1968er Movement Splits (1969 )

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Two directions: Cadre party versus grassroots group/ Subordination or emancipation/ Courting workers or anticipating utopia?/ DKP: 120,000 members, cadre groups: 16,000, “Spontis“: 5,000

The new women’s movement is often viewed as an echo of the ’68er movement. While that is true, a large portion of the Left was extremely hostile to feminist politics. It is impossible to understand the embittered chasm between the socialist and feminist women’s movements if we ignore what happened on the Left after 1968.


  Anticipating utopia

When people speak of 68ers, they usually mean students; in fact, however, the upheaval of 1968—especially the anti-authoritarian movement— touched far broader segments of society: school pupils went on strike, housewives filed for divorce and went to university, parents reconsidered their childrearing methods and founded alternative nursery schools known as Kinderläden (literally child shops). The Action Council for the Liberation of Women issued the slogan: “Women arise, and the world will feel you move!” Craftsmen started their own businesses without a master tradesman’s certificate, lawyers formed collectives, doctors set up Red Cross groups; after-school centers for children and an alternative school were established.

The aim of all these initiatives was

to change living conditions here and now, to anticipate utopia in the real world. We wanted to try out now what it might be like someday, to live out what we imagined and not just wait for pie in the sky after the revolution. Only if we were in a position to change ourselves, to create new relationships among ourselves, would we have the strength to fight for a new, different society, and this had to happen in all areas, not just the workplace,

as Inga Buhmann wrote in 1977. She was active in the Spandau Basisgruppe (grassroots group),[i] where pupils, women, apprentices and workers from several Spandau plants gathered beginning in 1968. She continues,

These were all building blocks for an alternative society, which was supposed to develop sufficient explosive force to make the corroded old system collapse. We thought it was enough to let our acts speak for us. We wanted to spread hope, galvanize people who were feeling resigned and, if necessary, really shake them up; we wanted to show them another way, that this suppression of all life possibilities is unnecessary, that they must start to resist, and that we would manage this together.[ii]

Michael “Bommi” Baumann was a cement worker when he joined the Socialist German Students’ League (SDS) in 1967, but he soon switched to Kommune 1, because

this whole student thing, all these bookworms never really did it for me anyway. It just wasn’t my world. The K1 guys were something else. You could connect with them in a different way. They were also the only ones who heard the kind of music, who also had long hair, in contrast to the SDS guys, who all still looked suspect… What good did it do us right now that there might be a revolution someday… [It] didn’t change anything about the life circumstances you were trying to escape from. [In Kommune 1] everybody slept in one room and all that stuff about breaking down sexual hang-ups happened.[iii]

The people in Kommune 1 financed themselves through pirate publishing and this

completely changed how you thought about work. You could see how work could fulfill you in a whole new way, that the profits were also applied completely differently, how they arise, and the content of the work was different, it was fun, really good. Up to then I had had a pretty lousy attitude towards work. I rediscovered it there… Normal conditions of reproduction were restored within a community.[iv]


  Questions of strategy

This anti-authoritarian revolt left many students, especially their new leaders, feeling bewildered. One of them, Wolfgang Lefèvre, criticized a Kommune 1 leaflet using language that impressively documents the chasm separating workers from left-wing cadres:

It falls behind what the ‘communards’ themselves know to be true when they attempt to reverse the individual psychological impact of the prevailing authority structures a priori, while leaving the actual social structures of authority untouched. Remarks such as “what do I care about Vietnam, I have orgasm problems” demonstrate that subjectivity has been supplanted by the insistence on immediacy… An ‘anarchism’ whose foundation is this false immediacy, in which the system of reference of the dominant social structure reproduces itself uninterruptedly, this false ‘anarchism’ is not a declaration of war, but a refusal to change anything…[v]

Rudi Dutschke propagated a guerilla mentality, i.e., a dual strategy: A long march through the institutions combined with militant actions that were supposed to extend beyond the usual breaches of the rules—how far remained unclear, as did what the actions would look like.[vi] The preferred organizational form was the council, a grassroots democratic model of decision-making from the bottom up. Rudi Dutschke hoped that the workers would offer themselves as equal allies. In fact, the workers engaged in wildcat strikes on an unprecedented scale, but only in 1969, at a time when the student movement was already paralyzed, as will be described in more detail in what follows.


