Student Movements in Germany, 1968-1984

Theoretical Background and Political Praxis


by Peter-Erwin Jansen

translated by Geoffrey A. Hale


There can be no free society without tranquility, without an inner and outer realm of solitude, within which individual freedom can unfold. If there is no private life, no independence, no tranquility, no solitude in a socialist society, then it is not a socialist society! Not yet. -- Herbert Marcuse, 1969

Digging up the "Old" Theorists

In the mid-60s, pirated copies of many of the texts by the "Critical Theorists" affiliated with the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt were reissued. They consisted predominantly of essays and empirical investigations from the thirties and forties. For example, several avant-garde groups within and connected to the SDS (German Socialist Student Union [Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund]) discussed Max Horkheimer's programmatic work of 1937, Traditional and Critical Theory. These student groups used this text from the Institute for Social Research in order to criticize bourgeois society and Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy simultaneously. The students also rediscovered the explorations of the origins of prejudices and anti-Semitism in the collection of essays by members of the Institute, The Authoritarian Character. The Authoritarian State,written in 1942 in memory of Walter Benjamin, received especial consideration. Not only was the National-Socialist state organized on an authoritarian model, but so too were the social connections in post-war Germany, including the social structure of the family. Anti-authoritarian behavior against state institutions such as schools and universities, as well as against (Nazi)forebears --even within one's own personal relationships-- was supposed to break old structures open, establish new ways of life, and accelerate social democratization. The important petition of the SDS, "Democracy and Higher Education" ("Demokratie und Hochschule") directly referred to the lack of democratic structures and the danger of the authoritarian state: "Either higher education participates in the dynamic development of social democracy and the democratization of society, or it will become an instrument in the development of authoritarian forms of society."

Furthermore, Adorno's and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment achieved late fame during the years of the student movement. The Dialectic of Enlightenment relentlessly reconstructs the historical philosophical collapse of reason and its civilizing process of self-destruction. If reason served as a means of self-preservation and as support for human autonomy, then, in the capitalist system, it put itself in service of domination: the domination of man over nature and the domination of man over man.

Max Horkheimer's Critique of Instrumental Reason, published the same year in 1947 with the assistance of Leo Löwenthal, offers a more precise analysis of how the emancipatory moments of reason lapse into moments of destruction: "Technical progress is accompanied by a process of dehumanization. Progress threatens to destroy the very aim it is said to achieve --the idea of humanity." The "idea of humanity," naively imagined as the sense of awakening in the Enlightenment, lost all innocence after Auschwitz. This was uncompromisingly formulated by Adorno in the Negative Dialectic: "`I am thinking of Auschwitz,' must be able to accompany all of my thoughts."

It appears that students in the 1960s formed their understanding of the theoretical development of fascism through the early studies of the Institute. If the authoritarian posture is exposed as the moment of mastery, then anti-authoritarian rebellion must mark a moment of liberation -- a motif which was more intensively identified in Marcuse's work in the 70s, especially in his book, An Essay on Liberation (Versuch über die Befreiung) (1969). In addition to the social and economic analysis of National Socialism, the students were also interested in the Institute's reconstructions of subjectivity, fragmented to the point of unrecognizability. "The lack of consideration for thesubject makes authoritarian rule easy. Groups of people are displaced by other gauges, and sent with the stamp `Jew' to the gas chamber," Horkheimer and Adorno summarize in the Chapter "Elements of Anti-Semitism" in the Dialectic of Enlightenment.

The eradication of European Jews and the systematic murder of millions of others in the barbaric Nazi concentration camps stood and stands for the possibility of barbarism and for the collapse of human civilization. From that moment on, critical thought could neither do without the critique of reason and civilization, nor put it on a course of historical progress.

It was Walter Benjamin who, in his Historico-Philosophical Theses, connected the progress of civilization to the capacity to recall the victims of oppression. The history of the oppressed and their unsuccessful attempts at emancipation teach us, as Benjamin explains, that the exceptional situation in which we live --i.e., unfreedom-- is, in fact, the rule.

With this observation, a marked difference becomes apparent between numerous Communist organizations competing for the "correct" ideology, on the one hand, and the "autogenous and un-dogmatic" groups, on the other, as revealed only after the collapse of the student movement. The Communist cadres relied upon a quasi-natural, though hidden, course of historical progress, which would ultimately end in Communism. In order to achieve this end, the proletarian consciousness must simply be directed "correctly." The autogenous groups, on the other hand, remained skeptically opposed to the "revolutionary collective-subject" of the proletariat.

