Rudi Dutschke’s Internationalism Is Still a Subversive Creed

Rudi Dutschke was West Germany’s most prominent radical in the late 1960s and a hate figure for Axel Springer’s media group. Dutschke’s internationalism is more vital than ever today as the German power elite tries to criminalize international solidarity.

Rudi Dutschke in 1976. (Hans Peters / Anefo / Nationaal Archief via Wikimedia Commons)

Mention Rudi Dutschke to someone in Germany today and you might elicit the slogan of “the long march through the institutions.” More probably, you will stir up impressions of the West German 1960s — Nazi parents, counterculture, the Berlin Wall — and a boyish-looking rabble-rouser who died young.

Outside Germany, Dutschke hardly registers for anyone but scholars and baby boomers. Yet Dutschke was once a household name. “Red Rudi” even appeared as such a credible revolutionary threat that he amassed a hefty FBI file despite never setting foot in the United States, having been barred entry.

Dutschke was gunned down on the eve of May 1968 by an anti-communist who had been inspired by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Although he survived the attack, he died of its consequences eleven years later, at age thirty-nine.

Any account of Dutschke’s legacy must also consider the Socialist German Students’ League (SDS), one of the New Left’s most militant organizations. Under Dutschke’s stewardship, the SDS pursued a rigorously anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist line.

Dutschke insisted on solidarity with anti-colonial liberation struggles as the basis for left-wing political struggle. He authored a critique of West Germany’s political institutions as structurally conformist, and he advocated extra-parliamentary political action and organization as being not only necessary to democratic society, but its true content.

In turn, the SDS positioned universities as bases of social protest, empowering the moral-political authority of young people who were not yet ideologically beholden to repressive bourgeois norms and values. It charged students and young workers with the task of political education toward the possibilities of social transformation.

Between East and West

Dutschke was born in 1940 and grew up in the German Democratic Republic following Germany’s 1949 partition. His early political outlook was informed by his Protestant faith and Marxist-Leninist schooling. In 1956, his confidence in the project of state socialism was shaken when the Soviet Union crushed Hungary’s popular revolution.

Dutschke declared himself a pacifist and conscientious objector to the draft, a decision that rendered him ineligible for university study. He decided to permanently relocate to West Berlin in August 1961, crossing the border days before construction of the Berlin Wall began.

In West Berlin, Dutschke enrolled at the Free University, where he took courses in sociology, history, and philosophy, and worked at the Eastern European Institute. In 1964, he joined students from Latin America, Haiti, and Ethiopia in forming an international working group devoted to rereading the Marxist canon and parsing revolutionary developments in China and Latin America.

That winter, Dutschke participated in his first direct action against the Congolese puppet premier Moïse Tshombe, who had been instrumental in the downfall and murder of Patrice Lumumba. African students led the protesters in circumventing police barricades and marching to city hall, where they succeeded in disrupting Tshombe’s mayoral welcome.

Dutschke later described the shift in political consciousness among students who had joined the action as the beginning of West Germany’s “cultural revolution.” It demonstrated that they could surmount the “fetishized rules of the game of formal democracy” through solidarity and self-organization.

Building the SDS

Dutschke joined the SDS in January 1965. The organization was then dominated by traditionalists who prioritized domestic coalition building, believing that West Germany’s constitution provided a framework for a legal transition to socialism. Dutschke, by contrast, was convinced that the only effective path to socialism anywhere was through Third World decolonization.

He argued that the SDS must spearhead local actions and political education to counter the media’s Western bias and pressure the Bonn government to exit NATO. Vietnam made Dutschke’s case for him. By 1966, two hundred thousand US troops had been deployed to Vietnam, with the Federal Republic providing $100 million in nonmilitary aid to the Saigon government.

In May of that year, the SDS hosted a conference on Vietnam, at which Herbert Marcuse, an emerging hero of the international New Left, endorsed Dutschke’s internationalist position, arguing that the “solidarity of reason and sentiment” with anti-colonial struggles was the only way forward for the Left. Moreover, in light of the material and ideological capture of traditional working-class institutions, Marcuse argued, the task of political opposition and intervention fell to marginalized groups: racial minorities, women, religious pacificists, and students.

Within a year, Dutschke’s internationalist wing had assumed leadership of the SDS. Their popularity grew with the urgency of the political situation. In 1966, the Social Democrats (SPD) had joined the Christian Democrats (CDU) to form a coalition government boasting 95 percent of seats in the West German parliament, thereby extinguishing parliamentary opposition.

The new government supported introducing constitutional emergency laws, a move that dismayed critics who saw the fascist potential of such legislation. These fears were supercharged on June 2, 1967. At a West Berlin demonstration against the shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who had been responsible for a lethal crackdown on dissident students in Tehran, students were kettled by armed police, and a first-time protestor named Benno Ohnesorg was shot dead. The West Berlin Senate swiftly issued a two-week ban on demonstrations, and other municipalities followed.

Speaking in Hanover to a crowd of five thousand, Dutschke called on students to defy the bans. They couldn’t wait for the appropriate conditions of political action to ripen, he argued, because political change depended on their conscious will.