  Anti-authoritarians versus GDR supporters

The split began at the SDS Congress in 1967 in Frankfurt am Main: One segment of the anti-authoritarians responded enthusiastically to Dutschke’s concept, while the other was furious. These were supporters of the GDR, as his wife Gretchen Dutschke notes: “The success of the anti-authoritarians unsettled the GDR sympathizers and the SED.”[vii] According to the Verfassungsschutz (German domestic intelligence), the latter “sees the danger that these groups would push it into the background publicly.”[viii] What is more, Dutschke believed that councils of rebellious students and workers in West Berlin would also represent a socialist alternative for workers in the GDR and cause problems for the establishment there as well. Perhaps the SED believed this too.

But the West German establishment was also afraid: The KPD, which had been banned in 1956, was legalized in 1968. “Rudi believed that the government had a particular intention. The new party was supposed to absorb one part of the disintegrating APO (extraparliamentary opposition) and the Jusos (Young Socialists) another, in order to prevent the continued existence of autonomous socialist positions.”[ix] And that was precisely what happened.

Thus the Maoist groups were also hastily formed: KPD/ML (December 1968–1986), KPD (May 1970–March 1980), KBW Communist League of West Germany (1973–1982) and KB (1971–1991). Orthodox Communists (DKP and its sub-organizations) absorbed the greater part of rebellious youth, as the table shows.


Leftist tendencies

Groups 1971 1973 1975 1977 1979 1981
83,000 98,000 119,000 77,400 76,500 73,500
Maoist 2,000 12,000 15,000 16,500 9,200 6,000
Trotskyist 700 1,000 1,200 900 800
2,850 5,500 5,000 5,700 3,800 3,200


Gerd Langguth, Protestbewegung Entwicklung – Niedergang – Renaissance. Die Neue Linke seit 1968 (Cologne, 1983), pp. 57–8.


K groups

After 1968, most of the Left was organized into so-called K groups, Communist parties and party initiatives. In 1973, when the women’s center was founded in Berlin, the K groups had 110,000 members and the non-dogmatic groups only 5,500, a reservoir that gave rise to the new women’s movement.

As the women’s centers were being founded and rapidly growing, the K groups also sought to infiltrate them and rise to the top, but without success. Why didn’t the K groups manage to start their own women’s movement? This can be explained by their understanding of politics and the profound differences of mentality between them and the non-dogmatic groups.

Dogmatic groups cultivated an outmoded, mechanistic notion of political development, in which you simply had to turn the right screw to achieve a happy, socialist society. The only problem they saw was a lack of the “correct” analysis and the proper “assessment.” People who were sick of “blind actionism” and “unprincipled tinkering” wanted a plan and joined Communist parties (K groups) whose dogmas offered an explanation for every social phenomenon. This was how they set themselves apart from rival groups. Every faction had a centralized and hierarchical party organizational structure with an authoritarian leadership. These people preferred clear specifications and the comfort of strong allies in the background. For the orthodox Communists this meant the GDR and the Soviet Union, while Maoists looked to Albania and China.

All of these parties disbanded after about ten years, without making any visible impact. Insider accounts from the book Wir warn die stärkste der Parteien…– Erfahrungsberichte aus der Welt der K-Gruppen (We were the strongest of the parties… – Eyewitness accounts from the world of the K groups) illustrate the ideas and practice in terms of the following notions.


Democratic centralism

The pedantic and condescending tone publicly adopted by the KSV, KPD and other K groups, including the DKP and the SEW, by the way, merely [mirrors] their internal discussion style. All decisions are made and enforced from above, and members are only consulted on how best to implement these decisions.

The KPD statutes left no doubt about this:

The entire party submits to uniform discipline: Subordination of the individual to the party, subordination of the lower echelons to the higher ones, subordination of the entire party to the central committee. [The latter] consists of experienced comrades with political foresight who have proven in the struggle their absolute dedication to the cause of the proletarian revolution.[xi]


“The personal is political”

… or a “secondary contradiction”?

Under the slogan “service to the people,” the K groups excluded all personal matters, while the “non-dogmatic” groups followed the motto “the personal is political.”

