1968: impulses and consequences

Christoph Strawe

The sociologist Erwin K. Scheuch describes the antiauthoritarian “New Left”, of which Rudi Dutschke became the father figure, as “the Anabaptists of the affluent society”. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) party goes even further today in that it accuses all the “established parties” of having been infected with the virus of 1968. The New Right sees itself called upon to restore conservative values.

Calling it the 1968 movement is inaccurate because it started earlier, getting underway in 1967 at the latest, culminating in 1968, and still continuing. We should look at the 1968 generation – also often described as extra-parliamentary opposition – in all its diversity. The 1968 movement started as an anti-racist civil rights movement and mass protest against the Vietnam war in the USA and rapidly spread to other countries. In Germany it escalated in 1967 with the visit of the Shah of Iran when the police and thugs of the potentate were brutally deployed against demonstrators for whom Iran had become an example of the action of US imperialism in the Third World. The shooting and killing of the student Benno Ohnesorg was the final straw, wrenching many people out of their political slumber and making them take to the streets.

A new attitude to life and revolt

The 1968 movement was simultaneously an expression of and the catalyst for a change of consciousness. As much as it saw itself as “political” and emphasised the political dimension even in things that were apparently non-political, it was nevertheless above all a social and cultural movement which was carried along by a change of consciousness and lifestyle, above all among young people. The Beatles, who gave expression to the new attitude towards life, the Woodstock festival, the hippy movement, the slogan “Make Love not War” and the sexual revolution – all these things are catchwords for it.

Even if not all young people became involved in the same way, the 1968 movement shaped a whole generation. Nevertheless, considerable parts of the population had an ambivalent attitude towards the movement. That certainly applied with regard to Germany and particularly to the “frontline city” of Berlin where the Wall had in any case created an anti-communist and anti-socialist mood. “Why don’t you go and join them if you don’t like it here” – the reference was to East Germany – were probably the words most frequently thrown at progressive students and pupils in debates in public places. Quite different from Paris in May 1968 when the slogan “Imagination into Power” could be heard and the solidarity of the workers culminated in strikes.

On 4 April 1968, Martin Luther King was murdered, on 11 April there was an attempt on Rudi Dutschke’s life in which he suffered brain damage which led to his early death in 1979. The attempt was ascribed to the “witch hunt” in the Springer press. The Springer papers had indeed carried headlines such as “Eradicate troublemakers among students”. The anger about the assassination attempt led to the “Easter unrest” in which demonstrators in various cities attempted to stop the distribution of the Springer tabloid Bild-Zeitung. The experience of their own powerlessness led those forces to grow in strength who were not satisfied to leave it at limited civil disobedience such as sit-ins, go-ins and so on but who advocated violence against people and also increasingly carried it out. This ended in the terror of the Red Army Faction (RAF). The more such trends increased, the more the sympathy waned which liberal forces had until then shown towards the “antiauthoritarian” left.

From “Prague Spring” to the Greens

The “Prague Spring” was also part of the 1968 movement. Great hopes were placed in the events in the CSSR, particularly also, of course, in the countries of “real existing socialism”. On 21 August, the tanks finally rolled into Prague. The dream of “socialism with a human face” appeared to have come to an end. Furthermore, people at the time failed to allow themselves to be sufficiently inspired by the “Prague Spring” to look thoroughly for viable alternatives to the social orders in force in East and West. The search for such alternatives was certainly part of the new Czech beginning. It implicitly contained the subject of a threefold social order which combined freedom and socialism on the basis of human rights. Some Prague reformers subsequently came together with people from the threefolding movement in Achberg, one of the places where Joseph Beuys also worked, he too one of the active “68ers”.

In the time that followed, the movement increasingly splintered. In the Socialist German Student Federation (Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund (SDS)), which had long been its strongest motor, there were disputes between the anti-authoritarian and libertarian majority with its often provocative forms of action and the traditional Marxist minority with its orientation towards the trade unions  and illusions about “real existing socialism”. The SDS disbanded in 1970.

Now various shades of communist party, ranging from traditional communists to Maoist groupings, battled against one another. Ideology and sectarianism took the wind out of the sails of the movement. Various grassroots and “Sponti” groups arose in parallel.

“March through the institutions” – alternative niches

As the result of such fragmentation, many people saw the “march through the institutions”, such as through the parties and their youth associations, as an alternative way of changing things from the inside. Some impulses took effect in this way but other ideals fell by the wayside on this “march”.  Others again tried to realise alternatives at a meso-social level, “in the niches”. This led to numerous citizens’ initiatives, for example, and self-governing enterprises.

