Hans-Jürgen Krahl: New Emancipative Desires (1943-1970)

Student demonstrators with posters of Che Guevara and Rosa Luxemburg (Klaus Rose)


Anti-authoritarian Movements in Late Capitalist Society

Hans-Jürgen Krahl’s name is indissolubly linked to the German ’68. His death, following a February 1970 car accident, was felt as an undeniable loss for the emancipation movement in the metropolises. “The short political biography of Hans-Jürgen Krahl, whose agitating activity and theoretical work contributed significantly in determining the politics of the protest movement, reflects the education process for many young people on the Left who no longer found a rational kernel in a revolutionary communist party, launching a long path of betrayal against their bourgeois class by shunning the guarantees of power they received as an inheritance.” 1 As a student of Adorno, with whom he worked on a dissertation entitled Naturgesetz der kapitalistischen Bewegung bei Marx (The Natural Laws of the Movement of Capital in Marx), Krahl constantly brought together the reflections of the Frankfurt School and the classical German philosophical tradition, trying to rethink it from its foundations in the direction of a theoretical path bound up with political practice. At the center of this reflection there is an analysis of the economic and social relations of the systems of late capitalist control. This was a theme within discussions in late 1960s anti-authoritarian movements.

From within the Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund (SDS), the student organization which arose in 1946 inside of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and was later formally excluded from the party in 1961, Krahl and Rudi Dutschke, who entered in 1964 and 1965 respectively, radicalized the organization by pressuring for a more militant commitment turned against the North American aggression in Vietnam, the patriarchal structure of the German university, and the modern form of authoritarianism. Weaving together these anti-authoritarian instances of the 60s student movement, Krahl tried at the same time to reformulate them in a new political context. The condemnation of forms of violence in social relations, isolation, and the distortion of human relations were understood by Krahl as elements for a critique of the political economy of late capitalist societies. According to Krahl, “the free concurrence between reciprocally hostile individuals and the correct exchange of equivalents between possessors of reciprocally equivalent and indifferent commodities no longer has anything in common with the way monopoly fixes prices and oligarchy establishes its market agreements.” 2 In this context, characterized by the passage to monopoly capital that Horkheimer analyzed in terms of the destruction of the sphere of circulation, “circulation ceases to be the ideological Eden of the acts of bourgeois foundation and republican freedoms.” 3

While concentrating his own attention on the sphere of circulation, and therefore within the tradition of Frankfurt school analysis on the changes induced by the monopolistic process on the social structure, Krahl will outline a possible development of the tradition which is decisively alternative to that of Habermas. The different outcomes of a common theoretical core were already implicit in a different understanding the relation between theory and practice that not only Krahl, but another generation formed by the Frankfurt school, was experimenting with. 4

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.” 5 The liberal and emancipatory promises of the bourgeoisie, to which Habermas seems to want to restore faith, not only were not preserved, but were definitively dissolved. Krahl thus carries out a double move: from the theoretical side he attacks the Habermasian pretense of being able to outline a public sphere free from domination, a place which, according to Krahl, was now assimilated to the sphere of exchange between “free” possessors of commodities. Krahl considers language not as a neutral medium of communication, and claims that it must be investigated on the basis of its technological reduction within instrumental relations, which have rendered the Enlightenment conception of parliamentarianism a historical impossibility. From the political side, Krahl tries to transform “anti-authoritarian revolt” into a “process of Marxist training.” 6 The struggle for the death of the bourgeois individual must be transformed in the “experience […] of what in this society signifies exploitation.” 7

For Krahl, the radical changes underway in late capitalist societies entail an equally radical change in political practice. If free exchange constitutes the model of parliamentary democracy, Krahl writes, “with the disappearance of free exchange even parliament loses the substance that it is based on.” 8 The social state destroys the bourgeois state of law in a way that is not dissimilar to how fascism annihilates parliamentarianism, giving way to an integration and subsumption of parliamentary democracy as a component of the executive process. State practice becomes decisionistic and emergency-driven. For Krahl this explains the reasons for state interventionism over all aspects of life, up through the transformation of “society into a singular barracks.” 9 These analyses were not at all detached from the political context of the student movement. Krahl tried to extend and move the level of reflection and practice by putting the university struggles into relation with the entire social context. In immediate terms, he was working for a radicalization of the SDS, which had reached its symbolic peak after the attack against Dutschke in 1968. After this, younger workers joined with the student struggles against the “emergency laws” and the journalistic empire of Alex Springer, whose newspapers had violently attacked the student movement and its most representative personalities. Politics spilled out into society, daycares, factories, schools. The SDS failed to hold together the new maximalist conception of politics until, on March 21, 1970, its official dissolution happened in Frankfurt. 

