Krahl and His Conjuncture: An Interview with Detlev Claussen

SDS mem­bers at a March 1968 con­fer­ence. From left to right in the front row, Bernd Rabehl, Frank Wolff, Karl Diet­rich Wolff, Hans-Jür­gen Krahl. In the back row, Theodor Lei­thäuser, Hel­mut Richter, Hanne Nieg­buhr, Dirk Müller (UPI)


The fol­low­ing inter­view was con­duct­ed on July 23rd, 2017 with Detlev Claussen, Hans-Jürgen Krahl’s com­rade in the Ger­man stu­dent move­ment, includ­ing the Sozial­is­tis­ch­er Deutsch­er Stu­den­ten­bund (SDS), found­ed as the col­le­giate branch of the Ger­man Social Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty (SPD). We would like to thank Diet­mar Lange for his assis­tance, espe­cial­ly con­cern­ing the rela­tion­ship between Ger­man groups and Ital­ian work­erism.


Fabio Angelel­li, Dave Mesing, Elia Zaru: Dur­ing the years of the stu­dent revolt, you were active in the SDS’ anti-author­i­tar­i­an wing in Frank­furt, among Hans-Jürgen Krahl’s clos­est com­rades. In con­trast to the SDS’ ortho­dox frac­tion, you were part of an anti-author­i­tar­i­an ten­den­cy that advo­cat­ed a read­ing of exploita­tion and class strug­gle beyond the fac­to­ry as a priv­i­leged place where class rela­tions were expressed. This was a read­ing strong­ly influ­enced by the Frank­furt School, which attempt­ed to resume Crit­i­cal The­o­ry on the basis of an undog­mat­ic Marx­ist-ori­ent­ed prac­tice. Could you please briefly retrace these dis­cus­sions with­in the SDS? What role did Krahl played in them?

Detlev Claussen: In 1966 these dif­fer­ences were not so sharp. In Frank­furt the SDS was a group of intel­lec­tu­als (“a plan­ta­tion of intel­lec­tu­als”) with about 200 mem­bers, of which 20 were active­ly involved in the orga­ni­za­tion. There were var­i­ous work­ing groups deal­ing with dif­fer­ent the­o­ries, trade union work and anti-colo­nial­ism. Prac­tice is a very ambi­tious term for this. In the win­ter semes­ter 1966-6, uni­ver­si­ty pol­i­tics was dom­i­nant; it was about the diplo­ma in soci­ol­o­gy, in order to open bet­ter career oppor­tu­ni­ties for soci­ol­o­gy stu­dents. Many SDS mem­bers were involved, because many of them were soci­ol­o­gy stu­dents. There were already argu­ments about the obso­les­cence of the uni­ver­si­ty sys­tem, but the pub­lic debates between stu­dents and pro­fes­sors wasnt yet sharply con­tro­ver­sial. With­in the SDS in Frank­furt, con­tro­ver­sial dis­cus­sions only took place when the forms of provoca­tive protests were dis­cussed. Here we felt inspired by the Berlin­ers around Rudi Dutschke. For the first time, the tac­tic of “lim­it­ed rule vio­la­tions” was used dur­ing a Viet­nam demon­stra­tion in Feb­ru­ary 1967, which attract­ed a great deal of atten­tion. A sit-in in front of the Amer­i­can Gen­er­al Con­sulate was dis­band­ed by a horse-mount­ed police squadron.  The legit­i­ma­cy of the action and the dis­pro­por­tion­ate police reac­tion was the recipe for suc­cess. This suc­cess led to the for­ma­tion of the so-called “Krahl­frak­tion,” which was also strong­ly com­mit­ted to the the­o­ret­i­cal train­ing of the SDS’ mem­bers. At that time, a dis­cus­sion arose around a uni­fied train­ing in the SDS in order to have a com­mon the­o­ret­i­cal basis. Exten­sive pro­grammes were dis­cussed: C. W. Mills, Baran/Sweezy, Marcuse’s One-Dimen­sion­al Man, André Gorz/Serge Mal­let - along­side Marx. Out of this dis­cus­sion, the Frank­furter “Project Group on Orga­ni­za­tion­al Issues” devel­oped, a project which then occu­pied the “Krahl frac­tion” in the win­ter 1967-68. A cen­tral point of dis­cus­sion was the chap­ter “Towards a Method­ol­o­gy of the Prob­lem of Orga­ni­za­tion,” from Lukács’ His­to­ry and Class Con­scious­ness.

