By Bernard E. Harcourt
Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, and Mao Zedong are revolutionaries who have conveyed a political morality that rejects compromise and in this way they have allowed us two things: we have been able to detach ourselves from the politics of peaceful coexistence, which the Soviet Union itself translates into mere Realpolitik, and secondly, we have been able to identify the terror that the USA, and following them also the Federal Republic, carry out in the third world.
— Hans-Jürgen Krahl, “Personal Information,” 1969
Finally! Finally, an activist thinker who tells us how worldly revolutionary philosophers differ from their more academic peers (including his own mentor, Theodor Adorno) and what they contribute to critique and praxis—from the mouth of a worldly revolutionary philosopher!
Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, and Mao Zedong—yes, these are precisely the thinkers who we identified from the outset (along with Frantz Fanon, Rosa Luxemburg, Kwame Nkrumah, and others) and sought to interrogate to address Biodun Jeyifo’s original challenge, namely: if our goal is to push critical theory toward debates over praxis, then shouldn’t we read more of the “activist thinkers and ‘worldly’ philosophers”?
It is precisely these thinkers that Hans-Jürgen Krahl turned to, in the heat of the German student uprisings of the 1968-69 period, to help understand and critically think through the new historical moment.
What did Krahl find in those worldly philosophers that he did not find in the more academic critical theory writings?
First, “a political morality that rejects compromise”: this may be, in a way, the core of the difference that the activist thinkers bring—an unbending ethic, an uncompromising political morality. Perhaps it is the unwillingness to compromise that leads both to revolutionary action—to praxis—and to a uniquely activist style of critical thinking.
Second—and as a first result—a praxis of rejecting “peaceful coexistence”: Krahl actualizes this uncompromising ethic into a rejection of the Soviet-American pact of mutual coexistence that effectively meant that the communist party was banned in West Germany and that there was no support or possibility of revolutionary change in a Western country like West Germany.
Third—and as a second result—a diagnosis of the oppression (which Krahl distinguishes from the exploitation) by northern capitalism, specifically the United States, of the Global South.
Regarding this third point, what is telling for our purposes is that Krahl develops the distinction through a discussion of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason, Volume 1, and the contrast there, just-mentioned, between the exploitation of workers and the oppression of persons in the Global South. (ICYMI, we just discussed Sartre with Étienne Balibar at Revolution 3/13, and we discussed Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason with Noreen Khawaja and Jesús Velasco at Critique 10/13.)
This is interesting because of Sartre’s unique position as an “engaged” philosopher—in his own terms—who was technically outside the academy, although highly academic, but in a liminal space between academic discourse and political action. Sartre, of all of the thinkers we have studied so far, was a kind of hybrid—neither fully revolutionary (in this respect more of a fellow traveller, un compagnon de route), nor an academic.
The other theorist that Krahl explicitly engages in his personal statement—other than Herbert Marcuse, who appears favorably there and in most of his writings—is Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who at the time was at the Collège de France. Krahl qualifies Merleau-Ponty as “one of the greatest French theorists of revolution.” He cites Merleau-Ponty for the proposition that, within the structures and organization of political struggle, there exists “solidarity and the absence of domination.”
Krahl draws heavily on Sartre to formulate a dual Marxist theory of exploitation (of workers) and oppression (of persons in the Global South) that provides a roadmap for the worldly philosopher, for the activist-thinker. Krahl specifically addresses “the role that in the SDS we must take on, as intellectuals, in carrying out class struggle”:
in practical struggle we must develop a theory that makes clear to the proletariat, in its consciousness and linguistic world, the late capitalist rule that is covered by infinite manipulations and supplements. This means that theory must unmask and discover this rule, and that it is our function, as political intellectuals, to use our knowledge in service of class struggle.
This sounds, naturally, vanguardist. It also sounds orthodox Marxist in some respects—although Krahl will emphasize the differences brought about by the “anti-authoritarian” turn of the student movement. The important points for our discussion:
- Critical theory “must unmask”—an idea akin to a radical theory of illusions;
- the activist-intellectual is engaged both in “practical struggle” and in “theory”—the idea of critique and praxis; and
- knowledge is used “in service” of political struggle—so, not so much a theory of knowledge-power or of an epistemological approach, as an instrumentalization of knowledge.
Regardless of whether some of this may sound passé today—and if it does, of course, we need to ask ourselves, why?— it presents in stark terms a different role for the activist-thinker inspired not only by revolutionary thinkers like Che and Mao, but also engaged philosophers like Sartre.
Finally, then—finally, we encounter a theoretical framework that effectively distinguishes between activist philosophers and more academic critical theorists. Not surprisingly, it was during a rare historical moment of confrontation between praxis-oriented critical thinkers—the members of the German SDS student movement—and their university mentors.
