1968 in Germany (Part 2): A new generation looks for an alternative

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Disappointend hope

In the first part of our article on May 68 in Germany we showed that behind the movement we could see a broader movement of a new generation for an alternative to capitalism. The rejection of the war in Vietnam, the refusal to submit without any resistance to the needs of capital, the rising hope for a new society- all these were important factors which motivated a lot of young people, students and workers, to articulate their protest. But as strong as the hope for a new society had been, the disappointment and perplexity when this first wave of protest receded in the summer of 1968 were no less strong.

Whereas in France the mass strike of the workers had given rise to a feeling of solidarity, of cohesion amongst workers and students in their struggle against the government, the workers in Germany had not yet appeared massively on stage in spring 1968. Following a wave of protests against the assassination attempt on the famous student leader Rudi Dutschke in April, and after the demonstrations against the adoption of the emergency law in summer 1968, the student-dominated movement ebbed away. Unlike France, the students in Germany were not immediately replaced as the spearhead of the struggles by the working class. Only after the September strikes in 1969 did the working class in Germany enter onto the stage on a more massive scale.

Hundreds of thousands of young people looked for a point of reference, an orientation and a lever for overcoming this society. It was a tragedy of history that this young generation, amongst whom many had started to see themselves as opponents of the capitalist systems, was recuperated and their initial movement of protests rendered harmless.  We want to try to explain why this happened.

The working class had resurfaced but the class struggle was not yet a ‘welding force'

Even though the working class in France had staged the biggest strike in history in May 1968, this first massive reaction of the working class was not yet able to brush aside all the doubts about the working class which had prevailed for years.

Possibly even more than Paris for France, Berlin was the centre of the students protests in Germany. Not the city of Berlin as it is today, the capital of Germany, but the enclave of West Berlin in the middle of East Germany. Many protagonists of the time were driven by vague ideas such as establishing some sort of council republic in West Berlin which would be a step towards transforming both East as well as West Germany.

But how unrealistic this idea was can be seen by looking at the special situation of the enclave in the cold war of the time, since it was in a certain sense a microcosm of the difficulties facing the resurgence of the class struggle. On the one hand West Berlin was a central stage for the leftists. Being a resident of West Berlin meant that you were exempted from military conscription. On the other hand the ‘west sectors' of Berlin had always been centres of anti-communism, which still drew on the romance of the Berlin air-lift. Above all, nowhere else in the ‘western world' was the inhumane face of Stalinism so well known through people's own experience. In such an atmosphere the use of words such as ‘socialism' and ‘communism' coming from the mouth of a student provoked a deep suspicion especially among older workers. Unlike in France, in West Berlin the students were met not so much with sympathy or indifference but with hostility. As a result, the first wave of protestors felt profoundly insecure.

Therefore it is understandable that many of them started to look for alternative revolutionary forces - outside of Germany, even outside of the industrial countries. This reaction was in no way specific to Germany but it developed a specific form in Germany.

1968/69 was also the peak of the protest movement against the war in Vietnam, involving hundreds of thousands of young people around the world. Forms of "anti-imperialist" nationalism, such "Black Power" in the USA, were mistakenly presented as a part of international solidarity and even as "revolutionary class struggle". This helps us to understand the paradox that a movement which initially was directed against Stalinism partially turned again towards Stalinism. Because the first appearance of the working class had not yet pulled so many people into its orbit, many young people became receptive towards ideas which were a real perversion of their original motivations. The influence of leftist organisations would have a disastrous and destructive effect, with a high number of the victims of these organisations coming from the younger generation.

The disastrous role of the left and leftists

For the leaders of the movement of 1967-68 some sort of revolution seemed to be around the corner. But when the expected quick transformation failed to happen, they had to admit that their forces had been too weak to bring this about. The idea occurred to them to found ‘the' revolutionary party - almost as a sort of panacea. As such the idea was not wrong. Revolutionaries have to join forces and to organise in order to have a maximum impact. The problem was that they were cut off from the historical experience of the working class due to the social democratic, Stalinist and fascist counter-revolution which had lasted for decades. They knew neither what a proletarian party was nor how and when it should be founded. Instead they saw the party as a kind of church, a missionary movement, which would 'convert' bourgeoisified workers to socialism. Moreover the strong weight of the petty bourgeoisie had a considerable impact on the students. Rather like Mao in China during the Cultural Revolution - they thought - they wanted to ‘purge' the workers of their ‘embourgeoisement'. Rudi Dutschke and other leaders of the time described how at the beginning of the movement revolutionary students and young workers met and established contact in the youth centres of West Berlin, and how the young workers afterwards refused to take part in this sectarian turn, alien to this world.

This disorientation of the new generation was also exploited by the leftist groups, which were commonly called ‘K-groups' (Kommunist groups) that were spreading at the time. The large and varied number of leftist groups on the rise in Germany - there were dozens of organisations, from Trotskyists and Maoists to ‘spontaneists' - acted like a gigantic catch-all for the political sterilisation of the younger generation.

