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Rudi Dutschke and the German student movement in 1968

This article is over 14 years, 3 months old
The events of 1968 had a major impact across the world. German activist Volkhard Mosler looks at the movement in West Germany and the politics of its leader Rudi Dutschke
Issue 2099
The SDS socialist student organisation faced repression from the police
The SDS socialist student organisation faced repression from the police

The political storm that broke out across the world 40 years ago affected every part of the globe. But with much of the media focusing on the student protests and mass strikes in France in May 1968, it is possible to miss the significance of some of the other revolts.

West Germany, which was divided from East Germany due to the Cold War, saw major protests that challenged the ruling order. This mass discontent of young people and workers developed throughout the 1960s to explode late in the decade.

In 1959, a survey of students’ political views in West Germany found that only 9 percent considered themselves to be committed democrats and that the vast majority would not resist an undemocratic system.

This was not an astonishing discovery. The Labour-like SPD and the Communist Party in West Germany had lost about half of their total membership between 1949 and 1956.

The Conservative CDU won 51 percent of the vote in the 1957 general election. Its leader Konrad Adenauer’s main slogan was “All roads of socialism lead to Moscow.”

But by 1968 Germany was experiencing a revolutionary tide of youth protests. Its leading force was the SDS, a socialist student organisation. The SDS had been expelled from the SPD in 1961 for “left deviation”.

In the early 1960s the SDS had about 600 members in 30 universities, including in West Berlin. When I joined the SDS in 1963 it hardly engaged in any practical activities apart from lectures about Marxism.

But the SDS would grow to about 2,000 members by 1967 while transforming itself into a revolutionary current. This change was partly due to the weakening of anti-Communist ideas in society, the opposition to the US’s war in Vietnam and the surprise of an economic recession in 1966.

The first “grand coalition” of the CDU and the SPD, the overcrowding of universities and the reform of higher education all added to the growing disillusionment of young people.

It was also the intervention of a group of left wing students that helped the SDS to turn sharply left.

In 1965 a group of seven originally anarchist students joined the SDS. Rudi Dutschke, who came from East Germany, was one of them.

Rudi and his friends tried to win others to their group inside the SDS. Within three years his influence in the organisation had grown massively.

Some of his friends founded a student commune in 1967 and fell back into cultural politics based on “happenings” and the ideas of sexual liberation advocated by the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich.


But Rudi himself came very close to revolutionary Marxism. By 1966 the SDS had two main factions in its ranks – the older members, known as the traditionalists, and the younger ones with Rudi as their main leader, known as the anti-authoritarians.

Rudi and his supporters were fascinated by the importance of “subjectivity” – the ability of human actions to change the course of history.

In Rudi’s view the Marxism of the traditionalists was “one-sided” as it stressed the “objective” factors in history. He wrote that this “liquidated the free will of the individual, the group, the party – everything becomes inevitable. As communism, the classless society, is a decided question, we do not need to be afraid of atomic warfare.”

In 1966 the two currents clashed. The leaders of the traditionalists had produced an educational programme.

They argued, “Like the workers who could develop only trade union consciousness by themselves without the teachings of the party, the radical democratic consciousness of the students can only develop towards socialist consciousness by the teaching of the SDS.”

According to them socialism could only come through the teaching of the party, not by experience of the class struggle from below.

Reacting to this, Rudi and his followers argued for an orientation on “provocative action”. They believed that police brutality would teach students more about the nature of the state than reading books about it.

The philosopher Herbert Marcuse, who spoke at mass student meetings in Germany, also influenced Rudi.

Marcuse had written an article in 1965 called “Repressive Tolerance”, which was widely read. It argued that the forces of law and order would always protect the established social hierarchy and that “counter-force” was needed to overcome it.

Marcuse concluded, “When the oppressed use force, they will not forge new chains but break the old ones.”

Marcuse taught the revolutionary students that the use of counter-force is justified and that those who renounce violence on principle have already succumbed to defeat.

Marcuse called for breaking with the “repressive tolerance” of the rulers. Under this, he argued, the oppressed were allowed to speak freely and even demonstrate “peacefully”, but the rulers would still use all means at their disposal to keep them at the bottom of society.

