The Revolutionary Shop Stewards are a neglected part of the German Revolution of 1918-23, but the political lessons need clear understanding, argues Dominic Alexander
Ralf Hoffrogge, Working-Class Politics in the German Revolution: Richard Müller, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards and the Origins of the Council Movement, trans. Joseph B. Keady (Haymarket Books 2015), xv, 253pp.
The German Revolution, which began at the end of the First World War in 1918, is much less well known than the Russian Revolution of 1917, yet it is of almost equal importance, despite, or rather because of its defeat. The consequence of its failure was a resurgence of the forces of reaction, and, in due course, the triumph of the Nazis. Conversely, if the German working class had succeeded in creating a revolution to match that of Russia in October 1917, the whole balance of forces across Europe would have been fundamentally altered. Lenin and Trotsky both had wagered on the coming victory of the German working class to support the soviet revolution, and indeed hoped that Russia’s example would spark an international wave of proletarian revolution beginning in Germany.
The failure of the German revolution, whose final embers burnt out in 1923, meant that the soviet state in Russia was isolated. This provided the context for the rise of the counter-revolutionary forces of Stalin and the bureaucracy. The reasons why Germany failed to produce its widely expected socialist revolution are therefore of tremendous importance. In this context, a political biography of a significant, but less well known, figure in the revolutionary movement, is going to be at least a useful addition to the scholarship on the era. Hoffrogge’s Working-Class Politics in the German Revolution is certainly that, but while as a guide to the lessons of the German experience it is interesting in places, it is ultimately one-sided and unconvincing.
The subject of the book, Richard Müller, was a leader of the Revolutionary Shop Stewards (RSS), a Berlin centred, syndicalist movement which emerged during the First World War. To begin with, Müller was a trade-union leader of lathe operators, and was involved in wildcat strikes as early as 1914 (p.27). It was not until 1918 that the Revolutionary Shop Stewards emerged as a fully-fledged and committedly radical organisation. By this point, they were co-operating closely with the Spartacist League, led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, among others. The RSS very nearly, but did not quite, join the newly founded Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in the first weeks of January 1919. Hoffrogge is doubtlessly correct that the role of Müller and the RSS has been severely underrated, at least by the Stalinist tradition, as against an idealised version of the KPD (p.5).
Yet, rather than attempting to right the balance towards a new assessment, the argument here is simply stood on its head. The Spartacists and ‘Party’ Communists are denigrated at every opportunity, and the role of the Shop Stewards’ movement is asserted as primary, and correct in itself. Hoffrogge is attempting to show that Müller and the RSS represent the founding of a particular tendency on the left known as ‘council communism’. This is a species of ultra-leftism which rejects party organisation, insisting that the socialist revolution can only be achieved on the basis of workers’ councils alone, even trade unions being hopelessly compromised. This polemical purpose gets in the way of the formulation of a convincing analysis at all the most important points in the story.
What raises the book above being a mere polemical screed is the attention to empirical detail, through which a solid record of Müller’s political life is usefully established. This account in fact makes it clear that Müller himself was not a pure syndicalist or hopeless sectarian. After initial hesitation, he did join the KPD, and remained throughout a number of crises, until the mid-1920s at least. He also always saw Lenin and the Bolsheviks as part of a ‘model of an ideal revolution’ (p.193). Although Müller evidently considered the workers’ councils, or soviets as they were called in the Russian Revolution, to be the most important structure for a workers’ revolution, there appears to have been no definitive, strategic rejection of political organisation as such on his part. This was not just while he stayed within the KPD, but apparently even thereafter, when he became involved in the DIV, a minority revolutionary trade-union organisation (pp.218-19).
After that point, Müller drifted further and further away from active politics, finally abandoning the workers’ cause altogether. The former steel worker had become something of a rack-renting landlord by 1930 (p.223). Despite this ignominious end, a revolutionary’s actions in the years of defeat, while movements disintegrate, should not be used to judge actions and attitudes taken earlier. Müller’s importance should be assessed on the basis of activity during the years 1917-1923, when a successful workers’ revolution was within the grasp of socialists in Germany.
It is in this respect that Hoffrogge’s one-sided treatment of events represents a missed opportunity to explore the dialectics of revolution. The network of Shop Stewards emerged only gradually in the course of the war, and in opposition to the war-time political consensus, which included the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and trade-union leaderships. The first split in the German labour movement had, however, occurred in 1914, with the revolutionary tendency around Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht breaking definitively with the official leadership over the issue of the war. Their principled stance earned them a growing respect as the horrors of the war unfolded.