Even though in Germany after 1968 more than half a dozen Trotskyists groups cropped up, these groups attracted fewer people in Germany than in France, mainly because the working class in Germany had hardly made its reappearance. Trotskyism is not less bourgeois than Maoism. But since it originated in a proletarian opposition to Stalinism, the working class is more in its focus than with the Maoists, which displays a certain peasant romanticism.

In Germany it was above all the Maoist groups that flourished. At the end of 1968/69 the KPD/Marxist-Leninist Party was founded; in West Berlin, in 1971 another KPD was founded as a rival to that party. In 1971 as well the Communist League (KB) was founded in northern Germany; in 1973 the KBW (Communist League, West Germany) was set up in Bremen. These groups succeeded in attracting several tens of thousands of young people. The Maoist groups reflected a phenomenon which had taken a special form in Germany. Because in Germany many young people reproached the older generation for being responsible for the crimes of Nazism and in general for World War II, Maoism could benefit from this guilt complex. Moreover, Maoism acted as an organiser and fervent propagator of the ‘peoples' wars'. Maoism claimed to be the defender of the oppressed peasants of the Third World and wanted to mobilise them in wars of ‘national liberation' against the USA. Since peasants were considered to be the main revolutionary force in society, Maoism acted as an agent recruiting cannon fodder for war.

However, the fact that contempt for their own fathers drew them into an idealisation of the new leaders (Mao, Uncle Ho, Che, Enver Hoxha) did not disturb the supporters of Maoist groups very much, because this corresponded to the need of a part of that generation to "look up to someone", to search for a "model", even a "father figure" in order to replace the rejected older generation. Maoism had given birth to such monstrosities as the Cultural Revolution - in the mid 1960s in China, millions of workers and people who were considered to belong to the "intelligentsia" or who had some sort of higher qualification were sent to the countryside in order to learn from the peasants. All this meant a terrible humiliation and debasement. Maoism also distinguished itself by a particularly repulsive rejection of any kind of theoretical approach. Its distinguishing feature was the cult of leaders and the parroting of slogans with a Mao-bible in hand.

Moreover, the Maoists revived the "Proletcult" (iconisation of the blue collar worker) as propagated by Stalinism in the 1920s. The slogan was to go and work in factories in order to learn from the workers and to set up a vanguard organisation. This was other side of the coin of reproaching the working class for being "embourgeoisified".

Whereas beforehand many young people had started to deal with history and theoretical questions, now the K-groups did all they could with the help of "schools of Marxism" to destroy the thirst for theoretical deepening by perverting the relationship between theory and practice. The dogmatism of the leftists would have disastrous consequences.

On the one hand the K-groups drove their members into frenzied activism and on the other hand they indoctrinated them with so-called courses on Marxist theory. Thus after 1968 tends of thousands of youth saw their initial opposition to the system being distorted and recruited for activities which in reality contributed to maintaining capitalism. It was hard to resist this sectarian pressure. Finally, many young people were driven away from politics altogether and felt nauseated by it. According to estimates some 60,000-100,000 young people in West Germany were involved in some way or other with leftist groups in Germany. We have to view them as victims recruited by the leftists for a bourgeois policy and as people who got "burnt" by these groups.

It was one of the paradoxes of the history of the time that the "official" Stalinists, who fought openly against the revolutionary aspirations of 1968, were still able to seize the opportunity in order to establish a certain presence in Germany. In spring 1969 the German Communist Party (DKP) was founded, which was composed to some extent of members of the KPD who had been banned in the early 1950s. In the early 1970s this party - including its many sub-branches - had some 30,000 members. One reason for the increased membership was that many of its members believed that the party, which was supported and financed by East Germany, would be able to act as a counter-weight to the West German state; and they also believed that the support for Moscow would strengthen an "anti-imperialist" position against the USA. After an initial rejection of the totalitarian and Stalinist societies in Eastern Europe by the young generation, we now had the paradox that a part of them were being recuperated by the arch-Stalinist DKP.

Moreover, the very few left communist voices which existed at the time, were viciously opposed by the different leftist groups. For example if someone denounced the "national liberation" movements as proxy wars between the imperialist block and if you propagated the class struggle on all sides, i.e. if you defended a resolute internationalist stand, or if you spoke up against antifascism and called World War II a war of bandits on both sides you not only violated a taboo but came up against the combined hostility of all the leftists.

Even though they were not exposed in the same way to the influence of the leftists, a very heterogeneous milieu of 'spontaneists', also developed its activities: squatting in empty houses; campaigning for kinder gardens or against nuclear power plants. This meant that a large part of the young generation became involved in partial struggles. The perspective flowing from these struggles and the consequences of these activities was that their perception of capitalism became very limited and was reduced to one partial aspect instead of seeing the inter-related nature of these problems within the capitalist system.  Later these partial movements were a fertile breeding ground for the activities of the Green Party, which via a number of projects for ecological reform had a strong impact on many young people, and this led to the integration of many of them into state run "reform projects".