VP: From the begin­ning of the revolt to its end, the stu­dent move­ment goes through var­i­ous phas­es in which it deter­mines its polit­i­cal posi­tion in rela­tion to the work­ing class dif­fer­ent­ly.  Accord­ing to Krahl, “in the first phase we meant that only mar­gin­alised groups act­ing as sub­sti­tutes of the work­ing class could ini­ti­ate a sort of Humankind Rev­o­lu­tion, with­out dis­tinc­tion between class­es.” How­ev­er, he lat­er came to a more mature view of sci­en­tif­ic intel­li­gence as a “col­lec­tive the­o­reti­cian of the pro­le­tari­at.” What led him from the first to the last phase? What new role for cog­ni­tive labour does his lat­er con­cep­tion imply?

DC: In the mid-six­ties, the work­ing class seemed “inte­grat­ed” in the Fed­er­al Repub­lic of Ger­many, a front­line state of the Cold War. Social democ­ra­cy and trade unions stood for the bureau­crati­sa­tion of the work­ers’ move­ment. SPD’s “Godes­berg Pro­gramme” sig­nalled the change from a reformist class par­ty” to a “major Par­ty.” One impor­tant thing to under­stand West Ger­many in the 1960s is that Com­mu­nist Par­ty banned, not trade unions with dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal ori­en­ta­tions, but rather a uni­fied one. Marcuse’s One-Dimen­sion­al Man, born as a cri­tique of US soci­ety, seemed to fit in these cir­cum­stances. Stu­dents were under­stood as a group which could act as a cat­a­lyst with­out being the actu­al rev­o­lu­tion­ary sub­ject. Marcuse’s the­sis was - forced by Krahl - com­bined with Max Horkheimer’s the­o­ry of the “author­i­tar­i­an state,” in which work­ers become the object of dom­i­na­tion not only of the rul­ing class, but also of work­ers’ organ­i­sa­tions. The Grand Coali­tion in 1966 and the impend­ing emer­gency leg­is­la­tion seemed to put the Fed­er­al Repub­lic on the path to becom­ing an author­i­tar­i­an state. At first, the empir­i­cal work­ing class appeared only ex neg­a­ti­vo with­in the­o­ret­i­cal elab­o­ra­tion. Inten­sive study of His­to­ry and Class Con­scious­ness led to a fun­da­men­tal crit­i­cism of Lenin’s pro­fes­sion­al rev­o­lu­tion­ary cadre par­ty, which - in Lukács’s ide­al­ized ver­sion - sep­a­rates the orga­ni­za­tion from the empir­i­cal class and its con­scious­ness.

The expe­ri­ence between 1967-69 changed Krahl’s image of the work­ing class. The East­er riots in 1968, after the assas­si­na­tion attempt on Rudi Dutschke, seemed to break the stu­dents’ total iso­la­tion from the work­ers for the first time. The actions of the protest move­ment should reach the work­ers through a “prac­ti­cal enlight­en­ment.” For this rea­son, great impor­tance was placed on the term “extra-par­lia­men­tary oppo­si­tion,” in order to not appear as a pure stu­dent move­ment. The actions against the Springer Group could be declared as a prac­ti­cal enlight­en­ment, because con­cen­trat­ing atten­tion on mass media’s monop­o­lized mar­ket helped ren­der vis­i­ble mass media’s manip­u­la­tion. The Paris May then seemed to show the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a com­bi­na­tion of work­ers’ and stu­dents’ inter­ests. Against this back­ground, Ger­man trade unions were also forced to hold mass meet­ings togeth­er with the stu­dents against the emer­gency laws. Accord­ing to Krahl, com­mon actions should con­tribute to mutu­al edu­ca­tion. How­ev­er, the anti-insti­tu­tion­al, spon­ta­neous nature of the move­ment proved to be a major obsta­cle to con­tin­u­ous work. That is why the “Long March through the Insti­tu­tions” and the mov­ing back to the base were prop­a­gat­ed. In the win­ter of 1968, this result­ed in increased uni­ver­si­ty activ­i­ty on the one hand, but also in the estab­lish­ment of fac­to­ry groups. An intense dis­cus­sion began about the anti-author­i­tar­i­an char­ac­ter of the move­ment. Krahl crit­i­cized the restric­tion to every­day work­ing life, which was expressed in an author­i­tar­i­an self-dis­ci­pline. The task for intel­lec­tu­als is not to prop­a­gate the rev­o­lu­tion from the out­side, but to devel­op eman­ci­pa­to­ry needs which go beyond work—an eman­ci­pa­to­ry con­scious­ness of the total­i­ty. In 1969, the world in Europe still seemed so open, the Ital­ian Hot Autumn and the Sep­tem­ber strikes in Ger­many made such a task seem appro­pri­ate.

