[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-Socialisms]: de Jong on Gurganus, 'Kurt Eisner: A Modern Life'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Sat Jul 27 20:44:51 MDT 2019

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From: H-Net Staff via H-REVIEW <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
Date: Sat, Jul 27, 2019 at 10:09 PM
Subject: H-Net Review [H-Socialisms]: de Jong on Gurganus, 'Kurt Eisner: A
Modern Life'
To: <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
Cc: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.org>

Albert Earle Gurganus.  Kurt Eisner: A Modern Life.  Rochester
Camden House, 2018.  600 pp.  $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-64014-015-8.

Reviewed by Wim de Jong (Open University)
Published on H-Socialisms (July, 2019)
Commissioned by Gary Roth

Kurt Eisner's Politics and Life

In _On Revolution_, Hannah Arendt writes of the promise of the
council system as a political form: "it was nothing more or less than
this hope for a transformation of the state, for a new form of
government that would permit every member of the modern egalitarian
society to become a 'participator' in public affairs, that was buried
in the disasters of twentieth-century revolutions."[1] She was
referring to the Paris Commune of 1871 and the councils of the German
Revolution of 1918-19, in which her heroine, Rosa Luxemburg, played a
significant part but met with a gruesome end. This dream of radically
egalitarian direct participation has inspired the Left ever since: it
lived on in the radical movements of the 1960s and the Occupy
Movement as well. In every instance short-lived, the councils were
always caught in the dilemma represented by the authoritarianism of
leaders like Lenin, who soon subsumed the soviets under the
Bolshevist power structure, and the pragmatic revisionism of Social
Democrats such as Friedrich Ebert, who preferred reform and working
within the established parliamentary institutions. Yet council
democracy still represents an alternative to the existing political
order, an alternative that prefigures a radically democratic society.

The German Revolution was for Arendt the most recent and pertinent
example of a fully participatory reality. Gaard Kets and James
Muldoon describe it as the "forgotten revolution," despite the fact
that it had a "significant impact on the history of Europe and indeed
the world. The revolution led to the end of the First World War,
transformed the German Kaiserreich into a fledgling democratic
republic, and created a spiral of conflict and violence that
ultimately contributed to the rise of Nazism."[2] They posit their
volume as part of a recent historiographical focus on the Revolution,
which they think will be occasioned by the Revolution's centennial
occurring now.

One of the major protagonists in this exciting story was the Social
Democratic journalist Kurt Eisner, who briefly governed the Bavarian
People's Republic from November 1918 until his murder on February 21,
1919, by a Freikorps sympathizer. The antisemitic justification given
for this act arguably makes Eisner and his fellow revolutionary
Gustav Landauer the first victims of National Socialism. When he led
the Bavarian Revolution and formed its short-lived government, Eisner
was already a highly accomplished and visible figure within the
German Social Democratic Party (SPD). With _Kurt Eisner: A Modern
Life_, Albert Gurganus, professor emeritus of German studies at The
Citadel, Charleston (South Carolina), has written an exhaustive
biography of Eisner and provides detailed insight into the SPD's
party life in late nineteenth-century Germany. The party had grown
extensively in both membership and parliamentary seats at the end of
the nineteenth century. It also served as a model for other socialist
parties around the world. Nonetheless, it was prevented from joining
the national government or otherwise overcoming the authoritarian
system of Wilhelmine Germany.

Gurganus portrays Eisner as a gifted writer and dedicated member of
the SPD, devoted to the Social Democratic cause if not also to the
party leadership. A convinced Marxist but also a believer in the
parliamentarian path for socialism to overcome Wilhelmine
authoritarianism, he took a middle position between revisionists and
radicals within the party. The first part of the book draws attention
to the precarious existence of a critical socialist journalist like
Eisner in Wilhelmine Germany. Criticism of governmental authorities
could easily lead to censorship and persecution, making it necessary
to walk a journalistic tightrope, as one could easily be sued for
libel or royal defamation. Eisner was widely respected within the
socialist movement because of his imprisonment for_ lèse majesté_
during his time with the _Frankfurter Zeitung _from 1890 to 1895.

