The General Strike of the Ruhr Miners (1905)

by

The Labour Revolt

Tired of endless vexations (diminution of wages, lengthening of the hours of work, the impossibility of putting an end to the least of the innumerable abuses weighing them down) and goaded by the brusque refusal of the employers to treat with the trades-union delegates, the miners of the valleys of Westphalia and the Ruhr violently revolted some months ago. Not listening to the pusillanimous advice of their trade-union leaders – almost all members of the Reichstag – they declared a general strike, which in a few days included 230,000 men.

The last strike had taken place in 1889. Since then, in these parts, the Class-Struggle had taken the « more civilised form » of parliamentary action – and naturally nothing had changed. To augment the force of parliamentary pressure exercised on the Reichstag the trades-union deputies used threatening and haughty language at their meetings and in their papers. But, being bad psychologists, they deceived themselves. The bourgeois parties were stronger in reality than in the imagination of the Socialist Deputies. They yielded nothing to these inoffensive threats, and the parliamentary mechanism was not put in motion to force legislative reform on the implacable mine-owners.

The workers, on their side, had never ceased to call for a strike, which they asked their trades-union deputies to declare! A saddening proof of what a long period of labour bureaucracy can do to make the rank and file forget how themselves to decree their own actions! The leaders, moreover, resisted in spite of these injunctions. Dwelling upon the small success that would attend immediate extra-parliamentary action – diplomatic tactics pertaining to parliamentarism – they resisted for a long time and then changed their tone, begging the workers at the same time still to be patient. And this at a time when the organ of the great Western German industries, the Rheinische-Westphaelische Zeitung, had come to declaring aloud that a general strike would never break out « whilst the miner-leaders remained at their posts ».

For the second time the trades-union deputies refused to give an impetus to the strike movement. Then, unable to bear the curb any longer, roused to fury by the invincible refusal of the masters to treat with « political parties », the miners rose and imposed their own wishes on their timid leaders. The latter had to yield to the anger of the workers, and the strike was declared.

But the chances of success had already become uncertain on the day of the tardy proclamation of the strike. Better psychologists than the trades-union deputies, more energetic and independent that they, the capitalists, united in their cartel, or employer’s union, had calculatingly watched the strike preparing for some weeks. They had turned the indecision of the workers to their profit. They had not allowed these weeks and weeks to pass without taking elementary precautions for the defence. So that the strike, when declared, far from surprising the enemy, found him armed to the teeth when the fight begun.

The conspicuous phenomenon of the first period of the strike was the unity of the diverse groups of miners until then « brothers at enmity ». It must be allowed that the greater part of the workers are not organised at all. The minority – very important moreover – were divided into four unions: the free union (Freie Gewerkschaft) officially neutral, but really organised by the Socialists, and the most numerous; the Christian union (catholic), the Polish union and the Hirsch Dunker union (liberal). Till then the struggle between the red and the yellow unions had known no truce. Forced by such circumstances they all united in the same revolt and opposed the same resistance to capital which oppressed all equally. They elected without delay as a Central Committee for the « direction of the strike » a Commission of Seven.

Confronted by the strike, the German bourgeoisie was in a strange situation. It goes without saying that it really entertained only the minimum of sympathy for the strikers. Although the strike aimed at nothing revolutionary the bourgeoisie could only consider it, normally, as a reprehensible act of indiscipline of labour towards capital. But on the other hand another feeling disturbed it. The strike showed the reverse of the medal in this sense that it made all Germany feel that the national industry depended, in fact, on the good will of a dozen manufacturers of the Ruhr. Further, the revolt involved all the workers, not only the Socialist workers, but the Catholics, Liberals, etc. The fear of losing working-class electors imposed, therefore, on the bourgeois parties a moderately anti-proletarian attitude. Also even the great princes of the Catholic church were forced to second the strikers. All the same it must not be imagined that the sympathy of the bourgeoisie for the strikers passed the modest limits of platonic policy. The relief and subscription lists show that the immense majority of the sums collected were sent to the strikers by their brothers in the struggle, the workers of other industries.

