Ideas & Debates

100 Years of the German Revolution: Interview with Ralf Hoffrogge

’The Workers Invented a Concept for Socialist Transformation’

On November 9, 1918, the revolution began in Germany. We spoke with historian Ralf Hoffrogge about the role of the "Revolutionary Stewards."

November 05, 2018

The 9th of this month is the centenary of the November Revolution of 1918. However, this anniversary is deliberately hidden by the celebrations about the fall of the Berlin wall on November 9, 1989. There is an attempt by official historiography to erase the first modern workers’ revolution in an advanced Western country from memory.

At the time, this event was recognized as fundamental. Lenin went so far as to say that the Third International was truly founded with the first congress of the Communist Party of Germany, on the eve of the German Civil War, two months before the world congress took place. The Bolsheviks saw Soviet Russia united with a socialist Germany as an invincible bulwark of revolution.

This hope did not materialize. Between November 1918 and January 1919, the first stage of the revolution closed. This was followed by a bloody civil war with heavy fighting that lasted until mid- 1919. Insurrections took place at different times in every corner of the country. They were defeated, one after the other, with blood and fire. The workers’ vanguard and the organizations of the radical left were weak and overtaken by events. Social Democracy, as the "party of order", took over the government. They combined repression and assassinations of revolutionary leaders such as Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht (as well as many others) with certain democratic concessions. The German Revolution and the lessons it provided defined the principal debates in the international workers’ movement in the early 1920’s.

To begin a commemoration which will continue for the next few months, we spoke with Ralf Hoffrogge (born 1980), a historian and researcher at the Institute for Social Movements at Ruhr University in Bochum. He is a member of the editorial board of the journal of labor movement studies (Arbeit-Bewegung-Geschichte). The second German edition of his biography of Richard Müller, The Man Behind the November Revolution, was published a few months ago. An English edition was published in 2015 as Working-Class Politics in the German Revolution. Müller was one of the main leaders of the events of 100 years ago, as the president of the executive council of the workers’ councils of Berlin – and until December 16, 1918, Müller was even technically Germany’s head of state.

Within the left today there are different views of the revolution: from Social Democracy, from old-school Stalinism (particularly by the self-styled "Marxist Leninist" historians of the former East Germany), and also from the reformist party "Die Linke"; there are also visions from "left communist" and anti-Bolshevik traditions (particularly related to the formers Workers’ Communist Party of Germany, KAPD), as well as from Trotskyism. We will be presenting the latter in the coming weeks on Left Voice. We can also recommend the monumental work by historian Pierre Broué: The German Revolution 1917-1923. These different interpretations focus on different currents that were active in the events of 1918-19. Here, Ralf Hoffrogge presents us with yet another interpretation that is different from those already mentioned. His work focuses on the tendency known as the "Revolutionary Stewards," whose main leader was Richard Müller.

In your biography of Richard Müller, you argue that the histories of the German Revolution of 1918-19 have been dominated by the canonical narratives of the Cold War, particularly the historiographical agendas of East and West Germany. But after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that landscape changed, with new interpretations emerging. Can you tell us about the previously dominant narratives and how these new visions, including yours, are different?

In Germany, the legacy of the German workers’ movement was disputed between the Federal Republic in the West and the German Democratic Republic in the East. Both the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), the ruling party in East Germany, and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), a mass party in the West, had their own versions of history—quite a few historians were party members.

Of course, freedom of speech was fundamentally different in West and East Germany. Nevertheless, parallel narratives evolved: In 1918, it was the parties that made history, and the main result of the revolution was the division between Communism and Social Democracy. There was some research about the Independent Social Democrats, the USPD, which formed a middle ground between Communism and Social Democracy from 1917 to 1922.

There was also was very interesting research on the workers’ councils and the trade unions—but research on political parties dominated the scene. This meant that the original and interesting part of the German Revolution—the radicalization of soldiers and workers on the shop floor—was often overlooked. My thesis is that this radicalization is crucial—without the evolution of an independent network of antiwar activists within the German trade unions, especially within the metalworkers’ union, the revolution would have taken a very different course. That is why I tried to use the biography of a metalworker, Richard Müller, to cast new light on this “revolution on the shop floor.”

Müller was the chief representative of the Revolutionary Stewards (“Revolutionäre Obleute”), a political current that was almost overlooked in those old narratives and that your book highlights. What were the principal currents of socialism that split apart in the period between the outbreak of the First World War and the revolution in 1918?

In August 1914, many socialists were shocked when the SPD decided to support the kaiser’s war. There were, however, very few open protests against this decision. Even Karl Liebknecht voted in favor of the war bonds in August 1914—he still felt bound by party discipline. Only in December did Liebknecht break this discipline and refuse to vote for a second series of war bonds. This was the first sign of disunity within the SPD.

Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg formed the International Group and later the Spartacus League, as the radical Marxist left of the Social Democracy. But it is noteworthy that within the moderate center around Kautsky, and even among the revisionists like Eduard Bernstein, the war was not popular either. Therefore, in 1917 the SPD split along uneven lines: The Independent Social Democrats (USPD) included the Spartacists, the Centrists and the Revisionists. There was also a separate current called the Bremen Radical Leftists—disciples of Anton Pannekoek and Karl Radek, both important for the later evolution of Council Communism.

The USPD also included a network of trade unionists—this is where Richard Müller enters the scene. He was a lathe operator in the war industry. Müller was no party politician, although he was a member of the SPD and then the USPD. He was a shop steward for the socialist metalworkers’ union (Deutscher Metallarbeiter-Verband, or DMV). Müller was not a full-time trade union official. His task was organizing the shop floor. In the beginning, Müller and his coworkers did not oppose the war. But as living conditions for Berlin’s working population worsened, and his union opposed strikes, he organized wildcat strikes with other shop stewards. Already before 1914, Müller was the elected representative for all of Berlin’s 9,000 lathe operators. This meant that he had a preexisting network in the factories. Müller won others for this network, such as Emil Barth, a representative of the Berlin plumbers within the DMW.

It is interesting that Müller and his network did not publish a single flyer before 1918. They relied on the USPD and the Spartacus League for agitation—and concentrated on organizing within the factories, working only by word-of-mouth propaganda. The outcome was an interesting mix of both vanguard and grassroots organization. On the one hand, the Revolutionary Stewards formed a close-knit conspiracy that no police spy could enter. But on the other hand, they had a large base in the factories. In a nutshell, the Stewards expressed a vertical split within the metalworkers’ union: Important parts of the base broke away from the official policy. The officials and the apparatus then lost control of things—their nonstrike policy could not be enforced. Müller and his network were able to organize three mass strikes in 1916, 1917 and January 1918. The fourth mass strike then grew into a revolution—it erupted on November 9, 1918.

Ralf Hoffrogge

The decisive period of the revolution (November 1918 to March 1919) began with the fall of the kaiser and the founding of the Republic (November). After that, there were the “Spartacus Uprisings,” as they are commonly known, first in January and then in March 1919. But you reject the term “Spartacus Uprisings” for both events. Why?

It is little known, but more than half of the leadership of the uprising in January 1919 was from the network of Revolutionary Stewards. Müller, like Rosa Luxemburg in the beginning, opposed the uprising because he thought it was premature—Luxemburg changed her mind, Müller did not. Nevertheless, most fighters and even leaders of that uprising were members of the USPD, not from Spartacus (as the newly formed Communist Party was still called in the press). Nevertheless, the myth of a Spartacus Uprising was convenient: Social Democrats and the political right could use it to denounce the radicals—and later Marxist-Leninist historians used the term to demonstrate that the uprisings had been communist-led. In fact, they were not. They were results of another wave of radicalization: Workers, unhappy that the promised socialization of key industries was not happening, demanded political change. In January, this evolved into a strike and an uprising. In March, it was a big general strike. I would argue that the events in March 1919 were more important since they were not restricted to the Berlin area. Actually, it was the March 1919 strikes that managed to get works councils into the Weimar Constitution. Those still exist in Germany—not for workers’ control, but as minimum amount of workers’ representation that employers cannot take away so easily.

The hallmark of your book is its emphasis on tendencies toward workers’ self-organization. Could you tell us how the Executive Council of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils was formed in Berlin?

The Vollzugsrat was formed at an assembly in a circus hall in Berlin on November 10—one day after the revolution. The Revolutionary Stewards dominated this meeting. They had won credibility as strike leaders since 1916 and especially in the mass strike of January 1918. The stewards intended to form a Council Government without the pro-war Social Democrats. But the masses did not go along with this: They demanded unity of the working class. This is an interesting impulse—Social Democratic and unionized workers were used to one party representing their interests, so they wanted to heal the split of 1917. The soldiers, most of them just recently drawn into politics, also wanted to include both Social Democratic parties. So the assembly agreed on parity: The Executive Council was formed by both soldiers and workers, each split into a USPD and an SPD caucus.

The same was done with the smaller but more important Council of People’s Delegates. This was a council of six members: Three USPD and three SPD, most prominent among them Friedrich Ebert. The relationship between both was like Senate and Government—the Vollzugsrat was larger and would, in theory, “control” the peoples’ deputies. But in fact, the Executive Council was soon outmaneuvered by the government—in December 1918, they simply called themselves “Reichsregierung,” or Imperial Government, taking over the title of the former government and abandoning the title of a workers’ council. Müller, who was head of the Executive Council, could not do much. He and his fellow council members had to see how power was taken away because the Vollzugsrat was blocked by bitter disputes between the USPD and the SPD.

