What triggered the Marxist movement

The 1968 movement

Wolfgang Kraushaar

To person

Dr. phil., born 1948; since 1987 employee at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research. Most recently, Wolfgang Kraushaar published the book "The Riot of the Educated. From the Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement".

The '68 movement was one thing above all: a criticism of the existing conditions - of the traditional, of the tradition of society. Arguments were taken from Marxism, psychoanalysis or capitalism and imperialism theory.

Herbert Marcuse: His writings had a major impact on the student movement in Europe and overseas (& copy AP)
A paradoxical development can be observed: the more the time lag to the extra-parliamentary movements around 1968 grows, the more vehemently the public is calling for an explanation of their course, the motives of their actors and the impulses it emanated to change society. But so far there is neither a comprehensive history of the 1968 movement nor a coherent description of the theories it received or the ideas it propagated.


This lack of movement and theory is no coincidence. Because the '68 story was as short as it was complex, as dense as it was tense. There was a longer incubation period, but no development in the actual sense, rather an eruption-like breakout with a quickly reached culmination point and a thrust-like downward movement of splintering and falling apart. In this respect, it is hardly surprising that the historicization of the 1968 movement has so far been largely selective [1]. More than three decades after its dissolution, there is not even a monograph on the most important organization, the Socialist German Student Union (SDS), which deals with its most important period, the years 1961 to 1970, based on sources [2].

What is considered a historical figure for the 1968 movement [3] also applies to its theoretical configuration: It was a tree with many roots and even more branches and twigs. It is hardly less difficult to trace the underground capillaries back to their starting points than to want to trace the visible network of the various developmental strands. Anyone who wants to describe the theoretical basic orientations without getting lost in the thicket of partial developments must be prepared to draw larger lines. It is important to remember that the historical genesis of theoretical development cannot be described in terms of a genealogical genealogy. The idea that there was a theoretically coherent self-understanding of the forms and goals of movement is therefore misleading [4]. Above all, it was the dynamic of an intellectual search movement that set free radicalization, innovation and differentiation impulses around 1968. Theories became a kind of water heater all too quickly within the movement. The speed with which they were picked up, declined and discarded again was one of the most defining characteristics of dealing with them [5]. In a breathtaking change, theorems were taken up, rehearsed, tried to bring them into harmony with the political situation, discarded and outsourced again.

To want to speak of explicit "68 ideas" would therefore be inappropriate. Because it was less about realizing certain ideas. The theory itself was utopian. There was a kind of longing to "live general terms", even to enjoy a "rush of generalization" (Michael Rutschky) [6]. The often cited "concrete utopias", on the other hand, remained surprisingly pale. Speakers like Rudi Dutschke and others even emphatically refused to name concrete alternatives to capitalist society [7]. The horizon of social change should remain open. It was often unclear whether this attitude was programmatic or just the result of widespread embarrassment.

The 1968 movement was one thing above all: Criticism of the existing conditions in every conceivable way. Her destructive power was far greater than her constructive one. Nothing seemed to stand before it: religious beliefs, ideological convictions, scientific certainties, civic duties and virtues. The entire catalog of so-called secondary virtues has been questioned. The criticism of the old, the tradition of society, was as corrosive as an acid bath.

The focus was clearly on the reception of existing theoretical traditions, primarily of a Marxist color. The production of new ideas, measured against the existing fund, was secondary. The primary intention was not to develop a system or social theory that was as comprehensive as possible. It was more a question of reconstructing those theorems from suppressed, forbidden, dispersed and marginalized traditions that were of a highly inadequate importance for the analysis of the present. It was the great time of rediscovery. Marxism, psychoanalysis, analytical social psychology, capitalism, class and imperialism theory had to be taken up again, checked and, after an interruption of decades, reintroduced. That is why the contact with exiled theorists was under a special star. They seemed to be the proof that it was possible to take up and continue interrupted and cut off traditional contexts [8]. In July 1967, for example, Herbert Marcuse was greeted by students at the Free University of Berlin for the lecture series "The End of Utopia" as the messiah of a new age [9].

And it was the time of the outsiders, the heretics, the dissidents. Regardless of the orientation towards the great names that established traditions: The sympathies belonged almost without exception to those Jewish intellectuals like Theodor W. Adorno, Ernst Bloch, Norbert Elias, Max Horkheimer, Siegfried Kracauer, Leo Löwenthal, Herbert Marcuse and Alfred Sohn-Rethel in acted in a way as the flotsam of history. Their social outsider role seemed to have immunized them against conformism in the eyes of the students. That is why they were seen, sometimes completely unjustified, as models for both theoretical and political radicalization.

There were three fundamental criticisms that determined the canon of newfound convictions: anti-fascism, anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. The first criticism was directed against the failure to deal with the Nazi past, the second against an economic order based on exploitation and social injustice, and the third against the subjugation of the Third World by those of the First and Second. The dovetailing of these three metacritics linked the most diverse tendencies and factions in the SDS and APO at the end of the 1960s: the anti-authoritarian with the traditionalist wing, the undogmatic with the dogmatic currents and to a certain extent even the reformist with the revolutionary forces. They formed a contradictory unit, but in the course of certain mobilizations they were also capable of acting.

It was significant that Soviet communism, and with it an essential part of its own left past, was not the subject of the three basic criticisms. A kind of paradigm shift had taken place in the mid-1960s. Many of the left-wing student groups, for whom the rejection of post-Stalinism in the Soviet Union and in the GDR was a matter of course for a long time, had changed from an anti-totalitarian, anti-dictatorial form of rule to an anti-fascist worldview [10]. Obviously, the most important thing for them now was not to be considered anti-communist any longer. Anti-Stalinism became less and less important.

It was also significant that from now on a general system of fascism and no longer a historically and theoretically specified National Socialism was assumed [11]. The anti-capitalist approach made itself felt in its tendency as a blocking of an independent thematization of the extermination of the Jews. It took more than a decade for the Holocaust to move into the center of analytical endeavors via the public response to a television series of the same name. In this respect, it was not surprising that Hannah Arendt, one of the classics of totalitarianism theory, only came into focus afterwards. By the end of the 1960s, however, the non-Marxist was considered antiquated. A discussion of their writings was considered out of date at the time.