not least of which was a commitment to a mass blockade of Faslane nuclear submarine base. I can promise Streetlamp readers that this will definitely happen next year over the 3 days of 13th to 15th of April. The event will be called Scrap Trident and as the date approaches we will keep you up to date with ways that you can participate.
Despite this positive attempt to unite left radicals in this country, there remains within libertarian socialist circles a lingering suspicion of the Radical Independence Campaign and where it may lead. This is understandable, I am not going to deny that history shows that the more authoritarian elements of the radical left have manipulated and betrayed anarchists in the past. And yet, and yet...
Recently I was alerted via another article on the wonderful libcom.org site (please do check it out) to the release of a new book by PM Press called All Power to the Councils! A Documentary History of the German Revolution of 1918-1919. Edited and translated by Gabriel Kuhn, and drawing on newly uncovered material uncovered through meticulous archival historical research, this new documentary collection gathers eyewitness accounts and revolutionary voices from Germany’s 1918–1919 worker-soldier-council revolution. Unlike most of the histories of this period, which are written from a strongly communist perspective and focus almost exclusively on the role of Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg,and the Communist Spartakusbund (Spartacus League), this book shows that there were other equally important radical left and anti-military traditions involved. In particular, Kuhn presents documents from Gustav Landauer and Erich Mühsam, the famous Munich anarchists who took part in the struggle for a councils´ republic in Bavaria. He also exhibits documentary evidence from Bremen, Brunswick, Wilhelmshaven and Kiel. All of these German cities were taken over by workers´ uprisings or sailors and soldiers in mutiny. Kuhn's sources demonstrate that the German Revolution was not orchestrated by a Marxist political vanguard, but by a spontaneous eruption of the whole population. Many very different groups were involved, from centrist social democrats to trade unions, syndicalists and radical anarchists. Many ordinary workers only got radicalised during the events themselves.
One of the most interesting groups involved, formed during WWI, were the Revolutionary Stewards, a group of rank and file unionists independent from the official unions. Starting out by striking for better wages in the war industry, they ended up being one of the most radical advocates of a councils´ republic in Germany. Kuhn shows that when the Revolution unfolded in November 1918 this group was far more influential then Liebknecht and the Spartacists, because unlike them it had a wide network of supporters in the factories and workshops. In organizing three mass strikes between 1916 and 1918, the Revolutionary Stewards were decisive in bringing about the Revolution.
OK, history shows that the centrist social democrats’collaboration with reactionary counter-revolutionary and military forces paved the way to the Weimar Republic, and from there to Nazi Germany, but one can not but help wonder if, had the anarchist influence been more central, coherent and convincing, and tied closely to the mass, independent union movement, could the revolutionaries have created a less bureaucratic and centralist socialist model?
Is there anything that can we learn from these events that is pertinent to our position here in Scotland today? The anarchists, notably Landauer and Mühsam, were strong champions of federalism and formulated a strong critique of what they saw as the centralist tendencies of the Spartacists. That they were involved and embedded in the revolution from the start meant that they were able to do so. Had they more support within the ranks of the Revolutionary Stewards movement might they have been more effective?
All Power to the Councils! raises other questions too that all movements who promote radical change must face. For example; What are the actual demands, needs, and interests of the people? How do we best secure democratic and social progress? How do we facilitate a true transition of power? How do we establish political and economic institutions that really alter the forms of government and production? How do we prevent powerful political forces, on the left and the right, from using the situation for their own ends? How do we go from being a mass protest movement to organising the mass effort of building a new society?
How do we turn a radical moment into longlasting radicalism?
Another question for some might be - can the libertarian left work effectively with the wider left? Perhaps it can, it is worth remembering that, despite the tensions between the different radical traditions in the German revolution, the various factions continued to defend each other in the face of social democratic and counter-revolutionary attacks. Landauer, for example, gave the Munich eulogy to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg after they were murdered in January 1919. Mühsam called Luxemburg “the flame of the revolution” in an obituary published in his journal Kain. It is worth noting that, at the outset of the revolution, all of the radical factions were also united in their commitment to a council system and in their opposition to bourgeois parliamentarism.
Reading this book, I found myself wondering where they went wrong, how they organised together originally to form this co-ordinated vision and how they might have organised subsequently to protect that vision. During the revolutionary period, all of the radicals shared a single rallying cry - Alle Macht den Räten! (All Power to the Councils). How could they have protected that ideal - how could we?
These are interesting questions to ponder as we look forward into 2013.If you want to read All Power to the Councils! you can order it from PM Press. While you are on their site please take some time to check out their stimulating collection of fiction and nonfiction books, pamphlets, t-shirts, visual and audio materials. Alternatively, for those financially embarrassed, you can download a free pdf copy 'here'.
As usual, I'd like to end the blog, and the year, with a song that, I hope, demonstrates something of the reflective mood I'm in - facing more questions than answers. The song, fittingly for this time of year, is called 'Hogmanay' and was written several years ago by the current writer, so let me offer profound apologies for the shameless self-publicity. I do hope you'll forgive my self-indulgence and, hopefully, enjoy it in the spirit in which it is offered.