The Action of the Reichstag
Citizen Hué, one of the miner « leaders », defended in the Reichstag, in a speech of more than three hours, the demands of the strikers. He began his address by saying that he did not intend to speak in his character of politician or Socialist, nor to create legislative action, nor to put forward any end far from attainment, but that he simply wished to speak as a miner. A typical example of what our trades-union movement actually is in all its « neutrality »! Hué, moreover, held so strictly to this programme that Vorwaerts overwhelmed him with praise for having spoken like any sort of miner – clerical, progressive or nationalist! And, what makes it worse, Vorwaerts was not even ironical in addressing these congratulations to the parliamentarian Hué, who, though elected to the Reichstag not as a « realist » miner but as a Socialist, had the original idea of treating, before Parliament, the ideal of his party – as utopian!

Other deputies also delivered equally « parliamentary » speeches. But what must be noticed above all is the manner in which the party itself has begun to act. In twenty-seven public meetings held at Berlin, a unique resolution was passed, which demanded that the government should snatch the coal-mines from capitalist speculation, and give them, in the interests of the community, to the Empire! This State-Socialism (étatisme) of these twenty-seven meetings, inspired by the leaders of our party, shows as clear as the sun at mid-day the absolute lack of Marxian spirit in the everyday politics of the German Social Democracy. The most essential view given by Marxian criticism to the Socialist doctrine is precisely the penetrating idea that the State – regarded in its historical development and in its empirical existence – is not, in spite of the assertion of the bourgeois State-Socialists (étatistes) of the classic school, a Being beyond Good and Evil, neutral, without sex, perfect symbol of Right and Justice(!) – but quite otherwise, a sort of interfederal Committee of capitalist classes and rulers with the aim of preserving the dominium plebis, and consequently anti-proletarian in its essence! Now, this is what the official Socialists of Germany, the Bebels and Ledebours, are asking as a refuge against capitalism and its own agents. To deliver the workers from the capitalist exploitation they wish the cross-over figure of the quadrille transported into high politics, to deliver them over to the protection of the Feudal State! The German State is the State in its strength, the State in triple power. Truly, there can be no real sense of what is practical in asking the State of William II, of Buelow, of Posadowsky and their substitutes, to take the place of the masters of private industry. All the police and military forces erected by the crushing State Employer, whose despotism would no longer even be veiled or weakened by competition, that is what they offer us. Assuredly – the end of the strike has proved it – private capitalism has infinite resources to ensure the triumph of its interests. But the State, besides means identical to those of industrial capitalism, possesses also formidable instruments of immediate repression.

In practice German national life supports our theoretical assertion. In all Germany there is no master more tyrannous than the State. With us the State is, in the last instance, the rural nobility of Prussia. The State, as an employer, concedes neither the right of coalition nor the right of union to its workers. The Hilgers case, which concerned an employee of the State mines of the Valley of the Saar, showed up State despotism in all its horror. The impossibility of freely exercising the right of the suffrage, bad treatment, spying, etc. – that is all that is to be got by workers from the State.

To hand over the mines of the Ruhr and other valleys to the State would be to bureaucratise and feudalise at a blow a huge industry, maim the rights of half a million citizens, and raise up a monstrous institution, half barracks, half prison. This is what the State Socialism of parliamentary opportunism may lead to; forgetting the elementary lessons of history, blinded by a hand-to-mouth and short-sighted policy, venturing on such nonsensical history and practice!

