The German revolution of 1919 and the years that followed hold many fundamental lessons for today. That includes lessons for the general uprising of the Asian working class that may be developing before our eyes, starting in Myanmar.
The failure of the revolution in Germany was the central factor in the degeneration of the Russian Revolution and, therefore, in the socialist movement globally. An understanding of that world historic failure must involve the role of the Third International also. However, it goes beyond that: Today, there is debate among socialists about whether a revolutionary party is necessary for the working class to take power. Among those who reject that idea, some argue for “council communism”, which is the view that revolutionary workers can take power through building work-place based workers’ councils. On the other side, among those who believe in the necessity for a revolutionary party there are different views on how such a party can develop. Richard Mueller started his political life building workers councils and then blended that with involvement in different working class parties. Therefore, his life provides a rich understanding of those and related questions.
What follows is a book review/summary of Mueller’s biography, Working Class Politics in the German Revolution – Richard Mueller, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards and the Origins of the Council Movement by Ralf Hoffrogge.
Two main issues lay in the background:
First was the fact that Germany was still a monarchy, ruled by Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Second was World War I and the fact that, as with almost all other social democratic parties with respect to their own capitalist class, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) supported German imperialism in that war. This had caused a layer of party members to split away and form the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD).
The union leadership, mainly linked with the SPD, accepted social peace, meaning that the workers must pay the economic burden for the war. Naturally enough, many workers were unhappy with this and among the metal workers union (DMV) a layer of them started to informally come together, starting with simply meeting up for drinks. It was out of this that a shop stewards council was formed, with Mueller at its head. Mueller initially opposed the war based on his opposition to this social peace as well as to attacks on union rights.
The “Turnip Winter”
The winter of 1916 was particularly harsh for German workers. It became known as the “turnip winter” because workers were reduced to eating little but that vegetable, which was normally fed to barn animals. This situation led to a series of short strikes. In April of 2017, just months after the February revolution in Russia, Mueller called for a general strike at a general meeting of the DMV. He was arrested and drafted into the army as a result. It was widely suspected that the DMV leadership had collaborated with the government in arresting Mueller. In any case, some 2-300,000 workers went out on strike and the government was ultimately forced to release Mueller.
The SPD-aligned leadership of the DMV did their best to sabotage the strike. Despite their role, scattered strikes continued throughout the summer of 1917. It was out of these struggles that the Revolutionary Shop Stewards were able to create the works councils in many work places, especially in the metal industry. At that time, he was in the USPD as were many other more independent workers, despite the fact that the majority of German workers remained in the SPD. Although Mueller remained in the USPD, most of its revolutionary wing had split off to form the Spartacus Group, which was aligned with the Third International. Despite their somewhat different orientations, the Spartacus Group members worked closely with Mueller and were integrated into the shop steward councils.
By early 2018, with the crisis mounting, the working class in ferment, and with the example of the Russian Revolution, a general uprising to overthrow the government seemed in the cards. The Spartacists and Mueller and his allies planned for exactly that – the overthrow of the monarchist government and its replacement with a workers government based around the works councils. However, a conflict over a secondary question showed the differences in approach. Hoffrogue explains: “The Shop Stewards kept a low public profile…. They did not organize demonstrations or street propaganda…. Their forum was the factory and their form of political action was the general strike.” (p. 62) This gave them, and Mueller in particular, the advantage of having a keen sensitivity to the moods and strengths and weakness of the German working class, but also left Mueller with a somewhat limited vision. On the other hand, the Spartacists had a broader, more sweeping view but they tended towards adventurism.
Their relative strengths and weaknesses could have complemented each other wonderfully but in the event, they conflicted over exactly when the general uprising should occur. Mueller continually wanted to postpone it because he felt that the German working class was not sufficiently prepared and also felt the strength of the German military.
Events, however, forced their hand. First was the mutiny of sailors on Germany’s North Sea fleet. Ordered to leave port to attack the British naval fleet, the sailors refused to carry out that suicide mission. With the bad communication, the revolutionary forces in Berlin had heard about a mutiny, but did not know its extent until a delegation of the sailors reached Berlin in early November. Then on November 8, the popular workers leader Ernst Daumig was arrested. The next day, tens of thousands of workers poured out of the factories and advanced on the soldiers barracks and also invaded and took over the Reichstag. From there, Mueller gave a speech proposing a works council based form of government. This was overwhelmingly accepted in a vote.
Similar to the October revolution in Russia, the November 8 uprising was relatively bloodless.
However, a concrete government was not built. As Hoffrogge wrote (p. 72) “The Kaiserreich (Kaiser government) lay in tatters on the first day of the Revolution, but a new one had yet to be constituted.”