“It was no accident that both the KPD and the HAW were founded in 1971,” recalled one of the KPD’s numerous closeted gay men. He had once asked his cell about the party’s stance towards homosexuals: ‘The [female] comrade disappeared and returned to the cell with the decision: ‘Comrade, you’ve got to realize that you’re a secondary contradiction.’[xii]

The woman question also remained a secondary contradiction for all the K groups. According to their “assessment,” the main contradiction between wage labor and capital had to be solved first, and then the oppression of women would disappear on its own. Since women’s emancipation would ensue automatically, it was not worth founding women’s groups, except as a “conduit” —as the indoctrination of women was known in those days—to recruit them to the party.

One woman was worried about an upcoming abortion:

The women I asked for advice dismissed it as a trifle, but it was quite a big deal for me. I couldn’t tell the men I had worked with anything about it. At that point it became clear that they were useless to me from a human perspective. There was simply no way to address such problems because of the strict separation between the private sphere and political work, and I was forced to solve this problem in my own personal life.[xiii]


Personal involvement?

Activists’ personal identification with the aims of agitation was nearly always superficial. While articles from the central organ and discussions in the primary unit were supposed to make the so-called political meaning of the struggle clear, beyond these guidelines one rarely had any inkling of the problems and conflicts one was agitating around, let alone being personally affected by them.[xiv]

All that remained was to take refuge in the absurd thesis that what really mattered was that the party took the proper line. The masses would figure it all out later.[xv]



For the umpteenth time an event is scheduled on this or that topic, people prepare papers and discuss them in advance, compose, print and hand out thousands of flyers, design, produce and hang posters, search out, rent and decorate rooms, and perhaps even promote the event in their workplaces or seminars.

All in all, this is an incredible amount of work to get as many people as possible interested in the event. On the evening of the event you are forced to concede that you haven’t managed to mobilize anybody outside your own organization. The only reason a few hundred people have shown up is the resolution obliging all members to attend all the organization’s events. This at least lends the whole ritual some outward semblance of meaningfulness. This resolution also stipulates that members listen attentively to the talks and discussion, and not leave the event early (before the singing of the Internationale) or chat with friends or run back and forth, shift appointments or even collect membership dues. This had happened all too often in the past and, in the eyes of the leadership, had scared off the few individuals who did not belong to the organization or rival sects, who then left early.

Not that anybody in the organization ever asked whether the topic or the occasion for the event might be inappropriate—whether perhaps nobody was interested in “what the Communists of this city” had to say— and one needed to act accordingly. No, the objective necessity of agitation and propaganda on precisely this point derived from the analysis of the existing situation of the world, as J.S. had recently written in the KVZ.

The “discussion” in the primary unit quite quickly honed in on the argument that the event had not been promoted aggressively enough, that not enough flyers with ideologically clear content had been distributed, etc. And, the decisive argument: Certain comrades had either “chickened out” in the seminar and had failed to announce the event, hadn’t consistently shouted loudly enough when selling the newspaper or had not shown up for the event at all. This showed a petty bourgeois lack of discipline, which only the hard work of political and ideological education could overcome. Only relentless “criticism and self-criticism” could teach them a proletarian outlook through hard and patient work in a “difficult” situation, in which the popular masses are “still” taken in by the “divisive” and “treacherous maneuvers” of the bourgeoisie and its “lackeys.”

With a narrow majority, a draft resolution is passed criticizing the leadership for having scheduled the event too soon.[xvi]



Mao’s writings popularized self-criticism as a means of discipline, which functioned as follows:

They dissected you, but never in a humane way; it was only a kind of political dissection, pathological. That is why everyone was afraid of discussions to “clear the air,” because they always meant self-criticism. And self-criticism was always like a confession, where you were really at the mercy of your comrades. You didn’t reach a realization, you prostrated yourself and then you were criticized. They seemed to enjoy it. Of course, it’s a good way to get rid of the aggressions that people had built up against each other. Suddenly you can give a comrade hell, in an unemotional way. You can cite objective reasons: The comrade maintains petty bourgeois illusions, he is still taking advantage of his privileges etc. At that point he is supposed to engage in self-criticism. And then the comrade engages in self-criticism, what else can he do? And then you have won a victory over him. At that moment, you have gained self-affirmation at the other person’s expense.[xvii]


Courting the proletariat

All Communist groups, whether Maoist or orthodox, courted the workers. According to Marxist theory, having them in one’s ranks legitimized one’s own claims to be an avant-garde, in contrast to the rival party. Many women’s groups also later clung to this belief. They gradually abandoned this “super-ego” in a process of discussion and grueling experience. See the chapter National Overview (1973) for how this happened.

