Book Reviews

Richard Müller: Sisyphus


A Review of Working-Class Politics in the German Revolution: Richard Müller, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards and the Origins of the Council Movement by Ralf Hoffrogge

Christoph Jünke

Independent Researcher, Bochum, Germany


If Rosa Luxemburg was the brain of the German Revolution of 1918–19 and Karl Liebknecht its face and mouth, then Richard Müller was the heart that determines circulation within the proletarian body. He was, as Hoffrogge says, the man behind the November Revolution, one of the most important figures of the German labour movement in the decade between 1915 and 1925. In a close interlocking of individual and social history, Hoffrogge has written not only a biography of its protagonist but also a biography of the genesis, the course and the decline of the German Revolution.


socialism in Germany – history of the German Revolution – Council Movement – biography

Ralf Hoffrogge, (2014) Working-Class Politics in the German Revolution: Richard Müller, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards and the Origins of the Council Movement, translated by Joseph B. Keady,Historical Materialism Book Series, Leiden: Brill.

Biographies were once reserved for the great men of history and were considered to be – depending on one’s world view – either the culmination of the art of historical scholarship or their negligible backside. With the long-term collapse of a historiography ‘from below’, questioning structural class boundaries and aiming towards universal human emancipation, and with the parallel, occasionally overlapping, ascent of a historiography concentrating on structures, biographies have largely gone out of fashion. But fashions change, of course, and biography is now in vogue again. The recent return to biography, however, which has now been going on for several years, will probably not act as a simple pendulum swing backwards. More likely, it will serve as at least a partial overcoming of the two old dichotomies. For what characterises a large number of these diverse new efforts is precisely their combination of social and individual history. There is an unmistakable tendency to break down history on the structural level to focus on real people and their role in history – a goal that may also be linked to changing expectations about our own place ‘in history’ and our own ability to ‘make history’.

          Methodologically speaking, this opens up an ambitious vision of the interconnectedness of the individual and the collective in the totality of human history. A vision that no longer needs to ascertain whether the object of contemplation is one of the predominantly nameless representatives of the human species, making history without leaving many traces in it, or one of those great men (or, more rarely, one of those great women) of history, whose names we’ve learned to pronounce in awe or disgust – depending on one’s world view.

          This intertwining of social and individual history may be most obvious when exemplified in the history of revolution. The history of revolution, as one of its great activists and historians in the twentieth century put it, is above all ‘the history of the violent invasion of the masses into the sphere of determination over their own destinies’ (Leon Trotsky). And it is only at first glance that this contradicts the other dictum, that revolutions must also be made by people. The biography of a man in which these two aspects of revolution almost prototypically mingle, the social as well as his individual history, has been presented by the young and talented historian Ralf Hoffrogge. Richard Müller – even the ordinariness of his name seems programmatic – really existed. And he was one of those nameless people who made history in the truest sense of the word. If Rosa Luxemburg was the brain of the German Revolution of 1918–19 and Karl Liebknecht its face and mouth, then Richard Müller was, as it were, the heart that determines circulation within the proletarian body. He was, as Hoffrogge says, the man behind the November Revolution. The fact that Hoffrogge was able to bring his biography to life is a special merit, as Müller was one of the most important figures of the German labour movement in the decade between 1915 and 1925. Moreover, beyond this decade, Müller’s life and work reflect an otherwise repressed but highly stimulating part of Germany’s fateful social and historical development.

          Richard Müller was born in 1880 in Weira, Thuringia, the fourth of seven children. His father kept an inn with an adjoining farm. One brother died in 1882 and his mother died in 1888, just before Richard’s eighth birthday. His father remarried two years later. Two more siblings were born and Müller, at fifteen years old in 1896, lost his father as well. Without having completed a secondary education, he left for the big city – first to Hannover, then Berlin, as a destitute apprentice in heavy industry. More precisely, he went to work at an electric lathe in a large, technologically-advanced modern factory. It was the time of big industry’s stormy development in Germany. Müller educated himself in the counterculture of the Wilhelmine workers’ movement and became a skilled worker, but only joined the union and the Social-Democratic Party in 1906. Müller’s work, requiring learned and not readily replaceable knowledge gained through experience, can be said to have rendered him and his colleagues craftsmen. Hoffrogge writes, ‘Integration into large factories with an extensive division of labour and often several thousand employees, however, ensured that lathe operators, particularly in the larger cities, gave up their identity as skilled craft workers relatively quickly and for the most part developed a higher level of class consciousness’ (p. 13). A true reflection of his class, or, rather, of his class fraction, Müller seems to have been a bit more talented than others and brought this, along with a gift for organising, to his trade-union position as branch manager of all Berlin lathe operators in 1914, under the freelance German Metalworkers’ Association.