The political orientation of the autogenous movement was concerned with the "consciously lived experience" of the acting subject, be it in the struggle for squatted buildings, for occupied halls at universities or at strikes for a "life-related science" ("lebensnahe Wissenschaft"). Not cold, clinical party-Marxism, but direct political praxis, expressed in actions in the "here and now," was of tantamount importance. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, probably the most well known representative of the autogenous wing, pinpointed this moment of a "rebellious subjectivity" in the preface to his book We Loved It So, the Revolution (Wir haben sie so geliebt, die Revolution): "Everything which took place in the world was interpreted in light of one's own lived experience.... The radical desire for autonomy and self-determination accompanied daily behavior and grounded the spreading rebellion."

The newly constituted Federal Republic of Germany did not alter what had been thematized by Critical Theorists: The refusal to speak of the genocide and the repression of guilt became the systematic building block of post-war German society. No one wanted to know anything of the past, no one spoke of the suffering of victims, and, just shortly after the war, no one in the land of the Nazis was perceived as a perpetrator. Anti-Semitism did not end with the eradication of the Jews. "That fascism persists; that the oft cited `working through of the past' [`Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit'] has not yet succeeded and has deteriorated into its caricature of an empty and cold forgetting, comes from the fact that the objective social conditions, which produced fascism, still exist," wrote Adorno in 1959 in What does the `Working through of the Past' Mean? (Was bedeutet Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit?)

On this point, the Communist section of Germany, the former GDR, differed in no way from its capitalist counterpart. The actuality of the socialist state explained everything: as a neo-Communist, one was suddenly a priori anti-fascist, and as a member of the left, one could never have been anti-Semitic. Confirmed Nazis suddenly became glowing internationalists in the Communist east within just a few years. Even many of the liberal groups of West Germany propagated the simplified formula: whoever is on the left is not anti-Semitic. Certainly the social reality is far more complicated. This led rightfully to the collapse of several of the political groups in Frankfurt in the 70s and 80s.

All of the works of the Critical Theorists presented here in brief remained an important foundation until the mid-80s for the politicized students at the University of Frankfurt. In addition, Günter Anders' The Antiquatedness of Humanity (Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen) also played an important role for the movement of the 70s, as did the works of the former SDS member and later social psychologist, Peter Brückner.

Clearly, optimistic illusions about the number and the influence of these student groups are out of place here. If there were still relatively many loosely affiliated groups on the left by the beginning of the 70s, after 1972/73 there were fewer and fewer. By the beginning of the 80s, there hardly existed any. At the University of Frankfurt, from 1977 to 1987, the last action and discussion groups were formed by the the non-dogmatic Socialist University Initiative (Sozialistische Hochschulinitiative --SHI) and its subsequent group, the Un-Dogmatic Left List (Undogmatische Linke Liste --UL).


Separation and Contradictions: The Political Praxis of the Young and the Analysis of the "Old"

The rebellious students involved in the movements of the 60s were still able to carry out intellectual debates with their intellectual precursors --with Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, as well as Ernst Bloch and Jean Paul Sartre, to name a few of the old theorists. The public figures of the SDS like Hans Jürgen Krahl (who was killed in 1969 in an automobile accident) and Rudi Dutschke (who was seriously injured in an assassination attempt in 1968, and died in 1979 from the lingering effects of his injuries) took advantage of opportunities to speak with Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse or Bloch --when they would allow it. Rudi Dutschke and Ernst Bloch, the author of The Principle of Hope, even formed a deep friendship. Many a letter to this member of the "older" generation began with "dear comrade Bloch," as Dutschke affectionately called him. Two years before Dutschke's death, Bloch died at the advanced age of 92 in Tübingen. Herbert Marcuse interpreted Bloch's thoughts on "concrete utopia" as follows: "Bloch's idea of concrete utopia concerns a society in which people no longer find it necessary to live their lives as the means to recall one's life under the conditions of alienation. Concrete utopia: Utopia, because no such society actually exists anywhere; concrete, because such a society presents a real historical possibility."

The intellectuals mentioned here are named as if in one breath, although there are at times great differences in their publications. Still, in addition to the early writings of Karl Marx, it was their work which the student groups discussed. What interested the politically active students in them was the very kernel of Critical Theory: the refusal to abandon the emancipatory right of the end to all subordination. In order to unearth the fragments of freedom and emancipation, it is necessary radically to analyze the existing, unfree social system. This is the hidden political imperative of critical theory: Thinking Liberation (PEJ).

