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Ralf Hoffrogge. Working-Class Politics in the German Revolution. Richard Müller, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards and the Origins of the Council Movement. Transl. by Joseph B. Keady. Ed. by Radhika Desai. [Historical Materialism Book Series, Vol. 77.] Brill, Leiden [etc.] 2014. xiv, 253 pp. € 190.00; $141.00.

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 April 2016

Ben Lewis*
University of SheffieldWestern Bank, Sheffield, S10 2TN, United Kingdom
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Book Review
© Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis 2016 

Richard Müller (1880–1943) is by no means the first name that springs to mind when thinking about the historical actors of the 1918 November Revolution in Germany. For most scholars and activists, the martyred communist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht or the social-democratic statesmen Phillip Scheidemann and Friedrich Ebert are more likely candidates. Ralf Hoffrogge, a historian at the University of Potsdam, challenges this state of affairs by outlining how a revolutionary lathe operator from poor rural origins became pivotal to the unfolding of German history through his intimate contacts with the organized working-class movement. Hoffrogge further makes the case that Müller’s legacy has been crushed between “the millstones of social democracy and Marxism-Leninism” (p. 197), with the result that our collective understanding of the collapse of the German Kaiserreich and the emergence of the Weimar Republic has been distorted by the particular shibboleths and foundation myths subsequently created by historians on both sides of the Cold War frontier. By foregrounding the life and work of Müller and shifting the terms of the debate, Hoffrogge is successful in calling into question this historical consensus.

After all, it is rather odd that Müller has been so marginalized in German labour history given that he was central to pretty much everything that the workers’ movement achieved after 1914. In particular, he was a leader of the Revolutionäre Obleute (Revolutionary Shop Stewards’ movement) – a militant, semi-secretive union network which opposed the Burgfrieden (fortress peace) between the official workers’ movement and the Kaiser state during the First World War and organized a number of impressive anti-war strikes that laid the foundations for the upheaval of November 1918. So influential was this network of militants that leading revolutionaries such as Liebknecht came to the conclusion that it was futile to call actions or demonstrations without the group’s official backing. As proof of how central this network was to the success of the November uprising, Müller was elected Chairman of the Executive Council of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils in 1918. He later edited the council-communist publication Der Arbeiterrat (Workers’ Council), working alongside thinkers such as Karl Korsch, and was integral to the trade-union activity of both the Independent Social Democracy (USPD) and the German Communist Party (KPD).

The book, a translation and expanded edition of his 2008 work published in German under the catchier – if perhaps slightly misleading – title of Richard Müller: Der Mann hinter der Novemberrevolution (Richard Müller: The Man behind the November Revolution) can certainly be seen as the most authoritative biography of a man who, until now, has remained largely in the shadows. In particular, the study makes four valuable contributions to labour history.

First, it draws on a variety of rare sources in order to gather together the fragments of Müller’s youth and his later years, providing an in-depth account of how he became a union activist and how, towards the end of his life, he turned his back on working-class politics to become a millionaire Berlin landlord, earning the scorn of both the SPD and National Socialist Press for his rather dubious business practices and his exploitation of working-class tenants.

Second, it weaves the individual experiences and outlooks of Müller and his close comrades into a broader account of German radical history from World War I through to the mid-1920s. In so doing, events such as the January 1919 uprising, the aborted Kapp-Lütwitz putsch of March 1920, and the failed insurrection that has come to be known as the “March Action” of 1921 are all portrayed in a fresh light through a focus on Müller’s particular interpretations of, and contributions to, these events. We learn about Müller’s – often strained – relations with German Communists such as Liebknecht (who the ever-grounded Müller charged with “revolutionary gymnastics” and with being distant from the workers to which he was appealing) and also how the shop stewards cooperated with other organizations and trends in Germany and beyond – from the rank-and-file union members of the SPD through to the left-wing syndicalists and the Russian Bolsheviks. Particular highlights include descriptions of a secretive meeting in a Neukölln pub to plan the November insurrection; Müller’s letters written to the Comintern to protest the side-lining of leading KPD militants; and an account of how Gustav Noske, the self-proclaimed SPD “bloodhound” of the German Revolution, physically destroyed records of the meetings of the Executive Council of the German Councils. (Fortunately, Müller kept his private copy so that today it is possible to read the proceedings.)