Hans-Jürgen Krahl and the German SDS
Hans-Jürgen Krahl is well-known—almost a cult figure today—among a select niche of radical critical thinkers, but practically unknown or forgotten by everyone else. One of the leaders of the German student movement of 1968-69, Krahl was also the protégé and intellectual darling of Theodor Adorno—before the great fall-out at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt. Arrested and accused several times for disrupting the peace during protests, Krahl became a leading figure of what might have been an alternative branch and new generation of the Frankfurt School oriented more directly to the question of praxis.
Tragically, Krahl died at the young age of 27, on February 13, 1970, in an automobile accident—there is no evidence that it was anything but an accident—and some of the momentum for that alternative branch of the Frankfurt School died with him. Krahl’s writings were compiled shortly after his death by his dedicated friends and companions in the SDS in a 400-page volume (effectively an archive) titled Constitution and Class Struggle, of which only excerpts have been translated into English in the New Left Review, Telos, and Viewpoint Magazine. Constitution and Class Struggle is being translated into French by a collective of scholars, including the brilliant doctoral student Lea Gekle, a former student of mine at the EHESS, as well as Andrea Cavazzini, Pauline Corre Gloanec, Timothée Haug, Memphis Krickberg, Violeta Lopez, and Zacharias Zoubir. It will be available soon from the Swiss publishing house Entremonde.
It would be essential to read Krahl’s work in conversation with the writings and praxis of his collaborators in the SDS—as part of a collective—including Rudi Dutschke, Detlev Claussen, and others, as well as the members of the Action Council for women’s liberation such as Sigrid Rüger and Helke Sander.
Incidentally, Viewpoint Magazine has created a remarkable dossier with important contributions by critical theorists such as Massimiliano Tomba and Andrea Cavazzini, all under the direction of the brilliant young thinkers Elia Zaru, Fabio Angelelli and Dave Mesing. The dossier is a must-read for anyone interesting in Krahl. Detlev Claussen has a fascinating interview in the Viewpoint dossier here.
In his “Personal Information,” which he delivered during his trial in 1969 when accused of disrupting the conferral of a peace prize to Léopold Senghor, at the time president of Senegal, Krahl recounts the life experiences that led to his politicization and, on the basis of that process, the contours of the German student movement in its “anti-authoritarian” phase.
The “Personal Information” is a story of what Krahl calls the “betrayal” of his class of origin in Lower Saxony—what he refers to as the “ideologies of blood and land,” ideologies that resonated still with a toxic mix of antisemitism and anticommunism, as well as homophobia and proto-Nazism. Krahl’s is a story of personal transformation and escape from his origins and early membership in far-Right organizations. “My origins compelled me to follow a very long path before being capable of betraying the bourgeois class from which I descended,” he explains.
In this statement, Krahl sets as his task to articulate how the anti-authoritarian phase developed in the student movement. He does so by tracing his own disillusionment with bourgeois ideology, his development of a more complex notion of violence, the creation of a student collective from individual acts of refusal, and the struggle against precarity as a form of existence that dampens resistance. As Massimiliano Tomba writes, “For Krahl, anti-authoritarian protest is an expression of the decadence of the bourgeois individual, a sort of mournful protest in the face of its own death, which signifies the ‘loss of the ideology of a liberal public sphere and communication free from domination.’”
Like many other students from that period—and like many abolitionists today—Krahl argues urgently for praxis without sketching a clear roadmap of where it will lead. Krahl insists that people not wait to know, with certainty, where they are headed. Krahl states:
They always say to us: you are not legitimate because you are incapable of identifying what the future society will be. Those who say this think: give us a recipe in the meantime and then maybe we will decide to participate. Those who say this are the hypocrites and cowards who usually sit in the newsrooms of the bourgeois press. The future society cannot be anticipated. We can say what the aspect of technological progress will be a century from now, but we are not capable of saying what human relationships will be a century from now if we do not begin to transform them ad hoc, among ourselves, in the social relation.
In this regard, Krahl is neither risk-averse nor chastened by negativity. He singles out the bourgeois press, but I think that he is responding as well to the negation of those academic thinkers who argued there was no future to the student rebellion.
“The Political Contradictions in Adorno’s Critical Theory”
If what the activist-philosophers (Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, and Mao Zedong) offer us is an uncompromising political morality, then Theodor Adorno—on Krahl’s reading—offers instead an “uncompromising claim to negation.” That radical negativity—associated with the Negative Dialectic, which Martin Saar and I discussed at Critique 7/13—led Adorno, on Krahl’s reading, down an unfortunate path and away from praxis.
