The Promise of A Revolution

Against the Current, No. 181, March/April 2016

William Smaldone

Working-Class Politics in the German Revolution
Richard Müller, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards, and the Origins of the Council Movement
By Ralf Hoffrogge
Leiden, 2015: Brill, $141 hard­cover; Haymarket Books 2015, $28 paper.

WHEN THE BOLSHEVIKS took power in Russia in October 1917, they expected that their action would unleash parallel, working-class revolutions across Europe. While they did not believe that building socialism was feasible in economically backward Russia, they bet the ranch that the Russian Revolution would spark proletarian upheavals in the advanced western states that had the economic power to promote an international socialist transformation.

Looking back almost 100 years later, such an assumption might seem to have been far-fetched. Ultimately, the revolution’s failure to spread left the Bolshevik government surrounded by hostile states intent on destroying it. Isolated, it presided over a devastated country with a small industrial base and a massive, technologically backward agricultural sector.

The Bolsheviks were faced with the challenge of maintaining a “proletarian dictatorship” in a country practically devoid of a proletariat and with such a weak economic foundation that the idea of “building socialism” seemed fantastical.

Yet Lenin was not wrong in his expectation that the world war would unleash revolutionary storms across much of Europe.

Buckling under the social and economic strains of the war and confronted by the overwhelming combined military strength of England, France, Italy and the United States, the Austro-Hungarian, German and Ottoman Empires collapsed in the fall of 1918. In the political and social confusion that followed anything seemed possible as new nations and new political systems, mostly republican in form, emerged from the ruins.

Bolshevik eyes were fixed particularly on Germany, Europe’s strongest industrial power. If a socialist revolution succeeded in Germany, its industrial strength could compensate for Russia’s industrial weakness and provide a basis for the rapid modernization of Russian agriculture.

Such an alliance would greatly improve the prospects for successful revolutions across large swathes of Europe, and it is no wonder that the Bolsheviks worked hard to promote radical left-wing forces in Germany after 1917. It is not surprising, then, that the German Revolution of 1918-1919 has attracted the attention of legions of historians.

The collapse of the monarchy and the establishment of the Weimar Republic — one of the most liberal political systems to emerge during the twentieth century — are interesting subjects in their own right, but have also drawn particular scrutiny because many have sought to trace the victory of National Socialism in 1933 to conflicts among the contending revolutionary forces and the flawed decisions of the victorious German Social Democrats and their middle-class allies.

Fearing a radical revolution along Bolshevik lines, the Social Democrats were prepared to ally themselves with political forces on the right to crush the revolutionary left and create a parliamentary system that left Germany’s economic and social order largely intact.

Rise of the Workers’ Councils

In this study of Richard Müller’s role in the German Revolution, Ralf Hoffrogge sheds light on one of the most important, and yet understudied, aspects of the upheaval: the role of revolutionary shop stewards and workers’ councils in the overthrow of the old order and the establishment of the new one.

The German Revolution had two core components. The first was a “revolution from above,” which began in late September 1918 when the army’s top leaders, Generals Ludendorff and von Hindenburg, determined that the war was lost.

Since the German parliament (the Reichstag) had never actually had any real power under the monarchy and the generals had usurped control of the country from the ineffectual Kaiser Wilhelm II during the war, it was they who should have taken responsibility for the defeat — but the generals had other ideas.

They recommended to the monarch that he appoint a government that, for the first time, would be responsible to the Reichstag, and that this government, resting on a more democratic basis, negotiate the surrender. In this way the democratic civilian government rather than the army would bear the responsibility for the defeat.

The Kaiser acquiesced and on October 3 appointed the Liberal Prince Max of Baden to the Chancellorship. He in turn invited the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the largest single party in the Reichstag, to join a coalition government with several bourgeois parties.

This was a momentous occasion. Even after the socialists had betrayed their internationalist principles in 1914 and supported the government’s war effort, the SPD had been excluded from the cabinet. (For an account of the shattering impact of World War I on Europe’s socialist parties, see William Smaldone’s earlier article in Against the Current, posted at — ed.) Now, led by Friedrich Ebert, a man who “hated revolution like sin,” the party was prepared to participate in a cabinet with those who aimed to “prevent disaster abroad or at home.”(1)

As the new government attempted to negotiate an armistice, however, it lost control of events as the orderly revolution from above soon gave way to a revolution from below. During the first week of November a popular upheaval overthrew the monarchy.

Beginning on November 4 with a mutiny at the naval base in Kiel, revolution swept across the country as German sailors, soldiers and workers, furious after four years of mass slaughter and deprivation, toppled local authorities and established workers’ and soldiers’ councils as centers of revolutionary power.

On November 9, with tens of thousands of workers and soldiers marching on the streets of Berlin, Prince Max announced the abdication of the Kaiser and handed power to Ebert. The next day Ebert invited the small, breakaway antiwar Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) to form a provisional government — the Council of People’s Commissars —- with the SPD.