Third, Hoffrogge sheds new light on the role played by women in the shop stewards’ network. Two in particular – Cläre Casper and Lucie Heimburger-Gottschar – are mentioned for their brave work in the dangerous field of arms procurement for the network (apparently, single women were least likely to be suspected of stashing weapons). Heimburger-Gottschar recalls how “quite a lot of young girls” leafleted for the Revolutionary Shop Stewards in 1918 and how these young women were also “entrusted with taking away weapons or picking them up beforehand” (p. 64). Hopefully, this little-known aspect of the November Revolution can become the subject of future research.

Fourth, Hoffrogge usefully expands on the thorny relationship between making history and writing about it. Müller did both. In the 1920s, he compiled a three-volume history of the revolution which, according to Hoffrogge, has exerted a significant, but largely unnoticed, influence on subsequent historiography in East and West. For instance, Sebastian Haffner’s hugely popular Die verratene Revolution (1969) drew heavily on Müller’s argument that the stormy years after 1918 amounted to a civil war. Chapters 10 (“Richard Müller as Historian of the German Revolution 1923–1925”) and 11 (“Footnotes and Suppression – Richard Müller’s Impact on Historiography”) exemplify Hoffrogge’s knowledge of the historiography of the German labour movement and make fascinating reading for any historian of the period.

Müller’s life was characterized by repeated and failed attempts to establish and sustain independent working-class organizations. All of these attempts were ultimately in vain: they were undermined either by the manoeuvres of the trade-union apparatus in the German Metal Workers’ Union or the Confederation of German Trade Unions; by the force of Gustav Noske’s wave of violence against the council movement; or by an increasingly aggressive Weimar state apparatus that clamped down on the left but often turned a blind eye to the putschism of the far right. On account of Müller’s continual failures, Hoffrogge refers to him as the “Sisyphus of the revolution”. Indeed, one cannot avoid the impression that Müller’s efforts, while doubtlessly heroic and inspirational, were, in many ways, doomed to fail from the outset. As several of his contemporaries in the revolutionary movement highlighted at the time, Müller’s conception of a “pure council system” of workplace organization as the basis of the transition from capitalism to socialism was rather aloof to the struggle for state power above and beyond the point of production. This was, indeed, the terrain on which political parties were able to intervene and shape the revolutionary process in a way that the councils simply could not – something that is evident both in the behaviour of the SPD in November 1918–1919 and that of the Bolsheviks in 1917. As Hoffrogge explains, Müller’s reading of the Russian Revolution, which so greatly inspired him, was not so much based on an appreciation of the hegemony of Russian Bolshevism and the fruits of decades of party-political organization, but rather as embodying the ascendance of the council idea. For Müller, the workers’ councils were clearly the form which workers’ power had to assume. One gets the impression, however, that the price of such a focus on the council system prevented Müller and his comrades from articulating a radical alternative to the SPD – a party that was able to draw on its mass support across the nation as a whole in order to undermine the revolutionary process and ultimately reduce the council movement to a solely economic concern.

Hoffrogge is clearly sympathetic to Müller’s strategic conception of a grassroots socialism (which Hoffrogge, often unhelpfully, counterposes to party-political organization), but is not uncritical of his strategic thought. When it comes to Müller’s understanding of a council republic, for example, Hoffrogge notes that the focus on the workplace actually means that housewives and the unemployed would be excluded from the decision-making process: an obvious shortcoming of Müller’s workerist philosophy. While Müller’s understanding of Marxism certainly left a place for working-class party political organization (he was a member of both the USPD and the KPD), Hoffrogge correctly notes that “his political home had always been the DMV [the German Metalworkers’ Union] and the council movement” (p. 147).

Hoffrogge’s research is a genuine service to both scholars and activists alike. It provides a meticulously detailed yet eminently readable account of a rich life of struggle that mirrored the fate of the German workers’ movement itself: from its promising beginnings of huge trade-union organization and the mighty SPD through to the defeats and disorientation of the 1920s and that movement’s ultimate destruction in 1933. It seems that Müller lived and breathed these setbacks with such intensity that he ultimately came to shun the movement to which he had devoted his life.