In memory of rudi dutschke: his death was the end of an era

Between dreamy utopia, Marxist culture and sober criticism: a Parisian companion remembers Rudi Dutschke.

The perfect representative of the new Germany that was beginning to break away from its Nazi past Illustration: Eleonore Roedel

On the evening of October 9, 1967, when I received the news of Che Guevara’s death, I called Rudi Dutschke. What we discussed in detail, I do not remember. Without a doubt, however, for those of us who were obsessed with the Vietnam War – in which bombing had reached its peak at that time and the number of naval combatants had exceeded 400,000 – Guevara’s death marked the end of that utopian epoch in which, according to his "Message to the Tricontinental Conference" in 1967, it would have been necessary to create "two, three, many Vietnams."

For us at the time, Che Guevara embodied a different path than that taken by the Soviet Stalinists or the Maoists in China. But we were wrong. And significantly so.

Che was a "partisan of authoritarianism body and soul," as the French intellectual and former companion of Guevara, Regis Debray, put it in his autobiography. He even harnessed Cuban youth for his own purposes. Above all, he was responsible for the deaths of a very large number of people, as he was responsible for the conviction and execution of opponents. It was he who, starting in 1960, established the first so-called re-education camps, tropical equivalents of the Soviet gulags or the Laogai, the Chinese labor camps.

We didn’t know all that at the time. We were and remained captivated by the icon, although we should have been wary of a man who said he wanted to create a "new man" – a new man who would then be pressed into a mold that would help him come clean about an alienated past. Rudi, of all people, should have been on his guard, since he had experienced this ideology of the "new man" a few years earlier in the GDR, which he had left shortly before the Wall was built.

Rudi with the eternal leather jacket

A year after Guevara’s death, Dutschke gave his eldest son the first name Che, although he still prefixed it with the name of one of the prophets of the Old Testament: Hosea. He had not forgotten the Christian socialism of his youth: "I am a socialist who stands in the Christian tradition. I am proud of this tradition. I see Christianity as a specific expression of the hopes and dreams of humanity."

For me, Rudi, with his eternal leather jacket, his thick sweaters and his nasally voice, with his oratorical and pedagogical talents, embodied the new German movement so well that even his death marked the end of an era. He was the perfect representative of the new Germany, which was beginning to break away from its Nazi past, its fathers.

On May 9, a special taz issue on May 1968 will be published in cooperation with our French partner newspaper "Liberation."

Dutschke came equally from the East, where he had been born, and from the West, where he had managed to realize himself politically. He was firmly rooted in the interrupted tradition of German democratic socialism, but at the same time open to the experiments of the new American movements.

In his desire for an "organization without professional politicians, without apparatus," he returned to radical utopia with borrowings from Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, but his experiences with the GDR made him more sensitive to what was later called totalitarianism.

However, even if he occasionally lost himself in utopias and reveries, Dutschke never showed the slightest leniency toward terrorism. After the assassination of Berlin Chamber Court President Gunter von Drenkmann by the June 2 Movement, he wrote in a letter to Der Spiegel: "The assassination of an anti-fascist and Social Democratic Chamber President, however, is to be understood as murder in the reactionary German tradition." And in December 1978, he again emphasized: "Individual terror, however, is hostile to the masses and anti-humanist. Every small civic initiative, every political-social youth, women’s, unemployed, pensioners’ and class struggle in the social movement is worth a hundred times more and qualitatively different from the most spectacular action of individual terror."

A modelable discourse

Undoubtedly, the assassination attempt to which he fell victim did not make him support the "armed struggle" in its terrorist variety. To those who accused him of being an intellectual pioneer of terrorism, he countered that this assassination had created a "mental, political and psychosocial climate of inhumanity." For him, "individual terror led to despotism and not to socialism.

Even if today some of Dutschke’s speeches and utterances seem to have sprung from another age, when utopias flirted with the ponderousness of Marxist phraseology, the modelability of his discourse is remarkable. Inspired by philosophers Herbert Marcuse and Andre Gorz, he offered what is now known as the strategy of a "long march through the institutions." The goal of this "long march" was to build counter-institutions. Liberated zones in a bourgeois society that would correspond to the zones that Mao’s partisans had liberated in China during the Chinese Communists’ long civil war.

Companions in Paris: Rudi Dutschke and Jean-Marcel Bouguereau Photo: Jean-Marcel Bouguereau

Even though Dutschke was influenced by Marxist culture, he was very quick to embrace a critical, more modern reading inspired by the Frankfurt School. It is no coincidence that he had already gone to Berkeley in 1964 to hear lectures by Herbert Marcuse. This happened exactly at the time when the "Free Speech Movement" began at this American university – a movement for freedom of speech from which the Berlin movement adopted many forms of action.

There were many similarities between American and West German society at that time. On the one hand, the authoritarian structures of the Federal Republic – still marked by the entanglement of a large part of the ruling class with Nazism -, on the other hand, the society described by Marcuse as "one-dimensional", in which democracy is nothing but an authoritarian regime that disguises its character.

The need for the "revolutionary subject"

Marcuse was largely unknown in France before 1968. This was different from Germany, where the influence of the Frankfurt School remained strong – especially at Frankfurt University, where Adorno was still teaching in those years. Marcuse was the first point of reference for the Socialist German Student League (SDS) as well as the highest authority on legitimizing an uprising. He presented philosophical arguments in the tradition of the right to resist in a context that made it easier to embrace them. In a letter to Rudi Dutschke, however, Marcuse emphasized the sectarian and unrealistic viewpoint of many students. Later, he clearly condemned the terrorism of the RAF – and this was also Rudi Dutschke’s position.

By taking up Marcuse’s theses, Dutschke exposed the "false consciousness" of the masses, whom he considered incapable of perceiving the structural violence of the state. From this follows the need for the intervention of a "revolutionary subject" ready to embark on the long march through the institutions. On December 3, 1967, Dutschke declared in a television interview that he rejected the parliamentary system. It was unnecessary, did not represent the "true interests of our people," did not engage in critical dialogue, and kept the people down.

This text comes from the taz am wochenende. Always available from Saturday on the newsstand, in the eKiosk or immediately in the practical weekend subscription. And on Facebook and Twitter.

Dutschke was in favor of establishing a soviet republic, inspired by the soviet republics of Luxemburg and Liebknecht at the end of the First World War. To be sure, his sights were set on developments in the West. Nevertheless, he accused the Western European left of having excluded the populations of Eastern Europe. In a 1978 interview with French historian and Eastern Europe expert Jacques Rupnik, he declared that the decisive event of 1968 had not been the protests in Paris – of which he only learned on his hospital bed – but Prague, where the attempt to make socialism more humane had represented the absolute opposite of the Stalinist line defended by the French left.

In 1979 Rudi actively campaigned for the Green List in Bremen and was elected a delegate to the founding party conference of the Green Party. On 24. December 1979, he died and could no longer hold his offices. When the founding congress of the Green Party took place in January 1980, a symbolic place at the table remained empty.

Translation: Barbara Oertel and Johanna Roth

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