Krahl offers a psychologizing explanation for Adorno’s political quietism, tied to Adorno’s experience of fascism. It is the haunting experience of fascism that marked and traumatized Adorno—according to Krahl—in such a way as to block his process of politicization and radicalization away from the individualism of bourgeois society.
And if in his “Personal Information” Krahl emphasizes his own process of politicization and radicalization, as he moved away from his ideological upbringing, it is the impasse in Adorno’s development that Krahl emphasizes here. Krahl notes that “Fascist terror” has psychological effects: it “violates the subjectivity of the theoretician and reinforces the class barriers against his cognitive ability.” The result is a kind of paralysis, namely: the fear that political action will only trigger a more violent counterrevolution. Krahl writes,
He [Adorno] shared in the ambivalent political consciousness of many critical German intellectuals who project that left-wing socialist action would actually only trigger the potential of right-wing fascist terror which it fights. But consequently, any praxis is denounced a priori as blindly actionistic…
Despite the psychological effect that undermined Adorno’s ability to engage praxis, Krahl attributes to Adorno’s writings some of the key theoretical elements—especially what he calls “the emancipatory categories which unveil domination”—that allowed the German SDS student movement to go forward. Adorno is thus an ambivalent figure in the end—he alone provided the emancipatory concepts to the German students at the time, but he himself was unable to go there. In Krahls’ words, “the same theoretical tools which allowed Adorno this insight into the social totality, also prevented him from seeing the historical possibilities of a liberating praxis.”
“Czechoslovakia: the Dialectic of the ‘Reforms’”
In response to liberalizing efforts by the Czechoslovakian government and a rapprochement with Western Europe during what was known as the Prague Spring in 1968, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia on August 20-21, 1968. At the time, Czechoslovakia was part of the Warsaw Pact, and the United States had taken the position of not intervening in the Eastern Bloc. In light of that, as the U.S. State Department now explains, “the Soviets guessed correctly that the United States would condemn the invasion but refrain from intervening.” There were repeated attempts in the United Nations Security Council to condemn the invasion, but those were defeated by the Soviet Union. Ultimately, the Soviet Union replaced the government of Czechoslovakia, putting in place a pro-Soviet government in Prague. The U.S. government recounts: “After the invasion, the Soviet leadership justified the use of force in Prague under what would become known as the Brezhnev Doctrine, which stated that Moscow had the right to intervene in any country where a communist government had been threatened.”
Krahl saw a paradox in the Prague Spring: the reformers, hoping to achieve a more full form of socialism (as against the authoritarianism of post-Stalinist Soviet rule) turned to the liberal political theoretic model of civic and political rights, such as the right to assemble and freedom of the press—turned back, in effect, to Bruno Bauer, as opposed to the Marx of The Jewish Question. Krahl argued that this represented a paradoxical flip of the base/superstructure framework, a kind of novel societal contradiction whereby the nationalization of the economy needed now to be accompanied by a liberal rights apparatus.
Krahl nevertheless was hopeful about this development and believed that there had been the seed of a possible “real emancipatory moment”—crushed though by the Russian invasion. Krahl was realistic—but not compromised—by the fact that it might be difficult to actualize the ambition of the withering of state in the historical condition of an “armed imperialist world environment.” But he remained hopeful. That hopefulness is evident throughout the essay:
The experience precisely of the first days of the occupation in Czechoslovakia showed that in a country where the State has taken over the means of production, ‘republican’ liberties can once again provide the proletariat, in a historically quite new way, with the organizational conditions for the pursuit of a revolutionary class struggle inside the socialist camp itself.
It is even more evident in the last sentence of the essay:
The Soviet counter-revolution has put a violent end to the still contradictory possibility of carrying on the struggle for revolutionary liberation within the frontiers of the European socialist camp itself—provisionally.
That last word “provisionally”—that optimism—may be what made Krahl such a charismatic figure in 1969. Surely, it reflects Krahl’s optimism of the will in the face of any pessimism of the intellect.
There is, of course, a haunting echo of all this today, with the ongoing Russian war and invasion of Ukraine. The war in Ukraine is far more bloody and destructive today than was the quick occupation of Prague in 1968—although the invasion of Czechoslovakia did result in about 137 deaths of civilians and over 500 injured civilians. But so many of the other dimensions are identical: Moscow’s calculation that the Western powers would not intervene because the target was not aligned with the West or NATO. The Soviet Union and now Russia’s ability to quell dissent at the U.N. The ambition of putting a puppet regime at the head of Ukraine.
