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Why is it that nobody understands me, yet everybody likes me?

The ambivalence of the current German student movement

Stefan Dietl

Platypus Review 21 | March 2010


DIESER HÖRSAAL IST BESETZT!” (“This lecture hall is occupied!”) In November and December 2009, signs bearing such slogans were found on doors at over 60 German universities. For the second time that year, a broad student movement managed to gain public attention for its demands. Protests at the University of Vienna kicked off what became a Europe-wide solidarity wave. In Germany, the Viennese protest first triggered occupations in Heidelberg, Münster, and Potsdam, after which students at many other institutions also became involved. In most cases, the biggest or most central lecture halls were taken, and tens of thousands of students marched through the streets. The reactions of the different university administrations ranged from immediate eviction (e.g., in Marburg) to negotiations via a press spokesperson (in Jena) to direct dialogue with protesters (in Gießen). For the most part, university administrators and local authorities tolerated the occupations, so that the strongest criticism arose from students opposed to the strikes. Only around two percent of the entire student body participated actively in the sit-ins; of these, dozens lived and slept in the lecture halls, forming working groups, drafting resolutions, and engaging in negotiations. “Strike collectives” were organized according to strictly anti-authoritarian principles with an eye towards the prevention of emerging hierarchies. Publicly visible action peaked on November 24th when students protested a national conference of university rectors and then again on December 10th where protests were held outside an education ministers’ conference in Bonn. On some German campuses strike activities continued on an almost daily basis until mid-December. Where students attempted to maintain building occupations over the holidays they were forcibly evicted. On Christmas Day in Munich, for instance, police blocked the entrance to occupied buildings, cutting off food supplies and thereby forcing the strike to a halt. At a handful of campuses, strikes continued for a time after the winter holiday.


In a rally of over 4,000 protesters in Frankfurt last June, German students hold up a banner reading in English, “Bailout education, not just the banks.”

What triggered these protests? The website (“Educational Strike 2009”)[1] called for a struggle against the commodification and pro-market orientation of education in favor of more self-actuated forms of learning. More concretely, striking students opposed admission restrictions and tuition fees. The deteriorating conditions of universities were attributed to the so-called Bologna Process, a neoliberal initiative that aims at creating a more competitive European Higher Education Area with a harmonized three-cycle system (bachelor’s-master’s-doctoral) and greater curricular and evaluative standardization. Uniting different student representatives, argued in the run-up to last year’s “hot autumn” that the earlier strike wave in June had accomplished little: There were no modification to the Bologna system, no nationwide abolition of tuitions, no revision of school reforms.

It is difficult to say to what extent the movement has accomplished its goals. For, despite having served at times as the effective organ for the movement, did not, and does not, represent any formal leadership of the movement as such. During the protests themselves, the site published no joint statements, serving rather as a point of intersection where decentralized collectives could link their wikis and websites, and share Twitter posts. Because of the decentralized nature of the movement itself, it is difficult to establish the common positions or strategies of the protesters. Nevertheless, looking at the different resolutions and events reveals definite patterns and allows one to formulate at least a tentative answer to the question of whether the student movement in Germany helped lay the foundations, in however modest a way, for a future emancipatory politics.

Truly emancipatory politics will eventually overcome the capitalist logic of accumulation and replace it with social forms capable of the satisfaction of human needs. In order to make emancipatory politics attainable, however, theory, practice, and organization are necessary. An internationalist, anti-fascist, anti-capitalist youth movement uniting apprentices, students, the unemployed, the precariously self-employed, and young workers will only be the first step in this direction, and the need for this first step is all the more compelling given the global economic crisis. In Germany, our priority must lie in fighting emerging authoritarian tendencies. Here we are confronted with gradual but significant increases in the state’s use of emergency powers, a growing involvement of the military in government decision-making, illegal information sharing between different government departments, and the slashing of social welfare programs. If these trends continue, the scope for emancipatory politics will be drastically curtailed. Ending this disenfranchisement and stopping the reconstruction of coercive apparatuses are therefore crucial.


With the declaration “Self-determination in life and study,” this image has become a commonplace of the signs and posters on display during the German students’ protests for educational reform.

Any political movement must be measured against the standard of whether or not it constitutes an emancipatory point of departure—that is, whether or not it takes us a step further towards a society without exploitation, oppression, and misery. In the case of the 2009 student movement in Germany, the question is doubtful, since, instead of laying the foundations for emancipatory politics, a major part of the student movement in Germany can be described as reformist, elitist, and de facto nationalist. While there are some counter-tendencies, they are not dominant and do not characterize the movement as a whole.