VP: In which form should Krahl’s “Move­ment of Sci­en­tif­ic Intel­li­gence” be organ­ised?

DC: There were no con­crete ideas. The orga­ni­za­tion­al dis­in­te­gra­tion of the move­ment after 1970 hap­pened nat­u­ral­ly.

VP: At the begin­ning of the 1960s, Mar­cuse, Mal­let, and Pol­lock had already writ­ten about the sub­sump­tion of intel­lec­tu­al labour under cap­i­tal. In your opin­ion, what is the speci­fici­ty of Krahl’s posi­tion on the top­ic?

DC: There is no for­mu­lat­ed the­o­ry by Krahl. Among the authors you men­tioned, Jür­gen Haber­mas’ the­o­ry of tech­nol­o­gy and sci­ence as ide­ol­o­gy was also part of the elab­o­ra­tion. Krahl want­ed to link these crit­i­cisms with each oth­er, but he didn’t end up car­ry­ing this out.

VP: As a ref­er­ence text for many of his con­tri­bu­tions, Krahl men­tions Marx’s Grun­drisse sev­er­al times. How was this text redis­cov­ered with­in the stu­dent move­ment, and what was its impor­tance for Krahl and the SDS’ anti-author­i­tar­i­an frac­tion? Can we say that the redis­cov­ery of Marx’s Grun­drisse had a sim­i­lar influ­ence on the anti-author­i­tar­i­ans as the redis­cov­ery of the Marx’s 1844 Man­u­scripts did on the Frank­furt School in the ear­ly 1930s?

DC: This is a very good obser­va­tion. The read­ing of the Grun­drisse made it pos­si­ble to break with the tra­di­tion­al recep­tion of Marx, as well as the dis­cov­ery of Marx’s ear­ly writ­ings. Apart from the 1844 Man­u­scripts, we should not for­get to men­tion the The Ger­man Ide­ol­o­gy, which played a deci­sive role in the for­ma­tion of the Crit­i­cal The­o­ry. The Grun­drisse gives you a view of the whole Marx; you don’t have to play young against old Marx any more. In addi­tion to the “Intro­duc­tion,” which once again draws atten­tion to the mate­r­i­al con­tent of the cat­e­gories as “deter­mi­na­tions of exis­tence,” we also stud­ied the “forms which pre­cede cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion.” Both read­ings led to a break with the idea of his­to­ry as an uni-lin­ear sequence of eco­nom­ic orders.

Last but not least, Marxs reflec­tions on the grow­ing role of sci­ence which becomes a pro­duc­tive force were tak­en from the Grun­drisse. Very impor­tant in this con­text was Adorno’s assis­tant Alfred Schmidt. In his cir­cle a crit­i­cal, undog­mat­ic read­ing was cul­ti­vat­ed. Marcuse’s exis­ten­tial­ist Marx recep­tion was also under­tak­en in 1967 in his sem­i­nar.

VP: In West Ger­many, Ital­ian work­erism was received with­in the stu­dent move­ment main­ly by groups such as Frank­furt-based Rev­o­lu­tionär­er Kampf (Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Strug­gle) - the so-called Spon­tis - which emerged from the anti-author­i­tar­i­an wing of the stu­dent move­ment. In 1969, after a wave of wild­cat strikes, these groups put the fac­to­ry at the cen­tre of their inter­ven­tion. At that time, many stu­dents went into the fac­to­ry and there was a live­ly exchange with sim­i­lar groups in Italy, such as Lot­ta Con­tin­ua and Potere Operaio. What was Krahl’s rela­tion­ship with these groups influ­enced by work­erism and, more gen­er­al­ly, with Ital­ian work­erism? Were there any con­nec­tions to Italy before 1969?

