Remembering Erich Muhsam
The collected political writings of the German anarchist Erich Muhsam reveal much about not only his ideas, but the remarkable life and times he lived in.
‘A shameful and gruesome act has been committed. The story of Christ has repeated itself in a horrible manner. All who share their heart and their spirit with the heart and the spirit of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg must be standing with their hair on end, tears in their eyes, and a burning shame when they think of future generations... Rosa Luxemburg was the flame of the revolution. Her enemies knew that. She was immediately incarcerated at the outset of the war. Her frail body was dragged from prison to prison. She bore all the humiliation and sacrifices strongly and bravely, trusting that the day of salvation would arrive, the day when the military economy would collapse and when the people would rise up. That day came. Liebknecht and Luxemburg were freed, and immediately took the lead in the revolution. Working tirelessly, without concern for their health or fear of their enemies, filled by the vision of socialism and of the freedom of humankind, they did their duty as revolutionaries and as true friends of the people.’
So wrote the German anarchist Erich Muhsam, in a moving tribute to the two finest representatives of the German socialist movement. His words are all the more passionate and intense for having been written so soon after Luxemburg and Liebknecht had been murdered by the Freikorps. The Freikorps were a right-wing paramilitary organisation let loose by the German social democratic government to quell a potential socialist revolution. They proceeded to murder civilians and suspected ‘subversives’ with wild abandon. Future leaders of the Nazis would be drawn from their ranks. The historian Isaac Deutscher would capture in one sentence the implications of Rosa Luxemburg’s murder: ‘In her assassination Hohenzollern Germany celebrated its last triumph, and Nazi Germany its first.’ Muhsam, who played a leading role in the German Revolution of 1918-1919, was not to suffer the same fate, instead being imprisoned for five years. His reflections on the revolution, and a wide range of other topics of significant interest, are collected together in a volume edited and translated by Gabriel Kuhn. Entitled Liberating Society From The State And Other Writings: A Political Reader, it contains all of his significant political works. The book covers subjects ranging from sexuality and bohemia to colonialism and war, incorporating articles, diary entries, letters, and more. More than a gifted agitator, Muhsam was a talented writer, artist and consummate bohemian, interested in cultural expression and experimentation just as much as the social struggle. An opponent of capitalism and war, defender of the rights of women and homosexuals, and a prominent libertarian voice in the Weimar Republic, Muhsam’s life and times remain of great interest and contemporary relevance. Kuhn is to be congratulated for helping to introduce and popularise Muhsam and his work for English readers. As its subtitle indicates, this book is very much a political reader, and Muhsam’s artistic output is absent. However, this is easily accessible online at erichinenglish.org for those looking for Muhsam’s poetry and plays.
Ordered chronologically, Muhsam’s writings fall into categories which the table of contents divides into sections under titles like ‘1904-1909: Traveling Years ’, ‘1919-1924: Imprisonment’, and ‘1924-1933: Berlin.’ In his traveling years, Muhsam traversed around Europe with his close friend - and possible lover - Johannes Nohl, seeking ‘to satisfy personal wanderlust and to search for bohemian circles and utopian communities.’ As an advocate of free love, Muhsam entered into dispute with his abiding friend, mentor and fellow anarchist Gustav Landauer, who was more socially conservative when it came to sexuality and family life. Muhsam was often in contention with other anarchists, since his anarchist views were considerably more eclectic than the mainstream of German anarchism. As Heinz Hug explains, quoted in the introduction: ‘the incorporation of the council system into the body of anarchist philosophy was Muhsam’s most original move... It marks the attempt to merge anarchist, anarcho-syndicalist, and Marxist beliefs.’ Muhsam was not only a partisan of direct democracy in the form of the council system, but had direct experience, having participated in the workers’ and peasants’ councils which appeared during the revolution in Germany. In his essay ‘Liberating Society From the State: What is Communist Anarchism?’ he described the council system as ‘the federative unity of all workers and consumers, from the smallest groups of people sharing the same interests to the broadest economic alliances.’ This system ensures that ‘each is accountable to all, and all are accountable to each in a spirit of equal rights and voluntary decision-making, without privilege or power.’ While never watering down his own views, Muhsam had a strong desire to unite the working class, and thus worked with a variety of left-wing groups and non-party organisations. This included left-wing factions in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), the German Communist Party (KPD), council communists and anarchists. He did so in an admirably non-sectarian way, while never ceasing to be fiercely critical of the limitations of all these different tendencies. And when things went too far, such as when the solidarity organisation Rote Hilfe Deutschlands (Red Aid Germany) had undoubtedly become little more than a Communist Party front, Muhsam resigned his membership.
Not narrowly interested in German politics, Muhsam looked at international affairs from an internationalist point of view. After an uprising in West Java in 1926, Muhsam wrote: ‘In Germany, many voices demand that the League of Nations assign colonies. Colonies for Germany? More than two million German workers are unemployed. The rest work for salaries that are about forty percent below prewar levels. What the Dutch plantation owners do in Java, the German capitalists do in their own country. Germany does not need colonies - Germany needs the people of Java!’ Concerning the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian born American anarchists put on trial and executed for murder on the basis of extremely dubious evidence, Muhsam noted: ‘the infamous treatment of Sacco and Vanzetti... prove that the land with the most developed technology is also the land with the least developed ethics.’ Numerous informed observations from Muhsam strike the reader perusing this volume, and are worth quoting. For example, his opinion on patriarchy: ‘Patriarchal power in the home gave moral consecration to priestly power in the church, governmental power in the state, and capitalist power in the economy.’ Or, on fascism: ‘a pretentious attempt to save a struggling capitalist system by blending antique tyranny with modern technology.’ There is even the occasional flash of humor, evident from this diary entry in 1911: ‘How is it possible that I, a man who - and I am fairly convinced of this - is an eroticist of a special kind, has so little luck with women? Nature doesn’t seem to know what it is doing.’ Muhsam married Kreszentia “Zenzl” Elfinger in 1915, who remained his lifelong companion.
With the ascension to power of the Nazis, Muhsam - council republican, Jew, anarchist - was an immediate target, especially because he continued to tirelessly campaign against them. Arrested in late Feburary 1934, Muhsam was carted around to numerous prisons and concentration camps, all the while being humiliated and tortured. On the morning on July 10, 1934, Muhsam was found hanged in the Oranienburg concentration camp. His death was officially ruled as a suicide, but the evidence suggests he was murdered. Muhsam was not forgotten, and in a tribute to his memory and example, ‘during the Spanish Revolution, German and Scandinavian volunteers formed a small unit called Centuria Erich Muhsam.’ The story of the fate of Zenzl Muhsam after her husband’s death is a fascinating story. It involves the Soviet government and the prominent anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker, who was a good friend of Erich and his wife, and is contained in an appendix to the book. After World War II, Erich Muhsam was officially lauded by the Stalinist German Democratic Republic (GDR) in East Germany for his anti-fascism, even having streets and squares named after him. His anarchism, however, was dismissed as ‘immature.’ It is best to leave the last word to an eloquent statement of Muhsam’s ‘immature’ anarchism: ‘The idea of freedom needs the alliance of all men and women who have recognised the neccesity for anarchy as the foundation for social life, and who are determined to realise it in a federation in which the values of individuality, equal rights, and voluntary decision-making are one. The more people unite to pursue this task, the sooner society will be liberated from the state.’
Kuhn, G (ed) 2011, Liberating Society From The State And Other Political Writings: A Political Reader, PM Press, Oakland.