Although the younger revolutionaries clearly read the works of the Critical Theorists their relationship to the "older" generation, in terms of political praxis, was certainly more distanced. "Activism is regressive," pronounced Adorno's dismissive judgement of the anti-authoritarian movement, even though an intensive intellectual exchange had taken place between Adorno and the Frankfurt SDS since 1967. The political activism of the students and the anxieties of the older theorists simply did not fit together. Ultimately, as the Paris May ended in 1968 --with its occupation of universities and factories as well as the giant demonstrations organized by the French organization of labor unions CGT-- the conflicts between the "old" theorists and the "young" revolutionaries escalated. The activists of the Frankfurt SDS, which, like the movement as a whole, strongly criticized the military actions of the United States against Vietnam, began with the occupation of university departments. The Institute for Social Research was not spared. Those in charge of the Institute had it forcibly cleared by the police. The critics of the "authoritarian state" now, authoritarians themselves, called upon the guarantors of the social order of the state. Powerful hatreds resulted. In one of Adorno's lectures, as an act of provocation, a female student suddenly leapt to the podium and displayed her breasts before Adorno and his audience. Unsettled, Adorno left the hall. This episode is just one facet of the conflicts between the theory-fathers and their praxis-children.

In spite of the incidents and in spite of the strong criticism of the blind activism of the movement, there were in fact mutual sympathies. Especially Herbert Marcuse and Ernst Bloch sought out discussions with the students. Their active participation in political events helped raise the altercations about the "persisting wrongs" of an exploitative, unjust and inhuman social system, to a respectably intellectual level. Even the skeptical Adorno said in an interview shortly before his death that he considers the overall level of the movement to be extraordinarily high, including that of those whose political praxis he opposed. On April 5, 1969, Marcuse wrote to Adorno: "We cannot do away with the fact that these students were influenced by us (and certainly not in the least by you)." Marcuse may be correct as far as the first phase of the SDS is concerned. Certainly his One-Dimensional Man, published in German in 1964, containing his analysis of the tendential development of late-capitalist society, possessed an equally great influence. "I would say that the book was key and therefore attracted so much derision," as the Hannover sociologist Detlev Claussen argues about the work. It remained crucial into the 80s as well.

Marcuse, "the critical theorist of emancipation" (H.J.Krahl), participated in an event organized by the SDS in Berlin in July 1967. He spoke on The End of Utopia (Das Ende der Utopie) and discussed The Problem of Violence in the Opposition (Das Problem der Gewalt in der Opposition). In May of 1968, he expressed solidarity with the mass strikes of the Paris students and workers. He also spoke at the Frankfurt solidarity conference organized by the Offenbach Socialist Office (then the largest independent group of the New Left in Germany) for the African-American activist Angela Davis, when she was arrested in the United States in connection with charges of Communist propaganda. Finally, in 1979, a few weeks before his death, he delivered the lecture The Revolts of the Life Drives (Die Revolte der Lebenstriebe). Even at this time, Marcuse sought out discussions with political activists. At that time it was the Socialist University Initiative (SHI). The entire discussion, lasting several hours, was first published in its entirety in 1990 in Thinking Liberation --A Political Imperative (Befreing Denken --Ein politischer Imperativ).

The group "Revolutionary Struggle" ("Revolutionärer Kampf") (RK) was founded at the beginning of the 1970s, and was represented within universities by the Socialist University Initiative (SHI). They competed with Communist party groups in their attempts to recruit students for radical left politics and, later, for the Frankfurt "housing protests." In the mid-70s, the students occupied numerous old villas, used by large banks as objects of speculation and torn down. The violent struggles between the police and the squatters lasted several years, with the squatters continually moving strategically into new buildings and, ultimately, recovering Frankfurt's inner city as a new public space in the truest sense of the term.

The beginning of a different politics emanated from the university. Students wanted to turn independent seminars into a place for the development of the radical theories of the left and the critique of professional preparation. On the institutional level of student university politics, the elected student government (ASTA), focused on the critique of conservative university reforms. Furthermore, new social issues, no longer containable within a Marxist framework, were thrust into the forefront. These included the feminist movement, opposition to nuclear energy and the ecology movements. Once more, their concerns and crises found their basis in the radical critiques of progress in the texts of the Critical Theorists such as the Dialectic of the Enlightenment, One-Dimensional Man, and Benjamin's Historico-Philosophical Theses.

In general, the student movements of the 70s and 80s were critical of the revolutionary thrust of `68 and the attempts "to utilize the university for class struggle." They found this formula just as empty as the conservative insistence that science and technology serve both the people and progress. They viewed education from the purely instrumental perspective of its utility. In the university of the masses, technocratic calculation preceded demands for emancipation. The accumulation of meaningless knowledge and the waning attractiveness of professional life brought about a loss of direction and identity crisis. After the events in Communist states and the collapse of the protest movement of `68 --many of the students involved had either deserted or formed Communist organizations, while others became involved with or supported the armed class struggle of the Red Army Faction (RAF)-- one could no longer blindly follow a naive revolutionary myth.