This manifestation of such dangerous State-Socialism was not the only error. The tactics were no better than the theory. In fact the Socialist trades-unions are mixed up in action with the yellow (anti-socialist) unions. Although the red unions were greatest in numbers the commission of seven was presided over by Effert, a catholic and member of the Christian unions. This equivocal alliance was concluded by the « Socialist » unions at the cost of unimaginable compromise. At the meetings all Socialist propaganda was forbidden as harmful to neutrality. The word « comrade » was interdicted; « colleague » had to be used. To speak of the « modern » labour movement was to go against the exigencies of political tact. Whilst the catholic papers were making furious propaganda the Socialist papers were hidden away and asked to moderate their tone still more. At the large meetings the Socialist « leaders » declared that there was no difference between the various kinds of unions. One of them even went so far as to say to the miners, « Organise, it matters little how! » Those Socialists, who wished to speak at the meetings to show that a neutral labour movement without character and without Socialist aims is nothing but a conservative movement, found that their speeches were suppressed under the pretext that they were anarchists. One room was boycotted as being regularly frequented by Socialists. The considerable sums sent to the miners by the Socialist Party were doubtless welcomed (with good cause) but they were put down simply under the names of the cashier. All this not to offend the susceptibility of the dear catholic allies and of public opinion!

But nothing went well. The union leaders had placed their all on a game of chess against the political constellation. Now, the « governmental benevolence », so much desired, did not come. Von Buelow had certainly promised to serve as an intermediary, but he haughtily telegraphed his conditions to the miners: « the unconditional end of the strike ». That was what the parliamentarism and diplomacy of the « chiefs » led to!

However, the action of the miners took a wider scope and their enthusiasm increased. The Socialist papers published in the district of the strike arose with passion against the governmental arrogance. They spoke of « provocation » on the part of authority, and some even, like the Volks Blatt of Bochum, tried to give a political character to the strike by proclaiming as a watchword: The struggle for the right of universal suffrage, equal, direct and secret, in the Prussian Landstag.

A short time before, the Commission of Seven had declared aloud that it could not in any way have faith in the words of the government, and that the strike should go on even if the mines risked being inundated with water, until the masters should at least agree to some of the demands of the workers. But now suddenly the Commission raised its voice to declare the contrary. An assembly of delegates, not regularly elected – scarcely 170, representing 230,000 strikers – met with closed doors and unknown to its principals resolved, against six votes, to stop the strike. Thus, the strike which began at the wish of the masses, irritated by the resistance of the masters, was ended by the order of these men. The end of the movement was imposed from above by a handful of « delegates », without the strikers, who had desired the strike with all their energy, having the least chance of interfering in their own business.

The order of the day by which the Commission of Seven sought to assign a motive to the end of the strike, and which it wished to impose on 230,000 strikers, included many veritable insults thrown in the face of class-conscious proletarians. The second paragraph said, indeed, « Considering that the continuation of the strike would have caused enormous difficulties to the entire national economy ». A consideration which really shows better than anything else the profound feebleness of mind of our union leaders! To make the Strike depend on the good fortune of national industry – that is to say, in the first place, of national capital – is a somewhat compromising dependence for a modern labour movement. But that is not all. The paragraph announced, among other things, nothing less than the confidence of the miners in the Imperial government! And hear the unconscious irony, « Considering that . . . the government . . . has firmly promised the reform in mine legislation, which it has promised for ten years« . It is rather absurd to place confidence in the most reactionary and feudal government of Europe, all the more when it must be avowed that we have already vainly waited ten years on unfulfilled governmental promises. What guarantee is there then for the future?

But for the third time the leaders showed themselves to be bad psychologists. Again they proved incapable of controlling passions. The enthusiasm of the strikers, who had even improvised a stirring women’s movement, was struck to the heart by this oligarchical and unexpected order. In many parts harsh and bitter recriminations were hurled against the leaders, who were threatened and called traitors. At several meetings it was resolved to « disobey » and continue the strike. But the German workers have not yet learned to dispense with leaders. After some days of confusion and exasperation the latter succeeded in putting a definite end to the strike. The 230,000 strikers went humbly and unconditionally to ask their masters, who on their side stood firm, to take them back to work. Many did not even succeed in obtaining that!

