ESTUDOS SOBRE O COMUNISMO ALEMÃO

10-06-2009 (6)

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+Ralf Hoffrogge.  Richard Müller: Der Mann hinter der Novemberrevolution,  Berlin,  Karl Dietz Verlag, 2008.
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Recensão de Gary Roth (Rutgers University at Newark) em  H-German (Junho, 2009)

Revolutionary Trade Unionism

Richard Müller (1880-1943), the trade union leader whose role in the
antiwar strikes helped precipitate the German revolution of 1918, had
an uncanny knack for hesitating at key moments. In some circles, this
stance was known as pragmatism, although, in Müller’s case, it meant
that he served as a brake on the revolutionary impulses as they
unfolded during and immediately after the overthrow of the German
monarchy. On other occasions, his attachment to specific
organizational forms and formal procedures was unshakable, as if the
flash of events had left him temporarily stunned and unable to act in
any fashion except how he was already functioning. Because this
pattern repeated itself, it can be considered an individual character
trait. But it was a behavioral pattern that typified much of the
radical Left’s conduct at key moments. Müller’s story evokes none of
the passion and pathos that surrounds figures like Rosa Luxemburg and
Karl Liebknecht, but it is far more representative of the fate of the
German revolution.

Quite a lot is known about Müller already. He authored a
three-volume history that has served historians as a standard account
of the period ever since. Nonetheless, Ralf Hoffrogge’s biography is
the first full-length examination of Müller’s political trajectory.
Hoffrogge takes a fresh look by relying on primary sources–the many
protocols, minutes of meetings, and official proclamations produced
by the various revolutionary groups and institutions. He brings both
nuance and substance to a history that until now has only been
perceived in broad terms, and he has added much new material on the
earlier and later phases of Müller’s career. Since Müller’s
personal papers were not preserved, Hoffrogge must often speculate as
to the reasons for sudden changes in his political evolution. A
further problem arises from the author’s own parallel concerns.
Hoffrogge seems just as interested in the newly forming Communist
Party (KPD) as in the politics and ideologies that motivated his
ostensible focus, a stance that also mitigates against Hoffrogge’s
biographical achievements.

Unlike Luxemburg and Liebknecht, both of whom held advanced degrees,
Müller was a machinist by trade and an active member of the
socialistic Metal Workers Union, where he served as the shop steward
for the 8,500 organized lathe operators in Berlin. He took his
responsibilities so seriously that he studied in detail the
mechanistic division of labor used to establish wage rates in order
to negotiate with management specialists more effectively. During the
First World War, an informal network of factory representatives came
to be known as the Revolutionary Shop Stewards (RSS). Opposed to the
leadership of their union and the Social Democratic Party because of
the support they gave to the German war effort, Müller emerged as a
leading figure in the antiwar strikes that began in 1916 and
accelerated during the following two years. The January 1918 strike
involved some 400,000 to 500,000 employees who were represented by a
strike committee of over 400 delegates that Müller chaired.

Hoffrogge devotes considerable space to the on-and-off relations
between the RSS and the Spartacist League, in which Luxemburg and
Liebknecht were active. These two groups were based primarily in
Berlin, which skewed their understanding of national developments.
They were also absorbed in acrimonious negotiations regarding a
general strike when factories and workplaces emptied in support of
the naval mutinies that began the revolution. Until this moment,
Müller had cautioned against precipitous action. A few months later,
the RSS refused to merge with the Spartacists and other independent
radical Left groups to form the Communist Party, a move that helped
condemn to failure the Spartacist uprising and takeover of buildings
in central Berlin.

At both junctures, Müller was reluctant to act unless a successful
outcome seemed all but assured. The Spartacists always encouraged
rebellion–organized and spontaneous demonstrations, hunger protests,
wildcat strikes, and confrontations with the police and military–in
order for the working class to gain experience and determination.
Whereas the Spartacists hoped that masses of people would follow
their lead, Müller and the RSS insisted on never outpacing their
supporters. The RSS remained a communication and coordinating network
that garnered tremendous respect within the organized working class,
but it was not quite the leadership cadre that Hoffrogge tends to
describe.

Nor was Müller at first an unabashed supporter of workers’ councils,
despite their importance to the revolutionary events. Except to exert
veto power over elected officials, he did not foresee a future for
them. This attitude would change over the next months, but like many
Social Democrats his initial reaction to the revolution was to fear
its consequences. He worried that the nationalization of major
industries would contribute to a deteriorating economy, and he was
sympathetic to the reintroduction of piecework, despite the intense
unpopularity of this mode of employment among workers because of the
brutalizing routines it tended to reinforce on the factory floor.
Foremost, though, Müller was a committed trade unionist and
skeptical of anything that might jeopardize the union movement.