The political praxis of the "autogenous movement" ("Spontibewegung"), which often deteriorated into narcissistic self-aggrandizement, developed in the ensuing political vacuum. In their own view, the Socialist University Initiative (SHI), which separated from the Revolutionary Struggle (RK) in 1975, became the university arm of the autogenous movement. Through recourse to concepts from Critical Theory, they attempted to isolate the elements of politics, theory and emancipation. At the same time, the SHI took the Critical Theorists' critiques of class struggle from the 30s much more seriously than did the movements of the previous decade. The slogan "The university is the terrain of life" found its first practical application in the university strikes of 1977 and 1978. Peter Brückner, who was very attached to the SHI, wrote: "What we seek are insights into the possible connections between individual life histories, the history of our society and the immanent histories of the knowledge we teach and study." He was prohibited from teaching in Hannover by the State Attorney General Buback, who was murdered by the RAF in April 1977. Students in Göttingen published a text opposed to both the State and the RAF under the pseudonym "Mescalero." They did not condemn the murder, although they did dismiss armed struggle. State institutions forbade the text. Several professors, including Peter Brückner, were of the opinion that the text could serve as the basis for discussions in universities about "Violence and Terrorism." Brückner was forbidden from teaching until the beginning of 1982, and was not allowed to speak at any German university. Nevertheless, the SHI invited Brückner to speak in Frankfurt, where he held his last public speech. He died in April 1982.

During the 1977/78 university strikes, students believed that, by taking over control of the university's halls, they would enable and facilitate the creation of alternative forms of communication, critique, and political and intellectual activity. By assuming control of the times and places of university activities, the students determined course contents themselves based on their own desires.

One of the milestones of these new developments was the critique of the patriarchal relationships between the sexes, which feminist groups transformed into a politically relevant theme from its previous Marxist appearance merely as a "subsidiary contradiction." This resulted in the first and only women's ASTA at a European university. Female students of the SHI directed the student institutions in 1976 and 1977.

Just how important the difference between the student movements of `68 and `77 was may be illustrated with an episode from 1968. At the 23rd SDS Congress of Delegates in September 1968, the women from the "Action Council for the Liberation of Women" bombarded the men on the podium with tomatoes. Helke Sander, then a member of the Council, delivered an impressive speech: "We cannot individually solve society's oppression of women, because a political and economic revolution cannot lift the repression of private life, as is demonstrated in all socialist countries." If the men of the SDS are unable to grasp this critique, then, according to Sander, they're "full of themselves."

The feminist critique was, among other things, a catalyst for what later became the politics of difference by the time of the SHI. This political model broke away from the male-dominant, proletarian collective subject of history. The politics of difference was anti-centrist --it refused the idea of one social center as it did the demand to revolutionize society immediately as a whole. It was anti-rational insofar as it rejected the idea of the "objective reason" of history. In its place, they maintained the conception of an open-ended process. Here, as later with the Un-dogmatic Left (UL), the process itself is what was significant --the "Not-Yet" (Ernst Bloch), the "concrete utopia," the search for emancipatory possibilities in the Here and Now. The politicization of difference, the struggle for the right of divergence without domination and exclusion, the formulation of the demands for emancipation over hedonistic sensuality --all of this toppled even the proletarian demand for revolution of the late 60s and early 70s from its historical pedestal. In addition to Marcuse's perennially relevant One-Dimensional Man, his The New Sensibility and The Revolts of the Life Drives were discussed more and more.

As opposed to the strikingly self-involved politics of the SHI, the Un-dogmatic Left (UL), which superseded it at the University of Frankfurt in 1983, was concerned with differential relationships. The university community should be restructured. Its new concern was the organization of discussions of more social themes rather than offering supplemental, independent university course offerings. The politics of the UL were determined neither by the revolutionary "all or nothing" of `68, nor the theoretically vacuous "politics of the first person" of 1977. Slogans such as "Campari & Habermas" or "Risk lies in the Principle of its Application" required a more strategic involvement with knowledge and one's own role as student. The possibilities for exoneration from action inherent in university discourse were now taken much more seriously than they were by their political predecessors. Of course, the social movements outside of the university had a great impact on the SHI and UL. Student politics did not affect the city or society, but the other way around, they were affected by the ecology movement, the anti-nuclear movement, and the peace movement. Especially in Frankfurt, university politics were dominated by the massive altercations concerning the large construction project for the Stadtbahn West. Many university lectures were moved to the so-called `shanty town.' Large sections of the construction site were occupied and a town of wooden huts was built, housing at times as many as 500 people. Professors held lectures there while students formed study groups. Ecological responsibility for construction projects, the use of unpredictable technologies such as nuclear energy or the political consequences and ethical aspects were now thematized. In these years, the works of Marcuse and Günter Anders (who was married to Hannah Arendt under his actual name, Günter Stern) underwent a renaissance. Günter Anders' The Antiquatedness of Humanity was intensively discussed in connection with the dangers and uncontrollability of the new technologies.