Terrorism - another dead end

Another dead end which part of the searching generation of the time ran into was terrorism. Driven by a mixture of hatred and indignation about the system - prisoners of their own impatience and the belief that exemplary actions could "shake the masses" - these elements were drawn into violent attacks against representatives of the system, but they were also infiltrated by state provocateurs using them for the sordid interests of the government. From March 1969 the first small bombs started circulating, distributed by agent provocateurs. In West Berlin on November 9th 1969 there was the first attack against a Jewish Centre: for some members of these movements this was part of the struggle against Zionism as a new form of fascism. Receptive to manipulation, parts of this movement were turned into propagandists for the national liberation movements (often Palestinian terrorists), which were ready to train them in their military camps and which demanded a total submission and discipline. In May 1970 the Red Army Fraction (RAF) was founded; "Revolutionary Cells" started their activities after 1973. Their number of supporters and sympathisers seems to have been quite big - the underground paper Agit 883 claimed to have printed 10,000-12,000 copies a week. However, for capitalism and the state, these people were never the lethal danger that they had hoped to be. Instead the state used their activities to justify the strengthening of its repressive apparatus.

Social Democracy and the Welfare State - a new catch-all

In the mid 1960s the long post war boom, praised as an economic miracle, drew to an end. Slowly the crisis started reappearing. Because the boom had come to an end unexpectedly, the first symptoms of the crisis were not yet so explosive and brutal, and there were still many illusions that an energetic intervention by the State would allow the economy to be kick-started again. Drawing on these illusions the SPD started promising that with the help of Keynesian measures (massive state expenditure through debts etc.) the crisis could still be brought under control. The SPD put this slogan at the centre of its electoral campaign. The hopes of many were placed in the "helping hand" of the state, led by social democracy. Moreover, the first austerity cuts of the capitalists, in comparison to today's austerity cuts were still quite "soft". These circumstances also help us to understand that the protests were seen by one current of the movement of the time as a rejection of the society of "abundance" (an idea spread by the Situationists)[1]. All this helps to explain a certain delay in the unfolding of the class struggle in Germany and it contributed to the fact that the working class in Germany was still somehow "slumbering" until September 1969. In addition, the state could still offer many "reforms" - in particular after the SPD took over the leading role in the social-liberal government formed in autumn 1969 - and pump money into the economy. The welfare state, which was still expanding heavily at the time, helped to tie a lot of students (many of whom received government grants) and workers to the state, and so their resistance against the state was broken down.

On a political level in 1969 the SPD was campaigning for participation in the upcoming elections. Whereas previously the protest movement had placed the emphasis of its activities on "extra-parliamentary opposition", social democracy managed to drag a considerable part of the young generation to the polls. As in 1918/19, 50 years later social democracy was helping to cushion social tensions. The SPD still had a strong influence at the time, managing to increase its membership by 300,000 (amongst them many young people) between 1969 and 1972. Many saw the SPD as a vehicle for the "march through the institutions" (entryism into State institutions). For many, participation in its youth branch, JUSO, in reality meant the beginning of a career in the state apparatus.

A task that links the generations

40 years after the events of 1968 an international comparison shows that apart from France these events received a lot of media coverage in Germany as well. If the media have dealt so intensively with these events, it is because something is smouldering in this society. Even if those who took part in the movement at the time and who in the meantime have made a big career in the state apparatus or elsewhere, feel ashamed of their activities or want to stay silent about them, those who at the time aimed at a new society, free of exploitation, can see themselves confirmed that their original project still remains valid and still needs to be implemented. The whole tragedy of the events was that because of the historical weakness of the working class in Germany at the time, the construction of a revolutionary counter-pole was particularly difficult. The young generation, which had started the movement, was quickly sterilised and their attempts neutralised.

Today a new generation is beginning to put the fundamentals of this society into question. Since 1968 society has sunk into a much deeper crisis and more open barbarism. Those who participated in 68 and who have not been recuperated by the system, many of whom are already at retirement age, have every reason and also the possibility to offer assistance to the young generation today and to join this struggle for the overthrow of capitalism. It is a struggle which must encompass all generations. In 68 the generational ‘conflict' had very big consequences. Now it would be a double tragedy for the elder generation if it did not succeed in supporting the present young generation in its struggle.  

In a third part we will deal in particular with the unfolding of the September strikes in 1969. TW, 11/7/08.

[1] Proletarianisation amongst students was not yet as advanced at the time. In comparison to that period the proportion of working class children amongst students is much higher today. While at the time petty-bourgeois and bourgeois influence were still bigger, today proletarian conditions of existence prevail amongst students. At the time almost unknown, now almost all students are confronted with youth unemployment, unemployment amongst their parents, pauperisation, the prospects of a job with precarious working conditions etc. While at the time many could hope for a career through their job, today most fear unemployment and insecure working conditions.

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