          He was thus part of what would later be disparaged as the ‘labour aristocracy’, and he dedicated himself ‘with a scientific precision’ (p. 19) to workflows, equipment and wage trends. Even before the First World War, he attempted a sharp critique of the new Taylorist working methods, but politically was regarded as rather unremarkable. This, however, would change with the circumstances and the violent intrusion of the masses into history with the First World War. As an avowed opponent of the war as well as a critic of the social-political peace declared by union leaders and the SPD right at the beginning of the war (‘Burgfrieden’), Müller the middling trade-union official was not alone, as the comparably more well-placed skilled workers of big industry were at that time a locus of trade-union political radicalism.

          Müller, then, knew his base when, soon after the beginning of the war, he started organising smaller strikes and developing himself into an oppositional trade-union networker. He became the head of the clandestine Revolutionary Shop Stewards [Revolutionäre Obleute], the third germ cell of German left-wing radicalism formed during the war, alongside the Spartacus League and the Bremen left-wing radicals. Hoffrogge follows his path as accurately as he can – a large part of this story happened in secret and in the absence of eyewitnesses – and makes it clear that the Revolutionary Shop Stewards took their organisational role models from the specifically German traditions of widespread local syndicalism under the Anti-Socialist Laws of 1878–90. He emphasises, not entirely justifiably, that despite the similarities, the organisational approach here is not a Leninist one, as Leninist organisational principles actually drew from similar sources. There was a comparable experience and comparable traditions of worker radicalism in semi-absolutist conditions, in which the lack of a tradition of ‘civil society’ – something which Russia had not quite developed, while in Germany the institution of theBurgfrieden had fallen back into ruling statehood – led to similar results in organisational policy.

          In any case, the leaders of the Shop Stewards in the German capital were quickly, comprehensively and very successfully politicised and radicalised by their first experiences of the war: ‘Their forum was the factory and their form of political action was the general strike. Although they could lead hundreds of thousands of workers in a strike, the Stewards’ organisation and their mode of operation were known only to their members’ (p. 62). It was Müller and the Shop Stewards who, in June 1916, organised the first mass political strike in German history: the Berlin mass strike in solidarity with the antimilitarist Karl Liebknecht, who had been subjected to state repression. And it was Müller and the Shop Stewards who became the main pillars of support during the formation of the Independent Social-Democratic Party (USPD) in 1917. It was there, in the USPD, that Müller met and came to appreciate the socialist intellectual Ernst Däumig, who went on not only to work with him in organising the Shop Stewards but also, in 1918–19, to become a pivotal champion of a specifically German council system.

          It was not the Spartacists around Liebknecht and Luxemburg who ‘made’ the November Revolution of 1918: that autumn, Richard Müller and the Revolutionary Shop Stewards delivered the decisive blow against the only half-reformed Wilhelminian government. But Hoffrogge also describes how, even in those decisive days and hours, they were themselves more ‘driven’ to act than ‘drivers’ of the events. In the political agenda of the Spartacus League on the whole, the left-wing of the USPD explicitly rejected the revolutionary impatience of the Spartacus League, particularly dismissing Liebknecht’s tactic of permanent action as a form of ‘revolutionary gymnastics’. Müller later wrote that Liebknecht, in his ‘conception of revolutionary imperatives, betrayed the strong will of a revolutionary filled with lofty ideals, but one who saw things as he wanted to see them, and not as they really were.’