First, respecting the reformist-elitist character of the movement, it must be acknowledged that most criticism of the pro-market orientation and commodification of the German university floats free of any analysis of the role of education in bourgeois society. Rather, such criticisms are inspired by Humboldtian idealism, evoking older educational models in which the cultivation of the “spirit” was appreciated more than it is now in the age of the “turbo degree.” Student protesters shy away from acknowledging the fact that “turbo studies” form an integral part of current economic conditions and represent the state’s response to the necessities of capital. They shy away from the recognition that, regardless of whatever other purpose it may serve, students require education as employment credentials in a capitalist labor market.

The protesters’ reluctance to ground their demands in an analysis of the present purpose and character of university education explains why the word capitalism was scarcely mentioned in their resolutions. Explicit acknowledgment and analysis of the relationship between the capitalist mode of production and bourgeois education systems were silenced by the argument that such talk would deter less radical students or result in the protests’ not being taken seriously. This reluctance matches the widespread objections by many student representatives to broader social demands. They repeatedly emphasized that the movement was not chasing after utopian dreams, but rather aiming for palpable improvements in education. In this vein, they often distanced themselves from the student movement of the 1960s. Their protest, they were careful to observe, was not about changing the world or “the system.” It should not, therefore, be confused with the protests of past generations. Today’s European student radicals seek concrete changes in a clearly defined domain.

Those among the students who vigorously advocated for a strategy that would highlight the expansion of commodification to all domains of human life nevertheless supported the tactic of zeroing in on the educational system first. Criticism of social relations was relegated to reading circles and alternative lectures, or else it was simply postponed for the times one was not involved in the “real work” of realpolitik. The students failed to grasp how the improvements in education that can actually be realized within the system are limited. It does, of course, make a difference for the subjective well-being of students whether the bachelor’s degree has to be obtained within 6 or 8 semesters, and whether one is restricted to a fixed schedule or can also include non-degree courses of personal interest. However, reforms of this nature do not directly address the social function of state education. The role of the education system in this society is to produce an unqualified and semi-qualified mass together with a small, but highly qualified elite. The latter are necessary to provide a functional and ongoing national innovation system generative of high levels of generic knowledge that can then be readily exploited by industry.

Demands for improvements within current social relations are driven by one thing above all: the desire to come out on top in the social selection process. This implies the students’ widespread, tacit acceptance of the function of education, namely selection. And those in the student movement who openly denounce admission mechanisms are confronted with a dilemma: The politicization of debates about admission as well as the education system as such is unpopular among many of the protesters themselves. Freedom from ideology is enshrined in this student movement. Protesters categorically resist being “instrumentalized” or “manipulated” by political groups. To the protesters, taking any stance on greater social issues means that one is merely recapitulating “dogmas of the past.” When points made in debate are identified as part of a “political program,” they are rejected on the grounds that only “authentic” thoughts are permitted. For instance, when in Regensburg a member of the German radical group Die Linke pushed for linking the students’ protest to demands for broader social transformation, he was suspected of merely campaigning for his party, and consequently silenced. Needless to say, this depoliticized and anti-intellectual attitude leaves little space for discussing anything but very narrow reforms at one’s own university. Only thus, the protesters reason, can one safely avoid “political manipulation”—when, in reality, politics are avoided in toto.

The only accepted “political reference point” of the current student movement in Germany is the human rights argument: Education is a basic right for everybody! Unfortunately, both the human as well as the civic right to education is, like any rights conceded by capitalist states, bound to the fulfillment of certain duties, whether one agrees or not. In this case, the right to education is granted only to the extent that the educated apply the skills and knowledge gained through the bourgeois educational system for the good of bourgeois society.

The reformist and elitist character of the most influential segment within the contemporary German student movement is manifest by the near total absence of demands for the abolition of the gymnasium system (selective secondary schools) or demands for unrestricted admission to universities, from janitor to junk collector. The students are, of course, perfectly aware that admission to the university is not available to all. As of 2006, only 35.5 percent of the total population had ever enrolled in college courses, with roughly a third of this number completing university degrees. Still, the protesters do not object to the limited number of admissions so long as they are not denied admission and the selection process can be deemed fair.