In attempting to assert the independence of the Shop Stewards’ networks, Hoffrogge systematically dismisses the obvious role of the leaders of the political anti-war opposition (Luxemburg is barely mentioned at all). Without their consistent, public campaigning against the conflict, standing against almost the entirety of the official labour movement, it is difficult to see the Shop Stewards’ movement becoming as revolutionary as it did. The first strikes in 1914 were, in themselves, non-political. Hoffrogge admits that Müller and the Shop Stewards were politicised only by the progress of events, still not taking a revolutionary stance even by 1916 (p.33).
Certainly, as economic conditions became increasingly desperate by the closing years of the war, the workers’ restiveness would have increased, and this lies behind the revolutionary crisis which was to come. Neither economic conditions, nor syndicalist organisation alone could, however, have produced the general politicised opposition to the war that grew in strength from 1916 onwards. Müller himself was not providing any sort of political lead. Hoffrogge admits ‘Müller’s refusal to mix union politics with politics more broadly or to even discuss urgent political issues at a lathe operator’s section conference in April 1915’ (p.31).
Nonetheless, politicisation was happening anyway. In 1916, 55,000 workers went on strike in support of Liebknecht who had been arrested for his call: ‘Down with the war! Down with the government!’ (p.36). Hoffrogge’s point here is to argue that this strike has been unduly associated with the Spartacists, and that ‘the strike was in fact organised by the Revolutionary Shop Stewards’ (p.36). On a practical level, this might be true to some extent, but it seems to miss the real picture entirely, that the Spartacists had provided the political leadership, which enabled large numbers of workers to focus their grievances on the war itself, and identify with the most radical opposition to the state.
By this point, there was growing dismay within liberal and ‘moderate’ socialist political circles at the course of the war. These had supported the government and the war effort wholeheartedly thus far, but frustrations with the official stance provoked a split within the SPD. The so-called ‘Majority’ SPD remained in support of the government and the war, as against the anti-war Independent Socialists (USPD). The latter formation contained some quite right-wing elements, including the notorious revisionist Eduard Bernstein, who disavowed the goal of revolution altogether. Without the presence of the revolutionary Spartacists, it would have been entirely possible for highly ‘moderate’ elements, who had only become anti-war at a very late stage, to influence the direction of rising discontent. These elements stood in the way of any effective radical or revolutionary activity.
Thus, the fact that workers in large numbers supported Liebknecht even in 1916 is itself a sign of the importance of the Spartacist political organisation. This is not, in turn, to deny the vital significance of militant organisation within the trade unions, and therefore of the importance of Müller’s Shop Steward’s networks. It is, however, to object to an approach which raises one above the other, as if the two sides were not dialectically related; the revolution needed both industrial and political organisation, but neither was complete without the other.
The same problem bedevils the discussion of the events in 1918, which began with mass strikes against the war, shut down largely by the SPD leadership, but which ended with a full-scale revolution against the Kaiser’s regime in Germany. In November soviet-style organisations spread rapidly among soldiers and sailors, and a new republic was declared, which many took to be a socialist one. Again, throughout all these events, the importance of the RSS is undeniable, but Hoffrogge’s insistence on a polemic, largely against Karl Liebknecht, prevents a full picture from emerging, which could have illuminated the problems and possibilities of the revolutionary period.
Hoffrogge repeatedly criticises the Spartacists’ ‘actionism’, arguing, without any substantial justification, that they had no roots in the working class and no sense of how the workers thought (pp.38, 48, 60 for example). Yet, it is clear that Müller himself was not regularly a sound judge of working-class mood, being consistently against mass action on the grounds that the workers were not in a revolutionary mood. He took this position even in the autumn of 1918, as revolution overwhelmed the old regime (p.63, p.68, and on Müller’s ‘pragmatism’, not being ‘a risk-taker’, generally, see pp.233-4).
Karl Liebknecht is certainly not above criticism, but his ‘actionism’ in November 1918 was surely the correct strategy against that of the RSS. While the Shop Stewards wanted to keep any revolutionary plans secret, and delay actions, Liebknecht wanted open organising and mass demonstrations as soon as possible. Again, the political outlook of the Spartacists was clearly more appropriate, as this was the moment to maximise the spread of a revolutionary message, and to involve the widest possible layers of the mass of people. Müller’s tendency was decidedly behind events at this point, and clearly not in touch with the wider mood of German society.
