Author Jost Halfmann

Marx in Frankfurt 1968

The year of 1968 signifies not only the climax of the global student movement. That year also witnessed a series of dramatic political events around the world. 1968 is associated with the Tet Offensive of the Vietcong and the My Lai massacre committed by the us Army on the Vietnamese battlefield. 1968 is also irreversibly associated with the assassination of Martin Luther King, the charismatic leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the usa, and with the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet troops, bringing the reform politics of the “Prague Spring” to a sudden end. And in the same year the barricades in Paris’s Quartier Latin set off a general strike in France lasting several weeks and bringing the political regime of President de Gaulle to the brink of collapse.

For the student movement in Germany, centered particularly in the university cities of Berlin and Frankfurt, the killing of the student Benno Ohnesorg by a police officer during a protest rally against the visit of Shah Reza Palewi of Iran in 1967 and the assassination attempt by a jobless right-winger on Rudi Dutschke, one of the most prominent leaders of the German student movement, in April 1968 set off high-intensity protests by the students, temporarily led by the Socialist German Student Association (sds). The sds originated as a student organization of the Social Democratic Party of Germany; the loss of political control over the sds culminated in its expulsion by the spd in 1961 and the withdrawal of any financial and organizational support. Thus set free from party control, the sds eventually became more and more antiauthoritarian and politically radical. Beginning in 1965, the members took a growing interest in Marxist analysis; the sds organized training courses in Marxist theory and in the history of Marxist analysis of politics. An enormous output of legal and illegal reprints of historical Marxist thinkers from Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg to Karl Korsch, Ernst Bloch and György Lukacs were indicative of this tendency. As an aside, Angela Davis, long-term member of the us Communist Party, spent a couple of years at Frankfurt University and joined the sds at that time, keeping, however, a low profile during her stay.

Thus, it is fair to say that Marx played an important role for some parts of the student movement of 1968 in its attempt to understand the current societal state of affairs, and in devising the right political strategy for political revolt. The student movement in Frankfurt am Main and elsewhere consisted, however, not only of Marxists: there were the hippies and flower people as well as diverse groups fighting for changes in the legal system, education or gender relations.

The biggest “success” of the student movement in Frankfurt was the occupation of the main building of the “J.H.W. Goethe Universität” in 1968 and its renaming as “Karl-Marx Universität.” The Frankfurt version of the assault on the Bastille was the capture of the university rectorate, where the conquerors posed on the windowsills in the rector’s gown and sampled the fine French cognac from the office sideboard. This carnivalesque act would not have justified the change of the university’ s name. For about two months an “active strike” was proclaimed and implemented with seminars devoted to the analysis of the current societal state of affairs. This strike was supported and critically accompanied by renowned professors such as Jürgen Habermas. This reciprocal conditional sympathy ended when the sds occupied the Institute of Social Research under the directorship of Adorno and Habermas, who called the police for help. The strike ended after massive police action. The aim of the “active strike” was to introduce current societal topics of urgent relevance into the university. Not all members of the university were convinced of this change of the curriculum. My task during this strike was to disrupt the seminar of an elderly professor of philosophy, a renowned expert on Hegel’s theory of consciousness. When I entered his seminar and declared it over, he indignantly reproached me: “How dare you destroy my fine web of thoughts?” Having started to know already then how intricate indeed the Hegelian and post-Hegelian philosophies are, I could not avoid feeling some sympathy for this professor, but had to tell him to continue weaving somewhere else.

This is how a university building came to be named for Marx. But what was his role as an intellectual “spiritus rector” for the political analysis and strategy of 1968? Insofar as the student movement was driven by intellectual analysis, it wanted to understand such different political events as the us invasion of Vietnam, the anti-colonial struggles in Africa, the resistance movements in Central Europe against Soviet domination, the Maoist “Long March” in China, the uprising of landless farmers in South America in the wake of the Cuban revolution of 1959 and—last but not least—the worldwide student movements of the sixties themselves. The Frankfurt Marxists tried to find the right theoretical concepts to understand what was labeled “late capitalism” in the advanced industrial nations, the predominance of agriculture in most African and Asian countries, and the Stalinist and post-Stalinist attempts at industrial modernization in the Soviet Union. The students partially rejected the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, whose disciples, as the intellectual leaders of the Frankfurt sds, had been for almost half a decade at the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research (under the direction of Horkheimer and Adorno, and later of Habermas, whom, by the way, Horkheimer deeply distrusted for his alleged Marxist furor).

