Hans-Jürgen Krahl, For and Against Critical Theory: Introduction

Hans-Jürgen Krahl and Theodor Adorno

For Anglophone readers, Hans-Jürgen Krahl’s name is most distinctive as a marker for a possible alternative path within the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research.1 As a leader of the German student movement, Krahl had clashed with the earlier generation of Frankfurt School theorists. While this excludes Herbert Marcuse, who remained steadfast in his support of the student movement, Krahl’s activities put him at odds with the others, including his doctoral advisor Theodor Adorno, exemplified in the almost fabled incident that saw Krahl lead an occupation of the Institute in January 1969. Adorno infamously responded to this instance by calling in the police. Both Adorno and Krahl would be dead within just over a year of this dramatic scene.

Peter Osborne has recently provided a succinct summary of these and related events in a critical intervention on the limits of Stefan Müller-Doohm’s recent biography of Jürgen Habermas.2 He makes note of the fact that the students had gone to occupy the Institute because Habermas had locked them out of their headquarters in the sociology department.3 Although Habermas’ reputation and work had a more radical hue just over a decade prior when he first joined the Institute (even to the point that the then-conservative Horkheimer demanded that Adorno have him leave the Institute4), this was not his only oppositional moment towards the movement. He also denounced Krahl and Oskar Negt as “pseudo-revolutionaries.”5  And, in language that seems more typical of his anti-conjunctural moralism, he accused another student movement leader, Rudi Dutschke, of utopianism that had become “left-wing fascism.”6

In the biography, Müller-Doohm presents the denunciations of Krahl and Negt in the stultifying jargon so typical of an insular thought bearing minimal interaction with struggles on the ground. He portrays Habermas in these years as both “with and against” the movements, accusing them of provoking the state violence they claimed to oppose, while purporting to share their goals. The denunciations of Krahl and Negt become a “clarification of the normative questions of exemplary participation in communal life.” As Osborne rightly replies, “this normative approach did not extend to being prepared to testify in support of student blockading the Springer press,”7 nor to the support of the occupying students in the fabled clash mentioned above, which might well stand-in for both Krahl’s position relative to the first generation thinkers sans Marcuse, as well as for his theoretical relation to the substantial part of the work that would take place under the moniker of Critical Theory after his death.

Krahl’s unfortunate early death allows contemporary readers to only imagine the possibilities of an alternative, more revolutionary path for the Institute than it would take under Habermas. From today’s viewpoint, such a path could only be constituted by a sort of dissident third generation of Institute or Institute-adjacent thinkers, and would no doubt need to include Angela Davis, although Davis’ time in Frankfurt is just prior to this period. The two were born only one year apart, ten years after the birth of second generation figures such as Habermas.

Yet setting aside speculation over varied intellectual genealogies, Krahl’s theoretical work is most distinctive because of the thoroughly conjunctural character of his writings. Throughout his texts, the immediate and pressing concerns of the movement stand shoulder-to-shoulder with highly technical and innovative engagements in Marxist theory and philosophy. Attempting to synthesize these elements, which are knotted together, is no simple task. As Daniel Spaulding and Michael Shane Boyle write, such a task is like taking a “snapshot of Krahl’s thinking caught in midair.”

Krahl’s name is also suggestively scattered throughout the texts of Italian post-workerist thinkers. For example, Paolo Virno lists the collection of Krahl’s writings, Konstitution und Klassenkampf (Constitution and Class Struggle), alongside texts such as Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s Intellectual and Manual Labor, citing them as “picklocks for understanding the society of mature capitalism and its state.”8 The essays in Constituted and Class Struggle were gathered and published posthumously after Krahl’s death in a 1970 car crash, when he was only twenty-seven years old. Something that perhaps marks them as uniquely salient from the perspective of post-workerist and autonomist thinkers was their swift translation; Konstitution und Klassenkampf was published in 1971, and the Italian translation was completed in 1973. No translation of the book has appeared in any other language.

For this dossier, we have assembled a collection of texts which aim to deepen the possibilities for understanding Krahl’s work and context, and for returning to it today. The texts we have collected can be clustered into three different groups. First, both Massimiliano Tomba and Andrea Cavazzini take on the labor of catching Krahl in midair, providing access points to consider Krahl’s work in all its complexity. Second, we are happy to include an interview with Krahl’s SDS comrade Detlev Claussen, who helped to assemble Konstitution und Klassenkampf, and wrote the preface to the Italian translation. In addition to this text which returns to Krahl’s conjuncture, we have also prepared a translation of one of Krahl’s own texts. Delivered in response to a request for personal information in a trial that saw Krahl charged with “leadership of seditious demonstration” in the protests over Leopold Senghor receiving a peace prize, the text serves as a kind of ad hoc statement on Krahl’s theoretical and political formation, and forms a nice companion piece with Krahl’s intervention on the state, published in Issue 4 of Viewpoint. Third, the essays by Marco Assenato, Andrea Cengia, and Elia Zaru each take up specific aspects of a possible encounter between Krahl’s work and ideas within Italian workerism and post-workerism. Together, we hope that these texts are able to make Krahl’s work and its potential apparent, so that more encounters might take hold.

  1. I would like to thank my co-editors, Fabio Angelelli and Elia Zaru, for their steadfast support and dedication, as well as Moreno Rocchi for his suggestions and insight at the early stage of this project. 

  2. Stefan Müller-Doohm, Habermas: A Biography, trans. Daniel Steuer (Cambridge: Polity, 2016). Esther Leslie has also written about these events and their aftermath, which give a helpful frame of reference for Marcuse’s correspondence with Adorno from the same period. 

  3. Peter Osborne, “Redemption through Discourse,” New Left Review 108 (Nov/Dec 2017): 135. 

  4. As Osborne points out, this was largely due to a review essay on Marx and Marxism in 1957. Horkheimer believed Habermas was guilty of treating revolution as an “affirmative idea” which was incompatible with the project of critical theory and critique. Ibid., 134. 

  5. Ibid., 135. 

  6. Ibid. 

  7. Ibid. 

  8. Paolo Virno, “Cultura e produzione sul palcoscenico,” I Situazionisti (Rome: Manifestolibri, 1991), 20. 

Author of the article

is part of the editorial collective of Viewpoint and a PhD student at Villanova University.