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.