Leo Kofler Was a Marxist and a Revolutionary Humanist

Christoph Jünke
Nathaniel Thomas

The boundary-crossing social theorist Leo Kofler was one of postwar West Germany’s most important Marxists. Today, he is little known outside his homeland — yet his revolutionary humanism has much to tell us about freedom today.

Leo Kofler working at his desk in the late 1960s. (Leo Kofler-Gesellschaft eV)

Before the rise of the Nazis, Germany — with its powerful workers’ movement and mass social democratic and communist parties — was home to a flourishing Marxist intellectual landscape. Marxist evening schools, party magazines, and scholarly journals fed a vibrant culture of debate that, while primarily the domain of intellectuals, far surpassed any left-wing milieu since then in both quantity and quality.

After 1945, Marxism was officially canonized as “Marxism-Leninism” in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the East, while in West Germany it was banished during the 1950s and survived only on the fringes of society. Marxism held on only in the form of the critical theory of the Frankfurt School and a handful of Marxist intellectuals scattered across the country. One of those intellectuals was Leo Kofler (1907–1995), an important but unfortunately often overlooked intellectual pioneer of the postwar German left.

While Ernst Bloch once praised his work as a direct successor to György Lukács’s pathbreaking classic, History and Class Consciousness, Leo Kofler generally had little luck with the more than thirty books and pamphlets published during his lifetime. For example, the mythical year 1968 was almost over by the time his manifesto, Perspektiven des revolutionären Humanismus (Perspectives of Revolutionary Humanism), was published by the renowned Hamburg publisher Rowohlt. Yet the West German extraparliamentary opposition (Außerparlamentarische Opposition, APO), then at its height, apparently had little use for his political and theoretical pamphlet, since practically no one referenced it or discussed it extensively after its publication.

Today, readers would be hard-pressed to find much trace of his public reception beyond a handful of rather distant and critical reviews in mainstream newspapers. This could be blamed on the flood of socially critical literature being published at the time, in which so much was overlooked and later forgotten, or on Kofler’s occasionally all-too-intricate writing style, which differed from his thrilling oratory style. One could also attribute it to the old-fashioned style that characterized his demeanor and that he happily affirmed in provocative fashion. Yet more than anything else, Kofler’s obscurity is the product of a profound alienation between the different generations of the political left.

The First New Left

The young protest generation of 1968, and especially its West German branch, was not free of illusions and hubris. One example was the way in which they perceived themselves as truly new, failing to grasp that they stood in a long tradition of protest against social democratic reformism on the one hand and Stalinism on the other.

Leaving aside the first isolated predecessors of the 1930s and the 1940s, the history of the New Left began in the middle of the 1950s — not only but also in West Germany. Around this time, a network and milieu of groups and individuals, newspapers, and periodicals formed. Social democrats disappointed and radicalized by their party’s accommodation and integration into the system; democrats dissatisfied with the postfascist restoration; communist dissidents inspired by destalinization and the rise of national liberation movements in the Third World; and left-socialists and -communists who had been politically homeless since the 1930s and 1940s all sought to break out of the Cold War superpower binary and pursue a “third way” — or, as they put it, go “back to Marx.”

These social democratic dissidents represented many thousands in the years 1954–59. Among them were figures such as the former trade union theorist Viktor Agartz, the young left-wing Catholic Theo Pirker, the journalists Gerhard Gleissberg and Fritz Lamm, and the left-socialist jurist Wolfgang Abendroth. Leo Kofler, as a sort of “wandering preacher” in community colleges, trade unions, and student groups, introduced quite a few of them to the foundations and intricacies of an undogmatic Marxist theory — reuniting the severed threads of freedom and socialism and anticipating many of the questions that Marxism would take up in the 1960s.

He had already founded a philosophy of praxis in the 1940s with his fundamental methodological work on Die Wissenschaft von der Gesellschaft (The Science of Society) and his writing on the relationship between history and dialectics, in Geschichte und Dialektik, published in 1955. Kofler’s philosophy of praxis argued for a renewal of Marxist thought in the spirit of what we now call “Western Marxism” — beyond the vulgar materialist understanding of Marxism of the likes of Karl Kautsky or Joseph Stalin.

In his 1948 Zur Geschichte der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft (On the History of Bourgeois Society) — his most well-known work during his lifetime that exhibits interesting parallels to, as well as differences from, the school of British Marxist historians — Kofler had traced the historical roots and paths of radical democracy and socialist conceptions of freedom. A few years later, at the beginning of the 1950s, he put forward the first systematic ideological critique of Stalinist theory and practice in the German-speaking world. For structural reasons, he wrote, “Marxism-Leninism” tended toward a vulgar materialist and undialectical — indeed, almost anti-dialectical — understanding of Marxism that was deeply anti-humanist, as it degraded the concrete humans to be emancipated into mere appendages of a new, bureaucratic ruling stratum.