Gurganus shows the breadth of Eisner's erudition. Trained in
Neo-Kantianism, he was as well versed in Marxist theory as in modern
literature. Eisner could single-handedly fill a newspaper's political
and feuilleton sections. It made him one of the most sought-after
writers around, someone who could fill his time between jobs with a
wide variety of writing projects. The most important of these are
given considerable attention, such as Eisner's philosophical book on
Nietzsche, in which he criticized Nietzsche's Superman philosophy
(_Psychopathia Spiritualis. Friedrich Nietzsche und die Apostel der
Zukunft_, 1892); he also conducted historical research, notably about
the end of the Holy Roman Empire in the Napoleonic era (_Das Ende des
Reichs: Deutschland Und Preussen Im Zeitalter Der Grossen
Revolution_, 1907), in which, in contrast to a conservative reading,
he described the dissolution of the empire by Napoleon as the
beginning of a modern Germany.

The party's charismatic leader, Wilhelm Liebknecht, asked Eisner in
1899 to lead the SPD's prime magazine, Vorwärts, which according to
Gurganus, he made into a real newspaper instead of merely a party
organ. The endless squabbles with the radical wing of Karl Kautsky
and Rosa Luxemburg are documented meticulously. The SPD in the late
nineteenth century was a huge organization and harbored adherents of
several strands of socialist ideology who verbally assaulted each
other with even more vehemence than they did the ancien régime
around them. Gurganus uncritically recounts Eisner's positions in
these struggles, portraying Kautsky, Luxemburg, and Franz Mehring as
petty backstabbers and August Bebel, the successor to Liebknecht
until his death in 1913, as duplicitous. Eisner may have taken a
solidly Marxist position, criticizing revisionists and reformists
such as Eduard Bernstein, but he also rejected what he viewed as the
intransigence of the Luxemburg wing. If Eisner was a heavy critic of
Wilhelmine Weltpolitik, he nonetheless believed that governmental
power was the ultimate goal of the Social Democrat movement.
Consequently, he insisted that the party's primary newspaper,
Vorwärts, serve as an outlet for the many different strands of
thought and politics within the SPD. Because of this, as Gurganus
shows, the radicals polemicized relentlessly against him and made
removing him as editor a top priority, in which they ultimately
succeeded. In 1905, these quarrels led to Eisner's dismissal on
charges of revisionism.

Eisner viewed the political education of the working class as his
most important task, one point of collision with Luxemburg. He
believed that the party school in Berlin should be an instrument of
practical mass education for Social Democrat workers. He loathed
Luxemburg's teaching there, which he saw as elitist cadre training
based on abstract Marxist theorizing. Luxemburg, on the other side,
thought that workers had enough knowledge of daily life and needed
more theoretical grounding to interpret and revolutionize their
everyday reality. Another major point of contention with Luxemburg,
as Gurganus shows, was the mass strike. Eisner saw this as "a
possible, topical weapon for defense against political
disenfranchisement and the conquest of new political rights," whereas
Luxemburg believed in the mass strike as an offensive weapon to
achieve a wholesale overthrow of the political order (p. 180).

After the acrimonious disputes that ended his tenure at _Vorwärts_,
Eisner resettled in Bavaria. In 1914, at the onset of the First World
War, the SPD, to which he had devoted all his energy, immediately
fell in line with the nationalist fervor, betraying all pacifist and
antimilitarist principles. During this period, he found himself in
the same camp as his previous bitter enemies, Luxemburg and Mehring,
who would go on to forge the Spartacus League. Like them, Eisner
dissented from the SPD party leadership, who he saw as nationalist
traitors. It was increasingly difficult for him to find an outlet for
his critical views. His subsequent publications led to a second
period in prison. Eisner joined the breakaway Independent Social
Democrat Party (USPD) formed from Social Democrats who refused to
vote for more war bonds. In the USPD, he took a position not unlike
Kautsky's, but again opposed to the Spartacists, as Gurganus shows.
He still disagreed with what he saw as their outmoded rhetoric that
the proletariat could not democratically change capitalism--the
February Revolution in Russia to his mind proved otherwise. Also, he
retained his belief in the use of negotiating with the Majority
Social Democrats (MSPD) for far longer than the radicals.