Stepping into the breech were the SPD leaders along with the USPD. The latter was the party that had split away over support for the imperialist war, but they never intended the end of the rule of capital. Literally negotiating in the back rooms of the Reichstag, they planned a new SPD-USPD government, based on a national assembly. Calling for “unity”, they outmaneuvered the combined forces of the Spartacists and the Shop Stewards both organizationally and politically. Most important, the SPD was able to retain the loyalty of most of the soldiers, among whom neither the Shop Stewards nor the Spartacists did much organizing.
Out of this confused situation arose an Executive Council (or the workers councils) led by Mueller and the left of the USPD along with the Spartacists. On the other hand, there was a “Council of People’s Deputies” controlled by the SPD in general and Friederich Ebert in particular. Within weeks, the latter – which had the support of both the old state apparatus and the military – had maneuvered itself into the main center of power. The Council of People’s Deputies was unable to remove the military chain of command, for instance, and did not try to remove the court apparatus (judges, etc.) Elements of “dual power” reigned.
Divisions Within the Working Class
This reflected the situation within the working class as a whole. As Hoffrogge puts it (p. 83), “most rank-and-file social democrats also supported the Revolution, though in a more moderate version.” It was exactly moderation that the situation did not allow, but it would require time and experience for that rank and file to draw the revolutionary conclusions. The experience was coming, but what was required was some organized force to help that SPD rank and file workers draw the practical conclusions quickly enough.
A semi-stalemate developed. With demobilization of the soldiers, their councils withered on the vine. The rank and file workers – those not in the thrall of the SPD – tended to remain active in the works councils. Based on the work places themselves, these councils tended to increasingly focus on immediate work place issues, rather than the overall struggle for political power. They lacked the breath of vision and the depth within the working class to actually organize and lead a revolution. The Spartacus Group sought to play that role, but it was inexperienced and too small to be able to really control events. The forces of the counterrevolution suffered no such limitation, however. Hoffrogge again (p. 91): “a broad ‘coalition of order’ that included the military, the capitalist class, the state bureaucracy, and the Social Democratic Party wanted to abolish the councils altogether and secure the authority of a ‘regular’ parliament – the National Assembly…. The councils’ potential for a different structure of representation was opposed and suppressed by the coalition of traditional elites purporting to represent ‘the people’.” In other words, the capitalist class, supremely conscious of their interests and well experienced in the game of power politics, was hiding behind and operating through the SPD in order to crush any tendency towards the working class taking power.
The storm started to gather as repression mounted. The Executive Committee of the councils – led by the revolutionary shop stewards and the Spartacists – was evicted from one office after another. Workers councils in the neighborhoods were physically suppressed.
On December 16 (1918), the first national congress of the councils was held. The principle division was whether the government that replaced the monarchy should take a parliamentary form (i.e. capitalist democracy) or be formed by the workers councils (i.e. a workers government). Mueller strongly argued for the latter. However, the great majority of delegates voted for a parliamentary form of government. “The left should have paused to reflect and reorient at this point, but the course of events left no time for that,” writes Hoffrogge (p. 95). In other words, the Spartacists and the works councils leadership lacked the time to overcome their lack of experience, meaning the working class as a whole certainly did not have sufficient time.
It is also questionable whether they even explained the matter correctly. Mueller and his comrades among the shop stewards must have known that the majority of workers supported a parliamentary form of government. In that situation, it would have been more persuasive to raise some transitional, more immediate demands, some demands that were more likely to meet with broad-based support, including among the SPD workers. From there, it would have been possible to explain that to accomplish those steps, a workers council form of government would be necessary. That would have enabled the bulk of the SPD workers to see from their own experience. Instead, Mueller simply stated that a parliamentary form of government would be accomplished “over my dead body.”
On December 24 the counter-revolutionary forces shelled the Volksmarinedivision (People’s Marine Division), which was the barracks of the revolutionary sailors. A general onslaught of these sailors was only prevented by a mass turnout of the Berlin working class. This was a further warning of the direction in which things were headed.
Five days later (December 25) the Spartacus Group met to formally constitute themselves as a party – the German Communist Party (KPD). The Shop Stewards, represented by Mueller, Ernst Daumig and Georg Lebedour, entered into negotiations for joining. However, they insisted in overly rigid conditions. For example, many – maybe most – of the newly formed KPD insisted on refusing to participate in bourgeois elections in principle. Mueller insisted that this position be rejected, rather than joining while making clear his opposition to that view and arguing for his position from inside the KPD. On their side, the newly-formed KPD showed their lack of experience, for example by supporting leaving the SPD-controlled unions and building new, “revolutionary” unions instead.
On January 5, the SPD-controlled “Executive Committee” of the Councils carried out another provocation/attack: It removed Emil Eichorn, the left USPD, as chief of the Berlin police. The KPD, the Shop Stewards and the USPD called for an uprising, not simply in response to this provocation, but in order to overthrow the entire government and establish a workers’ government in its stead. The Shop Stewards hesitated, and the revolutionary sailors outright opposed such a move. “The leaders of the action were unclear and split,” writes Hoffrogge (p.103).