Krahl’s writings are always posed in critical dialogue with the SDS. His strategy consisted in assuming certain instances, such as the antiauthoritarian critique, in order to reformulate them in a new context capable of generating new problems for a new political agenda. When, in 1969, the SDS was traversed by the opposition between the reformist demands of the SHB (Sozialdemokratischer Hochschuldbung) and an apparently tough and radical part which contrasted these demands to an abstract and mythic image of the proletariat, Krahl tried to displace the two horns of opposition. In an intervention at a teach-in for the parliamentary student election of the winter 1969-70. 10 semester Krahl denounced the jargonization of language used by SDS militants, a specifically academic way of speaking that from one side precluded “accessing the knowledge of the needs of a free and happy life,” and from the other, projected “relations onto all of society that are only academic and of the university.” 11 But not only this—he also attacked, at the same time, the incapacity of those with a preconstructed image of the proletariat to intersect with the concrete needs of the proletariat, thereby giving up on combining the discourse of science, technique, and language with the critique of economy. Taking up again in this way the discourse on the critique of knowledge and science from a new viewpoint was neither abstractly proletarian nor solely academic. To Habermas’ perspective, which according to Krahl was informed by a parliamentary utopianism in which humans “communicate and act linguistically through signs free from domination,” he objected that this linguistic structure, not reflecting on itself, “requires a projection of university social relations onto the whole of society.” 12

The problem Krahl poses concerns the possibility of a real access to the working class. In order to do this it was necessary to escape from both the mythical image of the proletariat and the equally mythical rational discourse. Here Krahl reconnects with Adorno, whose most important legacy consisted, according to Krahl, in the discovery that Auschwitz is contingent even with respect to the categories of political economy. Its irrationality led Adorno to oppose the classical criteria of traditional rational science, including Marxian science. Krahl was interested in the opaque foundation of this rationality: the possibility of thinking qualitative needs in a mode of production in which exchange value usurps use value. 13 Demonstrating the origin of structures of domination of the factory in the contradiction between labor and capital, Krahl writes, “does not interest the masses if we are incapable of identifying the concrete structure of their needs and articulating possible emancipative desires.” 14 Krahl is aware that this moves in a new direction for research which indicates a practical path of reflection that has no prior support points, except perhaps Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse. He is convinced that if “we overlook such general reflections and do not try to point out to the masses the alienation of their existential destiny, all strategies will fail.” 15 Although this statement may appear weak, it is sufficient for moving to the level of political work. Indeed, Krahl writes: “if we renounce formulating these emancipative desires, perhaps with insufficiently scientific categories, even we will end up in the gears of the process that transforms sciences into technology; and I believe that in the movement there are already signs of this. We have reached a fatal situation: we must organize a movement of scientific intelligence that abstractly knows, yes, the course of capitalist history, but that is no longer capable of mediating this knowledge with the concrete desires of the masses.” 16

Reading Marx and Doing Politics in Contemporary Metropolises

Just as happened within Italian workerism, with the publication of the “Fragment on Machines” in Quaderni Rossi 4 (1964), 17 Krahl also begins a reflection on Marx’s notes on automation and the subsumption of science by capital. But Krahl’s reading of the Fragment is substantially different from the one carried out by several currents of Italian workerism in the 1970s. For Krahl, the text is also about rethinking automated machines in relation to science and the expansion of the concept of productive labor, but for the young German militant the technological process of automation is traversed by a dialectic potentially capable of producing new forms of domination, rather than the liberation from labor. “Automation,” Krahl writes, “is destruction of capital, and, according to the concept, characteristic of the philosophy of history, of productive forces – the measure of the objective possibility of creating history – means that men can be freed from labor. But it could also mean that the workers are abolished, becoming an army of retirees, dominated and consigned to the benevolence of the ruling apparatus.” 18 The process of domination does not immediately point to liberation. Machines, in the actual relations of production, are instruments of domination and not liberation. Krahl insists on this point in his critique of science and technology. The expulsion of workers from the productive process can, instead of giving way to phenomena of the liberation from labor, cast an atomized mass of individuals expelled from production into the arms of the benevolence of the ruling apparatus, such that the vampiric embrace of great industry would be relieved by drowning to death in the lukewarm milk of the social state. Contrary to what those currents of Marxism linked to the philosophy of history of productive forces think, Krahl emphasizes that automation “does not necessarily lead to the abolition of domination or oppression.” 19 On the contrary, the socialization of the means of production on the same terrain of the capitalist mode of production reproduces in a totalitarian form the same domination of capital over abstract labor, and therefore the measure and calculation of labor time, to every sphere of life, including free time.

