Movement as Mentor: ‘1968’ after 50 years

[‘It was fifty years ago today…’ This month it’s the 50th anniversary of Paris May 68, le joli mai, a defining moment for some of my generation, in Europe at least, an ‘almost revolution’. I was a student in Germany at the time. Below some of my more personal memoir-type recollections of the times as of 1971 in Frankfurt and the personal importance of the student/youth movement as a ‘mentor’. For anyone interested, my more general reflections on the legacy of ’68’ in both its creative and shadow aspects are contained in the two essays I published here on this blog in October and November 2012.]

68: ‘Sponti’ Movement as Mentor

For me now, in 1971 Frankfurt’s first few bank skyscrapers near the wide Main river and its general aura of a certain bleak grunginess and modern ugliness paradoxically seem to promise freedom and release from Munich’s constrictions, from the latter’s Baroque, Classicist and clean-cut, swank and yuppie pretensions. Frankfurt is the classic German city of money and mind, the common urban nexus: of banks, the central stock exchange, the annual International Book and Automobile Fairs, the Frankfurt School of critical social theory. It possesses a living tradition of trade, tolerance and cosmopolitanism, once had Germany’s largest Jewish population, was the site of Germany’s first, and of course failed, revolutionary attempt at a national democratic parliament in 1848, the home of the Frankfurt School’s Kritische Theorie since the twenties and, now, of the ‘spontis’, radical student ‘spontaneism’, the largest anti-authoritarian and quasi-counter-cultural faction of the militant German New Left.

Body and mind full of a tingling, vibrant new energy of release, I walk kilometres from our little one room/no toilet garret near the station in Sachsenhausen south of the river or from the barren city shopping centre around Die Zeil to the university in the west down the long, horse chestnut- and plane tree-lined avenue of Bockenheimerlandstrasse, all just for the sheer pleasure of it. My two friends from Munich and I help the infamous 68 celebrity militant Daniel Cohn-Bendit (who had left France for Frankfurt after le joli mai) move to a new shared apartment soon after we have arrived and these two friends move into another shared apartment in the same house, the unofficial ‘headquarters’ of the Frankfurt sponti scene and the militantly anti-dogmatic, anti-party, direct action, proto-anarchist RK (Revolutionärer Kampf /Revolutionary Struggle) organisation. A new peer group providing role models, a collective mentor of sorts.

The group was influenced by an eclectic interpretation of a libertarian early Marx, Rosa Luxemburg’s theories of revolutionary social change through mass spontaneity and prescient critique of Lenin’s authoritarian elitism, Western Marxism (Lukacs, Korsch), the Frankfurt School (particularly Herbert Marcuse) and the direct-action element of anarchism. Cohn-Bendit brought in the prestige and heady libertarian experiences of the mass revolt and autogestion of the Parisian joli mai. This anti-Leninist libertarian tradition and the close affinity to the aesthetics and hedonism of youth culture ( aka ‘sex, drugs & rock-and-roll’) also served as basis for a decided and mocking stance against all bureaucratic Marxist, Trotskyite and Marxist-Leninist sects and dogmatists that, during the seventies, were attempting to revive the Old Left (the ‘K-Gruppen’ or ‘K-groups’ as they were known at the time, the ‘K’ standing for ‘Kommunistisch’, communist).

At the time (1971) this group also has members working inside the huge Opel (General Motors) factory in Rüsselsheim near Frankfurt, trying to do so-called ‘revolutionary factory work’. (One of the inflated and self-flagellating pseudo-polarities current at the time was whether to become a so-called Berufsrevolutionär (‘professional revolutionary’) ‒ whatever that was ‒ or a so-called ‘revolutionary professional’ taking up the so-called ‘long march through the institutions’ that Rudi Dutschke had proposed). One day I stand, mildly anxious and slightly embarrassed by the militant avant-gardism, at the Opel factory’s wire fence helping to hand out RK flyers (Macht Kaputt Was Euch Kaputt Macht! Destroy what is destroying you! ‒ a kind of anarcho-syndicalist imperative with an anti-alienation/existentialist touch that is, in essence, doubtlessly as patronising as any idiotically Leninist demand on or ‘on behalf of the workers’ of the time). German workers of course mainly ignore us, but some Italian and Turkish migrant workers smile or laugh encouragingly and give us the thumbs up sign.

