They Wanted to Overcome Late Capitalism
February 1968. Radical leftists from all over the world are in West Berlin to attend the International Vietnam Congress. The main auditorium of the Technical University is packed to the rafters. A banner has been draped over the edge of the viewing balcony demanding the ‘liberation of all people from oppression and exploitation’. Hanging next to it is the resplendent image of Ho Chi Minh. The Tet offensive has just demonstrated the vulnerability of the US military in Southeast Asia and an American defeat has become a real possibility. Among those attending the conference is the little known French anarchist, Daniel Cohn-Bendit. The main attraction, however, is Rudi Dutschke, the charismatic leader of the Socialist German Student League (SDS). Dutschke delivers his speeches with deep pathos and is fond of citing Marx’s mantra about ‘the categorical imperative to overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, forsaken, despicable being’. ‘Comrades! We don’t have much time!’ he exclaims on the second day. ‘Every day, we too are being crushed in Vietnam, and not just figuratively speaking.’ At this very moment, Dutschke is vacillating between giving up the fight or becoming a ‘real’ urban guerrilla. Shortly afterwards, he is vilified for appearing on the cover of the magazine Capital for a thousand deutschmarks. Then, in April, he is shot three times by a neo-Nazi on the Kurfürstendamm.
What does this breathless, desperate political existentialism have to do with this year’s polished retrospectives of 1968? How did the socialist impetus for the Vietnam Congress, with its identification with the workers’ movement, relate to other arenas of revolt? To the university, for example – the home of the students and the starting point of the revolts, which was supposed to be transformed into a ‘critical university’? To the global pop-cultural movement, the subculture that drove the youth revolt? Or to the women’s movement, which put sexual equality on the agenda once and for all. ‘We students’, ‘we young people’, ‘we women’ – how did these collective identity-markers relate to the ’68ers’ committed anti-capitalism and utopian socialism? What remained of this socialist impetus in later decades and what remains relevant today?
The instigators of the revolt understood themselves as social revolutionaries. They wanted to overcome ‘late capitalism’, which they believed could not be reformed, and build a free society. In part, this emulated ‘real socialism’ and in part was clearly at odds with it. As to what the adjective ‘socialist’ might mean, they had no concrete idea. As with many of their ideological precursors, not least Marx, there was little relation between the ferocity of the critique and the clarity of the alternative. The socialist ’68ers were primarily anti-capitalists, counting on a dynamic emerging from the class struggle; specific questions about how the ‘new society’ was to be organized were saved for later.