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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

Rudi Dutschke, the missed political alternative

Updated: Jan 12, 2022

An iconic figure of the student movement in the 1960s, Rudi Dutschke marked a whole generation with his charisma and his search for a third way, between capitalism and communism.

A refractory mindset

Rudolf Dutschke, usually referred to by his diminutive name Rudi, was an emblematic figure of the moral and political upheaval in West Germany in the 1960s. Born during the Second World War, he later grew up in the Soviet Occupation Zone, not far from East Berlin. His political awareness developed early in his adolescence, particularly his opposition to the remilitarisation of Germany and his critical view of the collective amnesia about the Nazi past.

After completing his secondary education in 1958, he refused to do military service, which prevented him from pursuing a university education in the GDR. He took advantage of the relatively open borders to study in West Berlin and worked as a sports journalist for the local press. He moved permanently to West Berlin, where he began studying sociology at the Free University shortly after the Wall was built.

Theoretical input

Rudi Dutschke studied for a long time at the Freie Universität in Berlin.
A brilliant intellectual

Dutschke was introduced to existentialist philosophy and soon came under the influence of the thinkers of the Frankfurt School. He studied the critical theory of Max Horkheimer, reflected on the deconstruction of Martin Heidegger, and above all thought about the renewal of social structures in industrial society through the work of Herbert Marcuse.

Without rejecting its economic and philosophical principles, Dutschke noted the failure of Marxist theory and questioned the preponderance of the working class in the revolutionary process. For him, the avant-garde will be the intellectual youth. It is true that Dutschke's generation had known neither the war nor the old regime. It had reached maturity and rejected traditional codes, authoritarianism and hierarchies present in all social relations, i.e. in the factory and at work, but also at school and in the family. As a supporter of a non-authoritarian socialism, he came closer to the situationist ideas and in 1964 he joined the political leadership of the German Socialist Students' Union.

Political opportunities

The student movement benefited from the conjunction of two important factors. Firstly, the conduct of the Cold War in South America and especially in South-West Asia made Dutschke and others aware that the revolutionary process to which they aspired could only be global. The Stalinist dogma of a socialism limited to one country is challenged by this vow of internationalism, or the rebirth of a far-left romanticism which one would describe as "Third Worldist".

Then, the arrival of a Grand Coalition in power in West Germany in 1966, bringing together the Social Democrats of the SPD and the Christian Democrats of the CDU, exacerbated the political debate between those who refused to stand still and others who wanted the status quo.

An outstanding orator with a flamboyant charisma, Dutschke established himself as the leader of an extra-parliamentary opposition and engaged the West German student movement in the struggle against the war in Vietnam and against the presence of former Nazis in the highest levels of government. His activism earned him a slanderous campaign and a witch-hunt by a certain press. In April 1968, an assassination attempt on the Kufürstendamm in Berlin seriously injured him and marked his withdrawal from political life, at least until the second half of the 1970s.

Rethinking the revolution

Rudi Dutschke savait électriser les foules par son aura et son talent rhétorique.
Un orateur charismatique

Dutschke is an internationalist who does not abandon the national question. He claims to be a Marxist but does not believe in the historical role of the working class. He vehemently condemned the imperialist war, social injustices and the refusal of the older generation to assume its responsibilities. Yet Dutschke would never encourage civic disobedience, armed struggle or violence in general.

This refusal of direct action should not be seen as an admission of weakness or as a sign of addiction to petty-bourgeois intellectual and academic circles. Dutschke believes deeply in legalism and accepts the framework imposed by capitalism insofar as it allows for a recasting of the system once the steps of power are reached. In this sense, his structuralist thinking brings him closer to Gramscian than Marxist theories. Another explanatory factor is that Rudi Dutschke is deeply religious and considers revolutionary (not Marxist) principles as an extension of Christian ideals. His son Hosea-Che thus pays homage to the prophet of Israel Hosea and Che Guevara.

Soon the leaden Time

The attempted assassination and subsequent exile of Rudi Dutschke deprived West Germany of a political outlet that could have led to the peaceful modernisation of society. Indeed, it meant the loss of a charismatic but also intellectually brilliant figure, at a time when the democratic path was announcing the forthcoming election of a Willy Brandt, who would rightly do the work of repentance towards Germany's Nazi past. A Rudi Dutschke, even outside of the National Representation, would have played an active role in this transition and tried to achieve a broader consensus to reconcile the nation. That may be so.

But as a result of the 1968 attack, the student movement broke up and a minority turned to direct action with the Tupamaros and the Red Army Faction. The 1970s were the leaden years. Others, however, continued their democratic commitment and in 1979 founded the political party Die Grünen.

Rudi Dutschke was one of the founding members of the Green Party. He never recovered from the injuries he sustained in Berlin in April 1968. He died in December 1979 as a result of his after-effects. Although he did not spend his entire life in Berlin, he remains a strong symbol of a transitional period, who has a place in the local pantheon.

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