The Marxist intellectuals of the sds faced enormous problems reconciling diverse and seemingly contradictory social phenomena within one theoretical framework, such as:

  1. the ongoing persistence of capitalist economies in the “West” (despite recurrent accumulation crises throughout the twentieth century, as prophesied by Karl Marx);
  2. the acceptance of modern capitalism by organized labor (due to the recognition of labor unions within the process of industrial relations, which ensured the workers a certain share of the added value of production—a phenomenon which did not conform to Marx’s prediction that the cyclical ups and downs of the accumulation process would degrade living conditions such that the workers would feel compelled to overthrow capitalism);
  3. Mao’s national liberation movement in China aimed at a socialism on an agricultural basis—which deviated starkly from the Marxian concept of revolution in industrialized countries);
  4. it appeared, however, as if radical bourgeois elites in the cities of Latin America were capable of radical revolution, following the overthrow of the us-supported Batista regime in Cuba by guerrillas led by Fidel Castro (a scenario which only vaguely reminded Marxists of the Paris Commune in 1871);
  5. anti-colonial struggles in Central Africa which seemed to stop the strategy of Western capitalist exploitation by securing the potential surplus reserves for the people of the Third World.

In view of the lingering shadows of National Socialism and the contemporary forms of late capitalism, the task for Marxists was tremendous. The question was: what kind of Marxism was still viable in view of the Leninist and Stalinist deformations in the Soviet Union and its dilution through Social Democracy in the European countries? In addition, György Lukacs had argued that the German idealist philosophy of Hegel had directly led to National Socialism (Georg Lukacs, The Destruction of Reason, 1954). This could be read as a warning against returning to the idealist traces in the young Marx (Marx, The Paris Manuscripts) and a safeguard against any possible Leninist reading of the mature Marx of Das Kapital, both texts having become popular among the Frankfurt Marxists of 1968.

So, the task of a revitalized Marxism for the “68ers” was, first, analyzing the form of current capitalist production relations; second, identifying the dominant global class relations; and third, ascribing the student movement a role within the seemingly global revolutionary struggles.

Certainly, the sds activists had some theoretical resources at hand for that task. Since 1967, the sds tried to organize training in Marxist theory and history. In Frankfurt as well as in Berlin, some academics offered seminars and lecture courses in Marxism, prominently represented by Jürgen Habermas and Oskar Negt. Was this enough to accomplish a task which none of the older Marxists of the time, such as Paul Baran, Paul Sweezy or Ernest Mandel, had been able to manage?

What was the overall Marxist concept with which the sds wanted to capture the diverse features of the current societal state of affairs and find the right political strategy to overcome the dominant political conditions? One has to say: there was none. Marxism in the minds of the student radicals became a multi-faceted collection of partial concepts. The disassembled topics of any comprehensive political analysis were the authoritarian state, the “dormant” working class, and the revolutionary (?) uprisings in China, Africa and South America. Thus, the Frankfurt School thesis of the authoritarian state as henchman of big capital served to explain the Emergency Legislation of 1968, but did not help in illuminating the critical potential of recurrent economic crises for the re-awakening of the proletariat. Not fully compatible with this thesis was Marcuse’s critique of mass culture and its fusion with consumerism (“repressive desublimation”) in his book One Dimensional Man, which was meant to explain the eclipse of the capitalist regime of exploitation in the awareness of large parts of the population and, particularly, of the working class. Even less compatible with Marxist theorizing was the meaning of the Maoist “Long March,” of African anti-colonialist struggles, and of the revolts of agrarian workers and uprisings in the cities (“Tupamaros,” etc.) in South America. In trying to adapt Marx’s theory of capitalism to the era of imperialism, Rosa Luxemburg had argued in her work The Accumulation of Capital: A Contribution to the Economic Explanation of Imperialism, 1913), that by extending the reach beyond the industrialized North to the whole world, modern capitalism had become imperialist and turned formerly pre-capitalist living conditions in Africa, Asia and Latin America into capitalist production relations, and had transformed the global poor into a world proletariat. Franz Fanon’s polemical pamphlet (The Wretched of the Earth) seemed to prove Luxemburg right. The diverse uprisings of the sixties could be interpreted as the revolutions of the new world proletariat. Hence, for some time, the Marxist reasoning gained some support; the emergence of (anti-colonial) struggles for independence in Africa and Mao’s Long March in China, as well as the peasant revolts against the latifundia economy in South America could be subsumed under the general term of a revolution against imperialism, even though this “Third World Proletariat” consisted of landless farmers and migrant peasant workers instead of industrial workers. But none of these movements acted like working-class revolutionaries, as the Maoist civil war against the Chinese Republic under the Kuomintang and the bloody wars of the Diadochi during the anti-colonial uprisings in Africa showed.1 Similarly, the turn toward the narcotics business by former resistance movements such as the farc in Columbia, or the build-up of a family dictatorship by the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, seemed to prove the point that there is no direct way from urban guerrilla struggles to a liberated society.

And what about the role of the worldwide student movements in a potential revolutionary struggle? It was after all Herbert Marcuse who—in a speech in Berlin in 1967—attributed revolutionary potential to the students who, in his view, could escape the bewitchment of repressive desublimation in the industrial countries. (A caustic professor of sociology and former Habermas assistant in Frankfurt later offered a different explanation for the radicalism of the students. The students could afford to be radical because their parents were the first postwar generation which would pass down substantial inheritances, allowing their children to live a carefree life. To him, not even students could escape the fate of repressive desublimation.)