With the exception of the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who accused Dutschke of “left fascism,” Dutschke’s militancy found a ready audience. Students poured into the streets after Ohnesorg’s killing, and SDS membership swelled by the thousands. It was the beginning of the antiauthoritarian revolts.

The Long March

In anticipation of the emergency laws, the SDS had founded the Extra-Parliamentary Opposition (APO), a loose coalition of domestic organizations. In December 1967, Dutschke was interviewed about the APO’s objectives by the political journalist Günter Gaus on national television.

Watching Dutschke’s interview today can be uncanny, for Gaus leveled at Dutschke many questions still used to entrap the Left. Dutschke deftly parried. Asked to explain the APO’s unwillingness to work within existing parties, Dutschke argued that the present “two-party system” — CDU and SPD — existed to reproduce the status quo. They foreclosed democratic dissent, to say nothing of transformation.

Everyone who made the quadrennial trip to the polling booths, he insisted, already knew that they were not impacting the country’s future; the party platforms had been determined without them. Dutschke castigated professional politicians and the mainstream media for their deliberate miscommunication about the possibilities of political change.

A truly democratic party, he argued, would aim to raise public consciousness rather than manipulate it. The APO’s objective was to instate a “critical dialogue” with the masses, so that ordinary people could form opinions about the issues in which they were objectively enmeshed, from the recent economic downturn to the war in Vietnam.

One can already hear Dutschke pivoting toward his theory of revolution as a “long march through the institutions.” The idea is often read as a reformulation of Antonio Gramsci’s “war of position” — that in the absence of a revolutionary situation, the party must wear down the capitalist class’s ideological and cultural hold on the masses. Yet there is little evidence that Dutschke had read Gramsci before formulating his ideas.

Rather, what comes across in the interview — thanks to Gaus’s many attempts to get Dutschke to admit that his movement was inherently undemocratic and would seize power violently if the opportunity were to present itself — is that Dutschke believed that there would be no revolutionary transition without the processual transformation of public consciousness: “During this long march, either the problem of becoming conscious will be raised and then solved, or we will fail.” For Dutschke, revolution began with the APO’s attempts at political education, self-organization, and mutual aid.

Gaus was tenacious on the question of violence, citing Dutschke’s endorsement of Third World revolution. Dutschke had translated Che Guevara’s “Message to the Tricontinental,” in which Che famously called for “two, three, many Vietnams,” with his Chilean friend Gaston Salvatore in 1967. He and his American wife, Gretchen Dutschke-Klotz, named their firstborn after Che in 1968.

Dutschke countered that violence was a tactic, whose implementation depended on the situation and gravity of the political threat:

If I were in Latin America, I would take up arms. [But] I am in the Federal Republic. We are fighting so that it never reaches the point where we are forced to take up arms. But that’s not up to us. We’re not the ones in power.

According to Dutschke-Klotz, the couple later transported dynamite from Italy in their newborn’s stroller to blow up a NATO ship carrying military supplies to Vietnam. However, the plan was aborted for fear of casualties.

Public Enemy No. 1

Gaus’s interview brought Dutschke new exposure and public vitriol. It was the period of the Tet Offensive, and antiwar demonstrations surged in size and frequency, inspired by the possibility that the National Liberation Front might vanquish the US military. Led by the Axel Springer conglomerate and its inflammatory tabloid newspaper, the Bild-Zeitung, the pro-American press red-baited and vilified antiwar students. Dutschke became “Public Enemy No. 1,” as newspapers published portrait photos of him with captions that read “Stop Dutschke Now!”

On April 11, 1968, Dutschke was shot twice in the head by a neo-Nazi. In the week following the attack, fifty thousand people participated in blockading Springer’s offices and distribution sites, demanding the company’s expropriation.

Dutschke survived, but his recovery was hounded by the press. He and his family first relocated to Switzerland to escape the media. They soon moved to Italy, then Belgium (staying with Ernest Mandel), Britain, and Ireland. Denied visas to Canada and the United States, they eventually settled in Denmark in 1971.

Dutschke regained his memory and speech, and, despite lasting brain damage and epileptic seizures, he completed a dissertation on the Communist International and gradually reengaged in West German politics. He expressed dismay at the splintering of the student movement. In the 1970s, he participated in the founding of the Green Party, which aspired to be a party rooted in social movements. He died following a seizure in 1979.

“We Don’t Have Much Time”

Dutschke’s reception in Germany has mostly tracked with the undulation of ideological investments in the 1960s. The liberal outlets and institutions that once reviled him now embrace his name and image in seeking to domesticate the decade’s agitations as convivial appeals for democracy and transparency. By the same token, conservatives who see the 1960s as the beginning of a descent into debauchery, violence, and identity politics read Dutschke accordingly, blaming him for the left-wing terrorism of the 1970s.

For all their defamatory comments, what conservative critics get right is the radical core of Dutschke’s commitments. Dutschke aspired to nothing less than a global socialist revolution. He located decolonization at the center of this vision and insisted not only that students and young people in the West could act in solidarity with colonized subjects abroad, but that they must.

“Comrades! We don’t have much time,” he said in February 1968, against the backdrop of Vietnam. At a moment when students and young people are, once again, leading voices in an international campaign for peace and freedom, and in local and global efforts for a socialist transition, it is a good time to revisit the thinking of the New Left in one of its starkest articulations.