Fortunately, positive counter-tendencies exist: Some of the protests voiced solidarity with trade unionists, the unemployed, school kids, apprentices, and migrants. Numerous letters of solidarity and “strike” donations arrived at the lecture halls, while, for their part, students sought dialogue with representatives of other organizations. Today, local networks helping merge social struggles on and beyond the campus continue to develop, and a call has been issued for a central demonstration around the slogan “Uni für alle” (“University for all”). Here, at least, activists are posing the question of making education open to everybody, not just making it easier for those who have already gained admission.

But despite these more radically egalitarian tendencies, the student movement in Germany overall exhibits an unmistakable reformist-elitist character, for reasons that are not hard to grasp: Many of the student protesters have already self-identified with the purposes of the German ruling class. Which is to say, their hopes are pinned on joining its ranks. Such an attitude, of course, is unsurprising in itself. After all, few of the students are working class, and the selection function is the main role of educational systems in bourgeois society. Some succeed in competition, others do not. Better education in bourgeois society is, first and foremost, a business interest for the state, which wants to accrue professional talent within its national borders. Better education means a more efficient German professional class and, therefore, greater German capital. Most students who participated in the protests wanted better education. If this means nothing more than better education for the business sectors of Germany in its competition with other nations, then the students, however extreme and spectacular their tactics, are hardly making radical, emancipatory demands.

It comes as no surprise, then, that German politicians, whose vocation is to advance Germany in the international arena, applaud the pluck of these future elites. Scarcely a politician in Germany, regardless of orientation, failed to support the students in their demands for better education. The only reason why explicit concern about Germany’s well-being was not actually prefaced to every student resolution in 2009, as was done in the educational strikes the year before, is because of the overall consensus on this point. Students do not have to point out that they were protesting for Germany: Everybody already knows. Politicians, deans, journalists, and students all agree that Germany has to hold its own and that education is an important enticement inducing capital to locate there. The student strikes are a healthy expression of Germany’s restless (dis)content with the status quo and the potential for creative innovation in the rising generation of professionals. The widespread support in the media and among politicians is therefore unsurprising. Education officials agreed to revisit certain parts of the bachelor’s/master’s system. Some university administrations made minor concessions. As long as the students continue to argue the interest of the nation in their appeals, they will be caught within a framework of de facto nationalism. The students can only overcome this perspective if they situate the education system within the predominant social relations of our time and conceive of their movement as part of a broader social struggle across nations.

Most within the “strike collectives” would repudiate any claim they are tacitly nationalist. Yet, because discussions of theory were discarded in favor of activism and “ideological freedom,” this nationalist position prevailed. However, now that the broad student movement consists mainly of scattered anti-fascist groups, the call for a “University for all” demonstration at the end of January clearly represents a turn for the better: “Instead of appealing to the welfare-cutting, excluding surveillance state, we need to take to the streets together and fight to turn the school into our school, the university into a university for everyone, the [process of] social production into one satisfying everybody’s needs—life into self-determined life.”[2]

Radical intellectuals advancing emancipatory politics are anything but the norm in the modern university. Students contribute to broader social struggles not because of, but despite their university degrees. Indeed, the same holds true, mutatis mutandis, for the rest of society as well. In his plea “For Public Sociology,” Michael Burawoy comments wryly on the effects of the education system: “It is as if graduate school is organized to winnow away at the moral commitments that inspired the interest in sociology in the first place.”[3] Our hopes lie with the critical theorist described by Horkheimer in “Traditional and Critical Theory”: “The abstract sociological concept of an intelligentsia which is to have missionary functions is, by its structure, an hypostatization of specialized science. Critical theory is neither ‘deeply rooted’ like totalitarian propaganda nor ‘detached’ like the liberal intelligentsia.”[4]

Universities are not, in and of themselves, a privileged source of emancipation, and in their own struggle students should join with those interested in more than student politics. On a few campuses, students gained permanent “free spaces for critical thinking,” and local networks for broader causes are emerging. These alliances should refrain from representing themselves as apolitical and anti-intellectual, even at the risk of diminished participation. Until this happens, those looking for collaborators in the project of re-establishing the Left will find that their recruitment prospects among the German student movement remain constricted. |P

[1]. Along with, the websites and #unsereuni also contain information about the current German student movement. Unfortunately, most of the text on these sites is not yet available in English.

[2]. Bundesweiter Bildungsstreik, “Die Uni Gehört Allen,”.

[3]. Michael Burawoy, “For Public Sociology” (American Sociological Association Presidential Address, University of California, Berkeley, 2004).

[4]. Max Horkheimer, “Traditional and Critical Theory,” in Critical Theory: Selected Essays (New York: Continuum, 2002), 223–224.