DC: In fact, Ital­ian work­erism was received in Frank­furt. Prac­ti­cal­ly, work­erism is com­pa­ra­ble only to Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Strug­gle, who cul­ti­vat­ed a cor­re­spond­ing myth to Ital­ian work­erism by try­ing to orga­nize work­ers at the Opel fac­to­ry in Rüs­selsheim. Josch­ka Fis­ch­er and Dany Cohn-Ben­dit were the most famous pro­tag­o­nists. The Krahl group reject­ed this path and saw it as a reduc­tion to the indus­tri­al pro­le­tari­at and its every­day life - an anti-intel­lec­tu­al turn of polit­i­cal activism.

VP: In some, unfor­tu­nate­ly only briefly-sketched pas­sages of his works, Krahl refers to the deci­sive role of lan­guage in the analy­sis of late cap­i­tal­ism. Lan­guage becomes the “pro­duc­tive force and struc­tur­al cat­e­go­ry,” a fun­da­men­tal ele­ment for under­stand­ing both exploita­tion and sub­ju­ga­tion, as well as a lib­er­a­tion process­es. In what sense did Krahl give lan­guage an eman­ci­pa­to­ry poten­tial?

DC: Unfor­tu­nate­ly, indeed. I agree with you on that. Reflec­tion on lan­guage as a social cat­e­go­ry should give crit­i­cal social the­o­ry a new mate­ri­al­is­tic ground. Such approach­es were already present in the ear­ly Ben­jamin, but it was all still in statu nascen­di. Krahl sus­pect­ed that lin­guis­tic phi­los­o­phy would pose new big chal­lenges to the the­o­ry. Haber­mas dared to approach it the­o­ret­i­cal­ly. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, such a cri­tique of the ide­ol­o­gy of lin­guis­tic phi­los­o­phy has nev­er occurred.

VP: More than 45 years after the pub­li­ca­tion of the Ger­man edi­tion of Con­sti­tu­tion and Class Strug­gle, the name Hans-Jür­gen Krahls is rarely remem­bered and quot­ed. The only com­plete trans­la­tion of his con­tri­bu­tions was pub­lished in Italy in 1973, where it was received by some the­o­rists of the work­erist tra­di­tion. In your opin­ion, what is Krahl’s rel­e­vance in rela­tion to intel­lec­tu­al labour in the con­text of today’s cap­i­tal­ism?

DC: Krahl was cer­tain­ly a pio­neer who felt how pro­found­ly cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion was begin­ning to change in the mid-1960s. I think we have entered a new era that is fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent from the cap­i­tal­ism of the short cen­tu­ry. A new fun­da­men­tal cri­tique of the alter­na­tive­less social sys­tem seems to me to be nec­es­sary, but this cri­tique can­not be writ­ten as a “cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­o­my” any­more. The whole glob­al con­text should be unrolled in terms of a cri­tique of econ­o­my. The shift in the rela­tion­ship between intel­lec­tu­al and man­u­al labour also con­sti­tutes a dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal con­nec­tion, which turns tra­di­tion­al super­struc­ture phe­nom­e­na into con­sti­tu­tive moments of soci­ety… an indi­vid­ual can­not afford that… we real­ly need a “col­lec­tive the­o­reti­cian,” a new social sub­ject. The grow­ing inter­na­tion­al inter­est in the old the­o­rists is a mod­est sign that some­thing is hap­pen­ing in this respect.

Authors of the article

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

is a PhD student at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, Italy. He also works as a teaching assistant at the University of Milan, and is part of the organizing group of the Critical Theory of Society seminar at the University of Milan Bicocca. For the last ten years, he has been part of the editorial collective of Radio Onda d'Urto.

is an activist based in Berlin. He graduated from the Sapienza University of Rome with a focus on philosophy and critical theory.

is a journalist and Professor Emeritus of Social Theory, Culture, and Sociology at Leibniz Universität Hannover. He is the author of several books, including Theodor Adorno: One Last Genius.