Chris Harman


When the Ruhr was Red

(May 1980)

From Socialist Review, 19 May-14 June 1980: 5, p.33.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Ruhr and Revolution
Jurgen Tampke
Croom Helm, £11.50

The German revolution of 1918-20 is very much the unknown revolution to most socialists today. The great revolutionary upheavals of that period have been forgotten, buried beneath the memory of what happened after their defeat, from the apparent democracy of the Weimar Republic, through the barbarism of Nazism to the division of Germany.

Tampke’s book is a welcome, if somewhat academic, contribution to the re-excavation of the revolution. It looks in depth at what happened in 1918 and 1919 in the most industrially developed region of Germany, the Ruhr. The author shows in detail how the workers in the different towns and villages, with their differing political traditions, responded as the social democracy promised by the old Socialist Party, the SDP turned sour and reactionary mercenary soldiers, the Frei Korps, were used by the socialist leaders to break strikes and destroy every element of workers’ control.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the book is the author’s conclusion. He is not a revolutionary and seems to regard the notion of socialist revolution as basically utopian. Yet he is forced by the facts to conclude that:

’The claim that “the prevailing goals were predominantly reformist and radical democratic” is not really supported. In the Ruhr the left radical groups which attempted to push the revolution “vehemently towards a complete change in the social and political order” were not in a minority but had considerable support from the start ... Even most of those parts which did not turn to radicalism immediately failed to do so not because of their opposition to the dictatorship of the proletariat but because the local leadership gave the impression that parliamentary majority was the safest and speediest way to comprehensive social and economic change. When this proved an illusion, the full radical potential of the workforce was soon revealed ... The German November revolution was perhaps more Marxist in character than it is recently given credit for.’

This is a useful counterblast to writers as divergent in other respects as Claudin and Barrington Moore, who have written off the German revolution because it did not succeed and used it to justify their claim that ‘soviet style’ revolution is not possible in the West.

The one regrettable thing about Tampke’s book is that it deals only with 1918 and 1919, leaving untouched the great culmination of the revolutionary wave in the Ruhr: the response to the right wing Kapp Putsch of March 1920 that involved a general strike, a full blooded uprising and the creation of a Red Army of 60,000 to 100,000 members.

Given the price of the book and the limited range of events it covers, few people will be able to afford to buy it. But it is the sort of book which would be a welcome addition to your local library.

Last updated on 14 March 2010