On this point, Krahl’s Marxism again encounters the Frankfurt School. Value, as the automatic motor of capitalist development, has replaced use-value and manufacturing [confezione] has won over the product. 20 In terms of these Marxian analyses, Krahl is above all interested in the changes that this inversion induces in the sphere of consciousness and experience: the de-qualification of time does indeed have implications for the articulation of the transcendental and therefore for the experience of the difference between “essence” and “phenomenon of the thing.” If this differentiation allows breaking with the abstract rule of value, its social one-dimensionality (Eindimensionalisierung), and thinking forms of revolutionary practice, the fetishistic inversion that makes exchange-value appear as the thing in itself, as the true existence of the product, destroys the possibility of experience and raises abstract labor time to an unchangeable second nature. 21

Krahl’s analysis is, on these points, certainly suggestive, and however fragmentary, very instructive. Krahl acutely poses the problem of the modification of experience in the absolute fetishization of capital. He does not pose this as a schoolhouse puzzle, but as a political problem linked to the possibilities of a revolutionary practice. But here Krahl still remains, so to speak, in Frankfurt [francofortese]. His analysis starts from circulation in order to return to circulation. He encounters production not as another viewpoint on the social, not as the presence of bodies that work, suffer, and struggle, but only as a moment of the capitalist process.

For Krahl it is strategically important to reflect on “science as a productive force,” and therefore “on the modified relationship between intellectual and manual labor.” 22 By posing this question Krahl politically seeks to dissolve from one side the image of a mythical proletariat, and from the other to escape the position of those resigned to affirm the irrevocable integration of the working class in the capitalist system. According to Krahl, both positions are inspired “by a traditional concept of the proletariat that no longer grasps the possible forms of change of the collective worker.” 23 “All of the spontaneous strikes that can explode in RFT or FIAT in Torino,” Krahl claims, “do not minimally succeed in changing the fact that the industrial proletariat as such is only a moment of the entire class and does not represent it in its totality.” 24 Krahl thus warned the German militants against assuming a paradigm that was spreading throughout Italian workerism, and tried to organize a possible class recomposition by starting from a segment of the class that was considered hegemonic. For Krahl, the question was to be put in radically different terms: if intellectual labor is always more integrated in the collective worker, the separation between scientific intelligence and industrial proletariat was redefined, not however in terms of the hegemony of one sector over the other, but by redefining the Marxian category of productive labor. The non-coincidence between productive process and labor process leads to a redefinition of the totality of the proletarian class and of productive labor beyond the actual factory. 25 The subsumption of intellectual labor in the process of valorization has diverse and contradictory effects. From one side, science attempts to inscribe itself within the computational code of abstract labor, thus losing the classical bourgeois aura of Kultur. From the other, “it allows the intellectual to understand themselves as an oppressed producer” in the same moment in which, different to what happened for the industrial proletariat, “the memory of emancipation and exploitation” 26 is rendered impossible. Working on these limits means knowing how to grasp the limit of the limit. The “role of intellectuals in class struggle” is not judged abstractly, but “according to their objective position in the production process.” 27 The political university, or “counteruniversity (Gegenuniversität)”, 28 must definite this location practically, without representing itself as the center of resistance or the struggle for liberation. Krahl depicts a political task of a large class recomposition without any automatism linked to the development of productive forces or the spontaneity of struggles. “Without an organization of scientific intelligence, of the army of industrial workers and productive employees, indeed, without a common organization, the totality of class consciousness will never be able to be won back.” 29

Production, which in late capitalist countries has become “in very large measure immaterial,” is certainly “channeled in the culture industry which enchains the masses to material security and the satisfaction of immediate needs.” 30 Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge’s reflections at the beginning of the 1970s move in this direction (they were also trained in the Frankfurt School). In Public Sphere and Experience: For An Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Spheres (1972), Negt and Kluge attempt to rethink the protest movements in relation to the difficulties of the intelligentsia to “establish a concrete relation with the proletarian public sphere and livelihood.” 31 One of the causes of this difficulty lies, according to the two authors, in the “political value abstraction on the part of the radical left,” who turned a Jacobin idea of progress into a “context of valorization that eliminates all which does not serve the aim of overthrowing society as a whole—an aim […] that transforms anything suitable into mere raw material.” 32 In this way, the relation between different levels of practice and the concrete forms of the constitution of a proletarian public sphere breaks down.

