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.