Work Makes You Sick

1. Piece Work
(…)Piece workers have chronic stomach ulcers 50% above average. (…)

2. Monotonous repeated work processes
(…) Postural injuries, slipped disks, crippling, bruising of internal organs, problems of concentration are a few of the effects. But not only the capitalists, even a lot of colleagues say : “But you can’t get rid of the assembly line. That’s just modern work.” That’s wrong on two counts. (…) Most work processes at Opel could already be fully automated. Workers have to suffer only because it’s more profitable for the capitalists to slowly grind down cheap humans than to get new automated machinery. Secondly, everywhere where you can’t yet get rid of assembly line work, you have to sharply reduce it. (…) It’s technically possible to have every member of our society do some of the monotonous assembly line work for a time. If everyone had to work there a while, everyone would start thinking about how to get rid of assembly line work as quickly and as extensively as has long been technically possible.

3. Rotating Shift Work
Rotating shift workers have more insomnia and problems with digestion and sex than normal shift workers. (…) Rotating shift work destroys family life. Kids need constant and regular attention. (…)The only solution: abolition of rotating shift work. (…). 4 weeks of early shift, 4 weeks of late shift, a week of paid break in between so that the body can adjust. Abolition of the night shift.

4. Work in Heat
Over 28 degrees at 70% humidity means serious danger for manual workers. Drying out, too much drinking leads to over-stressing the kidneys. Constant colds because of the switches from sweating to cooling. Lumbago and rheumatism because especially the waist area is always sweaty. Stress for the heart and circulation, general sluggishness.

5. Noise
According to our calculations 80% of all jobs at Opel are too noisy, direct hearing losses arise at about 10% of them. At all jobs there are noise effects like high blood pressure, muscle strain, lowering of heart rates (…) lack of concentration, sluggishness, sexual problems, stomach problems, nerve problems.(…) The technical solutions won’t be gotten by getting a doctor’s prescription but only if colleagues fight for them.

6. Conflicts with Superiors
Direct superiors like foremen and managers are a really important, slow source of disease. But only as long as you let yourself be driven and abused by them and swallow down your anger. (…) Against the boss disease there’s only one medicine: don’t swallow your anger, that will only eat up your stomach linings. Get together with colleagues and say what you don’t like, and get rid of what you don’t like.

(Translated from a factory newsletter at Opel/General Motors in Rüsselsheim near Frankfurt by the RK group in 1971.)

At university I now start studying politics, with a special, ‘spontaneist’ interest in the history of working class and grassroots social movements, specifically the workers’ councils movements in Europe after 1917. The anti-authoritarian, extra-parliamentary 68 movement has rekindled a keen interest in the libertarian heritage of the pre-fascist working class movement. Beyond the high philosophy of the Frankfurt School’s Critical Theory, the grandsons are seeking knowledge, support, confirmation, a living tradition from their ‘elders of the books’. Both mainstream publishing and pirated editions of works from the 1914-1939 ‘Age of Extremes’ period flourish.

In the university seminars we are soon involved in combating the now increasingly surfacing various Marxist-Leninist sects and grandstanding, so-called ‘proletarian’, parties among the students. Neither ‘proletarian’ nor real ‘parties’, they indulge in a stifling, farcical replay of Old Left dogmatism and ideological (communist party-oriented and -legitimising) interpretations of the Russian, German and Chinese revolutions. They are using history to rationalise their current Leninist beliefs and party strategies (and what personal power trips are these political beliefs, in turn, rationalising?).

One of my poems of the time attempts to sum up my revulsion:

campus confusion cholesterol count

screams of power polluting the air
coming down thick
like the mush the media exude
filling your head with medicated goo

fucking Internationale cock rock
marches of the thirties reverberate
between slabs of grey concrete
dead steel glass erections

enclosing the concentrated campus
of this our most holy mother mega-
machine multiversity no silence no
birds no grass no trees nothing but

tombstone speechlessness of the powers that be
Palaeolithic screams of the powers that wannabe

And of course we ‘spontis’ are also using history to rationalise our anti-party, participatory, movement-focused, libertarian beliefs (and what unconscious drives or patterns may they in turn be rationalising?). Echoing the libertarian tradition we feel part of, we insist on the radical difference between merely State-focussed ‘political revolution’ (a bourgeois phenomenon) and production-focussed ‘social revolution’ (what we see as the ‘real’ working class revolution) and the utter irrelevance, hampering or even counter-revolutionary function of political parties for the latter (‘Die soziale Revolution ist keine Parteisache!’: ‘the social revolution is not a matter of parties!’ in Otto Rühle’s summarising slogan of the twenties). Although the political/social, state/production difference is still a useful one, the contexts of our heated debates are quite ludicrous, delusional storms in a delusional teacup far from contemporary German realities.