          The Stewards, as a socially-anchored vanguard of the workers with many years of experience, had a significantly better sense for the ripeness of the impending revolution, in comparison to the small Spartacist group led by socially ‘free-floating’ cadres and intellectuals. They hesitated to move into Berlin’s citadel of power after receiving the first reports from the provinces of revolts in Kiel and Munich. Are we ready to topple the old order here as well? Do we not need a broader social base and, above all, more weapons, to disempower the military guardians of the establishment? And are we not jeopardising the economic foundations of any new power by moving too quickly? Müller as a chief organiser, equal parts radical and pragmatist, wavered and hesitated, but Hoffrogge sees this as a reflection of objective conditions, not as a political failure. There were, moreover, profound rivalries and animosities between the Spartacists and the Shop Stewards, who rejected the ‘Russian way’ as incompatible with the specific traditions of the workers’ movement in Germany. Müller and Liebknecht in particular seem to have had a real problem dealing with one another. In their rivalry one can recognise the sweeping social and psychological distance that separates the workers’ vanguard and left-wing intellectuals, which, even decades later, must be taken into account when doing research on the German left. The November Uprising brought them together objectively and made Richard Müller the chairman of the Berlin Council of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils, and thus the head, as it were, of the ‘German Socialist Republic’ proclaimed by Liebknecht.

          In Hoffrogge’s description, however, it becomes clear that the deep divide remained between the various wings of the revolution, a divide equally apparent in Müller’s own three-volume history of the revolution from the 1920s. The widespread resignations at the very first council congress in December 1918 set the stage for a serious defeat and disappointment for Müller, Däumig and the Shop Stewards. In the ensuing fights in December and January, Müller railed, not without justification, against the left-wing ‘Spartacus putschists’ and against Liebknecht as their leader. The attempts toward a unification of the Stewards and the Spartacists failed because pragmatic radicalism and left-wing radicalism could not find common ground under the rising onslaught of the counterrevolution. ‘The Shop Stewards, on the other hand, were in limbo: they could not work with the KPD, they were isolated in the USPD, and they were reluctant to create a new schism within the labour movement by establishing a third party’ (p. 100). The bloody decapitation of the revolutionary forces in January, symbolised by the murders of Liebknecht and Luxemburg, reverberated through the local council republics in Bremen and Munich and their panicked, ‘headless’ efforts to direct the course of events, and also completely stunned the more modest Shop Stewards.

          With his strong connection to the shop floor, Müller quickly recognised that the so-called Spartacist uprising – which was more of a spontaneous revolt by independent revolutionary forces that the leadership of the Spartacus League rejected – was the decisive battle of the revolution: ‘The defeat of the January Uprising’, he later wrote in the third volume of his history of the revolution, ‘completely destroyed the front line of the determined revolutionaries. The wavering masses, still caught up in the illusions of the first weeks of the revolution, were deprived of their leaders, and the social-democratic leaders understood how to create sympathy among the workers for the policies of Noske and the government.’ Müller’s hopes for trade-union unity and a united front were dashed soon after, simultaneously with the failure of the council system he and Däumig had advocated, based on the idea of comprehensive self-government in the hands of workers. In this plan for self-government, Hoffrogge identifies ‘a transitional form moving toward socialisation’ (albeit a fairly complex one) without, however, presenting and discussing this as much as one might like.

          After the failed strike movements of the spring of 1919, the council movement changed direction and became a mere works-council movement. Müller – for Hoffrogge, the eternal Sisyphus of the revolution – did not fit into this historical turn in the slightest. Nevertheless, he became a member of the Berlin Works Council Centre and placed his hopes on a return of a world-revolutionary moment. (The close interdependence of the German and international revolutionary process and its expression in Müller’s life and work does not, unfortunately, receive the attention it deserves from Hoffrogge.) He remained as the leading figure of the works-council movement and the leader of the left opposition in the German Metalworkers’ Association (DMV) until the end of 1920, edging closer and closer to the communists. In my view, Hoffrogge wrongly sees this as a contradiction, since he elides the communism of the German KPD with Leninism and with the ‘Marxism-Leninism’ which came later: that is, with Stalinist communism. However, the early communism of 1917 to 1921–3 provided an at-least partially conclusive answer to the strategic dilemma of social-revolutionary processes and the organisational weakness of the socialist council syndicalists – it is no accident that we find many of these revolutionary syndicalists on the side of this early communism.

          At the congress of the works councils in October 1920, however, Müller was defeated by his rival Robert Dißmann, who proposed subordinating the works councils to the trade unions. The path of an independent German council movement ends here, where Müller’s path into the KPD also becomes clear. He joined the KPD along with the left wing of the USPD, and supported their ‘right’ leadership under Paul Levi – like Müller himself, Levi was a kind of pragmatic radical – and even participated in the Third International in Moscow in 1921. He was removed from the party in 1922, however, after his bitter fight with the ultra-left voluntarism of the ‘March Action’ of 1921. He refused, all the same, to return to the deeply hated Social Democrats – unlike his comrade Däumig, who returned to the left wing of the SPD along with Paul Levi and many others (particularly intellectuals).