The question was now who would construct the new order: the Provisional Government resting on the authority of the two parliamentary socialist parties, or the armed councils of soldiers and workers that had power on the ground.

Hoffrogge examines the struggle between these competing centers of power from the perspective of the radicalized workers who made the revolution on the streets of Berlin. Although there is little information available about Richard Müller’s personal life, the author is able to scrape together enough evidence about his origins and private side to give us a sense of the man in his milieu.

Combining this personal material with the extensive public record of Müller’s revolutionary activity, he is able to illustrate the importance and complexity of the revolution from below, the obstacles it faced, and why it failed to transform Germany’s political and social order.

Life of an Activist

Born in 1880 in the tiny village of Weira in Thuringia, Richard Müller was the fourth of seven children. His parents made a modest living managing an inn and a small farm, but economic pressures and their untimely deaths eventually led to bankruptcy. At age 16, like millions of rural people seeking opportunity in rapidly industrializing Germany, Richard moved to the city to seek factory work.

Trained as a lathe operator in the metals industry, he made his way to Hannover where, at the age of 21, he married. Shortly thereafter the family moved to Berlin where he and his wife Katharina raised two children. In 1906, at age 26, Müller joined the German Metalworkers’ Union (DMV) and, at about the same time, the Social Democratic Party.

In the years leading up to August 1914, Müller became an unpaid DMV activist and functionary. An autodidact, he studied the introduction of Frederick Taylor’s methods of “scientific management” and published articles about them and how the workers should respond in the DMV press. He also was involved in debates about how union work can be professionalized to best organize workers in the plants.

The DMV was very successful among skilled lathe operators; by 1915 ninety percent of Berlin’s lathe operators were in the union.

As it did inside the SPD, the coming of the war also led to divisions in the DMV over whether or not the unions should support the government’s war effort. Just as a majority of the party leadership sided with the government, so did the bulk of the DMV’s leaders, but a substantial number of leaders and members, such as Müller, dissented.

Hoffrogge does a good job showing how opposition to the wartime “civil peace” and the state of emergency, which banned strikes, abrogated basic civil rights and censored the press, increased as wartime losses mounted and deprivation intensified. Between 1916 and 1918 Müller became a leader among the shop stewards who increasingly turned against the war and against the government.

At great personal risk — as Müller was for a time, many were imprisoned or conscripted — the stewards began organizing apart from the DMV leadership and built a network of contacts across the country that eventually enabled them to carry out mass strike actions on an large scale.

In January 1918, for example, they helped organize a mass strike in which 400,000 Berlin workers downed tools and demanded peace without annexations or indemnities, more food, an end to the state of siege, a free press, an end to government interference in union affairs, an end to the three-class electoral system in Prussia, and women’s suffrage. Democratization, a mortal threat to the regime, was clearly on the agenda.

Hoffrogge shows how the independent organizing of the shop stewards led to the development of workers’ councils as grass roots institutions in which delegates elected from the shop floor came to represent workers’ interests in the revolutionary ferment of 1918. Whereas many historians tend to conflate their roles in the revolution, he illustrates well the differences that existed between the shop stewards and the Spartacus League.

The latter organization, headed by left-wing SPD leaders such as the imprisoned Rosa Luxemburg and parliamentarian Karl Liebknecht, crystallized the radical anti-war opposition within the party. After the SPD leadership expelled the opposition in early 1917, Spartacus formed the left wing of the newly organized, anti-war USPD.

In the fall of 1918 significant tensions developed between Liebknecht and the Spartacists and Müller and the shop stewards about the forms and timing of revolutionary action. Whereas the Spartacists were for an armed rising sooner rather than later, the shop stewards were concerned about thorough preparation and feared acting too soon.

Uprising and Suppression

The climax of Hoffrogge’s narrative, of course, comes with the revolutionary uprising of November 9, 1918 in which the shop stewards played a key role in organizing huge demonstrations on the streets of Berlin.

The next day, with the agreement of Ebert and the Provisional Government, a mass meeting of delegates from across Berlin elected an Executive Council of Greater Berlin Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils with Richard Müller as one of its two Co-Chairmen. He was, at least on paper, at the head of the revolution’s most powerful institution.

But appearances were deceptive. As Hoffrogge explains, taking power was relatively simple. Holding it was something else. Richard Müller and the revolutionary shop stewards were interested in creating a socialist government in which workers’ power was rooted in workplace-based councils. They were supported in this aim by the Spartacus League and, to a lesser degree, by other elements in the USPD.

The SPD, however, was vehemently opposed to this vision of the revolution. It wanted to create a parliamentary system to facilitate the gradual introduction of socialism via the election of majority-backed socialist governments.

The SPD leaders thought that the councils would usher in a Bolshevik-style dictatorship. To thwart this, they did two things. First they formed a secret alliance with the old officer corps, which agreed to help Ebert use force to defeat mass action by the radical left — including the murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht by a military death squad.