Non-dogmatic groups

The anti-authoritarians had offered only vague concepts thus far (e.g., Rudi Dutschke); a segment of them, the anarchists, promoted the notion that the more militant position was also the politically more correct one, disregarding the question of where all this might lead.

Unlike the majority of “Spontis” or non-dogmatic groups, they put their energy into grassroots work in the workplace or neighborhood, engaging in a sort of development aid. On the one hand, they helped the people there to claim their rights, and in the process became familiar with the living conditions of less privileged strata of society. On the other, they expanded the narrow understanding of profession they had learned at university. This involvement had a lasting impact on city planning and medical care, for example.[xviii] However, it remained a movement from the top down, which the academically trained brought to those affected.

What was needed instead was the patience to move step-by-step along the contradictions in the system to broaden the objectives and activate ever broader segments of the population. To do what the women’s movement and the citizens’ initiatives did later: to begin with conflicts that affected oneself and, building on this foundation, to take up the next issues. For instance, to move from the struggle against anti-abortion legislation to criticism of gynecology, and then, finally, to found a women’s health center as a visible alternative. Or to move from a local protest against a nuclear waste dump to challenging energy policy and then also testing alternatives.

  Citizens’ initiatives

In the 1950s, citizens had occasionally banded together to oppose decisions by the authorities. But the great citizens’ movement in West Germany began only in the 1970s: The most outstanding example is resistance to the Wyhl nuclear power plant. It emerged among farmers in 1974, with no leadership whatsoever from the left-wing parties. In an article in Kursbuch, Thomas Kuby and Christian Marzahn illustrate the differences between the citizens’ initiative movement and the APO. I use the characteristics of citizens’ movements they describe here and propose the thesis: The anti-nuclear movement and all the citizens’ initiatives that followed were realized using structures developed, tested and defended in the preceding years not by the APO, but by the women’s movement, namely:

Grassroots democracy

“Democratic communication and decision-making structures. There are no formalized, hierarchical command competences or subordination mandates, and thus also no bans on thinking or self-censorship.”[xix]

Diversity of opinion

“Unity of aims … but otherwise a diversity of opinion. Citizens’ initiatives dispense with… enforcing uniform political standpoints.”[xx]

Self-education, not indoctrination

The anti-nuclear movement became the most comprehensive “popular indoctrination program” in postwar German history.

The learning processes we are dealing with here are different in nature from those in our usual educational institutions. The contents grow out of the vital interests of the learners and thus do not need to be taught with particular stimulation or force or documented with certificates. There is no limit on the number of students, on the contrary! The learners do not compete with one another, but cooperate, and the better they do this, the sooner they achieve their goal.

There are specialists for particular questions, but no professional instructors and no monopolies on knowledge. Teachers and learners switch roles; during the occupation of a site the physics teacher may become a pupil. The complexity of the subject matter corresponds to the flexibility of learning forms, which range from action-linked light-bulb moments to systematic and methodical instruction.[xxi]


A movement of enlightenment

“The APO and the citizens’ initiatives are movements of enlightenment. They break through and destroy ideologies protected by thought taboos: the “justness” of the Vietnam War, etc. They make what is secret visible— for example nuclear power plant disaster plans— and the inaccessible accessible.”[xxii] This is even truer of the women’s movement, which used methods of self-disclosure (self-incrimination, abortion on television, making sexual abuse public) to drag untenable circumstances into the light of day and broke taboos.