The political work of the UL flared up again shortly thereafter with the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986. Of course, one could no longer speak of an influential political group. What held the student politics at the University of Frankfurt together at this time were specific individuals who were united by a social conflict. The last great political discussions at the University of Frankfurt by a group of the un-dogmatic left in the tradition of the Critical Theorists were held in 1987. The revisionist redefinition of German history in connection with the Nazi regime, the well-known Historikerstreit, brought the since-dissolved UL back together again. In this debate, thinkers on the right and conservative politicians attacked the philosopher Jürgen Habermas in particular, who was then teaching at the University of Frankfurt. He was among the first publicly to attack the reactionary tendencies of the "New Right." Over an entire semester and beyond, the UL held discussion groups and presented films concerning the theme of "German History and Identity."

Since 1987 there has been no political group active at the University of Frankfurt in the tradition presented here. Instead, the political stage there is dominated by student groups affiliated with Germany's governing political parties. This includes the Ring of Christian Democratic Students (RCDS), closely aligned with the CDU, the Young University Socialists (Jungsozialisten an der Hochschule -- Juso HG), affiliated with the SPD, and the student representatives of the Green party. In addition, there are also several groups unaffiliated with political parties representing the spectrum from the radical left to the conservative right, the radical right, or even neo-Nazis.


Communist states collapsed for the same reasons. They lacked the desired tranquility and could not accommodate the development of creative and independent individuals. I always found this lacking in the pedantic dogmatism of the Communists. (PEJ)




Max Horkheimer. Traditional and Critical Theory [Traditionelle und Kritische Theorie], 1937.

Institute for Social Research, The Authoritarian Character. Studies on Authority and Prejudice [Der Autoritäre Charakter. Studien über Autorität und Vorurteil], 1950.

Max Horkheimer, The Authoritarian State [Autoritärer Staat], 1940.

Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment [Dialectik der Aufklärung], 1947.

Max Horkheimer, Critique of Instrumental Reason [Zur Kritik der instrumentellen Vernunft], 1947.

Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics [Negative Dialektik], 1966.

Herbert Marcuse, Essay on Liberation [Versuch über die Befreiung], 1969.

Walter Benjamin, Historico-Philosophical Theses [Geschichtsphilosophische Thesen], in Critique of Violence [Zur Kritik der Gewalt], 1965.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Wir haben sie so geliebt, die Revolution, 1987.

Theodor W. Adorno, What does the Working Through of the Past Mean? [Was bedeutet Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit], in Erziehung zur Mündigkeit, 1959.

Günter Anders, Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen, 1956.

Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope [Prinzip Hoffnung], 1954/55.

Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man [Der Eindimensionale Mensch], 1964.

Herbert Marcuse, The End of Utopia [Das Ende der Utopie], 1967, published 1980.

Herbert Marcuse, The Problem of Violence in the Opposition [Das Problem der Gewalt in der Opposition], 1967 in: The End of Utopia, 1980.

Peter-Erwin Jansen, Befreiung Denken -- Ein Politischer Imperativ, 1990.

Herbert Marcuse, New Sensibility [Neue Sensibilität] in Essay on Liberation [Versuch über die Befreiung], 1969.

Herbert Marcuse, Die Revolte der Lebenstriebe, 1979.

Information about the author: 

Peter-Erwin Jansen studied Sociology, Politics and German Studies. M.A. Philosophy with Prof. Dr. Jürgen Habermas. He is a journalist and runs his own press office. He is also teaching polticial education for adults. Since 1988 he regularly tours the United States and was living in Houston for two years. Peter-Erwin Jansen is author of Befreiung Denken - ein politischer Imperativ. Materialien zu Herbert Marcuse«, Streiflichter aus Amerika. Essays zu Gesellschaft und Gewalt, Interviews zum Kommunitarismus. He is also editor of Feindanalysen. Über die Deutschen by Herbert Marcuse and responsible for the edition of Marcuses unpublished writings from the Marcuse Archive in Frankfurt/Main, Germany. He will start working with the Leo Löwenthal archive this year.

Negations Nr. 3, 1998