Second, the SPD apparatus was able to mobilize the party’s supporters within the workers and soldiers’ councils. In this way the SPD achieved significant control of the Executive Council and watered down Müller and the shop stewards’ power.

Over the course of several weeks, as the Provisional Government oversaw the signing of the armistice with the Allies and the withdrawal of German armies from the front, it used its influence within the councils to effectively undermine the authority of Müller’s Executive Council, which was also hampered by disputes among SPD, USPD and other delegates over a host of issues.

The SPD delivered a decisive blow at the first National Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils held in Berlin in late December of 1918. With the SPD controlling a strong majority of the delegates, the Congress created a new Central Council to take up the national responsibilities formerly exercised by Müller’s Executive Council, whose purview was now limited to Berlin. Although nominally in charge, the Central Council essentially handed power to the Provisional Government.

In addition, the Congress voted decisively in favor of holding elections to a National Assembly in January. This body, in which the SPD controlled 37% of the seats and the USPD only 7%, then set about writing a constitution that required the support of pro-republican bourgeois parties to pass.

Thus Germany was on its way to becoming a liberal, not a socialist, republic. While it is true that the constitution ensured that workplace-based councils would continue to play a role in labor relations from then on, it would be a very limited one.

The Movement in Decline

For the next five turbulent years, Richard Müller remained a partisan of the council system. Along with Ernst Däumig and others, he worked within the DMV, within the USPD and, later within the German Communist Party (KPD) to develop a model for a nationwide system of workers’ councils that would empower workers economically as well as politically.

Over time, however, support for his efforts ebbed and he became increasingly marginalized. Seeing the councils as rival institutions, most trade unionists were not interested in strengthening them, and among the workers’ parties, only the KPD was committed to them.

His career in the KPD was cut short, due mainly to his opposition to the leadership’s desire to split the union movement and build separate, Communist unions, and to his criticisms of the party’s disastrous efforts to seize power in 1921 and 1923. By 1924 he had been expelled from the party.

Thereafter Müller withdrew from active political life. Interestingly, he turned to writing history and penned a three-volume history of the revolution, based on many primary sources that he had preserved, which remains a key source for historians. His foray into writing and publishing was brief, however, and eventually this former opponent of the capitalist order became a wealthy investor in real estate. He left few traces after the early thirties and died in Germany in 1943.

Hoffrogge narrates Müller’s story and that of the councils effectively. Despite the complexity of the period, he manages to keep Müller at the center of the narrative most of the time while also illuminating the big issues.

The book has some weaknesses. While it is true that the SPD was fully prepared to use force to crush its left-wing opponents, it was also able consistently to mobilize broad support among organized workers for parliament and against the council system. This ability cannot be explained fully by the SPD leadership’s deviousness or propaganda skills, but rather only in the context of a broader analysis of the movement’s history.

For 40 years the socialists had equated democratization with universal suffrage and proportional representation in parliament. Few visionaries of the socialist future, vague as they often were, foresaw the emergence of workers’ councils as permanent institutions of proletarian political and economic power.

The Bolshevik Revolution changed that, of course, but most rank-and-file activists as well as party leaders and intellectuals remained convinced that, while factory councils might be useful institutions to resolve some problems, only parliament offered an inclusive means of building a new political order.

Hoffrogge could also have done more to show how the external context in which the revolution unfolded inhibited radical change.

After the armistice the Allies continued their blockade of German ports, making it difficult to import food and raw materials and to export goods. Starvation, fuel shortages and the threat of Allied military intervention that would smash efforts to socialize the means of production or to permanently empower the councils were real concerns whether or not the SPD was in power.

A discussion of these matters would make clear that any government would have faced enormous external challenges. Overall, however, this work provides a much-needed perspective on the German upheaval from the bottom up. It places Richard Müller’s long neglected role in the revolution at center stage, and reminds us of the revolutionary promise that was the German Revolution.


  1. The quotations are from Werner Maser, Friedrich Ebert: Der erste deutsche Reichspräsident (Munich: Droemer Knauer, 1987), 176, and Susanne Miller, Die Bürde der Macht: Die deutsche Sozialdemokratie, 1918-1920 (Düsseldorf: Droste Verlag, 1978), 37, respectively.
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Sources on the German Revolution

Two books on the German revolution, now available from Haymarket Books, are The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918-1923 by Chris Harman, and the magisterial The German Revolution 1917-1923 by Pierre  Broué. Other useful books in English include David W. Morgan, The Socialist Left and the German Revolution (Cornell UP, 1975); Sebastian Haffner’s older but still interesting, Failure of a Revolution: Germany 1918-1919 (reprinted by Plunkett Lake Press, 2013) and William Pelz, The Spartakusbund and the German Working Class Movement 1914-1919 (Mellen, 1988). One of the best academic books on Germany’s general condition at the end of the war is Richard Bessel, Germany After the First World War (Clarendon Press, 1992).

March-April 2016, ATC 181