One other factor was the armed “civic minded” group of civilians organized by the SPD – the Freikorps.
Thus was the balance of forces as fighting in the streets of Berlin raged by January 8.
“Violence can only be countered with violence,” was the position of the SPD, and they carried this out in practice. The revolutionary workers had occupied the headquarters of the SPD newspaper, Vorwarts. Feeling themselves weakened, on January 10 they sent a team to negotiate with the SPD. The occupiers’ negotiators were taken outside and summarily executed. Delegates from the workplace councils were reporting “a total collapse of any willingness to fight in [the] workplaces.” The counter-revolution was in full swing.
Luxemburg and Liebknekt Murdered: A Limited Counter-revolution
On January 15, the Freikorps abducted Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg (who had been released from prison) and killed them. The comrades of Liebknecht and Luxemburg had urged them to leave Berlin, but the two of them refused and the Freikorps, who probably had plenty of spies in the Spartacus
Group, found them rather easily. The refusal of the two to leave Berlin must raise the question of how much they put abstract principle over practical reality. Their assassination symbolized the failure of the German revolution of 1919 in several senses. It showed the absence of a generalized revolutionary mood as well as an absence of any organized force that knew how to assess the general situation and could pull together the more revolutionary-minded workers and their allies. However, the extreme weakness of German capitalism was also revealed by the fact that the counter-revolution had to act through the SPD; it could not build its own party to carry out a counter-revolution. As a result, the lengths to which the counter-revolution could go was limited. It could suppress the revolution and murder the revolution’s two most prominent leaders. It could not, however, completely crush the working class and the workers’ organizations.
The result was that this defeat left the working class demoralized, but only partially so. The working class soon regrouped and returned to the offensive. By March a new general strike was carried out, mainly in Berlin. The demand was for socialization of the major work places. Led mainly by the KPD, the strike engaged in some mistaken tactics such as shutting down utilities mainly to the working class districts. The result was lack of broad support for the strike, enabling the Freikorp to assault the strikers. The decline in support led to a debate within the leadership over whether or not to call an end to the strike, with Mueller supporting doing so. He was denounced by the KPD. The KPD furthermore denounced not only the SPD, but the SPD workers – which was surely not calculated to win them over.
Even after the strike was ended, government troops continued their assault on the working class districts in Berlin, killing over 1,000 and annihilating the Volksmanndivision. It was on this basis that the Weimar Republic was established under the control of the SPD.
“A year after the (1919) Revolution, the majority government was securely in power,” writes Hoffrogge, “with the support of the military while the USPD no longer controlled any positions of state power. The still-revolutionary works councils, on the other hand, were occupied with wage struggles. Mueller had to content himself with a council system on paper…” (p. 135)
Struggles continued, including the rising of miners in the Ruhr Valley, also put down by the SPD. There were also struggles inside the metal workers union (the DMV) between the left, led by Mueller, and the right. All of this was overshadowed, however, by the developing hyper inflation and the resulting collapse of production.
By early 1921, Mueller’s old comrade Ernst Daumig and an ally, Paul Levi, were playing leading roles in the KPD. They had pushed through a policy of appealing to the SPD and USPD workers for joint struggles – the “united front”. At that same time, the left of the USPD, with Mueller in the lead, broke with that party and joined the KPD, setting off a wave of euphoria within the KPD. The “theory of the offensive” became the operating idea. That was the theory that the revolutionary party had to continually be on the offensive. This disastrous theory was actually encouraged in practice by the steady pressure of the Comintern (Third International) leadership, which called on the KPD to “act”. In March 1921, it pushed through the “March Action”, which was a disastrous blunder. A provocation by the SPD government provided the excuse for the KPD to call its members out into the streets in an armed uprising. Lacking broad support even in Berlin, never mind the rest of the country, the March Action was bloodily suppressed. It was a disaster for the KPD. Paul Levi subsequently harshly criticized the March Action. He was expelled from the KPD, and his expulsion was supported by the Comintern. Although Mueller agreed with Levi, he did not publicize his views and he remained in the KPD.
Mueller described the result of this blunder: “We [communists] cannot go into the workshops. If we did we would be cut down…. The movement is dead in Berlin and it isn’t coming back…. Our communists are arrested and the other workers are happy about it.” The main leadership of the KPD had learned nothing, however. They advocated continuing the offensive, even saying that it will be necessary “to fight against a large portion of the workers.” (p. 161) It was this leadership that the German security apparatus had referred to in an internal memo as “small minds” (159).