The student struggle against the authoritarian state culminated in the protest against the State Emergency Laws of the German government (Nostandsgesetzgebung). Ironically, the German government had conceived them as a decisive step toward the removal of the remaining rights of the occupation forces; for the student opposition, they were an attempt at repeating the Enabling Act of 1933 (see the 1968 “Römerberg Speech,” by Hans-Jürgen Krahl, then a member of the federal executive board of sds); nonetheless, the struggle against the enabling state did not really promise quick success, because labor unions only hesitantly joined the protests. But how to combine the student struggles in the metropoles with, for instance, the guerrilla struggles in the Latin American cities and forests? Che Guevara’s execution by an officer of the Bolivian army in October 1967 in Bolivia was indicative of the fading hopes for combining the struggles in the cities of the industrialized West with those in the less developed areas of the world.

Apart from the problems of solving current political problems, trouble also came from within the sds. It might have seemed a minor irritant for the exclusively male leaders of the sds when the “Weiberrat” (Bitch Council), founded by the female members of the sds, blamed them for male chauvinism, treating women as mere auxiliaries. In November 1968, the Weiberrat published a flyer with the heading “Befreit die bürgerlichen Eminenzen von ihren Schwänzen” (“Liberate the bourgeois eminences from their cocks”), showing the cocks of the sds-leadership hacked off and pinned on some plank with their names below. This aroused some public attention, but did not provoke sds leaders enough to resign from their positions and reunite with their hacked-off cocks. The resistance from within was not the only coffin nail for the politics of the sds and the student movement. Its defect remained that it could not interpret the political role of students in Europe and North America, and give these movements a relevant role in modern anti-capitalist struggles.

It came as no surprise that the diverging strategies of the students in the metropoles and of the “proletariat” of the Third World did not coincide. Political dividing lines emerged:

  1. depending on the relation of the students to the “Third World” uprisings, some factions of the student movement became Maoists;
  2. others saw the students as a vanguard of the struggle against late capitalism and opted for terrorism, such as the Red Army Faction of Baader and Meinhof (raf),
  3. the Spontaneists with Dany Cohn-Bendit, sharing the same view of uniting students and workers with Lotta Continua in Italy, wanted to change lifestyles and spread this change among workers (“Revolutionary Struggle”);
  4. and finally, those who wanted to revitalize the communist tradition of the Weimar Republic started to build communist groups such as the kbw (Communist League of West Germany), the kp-ml (German Communist Party–Marxists-Leninists) or kpd-ao (German Communist Party–Reconstruction Organization). The student movement in Frankfurt thus split into diverging splinter groups during the years following 1968 and, not surprisingly, lost its broad appeal to the general public.

The splintering of the student movement into diverse groups and “parties” was the beginning of the end of the student movement in Frankfurt. In March 1970, the sds declared the dissolution of the organization, reflecting the de facto end of the student movement. The movement had produced few tangible results, if any. Nevertheless, it instigated a change in the political and interactional culture, even though the movements and political events in the rest of the world each followed their own course which—to the chagrin of the Marxist and non-Marxist participants in the student movement—did not advance the collapse of late capitalism one small step.

P.S.: On a personal note, I might end my short review of Marx in Frankfurt 1968 by reporting an encounter with Hans-Jürgen Krahl, the undisputed ingenious leader of the sds and Adorno’s no. 1 doctoral candidate, sometime in 1968 in the “Club Voltaire,” a bar—run by leftist Social Democrats—where the student activists would wind up their days of permanent activism with endless talk and more drinks. Krahl, who as a gay person with a history of membership in a right-wing youth organization, lived a borderline life filled with excesses of all sorts, including theorizing (always “taking a walk on the wild side,” Lou Reed). During his fourth or fifth “double-double” corn schnapps, he reproached me for not putting my life on the line like a true revolutionary; his diagnosis was: “You are just a petit bourgeois.” Krahl died shortly after in a car crash, while I continued a significantly less spectacular life, doing the unrewarding job of throwing a post-factum glance on the vanities, ambitions and mixed blessings of the student movement in Frankfurt’s 1968.

  1. I am thinking primarily of the struggles between Kasavubu and Lumumba and the ensuing civil war in the Congo after the retreat of the Belgian colonial power in the early sixties. Other examples are the Obote regime in Uganda (since independence in 1962), toppled about 10 years later by a military coup of Idi Amin, followed by a 20-year civil war; and the independence wars in Angola between mpla and unita since the early sixties and intensified after the end of the Portuguese colonial rule in 1974. Needless to say, none of these civil wars took place without clandestine interventions by Western and Eastern powers.