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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

Rudi Dutschke, Missing Political Alternative

Updated: Jun 21, 2023

An Iconic Figure of the Student Movement in the 1960s, Rudi Dutschke marked an entire generation with his charisma and his quest for a third way, between capitalism and communism.

A Nonconformist Mindset

Rudolf Dutschke, commonly known by his nickname Rudi, was an iconic figure of the moral and political upheaval in West Germany during the 1960s. Born during the Second World War, he later grew up in the Soviet Occupation Zone, near East Berlin. His political consciousness developed early during his adolescence, particularly his opposition to the remilitarization of Germany and his critical perspective on the collective amnesia regarding the Nazi past.

After completing his secondary education in 1958, he refused to perform 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 permanently relocated to West Berlin, where he began studying sociology at the Free University shortly after the Wall was built.

Theoretical Input and Intellectual Brilliance

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

Rudi Dutschke spent considerable time studying at the Freie Universität in Berlin. He was introduced to existentialist philosophy and soon fell 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 primarily thought about the renewal of social structures in industrial society through the work of Herbert Marcuse.

Without rejecting its economic and philosophical principles, Dutschke acknowledged the failure of Marxist theory and questioned the supremacy of the working class in the revolutionary process. To him, the avant-garde would be the intellectual youth. Indeed, Dutschke's generation had not experienced the war or 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 an advocate for a non-authoritarian socialism, he gravitated towards situationist ideas and in 1964 he joined the political leadership of the German Socialist Students' Union.

Political Opportunities

The student movement benefited from the convergence of two crucial factors. First, the conduct of the Cold War in South America and especially in Southwest Asia made Dutschke and others realize that the revolutionary process they aspired to could only be global. The Stalinist dogma of socialism confined to one country was challenged by this pledge of internationalism, or the resurgence of a far-left romanticism, which one could describe as "Third Worldist".

Next, the formation of a Grand Coalition in power in West Germany in 1966, comprising the Social Democrats of the SPD and the Christian Democrats of the CDU, intensified the political debate between those who refused to be stagnant and others who desired the status quo.

An outstanding orator with a vibrant 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 wounded 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.

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 older generation's refusal to assume its responsibilities. However, Dutschke never encouraged civil disobedience, armed struggle, or violence in general.

This refusal of direct action should not be viewed as a sign of weakness or addiction to bourgeois intellectual and academic circles. Dutschke deeply believes in legalism and accepts the framework imposed by capitalism insofar as it allows for a restructuring of the system once the steps of power are reached. In this sense, his structuralist thinking aligns him more with Gramsci's theories than Marxist ones. Another explanatory factor is that Rudi Dutschke was deeply religious and saw revolutionary (not Marxist) principles as an extension of Christian ideals. His son, Hosea-Che, pays homage to both the prophet of Israel, Hosea, and Che Guevara.

The Arrival of the Leaden Time

The attempted assassination and subsequent exile of Rudi Dutschke deprived West Germany of a political voice that could have led to the peaceful modernization of society. Indeed, it meant the loss of a charismatic and intellectually brilliant figure, at a time when the democratic path was signaling the upcoming election of Willy Brandt, who would rightfully carry out the act 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.

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

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 due to his lingering after-effects. Although he did not spend his entire life in Berlin, he remains a powerful symbol of a transitional period, holding a place in the local pantheon.

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