If the classic forms of bourgeois experience have been destroyed, as Walter Benjamin and Adorno already saw, it was thus necessary to find new forms of experience at the height of the present. Not by responding to this destruction with the celebration of “marginal groups, intellectuals, and privileged” 33   among themselves, who would need to act in the place of a working class integrated into capitalist relations of production, but by taking on their own condition, which they have the privilege of studying. And by doing this in order to break this privilege. For Krahl, this does not mean looking elsewhere for new revolutionary subjects, or recognizing a new centrality of some working figure; for Krahl revolutionary experience begins by putting into practice anti-authoritarian desires in forms of anticipation of the kingdom of freedom. The creation of a “new subject” is not delegated to tomorrow, but is the result of the creation of new social relations that spread [veicolano] political practice.

Access to the working class was not sought by reproducing the scission between labor and free time, between producer and consumer status, but on the basis of the “concrete structure of the needs of the masses,” 34 in order to find here the key for “articulating possible emancipative desires.” 35 “The first access to the masses,” Krahl writes, “is in the scientific effort to recognize the structure of their needs,” 36 to which “access does not happen through theoretical deduction but on the basis of the practical experience of political struggle.” 37 It is not possible, according to Krahl, to replicate Marx’s schema of revolution in late capitalist society, whose problem was the transformation of the struggle of the bourgeois class into proletarian revolutions. 38 It is not possible, and the attempt, also present in Marx and part of the Marxist tradition, of projecting “the discourse of bourgeois revolutions onto the discourse of proletarian revolutions,” should be amended. It is rather a matter of “reading an adequate theory, internal to class struggle, of the transformation of consciousness and organization.” 39 For Krahl it is significant that after the experience of the Commune, Marx no longer speaks of revolution in theoretical terms and according to the model of revolutions that had happened up to then.

These themes are reunited in Krahl in a new constellation: a new form of practice, organization, and therefore a new consciousness produced by the white heat of the class struggle. The political problem in contemporary societies, which together with the destruction of bourgeois individuality proceeds to the deep destruction of democratic institutions, is “to transform the defensive struggles against the fascist tendencies of late capitalist rule into proletarian revolutions.” Because these same parliamentary institutions are marked by the decadence of politics in competition, the classic form of political participation mediated by elections is nothing but the reproduction of the political apathy and passivity of the single individual. It is not a matter of revitalizing broken institutions, but rather of substituting the principle of competition with solidarity. 40

It is difficult, if not in fact incorrect, to try and find a systematic coherence in the reflections of the young Krahl, a consequential reasoning always turning around the same theme. As emphasized several times, his reflection has conjunctural characteristics, linked to the political moment and to the exigency of politically influencing the student movement, which must not be neglected. In the same way, his reading of Marx is never solely a theoretical exercise. His use of Marx is not only a weapon against reformism, but also against the practice of many extra-parliamentary groups which emerged following the dissolution of the SDS. Krahl’s rereading of Marx intended to wrest him away from groups who sought to legitimate their own practice by appealing to a Marxist theory isolated from the historico-political context. Krahl contested the abstract character of the positions taken by those who assumed their own actions [presa di parte] for the proletariat as a declaration of faith, a ritual of self-confirmation in absence of a real revolutionary class. In the “Theses on the General Relationship between Scientific Intelligence and Proletarian Class Consciousness,” written between November and December 1969, Krahl rebukes Marxist-Leninist groups for not taking into account the structural change which had set in with the widening of productive labor and the change produced in the categorical structure of class consciousness and intellectual labor as a result. It is a matter of going beyond the traditional form of the problem, ceasing to ask whether the intelligentsia is part of the working class or not, or even if it has replaced it, in order to begin interrogating the integration of intellectual labor with the collective productive worker. The separation of scientific intelligence from the industrial proletariat had to be called into question and redefined from this viewpoint. These theoretical reflections also constitute for Krahl the way of taking a position in the face of the technocratic reform of the university. “The objective integration of the relevant sectors of scientific intelligence with the collective productive worker” was for Krahl a given fact, but that integration “does not yet transform its components into proletarian consciousnesses.” 41 This is a political problem. From the objective side of the process of transforming sciences into technologies, one can grasp the reduction of the qualitative time of reflection, thanks to a long history of culture and education (Bildung), to the quantitative norms and de-historicized norms of the measure of value. Intellectual labor can be incorporated into the process of valorization if it becomes abstract, quantitatively measurable labor. This process, to the extent that the university and the entire cycle of formation are joined in the contradictions of the process of technologization, “opens the way to processes of proletarian reflection, to liberation, in other words, from the idealist pretenses of property, and this makes it possible that even scientific producers recognize in the products of their labor the objective and hostile power of capital and in themselves the exploited.” 42 It is exactly the implication of the university in the process of technologization that constitutes the opportunity for “the representatives of non-productive science” to abandon “that definitively broken concept of culture [Kulturbegriff] to which they are attached.” 43