The boom in the establishment of Waldorf schools in the years since 1968 can be partly included here. Some people discovered anthroposophy and social threefolding – such as for example Joseph Huber who in 1979 published his humorous but very positive article “Astral Marx. About anthroposophy, a certain Marxism and other alternatives” in Kursbuch.

The founding of the Greens party in 1980 and the greater attention paid to environmental subjects in society as a result is also a late product of 1968. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the hero of the Parisian May played an important role in the party, as did the former “Sponti” Joschka Fischer. Activists from social threefolding such as Gerald Häfner were involved in starting it. Today some of the original 1968 generation accuse the Greens of having become part of the establishment and having betrayed their peace policy impulses but cannot dispute that they can no longer be ignored in society.

Motives und impulses of the 1968 movement

The 1968 movement undoubtedly had many weaknesses. But the positive and forward-looking part of it is that it woke up to global problems and solidarity with the people affected both nearby and far away. The misery of Third World countries, the global effects of an economy primarily guided by profit, hunger, brutal wars – visible in the suffering of people in Vietnam – was what drove the 1968 movement. Because these events made a mockery of what lived in them as ideals. That created a feeling of responsibility: people wanted to do something and change things.

In Germany, the Nazi past played a particular role; the repression of which the older generation was accused, the anger about the tolerance of former Nazis in the organs of state. The concern that there might be a regression into that disastrous past was undoubtedly also an important motive for the broad movement against the emergency laws.

The 1968 movement made an important contribution to challenging anti-democratic and fascist trends. But many of them fell prey to the misapprehension that West Germany had become a “pre-fascist” state. The charge that was frequently levelled was that what existed was only formally democratic, democracy a mere facade. As true as it is that to the present day interest groups try to misuse it as such a facade, such sweeping criticism was not helpful in the battle for basic and human rights.

The merits of the 1968 movement also include the development of a critical awareness of education and science. The problem of equality in educational opportunity was recognised. There was anger about the fusty and outdated school and university structures: the professorial regime was heavily criticised. The following scene at Hamburg university is still famous today: as a new rector took office, students displayed a banner with the words “Beneath the gowns – the musty smell of a thousand years”.

This was about the social responsibility of science. Following Brecht, the danger was perceived that scientists were turning into a “race of inventive dwarfs who rented themselves out to the highest bidder”. The fight was against “war research and the science of annihilation”. In the age of artificial intelligence, we can build on much of the critique of instrumentalised reason that was voiced at that time.

Searching for the path to a society of responsible citizens

The basic impulse of the 1968 movement was “anti-authoritarian” and against tutelage, that is, it was an impulse for autonomy. What we call social threefolding is at heart the attempt to describe and put into practice the consequences which arise for the social structure as a result of autonomy. Such motives were hidden under the surface in the 1968 movement – just as they were in the citizens’ movements of 1989 and the movement for greater justice in globalisation since 1999 – and were only experienced fully consciously by individual people. It meant that the old unitary picture of state and society could not really be overcome.

To this day too few people ask how social structures can be created which enable people to organise their circumstances autonomously. The concentration of power as such is a problem. Anyone who complains about power only if they don’t have it themselves is a democrat at best in name only.

The 1968 movement may well be accused of inconsistencies and errors but it is nevertheless true to say that in many respects it often achieved progress more indirectly than directly: steps towards equality for women, changes in divorce and abortion law. By no means everything, but many things have become freer.

Thus the 1968 movement has left a legacy of profound effects. Not only did it open the windows to let the fug of the Adenauer years dissipate. It is also highly unlikely that without the 1968 movement there would have been a coalition between social and liberal democrats in Germany and a Chancellor Willy Brandt. Without his new Ostpolitik of rapprochement with East Germany the radical transformation of Europe in 1989 is hard to imagine. And without the revival of the critique of capitalism by the 1968 movement, the global civil society movement since 1999 to counter the globalisation for the elites would hardly have been possible.

Through participating in this movement, many people received crucial impulses for their own biography and social commitment, including many subsequent Waldorf teachers and parents.

About the author: Dr. Christoph Strawe obtained his habilitation in 1986 in Jyväskylä with a dissertation on “Marxism and Anthroposophy” (Klett-Cotta), founded the Initiative Netzwerk Dreigliederung (Threefolding Network Initiative) and is co-founder of the Institute for Contemporary Social Questions whose director he remains to this day. He teaches at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart – Seminar for Waldorf Pedagogy.