What did dual power at the state and also the shop floor level look like, and what was Müller’s viewpoint? What were the debates on “socialization” of the economy and workers’ power within the workplace?
Unlike in Russia, dual power in Germany was only short-lived and fragile. Council power in the factories but also in the municipal administration often meant “control” in the sense of “oversight”—not in the sense of taking power and responsibility. It never got ahold of organizing everyday life, neither in the workplaces nor in daily life. There were socializations and occupations of factories, but many workers did not want to disturb the old systems of production, distribution and administration because they were afraid of food shortages. This fear was heavily exploited by both the SPD and the still existing bourgeois newspapers—the role of the media in 1918 is still an underestimated field. The result was that the first national congress of councils from December 16-20, 1918, decided to elect a National Assembly instead of formalizing the improvised council system. For the radicals, this was a tragedy—Müller called it “suicidal.” As a historian, one might argue that council power ended here—after only five weeks. In fact, the councils lasted longer and tried to reverse the balance of power several times—the strikes of January 1919 and March 1919 were mentioned. But these attempts failed.

Cover of the books "Richard Müller. The man behind the November Revolution," and "Working-class politics in the German Revolution," by Ralf Hofrogge

What were the differences between Müller and the Revolutionary Stewards on the one hand and the Spartacists on the other? What was his standpoint during the decisive days of January 1919?

During the war, the Revolutionary Stewards were always careful to be in tune with the masses. They never tried to mobilize for action when they felt that the majority of their coworkers would not follow—this was their trade unionist heritage, a strategy of careful and gradual radicalization. Spartacus instead wanted to mobilize as confrontationally as possible—calculating that police violence and even casualties would increase the anger of the masses. Eventually, it was the Stewards who successfully organized strikes—the Spartacists only had isolated strongholds in industry. But they dominated in the field of agitation: Their “Spartacus Letters” were one of the most influential antiwar publications.

In January 1919, this conflict was present again. Müller spoke against an armed insurrection at this point. He feared an isolated and premature explosion in Berlin without support from other cities. Eventually, this was exactly what happened: The general strike in Berlin attracted several hundred thousand workers, but the armed uprising only a few hundred. Most workers and soldiers did not want civil war—they had just started a revolution to end war! Nevertheless, half of the Revolutionary Stewards’ leadership joined the uprising—this split was the end of the group. The Revolutionary Stewards still existed as a network afterward, but no longer formed a kind of alternative leadership as they had done in 1916-18. While the Revolutionary Stewards were the dominant force during the war, in 1919 the newly born Communist Party (formerly Spartacus League) would take over the role of leading the more radical currents within the German Revolution.

How did the workers’ councils recede during 1919, and what was the policy of the Social Democratic government to neutralize them, and thus put an end to dual power?

Dual power was always fragile. I think the agitation that any factory occupations, “wild socializations,” etc., would cause hunger and starvation was the most efficient deterrent. It can be seen in the decisions of the National Congress of Councils in December 1918: They voted in favor of a National Assembly, but at the same time demanded the socialization of industry. The expectation behind this contradiction was that the new government would implement socialization, and that the councils therefore did not need to take full power—so they did not. Indeed, the Social Democratic government promised socialization but never acted on this. In March 1919, there was growing dissatisfaction and a last attempt to enforce socialization: general strikes in Berlin, the Ruhr region and the Halle-Leipzig region. But it was too late: Many territorial councils had already dissolved, soldiers councils had disappeared with the demobilization of the army, and most factory councils were caught in wage struggles and shop-floor affairs. There is a contemporary quote that the revolution “ebbed away in a giant wage struggle”—this is true to a certain degree. The strategy to keep workers busy with local conflicts and deferring larger demands like socialization into committees was eventually successful. And where this strategy did not work, brute violence was used: The paramilitary Freikorps suppressed all attempts at a “second revolution”—such as the March Strikes of 1919, but also the short-lived Council Republics in Bremen and Bavaria.

Finally, why does it matter today to look at the German Revolution from the perspective of workers’ councils?

I think it is important to study how political activism works on the shop floor. We cannot explain what happened in Germany in 1918 if we look only at party politics, as both Social Democratic and Marxist-Leninist historiography have done all too often. Looking at the councils, their achievements and their shortcomings helps us question still popular ideas about “the” vanguard party, which only has to raise the right slogans to “activate” the masses that are waiting for leadership. In fact, the radical innovation of 1918 was that the masses actually self-organized. The councils neither evolved out of a theory, nor were they simply taken over from the Soviet example. The German council movement was born out of an everyday necessity. To express discontent that was not represented within the political system, the workers radicalized tactics used in strikes in prewar times: Strike committees evolved into councils. Without intending to, the workers invented a concept for socialist transformation.