The Lessons of the Strike
The strike of the Ruhr has shown once more the absolute powerlessness of the actual tactics of our trades-unions, and the total ignorance of the psychological factor inherent in all strike movements. The moment it appeared that the money would be exhausted, in a few days the strike was declared finished. « It is only our cash that can win our cause! » This is what the leaders endless repeat. We admit that a well filled cashbox is a good ally. But only an ally. To wish to fight the capital of capitalists with the capital of poor devils, is absurd. It is not by the power of ready-money that strikers can win, but only by much more powerful means, and a more ethical mandate: solidarity, socialist class feeling, and the absolute economic necessity of the proletariat.

By its very nature a general strike of miners can only succeed when it is really general, that is to say international. Because if the mines have not everywhere ceased to work, capital, at its present actual stage of concentration in all industrial countries, it is not in the least embarrassed; it is easy for it, and not even very disadvantageous, to bring from foreign mines the coal that is not furnished by the « national mines ». The capitalist world imports as much as it can procure to work the machines. The miner « leaders » of Westphalia had the intelligence to ask their comrades in England, Belgium and France to make common cause with them. In Belgium they succeeded. The Belgian miners, to give a proof of their international sentiments and also to ameliorate the conditions of their own lives, agreed to declare a sympathetic strike. The German miner-leaders, the cause of this fraternal strike, a few weeks after cast off their Belgian comrades. But worse still: the coal-miners’ strike was not even general in Germany itself. And through the fault of the unions! Whilst the miners of Westphalia and the Rhenish provinces were revolting against their masters, the miners of Saxony, Silesia and Southern Germany, who had intended to help them, were prevented by their union « leaders » from realising their intention, and thus had to act as scabs against their comrades of the north, and diminish their chances of victory.

So the general strike was only general in Westphalia and the Rhenish provinces, and even there it was not extended, in spite of the good wishes among them, to the other categories of labour, which would have been necessary to really intimidate the bourgeoisie. But to intimidate the bourgeoisie was exactly what wasn’t desired! One of the greatest illusions of the strike « leaders » was to wish to fight the capitalists of the mines through other capitalists! They did not see that in the last resort the bourgeoisie is nothing but a single mass, making one block against any serious labour movement.

In fact the strike leaders did all they could to prevent the strike being serious. It having burst forth in spite of them, they at once began to give it an eminently pacific character. Law became a sacred word! They thoroughly succeeded in this, so thoroughly that a bourgeois Berlin paper could say; « We patriots may truly be proud of the discipline of our workers! » A strike which declares above everything else its legality and its love of peace, deprives itself of the best chances of victory. The bourgeoisie ought to be confronted, not by the persuasion of folded arms, but by the clenched fist of a proletariat which only preserves its tranquillity when it pleases.

The strike of the Westphalian miners is over, then, and the rank and file are tired and irritated. But it is not yet forgotten. The rank and file are convinced that the parliamentary, neutral and legitimate tactics of their leaders have failed, and at their expense! But they do not yet know how to emancipate themselves from their leaders, nor how to substitute true tactics for false. The urgent necessities of coming struggles will teach them this.

Robert Michels [later author of Political Parties and the thesis of the « iron law of oligarchy »]

(translated from Le Mouvement socialiste, in The Socialist, organ of the Socialist Labour Party of Great Britain, June 1905)

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Une Réponse to “The General Strike of the Ruhr Miners (1905)”

  1. entdinglichung Says:

    in my opinion, Michels confuses here non-socialist unions and yellow unions; generally, both in in socialist movement of that period and in contemporary historiography, catholic, polish and liberal unions were not regarded as « yellow », they were of course less militant and did not question capitalism but were from time to time involved in strikes and were not creatures of the bourgeoisie like the real yellow unions which emerged in Germany in the same period; in fact, some of the big companies which supported yellow unions also did not allow their workers to join a e.g. catholic union.

    btw: Michels joined the fascist PNF in 1923

    J'aime

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