All that is missing today is Soviet Communism. If anything, this underscores the fact that the purported ideological struggle between the capitalist West and the communist East during the Cold War was nothing more than a fig leaf for the true conflict between two spheres of power—two geopolitical spheres of influence. Those two spheres of power still today have the largest nuclear arsenals, which outnumber, by an order of magnitude, the next countries, China and France (6,257 nuclear weapons in Russia of which 1,458 are active and 3039 available; 5,550 in the USA, of which 1,389 are active and 2,361 available; 350 available in China; and 290 available in France). There is no longer any conflict of political economy, both countries now openly espousing forms of tournament or oligarchic capitalism—at least, provisionally…
“The Philosophy of History and the Authoritarian State”
“The authoritarian state is capital’s political exit from the economic crisis,” Krahl writes in the fourth text that we read for Revolution 9/13, “The Philosophy of History and the Authoritarian State.” There, Krahl offers a synoptic account of the different theories of history of the late stages of capitalism, starting with Franz Neumann’s hypothesis (whose Behemoth we studied with Martin Saar at Abolition Democracy 6/13 last year), and then focusing primarily on the two competing visions of Horkheimer’s theory of the authoritarian state (“State capitalism is the authoritarian state of the present,” Horkheimer, “The Authoritarian State,” 3) and Marcuse’s critique of political technology and automation from his work One-Dimensional Man (which we also studied with Martin Saar at Praxis 6/13 in Frankfurt as well).
Here too, Krahl attacks the pragmatic realpolitik of the Soviet Union and espouses a political morality of no compromise, ending the piece, echoing Horkheimer: “The revolution that ends domination is as far-reaching as the will of the liberated. Any resignation is already a regression into prehistory.”
Hans-Jürgen Krahl’s writings—and those more broadly of the SDS student movement—offer a unique case study, perhaps one of the most interesting, of the conflict between activist-thinkers and academic critical theorists. They afford a special insight into the task of “thinking revolution with and against critical theory.”
In this text, Krahl defines “revolutionary theory” as “a theory that states the construction of society in the perspective of radical change.” Krahl gives a similar definition in the “Philosophy of History” paper: “revolutionary theory” is “a doctrine the propositions of which describe society in terms of its revolutionary transformability.” It is maybe there that we should start the discussion.
I could not be more pleased to co-sponsor this joint session with my dear friend and colleague Martin Saar, Professor of Social Philosophy at Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main and one of the foremost social philosopher and leading critical thinker today, at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt.
Welcome to Revolution 9/13!
 Hans-Jügen Krahl, “Personal Information,” Viewpoint Magazine, trans. Dave Mesing, April 14, 2018, 8/10, https://viewpointmag.com/2018/04/14/personal-information/#f+9721+2+1.
 Krahl, “Personal Information,” 4-5/10.
 Krahl, “Personal Information,” 1/10.
 Krahl, “Personal Information,” 2/10.
 Krahl, “Personal Information,” 1/10.
 Massimiliano Tomba, “Hans-Jürgen Krahl: New Emancipative Desires (1943-1970)”, Viewpoint Magazineˆ, April 14, 2018, https://viewpointmag.com/2018/04/14/hans-jurgen-krahl-new-emancipative-desires-1943-1970/#r+9754+2+5.
 Krahl, “Personal Information,” 8/10.
 Hans-Jürgen Krahl, “The Political Contradictions in Adorno’s Critical Theory,” originally published in Hans-Jürgen Krahl, Konstitution und Klassenkampf (Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Neue Kritik, 1971), pp. 285-288. English translation by Pat Murray and Ruth Heydebrand, Telos, no. 21 (Fall 1974): 164-167, 164.
 Krahl, “The Political Contradictions in Adorno’s Critical Theory,” 164.
 Krahl, “The Political Contradictions in Adorno’s Critical Theory,” 164.
 Krahl, “The Political Contradictions in Adorno’s Critical Theory,” 165.
 Krahl, “The Political Contradictions in Adorno’s Critical Theory,” 166.
 U.S. Department of State, “Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia 1968,” accessed March 16, 2022, https://history.state.gov/milestones/1961-1968/soviet-invasion-czechoslavkia.
 U.S. Department of State, “Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia 1968,” https://history.state.gov/milestones/1961-1968/soviet-invasion-czechoslavkia.
 Hans-Jürgen Krahl, “The Philosophy of History and the Authoritarian State,” Viewpoint Magazine, September 25, 2014, trans. Michael Shane Boyle and Daniel Spaulding, 6/16.
 Krahl, “The Philosophy of History and the Authoritarian State,” 12/16, quoting Horkheimer, “The Authoritarian State,” 10.
 Krahl, “The Political Contradictions in Adorno’s Critical Theory,” 165.
 Krahl, “The Philosophy of History and the Authoritarian State,” 3/16.