The ultimate tragedy of Eisner's life was the Bavarian Republic. He
led a revolt that established the first _Volksstaat _and inspired the
general strike in Berlin on November 9, 1918, that helped end World
War I. Eisner aimed to create a republic based on a council system
and thereby dramatically democratize the political system by means of
general elections that for the first time included female suffrage.
He also proclaimed the abolition of religious supervision of schools.
However, his government had to cooperate with the Majority Social
Democrats, and his dream of a decisive role for the worker councils
in the new republic never came to fruition. Eisner categorically
resisted excluding his opponents, believing that this would only lead
to further bloodshed. Gurganus argues that the subsequent chaotic
period in Bavaria showed he was not wrong in that prediction. He
prided himself on having organized the first fully democratic
elections in Bavaria, in which Eisner's USPD came in sixth at the
_Landtag_ (state) elections in January 1919. When he went to hand in
his resignation in February, he was assassinated.

Eisner's principled stance had led him to publish documents that
confirmed German atrocities during the war, hoping to irrevocably
tarnish the reputation of the 1914 SPD leadership and also the ancien
régime, something for which the nationalists never forgave him. As
Christian Bartolf and Dominique Miething note in their contribution
on Landauer and Eisner in _The German Revolution in Political
Theory_, Eisner and his council republic's significance lay in the
fact that it embodied everything the embryonic Nazis despised. The
latter's political engagement was formed in the Bierkeller-atmosphere
of radical democratic and short-lived left-communist chaos of the
Bavarian Revolution: "Julius Streicher in Nuremberg, but also Rudolf
Heß, Adolf Hitler, Ernst Röhm, Hans Frank, Alfred Rosenberg and
Karl Haushofer and other future Nazi criminals started their career
in these organizations for the militaristic and propagandistic
defense against the authoritarian council type (soviet)."[3] Gurganus
might have elaborated more on the interaction between the radical
revolutionary and counterrevolutionary sides of this Bavarian
political melting pot.

Gurganus defends Eisner against both hagiographic accounts and
against the charge of having been an intellectual out of his depth
when leading a government. He had years of political experience, even
though he had never been in the Reichstag. Curtailing the democratic
rights of his opponents would have been necessary in order to keep
his republic alive; however, he also accepted the consequences of his
pacifist convictions. Ultimately, though, it is impossible to tell
how long his republic might have endured had his tenure not been cut
short so brutally.

This biography's principle disadvantage is Gurganus's sometimes
overly apologetic stance. He could have done more to explain Eisner's
perspective on opponents from within the socialist movement, such as
that of Erhard Auer, the Majority Social Democratic Party leader in
Bavaria. Nor does he have much patience for Eisner's first wife, whom
he deserted rather cruelly. Additionally, as with many American
biographies, the charm and simultaneous tediousness of this biography
lie in the meticulous way Eisner's activities are chronicled: we are
offered a beautiful picture of his versatility as an intellectual,
writing theater reviews, political commentary, and literary criticism
all at the same time. This, however, comes at the cost of a pointed
analysis, leaving it to the reader to intuit the main points of each


[1]. Hannah Arendt, _On Revolution _(New York: Penguin, 1990 [1963]),

[2]. Gaard Kets and James Muldoon, eds., _The German Revolution and
Political Theory _(London: Palgrave, 2019), 1.

[3]. Christian Bartolf and Dominique Miething, "Gustav Landauer and
the Revolutionary Principle of Non-violent Non-cooperation," in Kets
and Muldoon, eds., _The German Revolution and Political Theory_, 217.

Citation: Wim de Jong. Review of Gurganus, Albert Earle, _Kurt
Eisner: A Modern Life_. H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews. July, 2019.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53193

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States

Best regards,

Andrew Stewart

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