Usurping groups with mass appeal

The popularity of citizens’ initiatives and women’s groups in the early 1970s aroused envy in the left-wing camp: First, the K groups tried to shift the women’s movement in their direction, which succeeded in the Socialist Women’s League of West Berlin (SFB),[xxiii] but met with resistance at the Berlin women’s center. Then they turned their attention to other groups with “mass appeal,” such as the citizens’ initiatives:

Most “leftists” had little faith in the political potential of such citizens’ initiatives. The dominant attitude was that the initiatives would acquire political significance only if they succeeded in implementing the “proletarian standpoint” and thus combining their struggle against the decline of individual conditions of reproduction with the comprehensive economic struggle of the working class… Their “politics” demands “intervention” anywhere the popular masses “are in movement” or seem about to be. In this case, “intervention” means flooding this apparent movement with agitation and propaganda and attempting to guide it in a direction against the state and capitalism as a whole.[xxiv]

For example:

On October 30, 1976, when about 2,000 demonstrators occupied part of the building site in Brokdorf, the KBW called by megaphone for them to leave the site. An occupation was pointless as long as the citizens’ initiatives were not pursuing a uniform politics. It [the KBW] left the site sulking, followed by a small band of stalwarts. …

The attraction of the citizens’ initiatives for Communist groupings lies in their mass popularity. However, the gesture of propagandistic lecturing is extremely damaging to precisely this mass popularity.[xxv]


In 1977 there were some 1,000 citizens’ initiatives with more than 300,000 members in the Bundesverband Bürgerinitiativen Umweltschutz (BBU, German Federation of Citizens’ Initiatives for Environmental Protection) alone. In 1980, five million citizens were organized in 11,238 regional and 130 superregional environmental protection groups, according to figures from the German Environment Agency.[xxvi]

In conclusion, one can say that the women’s movement and citizens’ initiatives may be regarded as a late echo, but not a direct consequence, of the anti-authoritarian student rebellion of 1968. After all, following the rebellion most of the Left returned to hierarchical, authoritarian and dogmatic groups. These structures absorbed the rebellious potential and smothered it. The women’s movement and the citizens’ initiatives had to start again from scratch, with their own issues.



[i] See the chapter Women’s Commune.

[ii] Inga Buhmann, Ich habe mir eine Geschichte geschrieben (Munich, 1977; Frankfurt a.M. 1990), pp. 303–4.

[iii] Michael Baumann, Wie alles anfing (Munich, 1975), pp. 17–18.

[iv] Baumann, Wie alles anfing, p. 45.

[v] Quoted in Buhmann, Ich habe mir eine Geschichte geschrieben, p. 260.

[vi] According to Rudi Dutschke, “irregular actions” should be used to make the “abstract violence of the system” a “sensory certainty” for the passively suffering masses. “The propaganda of shooting (Che) in the Third World must be complemented by the propaganda of the deed in the metropolis. … The urban guerrilla is the organizer par excellence of irregularity to destroy the system of repressive institutions.” Quotation from the speech given to the SDS congress held in Frankfurt am Main in September 1967.

[vii] Gretchen Dutschke, Wir hatten ein barbarisch schönes Leben (Cologne, 1996), p. 151.

[viii] Verfassungsschutzbericht 20 on the SDS congress.

[ix] Dutschke, Wir hatten ein barbarisch schönes Leben, p. 232.

[xi] Anonymous authors’ collective, Wir warn die stärkste der Parteien – Erfahrungsberichte aus der Welt der K-Gruppen (Berlin, 1977), p. 77.

[xii] Wir warn die stärkste der Parteien, p. 70.

[xiii] Wir warn die stärkste der Parteien, p. 46.

[xiv] Wir warn die stärkste der Parteien, p. 55.

[xv] Wir warn die stärkste der Parteien, p. 76.

[xvi] Wir warn die stärkste der Parteien, pp. 58 and 59.

[xvii] Wir warn die stärkste der Parteien, p. 19.

[xviii] Cf. the chapter Abortion/Gynecology (1973–75).

[xix] Thomas Kuby and Christian Marzahn, “Lernen in Bürgerinitiativen gegen Atomanlagen,” Kursbuch 48 – Zehn Jahre danach (Berlin, 1977), pp. 153–72, 161.

[xx] Kuby and Marzahn, “Lernen in Bürgerinitiativen,” p. 168.

[xxi] Kuby and Marzahn, “Lernen in Bürgerinitiativen,” p. 159.

[xxii] Kuby and Marzahn, “Lernen in Bürgerinitiativen,” p. 161.

[xxiii] Cf. the chapter Revisiting Old Battles (1996).

[xxiv] Wir warn die stärkste der Parteien, p. 59.

[xxv] Kuby and Marzahn, “Lernen in Bürgerinitiativen,” p. 168.

[xxvi] Langguth, Protestbewegung.

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