However, I do discover the exciting legacy and history of radical working class, artisan and peasant struggles and their practical development of direct, participatory forms of democracy and revolutionary self-activity which would seem to both fulfil and supersede the limited (party and parliamentary) forms of representative democracy that were the result of the progressive bourgeois revolutions in England, America and France. These non-bourgeois attempts and sketches of direct and economic democracy range from the Greek polis and some millennial sects and movements of the 16th century, the Levellers and Diggers of the English Revolution, the Parisian sections of the French Revolution, the Paris Commune of 1871, the Russian peasants’ councils, soviets and factory committees of the 1905 and March 1917 Revolutions (and their roots in peasants’ ‘mir’ and ‘artel’ self-organisations), the soldiers’ and workers’ councils of the German Revolution of November 1918, the Italian factory occupations of 1920-21, the libertarian anti-Bolshevik Kronstadt soviet revolt of 1921, the inspiring extent of anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist self-organisation and worker/peasant collectives in the Spanish Revolution of 1936, and the Hungarian revolution of 1956 against Russian occupation and the Communist Party.

We see ourselves, and we see what ‘1968’ stands for, as part of this suppressed and often largely unknown ‘Great Tradition’ of the common man, this ‒ mostly brutally silenced and then ignored, but irrepressible and continually resurfacing ‒ self-emancipatory stream of history-from-below. These are our precursors, our spiritual ancestors. No matter how often defeated, flawed or betrayed from within and without, this Great Tradition is our spiritual grounding in hope, the grounding of our hope for the possibility of deep social change and human liberation. Humanity seems to have often already practically dreamed or sketched the project of its own liberation and autonomy but never realized it. For us, our generation’s short-lived sketches in ‘68’ are a part of this ongoing collective and social ‘Great Dreaming’ (or, more precisely in Ernst Bloch’s phrase, ‘Forward-Dreaming’) of humankind.

In other seminars at that time we study Marx’ recently discovered preliminary work to Das Kapital, the Grundrisse, and are excited both by the seeming continuity to his early ‘existentialist’, alienation-centered work in the Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts (first published only in 1932) and the more obvious way Marx here seems to have developed the dialectical and logical structure of his economic categories on explicitly Hegelian lines.

Ditching my plans for a literary PhD thesis with Christian Enzensberger in Munich on alienation in the novels of Samuel Beckett, I develop a plan for a historical one in politics at Frankfurt with Marx-expert and SPD Professor Iring Fetscher. The plan for the new PhD is grounded in a ‘68-ist’ and ‘Western Marxist’ perspective: the history of revolutionary workers’ councils in Germany after World War I, their traumatic failure and the consequent necessary ‘subjectivation’ or ‘psychologicalisation’ of both capitalist domination itself (state intervention in fascism and New Deal, political mass psychology, culture industry, PR and advertising) and thus also of libertarian socialist theory and classical Marxism in so-called ‘Western Marxism’ (George Lukacs, Karl Korsch, Otto Rühle, French Surrealism, the Frankfurt School, Wilhelm Reich, Ernst Bloch, Henri Lefèbvre).

We saw ourselves in this radical tradition of our grandfathers’ and fathers’ generations. Their shadows, the shadows of modern European history, still seemed very much with us. Why did it so often all go wrong? Why, instead of the Second Internationale’s previous commitment not to go to war against the working class of another country, why the mass patriotic hysteria, xenophobia and bellicosity of August 1914? Why did the workers’ revolutions, uprisings, factory occupations or practical attempts at a self-managed society in Russia, Germany, Italy 1917-20 and Spain 1936-37 all fail? Why did it all end up in the Stalinism and fascism of the interwar ‘Age of Extremes’ (Eric Hobsbawm) climaxing in the totalitarian or ‘exterminist’ (E.P. Thompson) horrors of the Gulag, the Holocaust and Hiroshima? Acknowledged or ignored, these shadows still loomed large in our movement.

~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on May 29, 2018.

One Response to “Movement as Mentor: ‘1968’ after 50 years”

  1. Why indeed Peter?
    Seems like the dominators always prevail…

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