Throughout Hoffrogge’s account, groups like the Spartacists, RSS, and
KPD emerge as fixed entities to a degree that they never were in
reality, in any case not during the height of the revolutionary
period. Organizations and social classes are sometimes treated as if
they have consciousness themselves, a historiographic trait
reminiscent of an older style of Marxism that reified the very
phenomena it needed to explain. What is missing here is an awareness
that the Spartacists were a point of orientation as much as a
politicized cluster with a leadership structure, publications,
debates, and factions. Virtually everyone who demonstrated against
the war and battled with the police considered themselves Spartacists
at one point or another, regardless of whether they actually knew
much about the group or agreed with the particular positions it took.
During the war, neither the Spartacists nor the RSS could maintain
regular communications among their members because of the intensity
of the repression. Adherents were arrested or drafted into the
military, demonstrations broken up, meetings held clandestinely, and
publications circulated illegally from hand to hand. These were
groups with shadowy existences, part of an ever-changing political
landscape.

Increasingly marginalized within the metal workers’ union, Müller
turned his attention to the Berlin coalition of workers councils even
though this group had already been eclipsed by its national
counterpart in the first weeks of the revolution. Müller found
himself at the head of a movement whose sway waned perceptibly from
day to day. The reconstitution of the national assembly, which relied
on universal suffrage and the participation of all social classes
rather than on the strictly proletarian composition of the workplace
councils, also meant a further loss in influence. Even the Social
Democrats were forced into a coalition government with parties to
their right.

As the working class radicalized during the first half of 1919,
Müller radicalized along with it. He, too, was disappointed by the
failure of the Social Democrats to nationalize key industries, and he
was appalled at the use of force against opponents to their left–the
employment of paramilitaries, the suppression of militant councils
(like the one he headed) and regional councilist republics, the
killing of many thousands of Spartacists and radical workers, and the
brutal suppression of the March general strike in Berlin. If not for
the growing divide between the Social Democratic Party and
substantial sectors of the working class, the Communist Party might
never have revived. This process led Müller to embrace without
qualification the very institutions he had played down only months
earlier–the councils and the Communist Party. Müller now opposed
elections, embraced revolutionary action in place of caution, urged a
socialization of industry rather than a slow transition, and welcomed
a collapsing economy because it might spur the working class to
renewed rebellion. He also supported the formation of new political
parties and unions to replace the ones to which he had previously
given his allegiance.

Hoffrogge’s fascination with the Communist Party prevents him from
portraying the radical Left in all its dynamism. He refers repeatedly
to the syndicalists and left communists in terms of their “ultra left
and putschist conceptions” (p. 151), “revolutionary gymnastics” (p.
157), and “left-radical meaninglessness” (p. 167), without mentioning
that these groups for a time vastly outnumbered the Communist
Party–until it combined at the end of 1920 with a group more
conservative than itself, the left wing of the Independent Social
Democratic Party (the antiwar off-shoot to which Müller belonged).
Yet, knowledge of the politics and organizational structures that
characterized the extreme Left would help to make Müller’s
trajectory during the 1920s more intelligible.

Swept along by events that were often precipitated by the radical
groups that he opposed, Müller always returned to a belief that held
workplace associations–like unions and councils–as the most
fundamental of all organizations. In the late 1920s, Müller worked
with a union of approximately 20,000 members that saw no need to
affiliate with any political tendency or party and which served as a
collection point for dissidents and expellees from both wings of the
Communist Party. He was also involved in an attempt to build
working-class housing. That Müller was routinely condemned in both
the Nazi and Communist Party presses, with accusations that he was
enriching himself at the expense of the working class, is its own
kind of testimonial and a reason to give his life close scrutiny.
Hoffrogge takes the accusations at face value, although the degree to
which they had been distorted is unclear. The National Socialists and
Communists often fed on each other’s exaggerations and lies.

Hoffrogge attributes his inability to provide a clear understanding
of Müller’s life during these years to the lack of source material.
Whether a more convincing narrative is possible, however, awaits a
fuller account of the factors that alternately attracted and repulsed
him. Hoffrogge has provided a noteworthy account of Müller’s
political attachments, and he has drawn together information in ways
not achieved by other historians and chroniclers of these events. But
his understanding of history is overly schematic and organizationally
bound. As for Müller, he retreated from political involvement
altogether by the time of the Nazi takeover in 1933, and died in
relative obscurity a decade later.

Citation: Gary Roth. Review of Hoffrogge, Ralf, _Richard Müller: Der
Mann hinter der Novemberrevolution_. H-German, H-Net Reviews. June,
2009.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=24647

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