Levi and Mueller’s comrade Daumig subsequently attempted to regroup by forming a new revolutionary center, the Communist Working Collective (KAG), which oriented towards the KPD and had the sympathy of Mueller and others like Clara Zetkin. But it was too little, too late. The KPD still had the reflected light of the first workers state, the Soviet Union, as well as the Comintern.
The German Social Democratic Party had built itself up over decades of struggle in the German parliament. It had won significant gains for the German workers. At the same time, it became wedded to a gradualist approach and to reforming capitalism. Such an approach can achieve some results during “normal” times. But in a time of revolutionary ferment, that gradualism decisively revealed itself as being on the side of capitalism , and as such being a counter-revolutionary force.
A middle force also developed – the Independent Social Democratic Party or USPD. It opposed the war but the majority of its leadership – and therefore the party itself – refused to link that opposition to opposing capitalism itself, not in the abstract but concretely. Such a middle position is what is known as “centrism”, and it too came down on the side of counter revolution in the end.
Then there was Mueller’s focus on building work-place based councils through the revolutionary shop stewards. Today, his views have seen something of a rebirth among those who call themselves “council communists”. They should consider the trajectory of Mueller, the original such advocate. He remained faithful to the task of overthrowing capitalism, but as explained above, he ultimately had to move from that strategy to seeing the necessity of building an overall revolutionary party in order to organize and lead a working class revolution.
From its start, the majority of the KPD leadership tended towards something like the “theory of the offensive”, even before it was clearly enunciated. It always tended towards underestimating the importance of winning the SPD aligned workers through patience and united struggle. Within the unions, it always tended towards impatience and a sectarian attempt to build “revolutionary” unions.
And what of the Comintern? What role did it play in this history?
It could have lent the weight of the experience of the Russian Revolutions (1905 and 1917) plus all the intervening years to help the Spartacists, later the KPD, overcome their lack of experience. Instead, it tended to encourage the sectarian and adventurist tendencies in their German allies. As the leader of the Comintern, Zinoviev was the one who was chiefly responsible for this. From time to time, Lenin and Trotsky intervened to push back in a more reasonable direction. But they only did so partially. For example, it was the KAG that had the most thoughtful elements in it. That included Mueller, who joined after being expelled from the KPD for insisting on writing a history of the German revolution. Instead of encouraging the reintegration of the KAG back into the KPD, Lenin and Trotsky simply denounced the KAG.
The KAG could not sustain itself in the crisis ridden period that followed and it fell by the wayside, as did Mueller himself, who dropped out of politics.
Not included in this book is the story of the split between Trotsky and Stalin. However, it was the placing of the “small minds”, individuals who were incapable of independent thinking and sensitivity to the shifting moods within the working class – it was this that set the stage for the KPD leadership to go over en masse to Stalin and the insane positions that they took in the struggle against the rise of the Nazis.
This period shows, once again, that the idea that the working class can take power without an independently-organized and experienced leadership is a fantasy at best. This means a leadership that understands how to work in situations where it is in a minority. It means a leadership that knows when and how to retreat as well as to attack. It also means a leadership that knows how to connect the immediate issues with the longer term ones – in other words, the transitional method. How such a leadership develops will vary depending on the conditions. One hundred years ago, it necessarily tended to develop linked with the leadership of the first successful working class revolution – the Bolsheviks. Today no such magnetic power exists. Not only that, but the working class has been driven backwards in both its organizational strength and its consciousness.
A new working class international will arise out of the workers struggle itself. Today, the revolution in Myanmar may evolve into a general uprising of the Asian working class throughout the region. That would have an impact even greater than the Arab Spring, because Southeast Asia, and Asia in general, is a center for world industrial production and, therefore, of the industrial working class globally. That is why such an uprising is so important; it could be the center of the new workers international. While many of the lessons of the past are largely erased, that is not entirely so. In Germany, the working class had 15 years before it finally met with a decisive and epochal defeat – the rise to power of the Nazis. A new mass working class international will have a similar or even greater length of time in which to learn and develop. But its time won’t be indefinite. The lessons contained in the period in Germany covered by this book are one small part of the precious heritage that can help insure that this time, the world working class revolution succeeds. Failure is too horrible to even consider.
Categories: book reviews, Europe, History, Marxist theory, Uncategorized
Thanks for this review, Jen. One question: you mentioned The necessity of the left raising a transitional third of demands in 1919; What Would be some of those demands?
That is an excellent question, Earl. It’s hard to really answer without reading in more detail what was the situation there and what was immediately on the minds of the workers. For example, in Russia in 1917, the issue of ending the war was very immediate and the Bolsheviks were the only ones who stressed that. Not only did they raise it, but in effect they laid that task at the feet of the Mensheviks – the equivalent of Germany’s SPD. It was exactly the Mensheviks’ refusal to end the war that played a major role in the Bolsheviks gaining power. So I guess the main thing was the orientation – the necessity of placing demands on the SPD.