          Richard Müller thus finally fell victim to the polarisation inside the left between the KPD and the SPD. He largely withdrew from the public stage and in 1924–5 published his account of the ups and downs of the world-historical events of the previous years, an account equal parts embittered and combative and, moreover, a symbol of his life and work. Müller’s three-volume history of the German Revolution is, as Hoffrogge notes, not only the work of a gifted autodidact who, in a short period of time, applied the same meticulousness to the art of historical scholarship as he had to production processes and wage systems before the war. It is also a radical and original account of the ‘restorative’ state of affairs in the Weimar Republic, borne of a remarkable insistence on the necessary concomitance of democracy and socialism – a conception that makes Richard Müller an early representative of the ‘third way’ within the left.

          It is therefore no coincidence that Müller’s approach was suppressed not only in the polarised war-of-camps between the SPD and party communism in the 1920s and 1930s, but also in the decades following, as this polarisation between the SPD and the KPD/SED was further entrenched with the formation of two German states and the ‘becoming a state’ of both parties which this represented. Müller’s magnum opus was only rediscovered in the 1970s with the emergence of the ‘New Left’, and was reissued several times. Knowledge concerning his fate, however, remained elusive, and what happened to him later in life was considered unknown. As one oft-quoted statement by Wolfgang Abendroth from the late 1970s has it: ‘After that [1922–3] he is lost to history.’

          Hoffrogge offers a little help at this point. Just as he brings Müller’s early life out of the darkness, he also follows his remarkable path subsequent to his departure from the stage of history. Following the financial success of his history of the revolution, Müller founded a publishing house and became a bookseller, but floundered after a few years. At the end of the twenties he turned his publishing house Phöbus into a construction company, the Phöbus-Treuhand-Baugesellschaft. Müller became its managing director and thus a builder of social housing. He still saw himself as a socialist and remained involved in the German Industry Association, a left-wing trade union. In this milieu he met and socialised with, among others, Karl Korsch, the anti-Stalinist Communist-Party dissident, council socialist and pioneer of ‘Western Marxism’. Müller thus mixed revolutionary politics and business, and achieved success once again. ‘Dubious practices in public housing’, as Hoffrogge writes, made him a wealthy man (p. 225).

          The fact that the proletarian revolutionary eventually became an entrepreneurial building tycoon – this is also richly symbolic, both historically and socially, of the problems of worker radicalism under welfare-state capitalism. Hoffrogge explains this development by pointing to Müller’s social and political isolation and profound disappointment with the course of the revolution. This is mostly speculation, since the sources are extremely thin, especially for this period of Müller’s life. But since Hoffrogge understands how to reconstruct Müller’s time and milieu with care, and because he is able to treat Müller with critical empathy, his conclusions are comprehensible and compelling. He writes,

This withdrawal into private life probably increased the importance of material issues, including securing a future for his children, and was part of Richard Müller’s transformation into a businessman in his late forties […] As such, his old political ideas fell by the wayside somewhere during that process. […] There is almost no trace of Richard Müller after 1932. […] [He] appears not to have offered any public resistance to Nazi rule. (p. 232.)

He died on May 11, 1943, although the circumstances and cause of his death remain unknown.

          Here, too, Müller’s individual path could be linked to the ups and downs of the world revolution in political and social history. Doesn’t this part of his life also symbolise, beyond himself, the fate of the political approach he so forcefully attempted, beginning in 1917? Whatever the case may be, this close interlocking of individual and social history makes Hoffrogge’s book not only a biography of its protagonist but also a biography of the genesis, the course and the decline of the German revolution.

          What remains of Richard Müller besides his historical deeds and their social and historical content? On the one hand, of course, his work. More precisely, the conceptual approaches of a specifically German council system which his work contained. Above all, one finds this in his chronicle of what remains the only German workers’ revolution. His history, a work both partisan and solid in its scholarship, inspired ‘many footnotes, but hardly any debate’, as Hoffrogge notes with regret (p. 210). To this legacy, Hoffrogge also adds a fascinating portrayal of a pragmatic radical, a deeply humble man who convincingly combined sober, meticulous trade-unionist work with a deep conviction for anti-capitalist advocacy, and who proved to be a gifted organiser and talented movement historian – a mixture of virtues and abilities that is rather unusual on the German left.