Moreover, Hoffrogge’s argument accuses the Spartacist tradition of being authoritarian, in contrast to the supposedly democratic and more working-class syndicalism of the RSS. Rather, in this situation, it was the Shop Stewards who were behaving in a closed and conspiratorial fashion while the Spartacists, in seeking overtly to reach the widest layers of the working class, were surely acting with far more genuine democratic openness.
The greatest disaster of the German Revolution was the January 1919 Berlin uprising, during which Liebknecht and Luxemburg were captured and murdered by the forces of the old regime. Liebknecht bears a significant part of the blame for this premature action, which Luxemburg opposed vehemently, and for the right reasons (once the decision has been made, however, she participated without reservation). Nonetheless, this so-called ‘Spartacist’ revolt represented the enthusiasm of a young revolutionary minority in Berlin, which existed well beyond the ranks of the Spartacists themselves. Indeed, the RSS were divided over the action just as the Communists were (see Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918-1923, p.78).
The tragedy of the January rising was not the result of an authoritarian ‘party communism’, but instead it was the consequence of undeveloped party organisation. The Spartacists were not a disciplined and experienced party like the Bolsheviks in Russia. They did not have sufficient capacity either to control their own ranks, or to spread understanding of the right political direction outwards during an unstable revolutionary moment. Thus, the lesson to be drawn from the events of 1918-19 is not that there was too much Bolshevik thinking involved on the Spartacist side, but that there had been too little Bolshevik revolutionary organisation in the years leading up to the revolution.
After the Berlin revolt, the Communist Party, debilitated by assassinations of its best leaders, was increasingly prone to serious political errors. Müller can be found on the right side of a number of arguments, for example, he opposed the catastrophic March Action of 1921. Hoffrogge usefully corrects previous assumptions that Müller left the Communist Party with Paul Levi in 1921, over this issue. He shows that Müller remained until at least 1924, and only gradually ceased political activity, but this new story of his later years does not alter the fact that Müller, and the tendency he represented, declined in importance precipitously after the early period of the revolution. Hoffrogge’s reduction of the KPD’s problems to a monolithic conception of ‘Bolshevisation’ means that the account of Müller’s time in the KPD is not greatly illuminating.
A central concern of the book is the ‘council movement’, which Müller saw as the central locus for working-class revolution. The workers’ councils were indeed of crucial importance, but they alone could not make the revolution. As in Russia, so in Germany, in the absence of a strong revolutionary party, soviets would become dominated by reformist organisations. In Russia, the Bolsheviks from the start had a strong enough presence to challenge the Menshevik and Social Revolutionary soviet factions. Even so, it took time to build Bolshevik majorities in the councils there.
In Germany, the Majority SPD, implacably hostile to revolution, and therefore to the potential power of the councils, dominated many of the councils from the very beginning. The councils were gradually side-lined by the SPD government, and their revolutionary potential was whittled away. The only alternative to this was a political organisation capable of leading the councils away from obedience to the reformist leaders who hated the revolution. This alternative was, of course, the KPD.
Hoffrogge asserts at the beginning of his book that in ‘international Marxist-Leninist historiography, the failure of the German Revolution was largely explained as a “betrayal” by leading Social Democratic politicians’. This narrative is, moreover, ‘shared by dissident currents within Marxism’ (p.3). At best, this is disingenuous, since there has long been debate about what went wrong in the revolutionary movement and the KPD during these years.1
Hoffrogge insists that criticising the revisionists of German Social Democracy is to create an explanation for the revolution’s failure that is ‘embarrassingly idealist’ (p.4). This is to confuse idealist philosophy with politics, which is not simply a matter of ideas, but is about material activism. Ultimately the approach taken in this book, far from representing a non-authoritarian communist tradition, eschewing a putative ‘idealism’ of politics, leads in the direction of a mechanical determinism which, like Müller himself, would be incapable of perceiving opportunities and taking the initiative in a revolutionary situation. Politics is not an idealist force, nor an authoritarian imposition on the workers. It is through organised political activity that it is possible for the working class to take conscious direction of history.
1 The most accessible way into these discussions is probably Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918-1923 (Bookmarks 1982), but Pierre Broué, The German Revolution 1917-1923 (Haymarket Books, Historical Materialism Series, volume 5, 2006), is also an important classic.
Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).
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