As it also did elsewhere, the social and political upsurge pursued by the first generation of the New Left would ultimately fail in divided Germany. Exacerbated by the 1956 ban on the Communist Party in West Germany and the treason trials against Wolfgang Harich in East Germany and Viktor Agartz in the West in 1957, the communist and left-socialist milieu was permanently marginalized and repeatedly divided. The defeat of this socialist left also prepared the ground for the Social Democratic Party of Germany’s (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, SPD) final retreat from any form of political or programmatic anti-capitalism, completed at its Bad Godesberg party congress in 1959. Together, these events culminated in the kind of lasting alienation between the political generations that could also be observed in neighboring European countries, even if it was not nearly as severe and long-lasting as in Germany.

Kofler and the 1968 Generation

The heavy burden that the failure of this first New Left left behind at the beginning of the 1960s can be seen in both political as well as theoretical debates. Even if the inventive power of the 1968 generation was impressive, it often reinvented the wheel. What Wolfgang Abendroth tried to diplomatically teach his young listeners during the revolt, Leo Kofler expressed in considerably blunter and harder-to-digest terms.

Even as a spectator of the movement, for Kofler 1968 nevertheless represented a world-historical “new beginning.” He was also keenly aware of everything that had transpired since the mid-1960s. While applying the final corrections and revisions to the new edition of his monumental Zur Geschichte der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft in early 1966, he inserted the following formulation: “An opposition that pushes for democratization is becoming visible in the people and the intelligentsia. The fateful question for Germany is whether they will be able to carry it through.”

Like Herbert Marcuse, Leo Kofler was, with his heart and mind, fully on the side of the young generation. Unlike Marcuse, however, he was too much of an old left-socialist to turn into a simple apologist for the antiauthoritarian awakening. With a caustically sharp tone and frequently trenchant critique, he used every available opportunity for intraleft contestation, for the struggle between two lines within what he had for a decade been calling a “progressive” or “humanist” elite.

Whether dissident Communists battling against the half-measures of destalinization or oppositional social democrats and trade unionists fighting against bureaucratization and integration into the system, radical democratic citizens or socially engaged Christians — they all became, willingly or not, an independent sociological layer, under the historically novel conditions of a bureaucratically blocked workers’ movement. They were “an amorphous elite composed of progressive elements of socialist and nonsocialist origin,” a formless mass with strongly heterogeneous and fluctuating tendencies — heterogeneous in its social and political composition, its social and political views, and its habitus.

This progressive humanist elite (the term “elite” was not intended judgmentally; today we would perhaps say “multitude”) led a sort of pariah existence on the margins and in the niches of social organizations (parties, associations, cultural and religious communities) between all the camps. It stood socially and ideologically at odds with the traditional front lines of socialism and nonsocialism. It was full of contradictions, volatile, socially powerless — “and yet it is there and not without significance.” According to Kofler, a real renewal of the socialist left, a “return to health of revolutionary humanism” could only succeed if this progressive elite reflected on its humanist sensibility and became a mediator between the old and new milieus.

This, in turn, would only succeed if they united the powerless academic left, the “world of highly developed abstraction,” with the powerful trade union movement (that “world of vulgar practicality” (which places itself “against the ‘sting’ of class struggle”) on a new foundation. Yet “both of these worlds, critical and oppositional according to their origin, barely come into contact, they go their own ways,” he wrote in 1968. “The consequence is obstinate practicality over here and complacent intellectualism over there, both sides observing each other suspiciously as though through glass walls, yet not influencing each other.”

That was not the only unreasonable demand for the New Left in 1968. That Kofler was guided by the theories of György Lukács, above all his aesthetic theories, was already bad enough for the neo-vanguardists. That he was also critical or even hostile to the psychology of Sigmund Freud and bluntly insulted the Frankfurt School of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno as “Marxo-nihilists” made him just as suspect to the younger generation, as did his downright pushy insistence that socialist humanism provided the main target for the rampant structuralist anti-humanism at the time.

Perhaps he demanded too much of the new movement, which in fact had already begun to fall apart by 1969. Yet these were — and here Kofler’s originality seems to have been widely underestimated­ — the unreasonable demands of a New Left fellow traveler, not a bourgeois or Communist critic. His ambitious attempt at an alternative social philosophy to that of the Frankfurt School had no chance with the generation of young intellectuals. Yet the idea that Kofler had nothing to say about the new phenomenon of welfare state capitalism is not borne out by his work. Starting in the 1950s, he was one of the first Marxists after World War II to grapple intensively with an analysis of the contradictions and pitfalls of a capitalism that promised prosperity for all.

Consent and Coercion in Neocapitalism

His analysis, carried out in his works Staat, Gesellschaft und Elite zwischen Humanismus und Nihilismus (State, Society and Elite between Nihilism and Humanism), Der proletarische Bürger (The Proletarian Citizen), and Der asketische Eros (The Ascetic Eros) and taken up again in Perspektiven des revolutionären Humanismus turned its gaze to the unprecedented integration processes of late bourgeois class society. Kofler saw this neocapitalist society as having transitioned into an epoch of deliberalization and spiritual demoralization (“decadence”) that did not want to be reminded of its early bourgeois promises of emancipation — and, indeed, had become downright “nihilistic.”