          Hoffrogge paints the picture of a man thoroughly shaped and oriented by collective struggle, a man of the German working class at the beginning of the twentieth century; a man of the masses and of his class who, when it came down to it, also was able to step out from the masses and make decisions on his own which showed great courage. At the same time, Müller also tended to hesitation and pettiness, and occasionally got carried away with organisational minutiae. His persistence is clearly something that Hoffrogge admires, hence his lending him the title the ‘Sisyphus of the Revolution’, who ‘was ultimately destroyed by the scale of his political task, changed sides, and eventually gave up his revolutionary vocation’ (p. 238). But ‘implementing council socialism of any kind is not a job for iconic heroes. What it would need is the steady and constant work of many individuals, perhaps ordinary but certainly independent figures’ (ibid.). Hoffrogge explicitly, and perhaps again a little too provocatively, sees in this an alternative to the party Communists of the time who were often heroic leaders and shapers of historical events, willing to risk everything and spend their lives in fascist torture chambers, while ‘within their own party they proved abjectly unable to stem the growing dictatorship of the bureaucracy’ (p. 236).

          In his conclusion, Hoffrogge compares Müller to his opponent and iconic left-wing martyr Karl Liebknecht, a comparison that is as interesting and provocative as it is apt:

Liebknecht was a man of big gestures, a risk-taker, a voluntarist and revolutionary romantic. For him there was never anything but the forward march, the frontal assault; retreat was not an option. He died like he lived: in the thick of the movement, at the forefront of an uprising, and under fire from the counterrevolution. Hundreds of thousands of people attended his funeral procession and his grave remains an important place of pilgrimage for the left today.

          But there were no dramatic gestures or great gambits in Müller’s career, nor did it end theatrically amid gunfire in a revolutionary tragedy, with a massive funeral procession forming the closing scene. He had emerged from the working class to become its leader. Such origins made him mindful of the limits of working-class endurance and he was never a risk-taker. The one occasion he ventured a big gesture – declaring that a national assembly would convene in revolutionary Germany ‘only over my dead body’ at the general assembly of the Berlin worker’s councils on 19 November 1918 – he earned the ignominy of a derisive nickname, Leichenmüller (Corpse-Müller), that would pursue him to the end of his days. His withdrawal from the political stage came with a slow loss of political influence, a development that had started with the weakening of the Executive Council in late 1918. At some point, Richard Müller simply disappeared, leaving few traces of the rest of his life. Having emerged out of obscurity, he disappeared again into the darkness.

          But like Liebknecht, with his grand gestures and tragic-heroic funeral, Müller also departed in a fitting way. Throughout his life, Müller had been absorbed with organisational work, work that was undone over and over again by the course of events. […] Both Müller and Liebknecht failed along with their Revolution, which was crushed by violence and ruined by its own weaknesses and inconsistency. Both fought that verdict of history with all their strength as committed revolutionaries. Each failed in his characteristic way – one as a martyr, the other in oblivion. (p. 232.)

It would overshoot the mark, of course, to make a simple opposition out of this striking comparison of two political figures, an either/or, for the reason that revolutionary movements and a new era are only conceivable when the two figures are joined in an overarching unity. That this did not happen in the course of the German Revolution of 1918 is a tragedy, a tragedy for which not only Karl Liebknecht and Richard Müller had to pay a bitter price.

Translated by Zachary King

Christoph Jünke is an Independent Researcher and Historian. He lives in Bochum, Germany, and his research focuses mainly on the socialist and working-class movements in twentieth-century Germany and Marxist criticism of Stalinism. []


Hoffrogge, Ralf 2014, Working-Class Politics in the German Revolution: Richard Müller, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards and the Origins of the Council Movement, translated by Joseph B. Keady,Historical Materialism Book Series, Leiden: Brill.

Müller, Richard 2011, Eine Geschichte der Novemberrevolution: Vom Kaiserreich zur Republik – Die Novemberrevolution – Der Bürgerkrieg in Deutschland, Berlin: Die Buchmacherei.