Socialist Equality Party (Germany)
The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (Germany)

From the student movement to the Greens

179. The petty bourgeois conceptions prevailing in the post war period found their most concentrated expression amongst the leaders of the 1968 movement. The student radicalisation had a number of causes: a rebellion against conservatism in the universities and society as a whole, opposition to rearmament and the Emergency Laws, protest against the Vietnam war and the regime of the Shah of Persia, and, in particular, reckoning with the heritage of Nazism and its crimes, which had been suppressed during the era of Chancellor Adenauer. The revolt by students was closely bound up with the offensive by the working class, but their political and theoretical conceptions cut them off from the working class. The German student movement was not only one of the biggest in the world numerically speaking―it was also one of the most productive in terms of ideology. A decisive influence came from the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School and other tendencies of the New Left. The writings of Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Karl Korsch, Herbert Marcuse, Ernst Bloch, Erich Fromm and Wilhelm Reich found a large audience.

180. Instead of capitalist exploitation, the leading figures of the New Left placed at the heart of their social analysis the concept of alienation, which they interpreted in a psychological or existential manner. The working class was no longer regarded as a revolutionary class, but, rather, as an apolitical, or even backward mass, thoroughly integrated into bourgeois society via the mechanisms of consumerism, the domination of the media and repressive forms of education. Herbert Marcuse, Heidegger’s pupil and a member of the Frankfurt School, even detected a “proto-fascist syndrome in the working class”.[1] The “revolution” would proceed not from the working class, but from the young intelligentsia, social fringe groups or guerrilla movements. Its driving force was not the class contradictions of capitalist society, but critical thinking and the actions of an enlightened elite. The goal of the revolution was not—or was not primarily—the overthrow of the existing relations of power and ownership, but the changing of social and cultural—including sexual—habits. The representatives of the New Left considered such a cultural change to be the precondition for social revolution. Student leaders such as Rudi Dutschke and Daniel Cohn-Bendit stressed the significance of provocative action aimed at shocking the mass of the population out of their inertia.

181. The Frankfurt School transformed Marxism from a theoretical and political weapon of the proletarian class struggle into a form of supra-class cultural criticism, expressing the political pessimism, social alienation and personal frustration of sections of the middle classes. Max Horkheimer and his closest collaborator, Theodor Adorno, reverted to philosophical traditions that Marxism had opposed—the critical theory of Kant, the “critical criticism” of the Young Hegelians and various forms of philosophical subjectivism from Schopenhauer to Heidegger. Traumatized by the experience of National Socialism, they denied the revolutionary potential of the working class. Contrary to Marx, in whose view the development of the productive forces blew apart capitalist property relations and unleashed an epoch of social revolution, in their opinion, the development of the productive forces plunged society into barbarism and solidified capitalist rule. “The powerlessness of the workers is not merely a ruse of the rulers, but the logical consequence of industrial society”, they claimed, and further: “The curse of irresistible progress is irresistible regression”. The only way out of this social dead end was critical thinking: “It is the servant which the master cannot control at will”.[2] The revolutionary subject, therefore, according to these theorists, was the “enlightened individual” and not the proletariat.

182. The German student revolt reached its high point in the summer of 1968. After that, the SDS broke apart into competing factions. The glorification of guerrilla warfare led a small minority to draw fatal conclusions and turn to individual terrorism. Others joined anarchist organizations and so-called K-groups, which discovered a replacement for a socialist perspective in the Stalinism of the Maoist variety. The large majority embarked upon a “march through the institutions” (Dutschke) and turned to the SPD. At the end of the 1970s, they all assembled in a new party that within 20 years would become a principal support for German imperialism—the Greens.

183. The programme of the Greens drew liberally from the Frankfurt School, such as the rejection of the class struggle, a concentration on questions of lifestyle, and scepticism towards technological progress. The anti-capitalist rhetoric of the SDS had disappeared and given way to pacifism, environmentalism and the revival of bourgeois democracy. Ingenious forms of rank and file democracy were supposed to prevent the party being corrupted by power. In reality, they freed the leadership from any control by the membership, so that the most cynical and unscrupulous representatives of the Greens were finally able to win the highest positions in public office. At heart, the Greens were retrogressive and conservative. This was most clearly shown in their economic programme, which advocated a “turn away from the national and international division of labour” and “consumer-oriented production locally and regionally”.[3]

184. In their social composition, the Greens were a party of the academically educated middle class. Their leadership layer consisted—and still consists—predominantly of ex-members of the student movement and various anarchist and Maoist groups. They found their followers in the more than one thousand groups belonging to the Bundesverband Bürgeriniativen Umweltschutz (BBU, Federal Association of Civic Initiatives for Environmental Protection). They have achieved their best election results in the middle class districts of major cities and university towns, while Green Party members have the highest average income and level of education of all parties.

185. The assumption of government office by the Greens has irrevocably destroyed the myth that they represent an alternative to the daily grind of bourgeois politics. They have systematically proved that one cannot change the existing society in a progressive manner without encroaching upon capitalist private property. In the state of Hesse, the greatest level of environmental pollution by the Hoechst company occurred under Green Environment Minister Joschka Fischer. The Greens have supported the dismantling of public sector jobs and cuts in welfare benefits (Berlin), the building of new prisons (Hesse), the establishment of camps for asylum seekers (Lower Saxony) and factory shutdowns (Brandenburg). In Hamburg, they are now governing as coalition partners of the CDU. In 1998, the Greens entered the federal government. The former pacifists took over the task of overcoming the deeply entrenched opposition to foreign military missions by the Bundeswehr. To this end, the prestigious foreign ministry was entrusted to the former street fighter Joschka Fischer. In the meantime, the Greens have become the most enthusiastic proponents of German militarism. Together with the SPD, they have also implemented the most comprehensive welfare cuts since the founding of the Federal Republic, creating a huge low wage sector.


In: Counter-Revolution and Revolt, Boston, Beacon press, 1972, p. 25.


Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment.


Emil Peter Mueller, Die Grünen und das Parteiensystem, p. 100, 101.