Dutschke’s influence was growing in the organisation. In September 1967 he won the support of the majority in the SDS, against the traditionalists’ argument that radical action would antagonise the working class and lead to the students’ isolation.


When the Shah, Iran’s dictator, visited Berlin in June 1967, the SDS organised demonstrations against him. A police bullet killed student Benno Ohnesorg at a protest on 2 June.

This sparked the first general wave of student protests that shook the universities and the big cities.

The philosopher Jürgen Habermas accused Dutschke of “voluntarism” a few days later. He claimed that Dutschke’s notion of calculated disturbance to unmask the veiled force of the state was mistaken, as there was not a revolutionary situation in Germany.

Dutschke, he said, was putting the lives of other students at risk.

Rudi answered that organised counter-force would be necessary for protection and that “the accusation of voluntarism gives me honour”. He argued that the “objectivity” of Habermas served only to hold back the rising movement.

But Habermas was not completely mistaken in his accusations. The political situation in Germany was not revolutionary. The use of force would be justified when there was an objectively revolutionary situation.

Dutschke and his supporters in the SDS argued that in one sense capitalism was always in a revolutionary situation. They meant by this that there was enough social wealth for a world without hunger and wars for all humankind, if only society was run for our benefit.

This is, of course, correct. But how do these conditions become a situation in which a successful revolution is possible?

In his diary Rudi gives the example of Che Guevara and the guerrilla warfare he undertook in Bolivia.

He said, “Revolutionaries must not just wait for the objective conditions for a revolution. By creating a popular ‘armed focus’ they can create the objective conditions for a revolution by subjective initiative.”


And in a speech to the SDS’s conference in September 1967 Rudi stated that the “propaganda of shooting” in the Third World must be combined with the “propaganda of the deed” in Germany.

This brought together the ideas of Che Guevara and the 19th century Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.

A group of people around the SDS drew the conclusion from this analysis that armed struggle in the form of urban guerrilla warfare was needed to overthrow the system. The Red Army Faction (RAF) of Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhoff developed from this.

Rudi was too much of a revolutionary realist to go along with such adventurism. He argued that to call for the assassination of bosses or ministers would be a mistake as those figures could be easily replaced.

There were other weaknesses in Rudi’s interpretation of Marxism. Drawing on Bakunin and the anarchists, he would call his faction in the SDS “anti-authoritarian”. Yet this had an ambiguous meaning.

Firstly it meant that the struggle had to be directed against German society at large and a state that was still very much affected by the fascism of the Nazi dictatorship.

But it also meant that all the organising structures of the SDS had to be fought as “authoritarian”. By doing this Rudi and his “anti-authoritarian” faction inadvertently helped to destroy the SDS, dissolving it into the movement.

There was another important weakness in Rudi’s ideas. Under the influence of Marcuse he had written off the working class of the developed countries as being unable to be the agents of revolutionary change.

According to him, the working class had been bought off by a high standard of living and by the propaganda of the ruling classes and their media.

It was the task of the student vanguard to use the universities as “safety zones and as social bases from where the struggle against the institutions, the struggle for cheap student meals and for state power” could be fought.

There were huge battles in West Germany in 1968. This included the Vietnam-Congress in Berlin in February, which was attended by 5,000 revolutionary students and young workers – I was there with 20 young chemical workers and apprentices.

The young fascist Josef Bachmann shot Rudi in the head in April 1968. After this 50,000 young people blocked the delivery of the Bild newspaper, which had called upon its readers to “eliminate the troublemakers”.

A month later there was another wave of university occupations and demonstrations against an emergency law giving a future government all the means to shut down parliament. But again and again police forces won.

The solution to this puzzle was shown by the great mass strike of workers in France in May 1968 that shook the ruling class. It showed the power that workers have to change the world.

Rudi died in 1979 later from the effects of the shooting, which had destroyed large parts of his brain. But millions of people around the world continue to be inspired by the struggles of 1968 that he played such a key role in.

For more on 1968 see this month’s Socialist Review » and this quarter’s International Socialism journal»

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