The world, he wrote in the late 1950s,

only remains “useful” for the bourgeoisie, bearable for profit, otherwise it has become empty and meaningless. The leftover “freedom” is no longer the freedom to realize ideals and uplift humans — whoever wants to do that becomes suspect! — but rather the freedom of competition, of the jungle. Essentially, everything is achieved, there was history, but in the future there won’t be any more.

This social stasis, condensing into a sort of cynical, nihilistic Weltschmerz and revealing a pessimistic concept of man, drove even its leftist adversaries piece by piece into a theoretical anti-humanism that isolated them from the one thing that could carry out a real transformation of society: the broad majority of working and thinking people.

According to Kofler, neocapitalism doubtlessly had quite a bit to offer its people: political freedom, more income and free time, more security and fewer taboos (including those of a sexual type). Yet at the same time, these new freedoms and possibilities shackled the individual more than ever to a form of society that was irrational in its principles. Hunger had indeed disappeared, but not deprivation. Consumption was possible, but only through asceticism before and after the consuming: “Doing without in order to be able to afford something and affording something with the consequence of doing without afterward belong to the most self-evident forms of behavior of our time.” What appeared to be de-ideologization was in fact total ideologization: individual rationalism was merely the epiphenomenon of collective irrationality, the democracy of the market the obfuscation of the despotism of the factory and the office.

Western Marxism and Socialist Humanism

Kofler pioneered a critique of bourgeois freedom in late consumer capitalism that avoided the then-predominant ideological pitfalls of an allegedly “administered world,” of a “one-dimensional society” or even an “integral statism,” without ignoring the social phenomena at the root of these misleading units of ideology. Postwar capitalism, restrained by the welfare state, was also, first and foremost, a class society — an antagonistic form of society shaped by exploitation, injustice, and domination, in which some have what others do not.

There was still lord and servant, bourgeois elite and the wage-earning class, and consent had still not abolished coercion — something only a few critical thinkers acknowledged back in the 1960s and ’70s. Today, however, in the age of the “war on terror” and weaponized globalization, this has become undeniably clear. Thus Kofler described, in a way that was both old-fashioned and forward-looking, the class society we all live in, and reflected on what it meant for perspectives of emancipation.

He challenged many left-wing currents as well as certain interpretations of the Marx renaissance at the time, a challenge that has by and large been ignored. That applies to Kofler’s view of the questions of social psychology, his critical and productive discussion of certain Freudian theorems, and his argument for conceiving a new, contemporary Marxism, by thinking through and combining the theoretical ideas of Lukács and Marcuse.

His critique of the structurally bureaucratized workers’ movement targeted, in different ways, both of its main currents: social democracy integrating itself into the bourgeois state with its merely “ethical socialism” as well as the socialist bureaucracy of the Communist movement with its incapacity for destalinization. This did not contribute to Kofler’s popularity; neither did his early ideological criticism of the Frankfurt School, which he had already developed by the mid-1960s, a decade before Perry Anderson’s famous critique of Western Marxism. This was especially true of his attempt to conceptually combine Western Marxism with a radical “socialist humanism” — and thereby lay the epistemological foundations for a Marxist philosophical anthropology.

For a Marxist Anthropology

With his theory of society, Kofler drew on the early bourgeois, radical democratic ideals of freedom, equality, and solidarity — turning them against the limited bourgeois, purely political form of freedom as well as the limited “actually existing socialist” freedom conceived merely in socioeconomic terms. He understood the socialist project to mean a comprehensive emancipation. Oppositional demands for freedom, progress, democracy, and self-realization, for a classless society in the common interest and for self-realizing individuality, must be undergirded by a conceptual orientation to humanity and an anthropological epistemology from a Marxist perspective.

We humans are, as Terry Eagleton once put it, “cultural beings by virtue of our nature, which is to say by virtue of the sorts of bodies we have and the kind of world to which they belong.” And where human beings stand, as it were, between nature and culture, human nature will indeed be changed through human culture but not eliminated. Forty years before Eagleton, this was also Kofler’s understanding. For him, this is fundamentally justified by the fact that it is the human brain and thus human culture that distinguish humans’ nature. It lies in the essence of this human nature that it is structurally dependent on one’s fellow human beings and the forms of work and activity mediated by them. This practical, active work and its accompanying social forms of relation are creative and inventive in nature.

Kofler’s often misunderstood groundwork of a Marxist philosophical anthropology understands itself literally as the “science of the unchanging preconditions of human changeability.” It sees itself as a form of metatheory and auxiliary science that has no desire nor ability to be a guide for action but rather “only” shows why there was and will be a specifically human history at all, and why change in humans and their social conditions is fundamentally possible, if not concretely predetermined in its content.

Kofler provides us with a criterion for what humanity’s self-realization can be, and thereby also precisely for what emancipation cannot and must not be. What practical significance such a discussion of anthropological concepts of man has is perhaps only truly clear today, in light of a neoliberalism rooted in a structural social Darwinism and the contemporary challenges of biological and neurological sciences intervening in human nature, along with the ever more obviously dysfunctional relationship between humanity and nature.