— Translated by Dave Mesing


1 Helmut Reinicke, Fur Krahl (Berlin: Merve-Verlag, 1973), 4.
2 Hans-Jürgen Krahl, Costituzione e lotta di classe, trans. S. de Waal (Milano: Jaca Book, 1978), 109.
3 Ibid.
4 Regarding this, Detlev Claussen writes that Habermas, taking on and carrying out a transformation of Critical Theory in an academic project, excluded from that tradition a third generation whose protagonists include Krahl, Oskar Negt, Alfred Schmidt and others. See Detlev Claussen, “Hans-Jürgen Krahl: Ein philosophisch-politisches Profil.”
5 Krahl, Costituzione e lotta di classe, 33.
6 Ibid., 34.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid., 109.
9 Ibid., 110.
10 Ibid., 343-351.
11 Ibid., 344.
12 Ibid.
13 Ibid., 79.
14 Ibid., 347.
15 Ibid.
16 Ibid.
17 On the reception and interpretation of the “Fragment on the Machines,” see Ricardo Bellofiore and Massimiliano Tomba, “The ‘Fragment on Machines’ and the Grundrisse: The Workerist Reading in Question,” in Marcel van der Linden and Karl Heinz Roth, eds., Beyond Marx: Theorizing the Global Relations of the 21st Century (Leiden: Brill, 2013).
18 Krahl, Costituzione e lotta di classe, 101.
19 Ibid., 102.
20 Hans-Jürgen Krahl, Von Ende der abstrakten Arbeit: Die Aufhebung der sinnlosen Arbeit is in der Transzendentalitat des Kapitals angelgt und in der Verweltlichung der Philosophie begrundet, ed. W. Neumann (Frankfurt: Materialis, 1984), 61-62.
21 Ibid., 31-33.
22 Krahl, Costituzione e lotta di classe, 322.
23 Ibid.
24 Ibid., 348.
25 Ibid., 323.
26 Ibid.
27 Ibid., 236.
28 Krahl uses this formulation in thesis three of an unedited 1969 text entitled “Aufklarung ist in der Tat…”, which was transcribed by Tillman Rexroth.
29 Krahl, Costituzione e lotta di classe, 324.
30 Ibid., 323.
31 Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, Public Sphere and Experience: For An Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Spheres, trans. Peter Labanyi, Jamie Owen Daniel, and Assenka Oksiloff (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 88. Translation modified.
32 Ibid.
33 Krahl, Costituzione e lotta di classe, 33.
34 Ibid., 346.
35 Ibid., 347.
36 Ibid., 350.
37 Ibid., 376.
38 Ibid., 421.
39 Ibid., 423.
40 Krahl, “Aufklarung ist in der Tat,” Theses 3 and 6.
41 Krahl, Costituzione e lotta di classe, 372.
42 Ibid., 373.
43 Ibid.

Author of the article

is a faculty member in the History of Consciousness department at UC Santa Cruz. He has taught Political Theory at the University of Padova (Italy). His research interests include Marxism, critical theory (especially the first generation of the Frankfurt School), and modern and contemporary political thought. His books include Krise und Kritik bei Bruno Bauer. Kategorien des Politischen im nachhegelschen Denken (2005); La vera politica. Kant e Benjamin: la possibilità della giustizia (2006); Marx’s Temporalities (2013); and Attraverso la piccolo porta. Quattro studi su Walter Benjamin (2017). Presently, he is working on a book titled Insurgent Universality.